The next morning, I woke up sore and bruised, with my clothes clinging to my body as if they had dried wet during the night. My hair was hanging in sticky, loose strands in a tangled mess all down to my waist and out of its usual plait. Confused, I thought back on the events of the previous evening.
Nalda had made quite a fuss when I’d come home. She’d insisted on my taking a hot bath as she gently rubbed the dirt out of all the scrapes and scratches spread across my body. After I had dressed in clean garments, the old woman added a healing paste to the cut in the hand and bound it up in a new bandage. I had then taken my dinner with Usan, and once I had seen that the boy was tucked safely in his bed, I had gone to sleep.
So, why was I such a mess? Glancing out the window I realized with a shock that it was nearing noon.
“Usan!” I cried out across the empty room. Straight away, the boy came running inside at the sound of my voice.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” I asked.
A puzzled frown came across his face. “You told me not to,” he said.
“When did I say that?”
“Last night. You had come back to your room late and told me not to wake you in the morning.”
“What happened after I sent you to bed?” I asked.
“You went to bed, but I saw you step outside later,” the boy replied, “And you didn’t come back in until the moon was high in the sky. I remember because I had fallen asleep and only woke up when you dropped your sword.”
“What sword?” I jumped from my bed quickly and looked about the room. There, in the middle of the floor, lay a scabbard of dark ebony, with the hilt peeking out of its casing. Picking it up, I examined it and caught an engraving on the hilt. Bending closely, I saw strange markings running along down its side, from some ancient language. Curious, I slowly unsheathed it. A pure, sharp blade of steel met my eyes, its metal glinting and shining in the sun, casting mirrors of light about the room. Its weight balanced perfectly in my hand.
“Where did I get this?” I whispered in awe.
“You found it in a cave.”
I turned to Usan. “I did?”
“That’s what you told me when I asked last night,” he replied with a shrug.
“Did I say anything else?”
He shook his head. “No. You were tired and I didn’t want to bother you with any more questions.” The boy blushed. “I found a bowl of water and a towel for you to use after seeing how dirty you were. But you were already asleep when I returned. So, I cleaned your face while you slept.”
Touched, I bent down and wrapped Usan in a hug. “Thank you for taking care of me,” I whispered into his hair as I squeezed him tightly. Pulling away, I pondered, “But where could I have gotten this sword?”
“You don’t remember?” Usan asked.
I shook my head. “Not a thing.”
“Well, your clothes were drenched with water, but you were not cold,” the boy said, “Your forehead was hot and your pulse heavy, as if you had been practicing swordplay – a lot. At least that is what I thought since you brought back a sword.”
Frightened, I bit my lip and looked cautiously about the room, before whispering, “Do you think this has anything to do with the Incarcerates?”
Usan frowned in thought for a moment, but to my relief, he shook his head firmly. “No. This is not their doing. I do not sense any evil trying to bind itself to your body. At least …”
“At least … what?” I prodded.
“At least, it is not the work of an evil spirit,” Usan reassured me, “But it could be a good spirit – perhaps the soul of a departed friend or loved one.”
“Then why can’t I remember?”
“I’m not sure,” the boy muttered, with a frustrated frown, “But my mother once told me that occasionally the mind blocks out memories that are too painful. Perhaps that’s what is happening to you.”
“How could meeting an old friend be painful?” I asked. “If it is someone I once knew, wouldn’t I be glad to see them?”
“Not if the memory of how you lost them is too raw and hurtful.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “Don’t tell Nalda about this. It will be our secret.”
Usan’s face brightened. “Just ours?”
“Ours only,” I replied, “At least until we figure out what this is all about.”
At that moment there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” I called.
Smiling and humming an old lullaby, walked in Nalda. But the song died on her lips when she saw me.
“Child! You are not dressed!” She admonished before rushing towards me. Suddenly she stopped, holding me at arms length, and sniffed. “You need to take a bath first.”
“What’s the hurry?” I asked.
“Don’t you remember?”
“Remember – what?”
“Prince Iyagi’s birthday. It’s today.”
Hastily, we jumped to our feet and started to dash about the room – I grabbing clean garments and Usan fetching my slippers. Nalda poured my bath and doused a guilty supply of rose petals into the steaming water. Once I gingerly sank in, she asked, “How did you get so dirty? Before I took leave last night, I saw you fall into your bed all bundled in blankets like a freshly washed newborn babe.”
“I don’t know,” I sighed, wincing as I rubbed my right shoulder.
“Are your muscles sore?”
I shook my head as I began to feel my limbs relax. “I’m fine.”
Nevertheless, Nalda eased her hold. After a moment she asked, “Have you been practicing?”
“Your martial forms. That would make your body ache.”
“Yes, and I’ve been doing that in my sleep,” I joked with a merry chuckle.
Nalda did not laugh with me. But she changed the topic. “Well, I hope that you are prepared to give another performance. All the servants are whispering about how much the Prince is looking forward to seeing you dance again.”
I started forward, which sent puddles of water splashing to the floor.
“What?!” I squeaked.
“Shh, shh,” Nalda waved her hands at me to keep quiet and glanced anxiously about. “Honestly child! I know you haven’t been princess long, but you should know better than to raise your voice so!”
“The prince expects me to dance?” I asked her hoarsely in a lowered tone.
“Of course.” She smirked. “Apparently you made quite an impression with His Highness at the banquet. He may even be falling for you.”
Nalda’s nose wrinkled. “Well, at times you can be charming – in your own way.”
I tilted my chin up and grinned, before turning back around. “Thank you,” I said before heaving a contented sigh.
“So, the thought pleases you?” The old woman asked.
“The prince paying court to you.”
I laughed. “No! In fact, the very idea is absurd. But I was just thinking now, how happy I am for your company. It makes living in this strange place a bit easier.”
Nalda gently brushed a wet strand of hair back away from my eyes. “Well, I’m no prince,” she said softly, her voice tight with emotion, “but I must admit that at times, you remind me of the granddaughter I never had.”
We spent the rest of the bath in companionable silence, each absorbed in her own thoughts.
At last I was clean and dry, and Nalda took me over to the wardrobe to pick out a dress for the party. Usan stood by, watching us with big eyes as we selected many gowns.
“How about this one?”
Nalda visibly winced at the gown I held out. “No, no – pink is not your color. You are too dark,” she replied, leaning forward and grabbing something from behind me. With a quick, florid shake and a swish, Nalda swung a dark, velvet-blue dress in front of me.
Holding it up by the shoulders, she waited patiently with a smile spread across her face as I examined it. Entirely made of satin, it was smooth and silky to the touch as I ran my fingers gently over its folds. Flowers of emerald green were beaded into the sleeves which dangled gracefully mid-length down the dress’ sides. A sash of midnight blue was tied just below the chest.
“It’s beautiful,” I breathed.
“Good. Put it on,” Nalda ordered.
I squinted at her as she pulled a cheeky grin, but obeyed nonetheless and stepped behind the dressing screen. As soon as the material nestled upon my bare skin, I felt as if I was being wrapped in the cool night sky itself. I came out and Usan and Nalda gave a collective gasp.
It was so beautiful!
I couldn’t help myself and gave a twirl. The gown’s skirt fanned out and rippled in gentle waves. While I spun, the dress twinkled and winked as invisible beads caught light, giving the illusion that I was wearing the heaven’s own stars. The long sleeves resembled a breeze as they floated in the air.
“You sure look pretty,” Usan murmured softly.
“Enough to catch a prince’s heart,” remarked the impish Nalda.
I stopped spinning and glared at her.
“Well, I think it’s about time you set off,” Nalda said, ignoring my stare and gave me a little shove towards the door.
Turning back quickly, I knelt in front of Usan and grabbed both his hands. Squeezing them I said, “Wish me luck,” before kissing him on the forehead.
“Good fortune be with you,” Usan answered solemnly.
With that I was rustled outside, Nalda pulling me half the way. Two maids were already waiting to escort me to the Prince’s garden. The sun already hung low in the sky and cast sparks of fire on nearby clouds, causing them to flame in brilliant colours. The walk was quiet and pleasant, the air sweet as crickets chirped in the reeds we passed by. But as we neared sounds of festivity, chatter and music, met our ears. My knees began to knock together as we approached a set of gates that led into a garden walled off from the outside world. Once standing before them, I was told by the maids to wait until announced.
A courtier approached us and the gates opened as he pronounced my name loudly. I stepped forward and the garden fell silent. Even the musicians paused their instruments.
I hesitated, and felt the sudden urge to flee. Then I saw Nakai at the end of the garden, standing beside a transfixed Prince Iyagi. He gave me a wink and immediately I felt calmer. I gave the guard a conspiratorial wink back before marching, being careful not to tread on my gown, towards the table laden with gifts that stood before the prince.
Reaching the table, I bowed. “You look well, Your Highness,” I said.
“Not half as well as you, Princess,” Prince Iyagi replied with a brilliant smile, “Why – you look positively radiant!” Not taking his gaze off me, the Prince turned to his guard. “Don’t you think so, Nakai?”
Nakai remained silent, but gave a sure nod. His eyes were dark as a stormy ocean, but his gaze held steady as he smiled.
“I apologize, Your Highness.” I held my hands out, palms upward. “I bring no gift.”
“Really?” Prince Iyagi looked disappointed and his eyes fell. Then they sprung up again with a twinkle and their owner grinned slightly. “Would you be willing to remedy that?”
“Sure,” I said, “But I though that Your Highness wasn’t expecting any gifts?”
“True. But I find myself desiring a little memento from my favorite princess at the Palace.” The prince then gave a pathetic sigh, though a smirk was starting to tug at the corners of his mouth.
“Oh … alright.”
“Then how about a kiss!”
I blinked in confusion.
“Come now – surely you won’t go back on your word,” the prince prodded with a wide grin.
Gritting my teeth, I started to walk around the table.
“No need to come up here, princess,” Prince Iyagi stated, “My guard will accept my gift for me. All my gifts pass through his capable hands first.” The prince then gave Nakai a playful shove. “Go on – receive my present from Princess Forsythia.”
Nakai looked startled and his face grew beet red. But slowly, he stepped down and around the table, till he stood in front of me. Slowly, he bent down, turning his cheek to be kissed. He was so tall that I had to stand on tiptoe to reach him. Then Prince Iyagi laughed.
“No, no,” he cried as we both looked at him. The prince leaned back in his chair and tapped his mouth slowly with one finger. Our eyes widened and glanced at the other.
“Come now. It’s my birthday,” the prince coaxed.
Nakai and I both glared daggers at him. Prince Iyagi simply started smugly back. Everyone in the garden had hushed their talk and were now watching us, expectant and waiting.
Resigned, I reached up and laid my hands on Nakai’s broad shoulders. The guard’s eyes immediately shot into mine and the muscles under my fingertips tensed. I hesitated. I had never been kissed before. But just when I was about to back down, Nakai’s head descended and his lips crashed into my own.
Shocked, my eyes remained open. But as Nakai’s burning lips continued to move, kissing me again and again, my lids slowly fluttered close. Shivers ran up and down my spine, and every limb in my body grew weak. I felt Nakai wrap his arms around my waist, holding me steady. My hands instinctively flew to the nape of his neck, where my nails dug into his hair.
We pulled away from each other, our faces hot and flushed. Neither looked at the other. However, when I did sneak a glance at the guard, I was surprised to see Nakai smiling quietly to himself. The Prince himself looked slightly uncomfortable. But he gave a light chuckle and started to clap his hands together, others following suit.
“Bravo! Brava!” His Highness declared enthusiastically.
Nakai moved to leave. Hastily, I latched onto his hand and gave it a friendly squeeze. The guard raised his brows, but smiled and squeezed back when he caught sight of my worried face before dropping my hand.
“Princess Forsythia, come.” Prince Iyagi gestured eagerly to his side. “Come and sit over here.”
With a grateful bow, I walked around the table to take the seat given. Just as I was sitting down, the gates opened. In walked Princess Pulsa, regal as ever with head held high and a condescending smile pressed against the corners of her rouge red mouth. Her eyes widened then narrowed when she saw me, as if she was surprised to see me. However, she bowed gracefully before the Prince and then gestured to one of her maids to bring forth a bundle wrapped in red silk.
“For your birthday, Your Highness,” the Princess murmured sweetly.
“My thanks to you,” Prince Iyagi replied, “Won’t you take a seat? The banquet is about to be served.”
Princess Pulsa smiled and gave a delicate nod of her head. But she looked slightly offended when the Prince did not even touch her gift. She glanced my way once more before walking over to a group of ladies and sat amongst them.
The meal that followed was full of merriment and laughter. Troubadours entertained us with extravagant performances while we ate meats and sweet delicacies. With spiced wine tingling in my blood, I began to relax and enjoy myself. Prince Iyagi often leaned over to whisper idiotic nonsense in my ear, setting me into a fit of giggles. Once, I caught Nakai scowling at us, but I chose to ignore him and tried to focus on what the prince was saying. Nevertheless, afterwards I could not remember a single word. I also noticed that Nakai did not take anything for himself, but occasionally tasted the wine or a plate of food of the Prince’s food before giving it to him.
It was at a late hour when the banquet finally slowed to an end. Everyone leaned back comfortably in his cushion, belly full and breathed in the cool, fragrant air of the garden. People conversed in low, easy tones with their neighbors as a lazy sensation overtook each one. Feeling the need to stir things up, Prince Iyagi stood.
“I’d like to beseech,” he began in a loud voice, “To entreat the Princess Forsythia …” he paused effectively and looked around at the crowd, wine swishing in his glass, “To dance for us!” At this the crowd clapped and cheered happily.
“Oh, no … I can’t,” I hissed urgently at him under my breath.
“I insist,” Prince Iyagi said and held out his hand for me to take. I did and rose out of my seat. But instead of walking to the middle of the court, I remained where I stood and addressed the crowd.
“My apologies, Your Highness,” I began with a slight nod to the Prince, “But this morning I twisted my ankle. Instead, I can think of no greater pleasure than to see Princess Pulsa perform. Would she do us the great honor?”
I turned to my cousin with a smile. But to my surprise, she did not seem pleased. Instead her face had turned extremely pale and angry, with white lines forming around her pursed mouth. But a throng of admirers surrounded her and entreated the Princess so persistently, that she finally rose half-heartedly to appease them.
Just as the musicians struck up the first chord of notes, I noticed Nakai whisper to the Prince before sneaking out through the curtain and disappearing behind the canopy. Curious, I couldn’t help wanting to know what was going on. So, I waited a few moments – then, when no one was looking – I slipped away.
Looking quickly around, I found the guard standing on a little bridge, looking over the lily pond. A full moon shone her cold beams of light across the crystal waters, casting a shadow of Nakai’s strong back across the wood boards of the bridge behind him. I approached him quietly. The guard was so deep in thought, he didn’t notice me.
Not wishing to disturb him, I started to turn back when Nakai suddenly uttered a groan of pain and clenched the rail of the bridge so tightly that his knuckles turned white. Lifting my skirts, I ran to his side.
“Nakai!” I cried, “What’s wrong?”
Nakai tried to smile reassuringly, but then bent over double with another groan of pain. He was biting his lip so hard now, that it was bleeding. He tried to motion for me to return to the party.
“No,” I said firmly, “You are not well and I can help you. Here -” I reached forward and took his arm, placing it around my shoulder. “Lean on me.” With some difficulty, Nakai managed to rise and take a few steps. His breathing was labored and his eyes bloodshot. His lips were turning blue and he was beginning to shiver with fever.
“You’ve been poisoned,” I told him, recognizing the signs, “I need to take you home. Where are your quarters?”
He pointed down a path leading to a cluster of buildings a little distance away from the garden. “Think you can manage?” I asked gently. He gave me a brief nod, accompanied by a brave smile which quickly turned into a grimace of pain.
Together, we walked slowly off the bridge and down the path.