When they left Mosall a month later, they managed to convince Murasame to join them at the capital. He'd refused at first, pointing an accusatory finger at Kuon before hastily dropping it.
"You two are a menace," he said. "I'm not going to let you both drag me into more insanity."
"You're a Champion now," said Kuon, as if he hadn't heard him. "The people will rally behind the allies of Rosa. There are still large groups of monsters that will need to be eradicated before we can reach true peace. We could use your power and leadership."
Murasame hemmed and hawed before finally assenting and asking when his first assignment would start.
"Tomorrow," said Kyoko. "You'll be fully recovered for your duties then."
"You'll be one of Kyoko's personal bodyguards during the journey home," said Kuon.
Murasame's eyebrows rose before he scowled.
"Fine!' he scoffed. "Fine. I'll see you both tomorrow." But before he reached the door, he'd called to Kyoko again. "Thanks, you know? For trusting me with…everything. I sure as hell wouldn't have, if I were in your position. But... I appreciate it. I'll do my job well."
His whole aura was a pleased purple, highlighted with pink embarrassment. It clashed with the frustration and annoyance on his face. Kyoko gave a wide smile which just caused him to scowl further.
One of the first things Kyoko did after getting home to the capital was find Hikaru's family. She still had the piece of paper he had given her when she'd almost been thrown out of the harem, quickly penned with magic so that she would have somewhere to rest her head. It sat in her pocket as she met with them and detailed his final moments.
He'd had three sisters and one brother, all younger and all devastated. The parents soothed them gently, obviously putting off their own grief until a more private time. Ren had been with her, thank the goddess. And Murasame. He had insisted on meeting Hikaru's family, assuring them fiercely of Hikaru's valor and all of Mosall's admiration of him. The tears eventually turned into smiles, and they stayed for dinner, exchanging stories and an occasional soft laugh. It had hurt to leave them with that knowledge, dropped off like luggage the family couldn't return.
The hardest talk was with the families of those that Ren had killed when he'd first rampaged as an Accursed. The fallen had been from Lory's and the king's elite guards. By Lory's design, most of them hadn't had much family. Of those that did, most had accepted the compensation and honorary death rituals with the expected sorrow and frustration.
A few had screamed, beating Kuon with their words and grief. Another had thrown the compensatory payout back in their faces.
Kuon had offered no excuses. He'd taken all their rage, head bowed, not flinching as they called him a murderer.
"What right do you have to darken this household?"
"You're a monster!"
"Your apologies mean nothing!"
"You should have died instead!"
That one had made Kyoko bristle.
"He did die," she'd wanted to yell at them. "He bled, and struggled, fighting down his guilt to do something better than just dying as penance."
It was one large reason the king hadn't been forced to put his own son on trial. Kuon had died. Had been possessed by a dark contract that had twisted his mind. He hadn't been in full control and had sacrificed himself anyway. Had broken his relic knowing he'd die rather than continue to kill.
But she'd said nothing. It didn't matter whether Kuon felt bad about what he'd done. Or that he'd been driven mad by magic. Their loved ones were dead, and their feelings of anger were valid. If Kuon wanted to take the brunt of that anger, then Kyoko wouldn't be the one to break.
Sure enough, when they'd finally seen all the families, Ren had crumpled, Kyoko ready to brace him.
Talking to Dyrus about Chiori had been so much easier. The captain had gone through much of his grief already, only needing additional closure. She'd been able to give some of that.
"She wanted to go back to being a girl?" Dyrus quieted like the dunes, little grains of sand sloughing in the wind as most of the mound remained unmoving.
"She only became Chris because she thought you wanted her to," said Kyoko, trying to remember exactly what had happened that day. "She had decided to become Chiori again. I'd dressed her up in one of my outfits that day to talk to you."
"I never asked her to do that," said Dyrus. "I would have never…"
"She wanted to make you proud."
That made Dyrus straighten, hand on the pommel of his sword. "I've always been proud," he growled. "Of Chris. Of Chiori. Whichever identity she wanted to be."
And as their talk continued, she saw something lift from his shoulders—literally. Her new sight had some very strange properties she was still working out. He let her keep the enchanted bag she'd carried from the palace, grateful to Kyoko for being Chiori's friend, even if it had been short. He also became quite fierce in his dedication to protecting Kyoko, which gave her some amusement when she considered how they had first met.
But in truth, the person that gave her the biggest headache that first week was her childhood friend. The blond idiot who — after running from the fight with the rest of the Mosall citizens — had dared to ask for an audience with her shortly after arriving back at the palace.
Their conversation went as expected. Insults. Shouting. Eye rolling and personal jabs. It just didn't have the true sting of hate this time. She'd thought long and hard about his request to stay in her life and had decided it was okay. That was until they talked again.
Kyoko threw up her hands, wishing it was him she was throwing into the ceiling instead.
"I don't even know why I accepted your call," she said. "This is the last time I go against my instincts."
Sho eased back into the chair he had taken without permission, his delight obvious. He had grown an obvious taste for her displeasure by his hands.
"Did they not tell you?" he said.
"Tell me what?" she snapped.
"That I credited you for the discovery of the infectious treatment."
Had they not already had a strained heart-to-heart in that shed back on Mosall, she might have gawked. Instead, she scowled at his triumphant grin.
"Oh?" said Kyoko, her voice high fake politeness. "You mean my discovery that you stole? The one that you had no authority to give any credit to anyone as you had absolutely zero input on the research or discovery?"
"Don't be a brat," said Sho. "This makes us even, doesn't it?"
For the pain of his betrayal? The sting of his rejection of her love? A year ago, she would have hit him. But right then, she didn't really care.
"It's not that big of a deal anyway," said Kyoko. "Turns out I wasn't the first. The Accursed, Sozen, had been repressing the development of a cure to keep his expensive remedy relevant. We found records of it in his things. Duke Takarada has already credited it to the first person in those records."
Sho shot to his feet, arms folded in on himself.
"I saved your life!" he said. "Twice!"
"No, just once," she said.
He held up two fingers, ticking them down. "Second was in Mosall from the Accursed woman and man. The first time was here when Reino attacked when I helped with the barrier."
Kyoko opened her mouth, then stopped when he realized he was right. Which just made her more frustrated.
"Oh, that's right," she said, "And you slapped me around that time too. And forced a kiss on me."
"Why are you keeping score anyway?"
"I'm not. You are, you insensitive son-of-a—"
They bickered. Sneered. Insulted. If it wasn't for Sho's "handler," they might have gone until the sunset.
"Sho," said Shoko, her voice a crack of a whip. "Remember why we are here."
He shifted immediately, grabbing an instrument case from the ground, and flicking the golden locks open. He pulled out an oud, fingers tugging at strings and adjusting the pitch as needed.
"I composed a song," said Sho. "I need you to hear it."
The ready stream of quips on her tongue withered and died at the first chord. It instantly made her heart sink, a quiet melancholic trill of strings that sounded more like heartache than music. It grew from inaudible to a curving swell and then dove back down again. Up and down it went, constricting her chest with intense emotions. She wasn't in the room anymore. She was in the stands. She was alone. Lost. Like everything had taken her away.
She remained there in that imaginary desert even as Sho plucked the last note.
"It's good, isn't it?" he said, chest puffed in pride.
Sho blinked at her sincerity. The song had left her gooey inside, her emotions worn out and empty. It felt good. Which is probably why she didn't hit him when his nose lifted in the air.
"I'm really great, aren't I?" he said. "No one is as good a musician as me."
"So good," said Kyoko.
He frowned a second later, apparently catching on to her sarcasm.
"Either way," said Sho. "That song was called 'Rosa's Lament.'"
The title surprised her. She couldn't speak for a full ten seconds. "What?"
Sho waved his hand impatiently. "I want to make a series of songs, each representing the different moments in that last battle or however you want to define this last stretch of the war. That one was for Rosa's death, and the king's funeral next to the broken hills. And I want them all to be sanctioned by the royal family."
"How…" She paused, shifting this information in her head. "I guess you have the talent despite your personality. Or maybe because of it. The bigger the talent, the bigger the flaw. No wonder you can't keep a woman for more than a week."
Sho's eyebrow twitched. "You think you're really funny, don't you?"
They bickered again, and eventually, she agreed to set up a performance with the royal family. If they approved, Sho's songs would likely spread not only through the kingdom but through time as well.
His delight at this was beyond annoying. She had thrown at least two things at him by the time he paused too long in the doorway. He picked at the strap of his instrument case, ignoring Shoko's insistence that they leave before Kyoko changed her mind.
"That song," said Sho. "I thought…you know. It's not really about Rosa. Her death wasn't the one on my mind at the funeral."
Kyoko slowly lowered the shoe she'd been preparing to throw, stunned. She hadn't expected that. It made her reevaluate him. His whole reason for being here. How much he might actually care about her but be too stupid to show it properly.
Sho started to squirm under her gaze and in the silence, evidently embarrassed.
"Don't be so proud of yourself," he snapped. "It wasn't just you, you know. It was everything and everyone and all the death and we were all going to die."
"I'm going to talk to my mom," she murmured.
That made Sho stop. His sneer melted into concern, and he was in front of her in an instant.
"You what?' he said. "That woman? She left you, why would you talk to her again?'
"For closure." Kyoko wasn't sure why she was telling him, but it felt right. "I have a lot of questions for her. And hey, if we can be on speaking terms again, why can't I mend things with my mom?"
He eyed her silently, a million protests obviously sifting away inside that tiny idiot head of his. It was only now that she noticed the small scar on his forehead, mostly hidden by perfectly placed bangs. He'd probably got it in Mosall.
"Let me know if she makes you cry again," said Sho.
She almost mocked him again but thought better at it. She couldn't keep jabbing at him forever, even if it was starting to become fun.
"You can play me a few pieces," said Kyoko. "So long as I can keep throwing things."
Sho grinned. "Deal."
Ten days later, Kyoko stood with a hand on her chest, wishing to still the thumping of her heart. The elegant dress and crown she wore felt more like a costume than ever. Even after a month back at the palace, she felt like a fraud. But no, it was apparently important she looked the part of a princess reincarnation of the demi-goddess or whatever ridiculous rumor currently floated around. She'd managed to convince her serving maids that besides her winged diadem, the only other jewelry she needed to wear was her thin necklace with the broken sapphire. But it had been a fight.
And all this was a stall tactic anyway. She actually loved the pretty dresses and jewelry. Even if she'd waited a hundred years stewing and fretting, she still wouldn't feel comfortable with what lay behind the closed door before her.
I can face Accursed and leap across buildings, but I'm too scared to face my mother.
It was time. She'd stalled long enough. She'd asked to do this alone, and she wasn't going to back out now.
Kyoko pushed the door open and stepped inside.
Sanae Mogami looked up as Kyoko entered, expression hard to read due to the light from the nearby window backlighting her silhouette. But Kyoko could still recognize the familiar straight posture and the dark creep of hair hidden behind a head wrap.
Kyoko hovered by the door before clearing her throat. "Hello, Mother."
In one graceful sweep, Sanae pulled away from the window and knelt in front of Kyoko. "Your Majesty."
It would have made more sense for rain to start falling inside the room. That, at least, could have been explained with magic. But her mother kneeling in front of her and addressing her with respect? Insane.
"T-there's no need for that." Kyoko struggled to regain the smidgen of composure she'd gathered outside the door. "Please. Uh. Have a seat."
They took chairs beside a round table, laden with small bite-sized fruits and treats. Kyoko didn't touch a single morselNeither did her mother. They both waited in a silence too frozen with history to allow for casual chatter.
Sanae wasn't as beautiful as Kyoko remembered. Her thin lips had lost some luster. Wisps of gray dulled the sheen of her once-black hair. There were more lines on her forehead and the corners of her eyes, and her face was just beginning to show hints of sagging. Yet her eyes were just as cold as ever. They were blackness that could cycle through irritation, contempt, and disappointment in mere seconds. They showed nothing at the present, no hint of emotion or thought. An emotionless stone wall of a gaze at the crowned form of her daughter
It had always been like this. Assessing her mother's mood to figure out what she could get away with asking. If she had been the Kyoko of a year ago, she would have shrunk back, muttering an apology for wasting her mother's time before running out the door.
But that was not who she was anymore.
An array of colors surrounded Samae Mogami, emotions now as easy to detect as reading a book. They showed fear, weariness, and a hefty helping of guilt. There was also contempt. Kyoko just didn't know what each of them meant, but it did help to know that her mother felt something other than disdain in her presence.
"I have questions about my life," said Kyoko. "You're the only person that can answer them and I'd like for you to be honest with me."
"I will answer what I can," said Sanae.
Sanae was too meek. Too compliant. Too weird.
Kyoko chewed on the list of questions in her mouth, testing which one would be best.
"Am I my father's child?"
Sanae's expression didn't change as she took one long breath but the emotions and aura around her rippled violently.
"Yes," said Sanae, her steady voice jarring compared to her churning aura. "You are your father's child."
She had told herself until she was sick to her stomach that it wouldn't matter if they hadn't been blood-related; told herself it didn't matter, over and over, until she'd almost believed herself. Almost. The relief at the truth was so complete Kyoko almost burst into tears.
"Why did you hate Dad and I so much?" she blustered through.
Sanae clasped her hands together on the table, finally showing the barest hint of something other than poise. What that was, Kyoko couldn't yet identify. Her mother seemed strange amongst so many features of familiarity.
"Those two questions are related; though, you may not know it." Sanae paused, studying Kyoko. "Or maybe you did. I think you discovered a few things about yourself in the past year."
"Like my light magic."
Sanae flinched. Actually flinched! It was so out of character that Kyoko couldn't help but stare.
"Let me fill in the gaps," said Sanae, then added quietly. "It's the least I can do."
Then her mother talked. She told stories of how she and Dad had met. How he was an up-and-coming physician in Mosall and she had married him for both love and status. Mostly for love, which was shocking. Kyoko managed to keep quiet, wondering exactly why this was important.
Sanae eventually got to Kyoko's birth; and soon after, the discovery of her light magic.
"Vince assumed I'd had an affair," said Sanae. "But I knew the truth. I hadn't, which meant your light magic was something not passed through blood. It was your own. I was so scared that I didn't tell Vincent. That's where it all went wrong, I think. I should have said something."
She continued about how it had affected their personal life. His friends and family all knew about the supposed affair, and eventually, they all assumed they knew who she had the sordid affair with. More importantly, Sanae was mad with grief. She was depressed, and angry, and sometimes fantasized about throwing Kyoko down the well. Some days she thought about following.
No one told her.
Kyoko felt sick. There was a feeling that many women went through after having a child. A gut-wrenching depression that could cause rage, suicidal thoughts or even cause wonderful women to hurt their own babies. But, because not all women experienced it, some physicians thought it was a myth. An excuse many women used to gain sympathy or deal with the immense burden the new child places on their life. It was possible her dad had been one of those, and considering his wife had a reason to be upset and depressed, he likely thought her melancholy was due to being caught cheating. Sanae had suffered without knowing what was happening and she was too ashamed or proud to ask anyone else for help.
Everything accumulated until Kyoko's dad decided they needed to move. Sanae agreed but knew that the same problems would follow them wherever they went. Even worse, she could sense that Kyoko's light magic felt different from other forms of light magic. And if Sanae could sense that, someone else eventually would as well.
"I knew instinctively that I couldn't let that happen." Sanae had kept her face impassive the whole tale, but here a dark shadow crossed her features. "Our kingdom is built on the sacredness of that light magic. The worthiness it represents as a possibility for the crown. If some unknown person suddenly sprouted light magic of their own, not connected to Rosa… I knew nothing good would come of it. So, as soon as we started our journey, I got rid of it. I damaged your essence to completely erase your light magic."
Kyoko wanted to cry. Not for herself, but for the whole situation.
That was what had sent her dad over the edge. When he decided he couldn't forgive Sanae. It didn't matter that she finally told him that she hadn't cheated. He didn't believe her, and Sanae had just destroyed the only possible proof she could have offered.
So, they'd arrived in Nembu, their family broken and torn apart. Kyoko had never asked if she hadn't been born there, and no one had mentioned it. All she had known was that Dad had been a strangely gifted physician for such a small town and that her father loved her while her mother didn't. It was yet another reason for Sanae to hate her daughter. Kyoko had stolen Vincent's love.
When he had died, Sanae had been crushed all over again, despite the years of distance and apathy.
Then one day, Sanae had looked down at her child, the reason why everything was taken from her and asked…why? Why bother sticking around? Why stay with the thing whose birth had made her life miserable?
So she'd left.
Silence rang, loud as a gong and as choking as the sands.
"Mom…" said Kyoko. "I'm so—"
Sanae's furious glare pierced her in place. "—It's the parent's job to empathize with their children, not the other way around. Don't apologize for something that wasn't your fault."
Kyoko swallowed back the words she'd been about to say, thinking. What did she want, going forward? Did knowing all this change anything?
"I'm not a child anymore," said Kyoko. "In fact, I think one of the characteristics of adulthood is looking back and realizing the blessings you had as well as the faults of your parents and deciding how that knowledge will shape you."
Her mother's attention clung to every word. It made Kyoko feel powerful, a foreign sensation in the presence of her mother.
"You had it hard," said Kyoko. "And I don't say that to minimize the wrong you did, or the pain you caused Dad and I. But I am saying, for the first time, I understand why. Why you acted the way you did. Why you left me. And, because of that, I think I can finally move forward."
Kyoko bowed her head, swallowing to get her throat moving.
"Thank you for giving birth to me," she said. "And for protecting me, even if it brought you pain."
There was a long pause.
"I wasn't expecting this." Sanae wasn't smiling, but she wasn't frowning either. She looked and sounded small as she spoke. "I never thought that anything I did for you was good."
"Had you not left me, I would never have entered the palace," said Kyoko. "And I hate to seem boastful, but I was needed here. I belong here and I'm very happy. Which means that for me to be this happy to be here, everything that happened to me in the past was necessary as well."
"That is a very optimistic way of looking at it." Sanae's eyes suddenly softened. "Another piece of you that reminds me of your father."
A proud flush pricked Kyoko's skin. She couldn't help rushing forward, emboldened by her mother's uncharacteristic softness. "I would like to rebuild our relationship…. if you're willing."
Sanae pulled back, and for the first time since entering this room, Kyoko saw uncertainty. It was a small thing, but the expression made her human. Made her understandable to Kyoko. She was no longer this looming figure of disapproval in Kyoko's mind. Sanae was just another person. Another human, fumbling through life and making mistakes.
"Your Majesty." Hesitation dripped from every word. "I do not think… if that is what Your Majesty wishes—"
Kyoko nodded swiftly, jewelry swinging wildly. "I'm not asking as your princess—I'm technically not one, despite everyone calling me that—but as your daughter. I'd like to be that again. But I won't force you."
"I see." Sanae smiled.
That final knot between Kyoko's shoulder blades loosened. That one expression shed years of pain that had accumulated in her heart. It would never truly go away, but it could be painted over and replaced with something far better. Something brighter.
Kyoko did not cry but she very well could have.
"Well," said Sanae, looking human and almost shy. "Where should we begin?'
Their conversation lasted well over an hour. They filled each other in on the generals of what had happened after their lives had separated. Sanae had returned to her father's house, staying there for the past ten years and helping her sister with her local tailor shop. Kyoko had no idea she had more family besides Mom still alive. When Sanae timidly suggested a reunion, Kyoko jumped at the opportunity.
"It may be a few months," said Sanae. "I told them you had died along with Vince… There will be a lot of explaining to do."
"I could go with you and help."
"Thank you, but I need to do this myself first. I'll send a letter when we are able to properly host you."
Her mother still spoke with some formality, but Kyoko was determined to change that over time.
When Sanae left, Kyoko walked her to the entrance of the palace, waving until the carriage that carried her away was out of sight. Even better, her mother waved back.
Kyoko placed a hand to her heart to keep back the feelings that wanted to burst free. She felt five years old again, bubbling with hope and child-like excitement. For the first time in her life, she was building a relationship with her mother.
A shadow behind one of the pillars slipped beside her and took form. A tall man clothed in dark swaths of cloth and coated in hidden daggers stood sentry beside her. Shadow had resumed his position as her personal guard once Kyoko had returned to the palace, an arrangement she was more than happy to continue. He managed it on top of his other duties with Lory.
"Do you need anything, Your Highness?" he said.
"Thank you, no. I'm fine." Better than fine, but she still took the handkerchief he handed her when she felt some tears slip loose. She'd kept them at bay until now.
"Your mother…" said Shadow. "She had good instincts. If she hadn't taken your light magic away, you might have all died before your first birthday."
Kyoko looked at him in surprise. "What makes you say that?"
"You are not the first person to be born with innate light magic." At her continued stare he elaborated. "There have been a few instances in Ashuron history of other people like you. Fanatics found them and propped them up as new gods or goddesses and sought to overthrow the current regime. The conflicts were always bloody, and the child never lived."
"Oh." Kyoko remained quiet, thinking. "So is everyone like me doomed to die in Ashuron?"
"Not at all. The other option is to seek shelter here at the capital and meet with the current king, but even that's not a guarantee of their safety depending on current events or who's in power."
She wondered what would have happened if Sanae had done that instead. Kyoko would have still met Kuon, and maybe everything would have happened very differently. Of course, she wouldn't be exactly the same person in that situation.
"That will always be a problem in this kingdom, won't it?" she asked. "Even if we spread the knowledge that people can be born with light magic unrelated to Rosa?" Especially since Kyoko herself had ended up engaged to the crown prince. Not to mention all the rumors that she was Rosa reincarnated, even if those rumors were untrue. People would assume all the light magic bearers had a special destiny.
"It depends," said Shadow. "Worthiness determined by the phoenix has always been how Ashuron's crown has been passed. Without her here, that is going to have to change."
Yet another thing to consider. They had years to determine that, but it would be good to figure it out sooner rather than later.
"Come." Shadow beckoned with his head. "Prince Kuon will be done with his meeting soon and he will be eager to see how you fared with your mother."
"Right. Thank you." She swept past him, then paused a step later. He had already disappeared into the shadows, invisible to almost everyone yet Kyoko could point to his location with her eyes closed. It brought a smile to her face, especially when she considered how many words the usually silent man had spoken to her. It also meant she noticed the moment he slipped away after meeting Ren, happy for his discretion when the full brunt of the emotions hit her, and she was safe to break down in the caring presence of her husband.
Three months later, Kyoko and Ren were married.
The preparations flew past in a flurry of guest lists and itineraries. Thank goodness for Ren's mother. She took care of a vast majority of the preparations while Kyoko focused on her studies. Turned out, being an eventual queen consort included a long list of duties. She still wanted to focus on medicine like she'd told Kuu, but right now she had a lot of general education to catch up on.
The whole country was swept away in the celebrations. No expenses had been spared. The palace was soon full to bursting with royalty and dignitaries from other kingdoms. The citizens had already been partying for days. Everyone was celebrating the wedding of the redeemed hero, Prince Kuon Hizuri, and an incarnation of the demi-goddess, Kyoko Mogami.
How had this become her life?
It was the combined efforts of Julie, Kanae, Maria, Itsumi, and Ruriko to keep her from falling apart in the days leading up to it. She wasn't ready for this. She was no one. She didn't deserve to cause all these kings and queens and people to come together and celebrate her marriage.
It didn't help that she had to keep running into all these important people in the days leading up to the wedding. She found herself hiding behind the dresses of three familiar women, abusing her authority and ordering them to stay there so she could avoid running into yet another delegate.
Of course, these women didn't just leave her be. It wasn't in their nature. Yumi, Risa, and Utako, her fellow former members of the harem.
"I should have figured," Yumi lamented loudly. "Of course, we had no chance. We were up against the reincarnation of a goddess."
"I for one, am glad it was Kyoko." Risa sent Kyoko a wink from over her shoulder. "Better her than Setsuko. Stars, could you have imagined her as queen? She would have been insufferable with more power. Too bad she couldn't make it."
Utako nodded, the raven-haired beauty scooting a little closer to Yumi as another important person got a little too close.
Kyoko bit her tongue to stop herself from thanking her, and from saying anything about Setsuko. She and Ren had decided to let "Setsuko" disappear from people's minds. No matter how well they could explain it, the real Setsuko and her family name would be sullied by the takeover of the fake. Tina—Rick's fiancé turned vengeful—had done enough damage to Ren's life. They didn't need to let her destroy what was left of the real Setsuko's memory.
It was strange to think she had never met the real Setsuko. That it had been an Accursed, hell-bent on revenge, bullying her from the beginning. In fairness, Kuon claimed the fake had been an almost perfect replica of the real Setsuko's personality, but Kyoko wasn't so sure. She hoped he wasn't reviewing all the little things he'd glossed over and mentally kicking himself for not noticing.
"I think it's sadistic of you to invite us in the first place," said Yumi. "Well done. I'm impressed."
"Yumi," said Risa. "I don't think it was like that. I think she actually likes us."
Yumi scoffed. "Of course she doesn't like us. She's gloating. Or playing politics. Either way, maybe she's finally done playing the uncultured peasant now."
Utako gave a short laugh. "No, now she's playing goddess."
Kyoko peered around a column to see if the coast was clear as the three women continued to bicker. In truth, her reasons for inviting them were a little bit of everything. She liked them best from the former concubines and they were all members of important political families. But the truth was that she knew they would help her feel normal. Despite all their jokes, they hadn't treated her any differently than when she had been a concubine. Oh, they still regarded her formally when tradition called for it, obviously, but none of the awed reverence that was swiftly becoming standard with everyone else.
The last dignitary finally rounded the corner and Kyoko sighed with relief. She stood, dusting off her skirt as the women turned to face her.
"Thanks," said Kyoko. "Oh, and congratulations on your marriage, Yumi. I'm sorry I wasn't able to make it."
Yumi puffed out her chest. "He is the best of men. I didn't invite you, no offense. Thought you were dead."
"Understandable. Just let me know when the babies are born and we'll send a gift."
Risa let out a laugh, nudging Yumi. "Hear that? Even she's giving you a hard time about kids."
Yumi didn't pay Risa any mind. Her strong eyes were lined with a light blue, softening her usually sharp glance as it focused on Kyoko. Her hands were laden with rings that ran the length of her fingers. These rested on her stomach where an almost indiscernible bump had started to form. Kyoko could detect two points of life forming within her, courtesy of her newfound abilities.
Yumi was smart. She knew the difference between a joke and genuine well wishes.
"We haven't told anyone yet," said Yumi. "We wanted to be sure…. You said babies?"
Kyoko gave a nervous smile. "Uh… surprise? Boy and girl. Both healthy so far as I can—"
Yumi shouted—a straight-up shout that made Kyoko just about jump out of her skin.
"I can't believe it." Yumi pressed clasped hands to her mouth, but her jubilation couldn't be held back. "I have to tell my husband."
She ran off with such a large commotion it caught the attention of another important person who had rounded the corner. Meaning they looked up and saw Kyoko easily through the gap that Yumi's leave had just created.
Her cheek twitched as she met their eyes. Great. Now she had to go greet them or else it would be rude.
Risa let out a cackle. "Well, that happened. I'm going to go find and congratulate her." Risa gave Kyoko a quick hug before moving to follow Yumi. Kyoko caught Utako's arm before she could follow as well.
"Here." Kyoko drew a magic symbol in the air. A small bead of arcane magic in Utako's throat disappeared. It had been invisible to everyone else until this moment.
"There," said Kyoko. "Curse gone. Now you should be able to sing without hiccupping again— Hurk!"
Utako squeezed the life out of Kyoko. She couldn't breathe for about five seconds until Utako finally let go. There were tears rolling down her cheeks.
"You don't understand," she whispered. "Singing is everything to me… Thank you, Your Majesty."
And then she ran off, leaving Kyoko with just Shadow in the darkness as her ally.
The morning of her wedding came, and she felt completely calm.
She slipped quietly from her bed, leaving her still-sleeping husband in the sheets. The night was just starting to lighten, fading moonbeams dancing across her feet as she pulled back the curtain. She could see the city from her window. Everything was calm and quiet, a large sigh before the plunge into chaos the day would bring. But it didn't intimidate her anymore.
A swell of affection filled her chest. She was ready. This was what she wanted. To protect and lead these people. Her people. Her citizens. Maybe she wouldn't always know what to do. She would make mistakes, sure. But she wasn't alone.
There was shuffling behind her and then two large bare arms encircled her from behind. Ren pressed warm lips to her neck.
"We have a few more minutes before we need to be up," he said. "Come back to bed."
She turned to face her husband, cradling his face in her hands. He gazed back with sleepy contentment, his love for her radiating like a soft sunrise.
"I'm ready." She smiled. "For everything."
The wedding celebrations were in full swing and expected to last well into the night. There was so much noise and drinking, everyone taking liberties due to it being a royal event. It would likely be a few days before the city got back up and running properly.
Kanae hiked the backpack on her shoulder, sparing the palace one last look. It had never really been home for her, with the domed roofs and golden pillars. It had felt like camping out at a friend's house or taking shelter with old colleagues who were willing to share their pallets. But—as it had been in the past—she instinctively knew when it was time to move on.
But this time she wasn't alone.
Shin came jogging from a side alley, his own backpack half-hidden beneath his cloak. "Did you really have to leave in the middle of the celebrations?" said Shin. "I was still enjoying the drinks."
"I'm not forcing you to come with me," said Kanae, but it was bluster. She'd waited for him.
"And what about Kyoko? You didn't say goodbye."
Kanae had been antsy to leave for weeks but hadn't said anything for fear of Kyoko suffering a complete mental break from the pressures of the upcoming nuptials. Somehow, the new princess had figured it out. The second the wedding ceremony had ended Kyoko had come rushing to Kanae and given one of her obnoxious bone-breaking hugs.
"Be safe," Kyoko had said. "I'll come immediately if you need help. Just call for me and I'll find you."
The sentiment was sort of crazy and creepy but also fit the whole new "goddess" vibe. Kyoko had been sinking into the role naturally, even if she vehemently denied it. She had incredible powers. Only time would tell just how much and how she would choose to use them.
Either way, the second Kanae saw Kyoko surrounded by her husband, in-laws, and so many other people, Kanae had known it was time.
Kanae missed her own family—which was crazy! Not once in all these years of wandering had she missed them. They had represented weakness. A sniveling weakly blot in her history that she wished to erase. They all should have stood up to the nobles and gangs alike. Her dad's way of caving to authority had been cowardly and had caused nothing but pain and shame in Kanae's life.
But…perhaps there had been other things that she hadn't been aware of. Things her adolescent inexperience had missed, making her hasty in her judgment of them. And maybe it was time she listened and reconnected.
Or maybe they were as weak as she remembered, and it was time for her to save all their dumb butts from their oppression.
Either way, she was returning with enough power and money to change her family's situation once and for all; which really was something to be marveled at, considering the half-dozen siblings and the other dozens of nieces and nephews she had left behind. Maybe they didn't remember her. Or maybe they remembered her only when her letters with money had arrived. She had no idea. Not once in her travels had her family written her back. It had never bothered her before. Now, she was itching to return.
Light glowed from the block of wood attached to her hip. It looked like decoration, with green swirling patterns and runes embedded in the bark. But with a mere thought, the thing would snap onto her left arm, expanding into a wooden shield stronger than any steel and one she didn't need to grip to hold. The wood had come from the fig tree. A "gift" for helping to save the plant.
Really it was a glorified pet travel case.
The glow died as Twig came sweeping out. He kept his smaller appearance to sit comfortably on Kanae's shoulder. It was a mark of her good mood that she didn't flick him off.
"Finally! I thought you'd never get away from those humans," grumbled Twig. "Where are we going again?"
"To a zoo," said Kanae. "You'll love it. Lots of animals. Most of them are really little. I'm sure they'll enjoy chasing you."
Twig narrowed his green-on-black eyes. "I don't believe you."
"Trust me, I'm not joking."
The dryad had apparently gotten very fond of Kanae, who had no early idea why. The thing stuck to her constantly and had figured out how to stay with her before she had even wanted to leave Mosall. As a dryad, the desert was too difficult for him to cross with no nearby connections to strong vegetative life forces. But the bark from the fig tree was different. It could keep the connection to its originator, thus providing Twig with all the power he needed to survive.
Kanae had accepted for two reasons. One, the bark of the fig tree was insanely strong, and she had needed to change her weapon set anyway. And second, though she would take this truth to her grave, she didn't mind Twig's companionship…most of the time.
"We'll have to come back eventually," said Shin. "I think Lory was training me to take over his job as the head of the spy network. He didn't say it outright, but it was kinda obvious."
Not to Kanae, it wasn't. But then, Shin would be good at it. He always had a knack for getting more information out of people than most and no one would suspect he was head of anything as important as the spy network. Not with his flippant attitude.
Then there was the business of Kanae's hand. The specialists at the palace hadn't been able to perfectly heal her grip. Kyoko had promised to study hard so that the next time Kanae returned, they'd be able to restore her hand to perfect condition. Not that Kanae minded her current situation, but it was a nice excuse to come back any time she wanted.
"He's not upset you're leaving with me?" said Kanae.
"Nah. He said it was good for me. I'll keep him informed if I find anything of note. And even if he had, it wouldn't have stopped me." Shin rubbed his hands together. "I've been preparing for this for months. Should I ask your father for your hand before or after I present the gifts?"
Kanae's eyebrow twitched. She swung an arm around Shin's neck, holding him a touch too tight as she pulled him close. He tensed at the contact.
"Shin," she said, low, dangerous. "You'd better stop fooling around."
"Ah… yes. Sorry."
"You don't ask my dad. You ask my mom."
She released him, giving him a light shove before he could properly do more than sputter. Her hand rested on the pommel of the sword he'd given her, striding with head high. A closed-lip smile broke through her pretend indifference as Shin and Twig followed.
Thank you all for reading!
I could have written about ten thousand more words of epilogue, but I think this was enough. I got the main points. I'm mostly curious about one thing: What did you think about Sanae's whole motivation/backstory? I've had that whole thing in my head forever!
If you are curious about anyone I didn't mention, feel free to DM me and I'll let you know what I think happened to them in the end.
And oh my gosh, congrats if you made it to the end as well! Eight years is a very long time to write something, and I struggled through a lot of it. But I'm so glad I finished it. I learned so, so, so much. Thank you so much for sticking with me as well! I'm so grateful for the time you took to read this when there are so many other things you could do with your time, so thank you again. I would never have finished this without all your encouraging words and reviews.
I've started cross-posting this on Ao3. With pictures! So nice I can do that. If you ever want to re-read this, I'd suggest going there as it will also be edited for the terrible grammar and formatting that was so prevalent in the early stuff.
And for the last time, thank you for reading The Prince's Concubine!
Well friends, this is the end. It has spanned 4 graduations, 2 weddings, 3 births, and so much more. I hope that Blushweaver's tales have thrilled you and brought you some joy. For my part, I am happy to have thrown in my snarky bits of humor and amature editing to lift this amazing tale. Hopefully, this isn't goodbye, but see you later!
Congratulations to you all for making it to the end! From the very bottom of my heart—thank you, one and all, for supporting Blushweaver on this journey. I've seen firsthand how much this story means to her, and even if I've come in as assistant editor during the final act, I've come to love this story as well. I've heard your reviews, seen your enthusiasm, and I've seen how it truly lights her up. Thank you, again, with everything I have, for completing this journey with her. I hope you enjoy The Prince's Concubine again as it's cross-posted on Ao3 with all new bonus artwork and that you stay tuned for future endeavors!