It was daunting to enter the village centre by myself. I scanned the area, trying to recall the images of this vibrant city. I thought I would be able to see people trading at the markets or buying goods for their family or even kids dashing through the streets. Instead, I had caught the stares of ravenous and fatigued women, distressed sellers and of young peddlers. Although it would have been expected for the streets to be vacant, people still began to prepare for work when the sun rose. This ominous atmosphere should not have existed; every sunrise should have been a new beginning. That was, though, merely an old saying that reflected the optimism of the citizens. Where was this optimism then? I felt that death had stampeded its way through this city, but how? How could this sort of deterioration have occurred so quickly?
          When I saw an elderly woman sitting by the edge of the steps to her home, I approached her and asked, “Can you please tell me what has happened?”
          The elderly woman stuttered, “They’ve come to kill . . . the Prosperians . . . and their Scientians . . .”
          “It is the Haven Treaty, where all trade with other kingdoms, except for perhaps Kosei, has been banned. I believe you do know about the Prosperians.”
          Her voice was unmistakable, along with her attitude. I shifted my attention towards her. No doubt, it was Desiderium. She had the same supercilious attitude, along with a crooked smile. 
          “No?” I muttered.
          “Prosperia is a vast kingdom across the Renata Ocean. It is there that women flourish while men famish,” Desiderium clarified.
          “H-how did you know about this?”
          It was odd how Nestor had never told me of this other kingdom. Wasn’t Nestor responsible for educating me?  Was it that forbidden that he couldn’t even tell me about Prosperia?
          She released her infamous cackle, asking, “Why am I with the Scientians?”
          Remembering what the old woman had mentioned, I believed that I had taken a minute to consume the surprise. I stammered, “Prosperian . . . Y-y-you are a—“
          “Hush there, child. I do not want to die yet.”
          Desiderium tugged at my sleeve to pull me towards where she had secured two horses, one in chestnut and the other snow white. I had to hasten my steps to catch up to her. I was even starting to pant as I posed, “Is that . . . why the King called for your execution?”
          She was climbing on top of the horse’s back and steadying herself with the saddle. Then, she replied, “Part of the reason.”
          I stood there foolishly. I realized that I did not even know how to mount myself on a horse. In the past, I had never ridden a horse. Perhaps in Ghislaine’s life, she had been an aficionado, but I was never a connoisseur at sports. I accidentally blurted, “You cannot be—“
          Her voice had cut off my statement. From the way her lips had fused, I knew she was secretly ridiculing me. “Now, child, I will teach you once and only once,” she instructed with much austerity. “You hold the reigns with your left hand, but hold the right one tighter so your horse doesn’t swing on you. Now, place your left foot in the stirrup and push yourself up!” I watched her in admiration as if I had encountered a deity. She turned back while asking, “Simple, right?”
          I gulped. What else could I have done? Admit that I was incapable of mounting a horse? It was only a horse. What could a horse do to me?
          Never underestimate a horse. Yes, I couldn’t believe I was saying this to myself, but never, ever underestimate an opponent, even one of a different species. Sure, I was now horseback riding, but the energy and the effort that it took for me to completed this task were backbreaking. Indeed, I had almost broken my back the first time I tried to conquer a horse. Unlike heroes, I didn’t possess that spiritual connection with a mighty, mythical horse. It was more like the horse was mocking me by constantly taking bathroom breaks. Even Desiderium noticed how bizarre this horse was behaving. Of course, she laughed . . . at me. What else could she have done?
          “You never answered my question completely. Why is it so horrible to be a Scientian or a Prosperian?” I questioned.
          Now, this was what Desiderium should have done. She needed to answer my questions. I had only thought it safe to ask after we were several kilometres away from town. We were journeying past grassy plains and were heading towards a valley. We were heading north.
          “It is not horrible to be a Prosperian, but you have to understand . . . that almost all Prosperians are Scientians,” she remarked. “Now that . . . that is the issue. The King’s power is diminishing as more and more people believe in the Scientian way of thinking.”
          “Which is?”
          “That although the rulers may be descendants from heaven, it is the mandate of the people that decides whether or not the rulers remain rulers.”
          “As in?”
         Before she galloped ahead, she had explained, “The people ultimately choose their rulers. There may be royalty, but there is also some form of equality.”
Equality was certainly not what a King would want, at least not this King. To murder a certain group already displayed what petrified the King or in fact, this reminded me of what he had desired. Peace? I now sneered while thinking about what Ichiro had mentioned before. He had been deceived and so had I. I was foolish for believing that the King desired peace. I should have known that the Haven’s Treaty, which had been imposed from the beginning of his reign, was only a ploy to secure his own position. Now, I understood what Nestor meant when he had taught us about specialization and trade.
          “A country must not close itself from other kingdoms,” he had preached.
          Raul had argued, “But what of culture? Culture has to be preserved.”
          “Culture may be preserved, but the people suffer the most. They are subject to high prices and are forced to forgo many opportunities.”
          “So you are implying that the current methods of government are ineffective?” Raul had scoffed with a shaking head. “Just wait till I tell the King about this. We’ll see what he has to say.”
          Nestor had bitterly laughed. “But I already told him.”
          Then, the class had shared their laughter, but now, this was no laughing matter. Years and years of isolation had led to this deprivation; the golden age was drawing to its bleakness. What were they to do to fix this oncoming disaster?
          “You’re heading in the wrong direction.”
          I had dazed to contemplation and had awoken to Desiderium’s voice. My horse had darted diagonally to the east, and had almost crashed into the rocky walls of another valley.
          “Sorry,” I murmured and tugged at the horse’s reigns to shift my course.
          Desiderium read my eyes and then remarked, “You are still troubled by the condition of your country?” I nodded and to which she added, “I suggest you be more worried about yourself for the time being. After all, there is not much you can do for your people . . . presently. In fact, the wisest thing you can do . . . is to stay alive.”
          “Is this why . . . I am following you?”
          She was already steps ahead of me as always before turning around to shout, “You do know where we are journeying right?” My head swayed from left to right. “We are off to Nestor’s home, Slianvwi.”
          I laughed at my own silliness. Where else could we have gone . . .  being this far north?
          Slianvwi, where the dead roamed.
          I didn’t know how many river valleys we had passed or how many twists and turns we had taken. I just knew that the further we were from Urcis, the more barren the land had become. First, there had been hills of lush green and then, that green withered to murky yellow, which eventually discoloured to brown. Snow, subsequently, replaced all signs of life and icy winds too gnawed at our cheeks.
          “Put these on.” Desiderium had reached into a leather satchel that was tied to her saddle and then had flung a grey rabbit fur coat, a pair of sheep-skinned boots, and a fur toque at me. “They should be warm enough.” Suddenly, she grimaced. “We . . . we need to find you a dress.”
          “I thought I would conceal my identity—“
          “Yes and no,” she had rudely interrupted, “over there, you always have to have status and of course, wealth.  It is not as if those are not important at Urcis, but at Slianvwi, there is only . . . corruption.”
          “Why yes, did you know that the King is merely a puppet controlled by his royal subjects? Especially by that Countess . . . Countess Barosa,” she said in a tone full of disdain and paired with a grimace.
          “Who is she?”
          “Most likely, the true ruler of Slianvwi in the future. With that excessive wealth of hers.”
          “But what of the Tsar’s heirs?” I had intruded.
          “Tsar Valerin’s sons have all passed away and only one grandson is alive,” Desiderium had enlightened.
          “Therefore, Tsar Valerin had no brothers?”
          “He has one, but . . . that brother of his can never become King.” 
           Her voice had almost wilted with the strong, piercing winds. We had been climbing up the steep slopes of snowy mountains with paths so narrow that one step could have meant a plunge to the earth. She had suddenly directed her attention backwards. 
         “Before I forget, remember that you are Nestor’s daughter, Renata, and that I am your mother, Morganne, in Slianvwi,” she had instructed.
          “What will we even be doing?”
          “Nestor is serving as the royal advisor of Tsar Valerin,” she had responded. “As for us, we will be particularly preoccupied with . . .”
          An owl had flown towards our route and as it prepared to land, Desiderium, no, Morganne, had bent her arm. Then, she had unclipped the bottled message from his legs.
          “What does it say?” I had pondered.
          “There has been a change of plans.” Morganne ripped the paper into bits and pieces, allowing them to be gusted with the icy squall. “Tsar Valerin has passed away this morning. We must hurry to Moscronovich before the coronation of Tsarvevich Hendrick.”
          Moscronovich was the capital of Slianvwi. It was where royalty lived and probably one of the few civilized and vivacious places in that country. Moscronovich, according to drawings in books, had many interesting, historical architecture as well as many statues erected for royalty. All of these, though, were covered in fluffs of snow. 
          “Why hurry now?” I asked.
          “Do you have any idea what we are about to do?” She directed the question at me, causing me to shrug my shoulders. How would I have known when everyone refused to say anything substantial? “We are to steal the Royal Papers of Slianvwi, which is essentially the beginnings of the Book of Winds,” she hissed.
          I demanded impatiently, “What is precisely the Book of Winds?”
          With a coarse murmur, she answered, “The story of how everything . . . came to be. The story of our lives.”
          The story of our lives . . . I only wanted to know about mine, not about the world’s own drama. Were we actors on this stage? A stage written by . . . a playwright? Was he right all along?
Thayne and I almost had nothing in common, except for one thing: novels. We loved reading while discussing about our ideas. There was one time that I had chosen a book about reincarnation, and I had flipped to a chapter. Leaning in from behind of him, I sputtered, “Hey, hey, do you think there’s fate?”
He turned his head towards me. In his hands was a freshly, broiled mug of coffee. Passing the cup towards me, he muttered, “I think so.”
I took a sip before wondering, “Really? You think that everything has been set?”
He nodded, and then inched towards me to give me a light kiss. “Really,” he whispered almost too affectionately to be cheesy. “Like the two of us being together is fate doing its part.”
“So, you’re saying that we were fated to fall for each other?”
Again, he nodded rather steadily. “Yup.”
“Then . . . why are there breakups?” I argued.
“They’ve just haven’t met the one,” he explained. I remembered exactly what I had almost blurted aloud. Then, how did we know who was the one? Before I could even ask anything, he had already uttered, “Don’t worry. You’re the one for me. I know it.”
I should have immediately told him that he was the one for me, yet I stayed silent. I had only smiled, and returned his cup to his hands. I thought I wasn’t thirsty anymore, and so I walked to the sink to wash a few dishes and mugs. The tap’s running water was batting my hands. Its coldness was penetrating through my skin, and my throat felt sore until I felt a set of arms surrounding me.
“Mm, you didn’t answer my question, sweetie,” he murmured in my ear. “I’m the one for you, right?”
I almost gagged on my own breath. His embrace was even growing tighter and tighter. I felt compelled to say yes, but nothing could come out of my mouth. I knew there was no way I could refuse him. Why, then, why couldn’t I just say that one word?
I remembered croaking, “I’m . . . not sure.”
Thayne had released me instantly. Shaking his head and chuckling to himself, he noted, “You’re always like that. Spoiling everything.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just don’t like lying.”
“Forget it,” he harked. “You’ll never change. You’re always going to be like this. It’s just fate.”
Chapter 37                                                                            Chapter 39