“Ssh!” The guard motioned anxiously for me to be quiet.
“You are the prince – your name is Iyagi?!” I whispered hoarsely.
“Why? How …?”
“Nakai is my guard. We switched places right before we entered the Capitol so that I could go in disguise.”
“Why would you want to be in disguise?”
“Before coming back to the Capitol, my father received word from a secret anonymous source that the Emperor was in danger,” Iyagi whispered quietly, “He sent me with the mission to find out what was going on. And the best way to do that is when no one perceives you as a threat.”
I leaned forward anxiously. “Is Father okay?!”
“Yes … so far,” Iyagi reassured me, “Things have been rather quiet. I’m starting to think it was mostly speculation.”
I heaved a sigh of relief, then tried to process that sitting right across from me was the prince of Yosae. “Your guard was fine with all this?” I asked sceptically.
“Of course.” The disguised prince drew back and smiled. “Nakai and I, we would do anything for each other.”
“So, what you told me in the woods was true? That story of your meeting as children in the pantry – it wasn’t made up?”
“No! Why would I tell you an untruth?”
I raised my brows. “Because you have so far,” I explained, “Everything I thought I knew about you isn’t true.”
“I thought you would remember!”
I crossed my arms. “Does Father know?”
Iyagi hung his head. “Yes.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know.” Iyagi shrugged helplessly. “I tried to find a way … even hinted at it a couple of times. But then we began to become friends all over again and I didn’t want things to change.”
“Change how?” I asked with a confused frown, letting my arms drop.
Iyagi ran a hand through his hair. “I was afraid you would start treating me different once you knew I was the prince.”
“You didn’t treat me any differently even though you knew I was a princess,” I accused.
“Yes, but I could remember when we were children,” he replied.
I fell silent and stared at the ground. “How did we first meet?” I asked curiously.
“When I first came to the palace, my father introduced me to the Emperor.” The prince closed his eyes at the memory. “I remember feeling frightened as I stood in that great Hall, surrounded by so many tall strangers. The only thing that comforted me was the strong grip of my father’s hand on my shoulder. But he would be leaving the next day and that made me feel rather lonely.” Iyagi opened his eyes. “But then you dashed in.”
His eyes twinkled with laughter. “You were a mess. Your face was covered with mud, your braid undone and your dress ripped all along the sides. At first, I thought that you were a servant child that had gotten lost. But you didn’t hesitate in front of all those people. Instead, to my shock, you ran right up to the Emperor and wrapped you arms around his waist. Then a bunch of women came in and you quickly hid yourself behind His Majesty’s legs.”
“Why was I hiding?”
“They wanted to give you a bath!” The prince tried to keep himself from laughing out loud. “But you adamant that you had no time. When the Emperor asked you why, you told him that you were in the middle of fighting an important battle. I remember you saying that you couldn’t call a retreat because you would lose three days in trying to regroup. And a true warrior never bathes until the battle is won.”
“You remember all that?” I was astonished.
“I remember because you gave those maids the most ferocious glare that I, a boy of ten years, was nearly convinced that there really was a war going on.”
“I sound like quite the imp,” I remarked.
“Oh, that’s exactly what I thought,” agreed the prince heartedly, “That’s when the Emperor turned you around to face me and introduced us. You looked at me so directly, that I felt as if you were sizing me up.”
“Yes. And I passed the test,” Iyagi declared proudly before murmuring, “As soon as I looked into your fiery brown eyes, I knew that my days at the palace would not be lonely anymore.”
“What kind of things did we do?” I asked, wanting to know more.
“Well, we hiked in the woods, but never very far since you were so young.” Iyagi sat on the bed, crossed his legs and leaned his chin on a fist, reliving happy memories. “And you would always hang around the practice yard, watching me and Bada spar during our sword lessons. You watched me so intently that I could practically feel your eyes upon my back. Afterwards you would beg me to teach you.”
I sat on the bed across from him. “Did you?”
Iyagi shook his head. “Not at first. I was afraid of getting in trouble.” He smiled cheekily. “But you were so stubborn and persistent, that I eventually gave in. At first, I agreed to give only one lesson. But you learned so quickly and were so eager for more that I couldn’t say no after that.” The prince smiled softly and looked down at the ground. “I never could say no to you for very long,” He murmured.
I cocked my head. “You said that Bada was there also?”
Iyagi’s eyes darkened. “Yes,” he grunted, looking down.
“Were we friends too?” I prodded.
Iyagi stiffened. “No, he was more friends with Pulsa. They made quite a pair.”
I sensed that that wasn’t a good thing, but the prince looked so uncomfortable and angry that I decided not to push the issue any further for the night.
“I wish I could remember,” I sighed.
“Well, some things are best forgotten anyway,” Iyagi muttered.
Just then a creak sounded right outside our door. Our eyes widened as we glanced at the other before Iyagi put a finger to his lips and carefully got off the bed, creeping over to the door. He pressed his ear to the wood for a moment, then through it open.
There stood Usan!
Immediately, I jumped off the bed, ran towards the boy and lifted him up in my arms. “Hey, what are you doing here?” I asked, rubbing my nose against his cheek.
“I missed you,” he replied, trying to hide his head in my shoulder while peeking at Iyagi shyly. “Who’s that?”
“He’s my … my friend,” I replied, “He will be living with us now – in this fine, big house.”
Usan nodded. “There’s enough room now,” he said solemnly, making Iyagi smile. “What’s your name?”
“Nakai,” Iyagi introduced himself and put out his hand for a friendly shake.
Usan stared at the prince severely and refused to take the offered hand. “That’s not your name,” he accused him.
Iyagi started back, surprised, and then looked at me.
“I didn’t tell him,” I stated, shaking my head, “Usan just knows these things. He even knew that I was a princess, though he had never stepped foot in the palace till I found him, and that I preferred to be called Kkachi.”
“Usan – that’s your name?” Iyagi asked the boy gently, who nodded back. “Tell me then, what’s mine?”
“Iyagi.” Was the reply.
“How do you know that?”
“I can see it in your eyes,” Usan pointed, “It’s written right there.”
The prince shook his head in wonder. “Well, my lad, I’m glad that not everyone possesses your gift.”
“Because no else knows my real name and it must be kept a secret.”
“To protect Kkachi?”
“No … well, yes … but also to protect the Emperor,” Iyagi explained.
Usan nodded seriously.
“You promise not to tell anyone,” I asked him.
“I promise,” he said.
“Good. Now how about we all have something to eat and you two can explain to me how you met.” Iyagi clapped his hands together and led the way over to the table laden with food.
That evening the three of us had a wonderful meal, laughing and talking, as the darkness fell and night came upon us. The prince took to Usan immediately, especially after hearing that the little fellow was an orphan. I caught him watching us as I wiped Usan’s messy chin with a napkin and tweaked his nose, making the boy giggle.
When it got late, Iyagi left us tucked in bed, Usan snuggled up against my side, to leave for the room across the hall. Almost asleep myself and just breaking into my dreams, I thought I heard the prince whisper a soft, lonely ‘goodnight’ to us before shutting the door. With Usan lying on my arm, breathing steadily and deeply, I fell into oblivion with a smile planted across my lips.
* * * * *
The next day I went back to my old quarters to grab some things that I didn’t want any of the maids touching when they transported all the furniture to the new house.
When I got just in front of my old room, something odd and strange struck me. Something was not right. I went to pull away the door, when I realized that it was already open a crack. And it was not Nalda, since I had just left her at breakfast.
Sliding the door open, I stepped inside was met with a terrible sight. There, written in dark, scrawling streaks of ash were letters spread across the entire floor. It was a message.
It is good that you married a commoner
Stay away from the throne
Or risk the lives of the ones you love
It was signed Leomong.