The next day, Fujiwara could be seen out on the castle's drilling ground, carrying a bundle of wires. The soldiers who usually used the empty lot for training stood by, watching with mystification and a bit of amusement as the royal wizard walked around the field, planting bits of wire and fashioning them into arches. He measured out the distance carefully, moving things a few inches this way or that, as though the positioning of his wire loops was of incredible significance. All the same, everyone agreed that what he finally ended up constructing looked like nothing more than and oversized collection of croquet hoops.
Fujiwara seemed to find them pleasing. He stood back for a few moments, admiring his work, strolling around so that he could look at them from all angles. He had created what appeared to be a series of tunnels, springing from a single beginning and ending in a splay of passages that opened up on the other end, so that from above the whole thing would have looked rather like a pitchfork.
"Perfect," said Fujiwara, nodding.
"What are you making?" asked one of the soldiers.
"A maze," Fujiwara replied.
"That's no kind of a maze," said the soldier. "You can see right through it! And even if you couldn't, it doesn't lead anywhere but out!"
Fujiwara smiled. "It's bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside."
"Are you sure?"
"When I'm done with it, yes."
He took a leather sack and began pouring a trail of what appeared to be sand on the ground, drawing lines from the entrance to the maze to each of the exits, and then all along the outer edges, murmuring to himself in a low, musical tone. From time to time, the air seemed to glitter around him, and someone looking very carefully might have seen the faint image of a noble man with a crown of laurels on his head and a spread of broad wings at his back. His hands moved as though he were arranging something like sheets of fabric around the maze, though there was nothing that the eye could see.
Then Fujiwara straightened up and made a swift movement like the knotting of a string, shouting one last word of command, and the maze suddenly went dark. Outside the metal hoops, the sun continued to shine brightly, but within them, there was nothing but a tunnel of darkness, black as the night sky.
"Perfect," said Fujiwara. "Now we'll see how easy it is to find your way out." He turned to the onlookers. "Would one of you please run and tell the princess that the next challenge is ready?"
The soldier he had been speaking to took off like a shot - perhaps a little uncomfortable by seeing the normally retiring mage using so much of his power in broad daylight. Fujiwara just smiled the contented smile of someone who has done a tricky job well, and settled down in the cool shadows against the wall of the castle. That was a lot more work than he had thought it would be.
Within a few moments, he had recovered his composure, and the princess with her various retainers had arrived. So, too, had the day's challengers, many of them newcomers, and looking rather dismayed that their first task would be such a forbidding one. There was something unsettling about that smooth band of darkness sitting out in the open, defying all laws of nature. No one really wanted to go near it.
"It looks like it's time for us to start," said Fujiwara. He got to his feet and walked over to the "forked" end of the maze. "Would everyone gather over here where they can hear me, please? Thank you. Allow me to explain the rules.
"Everyone - every sentient creature that has ever lived or will live - has darkness within its heart. Some have more, some have less, but nothing is ever completely without it. Only a man of strong will can face the darkness within himself and master it. Normally, during the daylight hours, we keep ourselves too busy to pay attention to the darkness in our own hearts. It is only at night that we are left alone to dwell on our thoughts and fears. What I have created here is a patch of night. On its own, it contains nothing. What you find there is only what you bring to it. Your task is to allow the princess to lead you from one end to the maze to the other. If you lose your grip on her hand and wander away, you would come out one of these many exits on either side. Only those who manage to hold fast the entire time will make it to the true exit in the center. Princess, this is for you..."
Fujiwara produced a candle from his pocket, and blew on the unlit wick. A small blue flame appeared on it.
"As long as you are carrying this, you will see your way clearly," he told her. "Be careful that you don't drop it. Now," he added, turning to the audience, "who wants to go first?"
"I will," said Jim, stepping forward.
"No, I think not," said Ryou. "You've won two challenges already. Let someone else have a chance."
"Fair enough," said Jim. "I can go last, then. Let everyone else have a chance."
Not everyone seemed pleased by this idea - it was clear that at least some people were hoping that he would go first and give them something to gauge the danger by. There was some uncomfortable muttering before Manjoume stepped forward.
"All of you stop whining. I'll go first," he said. "Unless someone has any objections?"
"Be my guest," said Fujiwara.
Asuka offered Manjoume her hand, which he took with a blush on his cheeks. He stared resolutely ahead of him as she led him into the dark corridor. There was a long moment of silence as everyone waited to see what would happen.
Manjoume walked back out the door he'd gone through. He stood blinking in puzzlement, staring at the field in front of him as though he'd never seen it before.
"What just happened?" he demanded. "I was... and then I... how'd I get out here?"
"Obviously you didn't want to get to the other side enough," said Fujiwara mildly.
Manjoume opened his mouth to say something, and then abruptly shut it.
"You're probably right," he agreed. "All right, you clowns, I proved it's not dangerous. Next!"
There followed a steady procession of hopeful contenders, escorted one after the other into the maze by the patient princess. Jim relaxed in the shadow of the castle wall, watching the event with an air of detached interest. Actually he was quite intrigued by the whole thing. He was a mage, after all, and he was rather impressed by Fujiwara's work. Even if he couldn't pass this ordeal, it would be interesting to have a professional chat with him later and ask him exactly how he'd done it, even though Jim doubted his own abilities would be able to duplicate it. Another part of him was watching the applicants as they stumbled in and out of the dark corridor. Some of them came back out the way they came in, while others came out the left fork or the right one. It made Jim wonder if there was any significance to the turns they took. Many of them appeared thoughtful as they exited; some were frightened or crying; a few even looked disappointed to find themselves outside the tunnel.
Now, what are you seeing in there that makes you want to go back in?
At last, the candidates had been sifted through and left to stand, defeated, on the other side of the maze to await the final contender. Jim took a breath and began walking towards the entrance. It stood before him, blank and uninviting and utterly inscrutable.
"If you would like," said Fujiwara, "I will watch your familiar for you until you return. The magic will affect her too, otherwise, and she won't like it."
"Thanks, mate. That's decent of you," said Jim.
He undid the straps of Karen's harness and left her at the side of the wizard. He considered it a good sign that she seemed to trust him and showed no signs of wanting to wander away.
"I'll be back in a bit, my girl," he assured her, giving her a pat on the head. Then, feeling slightly defenseless, he walked over to Asuka's side.
"Ready?" she asked him.
He gave her a smile. "I guess we'll see."
She nodded, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze, and together they stepped into the darkness.
It was instantly black - the most complete blindness Jim had ever imagined. He felt his eyes straining for even the faintest hint of light, and his pulse raced from the animal panic of being unable to see anything at all. But Auska's hand was still safely in his, and she could see the way, so he followed trustingly behind her.
Then, suddenly, she was gone. Jim blinked and looked around wildly for her, and realized that he could see again, but he was not standing outside the maze as he would have expected. He was on a road, looking ahead at a fork in the path. Off to one side, he could see rolling hillsides, dotted with graceful trees. Flowers bloomed there, and animals roamed peacefully. It was the kind of place where he could have happily spent hours, or days, pleasantly occupied with admiring the flora and fauna. On the other side was and equally beautiful landscape, but one that filled him with an inexplicable sort of terror. The landscape was made of crystal, dotted here and there with tufts of grass like long white fur. The trees that grew there were pink and orange, even on their trunks, and moved of their own volition, even getting up and trundling ponderously away when they wanted a change of light. The birds that flew overhead had four wings and long trailing tails, and gave calls like the rippling of a harp. He had never seen or even imagined a place that could look like that, and the knowledge that the world he thought he had understood could be so unfamiliar to him filled him with doubt. What sort of Earth Wizard was he when he couldn't even begin to understand this...?
Then he shook his head, annoyed by his own foolishness. What sort of Earth Wizard walked away when there was something new to be learned? Even if it meant admitting he'd been wrong about everything he'd ever thought he'd known, he would choose a lifetime of relearning it over a lifetime of ignorance. He took a step forward.
The landscape vanished. Now he was in a city, not unlike the one he had just been in. In fact, as he looked more closely at his surroundings, he realized it was almost exactly the same - he could even recognize a few of the buildings, and see the spires of the castle in the distance. The difference was that where the other city had been clean and well cared for, this one was dirty and crumbling, with offal littering the streets and walls blackened with soot and grime. Even while he was still taking all this in, Jim became aware of the sound of a commotion.
Fortunately, his instinct for trouble served him well, and he took the noise as a cue to get out of sight. Ignoring both the garbage and the stench, he ducked down an alley and hid behind a moldy rain barrel. A few seconds later, a mob of ragged people, too dirty and bedraggled to even be identified as male or female, came storming up the street, shouting and waving crude weapons and torches. They went on for a long time - Jim guessed there must have been nearly a hundred of them, all of them rushing toward the castle. They were making too much noise for him to catch every word of what they were saying, but he knew the gist of it. He'd heard it before, in crumbling kingdoms: everything was going wrong, and the common people were blaming their rulers.
Wait. If this is the kingdom I just left, than the rulers would be...
Forgetting the danger, he leapt from his hiding place and began running as fast as he could towards the palace, determined to reach it before the mob did. He didn't understand what was going on yet, but one thing was clear in his mind: he was not about to let anything happen to Asuka.
The only problem was, the mob was already ahead of him. Jim skidded to a halt as they turned to him with angry glowers.
"There he is!" someone shouted. "Get him!"
Jim realized that maybe he had more than one problem, after all.
"Sorry about this," he said, and sent a jolt of power running through the ground at his feet. The street suddenly split in half, creating a gap several yards wide. The people screamed and jumped away to avoid falling in. While they were still collecting themselves, Jim turned and fled.
I hate having to do that, he mused as he ran. It always seemed like an abuse of power to have to destroy something, especially if he didn't know if he'd be able to put it back together again later. He had more important things to worry about at the moment, however. He found a new hiding place amid a heap of broken crates, and began to consider his options.
All right, why are these people angry at me?
Guessing why they were angry was easy - anyone would be angry at having to live in a place like this filthy city. Why they blamed it on him was another matter entirely...
Unless it really is my fault, he realized. As long as he kept telling himself that all of this wasn't real, it made perfect sense. It was really no different from his vision of the mysterious landscape. They were both exactly what Fujiwara had said they would be: images of the darkness in his heart, the things that had been lurking there that he hadn't wanted to acknowledge.
And the truth is, I'm afraid. He had been terrified of seeing that beautiful but alien land because he was afraid of leaving the comfortable life he knew to live in a palace and try to adapt to customs and etiquette he didn't know. That fear had faded when he had made up his mind to learn how to adapt. Now he was faced with a new and more difficult fear. He was afraid that if he took any sort of responsibility for this kingdom, and he made a mistake, it would lead to disaster and suffering for hundreds of innocent people. How did you deal with a dream like that?
If you were Jim, you took the consequences. If the mess in this world was his fault, then he had to stand firm and accept the results of his mistakes, even if he couldn't remember making them. He walked out of his hiding place and began making his way toward the castle.
By the time he got there, however, he realized it was already too late. The villagers were gathered around a cart that had been crudely fashioned into a cage. Huddled inside it was Asuka, her clothing torn and her hair in disarray. The crowd shouted insults at her as they pelted her with rotten vegetables and clods of earth, or worse. She huddled at the center of the cage, trying to shield her face. Jim scowled. He was willing to accept responsibility for this dream, but he wasn't about to admit that whatever was going on here was her fault.
"Let her go!" he shouted. "If you've got a problem, take it up with me!"
The crowd erupted into new levels of outrage.
"Lock them both up!"
"Let her go!" Jim demanded. "Release her, and I'll come with you quietly, but if you don't, there's going to be a fight. I know you don't want to take on a wizard, and I don't want to do any more damage. Let her go."
There was some muttering and grumbling, but people seemed to be afraid to provoke him into a fighting rage. Gradually, they parted, clearing a path between him and the prison wagon. Jim walked slowly forward and touched the wooden bars, and they rotted and crumbled to dust. She raised her head and looked at him, her expression showing for a brief instant that she expected nothing less than fresh indignities heaped upon her, before she realized who was standing before her.
"Don't worry," he told her gently. "I won't let them hurt you anymore. No matter what happens, I'm going to take care of it from now on."
She smiled at him, a hesitant but real, trusting smile.
"I knew you'd come for me," she said.
He smiled back, and offered her his hand, so that he could help her out of her cage. She placed her hand in his...
...and suddenly he was stepping out onto the hard-packed dirt of the castle training ground, blinking at the sudden strong sunlight. His hand was still closed around Asuka's.
"What do you know," said Fujiwara, in the tones of one who is not the least bit surprised. "It appears we have a winner."
There was a chorus of exclamations, not all of them happy, but Jim was still too disoriented to realize what the excitement was about. It was beginning to dawn on him that he had passed this challenge, and that the dreams were finally over.
"Congratulations," said Advisor Chronos grandly, striding towards Jim and seizing his free hand to shake. "You have performed most admirably in all respects."
"Well done," Ryou agreed. "We all had a feeling it would be you."
"I'm so happy!" Fubuki exclaimed. "My little sister is finally getting married!"
It occurred to Jim that he had just passed the third test, which meant he had passed all of the tests. He also couldn't help but notice that he was still holding Asuka's hand.
"Well?" he said to her.
She gave him an amused smile. "I suppose this means we're engaged."
"It looks that way," he agreed. "Unless you have a better idea."
"No, I think this will be quite all right," said Asuka.
"We must send out an announcement at once, to let everyone know the challenges have ended," said Chronos. "Of course, there are a few last technical issues - a few minor legal matters that must be arranged - but I'm it will present no difficulties for you."
"That's right - the worst is over!" said Fubuki cheerfully. "You're practically part of the family."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Asuka warned. "We're not quite married yet."
"But you'll get there!" Fubuki insisted.
"Tomorrow," said Chronos. "Today will be a day of relaxation. Tomorrow, you will present yourself at a formal ceremony in the great hall. It will be held at ten o'clock precisely." He fixed Jim with a very stern look. "Your behavior during this ordeal has been somewhat casual - in fact, I seem to recall you saying earlier that you hadn't even made up your mind that you truly intended to marry the princess. This is not a game to be taken lightly, Mr. Cook. If you show up even five minutes after the assigned hour, we will assume that you have lost interest and gone elsewhere."
"I'm a man of my word," said Jim solemnly. "If I say that I'm going to marry her, then that's what I'm going to do. You can count on it - I'll be there tomorrow, ten minutes early."
"See that you are," said Ryou seriously.
"All right, I think this is all the excitement there's going to be for one day," said Fujiwara. "I need to take the maze apart now. Thank you for trusting me with your familiar - she was very well behaved."
"Not a problem," Jim assured him. "Have you got a familiar?"
"I have a familiar spirit," Fujiwara replied. "He's a bit shy. It might be a while before he lets you see him."
"Fair enough," said Jim. He turned to Asuka. "Shall we go? I think we probably have a few things we need to talk about."
"That's right, you two lovebirds!" said Fubuki cheerfully. "You two go spend some time alone."
"Fubuki, please," said Asuka, gazing heavenward in annoyance. "Don't you have anything else to do?"
"I guess I could think of something," he admitted. "But what you're doing is more important."
"Shoo!" she commanded, and her brother made a hasty departure.
Jim laughed. "I can see I'm going to have to learn to behave myself."
"I'm sure you'll learn to adapt," she replied.
"You're probably right about that," said Jim. The two of them began walking away from the training field, with no particular destination in mind. For the moment, it was good just to relax and not worry about what was coming next.
"Fujiwara told me that nobody would be able to find their way through his maze if they didn't really want to be with me," Asuka commented. "With me, that is - not just be rich or famous or powerful, or what have you."
"I can believe that," said Jim thoughtfully. "A man would have to be determined to make it though all that."
"I didn't see anything," Asuka admitted. "What was it like?"
He smiled. "Nothing in particular. Just a couple of little things I needed to work through. It's not important anymore."
Impulsively, she took both his hands in hers and looked up at him. "I want you to know that no matter what, you're my choice. You trust me, don't you?"
"Of course I do," he said. "I wouldn't have made it this far if I hadn't."
"I guess I'm just a little nervous," she admitted. "But tomorrow everything will be official, and then we can relax."
"Oh, I don't know," said Jim. "Seems to me we might still have a thing or two to think about, what with running a kingdom and all."
That made her laugh a little. "I've gotten good at that by now. Leave it to me."
"I can't do that," he told her. "Not completely. I need to learn how to be a help to you. Or at least how not to make too much of a mess of things."
"You won't make a mess of things," she told him. "Now let's talk about something more cheerful. We have a wedding to plan for, and we ought to have at least one or two ideas about it when they ask us."
"All right... Where do you want to go on our wedding trip?"
"You're the world traveler. I've barely been outside the kingdom before. Where do you think we should go?"
"Hmm..." he said. "Well, I wouldn't mind paying a visit to my old home in the south lands... but for scenery, you can't beat the White Kingdom... and the jungles in the south are worth seeing once in your life..."
"This might have to be a long trip," said Asuka, laughing. "I want to see everything!"
"Good choice," he agreed. "In that case, I think the best place to start would be to strike out on the south road heading for..."
Manjoume was a little confused. No, that was an understatement - he was confused enough to be angry about it, and he didn't know what to do about it. He was sitting alone in the tower that he had objected so strenuously to climbing the first time Fubuki had dragged him up there. Now the physical activity had helped him burn off some of his annoyance, but even the view of the whole world spreading out at his feet didn't help him to feel any more in control.
He had gone into the maze prepared to be horrified. Not much had been asked of him in terms of physical courage in his lifetime, but the fact remained that Manjoume had a stubborn spirit, and he was not easily deterred by threats of danger. He had expected monsters, war, and general chaos.
What he hadn't expected was to find himself seated on a throne, in the very castle he had been living in for the past few days. It had, however, shown some signs of redecorating - the colors of his family's crest were featured prominently, and Manjoume was fairly sure he knew who to blame for that. Sure enough, he had only been sitting there for a moment or two, getting his bearings, when a side door opened and his two brothers marched in. They were clad ostentatiously in velvet and fur and gold, a contrast to the simple black garb that Manjoume usually favored, and the overall effect was that they were trying to look more kingly than he did. Manjoume privately felt that they merely looked overdressed and more than a little ridiculous.
"We need to have a talk about this new tax proposal," his brother Shoji was saying. "You can't allow it to go through, you know. It's going to take nearly two percent off of our profits if you do."
"It's for the improvement of the main highways," said Manjoume, though how he knew that, he couldn't recall.
"All the more reason not to do it," said Chosaku. "If shipping by land isn't an option, people will ship by water instead, and that's where we make our money."
"In case you haven't noticed, this kingdom doesn't exist just so you can make money!" Manjoume snapped.
"Too bad," said Chosaku. "That's what you're here for. It's your job to protect your family's interests first and the rest of the kingdom second. Let the others worry about what's best for the peasants."
"Oh, yeah? What about what I need? Why doesn't anyone ever think of what I want?" he snapped. The room was becoming darker; clouds were building outside, turning the unlit hall into a gloomy sepulcher. "I didn't come here just to be your puppet!"
"Then what did you come here for?" Shoji demanded.
"I don't know!" Manjoume shouted back, and as he said it, he knew it was true. There was absolutely no good reason why he should be there, trapped into doing his brothers' bidding for the rest of his life.
Outside, rain began to lash against the windows.
"If you don't know," said Chosaku, "then you're better off letting us do the thinking for you."
"No," said Manjoume. "I've been letting you do the thinking for me all my life, and it hasn't done me any good. I'm through with you, do you hear me? I'm through with both of you - and all of this!"
And with that, he stormed out of the room, slamming the doors behind him.
Only somehow, the door didn't lead the direction it usually did, and he found himself not in the entry passage he'd been aiming for, but standing out on the catwalk of the castle. It was still raining, drops of water beating against his skin and dousing his clothes. The wind whipped about him, stirring his hair and cloak, and he laughed and turned his face skyward and let it wash over him. Thunder crashed so close that he could feel the vibrations in his chest, and lightning flashed all around, striking the pinnacles of the towers, but he stood unafraid in the midst of it all, fully relaxed for the first time in days.
"Hey, up here!" someone called. Manjoume shouldn't have been able to hear it over the noise of the storm, but it carried loud and clear. Manjoume looked up and could just barely see the shape of someone moving around in the lookout tower above him.
"You can see it better from up here!" Fubuki called again. "Hurry, or you'll miss it!"
Manjoume didn't question the logic of that - he went. He ran for the nearest door, and found himself on the tower steps. He began to climb. The sound of the storm seemed, if possible, even louder within the narrow staircase, and grew even more so the higher he climbed. It seemed to him that there were many more stairs than there had been before, but he continued forward, following the sound of the voice above him, urging him onward. On he went, until his legs ached and his chest burned, and still there seemed to be just as many stairs above him as before. His steps grew slower and clumsier, his toes catching on the edges of the stairs and causing him to stumble, and though he gritted his teeth and forced himself to keep taking the next step and the next, he lost his footing and fell....
But a pair of strong hands caught him and steadied him, and Manjoume raised his eyes to see Fubuki smiling at him.
"It's okay," he said. "You don't have to go the whole way yourself. I'll help you."
Too exhausted and aching to put up a fight, Manjoume only nodded, and took Fubuki's hand...
...and that was how he found himself standing outside the maze.
Which meant he had lost his chance at the princess, which probably wasn't such a bad thing now that he thought about it. The question was, what was he supposed to do now? That was the question he was thinking about, because the question of just why he had dreamed that particular dream was a little too close for comfort. It was easier just to sit there on the windowsill and attempt to plan out how he was going to avoid going home and telling his brothers that he'd been beaten soundly by some wandering shrub-wizard, and didn't even get a consolation prize.
"I thought I'd find you here."
Manjoume didn't turn around. He was not in the least surprised to realize that he'd been followed. In the wake of his dream, he had almost been expecting it.
"I didn't have anywhere else to go," he said.
"Are you doing all right?" asked Fubuki, clambering up onto the windowsill beside him. "You seem thoughtful. Are you sorry you lost?"
"Not exactly," said Manjoume. "No, I'm not sorry at all I lost. The last thing I want is to spend the rest of my life doing what my brothers tell me and never getting anything I want. I just don't know where else to go and I hate it."
"You could stay here," Fubuki offered.
"And do what?" Manjoume grumbled. "I'm not good for anything, and even if I learned how to do something, you still wouldn't need me because you've already got everything you need here already."
"I know something you could do for me."
Manjoume looked at him warily. "What?"
"You could sit up here and keep me company."
"That doesn't count! It's not really doing anything."
"Does it make a difference?"
Manjoume wasn't really sure how to answer that. He turned away again.
"You really do want to stay here, don't you," said Fubuki. It was not a question. "Why?"
"I don't know," said Manjoume with an uneasy shrug. "At least you take me seriously."
Fubuki nodded, as though that were the answer he'd been expecting.
"So the problem is that you want to stay here, and you don't want to tell your family that you lost the challenge," he summed up. "In that case, let me make a suggestion..."
He talked. Manjoume listened, his expression going from doubtful to curious to openly intrigued.
Outside, clouds gathered. It began to rain.
Jim liked the world after it rained. Let other people complain of the humidity and the mud. To him, there were few things better than waking up to find the sky a freshly-washed blue and the world polished and gleaming, the air smelling of greenery and damp earth. He had slept well the night before, and enjoyed pleasant dreams. The previous day had been spent mostly in talk - about practical matters like what the date of the wedding would be and how best to integrate him into the royal court, but much of it had been little more than contented chatter. Today, all he needed to do was get himself to the right official building to fill out the right bit of paperwork, and just like that, he would be engaged.
Not a bad week's work, he thought, and grinned. The last of his misgivings seemed to have been lost in the maze. Now he was looking forward to everything the future had to offer. He sat by the window of his room, toying with the last of his breakfast while he waited for the appointed hour.
There was a knock on the door.
"Come in!" he called.
A servant stepped in and made a small bow to him, in recognition of his new status.
"Sir," he said politely, "I have a message for you from Advisor Chronos."
"Well, let's hear it," said Jim.
"He advises you that since today's ceremony will be rather formal, it might be best if you acquired more suitable clothing. It would be disrespectful for you to appear before the royal court in ordinary traveling clothes."
"These are the only clothes I have," he pointed out reasonably.
"We are aware of that," said the servant. "We have already contacted the town tailor, and made arrangements for you to be fit for a new suit."
Jim glanced at the sun. By his best estimate, he had something like two hours to get there and back again in time for the ceremony.
"How long is it going to take?"
"Not long," the servant assured him. "The garments have already been selected. They only need to be altered to fit you."
"Well, if it has to be done," said Jim philosophically. He stood up and put on his hat. "Which way to this tailor's place?"
The servant provided him with directions and offered him a map, which he politely declined. Instead, he loped out of the castle and out into the world. A breeze had sprung up, driving the mugginess from the air, and on the whole, he felt it was the perfect day for a walk. He set a brisk pace, intending to get to the tailor's shop as fast as he could, so he could return to the castle in good time, but he paused along the way to greet several of the people he passed. Many of them seemed to have heard of him, and after the events of his trip through the maze, he wanted to make sure he was on good terms with everyone.
By the time he reached the tailor's shop, the tailor himself was already pacing the floor with impatience. As soon as Jim walked through the door, he pounced hm and was nearly bitten by Karen for his troubles. It took a little while for Jim to straighten that out so they could get down to the business he had come there for, and a bit longer for the tailor to calm down enough that his hands were no longer shaking hard enough to put Jim in danger of being stabbed by a needle. Even when the work finally got underway, it took longer than Jim had expected or hoped, because the items that had been picked out for him had been intended for a smaller man, and they couldn't be easily altered to suit his stature, so new clothing had to be found. Jim eventually exited the tailor's shop resplendent in emerald green, and also feeling rather annoyed by the whole thing. He was happy to get back out into the fresh air.
"I'm going to have to move fast," he muttered. He hadn't heard the bells strike ten yet, but he knew the time couldn't be far off. He broke into the swiftest run he could manage, which wasn't much in the crowded city streets. The market district slowed him to a crawl, but once he reached the more residential parts of town, he was able to make better progress.
He had, in fact, made it close enough to the castle that he felt justified in slowing down a bit, so that he wouldn't arrive for his ceremony showing an unseemly coating of dust and sweat, when he heard the sound of someone crying out. He stopped.
I don't have time for this, he thought, but he knew he couldn't just walk away. He could almost hear Asuka in his mind saying, "No matter what, you're my choice." She was the princess. She wouldn't let some minor functionary send him away if she didn't want him to. He changed direction and sprinted off in the direction of the noise.
Lying in the middle of a side-street was a well-dressed man with long reddish hair and a noble face, who was just now trying to push himself off of the ground. Standing over him were two other men, cloaked and hooded, holding heavy staves. Even as Jim watched, one of them lashed out at the man, sending him facedown into the street again.
"That's enough of that," Jim said in a carrying voice.
The hooded figures looked up at him and shifted their grips on their sticks, obviously preparing for a fight. Well, if that was what they wanted, Jim would give it to them. He reached up and undid the straps that held Karen in place, and she slithered to the ground and launched herself at the dark figures with surprising speed. They cried out in alarm and rushed away. Karen scrambled after them a short distance, but she was reluctant to go very far from her master, and soon returned to his side. Jim knelt next to the fallen man and began helping him up.
"Are you all right?" Jim asked.
"I'm fine," said the man, a bit weakly. "Just bruised... and they stole my bag."
"Don't worry, we'll get it back," said Jim. "Karen, sit here and guard him. Sir, you just sit here with Karen and take it easy until I get back."
The man nodded, and Karen gave an agreeable whuffle and settled down to stand watch. Satisfied that all would be well, Jim turned and chased off after the thieves.
"I suppose you fellows think you can get away," he said, and smiled smugly. They might have been able to get away from anyone else, with this much of a head start, but they would never get away from him. The very earth they walked was his ally; unless the two of them could fly like birds, he would be able to find them. From his pocket, he produced a rather uninteresting bit of flattish rock, a small stone that he had picked up from a stream bed. It had a hole worn through its center by the abrasion of the running water, and he had tied a linen thread through the hole. He let it dangle freely in front of him. It pointed straight down at the ground without moving, even as he ran.
"All right," he told it. "Which way did they go?"
The stone rose slowly into the air, pulling the string taut and pointing like a compass needle to something off to Jim's left. He changed direction, darting down a side alley and vaulting a fence. The thieves might have had a head start, but his charm would point him to the most direct route. With any luck, they would be getting complacent soon and stopping to catch their collective breath, and then he would catch up to them .
He set out with high hopes, but it wasn't long before his guiding stone began to get confused. Jim scowled at it.
They must have split up, he thought, annoyed. As far as high-precision instruments went, a stone on a string wasn't much. It couldn't point in two directions at once.
"Which way did the first one go?" he demanded of it.
The stone dropped straight down, as though relieved to have released some burden, and then rose again, pointing back more or less the direction from which Jim had come. Jim frowned.
"Now show me the other," he said.
The stone swung around, pointing in the direction of the castle.
Which way? he asked himself. If he went to the castle, he would be there the sooner, possibly with a miscreant in tow to show why he had been detained for so long. On the other hand, a beaten man was behind him, with his attacker drawing nearer to him, and Karen couldn't do everything. With a sigh, he turned to retrace his steps.
He got there just in time to see the dark-cloaked man bending over Karen and whispering something to her. She opened her jaws and hissed at him, preparing to strike, but then slowly closed them again, subsiding sluggishly.
Magic? Jim wondered, redoubling his speed. That was the only thing he could imagine that would make his normally reliable familiar start falling down on the job. Even as he watched, the cloaked man extended a hand to the person Jim had rescued earlier.
"All right, what are you playing at?" Jim demanded.
"Merely a precaution," said the cloaked man, in a surprisingly calm - and familiar - voice. Jim stopped short and stared.
"You?" he said, as close to dumbfounded as he'd ever been.
Fujiwara pushed back his hood. "I want you to know that none of this was my idea."
Meanwhile, the man who had been sitting on the ground, watching all of this unfold with an expression of polite interest, climbed gracefully to his feet, and then extended a pair of wings from his back and stretched them with something that looked like relief.
"Did I do well, Master?" he asked.
Fujiwara nodded. "You performed admirably, Honest. Thank you."
"You're welcome," the spirit replied graciously, and faded from view.
"What is this all about?" Jim asked.
"Your final ordeal," said Fujiwara. "It was Advisor Chronos's idea, really."
Jim crossed his arms. "You're going to have to explain a little more than that."
"The idea is that it is one thing to be tested when you know you are being tested," said Fujiwara, "but something else again for you to continue to perform admirably when you think no one is watching." He carefully removed his cloak and began folding it neatly. "Mind you, I was convinced already, but the advisor is very thorough in the way he does things. And he does want the very best for the princess."
"She's going to be annoyed about this, you know," said Jim.
"Probably so," Fujiwara agreed. "That's one reason why I let Ryou be the one to return to the castle and report on your progress. He'll be catching the worst of it, but he can handle it."
"I'm not very happy either."
"You have my sincerest apologies," said Fujiwara, giving him a slight bow. "Would you like to return to the castle now? I'm sure someone is waiting for you."
Jim decided that Fujiwara was probably right about that. Keeping Asuka waiting any longer wasn't fair, and besides, if he went to the castle, he would save time by giving everyone a piece of his mind at the same time. He scooped Karen back into her harness and began striding briskly toward the palace, dragging Fujiwara with him.
As it turned out, he was just in time. He found Asuka in a parlor, venting her wrath at Chronos and Ryou in levels that made the chandelier vibrate. Ryou took the abuse stolidly, but the advisor appeared to be trying to retreat into the wallpaper.
"...had quite enough of you making decisions for me! I have already made up my mind, and no matter how this ridiculous plot of yours turns out, I am still going to marry him, and that is final! It is not his fault that you decided to play tricks on him just to prove a point..."
"Glad to have your vote of confidence."
Asuka stopped in the middle of her tirade and rushed to his side.
"Don't worry, I'm still in one piece," he told her. "I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner. It sounds like there was some good entertainment going on here."
"I really didn't know they were going to do this," she said.
"I know," he replied. "I trust you."
"I think it can be safely said," Fujiwara remarked, "that Mr. Cook has performed above and beyond anyone's expectations."
"Yes," said Chronos, apparently relieved that the conversation was being steered away from his blunders. "We will publish the banns as soon as your brother is here to give them his seal of approval."
"Speaking of which, where is Fubuki?" asked Ryou. "I was certain he would want to be here."
"The last I saw him, he was with Manjoume," Asuka said. "I suppose they've become good friends over the last few days. They do seem to spend a lot of time together..."
"They went to the library," said Chronos. "That's where they claimed they were going, at least." His tone suggested that he highly doubted that Fubuki would do anything like go to the library.
"Why would they go in there?" Fujiwara asked.
"He said something about wanting to look up a law..."
There was a sudden scramble as Fubuki came pelting into the room, clutching a paper in one hand and Manjoume's arm in the other. Manjoume himself was looking flustered and possibly a bit annoyed at the rough treatment. Mostly he appeared stunned, as people tended to do when they'd spent too long in Fubuki's company.
"I found it!" said Fubuki joyfully.
"I want you to know this wasn't my idea!" Manjoume said. "He was the one who thought of it!"
"I've been hearing a lot of that today," Jim observed.
"Thought of what?" Chronos asked warily.
"This!" said Fubuki, spreading the paper out on a table. "I read the whole thing, and it doesn't say anywhere I can't do it!"
"Can't do what?" Asuka asked.
"Get married!" said Fubuki gleefully.
"Well, of course you can get married," Chronos began, but Manjoume cut him off.
"He doesn't mean just anyone," he snapped. "He means to me. He had to dig out the law and prove that it doesn't say anywhere that the prince has to marry a woman."
"It's perfect!" Fubuki enthused. "He doesn't get in trouble with his family and I get to keep him around, and everybody will be happy!"
"I'm not sure it's going to be quite that easy," Ryou said.
"I told him it was a stupid idea!" said Manjoume.
Fubuki wasn't listening. "And we can get him trained up to be a wizard like he wanted! We've got two wizards here already - someone will be able to teach him."
"I don't mind," said Fujiwara. "If he has any aptitude for it, it shouldn't be a problem."
"But what about heirs?" Chronos protested.
Fubuki pointed at Asuka and Jim. "That's their job!"
Asuka flushed slightly, but Ryou said, "He's probably right. It doesn't really make a difference which side of the family they come from."
Chronos looked as though he was wearing down. "I suppose when it comes to it, you are the ones who make the rules..."
"What?" said Manjoume. "You mean it's actually okay?"
"I don't see why not," said Asuka. "As long as it makes you two happy..."
"I knew you'd agree!" siad Fubuki. He latched onto Manjoume. "What do you think? Should we make it a double wedding or do you want a separate date?"
"Well... I... um," said Manjoume, blushing brilliantly, but somehow not looking entirely displeased. "Whatever you want, I guess."
"All right! A double wedding, then. With two cakes and a parade and..."
Jim and Asuka glanced at each other as Fubuki continued to chatter on, lost in making plans.
"You know," she said to him, "I think it's a very good thing that you're so talented at passing tests."
"I think you're right," he agreed. "It sounds like the real ordeal is just beginning."