|The Stepmother's Wishes
Author: SilvorMoon PM
In a fairytale world, Juri lives a Cinderella lifestyle with her stepmother, but there's more going on than meets the eye.Rated: Fiction K - English - Juri K./Jeri & Leomon - Words: 12,451 - Reviews: 11 - Favs: 6 - Follows: 1 - Published: 06-07-02 - Status: Complete - id: 822944
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Once upon a time, deep in the forest, there stood a little wooden hut. It was a ramshackle, hastily assembled affair, with only three rooms and only the most rudimentary furniture. The walls were full of gaps that were always working open, no matter how many times they were stuffed with pitch and moss. It was cold in winter, even with the fireplace blazing, and in summer, rain blew through the holes and dripped from the ceiling. At all times of year, small animals sneaked into the house, nibbling on their meager stores of food, leaving holes and stains in the sheets. In short, the house was just barely better than living outdoors.
The thing that made it tolerable in any sense was the girl who lived there. Her name was Juri, and she stayed in the house with her stepmother. It was Juri who filled the holes, collected the firewood, patched the roof, washed and mended, and kept everything as comfortable as she could. Her stepmother would occasionally help, perhaps sewing a dress here or cooking a meal there, but all of the hardest work was delegated to her child. She herself claimed to have more important things to do, and would often disappear during the day, leaving the girl to care for everything in her absence. While she was gone, there were only two rules: Juri must never enter her stepmother's room, and she must never stray onto the road.
That was painful, because there was nothing Juri wanted more than to find that road and walk it. Her stepmother had insisted that she be educated, and that included lessons about the geography of the kingdom, so she knew that wonderful things lay only a few miles down that road. Their poor little hut lay but a short journey from the capital city where the prince lived. Juri had heard stories about it from the occasional peddler or hunter who passed by, bringing not only their wares but stories of the marketplaces, the theaters, the gardens, and most wonderful of all, the prince's palace, where beautiful and learned people came from all over the world to visit with the prince and admire the magnificent city. Juri would have loved to have time to question these people, but she wasn't even allowed to be in the same room with them, but only heard them speaking with her ear pressed to the door.
"But why, Stepmama?" she asked, after she had once again watched another traveler leaving their home. She had wanted very badly to talk to this one; he had been a strolling minstrel in a multicolored costume, and he'd paid for his meager lunch by telling fantastic stories about the wonders of the city - of magicians and princesses and Digimon - that had captivated her imagination. "What harm would it do if I just talked to him?"
"That's none of your business," her stepmother replied. "I have told you a hundred times or more that you are not to be seen by strangers. You should be grateful that you have a safe haven here, not begging to be allowed to talk to disreputable strangers."
"He was not a disreputable stranger!" Juri said. "He's a minstrel in the prince's service."
Her stepmother made a disapproving noise. "The prince! The prince is the most disreputable of the lot. You will not ever talk about him in my presence unless you want to see me get angry."
"What's so bad about the prince?" Juri asked.
"Nothing you would understand," her stepmother replied. "I have had enough of this conversation. Go. We're running low on wood for the fire, so unless you want a cold supper, you had better go find some."
Juri bowed her head. "Yes, Stepmama."
Still inwardly fuming, Juri left the hut and wandered into the deep green woods. She couldn't understand her stepmother, and had long ago given up trying. The woman was an enigma, apparently very intelligent and with an aristocratic manner, yet she lived in this hovel in the middle of an empty forest and shunned most of the outside world, humans and Digimon alike. A bit of careful questioning had only revealed part of the story. Apparently she had married Juri's father somewhere off in the hazy past, when Juri herself was only a baby. They had lived together for a while until something vague had happened to him, leaving Juri to her stepmother's care. Stray comments made when she thought Juri wasn't listening and a bit of observation had led Juri to believe that her father had been fairly wealthy. Then he'd died - suddenly, it seemed - and the surviving family had moved out here to the middle of nowhere.
*I'll bet she killed him,* thought Juri rebelliously. *She wanted his money for herself, so she had him killed and got caught at it, so she came out here and hid. And she brought me along so I could slave for her.*
Juri scowled; she hated gathering firewood. She was a small, slender thing, not strong enough to cut down trees or carry heavy loads. She had a little hatchet that she could use for splitting up fallen logs and large branches, but it never seemed to stay sharp and left her exhausted after only a few minutes use.
*Why can't she help me? She's older and stronger than me; she could get the firewood a lot faster than I could, and then we'd have more time to finish the other chores. Maybe I'd even have time to rest, for a change!*
She entertained a fantasy of just throwing down the hatchet and making a run for the road. Maybe she could catch up to the minstrel and move quietly behind him, letting him lead her to the city... or maybe she could convince him to let her follow him there. Maybe she could become his apprentice or his assistant or something, and she would follow him across the countryside, seeing all the great sights of the world. She could play a recorder well, and had a nice singing voice and a good memory for things, so surely she could learn the trade! She liked the idea of wearing a colorful costume and captivating audiences with stories and songs. Perhaps she'd be famous enough that the prince himself would call her to his palace to hear her. She'd tell him her own story of how she'd escaped her cruel stepmother to become a famous musician, and he'd be so enchanted by her bravery and beautiful voice that he'd ask her to become his bride...
She was so wrapped up in her fantasizing that she wasn't looking where she was going, and she tripped over a stick. She fell hard, skinning her hands and getting a mouthful of dirt as she landed. Grimacing, she sat up and rubbed at her bruised elbows and knees. Who was she trying to fool? For all her daydreams, she was still just a drudge in a forest hut, and the prince would never even know she was alive. Even if she met him, then what? She knew nothing but what her stepmother had allowed her to learn, and had no idea whether she was beautiful or hideous; she'd never seen another woman besides her stepmother, and really didn't know what people considered beautiful. Most likely she was ignorant and ugly, and the prince wouldn't want to come within miles of her. But still...
As if drawn by a magnet, her gaze turned off in the direction she knew the road lay. No matter what the consequences were, she knew that someday she was going to have to dare that road and follow it to whatever was waiting for her at its end. She sighed wistfully, wondering when that day would come.
Her first opportunity came just a few days later, when she was awakened from her sleep by the sound of knocking on the front door. She stirred drowsily, torn between conflicting urges to go back to sleep and to get up and see what was going on. Curiosity won out, so with cat- silent steps, she got out of bed and tiptoed to her door to listen.
"I assure you, sir," her stepmother was saying, "there are no young ladies here - nor young men, either. I live here alone."
"I see," said the man at the front door. "I apologize for bothering you, but I saw the lamp burning through your window and thought I'd come see who lives here."
"Only myself," she replied, "and I am certainly of no interest to the prince. Lovely as it would be to return to the city, I am a grown woman and a widow. He would do better to seek a bride somewhere else."
The messenger laughed. "Perhaps so, ma'm, but I can assure you that there are plenty worse than you who'll still be getting all dressed up to try their luck anyway. Perhaps you'll come along for the laughs!"
"Perhaps I will," she answered, with a small laugh of her own. "I was in court long enough to see plenty of girls whose mothers thought they could turn pigs into princesses if they put enough ribbons and bangles on them."
"Exactly," said the messenger. "Well, I'll be moving along now. Good night, ma'm."
"Good night, sir."
Juri heard the door click shut and scampered back to her bed, her heart pounding. Her brain spun; what had that been all about? The messenger had been looking for a young girl, and had been talking about the prince getting married. Could he possibly have been looking for her? That sounded more like something out of one of her daydreams than reality. Anyway, the messenger had been talking about people trying their luck, which hinted that the prince didn't have anyone specific in mind. She guessed that perhaps there was going to be a party of some sort, with many young women invited to attend, and the Prince would then pick whoever he liked best. If only she was allowed to go! She wouldn't care if she was only a serving-girl; just being there to see all the most beautiful people in the land wearing dresses and jewelry like she'd only dreamed of... that would be enough for her.
*I could do that!* she realized suddenly. *If there is going to be a big party, won't they need extra help? I could get a job there, and then I'd never have to come back to this awful place!*
Suddenly her mind was made up. Moving with all the caution she had, she got out of bed again, put on the best of her battered old clothes, wrapped a few spares and some other items in a pillowcase, and slipped silently out of her room. The floorboards didn't even creak as she padded barefoot across them, and for once, the front door didn't squeak as she opened it, as if even it wanted to help her win her freedom. Once she was outside, she put on her shoes and made her way toward the road. Within a few minutes, she was standing at its edge, and she stepped onto it gingerly, as if it were not hard-packed dirt but an icy river that she feared would sweep her away. Then she laughed at herself and stepped firmly into its center. With the cool blue lights of the stars twinkling down on her, she began walking toward the city.
It took her the whole day and part of the next night to finally reach the city. She walked as far as she could that first night, curling up in the safety of some shaggy shrubs when she could stay awake no longer. Old habits made her dash for the shadows every time she heard or saw someone approaching, hiding and staring as they passed her by. She saw the peddlers and messengers she was used to, but she also saw soldiers in shiny armor and lords and their ladies on proud horses. She also saw Digimon, which surprised her. She knew there were wild Digimon roaming the forests, but these seemed to be civilized Digimon, going about their own business much as the humans did. Some of them even seemed to be soldiers and merchants. Digimon were something of an enigma to her; she rarely saw them in the wild, and her stepmother didn't like her talking about them any more than she liked her to talk about the prince.
It was very late when she finally caught sight of the city in the distance. It looked, from where she stood, like a great cluster of golden lights, as if hundreds of stars had come down to rest on the earth. As she drew closer, she could see other things - walls, buildings, open spaces, and at the top of a great hill, a castle. It was made of some pale stone that shimmered even from a distance, looking silver in the moonlight. The thought that she might actually be going there filled her with excitement, enough that she found she could run all the way to the front gates, sobering only when she actually slipped through them and into the city itself.
Looking around at all the buildings and houses, it was hard not to be overwhelmed. All she could ever remember was her little three-room hut. Some of these houses had two or three times that many, at least - some even had rooms on top of rooms, stacked on top of each other! It was enough to make her mind boggle. She couldn't even imagine how many rooms were inside the castle. How did anyone manage not to get lost? What did they do with all that space? Oh, well, she would find out when she got there.
The question was, how did she get there? It looked fairly straightforward from the front gate - just keep going up the hill - but now that she was here, it wasn't that easy. She kept finding herself wandering up the wrong street and winding up pointing the wrong direction, or blundering down a dead-end alley. It was hard to tell where she was going in the dark of the night, and even harder once she was walking between the buildings that obscured her view of the castle. After a while, she couldn't even tell which way she had come from, and she was beginning to feel panicky. She didn't like the feeling of having all these walls around her, and she seemed to have wandered into something that her instincts told her was a bad part of town. She stared around at the dark streets. Now what should she do?
Just then, she heard the sound of heavy footsteps approaching, and she turned to see three armed guards - two human men and one Digimon, all in armor. One of the men came forward and addressed her.
"Hey, you," he said. "What are you doing out here this time of night?"
"I'm trying to find my way to the castle," she said.
"Oh, you are, are you?" asked the other man. "And what would you be doing there at this time of night? Looking to steal something, most likely!"
"No!" she protested. "I just wanted... wanted to ask if they'd give me a job."
"Is that so?" asked the first guard. "At this time of night? Sounds fishy to me."
"It's true!" Juri protested. "I only just got here. You see, I ran away from-"
"A runaway!" said the guard. "What are you, somebody's servant trying to escape?"
"No! I'm not a thief or a servant! I just got here, and it's dark and I'm scared and I just want to get to the palace, now let me go!"
She began to sob, while the guards looked at each other in confusion. While they were still trying to decide what to do, something stepped out of the shadows of the alley.
"What is going on here?" it rumbled.
"Captain!" the guards exclaimed. They snapped to attention so quickly, Juri was surprised they didn't throw their backs out. It would have been funny if she hadn't been so worried. She turned to look at the captain.
The captain, she was amazed to see, was a Digimon. Not just any Digimon, either; she'd never seen anything quite like him before. He had the head, paws, and tail of a lion, but the rest of him seemed to be human... or perhaps superhuman, for he made the burly soldiers look like scrawny midgets in comparison to him. Unlike them, he wore no armor, only black breeches and a sword slung over his back. A few scars showed that he was an experienced warrior; the fact that there were so few of them showed he was a skilled one. Juri was excusably nervous - anyone would be when encountering something that looked so strong and fierce, but when he knelt down to get a better look at her, she saw that his eyes were kind. She relaxed.
"You seem to have gotten yourself into trouble," he said.
"A little," she said.
"So I see. Well, you'll be all right now. I don't tolerate any nonsense from my men," the captain replied. "Still, you shouldn't be out here alone after dark; it's dangerous. I'll see to it that you get to your destination safely. What's your name?"
"Juri. Juri Katou."
The captain's gaze wavered for a fraction of a second. "Well, Juri Katou. My name is Leomon, captain of the royal guard."
"Can you take me to the palace?" she asked, her eyes wide and hopeful.
He dropped his eyes. "I wish I could, but I cannot. Not tonight, at any rate. I think you will be better off going home."
"No buts. You will be safer if you go back where you came from. Trust me," he added gravely. "The palace is not a fit place for beautiful young ladies alone - it's too full of idiots like these." He glared at his men, who looked guilty.
She stared miserably at the ground. "But I don't want to go home."
Much to her surprise, Leomon put a finger under her chin, gently tilting it up so that she had to look into his eyes. She was surprised at the compassion she saw there.
"I understand your pain far better than you know," he said. "I promise, someday I will see to it that you come to live in the city if that is your wish. For now, though, you need to stay where you are safe. All right?"
"You promise? You'll help me to go to the palace someday?"
He smiled. "Yes, I will. I promise."
"All right," she said. "I'll go home... but you've got to come back. Soon."
"I will. Here." Much to her surprise, he picked her up and set her on his shoulder. "We will travel faster if you ride."
Without warning, he leaped into the air, landing on the top of a roof. He touched down lightly and began running, leaping from rooftop to rooftop as easily as if he were walking on solid ground. Soon they were out of the city entirely, racing back down the road. She turned back to have one last look at the shimmering silvery castle. Then she settled more comfortably into Leomon's mane and closed her eyes. Tired and disappointed, she fell asleep.
It was just after sunrise, with the birds singing merrily in the trees, that Leomon finally arrived at the front door of Juri's house. Before he could even knock on the door, it was opened by Juri's stepmother.
"Juri!" she shouted. "Where have you been? How dare you run off and leave like that! I have been going out of my mind worrying about you!"
"Sorry, Stepmama," she answered. The tiredness in her voice passed well enough for contrition.
"'Sorry' doesn't even begin to cover it! I cannot believe you would run away like that! How many times have I warned you against wandering off?"
"Don't be too hard on her," said Leomon, setting her gently on the ground. "It's hard on a child, being all alone out here. You can't blame her for wanting the company of others. She doesn't understand how dangerous it is."
"Perhaps," said Juri's stepmother. "Still, Juri, that was very disobedient of you. I can see I'm going to have to keep a closer eye on you. From now on, we are locking your door at night, understand?"
"Yes, Stepmama." She yawned. Her stepmother scowled.
"Running around all night, getting yourself too exhausted for work. I'm going to have to do everything myself today," she muttered. "Juri, get inside. I want to have a few words with the captain here."
"Yes, Stepmama," said the girl, too tired still to really be disobedient... or to wonder how her stepmother knew the captain, or how he had known exactly how to get to her house. She shuffled inside and headed for her room with nothing on her mind but to go back to sleep.
"Thank you for bringing her home safely, Leomon," said her stepmother. "I knew I could count on you."
"It was my pleasure, Shizue. It's the least I could do," Leomon answered with a slight bow. "I only arrived just in time. She was trying to get to the palace, and it was only a matter of time before the prince saw her. You know what would have happened then."
"Yes," she answered in a low hiss. "The prince. We should be thinking about dealing with him. We don't have a lot of time left."
"Very little. I suppose you've heard the rumors?"
"Yes. The messenger was here the night Juri disappeared. I'm almost certain she heard him talking and went to see things for herself. Imagine if she went to the ball!"
"I can imagine," Leomon rumbled. "But you know what this means, don't you? He's not content to call himself a prince any longer. He wants to be king! He's going to take a bride and call himself a king, and if he were to choose her..."
"That would make things... very complicated," said Shizue. "We'll have to make sure that doesn't happen."
"You can count on me."
"I know I can. You had better go now, before someone notices you're gone and begins to suspect."
"You're right," said Leomon. "It's just..."
"I know," Shizue replied. "Good luck go with you, Leomon."
"And to you," Leomon replied. "Long life to you, and death to the prince!"
With that final statement, he leapt back toward the road and dashed swiftly away, leaving Juri's stepmother to return to her cottage in a state of deep and somber thought.
The next few days were miserable ones for Juri. Her stepmother was in a bad mood, alternately ignoring everything around her or snapping at everything. Juri herself was not allowed out of her stepmother's sight, but instead spent all of the hot summer days inside the stuffy little cottage scrubbing, mending, or worst of all, cooking over a hot fire. Much as she hated wood gathering, she wished she could be doing it now, just to get out where there was a fresh breeze blowing. There was no chance of that, however, not with her stepmother watching her every move. She despaired of ever having another chance to escape, and lived in hope of the day that Leomon would come and rescue her.
Then, one night, something strange happened. As Juri was settling into her bed, her foot came in contact with something cold and hard, and she jumped away with a yelp. Peeling back the covers, she found a Choromon sitting and blinking at her.
"Hello there!" she said. She didn't care for mice, which chewed holes in the sheets and got into the food, but Choromons were far more polite and quite rare; she'd never seen one this close up before. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking," the mouse-mon replied. "I looked in the other room! Want to know what I found?"
Juri's mind raced. Her stepmother had never allowed Juri to enter that room, except under her strict supervision. "What?"
"A box," the Choromon said. "You should look in it. There are pretty things in the box."
"What kind of pretty things?"
"Shiny rocks," he replied, "and soft stuff. Like cloth, but very soft. Want to see?"
"I can't," said Juri. "My stepmama would skin me alive if she caught me going though her room!"
The Choromon's eyes blinked, and his ears twitched. "Only if you go through the door."
"I don't go through the door," Choromon explained, "so I don't get caught. Don't go through the door and you won't get in trouble."
"Ah," said Juri. "But I'm not as small as you are. I can't go through cracks like you can."
"Make new cracks," said Choromon. "Walls are loose, see?"
He scampered off the bed and onto the floor, trundling up to one of the wooden walls and nudging it with his nose. The board rattled a bit.
"See?" he said. "Push the walls until they're loose, and you can get out. Then you push until you can get in again."
"Ahh!" she said. "Thank you, Choromon. I'll remember that."
"Welcome," Choromon replied. "Going to go now. Bye!"
Jauntily waving his tail, he scampered through a crack and out of sight. Juri flopped back onto her bed to do some thinking.
So, Choromon had seen pretty things in her stepmother's room? Shiny rocks, he'd said, and soft cloth. That sounded suspiciously like jewelry, and perhaps fine clothing. Was that why Juri was never allowed in the room? And why was she keeping that in there? If she did have jewels in there, why didn't she sell a few and get a better place to live than this broken-down shack? She thought again of her suspicions about her father's death. Was this the last remains of the family fortune? Questions kept her awake long into the night, and when she finally fell asleep, there were no real answers.
When she woke up the next day, it was with a resolution to take Choromon's advice and have a look at that box. However, she knew she'd have to time things carefully if she was going to avoid capture. She certainly couldn't go around prying boards off of the house and expect nobody to notice, so when she did go through with her bit of espionage, she was going to have to leave again shortly afterwards. The plan was already beginning to form vaguely in her mind - she could take whatever she found in the box and carry them off to the city, where she would be able to sell them to buy food and lodgings, enough to last her until she found work there. Perhaps she could even present herself at the palace! Even in this isolated place, she'd heard rumors that there was to be a fantastic ball at the prince's palace, and that every eligible young lady in the kingdom was to present herself there so that the prince could choose among them. Even if she didn't catch the prince's eye, someone else might take notice of her, and she could finally get away from this place!
Therefore, she kept a close eye on the situation, waiting for the moment when she could make her escape. She was amazed to see that luck seemed to be with her, for once. Her stepmother appeared to be distracted about something, often losing track of what she was doing in the middle of some task or other. Juri caught her talking to herself over her work, though she always silenced as soon as she realized she was being overheard. From time to time, she would leave the house on unnamed errands, returning from them looking sometimes grave, sometimes grimly pleased. Juri was not tempted to distract her from her thoughts by asking what was going on, knowing she'd only get a curt answer in reply.
Then, early one morning, her stepmother said to her, "Juri, I am going out for the day."
"You are?" asked the girl, amazed. "But why?"
"I have received a message from a friend in the city," Shizue replied. "It is very important I get to him as soon as possible. I may be gone for some time, so I am trusting you to look after the house while I am gone. Remember, child - the rules still apply while I am not here. You would do best to stay out of trouble while I am away. And child?"
"You may not believe this, Juri, but... I do have your best interests at heart. I know how hard it is to stay out here all alone. I know you will be tempted to leave as soon as my back is turned, and I don't blame you. Your time will come. Until then, just this once, I beg of you to trust me and stay here."
Juri felt her stepmother's eyes lock on hers, and the expression in them surprised her. There was something there that was strangely frightened, and sad. For a moment, she believed what she was hearing.
"Yes, Stepmother," she promised.
"Good," Shizue replied. "Now, be a good girl while I'm gone, and I will be back soon. Perhaps I'll bring you back something interesting, if all goes well."
With that, she turned and began walking towards the road, heading for the city. Juri watched her until she was gone, and then waited a few more minutes, in case she decided to turn around for some reason. When she was sure she was gone, Juri went back inside.
Well, now what? Juri felt divided. On the one hand, this was the perfect opportunity for her to do some exploring in that forbidden room, and then to make her escape. If Shizue was being truthful, then she would not be returning until tomorrow, at least. On the other hand, she had promised that she would stay out of trouble, and the idea of breaking that promise made her uneasy. She was conditioned to obeying her stepmother, and that look in her eyes...
*She had to have been lying,* Juri told herself firmly. *She just knows she can't keep me here if she isn't here watching me, and she's afraid I'll run away again. Well, I'll show her!*
The first thing she did when she re-entered the hut was try the handle of her stepmother's door. It was locked up tightly - it didn't even rattle when she jerked the handle. Undaunted, she slipped into her room, gathering together a few important personal items and wrapping them up in a bundle. Then, with a great deal of care and patience, she rattled at the rickety walls of her room until she found the ones that wobbled the most. These she continued to work with until they could be pushed out of place just far enough that a girl could wiggle through the gap. Then she was inside the forbidden room.
If she was expecting anything spectacular, she was disappointed. The room was exactly like her own, with a rickety bed and an even more battered vanity table with only two drawers, a sink, and a slightly cracked mirror. The one difference was that, at the foot of the bed, there did indeed sit a large and well-made box. There was a latch on it, but it had been carelessly left undone. Her heart beating in her ears, Juri walked forward and opened it.
Waves of color spilled out, and Juri gasped. Even her wildest daydreams hadn't shown her anything like this. The box contained a veritable rainbow of fine clothing, gorgeous gowns with long rustling skirts and bodices worked with jewels and silk embroidery, ranging in sizes that would fit a grown woman on down to a girl smaller than Juri. Along with these were every possible accessory from shoes to crowns. Juri let the heaps of necklaces and rings slide through her fingers with a small, incredulous laugh.
No susceptible girl could look at such things without wanting to try them on, so after a few more moments of amazed staring, Juri began searching through the garments for something to wear. She found a dress in her size, a beautiful shimmering creation of gold-toned satin, trimmed with gold embroidery and pearls. To complement this, she found matching shoes and pearl jewelry. Decked out in this finery, she felt more confident - anyone in the world would pay attention to her, dressed like this! However, she had to admit that it would make terrible traveling garb, so she reluctantly folded the dress up with the jewels concealed safely inside and slipped back into her old clothes. Then she left the room, sliding the boards back into place as best she could. With that done, it was time to leave the house altogether.
Her luck was still with her on the journey. She had only traveled a few miles before she heard the clattering sound of a wagon, and she jumped into the bushes before she could be sighted. Peering from her leafy hiding place, she saw a pair of Geckomon driving a cart, which was loaded down with colorful banners and pennants, presumably to enliven the prince's party. For now, though, they would serve well to hide a runaway girl. Sneaking along behind the slow- moving wagon, Juri was able to jump onto the back and hide herself among the colorful cloths. Comfortably settled and well hidden, Juri sat back and waited to reach the city.
The prince's castle had been beautiful under ordinary circumstances, seen from a distance. Up close, it was magnificent, decked out in shimmering multicolored magical lights and swathed in flags and banners. A full moon had obligingly come out that night, making its silvery walls glow as if the castle itself was a lantern. From inside came the sounds of music and laughter.
The girl who was entering its gates was likewise beautiful, more so than she had ever been before, but inside she was a bundle of nerves. She had arrived in the city early that morning and spent a part of her day in hiding. However, when the workers came to collect the banners she'd been hiding under, she had decided it was time to make an exit and had slipped off into the crowd. Fortunately for her, there was plenty of effective camouflage around - girls had come from all over the kingdom for this party, and there was a roaring trade in helping innocent country girls and veteran socialites alike get ready. Juri had fallen in with a group of other young women, allowing them to help her wash herself and fix her hair appropriately while they oohed and ahhed over her golden dress. By the time they were finished with her, everyone insisted that she looked just like a princess.
*I may look like a princess,* she thought, as she made her way through the front gates. *but I still feel like the girl who scrubs pots. I wish there was someone here I knew...*
As if in answer to her wish, she suddenly noticed a flash of gold. Peering through the crowd, she saw Leomon standing and guarding the gate. He was the only one here who wasn't dressed up; his golden mane was decoration enough for him, and his bulging muscles said more about his power than any uniform could. As she passed by him, she noticed his expression turn to stunned amazement. He quickly covered it up before anyone could else could see.
"My lady Juri," he said, bowing and taking her hand, "I wasn't expecting to see you here tonight. Did your stepmother send you here?"
"No," Juri replied. "I came on my own."
"Ah," he said. For a moment, he looked faintly worried, but the expression soon passed. "Well, you look simply radiant. You had best be careful, or the others will be jealous."
He sounded like he meant it, and Juri suddenly found herself thinking that Leomon was a very handsome Digimon. He kissed her hand, and his blue eyes met hers, making her heart start fluttering. She was glad it was dark so that he couldn't see her blushing, and that the press of the crowd gave her a good excuse to move on before the conversation could go on any longer.
*I've heard of humans marrying Digimon. I'd never thought about it much before, but it's not that bad of an idea... especially if it was a Digimon like him...*
However, getting inside completely took her mind off of that subject. The crowd made its way through beautiful halls with marble floors and great sweeping alabaster arches into a grand hall. There, all she could do was stand and stare at the flowers, the decorations, and the people. There were people of every type and description - human, Digimon, and even a few of the rare halfbreeds. These half-human, half-Digimon were nearly legendary and rarely seen anywhere but in places like this, as they were often shunned by ordinary society but highly sought-after by the royalty. They were renowned for both their power and beauty; an ugly crossbreed was almost unheard of. Juri had never really thought she would see one herself, but there, not five yards away from her, was a spectacularly handsome red-haired man sporting white wings, chatting with an equally attractive man with long blue-black hair and amazing amethyst-colored eyes that would never be seen in an ordinary human. As for the other guests, all of them were dressed in their best - silks and satins, gold and jewels, flowing gowns and long cloaks. Juri tried to take it all in, failed, and decided that it would be best if she moved around a bit so no one would notice how overwhelmed she felt.
"Have you danced with him yet?" That was the voice of a girl about Juri's age, chatting with a few friends over the refreshment table.
"Not yet," answered another girl. "But he will soon, won't he? I mean, I heard he's supposed to dance with all of us tonight."
"Well, of course!" said an older girl knowledgeably. "How is he supposed to decide if he likes a girl if he doesn't chat with her a bit?"
"I'm nervous," the first girl admitted. "I've heard so many stories about him. Is it true nobody knows where he comes from?"
"I heard he's the old king's cousin or something," said the older girl, with a faint frown. "I'm not really sure. I'd never heard that the king had a cousin. He showed up after the old king was killed. It's all very confusing."
"I don't care where he comes from," a young Lillymon said. "He's a wonderful dancer, and so handsome!"
"Which one is he?" asked the first girl. "I haven't seen him yet."
"There he is, over there, dancing with that woman in the red dress."
Juri looked. Somewhere in the center of the dance floor was a young man dressed completely in white with much gold trim, wearing a thin crown over his head. He was, as the Lillymon said, quite handsome, and for a moment, she just stared at him. Then, as he spun his partner around the dance floor, she saw him look up, and his eyes met hers. An expression of amazement crossed his features, a look Juri saw clearly before another turn of the dance took him out of her sight, leaving her faintly amazed. The prince - the glorious, handsome prince - had been staring at her as if all his dreams had come true the moment he laid eyes on her.
*But that only happens in fairy tales...*
Before she could properly recover herself, the song ended, and the dancers began changing partners. Within an eyeblink, the prince was at her side.
"Good evening, gentle lady," he said, bowing gallantly.
Juri dropped a curtsey. She'd never done so before and didn't know she knew how, but she did, just as if she'd been in royal company all her life. "Good evening, Your Highness."
"Are you enjoying yourself at my party, my lady?"
"Yes, Your Highnes. Everything is so beautiful..."
"A fit setting for such a lovely lady. Tell me, might I have the honor of knowing your name?"
"It's Juri, Your Highness. Juri Katou."
"Juri Katou," he repeated. He smiled. "A beautiful name. Would you care to dance with me, Lady Juri?"
Something suddenly occurred to her that she hadn't thought of before. "I'm very sorry, Your Highness, but I don't know how to dance."
"No? Now, that I can't believe. Dancing should come as easily as breathing to someone of your grace. Come, don't be shy. Just follow my lead."
Before she knew what was happening, he had taken her hand and was leading her out onto the dance floor. The music began again, and she found herself being gracefully through the steps of the dance. She was amazed to discover how naturally it came - she just kept herself moving in the same direction the prince was going, and lo and behold, she was dancing like any of the well- bred ladies.
"This is easy!" she said delightedly.
"Dancing was meant to be easy," the prince replied, "so that people could enjoy conversations while they were dancing. I would very much like to spend some time talking to you - getting to know you."
So, as the music played on, Juri found herself telling her life story to the Prince: how she'd always lived in a shack in the woods, how she had spent all her time doing chores, how she'd never been allowed to speak to anyone besides her stepmother, and how much she had longed to get away from home and go to the city. The way the prince listened was wonderful - he seemed to hang on to every word she said, responding with gentle sympathy. It was an incredible experience for a poor young girl, and she should have been happier than she'd ever been, but yet...
The longer the dance went on, the more uncomfortable Juri began to feel. She wasn't exactly sure why this was so, and thought at first that it was just because of the unusual surroundings and the press of the crowd. However, after a moment, it dawned on her that it was more than just the nerves she'd been suffering from earlier, but a vaguely-defined sense of wrongness. She was startled to realize that it was emanating from the prince. It was very strange, she thought. As long as she was looking at him, listening to him, he seemed the very epitome of a girl's fondest dreams. If she let her attention wander, though, focusing on the other dancers or the music, something strange began to happen. She got the distinct impression that there was something odd about him, that somehow his eyes were a bit too round, or his nose too flat, or his ears stuck out a little too much, yet if she looked back at him directly, the flaws vanished in an instant. Likewise, if she closed her eyes and just listened to the music, his deep, charming voice turned high-pitched and unctuous.
*It can't be real,* she thought. *It's just my imagination, or a trick of the light. I'm seeing things.*
She got only a few minutes to ponder this strange phenomenon, however, before something far more important caught her attention. Standing off in the edges of the crowd, Juri saw, was a woman in a long emerald-green gown. She had been a beauty in her youth; now she was still handsome, proud, and commanding. She was staring at Juri with an expression of shock and horror. Even as Juri saw her, she turned and fled from the room. Juri felt herself go pale.
*What is Stepmama doing here?*
"Are you all right?" asked the prince. "You look unwell."
"I'm just a little overwhelmed," she said. "All the excitement, you know..."
"I understand. Here." He guided her off the floor and to a chair that stood waiting in the wings. "Wait a moment. I'll go get you something to drink. Don't go anywhere."
He disappeared into the crowd again. Juri stayed put, reflecting with detached humor that it was getting to be an unusual situation, for her to stay where she was told. She was glad the prince was looking after her. No matter what happened, she doubted too much could happen to her as long as she was under his protection. He wouldn't let her stepmother harm her. He wouldn't let anyone get her...
She was wrong. Just as the prince was returning to her, a crystal goblet full of some dark red drink in his hand, there was an earsplitting roar, and Leomon rushed into the ballroom. The effect was something like a large-scale version of throwing a cat among pigeons. There was instant uproar, as ladies shrieked, men reached instinctively for weapons, and Digimon and halfbreeds prepared to unleash attacks. Leomon ignored all of them, bounding to the prince's side in two great leaps. He dashed the goblet out of the prince's hand, spilling wine like blood across the polished white floor. Then he scooped Juri up in his great paws and ran away again, leaving the party in chaos.
"Seize him! Stop them! Don't let her get away!" the prince shouted.
People moved to try to obey, but it was too late. Leomon was already well out of their reach. He sprinted out of the castle, passing surprised guards, and ran off into the night.
"Leomon, what's going on?" asked Juri. "What did you do that for?"
"You were in danger," he answered.
She swallowed hard. "My stepmother - she saw me at the party..."
"That's right. I'm taking you to her."
"You are?" she cried. "But... but... but I trusted you! I thought you were going to get me away from her!"
"You don't understand."
"How could you do this to me! I trusted you... I trusted you..."
It was all too much for her; she could take no more shocks that night. With a shuddering sigh, she slumped into a faint. Leomon didn't stop running.
Juri reawakened sometime later in an unfamiliar dark place. She was lying on something not particularly comfortable, though not much worse than her old bed, and she had the vague sense that she was not alone. She had a headache. She whimpered faintly, and someone came her side.
"Shh, it's all right," a voice murmured. It was female, soft and soothing. It was familiar, but Juri didn't feel quite up to trying to figure out who it was. "Here, drink this. It will make you feel better."
Juri felt something being pressed to her lips, and she drank deeply, realizing that she was terribly thirsty. The stuff was cool and tasted faintly of herbs. By the time she'd finished it, her head felt clearer.
"Poor little thing," said the woman's voice. "I was afraid something like this would happen. I wish you had done as I asked and stayed at home."
Juri's eyes blinked open. The room she was in was dark, but there was just enough light to confirm what she had just realized. "Stepmama?"
"Yes, it's me. Are you surprised?"
"What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same thing," Shizue replied, "though I don't think I will. I can guess well enough. I should have known the city would call you back, especially when the place you were was so uncomfortable for you. You wanted nothing more than to run away from home, didn't you?"
Juri nodded silently. Her stepmother sighed.
"I'm sorry, Juri. You have no idea how sorry I am. I tried, I really did, but... Juri, I really wanted to be a good mother to you. Believe that. I'm sorry I couldn't be a better one. So many times I've wished that your real mother had lived... but then it would be she and not I who carried this terrible burden."
Juri frowned. "I'm not a terrible burden."
"Oh, Juri, I didn't mean you! You were never a terrible anything. I was talking about... Well, I guess it's time I told you the whole story from the beginning, isn't it?" asked Shizue. "All right. To begin with... I saw you dancing with the prince. What do you think of him?"
"Um," said Juri, taken aback. "Well... he was very nice. Very polite. And handsome, too, but... Stepmama, there's something weird about him."
Shizue smiled, looking both pleased and surprised. "You are very perceptive, Juri. Yes, there is something unusual about our prince. He is not what he appears to be."
"You've always hated him, haven't you?"
"Yes," her stepmother told her seriously, "and now I am going to tell you why. A few years ago, this kingdom was ruled, not by the prince, but by a king. He was a fair and wise man, beloved by humans and Digimon alike, and the kingdom prospered under his reign. By his side ruled a beautiful queen, and the two of them had a lovely young daughter. However, the queen was not in good health, and died shortly after her child was born. The king grieved for the loss of his wife, for he had loved her very much. He proclaimed that his reign would be followed only by his first child, female though she was, out of the love he bore his wife.
"However, a few years after the death of his wife, the king married again. His new bride was beautiful, everyone said, but she was also young and vain, more fit for ordering servants to care for her than for helping run a kingdom. She loved the king very much but was jealous of his daughter, on whom he lavished so much affection." She took a deep breath. "It is hard for me to say that. Pride is a stubborn weed to uproot."
Juri stared. "Do you mean...?"
"What I am trying to say," said Shizue, "is that many years ago, I was queen of this land... and you, Juri, are the heir to the Katou throne, your father's only heir."
"I am?" she said, stunned. "But... what happened? Why do we live in the middle of nowhere? And who is the prince?"
Shizue's lips twisted. "He is no prince. He is perhaps a minor noble at best. He is also a liar, a trickster, and many fouler things. Let me explain. Shortly after you were born, there was a day very much like this one, in which your father called together all the brave young warriors of the kingdom and beyond, thinking to find you a suitable future husband. Every few generations, the royalty marries a Digimon - partly to keep the peace with them, partly to keep the bloodlines strong. I myself have a little Digimon blood far back in my family - so do you, I believe. Where was I?"
"Choosing a husband," Juri prompted.
"Yes, just so. There were a great number of Digimon there, including an embassy from another kingdom that no one knew much about. They offered a great deal to have their leader engaged to you, but your father was suspicious. He turned them down. Instead he chose a different Digimon warrior, without as much wealth and power, but noble and brave. I believe you know him."
"Leomon," said Juri.
"Even so. However, the embassy from the other kingdom was furious. Their leader, one Makuramon, insisted that your father change his mind. When he refused once more, Makuramon and his minions killed him." Shizue bowed her head, and Juri was amazed to see tears glinting there. "A terrible scene ensued, as Makuramon's followers slaughtered the king's court nearly to a man. Even the servants and stablehands had to flee or be destroyed."
"How did we get away?"
Shizue smiled bitterly. "That was some sad luck. I had a serving maid, a cousin of mine who bore a close resemblance to me. She was killed during the uproar, and Leomon himself retrieved her body. I switched clothes with her, so when they found her in my rooms, they assumed she was me. Leomon helped me get you to safety, and then returned to the city. He mixed with the other Digimon there, pretending to be another of Makuramon's soldiers. As Captain of the Guard, he has been watching Makuramon closely all these years, telling me of his doings. As for me, I remained in the forest, guarding you. I had just enough magic in my blood that I could work some simple protective spells, enough that Makuramon's magic couldn't find you, as long as no one ever saw you..."
"And I kept trying to run away," said Juri, bowing her head in shame. "You were trying to protect me, weren't you? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I suppose I thought you were better off not worrying about it. I didn't want you to be afraid, or to grow up full of hate and a desire for vengeance... or dashing off into the city trying to start a revolution as soon as I wasn't looking."
Juri blushed. "That does sound like me."
"If you had tried it, Makuramon's soldiers probably would have killed you on sight. He is very afraid of you, you know. You would be the only thing who could upset his grip on the throne. I was very afraid, the night you ran away. I was just barely able to get word to Leomon in time to have him save you."
"Makuramon... is the prince? But I saw him - he's not a Digimon!" Juri protested.
Shizue gave her a searching look. "Is he not?"
Juri frowned, confused. Then her expression cleared. "It's an illusion! He magicked himself so he'd look like a human! That's why he seemed so strange!"
"Correct. Anyone with your royal blood should have the power to see through his disguise. Nor are you the only one. The usurper's position is tentative, at best. He is a poor ruler, and everyone knows it. All he needs is one good push to send him toppling down. Leomon and I have been plotting to do just that."
"Stepmama, I don't understand - if you're the real queen, why don't you take over? Wouldn't they rather have you ruling than him?"
Shizue blushed. "I'm afraid I... was not popular as queen. I was young, then, and selfish. Many people believe that I would be no better than Makuramon... and perhaps with good reason. You should know better than anyone that I am... not always easy to get along with. I try, but..."
"It's all right, Stepmama," said Juri. "I think I understand."
"I'm sorry you had to go through all this? Can you ever forgive me for the way I treated you, Juri?"
Juri smiled. "Yes. After all, you saved my life. You were very brave. You would have been a good queen."
"Oh, Juri..." Shizue swept her stepdaughter into a hug. "I love you. No matter what happens, I will always think of you as my own true child."
There was a rumbling sound outside the door, and someone knocked lightly on the splintery wood.
"It is safe to come out now," said Leomon's voice.
"Thank you, Leomon," Shizue replied. "I think we are done in here, too, if you would like to come in."
The door opened, and Leomon came in. The door was almost too small for his broad shoulders, and he had to walk slightly bent over to avoid hitting his head on the low ceiling. He came to sit cross-legged beside the cot where Juri was lying.
"I see you are awake," he said. "I'm sorry that I startled you, but I had no choice if I was to protect you. Your stepmother saw the prince adding something to your drink, and I do not believe whatever it was would have been healthy."
"He was going to poison me?" Juri exclaimed. "If I died, there would be no one left to take the throne from him..."
"It might be that," said Shizue, "or it might be something to cloud your mind, or a love potion. You turned sixteen a few days ago - legally, you are the ruler of the kingdom now. If he were to marry you, he would be officially the prince consort, and not just the poser he is. Of course, after that point, I think your health would suffer a gradual decline, or you might perhaps have a tragic accident."
Juri shivered. "What do we do now?"
"Now," said Shizue, "we get the impostor off the throne and put you in his place. However, if you're talking of ways and means... things have been thrown off a bit. We hadn't intended for Makuramon to know that you were here, or even be sure that you are still alive. Now he knows, and he'll be looking for you. We must plan our next move very carefully."
"Do you have any ideas? What can I do to help?" asked Juri.
"I think we should be rid of him quickly," said Leomon. "Waiting will do no good; it only gives him more time to search for us."
"What do you propose we do, then?" Shizue asked.
"I will fight him, if you wish."
"No, Leomon. He is too powerful for you; you will be destroyed if you tried," Shizue said sternly. "Besides, I will not have another bloody takeover. We must have the people accept Juri as their ruler by something besides force."
"By what, then?"
"By the truth. By the fact that Makuramon is a killer and an impostor, and that this is the true ruler of the kingdom."
"That will be difficult," said Leomon. "What proof do we have that she is the princess?"
Shizue bowed her head. "Very little."
Juri listened as Leomon and her stepmother talked, outlining and eventually rejecting various plans, becoming gradually more uncomfortable with the lines the conversation was taking. The two of them seemed to believe that only they could carry out this task, and Juri resented that they were talking about her as some kind of pawn to be moved around, and not as someone who could think and act for herself. She would have far preferred going into danger than to be left depending on someone else to do everything for her. After a while, she tuned the conversation out. That was why she was the first to hear the sound.
"Shh!" she hissed suddenly. "Someone's coming!"
Leomon looked up, his long ears swiveling in search of the noise. "She's right... and here we are in a room with only one door!"
"Get out of here, now," Shizue ordered.
"What about you?" asked Leomon.
"I'll do what I can. The important thing is to keep Juri safe. Go!"
Leomon acted instantly, scooping Juri up and rushing out the door, bowling over a row of soldiers who were coming through the alley outside. Before they could react, Leomon had already leapt for the safety of a roof. They shot a few arrows at him, but he was out of sight before the strings were even released, bounding away across the rooftops. He carried her up to the top of a tall building, ducking into a seldom-used bell tower.
"We're safe here, for the moment," he said.
"What about my stepmother?" asked Juri.
"If she is lucky, the guards will spend too much time chasing after me than bothering her," Leomon replied. "If she is not, she will be captured and brought before the prince, where she will be interrogated and probably imprisoned... or killed."
Juri hung her head. "It's my fault. They're going to kill her because I didn't listen to her. If I hadn't run away from home... if I had listened..."
"Is it your fault for not listening?" asked Leomon gently. "Or hers for not telling? Or Makuramon's, for making all this happen in the first place?"
"I don't know..."
"Then do not blame yourself too much. Blaming doesn't solve anything."
"I guess you're right," she said. "It's just so awful... Leomon?"
"Is it true you were going to marry me?"
"Yes, it is."
"Why? You didn't know anything about me then..."
"That is the way it works in royal families. I knew that my parents were going to choose my bride for me and had accepted it. At the time, I was proud of being chosen for such a great honor."
Juri hung her head. "I guess you're not so proud, now."
"Why shouldn't I be? I consider myself very lucky, in fact."
"Because when I first heard of you, I knew nothing about you at all except that you were the princess. Since then, much has happened. Your stepmother has been communicating with me for quite some time now, telling me stories about you just as I have been reporting to her about the prince. Now I know that you are a brave, intelligent, and beautiful young woman, and if you will have me, I would be proud to marry you."
She blushed brilliantly. "Thank you, Leomon. I think you're special, too."
"Hm," he said, looking somewhat embarrassed. "Well... before we can do anything, there is the matter of an impostor prince to deal with. Do you have any ideas?"
Juri nodded. "Yes. I want to go back."
"Back to the palace. Everyone's going to be running around looking for us; they won't be guarding things as carefully as they would. It's going to be crazy inside, after that scene you made. You could march half an army through there without people noticing. We can get inside without too much trouble."
"True..." Leomon agreed. "Then what?"
"Then I want to talk to the prince," she said.
"He'll kill you!"
"In front of half the kingdom? He'd be killed himself if he tried it."
"Hm," said Leomon. "You are not afraid?"
She bowed her head. "A little... but if we don't do something soon, they'll kill Stepmama, and then they'll come and hunt us down. We have to do something now, right?"
Leomon smiled. "You have the heart of a lion, Juri. I think you'll be just fine. Very well, then. If the prince wants to find you, we'll go oblige him."
Makuramon, or, as he preferred to be called, Prince Makura, surveyed the wreckage of his party and tried to keep his emotions in order. One minute, everything had been going so perfectly, and the next, there was utter chaos. He had seen her tonight - that Katou girl, the one he'd thought for fifteen years was dead. Even if he hadn't heard her story, the resemblance she'd borne to her mother was amazing, just as if she'd stepped down out of one of the paintings that adorned the walls of the great hall. She had been playing right into his hands, too. All he would have needed was a few more minutes, and the magical herbs he'd slipped into her drink would have left her with no thoughts in her mind but to do his will. Instead, that brute Leomon had to break in and ruin things. What had the dumb lion been thinking, anyway? Had he seen what Makuramon had seen and decided to try to be heroic? Well, it didn't matter - Makuramon had never liked him anyway, and now he had a good excuse to kill him without anyone being censorious about it. he tried to keep his mind on that happy though, getting his emotions back under control. Losing his temper wasn't good for him; it made it difficult for him to keep his disguise in place. He noticed his tail trying to slip into view and tugged his cloak over it before anyone else could see.
Fortunately, there was nobody watching him at the moment. Unnerved by the strange events, all of his guests were huddling together in conversational knots, wondering loudly what was going on. He had a notion they weren't all going home and hiding in the rooms only because they didn't want to anger him now by walking out of his party.
The doors to the room opened, and a soldier walked in, strutting importantly.
"Your Highness!" he said, bowing smartly. "We have taken a prisoner!"
"Is it the girl?" asked Makuramon eagerly.
"No, Your Highness. We found a woman trying to protect her. Captain Leomon escaped with the girl, but our men are combing the city in search of them."
"Very well," said Makuramon, disappointed. "Bring in the prisoner."
Shizue was dragged in, her gorgeous green dress now ripped and mud stained but her eyes flashing. She glared at the prince as he came strutting down to look at her. Their eyes met, and she saw a flash of recognition.
"Well," he said, "isn't this a surprise. I never expected to see you again."
"I don't know what you mean," she said.
"Oh, I think you do," he replied. "Well, I'll make this easy for you. Tell me where the girl is, and you will be allowed to live."
"I don't know where she is."
"Liar!" he barked. "You've been hiding her, haven't you?"
"I don't know where she is."
"That wasn't the question, and you know it. You'll only be in worse trouble if you make things difficult, you know."
"The worst trouble would be having you find her," said Shizue. "I tell you the truth - I don't know where she's been taken, and all your threats won't change that."
Makuramon snarled and made a move as if to strike her. However, before he could do that, there was a communal gasp. He turned to see the cause of the commotion and saw that the great double doors of the hall had opened again, assisted by Leomon's great paws. Standing before him was a young woman in a yellow dress.
"Looking for me?" she said quietly.
"Juri!" Shizue gasped. "What are you doing here?"
There was a mutter from the crowd, as was to be expected when someone called a young woman by the name of their long-missing princess.
"I've come to talk to the prince," she said. "Or should I call you by your real name, Makuramon?"
"What?" he yelped; his voice hit a peculiar squeak. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about you," she said. "I want the truth to come out."
"What truth? I am hiding nothing!"
"I know the truth. You're an impostor. You killed the king and stole his throne." She was walking slowly forward, her step proud and regal, and the crowd parted to make way for her.
"No!" he squeaked. "Stop this girl! She is insane!"
"You know I'm not," Juri answered calmly. She could see something very strange going on. As she advanced, his mouth was dropping open in fear, his eyes widening... far more than should have been possible for a human being. People were beginning to stare at him.
"This is preposterous," he said. "I am the prince! I am of royal blood!"
"Oh? I never heard that anyone in the king's family had a tail."
"Huh?" He looked down. Sure enough, his tail was peeking out from the hem of his cloak.
"Look!" someone in the crowd shouted. "He does have a tail!"
"Look at his ears!" someone else cried.
"Look at his face! It's changing!"
There was an excited babble breaking out, as everyone began pointing at the prince and exclaiming over him. He tried to shrink away, covering his face, but it was no use. He didn't look proud or handsome anymore.
"He's not a prince at all!" said someone. "He's a monkey!"
"That's right," said Juri. "This is an impostor. He is the one who overthrew the old king and stole the throne for himself through lies and treachery. Now I have come to set things right."
"And who are you?" shouted a man in the crowd. "Another usurper?"
"No," Shizue said. "Look at her! Can't you see? This is Juri Katou, the lost princess and the true heir to the throne."
"She lies!" shouted Makuramon. "There is no proof of it! She could be anyone!"
But nobody was listening to him. Everyone was looking at the beautiful girl in the golden dress. On the wall behind her hung a painting of the old king and his new bride, painted shortly after they were married. The woman in the painting looked remarkably like Juri. She was wearing the same golden dress.
"It is the princes!" the people exclaimed. "The princess has come back!"
Makuramon shouted disagreements, but no one was listening. The people didn't want to listen to him anymore, even if he hadn't been an impostor - he had always been vain and tyrannical, commanding only grudging respect at best. Everyone was more interested in the beautiful young woman who had arrived so unexpectedly into their midst. He stared around a moment, searching desperately for some way to regain control. Finally, with a primal scream, he ran at Juri with an orb of energy clutched in his hand...
But it was not Juri that he finally ran into. She was snatched out of harm's way by a huge paw, and instead, he found himself running into the blade of a heavy sword. It was too late to stop; he ran straight through it and was sliced cleanly in half. He had just a moment to stare down in wonder at his legs, which were still running along a few inches below him, before he dissolved entirely into sparks of light. Leomon sheathed his sword.
"No worse than he deserved, trying to kill a defenseless young girl," he said.
There was a moment of silence as the people stared. Then someone shouted: "The impostor is dead. Long live the princess!"
The cry was taken up by others, and the room echoed with the noise. Juri, looking faintly stunned but happy, leaned against her protector.
"That was scary," she said, "but I'm glad I did it."
Leomon hugged her. "You were wonderful. I am proud of you."
Very gently, he tilted her head back and kissed her, and the crowds went wild.
"Long live the princess! Long live princess Juri!"
It was a long night. The party crowd seemed perfectly willing to spend the rest of the night celebrating the defeat of the tyrant, and messengers roused the entire sleeping city with the news of the princess's return. Shizue, Leomon, and Juri had to repeat the entire story to everyone over and over until their voices were nearly gone. Finally, Shizue had drawn on some long-unused royal authority to get everyone to go away and let the princess get some rest. They all went home, still shouting and chattering to each other, leaving the little royal family to slip off to a quiet room and collect themselves.
"I'm glad that's over," said Juri.
"It's far from over," her stepmother replied, smiling wryly. "I'm afraid there is still a lot to be done. It was your father's will that you should rule after him. There will have to be a coronation... and a wedding, as well," she added, glancing at Juri and Leomon, who were still gazing fondly at each other.
"That won't be so bad," said Juri.
"It won't be all happily ever after, you know," Leomon told her. "There will be those who will challenge your claim to the throne. Makuramon had supporters, and not everyone will believe that you are truly the princess. You will have a lot of work to do in the days ahead."
"I know," she answered seriously. "That's all right. I'm used to hard work... and I won't be alone. I'll have both of you, won't I?"
"Yes, you will," her stepmother agreed.
Juri smiled and gazed out the window. The sun was starting to rise, and there was a long and busy day ahead of her. She found herself looking forward to it. Maybe it wasn't a perfect fairy tale ending, and maybe the handsome prince hadn't turned out so handsome - or the wicked stepmother truly wicked - but she was sure of one thing: they were all going to live happily ever after.