Title: The Prince and His Knight
~The Prince and His Knight, Chapter One~
If looks could kill a man, then the man named Syuusuke would have fallen dead on the spot. Kunimitsu glared daggers at his guardian, unable to move any part of himself save his eyes. Fortunately those eyes were well able to speak although the lips and tongue were immobilized.
The prince was not bound by any physical ropes or chains, because those were unnecessary for an enchanter. He stood in the center of a plain room with walls of unfinished wood and a small bed with a mattress that looked to be stuffed with straw. One candle, mounted on a sconce in the far wall, provided a flickering, unsteady light. No other furniture or ornamentation graced his surroundings, but it hardly mattered. Kunimitsu would have felt the same hatred of the room even if it had been inlaid with gold and gems.
Syuusuke walked a slow circle around Kunimitsu, his pleasant smile infuriating. “Well, what am I to do with you now, my prince?” He laid a hand on Kunimitsu’s shoulder, and the prince was powerless to stop him. “I could take you back to the palace, but I’m certain that your knight and his band of thugs have rid us of our guards. So,” and now he laid his hand against Kunimitsu’s cheek, “we are in a predicament, are we not?”
Of course, Kunimitsu could not answer him, but that did not seem to disturb Syuusuke in the least. The questions had been rhetorical anyway; Kunimitsu had no doubt that his guardian already knew exactly what to do next.
Syuusuke drew his hand back and continued, still smiling at his captive audience. “But the predicament is remedied easily enough, as you can see.” He gestured gracefully at the room they were in. “What is one small house among many? A stitchery needle in a pile of hay. I doubt that even your lowborn knight would think to search here.” Syuusuke chuckled. “Not that he would find you easily, even if he was to determine your location.”
A snap of the enchanter’s fingers, and Kunimitsu could feel his clothing alter into something besides the soft leather and velvet he had been wearing. Coarse wool now chafed at his skin, the tunic held shut with an piece of rough twine. His calf-height, comfortable doeskin boots were now solid and heavy, unpleasant weights that seemed to fasten him to the ground. His hair, carefully washed and brushed earlier that day, now fell wild into his eyes, unkempt, and greasy as well from the feel of it.
“No one will recognize you by sight alone, now,” Syuusuke informed him, blue eyes glittering. He snapped his fingers once more, and now the enchanter’s own clothing changed to resemble a peasant’s. His hair grew longer and became a darker shade of brown. Kunimitsu did not have even the small consolation of being able to laugh at his guardian’s new, lower-class appearance; Syuusuke, damn him, made just as good-looking a peasant as a noble.
“And to be sure, I cannot risk letting you become rebellious again, so...” Syuusuke’s hands moved in front of the prince’s face, drawing complicated symbols in midair. The symbols flared sapphire for a moment after their creation, and then faded as they sank into Kunimitsu’s skin.
Kunimitsu felt himself released from the binding, and moved his arm experimentally. He tested his legs then and took a step backwards, away from Syuusuke. An instant later he attempted to lunge at his guardian, ready and willing to do whatever was required to facilitate his own escape. But as soon as he made a forward motion, he realized that something was wrong.
His legs would not obey him at all as they normally would. Instead of a lunge, he ended up with his front leg bent, close to kneeling on the floor. His head bent forward without his telling it to, in a respectful bow such as one would make to an elder. “I hear and obey, master,” he heard and felt his lips say, although he tried to wrench control of them away from the unseen force.
Syuusuke laughed and patted Kunimitsu affectionately on the head, as one would do with a dog or a small child. “Very good, my prince, very obedient. A good thing, too, because I do not think that under ordinary circumstances you would work very hard at upholding the disguises I’ve thought up for us.”
Kunimitsu raised his eyes, able to control his head again, and if his glare had been deadly before, it was now a thing of pure murder. He had evidently underestimated what Syuusuke was capable of; it was now clear that his guardian had a hidden agenda that he meant to follow. Why else would he go to the trouble of finding them a place to hide, and disguising them both? It would have made more sense for Syuusuke to call in reinforcements for the guards to fight Kippei’s men.
Perhaps, then, Syuusuke had plotted this all along, and had only needed an excuse to kidnap Kunimitsu. The planned elopement had, then, given him that excuse. Kunimitsu silently cursed himself for not realizing, cursed Syuusuke for being a bastard, and cursed the very day that his guardian had been born.
“We wouldn’t want our names recognized, either,” Syuusuke said, looking as though he was thoroughly enjoying himself. “So, I will be Fuji, a simple herb healer, and you will be Tezuka, my apprentice. You will be slightly dim-witted, but a loyal, hard worker, a part that will be difficult for you, to be sure. Luckily, my little spell will help you to maintain your role.” Syuusuke’s smile was one of pure delight as he said the words.
Kunimitsu began to suspect that his guardian had no hidden agenda, and was only doing this because he loved to be sadistic. He would certainly not put it past the fair-haired man; he’d done similar things before, if not quite so dramatically. In any case, the prince willed Kippei Goldenmane to locate him with the utmost speed. He had faith that his knight would find him eventually...but no faith at all in what other torments Syuusuke would devise for him in the meantime.
Kippei urged his horse on until they rode at the speed of lightning itself, or so it seemed. The dun mare matched the pale hue of his hair, and her mane flew back and mingled with his until they seemed to be one creature. Some of his men had stayed behind at the palace in case of Kunimitsu’s return and in preparation for the wakening of those guards who had only been knocked out, and the others were hard on Kippei’s heels, aboard their own steeds.
There were only two people Kippei knew of in the near vicinity who could trace Kunimitsu by his blood. One was out of the question, for she was Syuusuke’s own sister. Although she might think it a good jest to play on her brother to undo his plot, she might also make Kippei’s job more difficult, depending on her attitude.
Fortunately, the other seer was far more reliable, if less well-known. Kippei knew that he could count on her, no matter what the occasion. It did not take long for he and his men to reach the middle-sized house on the outskirts of the nearby village. The horses’ hooves clattered loudly as the horses galloped over the cobblestones.
Kippei leaped from his horse before the mare had come to a complete stop. He knocked at the door, calling, “Sister!”, his urgency betrayed by his tone.
An opened the door, her eyes showing neither surprise nor shock, although it was late in the evening and her brother had sent no word ahead of himself. She held a candle and wore a light robe over her nightclothes. “Brother, I thought you’d come. What is the matter?”
Quickly he explained the story to her. She nodded at times, and merely listened thoughtfully at others. In the end, he showed her the spot of Kunimitsu’s blood on the back of his hand, and asked whether she could find the prince with it.
She took hold of his hand in her own and examined the blood, then smiled up at him. “Your prince was very clever in giving this to you. I should be able to find him, but I’ll need some particular ingredients.” She glanced behind him and to the right. “Akira, Shinji? Would you mind terribly fetching me the things I need?”
“Of course not, milady,” Akira replied with a bow. Shinji only gave a short nod. The men obeyed An as readily as her brother at all times, and would willingly fetch whatever it was she required. She listed the seers’ tools to them, and they trotted away quickly, Akira heading toward the stream for some clear, untainted water, and Ibu heading for the woods to find some stones of the proper quality.
While they were gone, Kippei paced restlessly in front of the house until An stopped him. “Have no fear, brother,” she soothed him. “Blood is the strongest tie you could have brought to me; all will be well.”
“I know,” Kippei sighed, “but that man, Syuusuke...I do not know what he will do with Kunimitsu completely under his power. I do fear, not that I will not be able to find him, but that I will not be able to find him in time.”
“You truly love him, do you not?” An asked, her eyes sparkling as she smiled a little. “Then let me reassure you again. Syuusuke is not an evil man, I know this from speaking with his sister. He will do no serious harm to your prince, I am sure of it.”
“Thank you, An,” Kippei said with a slight answering upturn of his lips, but still his legs refused to keep to one spot, his anxiety ruling over his movements.
The men were back very shortly with the water and the stones, setting them on the ground before An’s feet. “Kippei, dip the hand with the blood on it into the bucket of water,” she instructed him. He did so, reluctant to wash away the only token he had of Kunimitsu, but he had complete faith in his sister.
She settled on the ground also, closing her eyes and murmuring something under her breath. All present had seen her work her seer’s powers before, so none of them were uneasy as she continued to speak softly over the rounded stones, and then drop each of them into the bucket. Kippei watched intently as the water clouded over. Shadows of images flickered across its surface, none of them fixed enough to see properly as yet.
Finally, An opened her eyes, and the image in the bucket abruptly cleared. Kippei drew in a breath and had to look a second time to be sure that it was, indeed, Kunimitsu he saw. What a change had taken place in just this short time! No longer was Kunimitsu the very image of a prince; his unfamiliar clothing was ragged and patched in many places, his hair was matted, and even his face seemed to have shifted subtly so it nearly seemed to belong to some other person. His air was unusually subservient, in some indistinguishable way.
It was the eyes that gave him away, however. The image locked onto Kunimitsu’s face and Kippei saw the fiery eyes that he loved so much. It was the correct person, there was no mistake of that. Kippei nodded, but did not tear his gaze from the water. “Yes, you’ve found him, sister. Where is he?”
An concentrated, and the image moved back a ways, but all they could see was a small wooden room. Kunimitsu was seated on the bed, glaring and exchanging words they could not hear with another...Syuusuke, most likely.
“Oh,” and An let out a little sound of frustration. “There aren’t any windows, and something’s blocking me from seeing outside...let me try again.”
“It must be Syuusuke,” Kippei said quietly. “He is probably blocking you on purpose, or he’s gotten his sister to do it.”
“Wait a moment,” said Shinji, who was holding a candle over the water so that they could see. “I recognize the wood in the walls of that room. They only use that particular type of wood in the northern countries, particularly in the Hyotei province. It has a specific kind of grain to it if you look at it closely.”
An, Kippei, and the others all looked at Shinji in surprise. He tended to be talkative, but not always particularly helpful...but this time, if he was right, then he had brought their mission one step closer to being a success.
“You’re sure?” Kippei asked slowly, musingly. “That province is two days’ ride from here...”
“Of course I’m sure,” Shinji said, not quite annoyed but not entirely pleased to be questioned. “No one else works with it but the peasants up there, it is not a very good type of wood for anything, certainly not good enough to be exported-”
“Then it is decided,” Kippei declared. “We will ride first to the castle to tell the others where we are going, then to Hyotei!” He took his sister’s hand and said, “You will never know how grateful I am to you for this.”
“You are always welcome, brother,” she replied.
At her last word, Kippei was already swinging himself into his mare’s saddle. His men followed his example immediately without needing to be told. He raised one hand in farewell even as the mare broke into a canter. “Best of luck in your search!” An called after him. “You will find him, Kippei!”