Ryo's eyebrows arched slightly in surprise as he wordlessly beckoned Jun to enter the ever darkening room. The sun was sinking lower and lower, the golden rays covering the room in a buttery half light nearly thick enough to bathe in. Jun followed the long haired boy silently, awestruck by the unfamiliar surroundings. She had been in this wing of the castle before, but never had any of her business involved intimate knowledge of the rooms, especially something like this library.
"Look." Ryo smiled and motioned to a shadowy place near the center of the library. Jun squinted, trying to make out what had so tickled the other boy's fancy, then mirrored Ryo's expression. Nestled into a corner of an overstuffed couch was the visiting princess, face smooth and sweet in slumber. On the other side of the sofa was the younger of the two Ishida princes, short lags splayed so that one hung down the side of the couch in an utterly relaxed manner. An open book lay haphazardly across his chest, moving up and down with every breath.
After a few minutes spent in contemplation of the royal children, Ryo finally led the redhead to a more private corner of the enormous room. Ryo was a born explorer--he probably knew the nooks and crannies of the castle even better than its long deceased master mason. The two leaned against the wall in the space left between two bookcases, shadows hiding them from any prying glances that might meander their way.
"So, you were telling me about someone named Takato?" Ryo prompted.
"Oh, he's one of the younger kitchen boys." Jun said in way of explanation. "He's really rather shy."
"Anyway, one day he seemed worried about something, and I managed to drag it out of him. You see, he has a room across from Jyou's, and it seems as though late at night, Jyou has a habit of leaving and not returning until early morning. The poor kid was reluctant to tell me--he didn't want to get anyone in trouble."
Ryo shrugged. "A lot of the servants sneak out at night. If he's been working in the castle long, he should be used to it by now."
"Every night?" Jun challenged. Ryo conceded the point with a slow nod of his head. "I told him there was no cause for concern, but to keep me posted on any more really unusual behavior. So far there's been nothing."
Ryo nodded his head once again in silent reply. It made sense. After all, in such close quarters, it was nearly impossible to keep secrets. Even Ryo had relied on other boys from the stables to keep his secret--though they had though he was going off to meet one of the maids--and in return he kept quiet about their own indiscretions. It wasn't impossible that something similar could be the explanation for Jyou's nocturnal excursions, but it was unlikely that it would happen every night.
"Anyway, it's getting close to dinner, and I'll be expected to help out. I'll have to talk to you later." Jun finally said.
"Yeah, I still have clean up duties to finish myself." Ryo admitted. "Maybe I'll grab a bite before I go back to it."
Jyou gazed down into his bowl, for some reason this smell, usually so tantalizing, was making his stomach lurch up and down like a merchild in a particularly rough current. Pushing his bowl away, he sighed. It was useless, there was no point in just staring at his food if he wasn't going to eat it. Not to mention the slurping sounds around him were beginning to make him feel even more nauseous.
The kitchen was always loud at this time of night, with the kitchen boys and servants eating with their mouths full as they raucously talked about what had gone on with their day. Guards came in from their shifts and collapsed on a bench before shoving their way to the head of the line to receive their hard-earned dinner. Sometimes they were so hungry that they didn't even bother to find a spot to sit down, they just stood and shoveled the food into their mouth as fast as they could, then lingered around for a suitable amount of time until Shuu would take pity on them and sneak them seconds--or sometimes even thirds.
Thanking the gods that he didn't have clean up duty, he stumbled back to his room, barely making it to his pallet before collapsing.
"Damn, I don't know how you can manage to do this every day." Jyou's brunette friend finally said to no one in particular, leaning on his shovel and wiping the sweat from his brow. Shin didn't mess around when it came to handing out punishments. Stable duty was about as disgusting a task as Natsuki could think of, and probably smellier than most.
The Ishida stables were large, and as ornate as the rest of the magnificent castle. The royal horses lived in more opulence than some of the poorer members of society, with the cleanliness and roominess of most of the stalls. Not to mention, each horse had at least two boys to look after its well-being.
"It helps if you're not constantly complaining." Ryo tartly remarked. He hadn't even had time to finish his bowl of soup before the stablemaster had come looking for him, practically spitting fire and brimstone over his long absent employee. With yells of "If you're going to stay, then you better work!" he had all but dragged the younger boy out of the kitchen.
"Hey, at least you got something to eat. We'll be lucky to scrape the bottom of the pan once we're finished." Natsuki shot back. Ryo opened his mouth to make another comment, then shut it. There was no point. At least they were actually working, unlike some of the slackers that were punished in this matter.
"Doesn't Prince Yamato have his riding lesson about this time?" A smaller boy wondered out loud, now that the silence had been broken.
"Yeah, I was wondering about that myself..." One of the older boys replied.
"Probably ran off again. I heard he was acting funny this afternoon. He was heard yelling at someone down in the courtyard, and then rushed out of there like a streak of lighting."
"Actually...that was us." Youji admitted with a slight shake of his head. "Thought we was abusing a friend of ours. Guess the prince is fond of him or somethin'."
"No wonder you guys are cleaning up horse shit with us tonight!" The second boy laughed. "I was wondering about our illustrious company!"
Natsuki snorted. "I wouldn't call a member of the guards illustrious. Sometimes I think we're not much above the rats when it comes to the palace haeirachy."
"Hmmm, didn't know the prince had a pet servant in particular." Yet another boy piped up. "Was it one of the higher servants?"
"That's the funny thing. He's just a kitchen boy." Natsuki explained.
"Kitchen boy?!" Now Ryo's attention had been caught. He'd be willing to bet money that this boy was Jyou. This boy was shaping up to be a living enigma; what was his relationship with the older of the two princes anyway?!
"You deaf? That's what he said." Youji replied.
"Hey, everyone! There's some commotion going on at the gate...looks like a messenger!" Work was forgotten as all the boys, and guards, came running to see what was happening. Sure enough, it looked as though a man in traveling clothes was arguing with the guardsman at the gate, angry sounds being carried on the evening breeze to where the lot of them were huddled.
Yamato awoke with a start, unfamiliar surroundings throwing him into a bit of a panic before he realized where he was. He sighed and tried to calm down the rapid pounding of his heart as it tried to dance its way out of his chest. He was in the tower, he had just fallen asleep, that was all. Nothing to be alarmed about. That afternoon swim must have taken more out of him than he'd thought, he admitted as he tried to stretch out the crick in his neck.
After doing what he could to dust off his dirt-stained clothing, he began the trek down to earth. Grumpily, and guiltily, he wondered if they had sent a search party out for him yet. If luck was with him, they wouldn't have even noticed his absence, and he'd be able to sneak into his room unaccosted and call a servant to help him change out of his filthy clothing. Alright, so maybe sitting in a dusty, dirty room for hours on end wasn't the height of intelligence. On top of all that, his stomach was growling like an irked wildcat.
Ignoring his hunger pains, he found his thoughts returning to the kitchen boy. The prince found himself wondering what he was doing. Was he with those two guards, enjoying the uncommonly cool breeze this evening? Had he already retired for the night? Was he in the kitchen, eating his dinner? What did the servants have for dinner? Potatoes? Fish? Something inexpensive, but most likely filling and nourishing. He'd imagine that anything Shin made would taste good. Okay, so perhaps food wasn't as far from his mind as he thought, Yamato found himself chuckling. First his clothes, and then he could have a plate from the kitchen sent up.
For the briefest of moments, he considered calling Jyou up to his chambers to help him. And then afterwards, he could order him to stay with him while he ate. They could talk--well, Yamato could talk to him at least. Who knew, maybe he'd share and garner a reaction like this afternoon's when Jyou was trying delicacies his palate was obviously unused to. He had never shared his dinner with a--
Yamato grit his teeth hard enough to make his head hurt. What on earth was he thinking?! Had he completely forgotten what had happened this afternoon? A kitchen boy certainly didn't need to spend any time with a prince--it was reserved for upper servants to help him undress and bring him dinner. And besides, what could they possibly have in common? What would be the point of inviting someone that served him to sit in his room and pretend...pretend they were friends. Pretend they could actually understand one another. He hadn't even invited Ryo to spend time with him in his chambers; were his wits so addled that he thought a nearly complete stranger wouldn't be uncomfortable dining with a prince?
Jyou's youngest sister let out a hiss of pain as she scraped her slender arm against a outcropping of rock hidden in the dark water. His youngest brother looked on in concern before voicing a hesitant "Are you all right?". Something about this place's atmosphere tended to dampen all but the most necessary of conversation. It was hard to make out in their black surroundings, but she nodded her head slightly in reply.
The younger of the two wished he had something to wrap around the arm. If it was bleeding, there was a very good chance that the smell would alert sharks to their area. Even the bravest of merpeople were known to swim away as fast as they could at the fearsome sight of a feeding frenzy, and it was hard to count how many had lost their lives in that manner. Similar thoughts were running through the girl's head, and she sped up her pace, sharp eyes looking for it, as the rest of their siblings were at this very moment. Legends put the sea witch's abode in many different places, all fraught with danger. Only their second eldest brother was on his own--the rest of the siblings were in groups of two, each searching for the ethereal cave of myth.
The young mergirl blinked, the pain in her arm forgotten. If she wasn't mistaken, there was a pinprick of light in that area. Whispering to her brother sharply, both sped off in the direction in which she pointed.
The entrance to the cave was well guarded, like a silent predator, one would hardly know they were upon it until the mouth loomed in front of them, the light in the back dancing in a dangerously tantalizing manner. Both of the merchildren stopped short at the opening. As a general rule, young merpeople tended to avoid closed in places. It was a safety lesson so constantly drilled into their heads that it often took years to overcome the vague sense of fear they got when they felt boxed in.
The older of the two finally gathered up enough courage to swim inside, calling to her youngest brother as he hesitated outside. Screwing his eyes closed, he swam quickly into the gigantic maw, nearly bumping into one of the sides in his haste. Both kept their eyes on the floor, not wanting to lose what little strength they had left upon the knowledge that the tunnel was getting more narrow. The thick mat of plants waved to and fro in a non-exisiting current, moving in ways that no normal seaplant would. Still, they all seemed to shirk from the young girl's presence, choosing to instead to try and catch on her brother's tail or arm.
When the first one got a grip, the boy let out a whimper of panic, thrashing violently in an unconscious mirror of his oldest brother some months beforehand. This time their prey was not quite as large, and inexorably they drew him closer to the bottom. Now the younger of the two really did squirm in earnest as he caught sight of the bones of fish half buried in the sandy bottom. Seeing what was happening, the mergirl rushed to her brother's defense, the plants relinquishing their grip easily once she touched them. He stayed close to her after that, like a small living shadow, murmuring his fear as the plants seemed to draw closer to him than her.
Eventually they made it to the center, the soft light showing just how drawn and pale their faces were, fear scrawled across them. Eventually their nervousness gave way to wonder, rooting them to the spot even more effectively than their terror. The half light seemed to sparkle like stars at the very top of the massive cave, while up close they could see the outside as though lit by its own private moon. Fish swam peacefully in and out of a coral garden nearby, oblivious to their audience of two. To their surprise, they saw the familiar form of a merperson swim across their view, darting out and catching fish with a traditional hunting spear. His bound hair danced though the water in a graceful motion, chestnut locks eventually coming to rest across broad shoulders as he inspected the fruit of his labor. Tearing off a bite of meat from the highest on, he swam away to a point they could not see.
Out of the shadows, in a place they hadn't even noticed, he appeared once again. As he caught sight of his young visitors, his expression was just as surprised as their own.
"How did you get in without agitating the plants?" Gennai wondered aloud at his two guests. It had been a long time since someone had caught him by surprise in his own lair. Usually when he had visitors, he could tell by the way the plants at the exit responded. There had been a reaction earlier, but since it had been calmed so quickly, he had just assumed some hapless fish had wandered in and was now a forgotten meal.
"They didn't seem to like me." The girl admitted. "They wouldn't even come close."
"No, they have quite a voracious appetite, though a full grown merperson should have no trouble with them--" At that he glanced at the young boy thoughtfully, and with a bit of warning in his gaze. "If they didn't attack you, that means they respect you." He did not mention that he was the only one living that commanded such respect from them. Before the short haired mergirl could respond, however, the older man was already sighing. "Children your age should not be here. Go home to your parents." He then turned back to the table in the very center of the cave, cleaning his fish with a short knife made from the outermost edge of some type of seashell.
"We apologize." The boy piped up, sounding polite beyond his years. "We thought this was the cave of the sea-witch. We didn't mean to intrude upon your hospitality and your home."
"And why would you be needing the services of the sea-witch?" Gennai asked with an edge to his voice. "You're too young for love potions and beauty trinkets, and even magic cannot perform miracles--such as bringing loved ones back from the grave. Well, rather it can, but you would not be pleased with the results." A dark cross between a grimace and a bitter grin crossed his face.
"Is she in the area?" The girl insisted. "Could you at least tell us where we could find her?"
"I am the sea-witch." Came the short reply. "And as I've already explained, this is no place for children your age."
"But...but..." The girl swam a pace back, before inspecting the merman closely. "You're a man! The sea-witch is supposed to be an ancient, old merwoman, everyone says so." She paused for a moment, as her brother mirrored her suspicious gaze. "You are a man, aren't you?"
For the first time since they came, the older man seemed close to laughter, seemingly almost against his will, his expression grew softer. There was almost a hint of a nearly forgotten smile around his lips.
"Yes, I am a man." His tone of voice was almost gentle. "And about three generations ago, you would be correct; the sea-witch was a wizened old woman. I'm afraid both she and I are just one of the many predecessors to the original. I'm not the first male sea-witch, you know. The lineage goes back to when the world was young, so we've had nearly every kind you could imagine, and then some."
"If you really are the sea-witch...what happened to our older brother!?" The cry rang out from the boy, mournful and choked. At the question, the good humor quietly died in Gennai's eyes.
"He made a choice. I merely helped him along with it." His level strokes with the knife turned suddenly choppy--the only thing giving evidence to the tension he felt. "Your brother was foolish; he mistook infatuation for love, and, like most infatuated, he refused to listen to his common sense."
"What does love have to do with him turning into a human?" The girl asked, quietly. Her expression spoke of knowledge, yet she still waited for Gennai's reply.
"On a trip to the surface, a human caught his eye. Surely you two must have noticed the change. Finally he made his way to me, and I gave him what he thought he wanted. Now it's up to him to make it into something worth giving up his life for."
"His life?!" This was obviously effecting the youngest merboy deeply, judging from the way his tail was twitching frantically, and his hands were balled up until his nails gounged deep crecents into the skin.
"Merpeople are different from humans. Even if they have legs and outwardly resemble them, they still are a merperson inside. Changing into a human form is akin to cutting a bouquet of flowers and putting them into a vase. He will die soon, and there is nothing that can be done. By human standards he might reach early adulthood, but it's still less than a decade. Most likely around five years, if he's strong. A matter of months if he's weak."
Both of the children shook their head in confusion, the example of cut flowers lost on them. Everyone knew that it was easier to leave seaflowers in their own areas--why would anyone want to cut them? What on earth was a vase? Did it eat the flowers or something? Still, one thing was certain. Their older brother was going to die soon. Five years wasn't even a breath of water in the average lifespan of a merperson!
"There has to be something..." The boy sounded close to tears.
"There is always a way." Gennai admitted. "Though, most of the time, the cure is more painful than the problem. There is a way to reverse the process, and if done in time, he will suffer no ill effects. But I have spoken to your brother, and he is not the type to take advantage of it. That is to his credit."
"You have done it, haven't you? That's how you know." The words were soft, barely above a whisper.
Composure forgotten, Gennai turned abruptly to the two children. Both shrank back at his gaze--it was as cold as a glacier from the Northern Ocean.
"I am going to tell you a story, one that you have probably never heard before. Then you can decide if your brother is the type to save himself. Afterwards, if you are still willing, I will do all in my power to help you--for a price. Then it will be in your hands." The words were chips of ice, edges finely honed like a knife.
"Once upon a time..."
End of Part Thirteen
To be continued...