Chapter 7: Salim
            “C-c-c-cold.” I shivered upon awakening to the iciness spreading from my waist upwards. I couldn’t move in my bed and could only lie on my back.
            “I suggest that you stay still unless you would like to experience more pain,” a patronizing voice warned.

            From the corner of my eye, I saw a tanned man dressed in a plain, white tunic that just hovered about his straw sandals along with a widely embroidered shawl. As he loomed to my side, I noticed that he wore an oblong-shaped lappet with gold stitching and from this hat, his dark hair curled to reach his shoulders. He was staring at me with his equally dark, almond eyes.
            “Wh-what are you looking at?” I stammered, feeling rather uncomfortable with his presence.
He had been looking at me in the same position. His hands were behind his back, bending to my level, and his neck jutted to observe me closer. He even took an oddly shaped rock to examine my wrist, which he held in his hand. He narrated some Aquillian words while I heard the sound of ink swishing along paper and then a carving noise. Someone had to be acting as a scribe. Before I could make my conclusion, the man had poked my wrist, causing me to wince in pain and almost swear.
“Does it hurt?” he asked in surprisingly fluent Koseian.
            “Obviously it hurts,” I grumbled.
            “How much does it hurt?”
            “It is as if someone has dropped an iron ball on my toe.”
            “Can you move it?”
I glared at him once and without even asking for my permission, he turned my wrist for me. Inevitably, I screamed this time. The man then turned backwards to hark some instructions in Aquillian. I listened to the begging voice of an eager, adolescent boy, who rushed to my side and even prodded my wrist with even more force than that man. I almost felt tears in my eyes as I felt the excruciating throbbing from my wrist. How could they be so inconsiderate? How could they torture a patient like that?
            The man muttered a few more sentences to the emancipated boy, who had to be only around ten years old. “Please excuse Ashur. He is my azu, my assistant. He simply helps run errands, such as recording cases and creating cures, and also has knowledge in some methods of healing. I have already scolded him for mistreating you,” he clarified.
            “So, what is my treatment?”
            “I must set a cast for your wrist that will hold until another change in season. I will teach your servants how to tend and clean your cast. You must also continue to cool your bruised tail bone with a blanket soaked in cold, fresh water. I believe your ankle has been sprained as well, so you will have to place it on top of your pillows. You will also apply coldness every day until the swelling decreases,” he explained thoroughly. “I will also have Ashur brew some tea that will ease your pain.”
            From all of this, I could only ask him with much puzzlement, “Who are you?”
            “Salim,” he replied before heading towards the door, “the Ashipu, the healer.”
            Then, it suddenly occurred to me that he must have known about Paulette’s condition. Being a physician, he must have healed her as well. “And what of the Duchess?” I asked.
            I was shocked that he had no sense of hesitation when announcing grim news. In a firm and stern tone, he had uttered, “We were forced to induce a miscarriage to rescue her life. The baby was destined for death seeing as the Duchess has been slowly poisoned by mercury.”
            He was too impatient to stay. From the way his feet pointed towards the door, I knew he wanted to leave. Even his reply was horrible. “Yes, that was what had occurred,” he confirmed.
            “H-h-how did His Highness react?”
            “Angry. How else would he have reacted?” Salim covered his smirk with a hand. “This reminds me . . . I was supposed to give this to you.”
            He flung a small object at me and when it plopped on my bed, I could not have been more bewildered. It was a fox tail dyed in scarlet.  
            “Who requested for your service?” I quickly questioned.
            He did not answer me, and instead chose to respond, “You should be thankful that you are not dead.”
            “You were the one that saved me?”
            He shrugged his shoulders, countering, “Perhaps or perhaps not. I do prefer poisoning more than curing.”
            How could I have not suspected him to be part of the Kuyaza? I had forgotten how peculiar it was for him to speak in fluent Koseian when he looked nothing like a citizen of Kosei. His expertise must have also made him an important figure and his demonic attitude seemed to fit the group. From the few mysterious figures that I had met, all of them had distinct traits and powers. There was one that could impersonate anyone. There was one that was an expert fighter and now, there was Salim, who was the best physician and toxicologist.
            That one phrase had played in my mind. He said the Duchess had been poisoned. He said that he liked poisoning. He would not say who had hired him, but I had a feeling that I knew who. Even without much deliberation, I could sense that Cael had asked for Salim’s services. If Paulette were poisoned, then Salim could say that it was because of the toxin that had caused Paulette to be experiencing nausea, fatigue, and fainting spells. Salim could also argue that it was fortunate that Paulette had been attacked by an assassin. Paulette had to abandon the child to live. The child also would have died later. The question now was . . . who would they assign as the perpetrator?
             If Cael had wanted Raul to rebel, then there could only be one person to blame and that had to be the King. The reasoning? The King wanted to secure his throne. He wanted to eradicate all threats. I gasped as soon as I realized what I had discovered. My idea seemed too radical, yet somehow, I had inkling that I was right.
            I felt time drawing near. We would not be waiting for long now. Cael certainly had never been static. He had taken such precautions to ensure that even if I were to riot, he would succeed. Did he anticipate my fall then? I was sure that someone had attempted to catch onto my body. Then I pondered why I had fallen in the first place. I remembered Calla chasing me. I remembered that unneeded thrust driving me to the ground. But . . . why? Why did she harm me and more specifically, what were her intentions?
            Feeling rather uneasy, I asked Ashur, who had stayed behind to create my cast, “Do you know who found me?”
            Ashur spoke effortlessly in Koseian, “Salim.”
            “How . . . did he know where to find me?”
            He coated a special paste on my wrist while I tried hard not to complain. “I do not know,” he stated. “Salim was told to take care of you.”
            His eyes dwindled to the fox’s tail that lay untouched on my bed.
            “Whoever asked for his service?”
            “You are the Kamikaze, are you not?”
            I hesitantly nodded, not sure whether I should be agreeing or disagreeing. Ashur added, “Then it is not a surprise that he would protect you.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “Ashur!” I shifted my gaze to Salim, who stood at the door. He was shouting at Ashur in Aquillan again, which subsequently prompted Ashur to depart. Advancing towards me with a sense of gracefulness, Salim noted, “You are like what Ryou said. You ask too many questions.”
            That had to have been the name of the impressionist. I admitted that his name did not match his occupation at all, which probably proved the irony of life.
            “I should have mixed a sleeping potion for you. Would that not be fun?” He carried on Ashur’s task to prevent Ashur from spewing their secrets.
            “But you are here to protect me,” I notified him.
            He jeered while shaking his head, “I could always prolong your treatment. I have the ability to make you suffer, but still make you live.”
            “You will obey ‘him’ . . . whoever he may be.”
            “Would you like to know who he is?” There was that conniving smile forming from the edge of his thin lips.
            “Why would I not want to know?”
            “Even if knowing would be like venom?”
            “Yes. I would like to know who is helping—“
            He guffawed to the extent that he almost slipped. “Helping? You naïve girl.”
            I grimaced at him for he did not know anything about me. I wanted to know who had helped me to understand his purpose of helping me, to know what he wanted from me. I adjusted my tone now, “If he is not helping me, then why did he send people to protect me?”
            “You will know when the time comes,” he answered rather coolly. “Oh . . . and try to stay alive by yourself. It was quite a hassle gathering all these herbs.”
            “So, he did not think I would fall then?”
            Salim’s eyebrows furrowed as he shot back, “Who would have expected a tumble?”
            Calla had finally confronted me in the form of an apology. “Forgive me,” she mumbled. I was still in bed these days unable to move my leg or even my wrist. Although Ashur brewed tea that was supposed to numb the pain, I had refused to drink much of it unless needed.
            “There is no need to apologize,” I uttered.
            What had been done had been done. She had the intention to injure me and she, at that time, had the chance to stop herself, but she had not. She had decided to push me.
            “You do not forgive me?” She was on her knees, pleading.
            “I need my rest, Calla.” I saw her glistening eyes that exhibited some sense of remorse. I felt no remorse passing to my heart. I could not empathize nor could I ever forgive.
            “Please, I am so sorry,” she repeated in a quivering voice. “I am so sorry.”
            She grasped my hand in hopes of capturing my attention, yet I could only glare at her and push her away from me. “Are you only seeking forgiveness for yourself?” I demanded.
            “No, I—“
            “Then, do not plead for my pardon. If you want me to forgive you, then I want to understand. Why? Why did you push me?” Her mouth was ajar and suddenly, she became silent. “Seeing as you cannot explain, I believe there is no need for our conversation—“
            “He told me to.”
            “Who . . . is he?”
            “T-the King.”
            “Lies,” I stated.
            “H-h-he wanted to punish you for leaving the country.”
            “He would have punished you,” I reminded her, “before punishing me. I suggest you tell me the truth or leave everything as is.” Even if she were to confess, she would lie. There was no need to listen to someone concoct a mellifluous excuse. So, I chose to provoke her. “You know that you have the chance to kill me. If you would like to kill me, then kill me now.”
            I thought I heard her whisper, “He would hate me.”
            Fear had detained her voice, suffocating her till there were tears dripping down her cheeks. This was the truth. This was why she had only pushed me, why could not slay me. She loved him, so she could not undertake the possibility of his hatred for her. That . . . could have been what killed her, her tragic flaw. People have said that flaws were self-incurred, but for some, it may very well have been love. Tragically clichéd when love killed.
            Who was responsible for making her love then? I recalled all of the conversations we had shared. When had she blushed? When had she grown nervous? When had she become elated? When I mentioned . . .
            “Who are you Calla?” I eyed her. “Who sent you here?”
            She must have known that I had discovered her secret for her pupils enlarged. “T-t-the King sent me here,” she murmured.
            “Do not lie to me.” My voice grew louder. “I know who you serve.”
            “I serve you,” she persisted in a desperate tone. She was again on her knees, but this time, begging me to stop questioning.
            “No, you serve—“
            “That is enough.” The doors had burst open and in strolled Salim. “Did I not tell you that you would learn in time? You already cause enough trouble. You do not need to harm anyone else in your quest for the truth.”
            “I believe that I deserve the truth.” I matched the intensity of my voice to his.
            “I believe you know who commanded us to be here. What you want is to abuse your power to make another feel weak,” Salim harked while Calla hid behind him.
            “I only sought for confirmation . . . and now I am sure, but I still need to understand why. What use would I be to him?”
            “That I do not even know,” Salim answered. “What he says we follow. You will understand . . . I am sure all of us will understand in time. Now, I believe the two of you will need some time to clear your misunderstandings.”
            In modern terms, Calla and I would have experienced girl talk. I did not know why Salim had forced us to speak with one another, but somehow, we obeyed him. She began to tell me how she met him.
            “He found me on the streets like he had with most of us. He took me in and for several years, I trained with him. He taught me everything he knew of the art of fighting. He taught me to read, to write, and to act like a lady. I thought I was special until . . .”
            She did not need to explain and I already knew what she would say. She had never expected to act as my shadow, to become me. She had never expected that he was morphing her into me, someone who looked exactly like her. She had never expected that what made her special was precisely her appearance. She looked like me and now she acted like me. She obeyed out of love, yet he acted out of duty. He cared for her due to his mission, whatever that would be. How cold. How callous. How dark of him. How like him.
            “You can hate me,” I decided to say, “and I can forgive you.”
            Maybe, I was maniacal, but I could understand why she would despise me. If her push had been successful, then she could be free. She could live like before, where she was by his side, where she silently loved him.
            Her tears were feverishly smothering her visage. Her sniffles were impeding her from speaking properly. “H-h-how can . . . I h-h-hate you like that?”
            Kneeling by my side, she buried her head at the edge of my bed. I patted her shoulder with my uninjured hand. “Do not feel obligated to like me,” I insisted. “I was never meant to be well-liked.”
            I had abandoned my old self a long time ago. When I used to care about what others thought of me, I had acted in their interest. I was good because I did not want to be bad in their eyes. I felt safe with their approval, knowing that they liked me. Now, I did not need their acceptance. I just needed my own.
            “This time . . . please love him,” Calla urged.
She lifted her head to stare at me with her doe-like eyes. I retreated with a tremble. What did she mean by this time? Did she know something of the past? I held onto the side of my head. That dizziness and nausea was permeating throughout my body. My vision was blurring and my breaths were cutting short. I tried to steady myself by leaning on my pillow, but . . . in the end, I could not avoid these experiences. I could not avoid them at all.
            Why was I even wavering?
            Now was my chance to escape, yet I was still reviewing what he had said.
            “Do you remember when we first met here?” He was leaning on the railing of the bridge, looking onwards at the shining river. The moon was full that night to seemingly echo its loneliness.
            “Of course I remember.” I stood beside him and rested on my head on his shoulders.
            Stroking my hair with his hand, he sighed, “And now, we part here.”
            “Do not say that.” I looked at him steadily. “I promised that we would be together forever.”
            “Fate dictates that we separate,” he croaked while holding me tightly with his other arm.
            I hugged him back, knowing that this may very well be the last time we were in each other’s arms. I could feel the pangs in my chest reverberating with the beats of my heart. I had grown too close to him that our separation was too agonizing to stand. Was there an opportunity for us to be together?
            “What if . . . we defied destiny? What if we eloped?” Again, I stared at him, hoping that he would agree with me.
            “Are you sure?” he asked. “What of your country?”
            “Urcis will not die without me,” I mumbled, “but . . . I will die without you.”
            I had discarded that thought at that time. I had chosen to forget about Urcis. I had wanted to think for myself and to live for myself for once. I felt I had made the right decision as he pulled me closer before pressing his lips onto mine. He smelled of summer breeze mixed with a tad of sea salt from the ocean.   
            I would miss that smell if I did not run now. Looking backwards, I saw the darkened hallway leading to my chamber. I was leaving my prison, yet somehow, I could not carry myself forward. I did not owe anything to this country. In fact, Urcis had ruined my family. I had done more than enough for this King and for this kingdom. What more did they want from me?
            “You thought I would never know of your plans?” His voice was too distinct, viciously severing the stillness of the night and instead, accentuating gloominess.
            As I turned to see his frowning face, which was half-lit by the beam of the moon, I immediately stepped back. “L-l-leave me be,” I urged and clumsily fell to my bottom while retreating in a fright.
            My feet were pushing me farther from him, yet he moved faster. His hand seized my wrist and lugged me upwards until my body leaned over his back. He now carried me away with one arm. Knowing that I had to break free, I kicked his chest with all my might.
            “Even if you hurt me, it will be nothing compared to what I will do to you,” he threatened.
            His other arm now chained my legs together. I had to resort to pounding my fists on his back, but he just maintained his stroll. I knew too well where he was taking me. He was taking me back to my chamber, back to my royal cage.
            In a fit of desperation, I begged, “Please. Please let me go. You can find another lady to be your Empress.”
            “Oh, but I only want you.” His laugh made me tremble and tense.
            When he placed me on my bed, he was careful never to allow me escape. There was always one arm that clutched onto my body part. Again, I tried to kick him, but he unexpectedly kissed my knee. I lost all sense of feeling, too numb to even think or to retaliate. He seized this moment to untie his sash holding his robe in place. He knotted my wrists together and pinned them over my head with his hand.
            “Please . . . do not do this. I promise I will never run away from you.” I sniffled, feeling the tears overflowing from my eyes.
            “But any chance now, you will flee.”
            He was too close for me, and so I closed my eyes, hoping that he would disappear, but he did not. I felt his parched, cracked lips graze my neck a kiss at a time.
            I shook my head and continued to plead, “No, I will not leave. Please.”
            In an innocent, yet taunting manner, he argued, “Do not worry. I will make sure that you never leave.”
          I would never forget his smell. He smelled of burnt leather fused with rustic blood. I remembered disentangling my hands and then clawing his back with my nails, digging as deeply as I could so he could endure as much pain as I could have. He moaned in agony and satisfaction while I could only sob and grimace. I was angry at myself for hesitating. I had had the opportunity to be happy, yet I had discarded it so easily.        
            I could hear his voice again.
            I will be waiting for you. I will always love you.
            Would he even wait for me now? Would he still love me? Could I even love him now that I had been broken? He deserved someone better, someone who would never falter to love him wholly.  
            My eyes closed again. Maybe, I could sleep tonight. Maybe, just maybe, I could . . . die.
            “Ah!” I screeched and bounced forward from my bed. Hugging myself, I muttered, “It was just a dream. Just a dream. Nothing but a—“
            I screamed again once I felt someone touch me. By instinct, I retreated to the corner of my bed. “Are you all right?” I gazed ahead to find Calla frown.
            When I felt my palms touch the bed sheets, I scurried away and ordered, “Calla, fetch the maids to change the sheets. I cannot sleep here anymore.”
            “What is the matter?” Calla asked. “You suddenly collapsed and slept so deeply. I had to ask Salim to examine you. He said that you were too fatigued, but I believe he is not telling me the truth.”
            “Calla . . . just leave me be. I need some time by myself.”
            I directed my finger to the door.  After I saw her leave, I hopped to the lounge, hoping that I would be safe there. However, just as I shut my eyes to calm myself, I felt I could hear his stinging voice.
            I will be gentle this time.
            Even when I placed my hands over my ears, he was still there.
            You will always be mine.
            I shrilled again and carefully, yet quickly bolted out the door. I could not stay there anymore. I would be haunted by her memories. So, I used all my energy to drag myself away. As far as I could go, I would go. With my determination, I managed to stop at a nostalgic scene, the place where I had met him.
            I held onto my chest, which was aching more and more. Once my finger tips had touched the chilly handle of the bridge’s railing, I fell to my knees. I could not stop the tears from emitting. I could not stop the sadness that tethered my heart. I could detect that memorable aroma blowing from the cool breeze. How could I ever forget that smell? How could I then cry so effortlessly?    
            “Your Highness, why are you crying?”
            I shifted my blurred gaze to a child who bent to my level. It was Ashur with an oversized basket of herbs in his hand. That scent grew stronger and so I snatched a handful of herbs and pressed it against my nose.
            Ashur rambled, “What are you doing, Your Highness? These are . . .”
            “Where did you find these?”
            Ashur pointed to the banks of the river, which was covered with bushes of mangroves. “By the river.”
            “What are they for?”
            I wiped away my tears with the back of my hand. I could now see how frightened Ashur was of my behaviour. Tears, I suppose, were still what boys feared.
            “Medicine,” he murmured.
            “For what cure?”
            He still stood there, not moving one bit. It was as if I were the police, interrogating a wrongfully accused thief. Ashur, thus, stammered, “S-S-Salim says calamus cures stomach pain and headaches, but I like the story of this plant more.”
            “The story?”
            I could see Ashur’s shoulder muscles relaxing as he spoke, “A lover of Kalamos, the son of a river god, had drowned and so the grieving Kalamos turned himself to reeds.”
            I did not know why, but I cried even harder. I had to hold onto Ashur’s sleeve to keep myself balanced. I thought I would be fine by now. It was funny how the littlest things could break people, but triviality was in the eye of the beholder.
            “I can brew you some calamus tea to soothe your headache,” Ashur urged.
            I grinned, thinking about how untalented this boy was at diagnosing people’s illnesses. “Sure, please do so.”
            I must have been insane to believe that I would know him better with a dose of tea or was it Ghislaine’s heart that I had to appease? I wanted to remember though. I wanted to learn more about him. I had to . . . when my heart disobeyed me, when I could feel everything that I had forgotten. I had to at least remember his name.