chapter one: shuu
To say Crown Prince Shuu did not like formal events was something of an understatement. He loathed the things, despised them, thought of them as the bane of his otherwise pretty good existence. He hated everything about the wretched things, from the food to the company to the garish rooms that they were hosted in. He hated dancing with prospective brides, smiling politely at the comments made by inept and impotent counselors and balancing his own interests against the combined might of the palace intrigues. He hated wearing the constricting and stiffly heavy formal dress, breathing in the thick, cloying incense, pretending to appreciate the dull ramblings of conniving courtiers. It made his head ache with boredom and his eyes tear, turning the blue orbs pink and puffy, and his dark head fall forward in a drowsiness created from desperation, only to be snapped back up after feeling the sharp rap of his uncle's guai upon the back of his head, the hard knobby staff mussing up his carefully combed and styled hair. His round face ached from smiling so much, and he tired of courtiers expecting him to be an easy mark just because he looked like he could be read like a book.
The problem with Shuu's position was that formal events were always popping up unexpectedly, but always with the the same expected boredom. In the eight years that he had been at the palace, under his aunt and uncle's care, he figured that he had attended enough balls and state dinners and celebrations to average one a week. And, in all that time, he had never truly figured out how to avoid the boredom that he knew that they would cause. Well, until a few months ago, any way.
The almost fifteen heir heir figured that he had to have it this time, that he had to have hit upon the one solution that would keep him from ever have to attend another one of these stupid affairs--he would be so annoying and disruptive that he would have to leave in order for the Emperor to get anything done. That his actions would cause major embarrassment to his aunt and get his uncle all steamed up was just a nice little bonus. Still, he'd been playing at this game for almost six months now, and so far it hadn't had any impact on his mandatory attendance to Imperial events. But then again, practice made perfect.
Shuu propped his feet upon the table and pulled out his knife, ignoring the mortified looks on his Aunt and Uncle's face. They should have known better; after all, they were the ones who forced him to do this stupid thing.
He ignored his aunt's whispering and began to pick at his finger nails.
He rolled his eyes and sighed. Would the woman never learn? He shot a glare and continued his slow inspection of the cleanliness of his nails.
"Shuu Rei Faun get your legs off the table this instant." His aunt's fan snapped closed as she whispered the command, the bamboo frame smacking his sandaled feet. Shuu scowled and took them off of the table, but continued to pick at his nails.
Stupid old bitch. Never lets me have any fun. I can understand why those two don't have any kids of their own. Shuu sighed and glanced down the long table, looking for a familiar face, any familiar face. If he didn't find any entertainment soon, he was going to leave with out being excused and that would really put his Aunt's bun in a blender.
He yawned, loud and obvious, stretching out his arms and waving the dagger in the air, timing the movement to interrupt his uncle's speech. The angry glare that was shot his way made him grin and he placed his hands behind his head. If I'm not having a good time, nobody is.
"I can't believe you! You have no respect for authority, no understanding of propriety! Do you even understand the word responsibility?" Emperor Omatta Shiraso was in a fine form today, his rant reaching new decibels. "I can't believe that you're my heir."
"Hey, that's not my fault. I'm not the impotent one." Shuu flicked his knife into the air, sending it tumbling end over end until he caught it again. "You want a different, heir, you go appoint one. I'm just as happy ruling over my family's prefecture."
"Hah! You are completely incapable of giving up your position as heir. You wouldn't last a day without access to your creature comforts; you're utterly dependent upon your food and your sycophants."
"I am not!" Shuu slammed his dagger into the table, the hilt quivering. "I could leave now, walk away without ever looking back. And then where would you be? Old, manless, dying and without a heir to carry on your 'great works'. You aren't the one in power here, Uncle. You have nothing to offer me except headaches and assassination attempts and endless plotting and secrets and a war that's never going to end. I leave, I'm free. I go back to my little kingdom, and live life how I want it."
"And what will you do when the Nemai conquer the empire? Will you bow down and let them walk over you? Walk over your siblings? Face it, boy. You're the only hope for this empire. And may the Gods help us all when you sit on the throne."
"Fuck off, old man." Shuu sat down heavily, angry at his uncle for bringing in his real family. They were the only things that truly mattered to him, and it was for their sake that he stayed within the confines of the Palace.
"That's it! That's the last straw! It's time you learned some respect, boy." Omatta stood and roughly grabbed his fifteen year-old nephew by the ear, pulling the chunky boy out of the study and down the hall leading to the royal apartments.
"Ow! Cut it out! Let go of my ear, you bastard!" Shuu struggled in the iron grip, neck beginning to cramp as his uncle forced him to tilt his head in order to keep the pressure off of his ear. "Let go of me!"
"I wasn't going to do this to you, you know. In fact, I wasn't even going to mention this. But you forced me into it." Omatta threw his nephew onto the thick rug that covered his private chambers. "You, my most lamentable heir, are going on a quest."
"No. Fucking. Way." Shuu rubbed his ear, glaring up at the Emperor. "Aiya, it feels like you pulled my ear off."
"Maybe I should have. It couldn't have made your hearing any worse." Omatta knelt before a low, scroll covered table, eyes scanning the rolls of parchment until he found what he was looking for. He grabbed the scroll and unrolled it, spreading it out on the table. "There. That's what you're going to be looking for."
Shuu looked down at the pictures drawn on the parchment, then up at his uncle, disbelief in his eyes. "A marble? You want me to look for a marble? You have to be kidding."
"I'm not." His uncle's finger traced the spidery runes, outlined the small orb and the set of strange armor and the long spear drawn beside it. "According to the legends of the family, there was once a set of magical armor, granted to us by the Gods to protect us from--"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I've heard this before, Uncle." Shuu snorted and walked away. "The armor of Gi, supposed to be used to protect the Empire in times of great 'darkness'. Pah. I think you've gone senile, gu ren. That's just a fairy tale."
"That's what you thing, boy." Omatta slammed his hands on the table, scattering scrolls everywhere. "This legend is true. You may think it nothing more than a child's bedtime story, but I know that the armor is out there! And you are going to find it."
"What? You must be kidding! I'm not going to chase after fairy tales and this make-believe legendary savior crap. I have better things to do?"
"Things like jeopardizing important military alliances?" Omatta asked pointedly. "Well, like it or not, you're going. And you're doing this alone. No servants. Underneath all that fat, I know that there's someone who is worthy to be my heir, worthy of the title Emperor."
"But you forget, I don't want to be your heir." Shuu grinned, smug and secure.
"Too bad. You're going. The soldiers will come tomorrow to take you out to the outskirts of the Imperial City. You will be given one pack horse and your own horse, some provisions, enough money that you can buy more if you're careful with it, and this scroll; you pack your own clothes and weapons. You don't bring any, tough. You come back with the armor, you're worthy. You fail, and your family suffers. It's only bad luck that made you my eldest newphew; I remove your family from the line, and I get to chose from a hundred more willing heirs than you. Besides, I never really liked Shuet Yee much anyway." The Emperor smiled that same smug smile. "You may leave now."
Shuu stared at his uncle in disbelief, itching to punch the smug face, but knowing that if he did he'd have more guards on him than a prisoner at his execution. Oh how he hated his uncle.
Bowing low, snarling and angry, he turned sharply and stormed out of the room. Omatta watched him go and sighed. What happened to you, Shuu? Where's that smiling little boy I used to know?
Fakung. That's what he is. Totally mad. His brain's rotted away with all that incense he breathes. Shuu snarled as he threw his most comfortable fighting clothes into the traveling chest. I can't believe him! Trusting in fairy tales. If he'd just order a full out attack, I wouldn't have to go chasing after illusions.
"Angry much?" The voice was soft and insulting, and Shuu looked up to glare at the boy that leaned in his door.
"What are you doing here, Kui Kun?" Shuu snarled. "Come to gloat?"
"Peace, peace, Affe." The blond haired boy laughed softly, enjoying the heir's hatred, loving the way Shuu bristled at the nickname. His green eyes twinkled and a sly smile played around his lips. "I just came to tell you good luck with your quest."
"Shut up." Shuu threw a shoe at his uncle's favorite, growling when the young swordsman dodged the missile. "Aren't you supposed to be killing something now? Practicing with your sword or something similar?"
"Oh no. My lord gave me the afternoon off, to help you pack." The boy insolently strolled into Shuu's room and sat down on the pallet. "Listen monkey-boy--"
"Don't call me that, you Gods damned asshole! Aiya! This is stupid enough with out you gloating." Shuu threw a dagger this time, horribly disappointed when it missed and merely ended up quivering in the pallet. Damn it, I really need practice my aim. I should have been able to get him right between the legs.
"Fine. Shuu," the Crown Prince looked up in surprise; it was extremely rare for the swordsman to call him by his given name, "I want you to know that I had nothing to do with this. Even though we...may not always agree--"
"You got that right, you brown-nosing suck up," Shuu snorted.
"--we're not exactly enemies." The swordsman's face was twisted like he had swallowed something bitter. "In fact, you may be the only...ally I have here."
"What about my uncle? I know that he thinks you're the greatest thing to come along since dim sum."
"Shuu, please. I'm trying to be nice here, okay? Look, I don't really want to fight you anymore. Now that you're gone I won't have anyone my age around here. I'm too young to play the court game well."
"So what, you want to go with me?" Shuu laughed harshly. "Too bad, Seiji. You had your chance to be friends with me when you first came; it's not my fault that you're a pompous ass with no respect and a mouth that puts mine to shame."
"You should talk; telling me I have no respect. Wasn't it your insolence that got you into this mess in the first place?" Seiji sighed and waved his hand. "Sorry. Shuu, I'm not asking you to take me. All I'm here to do is to make peace between us before we both leave."
"Where are you going, Xu Hon? My uncle finally realize just how useless you are?"
"No. My grandfather has called me home. I fear that he may be dying. Call this visit a...diplomatic one." Seiji's face was cool, empty and Shuu sighed.
"Shen, I'm sorry. I--I didn't mean to..." Shuu trailed off and sighed. "Seiji, I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. Perhaps...perhaps we could start over, when I return."
"Perhaps. So long as you don't return as addle patted as the Mad Duke."
"Don't call him that. It's not his fault he saw his father die." Shuu hastened to defend his young 'cousin', the only other heir his age. He couldn't help but feel sorry for the crazy prince, already in power over a good portion of his fated kingdom, but too touched in the head to know it.
Seiji snorted. "He should have been more careful." The young fighter stood, not quite so arrogant as before, but still cocky. "Well, I'll leave you to your packing. Viel Gleck on your journey."
"Same to you." Shuu nodded to the other boy as he left, wondering if perhaps they might one day be friends. Nah. That'd be as likely as Shin regaining his senses. Shrugging, Shuu turned back to his travel chest, looking over the dingy, well-worn clothes he preferred to the royal garb that he was often forced to wear. He had to admit that in a way he was glad of his uncle's 'quest'. At least he was leaving the palace, to live under no one's rule but his own. Still, he wished it was for something other than a child's story.
Shuu sighed and closed the lid to the chest, and moved to the window to stare out at the distant, mist shrouded mountains. They were familiar, these mountains, comforting in their ageless presence. He had grown up watching these mountains, grown to love the broken, grey faces presented to him. He had known the mountains forever. And tomorrow, he was going to leave them, perhaps never to return.
Damn...I getting all sentimental. What's wrong with me? This should be easy; all I have to do is find some armorer to build me a set of armor that looks like the Armor of Gin, and I can screw around until it's done. Simple. I go see my family, figure out a way to get someone else on the throne, and I'm set. So why do I feel like I'm getting into something way over my head?