Chapter 18: A Small Excursion
Yukina thought we could have a small adventure within this town. She said she needed a breath of fresh air, especially after being in court for so long. She told me that she hated performing for court officials because they never appreciated art. They only used artists as an excuse to drink, to discuss matters, or to admire the performers’ beauty. The nobles generally did not understand the true beauty behind art; they were shallow and greedy.

As a result, she prepared our disguises fairly well. We were dressed as merchants leaving the castle, and she had arranged for us to return by telling one of the guards, who happened to be one of her close friends, that we would come back before dawn.
A friendly farmer that was passing by offered us a ride on his wagon, and so we took his offer. During the trip to the city centre, Yukina started humming a sweet melody. I couldn’t resist asking her what she was singing.
“Oh,” she explained with a gentle smile, “this is just a child’s lullaby.”
“But I have never heard of this . . . lullaby,” I uttered.
Her smile grew wider as she clarified, “I used to cry a lot. Training was very difficult. They would starve us to keep our figures and hit us if we did not perform well enough. Back then, I was very clumsy and made a lot of mistakes. I would secretly cry at the garden, and one day, one of the customers caught me crying. He sang a song that his mother used to sing to him whenever he lost hope. His mother used to be a courtesan like me, and her lover had created this song for her before they were separated.”
            I had a feeling I knew who she was talking about; the look from her despairing eyes told me. She loved Goro a lot, more than she could fathom. He must have been the only man that was gentle to her. He was her only hope in life, what pushed her to live, yet Goro was already engaged to another princess.
            “Do not lose hope,” I found myself blurting.
            “As long as I can sing, dance, and play my instruments, then everything will be fine!” she cheerfully noted while stretching her arms in the air. Her hums grew louder, and soon, she opened her mouth to sing clearly. The people we passed by were all cheering and praising her voice. Even when we arrived at the heart of the city, the farmer did not request us to pay him anything. He said that Yukina’s voice was enough to make him feel wealthy, and it was true. There was something tantalizing and alluring about her singing. She did not have the strongest voice, yet she had one that could attract anyone’s attention. After all, she sang from her heart and soul, so she could relate to anyone.
            That, however, proved to be detrimental. As we ventured through the city, past the merchants and locals, Yukina still sang and skipped joyfully. Like a musical, there were others that joined in with her lovely singing, and several even recognized her as an oira. Those that did know her name asked for her to dance more, and a few even retrieved their instruments from their house to play for her. Unable to reject their kind requests, she did perform fabulously, so much so that there was soon a large crowd forming around her. At the end of the song, Yukina bowed in front of everyone, and as the crowd started to disperse, a young man dressed in a royal blue kimono approached us. He had a few servants behind him and a fan in his hand. Shutting the fan in half, he commended, “Ah, Yukina, Yukina, what a magnificent dance! I have been meaning to see you after all these years, yet you seem to refuse to see me! Now why is that? Mm?”
         Yukina, looking rather uneasy, answered, “I have been resting an old injury, and so I was allowed to return here.”
         “You seem perfectly fine now, Yukina . . .” This man glowered at her evilly as he approached her.
Holding her stance, Yukina answered, “It was only just recently that I have been healed.”
         “Which means that you can entertain me now?” He released a vicious, slanted grin, the sort that was found on classic villains. My instincts immediately told me that this man was dangerous and that he wanted to harm Yukina.
           “Unfortunately,” I stepped in between them and answered, “Yukina is currently serving my Lord.”
           “Your Lord?” the man snubbed me. “And who may that be?”
            “Prince Makoto Kuro,” I announced.
            “Ha!” He cocked his head backwards, shaking his head. “What blasphemy! Where is your proof?” he demanded.
            “Why do I need to show you proof when what I am speaking of is the truth?” I argued. I was pretty sure that he was merely a nobleman, but I was not afraid. Kuro was on a much higher rank than this fool.
            “Renelle!” Yukina pulled onto my sleeve, urging me to stop speaking.
            “What is it?” I snapped at her quietly.
            Then, what came out of her mouth caught me off guard completely. “He’s the Emperor’s youngest brother!”
            Prince Koyagi Yoshi. He was famous for being a womanizer as well as a sadist. It was said that he had secretly raped and murdered hundreds of girls, but no one could imprison him due to his high status. He was also known for his greed. He would supposedly accept bribes from court officials without a care in the world of his actions. The Emperor had always turned an eye away from Prince Koyagi’s actions because they shared the same mother. Plus, Prince Koyagi had not caused a huge disturbance to the overall kingdom; he was nothing but a little pest.
             Still, this pest was someone that even Kuro would have trouble countering, and so I fell silent. Instantly, Prince Koyagi snickered, “So you understand your place now?” I slowly nod my head, and as a result, he snapped his fingers and commanded, “Guards! Take these women away! They have obstructed the streets!”
I was expecting the two of us to be thrown in jail, but instead, he took Yukina away and tossed me in prison. I was thrown in a small cell after I had been hit by a large wooden plank thirty times on the back. Needless to say, my back was inked in blood, and I knew that sooner or later, I would lose conscious if the blood would not stop flowing out of me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman who was greatly injured with a deep cut along her chest and a battered face. One of her eyes was covered with a bloody, loose bandage, and as she opened her mouth to speak, I noticed that she was missing a few teeth: “What are you in here for?”
“I was trying to help a friend,” I groaned throughout my explanation.
“Ah . . . so your friend has been taken to his lair huh?” the woman pondered.
“He has a room where he uses all these devices to play with the woman, more like torture,” she answered. “That’s what happened to me. I’m lucky that I’m still alive though.” She released a faint chuckle. “A lot of women ended up . . . you know . . . dead.”
“Why did he not free you then?” I asked while taking a seat on the cold, stone floor.
“Says I’m a fun toy, so he’s keeping me around for a while longer until my wounds heal,” she replied. “I’m pretty sure that the next time, I’m going to be dead, and you shall be soon as well. He does not like keeping people in his cells for long.”
“I see.”
            That meant that my time was definitely ticking to the rate of my blood loss. How could I stop myself from bleeding? I searched the area to see if there was any clean water for me to clean the wound. No. Nothing of that sort. There was only heaps of what looked like straw to me along with a bucket of murky water beside the woman. I knew I had to apply pressure too, so I decided to take off my kimono. As I proceeded to strip, I realized that one of the guards was peeping at me. He had a set of keys hanging near his waist. Immediately, I understood what I had to do now. Seduce him.
            I first picked up some sharp splinters of straw and stuffed a few in my hand. Slowly, I untied the bow at the back of my kimono and purposely showed my one of my bare legs to him as the split fabric started to cut through at the bottom. I took a few steps closer to the bars and pretended to have trouble taking off my clothes. “Excuse me?” I asked aloud. “Could you do me a favour please? I need someone to help me untie my kimono.”
            “Our m-m-m-master says we cannot help any of the prisoners,” the blushing man uttered as he tried his best not to look at me.
He was standing right across from his cell, and I could tell that he was becoming intrigued by my show, so I continued to press on, “But I cannot untie this by myself, and she is too weak to help me as well.”
Then, I squeezed my breasts together by wrapping one of my arms around them. I saw him gulp before he approached me. As soon as he extended his hand out to touch me, I grabbed onto his neck and pressed my thumb very firmly on the nerve located on both sides of his neck. He was screaming in pain, and quickly, I stabbed one of the sharp splinters into the spot I held onto, and within seconds, he fell to the ground. Before he completely collapsed, I reached for his keys and tried every single one of them. I knew that I had to hurry before the other guards came, and fortunately, the second key I tried worked.
“Run!” I yelled at the woman. “We have to go!” She kept limping behind me until she tripped and tumbled knees first onto the floor. I tried helping her up, but she couldn’t move anymore. Her legs were giving in to pain. “We ought to go! Please!” I urged.
“You go . . . ahead without me,” she told me.
“No,” I blurted. “I cannot leave an innocent woman to die.”
“I will only slow you down,” she murmured. “I truly cannot move anymore, so go. Go help your friend before she meets my fate.”
 “What . . . what is your name?” I decided to ask.
“You are the famous—“
“I am, but not anymore. You . . . You have a bright light, so you must live.”
Then, I bolted straight ahead with all of my energy. This prison was situated at the basement, so I had to find a set of stairs leading to the ground floor. Then I realized that the men were chasing after me towards a dead end. They had arrived where the stairs were. I was only lengthening my death sentence just by a slither.
“There she is!” A man pointed at me.
As a result, I did what a fool would do. I sprinted head on to the swarm of men. Tackling the first man in front of me, I managed to unsheathe his sword from his belt. Then, I stabbed him right in the stomach. Moving as quickly as I could, I started to hack my sword through this crowd. These men were completely shocked at what was happening. A woman was fighting against them and winning. Truth be told, these men were rather weak, far weaker than the Queen. Since I was more agile and faster than these old men, I managed to cut through a path for myself. I grabbed two lanterns that were hanging from the walls and tossed them towards the men. Luckily, there was hay all around this prison, so the fire burned perfectly.
Chuckling at my own work, I, again, ran. On my way, I saw Sakura, who had already been slaughtered. Her eyes were wide open and her neck had a large gash. I closed her eyes for her, and then took an ornate hair pin in the shape of a cherry blossom from her hair. Then, I ascended the flight of stairs and reached a zen garden. So, this twisted man used a garden to hide all of his evil deeds. Ironic.
As I scanned the area for any suspicious people, I noticed that there were beautiful cherry blossoms planted here. These trees did not typically belong at a zen garden, and cherry blossoms were only permitted in public streets or at a palace. This meant that I was still at the Emperor’s brother’s palace, so if I could navigate through this place properly, then I would be able to find Yukina. First, I would need to wash away the blood soaking my back and find a way to stop my bleeding once and for all. Second, I would need a change of clothes to mix within this palace. Third, I would need a helper.
The first task was somewhat easy to complete. This zen garden happened to have a koi pond, and although that would not be extremely sanitary, it was better than nothing. Subsequently, I stripped my kimono off and took a quick dip into this pond. I used the clean part of my clothing to dry myself off before ripping off my sleeves and using that fabric to wrap around my breast all the way to my back. That should be better than nothing, I thought to myself. Now, I was off to search for my disguise while sporting a borrowed sword which I tucked at my belt and a sleeveless kimono. If I could go to the maid’s quarter, then I could surely blend in there.
I followed the cherry blossoms, hoping that they would take me somewhere, and luckily, I seemed to have arrived at the kitchen. I could smell the aroma of food, particularly rice being heated from a stove. Upon hearing footsteps, I hid behind a tree.
“I will be right there!” a young girl shouted. “I just want to check on the shoyu.”
Shoyu? How could I have not noticed the barrels of soy sauce in front of me? I was exactly where these cooks made and stored soy sauce. This was great. I could blend in as a new maid or apprentice. I just need this woman’s clothes, and now out of the corner of my eyes, I could see her lifting one of the lids of the barrels. I knew I had to act quickly, so I sprinted to her and tossed my sword right at her feet. Shocked by my appearance, she was about to scream. However, I covered her mouth just in time and placed my arm against her neck.
“Strip,” I demanded, “or I will twist your neck right now and you will never see tomorrow.” I felt her twitch, wanting to fight me; thus, I knocked her down with a swift, heavy chop on her neck. Down she went and became unconscious. Within minutes, I took her rose kimono and replaced that with my dirty one. “Sorry,” I mumbled. Then, I lifted her and tossed her into one of the shoyu barrels. I placed the stone lid on top, shutting her there. I purposely used a rock to mark where she was, hoping that by the time I returned I could save her or that someone would notice she was gone. For now, I headed in the direction of the kitchen.
Upon entering the kitchen, which had an array of kamado stoves, I was questioned by an older woman, “Who are you?” I did not answer as I waited for her to reply for me, and indeed, she added, “Are you the new one? Because you are late! Do you not know that our Lord expects all of his meals on time?”
“I am very sorry.” I bowed with my head hanging low.
“Argh! And have you seen Ume-san? She said she was looking at the shoyu!”
“Oh . . . I am not sure,” I muttered. “I passed that area, and she was not there at all. Perhaps, she left for another place?”
“Ugh! That young imbecile. Always so irresponsible. Anyhow, deliver these meals to the Lord.”
“Yes,” I answered while receiving many, many plates held on a small rounded table.
“Follow me,” a younger woman instructed me. She had both of her arms full, and I was amazed by her strength. I was already struggling with all these plates, yet she could keep everything balanced. Because of my obstacles, I did not have the time to focus on the area around me. By the time we stopped in front of a sliding door, I had no idea where I was precisely in this castle. Now how was I going to escape? Foolish me. The woman with a dimple now reminded me, “Remember your manners and to call him our lord. Keep your head low as well.” Then, she announced, “My Lord, may we present you with your meal.”
“Come in,” he answered.
The door slid open as another servant from within the room pushed it along. Then, she moved ahead of me and I just followed her every move. As we respected the Lord and fulfilled our duties, I accidentally looked up and saw . . . Shou. Unfortunately, our eyes had met, and there was that stunned look coming from him.
“What is the matter, Shiro?” the Emperor’s brother questioned. “You know one of these women or are you just surprised by the dishes I have presented in front of you?”
“Of course by the dishes,” Shou lied.
“You lie,” he snickered. “As your uncle, I can tell when you lie, no matter how well you do it. So . . . which one of these ladies do you know?”
I was praying that Shou would not reveal me. The Emperor’s brother would surely recognize me and imprison me. Please, Shou, do not say that you know me.
“You speak of nonsense,” Shou muttered. “Of course I am only interested in these dishes. I already am betrothed to Ayaka, and my heart belongs only to her.”
Ouch. I felt my heart wince and twitch. That sentence bit me harder than I anticipated. Snap out of it, I told myself. You shouldn’t even be feeling anything, but still . . . my heart would not listen to my mind. The pain was seeping into my skin and to my soul.
“Ha!” he cackled. “More like your love for her status. Away you go, you maids! You seem to bore the Prince! Ha!”
I breathed a sigh of relief after leaving this room. At least, Shou did not admit that he knew me. I was safe there, but then, that made me wonder what in the world was he here for? Why did he seem so close to that callous man? What was their relationship? So many questions, yet so little that could be answered.
“We need to hurry back and report to—“
“Stop.” I turned around to find Shou standing behind me. “You . . . are under arrest.”
What? Under arrest? For what? The Emperor’s brother must have recognized me! I thought I hid my face well enough, but that wasn’t . . .
“We have been searching for you, you fugitive,” Shou continued to declare, “and now, you have nowhere to escape.”