“Ah, awake, sweet pea?” Again there was that frightening sound from that woman. “I would not move if I were you. You see this device here?”
          I looked left and right to discover that I was bounded with ropes on a cross. My arms and legs were spread apart to prevent me from escaping. My muscles were already too tense, making it impossible to even adjust myself to a better position.
          “If you move more, then the ropes will tighten even more. You would not want to take your own life, now would you?” she confirmed.
          Accepting my fate, I took the chance to observe my surroundings. I was shackled in what seemed like an underground room for the ground. The walls were all made of soil or mud, and the room was cluttered with books, papers, and empty glass bottles.
          “Who are you?” I grumbled in disbelief and glared at her. 
          She marched closer to me, seemingly allowing me to examine her. She was probably in her early thirties for there were only wrinkles around her mouth. She had wavy, blonde hair that reached below her chest and above her bottom. What complemented the shade of her hair were her cat-like aquamarine eyes that were conniving and endearing. Regardless of her threatening presence, she was still attractive.
          “Mhm, such a demanding tone. Who do you think I am?” She grinned with an open smile.  “I shall give you three chances. If you fail all three, then I suppose you will have to compensate me. Perhaps . . . with your finger?”
          This time, her grin grew wider. I stared at her again to think of who she could be. She too wore a long, smock-like robe dyed in navy like Nestor. Unlike other robes, this one had golden stitching and an emblem of a mulberry tree etched on her chest. I had remembered what Nestor had told me of robes of this sort. Only the five grand masters of time, the Oracle, the Sorcerer, Memoriam, Postremo, and Desiderium, could wear this robe. Each had unbelievable powers associated with time and each, excluding the Oracle, had relations with at least a ruler of a kingdom. Out of the five, only two were female: the Oracle and Desiderium. Nestor had also said that every time they were born, their powers had to be awakened by an event. Once their powers were uncovered, they would slowly regain memories of their former life.
          “Is that not like me then?” I had inquired.
          “No, you are different,” he had muttered. “Once you regain your memories, you will understand everything, including your powers and your limitations.”
           Finally, he had warned me never to say Desiderium’s name. She was banished from Urcis, but supposedly had vanished without anyone knowing whether or not she was alive. I had asked if he knew where she was based on his powers. He had responded, “No, I do not know her whereabouts or her appearance now. I will never know.”
          These were the only facts I knew of this group deemed the Sapientians. Nestor had refused to tell me more, claiming that in time, I would understand. I had argued that I needed to know and to which, he argued that there was a difference between knowing and understanding. I still remembered his question clearly: what is the point of knowing when you do not understand?
          Perhaps, it was time for me to begin to understand and so I blatantly tested, “Oracle.”
          “No, I am much more powerful than that old hag,” she guffawed.
          “Then . . . Desiderium,” I announced.
          Her eyes immediately sparkled. “That is correct, darling. You are not as foolish as you look.”
          “What do you want from me?” I demanded.
          “Would that not be boring for me to tell you?” She cackled in a shrilling way.
          This woman was proving to be tougher to understand and to deceive than the Queen. Challenging, yet interesting. Deciding to follow the rules to her game, I posed, “How . . . is it possible for you to infiltrate the King’s forest?” 
          “I have only come today just so we could meet,” she snickered. “I still cannot believe you are still as pitiful as you look.”
          “What do you mean?”
          “Oh, you do not remember anything?” She curiously gawked at me. “Say, did Nestor ever tell you that you were . . .”
          “I was?”
          “I suppose not,” she scoffed. “That man is still incompetent as always. For old time’s sake, I’ll give him his repose.”
          “Y-You are supposed to have disappeared from this world,” I stated. “Even Nestor could not find your soul . . .”
          Understatements were, as I learned, more effective than overstatements. People had doubts about exaggeration, and rather preferred to rely on underestimation. Maybe she too would become a victim of this. Sensing her arrogance, I already felt that she would.
          “Of course he cannot.” She handed me a clue. “Souls are reborn and once reborn, only the far away past is attached to such souls.”
          Acting foolish, I questioned, “H-how did you identify my soul then?”
          “I did not. Your name tells all,” she uttered a response that I probably could have answered myself.
          Useless, I thought. There had to be some way for her to tell me more. Yes, I suddenly acquired an idea. If she could just cooperate with me, then . . .
          “Then . . . how did Nestor . . . know about my soul if he—“
          “Because you are dear to him, very, very dear to him. You are his weakness,” she interrupted while directing a chilly glance at me.
          I hadn’t expected an important, a startling hint from her. Frankly, I had thought that minute questions would eventually lead to the core of the problem. Who knew she walked directly towards it? I would have asked more, yet I was certain she had grown wary of my intentions, and so she ended by saying, “Enough about him. I have a mission for you.”
          “That is?”
          “I need to know about the King’s past,” she demanded and reclined in a wooden chair. She crossed her legs in fairly lady-like manner and again looked at me with much belittlement.
         “What are you saying?” I could only pursue her. The chance of leading her to my problems was inexistent now, but at least, I had someone else to inquire in the future.
          “I want you to find out the King’s dominant past life for me,” she repeated.
          “And in return?”
          “Oh, I like you more than before!” She now hopped off the chair and deviously grinned. She intentionally approached me until I felt my own neck shrivel backwards. “A deal, you say? Well, I will fulfill your desire and I will tell you what I know of your complete past including the parts that Nestor has refused to tell you.”
          I gulped, knowing that I was the tactless one. I had plunged into her trap just like how Alice had tumbled into the rabbit hole. From the start, she knew what I had wanted to know. What she wanted from me was my consent to help her. Why hadn’t I noticed from the way she stared at me, as if she were absorbing my thoughts to her mind?
          “How did you know . . . what I wanted?” I confronted her.
          Her cheeky smile affirmed my notion. “I am not called Desiderium for nothing.”
          “You . . . can detect what people desire?”
          She again grinned and then brushed her fingers through her long, wispy hair. “So what do you say?”
          So, this was her power. It was no surprise that rulers would seek for her help. What remarkable means of manipulation she could impose on others. She knew exactly what stirred our hearts, and steered us away from reason.
          Sensing danger, I agreed for now, “I concur, but I need to know first how to read his past.”
          “I see you have lost your powers. What a pity.” She yawned with an open mouth. “That foolish Ghislaine must have sealed them away, but no worries, I know what to do.”
          “What would that be then?”
          “Mhm, it seems we have guests. Excuse me—“
          An arrow had whizzed through the small wooden crack of a window and had accurately pinned the woman to a wall before she could answer my question. More arrows rapidly followed, again hammering more parts of her clothing to the wall.
          Desiderium yelled, “Umbrast! Ervin! Ambush whoever they are!”
          Two men had appeared out of nowhere as if they had teleported. Still, I caught a glimpse of their attire and realized who she was presently representing: the Scientians. They wore bronze framed glasses and braided their hair into one clump. What made me sure that they were Scientians was due to their long, navy jackets that hung above their ankles in a militaristic fashion. I understood now why the Scientians were a threat, but if what she had said were true, then shouldn’t Nestor have known that she was the mastermind of this group? Despite the fact that he couldn’t identify her soul, Nestor could foretell the future, and he had even predicted my arrival. Thus, he should have been able to reveal the leader’s identity and then instigate her death.
          Nothing seemed to be connecting with one another. This whole affair was a mesh of hay. No, if it were hay, I would have set the hay on fire to find that needle in the haystack. This was an array of elements, not even entangled or melded together, but rather diverging from each other. Intentions were camouflaged under other motives. This could have been a mise en abîme.
          I didn’t have enough time to contemplate for a man disguised in black with a mask made of fabric covering his mouth and most of his face had broken the wooden frame of the window and leapt into the underground room. Without a word, he slit through the ropes that bounded me and grabbed my hand to prepare for our escape. Before we could move a few extra steps, one of the Scientians was charging towards the masked man with a longsword.
          The masked man shouted, “Back away!” Then, he managed to grip the edge of the sword, stopping it from entering his body. “That is not playing by the rules,” he snickered, “attacking from behind.”
          Somehow he managed to disarm the sword and overthrow the Scientian from his shoulder and to the ground. As he reached for his dagger for the final kill, I saw the other man dashing to strike him from behind.
          “Watch out!” I yelled before being captured by Desiderium. The masked man immediately threw his dagger, aiming for the other man’s thigh.
          As he made his way towards me, Desiderium ordered, “Do not move! If you move, then I will kill her!” She whispered in my ear, “Do not fret, sweet pea. This is all a show. I am sure you know.”
          I gulped, nervous as to what she had in mind. I felt helpless watching the masked man being held by the two Scientians. Luckily, another figure had bolted from the window’s opening. It was someone, unexpected yet familiar. He must have followed me here, I thought. But, how . . . and why?   
          “You must be Cael or should I say . . . Beau?” Desiderium questioned while still impeding me from moving by placing a dagger on my neck.
          I didn’t understand what she meant. Beau? No, this was Cael. He was Cael. There was no doubt about this. “W-who are you?” I found myself stammering.
        “Yes, Beau, tell her who you are,” she taunted in a snobby manner. “You have always wanted to tell her, right? Why do you not take the chance to explain yourself here?”
          He didn’t say anything and instead, glimpsed at the masked man and nodded. The masked man, although bounded by his wrists with rope, had managed to break through and swiftly used a blow dart. The tiny dart hit Desiderium’s neck, at once rendering her helpless as she tumbled into deep sleep.
          “I will leave you to finish off matters,” the masked man murmured. “I have another mission to fulfill.” He then carried me away, running ever so quickly until we reached the entrance of the forest. “I have been told that you know the way back to the palace, so I bid you good day, Princess,” he bowed.
          “Wait!” I called out. “What is happening right now? Who are you? Who are you people?” I was so confused that I had no idea where to start my investigation.
          He explained, “The King requested the Kuyaza to protect the Princess.”
          “Kuyaza?” I had heard of this group before. Trenton had once bragged about how he had overcome a member of a Kuyaza during a fight. I remembered him exclaiming in an agitated voice of how this was a great accomplishment.
          “The Kuyaza is an exclusive group of high-trained warriors or assassins from Kosei,” Trenton had proclaimed. “They do not work for anyone specifically. They work for whoever pays them.”
          “So how did you know that you had encountered a Kuyaza?” I had asked.
          Trenton had uttered, lifting his head high, “After every mission, they will hand a small fox tail to you as a sign of their success. Every member supposedly has a different sort of fox tail, whether it be in a different colour or shape.”
          I had jeered, “So that meant that that Kuyaza purposely lost to you if he gave you a small fox tail!”
        Indeed, the masked man tossed a pure white fox tail, which was in the size of my fist. “Mission accomplished,” he announced before disappearing to the woods.
          I was left sorting through the events in my brain, but before any progress could be made, I heard a familiar voice calling from behind, “I am sorry.”
          I shifted my attention towards the stranger. I was surprised at how foreign his face had now become and how unapproachable he seemed. I took a step backwards. Was this my own body telling me that something was wrong, that something dreadful was about to occur?
          “You are scared of me now?” he asked.
          “I-I do not know . . . what to think anymore,” I rambled.
          I took another step back. My legs were urging me to run, but my mind begged them to stay. I had to know, yet I had a fear of knowing. How deep was a cut of truth? How much pain did I have to endure until I could be happy?   
          “I can explain,” he muttered.
          How many times had I heard such a phrase? I can account for what I’ve done. I have every reason to believe that this was right at that time. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Forgive me, will you?
          “No,” I replied, “I do not want to hear it. It does not matter anymore. You are whoever you want to be. N-none of this concerns me.”
          “I need you to understand.”
          He now seized me by the shoulders, forcing me to focus on him. I turned my head away, and stated, “I do not need to hear anything from you.”
          “You asked me before who I was. Now, I am answering your question,” he carried on explaining. “I am Cael’s twin brother, Beau. I am Cael’s shadow.”
          I now glared at him, right into the depths of his pupils. “Why are you telling me this now?”
          Of all moments, he had chosen to share his deepest secret with me now. If there was a time for everything, then this was not a time for his everything. No, not now, I couldn’t bear facing this sort of situation anymore.
          It was a week before the due date of the painting of a portrait, and it was the last meeting we had scheduled. I couldn’t face him for days after the accidental kiss. Even when I tried to forget it by snuggling beside Thayne more or showering him with small pecks, I couldn’t. Whenever our lips touched, I thought of his slightly cracked ones. Whenever I washed my hands, I recalled the clang of my paintbrush against the metal sink. Whenever I saw my face wash or shower gel, I remembered his soapy scent.
          It wasn’t until he showed up after school at my locker did I speak to him. “Wh-what are you doing here?” I murmured and dragged him to the art room, hoping that no one saw us.
          “You’re not finished your portrait,” he explained once I closed the door behind us.
          “Why are you avoiding me then?” he asked with his glaring eyes.
          “I-I-I’m not,” I stuttered, and avoided his look.
           Gripping my shoulders with his fingers, he demanded, “Look at me then. Look at me and tell me why you’re afraid of seeing me.”
          “I . . .”
          “Is it because you’re feeling the same way as I am?”
          “Wh-what way?”
          I widened my eyes and all I could see from him was one word, a word that had to have been forbidden. “Eury, I—“
          I could sense the gravity of the situation from his eyes. Already anticipating an important acknowledgment of some sort, I took a deep breath. I should have known that even when prepared, there was nothing much I could do. Perhaps, fate, I would later admit.
          “Because I realized that I love you.”
          He looked at me as if he was about to cry. I had never seen him in so much despair, like a lost soul seeking for light. I . . . just happened to be the bearer of hope, but I couldn’t do much. I didn’t know what to do when this was the first confession, a most unexpected one, for my fourteen-year-old self. What was odder was how I started to hear the reverberations of this particular phrase. Over and over again, they formed a sort of incantation. I felt my heart amplify its speed and my eyes blur. I was losing control of this body, sensing myself unable to stand properly as if my soul was being separated from my body.
          “Hahaha!” He pinched my nose and clung onto his stomach, trying his best to suppress his laughter. “That was nothing. I can’t believe you can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.”
          Yes, I must be hallucinating now. I was tumbling down, down, down, and I could even hear a lady’s voice greet, “Welcome to my world, my present.”
Chapter 25                                                                            Chapter 27