Husky's eyes flashed open, consciousness returning all in one moment. "What the - ! How the - !" He jolted upright, looking around the room. His wrists were bound in front of him with rope. "WHERE DID THAT UGLY, DESPERATE, UNDERHANDED, COWARD OF A FREAK PERVERT PRINCE RUN OFF TO?"

The silver-haired fish-child glared around the room, but it didn't seem to have an answer. He growled to himself and, after a quick glance around the room confirmed that there was nothing sharp and pointy at hand, he started chewing at the ropes around his wrists.

That blasted idiot Prince Derik chose that moment to open the door. He raised his eyebrows at the very undignified sight of the beautiful cross chewing at his bindings like an animal. Another man, perhaps the prince's perverted father, entered right behind him. The old man laughed at the view.

"There's the idiot," grumbled Husky, ignoring the old man and swimming up to Derik. "What's the meaning of this? Take these off this instant!" He shouted, holding up his bound wrists and banging them down against the stupid prince's already bruised chest.

The dark-haired prince winced at the pain. This was ridiculous – no cross, especially one with such skinny arms, should be able to deal so much damage. "Why? So you can continue your abuse?" grumbled Derik, grabbing the fish-child around the middle and pressing the child's back to his chest to keep him from further assaulting him.

"Oh? I'm supposed to sit around and act pretty like some brainless PET! Is that right? Fat chance, loser! Selfish, evil, tricky, nasty – you're as disgusting as those girls!"

"Here you go, father. Marein's son. Prince Husky, King Daniel." All the excitement Derik had been anticipating he would be flooded with, presenting his father with such a beautiful prize, just wasn't there. He could deal with, had honestly been expecting, crying, whining, whimpering, pleading, even dead silence – ANYTHING other than this insulting little brat.

The old man (at least to Husky's eyes), bent at his waist to examine the pretty child more closely. The resemblance was stunning. Those incredible light blue eyes, that silky silver hair, the fine facial structure, even the delicate frame of the child's body. And especially, especially, that fiery expression on the child's face coupled with that familiar flash of intelligence currently whipping through those eyes.

"'Marein.' Of course. This is all connected to mother," Husky grumbled to himself. Then he looked up and glared at the old man.

"So you're some sort of rich pervert pining away for an emperor's wife?" he mocked haughtily. His eyes flashed. "I warn you now – try anything along the 'if I can't have the woman I'll settle for her son' garbage, and I'll be seeing you DEAD."

King Daniel honestly looked astonished at the thought, and quite shocked that his precious Marein's son would ever jump to such a conclusion. The terrible thought that the child's accusations might be based on experience tore at his heart.

"Myrrha, I assure you, I have no such intentions toward you, and I will not allow anyone to treat you in such a way. You're quite safe in my home."

Husky froze, to Derik's relief. He quickly took the opportunity to adjust his hold on the child to keep it, yes 'it', from physically assaulting his father.

"How do you know my name? And… my mother…?" Husky was frowning.

"We grew up in the same city, and, yes, I would consider her a friend of mine. She confided in me that she would name her firstborn child Myrrha. Our country was renown as manufacturers of myrrh, long before it became part of the Sailandian empire."

Prince Derik frowned at his father, having noticed something. Something the child had clearly noticed as well.

King Daniel had slipped into using the same accent Husky had. That accent only found in the furthest north country in Sailand. His father slipped into the accent occasionally when reminiscing, but he had long since adapted the more traditional Sailandian accent, if only to avoid the questioning gazes of others at meetings of nobles.

Husky was still frozen, staring at the man in shock. He had never heard anyone other than his mother use that accent. And the man was right – his mother had told him the same thing many years ago, when he was still very young.

"Our country is famous for its myrrh. We manufacture it from the myrrh trees native to the area. You wouldn't believe how beautiful they smell, Myrrha, even before being processed and bottled. Truly, no incense can match it. I've always, always loved myrrh. The trees, the process, the final product… Did I ever tell you, child, that my father…"

"Her father's family had the biggest myrrh business in the country. It was no wonder his family became chief nobles when we joined Sailand."

Husky suddenly shook his head and squirmed in Derik's hold. "It doesn't matter," grumbled Husky. "I live in Astaria with my friends. And I am going back to them!"

King Daniel glanced at Derik, waiting for some elaboration, but the prince only shrugged.

"Who are these friends?" asked Daniel, frowning. He sounded for all the world like a father accusing a precious daughter of hanging out with the wrong crowd.

"They're +anima, like me! None of us have homes or family we can return to, but we have each other!"

"Children, then," said Daniel dismissively. "How you manage to feed and clothe yourselves is beyond me. What do you lot do, steal?"

Husky glared at him. "For you information, we WORK. Yes, hard to believe for a rich snob like you! We WORK, save our money, and BUY clothing and food. We do just fine!"

"Work? As what, laborers? Digging ditches and hauling lumber? How terribly low class."

Husky flushed bright red in rage. "How DARE you!" he screamed, lunging forward, only to be yanked back by Derik's strong grip. "You filthy SNOB!"

"Children should be cared for. One's of your upbringing should be studying, not traveling with a bunch of dirty orphans and doing odd jobs to avoid starvation. Ugh, I can't imagine Marein's child hunting for food in a forest like some savage. What would she say?"

"You don't know anything about my mother after all!" scorned Husky. "Because she was PROUD of me! She LIKED my friends and thought it was INCREDIBLE that we could take care of ourselves so well!"

Daniel was frowning. "Only because she was unable to care for you herself, with your +anima status. The alternative is still far preferable."

"Alternative? We're doing the best we can! We don't rely on anybody! Senri's the best cook in the WORLD! He can make ANYTHING taste good! Cooro's an incredible tracker! And he's always able to find food to eat and befriend people to take us in for a night or give us work! And Nana's beautiful and cheerful and takes care of our clothes!"

"The alternative, Prince Myrrha, is myself taking care of you. A mature adult taking care of a child, providing them with food, a home, an education, and a future."

Husky was seeing red. This infuriating man was such a – such a – such a SNOB! He insults his life, he insults his friends, he insults everything! And, what, he expects Husky to be grateful?

"You have no RIGHT!" screamed Husky.

Daniel drew himself up, looking down on the young fish +anima. "I have every right. Marein was engaged to me before that pathetic contest of who could send the emperor the most beautiful princess began."

"So what?" hissed Husky. "It never happened! She became a queen, and she had me! You had nothing to do with anything!"

King Daniel frowned, then suddenly his expression lightened and he chuckled to himself. "Stubborn. So very stubborn, just like Marein. Refusing honest help, insisting on doing things your own way. But the fact remains you are but a child, Myrrha. You can't take care of yourself."

"That's why I have my friends! We take care of each other!"

"I'll take care of them too. If they actually care enough about you to come looking for you, that is."

"We don't… I don't need you!"

"I've already decided, Myrrha. You might as well make the best of it. If you still feel the same way at a reasonably mature age, sixteen at the earliest, we'll reconsider the matter."

"Drop DEAD, old man! Idiot! Monster! Selfish JERK!" screamed Husky, lunging forward again. His expression made it extremely clear that he wasn't even considering the king's side of the debate. To Husky, there was no debate. He wanted to go back to his friends. He was going back to Cooro, Senri, and Nana – his family. Period.

Prince Derik had had enough. Using the same trick he'd used on the trip back home with the unruly young fish-child, he grabbed the child by the neck and held down on two special pressure points. He wasn't as good at the move as his tutor had been, but Husky's breath immediately started quickening and his eyes blurred. After a few seconds, the child had blacked out.

"I'm beginning to doubt this is worth it," grumbled the prince, carrying the child back to the bed and laying him down. He made sure the bindings around the child's wrists were secure and began a checklist of security measures in his head.

"He'll come around eventually," said King Daniel confidently. "Marein was no fool, and I'm sure neither is her son. By the way, what's that?"

"What?" asked Derik, looking up, to see his father approaching a bedside table with a belt and attached bag. "Oh, that must be Husky's. I think he was wearing it earlier. Sandra must have taken it off when she laid the child down earlier."

"Ah, Myrrha's bag. How interesting!" said the father, lifting the bag and opening the pouch to see what was inside. "What trinkets does a… oh!" He poured the contents of the bag onto the table and waved his son over. "Derik, look at these!"

Derik came over and gasped. There were several exquisite, absolutely exquisite gemstones in the bag. Any one of them would be worth hundreds, if not thousands, of gillah in landwalker money! There was one emerald the size of an egg that would be fit to be deemed a crown jewel! A handful of fine freshwater pearls, each as large as a thumbnail. Ruby, diamond, citron, sapphire, alexandrite, amongst others.

"Could… could he have taken these from Lee's…?"

"No, otherwise these would be jewelry, not just the gems," answered King Daniel, shaking his head. "And somehow I doubt Myrrha would stoop to theft. He must have… purchased them." He pulled a small pouch out of the bag and pulled the drawstring, revealing around 300 gillah. Enough for several good meals and maybe a week at a nice inn.

"Where could he get enough gillah?" asked Prince Derik in shock. "No, he must have taken them when he left Sailand, either last time or the first time."

"The first time was assuredly right after he turned into a +anima, a fish-child. He would've been fleeing, certainly with no time to grab food, let alone gems. And, even though he mentioned seeing his mother again, I doubt she would risk her son being accused of being a thief should he be captured. He had to have earned the jewels himself, somehow."

"Then… he must have saved up any extra gillah he could…"

"And exchanged it for the most precious gem he could find almost immediately. The child has the eye of a jewel merchant!" The King's eyes widened in delight and pride. "I'll bet he does just that. He buys gems with any extra gillah he can, then sells the gems when they need gillah for their everyday expenses, only carrying around enough money for the next week or so's travel!"

Derik frowned and shook his head in disbelief. "No one can do that without training, least of all a child. It must be a coincidence. He found them somewhere or something. And that certainly doesn't explain these…" He picked out a handful of river-polished stones. They were all pretty enough, but had nothing on the large gemstones. There was also the start of some sort of pendant that the child must be making himself… but, while the child had a merchant's eye, he certainly didn't have an artist's. The pendant was far too… too common. No noble would wear river stones, for goodness' sake.

King Daniel grinned. "I'll bet the child can, and does! Two weeks afternoon throne room duty, listening to commoner's complaints, on the table!"

"You're on, old man! I'll quiz him myself, first thing tomorrow!"

"That would be biased – I'll have one of your tutors assigned to him. Myrrha will be needing a tutor of his own soon enough, anyway."

Lee knew something was wrong as he approached the beach.

Why? It was quite simple, really.

Husky's three friends were camping on the beach, at the very edge behind the high-tide water line. The bat-girl and the bear-boy sat by a campfire. The crow-boy was sitting a little ways away, staring at the sea. Even from a distance, Lee saw him perk up as he spotted Lee's red hair as the fish-man lifted his head above the water.

The beautiful silver-haired fish-child was nowhere in sight.

He swam quicker, his stomach suddenly twisting. Something wasn't right. Nani had said the boy had left the night previous, over twelve hours ago by now. The beach was only a couple hours swim from the castle. The boy should be right there with them. And they certainly shouldn't be waiting, so obviously waiting, right on the beach.

The crow-boy, Cooro, happily jumped up and called to the other two, who immediately dropped what they were doing and rushed over, their eyes scanning the waters and latching onto Lee excitedly. The excitement quickly turned to worry as it became obvious that the red-haired fish-man was alone.

Lee turned his fins to feet as soon as he was in shallow enough water and ran to meet Husky's friends.

He asked the question the same time they demanded the same of him.

"Where's Husky?" asked four voices at once. The bear-boy sounded confused, the bat-girl scared, the crow-boy mad. Lee's own voice was laced with confusion and borderline panic.

"He left yesterday… I had to leave him with my brother as I attended to some… some other stuff…" explained Lee incoherently. "Someone scared him the other day, I heard, so I was coming to apologize and tell him he could come back whenever…"

"No!" shouted Nana. "You TOOK him! You took our Husky! And now you've LOST him? We just… I just… and now you've LOST him?"

"Where is Husky?" asked Senri slowly, though his expression was anything but slow and unsure. If anything, the large teenager looked threatening as the seriousness of the situation became clear.

"He's in trouble," said Cooro, sureness instead of his usual cheerful optimism in his suddenly firm voice. "We're getting him back." He met Lee's eyes firmly. "And you're helping us."

Suddenly the firm expression seemed to melt from his face, leaving his brilliant smile in place. "Right?" he asked adorably, though there was still a trace of something cold in those big, dark eyes.

"Right," confirmed Lee. This was his fault, he knew. The threesome were right to blame him. He was supposed to watch Husky. He hadn't. He never should've trusted… He suddenly frowned angrily.


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