Nalda told me that I must visit the Emperor immediately.
“At this time of day?” I asked, gazing at the sky as the sun streaked the dawn red. “It’s so early.”
“His Majesty is up and waiting for you,” Nalda replied firmly. Her mouth was pursed together in worry and her hands twitched nervously, wrinkling the front of her starched apron.
Without another word, I turned about and made ready to march towards the Palace, when a nagging sensation tugged at the corner of my mind. Sliding the door past Nalda, I walked into my room and grabbed the mysterious sword from its perch against my bed, where I first laid it after it had appeared. My hands tingled the moment they touched the wood of the scabbard.
Attaching the belt firmly around my waist, the sword dangled conspicuously among the folds of my party dress. Feeling armed and ready, I dashed out and away from my quarters and towards the Palace Hall.
Why did Father need to see me so urgently? Was he ill? My steps quickened till I was running towards the building. When I reached the Hall, I leaped over the stairs and, grasping one of the doors’ handles and pulling with all my strength, barged into the room without waiting to be announced.
My feet pattered loudly across the marble floor as I dashed into the enveloping darkness of the empty Hall towards the foot of the throne where sat the Emperor.
“Father!” I gasped as I stood panting at the bottom of the stairs. “Are you well?”
The Emperor smiled and relief flooded over me. “Peace, my daughter,” he spoke tenderly, “I am quite well. But I’ve received some rather … disturbing news. Come, sit up here beside me.”
I walked up the stairs and took the chair offered that stood to the right of my Father. The same chair where I had sat only a few nights ago.
“What news, Father?” I began, but stopped when the Emperor took a hold of one of my hands gravely.
“It’s about you, My daughter.”
“Word has reached my ears that you have been seen …” Father’s grip on my hand grew tighter, “That you have bound yourself to Prince Iyagi’s personal guard – intimately.
My mouth opened in silent shock as I gaped into the Emperor’s disappointed face. “What? No Father! I would never …” I protested, shaking my head vigorously and now grasping his hand tightly. “Please believe me!”
“I believe that the situation was misunderstood,” Father reassured me, cupping my cheek softly and carefully stroking the spot where my scar cut into the skin. “Tell me what really happened.”
Quickly, I explained to him the events of last night, how sick Nakai was, how I tended him the entire night, and how the maid stumbled upon us as I was feeding him. I omitted the part of how we accidentally locked lips.
“Yes, Pulsa told me that Prince Iyagi had expressed concern about his guard’s health. She had sent her maid over to deliver some herbs that were recommended by Lady Moon-sol,” Father said, “I’m glad that the guard’s life was saved. He sounded as if he would have been in serious danger of losing it if it had not been for you.”
“Thank you, Father.” I bowed my head.
“Perhaps I should not have sent for him.”
My eyes widened and I opened my mouth to declare that the guard was not in fit shape to even leave his bed when, at that moment, the Hall doors opened and a tall figure stumbled through. There stood Nakai – upright with shoulders back, walking purposefully as if he had just come from training. But his jaw was clenched in pain and his face was deathly pale.
Before Nakai had even reached the bottom of the stairs, the Emperor called out to him. “I apologize for sending you, Nakai,” He said, “Kkachi has just told me that you have been ill.”
The guard glanced at me before bowing deeply. “I’m fully recovered, Your Majesty – thanks to the tender care of your daughter.”
“Nevertheless, you must be tired. Kkachi, help him to sit.”
Gladly, I ran down the steps, past Nakai to grab a chair that sat in a dark corner between two marble columns. Just as my fingers grasped at the chair’s ebony arm, the shadows shifted and I began to hear the whispers of dark, hollow voices.
Raising my eyes slowly, I looked down the dark Hall and watched in horror as a wispy black hand floated up through the cracks in the stone floor. In a haze of black smoke, the thing arched its warped, twisted fingers, clawing at the air like a snake before sliding across the floor towards me. For a moment, I stood still – transfixed and terrified as I watched the shadow slither closer and closer.
Rip! The sound of my dress tearing as the hand groped at the hem of my gown broke me out of my stupor. Instantly, I threw my arm out to my side and tore the sword out of its scabbard. In the dark the sheath of the blade seemed to glow, almost pulsating a pale, pure flickering light against the shadows. The Incarcerate immediately let go of my dress and shrank back in fear.
Slashing my sword out in a swooping triangular pattern, a strange word slipped off of my tongue, one that I had never heard before.
A blinding light shattered from the sword’s blade, casting an intense effervescent glow across the entire Hall in a giant moving circle. The Incarcerateshrieked in agony as the light moved across its body causing the smoke to burst like a balloon into a soot of ash. Other screams could be heard in the distance as the light traveled to the deepest, darkest corners of the room.
Then there was silence.
Sheathing the sword, I picked up the chair and carried it over to where Nakai and the Emperor now stood. “Here you are,” I said, pushing it towards the guard, “Sit.”
“Why - How did you do that?” The guard’s eyes were wide with surprise and awe.
“What? Just now … did you see them too?” I asked.
“Those – those things!”
Nakai shook his head slowly in confusion. “All I saw was a light coming out of that sword.” He pointed at the scabbard attached to my hip.
“Where did you get it?” Father asked me in a hushed, almost reverent tone.
I fingered the sword’s hilt. “I don’t know,” I murmured, “It simply appeared in my room one night. Why?”
“Your mother had one just like it.” The Emperor grabbed my shoulder. “Can you see them?” He asked.
“Yes, I can.” I hung my head. “But can’t anyone?”
“No.” The Emperor shook his head. “Only a select few.” His voice was guarded, but he sounded almost proud.
“Can you see them?”
“Could … could my mother?”
The Emperor smiled sadly. “Yes.”
Just then, Nakai started to lean heavily to one side and would have tipped over in a dead faint if I had not caught him. Carefully, I helped him to sit in the chair as Father grabbed a glass of wine for him to drink. The guard easily drank the spiced liquid down in one swallow.
“Perhaps we ought to carry out this meeting some other time,” The Emperor suggested.
“No, if it please Your Majesty,” Nakai asked faintly, “I’d like to know why I am here?”
“Very well.” The Emperor drew back. “Are you, Nakai, aware that your name and my daughter’s have been linked together romantically?”
“What! No … I would never!” Nakai would have leaped out of the chair in shock and distress if I hadn’t kept a firm hold of his shoulder.
“Then, through no fault of your own, as Kkachi has made it clear to me, nevertheless my daughter’s reputation is at stake – perhaps ruined.” The Emperor paused to let the severity of the situation sink in. “Are you willing to help make amends and repair the damage done, no matter the cost?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, by whatever means.” The guard bent his head. “I am her and your loyal servant.”
“Good.” The Emperor then turned to me. “My daughter, it is my wish that you preserve your reputation. Little though this matter may seem to you, it is of great importance since you are of my blood.”
“By any means I deem necessary?”
“Yes, Father.” I looked up into his kind, loving eyes. “You saved me once, though I was but a child. Whatever you judge best - that I will do.”
The Emperor lifted my chin. “Your mother would be proud.”
I stood a little taller. “What do you wish, Father?”
The Emperor turned and walked back up the stairs to his throne. Sitting, he then looked down upon the two of us. “Take each other’s hand,” He commanded.
We did so, confused. Nakai’s palm was warm and comforting. It felt good to be holding his hand again since last night. I glanced over to catch a glimpse of the guard’s face. Nakai continued to stare straight ahead with much intent and purpose. I turned again to face the Emperor. Surprisingly, Father looked a little stricken at the sight of us together. But pleased also. Then, the Emperor raised his voice and addressed us as our ruler.
“By the power invested in me as your Emperor, I hereby decree that you, Nakai, and you, Princess Forsythia, shall pledge yourselves to one another tomorrow at dawn.”
Nakai nodded his head. But I remained confused.
“I don’t understand?” I asked.
“You are going to be married.”