Chapter 17: Maeno Yukina
I knew that I should have been used to waking up alone, yet today, my eyes searched the room for the whisperer. Who had said those words to me? Were those parts of a dream or this reality? I kept wondering those questions as the maids came to dress me. Even when they accidentally combed too hard through my hair, I did not mind. My mind was far too preoccupied with understanding that odd vision. Clearly, Ghisaline despised him. Thinking back to my previous dreams, Ghislaine had always expressed anger towards one man. She kept declaring how much she hated him, and I could understand why, especially after he raped her. Then, there was that man that married Hotaru as opposed to Ghislaine. She clearly had feelings for him, yet she was forced to be with that man she despised. According to history, she married Emperor Karasuma, so . . .

“Ah!” I screamed out of delight after piecing together who the mystery man she hated was.
“Is something the matter?” one of the maids inquired.
“No. I just thought I forgot something,” I lied.
So, I had one man’s identity uncovered, then what of the man that chose Hotaru over Ghislaine? Perhaps, I could find some records of the past to investigate further. Even if I did determine who he was, what good would that do? What was I supposed to do next?
Because . . . there is someone waiting for you. Someone . . . who needs your love more than I do.
            I suddenly remembered what Beau had told me a long time ago. Was that it then, Beau? You remembered your life before, so you knew exactly who all those men were. Which man was I supposed to look for then? I exhaled deeply, wondering if my life was solely focused on love. That . . . would have been particularly meaningless.
            We create our own purposes even though we may be unaware. We mend the past to carve the future. Remember that every decision you make can determine what is to come. Every decision leads you closer or farther from what you must return and every decision affects your fate and the fate of your relationships.
            The Oracle’s words seemed to breathe in through the light breeze that unexpectedly entered the room. The sliding doors had been shut, yet for some reason, today was a windy, spring day, causing me to sneeze.
            “Sorry,” I apologized to the maids.
            “Sorry seems appropriate,” Maeno-san stood beside the door with his hands crossed together. From his menacing glare, I guessed that I had sneezed on him. “My Lord,” he began to instruct, “has organized lessons for you. Your instructor is already waiting for you in the study room. I will guide you there as soon as they are finished with your hair.”
            “Thank you, Maeno-san,” I answered.
            “No need to thank me,” he uttered. “It is my duty.”
            After the maid pinned the last flower into my hair, Maeno-san escorted me to the appropriate room. Inside, there was a lovely woman waiting for me. She was dressed in a vivid kimono coloured with various flowers, yet she sat so elegantly and beautifully at the centre of the plain room. Although she was not as pretty as Princess Sachi, this lady still had her own charm. She had wide, rouge lips, a set of cat-like eyes, and a long, pointy nose. With one of the sweetest voices I had ever heard, she announced, “So this is His Highness’ latest treasure.”
            “So he has many treasures then and switches often?” I accidentally pondered out loud.
            “Well . . . I believe this is the first time that he has allowed a lady to stay within his palace for more than a night.”
            I scoffed at that remark and rolled my eyes. Men were all the same. Pathetic. A cough came from Maeno-san, who probably spotted my behaviour. “My Lord does favour you much to allow you to learn from my sister, Yukina.”
            “Nii-san, you praise me too much,” Yukina shyly answered. Her cheeks reminded me of sweet, red apples, almost too ripe to eat. As they turned rose, I felt tempted to pinch them. Instead, I resisted the urge and thought about something else, her name.
            Yukina. Now that was a name that almost everyone knew; in fact, Yukina was like an A-list celebrity, what people called an oira. An oira had the task of performing her talents to men who requested them. The men could also request to sleep with an oira by paying a large sum of money to her retainer which housed many oira and geira. Geira were lower-class performers; there could only be a couple of oira within a household. Yukina happened to be one of the few oira within Kosei. She was extremely skilled at all the traditional Koseian dances and instruments, and she often invented new methods of playing music or dancing. She was what everyone regarded as an artistic genius, and what made her even more successful was her attractive appearance. I lightly snickered as I guessed why Kuro would introduce her to me. She was, after all, one of the best femme fatales. Indeed, I could learn much from her, and so I agreed with Maeno-san by lowering my head, “I believe that your older brother is right. You are far too talented. I am greatly taken by your presence.”
            “Miss! Miss! There is absolutely no need for you to bring your head beneath me! It is I who should bow at you,” she argued.
            “No . . .” I countered. “You are far more talented than me, so I do deserve to lower my head.”
            With a bold, sweet grin, she exclaimed, “In time, you will be the same as me or if not, even better! Rest assured. I will . . . train you well.”
            “My sister kids not,” Maeno-san warned me. “When it comes to training, she may be the strictest teacher I have ever known.”
            Indeed, Yukina was the sternest teacher I had ever encountered; she was even stricter than the Queen. If I did not play the right note, Yukina would force me to play the same note at least ten times. If I did not imitate her dance to the exact angle, Yukina would make me dance that segment over and over again until it was perfect. Even with sweat oozing down my forehead and my muscles already aching, she still demanded me to rehearse. There were barely any breaks because time was pressing. I was cramming several years of dance and music in a few months, and within several months, Ichiro was to choose his consort, and I had to be sure that he would fall for me.
             Thus, every day, I repeated the same movements and made the same gestures. Every note had to be precise. Every step had to be perfect, but then . . .
            Bam.
            I hit the ground all because my foot had given way and twisted in the wrong direction. Yukina immediately asked if I was all right, but I was too tired to even utter a word. My face was far too hot for me to even think about anything, and I was still too busy trying to catch my breath. Her one touch on my ankle, however, caused me to grimace within seconds, and so, she told me stay till while she looked for Salim. As I lay on my back with one of my hand stretched wide apart whereas the other wiped the sweat off of my face, I saw a tall man hovering right over me. He shot a glare at me, startling me.
            “Ah!” I yelped.
            This man had short, black hair that was too short for bangs. He had a set of large, icy, piercing eyes along with an aquiline nose. His arms were folded together as he mocked, “Only at this level?”
            I sat upright and gave me a good stare. His voice was far too familiar and unforgettable, yet his face . . . his face was quite different. I had no idea what his true appearance was anyways. Still, I could not hide my suspicions. I had to confirm: “We have . . . met before, am I right?”
            He rolled his eyes, snickering, “I suppose you are better in some ways.”
            “Why are you here?” I demanded. “And who sent you here?”
            He ignored me, and instead, uttered with a yawn, “I heard Desiderium was executed. She should have been long killed, and it might have been better if I had fulfilled that deed.”
            “No!” I hollered as I stood up. I had used too much power from that injured leg, making me wince.
            “You better fulfil Kuro’s order or else, this time, I will not hesitate to—“
            “Manabu! Manabu!” Yukina leapt in the air and attempted to tackle him for a hug. Manabu, however, reacted very quickly, taking a step to the side. “Ah,” Yukina moaned. “Why are you not happy to see me?”
            “We last saw each other . . . two days ago,” Manabu responded very coldly, “and you should be calling me Goro-san.”
            “B-b-but . . . we have known each other for so long, and you should be happier to see me!” Yukina grumbled.
            Meanwhile, Salim rushed in my direction and made me lie back down. He pulled my leg in a few directions to fix it in the proper place before putting some ointment and wrapping a few pieces of cloth around my wound. “Maeno-san,” Salim informed before leaving, “please allow Renelle to rest for a couple of days. In the meantime, Renelle can focus on practicing her instruments.”
            “Yes, yes. Of course I know. I will not work her too hard.” Yukina playfully winked before flashing a smile at Manabu. “Oh! I believe I have not introduced you two.” Yukina scratched the back of her head and blushed. “Manabu, this is Renelle, and Renelle, this is . . . umm . . . Prince Mizuki Goro Manabu.”
            I knew I should have knelt down in front of him, yet he had reacted faster than me, probably on purpose. “Nice to meet you,” he greeted while lowering his head. “Renelle.” Goro gawked at me rather viciously. I could feel his hatred beaming through his gaze, and then I recalled what Morganne had told me ages ago.
I don’t trust . . . this man. I already sense . . . his desire to kill.
Goro was about to reach for my hand to kiss it like in Urcis, yet I properly greeted him despite my injury. “Your Highness,” I pressed my forehead to the floor, “forgive me for not recognizing you.”
Goro had a slanted grin, so I knew that he was insulting me. In a demeaning tone, he proclaimed, “Since you are Kuro’s new favourite, I suppose we can forget about the formalities. Feel free to call me Goro or Manabu.”
“How come she is allowed to call you Manabu?” Yukina puffed her lips together and moaned.
Gently patting her head, Goro informed, “Well, be good now.”
“B-b-but we’ve known each other for far longer!” Yukina argued.
“Yes, yes,” Goro said. “I know.”
I watched Yukina’s eyes linger towards Goro, and I knew immediately that she was very much in love with this man. It was clear, though, that he had no interest in her, and he could not be in any way. She was, in layman’s terms, a high-class prostitute. She could never be a prince’s wife. Goro was the only son of Consort Mizuki, who was known for her gentleness and grace. She was once an oira that had charmed the Emperor one night. That night also allowed her to become pregnant with Goro.
It was said that many people opposed the Emperor’s marriage with her, yet some accepted because she still had royal blood running in her veins. Her family was of royal descent, yet their lavish tastes led to their demise. They spent away all of their money, and as a result, had to sell their daughters to become geira. Luckily, Consort Mizuki could dance and sing very well, and over the years, she had become an established oira. People also said that since she had been an oira, she had endured many hardships, leading her to develop a caring, loving heart. She never fought for the Emperor’s attention and love. She just lived her life peacefully.  
Consort Mizuki had also given birth to Princesses Mizuki Reina Mei, Mizuki Tsubasa Riri, and Mizuki Chikako Sumi. Princess Reina Mei had already married a high-ranked nobleman from Kosei, who was also one of the wealthiest merchants in the country. Princesses Tsubasa Riri and Chikako Sumi were identical twins, born several years after me. I believed that they were only twelve. They were definitely known for their playfulness and energetic nature. There were rumours that the two were skilled in archery, swordsmanship, and martial arts; they had urged their brother, Prince Goro, to teach them.
Then, that word struck me: prince. Goro was a prince, but he was clearly a part of the kuyaza. How was that even possible? The kuyaza was vehemently hated by the Emperor; anyone who was involved could probably be exiled or worst off, executed. Suddenly, I remembered what Shou had told me. The Emperor suspected Kuro of being involved with the kuyaza and that Shou and Yuu were to investigate this matter. Could Kuro really be part of the kuyaza?
There were a few signs that he was. He had given me the Queen’s fox tail. Goro, who was clearly part of the kuyaza, was visiting Kuro now. However, they could simply be friends visiting one another. Goro was also in charge of a neighbouring county called Ozaka, which was known for its herding of cows and sheep. They produced the finest meats and dairy products. Ozaka was not a very urban place, yet it was still important to the country. People relied on Ozaka for food.
            “Say,” Yukina, who now rested her chin on her palm, asked, “have you known Goro before?”
            Biting onto my lips uneasily, I murmured, “I suppose so . . .”
            She moved closer to me and hovered over me. I was still resting in a makeshift bed of blankets. Peering at me, she announced, “You do know that he will be marrying Princess Murasaki Yuriko Emi?”
            Princess Murasaki Yurkio Emi was one of the Emperor’s brother’s daughters. She was known for being a cold beauty, the type that never spoke a word to strangers or even smiled. People said her heart was made of stone. There was nothing that could sway or tempt her. She did not care for fashion or beauty. She only cared about books and other studies. There was a rumour that she was as smart as any of the princes, and it was a shame that she was born a female.
            “No,” I responded. “I did not have a clue, but . . . whether he marries or not is of no concern to me. I have no interest in him.”
            Yukina finally grinned and hit her palms together. “Ah! How foolish of me,” she commented as her smile grew brighter. “You are only concerned with Prince Kuro!”
            “Do not say such non—“
            “There is nothing to be ashamed of,” Yukina interrupted. “You are his recent interest, so of course, you would only be focused on him as well!”
            I corrected her, “No. You do not understand. He and I—“
            “Speak no more.” Yukina covered her mouth to giggle. “I know what happened that night.”
            “I do not understand—“
            “You were feeling ill, and then the maids were frantically searching for me. Instead, they found our master walking down the corridor. He immediately stormed to your room and then, and then, I was told by the maids to come to your room. I saw a peek of him, and he was giving you a kiss on the forehead. He was about to leave, but you begged for him to stay. Ah! So scandalous!” Yukina had her palms on her cheeks, and she swayed side by side like a palm tree.
            I, on the other hand, had my eyes bulging outwards. I could not believe what I was hearing. So . . . it wasn’t a dream that night. It was real, and Kuro was the one that had scooped me up and carried me to bed. He even tucked me in too. Why? Why in the world would he do something like that? He could have just left everything to the maids, and then, according to Yukina, he had given me a peck on my forehead. Whatever that was sort of wet on my forehead had been his lips. Oh my goodness! Why? Why would he even do something like that?
            I was always there.
            What did that sentence even mean?
            “Renelle!” Yukina, out of the blue, called out. “Your face is so red! Are you all right?”
            “I-I-I-I’m fine,” I mumbled. “I-I-I have just been . . . placed in the same room for too long. It may be better for me to go . . . for a walk or perhaps leave the castle for a breath of fresh air.”
            Yukina’s eyes then glistened, and her lips deviously formed a calculative smile. “I have the perfect idea!” she proclaimed before standing up. “Just stay here! I will be back soon!”
            Who knew, though, that seemed like the perfect idea would be a terrible one, one that I would always regret agreeing to?
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