Chapter 19: Rescue

            Shou escorted me with my hands tied behind my back till we reached his carriage. He pretended to push me into it using brute force, yet as soon as the door closed, he bellowed, “What in the Heaven’s name are you doing here? Do you know how dangerous this man is?”

            “I should be asking you that first question,” I grumbled while extending my hands out for him to unlock those chains.
            “Did Kuro send you here?” Shou inquired and stuck a key into the hook. He turned it once and I was finally free.
            “No. He would never let me out.” I answered and turned my wrists to the side a few times. Being locked in the same position was really painful and truly hindered my progress.
            “Then . . . what exactly happened?” Shou pondered. His eyes kept staring at my back, which was now soaked in blood once more. “We need to bring you to a physician,” he demanded. “Is Salim still at Kuro’s place?”
            “Yes,” I replied.
            “Good. We shall head back now to—“
            “No!” I refuted. “We cannot! My friend, Maeno-san, is still held captive here! I need to rescue her!”
            “Maeno-san? Isn’t that Kuro’s righthand—“
            “No, it is his younger sister, Yukina, the famous oira?”
            “Oh . . .” His palm rested under his chin, “her.”
            “You saw her?” I sputtered, almost jumping out of my seat. “Where did you see her? Is she still alive?”
            “She was forced to dance in front of us, but . . . I believe she sustained some grave injuries. She had trouble balancing,” Shou explained with his eyebrows clenched together. He bit onto his bottom lip as he rubbed his chin several times. Crossing his leg to the other side, he then concluded, “I am afraid . . . that there is nothing I can do to help her.”
            “Why not?” I shouted. “You could ask to borrow her for some performance?”
            “Not when he has unofficially claimed her as one of his wives . . .”
            “There is no and . . .”
            I shook my head, arguing, “There must be some other reason that is preventing you from helping her. I just do not believe that—“
            “All right,” he interrupted in a blink. Staring at me intently, he explained, “Currently, we are investigating Prince Koyagi for accepting numerous bribes from corrupted officials. Because of this, several important construction sites have been compromised.”
            “And therefore?”
            “I am very close to accomplishing my goal, Renelle,” he stated in a stern voice. He inhaled a short breath before adding, “I have been working as his accomplice to gather evidence of his wrong doings. In a few days, my men and I will finally strike his palace and imprison him. He just needs to take the final bait, and then the case will be solved.”
            “And because you do not want to offend him, Yukina will become part of your sacrifice?” I bellowed.
            “There is . . . really . . . nothing more that I can—“
            “Then . . . let me back into that palace,” I stressed. “I am sure that I will be able to—“
            “The Prince has already heightened the security after discovering that you managed to disguise yourself as a maid. Moreover, with your injuries, you will not be able to last long by yourself against hundreds of men.”
            None of Shou’s facial muscles budged. Instead, he held his stern gaze, making me realize that there was no hope in saving her.      Regardless, I knelt down and begged, “Please . . .” My head planted onto the floor despite all the pain that kept stabbing me in the back. “Please . . . help her. She’s innocent.”
            I was afraid to look up at Shou. I could feel cold sweat almost drizzling down my forehead to my neck. Please, I kept repeating in my head, please just save her. Let her live. This was my mistake, not hers.
            “I suppose . . . Let me verify the number of men we have on hand,” he muttered.
            Immediately, I kept bowing to him in this rocking carriage. I did not care about losing my balance. I did not care about how much my back throbbed or was drenched in blood. There was hope that Yukina would survive, and that was all that mattered.
“Thank you. Thank you. I am very grateful for your help,” I constantly said.
            “Do not thank me so early,” he murmured. “I may not be able to do much in the end. At least . . .”
            “Yes?” I raised my head, ogling him.
            “At least . . . sit down and I will have one of my medics tend to your wound once we reach a safe area,” he instructed.
            Since I did not have the authority or the strength to argue with Shou, I simply obeyed his orders. As soon as we reached a shabby house, which I presumed to be the doctor’s residence, Shou immediately led me to a room with just a single bed in it. The physician approached me with his medicine bag and a bucket of water. He cleaned my wound and then spread some ointment on my back. I tried my best not to wince because I knew I did not deserve to cry out in pain. Yukina was suffering far more than me, and it was because of my rashness that she was subjected to such cruelty. It was all my fault, and I had to figure out how to explain away this mess once we returned to Kuro’s palace.
            My instinct told me that Kuro was most likely going to imprison me in a room to reflect on my actions. He would definitely have a guard beside me at all times to prevent me from escaping. Kuro, however, was not who I feared. I feared facing Maeno-san. Yukina was his precious sister, and I had not only destroyed her career, but also her future prospects of marriage. I was in no position to compensate either of them as well. I was a nobody here, and that was partly why I failed. I did not have the power to override that tyrant. How could I be stronger then? How could I . . .
            While lying on my chest in bed, I let out a sigh now. I understood what I must accomplish; I really had to take that goal of seducing Ichiro far more seriously. These days, I was being too easy on myself. I had let my guard down. I was becoming dependent again on others. Why was it so difficult for me to learn my lessons? Why was I being weak now?
            He was making me more emotional, more irrational, and more helpless. I had to evade his control; he was the one that was supposed to be under my grasp, yet now that I thought of it, I was the one that fell deeper into his trap. He had me perfectly in his plan, and he was able to stir my emotions, driving me to idiocy. Suddenly, the image of Princess Sachi with Kuro popped in my mind and that particular feeling . . . resurfaced.
            I gasped aloud. What was I even thinking? There was no way that I was actually experiencing that type of emotion. Inhaling a deep breath, I just looked ahead at the spotless wall. I needed to be a clean slate again. The past could not be repeated. The faster I could finish Kuro’s task and gain power, then I could be myself once more. If I just sided with Ichiro in the end, then I would certainly be able to be free from Kuro.
            Slid the doors went quite late at night. I was nearly about to shut my eyes when in came Shou with his head hanging low. “I am afraid I have some unfortunate news to share,” he mumbled. Straightaway, I tried to pull myself up, but Shou rushed to my side to stop me. Like he could read my mind, he told me, “She is not dead, but . . . I am afraid that she will never be able to dance nor will she be able to . . . conceive.”
            I pulled myself up, yet Shou stopped me in the process. My mouth gaped and my eyes widened as his hand steadied me in place. Her future really was ruined by me. I had no idea what to think now. What could I do to help her? What could I possibly—
            Again, Shou interrupted my thoughts, “It is better for you not to disturb her now.”
            “She is safe now?”
            “We must leave this place at once,” he informed me before scooping me up from the bed. I peered at him quizzically, causing him to blurt, “Do you not smell the smoke?”
One sniff, and I realized that this whole place was burning down. I could hear men shouting that we were in here; I wasn’t sure if they were friends or foe. All I knew was that Shou was right. We had to run away from this place before the fire consumed us, yet I was still stunned by the fact that he was carrying me like a princess. He was also careful enough to make sure that nothing hurt me. Any time ashes sprinkled down from the walls, he would cover me with his whole body. Shou was truly a gentleman. Frankly, I wondered why he was being so kind to me. He barely knew me, yet he helped me from the start. Was there something that he wanted from me too, and if so, what was his motive?
            Shou must have noticed me focused on him for he pondered aloud, “Am I hurting you? Is your back fine?”
            “I will be fine,” I muttered. “You be careful of yourself. A prince cannot be hurt.”
            I heard his light scoff. “And a young lady should not be injured as well,” he added.
I chuckled along with him despite the increasing warmth from the fire. We were both sweating now, and it was also so smoky that I was starting to find it hard to breathe. I tried to cover my mouth and face with my sleeve. Shou’s attention to detail was impeccable as once I did that, he noted, “We are almost there. Just stay with me for a while longer and then you can rest.”
            I followed his cue once more, and it was just like he said. Within minutes, we were finally out of this house and were greeted by a few men. I recognized the man as one of those that had yelled for us.
“Your Highness,” one of them greeted, “we tried our best to salvage what we could over at the palace. We have men scattered around to put out the fire. We also caught the men who set fire to this house.”
            “And what of the oira?” Shou inquired.
            “She is safe in a carriage, fast asleep.”
            “You also requested for another carriage, and that is ready for you as well.”
            “Thank you, Shimizu-san. I am in debt to you.”
            “Whatever Your Highness seeks, I will do my most to guarantee that happens. Though . . .” The man with a neatly groomed moustache chuckled. He was several years older than the two of us, and judging from his attire and tone, he was probably someone with authority. “This circumstance is rather unusual.” He gave me a cheeky look, the sort that lightly teased Shou, who could only cough a few times. Shou had probably granted me an exception and had used his connections to be able to fulfill my wish. The question again was why.
            Before I could ask anything, the carriage for us had arrived and as soon as Shou placed me on one of the seats, he posed, “Are you absolutely keen on staying with Kuro?”
            I could not help but frown at him. Of all the questions in the world, why was he even wondering about this? There were better things to ask, and this would have been one of those at the bottom of my list right now.
            “Why do you ask that?” I, instead, inquired.
            Shou crossed his leg over the other, while his fingers joined together. “Do you not want to live?” he declared.
            “Why are you—“
            “You do understand what Kuro wants to do,” Shou interjected.
“No,” I answered. “I do not.”
His gaze never left me as he explained, “If you continue, then you surely will be killed.”
I dismissed his claim by saying, “I am only a maid. There is nothing that I would do to be important enough to be killed.”
“And you think he is a man of his words then?”
I could hear that suppressed laugh coming from Shou, and that made me recognize that he had something in mind. “What are you proposing?” I posed.
His hand reached over and rested gently on top of mine. Angling his head up, he suggested, “Come with me instead. I will free you from this world of . . . darkness.”
Out of instinct, I pulled my hand away. “And why would you even consider that?”
“You should know why . . .” Shou clung onto my other hand, tightening his grasp.
“We do not know each other well at all,” I assured him.
His lips curled upwards, slanting more to the right. I could tell that he was resisting his tendency to laugh. He even shrugged his shoulders and shook his head several times. “And you believe you know Kuro well?” His eyes glowered at me arrogantly.
Still, I stayed strong and uttered, “I have known him longer compared to knowing you.”
“There is still time to change your mind,” he told me. “Soon,” Shou, all of a sudden, loosened his grip and reclined comfortably against his seat, “you will understand, and I hope by that time, you will make the right decision.”
Then, there was nothing but silence. Shou did not even look in my direction, rather, his eyes were fixated at the scenery. To be honest, his quiet demeanour was slightly frightening. I was starting to doubt myself. Would Kuro even help me or was he really just using me? Would he cheat his way out of his promise? Would I just die as a maid? Maybe, I should have agreed to whatever Shou had in mind, but I really did not know him well enough at all. Perhaps, I should have taken a closer look at Kuro.
I had to remind myself that there was no one that I could trust here, yet I still felt obligated to help some people like Morganne and Nestor. Speaking of Nestor, I had not heard from him for a long time. In fact, I believed that my owl, Mortimer, had not returned for the longest time from Slianvwi. I had asked Nestor in my letter where else I could find the gold slates to understand more about my situation. Now, either someone from the palace had received it like Marie or maybe even . . . Cael. I prayed that Cael wasn’t the one to retrieve Nestor’s letter. Nestor had already been banished from the kingdom for a while now, and if Cael knew that I was still in contact with him, then I would surely be in trouble. I could try asking someone to deliver a message to Nestor. That would be the safest way, but for now, I had to figure out how to appease Kuro’s anger. Kuro would definitely be enraged at my actions. What sort of punishment would I have to endure now?