Prince of Truth
There had never been any doubt that someday Ryou was going to be king. Even at the tender age of three, he was already showing remarkable intelligence for a child his age, as well as hinting that he would be uncommonly handsome someday. King Sameshima and his wife Queen Tome were immensely proud of him, and had nothing but confidence that he would be a worthy heir to the throne someday. No one in the kingdom ever thought for a moment that there might be a need for anyone else, so it came as something of a surprise to most when word of a second son came out.
The new son, still too young to have even been named yet, lay in his cradle, which was draped with purple silks and garlands of the royal flower, called the King's Mantle. The flowers were starting to wilt, and the baby was whimpering fitfully, working his way up to a good cry. He did not look very princely yet, being a little on the small and scrawny side. His father, mother, and elder brother looked down on him, while the king's two advisors stood aside and looked as proud as if they were solely responsible for his birth.
"Well, Ryou," said the king, "what do you think of your new brother? He'll be a good helper for you someday."
Ryou gave his young sibling the full benefit of his serious gaze, standing up on tiptoe to get a better look into the cradle.
"He's too small to help," he said.
The king laughed. "He'll grow up soon enough, and then you'll be glad to have a brother like him you can trust."
Ryou, still a bit too young yet to understand fully what his father was talking about, stayed silent, wondering what was going on.
His wondering was interrupted by the sound of a door swinging open, and then the indignant shouts of the two advisors.
"Here, now, you can't come in here!" shouted the taller one, whose name was Chronos. "Leave now, before we call the guards!"
The shorter one, named Napoleon, added, "We'll call them anyway! You have no right to come in here - and get rid of that filthy animal!" He shot a fierce look at a fat tabby cat that had trailed in after the stranger.
The newcomer took the abuse with a vague smile, adjusting his glasses and squinting down at the little man who was addressing him. The stranger himself was a tall, thin scarecrow of a man, with untidy black hair pulled loosely into a ponytail, and tattered robes covering his lanky frame. He leaned on a staff of dark polished wood.
"I wouldn't talk like that if I were you," he said, in a cheerfully informative tone. "It's bad luck to mistreat a cat, you know? Bad luck to mistreat a wizard, too."
"A wizard!" the advisors exclaimed. So this was the legendary Wizard of the Wood! Everyone had heard of him, but few ever saw him. He hadn't even appeared on the birth of the crown prince, so what was he doing here now?
"I've come to have a look at the new arrival," he said, walking across the room to stand beside the cradle. "You can't always tell with second princes, you know? A crown prince has his destiny set: he grows up and becomes a king. A second prince is different. You never know what his fortune will be until you have a closer look."
"By all means, look as much as you wish," said the king. He knew as well as anyone that the Wizard of the Wood was a good man, and could be trusted with a young prince more than nearly any other person in the kingdom.
The Wizard smiled and gently lifted the baby out of his cradle. Immediately, the boy stopped whimpering and looked thoughtfully up at this stranger. He reached out a hand to make an uncoordinated attempt to steal the Wizard's spectacles. The Wizard only laughed and easily dodged the grasping hand. Why exactly the Wizard wore spectacles in the first place was a mystery, for he had never been seen to open his eyes, though there were any number of rumors about what would happen if he did. Some people said that he simply had so many thoughts and mysteries and spells in his head that he couldn't stand the added distraction of having to look at the rest of the world, too. Now he cradled the newborn prince in his arms and... didn't look at him, as far as anyone could tell, but turned his sightless eyes in this direction.
"Yes, it's just as I thought," he murmured. "There is a destiny on this little one. He will be a great prince, not just of men or of lands, but of truth, for his passing will strip away disguises and reveal that which is hidden. He will be crowned with garlands of fresh flowers. He will be loved by commoners, followed by man and woman alike, and by nobles and kings, and even the beasts will speak to him. Women's hearts will be given in love before him, and bards who do not even know his name will yet be moved to announce his arrival. He will be a prince like no other prince there has ever been."
"Is this true?" asked the queen.
"Every word of it," the Wizard assured her. "I have a sort of a knack for that kind of thing, you know? Mark my words, it will all happen just like I said."
"That's wonderful!" said King Sameshima. "I was worried he would be overshadowed by his brother, but it sounds as if he has a fine life ahead of him."
The Wizard only smiled mysteriously.
The baby showed signs of wanting to go to sleep, so the assembled company left him to his nursemaids. As the King and Queen departed with their son, the two advisors lingered to chat with the Wizard.
"You weren't just making up all that to make the King and Queen happy, were you?" asked Advisor Napoleon. "I mean, really, that scrawny looking little thing doesn't look like he'll ever amount to anything."
"Don't talk like that!" Advisor Chronos hissed. "That's your prince you're talking about."
"I did not make up anything," said the Wizard, looking a bit hurt. "I just didn't tell everything, that's all."
Now the advisors looked intrigued.
"What didn't you tell them?" asked Advisor Chronos. "Is it something serious?"
"He will do everything I spoke of," the Wizard replied, "and yet he will do more. He will strip nobles of their titles. He will lead commoners and monsters against the King's own soldiers. In the end, because of this prince, the rulership of this kingdom will be divided in two, for he will never sit enthroned in his father's castle."
"That's not good," said Advisor Napoleon. "Isn't there anything we can do to stop all that?"
"Maybe," the Wizard replied. "I only deliver the news; I can't change it. Neither can his mother or father or even his brother. His fate is in your hands."
With that, he turned and walked off. His bootheels clicked on the stone floor for a few seconds after he had rounded a corner and vanished from sight, and then they went abruptly silent. The two advisors didn't quite dare look to see if he had really disappeared.
"What are we going to do about this?" Chronos exclaimed. "This is terrible! How are we going to tell the King and Queen?"
"I don't see why we should tell them anything. It's just the ramblings of a crazy old loony," said Napoleon.
"You don't know who you're talking about," said Chronos. "The Wizard is never wrong! If he says it's going to happen, then you can bet your waxed mustache it's going to happen!"
"But that means..." said Napoleon slowly, his curly eyebrows drawing together in thought. "But that means he's going to lead the kingdom into civil war! He's going to have all the commoners and nobles on his side, and monsters and things, and he'll split the kingdom apart! This is terrible! How are we going to tell the King and Queen?"
"They'll never believe it," said Chronos grimly. "And even if they did, there's nothing they could do about it. You heard the Wizard. The boy's destiny is in our hands. If anything is going to happen, we're going to have to do it ourselves."
"You're right," Napoleon said. "We'll just have to get rid of the baby."
Chronos's already pale skin went an extra shade paler. "We can't kill him! Even if he is going to start a war, we can't do that."
"Then what do you suggest we do with him?"
"Well..." said Chronos. He stood in deep thought for a while. "I know! We'll give him away. We'll find some common-born woman and pay her to take care of him, and then send them both very far away."
"We'll get caught," Napoleon pointed out.
"No we won't," said Chronos. "We're the king's closest advisors; we can cover for each other. No one will ever suspect us."
"You're probably right. And it is for the best," Napoleon agreed. "I suppose we had better start looking for a suitable mother, then."
It was not long before such a mother was found. Luck or Fate was with the two advisors, for it happened that there was a young woman who had up until recently been the wife of one of the king's soldiers. Her husband had died not long ago, trying to stop a brawl in a local bar, and left her many months pregnant. She had given birth shortly afterwards, but the baby had lived only a few days, leaving her mind shattered under the loss of both husband and child in such a short amount of time. She was more than eager to accept the story the advisors gave her about a noble lady who had found herself inconveniently with child but lacking a husband, and wished that the baby be raised somewhere far away from her. The soldier's wife needed no bribe to accept a new child into her life, and so the advisors left feeling pleased that the prince would be well-raised and out of the way.
As for the woman, she cared for the child as if it were her own. More than that, she convinced herself that he was her own - that her own baby had never died, and that the child she was raising was the same as the one she had given birth to. Since she had remained hidden alone in her home throughout her child's sickness, no one knew that anything had happened to him, so they naturally accepted this new baby as her natural-born son. When the time came to make inquiries throughout the kingdom as to where the kidnapped prince had gone, no one ever thought to suggest that he might be in the care of the soldier's widow.
Not long after that, she moved away from the capital city to live in the country with her brother's family, where she would spend the rest of her days in peace and quiet. The baby, of course, went with her. By that time, he was far beyond whatever royal name he would have been given. He would forevermore be known as Shou.
The ground swayed in an uncomfortable fashion, bits of it flickering in and out of view as the leaves of the old apple tree swayed in the wind. Shou clung tightly to the tree branch and waited for the wind and his stomach both to subside.
"You okay up there, Shou?" called a voice from the safety of ground level.
"I'll be fine as long as the - whoops! Aw, darn," said Shou. He watched in dismay as the wind snatched his spectacles off the end of his nose and sent them plummeting out of his range of vision.
"Hang on - I'll get 'em!" came the voice of his cousin. Shou continued to cling to his tree and watch the blurry shape on the ground searching for his missing eyewear.
"I hate apple season," he muttered.
Come to think of it (which was about all he could do, clinging to a tree limb and unable to see how to get down) there really wasn't much about the life of a farmer that suited him. He had grown from a scrawny baby to a scrawny child, and at about fifteen years of age, was on his way to becoming a scrawny adult. He had remained small and thin, too weak to do much physical work, and he never seemed to get any stronger no matter how much work they gave him. He'd also turned out to be hopelessly nearsighted, and could barely even count his own fingers if he didn't have his spectacles to see them by. He was, however, considered good at collecting apples, since he was light enough to climb into the trees and collect the fruit that other members of his family couldn't reach.
"Okay, I found 'em!" said the cheerful voice on ground level. "Just hang in there, okay? I'll be right up."
There was a rustling, and Shou relaxed just a tiny bit as he realized his cousin was on his way up the tree with his glasses. Shou's mother had died when he was five years old, and since then, he had been raised by his aunt and uncle. They had naturally been a bit frustrated at having to raise a child who wasn't theirs, who wasn't even much good at helping around the farm, and they had never been particularly affectionate towards him. Shou would have been desperately lonely if it hadn't been for the fact that his aunt and uncle had a son who was only a few months older than him. The two boys had grown up together, and even though the two of them were totally different - one shy and weak, the other athletic and outgoing - they were devoted to each other and loved each other like brothers.
"Here you go! See, I didn't scratch 'em or anything."
Shou felt something being pressed into his hand, and he quickly set his glasses back on his nose and watched the blur in front of him resolve itself into the cheerful suntanned face of his cousin.
"Thanks, Juudai," he said. "I owe you one."
"It's no problem," Juudai assured him. "You're the one who's up here doing all the work. The least I can do is help you out. So... how 'bout telling me how to get out of this tree, huh?"
The two of them worked until evening, filling bushel-baskets full of apples, until it finally grew so dark that Shou could no longer tell the leaves from the fruit. When it became obvious that there was a danger of Shou falling out of his tree, Juudai insisted that they both go inside and get cleaned up.
"My clothes are a mess," Shou complained. "Look, I tore my shirt and everything. I must have snagged it on a twig."
"Better sew it up," Juudai advised. "If my mom sees that, she'll chew you out for sure."
"Don't I know it," said Shou, sighing. It seemed like he was always being scolded for some inadequacy or another. Already he could hear his aunt scolding him for not taking care of his clothes, for being ungrateful for the time and money she'd put into feeding and clothing him, and it would go on from there and go on for a while. Fortunately, he had a solution to the problem. "Guess you'd better get the window."
"Right," Juudai agreed. "See you inside."
Shou nodded and started heading around to the back of the house. He and Juudai had worked out this routine long ago: any time it looked like there would be trouble when Shou came home, Juudai would make it a point to arrive first, and then head straight to Shou's room and unlatch the shutters. Then Shou could climb up the woodpile, conveniently located near his window, and scramble inside. It had saved him from more than one tongue-lashing, and he suspected it would probably save him from a few more in the future.
Once both boys were safely inside, Shou made a beeline for his "treasure chest". The chest had never had any treasure in it, as far as he knew, but it had belonged to his mother, and had carried all her worldly belongings out of the capital city, back in a time he could not remember. When she had died, it was passed on to him, and he used it to keep his favorite things: a patchwork blanket his mother had made for him, a knife that Juudai had given him for his birthday once, a shard of a mirror he'd found behind the glassworker's shop, and other such interesting things. Somewhere in there, too, were his mother's sewing things, which he'd kept after she died out of a childish desire that his aunt shouldn't have them, and he had eventually learned how to use them well enough to keep his clothes together in cases like this. If any of the other village boys had caught him doing women's work like sewing, they would have teased and laughed at him, but Juudai understood the practicality of it, and approved. He even brought his own things to Shou sometimes, rather than endure listening to his mother complain of extra work.
Shou found the little box where the sewing things were and lifted it out of the trunk. As he did so, his sleeve caught on a splinter, and there was a pop of old wood coming apart.
"Oh, no," said Shou, looking sadly at the splinter. "I broke it! Nothing is going right for me today!"
"It's just a little chip. You hardly notice," said Juudai, in an attempt to sound encouraging. "We'll get a little pitch or something and stick it back together, and you won't hardly be able to tell the difference."
"Well, maybe," said Shou doubtfully. He tried to fit the broken bit of wood back in place, and as he did so, he noticed something odd. He turned the chest around so that it could catch a bit more of the candle-light. "Hey, I never noticed that before... the lid of the chest is hollow."
"That's weird," Juudai said, leaning closer for a better look. "Hey, you're right! Shou, your box has a secret compartment in it!"
Sure enough, where the splinter had broken away, it was possible to see a hollow space inside the lid of the chest. Both boys peered at it.
"I think there's something inside," said Shou. "I wonder what it could be..."
"If it got in there, there's got to be a way to get it out. Let's see if we can pull the lid apart."
"Don't break it!" Shou protested.
"We're not going to break it," Juudai said. "We've just got to figure out how it opens."
After a few minutes of tugging and tapping, they finally found a segment of the lid that slid out in a groove, allowing the bottom of the compartment to fall out easily. With it came a wad of white cloth. Shou picked it up.
"It's a blanket," he said. "A baby blanket. What was that doing in there?"
"Bet it was yours," said Juudai.
"But why would my mother hide a baby blanket in a secret compartment? That makes no sense," Shou protested. "She didn't hide any of my other baby stuff."
"Geez, I dunno, maybe this is special, somehow," said Juudai. He was plainly disappointed; Shou knew his cousin well enough to know he had been hoping for treasure or something - anything more dramatic than an old blanket.
Shou, however, was not so optimistic as his cousin, so he was more than pleased at finding this souvenir of his childhood, and his dead mother. He picked up the blanket reverently, and as he did so, he saw something twinkle. There was a design on the bottom corner of the blanket picked out in gold threads.
"Hey," he said, "look at this! It's gold - real gold!"
That got Juudai's attention. He grabbed the blanket out of Shou's hands for a better look.
"That's not just gold," he said, with awe in his voice. "That's the royal crest!"
"But that can't be right," said Shou, taking it back to stare at it. "Only the royal family is allowed to have that crest on their things. How would my mom get hold of something like that?"
"I don't know," said Juudai, "but I wonder..." He was plainly thinking very hard. He gave Shou a suspicious look. "You know, you don't look very much like your mother. She looked a lot like my dad, and I look a lot like him, but you don't look anything like any of us."
"I take after my dad," said Shou defensively. "You know that."
"No I don't. I never met him," Juudai replied.
"So what? What has that got to do with anything?" said Shou. "You can't possibly think I'm - I'm related to the royal family! That's crazy! My dad was a soldier. Everybody knows my father was a soldier in the capital city."
"I dunno," said Juudai. "You know, there was a younger prince who went missing about the time you were born..."
"You were born about the same time," Shou pointed out. "You might as well say you're the long-lost prince."
"I was born too early to be the prince," said Juudai. "But you weren't. And you came from the capital city the same time he disappeared. And you don't look like anyone else in the family. And you've got a blanket with the royal seal on it. That's kind of a lot of coincidences." It was plain that now that he had jumped to this conclusion, he wasn't about to forget about it. Shou had seen that wild light in his eyes before, and knew there wasn't much he could do to stop it. He made a game try anyway.
"The blanket doesn't prove anything," he said. "I'll bet my dad got it for me. He worked for the king. I'll bet this is the kind of thing they throw out to use as cleaning rags around the palace. He could have gotten it."
"Nobody uses gold thread for cleaning. It would scratch stuff."
"You know what I mean!"
"Hey, you shouldn't give up so easy," said Juudai. "It would be great to be a prince! You'd be rich and live in a castle and you could make everyone do what you say, and, and, and eat cake for dinner every day!"
"I don't want all that," said Shou. "I just want to stay here with you."
"You could take me with you," said Juudai cheerfully.
Shou couldn't think of much of an argument for that. He loved Juudai like his own brother and wouldn't want to leave him for anything, but he had to admit that the farming life wasn't really for him. He might just be better suited to the life of a noble who had people to do all the hard work for him, but...
"Look, suppose I am a prince. Somehow," said Shou. "How are we going to prove it? It's not like they put a stamp on you when you're born that says 'THIS IS A PRINCE' in big letters. I can't walk up to the king and show him an old blanket and say it proves I'm a prince."
"There is another way," said Juudai. "You just need a King's Mantle flower."
"Yeah, but those only grow in the castle gardens," said Shou. "No way would they ever let me get close enough to one to find out for sure."
The King's Mantle had become the flower of the noble house, not because it was particularly beautiful or because its scent was outstandingly sweet. It was a nice enough flower, similar to a periwinkle - a small, shy-looking plant with plain white flowers, which grew on ground-covering vines, and they had almost no scent at all. It wasn't even their rarity that made them so prized by the royal family. The King's Mantle was instead prized for its magical powers. For most people, they would always remain plain white, but if they came in contact with a person of true royal blood, they would turn vividly purple and release a sweet perfume. Thus it was that they were cultivated in the royal gardens alongside more showy plants, and legend was full of stories of how displaced heirs proved their heritage by dint of their magic, and if the king died without heirs, the flowers would infallibly choose the best successor to the throne by refusing to change for anyone else.
"They don't only grow in the castle," said Juudai, grinning. "They grow wild, too - they're just really hard to find. I know where some are growing, though."
"Really?" asked Shou. "Why didn't you tell me before?"
Juudai shrugged. "Didn't seem important. I found them in the woods one day while I was looking for berries. I still remember where they are if you want to go look..."
"Hm," said Shou.
"It can't hurt," Juudai encouraged. "You'll never know unless you try."
"Oh, all right," Shou said. After all, once he'd gotten his hands on one of those flowers, Juudai would have to shut up about this prince nonsense. "First thing tomorrow."
"Not tomorrow. Tomorrow we'll have to milk the cows and feed the chickens and pick apples, and then you'll say you're too tired to do anything, and you'll put it off until the next day, and it'll never get done," said Juudai, with perfect accuracy. "We'll go now. Get it settled."
Shou took a deep breath. "All right. But only for you."
"For you," Juudai disagreed. "If you're a prince, you ought to know about it."
"But..." said Shou. "If I'm a prince, wouldn't that mean you're not my cousin?"
Juudai laughed. "We'll always be family. Blood doesn't have anything to do with it."
"Well... then I guess it wouldn't hurt to have a look at these flowers," said Shou. "But don't expect too much. I'm not a prince. How could I be? I mean, have you seen the crown prince? Tall, dark, and handsome, like a prince ought to be. I'm nothing like that."
"I dunno," said Juudai thoughtfully. "Come to think of it, you do look a little like him... except for the tall, dark, and handsome part."
Shou blushed. "Now you're just picking on me."
"Not really," said Juudai. "Come on, let's go. Right now, before you change your mind."
Reluctantly, Shou climbed back out the window, followed by Juudai, who levered his athletic frame out the narrow window with more difficulty. The two of them clambered down the woodpile and out into the night.
Shou followed Juudai across the fields, past the orchards, and into the forest. He felt a little nervous, for more reasons than one. He usually stayed out of the woods. He wasn't much of a one for chopping wood, and when he'd been sent as a child to seek mushrooms or berries or herbs, he'd generally managed to get himself lost, and sit and cry until Juudai came to his rescue. Eventually everyone had given up sending him in there at all, and he'd never gone in voluntarily. Juudai knew the place like the back of his hand, or possibly better, considering the general cleanliness of his hands, so Shou followed trustingly after him. There was very little moonlight that night, and the woods were full of dark shadows in places Shou had never seen shadows before. His mind was filled with shadows that had never been there before, too.
What if he's right? What if I really am a prince? Somehow I don't think it's going to be quite as much fun as he thinks it is...
He shook himself. That was crazy thinking. He was only the son of a soldier, raised by a farmer and his wife, and he was going to stay and run the farm with Juudai and have a quiet, uneventful life. And yet...
Eventually, they came to a small area where the starlight was a little brighter. It wasn't exactly a clearing, but it was a place where the trees grew a little less thickly, and the sky could be seen in patches. The ground there was strewn with a few outcropping rocks and an ancient stump, all of them overgrown with vines. Little white flowers were closed tightly against the night.
"Here they are!" said Juudai, as proudly as if the flowers were there on account of his own efforts. "King's Mantle, just like I promised."
Shou looked at the flowers. They didn't look like anything much to him. If he'd found it growing in the fields, he'd have pulled it up as a weed, but he had to admit it fit the descriptions he'd heard.
Maybe it is just a weed. It's probably not really King's Mantle at all. I'll just pick one to show Juudai it won't change color, and then we'll go home and get some sleep.
He reached out and closed his hand around the stem of the nearest flower and pulled it free. The stem broke away easily at his touch, and he unbent to show Juudai the flower. Then he stared and decided he had somehow grabbed the wrong stem, because he couldn't see a flower there, and he was certain the white flowers should show up clearly in the dark. However, purple flowers didn't show up quite so well, so it took him a moment to realize he was indeed holding a purple flower.
"Yah!" he yelped, jumping backwards and throwing the flower away as if it had bitten him. He tripped over a rock and fell full-length in the patch of flowers, which turned violet all around him and opened their buds to the starlight, filling the air with a sweet fragrance.
"Wow!" said Juudai, obviously impressed. "It's true! You really are a prince!"
"No! No, I can't be," said Shou. He sat up, and a number of vines came away with him, tangled up in his hair. He looked like he was wearing a hat of vines and purple flowers, and he ripped them away hastily. "I mean... how could I? How would I end up here if I'm... if I'm a prince?"
"No idea," Juudai admitted, "but the flowers don't lie."
Shou stared down at one of the purple plants he'd pulled from his hair. He felt as if the world was crumbling to pieces around him, as everything that was safe and sensible about his life suddenly became suspect.
Does that mean my mother isn't really my mother? That the king and queen are my real parents, and the prince is my brother? Am I going to have to leave this town, and Juudai? But nobody is ever going to believe me, even with the flowers... they'll say it's some kind of a trick...
"I have to find out, somehow," he said.
"Find out what?" asked Juudai. "Don't the flowers prove it?"
"It's more than that," Shou replied. "I want to know how I got here - why I was taken away from... wherever I came from before. And I want to know if my other family would take me back again. I want to know."
"How would we find out, though?"
Shou thought deeply. "Well... they say in the stories that when the younger prince was born, the Wizard came and made a prophecy over him. Nobody ever said what it was, though, as far as I know, but I'll bet he'd know the whole story, and he'd be a lot more likely to talk to us than the people in the royal castle."
"Of course. You'll come with me, won't you?" asked Shou.
Juudai grinned. "Sure I will! You can count on it."
"Then it's settled," said Shou. "We'll pack our things, and then we'll go looking for the Wizard."
And if we're lucky, he thought, he'll tell us this is all just a big mistake...
"This was a big mistake," said Shou.
"No, it's not," Juudai told him. "Come on, just try to go a little bit further! We'll never get there at this rate!"
"But my feet hurt!"
Juudai stopped walking to let Shou catch up, and Shou struggled to get past a patch of brambles that his taller cousin had been able to easily climb through. Despite their adventure the previous night, the two of them had arisen long before the sun, just as they always did. However, instead of going to work milking cows and feeding chickens, they had raided the pantry for food, thrown a few spare clothes and supplies into bundles, and set out into the forest. Juudai was full of energy as always, but Shou, besides not being conditioned to walking long distances, was also suffering from a lack of sleep. His brain was awhirl with thoughts, one of them being that even if they did find the Wizard, suppose he said that Shou wasn't a prince after all, and he would have to go home and explain to his aunt why he had run away. It was not a very pleasant prospect. The idea that he couldn't decide whether he would rather be scolded by his aunt or told he was a prince wasn't very encouraging, either.
"Do you even know where the Wizard is?" he panted.
Juudai looked thoughtful. "Not exactly."
"Not exactly? How can you not exactly know where we're going?"
"Well," said Juudai with a shrug, "all the stories I've ever heard about the Wizard say he can't be found if he doesn't want you to find him. On the other hand, if he doesn't mind you finding him, then he'll usually find you."
"So we're going to just wander around in the woods and hope the Wizard is feeling sociable today?" asked Shou.
"Why not?" Juudai replied. "I mean, if you really are a prince, he'd know about it, right? So he wouldn't send you away. So we'll find him."
Shou wasn't sure how to argue with logic like that.
At least if I get eaten by a bear, I won't have to worry about whether I'm royalty or not, he thought grimly. He shook his head. Who am I trying to kid? I wouldn't even make much of a meal for a bear.
"I can't go on much longer," he complained.
"I guess we can take a breather," said Juudai. "It's not like we're on a schedule."
The two of them found a fallen log where they could sit and rest a while, and opened their packs to share lunch. There wasn't much to go around, since they'd had to make do with what they could get in a hurry, but there was enough for lunch and probably dinner tomorrow, too. After that, they would have to start looking for ways to restock their supplies, but neither of them were thinking that far ahead.
Shou raised a piece of bread towards his mouth, only to have it intercepted by a furry paw. He looked down to find an unusually large, fluffy cat looking up at him - or perhaps more accurately, at his food.
"Go away!" he said to the cat.
The cat just looked at him steadily, and continued pawing at Shou's arm in a gesture that said only too clearly, "Put that down here where I can reach it!"
"Shoo, cat!" said Juudai, waving his hands at the animal. "Go catch a mouse or something. You don't need our food. You're fat enough as it is."
The cat gave him a dirty look, never once ceasing its insistent pawing.
"You know," said Shou thoughtfully, "this can't be a wild cat. He's too healthy to be a stray. He must belong to somebody."
"But who would live way out here?" asked Juudai. Then his expression brightened. "Except a Wizard!"
"Could be," said Shou. He looked at the cat. "You wouldn't know how to get to the Wizard, would you? Would you take us to him... if we feed you?" he added, feeling claws dig into his arm. The cat purred agreeably. Shou handed over the last of his bread and a piece of cheese, and the tabby cat gobbled it up happily. When the last crumb was gone, the cat gave his paws a few licks before getting up and sauntering off. He stopped a few paces away to look back over his shoulder. He meowed.
"Looks like he wants us to follow him," said Juudai. He got up and scampered along after him. Shou hurriedly stuffed his things back into his pack and hurried after him.
The cat looked pleased by their compliance. With his fluffy tail held high, he trotted confidently through the forest, making a beeline for some unseen goal. The path was not quite so easy for the two humans to follow, as their feline guide could slip easily through clumps of shrubbery that proved to be obstacles to Shou and Juudai, but the cat always stopped and waited patiently for them to catch up. As the cat traveled onward, covering a half a mile or more without swerving, Shou became continually more convinced that this animal was in fact leading them somewhere in particular.
It wasn't much further before he saw where exactly they were going. Sitting in the shade of a few particularly enormous trees was a neat little thatched cottage. It was a bit on the smallish side, probably not holding above four rooms, but the thatching looked fresh and the walls were in good repair, and there was a wisp of smoke winding up from the chimney, hinting that someone was living inside and had done their best to make the place hospitable.
"Is this where the Wizard lives?" asked Juudai. "Geez. It's not what I imagined it would look like. I thought there would be gargoyles, or towers, or something."
"Maybe it's better inside?" Shou suggested. Of course, this might not be the Wizard's house at all, but he found he couldn't quite bring himself to believe it. There was something about this area, something in the air, like a scent he couldn't quite identify, that made him feel a bit shivery inside. He had a sneaking feeling that the ordinariness of the well-tended little cottage was just a front. Steeling himself, he tiptoed up to the front door, raised his hand, and knocked.
"Who goes there?" called a muffled voice.
"Er... well, my name is Shou, and this with me is my cousin Juudai. We've come looking for the Wizard. Are you the Wizard?"
"Oh," said Shou. He took a deep breath. "Well, if you don't mind, I've got a really important question I need to ask." He waited a moment for a response. When there was none, he asked, "So... can we come in?"
"You may enter."
Shou gave the door a push. It swung inward easily without much more than a slight squeak. The cat bounded through the door and disappeared into the shadows. It was dark inside the cottage, and at first, all Shou could see were the coals of a fire in the large fireplace. Everything else was blackness. Then his eyes began to adjust, and he realized the room was not empty. There was a tall figure standing near the center of the room. He was shrouded entirely in a long cloak with a hood that hid much of his face, though a pair of spectacles twinkled faintly in the firelight.
"Why have you come to seek the Wizard?" he boomed.
"Well, um..." Shou found himself losing his nerve. "I kind of had a question, but I don't mean to be a bother..."
"So ask, and stop wasting my time. What do you desire to know? Shall I find something that is lost? Or is it a question of love? Or should I scry into the secrets of the future for you?"
"Actually, it's kind of more the past I want to know about," said Shou. "See, I found this blanket in my mother's things, and it looks like it came from the royal palace, so then my cousin dragged me off into the woods to look for the King's Mantle flowers, and then..."
"What nonsense is this? How dare you waste my time with your wild tales!" the Wizard boomed. "Begone from my sight, before I blast you for your impertinence!"
"Okay!" Shou squeaked, and prepared to scurry away, but Juudai held him back.
"Now, wait just a minute!" Juudai said. "You didn't even let the poor guy finish asking his question! If you'd just let us explain, I'm sure you'd agree to help us!"
Juudai stepped forward, the better to plead with the Wizard, but the cat dashed across his path, making him stumble. He scrambled wildly for something to stop himself from falling, and his hands caught on the Wizard's long cloak. It fell away, revealing a perfectly ordinary young man standing on a box to make himself look taller.
"Oops," he said.
"Hey, you're not the Wizard at all!" Shou exclaimed.
"Well, that's obvious, isn't it?" said the stranger scathingly.
"So if you're not the Wizard, who are you?" asked Juudai, sitting up to glare at him. "And what's the big idea of yelling at us?"
"Sorry," said the young man, looking sheepish. "All right, I confess. I'm not the Wizard - I'm the Wizard's apprentice. I can't tell you where the real Wizard is, though. He disappeared about a month or so ago, and no matter what I do, I can't get my spells to give me a firm fix on where he is. He's confused his location, and my magic is no match for his. So to keep people from wondering where he is, I've been passing myself off as him. The ones who need something I can help them with, or just want to be impressed by a few flashing lights, I take care of, and the rest I scare off. It's been working rather well so far. But it looks like you've blown my cover." He climbed carefully down off the box and took off the glasses. "I can't half see in these blasted spectacles, anyway. By the way, my name is Misawa."
"Nice to meet you," said Shou, more out of politeness than anything else. "So, does this mean you can't help me? Because if you can't, I might have to go looking for the Wizard myself, and that could take forever."
"Well, I suppose if you're really that desperate, I could give it a try," said Misawa. "What's your problem? Forgive me, but I really didn't get very much out of that talk about blankets and flowers."
"Shou's a prince," said Juudai proudly. "We just haven't figured out how to prove it yet."
"We don't know if I'm a prince," Shou corrected. "Juudai thinks I might be the prince who was kidnapped fifteen years ago, and since the Wizard made that prophecy back then, we thought he might be able to tell for sure."
"Well," said Misawa, looking Shou over, "I can't say you look very princely to me - no offense meant, of course. But if you want to know if you're royalty or not, that's easy enough to prove. Anyone with a little magical training can do that." He walked over to a shelf and began taking down a bowl and a pestle. "Could you run outside and fetch me a handful of mud, please?"
"Mud?" Shou repeated, not sure he'd heard correctly.
"Don't question the wizard," said Misawa grandly. "Do you want to know if you're a prince or not?"
Shou decided to do as he was told. A few moments scraping around under the trees yielded a nice handful of damp earth, which he dubiously carried back into the hut.
"Just put it in the bowl there," said Misawa. As Shou dropped the mud in the dish, Misawa gathered up a vial of purple fluid and a few white crystals. He mixed them all together with practiced movements of the pestle, until the whole thing took on a nice uniform consistency.
"You see," said Misawa, "rulers share a magical link with the land they live in. Give me your hand for a moment and I'll show you."
Doubtfully, Shou put out his hand. Misawa made a swift moment, and Shou had no time to react before a pin was pricked into one of his fingers. He tried to pull away, but Misawa held him tightly.
"Don't move," he ordered. "Just watch."
Even as he spoke, a drop of blood formed on Shou's fingertip and fell into the dish. There was a bubbling noise, and the stuff in the dish began to glow softly golden. Everyone stared at it with expressions of interest, and no one looked more interested than Misawa.
"Well, I'll be switched," he muttered. "He is a prince!"
"I am?" Shou asked blankly.
"Of course you are! You can see the light, can't you?" Misawa retorted. "This is big news! The missing prince, found after all this time!" He looked at Shou with new respect in his eyes.
"Are you sure you didn't do anything wrong?" asked Shou. He stared at the bowl, which was still glowing cheerfully.
"If I did something wrong, it wouldn't be doing that," said Misawa. "Trust me. Just because I'm an apprentice, that doesn't mean I'm stupid. I told you, this is very basic magic. Like I said, rulers share a magical link with their lands. The King's Mantle flowers are more sensitive to it than most, but anything that comes from the earth will react to royal blood if it is persuaded properly. And if your blood is royal than so is the rest of you."
"Then we have to go to the capital and tell the king and queen!" said Juudai excitedly.
"But how will we make them believe it?" Shou replied. "I mean, I don't even believe it myself!"
"You'll need someone to vouch for you," said Misawa. "And since the Wizard is absent, I volunteer my services. Who knows, he may already be waiting in the capital, himself. He did say there was something big getting ready to happen, before he disappeared, so he might have known you were coming."
"All right! I always wanted to see the big city," said Juudai cheerfully. "We'll get to see the palace and everything! This is going to be great."
Shou just sighed.
Taking Misawa with them proved a more difficult proposition than it sounded like. Shou and Juudai had to watch him closely to keep him from carrying off most of a shelf's worth of magical equipment, and half the Wizard's library into the bargain.
"But they'd be useful!" he protested, as the other two boys snatched books out of his hands and stacked them back on the shelves. "And you're putting them in the wrong order!"
"You can fix it when you get back," said Juudai. "Worry first about what you're going to eat and what you're going to wear, and then you can worry about your books and stuff."
"What good is bringing a magician along if you won't let him take any of his things with him?" Misawa asked, but he did put most of the books back.
In the end, he surrendered all but two books and a small collection of assorted herbs and powders which he insisted would serve practical purposes. He also insisted on taking the cat.
"It's the Wizard's favorite," Misawa insisted. "He'll have my hide if I let anything happen to it. I can't just leave it behind."
"Hope he doesn't eat much," said Juudai, looking at the rotund animal with suspicion. The cat just looked at him inscrutably.
At last, they managed to coax him out of the cottage and into the world. They let Misawa take the lead, primarily because he seemed to know how to tell which direction they were going just by looking at the sun and the trees, and he seemed confident in his ability to show them the fastest route to the capital city.
"I used to live there, a few years ago," he said. "Before I met the Wizard."
"How did you end up being his apprentice?" Shou asked.
"Well," said Miswa, looking sheepish, "it was kind of that or jail. You can see why I chose the Wizard."
Shou and Juudai looked at him. They had never seen a more clean-cut, honest-looking person in their lives.
"What do you mean, jail?" Shou squeaked. "You're not a criminal, are you?"
"Well, not really. Sort of," said Misawa vaguely. "My family was poor, and they couldn't afford much of an education for me. I knew how to read a little, and how to do enough math to keep our booth in the marketplace running, but I knew there had to be more out there, and after a while, I discovered books..." His eyes misted over at the recollection, and he smiled dreamily. "I couldn't afford any of my own, so I... sort of invited myself into someone's private library, and they didn't take very kindly to my intrusion."
"So they put you in jail for reading books?" asked Juudai.
"Well, they put me on trial," Misawa replied. "For breaking and entering. They were going to put me in jail, but then the Wizard passed by and said that since all I really wanted was to be educated, he'd take me under his wing and train me up properly. It's a good bargain. I get to learn magic, and he lets me read his books when I have free time."
"Sounds like fun," said Juudai, without enthusiasm. He had never been the scholarly sort.
"You know," Shou said thoughtfully, "if you can help get them to believe I really am a prince, I'll bet I could get you all kinds of books. That seems like the kind of thing they let princes have."
Misawa gave him a sly smile. "The thought did cross my mind."
"Well, I've heard of worse things to want," said Shou.
At least having Misawa around made the trip easier. It wasn't long before he proved himself a useful companion on the road. He could light a campfire, using even the greenest and wettest wood, with nothing more than a word and a gesture, and it would burn all night without having to be check. He warded their campsite every night against the intrusions of wild animals and bad weather, so that they stayed dry even when it poured down rain. He also knew which plants in the forest were edible. Juudai fashioned himself a sling out of a branch and some leather straps, and was able to pick off a few rabbits and squirrels with it to make their supplies stretch. Shou turned out to be the best cook of the three, so it fell to him to clean Juudai's catches and turn them into something edible. Since it was obvious that he would get lost if he wandered off into the woods alone anyway, leaving him to set up a camp site worked out well for everyone. Even the cat had his uses, as he would occasionally help Juudai out in the rabbit-and-squirrel gathering department. The mice and voles he caught, he was permitted to eat himself, but larger critters went onto spits to be roasted.
After six days of steady walking, they sighted the walls of the capital city. Shou searched his soul for some feeling of recognition, but there were no memories of this place in his mind. He sighed and supposed that was just as well. They wouldn't do him any good, anyway, now that fifteen years had passed. The thought that his parents were in there somewhere gave him a flicker of emotion, though. He'd always been curious about the father he'd never met, though it hadn't crossed his mind until recently that his father could have been a king.
"See, I told you I'd get you here," said Misawa smugly.
"All right!" Juudai cheered. "We're going to get to see the castle!
"If we can get in," said Shou.
They couldn't get in. By the time they reached the gates, night had fallen, and the front gates were closed. Not only that, but they were flanked by two armed guards who did not look like they were willing to listen to explanations.
"Sorry, but the city is closed," said one of them.
"But this is important!" said Shou. "Really, really important!"
"If it's that important, you can come back tomorrow," said the other.
"You can't send him away!" said Juudai. "He's the prince!"
"Listen, joker, you might be fresh off the turnip wagon, but I'm not," said the first guard. "I've worked for the royal family since I was old enough to walk, and I know what the prince looks like, and none of you are him."
"Actually, if you would just listen to us," said Misawa, "you'd understand that we're talking about the other prince. If you'll just let me explain..."
"Hey," said the second guard, squinting at Misawa, "haven't I seen you before somewhere?"
"Probably not," said Misawa, suddenly showing a disinclination to look the man in the face.
"No, I remember now - something about you breaking into some rich guy's house," he insisted. He turned to his comrade. "You remember that? He said he was just there to read books. Nobody was buying that."
"I think you three had better just take yourselves back where you came from," said the other guard, waving his spear menacingly.
"Better do as he says, guys," said Shou. He grabbed Juudai by the arm and began hauling him back up the road.
"But... we're telling the truth..." Juudai protested.
"So was I when I said I only wanted to read," Misawa retorted. "Obviously the truth isn't worth much around here."
They retreated into the safety of the forest, all of them feeling in somewhat low spirits. It was plain they wouldn't be sleeping in a palace tonight, or even getting into the city at all. The odds of them getting in tomorrow weren't so good, either. Now that the guards were suspicious of them, it would be difficult to slip past them even when the gates were opened in the morning.
"Guess we'd better set up camp here," said Juudai glumly.
"It's too close to the road," Misawa replied. "We should move further in, in case someone decides we're to suspicious to let slip away."
"You're probably right," said Juudai. "All right, we'll split up and look for a safe place to camp. You want to stay here and keep a lookout, Shou?"
Shou shook his head. The incident at the gate had annoyed him more than he could have imagined it would. Everyone kept telling him he was a prince, and yet here were these two who were supposed to serve the crown, and they had barely even looked at him. People always overlooked him - the village boys picked on him for his size and his glasses, the farmhands taunted his weakness, his aunt scolded him for anything and everything. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, he'd been given a reason why people ought to give him some respect, and it had seemed to be working. Juudai believed it wholeheartedly, and Misawa seemed to put his faith in it as well. Without realizing it, Shou had been adapting to the idea that maybe he deserved some esteem from others, and now these two louts were telling him to get lost and threatening his friends!
I've had just about enough of being treated like I don't matter. It's time I started sticking up for myself.
"No, I'll help you guys," he said. "I'll just keep the lights of the city in sight so I won't get lost."
"Suit yourself, then," said Misawa. "If you do get lost, I'm sure I can work a spell to find you. That's simple enough."
Shou wasn't entirely thrilled by this outpouring of faith in his abilities, but he kept his thoughts to himself and wandered into the forest. It wasn't long before he had lost all sight and sound of his friends. He trudged determinedly onward.
"I can manage not to get lost," he muttered. "I'll just remember I walked past that broken stump, and that big rock over there, and crossed this stream... There are a lot of rocks out here. I hope I can remember the right rock."
There were a lot of rocks. They were getting progressively bigger as he went on. Eventually, he found a place where they formed a cleft, one that looked large enough to shelter a few people. He stood and admired his find for a moment, proud that he'd found such a perfect shelter. Assuming he could find Juudai and Misawa again, he could show them he really was capable of looking after himself a little, once in a while. Assuming there wasn't something nasty hiding inside the cleft. He poked his head inside and saw nothing but shadows.
"Hello?" he called. "Anyone in there? If you're there, growl or something and I'll go away, okay?"
There was a rustling inside the cave, the kind of noise something big would make as it uncurled itself and began shuffling towards the cave's mouth. Shou backed away, realizing that he had probably not made the best move. However, he didn't make it more than a few steps before his foot snagged on a rock, and he toppled over backwards, and his spectacles fell from his nose. He scrambled around blindly, finally closing his hand around them and putting them back in place.
By that time, the dragon was already looming over him.
"Aiee, don't eat me, please!" Shou wailed. "I wouldn't taste good! I'm all skin and bones, honest!"
"No kidding," said the dragon. "I mean, don't they feed people where you come from?"
Shou blinked. He had never heard before that dragons could talk. He looked up into its slit-pupiled eyes of the beast and saw nothing more threatening there than vague amusement.
"You aren't going to eat me?" he asked.
"Heck, no," said the dragon. "Don't worry, I don't eat people, I promise! I may not look it, but I'm actually human."
Shou looked at the thing in front of him, taking in the sinuous body, the long tail, the claws, the mouth full of gleaming teeth, the slitted eyes.
"You look like a dragon to me," said Shou.
The dragon sighed. "Yeah, it's the worst. But I promise I'm really human... or I used to be, before I tangled with that sorcerer. I guess that was kind of a bad idea."
"Well, hey, I know a guy who's a wizard," said Shou. "Maybe he can put you back the way you were."
The dragon's eyes lit up. "Now, that's a good idea! You lead the way, and I'll be right behind you. Name's Kenzan, by the way."
"I'm Shou." After a moment of thought, he added, "Prince Shou."
"For real? You don't look much like a prince."
"You don't look like a human."
"Good point," said Kenzan the dragon. "All right, your highness, lead the way."
Shou was proud of the fact that he was able to find his way back to where the other two were. Admittedly, he was helped along substantially by the fact that they had already made a campsite and lit a fire, but still, he was doing better than he usually did. The expression on his friends' faces when he calmly strolled up with a dragon at his side was worth quite a bit anyway.
"What the...?" Juudai exclaimed, jumping to his feet as if preparing to flee.
"Stay back, I'm warning you!" said Misawa, as flares of magical light appeared in his hands.
"Easy, easy!" said Shou. "Don't shoot! Kenzan is a friend."
"Hi," said Kenzan, waving one of his front claws.
"A talking dragon?" said Juudai wonderingly.
"Dragons don't talk," Misawa corrected him, letting his lights fade. He stepped closer for a better look. "Hmm, yes, I see now. This is a human who has been transformed. Obviously it was done by a very powerful spellcaster."
Kenzan rumbled low in his throat, making everyone take an involuntary step back.
"Yeah, he was a real loser," Kenzan snarled. Then his anger subsided, and everyone slumped in relief. "See, I used to be the strongest guy in my village. There wasn't anyone who could beat me! Then one day I got in a fight with the local sorcerer's apprentice - a little pale skinny guy, no color to him at all. Blue eyes, gray hair, white skin... I guess that's why our sorcerer liked him so much. He always had this thing about light. Anyway, we were talking and I said that having a strong body was better than having magic, and he said the other way around, so I kinda got mad at him and decided to show him I was stronger than him even without magic, and kinda pounded his face in a little. And the sorcerer didn't like that much, so he decided to punish me by turning me into this. So now I'm strong, all right, but I can't be myself again until I can find a magician to turn me back into what I used to be."
"That might not be easy," said Misawa thoughtfully. "How long have you been in that shape?"
"About a year, maybe more. Why?"
"Well, the longer something stays in a shape, the harder it is to change back completely. Some part of what you were before will always remain. Just like you have kept your human mind and voice, if I turn you back, there's a good chance that some part of you will remain essentially dragon-like."
"I don't care! As long as even most of me is human again, I'll be happy!" Kenzan declared. "I'm sick of hiding in a cave and living on raw meat."
"Well, then, I suppose I'll just have to make the attempt," said Misawa. He looked at Juudai and Shou. "See? I told you my magic supplies would come in handy."
He went over to his pack, shooed away the fluffy cat, who had been using the bag as a cushion, and pulled out a jar of blue powder. Ordering everyone to stand back, he poured a thin line of blue around the campfire, making a circle large enough for Kenzan to sit inside. The dragon carefully curled himself around the fire, trying not to burn himself or smudge the line. Once he was situated, Misawa raised one of his hands and began to chant. Light flared from his fingertips again, glowing as blue as the powder he'd poured. The circle glowed, too, and the fire began to burn taller and brighter, its flames shining the color of sapphires. Sparks of light rose up until they formed a screen around Kenzan, until he could be seen only as a dim shadow between the firelight and the curtain of blue sparks. Gradually, his dark shape shrank down, becoming smaller and more humanlike, until at last there wasn't a dragon at all, but only a young man crouching on all fours in front of the fire. The blue light faded, and the fire dwindled back to a more normal size and color.
"Wow," said Juudai. "If you're just an apprentice, I can't wait to see what you can do when you're fully trained!"
"It's not so hard, when you know what you're doing," said Misawa, but his voice shook a little anyway. He wiped the sweat off his face with a sleeve.
Kenzan sat up and examined himself. As far as could be seen, there wasn't anything particularly dragon-like about him, and it would have been hard to miss anything, as the magic hadn't seen fit to clothe him. He had long black hair, pulled into a series of thick braids, and his skin was the deep tan of someone who had been born in the countries to the far south. The glow of the fire highlighted the rippling of his powerful muscles as he moved. He looked up and flashed a grin, and Shou could see that he still had the golden, slitted eyes of a dragon.
"I think that worked pretty well," said Kenzan.
No one had any clothing that would fit him, but they sacrificed a blanket to make a sort of kilt to wrap around his waist. Once he was more or less clothed, he settled down to join them for dinner, where he ate as much as the other three combined. Shou was beginning to think Kenzan might clean out all their supplies before he finally gave a long sigh, stretched lazily, and leaned back against a convenient tree, smiling and contentedly rubbing his stomach.
"You guys are lifesavers," said Kenzan. "I don't know what I would have done if you three hadn't come along. I really owe you one! From here on in, if there's anything you need - anything at all - that I can do for you, you just ask. Say the word and I'm your man!"
"Can you get past city guards?" asked Shou.
Kenzan looked thoughtful. "How many?"
"Probably not more than two," Shou replied.
"Oh, that's easy!" said Kenzan. "You leave it to me. I'll break them in half!"
"We just want to get past them so we can enter the city," said Misawa quickly. "It would be better if you didn't hurt them too very much."
"Fine, sure, no problem," said Kenzan. He got to his feet and threw a few punches at the air to loosen his muscles. "I'll go right now, if you want."
The boys looked at each other.
"We might as well give it a try," said Shou.
They marched back to the city again, with Kenzan swaggering along in the lead, plainly pleased to be back in his proper shape again. When they reached the gates, the guards immediately snapped to attention, crossing their spears before the barred doors and looking warily at the group's new member.
"You again?" asked one of the guards. "I thought we got rid of you jokers once already. Sling it down the road before we give you a little incentive." He flourished his spear pointedly.
Quietly but firmly, Shou said, "I am the prince, and I say you should let us pass through."
"Before we sic our dragon on you," Juudai piped up.
The guards laughed.
"A dragon! Yeah, right," said one of them. He smirked down at the Wizard's cat. "I suppose if that little kid in glasses is the prince, this could be a dragon."
The cat growled a little and showed his claws, making the guards laugh.
"That's no dragon," said Kenzan. His slitted eyes flashed in the torchlight. "I'm a dragon."
He smiled, showing teeth that were very white and very sharp, and just a little too pointed to look human. The guards tensed.
"Maybe we had better send for reinforcements," said the second guard.
The other nodded and made a lunge for the rope of a bell that hung nearby.
"Oh, no you don't!" said Kenzan, and made a grab for the soldier. He moved surprisingly fast for someone of his size, but he still didn't quite make it before the guard had given the alarm a few good rings. Of course, once Kenzan got hold of him, he had no leisure to do anything but defend himself. Since his spear was obviously useless in close combat, he tossed it aside and drew his shortsword. Kenzan dodged easily, wrenched the weapon away, and brought it around to strike the second guard, who had been rushing up behind him. He only smacked the man with the flat of the sword, but there was still enough force behind the blow to send the man sprawling. The other guard drew a knife and attempted to stab Kenzan with it, but Kenzan intercepted the blow easily, wrenching the soldier's arm around until he was forced to his knees, and the knife slipped from nerveless fingers. Kenzan gave him a good shove, and, to make his point, casually took his purloined shortsword and bent it over his knee until it cracked in half, tossing the pieces to the ground as casually as if he'd broken a stick of kindling. He sauntered up to the gates and hefted the bar that held them shut. Even though it was as thick as the trunk of a mid-sized tree, he moved it with relative ease.
"You weren't kidding when you said you were the strongest guy in your village," said Shou, impressed.
"Actually, I don't think I could do that before," said Kenzan. "Guess there's still a little bit of the dragon left in me, still. Not that I'm complaining!"
He pushed open the gates and stepped inside. However, no sooner had he done so, then he was surrounded by a half-dozen more guards, all with swords drawn. A flicker of movement made Shou look up, where he could see the forms of yet more men creeping across the roofs.
"They've got crossbows!" he squeaked. "We're going to be shot!"
"We'll see about that!" said Misawa. He said the words he usually said to light the campfire in the evenings, and gave an added command and a sweeping gesture. All the crossbows and arrows suddenly and simultaneously burst into flames. The trick had its desired effect. The guards were startled to see flaming bits of crossbows and arrows raining down on them. In that moment of distraction, Kenzan seized the bar from the gates and used it as a weapon, twirling it around and battering soldiers left and right. Eventually they realized they couldn't even get close to him without being severely beaten, they scattered into the night.
"Hey, I'm not done with you! You come back here and fight!" Kenzan bellowed at them, which only made them run faster. He shrugged and gently set his weapon against the wall for someone to put back in place later.
"Well, that was easy, wasn't it?" said Juudai casually.
"Somebody could have gotten shot!" Shou wailed. Now that the emergency was over, he had the leisure to panic, which didn't sound like such a bad idea.
"No one would have been shot. Everything was under control," said Misawa.
"No sweat," Kenzan agreed. "So what do we do now?"
"Well," said Juudai, "maybe we should look into finding a place to sleep... and getting you some clothes."
Kenzan glanced down at himself. He was still wearing nothing but a tattered patchwork blanket, which had worked itself partway loose while he'd been fighting. "Um. Yeah, that might be a good idea."
They ended up having to sleep outside that night, but that was nothing they weren't used to, and in the morning they had the luxury of buying a hot breakfast from a vendor instead of having to cook it themselves. They also raided a shop that sold used clothing and managed to scrounge up a few things for Kenzan that more-or-less fit. He was so pleased to have actual clothes again that he might have been wearing the finest silks and velvets, as proud of them as he was. Misawa, moved by some generous impulse, even chipped in to buy him a small dagger, explaining that since Kenzan was the fighter in their party, he deserved a proper weapon.
Shopping was fun, but the next part of their mission proved more difficult. Shou hadn't thought very hard about what he was going to do when he had actually reached the castle, and now that he was there, he still wasn't sure what he was going to do. Obviously walking up to the front door and announcing that he was the long-lost prince wasn't going to work, not after what had happened last night. They weren't really accepting visitors, either. The group lurked eagerly around the entrance, hoping to spy an opportunity, until the suspicious looks from the guards forced them to leave.
"It doesn't look like you can get in at all unless you're a noble," Juudai complained.
"That does seem to be the case," said Misawa judiciously. "Perhaps instead of seeking an audience with the king directly, we ought to be trying to find a noble patron?"
"What makes you think the nobles will listen to us, either?" asked Shou. He was tired of hanging around seeing nothing happen, and was beginning to get discouraged.
"We have to at least try something," Juudai said. "Let's split up and ask some people. There are enough of them running around."
So they did. The next several hours were spent wandering the streets that led to the castle, trying to latch hold of anyone who looked like he might be of importance, and saying whatever they could think of to convince him to listen to their pleas. The responses varied from blank looks, frosty glares, sharp words, and occasional kicks or slaps. Shou suffered the indignity of having a paunchy gentleman spit in his face, and made a mental note to remember him later after everyone had found out that he was a prince, and let the man know what he thought of that. Kenzan had a number of people threaten to call the guards on him - his slitted eyes and pointed teeth didn't lead to people trusting him easily. By the end of the day, even the ever-cheerful Juudai was beginning to lose his optimism.
"You know, I'm seriously starting to think this isn't going to work," he said. "Maybe we had better call it a night, and see if we can find an inn or something where we can get a meal and a place to sleep. We can think of something new in the morning."
"It is beginning to get dark," Misawa agreed.
"Yeah, I guess you're right," said Shou with a sigh. "Everyone else is going home, anyway. Pretty soon we won't have anyone left to talk to."
"Too bad," Juudai sighed. "Oh, well, maybe tomorrow. Anybody got any money left to pay for an inn? 'Cause I got nothing."
Misawa sighed. "It's always me, isn't it?"
Shou just sighed as he walked along, following his friends to wherever they were going next. He wasn't paying attention to their bickering. He was tired from the day's work, and also discouraged and a little annoyed. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he had vaguely expected someone, maybe the King and Queen themselves, to come along and recognize him and make everything easy. The fact that no one had done any such thing brought doubts back to his mind. Maybe there was just no point in this...
He walked into someone.
"Hey, watch where you're going!" said a haughty voice.
Shou shook himself; he had bumped his nose directly against a hard metal medallion, which was hanging around the neck of a dark-haired boy about Shou's own age. He was dressed very finely, and had the pale skin and smooth, slender hands of a man who had never had to sweat for his food. Cold gray eyes glared down his gracefully arched nose at the small, travel- stained boy who stood before him.
"Er... sorry. I had something on my mind," Shou mumbled.
"There is nothing you could possibly have on your mind that is important enough to excuse bumping into me," said the haughty boy. "Look at this! You got your snotty, disgusting nose on my medallion. Do you know what this is? Do you? This is the seal of a noble house, that's what it is! Do you understand that? That means I could have that nose of yours cut off if I wanted to! What do you have to say to that?"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" said Shou. "I'll never do it again!"
"You are not sorry," Juudai corrected. He looked at the dark-haired noble. "Don't let him fool you - he's actually the long-lost prince, and he's come back to claim his throne! That means you should be showing him a little respect."
"It's true, he is most definitely a prince," Misawa chimed in. "I've seen the proof of the matter for myself."
The noble looked suspicious. He glanced at Kenzan. "And how about you? Are you going to give me some stirring testimony about how you know he's a prince?"
"I don't know much about all that," said Kenzan, "but I owe him a lot and I'm gonna stick by him! So if you're gonna give him trouble, I'm just going to have to give you some of my own." He cracked his knuckles meaningfully.
"Fine, be that way," said the boy, backing off a little. "You're not worth my time."
He started to walk off, but Shou rushed out and seized his sleeve.
"Please, we need some help," he said. "We need to get into the castle and talk to the King and Queen, but no one will let us in. They won't listen to someone who isn't a noble, and we don't really look much like nobles."
"So you want me to put in a good word for you? Well, I think you're all crazy," said the boy. He looked thoughtful for a moment, perhaps sizing up his odds of dealing with Kenzan's muscle. "On the other hand, if you want to get yourselves in trouble with the King, that's not my problem, is it? Okay, I'll help you boys out. But you've got to do me a little favor, first."
"Favor?" Shou repeated. "What kind of favor can we do for you?"
"It isn't anything dishonest, is it?" asked Juudai. "Because if it is, you can forget it!"
"No! It's nothing like that," the young noble replied, suddenly looking embarrassed. "Look. You see that big white house up there on the hill? There's a girl named Asuka who lives there. She's the most beautiful girl in the kingdom - the whole world!" His sharp features relaxed briefly into a dreamy smile. He shook himself and went on. "Anyway, I've been trying to tell her how I feel about her, but she won't even let me talk to her."
"Maybe she doesn't like you," Juudai suggested brightly.
The noble gave him a glare. "Dimwit. How can she not like me? She doesn't even know me! At least, I don't think she does. I've been sending her letters and gifts, but she never answers, so I have no way of knowing if they're even reaching her. So what I want you guys to do is bring her this letter..." He brandished a folded sheet of paper, tied up in ostentatious purple ribbon. "...and don't leave until you've gotten her to read it and gotten some kind of reply. Got it?"
"Yes, we get it," said Shou. "You want us to play messenger."
"Right. I'm sure you common scoundrels have your ways of getting in and out of places you're not supposed to be in," said the noble loftily. "But if anyone asks, you can tell them that Manjoume sent you."
"Manjoume. All right, I'll remember," said Shou. Privately, he thought the whole thing was a bit ridiculous - a prince having to play messenger for a lovestruck young noble - but he kept his thoughts to himself. It occurred to him that even a prince needed the support of the nobility if he was going to get anything done, so perhaps it would be a good thing if he could arrange for this one to owe him a favor. It would be a start, anyway. He took the letter and tucked it safely in his belt.
"Hey, don't scrunch it!" Manjoume protested.
"It'll be fine," said Juudai. "We're only going a couple of blocks. Where do you want us to meet you after we deliver the letter?"
The noble looked thoughtful for a moment. "There's a tavern called the Singing Snake where a lot of the rich traders go to make deals with the local merchants. None of us would stand out very much at that place. I'll wait for you there."
"Good idea," Misawa said. To his companions, he added, "I know the place - they have good food and good bedding. Even if this doesn't pan out, we can at least get some food and sleep there."
"Then we'll see you at the Singing Snake," Shou told Manjoume.
"You had better," Manjoume replied. Without another word, he turned on his heel and stalked off into the night.
Shou heaved a sigh. "Well, guess we'd better get going."
They made their way up to the house on the hill. The sun had gone down completely now, but the manor's windows were brightly lit, in the fashion of those who could afford to burn enough candles and oil to make the whole house shine after dark. Upon closer inspection, it was also surrounded by a wrought-iron fence topped off with wicked spikes that discouraged the idea of trying to climb it. The front gate was held shut with a complicated lock.
"Looks like we're shut out," said Juudai, with his usual firm grasp of the obvious.
"Want me to apply a little gentle persuasion?" Kenzan suggested, cracking his knuckles significantly.
"That wouldn't make a very good impression on the girl, would it?" asked Shou. "I mean, she might get mad if she thought Manjoume was sending people to tear up her house."
Juudai looked at Misawa. "Can't you magic it open or something?"
"Not hardly. Iron resists magic - it's hard to even work a spell too close to it," Misawa replied. "Why do you think rich people use it to build fences? Stone would work just as well, and last longer."
The cat, unperturbed by things like locks, wiggled between the iron bars with surprising ease - the gaps in the fence did not look as if they would admit something of his girth. He sat on the other side of the fence and watched the rest of the humans as if wondering why they couldn't slip through so easily. Shou looked thoughtfully at him, and then at the lock on the gate. "I've got an idea. Let me try something."
He looked around to make sure no one was watching him, and then walked up to the fence. It was a very sturdy-looking fence, but it had plainly been designed with the intention of keeping out grown men. It had not been built with skinny youngsters in mind, and there was just enough space between the bars that Shou was able to wiggle through, though he tore his much- abused clothing a bit in the process. Once he was inside, he walked over to the gate, turned a latch, and opened it.
"I thought so," he said. "It wasn't locked from the inside."
Juudai grinned. "That's my brother!"
Shou blushed, feeling inordinately pleased at his success. "I just figured they wouldn't be trying to lock people in."
Beyond the gate was a lovely garden, designed in the style that had become popular recently. Rather than setting out orderly beds and carefully sculpted trees, it attempted to replicate nature in an idealized form. Shrubs, trees, flowers, boulders, and small fountains were artfully scattered to create a vista that seemed random at first glance, and yet formed a pleasing aesthetic whole. The uninvited guests appreciated it: it offered lots of shadowy places to hide as they crept towards the house.
"How are we going to get in?" Kenzan wondered. "I mean, we can't just march in through the front door."
"Do you suppose we could climb the woodpile?" Shou murmured, mostly to himself.
"What does he mean by that?" Misawa asked.
"Oh, it's a thing we used to do," said Juudai. "Back when we were at home, anytime Shou was in trouble with my mom, I'd sneak inside and open the window of his room, and he'd climb the woodpile to get to the window."
"Well, the idea has some merit," said Misawa. "If one of us could slip inside, he could find an unused room and open the window for the rest of us."
"So who's it going to be?" Kenzan asked. "Not me - I stand out a mile away."
"Better send Misawa," said Juudai. "His clothes are better than ours. Nobody else in this place is going to be running around looking like, well... like they worked on a farm and then wandered around in the woods for a week."
"Hmm, yes, I suppose I would be able to pass for upper-class better than you would," said Misawa, not without a hint of pride.
"And you've already broken into a house before, so you should know what you're doing!" Juudai put in cheerfully.
Misawa's look of pride was instantly replaced by a blush. "Yes, well, but I'm trying to put that behind me." He rallied himself. "Very well. I shall go in and mingle with the upper-crust a bit, and see if I can find a convenient entrance for you all. Go around to the back of the house and watch for my signal."
Everyone nodded and slipped off in one direction, while Misawa went in the other direction. They were dismayed to discover that there was not as much plant-cover in the back garden as there was in the front, and they were forced to take a rather prickly shelter behind a rose hedge.
"Ooh, I see him!" said Juudai excitedly. "Look, there he goes!"
"Yeah, yeah, I see him too," said Kenzan. "Keep it down, all right?"
They watched as Misawa sidled up to a small door, probably a servants' entrance, and watched from the shadows until someone stepped out of it. The servant began picking up sticks of wood from the woodpile. While his back was turned, Misawa slipped past him and darted through the open door. By the time the servant was done collecting wood (he took his time about it, obviously glad to be outside enjoying the stars and the fresh air, and not inside doing real work), there had been plenty of time for Misawa to slip away.
A few minutes later, a darkened window in one wing of the house was suddenly lit - not with the golden light of a candle or a lamp, but with a peculiar emerald-green glow. Shou and his friends hurried toward it. The light went out, and Misawa opened the window and leaned out it.
"All clear," he told them.
They scrambled through the window (Shou needed a boost to reach the sill) and caught their breaths inside the room, which appeared to be a parlor of some sort. Misawa made sure that the cat had jumped safely through the window before he closed it again. Shou thought privately that it was a good thing the room he'd found wasn't a library, or it was very possible that Misawa would have been distracted and would have left them sitting out in the garden all night waiting for him.
"I scouted around a little," Misawa continued, "and everything around here looks quiet. The kitchen staff appear to be cleaning up after a meal, so one can assume that the lord and lady of the household have taken their evening meal and retired for the night. All that's left are servants, and not even very many of those."
"We'll still need to figure out where the girl is," said Kenzan.
"Probably on the upper floor," Misawa replied knowledgeably. "The only living quarters down here are for servants."
Shou nodded as he checked to make sure the letter was still tucked safely in place, and had not been dislodged by all the creeping and climbing he's just done. Finding it was still where it belonged, he said, "Let's start looking, then."
They looked. It was a very fine house, and Shou couldn't help gawping at it as he explored. He couldn't recall having ever been in a building so beautiful and luxurious, and the idea that one many times more grand was his by birthright was almost enough to floor him. He simply couldn't imagine it. He had never even been inside a house with a second floor before - an inn, maybe, but never someone's house. He couldn't imagine owning enough things to fill so many rooms. Just trying made his head spin. He was so caught up in his thoughts that he hardly paid attention to where he was putting his feet, and he ended up snagging it on the edge of a rug. He fell on his face with a clearly audible thud.
"Quiet!" someone hissed - he couldn't tell who just from a whisper, and he couldn't see because his glasses had fallen off. He scrambled around frantically, trying to find them and put them back on.
While he was doing that, he heard footsteps heading his way. Someone gave the order to hide, and there was a flicker of movement as everyone ducked into doorways or behind decorative statues. Shou wanted to hide, too, but he wouldn't be able to find one unless he could see. His hand found his spectacles at the same moment the footsteps stopped, and he set the glasses on his nose to see an a very pretty young woman looking down at him. She was tall and blonde, with clear fair skin and eyes the color of amber. She was wearing a dress that looked as though it might be worth more than Shou's family's whole farm. She was looking at him with a curious expression.
"Who are you? I don't think I've seen you before," she said.
"Um..." said Shou, who had suddenly forgotten everything he'd meant to say. He'd had a hard enough time talking to the village girls, and none of them looked so clean and soft and graceful, or smelled faintly of perfume. He could feel his face burning, and was ashamed to know he could do nothing about it, so he settled for shutting his mouth and trying not to stare too hard.
"You're not another one of those boys trying to court me, are you?" she asked. It was hard to tell from her tone whether that was a rebuke or not.
"Um... No. No, I'm not," he finally managed. "But, um, I have a letter from one, I think. Are you Asuka?"
"Yes, I am," she answered tiredly. Her expression fell. "I'm very sorry, but... Look, I'll show you how to get out without getting caught, and I'm sorry you had to go through all this trouble - I can't imagine how you got in here, or what those people offered you to go through all the trouble - but I really don't want any letters."
"But it's important!" said Shou. "Manjoume told me not to leave until I'd gotten an answer!"
"Manjoume. So that's who it was," she murmured. "I should have known..."
"So you know him?" asked a voice. Shou tried not to wince as Juudai spoke up.
"Oh, you have friends with you, hmm?" asked Asuka. "How many of you are there?"
"Four of us," said Shou with a sigh. "And a cat."
Realizing there was no point in hiding, the others stepped out into view. Asuka watched them with a faintly calculating look, as if trying to guess why there were so many of them.
"Well, this is quite a party," she said, with wry amusement. "I suppose he asked you to kidnap me if I wouldn't come willingly? I'm not even going to ask what the cat has to do with anything."
Shou shook his head. "Manjoume just told us to get you to read his letter and give him an answer. Please. It's really important. We need his help, and this is the only way we could get him to agree. It won't hurt you just to read a letter, will it?"
"Yes," she said. "It will. Look, let's not sit and talk about it here. Come into my parlor and I'll try to explain."
She turned away, beckoning them to follow, and they walked obediently behind her. She led them to a delicately furnished room, done up mostly in shades of blue, white, and gold that flattered her coloring beautifully. She seated herself gracefully, and the others sat down with a bit more caution, most of them worried about what effects their travel-stained clothing might have on her fine furniture. Kenzan looked worried that the spindly chair he seated himself on might break if he rested his full weight on it.
"Are you comfortable?" Asuka asked politely.
"Fine, thank you," said Shou. "So... why can't you read the letter?"
She lowered her eyes, her gracious smile turning small and tight. "I suppose I could, but... I'm very tired of reading letters. I used to read all of them, but after a while... it just got to be too much. You may tell Manjoume that I have read his letters, and I thank him for his admiration, and think him a fine young man. He always sounded very sweet in his letters, at least. Under other circumstances, I might even have thought of accepting his suit. But as things stand..."
"What's wrong?" Shou asked her.
She raised her eyes. Perhaps there was something trustworthy in his wide-eyed, childlike face. Or maybe it was just that she'd never had anyone to explain what was wrong to before.
"I've made a vow," she said simply.
"What kind?" asked Misawa. "A religious vow, you mean?"
"Nothing so high-minded," Asuka replied. "You see, I used to have a brother named Fubuki. He loved music, and loved to sing. He used to sit out in the garden for hours, writing music and playing his lute. He used to tell me that the two things in the world he loved most were me and his music. The one thing he wanted most was to be able to perform in front of people, but Father forbid it. Fubuki made me promise that when I was married, I would let him sing at my wedding, and I agreed. Then, about a year ago, he vanished without a trace, and we've not heard from him since. I won't break my promise to my brother, and I cannot in good faith encourage a suitor until I know for certain where my brother is. If he can be found, or if he is proven dead, then perhaps I will marry. Until then, I will read no more letters. It drains my heart to read letters from someone who is so plainly in love with me, and know I can do nothing for him."
"I see," said Shou. "Well, I'm sorry to bother you, then."
"I'm sorry, too," Asuka replied. "What did you need help with, anyway?"
"We needed to get into the royal palace," said Shou. "No one will let us in because we're commoners - well, they think I'm a commoner - but we thought if we had a noble patron, he could get us in. Manjoume was the only one who would listen to us."
"I see," she said. Then she said, "Wait - what was that about only thinking that you're a commoner?"
Shou grinned sheepishly and ran a hand through his hair. "Um, well, you see..."
"He's the prince," Juudai supplied.
"Is he?" Asuka asked. She scrutinized him closely. "Well, now that you mention it, you do have a sort of resemblance to Prince Ryou..."
"You know him?" asked Shou.
"I've seen him," she replied. "He is a bit reclusive, so I can't say I've talked to him seriously before, but sometimes I am invited to things at the palace, so we've met a few times. So, you mean to say that you are the long lost prince we've heard so much about? Do you have any proof?"
"He's been tested thoroughly," said Misawa. "You can rest assured of that."
"Tell me," said Asuka.
So they told the whole story to her, from finding the blanket on up to the present moment. Asuka listened with considerable interest. When they had finished their telling, there was a moment of silence, in which the loudest sound was the soft crackle of wood in the fireplace and the snoring of the wizard's cat asleep in front of it.
"Well," Asuka said thoughtfully, "that's quite a story. I suppose the missing prince had to go somewhere, and it would be sensible for whoever took him to give him to a common woman and send her away. You know, I really do hope it's true. I know, myself, how it feels to lose a brother..."
"Do you think you could help us?" asked Juudai. "I mean, you're a noble..."
"A minor noble," she said. "The daughter of a minor noble. That isn't very much clout, but... I can try. After all, it would be a bad thing if I knew where the lost prince was and didn't try to do something about it. Why don't you come back here tomorrow morning? Meet me near the stables, and I'll see if I can sneak you into the palace somehow."
"Thank you!" said Shou. "I promise, if this works out, the first thing I'll do is start people looking for your brother."
She smiled at him. "That would be wonderful. Thank you. I really can't believe he could be dead... I'm sure I'd know if he was."
"We'll find him," said Shou.
Somewhere outside, the church bells tolled the hour.
"We've been here too long," said Misawa. "Our would-be patron will be growing impatient."
"Then I suppose you had better go to him," Asuka replied. "Send him my regrets."
"We'll explain things to him," Shou promised.
Asuka escorted them to the front of the house and watched to be sure they weren't intercepted as they crossed the garden. They waved a final farewell to her before setting out to the Singing Snake. There, they found Manjoume huddled in a corner, sipping disinterestedly at a mug of mulled wine and looking surly. His expression lifted somewhat as he saw his messengers arriving, but he restrained himself from doing anything that might draw attention. Instead, he got to his feet and led them out to the alley in back.
"So?" he asked eagerly. "Did you see her? Did she read the letter? What did she say?"
"She said she's sorry," said Shou. "She says she's taken a vow not to get married unless her brother can be there, but he's missing, so she won't accept any suitors."
"So she didn't read the letter?"
"No," Shou was forced to admit. "She says maybe if things were different..."
"Well, that's a big help!" Manjoume snarled. "You're completely worthless! I ask you to do one simple thing, and you can't even do that right!"
"But..." Shou protested.
"Forget it!" said Manjoume. "I'm sorry I wasted my time on you scum! I can't believe I even bothered to talk to you."
"But you promised you'd help us!" Juudai protested.
"Well, you promised you'd help me," said Manjoume. "If all you're going to do is give me excuses, then you can forget about getting any help. You can all go rot in a gutter for all I care!"
He turned on his heel and stalked off... or tried to. He was halted by Shou, who was unable to bear being talked to like that. He was not sure what he was thinking - if one of the village boys had talked to him that way, he would have shrugged it off - but this was a noble, supposedly the best of the best, and Shou had done everything that had been asked of him, only to be repaid by such rudeness that Shou nearly choked on his indignation. He lashed out a hand, attempting to grab Manjoume's shoulder and make him turn back, but Shou was much shorter than Manjoume and his aim was a little off, and he latched onto the chain of Manjoume's gaudy necklace. It snapped apart in his hands.
"Hey!" Manjoume yelped. "Give that back!"
Shou stared at the broken links in his hand. What had looked like a thick gold chain had broken entirely too easily to be any such thing. Even in the dim light, he could see that the chain was actually made of some darker material, with only a thin veneer of gold over it.
"This is a fake!" he said. "What gives?"
Manjoume scowled. "Nothing. I just... don't like to wear the real thing in case it gets stolen. Or something."
Misawa crossed his arms. "I don't think that likely, considering that reproduction of anything with a noble seal on it is highly illegal, even for nobles. Try again."
"Oh, all right, you win," said Manjoume with bad grace. "The truth is, I'm not a noble. There, happy now?"
"So if you aren't a noble, what are you?" Shou asked.
"A merchant," said Manjoume. "Well, that's what my family does, anyway. We trade in gems and precious metals. We make more money than some of the nobles in this city make, but we're still just merchants. After Asuka refused to answer my first few letters, I got one of our metalworkers to make this medallion for me and started passing myself off as a noble, thinking maybe she'd accept me if I was of her rank. So I really can't get you into the palace."
"So that's why you tried to back out of your bargain," Misawa surmised.
"Yeah. But I'm not going to apologize. You guys have to be pretty stupid to fall for a trick like that."
"You wanna say that again?" asked Kenzan, easing forward so he could loom over Manjoume. Manjoume quickly scuffled a few paces back.
"Hey, it's okay!" said Juudai cheerfully. "Asuka's going to let us in tomorrow anyway."
Manjoume's expression lifted. "She is?"
"Sure she is," Juudai replied. "She knows a prince when she sees one!"
"And she's going with you guys into the palace," said Manjoume, as if Juudai was speaking a foreign language and he wanted to be sure he was translating correctly.
"You got it!" said Juudai.
Manjoume was thoughtful for a moment. To his mind, Shou still did not look very much like a prince, but the important thing was that Asuka seemed to believe he was, and she was certainly in a better position to recognize royalty than he was. And if it turned out that this scrawny, bespectacled little person really was a prince, well... there was definitely more advantage in being friendly with a prince than with the son of a jewel merchant. The situation merited keeping a close watch.
"If you're going," he said, "than I'm going with you."
"What for?" asked Kenzan.
"I have my reasons!" Manjoume replied. "So when are we leaving, huh?"
"First thing tomorrow morning," said Shou, deciding it was pointless to argue. "We're meeting at her place so she can take us in a carriage."
"This is turning into a real party," Kenzan observed. "Why don't we pick up a couple of heralds while we're at it? Or maybe a few acrobats and jugglers."
Shou sighed. "I wouldn't be surprised if we did."
At sunrise the next morning, a small group gathered near the stables next to Asuka's home. It was no surprise to anyone that Manjoume was there first, stubbornly determined that no one should leave without them. He looked a bit bleary-eyed, in the manner of one who is not accustomed to getting up at the crack of dawn. He looked annoyed with Shou and Juudai, who were used to rising early to tend to the farm, and were therefore in good spirits.
However, everyone rallied when Asuka arrived. She joined them only a few moments after the rest of the group had gathered, making Shou think that she must have been watching from a window. She looked lovelier than ever, having dressed in her best for a visit to the royal palace, and none of the boys could help but stare a little. She smiled serenely at them.
"Good morning, everyone," she said. "Manjoume, I didn't realize you would be joining us."
"Well, I... I couldn't just sit by and do nothing when my prince needs assistance," he said. He looked rather flattered that Asuka had remembered his name.
"Hm. Well, it will make things a bit crowded for all of us," she said, "but I'm sure we can think of something."
They managed in the end. Manjoume may not have been a noble, but he had still grown up in a family wealthy enough to have horses, and he knew well enough how to drive. He agreed to drive the coach, and the rest piled inside as best they could, and the cat curled up in a ball on Misawa's lap. There was only enough room for four people to sit comfortably on the coach's seats, so Shou, being the smallest, ended up having to sit on the floor - an undignified way, he thought, for a prince to make his climactic return to his castle. If he wasn't sure it would have gotten them all caught, he would have asked to sit up front with Manjoume. Unfortunately, while Manjoume's good clothing could pass for the dress of a servant in a noble household, no one of Asuka's rank would put someone in such drab, patched, and dirty clothing in such a public place. As it was, she had drawn the curtains on the doors so no one would be able to see inside and realize that she had some odd company with her.
They rolled up to the front gates of the palace, where they were stopped by the guard. Shou held his breath as Asuka pulled the curtain back a smidgeon, enough that her face could be clearly seen and recognized. When questioned, she offered up a plausible-sounding story about paying a visit to a kinswoman who was a lady-in-waiting to the queen. The guard was apparently familiar enough with Asuka's name and face - perhaps she really did have such a kinswoman - and let the carriage roll through. She gave directions to the royal stables, where the care of the horses and carriage were handed off to a stable-boy. Someone was sent off to find a page to escort the noble lady, but she didn't wait around for that. While she was talking to the staff, everyone else in the coach carefully and quietly slipped out the other door and ducked into the nearest hiding place. As soon as the stable-boy had departed on his errand, Asuka hopped out of the carriage and let Manjoume take her hand and lead her to where he'd seen the others hiding.
"So where do we go from here?" Juudai asked.
Asuka looked thoughtful. "Well, I've only been inside this place once or twice for royal balls. I don't know my way around very well. I only said I'd help you get in."
"And you did such a good job, too!" Manjoume hastened to assure her.
Shou thought very hard.
"Do you know where the garden is?" he asked. "We should try to go there."
"Yes, I've been in the gardens before," Asuka replied. "Why do you ask?"
"Because that's where the King's Mantle flowers grow," he pointed out. "If I could get my hands on a few of those, they'd have to believe I'm a prince."
"Good plan!" Juudai said.
"All right, I'll try to lead you," Asuka replied, "but try not to do anything that would attract attention. Just look like you belong here, all right?"
Everyone nodded agreeably - after all, nobody had a better plan. As they flitted across the stableyard, Manjoume murmured to no one in particular, "She's so brave... Isn't she wonderful?" No one bothered to answer him.
They found a door and hurried through it. Luck was with them, because the wing of the palace they had chosen appeared to be seldom used, and they encountered no one. Nobody spoke; Asuka's face was set in an expression of serious concentration, as she tried to remember from her infrequent visits which way she needed to turn. Once or twice, she did lead them wrong, and they were forced to backtrack, but her memory and sense of direction were good, and eventually she found the hallway she was looking for. This one was busier, with servants hurrying down it every so often, but they recognized the air of someone important on Asuka (and possibly the wealthy- looking young man at her side) and seemed to believe the strange little party wasn't worth taking note of.
At length, they came to a wooden door carved over with flowers and birds, and Asuka gave a little sigh of relief.
"Well, here it is," she said.
"I knew you would get us here," said Shou, since she seemed to be expecting some response. "Thanks."
They pushed the door open and stepped into the garden. It was actually a courtyard, surrounded on all sides by the walls of the castle, but the space was wide enough that even the high walls surrounding it didn't make it look cramped. It looked like a larger and more elaborate version of the garden they had hidden in the previous night.
"How are we gonna find a bunch of little white flowers in all this?" Juudai wondered.
"The same way we find anything," Misawa replied. "We look."
So they looked. They wandered up and down the winding paths of the garden, peering here and there in search of the elusive flowers. The network of walkways was far more complex than they initially realized, and they soon realized that they were entirely lost. To make matters worse, they still hadn't found any King's Mantle.
"This is stupid! We're right back where we started!" Juudai complained. "Who designed this thing, anyway?"
"How should I know?" Manjoume snapped. "It wasn't me, that's for sure."
"Thinking logically," said Misawa, "since the King's Mantle are the most important flowers in this garden, they probably occupy the most important position in it - namely, the center. Therefore, we ought to try to find our way in that direction instead of just wandering about randomly."
"Actually," said a new voice, "I think you all should explain what you're doing in the royal gardens, before I call the guards."
Shou turned around and stared. A young man had crept up silently behind them, and one look was enough to tell that he was something besides a common servant. His clothes were finely made, and something in the set of his face and the proud way he carried himself hinted at a noble upbringing. He was tall and well-muscled, with brown hair and intelligent brown eyes. There was something strangely familiar about him. Before Shou had time to ponder this mystery, Asuka gave a cry.
"Fubuki!" she cried, and flung herself at the newcomer.
He looked down at her in surprised. "Asuka! Asuka, are you okay? You look like you've seen a ghost!"
With her arms still wrapped around her brother, she looked up at him with tears in her eyes. "Where have you been? I've been so worried about you! Why didn't you tell me where you'd gone?"
A shadow of confusion crossed Fubuki's face. "But... I did! I've been sending you letters every chance I got!"
"I never got any letters," she told him, looking baffled.
"Well, I swear I sent them!" said Fubuki. "I couldn't, at first, because we were always so busy and it was hard to find the time to sit down and write, even if I could find paper, but... I've been here in the castle for the last three months, and I've been writing every other day. How could none of the letters get to you?"
"Could they have been delivered to the wrong place, somehow?" she asked.
Fubuki looked thoughtful. "Well, I've been giving them to one of the pages - the Count of Silverdale's youngest son. He swore up and down he'd given them to you."
"Ah. That explains it," said Asuka, making a face. "The Count of Silverdale's youngest son is one of my least favorite suitors. He probably didn't realize you were only writing to me as a brother."
"So you think he got rid of all my letters because he thought I was a rival?" Fubuki exclaimed. "That... that rat! Oh, he is in so much trouble for this..."
"That's probably what happened," said Asuka. "He pestered me so much that I finally told him that even if I was planning to get married, there were other people I'd choose before him. I suppose he was trying to level the playing field a little. But that doesn't explain how you ended up here, Fubuki. Where have you been?"
"I ran away," he said, grinning a little sheepishly. "You know I'm eighteen now, and Dad was starting to talk about retiring and putting me in charge of our holdings, and you know I never wanted to rule over anyone. I wanted to be a bard, a real one, not just someone who plays a lyre and sings when he has nothing better to do. So I packed up my things and joined a band of traveling performers and got them to teach me the ropes. I learned so much from them! It was amazing - I had such a great time." His face misted over with the joy of the memory. "Anyway, I got so good that, to make a long story short, I got myself invited to court to play for the King, and he made me his court minstrel. And here I am!"
"So I've been worrying myself sick over you, and you've been right here within walking distance," said Asuka with a rueful smile. "Why didn't you come and visit?"
"I was afraid," Fubuki admitted. "I thought Dad would be angry, and when you didn't answer my letters, I thought you were mad at me too, so I just stayed here. I'm sorry, Asuka."
She smiled at him. "It's all right. I'm just glad you're safe, and we won't lose touch with each other again."
"So you're not angry?"
"Of course not! I'm proud of you. I can't think of any better place for you than here," Asuka replied. "But you'll still take time off from being a court minstrel to sing at my wedding, won't you?"
"I sure will! I promised, didn't I?" answered Fubuki happily. He grinned. "So did you have someone in mind?"
"Well, some suitors do stand out more than others," Asuka replied. "There was a jewel merchant's son who wrote me three letters a day, sometimes. Very determined, he was. I would think a merchant's son would know better how to manage a holding than a bunch of idle layabout nobles who spend all their time amusing themselves. And his family's well-off enough that he'll be able to afford to take care of me."
Fubuki rolled his eyes. "You're the most practical person in the world! Just once, can't you manage to sigh and swoon and get all lovey-dovey like all the other girls?"
"Would it help if I said I thought he has lovely eyes?" she offered helpfully.
"From you? That'll do," said Fubuki.
Manjoume was looking dumbfounded.
"Are you talking about me?" he asked.
"Dunno," said Fubuki, looking at him curiously. "Are you a letter-writing jewel merchant's son?"
"Then it's probably you. Congratulations. Welcome to the family."
"He's not part of the family yet," Asuka corrected her brother. She turned to face Manjoume. "I do, however, give you my formal permission to court me. We'll start there and see how it goes."
That seemed to be pleasing enough to Manjoume. Asuka offered him her hand, and he dropped to one knee and gently drew her fingers to his lips. That seemed to settle the deal for everyone. They all stood admiring the pretty tableau of the two young lovers smiling at each other until Shou cleared his throat.
"That's great and all," he said, "but what about me?"
"Hate to tell you, buddy, but I think you came in a little late for that one," said Fubuki.
"No, no, no!" he said. "If she wants to marry him, that's great. What I need is to talk to the King."
"Oh? Why didn't you say so?" asked Fubuki. "What do you need to do that for?"
"Because I'm the prince," Shou replied. "The one that got kidnapped. I've come home."
He waited to see what kind of response he would get, expecting to be pelted with questions and expressions of doubt, and to have to tell his whole story all over again. Instead, Fubuki just stood and stared at him.
"Well, why didn't you say so?" he asked. "Okay, let's talk to the King."
With Asuka and Fubuki's backing, it was simple enough to arrange a conference with the King. Apparently Fubuki had become a great favorite with the royal couple, who were, after all, easy-going people most of the time. All it took was for the court minstrel and his sister to inform the King that they had something of great importance to tell him and his family, and the meeting was granted. Only a few moments later, Shou found himself standing outside the door to the royal audience chamber. He was still wearing his travel-stained clothing, still dirty from days of sleeping outdoors or in cheap wayside inns, looking small and bedraggled and not very princely at all. And yet, his outside was in nowhere near as much disarray as his insides: his thoughts were spinning like leaves in a whirlwind.
If it turns out I've been wrong all along... No, that's not what I'm afraid of. I'm a little afraid it's all true, he thought. What he was really afraid of was having to deal with the fact that the people on the other side of that door were his mother, father, and brother. He was afraid that they would turn him away, and equally afraid they would accept him. Would he be able to love a family he'd never met the way he'd loved his foster mother or the way he loved Juudai? More than that, how would he adapt to living a life of royalty? He'd never been a very good farm hand, but he wasn't sure he knew enough to run a country, either.
"You okay?" Juudai asked him, setting a hand on his shoulder.
"Not really," Shou admitted. "I'm scared."
"It'll be okay," Juudai assured him. "I mean, look at all you've done so far! You'll be fine. We all believe in you."
Shou looked up at Juudai, and then at his friends arrayed around him - Misawa, Kenzan, Manjoume, Asuka, Fubuki, even the cat. They were all watching him steadily, and he felt himself relax slightly as he realized that these people, at least, trusted him. Even if the king and queen threw him out, his friends would stand by him. He'd be all right.
"Thanks," he said. "Okay, I'm ready."
Fubuki nodded and grinned. He walked over to the door of the throne room and flung it open dramatically, announcing in ringing tones, "Your majesties, I present to you - the lost prince!"
Shou grimaced. He wished Fubuki had found some other way to announce him, but it was too late now. He took a breath, squared his shoulders, and walked in.
It was a large room. The only door was at the very end of the hall, which meant he had to walk quite a distance across the room to reach the dias on the far end where the royal family sat. In the corner stood two men, one tall and thin, the other short and fat, watching the proceedings with interest and something that might have been apprehension. All of them watched Shou silently. Halfway across the room, Shou found the courage to look up and meet their eyes: the King, looking kind and dignified; the plump, motherly Queen; and the Crown Prince, looking as tall and handsome and commanding as Shou himself looked small and bedraggled. Nevertheless, Shou was surprised to see something about him that did seem familiar - something about the way his hair lay and in the shape of his face, something that was familiar because it was not so very far away from Shou's own features. There was something else, too, in those dark eyes. Shou was surprised to see that it looked hopeful. It was in the eyes of the king and queen, too, and Shou was shocked to realize that no matter how small and bedraggled he looked, they still couldn't quite fight back hope that he was the missing part of their family. And Shou was equally surprised to realize that he hoped that these kind, wise-looking people were his family, too. He stopped a few feet from the dias and looked up into their faces.
"Well," he said quietly, "I'm here."
"I see that," said the king. "Though if you don't mind, I would like to ask exactly who you are to come here with such an announcement."
"My name is Shou," Shou replied. "I mean, I think it is. That's what they've called me as long as I can remember. Maybe you gave me another name I can't remember, but I really am the prince - the one that disappeared."
"You are my brother?" asked Prince Ryou, looking at him keenly.
Shou met his gaze. "Yes."
There was a moment of silence. At last, the king said, "You are going to have to explain yourself. If you are indeed the prince - my son - who has been lost all these years, can you tell us where you've been and how you got there, and why you have only chosen to reappear now?"
"It's kind of a long story," Shou admitted, "and I really don't know if I can answer all your questions..."
"That's all right - I can answer them," said the cat.
Everyone turned to look. Standing in the doorway was the fat tabby cat who had been following the group ever since they had left the Wizard's house. Now it strolled forward casually and sat down in front of the royal family.
"I think it's time I made myself a little more sociable, you know?" it commented.
The cat coughed slightly, and a bubble of golden light popped out of its mouth and hovered in midair for a moment. It expanded rapidly, and then suddenly it was not a light, or even a cat, but a tall thin man in a robe. He smiled at everyone's thunderstruck expressions and adjusted his glasses.
"I'd had just about enough of being a cat," he said casually. He turned to look at Shou. "So, little prince, let me congratulate you. You've done very well to get this far."
Misawa burst into the room, unable to keep himself under control any longer, even in the presence of royalty.
"Master!" he exclaimed. "What is this all about? Have you been following us all this time?"
"Something like that," the man replied. "Thank you for bringing my cat along. It was so much easier for me to ride in the cat than to follow you on foot. I've never been much of a woodsman, you know?"
There was a small commotion. In the corner, the two advisors appeared to be trying to sidle out of the room before anyone took notice of them, an impossible task since they would have to cross the entire hall to get back to the door. Everyone turned to stare at them.
"Ahh, yes, these two," said the Wizard. "Don't run off so fast. We're going to want to talk to you in a minute." He flicked his hand, and suddenly the two men seemed to find that their feet would not lift off the floor, no matter how hard they tugged.
"Wizard," said the Queen, looking at him imploringly. "I don't understand what's going on, but... you're saying that this little boy really is my child come back to me?"
"Indeed he is," said the Wizard. "And he has fulfilled my prophecies - both of them - in a most admirable fashion."
"There were two prophecies?" the King asked. "Why did I hear nothing of this?"
"Because it was a prophecy of disaster!" exclaimed a shrill voice. Advisor Chronos had finally spoken up. "Your majesty, the prophecy he told us was that this boy would bring disaster down on the kingdom! We were only trying to do what was best!"
"Oh, were you?" asked the King. "This is interesting. Tell me more."
"Now you've gone and done it," Advisor Napoleon muttered.
"Tell," the King commanded.
So the advisors broke down and told. They explained how the Wizard had given them his dire prophecy, and how they had attempted to avert it by smuggling the child out of the palace and placing him with a foster mother who would raise him well away from the city, where he could do no harm.
"We never wanted to hurt anyone!" Chronos insisted. "We only wanted to stop the kingdom from falling into war!"
"Did the prophecy say there would be a war?" Prince Ryou asked shrewdly.
"Well, no..." Napoleon admitted. "But he said he'd strip nobles of their titles, and send monsters against the king's soldiers! You have to admit that's bad."
"Actually, I think I did that bit already," Shou admitted. "I broke off Manjoume's noble crest thing by accident, so that's kind of like stripping him of his title... and I sent Kenzan to fight with the guards, and he's not exactly human... but we only wanted to get into the city and they wouldn't let us!"
"I think we need to hear this whole story from the beginning," said the king. He waved to the group who was standing around in the doorway, beckoning them to come in and sit on the steps that led up to the dias. "Come and join us. I have a feeling this is a tale is one that could benefit from more than one voice telling it."
So the tale was told all over again: how Shou had fallen into a patch of King's Mantle flowers, and how that crown of flowers had propelled him on a journey, and how he had been followed by his beloved brother - a common man - as well as by a wizard and a noble lady, and how he had spoken to a dragon, and how Manjoume had won his beloved's heart, and finishing with how Fubuki had come so close to heralding Shou's arrival in a most unpleasant fashion before finally getting the chance to do it properly. All the while, the wizard nodded and smiled.
"So the prophecy has all come true," said the King. "A prince of truth indeed! It seems as if everyone you run into has their secrets revealed when you show up - even these two scoundrels." He shot a look at his advisors, who quailed under his glance.
"Don't be too hard on them," said Shou. "They were only doing what they thought was right, and it all worked out okay in the end. See, I grew up just fine, and anyway, if they hadn't done what they did, then Kenzan would still be a dragon and Manjoume wouldn't have gotten to court Asuka and Asuka wouldn't have found her brother, so..."
"So they did do some good," said Prince Ryou, "even if it was not the good they intended to do."
"Well, if you say we should forgive them, then I suppose we must," said the King, "for you are the one who was most wronged by them. But for them, you would have grown up here with your family."
"I'm sure I would have been happy here," said Shou, "but I was happy where I was, too. I forgive them."
The two advisors relaxed visibly. The King smiled.
"So be it, then. My advisors receive a pardon."
"So, will you stay with us, now?" asked Prince Ryou. "The final prophecy need not come to pass. We can have a throne put here for you, and you will sit at my right hand and help me rule the kingdom. My eighteenth birthday is not far away; I will be crowned king soon, and will need such staunch allies as I can find." He smiled a little. "I remember when you were born, I said that you were too small to be of any help, but it seems my little brother is far more capable than I thought."
Shou smiled. "Thank you," he said softly. With more confidence, he said, "But I think the prophecy is probably right. I don't have any place on a throne. I don't know anything about ruling a kingdom. I might have been born a prince, but I was raised as a commoner. That's what I know. I want to stay where I can be close to my friends. But that doesn't mean I can't be of any help to you. You'll be a good king, and people will look up to you, but you have to sit up here on a throne all day and not mix with the common people. I can talk to them and find out what they think about, and come back and tell you about it. Then you can know how they live and what they think about you, and you'll be able to lead them better. If that's all right with you."
"Yes, I think that will be a good idea," said Prince Ryou, smiling. "You are right - that will be exactly the kind of help I need."
The King said, "You may have been raised as a commoner, my son, but you have the wisdom that few nobles ever acquire. I am proud of you."
"You will visit us often, won't you?" asked the Queen.
"As often as I can," said Shou. "I promise!"
And then, for the first time in his life, he hugged his parents.
Shou stayed in the castle for the next few weeks, awaiting the coronation of his big brother. He spent much of the time getting to know his family, as well as making a serious study of the laws of the kingdom, something he felt it behooved him to know if he was going to help his brother with running the place.
He also spent a lot of time with his friends, many of whom were permitted to stay in the castle with him. The Wizard had vanished shortly after he had given his explanations, and no one had noticed he was missing until he was long gone, but the King and Queen had been so impressed by Misawa's grasp of magic that they had offered him the post of court wizard. He had been hesitant until he had been promised all the scientific and magical instruments he wanted and the key to the royal library, which contained copies of every book every printed in the kingdom, as well as many scrolls and other documents. The first time he had seen the massive room, filled to the top with thousands of books, Misawa had nearly fainted. Once he'd recovered, he agreed to take the position, and then had promptly lost himself among the stacks.
As for Kenzan, he had stayed in the castle as well. The King and Queen had been intrigued by the idea of a human who was part dragon, and had been quick to see the advantages of having a man with more-than-human strength on their side. He had been offered a place on the palace guard, which he'd been happy to accept. Even now he was being trained in the use of swords, bows, and other weapons, a practice that was coming along slowly. He had to be very careful to control his blows, so that he did not hurt his instructors by accident. Nevertheless, it still took six men with blunted practice swords to overcome him when he was unarmed, so no one worried too much about his mastery of weapons.
Fubuki remained in the palace, but of course, that was where he belonged. He had gone home long enough to assure his parents that he was alive, well, happy, and enjoying being a court favorite. His parents could hardly scold him for earning favor with the royal family, so they had to forgive him for running away. They had been somewhat cheered by the fact that their daughter had finally agreed to take a husband and settle down, and while they were somewhat less than certain about her marrying a man below her rank, she had been quite firm about the whole thing, and they had finally relented. Manjoume, of course, was almost incoherent with joy. He was much more pleasant to those around him now that he was securely engaged.
And Juudai stayed for no special reason at all. Or rather, he stayed simply because he wanted to be with Shou, though he said he was just waiting to see the coronation with everyone else. When the grand day came when the King formally stepped down and placed his crown on his eldest son's head, Shou and Juudai were just two more uplifted faces in the crowd, cheering and clapping with the rest. It was only after the fuss had died down that they slipped back into the castle and watched Ryou toss aside his gorgeous purple coronation robes and gently set his crown on his desk.
"I'm glad that's over," he said.
"Congratulations, your majesty," said Juudai cheerfully.
"Congratulations," Shou agreed. "You're going to make a great king."
"Thank you," said Ryou. He looked at Shou seriously. "Are you sure you won't stay a little bit longer? We've been apart so long. You don't have to leave just yet."
"I know you'd be glad to let me stay," said Shou, "but I'm out of place in a palace. I wouldn't know what to do with myself here. Besides, I've kind of gotten to like traveling around. There are still lots of people out there and things to see. I'll come back often, though. I really want to get to know you and our mother and father." He laughed. "It still feels weird, calling the King and Queen my parents."
"You'll get used to it, I'm sure," said Ryou. "Well, I am very glad to have met you at last, and that you could be here for me today. I will look forward to your return."
"I'll at least be back in time to see Asuka's wedding," Shou promised. "You can look for me then. In the meantime..."
"In the meantime, there's a big world out there," said Juudai, "and we're going to see all of it!"
"Well, as much as we can!" said Shou. He paused a moment, finding it hard to know what to say. "Um... guess we'd better be going, then. Our horses are all loaded up and waiting for us, so... goodbye, Ryou. I'll see you soon."
"Goodbye, Shou. Until we meet again."
The two brothers embraced, possibly not without some tears shed, but they quickly recovered themselves. Fearing that he would embarrass himself if he stayed any longer, Shou slipped out of the room with a final wave.
"You gonna be okay?" Juudai asked him, as they made their way to the stables.
Shou sniffled. "I'll be fine. It's hard to believe I could miss someone I only just met a few days ago, but..."
"But he's still your brother," said Juudai, "and your parents are still here, and you're going to miss them anyway."
"Right," said Shou. He managed to smile. "But you're my brother, too. And I meant it when I said I don't belong here."
He opened the door that led out of the castle, and took a deep breath of the fresh outdoor air.
"I'm ready to go," he said.
Juudai grinned. "So am I."
The two of them walked together to where two horses had been readied for them, and they mounted up and rode out of the castle grounds. Shou felt his spirits lift as he looked out at the road stretching ahead of them. It was just as Juudai said: there was a big world out there, and he was ready to go see it.
What he did not see was a large tabby cat trotting watchfully behind them.