The prince's traveling party could not go any further. This was problematic, because whatever the prince wanted, he inevitably got, or else someone was punished for it, and in this case, it was shaping up to be the latter. The prince's prize horse, a glorious creature with a jet-black coat, had mysteriously taken ill, and not even the prince's horsemaster could determine what had happened to it. All efforts to cure it had come to nothing, and the prince was stubbornly refusing to go on without it. The horsemaster glared at the offending animal, and refrained from cursing with a massive effort of will.
Suddenly, the downcast horse raised its head and pricked its ears forward, and even gave a small whicker, as if greeting a friend. Following the horse's gaze, the horsemaster could see a man walking up the dusty road, and he was surely a stranger. He was tall and thin, but moved purposefully, like someone with authority. His feet were encased in a pair of tall leather boots, and he wore a hat with a shady brim, but his most striking feature was that he seemed to be carrying a large scaly animal on his back. The horsemaster stared. The prince's horse was bred and trained to stay calm in nearly any situation, but it still shouldn't have been reacting to the sight of a strange man with a predatory reptile in tow as though it had just seen its favorite person.
The stranger walked past the rest of the prince's entourage without giving them a second look, and stopped directly in front of the horsemaster. He flashed a winning smile.
"Looks like you've got a bit of a problem," he said by way of greeting, tipping his hat. He spoke in an accent that carried hints of somewhere very far away. "Mind letting me have a try?"
"Who are you?" the horsemaster asked suspiciously. Up close, he could see that the man was missing an eye, or at least was wearing a lot of bandages covering the place where the eye ought to be. The horsemaster suspected that he was probably some sort of ruffian. And he was carrying a... a... some sort of dragon? How could you trust someone like that?
"The name's Jim. Jim Crocodile Cook," said the stranger, flashing another one of those easy grins. "I'm a traveling Earth Wizard. You fine folks are from out of town, aren't you?"
"Ah - yes," said the horsemaster, trying to handle this sudden shift in the conversation. He supposed being an Earth Wizard might explain the dragon-creature, but... "We're from the kingdom of Seawake, many miles from here."
"Yes, I know Seawake," said Jim. He had turned his attention to the horse, scratching its ears with one hand while he investigated its eyes and mouth. The horse put up with this treatment far better than it ever did when the horsemaster tried it. "A coastal kingdom. Not as many trees and plains as you get around here. I expect you've been letting this beauty graze a bit?"
The horsemaster agreed, grudgingly, that he had. Jim nodded.
"I expect he's gotten into a patch of dustweed. Nasty stuff, that is," said Jim. "It doesn't grow in your part of the world, but it can have this effect on livestock sometimes. It'll wear off in a day or two if you don't let him eat any more of it, but I've got a powder that will set him right a lot faster."
So saying, he set down the pack he'd been carrying slung over one shoulder (it occurred to the horsemaster to think that this man must be quite strong to carry all that plus his beast) and began rummaging through it. He pulled out a wax-paper packet, a canteen, and a bowl, which he filled with water and the contents of the packet.
"Here you are, my friend," he said to the horse, offering the dish of water and herbs. "Drink this up and you'll feel better."
The horsemaster started to say that the horse wasn't going to drink anything just because someone told him to, but before he could object, the horse obediently began slurping up the concoction until the bowl was licked dry.
"There you go," said Jim, smiling at the horsemaster. "Just give him about a half an hour to let that take effect, and he should be good as new. And don't let him browse around here anymore without making sure that what he's eating is safe."
"Hm," said the horsemaster doubtfully. "I suppose you're going to want payment for this."
Jim scratched his head. "I hadn't thought about it. But if you really want to pay me, you can give me some information. It's been a while since I've been in these parts. Tell me, what's the news around here?"
The horsemaster relaxed as he decided that this strange man probably wasn't looking for money or trouble, after all. "All I know is that we're here because of the princess. Our prince wants to try his hand at winning her."
"Well, that's good for him," said Jim with a chuckle, "but not much to do with me."
"It is if you want to try it yourself," said the horsemaster. "That's the rule - any marriageable man, from near or far, noble or common, rich or poor, is entitled to a chance."
"That would be good news, if I wanted to marry a princess," Jim mused.
The horsemaster shrugged. "Don't we all?"
"So what does this chance involve? Fighting in tournaments or something like that, I suppose."
"Nobody knows," said the horsemaster. "The rules are that if you want to marry the princess, you have to pass three tests. There's one test given every day, and they keep changing them every time, so no one ever takes the same test as someone before them. If you pass all three tests, the princess is yours."
"That sounds straightforward," said Jim. "Well, good luck to you and your prince. I think I'll be moving along now. Take care - and keep this horse out of trouble!"
He gave the horse a final pat, tipped his hat to the horsemaster again, and began ambling up the road.
"So, what do you think, Karen?" he said to his scaly companion. "How do you like the idea of meeting this princess?"
The crocodile gave a mutter.
"I didn't say I was planning to," he said. "I just said I was thinking about meeting her. You don't get a chance to marry a princess every day of the week. Be a shame to turn it down and then be sorry later." He sighed and stopped walking long enough to start prying one of his boots off and fish a rock from his shoe. "And much as I like traveling, it would be nice to have a comfortable place to put my head at night, and never to have to worry about where my next meal is coming from."
Karen muttered again, and Jim laughed.
"You're right, you're right. But I could do a lot more good as a princess's consort than I could just wandering the countryside looking for people to help. I'd have some authority to get things done on a grand scale. That would be worth something."
Karen offered another opinion.
"Well, of course," he said. "That's why we have to go visit her, yes? If she's not a decent enough sort, I wouldn't marry her if she were the sole ruler of the world. But if she's pleasant company..."
The crocodile gave a sullen grumble, and Jim reached back to pat her reassuringly.
"Don't you worry - you'll always be my first love," he told her. "You know me - I just want to see what sort of challenges they've come up with."
Karen made a low gurgle in her throat, and Jim grinned. It wasn't often he got to hear his crocodile laugh. He shoved his boot back on and started walking swiftly up the road, his long legs propelling him steadily towards the capital city, the castle, and the princess.
"...and stay out!" shouted Advisor Chronos, and slammed the door firmly behind the departing Prince of Treehaven.
"I could have done that, you know," said Ryou, the captain of the guard.
"I apologize. I seem to have forgotten my place," said Chronos, giving him a stiff bow, "but I could not stand another minute of his disrespect. I'm so sorry you had to go through that, Princess."
Months before the wandering Earth Mage was set to make his entrance, the prince and princess had been sitting in their grand parlor, watching the denouement of the most recent visit from one of their neighbors. The king of Treehaven had arrived for a visit of state with his son in tow, saying that he wished to improve relations between the two distant kingdoms. It had turned out that the relation the king was looking for had been to marry his son off to the lovely princess, and it appeared that the idea that she might say no had never crossed the prince's mind. He had, in fact, been so sure of his welcome that he had made a few advances that the princess herself (and most everyone else affiliated with her) had been thoroughly affronted by, leading to the scene that had just played out.
"I suppose it can't be helped," said Fujiwara. He could afford to be sanguine about the whole thing - most people rarely noticed the dark-clad man with his drowsy eyes and dreamy smile who lurked in the corners of the rooms. The court magician had an affinity for shadow magic that tended to make him blend into the scenery unless he actually wanted to be noticed, and he had a distaste for commotion. He had been left out of the whole situation.
"There should be a way to help it," said the prince firmly. "I want my sister to find a good husband as much as anyone, but this is ridiculous."
Princess Asuka glanced at her brother. "Well, I wouldn't say no to having fewer annoyances like this to deal with. But if you think you're going to arrange something for me, it's out of the question."
"Well, we must do something," said Chronos. "This is getting out of hand. Princess, I know you value your independence, but you are of marriageable age now, and these requests aren't going to stop. For the good of the kingdom, you should start thinking about finding a suitable husband."
"For the kingdom and my sanity," she said, making a wry face.
"It'll be okay," said her brother. "Not everybody out there is like that jerk."
"Oh, Fubuki," she said, "I don't even know anyone outside this castle. How am I supposed to find someone I actually want to marry?"
"If it were me," said Fujiwara thoughtfully, "I would arrange a test."
Asuka looked interested. "What sort of test?"
"A test of character," Fujiwara elaborated. "Something that would make people reveal their true personality."
"Better to make it more than one," said Ryou. "Passing one could be a fluke."
"We'll make it three," said Chronos decisively. With a nod to Asuka, he added, "Terms and conditions to be decided by her highness, of course."
Asuka smiled slowly. "So, you're saying that I can dream up any test I want?"
"Hey, no fair making up something that can't be passed," said Fubuki.
"All right, all right," she said. She gave him a look. "Why don't you have to go through all this? You're the prince - you should have to get married for the sake of the kingdom, too."
"I will, someday," he said. "But I know lots of people. You're solitary. I'll tell you what - when you find someone you want to marry, I'll choose someone, too. Then we can have a double wedding. It'll be fun!"
"So you say," she said. "All right. Just one thing - If I'm going to be choosing my own husband, I want to be able to choose whoever I want. That means everyone from princes to commoners should be given the same chance. Agreed?"
Fubuki nodded. "That's the way it should be - a proper love match."
"It will be as the prince and princess wish," said Advisor Chronos. "I'll have the announcements made at once."
And so, within a few days, the word went out to all the surrounding kingdoms that the princess would marry whoever could pass her three tests, and many came by land and sea to try to win her hand. But none were successful, and after a time, some people even began to think that the tests were designed to be impossible, and that the princess would remain unwed forever. And that was how things stood when a dusty Earth Wizard wandered into town.
Jim raised the brim of his hat to look up at the royal palace. It had been some time since his wandering had brought him this way, but he could see that not a lot had changed. The last time he had been there, the king had still been alive. After he had died, it had generally been expected that the prince would take over the kingdom's rulership, but the prince had wanted the title to pass to his more practical-minded sister. There had been such an outcry over the idea of the idea of a woman - not even the firstborn - inheriting the throne that the two had arranged a compromise. Both of them ruled over the kingdom jointly, neither of them assuming the title of king or queen. Looking around now, Jim decided that they seemed to be taking good care of things. The townspeople all looked well-fed and well-dressed. Business seemed to be booming, and the streets were clean and in good repair.
The door to the palace was particularly impressive, he realized, as he walked closer to it. He found himself wondering if anyone was really going to let a dusty traveler carrying a crocodile inside this beautiful building. He could, of course, prove that he really was an Earth Wizard, but would they let him have the chance? He had already made up his mind not to even bother if they rejected him before ascertaining his qualifications. As he approached, a guard addressed him.
"State your business," he said.
"I'm interested in this challenge I've heard about," Jim replied. "Something about marrying a princess..."
The guard nodded. "Head on in, then. Ring the bell and ask for Advisor Chronos. He'll tell you the rules."
"It's that easy?" asked Jim, rather surprised.
"Getting in is easy," said the guard. "Actually passing the tests is something else again."
Jim saw the wisdom in that, so he bid the guard good day and walked through the door into the palace. In the entry hall, he found a bell-pull, and, since no one was around, he gave it a pull and was rewarded by a musical chime. While he waited for a response, he looked around. If he had been expecting something imposing, he was sorely mistaken. The hall was built of white stone with high arched ceilings and tall windows that let in shafts of light from all angles, giving it a bright and airy feeling. There were also a number of chairs arranged along the side of the wall, which Jim presumed were meant for the comfort and convenience of visitors. Since no one seemed to want to wait on him, Jim picked out a comfortable spot, unbuckled Karen's harness, and dropped into a seat to rest a bit.
That was where he was when the advisor finally arrived - sprawled in a chair with his long legs crossed and his arms folded behind his head, with the brim of his hat tipped down over his eyes. He stirred and sat up at the sound of footsteps, and flashed one of his winning smiles at the courtier.
"G'day," he said casually. "I was told to ask for an Advisor Chronos."
"That would be me," said the advisor stiffly. "Should I take it you're here about the princess's challenges?"
"That's right," said Jim, getting to his feet.
"Very well. Your name, please?"
"Jim Cook, Earth Wizard," said Jim. "And this is my familiar, Karen."
"I... see," said Chronos, looking askance at the crocodile. "Very well. I will explain the rules. You will be presented with three challenges, to be issued one per day. You do not have to take all of them on consecutive days, but of course, the longer you put them off, the more likely that someone else will solve them all before you. If you wait more than one week without attempting a challenge, your application will be withdrawn. Once you have agreed to accept a challenge, withdrawal will be considered a failure. If you fail any of your challenges, you will be permanently disqualified from attempting any further tests. Is all of this clear?"
"Clear as crystal," Jim assured him.
"Well, then. Today's challenge is still in progress, if you wish to participate..."
"No, I think I'll bide my time for a little while," said Jim. "If you'll pardon my saying so, I haven't even set eyes on the lady, yet. Marriage lasts a long time. I don't want to get into something and find out it's not what I wanted."
Chronos gave him a shrewd look, but all he said was, "In that case, I will have someone prepare a room for you. You may join the rest of the applicants at dinner this evening."
"Thank you. I'm sure I'll enjoy it," said Jim.
The advisor handed him over to a pair of servants in matching uniforms, who whisked him off to a guest room that appeared to have been set aside for the purpose of entertaining applicants. Jim noticed that there appeared to be several other guests there, judging from the glimpses he could catch through open doors.
I wonder what sort of tests these are, he mused, that so many people have tried and failed...
Well, he would worry about that later. Right now, he needed to get ready to meet the princess. He looked himself over in the mirror that had been provided in his room, and decide that this would probably require a bath. He did his best to stay tidy, but when he was wandering the great outdoors for long spans of time, it was hard to avoid becoming sweaty and dusty.
"I'll bet you'd like a bath too, wouldn't you?" he asked Karen. The crocodile naturally didn't disagree. Jim grinned and rang for a servant to fetch hot water. It was nice to have someone else worry about his needs for a change.
When the dinner hour arrived, Jim was clean and comfortable, dressed in fresh clothing in honor of his first visit with royalty. His new outfit was more or less like the old one, consisting of simple, sturdy traveling clothes. His only concession was to set aside his cloak and to ask someone to clean his boots for him. Thus attired, he allowed himself to be escorted to the lesser dining room, where the royal family held their meals when they weren't entertaining large crowds.
To Jim, it still looked like a large crowd. Seated at the far end of the table was a good-looking young man of perhaps eighteen or nineteen, easily distinguishable by his easy grin and the gold circlet that crowned his head. On one side of him was a man in a dark military uniform, his abundance of badges and gold trim identifying him as someone of rank - probably a general or commander, if he was seated next to the prince. On the other side was an unassuming dark-clad fellow who gave off an air of no importance, but Jim was mage enough to know better, and recognized this as a fellow wizard. Next to the soldier was Advisor Chronos. Further along the line were a number of other people that Jim guessed by their clothing were courtiers of lower rank. Beyond them, things became more interesting. There were a jumble of people of varying ages and stations, ranging from boys barely into their teens to men with graying hair, dressed in every style imaginable.
Then, at the very end of the table, there was the princess. Jim was too worldly-wise to think that the ideal of the beautiful princess was anything but a fairy tale, something invented by people who needed to believe that there were perfect people in the world, somewhere. He had believed quite firmly that the princess he was going to see would be at most ordinarily attractive, and quite possibly rather plain. There was no denying, though, that this princess was a beauty. Even dressed as she was in a plain blue dress and a simple pearl circlet adorning her hair, she radiated an air of quiet dignity that made her appear far more elegant that some people he'd seen who draped themselves in silks and jewels. The tilt of her chin suggested a strong personality; her clear amber eyes hinted at a keen mind. Jim took a place a few seats down from her (all the best seats were already taken) and watched her as she held court over the hopeful applicants. Whenever one of them spoke to her, she would listen attentively, and when she spoke, her voice was gentle, her tone measured and thoughtful.
Now, that's a proper princess, he thought with approval. Much better than the spoiled brat he was afraid he would be dealing with.
Even as he was thinking that, she leaned forward a bit so that she could see him better.
"I haven't seen you before," she remarked. "Did you just arrive?"
"About an hour or so ago," he replied. He tipped his hat. "Jim Cook, at your service. I'm an Earth Wizard."
"Really? I'll have to introduce you to Fujiwara later. I'm sure you two will enjoy comparing notes," she replied, giving him a warm smile. "And who is your friend?"
"This is Karen, my familiar," he replied. "I hope you don't mind her joining us for dinner."
"Of course not," she replied. She flagged down a servant. "Excuse me, could you possibly bring a platter or something of the sort for Mr. Cook's friend to use?"
He flashed her a grin, very pleased by her response. Anyone who got along with Karen scored points in his book.
"Call me Jim," he told her. "We're all friends here, right?"
A few of the other men at the table looked as though they weren't sure they wanted to be his friend. They seemed a bit annoyed by this display of favoritism, or at least consideration, towards this newcomer. Jim got the feeling that the only thing that was stopping them from objecting openly was fear of offending the princess and fear of Karen's sharp teeth.
"A wizard, huh?" said one of the other young men near him. He was one of the well-dressed ones, a noble or perhaps a wealthy merchant. He had very dark hair and eyes but the pale skin of one who rarely has to venture out in the sun. "You'd better not be using any fancy tricks to get ahead."
"There will be no tricks," said Princess Asuka firmly. "The tests are designed in such a way that a person may use whatever talents or resources they have. He is welcome to use his magic if he thinks it will help, just as you are welcome to use your family fortune, Manjoume."
The young man called Manjoume bowed his head, looking rather put out. Asuka just smiled.
"Let's enjoy our meal," she said. "There will be plenty of time for competition later."
"So, what are these tests all about?" asked Jim. "I suppose you want us to slay a dragon?"
"No," said Asuka. "We tried that once. The first person we sent got along so well with the dragon that he decided to stay there with her instead."
Jim laughed. "Well, I can see how that might happen," he said, reaching down to stroke Karen's head fondly.
"I think he's probably happiest with his dragon, anyway," said Asuka. "He didn't seem like the type who would want to stay in one place for very long. But after that, we decided we had better try something other than dragons."
"Like what?" asked the man she'd addressed as Manjoume.
She smiled. "You'll just have to wait and see."
The meal continued in relative peace. Jim had to admit that it was better than what he usually got while he was traveling. He concentrated his energies on enjoying the food while he listened in on what everyone else was saying. In particular, he paid particular attention to Asuka, as she fielded questions and comments from her suitors. He was impressed by how calm she remained in the face of so much attention.
I wonder how long this has been going on? he mused, as he picked at his dessert. If it were me, I would have given up on the whole thing within a week. She must have the patience of a saint.
After the meal was over, a musician and a juggler were brought in to entertain the guests, but Jim excused himself and returned to his room. He had been walking since before sunrise that morning, and felt no inclination to join the others who would be drinking and merrymaking well into the night. He wanted time to rest, and to think.
For a spur of the moment decision, this is turning out to be quite an undertaking, he thought. He had been anticipating an interesting challenge - even considering simply turning down the prize if he happened to pass all the obstacles. It was nice to dream about marrying a beautiful princess and living in luxury, but it was another thing to arrive and actually meet the princess and discover that she was not only beautiful but apparently also gracious, intelligent, and generally admirable, well...
When you discovered you actually rather liked the princess, things got a little more complicated.
The next day, the candidates were assembled in the castle courtyard, herded there by a fleet of rather harried young servants who obviously wanted to get them all there as quickly as possible so they could be done with the job and get on to other things. Jim didn't mind. He'd awoken at his usual hour, and was therefore wide awake and refreshed when he was summoned. He was rather amused to note that several of them were still yawning and bleary-eyed, and a few seemed to be nursing hangover headaches. Asuka, he noted with approval, looked perfectly comfortable with the early start. Her brother was with her as well, wearing an expression that suggested he was looking forward to some good fun.
"Is everyone here?" asked Asuka, surveying the ranks.
"Nearly everyone," Advisor Chronos replied. "A few of them chose to skip today's challenge. But everyone who agreed to take it is here."
"Good," she said. "In that case, we can begin. Is everyone paying attention? Thank you." She walked into the center of the courtyard. "Today's challenge is simple. All you have to do is find the most valuable thing in the kingdom and bring it to me. You have until sunset tonight. You are permitted to access any part of the castle you would like to search. Any questions?"
"What if it's something too big to move?" someone asked.
Asuka smiled. "I don't think you should have any problems."
The crowd dispersed, most of them making a beeline for the royal treasury. Jim lingered, looking thoughtful.
"Well?" asked Asuka. "Aren't you going to go with them? You know if you forfeit now, you won't get to try again."
"I'm not going to forfeit," he said. "I'm formulating a strategy."
"Oh. Well, I suppose that's all right, then," she said, smiling. "Just don't take too long. You never know when someone might figure out the answer, and then where would you be?"
"Nobody's solved one of your riddles so far," he pointed out. "I think I can risk it."
"In that case," she replied, "perhaps you'd like me to give you a tour of the castle? I don't have any other pressing engagements."
"Now that, I would like," he answered with a smile.
Asuka looked back over her shoulder at Fubuki. "Brother, we're going to take a walk. Do you want to come?"
"I'm good, thanks," said Fubuki, waving her onward. "You two have a good time. I'll take care of things while you're out."
"Thank you," she answered. She fell into step alongside Jim, who politely offered her his arm.
"Do you have a garden here?" he asked. "I think Karen and I would both be happiest if we were outside."
"Of course! It's quite impressive - I'm sure you'll like it." She took his arm and began leading him away.
Fubuki stood and watched a moment, a smile playing across his face.
"Well, this is interesting," he said. With a bounce in his step, he walked out of the courtyard.
Meanwhile, Asuka was sizing up her guest. She still wasn't quite sure what to make of him - this was the first time anyone had turned up wanting to take the tests who was apparently just doing it all for the fun of it. She wasn't sure she trusted him. Was he just trying to get into her good graces by pretending he wasn't interested in her as a prize? Or was he really just that bored?
"So what does an Earth Wizard usually do?" she asked him. "When he's not competing for the hand of a princess, of course."
"I haven't started competing, yet," he said cheerfully. "But to answer your question... an Earth Wizard preserves the land. If a patch of earth has been over-farmed, or polluted by war or dark magic, I put it right again. I resolve conflicts between humans and wildlife. I try to keep people from using up too much of the local resources or killing off all the predators."
"It sounds like a full-time job," Asuka commented.
"It is. But I'd like to think it's worth it."
"I'm sure it is," she said. "It's probably not that different from trying to run a kingdom - trying to make sure everyone has enough without people fighting about it."
"You're probably right," Jim replied. He grinned and gestured with his free hand. "You have better accommodations, though."
She laughed a little. "There is that. But you at least get to travel and see things. I hardly ever get to go outside the city."
"I'd be happy to tell you anything you want to hear," he told her. "I've been everywhere a man can go on his own two feet."
"I'd love to hear about it," she replied.
"I wouldn't mind hearing about you, too," he replied. "I've never known any royalty up close and personal. What do you do all day?"
"Try to keep the kingdom in one piece," she admitted. "It's been a lot of work just convincing people that I'm fit to be considered co-ruler with my brother. If I didn't have his support, I don't know what I would do."
"Your brother seems like a good sort," Jim said.
"He is - he's really the best," Asuka said. "He's the most gentle, caring person there is. No matter what happens, he never gets angry or loses his patience. He's always there to stand up for me or make me laugh."
"He must be invaluable to you," Jim murmured.
"I couldn't get by without him," said Asuka.
She led him through a large door and into the palace garden, and stood back to watch his expression of admiration.
"Not bad at all," he said. "I was expecting something more formal."
The garden had been designed as something less like an orderly display of flowers and plants, and more like an idealized wilderness, with a series of winding paths lined with flowering trees and shrubs, opening to small nooks filled with flower beds or fountains designed to look like natural springs. A few of the trees were plain now, but come autumn, Asuka knew, their leaves would change to fiery colors, so that the garden would be stunning even in the colder months.
"I come here a lot, to get away from all the court commotion," Asuka said.
"I can see why," Jim replied. "I approve. Do you mind if I let Karen wander around a bit?"
"Be my guest," she replied.
Jim unstrapped his animal companion from her place on his back, and left her contentedly splashing in one of the ornamental ponds, which fortunately contained no ornamental fish. Jim browsed among the plants, pausing here and there to give a particular blossom or leaf his scrutiny. Asuka smiled as he knelt to gently touch a cluster of tiny flowers.
He's definitely something else, she decided. The careful way he moved, his delicate touch - every move he made suggested that he truly cared about everything in that garden, and wouldn't have dared to hurt even a single blade of grass if he could help it. His hands looked calloused, capable and strong, but his inspections didn't so much as bruise a flower petal.
Jim wandered over to a climbing rose that stood against a wall, and leaned his head forward to better inspect it. It was still a bit too early in the year for roses, and the first buds were still tightly closed.
"Come over here and look at this," he said.
Curious, Asuka walked over to his side and peered at the rosebud. It looked perfectly ordinary to her, and she cast a curious look at Jim. He just grinned and stroked the bud gently.
"Hey, you beauty," he whispered to it. "Wake up, sleepyhead. Come out and show us your pretty face. I have a friend I want you to meet."
The bud opened with a slow movement that reminded Asuka for all the world of a yawn, as though the rose really were waking up from a deep sleep. The petals unfurled, and within seconds, Asuka was looking at a fully bloomed pink rose. Jim grinned.
"Roses," he said. "They're all vain as peacocks. Say a few nice words to them and they have to come out and show off. Or maybe that just works when you're a wizard."
"I've never tried it," Asuka admitted. "Perhaps I should."
"I'm sure if anyone could persuade a rose, it would be you," he said.
Asuka flushed lightly, and turned her head to hide the expression, instead holding the flower to her nose to breathe its scent.
"It really is beautiful," she said. "Thank you."
"My pleasure," Jim replied. He stroked the flower's petals. "All right, my beauty, it's just a little too cool out today for you. Go on back to sleep."
The rose obediently curled its petals and tucked itself back into a bud. Jim studied it for a moment, and then knelt down to murmur something to the plant's roots. Then, having said whatever was on his mind, he got back to his feet, dusted himself off, and continued his exploration of the garden.
"I'm surprised you didn't pick the flower and give it to me," said Asuka. "That's what a proper Prince Charming would have done."
"I never saw the romance in killing a flower," said Jim. "But I asked that one there to grow well for you. A little favor, in case I decide not to stick around."
"Oh!" she said, feeling chastened. "That's very kind of you... and I agree with you about the flower."
He smiled. "I know. You're a sensible lady."
"I think that's the best compliment I've gotten in a long time," said Asuka, smiling.
"I feel privileged - it's been a while since I've met someone I could say that to," said Jim.
He looked thoughtful for a moment, and Asuka found herself wondering what he was thinking.
I still don't understand you, she thought. You aren't competing, but you act like you like me... What are you up to?
To fill the awkward silence, she said, "Can I ask a personal question?"
"Be my guest," he said. "I don't have anything to hide."
"I was just wondering... what happened to your other eye?"
"Oh, that. I though you might ask about it, sooner or later," he said. She was pleased to see he didn't seem upset or self-conscious at all.
Much to her surprise, he took off his hat and began undoing the bandages that covered his face. She began to shy away - she really didn't want to see whatever had disfigured him to the point where he felt he had to hide it from everyone - but she realized that if he thought she could stand it, she didn't want to lower herself in his esteem by proving him wrong. She stood her ground, and was rewarded by a sight completely unlike what she had been expecting. Yes, there was a slight scar there, but instead of the empty socket she had been expecting, there was a milky blue sphere like a moonstone, surrounded by a setting of silvery metal.
"I got this as part of my mage training," he said. "My old eye, I lost in an accident a long time ago - I slipped off the edge of a cliff when I was just a boy. This eye, though, it sees a lot better than my old one. Ordinary eyes see only the surface of things; this eye can see into people's hearts."
"Why do you keep it covered?" Asuka asked.
"Because," Jim said, as he began winding the bandages back into place, "everyone has a few secrets in their hearts that were never meant for others to see. I don't like to invade their privacy that way unless I have a good reason. Besides," he added with a smile, "I don't really need it that much. It's just a shortcut. Watch someone long enough and pay attention, and you'll learn whatever you need to know."
Asuka raised her eyebrow. "You aren't curious what you'd see in me?"
"Like I said, I already know." He touched her chin gently, so that the were gazing into each other's faces. "You're a lovely young woman with a proud spirit, a keen mind, and a good heart. What else do I need to know?"
"You're a good man too," she answered.
They stood like that for a moment, standing inches apart, his fingers barely touching her face. Asuka felt supremely aware of her surroundings - of the chatter of birds, the soft splash of the fountain, the scent of the flowers, the warmth of the sun, the slight pressure of his hand on her skin. She was sure she could smell his scent, something that reminded her of pine needles and fresh earth.
Suddenly, the door to the garden burst open with a bang, and Fubuki came sweeping in with a companion at his side. Asuka jerked away with a start that could have almost been described as guilty, but in an instant she was as composed as ever.
"...and this is the garden," Fubuki was saying, waving his hands around grandly, as proud as though he'd planted it all himself. "Come over here and look at the fountains! They were put in by a world-class Water Mage, and there's a really big one in the middle where I like to - oh, Asuka, there you are! Come say hello!"
Asuka dutifully inclined her head toward the man who had been walking next to Fubuki. Jim, not to be outdone in courtesy, gave him and the prince a friendly wave.
"Manjoume here didn't feel ready for the games today," Fubuki continued, "so I'm giving him a tour."
"That's kind of you," said Asuka. "Jim was just telling me about the best way to grow roses."
Manjoume gave Jim a suspicious look. "Aren't you supposed to be solving today's challenge?"
"Oh, I solved that already," Jim replied offhandedly.
Everyone stared at him. Jim smiled. Taking Asuka by the hand, he led her forward to where Fubuki was standing, and placed her hand in her brother's.
"This is the most valuable thing in the kingdom, your highness," he said. "You told me yourself, your brother is invaluable to you, and nothing could be worth more than that."
There was a quiet moment. Then Fubuki began to laugh.
"How about that? Somebody finally got it right!" he said. "Good job! I had a feeling it might be you."
"I could have figured that out," said Manjoume sulkily.
"There's always tomorrow," Asuka reminded him.
"That's right. I might not be so lucky tomorrow," said Jim cheerfully. "Or the next day. Still two challenges to go."
"You watch," Manjoume insisted, "I'm going to win the next one!"
"So, what happens now?" asked Jim. "Does the rest of today's event get called off?"
"No," said Asuka, "they still have until the deadline to figure it out, if they can. Somehow, though, I don't think they will."
"Fair enough. So what do we do until then?" asked Jim.
"I could finish showing you around the garden," she suggested.
Fubuki grinned slyly. "Well, don't let us stop you! Come on, Manjoume! Let's go!"
"What? But-" Manjoume stammered.
"I want to show you my room! It's up in the east tower - it's got a great view of the city! And I've got a lute up there. Did you know I'm a musician? I could perform something I wrote..."
Asuka and Jim watched as Manjoume, bowled over by this outpouring of enthusiastic hospitality, was hauled away by Fubuki.
"Your brother certainly is enthusiastic," Jim observed.
"Tell me about it," Asuka agreed. She smiled. "You were right, though - I wouldn't trade him for anything."
"He's lucky, then," said Jim. "So... you said something about showing me the rest of this garden?"
"Right this way," she replied.
To Be Continued