Chapter 13: Uncertainty

Throughout the trip, I learned that they were two brothers working for the army. Shou had just been promoted to general for his work in the battle against the Aquillans. Yuu, on the other hand, was only a messenger, working alongside Shou. In reality, Yuu was more of a bodyguard, skilled in the art of archery and close combat fighting. Their mission this time was to become members of the Kuyaza and pass along information to the government about the Kuyaza’s movements. Simply put, they were moles, and as for me, I lied that I had to visit my friend in Kurasa. I knew I shouldn’t have gone on a detour from my original trip, yet I’m too curious for my own good.

            “So, where are you headed in Kurasa?” Yuu suddenly inquired as the coach crossed a long, wooden bridge, the Yume, signaling that we were close to the border of Kurasa.
            I had no idea where everything was in Kurasa. Did I even know anyone from there? I’m scrambling to remember, and luckily, I remember that Kuro governs Kurasa. However, I can’t just state my relations with a prince. They’d begin questioning everything about me, and I certainly could not allow that to happen. So, I lied once again, “My friend . . . works at the palace.”
            “What a coincidence,” Shou announced. “We are on our way there as well to visit an old friend of ours.”
            “And what does your friend do?” Yuu continued to question.
            “My friend . . . works . . . for the prince,” I murmured quickly.
            Yuu almost jumped off of his seat, grumbling, “You mean, Ku—Prince Kuro?”
            “That is dreadful,” Yuu spited, almost spitting in my face. “Prince Kuro is one of the most hated princes.”
            “Now, Yuu, you mustn’t say these things in public,” Shou cautioned with his arms folded together.
            “We are in a carriage, Shou!” Yuu scoffed while rolling his eyes. “For God’s sake, relax!”
            “Wh-why is he hated?” I wondered.
            “Prince Kuro is very cruel, calculating, cold, and selfish!” Yuu spat in my face. “Like mother like son,” he proceeded to huff.
            I asked, “Is he not the son of the Empress?”   
            Yuu cocked his head to the side, and threw a death glare at me. “Yes, and what of it?” he demanded. “Useless when the Empress is greatly disfavoured.”
            “There are also rumours that the Prince murdered his elder brother, so that he had a better chance of succeeding the throne,” Yuu whispered ever so quietly. “And frankly, I am not surprised if these rumours are true.”
            “Yuu!” Shou stomped his right foot and directed his black fan at him. “We shall have none of this nonsense here. Prince Kuro is a noble, and dignified figure. He may be harsh, but he is a reasonable man.”
             “Reasonable?” Yuu crossed his legs and snubbed. “More like—“
            “Master Yuu, Master Shou,” the door of the carriage suddenly flung open, and there was Keigo with his head hung low, greeting us, “we have arrived at the Kurasa Palace.”
             Out I stepped first with Keigo holding onto my hand. We were at the centre of the Kurasa Palace, and straight ahead was a magnificent hall built above three levels of marble stone base. Nine golden pillars supported this massive, auburn structure, and two golden foxes stood at each end of the slanted, tanned roof. I was absolutely mesmerized by this building that I almost screamed when Yuu tapped my shoulder to remind me, “There is no time to have a tour of this castle, and have you not visited here before?”
            “N—Why, yes, I have, but I have just forgotten—“
            “Let us be concise,” Yuu interrupted rather rudely. “Keigo has already told the guards of our business. Now, go find your friend, and we shall meet here once the sun sets.”
            Yuu instantly headed to his destination while Shou handed me a wooden whistle, instructing, “If you cannot find us or you are in danger, then blow into this whistle. We will find you.”
            “Thank you,” I murmured. “I shall see you then.”
            “Indeed,” he waved at me and answered.
            So, I did what I could do: explore the palace. I walked wherever I wanted. There were buildings shaped just like the one at the core of the palace and just smaller in size. In between several of the structures, there were various gardens, bridges, and ponds. I felt like each court had a different theme, and each had a unique name. I remembered seeing one titled “The Hall of Eternal Peace” and there, there was a small garden nearby filled with lilies and lily pads. However, because it was still winter, there was nothing really growing. So, I passed by this area, and many others until I started to cross over a wooden bridge.
            There were trees, plum trees to be exact. They were planted not in organized rows, but in a natural order. Even in the cold, these trees were blossoming perfectly. In this snowy winter, I somehow felt that there was hope embodying this quietly dead area. My feet guided my body towards to the plum tree with the largest branches, and widest trunk. Amazing, I gasped to myself. This was too amazing. I was about to turn around when I heard a ruffling sound of leaves, and then a thud. Before I could react properly, I felt a palm pressed on my lips, effectively silencing me. There were the sounds of heavy footsteps marching across the bridge connecting one hall to another.
One of the men grumbled, “That Prince. Where in the world is he again? Does he not know that he has guests?”
            “I do not blame him for avoiding those Princes,” another man explained. “We all know that His Highness and they are rivals by birth.”
            Princes? Princes? What other princes? What was happening?
            A maid sighed, “I do pity His Highness. He did not pick his rivals.”
            Finally, the hand released me, and I turned around to find Kuro standing before me. He had that imminent glare, but as soon as he recognized who I was, his gaze turned into one full of arrogance. He knew I was in his territory, and he could do whatever he pleased to torment me. I knew too well that venturing into his home was a silly idea, but what else could I have done? 
            “So this is your hiding spot?” I pointed to the plum tree and asked.
            “I think a better question to ask is what brings you here?” he demanded.
            Where to begin? Should I have told him about Yuu, and Shou or was it better to talk about Salim? What of the robbers? Kuro was staring at me right now, and the longer I stalled, the more he’d question. So, I stuttered, “I-I-I . . . Chiyoko wants me to ask you why you gave her the flute. Are you—“
            “You came all the way here by yourself to ask me about this?” he harked. “According to my knowledge, there were only three carriages to be scheduled to pass through the gates. One housed merchants. The other a few maids, and the last one, royalty.”
            “I travelled with a couple of merchants,” I lied, thinking that being a general was close enough to a merchant.
            “Those merchants have already left though. They left before royalty arrived,” Kuro corrected me. “So, do not lie anymore. You were travelling with two Princes.”
            Princes? What? Those two were princes? Maybe, I could believe Shou as a Prince, but Yuu? Yuu was nothing more than a spoiled brat. Spoiled . . . right. A stereotypical trait of a bad Prince. I shook that thought out of my head. It seemed like too much of a coincidence for me to encounter two princes while escaping from robbers. To think of it now, that scene seemed so staged. How could robbers have freed me? How could they have given up on searching for me? Those questions were unimportant now; what I ought to know was who . . . who had planned all of this? Was it Kuro? If it were Kuro, then he should not have asked me who I was accompanying, and why I was here. He would have known all along, but it could be possible that he was playing dumb with me.
            “Does it matter with whom I travel?” I threw another question back at him, hoping to catch him off guard.
            “So I presume you have met Prince Shiro, and Prince Hachiro?”
            “I suppose you called them, ‘Shou’ or ‘Yuu’?” he interrogated. I knew I shouldn’t have scrunched my eyebrows together, but I couldn’t stop myself from being shocked by this news. These were Princes, and one of them was most likely going to be my husband. The question was: which one? “Judging by your silence,” Kuro continued to say, “I am right.”
            Then, he burst into laughter, the sort that evil bosses would use. The leaves even began to fall around him as he extended his arms to embrace this joke of his. I was awfully sure that Kuro was the one behind all of this; if he wasn’t, then he wouldn’t be so thrilled.
            “Detestable,” I murmured to myself.
            All of a sudden, Kuro marched towards me, and inexorably, I inched backwards, backwards, and backwards until my back hit something hard, making me jolt forward. My fingertips grazed the prickled surface, and realized that I had bumped into a tree trunk. From the corner of my eye, I noticed that there was nowhere to run. Tree after tree, we were completely entrapped, and there were only the two of us. Kuro leaned closer to me, so close that only a few leaves could separate our lips from touching.
            “Detestable?” Kuro uttered in a raspy voice as his hand tilted my chin upwards. “I believe you are—“
            “Your Highness,” a young guard knelt to the ground, announcing, “Prince Shiro is already waiting for you at the Hall of Eternal Peace.”
             Kuro retreated, and faced the guard to question, “And what of Hachiro?”
            “He has acquired a severe stomach ache, and therefore is resting at the Hall of Earthly Winds.”
            Letting out a shortened scoff, Kuro commented, “How unfortunate. I was hoping to see a brother’s face.” Then, he glanced in my direction, instructing, “If you do not wish to freeze, then I suggest you follow me.”
            “F-f-follow you?” I sputtered.
            Already steps ahead, he hollered, “Would you not wish to know who you shall marry?”
            As much as I didn’t want to admit it, but Kuro knew me better than I had anticipated. Here I was, trailing after his steps, walking past uncountable corridors that showcased various gardens until we reached our destination. The Hall of Eternal Peace
            “Ah, Prince Kuro, it has been . . .”
            I recognized that voice instantly, and without much thought, I hid behind Kuro, grabbing onto the back of his kimono. Luckily his arms had stretched out to shield my face. I didn’t understand why he was actually cooperating with me. This was so unlike him. Being friendly for once or did he have another motive like usual? And why was I being so nervous around these two? Who was it that was making my heart pump too much blood? I was acting ridiculous again like a silly, little girl. I was about to take an extra step to reveal myself, yet Kuro’s arm was angled purposely to block me.
            “What, or rather, who are you hiding there?”
            Kuro let out a devious scoff, purposely demeaning the other prince. “Are my personal affairs now of concern to you, brother?” he, instead, shot back.
            “As long as you do not embarrass the family title, then all—“
            “Embarrass?” Kuro interrupted yet with another scoff. “Should that not be applied to you and not to me? You and I both know very well what it is that you have done or would like to do.”
            The prince cackled in a way that made my heart skip an extra beat. I gulped down, feeling that I had heard of this malicious laugh before. I just did not know how that was possible. I had only known him for a bit. Could it be . . . could he be . . . “Are we not here to discuss matters or will you hold your ground?” he inquired. “I can spend all the time I wish here. In fact, I am sure the Emperor would like for me to watch over you. Who knows what you will do?”
            I saw Kuro clench his fists together with the veins in his hand almost exploding. I never knew such words could affect Kuro so much. Just what was it that Kuro had done? What was there between these two that caused such tension? Before I could observe more, Kuro whispered to me, “I suggest you leave.”
            “Why all of a sudden?” I adjusted my voice to only a hushed whisper. “Why are you helping—“
            Suddenly, he shifted his heel to face me. His arm still blocked my face from the other prince, and then with his other arm, he pulled me closer. Our lips were almost touching while our hips were already pressed against each other. I could feel the warmth of his body mixing with mine. He even smelled unbearably appetizing, like sharp cinnamon. If he held any longer, I might have . . .
“What good is it for him to see the two of us together?” Kuro muttered almost too softly for me to hear. “I may enjoy watching others suffer but not at my own expense.” Abruptly, he placed both of his hands over my lips and kissed his own hand. Then, he pushed me to the side, closing the door behind him just in time to conceal me completely. Still, I could hear him announce, “I apologize. Just had to tend to a hunger-stricken woman.”
            “Haha!” the other prince proclaimed. “I always knew, Jou, I always knew that you had it in you! And you always liked to ostracize yourself and pretend to be so gallant! You’re nothing more but a man too. Ha!”
            I could not believe what Shou had said. That voice, though, was clearly Shou’s. How could such a gentle man be so harsh? Why was I becoming so enraged? It didn’t matter at all that Kuro was being unfairly criticized. It shouldn’t have mattered, yet a boom of anger was boiling in my chest. I wanted to slide open that door and yell at Shou for his false accusations. Kuro was not a man that easily succumbed to temptation! He also was not the sort to be a hero for no reason; he had ulterior motives that were far more important than being chivalric or heroic.
            “Renelle? What are you—“
            I quickly pulled Yuu down by my side, and placed my finger on his lips. “Shh,” I told him as I leaned closer to try to hear what the two men were discussing. I was lucky that Yuu had been here. If he had not interrupted me, I would have stormed into the room in a fit of rage. Really, by now, I should have been able to control my emotions better. Stupid Kuro.
            “Wh-wh-what are you doing?” Yuu now asked in a quiet voice.
            With that one question, I missed out something that Kuro had said. “Darn! Yuu, it is all your fault! I did not—“
            “Did not what?”
            The door unexpectedly opened, and because I was in midst of lecturing Yuu, I had lost my balance and slipped on the bottom of my long dress. As a result, I toppled right on Kuro’s feet; Kuro was eyeing me with much confusion. Then, he smiled cheekily by forming a half-grin. Unfortunately, before I could respond, Shou had noticed my presence and noted, “Renelle! What brings you here? Were you not supposed to . . .”
            “About that—“
            “Renelle is actually an old friend of mine,” Kuro interrupted out of the blue. To be honest, Kuro was not lying. Maybe he and I were not friends, but we had certainly known each other for a while now. I just did not understand why he would say that. I could only leave it up to him to create this falsified story. Indeed, he continued to explain, “In fact . . .”
            No, I could not allow him to reveal my identity. Not now. Cael would murder me, and I was already pushing his buttons. So, I hollered, “Kuro saved me in Urcis before.”
            “Indeed, she was stealing some bread from the market, yet she tricked me into believing that she was the victim,” Kuro carried on lying.
            “I was not stealing,” I corrected him. “I was merely distributing to the poor.”
            “She was suffering from an arrow injury, and fainted from the loss of blood,” Kuro added. “So, being the good man I was, I nursed her to health.”
            “Then why did you lie to us that you did not know Kuro?” Yuu harshly demanded.
            Because I didn’t want to be hated by people who were sending me to the right place? Of course, I could not say that though. Alas, I was at a loss of words, and then there was Kuro who had to add those extra words. “Why that is because she provides me with news from Urcis,” Kuro clarified with much confidence. “This is how we know of Prince Cael’s actions. Is that not right . . . Renelle?”
            Had Kuro suddenly decided to blackmail me now or had he planned this all along? He should not have known about my arrival however. Chiyoko was pressing on me about Kuro’s possible death, but he seemed to have everything under control. In fact, I felt useless coming here just to waste my time, and now I was to be a spy for Kosei? What had I gotten myself into? “Y-yes . . . that is correct,” I could only manage to agree. What else could I have done? If I had refuted everything, I would have to explain my whole story. Now, I didn’t need them to know so much.
            “And you were planning on informing me of the Princess’ arrival to Kosei?” Kuro asked. My eyebrows shifted upwards in a flash before I force myself to be emotionless. What were Kuro’s intentions? Was he hinting that I had to stay at Kosei? For what purpose? He must have realized what I was considering for Kuro pretended to remind me, “Did you perhaps forget about the tradition of Princesses being married to the Imperial family? Of how each princess has to undergo a series of training to become acclimatized to the Koseian court life?”
            No, I actually did not know anything about this tradition. The Queen had never mentioned this practice nor had Nestor. Cael never told me of this duty; even Beau had neglected to inform me of the events prior to marriage. Did all of them just assume that I would be thrown into a new country, that they could simply dump me there? They must have thought that all I had to do was marry a Prince. What was so difficult about that? The two of us wouldn’t even have to rule. We had no power to rule. We were just . . . puppets. I knew that I should have been pleased with acquiring a stable life, yet somehow, there was that inner distress proliferating through my body. I was angry. I was uncontrollably mad; I was becoming less and less like myself and becoming more and more like . . . her.
            Clenching onto my own wrist, I muttered, “The P-P-Princess will surely come as soon as she can. The timing of her arrival surely does not—“
            Yuu interrupted rather rudely and loudly, “Wh-wh-what? How can you say that the timing of her arrival is meaningless?” Unexpectedly, Yuu seized my shoulders and shook my body back and forth. “Do you understand what that means to me? Do you? When she arrives, my life is over! No more fun. No more doing whatever I wish. No more joy!”
            That was when I realized that Yuu . . . was Prince Hachiro, the useless, infamous member of the royal family. He was the one that caused more ruckus and scandals than Saburo. Saburo surely was known to be playful, but Yuu . . . Yuu was beyond playful. I overheard from a few of the maids in Urcis that Yuu liked to fool around with women, girls, men, and maybe even animals. Whenever Yuu did not like anything, he would express his disgust or disdain full heartedly. He had no conscience nor did he have manners. He was a man living in his own world abiding by his own rules if he actually had any in the first place.
            Yuu . . . was going to be my husband, and that idea somehow sickened me to the stomach. Even Shou noticed my expression as he gently inquired, “Are you all right, Renelle? And Yuu, stop that childish behaviour. She already suffered through enough during her journey.”
            Shou’s words were too tender and thoughtful. It had been a while since someone had cared to notice small details about me. Mentally, I was fatigued. I was tired of living every day in a play; I would play the role of the Princess. I would obey whoever had the most power. I would allow myself to this fate. As much as I had already abandoned the thought of marrying from love, I was still unsteady, knowing that I would actually marry a complete stranger.
            Kuro now returned to the topic again by questioning, “Did you not mention that it was the start of spring that she would arrive?” His pupils darted to the corner of his eyes, glimpsing at me as if I were scum scattered along the streets. Then, he scoffed without ever shifting his head to properly acknowledge eye contact with me, “As one of her few maids, Renelle, you are not looking after your master very well.”
            Maid? Once the thought entered my mind, I was almost too taken aback that I had trouble closing my jaw or resisting a gasp. The only maids I had were Marie and Calla. Marie was without a doubt unrelated to Kuro. Calla, on the other hand, was definitely linked to Kuro. I wasn’t completely sure if I had my theory right, but now I was absolutely certain that she had feelings for him, the sort that she would have said was out of “true love”. And I knew all too well from the way her voice shrilled whenever I mentioned him and the way her eyes brightened and widened whenever he was the centre of our subject. She loved him, and the story that she told me of the man that saved her had to have been none other than Kuro. What exactly was Kuro’s role then? Why was Calla trained to be my double? To spy on me? For what reason? And why had Calla wanted to push me off the stairs? No, I shook my head thinking. That couldn’t possibly be, yet Kuro’s gaze seemed to be confirming my suspicions. I felt like he was hunting me down with his absorbed pupils now honing in on mine.
            “I believe . . .” I could hear my own voice fading away. “I think we need to converse privately.”
            And I believed that was how I became tangled in his web. Maybe I had flown straight into his trap from the start. Maybe it was just a matter of time that all of this happened.