I gasped.
          My body was buried under layers and layers of blankets that I could barely adjust my head. “Wh—“
          I was cut off by Morganne, who shrilled, “You imbecile! You almost murdered yourself and Tsarevich Hendrick!”
          I didn’t understand what was happening, but fortunately, Nestor explained, “His Highness slipped while searching for people to rescue you and he received a large cut on his knee.”

          “Almost spilling too much blood.” I looked in the distance for Dmitry’s voice only to find him and Hendrick sitting beside my pillow. “Hendrick, here, has something to say to you.”
          Dmitry gave Hendrick a tiny jostle. Hendrick opened his mouth, yet nothing came out. He tried again and out came a muffled apology, “I-I-I’m sorry.”
          I didn’t know why I was smiling, but I did anyway. I extended my right hand just to pinch his cheek gently. “Come here, you little rascal,” I snickered.
          “Ow!” Hendrick rubbed where I had inflicted damage.
          “That is for all I had to endure!” I smirked and Hendrick too laughed along with me.
          Morganne disrupted our happiness, claiming, “You were so fortunate that your fever subsided. Even the physicians thought you would not make it through the night.”
          Dmitry continued to add, “Something miraculous must have woken you. An angel?”
          I burst out laughing. That man . . . an angel? He could not have been an angel with those eyes and that conniving smirk. He had the ability to make Ghislaine hate unlike that other mysterious man, who had the ability to make her love. Opposites?
          What I pondered now was about the sudden remembrance of this man. Of all moments, I had chosen that time to remember him. Near death, I had recalled his presence and Ghislaine’s smouldering repugnance towards him. Was he what had motivated Ghislaine to continue living? Was he there to remind me to hate him? To hate and so to live? I sighed, knowing that there was yet another mystery to solve. Maybe, he and my father had been right.
          I had been stupid then. He had kissed me, and throughout the dinner, I couldn’t even eat. My eyes were wandering to his table. His eyes, though, were always glued to his companion. When they had finally finished their meals, I had chased after him. I must have been crazy that day for pulling his hand back towards me.
          “Why?” I urged with my eyes watering. “Why . . . are you saying good-bye?”
          He didn’t push me away. He didn’t mean any harm. He just looked at me, answering, “That’s what I love and hate about you. You’re always thinking about other people. You never think about yourself, what you actually want. You’re always trying to please everyone and be the good person.”
          “I don’t—“
          He placed his hands on my shoulders before explaining, “You don’t understand what I’m saying? When you end up fixing everyone else, who’s going to be fixing you?” 
          After that question, he left me behind. He never even glanced back to see if I was okay. He didn’t seem to care if I had even cried, and I knew why. I had hurt him again, and again because he was right. My father had been right too.
          My mother had broken one of his favourite vases a long time ago. The two of them had been fighting, and out of a fit of fury, she threw the vase to the ground. Then, she had left all the pieces on the floor while my father pursued her. I was watching from my door crack. I remembered thinking that if father was upset that his vase was shattered. I remembered thinking that if I had pieced it together, then everything would be fine. So, for the whole day, I tried my best to glue the bits into one.
          When my father saw what I was doing, he had stammered, “Wh-wh-what are you doing?”
          I recalled smiling and holding onto another sharp piece. “I’m fixing it,” I said.
          “Your hand! You’re already bleeding!”
          Indeed, my parents were together again to tend to my wounds. Before bedtime, my father had specifically patted my head, saying that I didn’t need to do anything, and that I just needed to be myself. I didn’t need to care so much about other people’s happiness.
          Yes, I had to forget about my old habits, and so I focused my attention towards spending the remaining days at Slianvwi in peace with Hendrick. He would blab on and on about anything, from the sky to the speck on the high-vaulted ceiling. Sometimes, I would have preferred him muted like before.
          It wasn’t until a few days prior to his coronation did he confess, “I am nervous, Renata. I am scared of what will happen after I become Tsar. Will I be like . . . Mama and Papa?”
          We had been enjoying a batch of freshly brewed ginger tea, except Hendrick spat out most of the tea. He only acted to like it since I had continued to savour every bit of the tea. I had wanted to treat Hendrick to a delicacy that I had grown to enjoy. One sip and I could remember her lovely face. Sometimes, I wished that I could have had more tea sessions with her and that I could have mended our strained relationship. At least, I would have had a proper farewell. 
          “What happened to them?” I asked.
          “Grandpa said the Kuyaza . . . killed them, but . . . I know I did,” he murmured.
          “What do you mean?”
          In a croaky voice, he explained, “A tutor of mine had asked if I knew anything about a special book. He said that if I told him, he would be able to take me to town whenever I wanted. I told him . . . that Mama and Papa knew.”
          “And then?”
          “The next day . . . I visited Papa and Mama and . . .”
          I could picture the gory scene. Corpses oozing puddles of overflowing blood. Blood that must have stained this poor boy’s hands. A general incomprehensibility to what had occurred. I knew the only way for Hendrick to accept his parents’ deaths was for him to speak. He needed someone to listen to his woes. He needed someone to tell him that the future would be brighter, and that everything was going to be fine.
          “What else happened?” I questioned.
          “I saw my tutor with a bloody sword and then he threatened to kill me if I were to ever mention his identity,” he whispered near my ear.
          He was undoubtedly still in fear. It was no wonder that he refused to talk all these years. Once he conversed, the assassin might have assumed that Hendrick was confiding in someone.I tried my best to pacify his worries by nudging his elbow.
          “If he did not kill you then, then he should not be able to kill you now,” I said. “Do not forget . . . you can always train yourself to be stronger than him. Do not also forget that you have Dmitry and Nestor by your side.”
          “And you?”
          He gazed at me with the brightest pair of eyes, reminding me of a sweet girl I had met a long time ago. Placing my hand over his frail shoulders, I kissed the top of his head. Then, I told him, “I will always support you . . . that is if you are a just Tsar. I beg you . . . do not disappoint your people. Do not allow the Countess to be in control.”
          He had such a magnificent smile that was overflowing with naivety and purity. For once, I wished that this innocence could be preserved. If only innocence could be fossilized, then people could admire its vitality. Fossilization was rare, however. Too rare.
          “Then, we will have to find the book,” he declared in a mature tone. “I know just the place. Grandpa had told me before that I would always have to remember that place.”
          When I had thought of the hiding place, I would have expected a secret chamber within the palace. Instead, we 2were climbing the same inclined mountain that Morganne and I had ventured. Morganne had to accompany us for Nestor to allow us on this adventure. I knew Hendrick would be disappointed and he did express his unhappiness.
          He sulked, “Does she have to?”
          “Yes, I must,” Morganne responded.
          She rolled her eyes while trailing behind us. Indeed, she had to be on the lookout for potential attackers. If there were assassins, I would be responsible for escaping with Hendrick. We continued to turn, to move until I asked, “Are you sure . . . you remember where to go?”
          Hendrick, who was leading the way, answered, “Of course I remember! It was one of the last places Grandpa showed me. Just one more turn.”
          This turn proved to reveal an extremely narrow pathway. We had to turn to our sides to slide past the icy walls of the cave. What made the situation more painful was the stabbing, winter air that punctured our lungs. Whoever was the engineer of this cave was absolutely brilliant and slender. Even Morganne had trouble squeezing by for she possessed more curves than I did. I giggled at that, and her response was typical: a grimace.
          When Hendrick shouted that we were here, he had almost skidded. Luckily, I had secured my hand on his shoulder. I was absolutely flabbergasted once I had the opportunity to examine this ice cave. There were rows and rows of icicles reaching from the ceiling to the rocky floor to form an undulating path. We had to descend a set of slippery stairs before setting our feet on the start of the trail.   
          “How in the heaven’s name do you cross?” Morganne voiced my question.
          We had not noticed this originally, but this course had slowly converged until we stopped in front of a wall of icicles. There was an opening, but it was so compressed that we would have had to crouch to nearly our bottoms to pass. Only Hendrick seemed to know what to do for he was looking left and right.
          “There should be sleds somewhere,” he mumbled. “Ah! I remember!” He placed a fist on his palm before bending to his knees and positioning his head to the side.
          “You found them?” I confirmed.
          He didn’t answer for he was too engaged in retrieving the wooden pieces from a discreet box covered in ice. As he passed the devices to us along with a pair of sticks for each person, Morganne grumbled, “What do you expect us to do with these? Sit on them and steer ourselves with . . . these . . . sticks?”
          I had never seen Hendrick laugh so happily. “This is a traditional way of sledding for us, Slianvwis!” He placed the flattened wood onto the ice and easily sat on it. “Now, you use these to pull you where you want to go. I believe this is rather self-explanatory.”
          Without another word, he was already heading to the darkness. Knowing that time was of the essence, I uttered to Morganne, “If you are not coming, then you can wait for us here. I suggest you move though because you may freeze.”
          “Who said I was scared?”
          Then, we were off. I had to admit that navigating on ice was extremely strenuous. Because we had longer legs than Hendrick, we had to kneel. Now, the combination of kneeling and manoeuvring was challenging to master. By the time we glided down a freezing hill, Hendrick was already impatiently waiting for us.
          “It should not have been that difficult,” he heaved a sigh of disappointment.
          Before Morganne could express her anger, I interrupted, “What are we supposed to do now?”
          There was an enormous pool of water that was glowing from the reflection of the ice. This was like a dead end with nothing but bricks of ice surrounding the water. Although I had a feeling where the Book might have been hidden, I still found my answer to be preposterous to be true. How could paper survive water?
          “The pages are found underwater in a stone chest,” Hendrick clarified. He reached in his pocket for a pair of tortoiseshell goggles. “Someone has to dive in to open the chest.”
          “Do you even know where this chest would be? The water seems pretty deep,” Morganne remarked.
          Hendrick shrugged his shoulders, clarifying, “Grandpa never showed me. He just told me that there was treasure down there, the most important treasure of the nation.”
          Morganne eyed me. “Oh no.” I waved my hands at her. “I-I-I cannot possibly swim. Not after . . .”
          I had somehow developed hydrophobia. Considering how many times I had nearly drowned, I felt it was perfectly acceptable for me to fear water. Of course, I was not afraid of bathing. It was just the idea of swimming or diving in open water. Just like before and always, water had to have been my worst fear.
          “Fine,” Morganne scoffed. “Hand me those absurd glasses.”
          “They are not glasses,” Hendrick corrected her. “They are goggles and do not dare to lose them. They were a present from my Grandpa.”
          Morganne stretched her neck before adjusting the pair of spectacles to her liking. She glimpsed at him with much annoyance, and scowled, “Child . . . you really speak too much.”
          Hendrick, already displeased with Morganne’s presence, pushed her into the chilly water.
          “What was that for?” Morganne roared. “I could have drowned!”
          Hendrick stuck his tongue out. “That was to thank you.”
          “You are not welcome,” hollered Morganne.
          We watched her vanish to the depths of the fresh water. I was quite worried for her. I knew very well how cold the water could be. We waited and waited until Morganne gasped from the water. Although she had a golden piece in her hand, she kept shivering, “I-I-I c-c-cannot d-d-do this an-anymore.”
          “What happened?” I asked.
          “I-I-I-I d-d-d-d-o not . . . c-c-cannot stand the s-s-sight of d-d-d-dead bodies.”
          “Pardon me?”
          Hendrick quickly explained, “She must have encountered the remains of the first Tsar. The first Tsar was buried here because he did not want to be disturbed. He then became known as the guardian of winter.”
          She tossed the set of goggles to me while fetching her fur coat. “You hurry,” she mumbled.
          I grumbled to myself about my bad luck. Misfortune had to be my stalker.
Chapter 42                                                                            Chapter 44