Given the attack, the engagement banquet was delayed to the fifth day of the Shoban Prince’s arrival in Moutan’s capital. While Seiren and his men were treated for injuries, an investigation was initiated into the assassination attempt.
As the King of Moutan seemed sincere in his apologies and in his embarrassment about the incident, Seiren graciously brushed it off, promising that it would not affect relations between the two kingdoms. Instead, he was full of praise for the spectacular intervention of the Moutan shinobi* who had stepped in to assist him at the critical moment.
After being thrown from his horse, fourteen-year-old Pul, who was serving as his brother’s page, thought he’d be killed under the stomping hooves of his brother’s wounded horse, but he’d also been saved by the same tiny shinobi. Both brothers had wanted to express their gratitude directly, but they were only told that the child, who belonged to Grand Chancellor Mu, had been seriously injured and was now recovering.
Pul, seated with the rest of Prince Seiren’s entourage in the great banquet hall, saw that his brother’s fiancée, Princess Yuna, looked like a porcelain doll dressed in her heavy, but tiny brocade dress. Only five years old, she stared silent and wide-eyed at Seiren, who towered above her, probably not understanding a single thing that was happening as they were introduced for the first time.
Dressed handsomely in formal court robes, Seiren had recovered from the attack and looked cheerful despite being engaged to a child princess whose young age was only made more obvious by the ridiculous makeup that had been painted on her. He bowed to her after the introductions, kneeling down to speak so that he would not frighten her, and then gently took her hand to escort her back to her seat next to her nanny. Praising his exquisite manners, the Moutan court seemed very impressed with Prince Seiren’s gentle gallantry and the tense awkwardness that had been present at the beginning of the banquet slowly began to dissipate.
“Wherever he goes, Prince Seiren catches the eye and captures the heart. Just with that gesture, he has changed the atmosphere of the entire room,” observed Furusawa Ranmaru, one of his brother’s older retainers. The bearded man smiled, fixing his gaze on the younger prince.
“Your brother is doing well. You would also do well to follow his lead.”
“I am not my brother,” Pul muttered, almost rude in his response, but his eyes were lowered.
A veiled look that Pul did not see passed over Furusawa’s face.
“Indeed, you are not, your Highness...” the man responded before sipping his wine.
Pul’s head snapped up and he glared sharply at the retainer who only smirked behind his cup.
Furusawa had hit a sore spot: Dark haired with piercing blue eyes, Seiren was Shobu’s beloved jewel. Handsome, accomplished, and gentle, he had all the commanding presence of a Crown Prince and yet his calm and gracious nature charmed those around him. He always knew what to say and when to say it.
On the other hand, Pul, who was light haired and blue eyed, looked more like his mother who had been a Princess from the far west. Blunt and awkward, he had neither his brother’s charisma, nor his poise. Regardless of the fact they looked nothing alike, Seiren’s retainers had been specifically warned not to address the young second Prince of Shobu by his rank as it was not wise to let it be known that both of Princes were currently away from their homeland.
Nursing a dislocated shoulder and a bruised hip, Pul tried to hold in his temper at Furusawa’s jab and his sense of disgust at his brother’s engagement. Even though Seiren was not opposed to the alliance in principle, and certainly Princess Yuna would not be sent to Shobu until she was of age, Pul felt that Xiao Jing Feng’s willingness to barter with his daughter rather than with a trade agreement stunk of weakness. He was also still seething from the attempt on his brother’s life, suspicious of Moutan’s motives, but Seiren had asked him for his patience during their discussion the night before.
“I don’t think that Moutan is involved in the attack,” his brother had groaned, stretching an aching neck still sore from where the child shinobi had yanked his collar. He threw himself down on a couch as the two of them lounged in the guest palace where they were staying. “There’s no benefit to them if I die here. Father would instantly retaliate…”
“What if the failure was deliberate? It was quite clumsy, and it was clear that the shinobi who saved you was from Moutan. Doesn’t it benefit Xiao Jing Feng if we owe him something?”
“Moutan commoners were hurt in that attack and the shinobi child saved your life too. Xiao Jing Feng loves his people…and he’s not stupid. If the whole point was to make the future King of Shobu owe a debt to Moutan, then eliminating you would have been the better choice,” Seiren said with irony. His lips tipped up as he gave his little brother a sideways glance.
Pul grinned back, undeterred.
“That’s true…though you know I don’t covet the throne like our Third Brother,” he said, gingerly settling himself onto his brother’s bed. Pul’s shoulder and hip throbbed, reminding him how close he had come to being seriously hurt.
“You mean like the Lady Sakurako. Keizo is six years old and may not be aware of what his mother is up to...but I agree the attempt was deliberately clumsy…” said Seiren, stroking a knuckle over his upper lip.
Pul didn’t like the thoughtful look that suddenly crossed his brother’s face.
“You think…Father…?” he started abruptly, pondering the implications.
“Hush,” said Seiren quietly, brow creasing. “Father is fond of theatrics… and his ambitions reach beyond Shobu. For the sake of our people, I’m against another war, but he will not be satisfied until he is the Lord of the three Eastern Kingdoms. It is only a matter of time before things become critical.”
“Then this marriage alliance…?” asked Pul.
“He sent me personally…Perhaps it’s only a clever ploy? Father, might just be waiting for the right time...”
“You mean a time that is decided by Lady Sakurako and that fire breathing thing he worships?” Pul scoffed.
Seiren shook his head with a worried look.
“Pul…that’s enough. We’ll speak no more of this until we return to Shobu…”
His brother’s tone was soft, but full of warning— leaving Pul resentful and uneasy.
What is Brother hiding...?
“…Highness…Pul!” hissed Furusawa at the young Prince, still offering the wine bottle he’d been holding for at least a few minutes.
Pul startled and then silently cursed himself, realizing that his mind had been wandering. He dragged his attention back to the engagement banquet and to Furusawa who calmly poured a small amount of wine into his cup.
“His Highness Crown Prince Iseulbi is speaking with your brother,” said Furusawa, without looking in that direction.
Pul turned his gaze with interest and felt all the blood drain out of his face as the two princes turned to look his way.
Before Pul could gather himself, his brother and Moutan’s young Crown Prince were already standing in front of him. He rose automatically, making his bow, years of practiced protocol taking over as his senses galloped every which way.
“Prince Iseulbi, this young fellow is my page, Pul,” said Seiren, smiling.
“Pul? What a unique name. This Prince is glad to see that you are recovered from your fall. Does your shoulder still hurt?” asked the young Prince in a soft high voice.
“A-A little, Your Highness,” Pul gulped, staring into the thoughtful dark eyes. He raised his own gaze to meet his brother’s and saw that the exact same thought had crossed his brother’s mind.
In that moment, when the young shinobi had tumbled off the horse, Seiren’s hand had become caught in the boy’s mask and ripped it off. Standing before them, dressed in fine gold threaded robes was a boy with the exact same face as the one who had saved them.
The little Prince was no fool and had instantly picked up on Pul’s surprise and appeared to be carefully evaluating Pul’s awkward expression.
“If there is still pain, then I will call the Imperial physician for you. This Prince doesn’t wish for you to suffer during your stay in our palace,” the boy said graciously, choosing to ignore the look on Pul’s face.
“That is very kind, Your Highness,” nodded Prince Seiren.
Seiren shot a warning glance at him, but it was too late.
“And you, your Highness? Are you well?” Pul blurted, without thinking.
For a moment there might have been a flicker of something in Crown Prince Iseulbi’s eyes, but his calm manner betrayed nothing significant. He simply turned to Seiren and laughed.
“Prince Seiren, your page is very kind-hearted. I see that he has heard about my occasional bouts of illness, but I am very well, as you see…but perhaps I should escort my little sister back to her palace,” he said with an apologetic gesture, looking very gentle.
The three of them turned in the direction of Princess Yuna who was seated on the other side of the banquet hall. Pul coughed lightly when he saw that she had fallen asleep, sitting upright, with her thumb in her mouth.
Seiren himself smothered a laugh, but his lips tipped up with amusement.
“Yes of course, this must have been an exhausting affair for her Highness…” he said diplomatically.
“Indeed,” Prince Iseulbi smiled, his lips lifting only the required amount for politeness. “This Prince takes leave: please enjoy the rest of the banquet,” he nodded, signalling to his servants as he crossed the banquet hall. Before Prince Iseulbi left, he bid his farewells to the King and then excused himself.
Still processing his shock, Pul watched him go.
“Yes, I know. We can talk once we get back to our own chambers…” his older brother answered.
Still seated, Furusawa gave them both a curious glance. If he had noticed their strange interaction just now with the Crown Prince of Moutan, he did not comment on it.
Seiren only smiled faintly as he turned back to his brother.
This is getting interesting, Seiren thought to himself.
“Sit. Eat,” he commanded Pul. “I will come for you later,” he said, and strode back towards the King of Moutan.
As Prince Iseulbi made his way back to the East Palace after escorting his younger sister, he felt more than heard as Feiyan came parallel with him in the dark. With a wave of his hand, the servants holding the lanterns fell back a few steps to let him speak privately with his Shadow.
“Your Highness,” she said, pleading.
The Prince compressed his lips and did not look at her.
“Your Highness are you still angry with me?” she pressed, sounding forlorn.
“Of course, I’m still angry. You’re my Shadow…My Shadow, and yet you left my side and almost got yourself killed,” he said.
His feet stomped a little as he walked, punctuating his words.
“Bi, I’m sorry,” she said.
“I know you are, and I know why you did it, but for a moment I thought I would be alone again.”
“I’m sorry I did not take my duty to you seriously enough and left your side…”
“Mu Feiyan!” he halted, almost yelling at her. “That’s not what I’m talking about!”
She was surprised, realizing that he was almost in tears.
“Why can’t you value yourself more? You are important to me! You can’t just throw your life away. Do you understand? I will not allow it!” he gritted.
She nodded, drooping, but then he was hugging her so tightly she almost passed out from pain.
They held each other, comforted each other with their foreheads pressed together, breathing the same air as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Anyone who had watched them for a long time could see that the bond between them was not a shallow one.
The Prince’s eunuch, standing with the other servants, felt his heart ache as he watched the two children. Though they normally carried themselves with maturity beyond their years, they still couldn’t help feeling and doing as children did. Seeing them cling to each other, the eunuch tried not to pity them.
“I don’t feel complete without you, Feiyan,” whispered the Prince, hanging his chin on her shoulder. “You’re like my other half. If something were to happen…”
“Nothing will happen, your Highness. We’ll always be together. Always. I promise,” she said, wiping his tears. “I feel the same. You’re not allowed to get sick again either.”
He laughed then.
“Alright,” he said patting her back, but then jerked his hand away as if burned when she winced and went pale. “Sorry…still hurts?”
If Father hadn’t put me back together again, I wouldn’t be standing here!
“Of course, it hurts! Have you ever been stepped on by a horse? All my ribs broke and I thought my guts would squish out my nose…” she sniffed sarcastically, downplaying it. “It hurt when you hugged me just now…”
“Pffft!” Bi giggled, while Feiyan glared at him.
Then they both laughed, and Feiyan could see that he had forgiven her.
“I’m glad you’re alright,” said Prince Bi, his anger finally dissipating.
“Mmmn,” she nodded, smiling to herself.
“You have to listen to me, ok?” the Prince insisted.
“Yes, I’ll listen to you…” Feiyan agreed with a sigh.
The Prince’s eunuch felt a pang as the two children tightly clasped their hands.
How long will they continue to suffer…? he wondered. Who will break their promise first?
* The Japanese equivalent of a shadow guard. You may be more familiar with the word ‘ninja’. A Shinobi is specifically a male ninja. Seiren and Pul both use this term as they assume Feiyan is a boy.