The chancellor was waiting outside to take me to the Hall to see the Emperor. When I approached, he said not a word but bowed silently before walking on ahead. Not wishing to lose my way in the vast maze of paths and passages in the palace, I stuck close to the chancellor. I kept so close to him that I tripped a couple times on the hem of his garment that trailed on the ground behind like the feathers of a peacock.
“Sorry,” I whispered apologetically for the third time.
“Hmph,” grumped back the man, his nose stuck in the air and pulled his green cloak slightly nearer to his side and away from my clumsy feet.
And so, we continued walking, turning left and right, then right and left, around so many corners that I had no idea where I was. I hoped that someone would be showing me the way back. Otherwise I would take me all night trying to find my quarters. With that frightening thought, I took greater care not to trod again on the chancellor’s hem.
At last, the great Hall came into full view. It stood tall, blocking the setting sun, surrounded by pillars and mounted up high with steps ascending towards its entrance. As we approached nearer and began to climb the stairs, I craned my neck to gaze at the golden, enflamed flags that fluttered and waved in the brisk breeze from their posts on top of the turrets. The sun glinted brightly off of the bright red-copper roof, and I was examining how blue it made the sky look, when I heard a soft padding coming towards us.
I tore my gaze from the Hall and saw that a tall figure had crawled out of its shadow and was descending the stairs toward us. He was wearing the colors of Yosae and looked strangely familiar.
As we passed, the man began to give us a simple, courteous nod of his head. But as our eyes locked, a flash of recognition passed over his face and he stopped in his tracks.
I frowned, confused that the stranger knew my name. Then I saw the gold medal hanging from his belt. Quickly, I bowed before the prince.
“Your Highness,” I murmured, gritting my teeth in embarrassment.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, his brow arched in curiosity.
“This here is the Princess Forsythia, Your Highness,” the chancellor announced, his feathers ruffled at having to witness a conversation take place between two royals with no proper introduction. “The Prince Iyagi from Yosae stands before you, Princess,” the chancellor continued, turning to me with a slight huff.
“So, you are the ‘Lost Princess’?” the prince asked incredulously.
Wanting to object, but too confused to do so, I turned my flushed face once more to the ground.
“Your Highness?” the prince prodded, his voice light and teasing.
I kept my gaze fixed on the marble stair, refusing to look up. Then a foot stepped into view. The prince’s face suddenly popped directly in front of my own. Startled, I gasped in surprise and took a step back. Missing the stair beneath me, I started to stumble backward. Unable to catch myself in time to keep from falling, I closed my eyes and flinched, bracing myself for the hard landing.
But instead of hitting marble, I felt strong arms wrap around my waist and catching me. Opening my eyes, I was met with the twinkling ones of the prince.
“Forgive me, Your Highness,” he whispered into my ear, sending shivers up and down my spine, “I know that ladies are often prone to swooning in my presence. But I can’t bear to see you take such a tumble.” Mirth laced his voice thick like syrup.
Hastily, I pushed him away and the prince had to grab my arms to save me from falling again. Once I was finally steady on my feet, the prince let me go with a laugh. Ignoring the rising heat in my cheeks, I brushed the skirts of my gown and gave him one of my fiercest glares.
“So, Your Highness,” I said, raising my chin, “we meet again. I do hope that you had no trouble in your attempt to find the Palace, and that you didn’t get lost … again.”
“There were no more errors, thanks to your excellent instructions,” he replied courteously with a little bow, “If I had known at the time that I was speaking with the Emperor’s own daughter, I would have been more cautious in my behavior.” He shook his head with regret.
“You would?” I asked, frowning skeptically.
The prince nodded seriously. “I would have been far more forthcoming of my admiration,” he replied, a smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth, “if I had known that I was speaking with such a noble lady.”
Now he was mocking me. I scoffed. “Are all princes this . . . this …” At a loss for words I simply gestured my hand up and down towards him.
“Handsome? Winning? Charming?” the prince supplemented helpfully.
“Preposterous,” I corrected.
“Oh yes,” he agreed cheerfully, “comes with the title and trade. A great skill that all princes and kings must acquire. A requirement – truly.” He finished off with another elegant bow.
I turned towards the chancellor. He was getting impatient and I remembered why I was there in the first place.
“Forgive me Your Highness, but I must go.” I gave the prince a final curtsy, cutting off our exchange.
Just as I began to turn away, the prince latched onto my hand and brought it up to his lips. “I look forward to our next meeting,” he murmured, his breath tingling over the tips of my fingers. And with that, the Prince Iyagi turned on his heel and walked down the remainder of stairs, leaving me shocked and as still as a statue.
“Your Highness!” the chancellor called urgently.
Shaking myself out of the stupor, I turned and followed the irritated man up the rest of the steps. Bringing me to stand before two thick, carved oaken doors, the chancellor then approached the standing guard and gave him my name to announce. While waiting for the men as they conversed, I clutched at my gown in an attempt to still my shaking hands.
“The Princess Forsythia,” the guard finally cried out in a booming voice.
There was a loud creak and a heavy moan as the doors slowly swung open, revealing a large, dark room.
“Your Highness?” the chancellor drew my attention away from the open mouth of the Hall, then continued with a bow, “I’ll be waiting here when you are finished with your audience with His Majesty.
I gave him a nod and turned once more to face the dark room. Drawing a deep breath, I stepped through. The doors immediately slammed behind, locking me in. I flinched as the sound echoed like a drum throughout the hall.
The lighting was so poor, that I was unable to get a good look around. I assumed that it was all very grand, but all I really could tell was that it was big. And cold. Goosebumps had formed on my arms from the drafts that coursed through the entire room.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out a high ceiling supported by large, white columns. As I started to walk down the center of the hollow floor, I saw that in between each pillar sat an empty chair. For some reason, those vacant seats sent chills up my spine, making me more uncomfortable than if they had been filled with haughty men and women. It was too easy for my overactive imagination to feel invisible eyes watching my every move as I passed by.
At the opposite end of the Hall, was the royal throne mounted on a small set of steps. There sat the Emperor waiting patiently for me to reach him. The only lit candles were those on the table beside the Emperor. I walked a little faster, partly to get out of the dark. Each step resonated soft tapping which then echoed in drumbeats as if a dozen soldiers were following.
Then, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something lurking in an abandoned corner. I looked over my shoulder, then froze in horror.
There, gathering in the darkness right behind me were forming oily, blobby shapes. Their murky bodies had long tendril, snakelike arms and faceless heads. They dropped to the floor and began slithering over to me, their hands scraping – clawing at the ground. One reached my foot and sunk through the sole of my shoe. I felt its icy fingertips stroke across my skin as it began to dig, searching for my very essence.
Frightened, I kicked the thing, which immediately dissolved into a puddle of gloop, and spun towards the Emperor. Quickly, I ran till I reached the foot of the stairs. Breathing heavily, I looked back and could still make out the black, globs waving eerily in the darkness. But they wouldn’t come into the candlelight.
Feeling safe, I bowed deeply before His Majesty. He smiled and motioned for me to come up and join him. Eagerly, I leapt up across the steps till I stood directly before him.
“Why do you look frightened, my child?” the Emperor asked.
“Did you not see them?” I asked, pointing behind me.
I looked over my shoulder. From up here with all the candles, I could no longer see those creepy beings.
“Nothing, Your Majesty,” I murmured, sure that my mind had been playing tricks on me. Heaving a sigh of relief, I knelt at the Emperor’s feet. For a few moments, neither of us spoke a word. His Majesty looked thoughtful as he watched me.
After a while of twitching beneath his gaze and wondering what he was thinking, I finally asked, “Is something troubling you, Your Majesty?”
“No, nothing is bothering me,” he replied tenderly, “I was only thinking how very like you resemble your mother.”
“Oh. About that.” I rubbed my forehead, unsure how to begin. “Please, Your Majesty, I believe that there’s been some mistake,” I pleaded, before biting my tongue.
“Go on,” He encouraged.
“Perhaps I only look like your lost daughter,” I suggested, “I wish I could make you happy by being her, but I’m sure that I’m not.”
“And why’s that?”
“Well, I can’t be!” I tossed my hands up desperately. “I know who I am and who my parents are – were. They both died from a plague when I was very young and since then my grandparents have raised me. They are my family. If I was the lost princess . . .”
“Everything would change,” the Emperor softly interjected, finishing my thought, “Everything you thought that was, would either be a lie or a falsehood. Your entire life would feel fake. Is that right?”
I nodded, surprised that he could know my fears so well. Tears choked at my throat as the terrible, threatening thought of my grandparents not being my family pulled at the back of my brain. Quickly, I pushed it away, but my heart still remained feeling hollow and empty.
The Emperor sensed my turmoil. “You have doubts,” he said gently, “I understand that. But allow me to tell you why I’m so sure that you belong to me – that you are my daughter.”
I nodded shakily, staring down at his hem.
“First of all, you look the very image of your mother. You have her soft, chocolate eyes, her dark, brunet hair and her perpetually brown complexion.” He lifted my chin. “Though you have my stub of a nose,” the Emperor continued, “I can see her fierce spirit in your face.”
Self-consciously I rubbed the end of the spoken feature.
“But that isn’t all. What’s your name?”
I frowned, confused. “Kkachi, Your Majesty,” I replied cautiously.
“Yes,” he agreed wholeheartedly, “yes, it is. When I gave you to my trusted guard, I told him to call you Kkachi. That was my pet name for you. It means magpie.”
“Yes,” the Emperor bent down and touched my cheek, “The magpie is a symbol of good luck. You were my pride and joy – my good luck. That name would stand as a code of truth when I came back for you.”
“Who was the guard?” I asked curiously.
“Bong-Chol,” he replied, startling me with my grandfather’s name, “he was my best Imperial guard and my most-trusted friend. It was he and your old nursemaid who I chose to raise you as their own grandchild. It was most important that you were to be kept hidden.”
“But why?” I asked, my head swarming.
The Emperor’s face grew dark. “Because you were not safe,” was all I received in reply.
Suddenly I realized something. Grandpa hadn’t been at the market-place with me. And the Emperor had not known my name when he recognized me. So, why did His Majesty pick me?
“Your Majesty?” I stopped, hesitating.
“You recognized me before I told you my name. How?”
“You say that I look a lot like the Queen,” I continued, “but back in the square, I was such a mess not even Grandpa would have recognized me, had he been there. How could you have known that I was your daughter?”
The Emperor smiled sadly, then reached out and gently touched my scar. “Because of this.”
Then he opened up his arms. No longer hesitating, I walked into them and he held me close. My doubts disappeared as I laid my head softly against his chest. I felt warm and safe.
The Emperor was my father.