A/N: Here is the final chapter! Sorry for the wait. I suggest re-reading or skimming over the SECOND chapter to reorient yourselves with the story. (Yes, the second, that's not a typo.) Enjoy!
Their Majesties were greatly downcast upon reading page 156 of the duke's spell book. Even if the king and queen had been so heartless as to be willing to sacrifice a subject, there was little hope of finding a man who was willing to sacrifice himself. The foursome had just returned to the palace with the duke in tow—Lady Kou, for her part, had stayed behind in order to help hide her brother's disappearance from their mother—but no time was to be lost; for the prince was lying motionless on his bed, and taking no nourishment but lake water, which was now dwindling down to nothing.
Therefore the king said at once, "Makoto, have the contents of this page published throughout the kingdom, straightaway."
Makoto was about to obey, but was stopped by a snort from the duke, who stood chained before the king and queen.
"That will have little effect," said he. "I'll wager there's not a man in the whole kingdom who will come forward."
Rei, who was also present at this meeting along with his colleague, retorted, "You wretch! Their Majesties shall have you put in a sack, and stuck in the lake hole."
"Very well," replied the duke nastily, "But what good will that do their Majesties? Please to remember that the oracle says the victim must offer himself."
The queen, though much concerned about the fate of her child, said to her husband, "I am afraid he is right, my dear. What man is there who would be willing to lay down his own life for our son?"
The king was unable to answer, greatly grieved at the truth behind his wife's statement. The guard and the two metaphysicians glanced at guiltily each other; Makoto mourned that he should be inflicted with such a paralyzing fear of drowning (for otherwise he was quite ready to give up his life for his friend), and Nagisa and Rei each mourned that the other was too much of a coward to die for the prince.
This moment of grim silence was interrupted by the princess' soft voice. "There may not be a man who is willing," said she, "But I am."
All eyes turned to her in surprise, for she had been silent up until then.
"And who are you, my dear?" inquired the king.
"Your maid, sire."
"Ah," said he. "Are you sure?"
"That I am your maid? Yes, sire, though I am new—"
"No, my dear, are you sure about…" Here the king gestured vaguely in the direction of the lake.
"Ah. Yes, sire, quite sure."
There was an uncomfortable pause as everyone gazed upon the princess with disbelief.
At last, the queen graciously said, "We are greatly obliged to you, young lady." Then, unsure of how to proceed, she offered awkwardly, "…Have a glass of wine?"
"No, thank you," replied the princess.
"Then, would you like to run and see your parents before you…proceed?"
"No, thank you," said the princess.
The king and queen exchanged glances. Although decorum called for a longer period of time spent in comfort and consolation of the young lady, they both agreed that time did not allow them such a luxury, as their son's life steadily drained away.
"Very well then," said his Majesty, "We will go and look for the hole at once. Makoto—"
"A moment, please your Majesty; I have a condition to make," interrupted the princess.
The queen quickly said, "Of course, dear, do make your condition."
"My condition is this: that His Highness' cousin, the duke, not be punished."
"What!" cried Makoto, Nagisa and Rei. The duke, too, looked stunned, as did their Majesties.
"But, my dear woman," began Rei, "All the things he has done!"
"Yes," agreed Nagisa, "Let us not forget that he was the one who bewitched the prince at birth—"
"—And now curses him with death," added Makoto.
Indeed, the duke's actions were a capital crime, tantamount to treason, and even worthy of execution. The princess knew this (being herself the daughter of a king), and thus she implored, "Is not my death enough? If I die today, it is my dearest wish that none other shall die along with me." She then explained, as concisely as she could and without wounding the duke's dignity, that Rin at his core was just a child without a father, lonely and confused, and blinded by heartache after his death. She concluded with this: "Your Majesties, I ask that you forgive him…for he knew not what he was doing."
The king mulled this over for a long moment. It was the queen who, glancing over at her nephew the duke (who now stared at the floor, unable to meet anyone's eye), finally softened; and, placing a hand over her husband's, spoke thusly: "Very well. We will grant such a gracious request. Is there no other request you would like to make—for yourself, perhaps?"
The princess considered this. "Only this," she said at last, "that—as I won't be dead until I am fairly drowned, and the waiting will be rather tiresome—the prince would be there to keep me company, to talk with me and pass the time. Once the water is up to my eyes, he may go."
"But, Christine-chan!" burst out Nagisa, unable to contain himself any longer. "Why must you die? And in such an excruciating manner, too! How could you bear it?"
The princess tried her best not to think about just how excruciating it would be. "I confess that it is rather hard," she said, keeping her expression blank.
"You do realize that you will be drowned slowly, and by inches, don't you?" persisted the blond metaphysician, quite concerned for his new friend.
"Yes, thank you, Nagisa."
"That would be approximately, what, sixty whole inches of you to drown then!" he continued, rather frantic now.
"And if each inch should take a quarter of an hour to fill up the lake," Nagisa went on, with increasing panic and ever decreasing tact, "Why then, it would take over half a day just to drown, half a day of anticipating the feeling of a knife slicing through your lungs, half a day of waiting for death; and that that is too much for you to have to bear, Christine-chan, even if you do die looking into the prince's eyes—!"
At this the princess could appear aloof no longer, and looked rather pained; and Rei nudged Nagisa sharply in the ribs to silence him. Their Majesties looked thoroughly uncomfortable.
"Well then," said the princess, addressing the king and queen, "Do you grant my request?"
"Of course we do," replied the king.
"Very well. I am ready."
So the king ordered out his guards, with Makoto at the head of them, and gave directions to the officers to find the hole in the lake at once.
Meanwhile, the princess pulled aside the duke to have a private conversation with him. He had, by this time, resigned himself to a state of cooperation, for he felt rather guilty that this maiden should die on account of him. But he was resolved not to show it.
"I am indebted to you," he stated matter-of-factly, "And this gives me great displeasure. Will you not change your mind?"
"No," said the princess. "But there is something you could do for me."
"I could bewitch someone else to take your place—"
"No," said the princess again.
The duke sighed. "Very well. What is it you want?"
"Once I am gone," she began, "Will you come visit the palace often—so that the prince may still have someone to swim with?"
"The king and queen would never allow—"
"I've spoken with the king and queen, and you are to be welcomed in the palace like the family member that you are, as often as you please."
The duke was still reluctant, but at length he condescended to fulfill her request, and even went so far as to promise not to attempt cursing the prince again.
"How do you know I won't go back on my word?" he asked her, just before she departed for her death.
"I have faith," she said simply, as she turned to go.
Curious, he called after her, "What did Prince Haruka ever do to deserve such a sacrifice as yours?"
"It is not about what we deserve," said the princess over her shoulder, and at this Duke Rin remembered that he himself was not so deserving of the reprieve he had been granted, and so he said no more.
Now, when the prince heard that someone had offered to die for him, he was so transported that he jumped off of his bed for joy. He did not care who that someone was; that was nothing to him. The hole needed stopping up; and if only a single person would do, why, take one then.
In an hour or two more everything was ready; the hole had been discovered. It was a triangular hole of no great size, in the middle of a stone near the center of the lake. What little water was left in the lake was slowly draining through the hole.
The prince was escorted to the side of the lake and borne across to the stone, where they had placed a little boat for him. The water was not deep enough to make the boat float, but they hoped it would be before long. They laid the prince on cushions, placed wines and fruits and other nice things in the boat, and stretched a canopy over it all.
In a few minutes more the princess appeared. The prince recognized her at once, but did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge her.
"Here I am," said the princess. "Put me in."
"They told me it was a maid," said the prince.
"So I am," said the princess. "I polished your floors three times a day, because they were all I could get of you. Put me in."
The courtiers did not resent her bluntness, except by thinking to themselves that she was taking it out in impudence.
But how was she to be put in? The book had contained no instructions on this point. The princess looked at the hole, and saw but one way. She sat down on the stone, swung her legs into the hole, and, stooping forward, covered the corner that remained open with her two hands. In this uncomfortable position she resolved to abide her fate, and turning to the attendants, said, "You may go now."
"Yes, you may go now," echoed the prince dismissively.
They obeyed and went.
A long period of silence passed, with neither the prince nor princess saying a word. Presently a little wave flowed over the stone, and wetted one of the princess' knees. But she did not mind it much. She began to sing, and the song she sang was this:
"Man with hair as dark as night,
Let the waters give you sight.
See how I go out of love,
For thy sake, to realms above,
Where the light shines on and on,
And living water flows like song.
Let, I pray, one thought of me
Spring water such as this in thee;
Lest thy loveless soul be found
Like a dry and thirsty ground."
"Sing again, princess," said the prince, sounding quite bored. "It makes it less tedious,"
But the princess was much too overcome by emotion to sing any more, and a long pause followed.
"This is very kind of you, princess," said the prince at last, quite coolly, as he lay in the boat with his eyes shut.
"I am sorry I can't return the compliment," said the princess, with more sadness than impertinence. The prince didn't seem to notice either way.
"Why are you doing this, anyhow?" he inquired casually, eyes still closed.
There was another pause. "I suppose it's because," she said finally, "That for whatever reason—I find you worth dying for."
The prince opened his eyes then to look at her, but said nothing.
Again a wavelet, and another, and another flowed over the stone, and wetted the princess' gown all the way up to her knees; but she did not speak or move. Two—three—four hours passed in this way; the prince apparently having dozed off, and the princess very patient.
But suddenly the prince started up, exclaiming, "The water is alive!" And the little boat, now in water high enough to float it, bumped against the stone.
"Dear prince," said the princess, her mental fortitude weakened by hunger and the impending prospect of death, and thus giving way to a sudden surge of sentimentality, "May I say something?"
"Yes, what is it?" said the prince, without looking round at her.
"Your father promised that you should keep me company and talk with me, but you have spoken very little, and hardly even looked my way."
"Did he? Then I suppose I must. But," he yawned, "I am so very tired."
"Sleep then, darling, and don't mind me," said the poor princess.
"Really, you are very good," replied the prince. "I think I shall sleep then."
"Would you do me the kindness of feeding me a glass of wine and a biscuit, first?" asked the princess, very humbly.
"With all my heart," said the prince, then gaped upon hearing such words fall from his own lips. But his surprise quickly faded into a vacant expression once more, and, getting the wine and the biscuit, he leaned over the side of the boat towards the princess. Thus he was compelled, in that moment, to take a good look at her.
"Princess," he said solemnly, "you don't look well. Are you sure you don't mind it?"
"Not a bit," answered she, feeling very faint indeed. "Only I shall die before it is of any use to you, unless I have something to eat."
"There, then," said he, holding out the wine to her.
"I dare not move my hands, Your Highness. The water would run away directly."
"Very well," said the prince; and he began to feed her with bits of biscuit and sips of wine.
When he was done, the princess thanked him. "But for your own sake, prince," said she, "I cannot let you go to sleep. You must sit and keep watch over me, else I fear I may fall over for want of sleep myself."
"Well, I will do anything I can to oblige you," answered he, with condescension; and, sitting down, he watched her, and kept watching her with impressive steadfastness, all things considered.
The sun went down, and the moon rose, and, gush after gush, the waters were rising up over the princess' body. They were up to her waist now.
"Why don't we go and have a swim?" said the prince. "There seems to be water enough now."
"I shall never swim more," said the princess grimly.
"Oh, I forgot," said the prince, and was silent.
So the water grew and grew, and rose up and up on the princess. And the prince sat and watched her. He fed her every now and then. The night wore on. The waters rose and rose. The moon rose likewise higher and higher, and shone full on the face of the dying princess. The water was now up to her neck.
"Haru," said she, feebly. "Will you embrace me farewell?"
The prince considered her for a moment. "Yes, Christine," he answered at last, "I will." And, leaning down, he wrapped her in his arms.
"Thank you," she said when he drew back, and smiled weakly but tenderly at him. "Now, I suppose, I shall die happy."
She did not speak again for the rest of the time there. The prince gave her some wine for the last time: she was past eating. Then he sat down again, and watched her. The water rose and rose. It touched the bottom of her chin. It covered her chin. It reached her lips, and she shut them hard to keep it out.
The prince began to feel strange.
The water now covered the princess' mouth completely. She began to breathe through her nose. The water rose steadily higher, to right below her nostrils.
The prince looked uneasy.
The princess inhaled a final breath of air. The water covered her nose.
The prince's eyes looked troubled, and shone strange in the moonlight.
A full minute passed as the water rose up to the princess' eyes. Her head fell back. The water slowly closed over her face and, finally, the bubbles of her last breath bubbled up through the water.
The prince gave a sudden shout, and sprang into the lake.
He grabbed first onto one of her arms, and then the other, and pulled, but to no avail. He stopped to take breath; this made him think of how she could not get any breath, and he became frantic. Getting a hold of her, he held her head above the water, which was possible now that her hands were no longer on the hole. But it was of no use, for she was past breathing.
Love and water brought him a surge of strength. He got under the water, grasped the princess about her waist, and pulled and pulled with all his might, till at last he got her out of the hole, and into the boat. Seizing the oars, he rowed and rowed, though he had never rowed before and, I must say, was not very good at it, even if it was a water activity. Cursing himself for being no use at paddling through the water unless it was with his own arms, the prince kept the boat steady as best he could. Round rocks, and over shallows, and through mud he rowed, till he got to the landing stairs of the palace. By this time his courtiers were on the shore, for they had heard his shout. Makoto, Nagisa, Rei, and even Rin were present; they followed him as he carried the princess to his own room, and lay her in his bed, and called for attendants to light a fire and send for the doctors.
"But the lake, your Highness!" cried Rei, confused.
"Go and drown yourself in it!" snapped the prince.
The other attendants left to fetch the doctors, but somehow, they never came. So the prince and the other four were left with the princess. Makoto did what he could to push water out of her lungs, the two metaphysicians offered up smelling salts and salves, and the duke, showing uncharacteristic concern, attempted a healing spell.
"That won't work, you fool!" cried Rei in exasperation. "You're still wearing the cuffs on your—" And then he gaped as a shimmer of magic spread from Rin's handcuffed hands and onto the princess. Her fading pulse returned slightly, but even then, she lay as still as a stone.
Rin gave the metaphysician a dark look. "I told you," he said, indicating the metal on his wrists with equal exasperation, "That these can't stop it."
Rei looked aghast. "But then how—"
"Why is she still not breathing?" cried Nagisa, greatly distressed.
Makoto continued to pump down on the princess' chest, but perceiving this to have little effect, he turned to the prince and informed him, "I believe she needs air, Your Highness…do you want me to—ah, or did you want to, that is, erm—"
The prince did not reply. Putting a hand to the princess' cold cheek, he leaned down and pressed his mouth to hers, gently giving her air from his own lungs. Drawing back again, he gazed intently at her. "Wake up, princess," he implored quietly.
"…Princess?" exclaimed the other four in shocked revelation. The prince ignored them.
"Wait—if she is a princess—" began Nagisa.
"—Then what is she doing here?" finished Rei.
Rin looked equally intrigued. "And from which kingdom?"
Makoto paled, suddenly remembering something. "I heard that the king and queen had invited a princess from a neighboring kingdom…in hopes that she would become Prince Haruka's betrothed."
The four turned back to stare at the comatose princess.
"Well," said Rin at last, "It will be a distressingly short engagement, unless we do something quick."
"Unless we do something?" cried Nagisa. "You're the one who has magic! Why can't you heal her?"
"More importantly," interjected Rei. "Why does he have magic again?! It didn't work the last time, when he tried to use it against us."
There was a pause. "Last time," said Makoto, remembering, "The princess prayed for us."
Rei was incredulous. "That does nothing!"
"Much like your alchemy," said Rin sardonically.
As the four continued to argue, the prince continued to gaze at the princess. He silently considered what they were arguing about. Prince Haruka had never prayed before. But he had also never fallen in love before, and now, with the woman he loved dying before him, he thought that perhaps he should start.
So he prayed with all his heart and all his soul, and all his mind and all his strength. He prayed and prayed for whatever grace or mercy it would take to bring his beloved princess back to him. Minutes passed, or maybe it was hours; he did not know, for time seemed to unravel in those moments. The other four had at last ceased arguing, becoming somber and silent. Perhaps they were praying too.
At last, when they had all but given it up, and just as the sun was rising…the princess opened her eyes.
In the moments when the princess first opened her eyes, the prince found that his own became clouded by sudden, unexpected tears of joy. So unfamiliar was the sensation, and such a shock to his system, that he all but collapsed to the floor; the exhaustion of a sleepless night finally catching up to him. There he remained for a good long while, and wept and wept with relief and happiness. All the pent-up crying of his life was spent now. And a rain came on outdoors, such as had never been seen in that country. The sun shone the whole time, however; and the raindrops, as blue as the sapphire hue of the prince's own eyes, shone likewise. The palace, then, was in the heart of a rainbow. It was a rain of rubies, and sapphires, and emeralds, and topazes. Torrents poured from the mountains like rivers of diamond, filling the lake back up to overflowing.
But the prince did not heed the lake. He knelt on the floor and wept.
The princess, still quite weak, turned her head to see who was crying, and was alarmed to see that it was her prince. "My sweet prince," said she, greatly concerned, "Why do you weep?"
"Out of joy, princess," replied the prince.
"Oh, good," said the princess with relief, and then reached out to put a tender hand against the prince's cheek. "Then we're all happy."
"That we are indeed," sobbed the prince.
Now this rain within doors was far more wonderful than the rain out of doors. For when it abated a little, and the prince proceeded to rise, he found, to his astonishment, that he could not. At length, after many efforts, he succeeded in getting upon his feet. But he tumbled down again directly. Seeing him fall, Makoto and Rin both gaped, and the two metaphysicians cried, "He's found his gravity!"
"Oh, that's it, is it?" said the prince, rubbing his shoulder and his knee. "I consider it very unpleasant. I feel as though a boulder is on top of me."
And there was rejoicing all throughout the country on that rainy, rainbow-filled day. All the people throughout the land forgot their past troubles, and danced and sang amazingly. And there was such jubilation as was never heard of before.
Of course the prince and princess were betrothed at once. The princess' courtiers, once reunited with her, revealed that this had been her father's intention all along.
"Well, aside from the part where you nearly drowned, Highness," said Sir Michael respectfully.
Rose, quite wroth with her mistress, scolded, "To think that you were about to go and do such a thing! And without telling a single one of us!" She turned to Sir Michael. "And you, Captain! If you knew we were headed for King Nanase's palace anyway, why did you allow us to stop and dilly dally?"
"His Majesty was quite clear in his instruction of trusting whatever commands the princess may make," he explained. "Perhaps it was his hope that they would have a chance meeting first."
The princess admitted that she did not think the prince would have fallen in love with her if it had been an arranged meeting. It had been hard enough even when they were already on friendly terms.
Rose conceded with a sigh, "I suppose all things do work out for good with you, Your Highness." And then she proceeded to gush in excitement over the princess' impending wedding.
But the prince had to learn to walk before they could be married with any propriety. This was not so easy a task at his time of life, for he could walk no more than a baby, and was always falling down and hurting himself.
"Is this the 'falling' that you always made so much of?" said he one day to the princess, after she had helped raise him up off the floor. "For my part, I was a great deal more comfortable without it."
"No, darling. This is falling," replied the princess, and she leaned in and kissed him sweetly.
"Ah," said he. "I don't mind that so much."
At last the prince had learned the art of falling, both literally and figuratively. I fear he complained about falling more than once after this, notwithstanding.
It was a long time before he got reconciled to walking. But the pain of learning was quite counterbalanced by two things, either of which would have been sufficient consolation. The first was, that the princess herself was his teacher; and the second, that he could tumble into the lake as often as he pleased. Still, he preferred to have the princess jump in with him; and the splash they made before was nothing to the splash they made now.
The lake never sank again. The prince and the princess swam in it often, along with Rin the duke, Nagisa the metaphysician, and even, eventually, their friends Makoto and Rei. Lady Kou alone declined to join in, saying that she had discovered a greater pleasure in admiring them from shore instead.
So the prince and princess lived happily ever after; and had crowns of gold, and clothes of cloth, and shoes of leather, and days full of joy—the last of which, if I were to write all about, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.