Chapter 16: Using or Caring
            My bruising disappeared after several days, and it was around the sixth day that Maeno-san came to visit me and to inform me that Kuro had summoned me. I was to have dinner with him like I was supposed to before, so I waited at one of the large tatami rooms that Kuro had for guests. As I knelt down properly, I couldn’t help but wonder what he had to discuss. Was he going to ask me what I was doing there? What would I say in that case? I was just bored? If he was not going to question me, then was he going to start training me?

            I felt my hands clench onto the edge of my kimono while my eyebrows furrowed together. “You appear as if you are cursing someone to their demise,” I shifted my head to find Kuro marching into the room, stopping right in front of me. With one knee glued onto the floor, he leaned forward and pulled my chin forward just so that I could face him properly. “This is not the expression I wish to see,” he uttered. “Understood?”
            Bitterly, I murmured, “Understood.”
            “Good.” He immediately sat on his bottom like a proper prince before instructing for the servants to arrive with food.
            We had our own little wooden tables with only a few dishes. This was out of the ordinary for Koseian royalty; there were supposed to be a multitude of dishes featuring exotic meats. In this case, we were simply dining on local vegetables and steamed ginger salmon. To be honest, I was not so surprised by Kuro’s choices. He was not the type to spend money on luxury, instead, he was the sort that only invested in what he thought was necessary. There were more important matters to concern about than food, and that idea was even clearer to me when he immediately spoke of work.
            “The fish tastes delicious,” I commented after taking a small bite of the food.
            “You must not start with the meat,” he told me while using his chopsticks to grab some enoki mushrooms. “You must eat the vegetables first and reluctantly eat any type of meat.”
            “I . . . understand,” I mumbled.
            “And . . . remember to be very timid and gentle.”
            After a moment of silence, Kuro continued to instruct, “Do not be afraid to be clumsy. In fact, make mistakes every now and then, but make them seem like natural ones.”
He tilted his head up once, signalling me to attempt to make a blunder in front of him. I bought some time by slowly placing my chopsticks aside, yet before I placed them down, I knew that these were my weapons. They were the easiest to manipulate without seeming fake. As a result, I purposely slammed the chopsticks onto my table, angling in a way that would make them fling forward. Indeed, these chopsticks soar in the air and one of the pair even landed on Kuro’s lap.
“Ah! I am so sorry!” I quickly apologized as I scrambled towards him. Sadly, I tripped on my own kimono and fell chest first to the ground. Regardless of the pain, I crawled towards him on all four and then I reached forward to grab the wooden chopstick from his thigh. My cheeks felt hot when my hand lightly grazed his skin despite the fact that it was covered by his clothing. I was afraid that he’d see through my embarrassment, so I turned my head away. All of a sudden, I felt his hand grasp my wrist, which caused me to peer at him. Unfortunately, I could not stay in that position for long, and my muscles gave in, leading me to plant my face onto the lower half of his body. His hand still clung onto my wrist, pulling me upwards. As a result, I ended up pushing him onto his back. Towering over him, I stammered, “S-S-S-Sorry. I did not mean to—“
I halted my words upon seeing Kuro’s steady, emotionless face. There was not a hint of shame or frustration. He simply gawked at me, and I found myself admiring his handsome features. Truly, he had grown older. His eyes still reminded me of a cunning fox, yet it seemed as if they had become darker and drained of life. His hair had grown longer too, even his bangs. They tried to disguise his scar, but the position that we were in had caused his hair to be pushed backwards as well. I saw that mark that cut across his nose clearly. I always wondered how much pain this scar must have caused him. My fingers, for some reason, lightly traced the deep line. I saw his eyes close for a minute while my fingers passed by. Like ages ago, the same question slipped from my mouth, “Did it hurt?” Like before, he didn’t answer me, and so I continued to say as I touched the scar once more, “Even if it did hurt . . . I’m glad that . . . it’s there. I still think . . . it’s beautiful.”
Kuro straightaway sat upright, shocking me completely that I almost collapsed on my back; however, before I could, his hand supported me from behind. I was pushed into his arms that enveloped me. Was he . . . hugging me? Since I was thoroughly confused, I lifted my neck and took a glimpse at him.
“You are probably the only one that thinks that way,” he told me in a menacing tone.
“Why? You were punished for something leading you to receive this mark?” I wondered. Due to his silence, I carried on arguing, “Even if that were the case . . . I still . . . like it.” Like? What was I saying? How could I even use that word? That was extremely improper of me. Even in modern days, I should not have said that. What was I even thinking?  
Kuro’s voice turned soft as he whispered in my ear, “Thank you.” I could not believe what I was hearing. Thank you? Kuro was thanking me? Since when did he ever show gratitude towards other people? My stare caused him to look at me with much puzzlement. “I do thank those that deserve it,” he reminded me. Still, I didn’t believe him, and that was probably why he flicked my forehead.
“Ouch!” I winced. Instead of comforting me, he was laughing at me. Frowning at him, I grumbled, “That actually hurt quite a bit.”
With a wide smile, he pushed my side bangs behind my ear to take a better look at my forehead. His touch made my skin tingle and my cheeks fluster even more. “Seems fine to me,” he declared while I avoided eye contact with him. “Are you . . . becoming shy?”
“You are not supposed to . . . touch a . . . lady like that,” I remarked. “Th-th-that is improper.”
“And your sitting on me . . . is appropriate?” One glance down at my feet, and he was absolutely right. I was sitting on his lap, pretty much hugging him. Goodness, what was I even doing? Hastily, I retreated, but I had gone too far back and crashed into his table of food. “Careful!” he yelled. His warning came too late, and I managed to flip over a bowl of boiling soup which landed all over me. As I moaned in pain, Kuro surprisingly scooped me up and headed for the doors and then to the hallway. The servants waiting outside instinctively made way for us, though, all of them secretly took a quick look at me. Soup was dripping for the edge of my sleeves, making a trail that reminded me of Hansel and Gretel.
“Y-Y-You can release me,” I declared.
Kuro ignored me, rather, he instructed one of the servants to bring buckets of cold water to fill his bathtub. Then, he carried me all the way to a room with a large wooden bathtub. Within seconds, several workers came to dump cold water into the tub, and without warning, he placed me into the pool of freezing water.
“Stay there until I say you can be out,” he ordered.
Even though I was freezing, I still listened to him. I had probably burned some parts of my body, and I knew that I had to be submerged in cold water for at least ten minutes for the pain to subside. Who knew, though, that Kuro would remain here?
“You can . . . wait outside,” I told him quietly. Frankly, I did not want him to see my body soaked. That would have been . . . too much.
He gave me a look and then realized, “I shall ask for a new set of clothes for you as well as a towel.”
“Thank you.”
Moments later, two female servants enter the room and help me up as well as to dry my body. They dressed me quickly in the appropriate garments and tied my wet hair in a neat bun. As I walked out of the bathroom, Kuro was still waiting for me. He tugged at my collar to see if the red mark on my skin had disappeared. “Good,” he breathed a sigh of relief. “I will ask Salim to give you some ointment to ensure that you recover swiftly. I also suggest that you have an early rest. There will be much to do tomorrow.” Then, he turned his attention to the maids and demanded, “Follow her back to her room and make sure she stays there. She likes to wander.”
Passing by me, I couldn’t resist a grin. He knew me well. I had wanted to explore more of this castle. These wounds were nothing much to me, especially when Salim had medicine for me. His bruise cream had been particularly effective, much better than those that I had used in the 21st century. He probably would have been a millionaire if he had opened a pharmaceutical company over there. It was too bad for him . . . and for me.
When I settled back in my room, I was forced by the maids to be in bed. As I lay on my back, I turned my head to the windows. I peeped out at the plum trees and the tiny bit of the skyline of the town that I could see. I wondered when I could visit the city. Would he let me explore? How should I get out from here?
The door abruptly slid open, and a maid announced, “His Highness requested for a meal to be made for you.”
“Thank you,” I answered. Though the dishes were the same, I was still thankful that he noticed that I had not eaten much. I was actually amazed that he even recognized this little detail and that he even cared. Wait . . . I replayed the scenes that occurred tonight. He had thanked me for complimenting his scar. He had . . . hugged me. He had brought me all the way to a cold bath tub just so that I would not suffer much from the burns. Then, there was this—another set of dishes to make up for my dinner. As I took the chopsticks and grabbed a piece of the fish, I suddenly recalled that I had to eat vegetables first.
So . . . he did care . . . about me?
But why?
Right . . . I had to be healthy to be able to seduce Ichiro. He had to show affection to imitate what Ichiro would do to me so I would be prepared to face Ichiro. Those were the logical reasons, yet as I placed my hand over my heart, I could hear it thumping hard. My cheeks, too, were starting to boil when images of him holding onto me whizzed past my mind.
Renelle, get a hold of yourself. This is not what you think it is. Someone else is making you feel this way. There is no way that . . .
“Argh,” I groaned while massaging the side of my head. I was getting a headache for no reason, and I could hear faint, familiar voices.
            I will never love you! I will hate you with the depths of my heart!
            I did not have a choice.
            Lies! You had a choice. You chose to forcefully take me! You chose to hurt me! You ruined my happiness!
            He was destined to marry Hotaru. You knew that as well.
            I will always, always hate you for all my life and for my other lives to come! I will never, ever forgive you!
            Ghislaine . . . Ghislaine . . .
            I tried to steady myself, but I felt the world falling apart. I kept hearing that man call out to Ghislaine. He sounded so pitiful, so regretful. And then, there were the voices of the maids scrambling to figure out what to do with me. I believed I heard one of them saying to report to His Highness.
            My eyes were shutting, and I knew before long, that I would faint out of exhaustion. I thought I would hit the hard floor, yet I felt someone lift me up. I also felt a warm blanket being placed over me. Ah, there was warmth and comfort. This just felt . . . nice.
            Then, I felt something slightly wet pressing on my forehead. It was a tender feeling—something that I had long forgotten and had sought after for a long time. I believed that my lips mumbled, “Don’t go. Please.”
            I felt something brush by my eyes. Was I crying? Really? Was I that weak?
            I heard a whisper in my ears, “I was always there.”