“Ouch!” I cried out and opened my eyes. I was in a room decorated with magnolia. The paintings that draped the bamboo walls were all of different shades of magnolia. There were even a few vases containing that particular flower. I wondered . . .

“Ow!” I screamed in pain once more.
“Sorry, but I have to try to calm your nerves,” a familiar voice muttered.
I blinked a couple of times and looked at the man examining my wrist once, twice and then a third time. “S-S-S-Salim?” I stammered. “Wh-wh-wh-what brings you here?” He took another needle and without a warning, he poked it right in my skin. “Ow,” I moaned.
“Oh, stop whining,” he sighed while rolling his eyes, “and this is why I prefer poisoning than healing. Just pure, lovely silence.”
“What exactly happened after I was—“
“Nothing of your concern,” he interrupted me and took out one of the needles. “Just made sure they were subject to their demise.”
“Oh . . .”
As he reached into his medicine bag, he muttered, “I believe that we still had an agreement. You were to tell me of your dreams, so I can help you find a cure.”
“I thought you disliked healing others,” I informed him.
“But I do like solving problems,” he countered, “and you should . . . honour your agreement.”
“Then . . . what of that boy suffering from the same illness as me?”
“He . . . should be . . . under control, at least for now,” Salim murmured.
“But these dreams . . . are uncontrollable.” I let him know. “They strike when they want, and I lose count of time.”
Without any warning, Salim snatched the last needle from my wrist and tossed it in his bag. He sifted through that bag to find some paper, brush, and some ink. “Continue on,” he instructed.
I took a moment to wonder how much I should reveal to him. Was it safe to let him know everything? Nestor had said that I should keep everything to myself. Speaking of Nestor, I had not heard from him lately. He must have been busy sorting out matters in Slianvwi, protecting that little Prince, so he had not responded to my last letter. In fact, I should have updated Nestor that I was in Kosei. He deserved to know where I was. He was to be trusted, right? Then what of Salim? Was this poison master . . . credible?
“Was that all?” he pressed on. “I am sure you remember some details.”
Since I learned a bit of the boy, I decided to reply, “The dreams are very confusing. I feel like . . . I’m the person I’m dreaming about. Frankly, I do believe . . . that I may be . . . her.”
“Oh . . . so it is a girl?”
“Yes . . . a woman.”
“What does she look like?”
“Koseian. She is probably wealthy, regal, and she seems well-loved,” I clarified. “What about the boy? What sort of monster did he dream of?”
“He dreamt of a man . . . of great power. Was the woman that you dreamt of quite powerful as well?”
The woman I just dreamt about . . . she did not seem like the usual one. She had so much hate and jealousy buried within her. Moreover, she was in love with that man, that man that . . . that other lady seemed to despise . . . at least . . . that was what it seemed. Who was this other lady then that wanted to suffocate me? What was her significance? Why did she appear after that . . . creepy, yet beautiful lady . . .
“Salim . . .” I unexpectedly noted after taking a glimpse outside and noticing that magnolia trees too filled the landscape. I must be in one of the rooms that that woman resided. “There is a woman . . . that lives here. Am I right?”
“Oh . . . you mean Princess Sachi?”
“Princess Sachi? I do not believe that I have ever  . . . heard of—“
“She is Chancellor Nagasawe’s second oldest daughter.”
The role of the chancellor was to be in charge of all of the officials, and he was the closest to the Emperor of Kosei besides the lords of each province. If the Emperor fell ill, he would temporarily substitute, and in the situation that the Emperor was to pass away, the chancellor would reveal the Emperor’s will and for the first few months, the chancellor would guide the new Emperor. From what the Queen had taught me, I should have remembered who the Chancellor’s sons and daughters were, except, I had no recollection of Chancellor Nagasawe having three daughters. I was told that he had two sons and two daughters. One of the daughters was married to a nobleman in Aquilla, whereas the other had wedded Prince Juro despite their seven-year age gap. Why was it, then, that the second daughter was never mentioned? Did the people hide her on purpose? Was there some sort of scandal related to her?
My eyes wandered towards Salim’s, and after a few seconds, he remarked, “I know what you are thinking. To answer your question, Princess Sachi lives in seclusion. She prefers to remain hidden from the court, and that is most likely for the better.” At the snap of Salim’s fingers, the wooden door of this room slid open and in came Ashur with a bucket of cold water plus a towel. Before I could even greet Ashur properly, Salim instructed to Ashur, “Remember to change the water once it becomes warm. These blood marks must heal faster and must not be permanent.”
Ashur nodded while agreeing, “Yes, I understand.”
Salim now proceeded to leave, but I uttered, “Is she . . . emotionally unstable?”
Unfortunately, Salim ignored me and made his way out. Ashur and I were left in this lonely, bland room. Really, there was nothing much to this place besides the lovely flowers blossoming outside. Though paintings hung from the wall, those were fading in colour, and the overabundance of magnolia felt suffocating and made this place even lonelier.
“I apologize, Princess, if this will be too cold,” Ashur announced prior to icing my neck. I let out a tiny gasp, causing Ashur to murmur, “Sorry.”
“There is no need to apologize,” I answered. “You were not the one that caused these marks.”
“I apologize on behalf of Princess Sachi as well,” he said quietly as his head hung low. He was sitting with his back straight and feet tucked under his legs. His hands were gently putting pressing against my neck, making sure that I felt the least amount of pain as possible, which was far too different from Salim. “She can be a difficult patient.”
“Patient?” I wondered.
“Sorry,” he apologized again. “I believe I am not allowed to tell you more.”
“There is . . . something wrong with her mind, am I correct?” I tried guessing.
“I . . . really cannot say.”
“Oh please, Ashur,” I kept urging, “I should, at least, understand why I was attacked by her.”
Ashur only gave me a sympathetic look as he continued to look after me. In fact, every so often, he would change the towels to maintain the right temperature, and after a while, the cold towels became warm ones—the standard way of healing bruises. At the end, he brushed some sort of ointment on my neck before informing me, “I beg you, Princess, please stay away from Princess Sachi. She is not one to be reckoned with. I will stand guard outside this room to make sure no one disturbs you and to check on your blood marks. My master has said that you should stay the whole night here.”
“But . . . I thought I was to return for dinner?” I confirmed.
“Oh . . . our Lord already knows of your absence.”
I had no idea why I asked this, but I still did: “W-w-w-was he irritated?”
“That I am unsure of,” he responded rather coolly. “Perhaps, it would be best if you confirmed with Master Salim? Should I ask him for you?”
“O-o-oh no!” I urged. “I-i-it’s nothing important.”
“All right then. Rest well, Your Highness.”
With that word, Ashur left me here in this creepy room. I tried closing my eyes to force myself to sleep, yet I kept wondering about what that lady had told me. I was his new toy? How many “toys” did he have then? When would I be abandoned? Until I was of no use to him? Yes, I was sure that that would be the case, but I was fine with that resolution. I was using him too to survive. We were both parasites. We did what we had to do to live, and as for that woman, she was doing what she needed to do to survive as well? By killing me?
You will learn! You! Don’t you dare steal him from me! You witch!
Those eyes of hers, I would never forget. Those hands of hers, I would fear.
Die! Die! Die! You will never take him away from me! You will never, ever have him!
Immediately, I opened my eyes and got out of the bed. My neck and my throat were still throbbing, yet my instincts were telling me to escape. I couldn’t stay here longer. The longer I was here, the more it seemed like I would be cursed by her. There was just something about Princess Sachi that was off. If only I could figure out what . . .
Now, I just had to think of my escape route. If I could see the outside, then this window could have some sort of opening. Unlike the windows at Urcis, these were more like doors that had translucent paper covering hollow wooden blocks. From the way most Koseian palaces were designed, the whole room could have a panoramic view of a garden. Now, Ashur could not be guarding all areas the whole time, and so I concluded that he must have been patrolling the area from time to time. If I could figure out his rhythm, then I knew which side I could escape from.
This time, I stood up and closed my eyes to listen carefully for Ashur’s footsteps. He had a tendency of walking rather quickly, which worked to my disadvantage. It would take me at least ten seconds to slide this door open and then I would at most, get a head start of five seconds. Judging that he was still a young kid, I could maybe add another ten seconds to be ahead of him. Even then, these seconds were all worth it. This area of the palace was just too unhealthy for me.
Step. Step. Skip. Skip. Step. Skip. Skip . . .
I instantly pushed the door to the side, picked up the edge of my skirt, and ran straight ahead in my bare feet. I could hear Ashur shouting for me to stop and to come back. He said I was heading in the wrong direction. Still, it was too late for me to even listen to him since by the time I caught my breath, I realized that I was in the middle of this crazy magnolia forest. Simply put, I was lost.
Lifting my head up to examine my surroundings, I gave out a sigh. Now what was I supposed to do? Run back? That seemed so silly. How was I going to find my way back then?
My heel shifted as I unexpectedly heard the sound of whimpering. I followed the sound of a girl crying without thinking, and just as I pushed back a branch, I noticed who was crying. It was . . . Princess Sachi. Another peek revealed that she was with a man, and that man happened to be Kuro. He was holding onto her despite her pounding his chest. She was now demanding where he had went and why he had to find another lady.
“Do you not love me anymore?” Princess Sachi voiced in a scratchy tone. She glanced up at him with the sweetest, loveliest pair of eyes that I had ever witnessed. If I were a man, I would have even been charmed by her. “Is that why you left before too?” she questioned while thrashing her fists harder at him, who stayed very, very still. “Why? Why? Why?” she kept screaming until Kuro held onto one of her wrists.
“Stop,” he demanded before pulling her towards him. My hand pressed against my chest as I watched him stroke her hair, mumbling, “Sorry. I am truly sorry.”
Accidentally, I had let one of my feet slip, causing a rattling noise. Kuro’s eyes instantly ventured in my direction, and I knew he had seen me. He was glaring at me so viciously that I was worried that he would hurt me in some way, so I hid behind a tree trunk as fast as I could. Despite knowing that this was a foolish tactic, I had no other choice. I just prayed that he would not make a fool out of me in public. Please, Kuro, I chanted in my head. Please . . . don’t . . . come here.
            Instead, I heard the rustling of the leaves, and I could almost smell his scent. However, he stopped abruptly, and surprised me by calling out to Princess Sachi, “Let us return to your chamber.”
            I felt a sense of bitterness slide down my throat and into my pounding chest. Remembering to breathe, I inhaled very deeply and then exhaled slowly. Calm down, Renelle, I reminded myself. It was just Kuro. Right. And whatever he does is none of my business, I told myself. So what if he was to bed her? He was entitled to many, many female encounters. He was allowed to love whoever he pleased, and whoever that he adored was nothing that I should care about at all.
            Then . . . why did my chest hurt so much? Why did I feel like crying?
            I threw a punch at the tree trunk before burying my head in my arms. Renelle, you promised that you wouldn’t cry anymore. You are stronger than that, I said to myself. You shouldn’t even be caring about something so trivial. You have to focus on returning to Urcis. You should not even . . .
I will never love you.
            The tears just would not stop, and I had inkling that my body was responding to someone else’s emotions. I wouldn’t be crying so easily. I wouldn’t even be this emotional, especially towards someone like Kuro. He and I were more like business partners. There was no way that I could have developed feelings for him so quickly, yet I felt the same way when I saw what Thayne and Adriana were doing. What was happening to me then? What would be wise for me to do now?
            Frankly, I wasn’t sure. I just knew that I had to release these feelings quickly, and then I would be fine once again. I would be back to normal, and that . . . would be nice.