Although we were pressed for time, Morganne had still explained why the Book of Winds was treated as the Royal Papers of Slianvwi. In essence, the first entry dictated the origins of Slianvwi and also how the first King arose from his nation. Before I could inquire more, she had snapped, “You will learn more from Nestor. Now, we must quicken our steps.”

          So, we galloped, only resting when our horses necessitated. Even then, I could hear the impatience reviving from Morganne’s breath every now and then. I, however, couldn’t share her strained attitude. Perhaps, I had not understood the magnitude of the situation. How could I have when everyone refused to tell the truth? How was I to decipher an allusion when I had no idea of its origins?
          Where we would begin was where we would stop, which happened to be at the height of a snow covered mountain which overlooked the Tsarovkaya Castle. Like most castles, the Tsarovkaya Castle was designed by the greatest architects, but what differentiated it from other structures was its minimalism. The entire palace was constructed of grey limestone and dominated with golden onion domes now sprinkled with powdered snow for each tower. A set of long staircase led from the main domed structure, which was most likely the main residence of the Tsar, to an arched entrance. This entrance was the only opening from the stalwart walls that bordered the fortress. To strengthen its defence, there were clock towers erected at measured distances. It might have been more appropriate to dub this castle, snow, as the building appeared to blend with winter. Only the soaring, coniferous trees scattered along were contrasting the pallor of the landscape. With such solitude encircling the area, I couldn’t help, but feel that it was a castle in slumber. It was a tantalizing . . . estrangement.      
          Matching the harshness of breathing at such a high altitude, Morganne instructed, “I have thought much and I still believe that we must disguise ourselves to do this task. Nestor does not prefer drama, but I do.” Her grin turned so callous like a revolt against the serenity of hibernation. “Slianvwi tradition dictates to mourn for a passing of a Tsar until the changing of the season. You understand that more than half a season has already passed, so we must now use the remaining time to find the Book of Winds.”
          “But the coronation would need—“
          “Every Tsar has guarded the book and its location is only told to his successor prior to the Tsar’s death. If a Tsar were to die unexpectedly, then the successor has to find the work, or else the Royal Advisor or another regent will govern the country for the time being. We find the book and read it before it is hidden by the new King or . . . by the Countess,” Morganne had hastily interrupted. “I would approve of keeping the book in our possession, but Nestor . . .”
          “Nestor wants to . . .”
          Morganne clutched the reigns firmly. “Let us just say that he would like to atone for his misdeeds.”
          Then, she trotted down the hill and again, I followed, but this time, I wondered too. I wondered what motivated us to arrive at certain decisions. Why was Nestor helping me? Why was Morganne listening to Nestor? Why was I even fulfilling their orders?
          Mutualism. Was that what it was? We would flock to those that benefited us and in turn, they would rely on us because of what we had to offer? If that were the case, then what did I have to offer?
          “I suggest you change into those clothes.”
          There was yet another command from Morganne. My eyes quivered to examine our surroundings. We had now arrived at the town square and had decided to stop at what seemed like a fabric store filled with fur coats and hats, boots, and winter accessories. An elderly woman dressed in a charcoal sarafan paired with a simple headscarf gawked at me before Morganne had uttered some words in Slianvwish.
          “If you are worried that she will be watching you, then I just told her to leave. I said you were uncomfortable with strangers,” Morganne explained.
          Morganne was approaching me with a sable dress and a long fur coat in mink. She looked ages older in a cape with a deep pereline. There was a slit in the cloak to reveal a black dress trimmed with puff and lined with rabbit fur. Even her fur-lined hat was just as dark as her winter boots. We ought to have been in mourning for the Tsar’s passing.  
          I took a step backwards while Morganne took a step forward. “Hurry now. We must follow the plan,” she demanded. “Just listen to me and behave.”
          Good behaviour. I used to follow that idea of being on my best behaviour. Why? I probably would have first answered that my parents had taught me to act this way. Then, I would have realized that I listened to them because they were my parents. At last, I would have concluded that I had wanted to be rewarded. Good behaviour led to good fortune. Whoever defied this rule would be subjected to karma: what went around came around. So, people chose to believe in blaming their misfortune due to their past sins. Were they at all related?
          People could believe that they were, but I . . . I couldn’t anymore, not after all that had happened. So, I retreated further from her, shouting, “No! I am not joining you in your conquest. In fact, I do not even understand why I came here. I would have been fine over there.”
          Morganne grabbed a hold of my arm and then swung her hand across my cheek. “Don’t you dare run away this time!”
          This time? Had I ever fled from an obstacle? I frowned, thinking about what she had revealed. “What . . . do you know about me?”
          “It does not matter—“
          “It matters to me,” I shrieked. “I-I do not even know who I am!”
          I had taken too many steps back that I had stumbled over my own feet. Balance. I must have lacked that to be tumbling. She bent her knees to my level. She had an expression of certainty, bringing a sense of calmness to my distressed mind.
          “I forget who I am at times. I think I am too fond of the past,” she murmured.
          “Who were you . . . then?”
          Sitting on the ground with me, she formed a feeble smile. “I was Morganne with the same ability, but . . .”
          She did not have to continue and I knew what she meant. I have heard of people saying that the eyes were the windows of our souls, but I would have argued that our eyes were the revellers of our feelings. A sparkle could be interpreted as enthusiasm. A stare could be thought as reflection. Then, the drabness in her eyes could be construed as heartbreak. She was . . . a forlorn lover.
          “What happened to him?”
          Her voice was muffled by a suppressed choke. “That is what I . . . would like to know as well.”
          “Do you . . . perhaps know who he is presently?”
          Turning away to scoff, she uttered, “No one is like you. We cannot recognize who people are in the present, but . . . with your aid . . .”
          “Is that why you wanted me to investigate the King?” I confirmed. “You suspect that—“
          “He will never be Orion,” she discarded my speculation, “but, he could be . . . the one who had slain me and . . . maybe Orion too.”
          Her eyes had twinkled with a dash of hope moulded with resentment. I had never seen her act this way. She was starting to seem more humane, and more ordinary than I had envisioned her to be. I was even beginning to pity her, and so I asked, “How can you be so sure?”
          It seemed bizarre if she were able to discern an enemy, but not a lover. Hatred could only prove to be more memorable than love. The darkness that encompassed our hearts was inerasable like the stained, blood hand that could never be washed. Depravity could never be forgiven, and so second chances were nonexistent. Could we truly forgive? 
          “When there are too many coincidences, how can he not be that mad man?”
          She was clear with her answer. No, we could not forgive. I could discern her mood directly from her smouldering, bitter words. Her tone had to be linked to vengeance.   
          “So you would like me to confirm his identity for you to seek revenge?” I inquired. “Is this your reason for assisting me?”
          Out crept a condescending cackle from Morganne. “Must we rationalize everything? Is it imperative for you to know my reason or in fact anyone’s reason for helping you in any way? Does it really matter?”
          I could tell that she was trying to interpret my desires, but I was already confused. I had never thought of charitable acts these days. A helping hand led to a future payment. I would be in debt in some form. I would be chained to some person’s deal.
          “Yes,” I decided to say. “It does matter.”
          With a disdainful sway to her head, she murmured, “Then, I pity you. You do not even know how to love or to trust.” Sloppily, she tossed the dress in my lap before leaving me alone. “If you stay in your garments, then we will return to Urcis. If you wear these clothes, then we will stay here until our mission is fulfilled. Come out when you have made your decision.”
          A decision for me would be to act in self-interest. Leaning on a wooden chest, I gaped at the figure casting from a full body mirror. It took me longer than usual to recognize myself. I was still too accustomed with my old face, one without fatigue and agony. I had been so happy then and now, I could not even smile properly. There was that crooked, half grin that proved to be too sinister for a sixteen-year-old lady. Antagonistic?
          Yes, a smile would have been appropriate now. I could laugh at myself for being so exhausted and for even thinking of surrendering. If I had just given up, then I could rest. Maybe I could be like that palace and fade away with the snow. I would forever sleep and gradually, I would be lost and would return to earth.                    
          When I stared longer at my reflection, I found that my cheek was still red from Morganne’s slap. In fact, it was only now did I sense pain. I always thought it odd that pain could be sensed moments later as opposed to right at the time of the incident. The mind liked to play tricks on the body. My body was telling me that it hurt. My wound hurt. No, my mind hurt or . . . was it my heart that was hurting?
          Just as I stood up, I felt a sort of heaviness beating against my chest. The black fox’s tail was dangling from my neck and shining in the presence of a mirror.
          Perhaps, in the next life, when I have atoned for my sins, will we meet again as mother and daughter.
         I stroked the pendant with my trembling fingers and then, a notion crossed my mind. No, it had to be a feeling. 
          May you live happily.
          What did it mean to be happy? Was I even smiling? A deranged, warped smirk. That was probably all I could offer for myself and that confirmed to be too haunting. Before I came to my senses, the mirror had shattered with its shards cutting through bits of my skin.
          Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop.
          Bathing my finger tips in my own bloody sin, I guffawed. No more. I didn’t have to see anymore. I didn’t have to see this unsightly truth.
          Bursting through the doors, Morganne screeched, “What in the heaven’s name—“  
          “I am making my decision.”
          I could feel the tears blurring my vision. I couldn’t see anything, but her approaching shadow. Then, I felt her embrace.
          “There, there.” She patted the back of my head. “You are in good hands and . . . even when you do not know if you are making the right decision, know that there are people who believe in you. That old prick, Nestor, believes in you. The Queen believes in you and I . . . believe in you too.”
          I believed my arms curled around her and my tears melted the bits of snow on her coat. “I am sorry,” my voice was muffled by the lining of her jacket.
          “Yes, you should be sorry for ruining my dress,” she teased, which caused me to laugh.
          I had laughed and this time, I would have liked to see that laughter.
Chapter 38                                                                            Chapter 40