After a week of hardly any sleep, the Emperor sent for me.
“Are you feeling well, Kkachi?” he asked me when I arrived. His voice was full of concern.
“Yes, Your Majesty, I’m quite well.” I replied quickly with a bright smile.
“Hmmm,” Father murmured, not appearing convinced, “I’ve been told that you have been having trouble sleeping. Are your quarters satisfactory?”
“Oh yes, Your Majesty,” I exclaimed, “I’ve never been in finer rooms and Nalda always makes sure that I want for nothing.”
“Perhaps you are still getting accustomed to your new surroundings. Must be uncomfortable sleeping in a strange place?”
I thought of those black figures that plagued me during the night. “Yes.”
“How about you take a trip into the Capitol to visit your Grandparents,” the Emperor offered.
A spark of energy coursed through my blood at the thought of seeing them again. “I should like that very much, Your Majesty.”
“I shall have a litter prepared then.” Father’s eyes crinkled in the corners in a wide smile as he gazed down at me. “You can leave today if you wish.”
I bowed gratefully. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Soon after I had taken my leave of the Emperor, and with very little delay, everything was ready and I was being carried away in a litter with a couple of guards trailing behind on their horses. We had hardly made it out the gate when I was already wishing to mount one of the guard’s horses. The litter was going so slow.
But my head ached, and it was cool and quiet in the litter. Before long I had fallen into a restful slumber.
I had no idea how long I had been sleeping, but I was awakened by a heavy jolt. The guards had lowered the tram and I could hear many voices clamoring outside. It sounded as though we had reached the Capitol. But the guards remained still and were talking in low tones amongst themselves.
Burning with curiosity, I peeked through a slit between the shades. A crowd had gathered in the market square and the way was blocked.
“Guard,” I called out, startling them out of their discussion. They turned their heads in unison to glance at me, then back at one another.
One approached me. “Your Highness?”
“What’s going one?” I asked.
“There seems to be a bit of a commotion and we are unable to make our way through.”
“Why? What’s happening?”
The guard raised his head and strained his neck to see. “Appears to be a kind of fight going on, Your Highness.”
I glanced up quickly, my interest peaked. Could it be my lads? “I want to see.”
The guard looked doubtful. “Are you sure, Your Highness?”
The guard grunted hesitantly but helped me out of the litter nevertheless. The rest of the soldiers were already attempting to push back the crowds of people, giving me enough room to pass through. A few eyes darted at me, shooting off fierce glares, then turning quickly to opened-mouths of shock when they saw my palace clothes. The electricity that had been pulsing through the crowd died down to a whisper of tension as I continued to pry my way through.
At last I stepped to the front. And was astonished at the scene that met my eyes.
There stood a group of boys, fists raised, all panting and grinning in vicious glee. And in the midst of the straggle, lay a child all sprawled out on the dirt of the street, unconscious, with black bruises covering his thin arms and legs. He looked to be no more than five years of age.
A tall brute of a boy stepped closer to the boy, his foot poised and ready to kick.
“Hey!” I yelled.
The group of boys raised their heads and turned to me. They took one look at the guards and bolted suddenly, pushing in a panic through the throngs of people till they were out of sight.
“What is the meaning of this?” I demanded as I rushed to the child and examined him. Though half-starved and badly beaten, the young boy had not sustained any serious injuries. I was about to call for a healer, when an old man stepped forward and bowed deeply, the rest of the crowd quickly following suite.
“Forgive me, Your Highness,” he murmured, “for not greeting you with due ceremony. No one alerted us of your arrival. I am the governor of the Capitol.”
I nodded briefly. “Who is this child? Why was he treated so?”
The governor stroked his long, white beard slowly and sadly. “The poor lad is the son of a deceased witch. Many of the villagers will have nothing to do with the child.” He shrugged casually. “They are all quite superstitious.”
“Not a single soul has helped him?” I asked, tears pricking the corners of my eyes.
The old man gave a slow, hesitant shake of his head. “No. Not since his mother died. I’m afraid the child has been without a home these past few weeks.
I looked down at the small head lying in my lap. He was so thin I could see the bones sticking out through his thin clothes. His breathing was unsteady and came out in rasping gasps.
My heart tightened at the sound.
Silently, I lifted the boy in my arms. He was so light that he hardly weighed more than a sparrow. I turned to the nearest guard.
“How soon till we reach my grandparents?” I asked him.
“Not for another hour, Your Highness.”
“That’s impossible,” I cried, “they live not a few minutes from here. This poor child needs medical assistance!”
“Your grandparents have been relocated to a fine mansion on the other end of the Capitol, just outside the borders of the city,” the guard explained, “His Majesty did so as a reward for keeping Your Highness well and in good health all these past years.”
For a few moments I paused to think. I wished to take care of the poor child as soon as possible. Grandmother was an expert healer. But she was another hour away, at least. The palace, on the other hand, could be reached within a few minutes – if I took a horse.
“I will not be needing the litter,” I told the guard, “Please lend me your stallion.
With some hesitation, the man brought his animal over to me. Carefully, I placed the boy in the saddle, tying my sash about his waist and around the horse’s neck.
“Hold him,” I commanded to the waiting guard as I lifted my foot into the stirrup. Mounting quickly, I grabbed the reins and clicked my tongue. Instantly, the horse began to trot as we made our way through the maze of people bargaining among the market stalls. Once we were through the gate, I kicked the stallion into a gallop which the animal managed with ease.
As the wind coursed over our faces, the boy began to shiver. “Mama…” he whispered, snuggling closer against my chest.
My throat tightened. “Hang on, child,” I pleaded, “We’re almost there.”
Coming around the final bend, we were within sight of the palace wall. Desperate with hope, I urged the horse faster. We broke to a sudden stop at the entrance, sending pebbles flying everywhere. Throwing the reins to an official standing nearby, I dismounted and gathered the boy in my arms.
Ignoring the curious looks tossed my way, I carried the boy to my chambers. Nalda was making up my bed when I entered. She gave a start, when she saw us, and dropped the sheets.
“What happened!” the old woman exclaimed as she rushed forward.
“He was beaten in the streets,” I explained as I let her help me lay the boy onto my bed. “I couldn’t leave him. He has no one, not even a place to stay.” I glanced up at Nalda over the child’s head. “He lost his mother a few weeks ago.”
“The poor dear,” she crooned, “I’ll take him to my room once the lad has rested.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I will look after him.”
“But Kkachi, dear,” Nalda objected, “You are in ill health. And the banquet is not far off.”
“My headaches are gone.”
And as I stared at the lonely figure that was sprawled out on my bed, I realized I had spoken the truth. My fierce headache had completely disappeared the moment I had picked the child up back in the Capitol’s square.
I got up and prepared a bowl of warm water. Sitting back down beside the little boy, I wiped down his small body with a damp cloth. After all the dirt and grime was gone, I redressed him in some of my clean clothes. Nalda’s eyes followed me throughout my ministrations, her gaze burning into my back. But after a while she gave a half-convinced sigh.
“You’re certainly able to move about more quickly than usual,” she grunted, “but possibly that comes from seeing your grandparents.”
Keeping my gaze fixed on the boy, I replied, “I didn’t get to visit them.”
“What? Why not?”
“Because I needed to attend to him immediately. There was no time for social visits.”
“This wasn’t a strict social call,” Nalda stated, “and isn’t your grandmother an herbalist?”
“Yes, but she lives too far away for me to take him to her. The boy is running a fever, Nalda,” I explained worriedly, “Grandmother would have wanted me to see to the child first.”
The old woman grew silent. Then I felt her warm palm rest on my shoulder for a moment before she rose and stepped out of the room, leaving me with the sleeping boy.
Looking up, I saw moonlight stream through the open door. Night had fallen already. I shuddered and gazed warily about the room, searching for the eerie shadows, that had been visiting me lately every night, to appear. However, I could not see any, not even in the darkest corners of the room. But it was still early.
All night I tended to the boy. His forehead was hot with fever and he shivered violently under the many blankets piled on him. I dabbed at his flushed face with a damp cloth many times, and rubbed his ice-cold feet vigorously in an attempt to bring the fever down.
And all night those shadowy creatures stayed away. Not one entered my room.
Around the middle of the night, the fever finally left. I must have dozed off afterwards, because the next moment I woke up to see the young lad sitting up and staring at me. His eyes were a bright, jeweled green. And his gaze was rather severe, as if he was judging what he saw.
“A good thing I came,” the boy whispered to himself.
“You were injured,” I explained, “I brought you here in order to help heal you.”
The boy looked about the room, his eyes growing darker as his pupils dilated. His gaze shifted constantly, as if he was seeing past what could be seen.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Usan,” he replied quietly, “Where am I?”
“In the palace.”
The boy’s face grew dark. “You were in grave danger,” he told me, “they were trying to steal your soul.”
I blinked. “Who were?”
The boy turned to look at me with surprise. “You don’t know?” he asked, before continuing on to explain, “they are captive demons, summoned and commanded by a person that stills dwells among the living. A person with unnatural power.”
I gave a shaky laugh. “You must still be feverish,” I said while trying to gently push the boy back onto the pillows, “rest and regain your strength.”
“Can I stay?” he asked softly, his voice trembling weakly.
“Of course,” I replied assuredly, “as long as you like.”
“Long enough to get rid of the demons?” He asked. “It’s what mother would’ve wanted me to do.”
“Sure,” I said, playing along, “but no demon chasing until you get better.”
“I don’t need to chase them,” the boy said, closing his eyes sleepily, “my presence is enough to keep them at bay.”
I smiled as the child fell into a peaceful, feverless slumber.
“Here. Eat this.” I laid out a tray full of hot, steaming food on the bed before propping the pillows up behind Usan’s back.
The boy tasted the food before, after a couple bites, diving right into the meal.
“Is it good?” I asked with a grin.
Usan lifted his head sheepishly after shoveling in a mouthful. With a swallow, he said, “Yes … Thank-you.”
“Good. I’m glad.”
Usan cocked his head to one side. “I forgot to ask you last night. What’s your name?”
I hesitated. Already I was growing fond of the boy. Usan had such a sweet, frank way about him and I didn’t want that to change once he discovered that I was a princess.
I opened my mouth to tell him that is was Kkachi, when a voice resonated throughout the room.
Lady Moon-sol stood in the doorway, her eyebrows arched and her gaze settling on Usan.
I started. “I’m terribly sorry,” I apologized, rising to my feet, “I forgot that we had lessons today.”
I glanced over at Usan, who seemed unfazed at me being a princess and quite fascinated by Lady Moon-sol. His eyes never left her face. Lady Moon-sol’s own locked with the boy’s and held as they scrutinized each other. After a few moments, she huffed and turned away.
“We must start, Your Highness,” the Lady remarked while gliding across the room to the tea set, “it would be best for the child to leave.”
I looked down at Usan, who had finally torn his eyes away from Lady Moon-sol and was now staring up at me, silently begging me not to send him away.
“Is it alright if we have an observer,” I asked, causing Usan to grin.
Lady Moon-sol sighed deeply. “I suppose there can be an exception this one time,” she emphasized, while beginning to prepare the tea, starting with her blessing as always.
Finished, Lady Moon-sol was just handing the tea over to me, when the cup was suddenly intercepted by Usan, who immediately raised it to his lips and took a small sip.
“No one should drink the tea, except the one to whom it was offered,” the Lady cried in an outrage, glaring darkly at the boy. She rose abruptly and faced me. “Your Highness, I insist. The boy must leave.”
“I’m sorry,” I apologized while rising to face her, “but I’m sure that Usan meant no harm. He will learn with time – just as I did.”
Lady Moon-sol raised her brow. “Am I to understand that this – waif – is to remain with you, in your quarters?” she asked.
I squared my shoulders and raised my chin. “Yes. And I would take it kindly if you would not address him like that.”
Lady Moon-sol stepped back with a huff. “Forgive me, Your Highness,” she spoke icily, “but I am unable to conduct our lessons if this boy remains.”
“Surely he can stay in my chamber,” I objected, “he will be really quiet.” I looked down at Usan, who was nodding back vigorously.
“It is impossible.”
“Well …” I paused as I thought about how much I needed to learn. The banquet was tomorrow and I still felt ill-prepared. However, Lady Moon-sol’s manner towards Usan made me uneasy. “Is there no other way?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness,” she replied coolly, “but our lessons together cannot resume unless it’s just the two of us. It ensures privacy and you need complete concentration. There can not be room for distractions.” She eyed Usan pointedly.
“Very well,” I said, “then consider our lessons cancelled. I have enjoyed our time together and will treasure your wisdom.”
Lady Moon-sol’s face paled. “But, Your Highness,” she stammered, “you can not afford to back down. There is still far too much to learn. What will the Emperor say?”
I met her eyes calmly. “I abide by my decision.”
Lady Moon-sol hesitated for a second. Then composing herself, and with a slight lift of her nose, she curtsied while muttering, “Very well. Goodbye, Your Highness.” And with that, she swept out of the room, the door banging loudly behind her.
As soon as she was gone, I heaved a loud sigh and thumped back into my cushioned chair.
“Thank you,” Usan whispered, “you didn’t have to do that.”
I smiled cheerily back at him. “It’s okay. I’ve been longing to toss her out since the day I met her.”
“No,” the boy corrected, “I meant that I still would have been able to protect you.”
I frowned. “Protect me from what?”
The boy raised his eyes and looked at me curiously. “From the curse of course.”
Usan opened his mouth to explain. But just then Nalda entered the room.
“Did you see Lady Moon-sol?” she asked, slamming down her tray, “she was terribly discourteous to me, bordering on insolent, I’d say.”
“What did she do?” I asked.
“Stopped me in the middle of the corridor and started talking about your safety. That you were under some sort of spell. Mentioned something about a witch’s boy and how he will bring darkness upon the entire palace,” Nalda scoffed, “Not only that. She even dared to insinuate that you might not be in any danger after all, but that you were the perpetrator of such schemes. Can you imagine!?”
I laughed uneasily. Usan said nothing, but kept his gaze down on his tea.
“Anyway,” Nalda continued, “I was most civil, but how my blood did boil. Etiquette teacher indeed. She needs a few lessons herself.” She looked over at us and noticed how quiet we’d both become. Nalda raised a brow. “What did cause Lady Moon-sol to be so upset?”
I bit my lip. “I discontinued my lessons.”
“She didn’t want Usan to be in the room.”
I nodded slowly.
“That … that woman must be out of her mind,” Nalda cried, “if a princess has a request, then one is obliged to fulfill it, regardless of whether it be against policy, rules, or etiquette. Always rank over traditions.”
I chuckled in relief. “I’m glad you think so.”
She turned to face me seriously. “It’s not what I think. It’s the law.”
“So, I can ask you anything and you would have to do it?” I asked with a slight smirk.
“Of course, I …” Nalda paused, her mouth open. Then she turned to me with a spark in her eye. “Don’t you take advantage of a poor old woman now.”
“She won’t,” Usan spoke up for me.
I looked down at the young boy and caught a smile spread across his face.
I grinned. “He’s right.”