The next morning, Grandma woke me up. “Come child,” She whispered, shaking my shoulder, “We have to get you dressed.”
“Dressed for what?” I asked sleepily, rubbing my eyes against the glare of the sunbeams shining through my window sill.
“For the Emperor of course,” Grandma laughed while pulling out a chest from under the bed. She lifted the heavy lid and then grabbed out a white bundle. “I think you should wear this. You would want to look your best now.”
I sat up slowly and fingered the arm of the dress she was holding. “But Grandma,” I protested, “You made this for me to wear on my wedding day.”
“Yes, but it would seem that that is not likely to happen anytime soon,” Grandma sighed, “So today is my only option to see you wearing it. Besides,” She paused to glare at me, “All your other dresses are torn.”
I giggled excitedly and jumped out of bed. Grandma helped to put the gown over my head and tied the laces in the back. Then over that, she helped put on a white, long-sleeved linen jacket with embroiders of golden yarn sewn all along the sides. It blended perfectly with the simple dress, giving it elegance. Feeling like a princess, I twirled around the room, delighted with how the skirt flowed and rippled as I spun.
“You look beautiful,” Grandma said softly.
I grabbed her hands and kissed them. “Thank you, Grandma. I love it.”
“Well, I’m just glad that it fits. Now you will finally look like the other girls, instead of running around with mud on your face.”
I laughed and twirled again. “Honestly, I feel more ladylike,” I confessed.
Grandma shook her head. “Then it’s my mistake for not making you wear it sooner.” She cupped my cheek and gazed fondly into my eyes. “My dear, remember, that no matter what happens … I’m proud of you … so much.”
I pressed my hand over hers. “Thank you. I love you, Grandma.”
Grandma pulled away and wiped her eyes. “Well, we’d better show Grandpa,” She sniffed.
I nodded and followed her out of the room. We found Grandpa sitting in the kitchen, smoking his pipe and looking thoughtfully outside the window. But as soon as he saw me, the pipe fell out of his mouth and he stood up.
“Well, Grandpa?” I spun for him. “What do you think?”
“I, uh …” Grandpa coughed and blinked. “I feel as if I’m standing in front of a grand lady.” Then, to my surprise, my Grandfather bowed.
“I’ve long wanted to do that,” He muttered, rising slowly.
“Why?” I laughed.
Grandpa did not chuckle in return, but remained serious. He grabbed my face gently in his hands and touched our foreheads together. “I’m proud of you, Kkachi.”
“Thanks, Grandpa,” I whispered back, touched and confused.
He pulled away and glanced back out the window. “Don’t you have to meet those boys today?” He asked gruffly.
“Yes,” I agreed, “And I’d better be going if I’m to make it to the market square in time.”
I rushed to the door and was halfway out before I turned back again. “Bye Grandma and Grandpa,” I called out cheerily, “See you soon.”
With that I was out of the house and running down the yard.
* * * * * *
When I opened the door to Boja’s hut, all the boys stopped chattering and stared.
“Who are you and what have you done to Kkachi?” Boja cried.
I scowled. “Hey, I don’t look that different.”
All of the gang nodded their heads adamantly.
“You do,” Koulow admitted, rubbing his nose, and looking me up and down. He stopped when he saw me giving him the death glare.
“You look very pretty,” Yahi said, who stood up and bowed, making me blush.
“Woah, she even blushes like a girl,” Ja remarked, eyes wide, “We are dealing with an imposter here, lads. What should be our course of action?”
“Offer the lady some refreshment?” Yahi suggested.
“Bind and gag her,” Koulow muttered. “Not too tight though,” He added when he received another glare.
“Simple,” Boja spoke up, “Ask her.” He stepped forward till we were standing face to face. “My lady, are you called Kkachi?”
“That is my name, yes,” I replied.
“And do you happen to know the Protector?”
I smirked. “Trick question there Boja. I am the Protector.”
“Correct!” Boja clapped and then offered his arm. I took it and together we turned to the others. “It’s alright lads. I’ve interrogated the stranger and it turns out to be our own, dear Kkachi, in disguise.”
“Why the getup?” Koulow asked as I sat down next to him and began to look over the plans laid across the table.
“The Emperor is coming to the market today,” I explained, “And His Majesty has requested every girl within a certain age to be there.”
“Ah yes, I’ve heard about that,” Yahi remarked, “Very sad really.”
“You’re actually going?” Koulow asked sceptically.
“Yes, my Grandma and Grandpa want me to.”
“Well, I guess we’d better hurry then,” Boja cut in.
With that, we talked about our plans for the next mission. Nothing too serious to get out search for us, but that will do enough good. Koulow recommended breaking into the Capitol’s Hall and collect anything valuable in there to give to those in great need. He was overruled. Ja proposed attacking a merchant carriage. Again, overruled. Yahi suggested taking posts around the market to keep an eye out for thieves and pickpockets. That was agreeable.
“Hey, my idea was great,” Koulow objected.
“No, it wasn’t,” I stated, “It broke the law.”
I sighed. “If we want to remain the ‘good guys’ then we can only break the law if there is a just reason. Otherwise, no cutting corners, no looking for trouble.”
“And no fun,” Koulow muttered under his breath.
Letting that comment go, Ja and I scheduled our positions and the times we change posts.
“Well done everyone,” I said once we’d finished, “I’ll see you all tomorrow. I’ve got to go now.”
I stood up and Boja walked me to the door. “Hey, I’ll come with you,” He said.
“Why?” I asked.
“You’re a lady. Ladies should never walk alone.” He puffed out his chest. “I shall be your escort.”
I laughed. “You never escorted me before.”
“You never looked like a lady before.”
“Alright,” I ceded, “You can walk me to the square. But I know your true motive.”
Boja threw a hand over his heart as we continued to walk down the street. “I assure you ma’am, my intentions are truly honorable!”
I waggled my brow. “Doubt that. You only want to goggle at the other girls who will be there.”
The young man dropped his hand. “How’d you know?”
I turned to face him while walking backwards. “I’m your Captain. I know everything about my first mate,” I said impishly, waving my hands at my sides.
Boja’s warning came too late. I slipped, tripped on the edge of my gown and fell face first into a puddle of mud. Slowly, I raised my head out of the goop and blinked hard to get the slime out of my eyes as Boja roared.
With a dreadful swore, I jumped to my feet. “Look at me!” I cried, wiping at the mud that dripped down my front, “Grandma will kill me when she finds out. It will break her heart to discover what I’ve done – I’m ruined!”
Boja rolled his eyes. “Stop being such a girl. It’s only a little bit of dirt.”
I turned fiercely. “You’re not the one to has to appear like this in front of the Emperor. Quick, give me your handkerchief so that I can clean my face.”
“Why? I find it rather an improvement,” Boja teased, but handed me his ‘kerchief anyway.
“Thanks,” I growled, wiping my cheeks vigorously. “How’s that?”
“Hmm, not bad,” He replied, “Wait, you missed a spot.” Boja tugged the tip of my nose. “There. It’ll have to do, Kkachi – you’ll be late if we are gone for much longer.”
“Fine,” I sighed in anguish.
Once we reached the square I felt even more out of place. Flocks of girls, all dressed in bright, colorful gowns and with glossy, hair that had been brushed till it shone, twittered and giggled amongst each other. I looked down at my muddy hands, and immediately tried to hide them in the jacket’s long sleeves. I touched my hair self-consciously and discovered that the braid had come undone. The strands now hung free in a tangled mess.
“Good luck,” Boja whispered before disappearing into the crowd, leaving me to join the girls.
At that moment, a trumpet blew and a man on a large, white stallion came galloping into the square. Jumping down, he made an imposing figure, looking similar to a bird of prey, with his hooked nose and small, beady eyes. A royal crest was pinned to the black cap that sat upon his bald head.
“Will all the young ladies please step forward one at a time,” The man called out in a loud, hoarse voice.
Eagerly each girl started to push herself forward.
“One at a time, please,” The man emphasized.
After a few moments of shoving, pushing and pulling, a line finally developed, as the man inspected each girl before having her step to his right or to his left.
After a couple of selections, it became clear that the pretty girls were being separated from the others. Those that stood on the left had perfect hair, perfect smiles, and perfect posture. But for those that were huddled to the right of the man – each had something odd about her. One girl had a hump on her back, another crooked teeth, and one eyes that were too close together.
Everyone in the line began to twitch nervously, straightening hair and clothes, each hoping that she would be placed among the chosen ones to the left. I looked down at my dress and sighed, for once grateful that Grandma and Grandpa weren’t here. They would be so disappointed in me.
At last it was my turn. The official took one look at my scar and gestured impatiently for me to join the group on his right. One other came after me and she beamed when she was bidden to go to the left. Finished, the official coughed and a trumpet blew again across the square.
A covered tram entered, carried by four guards with another four pacing in front with red and golden banners – the colors of the Emperor. Everyone fell to their knees and bowed deeply. The guards lowered the tram and the curtain was drawn. The Emperor stepped out.
Out of respect all kept their heads bowed. However, I was kneeling behind taller girls and couldn’t help but take a peek.
He was tall and handsome, with black hair that bore faint streaks of grey down the sides of his temples. His face was kind and strong. However, though small lines crinkled in the corners of his eyes, evidence of memories full of joy, the Emperor looked sad. Yet, he held his head high and stood proudly, wearing the most gorgeous robes I had ever seen - red with an embroidered hem and a gold dragon stitched across the chest.
The official approached His Majesty and spoke to the Emperor in a hushed tone. The Emperor gave the man a nod and then began to walk forward towards us. We all held our breath.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, the Emperor didn’t even give one glance at the pretty girls but instead turned to our group. Ashamed, I lowered my head and quietly pulled still farther away till I was standing at the very back.
All I could now see was the Emperor’s feet, as His Majesty moved from one girl to another. He took his time, looking each girl full on as if examining her face. Each time, his face would fall with disappointment and he would gently dismiss her. The girl then moved aside and rejoined the crowd across the square. The group got smaller and smaller, shrinking with each dismissal.
Finally, the Emperor stopped in front of me. I looked up. The Emperor smiled gently down at me. I grinned shyly back.
“Where did you get your scar, child,” The Emperor asked, his voice soft and deep.
“I . . . I’ve had it since I was really little, Your Majesty,” I stammered, “I don’t ever remember being without it.”
“What’s your name?” He asked.
“Kkachi, Your Majesty,” I replied. Then, to my astonishment, tears sprung into the Emperor’s eyes.
He held out his hand. “Will you come with me?” His Majesty asked me.
I bowed low. “I’m your servant, Your Majesty,” I answered, placing my hand in his.
The Emperor laughed and pulled me towards the Municipal House of the Public, and we walked up its steps. Gently placing a palm upon my shoulder, he turned me to face the crowd.
The Emperor then addressed the people, speaking in a loud, booming voice for all to hear.
“I declare to the entire Empire that I have finally found my long, lost daughter! Behold, here next to me stands Kkachi, the ‘Lost Princess’ – the Princess Forsythia!”