Chapter 6: Fallen       
            “Be careful, would you?”
            That was an overused phrase from Raul, who was too worried about Paulette’s pregnancy. He would bark at anyone who did not achieve his standards for prudence. Although the servants were complaining about his attitude whenever he was away, I could comprehend why he would be so cautious. His instincts were right. Paulette was in danger. His instincts were wrong though, in terms of who to fear.

            My arm hooked onto Paulette’s. Raul had personally assigned me to look after Paulette while they were busily packing. The King had already approved of their journey and had even admitted that he wanted to see his grandchild.
            “Raul, sure loves to worry, does he not?” I teased.
            She gently caressed her growing abdomen and then pursed her lips before smiling. “He does, but it is for the best. This child . . . has to live.”
            “Do not worry. I am here to—“
            Luckily, I had pulled her forward before she lost her balance. This was not the first time that this had happened. I had noticed a while ago that she looked weak, almost about to faint.
            “I am fine,” she panted and placed her palm on her forehead. “I may be too fatigued from the moving and the kicking from the baby.”
            “Are you sure? I do not mean to intrude, but it seems that you . . .”
            She breathed deeply a few times while I quickly placed my arm behind her back in hopes of supporting her. I could not even hear her thank you, but before I could ask inquire further, Raul had sprinted to her side. “What did you do to her?” He tore her away from me and caged her with his arms until she winced.
            “Raul . . . sh-sh-she was just helping me,” she whispered prior to fainting.
            Raul carried her in his arms while I followed behind them. His back was so straight and his walk was so authoritative that a maid who passed by had immediately held the doors to the Duchess’ chamber open. He did not even thank her and had even ignored her. His attention was all on her, Paulette. His eyes doted on her as he tucked her gently to bed. For a while, he sat beside her, quietly watching her breath in and out. Once he saw her eyebrows furrow, he brushed her bangs aside so that they would not poke her eyes. He even held onto her hand.
            “Has she seen a physician?” I tried to lower my voice, hoping that no one else would hear what I had asked.
            Raul shook his head. “We cannot have rumours spread.”
            “Then, you will ignore—“
            “I am not ignoring the issue at hand!” he harked before changing to a sigh. “You are correct. She needs to see a physician. I will seek Salim’s consulation.”
            “The most renowned physician of the four kingdoms. He hails from Aquilla, but often travels to Urcis for our herbs.”
            “How do you know him?”
            Raul laughed at me. “The King always requests for his remedies. The King refuses to see any physician but Salim.”
            “Indeed,” Raul mumbled before departing. “I will look for him this afternoon. In the meantime, please tend to Paulette.”
            I believed he trusted me too easily. I could have choked her there and then, but that would do nothing. I had to orchestrate a scenario that would lead Raul to revolt and I knew what to do, but I could only hesitate. Hesitation impeded me from progress. How could I not hesitate?    
            “You are here?” I asked.
            By the shuffling of her feet, I could tell that it was Calla. I knew that she was forbidden to speak when wearing the mask, so I swivelled my head to confirm my guess. There she was, timid and frightened. She too understood what we were to do. I had already informed her of her duties the night before, and she had been reluctant to accept my ideas. She had even tried to dissuade me, but as expected, had been unsuccessful. If she had persisted though . . .
            Once she nodded, I signalled her to wait beside the door. I would wait by Paulette’s side and she would wish that she had slept for dreams were going to be more pleasurable than reality.
            Paulette had almost hit her head on the headboard when she saw me. She should have been surprised, or in fact, nervous about my presence. Instead, she felt relaxed after realizing that there was someone by her side.
            “I had a nightmare . . . I thought I had lost my child,” she gasped and held onto my hand for reassurance.
            “Do not fret.” I squeezed her hand once. “Raul and I have been protecting you. I have also asked my maid to look after us.” Beckoning Calla to approach us, I added, “She may be small, but she has been trained to guard us.”
             Paulette glimpsed at Calla once and then murmured in my ear. “Why does she have a mask on?”
            I whispered back, “She was severely burned by her brutal father, who poured a pot of steaming water over her face.”
            I assumed that Paulette had imagined Calla’s visage and this image had led her to grimace before expressing her sympathies. “Poor girl,” she at last uttered.
            Paulette had created the perfect transition for me. I lifted the duck feathered blankets off of her and encouraged, “Let us forget about our woes. Say, did I ever notify you of the King’s new project?”
            “What may that be?” Using her weak arms, she managed to pull herself up. Several maids rushed in to help Paulette slip into her shoes.
            “He has restored the Stairs of Exodus,” I repeated what Cael had told me.
            This statement propelled Paulette to almost kick the maid, who was tying the shoelaces to Paulette’s boots. Actually, Paulette had pushed the servants away from her. “Th-th-that is wonderful! I would love to climb that set of stairs,” she cheered.
            Not understanding why these stairs were so special, I asked, “Why are you so intrigued about this?”
            Her eyes had glistened and suddenly, she was full of life again. “Perhaps, the most romantic event ever known in history occurred there! There were rumours of the Most Beloved being unsure of her marriage to Emperor Kurasa, and there was a legend that before she was to journey to Kosei for the wedding, the Emperor had secretly arrived at Urcis and had waited for her at the bottom of the stairs. Lovely, is it not?”
            Indeed, the stairs were lovely, especially the way they spiralled to the domed rooftop. This roof was elaborately decorated with a depiction of several gods judging from the heavens. Even the walls leading to the high rooftop seemed to separate the different levels of life from the underworld, which started at the first floor, to the heavens, which ended at the ceiling. Sandwiched between the two was the living world, where picturesque scenes were painted to depict everyday life and the life of royalty.
            For a while, this set of stairs, which was encased in a tower, specifically the Heavenly Tower, had been left to decay. The Heavenly Tower had been used as a refuge for injured soldiers and had housed the largest bell that would sound once an enemy approached. The end of the periods of turmoil and war also marked the end of the Heavenly Tower’s glory.
            I did not know how or why Cael had convinced the King to restore this tower, but I did know that I had to lure Paulette to the top and from there . . .
            “What an exquisite view!” Paulette had rushed past the colossal, copper bell to the edge of the rounded, stone balcony. “Ghislaine, you must hurry!”
            I could not hurry. I could only stall time, knowing that any moment now, Paulette would regret racing to the top. It was amazing how her interest in architecture had led to her downfall, but it was I who had transformed her interest to temptation. Sins were not the only deadly things in life.
            “I will!” I lied and instead, concealed myself in one of the rooms. My arrival signalled Calla’s appearance. She had been waiting for me in that room. Instead of wearing a mask, she used a headscarf to hide her face. She nodded once before proceeding to her task while I followed her from behind. Calla was around twenty paces faster than me, and had already disappeared from my view. It was then that I heard the sound of a dagger hitting, presumably, some part of the balcony.
            “Ah!” Paulette frantically shrieked as she sprinted. “Help!”
            “Paulette! What is happening?” I, at last, hiked up the stairs.
            “Help!” she insisted. “Ah! G-g-get awa—“
            Then, there was a deafening scream followed by heavy thuds, the sounds of her body rolling down the stairs before colliding with the ground. By the time I reached her step, she was already bleeding from her head and her thighs.
            “Paulette,” I urged, “can you hear me?”
            Her lips were mumbling, yet I could not decipher what she was saying. Looking upwards, I saw one of the cruellest set of eyes, a pair that belonged to Calla. Once she saw me, she immediately lowered her head.
            “Who are you?” I pretended to ask.
            She tossed a sharp weapon towards me, which was part of the act. However, what was odd was how she had directed that blow. The weapon was supposed to be directed at my arm, yet it was aimed for my heart. Luckily, I had dodged to the left and just as we had planned, Calla charged towards me. I allowed her to pin me against the wall while I supposedly struggled to escape. Her arms were now gripping onto my shoulders and my arms held onto hers. It was like a sumo wrestling match, except she had, seemingly, the intention to kill.
            “Who sent you here?” I inquired.
            That was her cue to let me evade her and then I was to snatch the dagger that hung on her belt. Consequently, I would cut her arm and she would flee. That was what was supposed to happen. Instead, I had to use all my might to push her away from me and when I glanced at her belt, I realized that there was no dagger. Staring at her with much confusion, I pointed at her waist to try to remind her of our scheme. Her reply was simple, yet clear; she smiled with her eyes before pursuing me again.
            Before I could assess the situation, my legs were already racing down the stairs. It was too late, however, to run. I felt a hand on my back, pushing me down the flight of stairs. This time, I was the one that was screaming.
            “There is no sense in escaping.” I tilted my head downwards to find him at the bottom floor. His voice resonated through the tower to reach where I was, almost at the top.
            “Who said I was escaping?” I shouted at him.
I could feel the anger surging from my chest. Every time I spoke to him or even saw him, I became furious. Was it his face that bothered me or was it his voice? No, it had to have been everything about him. How could I even like someone as selfish as him? He took pride in destroying other people’s happiness, particularly mine.
            “Then, why are you climbing to the Heaven’s?” he asked.
            “I cannot even enjoy the view that nature has to offer?”
            “Not when you were never the elegant sort.”
            I scoffed loudly, which only caused his laugh to accentuate. I detested his smiling face, especially how his whole face scrunched together, yet what I hated most about him had to be how I could never lie to him.
            “Just leave me be,” I urged. “You have already received what you wanted. I am not the sort to lie.”
            “But you are lying to me now, so how do I trust a liar?”
             I saw him taking the first step up the stairs, and so I threatened, “Do not move or I will leap from here. I will leap to the Underworld and die before your eyes.”
            After he had finished laughing, he returned to his original position and answered, “Try to die before me. You had the intention of jumping from the Tower before too, so why do you not try it here?”
            “Is that a threat?”
            He shook his head. “No, it is a warm welcome for you to be escorted to Kosei.”
            I rolled my eyes. He was trying to be a gentleman now. If he honestly had the genuineness of a gentleman, then he would have allowed me to be with . . .
            So this was the man Ghislaine had to marry.
            He was the same man who had stopped her from diving into the river. There was so much hatred from her that I could strongly feel her irascible behaviour just from the way she gripped onto the railway. She held onto the wooden piece with her entire palm, tensing her fingers around it.
            “If you welcome my death, then let me be welcomed,” I snickered and hurdled myself from the railing.
My eyes had closed but my mouth was wide open, screaming until my throat hurt. This was it, I said to myself. I would die and everything would end. I would die, knowing that I had loved. Unfortunately, I had felt a pair of arms surround me, a sense of warmth was being passed to my head.
“You may stop screaming now.” I heard his soft whisper. I lifted my head to discover that I had miraculously landed on his body. My cheek had been glued to his chest and my hands had clawed at his clothing. In a fit of embarrassment, I tried to escape from him, only to limp painfully. “You are rather fortunate that you only hurt your ankle. As for me . . .” he was groaning in pain.
            “That is what you deserve.” I reminded him. “In fact, you should be injured further.”
            “Broken ribs and an impaired arm are not enough to satisfy you?” He lay motionless with his eyes fixated on the ceiling.
            “No,” I muttered before leaving him.
            Just as my hand had touched the handle to the door, he had uttered, “I understand why you would use that lie. The Heavens are rather beautiful. They are . . . better than our world.”
            I watched him reach his hand to grasp what he could of the Heavens. “You will never capture the Heavens by staying here,” I cautioned.
            His cackle seemed to now echo his pain. “But, I can . . . because you, to me, are the Heavens.”