A cold draft brushed up against my skin, giving me goosepimples. Suddenly, my things didn’t seem so important and I hastily vacated the place. Turning my back on my old quarters, I could almost imagine an invisible pair of eyes, lidless and without pupils, watching me leave. I walked faster, anxious to be out of sight. By the time I reached my new home, I was running at full speed.
Dashing over the bridge and into the garden, I found Iyagi playing tag with Usan. Or perhaps it was hide-in-seek, except the boy was standing in a bush that only came up to his waist.
“The point of the game is to make sure I don’t see you,” Iyagi told Usan with a laugh.
“But how else will you find me?”
“I will look very carefully. And if I can’t find you, then that makes you the winner.”
“Oh.” Usan turned to find another hiding place when he saw me. “Kkachi!” He jumped out of the bush and came running at me.
I caught the boy, swung him around and tossed him up into the air, sending Usan into a fit of laughter that filled the whole garden. My heart felt light as I gazed on the child’s beaming face, and in that moment, I silently swore to the heavens that no harm would ever come to the child. Over my dead body.
Iyagi stepped over to us, looking pleased. “Where are your things, Kkachi? I can help bring them inside.”
I shook my head. “It’s no matter. Once I got there, I forgot what it was I wanted,” I said, trying to speak lightly.
But my tone was too forced. Iyagi frowned slightly. “Are you alright?” He asked gently, “You look a bit pale.”
I wanted to tell him. I really did. But someone, or something, was after me. And it lived right here in the palace. Perhaps it was even watching me at this very moment. I didn’t want to put Iyagi at risk.
“I’m fine – everything’s fine,” I lied before focusing my attention on attacking Usan’s ribs with my fingers.
Iyagi did not look convinced but chose to leave the matter be. For now.
“So, you like it here?” I asked Usan, once I stopped tickling the poor boy and let him catch his breath.
“Oh yes!” he gasped in reply. Then he glanced more carefully around, “Except …” He stopped and looked nervously at Iyagi.
“What?” I prodded.
Usan cupped his hand over my ear. “Except it doesn’t have a place to fight,” he whispered loudly.
“That’s not a problem,” Iyagi answered for me, causing the boy to start. “I shall have someone convert the side property into a small, open courtyard. In the mean time, you can still practice right here.” He gave Usan a wink before adding, “Just mind the flowers.” Looking at me, the Prince gave a nod and then made for the house, leaving us alone.
“Well, that solves everything,” I said cheerfully. Usan didn’t reply, but continued to stare after the prince. When he finally turned back to me, his eyes were as solemn as an old man’s.
“He cares deeply for you.”
“He told me that we used to be friends,” I said.
Usan shook his head. “This is different – it’s deeper.”
I frowned curiously, trying to ignore my pounding heart. “You can tell what we think and what we feel?”
“Not exactly,” Usan replied with a little sigh, “I’m not sure how to explain. I think of it as reading people’s eyes. At times they become like windows, and whatever is showing on the other side, that’s what I can see.”
“And what can you see in Iyagi’s?” I asked nonchalantly.
Usan met my eyes for a moment, then looked away with a little smile. “I think Iyagi wouldn’t want me to say.”
“Hmph,” I grunted, putting the boy back down on the ground, before changing the topic, “So … want to practice?”
The boy’s face brightened immediately and he bobbed his head vigorously up and down.
It was only after a couple of sessions, we discovered that Usan was right and we really did need a miniature courtyard. Due to our intense excursion, in the hurry of engaged defence or negligent pursuit, many rows of gardenias and peonies suffered, their delicate stems breaking wherever an errant step landed. One entire plot of flowers lay in the imprint of Usan’s body, their little bodies flattened, where he had fallen after tripping.
While taking a respite, I looked about us and remarked, “It’s more of an obstacle course, really.”
Usan followed my gaze. “Is that good?” he asked.
“We do learn more about agility and precision,” I replied, “But for the poor flowers, we wouldn’t need a courtyard.”
“Yes … but I like them to be safe,” Usan said sadly, as he looked at the fair blossoms lining the path.
“Seems you guys have been hard at training!” A deep voice called out. Turning abruptly, we saw Prince Iyagi … or rather the fake prince Nakai … crossing over the bridge at the other end of the garden. Now knowing his true identity, I was struck by the man’s ease and confidence. Not an ounce of distress or hesitation destroyed his performance as he impersonated one of the most important royals of the Empire. His walk was always steady, his posture erect, and his head held high with a careless nonchalance.
“Who is that?” Usan asked in a hoarse whisper.
“Good morning, Your Highness,” I called out with a welcoming smile, “What brings you here?”
“I came to see how my guard was treating his new, beautiful bride,” Nakai answered, pausing in his step to bestow a handsome bow, “You are well, I hope?”
“Quite well, thank you,” I replied somewhat haughtily.
He nodded back before gesturing towards Usan, who was eyeing him severely. “Who’s this?”
“A dear friend of mine,” I stated, refusing to give the boy’s name, since the man in front of me had not yet dropped his mask.
“Well, any friend of the princess is a friend of mine,” replied Nakai cheerfully, ignoring Usan’s steady, unguarded expression. “Speaking of friends – I’ve happened to meet another one of yours.”
“A General Dal.”
My heart dropped. “And?” I asked hastily.
“He inquired after you rather brazenly,” Nakai began, “Called you by your peasant name, Kkachi. I was quick to correct him and referred to you by your full title.”
“Really?!” I managed to choke out.
Nakai nodded proudly. “The Princess Forsythia, lost and found daughter to His Majesty, the Emperor – that’s what I told the general.”
I was overcome with a strong desire to slap my forehead. That’s when I heard someone chuckle. It was Iyagi, standing on the porch and seemed to be enjoying my pain.
“What’s so amusing?” the fake prince asked the real one.
Iyagi shook his head. “Oh nothing. Kkachi is simply discovering that it is better to tell the truth sooner than later.”
“Says you!” I retorted strongly back.
“So, you know our secret?” Nakai asked hesitantly, glancing at Iyagi out of the corner of his eye.
I crossed my arms and nodded.
“Splendid!” he clapped his hands together happily, then jumped up onto the porch, grabbed Iyagi’s hand and began shaking it enthusiastically. “I’ve forgotten my manners,” he said, “Allow me to congratulate you, old fellow. You’ve caught yourself a true beauty.” The arrogant fellow winked at me. “You must tell me your secret.”
Iyagi glanced my way. “I shall keep that secret well-guarded with my life,” he said with a cough as I blushed furiously.
Nakai shook his finger and clicked his tongue. “Is that how you repay me?” He asked, “It was I who threw that spark between the two of you, after all. I’m inclined to accept my own birthday presents from now on.”
“Then you will receive none from my wife,” Iyagi replied, his voice tight.
“Really?” Nakai glanced at me. “Well, keep an eye on her. I may whisk the lovely princess away someday.”
Iyagi drew an arm around my shoulder and pulled me against him suddenly. “Not likely,” he declared sincerely. My cheeks grew hot. I was so close to him that my head nearly rested upon his chest and caught a whiff of scent from his hair. It smelled like pine.
“Well, I must be going,” Nakai said lighthearedly, “I owe Princess Pulsa a visit anyway.” He bowed. “My best wishes to you both.”
“Thank you,” I murmured. With Iyagi’s arm still wrapped about my shoulders, I watched as the fake prince/guard walked out the garden. Only once he was out of sight did Iyagi let me go.
For a moment, we just stood next to each other, avoiding eye contact. I looked up at the sky, down at the pebbles, across the rippling brook – anywhere and everywhere except the prince’s direction.
At that moment, Nalda came running down the path. I was so grateful for the interruption that I rushed to meet her.
“Your Highness,” she gasped, “General Dal wants to see you.”
I gulped. “Very well. I shall go to him.”
Nalda shook her head. “There’s no need for that, child.”
“Because he’s already here.”