Chapter 14: Deal
            I was sure Shou and Yuu were shocked to hear that request coming from me. I had already lied to them that I was not close with Kuro at all. Now, I was having ginger tea with him in his own chamber. Women, in this era, were not supposed to be with men alone, yet here I was in his private bedroom, which was surprisingly simple for someone as complex as him. The tatami floor was coloured wheat, and the wooden frames that bordered along the sliding doors were chestnut. The doors did not even have any decorations; within his chamber, there were no forms of art, except for a water colour painting of a woman standing at the edge of a tall cliff. It was not just any woman though. With one look, I knew that it was Ghislaine I. Her eyes lingered towards the viewer’s direction in a taunting manner. Come and catch me, I believed she was trying to say. Try and see if you can catch me. The way she stood, though, showed that she was thoroughly depressed. She wanted to hurl herself down the cliff. The wind was blowing through her long, auburn hair and through her kimino that was loosely hanging from her body. Now that I thought of it more, I believed she actually wanted to say: “See if you can stop me from dying. I dare you.”

            Kuro, who had now reentered his room, walked from behind me before kneeling directly at me. He had changed into an olive green kimono that was far less formal than the severe black one he wore to face the other princes. Because of the chilly temperature, he also wore a grey fur cloak. I couldn’t help feeling that he looked more and more like a fox to me in this way.
            “Like the painting?” he asked out of the blue. I only nodded, leading him to explain, “This was Emperor Karasuma’s most treasured piece. In fact, the Emperor used to frequent this palace just to see the Empress. After all, this fortress was built for her. The woman painted by the Emperor was the Empress herself, but soon after this was painted, she passed away.”
             “Passed away?” I accidentally blurted.
            A male servant entered the room, bowed at us once, walked in our direction, kneeled elegantly and then finally served us tea. “Riku, you may leave now,” Kuro instructed, “and keep watch at the door. I want no one to be intruding or eavesdropping. Whoever disobeys my order can be killed.” I felt myself shudder at the thought of killing so easily. From Kuro’s tone, I knew he was being serious. He never, ever joked, and even among his playful banter, there were always menacing threats slipped in. Taking a sip of tea now, he cleared his throat to say, “Where were we now? Ah yes, I know what you want to ask, but I cannot answer you much. I can, however, tell you how to annul your marriage with Yuu.”
            “Why?” I questioned. “Why would you even care?”
            “If you believe that I have taken romantic interest than you, then sadly, you are gravely mistaken,” he calmly stated before pressing his lips against his cup for another gulp. His tranquility irritated me. How could he just boldly reject me? Was I not good enough for him? Who did he think he was? I felt my fists clench until one of my knuckles almost popped. Wait . . . I loosened my grip. I should not be acting this way; it was normal for him to just do business with me. In fact, I should be thrilled to hear that he felt nothing for me. We were cooperating for each other’s benefit for nothing more. That was exactly how I should live, I reminded myself. Emotions . . . who needed those?
            Flashing a sarcastic smile at him, I uttered, “I was merely testing you to see if we were on the same terms. I highly doubt that you will ever reveal your intentions to me, but you will gain something from helping me.” I purposely gazed at him and pursed my lips together. Two could play this game, and he might have had the upper hand now, but he would never expect me to bite him back later. Oh, I will obey . . . temporarily. “I believe then that,” I added, “we have a deal?”
            “And you are willing to agree with whatever plan I may have?” His lips widened to form a creepy smile that was far too exaggerated to be sincere.
            I licked my lower lip, answering, “I am willing to do anything to annul the marriage.”
            “Even if it means that you will die?”
            “What are you suggesting?” My eyes narrowed towards my nose bridge.
            Kuro proceed to clarify, “Calla and you shall switch roles. You will act as the servant, while she will play the Princess. Calla will complete your training. You, on the other hand, will be training with me.”
            “Training with you?”
            “You see, Ichiro has recently been deemed the Crown Prince, and he is in need of an Empress and two consorts.”
            “The Empress has been chosen, but the consorts have not been affirmed,” Kuro stated. “I want you to attract him throughout the competition and in court. You will attract him so greatly that he will lose his rationale.”
            “But surely, everyone would realize that I—“
            “You will be a maid from my court, and therefore, your appearance will be infrequent among important figures. No one will realize your similarity with Calla. Moreover, Ichiro, I believe, has not seen your face in years, so he will not be able to recognize you. Even if you and Calla appear similar, I will be able to differentiate you from her. Hence, you will be training with me.”
            “And the purpose of seducing Ichiro?”
            “I am surprised that you have not determined the aims.”
            To be frank, I didn’t want to jump to radical conclusions. However, since Kuro was pressing me to guess, I decided to “You . . . you want me to . . . cause a scandal? You want Ichiro to be fighting with Hachiro for me, and assuming that Ichiro and I . . .”
            “You have around half of it correct,” Kuro remarked. “I suppose you will have to wait and understand. Now, you said you were willing to do anything. Would you even consider selling your body?”
            Half correct? Did Kuro simply want Ichiro to fall in love with me? Become love crazy? Kuro was now snickering at me for being in turmoil. I was sure that my wrinkles in between my eyebrows gave my confusion away. Perhaps, I wasn’t as bright as he had expected me to be, but that didn’t mean that he could laugh at me like that. I honestly wanted to throw my cup of tea at him, but I knew better. I knew that if I were to show my displeasure with him, he would have won. Instead, I chose to maintain my composure by taunting, “Sure, if I can gain from this in the future, then why not?”
            There was a slight pause before Kuro stated, “I thought you placed a greater value in yourself.”
            I scoffed while shaking my head, “You wanted me to reject your offer? Is that what you were insinuating?”
            I had not expected Kuro to pounce at me, pushing me backwards onto the hard floor. I felt a few splinters stab my back through my soft clothes. I did not even have time to resist and already, Kuro had pinned me completely to the ground with his hands around my wrists. Once I struggled to knee him, he clasped my hips with his legs. Then, he immediately tore open my gown, revealing my bare bosom. I wanted to shield myself from him as my arms tried to cover my chest. I turned my head away, afraid to assess his glance. I didn’t want to know how he was staring at me; I could even sense my cheeks reddening. Why was I feeling embarrassed in front of him? I had shown my body to other men before. I had done much more, yet I couldn’t face him directly with my face now burning and my exposed body shivering. Don’t look at me, I kept muttering my head. Don’t stare. Don’t judge. Don’t remember.
I felt Kuro’s lips sink onto my neck before trailing down towards my chest. Don’t do this to me. My heart pounded now out of fear. I wanted him to get away from me. I wanted him to stop. Go away! Stop! I don’t want this! Someone, someone, someone help me! Please! Please! No! Yet . . . I was voiceless, vulnerable, and conflicted. What . . . did I . . . want? No, what was I even thinking or doing? I shouldn’t even be asking that question at all.
“If you do not say anything,” Kuro murmured, “then I will assume that you accept any male’s advances.”
It was then that I felt his palm on my thigh, and it was also then that I had the strength to push him away. “Stop this indecency!” I shrieked. “What in the heavens do you think you are doing?”
As he landed backwards, I used my arms to conceal my chest. Subsequently, Kuro let out a smooth smile and joked, “Luckily, you seem to be developing well. I know that Ichiro prefers a full chest.” Once I pulled my knees to my chest, Kuro even added, “Do not fret. I will ask Maeno-san to prepare a kimono for you. I will also arrange for a carriage to Urcis and send Maeno-san as your bodyguard. By spring, you shall accompany Calla to Karasuma.”
“What . . . will we do during the training?” I asked.
“What more to add?” Kuro chuckled too favorably with his head cocked backwards. “We will train you to be a woman, Ichiro’s favourite one. As for your own body . . . remember that men are savage beasts. No man is noble deep down, including the purest ones. In fact, the purest ones are the most questionable ones.”
I watched Kuro exit this chamber. He did not even bid me a proper goodbye. Rather, he left me there to think while I waited for Maeno-san to hand me a new kimono. I knew I shouldn’t have behaved this way, yet I felt a wet droplet stream down one of my eyes. A burning sensation smothered my throat, and that familiar pain throbbed in my chest. I hadn’t felt like this for a long time now.
Heartache . . . but from what?
Why was I even crying too? Why was I still so weak? Why didn’t I have the courage to push him away in the first place? Why had I wavered? What was I even expecting anyways? For Kuro to be a gentleman? For him . . . to . . .
I shook away that thought and reminded myself of what he told me: men are savage beasts. Then, I added more. Men are only there to use you. Yes, I was a tool to Kuro, and nothing more than a tool.
Needless to say, throughout all of spring, I was thoroughly trapped within the castle for running off like that without a word, yet Cael could do nothing to punish me. His own body was tormenting him so much that Beau had to frequently substitute for Cael. I knew that Beau was in charge of bedroom activities, but now, I was seeing him throughout the palace. He would discuss state affairs with the ministers down the hall, while I would head towards the library. That was really the only place where I found joy. After all, Cael had banned me from visiting anyone, even Theo, and only Calla and Marie were allowed to stay with me before the time of my training.
Day after day, I woke up, wandered around my quarters or to the library, and then slept. I was waiting and waiting for that dreaded period that I would spend with Kuro. The thought of being alone with him made my stomach churn viciously. I could still picture that scene too vividly: how he pried my shirt apart and how his tongue lingered down my neck.
“Your Highness, is everything fine?” Calla asked while I sat in my favourite spot to read. “Your face looks rather red. Is the room too warm? I can open the windows if you would—“
“No,” I interrupted her rashly, “the temperature is just right.”
“Are you certain? You do look—“
“I am fine,” I stressed once more, but still the warmth travelled to my chest. I had no idea why I was feeling this way. It was as if I was . . . longing for his touch. I had allowed him to do what he pleased with my body; I did not even rebel. He was taking advantage of me, and I was fine with his advances. Why? Was I that lustful? Why was my body not listening to me? Why could I not listen to him about how men were savage beasts? Was I becoming one of them too?
“Then, all is well,” Calla noted. “Marie and I have already packaged all of your belongings into the appropriate luggage. We shall be leaving late in the evening tonight, and all that needs to be completed is—“
“Calla . . .”
“You understand that you will be acting as me while I will be your servant in court?”
Calla shook her head, making a puzzled look with her eyebrows. “I do not quite . . .”
            I was shocked that Kuro had not told her. I wondered why he wouldn’t, and perhaps, it was better not to inform Calla that this was Kuro’s idea. “Cael has informed me of these orders,” I lied. Because Calla was my inferior, she could not question or disobey me. I knew she wanted to ask why, yet I did not satisfy her curiosity. Instead, I reminded her, “You must not tell anyone of this, and you may not report to Cael. Cael does not want to attract unnecessary attention. You will simply report to me. Cael would like you to focus on being a good wife to Prince Hachiro. Understand?”
Calla simply nodded. I knew from her silence that she was unhappy. I couldn’t blame her; going to Kosei would have meant that she could see him. I kept forgetting about other people’s feelings, especially the fact that Calla was in love with Kuro. I was glad that I hadn’t let that slip from my mouth, yet for some reason, I couldn’t leave her alone to sulk. I felt . . . pity? For her? Honestly, I didn’t understand myself anymore.
“This was strictly from Cael, and for the good of the country,” I repeated this white lie.
Maybe, I was trying to appease my own guilt. I was trying to explain away something that shouldn’t have been so secretive. So what if Kuro was going to train me? I did not have any feelings for him, so I should not have been afraid of Calla. That was what I kept thinking even during the long carriage ride to Kosei. Under that mask was now me. I was living in the shadows while Calla would replace me in the light. I could feel my skin boiling under the porcelain mask. The road ahead was going to be hard, I could already tell, and so, I shut my eyes to dream away the very long nights.
“Why? Am I not enough?” I found myself asking aloud. I could see a man’s back facing towards me. He was prepared to leave me alone in this chamber, and out of haste, I chased after him, only to trip on my own feet. I winced in pain, screaming, “I love you more than she would ever love you!”
The man stopped at once, yet with his back still directed to me, he announced coldly, “Love cannot be forced.”
“She does not even appreciate all the things you have done for her!” I shrieked so loudly that my throat hurt afterwards.
At the same spot, he muttered in a gentle yet weak voice, “Love . . . does not have to be reciprocated. Love . . . is selfish and selfless all together.”
Gasping in between my tears, I pounded my fists onto the cold, stone floor. “Then you would rather she hate you for eternity?”
He twisted his neck ever so slightly, just to the point where I was in view of his smirk. “If that will make her remember me forever . . .
“Then . . . I will make you remember me forever too!” I shouted.
            Knock. Knock. Knock.
            “Miss,” the man instructed outside of the carriage, “we have arrived.”
            “Arrived at?” I verified.
            “Your destination, of course. Karasuma!” he declared. Once the carriage opened, I saw the familiar palace now sprinkled with cherry blossoms. As I was being mesmerized by the snowfall of flower petals, the coach man muttered to me, “Beautiful is it not? The plum trees really do amaze me. The Prince was right to plant so many of those trees even long after the fire.”
            “Plum trees? Fire?”
            “Yes, Miss. Have you not heard of the legend?”
            “Emperor Karasuma wanted to please his beloved Empress Ghislaine, and so he planted rows and rows of plum trees. Every spring, they would have a festival to celebrate the blossoming of such trees. However, after the great fire that consumed most of the Palace, this whole place was bare,” he explained.
            “What fire?”
            “No one is sure what happened, but this was presumably right after Empress Ghislaine’s death. People said neighbouring countries tried to attack the Palace, taking advantage of Emperor Karasuma’s weak state of mind, but others believe that it was he, himself, that burned this place down.”
            I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and so I wondered, “Why would he burn down this castle?”
            “My guess is that he did not want to remember the Empress at all.”
            “The memory itself was too painful to handle.”
            Would discarding every piece of evidence related to one’s love really destroy a painful memory? I found that hard to believe, yet I could understand the crazy things people do when in love. I had been one of those people too. I cried till no more. I kept wondering why all the bad things had to happen to me, why did he have to cheat, why was it with her too? In the end, I learned not to forget these memories, but I learned to accept them. Maybe, that was what the Emperor wanted to do then. The disappearance of the plum trees was a way of accepting the Empress’ death. Why would Kuro ever . . . plant them back though? That really made me wonder. Did he solely want for the plum trees to amaze guests?
            Knowing Kuro, he probably would not make any foolish investments. These rows and rows of plum trees served a purpose other than beauty. While I was lost in thought, the wind unexpectedly blew so furiously that I felt the bottom of my skirt lift upwards and the mask that covered my face was being blown away. Carelessly, I chased after the porcelain mask, yet my foot tripped over a pebble, causing me to tumble on my knees. Looking straight ahead, I saw a pair of setta sandals along with tabi.
            “Silly, are you not?” I recognized this voice instantly. It was Kuro’s. As I pulled myself up to my knees and reached forward to pick up the mask, he was able to snatch it first. Instead of returning it to me, he placed it over his face and proclaimed, “You will not need this here anymore.”
            I stammered, “Ex-ex-excuse me?” Kuro surprised me by sweeping me off of my feet. He carried me like a true gentleman. I couldn’t see his expression from the mask, though I could still observe his stern eyes that made me particularly nostalgic. I had witnessed this gaze before, and that in itself made my chest grow sore. He was in pain . . . because of me. For some reason, I extended my hand towards his cheek and touched it. “I . . . I am sorry,” I found myself apologizing.
            “For what?” he asked.
            My mouth muttered by itself, “For everything.” Then, there was a tear that trickled down from the socket of the eyes of the mask. “Please . . . do not . . .” I urged while wiping away his sadness. “I feel even guiltier that way . . .”  
            “Then . . . you . . . remember now?” he questioned rather quietly.
            I thought my heart had stopped beating from his one question, yet instead, I felt the urge to embrace him. Clearly, I wasn’t myself. I wasn’t thinking at all either. I just . . . kissed him or rather, the hole in the mask reserved for his lips.   
            Cold. His lips tasted far too cold for my liking, yet I felt an odd wetness pressed against my cheek. Was he crying again? Why? Before I could even conclude anything, I felt Kuro push me away and set me onto my feet.
            “A job well done,” Kuro took off the mask and commended me as I stood before him. “You will surely capture Ichiro’s heart.”
            Kuro tossed the mask back in my hands, causing me to almost croak something absurd. Instead, I wondered, “Where will I be living?”
            “Miss! Miss!” I turned around to discover that the man who had driven the carriage for me was shouting at me. “You forgot your—“ Immediately, the man bowed fully to Kuro. “Your Highness . . . please excuse me. I was going to bring this lady to her chamber, but she—“
            “Maeno-san,” Kuro interrupted him, “you should be more careful next time. This lady here . . . Renelle . . . has trouble obeying orders. You are to watch over her strictly and carefully.”
            “Yes, Your Highness,” he answered.
            “Good. Show her the room, and follow the instructions I gave you yesterday,” Kuro instructed before heading off to his duties.
            As soon as Kuro vanished, Maeno-san relieved a hefty sigh. “Goodness. You almost had us murdered!” he boldly claimed. “You were too fortunate that our Lord took it lightly on you.”
            “Oh . . .” I murmured.
            “Though . . . I wonder why he was even there in the first place.” Maeno-san scratched the back of his head.
            I wondered too. I wondered how Kuro could just magically appear in front of me. Was he waiting for me all this time? And why was he carrying me like that? That question too puzzled me, and goodness . . . I almost shrieked aloud. What was I even thinking . . . kissing him?
            “Renelle-san?” Maeno-san looked back at me with much confusion.
            “Oh . . . it is nothing,” I lied.
             You will surely capture Ichiro’s heart.
            Then, that question haunted my mind: what of your heart?
Would I be able to capture yours?