Whoever said that children were the essence of innocence and goodness ought to be wrong, or it might have been that he or she had never encountered a particular child, the one and only Hendrick Vyacheslav. He was too disorderly to have been a victim. I did notice, though, that there seemed to be guards everywhere watching our movements. I could sense their peering eyes and as usual, Lady Fenov monitored us. As for Hendrick, he would order demands at me without even uttering a word. He would point or gesticulate to express his wishes and I would attempt to interpret them by asking him questions to which he would reply with a nod or a shake.
          As a master, Hendrick had to be known as a prankster or maybe even a supporter of schadenfreude. He liked watching people fuming with embarrassment. He especially liked laughing at those who were reprimanded for his jokes. He asked me to disrupt one of the Ora ceremonies by screaming, “Long live the Tsar! He lives! He lives!”
          During that moment, I also had to run back and forth down pathway leading to the six-layered coffin of Tsar Valerin. The results? I was forcefully escorted by two guards and then dumped in the same prison cell. Again, Dmitry had to release and apologize to me.
          Another memorable moment was when Hendrick forced me to throw snow balls at the Countess. The Countess liked to fancy the Ballroom, which was built in a separate building disconnected from the main palace. This was only her excuse to practice her waltzes with her supposed lover, Lord Edwin. To arrive at that location, she would have to cross a small bridge made from traverstine. Now, this bridge was found outdoors making it fairly easy to target her in a matter of minutes. Hendrick, thus, became responsible for rolling the snow into the appropriate sizes while I was ordered to project these missiles at her face.
          Countess Barosa had such a fit that her cheeks seemed like they had been attacked by a swarm of wasps. She almost demanded her guards to imprison me, but Hendrick had been seen. Because my actions were orders from the Tsarevich, she could do nothing but to sulk. Not to mention, the next day, she had patches of bruises resembling the different shapes of countries on her face.
          Crueller acts included: dipping my body in freezing water, crawling like a dog throughout the palace, starving for a few meals and then forcing me to beg him for food, and ripping pages from ancient texts. The worst had to be seducing Dmitry.
          “No, we do not play with emotions,” I had repeatedly informed Hendrick, who had frowned. Then, he had brushed his index finger along his own neck after pointing at me. “You are saying you would kill me if I were to disobey?”
          Due to his bobbing head and his stern eyes, I could not have rebelled. I needed to earn his trust. After all, Morganne had had no success in finding the Book. She had rambled how she had gone through every room and secret chambers. So, the plan was for me to continue to be placed in prison while Dmitry would bail me out.
          Eventually, Dmitry pitied me, saying, “I cannot apologize any further. Hendrick has suffered much throughout his life. This way of . . . playing could be regarded as his way of showing that he likes your company.”
          “You are always so kind. It is a pity that I shall be leaving so soon.” I purposely let loose a smile while remembering to stare at him naively. “I would certainly miss your presence.”
          “It is indeed unfortunate that you shall return to your home country.”
          Again, he offered his hand. It had become rather habitual for us to hold hands after he had liberated me. Even the guards had grown accustomed to our behaviour and had stopped eyeing us.
          “Yes, I would love to stay longer.”
          I squeezed his hand once and felt him strengthen his grip. Responsive and dominant. How unlike his appearance.
          He did maintain his manners before turning his heel to say, “There is a way to prolong your stay. There is royal blood running through the Sorcerer and you may . . . well be the Crown Princess.”
          “I do not understand what you are saying. The Sorcerer is—“
          “He is the older brother of the Tsar.”
          He has one, but . . . that brother of his can never become King.
          Too stunned with this revelation, I backed away from Dmitry. “I am sorry, but I just remembered that I have to go somewhere.”
          I had to see Nestor. I had to know the truth.
“Any news?” Nestor questioned.
Every night, I would report my findings to him. Tonight, however, I would question him. “Why do you not reign as the Tsar? We both know that Hendrick lacks the stamina or the aptitude,” I pointed out.
“Do not underestimate Hendrick.”
He looked up from his overloaded stack of papers and books. These days, he was the one who signed the royal papers and attended meetings with other members of the royal family. He had taken over a Tsar’s job.
“Even then, you are still next in line for the throne,” I argued and took a seat in a golden chair in front of his desk.
He scribbled his signature before answering, “I had been the Tsar . . . until I had become aware of my fate.”
“Meaning?”
Nestor at last rested his quill and stretched his arms. “The Oracle had visited me during the first years of my reign.” He took a sip of tea from the cup that was balanced atop of a grey book. “She informed me of my identity, and as expected, I did not believe her. I only believed her when I began to recall my memories. You see . . . the Oracle was responsible for finding and awakening the four other Sceptians.”
“So, you abdicated your ruling?”
“My brother, Valerin, and I staged my death. The coffin that held my body actually holds the remains of an ill peasant.” Nestor even chuckled. “But . . . who notified you of my past?”
“The Countess’ son.”
“Smart lad!” Nestor laughed even harder, almost falling off of his chair. “Even with this beard and hair of mine, he can still recognize me.”
I tried envisioning Nestor as a Tsar dressed with splendour. First, I had to snip his beard from his mind. Then, I had to cut his long hair to a short, smoother version. Finally, I replaced his cloak with a navy blazer dazzled with gold chains and the Slianvwi’s coat of arms. Out of the corner of my eye, I recognized a small portrait of a young, handsome man.
I gazed back at Nestor, causing him to chuckle with his serene, steel blue, eyes. “So, you found me out of all the paintings!”
In that painting, he had looked so austere, yet prestigious; he had certainly exhibited a man of high standing, a man worthy of the people’s respect and love. I didn’t understand how it was possible for someone to bestow supremacy. How could anyone discard safety for a life of obscurity? This was too irrational for my liking and too unlike Nestor.
“Why . . . would you—“
“Because I made a grave mistake in the past,” he murmured, “and this cycle will persist until I mend my error.”
“What . . . was that mistake?”
“I abandoned my daughter,” he declared rather solemnly.
Nestor looked as though he were about to sob, but truthfully, it was I who wanted to weep. There was an unusual knot pressing against my throat and an irrepressible feeling of sorrow probing my mind. When our eyes met, he and I both shared the same thought.
“I am sorry. Please pardon me. Please,” he urged.
His hand was quivering and reaching forward for clemency. A raging blaze was combusting in my clenched fist. I didn’t know how I could become so irritated; I even swiped all of the books from his desk to the floor.
“You believe that regret would be enough?” I blurted. “What of my life? My happiness? Tell me! Who ruined everything?”
“I did . . . but I know of my blunders. Please . . . forgive me.”
He sounded so desperate to the point of deterioration. He was a broken man, unable to piece himself together. How could a pot in shards be repaired without the aid of an artist?
Still, I resisted. “Have I not told you that I will never forgive you? Must I tell you again?”
“Please,” he begged again, but this time on his knees.
His hands were tugging at my dress and his eyes were gleaming in tears. Feeling aggravated by his movements, I pulled at the skirt of my dress and retreated too far that my back knocked the wall. The impact of my back against the wall caused a portrait to tumble. This portrait was Ghislaine. I immediately identified her due to her cold expression.
Those icy eyes portrayed nothing but hostility. As my focus shifted back to Nestor, who didn’t dare advance towards me, I knew what I had to do. I had, too easily, permitted her to occupy my emotions. Past lives, just like Nestor had warned me a long time ago, could dictate the present.
Inhaling a deep breath, I stated, “I forgive you . . . Papa.”
“You do?”
“I do and I have forgiven Mother as well.”
He couldn’t speak properly for his tears garrotted his voice and his thoughts. I saw a reminiscent and appreciative smile lurk from his lips. I believed that he had said: “Do what you would like to do this time.”
It was such as simple phrase, yet it was such a comforting one. The echo of his voice brought a warming sensation in my chest, making me feel at home. Familiarity, I felt.
“Thank you,” I murmured.
I let a tear drop onto the resting portrait. This tear landed right under Ghislaine’s right eye. I knew . . . that we were both wailing. There was no need to suppress our emotions, and no need to act strong. To cry was to be fearless. To be fearless was to progress. We accepted, and so we advanced.
Chapter 40                                                                            Chapter 42
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