Chapter 15.1: Forbidden Fruit

            Maeno-san showed me where I resided, and to my surprise, it was the same room that I was in the first time I arrived at this palace. There was that eerie portrait of Princess Ghislaine I, causing goose bumps to run down my spine, but the painting of her wasn’t what really bugged me.
            “Is this not . . . Ku . . . no, the Lord’s chamber?” I wondered.
            “Oh . . . it is,” Maeno-san explained. “Why . . . do you look surprised?”

            I almost blurted out all of my confusion, yet, I took a deep breath to calmly utter, “I believed that I was a maid of this household?”
            “A maid?” Maeno-san exploded in laughter. His head was cocked backwards as he held onto his stomach. “That is far too amusing! Far, far too amusing!”
            “I was . . . being serious,” I mumbled.
            All of a sudden, Maeno-san’s tone turned serious along with his gaze. “Look,” he told me. “If you were a maid, you would have had to travel by yourself here. I would not be serving you, and the Lord would never even know of your existence. To be frank, I am shocked that you would not even know your place.”
            “I must have been misinformed,” I attempted to lie.
            “Or foolish,” Maeno-san folded his arms together to grumble. “You should feel particularly fortunate.”
            “Because?”
            “I hope you are simply playing dumb with me. Our Lord does not tolerate stupidity.”
            Again, I stressed, “I was told something else for my position.”
            “Well, whoever did that has misinformed you,” he added. “In fact, my Lord has introduced you as his mistress.”
            I almost fell onto the ground again, and the cuts I received on my knees unexpectedly became more painful than ever. “B-b-b-but . . .”
            “Yes? Miss?”
            “N-n-n-nothing,” I stuttered.
            I heard Maeno-san’s soft scoff towards me before he instructed, “You are free to wander around the gardens and the areas within the Palace, but do return before dinner. My Lord expects you for dinner.”
            “Oh . . .”
            Before Maeno-san departed, he left me with one more sentence: “If you are lucky enough, maybe you will be a consort and be able to produce an heir which my Lord lacks.”
            “But . . . wait,” I chased after him, wondering, “Kuro . . . I mean, His Highness . . . is . . . married?”
            Maeno-san gawked at me quizzically. Sporting a frown, he bobbed his head side to side. “You are . . . really . . . foolish,” he mumbled. “What made you think that he would not be married?”
            Maeno-san’s question stunned me. Actually, I should have known better. Kuro was several years older than me, clearly at the age of a married man. Really, whether he was single or not did not bother me at all. As long as he did not take advantage of me, then I would be fine. He already had forced me into this deal; I was silly enough not to have foreseen this happening. Sighing to myself while I drifted towards a nearby garden, I reminded myself that I had to be more wary. I had started to rely on others too often from Beau to even the Kotone Princes that I had met several months ago.
            My hand rested on the trunk of a red magnolia tree, and suddenly, a slight breeze slipped by me, causing the petals to graze across my cheeks and scatter in my hair. The bustling trees swayed their branches to reveal, from faraway, a dark haired woman sitting at the edge of a pond. She lifted her head to gaze at me rather intensely. Her blood red lips curved upwards before focusing her attention back to the pond.
            I knew I should not have strayed too far, yet I was drawn towards her. When she and I exchanged glances, it seemed like she was telling me that she wanted me to approach her. As if in a trance, I strolled in her direction, marching down a narrow path covered by tree branches. Pushing my way past them, I could feel the flower petals sprinkle all over my body. I had a feeling that Kuro would not be pleased to see me in this state, yet I could care less. This woman had a story to tell, and I had a feeling that she wanted someone to listen to her.
            When I was finally a few steps away from her, she gracefully tilted her head to face me. Her slender fingers pushed back a few strands of her to her ear as she grinned at me again. This time, I realized why I was even drawn by her. She was . . . the most beautiful woman that I had ever encountered. She was even more mesmerizing than the Queen. This woman had long, flowing straight hair all the way to her stomach. She had large, seductive eyes that reminded me of a butterfly’s wings that flapped so elegantly in the air. With her small yet high nose bridge and porcelain skin, she could have been a goddess. Her elaborate, pastel green kimono matched her aura completely, making me unsurprised that she was hidden deep within the magnolia forest. If I were her lover, I would have forbidden her to venture outside. I would cage her here, so no one could discover her or take her away from me.
“You must be my Lord’s new love,” the woman muttered in a raspy, gentle voice, reminding me of a news anchor. Her eyes were still fixated on the koi that swam near her feet as she tossed bits of bread into the water. I watched the fish nibble at her feet, and it was then that she gawked at me. She opened her mouth to announce strictly, “Do not give your heart to him. He is a cruel . . . yet gentle man . . . the sort that will cause you much grief.” Then, she extended her arm straight and sprinkled the remaining bits of bread into the pond. All the fish gathered right where she tossed the food, and so she snickered. “I wonder . . . who will eat whom.”
So this was a game for her. I could barely see sincerity in her eyes, yet I could not figure out her motive. Why was she trying to provoke me? What was the outcome that she sought?
“I wonder why you seek to know that answer,” I decided to say.
The lady cackled quite loudly that the birds even flocked away from us. She did not stop laughing until she stared at me once more. “Because it is amusing,” she answered with a sharp, menacing stare. “Ha! Ha! Ha!” She stood up at once and marched to me. Immediately, I inched backwards closer to the pond, yet she still approached me fiercely. Grabbing onto my shoulders with so much force that I nearly winced, she proceeded to shout, “You will learn! You who.re! Don’t you dare steal him from me! You witch!” Tears were nearly bursting out from her eyes. I was not sure whether or not to pity or fear her. Instead, I was simply stunned by her reaction and what she did next. She threw her hands around my neck to choke me. “Die! Die! Die!” she shrieked while tightening her grasp. “You will never take him away from me! You will never, ever have him! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
With her whole weight on top of me, I fell backwards into the water. My back, bottom, and legs were drenched in coldness. I was struggling to maintain my balance, but most importantly, I was finding it harder and harder to breathe that I could barely see her face. The evil chiming from her were never ending. They were taunting me, trying to convince me to succumb to her. I knew I couldn’t close my eyes, and so my right arm attempted to reach out to stop her. My arm, however, barely had any strength left. To be frank, I wanted to give up. I wanted to close my eyes. Deep down, I knew I was praying that someone would come rescue me. That was the easiest way to escape . . . even when I knew that no one would be here.
Perhaps what this lady was doing was to remind me to be independent again. Renelle, I told myself, this was the consequence that you faced for becoming too close to others. A tear trickled down from the corner of my eyes as I fought hard for the last breath.
No!
Don’t leave me again. Just stay. I don’t care. Just stay.
            I used all the power that I could left and pushed her away from me. One more breath, and then I collapsed head down into the pool of water. Cold, I thought. Very, very cold.
            The way he ogled at her made my fists clench and the blood rushing through my body boil. He was always . . . always . . . watching her. Even from faraway, I knew that whenever he simply stared into space, he was dreaming about her. She would always occupy his mind, but . . . she clearly had no interest in him.
            “You should reconsider the marriage proposal from the Prince. He would treat you well,” he explained while sipping on his tea. “You are already over the standard age.”
            His words hurt . . . so much that I had trouble swallowing down my spit. He knew exactly how I felt about him, yet he still had to smite through my heart. How cruel could he be? Why could he only have eyes on her? I was the one by his side all these years. Why her? She never, ever even cared about him. She was not tremendously beautiful nor was she incredibly wise. She also hated him and treated him poorly when he did everything for her. Why, I kept asking myself. Why her and not me?
            Then, he had to add, “You cannot always stay near me. There are already rumours regarding our relationship, and I do not want to be the one who stops you from marrying well.”
            I tried my best to breathe deeply, so I would not shout at him. If he stared at me heartlessly, I would not even know what to do. If he chose to deny my existence, I would have jumped to my death. How could he be so . . . selfish and malicious? Why could I not be near him at least? Why could I not even have the right to love him?
            “If . . .” I started to blurt while focusing on his fingers that now rested at the rim of the cup.
            “Yes?” he questioned.
            “If . . . you never had the . . .” I could feel my cheeks warming and my body growing cold. I could barely feel my hands at this point, yet I continued to state, “Opportunity to . . . meet her . . . w-w-w-w-would you have . . . allowed me to r-r-r-r-remain . . . close to you?”
            “Most likely,” he muttered rather casually. I watched him lift the cup upwards for another drink before he turned his head to the gardens. I too followed his gaze and realized why he was even here in the first place. He was . . . waiting for her to appear. He knew what her routine was now, and saying that he wanted to clear his mind to determine what to do with the country was just an excuse.
            I could not bear this scene anymore. I knew that if I wanted to help him, I should have agreed to the marriage. Instead, out of fury, I hollered, “I will not agree to that marriage. If you want me to marry him, then I will hang myself to death.”
            He did not even answer me. I understood that he was not even listening to me. His eyes were on her and only on her, and it was then that I realized that he would never look at me. He would never love me no matter how intently I focused on him. He would always love her, and so . . . I knew what I had to do.
            I looked to my palms, and my heart was settled on this path. If he had to hate me, then so be it. At least that way, he would always remember me.
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