It was not long before I received an owl. What I meant was that an owl had repeatedly used its beak to knock on my bedroom window. At first, I had ignored this pesky creature, but once I saw what was attached to its left foot, a scroll tucked in a bottle, I knew I had to welcome this owl. Calla was by my side again, and she had hopped from where she had been sitting to examine what I had obtained.
          “From a secret admirer?” She giggled and kept squeezing by my side to read what I was about to unravel.
          The burning of your heart says that the next awakening of light brings forth a devil at its death. 
          That was the message that was written on an old, tattered sheet of paper. I could not recognize the penmanship nor could I understand, in the beginning, what the message meant. “No,” I responded.
          “This ought to be some hoax,” she had managed to glimpse at the note and commented.
          I knew it had to be more than a hoax. Pranksters did not spend time to send forth a trained owl, which had already departed after I had unhooked the bottle from its ankle. Looking at the window, I could still see where it was headed. It was heading north. North . . . must have been where its owner was. Who did I know lived northwards? Perplexed by my own observation, I took another look at the letter, dissecting each word now. The burning of your heart. It could not have been an anagram; that would have been too long. What burned in my heart? Longing? Wanting? Wishing?
          “Oh my goodness,” I muttered, almost dropping the sheet onto the ground.
          It stood for desire. Desire was related to Desiderium. Replacing the phrase with the new word, I reread the message.
          Desiderium says that the next awakening of light brings forth a devil at its death.
          What could have signified the next awakening of light? Light could mean fire, the moon, goodness, the day, the . . . sun. This had to be an indication of the time: sunrise. The next sunrise. I was eager now to decode the latter of the cryptic phrase, brings for a devil at its death. If this note had already given the author, the time, then what had to be missing was the location. Where in Urcis would a devil be brought to death? I envisioned all of the areas in the palace. None of them seemed to match the description. Perhaps, the Prison Tower, but being a prisoner did not necessarily mean death. Frustrated with what was impeding me, I paced back and forth.
          “I must say that your pacing reminds me of a recent story I heard,” Calla remarked. “A little boy had stolen a piece of bread and the baker was chasing after him all over town with a baton! When the baker caught the little thief, he dragged the poor boy to the town square and told everyone to watch him beat that ‘ragged boy’.”
          I was about to reproach Calla for interrupting my thinking, yet I leapt to thank her. “You are brilliant, Calla! Absolutely brilliant!” I kept shaking her hands that she couldn’t bear looking at me. I knew exactly where to go now. “Calla, I need you to do me a favour.” I eyed her carefully. “No, several.”
          “Purpose of departure?” the guard armoured in silver asked in a bucolic voice. “And identification?” He then leaned in closer to examine my face. “I do not recall your entry to court,” he ordered. “Ramsey! Fetch the list!”
          This was the Gate Guards’ responsibilities: to verify anyone that passed through the main gates of the Palace. There were typically two Gate Guards positioned on each side of the entrance and this time, the one to the right had caught onto me. There was no sense in worrying for I had already taken all precautions. Calla had spent a few hours observing the process of entering and exiting the Palace, and had concluded that I had to either prepare a signed document from the King, or obtain a signet ring of a high-classed noble along with the ribbon or bowtie that had the matching family crest of the ring. Most importantly, I needed to have entered first before exiting.
          “Perhaps, it would be better to find a secret route,” Calla had suggested during our discussion of my flight.
          Actually, I knew of Theo’s secret path, but it would have taken too long to reach the town. Suspicion from the townspeople would arise if they were to see my tattered clothing. Moreover, I could not afford to change into a separate outfit. The easiest, yet also the riskiest method would be to leave directly from the gates.   
          I vividly remembered Calla’s ghastly face when I told her of my plan. “We devise a new way,” I had announced.
          I had beamed an exquisite smile. Now, I grinned for Cael had been right. People could follow the rules of a board game and learn all of its loopholes and strategies, but sometimes, it was more useful just to become the creator of a game. As the producer of this game, I relied on one rule, which was that social status determined people’s authority. Because a princess was much higher in rank than a Gate Guard, my plan ought to have succeeded. All that needed to occur was for Calla to act her part. I had already done mine by boldly encountering the Gate Guards.
          Like we had rehearsed, Calla had appeared with haste. She was panting as she ran towards the entryway, calling, “Ren, Ren, you f-f-forgot t-t-this!”
          Dressed in a pair of baggy trousers, an ivory shirt that was purposely unbuttoned to reveal my neck, a black vest, and a cap to mask my long hair, I had once again retained my identity as Ren, the faraway cousin of Prince Cael and Princess Ghislaine. To differentiate myself further, I had worn make-up to darken my skin and to change the shape of my eyebrows. Calla, on the other hand, had borrowed one of my empire-waist dresses and had a disoriented ribbon tied at her ribs. There was something peculiar about this dress; it had a few buttons running up the neck to act as a turtle neck but they were unbuttoned just to the point that still masked her scars. The intention? To expose her neck as well.
          The Gate Guard had taken a minute to assess the situation and his eyes were immediately drawn to the royal crest on Calla’s ribbon. His tone had drastically changed and even his aggressive body language had morphed to a meek one. “Your Highness—“
          “Oh, Ren.” Calla threw a piece of white cloth around my neck and began to knot it into a bow. “You forgot this . . . again.”
          She eyed me like she would to a lover. I felt one side of my mouth jolt upwards. Our rehearsals had been meaningful then since she had become a great actress. It was mostly due to my diligence that she was able to persevere. I had asked her to think of the man that she adored.
          “Just pretend that I’m Prince Kuro,” I had instructed to which she blushed for ages.
          That, however, was her cue to pretend as though she adored me. It helped too with my screenplay. I had melded a situation, where it was undeniable that we were lovers. A man’s bowtie in Urcis was only handed to his significant other as a sign of his love and commitment. A bowtie, the equivalent of a woman’s ribbon, denoted a man’s social status. If a man had discarded his social status for a woman, then it could merely mean one thing: he was in love.
          Surely, to further convince the Gate Guards, I had pinched the skin of Calla’s neck a few times and had even used leeches to exacerbate the redness of the areas of interest. She too had inflicted some marks on my neck. These had become the final elements of our costumes. These definitely highlighted the doings of lovers.
          I could see one of the Gate Guards blushing, while the other remained unconvinced. So, I pulled Calla closer with our bodies pressing against one another and kissed her neck. She almost pushed me away, but I held onto her tighter and whispered in her ear, “Just follow my lead and do pretend that I’m Kuro.”
          Without any other warning, one of my hands brushed by her bottom while the other caressed her neck. I placed my lips to the right of her neck and along with a grin, I stared at the other Gate Guard, who had gulped and even looked away once our eyes met.
          “Say your line now,” I demanded in a soft voice.
          “D-d-don’t Ren,” she pretended to groan. “They-they’re watching.”
          “Don’t worry about them. Let’s continue from where we ended,”
          “N-N-No, I can’t,” she whimpered. “N-n-next time . . . when you’re back from your journey.”
          “Fine, I’ll release you this time,” I muttered while maintaining eye contact with the guards. “However, I think you owe me a farewell kiss.”
          Subsequently, I hauled Calla towards me and angled ourselves so that it seemed as though we were kissing. I had, instead, kissed my own hand, and they had, like cowards, peevishly darted their eyes to our direction. Tainted were their once righteous visages, making me could sneer.
          This was my first time at Thayne’s room. He had finally invited me to tour his house, and while he was at the kitchen to prepare a few snacks for the two of us, I had taken the chance to look for what Alanna and Adrianna had told me to unearth.
          “Oh my god!” I shrieked, holding onto a flimsy magazine.
          Just then, Thayne had entered with a plate of cookies and two round mugs. He was looking at me in disbelief and in embarrassment. “I’m s-s-sorry,” he rambled. “I’m a g-g-guy. You know that—“
          My cheeks were as red as they could have been. Placing the book under his bed, I stuttered, “It-it-it’s okay. I g-g-get it.”
          After a long period of silence, where we sat as far away from each other as possible, Thayne, at last, declared, “Y-y-you know th-th-that I didn’t mean for anything more to happen today, right? Like, I-I-I’d wait for you until you’re ready, an-an-and it d-d-doesn’t mean that I had an-an-any thoughts like that a-a-about you.”
          I kept laughing until I collapsed on his bed. He was lying beside me then, and I remembered giving him a kiss on the cheek. His blooming, apple cheeks were too cute to resist. “I believe you,” I uttered confidently.          
            How foolish I had been then. Men were all the same: tenacious, lustful, and hormone-driven. People said Kings sometimes had concubines or mistresses to bear them heirs, but I would rather believe that they were satiating their physical needs. Women, for all they cared, were like toys, dispensable and renewable. As for love, it had to be archaic. Romantic love didn’t exist anymore in this world, but people could always persuade each other that it did. Persuasion did not mean conversion, however. This was not like proselytism. Regardless of conversion, I had managed to persuade the guards of our amorous behaviour. As Calla returned in the direction of my bedroom, I cocked a smile at the two guards, who were now unlocking the cumbersome gates.
          “Ya lucky chap.” I heard one of them scoff. “Kissin’ the Princess like that.”
          I pretended to act like a dimwit, asking, “Is she fairly popular?”
          “By George, she is! With those puckering cherry lips of hers and that exotic face of hers . . . what fortune you had to savour her!”
          I laughed at the other guard’s reactions. So, this was what these men thought of me. A pin-up girl? They must have been trapped in this place for too long or the population of Urcis inhabited mostly banal-looking girls.
          “But, ya know, your fortune’s ending,” the older guard responded. “Heard she’s marryin’ some Prince from Kosei.”
          “Which Prince?” I posed.
          The younger, skinnier guard murmured, “No one knows. Rumour has it that it’ll be the eighth prince or some other useless prince.”
          “Useless prince?”
          “Yeah, ya know, ya can’t be havin’ the future Crown Prince to be marryin’ the Princess,” the older guard explained. “We all know that the Princess has to rule with another Prince at Yuron. But, think ‘bout it. That’s just a way of keeping peace, but poor gal, has to marry poorly.”
          “Marry poorly?” I eyed him.
          He shook his head in disbelief. “No one cares ‘bout that little bit of land. I think ya never been there huh?”
          “’Tis where the Kuyaza supposedly lives, where they’re the real rulers.”
          “Real rulers?”
          The other guard added with a sigh, “And to think you looked Koseian. Royalty does not exist there. The Prince and Princess are puppets controlled by the Kuyaza.” He leaned closer to whisper in my ear, “Do not spread the word, but I hear . . . that the Emperor of Kosei has some connections with the Kuyaza. It is some type of agreement letting them do whatever they want. Oh . . . and did I not tell you to be patient?”
          I had found myself dumbfounded now that I had recognized this man’s voice. It was . . . the one who had been after Desiderium and me. He was in yet another disguise. He had to be a master impersonator for I was completely fooled by his accent and even by his manners.
          I stammered, “Y-You—“
          Again, he murmured in my ear, “We are watching, Kamikaze . . . every move that you make, we are watching. Now, I do not know where you are headed, but do not cause more trouble than you have already done. Also . . . return before the end of autumn.”
          Then, he pushed me forward and reported to his senior that he had been examining me further. Scrambling to find the proper pace, I took in more breaths than I should have. I didn’t know what to think. Had the Kuyaza sent for this man to spy on me and for what reason? Was it just because the Queen had given me her the black fox tail? That seemed like ludicrous thinking, yet there was no other reason that could have prompted a member of the Kuyaza to stalk me. Suddenly, a haunting voice reverberated in my mind. It was the voice of the Oracle telling me to find the book.
          The book.
          I had almost forgotten it after receiving Desiderium’s message. Making a mental note to myself, I knew what sort of questions I had to ask Desiderium and Nestor. They were questions that the Oracle had not had the chance to answer.
Chapter 36                                                                            Chapter 38