Enemies were meant to be befriended, especially when they were valuable assets. Of course, every investment needed some time before pay back, but I knew that this venture would make a lifelong return. My costs? That ought to be sacrificing my pride and flattering another’s pompous attitude. No matter how much pain I would have to endure, I had to fulfill my part of the bargain.
            “Raul,” I called out from the dock.
He was in a canoe, fishing at The Well of Tears, which was hidden in the Hallow Forest. When I yelled his name, he almost lost his balance and tumbled into the icy water. Luckily, his balance wasn’t as terribly bad as his attitude, and he sat his bottom back into his boat. He started to row farther away from me. I didn’t blame him though; he was smart in that sense, knowing when to cower. Knowing that it was pointless to have a shouting contest, I walked to the edge of the lake and pushed the spare canoe to my left into the lake.
            “You are insane!” Raul harked.
I just laughed while hopping into the canoe unsuccessfully as expected from an amateur. Half of my body was soaked in icy water with my dress dragging my feet downwards, successfully impeding me from lifting myself into the canoe. Even then, I didn’t care much about the freezing temperature. I had to do what I wanted to do, and that was all that mattered.
“Maybe I am a bit insane,” I teased.
“You are completely overthrown,” Raul scoffed.
            To my surprise, he had already paddled to my side and had docked his canoe perfectly onto the shore. I would have expected him to ignore me. Maybe, he had matured, just like Trenton had. I just never bothered to recognize that.
“And you are a swell gent!” I followed this annoying being, leaving mushy footprints behind.
            “What do you want?” He crumpled his arms together and grimaced as if I were a thief.
            “No, you should be asking yourself what you would like.”
            “What I would like? What are you proposing?”
His eyebrows furrowed together. His freckles were meshed like a painting that had been damaged by oversized sponges. He was looking just as annoying as ever, and so I quickly uttered, “Would you not like respect and dignity? Would you not like to triumph over Cael?”
            “Since when did you care for my well being?”
            Looking away, I sighed, “I was wrong then . . . for believing in Cael. In the end—“
            “You were nothing more than a pawn, I presume?” His tone had drastically changed for the better, so I quickly nodded in agreement. “Generic Cael. He values you when you are of use to him, and then he discards you when you have finished his deed.”
            “What did Cael do to you?”
            I had always wondered why Raul had taken such a great disliking towards Cael. Jealousy seemed more potent for females than for males. Raul’s hatred ran so deeply that even the King knew to separate the two if there were dinners. Raul would sit across from Cael or beside another Duke. The two would never cross paths, and if they were to meet, Raul would spite Cael for no reason, either with a
            Sitting on the soft sand, he stared at the lake.
“We used to fish often. We would have competitions to see who fished the most or who caught the largest fish,” he explained. “As expected, Cael always won, but . . . he would always share his winnings with me.”
            “And then?”
            “You probably did not attend Cael’s coronation as the Crown Prince because you were too young, but before then, Cael had changed,” he mumbled. “When news that the King was prepared to announce the Crown Prince, Cael distanced himself from me. He also made sure to humiliate me.”
            Raul heaved a long, hefty sigh. The winter air captured his wispy breath, which eventually faded with the darkening sky. I stared down at Raul and realized how much he had matured over the years. He had grown lanky with his long forearms and limbs. His once chubby face had given way to a skinny, withered one. His voice too had lowered slightly, yet it was still croaky. I could not have called him handsome. However, I could have said that he was an aristocrat. Was it the enrichment of knowledge that had changed him or was it the biological mechanism that we knew as puberty that was responsible for this change? I felt a sense of hesitation running through my veins. Reminding myself to follow my plans, I seated myself beside him.
“Is that why you tried to humiliate Cael as well?” I asked.
            “If I had not, then I would have been known as a coward,” he answered after a short pause. “I would rather have been infamous than to have been spineless.”
            “But, the King favours you.”
            He laughed in a way that made me feel like squirming to a corner. “He only favours me to diminish Cael’s presence in court,” he clarified. “It is clear what the King fears.”
            “What does the King fear?”
            “Cael disposing him.”
            I shuddered, realizing that Raul repeated what Cael had told me. This was the truth. Too shocking to be the truth. The King couldn’t have wanted his rightful heir to die. That wouldn’t have been right or even logical.
“Have you considered your future?” I wondered now. He shook his head, and so I remarked, “I can help you maintain your status at court.”
            “Why would I want to dispose of myself by threatening Cael?” Immediately, he stood up and stormed off.
            I hollered, “Then, you would rather live as a coward your whole life? Hide? Is that what you would like to do? Hide behind Cael’s presence? Be known as the bastard prince?”
            He marched in front of me and directed his finger at me. “Do not ever call me a bastard!” he threatened, almost placing his hands around my neck to choke me.
            “Then, legitimize yourself,” I urged. “Become a true prince.”
             “Impossible,” he mumbled.
            “It is possible,” I persisted, “through marriage. You would have to ask for the Duchess of Craydon’s hand.”
            “The Duchess of Craydon seeks—“
            “That does not imply that you cannot seek her.”
            “She is . . .”
            “Despicable?”
            He undoubtedly admitted, “Yes.”
            People were always so ungrateful and so forgetful. I had to remind him, “You were despicable before too, but there are still people who love whoever you find despicable.”
            What I had said had reminded me of the question I had asked Calla once, “Calla, am I despicable?”
            “No! Heaven’s no!” Calla had refuted. “You’re admirable!”
            She had brushed my hair and as usual, I had looked at her through the reflection of the mirror. “You compliment me too much. Just tell me the truth,” I had beckoned.
            “You are fine the way you are.”
            No, I had laughed to myself. I was not fine. In fact, I needed to tell me that I was appalling, that I was immoral and dreadful. Then, I recalled the one person that could have fulfilled this task. He would be cruel enough.
            Raul’s finally looked at me with his beady eyes. “Why . . . are you even helping me?”
            I giggled and patted his arm. “I like despicable people.”
            He revealed his cheeky grin. His teeth were still too straight like before, but for some reason, they were not as deplorable as I had remembered them to be. Had I matured too or had my eyes worsened or even worse, my judgement? At least, I calmed myself, my plan was working. Raul believed in me.
            Again, there was nothing much I could except wait. This time, I was waiting for Raul and Trenton to play their roles successfully. I was the director and they were my lovely actors. The problem was that I could not see their acting. I had to believe that they would follow my script accordingly.
            “Your Grace, you mustn’t—“
            I could hear Marie’s trembled voice, but before she could do much, the doors leading to the Queen’s rose garden had opened. I had become accustomed to watching the snow dwindle on top of the dead roses. We used to have tea here with our cups set on top of the circular, jade table. Now, interrupting this peaceful moment was the clacking of wedged heels on the limestone floor. I knew it had to be her.
            “Theo, what brings you here?” I sipped on my cup of ginger tea, which had become a commodity like morning coffee. Refreshing, yet heart-warming for the winter.
            She slammed her palms onto the surface of the table. “Did you force Trenton to pursue the Countess of Fayeden? Asking him to pretend to be a forlorn suitor of yours to earn her sympathy?”
            After another gulp of tea, I corrected her, “I did not force him. I only suggested the idea.”
            “Why are you causing Trenton trouble?” Theo furrowed her eyebrows and leaned closer to me. I was about to finish the last drop from my cup, but Theo had flung her hand towards the mug, causing it to smash to pieces.
            “Why are you so agitated?” I sighed and then signaled Calla to clean the mess.
            “Should the question not be: why are you so calm? How can you do this to Trenton? How could you—“
            “Because he is my friend.” I handed her a steady glare.
            “Then, why would you involve Raul? I hear rumours of Raul leaving a red rose at the front of the Duchess’ doorstep every sunrise. The last time I heard . . . Raul had proposed to—“
            “Why would you associate me with Raul?”
            “Verrill said that Raul would never initiate such a plan. Raul would not have had the—“
            “Well, Verrill has mistaken.” I received the new batch of tea that Calla had brewed. “Whatever Raul does is none of my concern.”
            She sighed while shaking her head, “That was what Verrill predicted you would say. You would deny all ties. Have you considered Cael’s situation?”
            I bobbed my head and retorted, “Have you considered Cael’s situation? What would be implied if Trenton were to marry the Duchess of Crayedon?”
            “And you believe that Raul’s rebellion should be strengthened?”
            Gazing intently at Theo, I stated, “I am trying to save you. You know very well that your marriage with Verrill was only a means of securing the Minons’ status in court. If the Duke of Minon were to—“
            “I know,” Theo whispered in a low, rustic tone, “but even with that knowledge, I cannot understand why you would . . . have to use Trenton.”
            “Trenton approached me for help.” I decided that, perhaps, it was time for a confrontation. “I know you are upset that Trenton requested my service, instead of yours, but I assure you that he was only . . . thinking of your well-being.”
            Theo’s eyes enlarged and her jaw gaped. With her finger jutting at my face, she stammered, “Wh-wh-what you are suggesting is a-a-a-bsolutely—“
            “True,” Trenton announced.
Theo and I both looked behind to find Trenton standing at the glass doors. Who knew how long he had been there watching us debate? From the way he had nestled against the pillar by the door, I would have assumed that he had been here long enough to hear everything. He was probably here to report to me of his performance, but didn’t want to interrupt until necessary.
            In an act of desperation, Theo laughed. “Stop amusing us, Trent! You are always so childish!”
            I could tell from Trenton’s disparaged eyes that he was hurt. She didn’t believe him when she knew he was being serious. “Would I be childish for feeling this way?” he demanded and approached Theo with a march of a soldier. Once he grasped her wrist, he continued to insist, “Answer me.”
Attempting to escape from him, Theo urged, “Yes, you are! You are being absolutely preposterous.”
            “Then is it not reasonable for me to ask for the Countess’ hand in marriage? Would I be childlike then?” he asked, leaving Theo to grunt and to leave without a response. I would have expected to Trenton to pursue her. Instead, he took a seat in the empty chaise across from me and reported his findings, “I have asked for Eleanor’s hand in marriage after our bundling.”
            Bundling was a ritual that occurred during courtship. The suitor would share a bed with the woman, but there would be a wooden divider separating the two. The lady would also be wrapped in long sheets that were knotted together to ensure that the two would not have any physical contact with each other. Often, temptation would not be overcome, and in Trenton’s case . . .
            “Did you bed her?” I looked at him earnestly.
            His cheeks flustered as his eyes squirmed. “Yes.” His voice was as soft as the snow fluttering to chill my tea.
            “Was it enjoyable for her?”
            Trenton backed away, almost falling off of his chair. “W-wh-what do you mean?”
            I was not sure how to explain to Trenton that bedding someone once did not guarantee pregnancy. Eleanor had to develop a baby bump for their marriage to be definite. “Trenton, she must have your child,” I attempted to clarify, “for your parents to accept this marriage.”
            “So you are suggesting—“
            “That you bundle with her more often. In a season’s time, there will be our result.”
            “B-b-but—“
            “Trenton,” I reminded, “you have already bedded her once. You have eradicated all of her options for future marriages. Do you understand the gravity of your situation?”
            He gulped, knowing that he had to be responsible. His hands even supported the back of his head and his expression was lifeless. Unlike me, Trenton had a heart, a soft, compassionate heart.
“I understand,” he mumbled.
            Hoping to lighten his mood, I joked, “Imagine bedding the Duchess. Now, that would be unpardonable and dreadful.”
            Again, I signaled Calla to pour some tea for Trenton. He politely declined, claiming that tea was too bitter for him. He preferred coffee with two lumps of sugar. I remembered to tease him of how ladylike he was. He then explained that Eleanor always served him with two spoonfuls of sugar, and because he did not want to seem rude, he always allowed that two scoops of sugar to be mixed in his drink.
            “I became accustomed to it.”
He beamed a frail grin while sulking in his chair. The beauty of time was to allow us to adapt. Over time, we would habituate ourselves to any situation. We would do what was necessary to live or maybe if we were ambitious, to succeed. That was also the magnificence of humans.

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