The crescent moon hung like a salacious smile on the leering face of the sky. White clouds wrinkled its ominous visage. Shadows crept around clandestinely, like shameful deeds done under the cloak of darkness. The will o' the wisps floated around the marshland like the twinkling glare of a one-eyed monster – first here, then there.
Not that Inuyasha took note of his surroundings. The child's goal at that point was survival – to escape the mob of angry men nipping at his heels. His fault had been petty when compared to his persecution – trying to befriend a village boy and giving him a pear that the half-demon had gathered from the woods. Popular prejudice had revolted against the idea. The half-breed had surely cursed the fruit. It was bound to make the boy fatally ill. He must have been the product of a lowly union between a common whore and a cunning wizard. No good could ever come of the peculiar looking boy.
As Inuyasha hid behind a bush and watched the men pass by, he idly wondered what would have happened had his father been still alive. He would be safe inside a castle, for sure. Protected. Not hunted like a dangerous vermin that needed to be exterminated. Oh to live under the protective arm of a father and be pampered like a prince!
When the men were far away he rose from behind his hiding place. Dusting his haori, he ran out of the forest, blindly following his instincts, until he slammed bang against a wall. Stars erupted in his eyes; for a moment his vision echoed the sky above. Blinking, he looked at the wall.
It was high and ran as far as his eyes went on either side. Torches were placed at intervals inside appropriately placed holes. Spikes jutted out from the top. It's cold, stony exterior had a certain sinister ring to it. Must be a palace wall, he thought.
Human creations were hardly an impediment to him, and soon he could identify convenient undulations on the wall. Using them as levers, he hoisted himself over the wall and almost lost his balance. Fifty feet below him was a moat as wide as a small river. Beyond it stretched what he could discern as the royal orchard. The moat itself posed no great problem to him – he just needed to carefully angle his jump.
Taking a deep breath, Inuyasha concentrated on the land beyond and gracefully landed at his chosen spot. The scent of delicious pears greeted him immediately, and the starved child pigged out to his heart's delight. His hunger abated, he set out to explore the rest of the garden.
Soon he left the orchard and arrived at the outer fringes. The palace was clearly visible from there. It looked solemn and stately. Wonder how Oyaji's castle looked like, the boy thought. He looked about here and there to find a place for the night. One of the undergrowths seemed particularly suited for the purpose. As he made his way over to the bush, however, he was startled by the sound of weeping coming from within.
He gently pried the leaves apart to see a boy appearing to be his own age, sobbing quietly into his knees. His hair and clothes gave the impression of being born into affluence, but Inuyasha was startled to notice the livid bruises on every inch of exposed skin. He quietly took a step closer and was going to say hello, when the boy whipped around.
"Who are you?"
There was no reproach in those tearful amber eyes – only genuine wonder.
"Inuyasha. Half-demon. But I won't harm you, promise." Inuyasha assured him hastily.
The boy wiped his eyes in the back of his sleeves and motioned for Inuyasha to sit. The half-demon did as told.
"Has my brother sent you?" he asked hopefully.
Inuyasha shook his head: "I just tumbled across the wall. Otherwise the villagers – they'd have skinned me alive."
The boy frowned: "Why? Have you been a bad child?"
"No. But they don't trust my breed."
"We don't understand."
"We?" Inuyasha looked around. Who else was there with the boy? Was it a trap?
"Our name is Shi Ryuuki."
He refers to himself in the plural? Who does that?
"Are you the son of a nobleman?"
"We are the youngest son of the king."
A prince? Inuyasha whistled: "You don't say!"
"You said ani-ue didn't send you, right?" Ryuuki asked again.
"Nope. Never met him."
The prince became morose once again and put his chin to his knees. Inuyasha surveyed the garden for a while before his glance went to the livid bruises that the young prince was sporting.
"Say, if you're a prince, how come you're hiding in the bush? And where did you get those bruises from?"
Ryuuki looked at his hand with a detached air: "Our elder brothers beat us up. They warned us not to enter the palace."
Brothers…Inuyasha knew brothers were always at the root of all trouble. His own step-brother was living proof of that. But if Oyaji were alive–
"Your father…doesn't he scold your brothers for beating you up?"
"Father isn't interested. He already had five sons before us. It doesn't matter to him if we live or die."
Inuyasha was appalled. He'd never met his own father. But he knew the great demon had died trying to protect him and his mother. His memories of his father were always tinged with pride because of this – because he knew how much he had meant to his sire. But having a father who was indifferent to his son's being or non-being…Inuyasha wondered how that must feel.
"Died a few months ago."
That explained the boy's neglected condition. Even Inuyasha had been reduced to a vagabond since Ofukuro died.
"Mother never wanted us," the prince continued, "she thought Father was mad at her because of us. She used to keep us locked up in a dark room for days. Whenever our eyes met she used to glare at us like we were an ugly pest."
This new piece of information sent Inuyasha reeling further. He always imagined how his life would've been had he been living in a castle with his parents. He had ascribed every kind of love and luxury to the situation. It was his cherished dream, his most beloved illusion. But here before him was the living antithesis to whatever he had visualized. Here was a prince in his father's palace – neglected, tortured, deprived of love.
"Everybody ignores us in the palace. The handmaidens just walk past us like we are a ghost or something. My brothers beat us up for sport. Sometimes we wonder if we truly exist."
"Did nobody ever love you?" Inuyasha asked, full of pity for the traumatized prince.
"Only Seien, our second brother. He used to search for us in the bushes and pick us up and kiss us. He put medicine on our bruises and also taught us to read and write and do sums."
So that's the brother he was asking about.
"Where is he now?"
"Gone. One day he just disappeared. Nobody is allowed to take his name inside the palace now. All his clothes and belongings were burned. We cried a lot when we could not find him. We thought he left us because we had been a bad child. We thought we were being punished."
A tear glistened on the cheek of the prince.
"Then how could you just let him go? Aren't you going to go look for him?"
Ryuuki shook his head: "We can't. We've never gone out of the palace. We do not know what lies beyond these walls."
Unloved and a prisoner too?
"Don't worry, kid. Someday your brother will return to you," Inuyasha nodded firmly, though he knew not from what confidence: "Ofukuro used to say that in the end the good people would be favoured by Kami-sama and the bad people would be punished. Your wicked brothers will also be punished and you will become king."
The prince laughed at the words of the bumpkin.
"I'm the youngest son, silly. There's no way I will be king. If something should happen to my brothers, Seien will ascend the throne. He's the one who is fit to rule." The mention of Seien seemed to bring a glow of pride into the prince's pale face.
Inuyasha shrugged: "You just look like you might be a king someday."
"And you look like you will kill spiders!"
Inuyasha frowned: "Why spiders?"
"Because they are big and nasty and scary. And because one is crawling on a tree right behind you."
"Oh not afraid are you? Say, are you afraid of the dark?"
"No way," Inuyasha guffawed, "I'm not a baby."
"We are terrified of the dark. We cannot sleep in the dark alone." Ryuuki sounded forlorn once again.
For one, impulsive moment Inuyasha felt like asking the prince to run away with him. He could easily carry the boy out of the palace. Then the two of them could go looking for this Seien person. It'd give him a motive to live, a goal, a purpose to his life.
Then reality hit him. Here he was, a vagabond surviving on other people's charity. What would he do with a clueless prince? He would be more of a hindrance than a help.
Grrrrr…Ryuuki blushed as his stomach growled.
"You hungry?" Inuyasha asked.
"We haven't eaten since the morning."
"There are pears in the orchard. Want to come and eat?"
"No, thank you. We are not allowed to eat fruits at night."
The longer Inuyasha stayed with the boy the more thankful was he was feeling about his own lot. For months he had been thinking only of the things he had been deprived of, and ignored the things he had been given. He had two loving parents who watched him from the stars; he had the strength to defend himself against bodily injury; he had the freedom to do as he pleased. He would actually feel good about himself, had his mother taught him not to be happy for other people's misery. He felt he ought to give some hope to the lonely prince.
"Till you are older and can defend yourself," Inuyasha said, "Kami-sama sends us angels to help us on our way."
"Really?" Ryuuki looked slightly animated.
"Ofukuro said so. All you gotta do is to wish on your guiding star," He added with a slight blush.
The stars were already dying out in the sky, but Inuyasha watched with amusement as the prince immediately knelt on the ground, hands clasped, and started murmuring a prayer.
The first rays of the morning sun were twisting their way through the trees above the boys. The garden was bathed in a pre-dawn gold when everything looks fresh and beautiful and as poignant as a deep melody.
"Morning already?" Inuyasha wondered aloud.
"Thank you for staying with us…during the dark." The prince said meekly.
"You're welcome," Inuyasha didn't forget the manners his mother had taught him.
"Are you going now?"
"Yup. Your palace guards will create a lot of fuss if they found me here. You'll be in trouble too." Inuyasha remembered what happened to the last boy he had befriended. His parents had beaten him in front of the entire village.
"Will you visit sometime? To play with us? We have a kemari ball."
A kemari ball? A boy was inviting him to play with a kemari ball? It took Inuyasha's last ounce of strength to refuse the invitation. There was no point stirring up more trouble for the already tormented prince.
"Naah…I'll probably go far away from here."
The prince looked forlorn and dejected, so he added: "But maybe some day I'll come to visit… when you're all grown up and nobody's beating you."
Ryuuki smiled: "Ok."
He dusted his royal robe and made his way back to the palace. But never again did he meet the weird boy from the garden. The memory became so distant with time, he sometimes wondered if it had been a real encounter or had he conjured up an imaginary friend to keep him company in the terrifying darkness.
The day was Ryuuki's wedding day. People from all parts of the empire had thronged to see their emperor finally take a consort. Music and wine were overflowing, and the crowd of visitors never diminished. Suddenly Ryuuki thought he could spot a cascade of silver among the crowd. He started. When he looked again he saw the red haori and the blazing amber eyes, so like and yet so unlike his own. The boy was slightly older now, but not much. He was grinning to see his friend upon the throne. But then Ryuuki blinked and he was gone. He cast his look around, but the red haori had blended with the crowd already, and was nowhere to be seen.
Shuurei put her hand on her husband's shoulder: "Anything the matter Ryuuki?"
The emperor smiled: "I wonder if he will kill a spider in the end."