When the princes heard that their aunt had received a Phoenix Letter they were concerned but accepting of the situation. After all, it wasn't her fault that something important (and most likely terrible) had occurred in their kingdom while they were in the Land of Darkness. It was most likely another violent protest against Witch Noi, although it could have been something different and equally serious. The princes were actually quite excited for this chance to go back home so soon, and they were all working together to figure out a way to avoid coming back.
When they learned that their aunt had already left for Jyotis they were considerably less understanding.
"What the hell was she thinking?" Kyouhei raged as he stomped on the ground like a five-year-old. Yuki was crying on the floor, having met a ghost earlier and deciding he "never wanted to see one ever again but now that he had to stay longer he definitely would and—" etcetera. Ranmaru was also crying, although this had more to do with being stuck in a castle with only three good-looking females, all of whom were uninterested and could kill him on a whim. Takenaga's crying was for the simplest reason—he was stuck in a castle filled with a bunch of scary things in the Land of Darkness.
"We wanna go home!" all four yelled in tandem. Kyouhei was the first to race out of the room, although the other three quickly got up and followed. They raced down the hall their room was on and then up another to reach the King's office. (They were all very thankful that the King's office was so close and that they didn't get lost looking for it.)
Kyouhei threw open the door and yelled, "King!"
The King finished signing a document (which requested more penicillin for a small town) and smiled coolly as she placed her quill back in the ink bottle. "Yes? Do you need something?"
Kyouhei's eyes narrowed, but he hesitated to say anything for fear of making the powerful woman very angry. He wanted to leave, but hadn't stopped to plan how he could make that happen before charging in to talk to the King. Now he felt kind of stupid.
Takenaga stepped forward with a sigh. "We were wondering if you had transportation for us to go home." Then, because the explanation We're afraid of this land and everything in it could be taken as offensive, he added, "We would like to join our Queen and help her with whatever event warranted the use of a Phoenix."
The King nodded her head slowly. "I see. I must apologize, but although I do have the means to bring you back to your homeland I cannot allow you to leave. The Queen left specific instructions for you four to stay here, both as a show of good faith and so that you learn how Rajanis live." She turned to a stack of papers off to the side, ignoring the four princes' gaping faces. "In fact, I have something planned that I would have told you tonight at dinner, but since you're already here. . . ." She pulled off the top paper and handed it to Takenaga. "I am sending you four, along with my two daughters and some guards, to visit some of Rajani's settlements. You can see my people and how they live, as compared to Jyotians."
Takenaga stared at the paper in his hands blankly. Yuki peeked over his shoulder. "Oh!" he exclaimed. "We're going to Grambie?"
The King gave a kinder smile to Yuki than she had to Kyouhei. "Yes. I thought you might enjoy a visit."
Yuki and Ranmaru squealed in fanboy-ish delight and started waxing poetic.
"Oh, think of the spa, with its mud baths and facials, manicures and pedicures" said Ranmaru with stars in his eyes.
Yuki continued. "And the food—three-tiered devil's chocolate cakes; crepes with strawberries, caramel, and whip cream; honey-glazed ham~!"
Kyouhei stared. "What are you—advertisers?"
The King sat back with a satisfied air and said, "Is that all? Or is there some other matter you wish to bring up?"
Takenaga read all the way down to the end of the page and realized some information was missing. "Yes. How long will this journey take?"
"As long as it needs to. I do not want to rush you, or make you stay longer than you'd like. This is just a simple way to get to know the Land of Darkness and its various species."
Takenaga nodded. He had another question: "Why are you sending us on a tour with your daughter and Witch Noi?" But he once again feared being rude, and, unknowing of the politics in the Land of Dark and how much he could get away with, bit the question back.
Sunako peeked into the kitchen. "Kasumi-san? Can I have a picnic basket with bread, salami, and cheese?"
The cook looked up from where she was slicing cucumbers and smiled. "Of course, dear. Just give me a moment." Kasumi slid the cucumber slices into a bowl filled with other slices of cucumbers and washed her hands before finding a basket and large patterned cloth. She took a loaf of bread out of the oven to cool and slid in some muffins before opening a cabinet and removing an already cool loaf of bread. As she went to the cold box to get some salami Sunako and Noi-chan entered the kitchen.
Noi-chan looked around for the others on the kitchen staff. "Where are Hideki-kun and Himeko-chan?"
Kasumi laughed. "Oh, I gave those two lovebirds a break. They were mooning over each other across the room. Besides, it's close to lunch. They won't be out too much longer than they usually are, and I can keep up here until they come back." She sliced off a thick piece of cheese and placed it in the basket next to the salami before handing over the whole basket to Sunako. "I don't suppose you'd want some wine or lemonade?"
Sunako added, "And some strawberries, too, please."
Thirty-two seconds later Sunako and Noi-chan were leaving the castle and ducking under gnarled black branches. Sunako carried the basket, as Noi-chan was wearing a dress and had to lift it up sometimes to step over logs. They didn't stick to the path, preferring to trek through the dead plants and creeping vines and carnivorous flowers. Noi-chan found the plants very creepy, but was not afraid of being eaten.
five years ago, she would have been. After all, she had actually been eaten by a plant. She'd been in the castle only a little while and didn't know about the dangers even plants could represent to those unprepared in the Land of Darkness. She had been alone in the garden and got her foot tangled in what she had initially thought was a harmless dark-green branch. Well, that thought changed quickly enough. The tree had picked her up by her ankle and plopped her in its hollow before closing up with a deafening CRUNCH. It was so fast, so sudden, and she'd been unable to get out using her scant knowledge of her own powers, and spent a while screaming and pounding on the bark ineffectually from the inside before the poison coating the inside had taken its toll and she'd fainted. She'd come to in Sunako's arms as the girl battled against three bushes and a very vicious daffodil.
Since then Sunako had grown a name for herself among the sentient plants in the garden, and no other plants had touched Noi-chan. She had grown less frightened as more and more time passed until she wasn't afraid to step more than a few steps into the garden surrounding the castle. Of course, it helped that the tree that had actually eaten her was destroyed.
Sunako was not very forgiving to those who hurt her friends.
Eventually they came upon a clearing on a slight rise with a large patch of thorny black flowers off to the side.
"Here," Sunako affirmed before spreading out the sheet on the ground next to the flowers. Noi-chan took out the napkins, glasses, and pitcher of lemonade carefully. Sunako dumped the food and knife onto the sheet before arranging it. She started slicing the bread. "What do you feel like today?"
Noi-chan stacked the slices of bread on napkins and tapped her chin. "I've been feeling off balance lately," she started slowly, "because of the Jyotians coming here. Maybe I should work on that."
Sunako sliced two pieces of cheese from the chunk. "Do you need the ruler?"
Noi-chan nodded as she watched Sunako chop off two pieces of meat from the salami log. "Would you Summon it?"
"You need the practice," Sunako said, not unkindly. She stacked the meat on top of the cheese and bread and reached for the small container of strawberry chunks that had been covered in sugar until the juice seeped out. She dumped the whole container into the lemonade and started swirling it around to mix it.
Noi-chan sighed. "Well, don't blame me if the ruler comes out in pieces."
Sunako poured the strawberry-lemonade into the glasses. "If that happens I'll put it back together."
Noi-chan nodded, took a deep breath in, let it out, in, out, and closed her eyes to concentrate. She focused first on a light brown object, long, thin, wooden, with little black marks on it in the shape of lines and numbers. Around her she could feel the few rulers in the castle calling out to her. She picked the one she was pretty sure was in her own room (although it may have been the one in Sunako's room since those rooms were right next to each other and it was hard to tell dimension or direction when she was not physically present) and concentrated.
Above the echoes of wood and rooms she could feel the Darkness. It was not comforting for her like it was for Sunako. Instead of helping her it hindered her Summoning, twining black tendrils with everything she could see and feel when what she truly needed to work magic was Light.
She grabbed for the ruler gently, even as the Dark drifted and tangled with her powers. It was trying to help her, in its own way, not knowing that it was only getting in the way. She avoided the strands as best she could and touched wood—Summoned—!
Noi-chan opened her eyes with a gasp to find herself looking at the sky. She must have leaned back while Summoning. She straightened up and accepted the strawberry-lemonade Sunako handed her. She searched for the ruler on the blanket folds in front of her and stared in despair.
"It's only three pieces this time," Sunako tried to comfort, "not splinters."
Noi-chan rubbed her eyes. "I'll never get this!" Tears of frustration appeared and she blinked severely. "I'm no better now than when I came here!"
"You are better," Sunako disagreed. "It doesn't take you as long to get things, or find things. And you're not killing people as fast now when you touch them. If you'd only let the darkness help you—"
"It won't work!" snapped Noi-chan. "I've already tried that!"
Sunako reached for the ruler and started melding the wood pieces back together. She knew, although she wasn't sure how, that the Dark could help Noi-chan. Maybe not as much as Light would, but it would definitely help. She wasn't sure what Noi-chan had done the first and last time she'd attempted to use the Dark to do something, but she'd done it wrong, and now she was afraid of ever trying again. The Dark itself couldn't answer Sunako's questions on what had happened. It was not, after all, an actual living creature. It was simply an energy that co-existed with those who could use it, unable to move unless someone wanted it to. It felt things, somehow. It knew what was going on, certainly. But it had no concept of deception or morals . . . or time. The past, present, and future were one and the same, and with Noi-chan it purred as if she were using it every day. Sunako could only guess that Noi-chan would one day use the Dark.
She only hoped that that day came soon.
"I . . . I'm sorry." Noi-chan laid her hand on Sunako's arm and bent down to peer up under Sunako's bangs and directly into her eyes. "I didn't mean to snap at you. I'm just . . . frustrated. About the ruler. And the princes."
"I know." Sunako nodded. "That's why I didn't snap back."
Noi-chan smiled. "Thanks."
"Welcome." Sunako handed her adopted sister a sandwich and they spent a few minutes chewing, drinking, and talking about inconsequential things.
"Alright." Sunako set aside her half-filled drink.
"Alright." Noi-chan dabbed at her lips with a napkin before setting it down. She held out her hand for the ruler and Sunako handed it to her. "Here I go!"
The thing about magic was that it was connected to the body. Only certain bodies could hold it, and of those bodies only certain types could use it. The body was the key. If it hurt, the magic hurt and didn't work as well. If it was in prime condition, the magic worked as well as it ever would for that person. And little stuff people did to their bodies changed how magic reacted to them. Eating mints would make spells about the cold easier, or bring a scent of peppermint into the room when Summoning wind. If you sat down your magic would move more sluggishly than if you were standing upright, and if you went so far as to lay down then the magic became more sluggish still.
And if you balanced a ruler on your nose then your body would be busy balancing and the magic would become balanced, too.
Noi-chan tilted up her head and placed the ruler on her nose. She stayed still, sometimes wobbling but never fully dropping the small wood piece. Sunako picked up her unfinished sandwich and chewed slowly and silently, allowing Noi-chan to concentrate.
Suddenly there was a clattering and Sunako and Noi-chan started. Noi-chan stared woefully at where the ruler fell on the ground and sighed as Sunako stood up and turned towards the winged bone-human. It clattered its teeth and held out a small sheet of paper towards Sunako. She frowned as she took it and read it.
"My mother wants to see us."
AN: "Grambie" is a made-up word.
Also, this chapter is twice the length of most of the previous chapters. Whoo!
Also also, I'm sorry for this chapter taking so long. It's been changed many times, and I wanted to complete the next chapter before posting this one so that I could make sure that I wouldn't make any more changes, but I think this one is finally done and it's been forever since I last updated so here it is! Again: Sorry for taking so long!