I didn’t think I had to worry these days. There was a moment of celebration flourishing throughout the palace because there would soon be a wedding. The date of Theo and Verrill’s wedding had been set. They would wed when spring blossomed to summer. With a limited amount of freedom left, Theo had proudly informed me, “I must frolic as much as possible and I believe you are in need of a frolic.”
          Because I was to be Theo’s Blessed Lady, who would be by her side at all times up till the wedding to guide her and to share my luck with her, I was permitted to attend Theo’s adventures. Of course, no one knew they were adventures. Everyone just assumed that I was restricting her from her fun. In fact, she was showing me what fun was.
          We had practically visited every shop, every restaurant, every market, and even every brothel. Every day was different with Theo. I could never predict what she would do next. We could speak about anything. She would sometimes criticize about a woman’s dress, and other times, she would blurt what she hated about people in general. In between all these moments, she would have a burning flame in her hand or a glass of wine in another; she thought it was beautiful to be smoking opium and elegant to be savouring an alcoholic beverage. I didn’t want to tell her the health effects for I would have been bothered by a ton of questions. Plus, this was the only time before she would have to become the proper wife. I doubt that would actually happen, yet rules would become stricter. There would be more expected of her, and she knew too that if she wanted to live well with Verrill, she would have to live by his rules.
          Now, it was the night before the day of the wedding, and I could already sense her anxiety. The way her hand shuddered while clasping onto her half-filled wine glass, the way she sucked on the mouthpiece of her golden pipe, and the way she crossed her legs in a hurry were signs of her apprehension. We had finished shopping for new summer dresses and had decided to rest at her chamber for the night. At once, Theo had collapsed onto her bed, which was shaped like a sleigh, and had demanded the maids to bring her pipe and her wine. This was the first time I had ever seen her so desperate to become intoxicated.
          She lifted her glass to ask, “Care for a sip?”    
          I shook my head while I sat on the opposite end of the bed. “You seem to be too nervous.”
          “Nervous?” She almost spat out the gulp she took before glaring at me. “Now, why would I be nervous? It is only Verrill.”
          I shrugged my shoulders, uttering, “You would not be able to play anymore and Verrill . . . you and Verrill—“
          “Are not suitable?” She now was in a fit of laughter. Her head was thrown backwards as she inhaled another breath of smoke. “I believe I hear that too often that I do not need to hear more,” she snapped at me.            
          Was this denial? It had to be. It was evident that they were opposites, working against each other, not with each other. This was ultimately a forced match. Because there was no way of knowing what Theo felt, I noticed that it was better to ask her directly. Her mouth contained truth unlike most.
          “Then . . . you do not mind him?” I posed.
          “I have known Verrill ever since I was born,” she explained. “How can I not mind him?”
          Theo had stared at me with such a bewildered gaze that I was too taken aback. There was no doubt why there was awkwardness when they were together. It was no wonder that he appeared, no, that he was the only one that could tame her.
          “Does he know?” I whispered.
          She sighed, “He knows. How could he not? It’s Verrill. He is not a foolish chap.”
          “Then, does he—“
          She tossed her burning pipe onto the ground, causing a foul, dark blotch to form on the Aquillan rug. “Stop asking about him!” she shrieked. “I don’t want to hear about him!” I hadn’t expected such a reaction from her. I was about to call the maids to look after the disorder that she had created, but she stopped me. “Look at what I destroyed?” Her finger pointed to the putrid spot, sputtering, “Is this not what I do best? I know. . . what people say about me, what people think of this arrangement. They pity him and all they do is pity him. What of my pity? Loving a man who will never love you?” In a fit, she even spited, “No one knows Verrill like I do. No one . . . but do you know who he always seeks solace?” She now scoffed, “Your dear brother, Cael. Now, tell me . . . where is my pity?”
          I had always known that Cael and Verrill were the best of friends, but I had never expected their relationship to extend to a dubious, amorous one. I tried to consider the looks they had exchanged at each other, and the times that they had disappeared together. Cael had always been a mysterious figure, able to slip through any fissures without detection. Verrill’s presence was subtle too, never too overbearing and never too overwhelming. The two of them certainly possessed an intellectual connection, yet I had never witnessed Cael’s emotional side. It was too hard to believe that Cael would be swayed by love in any sense. He seemed the sort to abandon all signs of love, oblivious and nonchalant to affection.
          “Does Cael return—“
          She rashly roared, “I have seen them in each other’s company!” Her hands were covering her tears now. “At the horse shed, Cael . . . had . . . provoked him and . . . and . . . these meetings . . . have become more frequent!” Leaping to my side, she grabbed onto my arms and begged, “I d-d-do not know what to do, what to think.”
          I did what I did best: listen. What more could I do? The exchange of words would have been careless and more importantly, useless. Advices were so easily said, but were they actually meaningful? No, they were what others thought best, not necessarily what was best for the victim.  
Theo now bathed her tears on my lap. I stroked the top of her head, hoping to ease her weeping. Theo rambled, “Why? Why? Why did Cael have to rouse Verrill? If it not for Cael, Verrill, Verrill would not, would not have . . .”         
          What Theo had proclaimed was the unbearable truth. I could not even begin to understand how she was to live with this fact. I wondered how long she had known about their special relationship. From her tone, it was like an unspoken reality that had been buried for too long. Now, a sudden earthquake had unearthed its position. There was a crack along the fault, and along came its damage. Out spewed the tears, the grief, and the regrets. Relief would be rapidly called for if this were a catastrophic event that involved thousands or millions, but because the impact was so concentrated, so local that there was no sense of therapy. A single sufferer did not matter.
          Theo could have made it matter though, if she truly wanted. If she truly wanted to expose or to taint Verrill’s reputation, she would have shared what she had discovered with anyone. Instead, she had chosen to remain silent for too long and I would be silent too. Now, I wondered if there were more that vowed to be soundless? I knew who would have also known about this situation, and I knew he would have the correct answer.
          I didn’t like what I was about to say, but I knew I would never forgive myself if I had been completely voiceless. “Theo . . . I assure you that I will do all that I can to conclude their relationship,” I noted.
          With a whimper, she mumbled, “There is no need. Even if there is a break, it does not mean that . . . his love has severed.” Wiping her tears with her fingers, she sniffled, “Let them be. I will live my own life and he will live his . . . and that is all.”
          That was all she had spoken of this event.
          The next day, after a sleepless night where we shared all of the town’s gossip, Theo had returned with a gallant grin. She had even joked of her puffy eyes, telling the maids who were dressing her that a gigantic mosquito had blessed her for the wedding. While the servants were baffled by what had happened, the two of us exchanged looks and then laughed simultaneously.
          “So . . . how do I look?” Theo asked.
          She had appeared from the wooden blinds in a simple, cream gown that was elegantly decorated at the bosom with several pleats. She also wore a long, head dress made of fine lace styled like roses that graced her curled hair. With my finger, I signalled for her to turn around, to which she docilely listened.
          “So? What are your thoughts?” she asked again.
          I purposely frowned, remarking, “Far too mundane.”
          “Thought so.” She folded her arms in contempt. “I knew I should have selected the one with all the pearls and beading.”
          “Theo, you look beautiful even without the jewels,” I truthfully noted. “Everyone will be amazed at your plainness. You must confess that you have never been plain. This would mark the first of your plainness, which would certainly attract everyone.”
          She looked at me with her lips curving upwards. “Indeed, you have a way with words, Gigi.” She even elbowed me. “I wonder how you will use that mouth of yours to talk away marriage. You realize you are nearing the age.”
          I just laughed off what she had said. “Let us not concern ourselves with bothersome matters today. Let us rejoice the fact that you will be tamed!”
          She puckered her lips. “As if. No one . . . I say . . . no one will be able to tame me.” I admired the way she strolled to the door, exuding all aspects of poise. She was to triumph over the critics and live the life she wished. Before she exited, she giggled. “Gigi, you should . . . wear the dress I chose for you. It will surely bring the feeling of a hunt to all the men!”
          I had completely failed to recall what she had decided for me. Once I saw the gaping hole of the rose, empire-waist gown that would presumable reveal my barren back, I remembered exactly what she had in mind. She had peeped at me while I was being fitted into a new corset and she had only made one statement. She believed that I had a lovely back with exquisite shoulder blades that would, according to her, “entice any men’s interest”. She had even joked, “You may not have the bosom, but you have the back that could act as your bosom.”
          The goal to her was for others to turn around to look at you, not for them to incessantly stare ahead. Indeed, I received countless gazes; I could hear the sound of their collars brushing against their necks as their heads shifted to my back. Unexpectedly, there was now warmth hovering over my exposed back and then I felt an article of clothing resting on my shoulders.
          I glanced to my right, and recognized Beau, who only wore a basic ivory shirt along with a matching bow tie and a set of tanned pants and onyx leather boots. There was one item missing and that item happened to be hanging from my shoulders. It was his highly decorated navy blazer.
          “Thank you.” I grinned while he guided me to our seats.
          This marriage was held in one of the ballrooms that had a marble altar sprinkled with Wisteria flowers at the front of the room. Leading away from the altar was long, red rug that acted as a pathway for the bride and the groom to march down. Bordering the path were rows and rows of chairs painted to contrast the cream coloured dress of Theo’s. No one in the room was, thus, allowed to wear any shade of dress that resembled hers, except for me, who was supposed to deceive evil spirits into thinking that I was the bride. Brides apparently were known to attract wickedness.
          “I am assuming that Theo forced you to wear this,” Beau remarked.
           He took his seat at the end of the front row. Where a person was seated depended on how powerful one was. The rule was that the closer one was to the spectacle, the more important that person was. Most assuredly, Beau and I were assigned to places that could be said within several paces of the action. Frankly, it was too close to my liking. I preferred to observe from afar.
          I adjusted my skirt before settling down, and said, “How intelligent of you, but I have to say . . . that you are attracting more unwanted attention than me. A man without a blazer is odder than a girl with an uncovered back.”
          I chose to return his comfort, knowing that siblings did not worry about each other in that sense. A brother would have chosen to laugh at my folly, not cover for my mistake. A brother wouldn’t have . . . acted this way.
          “Fair enough,” his voice slightly splintered.
          Because I had rejected his kind offer, we barely spoke to each other throughout the grandiose ceremony. It would have been rude to whisper in each other’s ears. Theo would have caught onto my distracted behaviour, and she would probably scold me from time to time. So, I watched her promenading the passageway at a bashful rhythm. Verrill’s arm was hooked onto hers, and it appeared as if Verrill was hauling a hefty luggage and at one point, she almost tripped over own feet. Was this even Theo, I chuckled at my own question. I was abruptly reminded of what Theo had discovered about Verrill, and felt rather ashamed that I had laughed. Focusing on Verrill now, I realized melancholy engraved in his eyes. His pace too was as if he were on a march to war.
          I couldn’t resist glimpsing at Beau, who was still so silent. A silent bearer of the secret? “I . . . would have expected him to be here.” I tried to lower my voice as much as I could.
          “He needed his rest,” Beau replied after Verrill had voiced his vows in front of a priest.
          “I do not believe he is ill,” I added. “Maybe, ill at heart?”
          Beau discreetly mumbled, “He . . . would never be ill at heart.”
          “Then why behave as such?” I had to question. I had to know what to make of Theo’s situation. I had promised her.
          He inched closer to my ear and then explained, “It would be better for you to be unconcerned in this matter.”
          I despised how no one ever blatantly told me the truth. Only the naive seemed to be candid, too innocent to know what conceal. I was foolish to think that Beau would share the answers. Even he . . .
          Was this disappointment then? Disappointed in the influence of love? Whoever said love was blinding must have been blind him or herself. When survival combated love, of course, survival would prevail. With a scornful look, I snubbed, “You do not know what is better for me.”
         I now knew that the only method of obtaining the results that I desired was to confront the source of the issue, Cael. I had to wait until the end of Theo and Verrill’s marriage to initiate my plan. The conclusion of a typical marriage in Urcis was the torch dance. Exotic dancers, trained to perform tricks with torches, danced around the couple to lead them to their bedroom, which was one that the King had created just for this event. Normally, the audience would follow the dancers and the newlyweds until the point of the couple’s destination. With everyone else wandering in the other direction, I would be able to flee to Cael’s chamber, which was on the opposite side. The obstacle was only Beau. He was sure to stop me and he already knew what I had wanted to do. So, I eased his mind.
          “Do not fret. I will not ask Cael this evening for I wish to give my blessings to Theo,” I told him.
          Still, Beau had intentionally held onto my hand. Among the boisterous crowd, no one had seen what he had done. I didn’t struggle either. Instead, I chose to relax my muscles to hopefully make him believe that I had surrendered. Once his grip had loosened, I bolted in the other direction. I heard him call my name, but I ignored whatever I heard. I did not even turn to check to see whether or not he was chasing after me. I just knew that I had to sprint. This goal of mine was more important than pleasing Beau.
          When I reached the reminiscent doors to Cael’s bedroom, I knocked a few too many times. There was undoubtedly no answer, so I rambled, “I know you are there. Now, if you do not want to attract unwanted interest then—“
          The doors had unlocked and there was Cael leaning close to the door handle before drawing me in. “State your purpose,” he announced.
          In the pitch black room, he returned to presumably where he had been sitting before my interruption. There was a square, wooden table on which what appeared to be a chess board was inclining. There were several waxen and black chess pieces positioned in their certain spots on the board; the moon was the only sign of light streaming through this room. Its rays reflected off of the pieces, almost blinding my view.
          “I assume you are here to inquire about my dealings with Verrill.” Cael now reclined on his lounging chair and crossed one leg over the other. His fingers had interlocked with each other and a smile had crept from the edges of his lips. With my one nod, he continued, “I assure you . . . that there is no need for such encounters anymore.” Then he rearranged the board, returning all of the pieces to where they belonged. “Shall we play?” His palm offered me to sit in the other chair across from him.
          The game had commenced right when I sat down. I moved my pawn one step, and then he had moved a pawn that had guarded his King two steps forward. I decided to move a pawn to the right of my other pawn, one step ahead. Astonishingly, Cael instigated laughter.
          “What humours you?” I asked Cael, who could not control his happiness.
          “I would have preferred for you to be a fool.” His laughter had instantly ceased. “I would have preferred for her not to be a fool to complete this fool’s game.” Adjusting my move one step forward, he demonstrated a simplistic checkmate. “You understand . . . this . . . should have been her move. She should have run off to tattle on our adventures. Instead, she told you, and only you, leaving this wedding too well-guarded.”
          As I observed the setup of the game, I recognized what he was inferring. He had underestimated Theo, and had assumed that she would have spread rumours, that she would not have cared so much about Verrill. What I didn’t grasp was the reason that Cael sought to annul their wedding. Like Beau, I doubted that Cael would be swayed by his emotions. Life for Cael, was a game of chess, where he would plan a step ahead of the other to win his every objective.
          “Why?” my voice echoed.
          “Why not we continue our game?” He pushed my pawn back to where it was supposed to be.
          In the dim moonlit room, we moved one another, wary of every action, trying to predict each other’s plans. Cael, of course, never hesitated with each shift of his chess piece. In fact, the longer this game was becoming, the more I felt that he had already expected all of my advances. We reached a point where I had my King and Queen positioned diagonally from each other, while his black King was at the far right corner of the board.
          “A stalemate,” I murmured.
          “Correct.” He smirked and then toppled all of the figures with his hands. “Not anymore.” Again, there was a wider grin, revealing his fan-like teeth. “If the board doesn’t suit you, then you create your own board,” he announced.
          He left me to wonder about what had occurred for he strolled to his bed and eventually prepared to sleep. Still contemplating in my chair, I thought of all the possibilities. Why had he wanted a stalemate? He could have won this game easily, yet he had chosen to challenge me. If one of the white pawns had been Verrill and the other Theo, then that white King represented their wedding. However, we had, in a sense, started a new game, a new game . . . that mirrored what Theo had, in actuality, done. The white King must have altered its meaning then. The new King ought to be . . . I gasped once replaying the image of my King and Queen targeting Cael’s black King.
          Verrill and Theo against Cael.
          “No,” I whispered.
          It was too late for that. If it had not been that one move, it would never have become a stalemate. What was more imperative was that Cael had tried to avoid a stalemate by executing this intricate arrangement. My question had been wrong; it should have been why he had wanted to evade a stalemate.
          My eyes were now glistening over his sleeping figure. Was he upset due to his foregone lover? Unlikely, too highly unlikely. During the game, his face had been too stern with his eyebrows branching to form a deep trench and his lips puckering to a scowl. Only a smile had been released once he had mentioned the idea of creating a new board game.
          I didn’t know what to hypothesize anymore. There did not seem to be enough background information to form a proper hypothesis. I could only say that I feared for the couple’s future, but there was no time to fear for them because Cael had instructed before I left, “The King and I shall be journeying to Kosei soon.”
          This could only denote one thing and that was the King was going to discuss with the Emperor about my future husband. The King was already preparing for my marriage.
Chapter 35                                                                            Chapter 37