Desert Rose, by kishmet. AU, Atobe/Ryoma, PG, 31,200 words. Finished for hikaridonya's twentieth birthday. The first section is taken almost verbatim from the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, so I apologize in advance to the writers for mauling and/or fiddling with their work. I must also thank them for the overall story structure, and for the beautiful movie they and the animators and everyone else involved created. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose?
Once upon a time, many years ago in a faraway land, a young prince lived in a wondrous castle. The castle stood in a desert oasis that was famed for its rose gardens, all filled with exotic and fragrant blossoms. Travelers passed through the oasis for water, and to admire these flowers, the likes of which they had never seen before.
Although he had his gardens, and servants to tend his every whim, and so many books in his library that he could never read them all, and a stable full of fine horses, the prince was selfish and thoughtless. He had everything he wanted, and nothing he needed; no one to temper his willful arrogance. And so the prince believed that the sun rose and set on him, and there was no one to tell him otherwise.
Then one night, an old beggar woman, dressed in rags, came to the oasis, in the midst of a wild, roaring sandstorm. She offered the prince a single red rose in return for shelter from the fury of the storm.
Repulsed by her appearance and manner, the prince refused the rose as payment, for he possessed every kind of rose in the world, and could not be swayed by so simple an offering. He turned the old woman away.
She warned him then that he should not be deceived by her appearance, or that of her gift, for real beauty could only be found within. He laughed at her, and dismissed her again, and when he did, her ancient form and her torn clothing melted away, revealing a beautiful enchantress.
The prince fell to his knees before her and tried to beg her forgiveness, but she had seen already the true nature of his heart. He did not love or care for anyone save himself, and saw only what was on the surface of a person. And so as punishment, she transformed him into a hideous beast, so that his callous nature would show through to all who laid eyes upon him, and placed a spell also on his castle, his oasis, and all who lived there.
Ashamed of the form he now wore, that of an animal, of a monster, the prince kept to his castle, hiding away from the rest of the world. The rose gardens grew wild, and the travelers ceased to visit.
The rose the old woman had offered him was truly an enchanted rose, and would continue to bloom until his twenty-first birthday. If, by that time, he could learn to love and care for another person, and earn their love in return before the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken.
And if he could not, he would be doomed to remain a beast, desperate, alone, and despairing, for all time.
At dawn, the caravan sets out, Nanjiroh at the head of the train on his black mare, calling orders and trading jokes with his drivers. Ryoma waves dutifully when his mother puts a hand on his shoulder, then wheels his horse and trots away, out of sight. His father's words still ring in his ears: "Take care of the house and your mother. Live up to my example!" Nanjiroh had then burst into laughter, shaking his head as though the very idea of Ryoma accomplishing any such thing was a ridiculous one.
"Care for them, or let them care for me?" Ryoma mutters, nudging Karupin into an easy canter. His father is perfectly content to do the latter, reasoning that he's provided the money and the house, and so his task, when he's home, is to leave the work up to someone, anyone else.
Nanjiroh does have a point, Ryoma admits grudgingly, for he's skilled in the merchant business and brings home wagonloads of gold pieces and more goods for resale in return for the ones he takes out with him. Still, the caravans travel only once a year, and Nanjiroh returns in high spirits, bringing with him exotic liquors for himself, and trinkets from afar for his wife and son. So Ryoma doesn't count it as real work, and he's announced his intention to pursue a different life more than once. His father only laughs, as ever, and slaps him heartily on the back, telling him that he would be a fool to give up the life that's already in place for him.
Ryoma stares out at the city. They live on the outskirts, not respectable enough to be considered noblemen, but rich enough to afford better than the slums inside the walls. Their home is larger than any other merchant's, as Nanjiroh boasts frequently, and they never want for fine foods, fine clothing, fine anything at all. Every night they have meat with dinner, and for months after Nanjiroh returns from an expedition, they have rare fruits from the tropics, oranges and plums and nectarines and pomegranates.
All the fruits are dried, of course, carefully preserved by cloves or laid out in the sun so that they'll keep until they're brought home.
Ryoma's never tasted a fresh orange because he's never been out with his father, who is fond of telling him that he'll inherit one day, but for now, he'd better learn how to do real work before he's allowed to lead a caravan, or even to come along. "Stupid old man," Ryoma mutters. Nanjiroh probably wouldn't know what real work was if it bit him on the backside.
A week after Nanjiroh's departure, Ryoma receives a summons.
His mother is in the garden when the runner arrives, on a tall bay horse that skitters nervously away when Ryoma approaches. The messenger tugs on the reins, making the horse dance in place, and then reaches into the satchel at his hip, bringing out a small, delicate envelope.
"You are Ryoma, son of Nanjiroh the merchant?" the messenger asks him.
"That's right, I am," says Ryoma, eying him warily
"A letter for you," says the messenger, and extends the hand with the envelope. Ryoma steps slowly forward so as not to spook the horse, and accepts the paper. It's vellum, translucent and expensive. When he holds it up to the light, he can see the swirling calligraphy on the letter inside.
"Who is it-" he begins, but the horse has already broken into a high-stepping trot. The messenger wheels it around, trampling one of the rhododendron bushes in the process, and gives the steed its head, letting it shoot into a gallop.
Ryoma studies the envelope for a moment longer and then opens it. The paper inside is scented with lily perfume, and he wrinkles his nose at the smell. The handwriting is graceful, and looks like it should belong to a woman. He reads the letter.
I, Seiichi Yukimura, request your presence at my estate on the morrow at three hours past the height of day, to discuss with you important matters of business. I have taken the liberty of assuring myself that you have no previous engagements. As you are available, I will expect to see you at the aforementioned hour. A light supper will be provided.
Below, the name Yukimura is signed in the same elegant script. It is the most arrogant and presumptuous letter Ryoma has ever encountered. He holds it in both hands and tears off one corner, letting it fall to the ground. He could ignore the summons, but Yukimura Seiichi is the wealthiest trader in the entire city, and also the best-connected. The man, as Ryoma knows only too well, possesses information enough to blackmail the king himself if need be, although Nanjiroh has so far evaded his grasp to carry on his own enterprise.
Ryoma slips the letter into his breast pocket and returns to the house. When his mother queries him as to the purpose of the messenger the servants had seen in front of the house that evening, he tells her it was nothing, only a case of mistaken address. The next day, shortly after they've had lunch, Ryoma gives her another excuse and slips away. Karupin is eager, and they make good time, riding along the edge of the city until they reach territory that belongs unmistakably to Yukimura. A guard stops them, rudely grabbing Karupin's bridle, almost making him rear. "You have an invitation?"
"Yes," Ryoma says, more enraged by the treatment than he lets on. He pulls the letter from his pocket and holds it out. The guard tries to take it from him, but Ryoma snatches it back before he can. "And if there are more guards ready to ask me the same thing?" Ryoma asks. "I need this."
"All right then," the guard mutters sulkily. "Go on."
Ryoma is more than willing to obey, as is Karupin, though the horse shakes his head several times on the way, mouth probably sore from that too-sharp tug by the guard. "Sorry, boy," he says under his breath, patting Karupin's shoulder. No one else challenges him; perhaps they've passed word along that he's to be allowed to pass.
Yukimura's home is as grand as a palace, though it, like Nanjiroh's, is located far from those quarters belonging to those of high society. Yukimura is a man of business above all things, although his reach extends even into court. The house has been fashioned with turrets and balconies aplenty, all in a smooth, curving style that is easy on the eye. The impression given runs so counter to Ryoma's knowledge of Yukimura that it makes him snort.
As soon as he rides into the courtyard, there are servants waiting to take Karupin and to lead him into the main hall. "Be careful with his mouth," Ryoma commands them, and won't release his hold on Karupin's reins until he's made sure that they're listening. He is ushered quickly inside after this, into an expansive room with a vaulted ceiling. Ryoma feigns boredom, folding his arms and leaning on the wall by the door, until another servant, this one in finer livery, comes to lead him into a smaller room.
This room is obviously a study, a den belonging to the man himself, Seiichi Yukimura. Behind the delicate wooden desk sits Yukimura, flanked by a glowering guard who looks ready to crush anyone at a word from his master.
Yukimura's clothing is elegant without making him look overdressed; simply designed, but sewn from rich velvets and silks and laces, tailored to show him to best advantage. Even the sullen bodyguard behind him is richly attired, though he wears only trousers and a weapons belt draped over his shoulders. "Welcome, Ryoma," says Yukimura, in a soft and feminine voice. "Please, have a seat."
"I'd rather stand," says Ryoma, and takes up a similar position to the one he'd adopted in the larger annex.
Yukimura laughs musically. "You are much as the reports would imply."
"You're not," Ryoma shoots back, and the guard shifts, glaring menacingly at him even when Yukimura raises a hand to tell him to hold his ground.
"And what do the reports say of me?" Yukimura inquires. "I'm curious. What have you heard?"
"That you're ruthless," says Ryoma. "That you've come to control all the trade routes by force or deception or both." He stops to give Yukimura an appraising look, eyes traveling from the shoulder-length grey-blue hair, to the deep blue tunic with its long, trailing sleeves, to the desk, carved in front with light, airy lattices shaped like lilies. "I never heard that you were a woman."
The guard snarls and starts forward, feeling the insult to his master. Yukimura only laughs again, placing a hand on his forearm to bring him to a halt. "You are very impertinent, Ryoma, son of Nanjiroh. And to be this way even when my reputation precedes me, well. You're either very brave or very stupid."
"I'm only telling the truth," says Ryoma, glaring down at Yukimura. He has the advantage of height, perceived height anyway, when Yukimura is sitting down, and yet Yukimura exudes such serenity and confidence that it makes little difference.
"Perhaps both, then," Yukimura muses. "You are very much like your father in that."
Ryoma says nothing, unsure whether to take this as a compliment or a slight. He despises being compared to Nanjiroh in any way, yet if Yukimura means this as a jab, Ryoma will be reacting exactly as the man wishes him to.
"Believe me," says Yukimura with an amused smile, as though he knows what Ryoma is thinking. "I did not intend it as anything save what it was, a mixed blessing and curse." He continues before Ryoma can reply. "So, I'm sure you're wondering what I want with you." Yukimura holds out one slim, pale hand, and the guard picks up a stack of papers from the end of the desk, giving it to him. "Do not deny it, or I might be offended that you think me so simple as to believe such a lie."
"All right then," Ryoma relents, grudgingly. "Tell me why you called me here."
"Have patience." Yukimura sorts through the papers, laying them out on the desk. Ryoma can see a little of them from where he's standing, enough to make out a compass rose and faint spidery ink lines tracing their way across the pages. Maps, he realizes. Yukimura runs a finger along one of them. His fingernails are long and tapered down to points. "You mentioned before that I control all of the trade routes," Yukimura remarks finally. "But that is not quite true. Is it?"
Ryoma's breath catches in his throat as he comprehends, suddenly, why Yukimura wants him here. "No," he manages to say. "It's not quite true."
"The others caved to me so easily." Yukimura shakes his head and sighs. "Traders make their fortunes on their secrets, and yet none of them were able to conceal anything from me for long. Routes purchased for a pittance, a tiny fraction of the profit I've made on each one. I have been disappointed in all of them." Yukimura folds his hands and looks at Ryoma. His gaze is piercing, as though he can see everything in Ryoma's mind without being told. "All, save one. Your father has kept his trade routes to himself for all the time he's been using them. He has never come close to breaking, not once. Those who travel with him are loyal to a fault, a quality I appreciate, though it has made my life rather difficult."
"Good," says Ryoma, under his breath.
Yukimura smiles, and though his teeth are perfect and white and smooth, Ryoma cannot help but imagine him with fangs. "But recently, I have heard some interesting rumors. That Nanjiroh's son and heir resents him. That although this son is old enough to be counted a man, he is still not permitted to accompany his father on his trading journeys. That he sits idle at home with his mother, like a boy many years his junior. Tell me, Ryoma, are these rumors correct?"
Ryoma's teeth are gritted, his jaw set, and his words come out in a stilted growl. "I don't know why I should tell you anything."
"Because," says Yukimura, "I am prepared to offer you a fine incentive to do so." He places a hand on one of the maps, his fingers like the legs of a delicate white spider. "Give me those routes your father has kept secret for so long, and I will give them back to you."
"What do you-" Ryoma begins.
"You will have your father's old routes," Yukimura tells him. "And you will be in my employ. I will give you men, carriages, and goods. Surely your father has raised you to be a shrewd bargainer? Yes." He chuckles when Ryoma flushes at the truth of it. "You will be the head of one of my caravans, whichever you would like. We will split the profit, forty percent for you. It is a generous offer, you know. You will match your father's wealth in no time, and he will be utterly destroyed. With others following his routes and offering better prices, well, what chance does he have, hm?"
Ryoma remains silent.
"So," says Yukimura, his tone as conversational as if he'd just offered Ryoma a glass of wine. "Do you want to become a man in your own right? Will you accept my terms?"
At this, Ryoma straightens up and finds his voice. "Tch," he says dismissively. "Go from being my father's boy to being yours? No thank you." He turns, half expecting a guard to be waiting there, or for the guard by Yukimura's side to stop him. But there is no one, and he pushes the door open. On his way out, he hears Yukimura comment, "He is so very like his father. What a pity."
The words sting, though he tries not to let them. He is thankful that the servants have Karupin ready and saddled for him. Ryoma takes the reins and swings onto the horse's back, urging Karupin into a canter. They exit the courtyard and Karupin breaks into a run. Ryoma doesn't check his speed until they're halfway home.
He knows he's done the right thing. This knowledge makes the pang of regret he feels so much the worse.
He distracts himself through the next week in his usual pursuits: riding, reading, hunting, keeping his mother company, though he doesn't exactly enjoy the endless games of chess and backgammon. She keeps herself occupied most of the time, fortunately, as she is the one who acquires many of the goods Nanjiroh sells along his routes. Even she is allowed more part in the trade than Ryoma, adding insult to injury.
A month after his meeting with Yukimura, everything changes.
His mother runs into the study, her hair loose around her shoulders as though she'd been in the middle of getting herself ready for the day. "Ryoma," she says urgently. "They've sighted the caravan."
He looks up from his book. "What? They're not due for-"
"Come on!" She beckons to him and then rushes out of the room, hair flying behind her like a dark banner. He marks his place and goes after her.
There is a great commotion in the courtyard. Panicked horses skitter everywhere, sweat foaming white against their sides. The servants are trying to get them under control, and failing. There's a single wagon in the middle of the open space. One of its wheels is broken, and the paint has been worn down so far that it looks ancient, though Nanjiroh had just purchased these wagons earlier in the year.
Heedless of the servants' fear for her, Rinko catches one horse's bridle. The horse prances nervously, but she doesn't release her hold. "What's happened?" she asks, in a tone that brooks no argument. The horse stands still, breathing hard, as Ryoma comes to her side.
"Sandstorm," the rider pants. It's Momoshiro, Ryoma realizes, almost unrecognizable with his clothes torn and his hair cropped short, a myriad of tiny, healing cuts all over his face. "Worst I've ever seen. Most of the wagons lost, some of the horses and camels, too…"
Rinko doesn't bother concealing her expression of horror. "And Nanjiroh?"
Momoshiro starts to speak, and then stops, hanging his head and shaking it slowly. Rinko turns pale and releases the horse, taking a small step backwards. Ryoma takes hold of her arm, steadying her, though she's never fainted before, and he never would have thought her capable of it. He's pale, too, though. He's fought his father all his life, but that means his father's been there all his life, and now… "You searched for him?" Ryoma asks.
"As best we could," Momo replies, sliding off of the horse. He lands heavily, stumbling, and Ryoma lets go of his mother and starts forward to grab the reins before the animal can run off.
"Come inside the house," says Rinko. Her lips are tight, her expression set to hide the fear that's still there behind her eyes. "You will need a doctor, food and water." She claps her hands once, and the servants hurry to attend her. "See to it that these men are cared for."
The weary men from the caravan filter into the house, eyes dull as they stare down at the ground. Ryoma remains with his mother, walking with her to the broken wagon. She touches the side of it, and then turns around. She returns to the house without him, and he stays in the courtyard a long time.
Just as the sun touches the edge of the horizon, he goes into the house as well. "Saddle my horse," he says to a servant, and the man bows.
The halls are quiet, although Ryoma hears snoring from several of the guest rooms as he passes by them. He goes first to his room and fetches a travel pack and some saddlebags. Then, silently as before, he goes to the kitchen, which is dark and empty. He loads the pack with provisions, dried meat and fruits, things that won't spoil easily. There's a wineskin in one of the saddlebags, and this he fills with water from a well-bucket.
When he turns and steps toward the door, his mother is there in the doorway, watching him.
"You're going after your father," says Rinko.
Ryoma shifts uncomfortably. "Yes."
She closes her eyes, and then opens them again to look directly at him. "He's alive out there somewhere."
"I know," Ryoma replies, and he does. Nanjiroh is too stubborn, too clever, and too irritating to let something like a sandstorm kill him.
"And you're leaving tonight." She nods decisively, and gives him a slight smile, sad and knowing. "You'll avoid Yukimura's men more easily this way. They won't have heard the news yet."
"You-" He's surprised to learn that she's thinking the same way he is.
"I knew who called you away that day," says Rinko, and laughs a little. "And I've lived long enough to know what Yukimura is like. Don't underestimate your mother, Ryoma."
He won't do it again, that's for sure. "So." Ryoma scratches his head awkwardly, unsure what he's supposed to do now. "I'll find him."
"Yes, you will," says Rinko. "But you'll need more water to make it even halfway across the desert." She turns, and nods to someone past her shoulder, and then some of the young servants file silently into the kitchen, carrying more wineskins and provisions that will hold water, and hydrate him if he runs low on water. "Head south, bearing west. Some of the tribes should be traveling the same way at this time of year. They're friendly to your father, and you should be able to stay at least a night with them."
"Yes, mother," says Ryoma, surprised into obedience, and thinks how strange it is that he knows so little of his mother, even after all these years of living with her.
No one stops him or calls out to him when he rides by the city gates. He's a single traveler, leaving the city, not entering it, and no alarm has been raised elsewhere, so it's clear they perceive him as no danger. Yukimura will hear of his departure tomorrow, of course, from the guards who take money from the city with one hand, from Yukimura with the other, but by then, with any luck, Ryoma's tracks will have vanished.
To be even more certain, Ryoma doubles back when he's a fair distance away, out of easy sight range. He plans to take the opposite direction, the one the caravan had come in from, and to search for his father in the great expanse of desert that lies to the south. His true path will be easy enough for anyone to figure out, if they think hard enough, but if they track him in the wrong direction first, giving him more time to lose himself in the sands, so much the better.
Karupin comes from desert stock, or at least they've supposed he does, on one side of his bloodline. He stumbles at first, lowers his head cautiously to sniff at the deeper sand. Ryoma lets him investigate as long as he cares to, and Karupin decides, after a moment or two, that he's safe enough, and treads with more confidence. The desert is flat here, at the edge of it, and gathers gradually into rolling sand dunes, like a herd of enormous camels lying side by side, only their humps showing above the horizon.
"Why would anyone want to live here?" Ryoma asks, a rhetorical question, as there is no one save Karupin present with him. He's thinking of the tribes his mother had mentioned, who live among the sands for the better part of the year. "Traveling through is bad enough."
The heat becomes worse as the day progresses. The sun reflects off of the sand, which is white in the glaring light of day. Ryoma squints his eyes and keeps Karupin at a walk. By now they're far enough into the desert that they won't be found easily, at least not anytime soon.
Ryoma becomes aware that he knows very little about living on the sand. He eyes the blankets he's brought dubiously, wondering if they'll be suitable to set up a place to spend the night. Fortunately, after hours and hours of passing the same scenery, when the sun starts to fall below the horizon, Ryoma spies his first sign of other human life. He approaches, and not too cautiously, because whatever they're cooking smells delicious, and by this point, having drunk lukewarm water and eaten dried meat all day, he would willingly turn himself in to Yukimura in exchange for a good meal.
That's an exaggeration, of course, and it's a relief for him to find that the people are part of a wandering desert tribe. They have a long line of camels staked out, grazing on some thin, sun-bleached hay. There's a circle of wagons and a fire in the middle, the smoke carefully kept down by a strange structure built around the flames.
The nomads are friendly to him, as Rinko had said they would be, and they recognize him on sight, laughing and slapping him on the back and saying they'll do what they can for Nanjiroh's son.
They give him hoods like the ones they wear, to protect his fair skin from the sun, and some lotion to spread on the places that have already burned. They feed him camel's meat and camel's milk, along with some strange, sweet, water-filled fruit that they claim comes from a species of cactus, and small amounts of some fermented beverage. One sip and Ryoma wants to return to his skin of water, but the men make it into a contest of strength and will, and Ryoma drinks more than he intends in the process of competing. Karupin gets a share of the camels' hay, in the meantime, and some of Ryoma's water.
The nomads have heard the news about his father, they tell him, which is peculiar because it can't have traveled so far, so quickly, or so Ryoma had thought. Still, this desert is their home, and they probably know all of its moods and everything that takes place within it.
"He can't have died," says one of the men. He has hair so pale it looks white in the sun, with darker roots barely visible beneath his hood, and tanned-brown skin the color of baked bread. "Nanjiroh knows the routes as well as we do, even if the storm caught him unawares."
"That's right!" the tribe's leader chimes in. He's tall, with dark hair shaven close to his head, and a friendly grin that he seems to wear at all times. He also doesn't seem to understand the concept of personal space, although Ryoma's edged away from him four times already. "Your father will have gone to cover somewhere, and you'll find him alive and well!"
"Thank you," says Ryoma, slurring his words a bit. He's not used to such strong alcohol, and his head is slightly muzzy from it. When the time comes to retire for the night, even drunk as he is, he carefully chooses a sleeping space on the other side of the tent from the nomads' leader.
He sets off again the next morning, turning down the tribe's offers to allow him to travel along with their caravan. They're heading in about the same direction, though they'll deviate from his route in several days, and make for the one city that exists among the rolling sand dunes. Ryoma will travel more quickly on his own, though. The tribesmen's camels are swift at times, but heavily burdened, and even they cannot run through the desert while carrying so many supplies.
So Ryoma and Karupin split from them, and spend another night sleeping on blankets laid right on top of the sand. As the sun beats down at high noon the next day, Ryoma huddles deeper and deeper into his light, woven hood, but there is no escaping the sunlight. He'd planned to rest at night during his journey, as any sign of his father would be less obvious in the dark, but that idea is quickly becoming less attractive. He rides another hour and then makes camp, in preparation for a night spent awake.
The night isn't much better. Blistering sun is replaced by a penetrating chill in the air that comes on suddenly, as soon as the sky goes dark. Ryoma shivers and leans over Karupin's neck, drawing what body heat he can from the horse, who seems less fazed by the cold than by the heat. That much is good, anyway, and they make fine time, Ryoma turning his head to the side to keep his face out of the wind that rushes by them as Karupin quickens his pace.
He camps at daybreak on the third day of this, or perhaps the fourth, but instead of sleeping soundly as he's done all along, he wakes again several hours later. Karupin is snorting uneasily, walking to the end of his tether and back again, not pulling hard enough to free himself, but enough that it's clear he's agitated. Ryoma scrambles to his feet and takes hold of Karupin's reins, stroking his neck soothingly. Today, there's barely any trace of weak sun through the clouds, and the sky is a peculiar shade of hazy brown. There are little wisps of sand being blown around his legs, and the wind picks up for a moment, blowing it against his face.
"Oh-" Ryoma curses, grabs for what supplies he can, and hurtles onto Karupin's back, urging the horse into a run before he's even properly aboard. The tribesmen had told him, over their shared meal, that a brown sky would mean a coming sandstorm. Ryoma rides hard for the direction that seems lightest, hoping they'll be able to outrun it. Meanwhile, the wind is still rising, pushing his hood back and dancing through his hair.
Karupin doesn't need much coaxing to keep up the gallop. His ears are laid flat against his neck, and he never shows sign of slowing, never stumbles, his desert ancestry showing as his mane whips against Ryoma's face, and they fly over the sand together.
Ryoma rides like this for what can only be five minutes, maybe ten, but feels far longer. His eyes narrow all of a sudden, and he squints through the oncoming sand and the horsehair blowing into his line of vision. There's a patch of green ahead, close enough, perhaps, that they can reach it before the worst of the storm catches up to them. Already there are grains of sand stinging the back of his neck and his hands. "Go, go!" He nudges Karupin, though they're already sprinting, and incredibly, Karupin gathers his muscles and shoots forward, even faster.
The patch of green, an oasis, probably, looms nearer and nearer. Ryoma's not sure at first whether there will be any cover to protect them, but then he sees trees, and the faint outline of a building. If they can make it that far, they'll survive, or they should. He lowers his head; the whirling sand is bad enough now that flecks of it will cut his eyes, if he keeps them open. He'll have to trust to Karupin, whose instincts will serve even if his eyes are shut.
He estimates the distance in his mind: thirty strides from this point, now twenty-five, several moments later, fifteen, ten, five, they have to be close, and he dares to open one eye, to glimpse whatever space still lies between them and sanctuary, and-
Suddenly, the wind stops. There is green all around him, and Karupin slows, then stops. "Good boy," says Ryoma faintly. He pats the horse's shoulder, and then slides off Karupin's back and into the comfortable dark of unconsciousness.
While he sleeps, he dreams that he's died and gone to some green version of heaven, a strange thought given that he's never been religious.
When he wakes up and opens his eyes, he's privately pleased to learn that he's not dead at all, but very much alive in the midst of all the greenery. He stands up slowly. His face and hands sting from the tiny cuts made by the sand, but they're not bleeding, and he probably doesn't look too bad, by his own estimation. Karupin is nearby, browsing peacefully. Ryoma sighs and walks over to take hold of his reins and pull him away from his meal. If the horse has already eaten something poisonous, there's nothing he can do about it, but at least Ryoma can stop him from stuffing himself until he explodes.
The garden they're in is oddly incongruous, an oasis of many-colored flowers, bright and deep shades of green against the endless tan backdrop of the desert. Ryoma steps cautiously, almost reverently, as though he's in a cathedral, though he's never been religious, and doesn't enter churches if he can help it.
Even Karupin's delicate hoofbeats seem loud beside him. He glances up at the rose vine that grows over and around the latticed archway they've just passed beneath. The flowers are unlike any he's ever seen, pale cream fading to deep crimson at the edges of the petals. There is a rose bush ahead of them, a wild and beautiful tangle of thorns spilling over the ground; this one's blossoms are a rich shade of purple, one Ryoma has never seen except on a bolt of dyed cloth brought to his father by the silk traders, purchased by Nanjiroh for several hundred gold marks, sold again for even more.
"Don't," he says, and tugs on the reins when Karupin bends his head to nibble at one of the vines. Karupin shakes his head and obediently continues on with his head held high.
The path doesn't appear well-tended at first look, but it's clear enough, the roses all trimmed along the sides so as not to grow beneath any walkers' feet. They've been walking circles up to now, or a spiral, because the circles grow ever smaller. Ryoma wonders what's at the center, and they're about to find out, for this final circle, barely thirty paces across, if he's any judge, opens onto a clearing paved with grey-blue stones in a pattern that mirrors the path's spiral.
At first he thinks there is nothing here, and he snorts, disgusted with himself. An empty clearing, of course, whatever had once been placed here long gone. Or perhaps there'd never been anything at all, and this place had been reserved for lovers' trysts or something equally uninteresting.
Then he sees it, on the far side of the empty space, and tilts his head to the side. Another rose, this one unattached to any plant. It shouldn't be so impressive; on his way through the garden, he's seen roses in every color imaginable, and this one is only red, the same as the ones his mother keeps at home.
But this rose is different, for it's been placed on a plain marble pedestal, its base adorned with a simple swirling design, and the flower itself is held within a golden cage with slim, unadorned bars. The rose hovers there, suspended by a spell, or so Ryoma assumes. In all his years of life, he's never seen something like it, and most of his old friends and acquaintances from home would run from this place, afraid of witchery and enchantments.
Even with this evidence before him, however, he's more curious than afraid. "If that's all magic can do, that's stupid," he comments aloud. "Stay here." He lets Karupin's reins trail on the ground, and Karupin stays where he's put.
Ryoma walks up to the cage and then around it, studying it from every angle. The rose is in full bloom, and past it, for even as he watches, a petal falls, drifting slowly to the bottom of the cage. He reaches out and touches one of the bars, and feels a pleasant hum travel up his arm to his shoulder and then all through him.
The bars are widely spaced, more than large enough for his hand to fit through them. He slips his hand in to the wrist, and suddenly notices the slow threads of gold that twine around the rose's stem, moving and widening and narrowing again like a network of tiny streams. When his hand comes closer, the streams flicker and speed up. One of them jumps across to his hand, flowing around his finger before disappearing, and he pulls his hand back, startled.
But his curiosity hasn't yet been satisfied, and he reaches into the cage again. This time he ignores the gold threads that curl around his hand like miniature bolts of lightning, and carefully, gently, brushes the tip of his index finger against the edge of a petal.
The rose flares bright as the sun when he touches it, and he jerks back, eyes snapping reflexively shut. They snap open again when he hears the snarling, and Karupin's terrified scream and then hoofbeats, galloping back the way they'd come. He stumbles back toward the ring of hedges, rubbing frantically at his eyes. Black spots dance in front of his vision, afterimages of the flower's brilliance, but one dark spot does not go away, one dark spot has horns and fangs and claws and eyes that glare murderously at him. This creature, whatever it is, has thrown itself between Ryoma and the pedestal, and now sets itself to checking the flower, inspecting it, stalking around it to see it from all sides, much as Ryoma had done a few moments before.
Then: "You are lucky," it growls at Ryoma, eyes fixing on him again. "You could have made a ruin of everything."
Ryoma blinks, the last of the sun-spots gone, and then narrows his eyes. "Wait, what are you talking about? All I did was touch it. Carefully," he adds, when the creature begins to snarl.
"You have no idea what your meddling could have cost me," the creature barks, turning to the rose again before leveling that deadly gaze at Ryoma once more. "And what it would have cost you, had your foolishness proven more destructive."
"My foolishness?" Ryoma repeats, incredulously. "Destructive? You're the one who's lucky that flower didn't blind me for good."
"You are the one interfering in affairs that are not yours!"
"I thought my father might be in here, all right?" Ryoma snaps. "It's your fault, building a path that leads right here! If you didn't want people finding this place, you should have made it more of a secret!"
"Well, I-" the creature starts, and then stops, giving Ryoma a speculative look. It, or he, because the voice is decidedly masculine, walks forward, closer to him. Every inch of the creature is covered in shaggy fur, more wolfish than leonine despite the mane about his neck and shoulders. His claws click on the cobblestones as he approaches, studying Ryoma with surprisingly human eyes. "Your father?"
"Yes, my father," says Ryoma, with a roll of his eyes. "His caravan ran into a sandstorm, and my mother sent me to find him. He might be dead," he says, with little optimism. "I doubt it, though. Old man'll hang on for the rest of my life, with my luck."
"I think I have found what you seek," says the creature brusquely, and whirls, stalking off. Ryoma stares after him until he turns back and demands, "Are you coming, or would you prefer to stay there gaping at me?"
"I'm coming." Ryoma trots to catch up, keeping a wary few paces between them.
The castle itself rises high enough into the air that Ryoma has to crane his neck to see the tallest spires. Ryoma has only seen the style in illustrated history texts, not that he's paid attention to many of those. There are arched windows set at various intervals, but all of them dark, as though they have black curtains drawn across them. He can't see inside, although he squints when he thinks he sees movement behind one window, about halfway up the main body of the keep. "You're not alone here?"
Glaring back at him, the creature growls, "Of course not."
"So who else-"
"None of your business."
"I'll meet them anyway, if I'm going inside," says Ryoma reasonably. "They're your servants? Your… retainers?" He doesn't know much about nobility or courts, but he knows by his new acquaintance's attitude that all this must belong to him, which means it's only logical to assume that the other inhabitants are his subordinates.
"The castle staff," says the beast reluctantly. "Yes." He sweeps up the staircase that leads to the front door at a pace that's probably impossible for any human, then looks back and calls impatiently, "Are you coming?"
Ryoma takes the steps two at a time, and even then he doesn't reach the top so quickly. "So what does that make you?"
"I am the master of this place." The creature snarls sideways at him, showing long, pointed canines as he bangs the main doors open so hard, it's a wonder they don't fall off their hinges. "Stop asking such pointless questions."
"Ah, my lord, our guest has requested more caviar, but I'm afraid the kitchen has entirely exhausted its supply of-" the voice cuts off, and Ryoma peers around the creature's large form, trying to see who's talking. "My lord, we have another visitor?"
"He won't be here long. Where is Shishido?"
"Seeing to our guest's, ahem, comfort. May I introduce myself to our new visitor?" Now Ryoma finally catches sight of the speaker, though at first he doesn't believe his eyes.
"If you must," says the creature with a growling sigh of long-suffering.
The speaker makes a series of metallic clinks on the stone floor as he hops over to Ryoma. He hops because he doesn't have legs, and Ryoma has to look down at him as he approaches, because he only comes to halfway up Ryoma's calf. "My name is Oshitari, personal manservant to my lord and to any other persons of distinction in residence." The thing that appears to be a kitchen implement bows low. "And you are?"
"Ryoma." He should add 'son of a traveling merchant,' but he doesn't care to let his father's identity determine his own. "I came here in search of my father."
Oshitari's eyes light up. "Oh? Then you are-"
"I have had enough!"
This time Ryoma knows to search the floor, and finds the source of this new voice easily. The speaker is a fly-whisk, the type his father brings back from the jungle tribes in the south. He's told Ryoma that fly-whisks are used primarily by the tribal kings, and the ones Ryoma has examined are elaborate in a dark, subtle way, with handles made of ebony and broom-fringe made of long, soft horsehair. There are differences in this one, of course, mostly the face and the ability to talk and move. This newcomer hops the way Oshitari does, on his handle. Instead of a clink, he makes more of a 'tok,' because the handle is made of wood, not metal.
"This is absolutely the last straw," says the newcomer furiously. "I will not bow to his every whim like a… a…"
"Servant?" Oshitari suggests.
"Exactly!" Then the fly-whisk pauses, narrowing his eyes at Ryoma. "Another one?"
"Ah yes, this is master Ryoma," says Oshitari. "He is here for his father."
"I don't care what he's here for, he can go somewhere else to find it!" the fly-whisk fumes, hopping agitatedly in place.
"Shishido," says Oshitari patiently. "Shouldn't you introduce yourself?"
The beast shifts restlessly, growling something under his breath about idiocy and needless time spent on formalities, and is ignored. Ryoma glances at him. They call him 'my lord' and he says he's the master here, but it seems that his hold over the servants is nominal at best.
"I'm Shishido, head of the household, although our guest seems to think I'm made for drudge work. I don't know why he thinks so, seeing as I don't have arms at the moment," Shishido complains. "I'm a fly-whisk, in case you were wondering, and yes, my hair did look like this when I was human."
"I wasn't wondering, really," says Ryoma, and eyes Oshitari curiously. There is one arm that looks like a corkscrew, and another that looks like a pair of shears, and various other implements that stick straight out to the sides. "What is he?"
"No one knows," says Shishido darkly.
"That's true," Oshitari agrees, hopping cheerfully over to hold out what passes for a hand. "But I don't let it stop me. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"All right!" their master snarls. "Enough! We will be rid of both of them within the hour. Introductions are unnecessary. Come along!" Ryoma lets out a startled yelp when he's grabbed roughly by the collar and digs his heels in, to no avail. The beast drags him kicking and fighting across the enormous entrance hall as though Ryoma weighs no more than a fly.
"My lord," Oshitari chimes in helpfully, as he hops alongside them. "Would it not be more polite to introduce yourself as well, before our guest departs? Perhaps before hauling him to the other side of the castle," he adds. "Surely this must be a breach of some sort of etiquette?"
"I-" The creature stops short, and stares at Ryoma as though he's never seen him before. He seems uncertain and curiously young for a moment. "My name is Atobe," he says finally.
"Nice to meet you," says Ryoma, and lets out a surprised 'oof' when Atobe starts pulling him along again. He has to scramble not to lose his feet. "I think," he mutters under his breath, giving in when he realizes that no matter where Atobe plans to take him now, there's no way he can do anything about it.
Atobe slams a pair of enormous wooden double doors open and drags Ryoma inside. Ryoma stumbles when Atobe lets go of him, but rights himself before falling onto the stone floor. This room is protected from the harsh desert sunlight by thick black curtains over what Ryoma assumes to be the windows. There are shelves upon shelves lining the walls, all full of strange rocks and curios. Ryoma glimpses a jeweled globe and a ship in a bottle, sails hoisted and full. Some of the shelves are too lost in shadow for him to see their contents.
There's a roaring fire in the hearth, which is probably double Ryoma's height. And in front of the fire is a chair large enough for at least two average-sized people to fit comfortably in it, though the current occupant is sprawled over the chair, taking more than his just due of space.
Nanjiroh glances in his direction and takes a long, slow sip from the mug in his hand. "Doing all right for yourself, are you, boy?" he asks lazily.
"Well," says Oshitari, who's caught up to them by now. "There's your father. And that's Hiyoshi, by the way. The one full of mulled wine. Say hello, Piyo."
"Hello," says the mug, sounding rather disgruntled.
"Nice to meet you." Ryoma's attention turns immediately back to Nanjiroh. "I'm doing fine. Looks like you are, too. Anything you want me to tell anyone at home?"
"Excuse me," says Atobe. "What?"
Ryoma shrugs diffidently. "I'm going home, as soon as I can find my horse…" he trailed off, concerned for a moment with Karupin's safety.
"Take him back," Atobe growls, jabbing a claw in Nanjiroh's direction.
Ryoma crosses his arms and lifts his chin. "No. You can keep him." Atobe's eyes narrow in surprise and anger.
"Sure, I like it here just fine," Nanjiroh says, and lets out a long, satisfied belch, settling more comfortably into the chair. The beast flicks his ears back and grimaces.
"I don't want him," says Ryoma. "I've had him for sixteen years. How much more do I have to take?"
"He's your father!" Atobe snaps.
"You took him in the first place!"
"Because I didn't yet know any better!"
"Quarrelsome, aren't they?" Nanjiroh remarks, and throws his head back to take another swig of wine out of Hiyoshi. Hiyoshi remains stoic, despite the circumstances. "Hey, hey," says Nanjiroh, once he's swallowed. "Why don't the both of you go out, see the countryside, leave me here to mind the place? See, no problem."
Atobe flattens his ears further, giving Nanjiroh a murderous glare before turning back to Ryoma. "Fine. Your father goes, and…" he pauses. "You stay so that you do not have to put up with him, which is as reasonable a compromise as I will make. This is my home."
"Hey," Nanjiroh objects, realizing for the first time that his comfortable position has been jeopardized.
"Done," says Ryoma, satisfied, and holds out his hand. Atobe pauses again for a moment, paying no heed to Nanjiroh's continued protests, and takes Ryoma's hand in his paw and shakes it once, firmly. Ryoma never flinches.
They need to confer after this in a room apart, locking themselves in against Nanjiroh's complaining. "He'll only go if you pay him for it," says Ryoma.
"I've tried." Atobe is restless, pacing the far wall in a swirl of cloak and mane, and Ryoma can hardly blame him after weeks spent with Nanjiroh.
"Why did you take him in to begin with, anyway?" Ryoma can't understand why anyone would let Nanjiroh stay more than a night with them. His father can be shrewd and diplomatic when it comes to bargaining, but as a houseguest, he's got to be one of the worst.
"For…" Atobe hesitates.
"My idea," Oshitari pipes up. Ryoma turns to him, raising an eyebrow; he hadn't noticed Oshitari joining them. "It was my idea, and…" He gives Atobe a significant look, and Atobe gives a sound that's somewhere between a snort and a cough. "And perhaps it wasn't such an ill notion after all."
"Anyway, his price will be higher than you offered," says Ryoma, ignoring that peculiar exchange. "Guaranteed." He names a sum that makes Atobe twitch, and Oshitari gasps at the notion. Ryoma shrugs. "You have to make up for the money the caravan lost in the storm. All of it, in other words. That's what he's waiting for."
"I am not going to pay this, this extortionist such an exorbitant sum just to get him to leave me alone!" Atobe snaps.
"All right," says Ryoma. "So keep him."
Atobe seems ready to bellow at him again, but then Oshitari clears his throat, or whatever passes for one in a whatever-he-is. "My lord. It seems to me that although you'll be parting with a great deal, monetarily speaking, there are also certain gains that our guest may not have anticipated. Potentially," Oshitari adds, when Atobe starts growling at him.
"I doubt that." But Atobe sweeps off anyway, and an hour later, Nanjiroh is gone, along with what must be the larger portion of the castle's treasury. He waves to Ryoma and grins before he goes, and then leaves, with no more fanfare.
It's an odd feeling, pushing the dark, heavy curtains aside to watch his father riding away without him. However, Ryoma decides, it's also rather satisfying.