He was covered in eternal darkness, almost fading with the dimness of the room. Only his piercing gaze reminded me of his presence.
          “Who are you?” I asked.
          I had an inkling of his identity, but I still needed a way to confirm. Beside the door was always a thin table where the Queen placed a vase of fresh roses; now only an empty glass figure with wilting ones filled the area. Perhaps I could . . .
          I slowly took a few steps sideways, pretending to place myself in a position where I could see him better. He sensed what I was thinking, and instantly threw small dagger, aiming directly at me. I dodged slightly to the side, allowing it to hit the vase, which smashed into several pieces. Seizing this opportunity, I snatched one of the larger pieces and tossed it in his direction. He snickered and easily darted, however, to where I wanted him. The piece had cut exactly at the knot of fabric which concealed his nose and lips.
          “Just as I thought . . . Prince Kuro,” I murmured to which he grinned.
          I had not seen him after that particular visit from the Princes and indeed, several years later, he had grown taller and stronger. His onyx clothing was built for agility as it seemed to attach too closely to his skin. I could also see that his arms had become more toned, yet they were not defined enough for him to be called muscular. His hair certainly had grown longer as a few strands slipped from his headband. His features too had melded to young adulthood with his eyes emitting experience.
          He then cackled while approaching me. “You prevail, Princess.”
          “W-what brings you here?” I stuttered, utterly afraid of his approaching figure.
          “You do not believe that I have the right to bid farewell to the Queen?” He instead asked me.
           “Y-you have no relations with her.”
          Now, he changed his direction and sat on the edge of the Queen’s lofty bed. “She was my aunt.” His voice reverberated in this abandoned room. “Moreover, she wanted you to keep this.” From his black leather belt, he unhooked a buckskin, mahogany box and tossed it towards me. There was a golden binding that sealed the box and as I proceeded to unlock it, Kuro suddenly screamed, “Run!”
          Hearing his agitated voice, I darted to the left, accidentally dropping her gift onto the ground. As soon as the box hit the ground, its cover flung open and out shot an arrow. I saw a sharp dagger hit the edge of the arrow and land on the wall, yet I felt something graze my shoulder blade. Blood was beginning to trickle down my skin. I turned my head to find that it was not an arrow that had just passed by; it was in fact stuck in my shoulder.
          “Do not move!” Kuro ordered and rushed to my side. “Do not even touch the arrow! I will extract it.” He examined the depth of the arrow in my skin and muttered, “You are fortunate that this is rather shallow. There should not be any complications. However, I will warn you that there will be pain, a sort that girls cannot bear.”
          I bit my lip. “I will try my utmost.”
          Without any sense of preparation, he ripped open one side of my dress to expose the damage. My cheeks grew slightly red even though I had worn an undershirt. This was the first time in this world that an opposite gender had seen some part of my body. Before I could continue to think, he placed one hand on my shoulder while the other gripped the arrow. He pulled the device from my skin and I yelped, already with tears in my eyes, and held onto his body, “Ahh!”
          I felt more blood rushing down from my open wound and drenching his black shirt. From his pant pocket, he found an herb, which I recognized to be yarrow. Yarrow was what Nestor said an herb that could disinfect wounds. It was what many soldiers carried with them in case of emergency. He smothered some onto my injury, and then used the fabric that had covered his face as my bandage.
          “You are rather troublesome,” he grumbled while treating me.
          “I apologize.” I winced and tightened my grip on his body when I sensed the herb doing its work. Cures were never free of pain. 
          So, for a while, I buried my head in his chest, wanting to forget everything. It seemed like a place to seek comfort, and indeed, I felt more at ease until he reminded, “I do not believe this is appropriate.”
          “You are right.” I backed away from him, attempting to stand up. “Even when my own mother was attempting to murder me, I s-should not be behaving—“
          “She had to,” he interjected rather callously. “Do not blame her.”
          “What purpose would she have to—“
          Again, he interrupted in a chiding tone, “Because you cursed her. She slowly remembered her past life . . . because of you and she also realized the cause of her pains. You . . . and him.”
          As he reclaimed his dagger, which was still implanted on the wall, I saw what hung from it: a puffy, black fox’s tail.
          “Kuro . . . You are . . . No . . . it couldn’t be . . .”
          I found myself stumbling through my words while staring at his attire. The tail and his clothing could only lead to one resolution, but that solution seemed improbable, too implausible. When he revealed his notorious smile, I felt my skin tingle and my muscles stiffen. It was as if I could hear the low, spurring murmurs lulling the name: Diabolos, Diabolos, Diabolos.
          “My duty here has ended and I believe these are what she truly meant for you to keep.” He let the dagger whose shaft was covered in faded, rose engravings along with a pocket-sized book, slump into my palms.
          “What are these?” I worriedly posed.
          “Just read this,” he instructed.
          So, I opened the first page of the tattered, leather-skinned novel and read.
          For my daughter,
          I fear for you and for myself. I fear that I will not escape fate, which would lead me to detest you. Nestor had warned me of his visions for me. He had even inquired if I wanted to become your mother. Despite the King’s wishes, he had even suggested for you to be adopted by a noble family to prevent pandemonium. How could a mother abandon one of her own? How could I abandon a child of mine for whom I could finally care?
          Whatever will happen, do remember that I will forgive you. Fate has its way to do its deeds.
          I was petrified to read more, suddenly realizing how lonesome I had become and specifically what I had done. What had I done? What had I done? How could I have had the heart to . . .
          “Do you understand now?” Kuro’s voice lingered.
          “I . . .”
          It was happening again.
          I was running through the fields, letting the bushels of wheat graze the surface of my skin. “Mother, mother!” I was bolting from the top of my lungs. “Look what I found!”
           In my hands was an injured, baby fox, almost unconscious. I was running so fast that I tripped over my own feet, almost dropping the poor animal to the ground. Luckily, the woman who I claimed to be mother had caught the creature and even cradled it in her arms. Looking up, I saw a relatively young woman who had the gentlest smile, a smile that made me too certain that this was my mother.
          “Careful, darling,” she muttered while I pulled myself up in a panic.
          “Can we keep him?” I instantly begged by purposely enlarging my eyes. “Can we keep Ruko?”
          She certainly had trouble snubbing my pleas for she attempted to gaze away. She still, however, submitted to my wishes. “We’ll have to ask your father,” she opted on saying and then extended her other hand, so I could cling onto it. This must have been a routine since I felt a bold, yet delightful smile stamped on my face. Her palm was not soft. In fact, there were small calluses along the ridges of her fingers. She had the hands of a working woman, which I found to be heartening. So, we walked hand in hand towards a petite, stone cabin that had a brick-layered roof, a small chimney and rounded glass windows placed on either side of the door. I saw a man opening the door now and then waving. He seemed around my mother’s age. Like her, he had a therapeutic aura, prompting me to feel that this was home. I then dashed towards him, leaving my mother behind.
          “Papa! Papa!” I kept chanting.
          With his hands open to catch me, I leapt into his steady arms. My head rested on his shoulder while he laughed. “Fatigued?”
          “Very much so, Papa. I-I found a fox and he was hurt and . . .” I was at a loss of words, probably too tired to even speak now that I was at home.
          “Ghislaine here, wanted to know if this fox to stay at our place,” my mother explained.
          “Fox?” He sounded rather confused. I heard the sound of my mother’s footsteps heading to our direction. He must have seen the poor creature for he answered in an exasperated voice, “C-could this be . . . the Kuro Kitsune?”
          Kuro Kitsune. I should have identified that. Nestor had recounted once of how black foxes, Kuro Kitsune, which were typically found in Kosei, were symbols of the god of misfortune and death. Legend said that the god, Kitsune, had fallen in love with the wife of Ryujin, Shinatobe, the goddess of wind. Unlike Kitsune, who was represented by a fox-like appearance and had powers associated with fire, Ryujin was a water god who took the appearance of a dragon or a man. Shinatobe and Ryujin, thus, combined to share their souls since water and wind had to work as an ensemble to control changes in weather. The sharing of souls, however, meant that Shinatobe was entrapped in Ryujin’s heart, unable to appear in life but still able to echo her thoughts. In essence, the two were destined to be lovers.
          Kitsune, however, became obsessed with Shinatobe’s beautiful voice from the blows of her wind that he decided to kidnap her by thrusting his sword into Ryujin’s heart. Shinatobe’s liberation enraged not only Ryujin, but also the other gods. The gods, thus, banished Kitsune from the Heavens and forced him to become the god of misfortune. They also laid a curse on him, which caused his original snow-coloured fur to turn putrid black. As for Shinatobe, the goddess of wind, was free to roam as she wished, expressing her sentiments from varying types of wind. She was, thus, unattainable for Kitsune and it was said that Kitsune persisted to pursue her by causing calamity among humankind just to hear her sweet, windy rants.
          This became one of the Koseian legends told generation after generation. It was told to inform the public not to defy destiny, to instil fear in their lives because if they rebelled, then dire consequences would occur. Specifically, this myth targeted young ladies, who were at the age of marriage and typically, only such a population had the chances of meeting a Kuro Kitsune. What exactly did it mean for one to meet a Kuro Kitsune? A blessing or a curse?
          “Can we, Papa?” I probably hadn’t known of the implications then. “Can we p-p-please?” Children were too fond of innocent-looking creatures.
          My parents were too silent on the other hand. “How about you rest a bit and your mother and I will discuss?” my father suggested. I nodded with utter grogginess, just letting everything fall naturally.
          Somehow, my legs ventured towards the small crack of the door separating the kitchen from the dining room. “I knew . . . this would happen.” I heard my mother’s voice. “Yet, you chose to ignore this!”
          “We both agreed to this.” He maintained his serenity and curled his fists on the table.
          She stubbornly shook her head. “No, no, you were the one who made the decision. You, you always knew what you thought was best.”
          My mother stood up, turning her body away from her husband, who was attempting to convince her once again. This was a failed relationship at its finest. This was the truth of actors.
          Placing his hands on her shoulders, he murmured, “Do not behave in this manner. It was not as if we could abandon or murder our child.” Murder? Me? I furrowed my eyebrows.
          “We should have followed the Oracle’s advice.” My mother shrugged her shoulders. “The appearance of Kuro Kitsune already tells us that it’s inevitable. Her fate is—“
          “She won’t cause chaos within the nation,” he reassured. “There is already chaos, but within chaos, I believe there is order.”
          “Whatever . . . happens, you do understand that she will lead a painful life, one that is no different from suffering from death. She is fated . . . for death,” she urged. “Both of us know the truth from the legend . . . that Ryujin had vowed to seek revenge for her betrayal, and so she had to escape all her life like the wind.” She was now sobbing, covering her tears with her hands.
          He sighed as he hugged her from behind. “I apologize for not following the Oracle’s orders. I could not kill my own. We will just have to be together for now. I will consult Tau and see what—“
          Although still weeping, her voice had turned cold, almost penetrating to the skin. “No. I do not want to continue living in fear. I left Urcis for you and for her. I-I cannot remain here anymore.”
          “Mother?” I now dashed into the room and urged. “Where are you going? We do not need to tend Ruko if you dislike him. Please do not go! Please do not leave me!”
           I just remembered her hugging me while the two of us cried in each other’s arms. Tears, however, could not hamper a woman’s determination. She was destined to leave.
          I was clad in regal attire. There were no more rags, uneven coloured socks, or faded shoes. There were ornate ribbons made with multifaceted threads of lace seemingly sprinkled on my dress, heavy, cream pearls dangling from my neck, and painfully high heels for my feet. Overwhelming, too overwhelming, I thought.
          I was walking, or rather dragging, my feet down an open hall connecting two parts of the palace together. It was more or less like a bridge with each side being surrounded by marsh-like pools. Each step seemed to stab the front of my toes, squishing them together.
          “Your Highness,” a few ladies that passed by curtsied greeted, “have a pleasant day, Your Highness.”
          I ignored them with my head strung high. In fact, I sensed Ghislaine’s anger. I could hear her saying, again, they wish for my favour.
          “Your Highness.”
          I completely halted at this voice. Shifting my head to my behind, I grimaced more extensively. “Yes?” this time I answered.
This face was that of my father’s, but he had grown a few years older and wearier with a few, deep wrinkles by the edge of his eyes. His hair too had paled to grey and his beard was starting to develop to tangled, potato roots.
          “The King will soon be holding Maturus for Your Highness,” he announced. “You must act accordingly and behave well.”
          I scowled, “How dare you reprimand me, Sorcerer? Have you forgotten your status?”
          That was not what she meant to say, I could tell. That was not why she was incensed. I could hear her thoughts pacing. Why did you abandon me, Papa? Why did I have to become the King’s daughter? Aren’t I your daughter? The rage was inevitable, which brought upon much agony for I had to restrain such an infused inferno from detonating. I clenched all of her facial muscles together, gearing for an expressionless face. Placing my sentiments aside, I muttered to myself, I feel nothing, I feel nothing.
          The Sorcerer immediately bent downwards, begging for forgiveness. “Forgive my foolishness, Your Highness. You may state your punishment for me and I, as your faithful servant, will accept it.”
          I found myself almost unable to steady my breath. “You are despicable.” I at last hissed, “and I will never forgive you. Now cast yourself away.”
          He ran too rapidly for a man. Perhaps, he too had difficulty withholding his feelings.
          For the first time, I collapsed to my knees and cried as Princess Ghislaine. No matter how beautiful, how elegant or how regal one was there was no sense in denying emotions. A peasant and a princess could feel the same, and I . . . I felt nothing, but grief.
          I sheltered myself, covering my face with my palms. Then, I bid farewell. Goodbye happiness. Goodbye innocence. 
Chapter 27                                                                            Chapter 29