In those far, far away days
That warmth was the only thing I can feel,
So that when getting lost in the darkness at the end of the road,
All I could do is cry in loneliness.
- Reprise l. 1-4
Prince Nigihayami Kohakunushi, the youngest son of the Dragon King, stood on the plains of the Spirit World. As always when he was at this place, the river that marked the southern border of the Spirit World loomed in his mind. It was a border that many crossed easily, even nightly, by ferry. For him, though, its impenetrability was a mocking reminder of what he had lost. To the east, a bright smudge disturbed the dark horizon. Aburaya, named for the bathhouse at the town’s center, had grown in recent years as refugees fleeing across the border sought jobs and the town swelled to serve its expanding clientele. The ferry, just a barely visible bright speck, glided toward the town, carrying its first load of passengers of the night. Wind rippled through the sea of grass all around him and the moonlight shone bright on his long, black hair. By any measure, it was a beautiful night, as long as he could ignore the screaming couple.
“You have no right to him!” the woman yelled.
“And you think you fertilized that spawn all by yourself, do you?” the man retorted.
“How dare you?” the woman screamed, and lunged at him, forcing Fujisan to step in and hold the two apart.
Haku sighed. He and Prince Fujisan, the oldest son and heir apparent, had already been here the better part of the evening. They were supposed to be trying to resolve a marital spat regarding an adolescent child. Whether the child was theirs was currently under debate. Haku had seen these two before at court, and judging by what he knew of them, they could easily be stuck here for the rest of the night. A less stubborn couple would have just resolved the fight between themselves, rather than applying to the King. Fujisan was itching to end the discussion, Haku knew. He would not want to be late for the King’s audience, though the King would only be hearing asinine cases like this one.
“Lord Hyabusa, Madame Risu, please, let’s be reasonable,” Fujisan said. “The boy is almost grown. You’ve done an admirable job bringing him up. He is a credit to both of you.”
Haku looked down at the boy standing next to him and raised an eyebrow.
The boy sighed. “Neither of them were around for my growing up. And now that I’ve got a shrine to my name they barge into my life and try to tell me what to do. It’s not worth the fuss, really.”
“Maybe you should try to tell them that,” Haku suggested quietly.
“Nah, I’ll just run away when they’re not looking,” the boy said frankly. “They’ll get tired of me soon enough. You’re so lucky. Your father actually listens to you. You’re a prince though, so I s’pose he’s got to.”
“Taka! C’mon over, dear,” the woman called.
“Looks like something’s been decided,” the boy named Taka said. “Come with me?”
“It won’t do any good,” Haku said.
Taka shrugged. “Come anyway.”
“Taka dear,” the woman said when they approached. “His Highness Prince Fujisan says that we’re both to take care of you. Would you like that?”
“I can take care of myself,” Taka replied. “I don’t need either of you.”
The man’s face turned red. “Now see here, boy. Most spirits aren’t lucky enough to grow up with a family…”
The boy looked over at Haku and rolled his eyes in exasperation.
Above the man’s head, Prince Fujisan glared at his brother. He gripped Taka’s shoulder. “Your father’s right. You’re fortunate to have parents who care about you.”
“Right,” Taka said sarcastically.
Prince Fujisan ignored his tone. He didn’t have the time to bicker. “Now be a good boy and mind them.”
“I’m no hatchling,” Taka said. “Don’t speak to me like one. But sure. I’ll be good. Anything to get this over with. And there, see? You can be on your way now.” He turned away from the pair of dragons and to his parents, smiling.
“What did you say to him?” Fujisan hissed.
“Nothing,” Haku said.
“Don’t encourage rebellion, brother of mine. Anyone would envy how our parents treated you and this is the thanks you give them?” Fujisan straightened as the woman walked toward them.
The woman bowed to both of them. “Thank you so much, Your Highness. And you as well Prince Kohakunushi,” she said. “Please give my regards to your father the King.”
They returned her bow with nods - the correct acknowledgement from their station to hers - and watched her walk away. With a final glare at his brother, Fujisan disappeared, leaving Haku to return to the palace on his own.
The Dragon King’s palace rose up from the sea floor like many strings of translucent pearls waving in the currents. The throne room and banquet hall occupied the largest of these pearls, the former set into the grounds like a bubble clinging to glass, the latter drifting lazily nearby. The main chain of rooms rose like a garland of glass globes up to the royal family’s living quarters of the royal family rose high above the grounds. To the east, a smaller cluster of rooms, lovingly nicknamed The Sea Grapes, made up the Academy. The first King had formed the palace from the water as a gift to his bride, Amaterasu, in the beginning of the world. It was a living thing, shaped by the King to meet the needs of its inhabitants.
Around midnight, Haku leaned against the windowsill of his bedroom, gazing down into the gardens on the palace grounds. Palace guards, sworn to protect the royal family, and the customary Coronation Guards, hired by Fujisan or second son Prince Tateyama, swarmed around the main palace entrance. Their shiny exoskeletons shimmered under the light of the bioluminescent jellyfish and squid drifting by. A few academy students, housed at the palace, strolled or drifted below. He was daydreaming, as he often did during the King’s audience, that he flew through the air with eleven-year old Chihiro on his back. Fluffy clouds floated past leisurely below, and she was whispering into his ear. Then they were falling, her small human hand warm in his, her hair billowing in the wind, her eyes shining as she smiled at him and pressed her face to his. Was it memory? Or fantasy? In any case, it was unreachable, and he returned to it often.
He was interrupted by the sight of someone walking through the arch and up the side garden path. That was unusual. Most people knew better than to seek an audience just before the coronation. And most people would enter through the front. Unless, perhaps, he had Fujisan’s blessing…? The guards approached him in groups, but were fended off easily. The figure passed undisturbed. Haku peered more closely through the window, and recognized the bent posture and hobbling walk at once. His white hair and clothes almost glowed under the jellies’ light. It was old Tenryu, no doubt wanting to speak with the King once again about the war. He is on a fool’s errand, Haku thought. The chamber won't be open until the heir is officially announced, and he knows it. So why is he here?
The servants would be busy preparing the banquet, and the academy students would surely be studying or relaxing in the Eastern Cluster where the classrooms and libraries were kept. The path from the royal family’s living quarters down to the throne room should be deserted. He hurried through the passages down to the throne room’s antechamber where Fujisan presided alone - the light scattered across the room as the wall melted away and reformed to let him pass - and settled in a back corner where he would blend into the rippling shadows sprawled over the walls.