Deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. Keep the bow steady… and release the arrow.
A complete miss. Muraji sighed, his shoulders sagging as he stepped forward to retrieve his arrows. None of them had hit their initial mark.
"Tch. Are you even trying?"
He jumped as he heard his father's voice. He turned toward him, not daring to look in his eyes. He was probably afraid of what he would see in them. Disapproval? Mockery? Disappointment? Muraji bit his lip, not even knowing what to say anymore. The art of archery was traditionally taught to Yafutoman nobles and soldiers. Muraji did not particularly excel at it, but he wasn't usually this unfocused.
"I am not expecting you to become a soldier. I'm not planning to let my only son die before he hit a target anyway."
Only son. Simple words who carried a terrible burden.
"It is only a hobby, Father…" he finally said.
"It would be time better spent studying. How about honing your actual talents?"
"I... Yes... Father."
Muraji dejectedly went back to the shooting target. Under his father's watchful eyes, it felt like a walk of shame. Every arrows seemed to serve to remind him of his failures. Muraji fought back tears. Crying now would only add more to his humiliation. As he pulled the arrows he felt like hanging the bow against the wall for good.
The archery field used to be his sanctuary. The whole reason he picked up this activity was because it was the one place where he could clear his mind. Lately, his father had been shadowing him and now even the place that used to be his alone made him feel trapped.
As he returned, Kangan looked down to him.
"Muraji... There is something we must discuss."
The young man gulped. These words never boded well for him. No matter how much he searched his mind, he couldn't recall anything in particular he had done to displease his father.
But there was always something.
He left the room and his bow behind as he followed dutifully. He was Kangan's only son, his heir. He carried a long and noble lineage, his father made sure he never forgot that. Kangan wasn't so cruel as to outwardly blame him for it, but regardless, Muraji felt that guilt whenever he saw his Mother's shrine. A reminder that she was gone so he could live. Muraji couldn't help but to throw a side-glance at it. His Father never told him about his mother. All he knew was that she was to be a shrine priestess before ending up marrying Kangan. The Temple would have been Muraji's heritage, but...
Kangan stopped and motioned for his son to sit down.
"What I'm going to say here will not leave this room. Do I make myself clear?"
"Y-Yes Father," Muraji replied warily.
Maybe he mistook his tone of voice for hesitation, as Kangan frowned.
"I am serious. Any word of it would mean the death of us both."
Muraji froze as his eyebrows raised.
"Daigo will soon be banished."
Muraji recoiled in shock, eyes opening wild. Nothing could have prepared him for this.
"P-Prince Daigo?! Why?"
"Listen. This country needs a capable leader. Someone who's intelligent, wise, and most of all, someone who does not associate with traitors."
Muraji swore his jaw would drop to the floor. He knew his father had disagreements with King Mikado, but this wasn't a simple talk. Kangan was talking about committing High Treason.
"Father, do you know what you're saying?! Daigo is the rightful heir, there's no way around it!"
"There is. I have all the proof I need to convince His Majesty King Mikado that his son is conspiring against him."
Muraji wisely held his tongue. He knew it wouldn't end well if he questioned the reliability of Kangan's "proof".
"You're suggesting to let Princess Moegi take over with her would-be husband in that case?"
Muraji only expressed the logical outcome out loud but then, what this would imply finally dawned on him. Kangan smirked and nodded.
"It's good to see you catch on quick."
Muraji shook his head vividly.
"Father! I... I can't do this! Really?! Princess Moegi and me?"
Kangan hit him on the cheek with his fan, as he usually did to demand silence.
"Keep it down. Whether Daigo becomes King of not, the princess will have to get used to the idea of being in an arranged marriage. As should you. I will not live to have my son become only a servant. I was meant to do so much more. You were meant to do so much more."
Muraji lowered his head, he could feel himself shaking. He knew his father always had high expectations of him, but becoming the king?
That was too much.
As if to deal the finishing blow, Kangan spoke again.
"I will not have you disappoint me again."
"...May I excuse myself, Father?"
Kangan finally nodded and Muraji stepped out of the room. He did not know where he was going. All he wanted to do was put as much distance as possible between him and his father.
What was he supposed to do? Run to Prince Daigo and tell him everything? If he did he would be accused of plotting along. Did... Did his Father tell him to make him an accomplice? Telling Princess Moegi? She had no power to help... She was a pawn as much as he was.
He hunched over a stone, out of breath. His walk had turned into a run and he found himself in the stone garden in his courtyard. The place no longer made him feel at peace. Nowhere would be safe anymore. Tears welled up, his throat clenched. No matter how much he searched in his mind, there was no escape out of this situation.
It was futile to hope for anything. He had a duty to follow. He was his father's only son, all he had to do was to remain an obedient one. And yet, Muraji made one desperate prayer that night.
"Please...Someone help me…"
Nothing but empty words, a choked whisper lost in the winds. He closed his eyes and began counting to ten.
At the count of ten he was going to quiet his thoughts and swear to not have any more complaints. He would be the son Kangan expected him to be. Obedient through and through.
His countdown slowed down, as if he hoped a miracle would happen. His father calling him back to say he changed his mind, nip that treason idea in the bud. They already had everything they could wish for. An honorable position as the King's most trusted advisor, money, prestige… Wasn't that enough?
Muraji dried his eyes as he stood up. He forced himself to stop any tears threatening to fall.
He looked unsightly and weak. He was nothing like Daigo. How could his father expect him to fill his shoes? In a way, he should be thrilled, thankful even. He should be resenting Daigo for being everything he was not. Muraji was not very athletic or strong, he was more studious than the prince but he remained painfully average in intellect. Not too bad, not too good… The very definition of unremarkable.
Daigo was wild and irresponsible but the people loved him and when he was leading, people followed… Muraji the first, ever since they were kids.
As for Moegi…
He couldn't deny that she was beautiful but she had always been more like an older sister figure to him. Then again, Muraji was still only fourteen. He had grown past the "girls are icky" phase, but he found himself still uninterested in romance.
"Is this… normal? Maybe in a few years it will change…"
Maybe in a few years he would also become someone worth being a King. He let out a derisive scoff. As if…
The breeze that blew past him made him shiver and hold his arms. Was the wind always this cold? It felt like winter was coming early. Muraji sighed, walking toward his home like a defeated man.
Something made him stop. Muraji just wanted to look anywhere but directly toward his home and he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Before he could even comprehend it, there was a loud crash and he immediately dropped to the floor hugging his knees.
An explosion? Were they attacked?! Yafutoma hadn't been invaded in centuries and the Blue Winds always protected them before. He heard his father's voice screaming, calling out for him as if it was in concern. Of all the time to show it…
Muraji waited… He didn't know for what. For more screams, fire, the end of the world… But there was nothing. His father arrived outside, visibly out of breath, his eyes wide.
"What's going on?!''
There was nothing but Muraji laying still in that fetal position. Flushing, he immediately got up and dusted his clothes.
"I… I don't know. Maybe a moonstone falling?"
It happened but the world being more sky than land, it rarely hit any ground. Especially not the heart of a city. Kangan shook his head.
"It's too loud for that… Stay inside, Muraji, I will have someone-"
"My Lord! You should come quick! There's… there's a…''
A servant had joined them, visibly shaken. It took everything for them to form complete sentences. Kangan's expression went from concern to annoyance.
"Well, what are you waiting for? Lead me to it!"
At this point, it seemed he had completely forgotten about Muraji as he followed an apologetic servant. Muraji followed quietly behind. His father either didn't notice or care about his son's disobedience. They soon noticed what the fuss was all about and how inexplicable it was.
There was some strange machine, the like they had never seen before. It seemed to be made of some kind of metal, but they couldn't make sense of it.
A stone's throw away from the bizarre apparatus, Muraji notice a flash of white.
He moved closer with careful steps, gasping at the sight.
He thought of snow as the person was covered in white. Their clothes, skin… even their hair. Muraji wondered if he touched them, would their skin be cold? Muraji was so entranced that for a moment he forgot there was a human being in need of help in front of him. The vision was so surreal he felt like he was dreaming.
"Lord Kangan! There's someone!"
His father harshly made his way past him while a servant hurried to check on the person's vitals.
"He's still breathing my lord!"
"Take him in! We'll ask questions later…"
Through it all, from clearing any debris caused by the crash to the carrying of the unconscious man toward their home, Muraji was left forgotten. At that time, he didn't mind it, content to have forgotten any of his thoughts from before. His mind was solely focused on that mysterious encounter.
"Where did he come from…?" his voice trailed off as he followed dutifully behind.
His heart was pounding.