After having searched almost the entire castle for the elusive Prince Xander, Hinoka decided to ask the servants, and was directed to one of the more secluded Zen gardens.
Upon her arrival, the sight that greeted her made her stop dead in her tracks. The future king of Nohr was sitting seiza underneath a huge cherry tree alongside an old monk, meditating.
Hinoka blinked several times, but the image stayed the same. Hinoka had no idea what to think of this – she somehow had a feeling that these two hadn't met coincidentally. Rather, they were meditating together.
The Hoshidan princess was unsure how to proceed – should she come back later? Wait until they were done? She didn't really want to interrupt them, but she'd already wasted a lot of time looking for Xander, and she wanted her answers as soon as possible.
"How can we be of assistance, Hinoka-sama?", the monk asked, blinking his eyes open.
"Ah – I was looking for Prince Xander."
"Well, I'd say you found him."
Taking a deep breath, Xander returned to this plane of existence. His dark eyes opened and pinned her with a penetrating gaze that was so powerful Hinoka almost took a step backwards.
"Would it be all right if we interrupted our mediation for a bit?", he asked the monk, breaking eye contact with Hinoka as he turned to face the other man.
"We might just as well call it a day", the monk replied. "You've made tremendous progress, Xander-sama. I shall see you again tomorrow."
He rose to his feet, bowed first to Hinoka, then Xander, and departed. Hinoka looked after him, feeling a little bit confused.
"You practise meditation?", she asked Xander, still rather incredulous about this finding.
"I do, but I am rather new to it."
"Why? I mean, what made you want to start practising?"
"I thought it might help me. I am, as Elise would say, a big old worry-wart – I constantly worry about everything and everyone. So I decided to try out mediation, and it helped. I still worry, but it helps me forget my worries for a while."
"I see. I take it meditation is not commonly practised in Nohr?"
"It isn't. Your sister was very surprised when she realised I had no idea what a Zen garden was, or what it is used for. She was the one to explain these things to me, and she also found me a teacher when she discovered that I was interested in learning how to meditate."
"So that's how it happened. I was, admittedly, surprised to find you here like this."
"I can't blame you for that. Well then, Princess Hinoka, how can I be of help?"
"There are a couple of things I want to ask you", Hinoka said, moving closer but refraining from sitting down – she felt more in control that way, and it also had the advantage that she was now taller than him – why did all these Nohrians have to be so damn tall?
"Ask away", he replied, shifting so he was now sitting, and leaning his back against the tree.
His nonchalant air fazed Hinoka somewhat.
"It's Sakura", she said. "I spoke with her yesterday, and asked her how she's holding up. Her answer was rather vague, and she hinted that there are days she isn't doing so well. I am certain she's hiding something from me – wanting to spare me the awful parts, no doubt – but I have to know. I have to know what I might be facing if she has another bad day. I have gathered that she spent a lot of time with you – so I want you to tell me everything you know. Leave nothing out. And don't you dare gloss things over. I want to know all of it."
"Have you considered simply asking your sister directly, instead of coming to me?"
"I don't think that would work. She doesn't want to burden me."
"What about you? Would you go to her if you needed help?"
"No. I don't want to burden her, either."
"I see. I will tell you what I know – but you will have to make this work between yourselves. You must both realise that asking for help doesn't make you a burden to the other, and that there are some things you can't overcome on your own. You two are the only ones left of your family – you will need each other to get through this. I doubt you had the time needed to grieve properly while you were on the run – eventually, you, too, will come apart one way or the other, and when you do, I am certain your sister will be there to help you. But you have to let her. And tell her she can come to you anytime, too."
"I – did not expect that", she said at length. "I this the result of your experience with grieving?"
"It is. Given the amount of family members I lost over the years, I have experienced and seen many different forms of grief. People deal with it in different ways, but I've always observed that it is best if you share your grief and sorrows with someone else, someone you're close to, someone you trust."
"You've lost family members? Before the war?"
"Yes. I lost almost all of my siblings – it got so bad that at one point I decided to try and not grow attached to them any more, since I never knew if they would still be alive the next day..."
"Wait, what? I always thought – there had been just the five of you – just like there was five of us. You had more siblings than that?"
"Yes – bastards born to my father by his numerous mistresses. Today, only three of those still live."
"How – how did the others die?"
"Some were killed by assassins hired by the other mistresses. Others they killed themselves – and sometimes, they made their children do it. Those were terrible, dark times. You never knew who to trust. You never knew who would be the next to try and kill you..."
"That's – just awful. And your father tolerated this?"
"He encouraged it."
"What? I cannot believe that! This doesn't make any sense. Why would he have so many children only to have them fight or kill each other? Wait, are we talking about your father, or the imposter here?"
Hinoka had moved closer in her agitation without noticing – too engrossed by this horrible tale.
"It's hard to say. You see, my parents never loved one another, they married for the sake of an alliance – for power. I believe my father started having affairs early on – Camilla isn't much younger than me, after all. However, things only started to get really bad after Arete's death – which means that it might have been the imposter who started all the fighting amongst the mistresses and their children. My father cared about his bastards enough he accepted them all as his own, and gave them royal status – which is very unusual for a Nohrian noble or king."
"What do you mean?"
"While affairs do occur amongst the nobility, they are frowned upon, and children born of such unions are usually considered a shame, and are shipped off to distant relatives to be kept out of sight. Therefore, my father making them princes and princesses instead was unheard of."
"Why would anyone risk a pregnancy if the people involved weren't ready to take on the responsibility that involves? Hoshidans having an affair will either make sure not to conceive a child or be ready to accept it into one of the two families. Bastard-born children are often acknowledged, sometimes even by both parents, if only one of them is of noble birth. We would certainly not be as irresponsible as to have children and then hand then over to some distant relations."
"You sound like it is a common thing for Hoshidans to have affairs."
"Because it is. There's nothing wrong with being in love, with desiring someone. Of course, once people get married, their spouses might become upset if they have a lover on the side, but I've heard of some cases were both spouses were having affairs, and it worked out fine. However, just because everyone is free to take a lover doesn't mean everyone should take one – my siblings and I were discouraged from doing so, actually, as this might have given our lovers power over us. And, well, there was a risk of pregnancy, too, which would have been very impractical for me."
"So none of your siblings took lovers, either?"
"I can't say for certain", Hinoka replied, attempting to cross her arms before realising her sleeves got in the way. "I never saw anything that would count as proof – and, given Sakura-nee and Takumi-nii's characters and dispositions, I think it unlikely that either of them ever had a lover at one point. I'm not so sure about Ryoma-onii, though – I've been suspecting that something might have been going on between him and Azura for a while now."
"Yes. They were very close – and Azure didn't grow close to other people easily. The only other person I can think of she had a similar relationship with was Sakura – though I doubt there was anything going on between these two."
If Xander had seemed surprised by Hinoka's explanation of Hoshidan habits so far, now he was without a doubt shocked.
"You mean – our sisters could have had an affair? And no-one would have minded?"
"Of course not. Why would they? Even though we treated Azura as a sister, she was never formally adopted, so it would have been fine."
"It's different in Nohr", Xander replied quietly. "There are laws against this kind of thing."
"Because it's not right."
"I – don't really know..."
"Why would it be all right to stop people from being with the one they love for something as inconsequential as their sex? You can't chose who you fall in love with, or who you desire. There are some people who desire both, you know – men and women. They should be free to live their lives as they please, don't you think?"
"I'm not sure if I can agree with that."
"All right, let's try something different – do you know what it is like to be in love?"
Xander hesitated before nodding his head once.
"And I assume this person in question is a woman?"
"Well then, imagine that this great love of yours is a man. A noble, to make it more realistic. Imagine he returned your feelings, but you had to keep your relationship hidden from everyone, meet in secret and lie to all the people around you... Do you still think this is justified? Or imagine, if you will, that one of your younger siblings desired someone of the same sex, and that they were found out. Maybe they were even accused publicly. Would you sentence you own siblings to – whatever it is you do to punish those poor souls?"
Xander now looked distinctively uncomfortable, and Hinoka hadn't failed to notice that the part about his siblings had had the biggest effect on him.
"Just think about it. You're going to be king. You can change the law, make it better, fairer to everyone."
"I'm not sure if society would approve", he said after a while.
"Why-ever not? Why would people have a problem with this? It's not like anyone's forcing those not interested in the same sex to start having these kind of relationships, you know. You wouldn't be taking away rights, either – rather, you would grant everyone the same rights. That would be a good thing, wouldn't it?"
"I – to be quite honest, I've never considered these matters before, it never occurred to me to see things from that perspective – I'll have to think on this. Maybe talk to my siblings."
"Well, take your time. It's not my people, so I really couldn't care less. Though I still think that your laws are unfair. By the way, did any of your siblings ever take a lover?"
"No – for the same reason you did not."
"I see. So that means you don't know where their preferences lie – one or more of them might be interested in the same sex for all you know. Just keep that in mind."
"I will. Now – did you want to tell me about your sister, or shall we keep discussing things totally unrelated to her?"
Hinoka couldn't keep herself from smirking at his clumsy attempt to change the subject – he was, apparently, not comfortable discussing these kind of things – or maybe just not with her.
"I don't even remember how we ended up here. Though you still haven't told me why you think your father/the imposter pitted your siblings against one another."
"That's true... I've been thinking about this for a while, too. Assuming that it was the imposter who started all this and keeping in mind that his ultimate goal was apparently the destruction of our two kingdoms, it's possible he wanted only the strongest of my siblings to survive – the ones capable of outsmarting or outfighting the others."
"That does make sense, in a grotesque kind of way. Now then, tell me about Sakura."
"Very well. Do keep in mind that I haven't known her for long and don't know how much the war changed her – but I can tell you how much she changed from the day I first met her properly to this day.
"After we had secured the capital, I sent Elise to bring your sister to the castle. The girl I got to know then was terribly insecure, could barely make eye-contact and would stammer constantly. I know I seem intimidating, even frightening to some people, but your sister was one of the worst cases I've ever seen, in particular since I wasn't actively trying to frighten her. On the contrary, it was my intention from the beginning to get better acquainted with her in hopes of forming an alliance later on. However, I am not the most eloquent man, and your sister's fear of my person complicated things."
"I was actually very surprised by your interactions yesterday", Hinoka said quietly. "The Sakura I knew would have never talked to someone like you. No offence."
"None taken. I very persistently tried to convince her that I was not a monster. Princess Sakura discovered early on that I was a man of my word, which worked in my favour. Also, my sister Elise had taken my orders to try and befriend her to heart and tried her hardest. Elise is like an avalanche – once she gets started on something, there is no stopping her. These two bonded quickly, and that enabled me to connect with your sister a bit more easily.
"Despite her initial fear of us, Princess Sakura put on a brave front – she was always polite and reserved – I believe she was hesitant to show us how she truly felt for fear of repercussions at first. I could not detect any outward signs of grief at first, and, figuring that she had no-one to truly confide in, feared that she might be burying it – which can be very harmful.
"She suffered her first breakdown following the funeral – she stumbled and fell on her way back to the castle. She suffered minor cuts from the pebbles, and while Elise and Leo went to fetch her staff, the rest of us escorted Princess Sakura back to her rooms, trying to get her away from prying eyes. She still tried very hard to hold herself together, though."
"The funeral? As in Ryoma and Takumi's funeral? You were there?"
Xander shifted, looking somewhat uncomfortable.
"I thought it felt right to be there, and the others agreed. You see, I felt terrible for not having been able to prevent their deaths. Furthermore, your sister had wanted to postpone the funeral until you had been found, but wasn't able to – and I felt that she shouldn't have to do this all by herself. Now, I didn't delude myself into thinking that we were a source of comfort to her back then, but it made me feel better since it meant I could keep an eye on her. Besides, I also felt that it was particularly important for Kamui to be there – we hadn't been very supportive after her mother's death, I'm afraid, and I wanted to rectify that, too. Though Kamui was very careful never to show any outward signs of grief, be it for your brothers or our father, whenever Hoshidans were near."
"Kamui – grieved for them?"
"Of course. They were her brothers, too. She hated how things ended. Hated herself for how things ended. I – do not intend to speak on her behalf – I understand that these things need to be resolved between the three of you."
Hinoka chewed her lip before realising this wasn't a very queenly thing to do.
"Has Kamui given any indication of when she wants to resolve these things?"
"No – though I believe she will leave it to you to determine the time and place. We all know that you will be very busy during the next couple of days at least, and wouldn't want to impose. I assume she'll approach you when she feels the time is right."
"I see. You said that this had been Sakura-nee's first breakdown – so I assume there were more?"
"Yes. The second one I know of occurred after the attempt on Kamui's life. Your sister came to see us the following morning, after having interrogated the attacker and having met with her councillors. She informed me of how she was going to proceed, but we were joined unexpectedly by Kamui, who was, understandably, eager to find out more about the man who had wanted to kill her. You see, apparently she had gotten into an argument with Princess Sakura the day before, and the situation nearly escalated – Sakura's temporary guard used a smoke bomb to get her away before someone lost their cool. That noble caught wind of that, and this spurred him into motion. So there was that, and then there were also a lot of unresolved things between Kamui and your sister – and it became all too much for her. When I realised she was going to have a breakdown, I told Kamui to find Elise and moved Princess Sakura into my rooms, so she would be out of sight. She still tried desperately to remain as composed as possible, even though I could see the strain it put on her. While I am used to offer comfort to others, I was unsure if I should attempt to offer any to her – whenever I had attempted to do so in the past, she'd shy away from me, and I was also worried about breaching protocol. So all I could do was hope that Elise would arrive soon. When she did, your sister finally did fall apart. As far as I know, this was the first time she addressed how she felt about everything – she was feeling conflicting emotions, and that confused her. She even said that she hated herself for feeling the way she did. It took her a while until she managed to calm down, and she even spoke a few words with Kamui after that. They agreed that Sakura would listen to Kamui's story at an unspecified later point, and that Kamui would keep her distance for the time being."
"Poor Sakura... She's always been an empathetic person, so this must have been terrible for her. Did she get her feelings sorted out?"
"I – don't know for sure. She and Elise went for a walk afterwards – an attempt to distract her, no doubt – but I don't know what they spoke of during that walk. But letting out all of that pain and grief and confusion surely did a lot to help her on the road of recovery, and Elise is very experienced at handling these kind of things."
"I see. I should probably thank her for having been so kind to Sakura-nee."
"You can, if it makes you feel better, but Elise would probably just say something along the lines of 'just doing her duty'.
"There was another incident, though it is not related to grieving – she sentenced the noble to die the same day, and had him executed. She – didn't handle that very well, though she managed to keep herself together until she was inside, out of sight of the people."
"She was dry-heaving when we came inside. Elise once again came to her rescue and alleviated her suffering. I told her that no-one walked away from his first execution completely unaffected, and that it got better with time – but we both agreed that we didn't want her to hold many more executions. If you would care to hear my advice – it might be a good idea to keep her away from these things, should you ever have to execute someone again."
"I shall keep that in mind. Thank you. Anything else I should know?"
"Nothing I can think of at the moment. Like I said, your sister took great care to hide much of what she felt from us. Also, there were times during which she shut herself in her rooms, and we have no way of knowing how she was doing during these times. Her servant might know more, though."
She cocked her head to the side.
"You know, you're not quite what I expected you to be."
"Oh? What did you expect, if I might ask?"
"Well... more haughtiness. Arrogance. That you'd feel somehow superiour to me, even though you're not."
"I suppose I can't fault you for that. But I would gain nothing from antagonising you. Besides, it is just as you said – I am no better than you. Hoshido might be very different from Nohr, but that doesn't mean it's inferior. The last couple of weeks have taught me that. Though I pride myself to say that I never believed my own country's propaganda."
"Propaganda? What do you mean?"
"It is usually easier to get men to fight for you if they believe there is a good reason for it. For example, if you make them believe that your enemies must be destroyed at all costs for the greater good. Demonising them helps with that. So that's what we did. We pretended that you were uncultured barbarians despite knowing that this couldn't possibly be true. Did you not employ similar tactics here in Hoshido?"
"There was no need. You did a very good job at demonising yourselves. Everyone knew you were the uncultured swine here."
"Surely not!", Xander protested in mock exasperation. "I am quite certain you are the savages."
That actually made Hinoka chuckle, and Xander gave her a wan smile.
"I think we can both agree that neither of us is a savage", Hinoka said at length. "Though I might judge some of your people differently."
"Some of them clearly earned themselves that kind of reputation", Xander admitted. "While it saddens me, there is nothing I can do to change that in retrospect."
"I will not hold the actions of men not under your command against you", Hinoka replied quietly. "As a military commander, I know that would be wrong. I'm – not saying you're completely off the hook, but I am willing to give you a chance. Prove to me that you are being honest about wanting to create a better world for us all."
"I will. You have my word."
"Right. Speaking of which, I would like to know how much longer you intend to stay here. Sakura indicated that you were waiting for my return. Well, I'm back, but I don't exactly see you packing your stuff."
"True. I want to make sure everything is in order here before I leave – I need to make certain you can handle your new duties as a queen. I know that Princess Sakura is very capable and will be a great help to you, but if the people should view you as inefficient or deem that you are not up to the task, someone might try to dethrone you. That is the last thing I want."
"Why? Why does it matter who sits on the Hoshidan throne, if you don't want it for yourself?"
"I know your sister, and I trust you to be a reasonable person. I believe that I will be able to work with you both. If someone were to dethrone you, I would have no idea who I would be dealing with. That person might jeopardise the alliance, might even start a new war, no matter how stupid that might be. I do not want that.
"The alliance is another reason we are still here – I want to discuss the terms with you, as you are going to be queen. Depending on how long all that takes, we might be here for some time. I'm afraid I can't give you a time frame – but I do hope we will be able to resolve these matters rather quickly. I am anxious to return home."
"Ah, yes, the alliance. Sakura-nee mentioned that to me. How soon would you like to commence negotiations?"
"As soon as you are able – you will need time to prepare yourself, and I know you have other pressing matters to attend to. I assume that I should be available whenever you should decide that we can start."
"I see. That is – rather generous of you. Sakura-nee also told me that you declined to discuss the terms with her, despite knowing that you could have easily exploited her disposition – I must admit that this speaks in your favour. Another thing I wouldn't have expected."
Hinoka stopped herself short of asking him whether or not he intended to take Sakura away – if her sister's hunch was correct, she might just be putting ideas in his head for all she knew. Besides, it was better that he didn't know what she feared.
"Hm. You shouldn't presume to know me yet. How about you try to find out who I am, instead of just making wild assumptions about who I might be?"
"Good. Also, I want you to know that you can come talk to me anytime, should any more questions arise, or if you feel the need to get to know me better. I assume my siblings will likewise be of help to you."
"I see. Thank you once again. I might take you up on that. I really should be going now, though – this took much longer than I had anticipated."
"I shall not keep you. Oh, one last thing – will you come and eat with us? It would make this 'getting-to-know-us' thing easier."
"I can't come today", Hinoka replied, hoping he wouldn't see right through her. "I'll be having lunch and dinner together with court officials and other important people – lots of things to learn, lots of things to discuss."
"Yes. Well. Have a nice day."
Hinoka quickly turned away and made her way back to the house as swiftly as her stupid kimono would allow.
I've based the Hoshidan's understanding of sexuality on that of the Japanese, where sex isn't considered dirty or sinful, and homosexuality is widely accepted, something our foreign ministry even pointed out on its website.
In contrast to that, the Nohrian's understanding of sexuality is based on that of old European courts – on the outside, people were prim and proper, but once you took a closer look, you could see how little the nobles cared about these things. Garon's actions took things a bit further, though the commoners still have to uphold the laws or face the consequences. And homosexuality is, of course, eeeewww.