Friday, October 14, 2011

The Prince and the Thief

Build-a-story Started 10/13/11 finished 10/17/11
Written so I could ignore my personal crisis for a few hours.

Reader submitted story elements:
Asian Empress
Wedding gone horribly wrong in a humorous way
Something lurking in the shadows.

I'm not so sure I can do humorous right now, but I'll give it a try.

The Prince and the Thief

Part 1 The Thief

He looked so smug, riding on his horse through the forest, as if he had any right to these roads. I sat high in my shadowy perch watching them pass, counting the gilded boxes that soon would change hands. The High Prince of Kaya had come to take the daughter of the Empress as his bride, and I had come to take his wedding gifts before he reached the palace.

I felt the slightest bit of worry as I counted the blades, but we had never expected so much treasure to be wholly unguarded. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, the long standing good relations between China and Kaya had worked on our side. Had the prince come from Paekche or Silla the battle would have been a bit more intimidating.

I heard my mother’s birdlike cry echoing through the bamboo, and readied myself for the next signal. Around me I heard the slight rustling as the others shifted in their seats and caused the trees to sway. A solitary guard looked up at the sound, but then like the others dismissed his only warning as a touch of wind.

The call of the monkey rang out loud and clear and I reacted to it before the cry had faded on my mother’s lips. I leapt from my seat and slid down the length of the tree. As I slid down the leaves flew in every direction and we hit the ground like so much rain.

The rustling and thuds had barely registered in the guard’s ears before the first of them was down, the victim of my brother’s club. I streaked past the confused guards and headed straight for the black hatted prince. Any load carried personally by the groom had to be worth the most, and I was going to be the one counting it by the fire tonight!

He looked at me in bewilderment and fear as I approached him. A laugh escaped my lips as I drew near, and swung up on the horse behind him and batted the ceremonial hat that was slipping down around his ears. It flew off his head and while his eyes followed it in shock I snatched the lidded basket out of his hands.

I had run several steps between the tightly spaced trees before I realized how unexpectedly light my load was. Another two steps though and I discovered I didn’t have time to worry about it, for the prince had recovered from his shock and was following me on foot into the forest.
I hadn’t known they bothered teaching those pampered pretties HOW to run. The noblemen had always just sat and squawked before.

I quickened my pace and soon reached the part of the forest we liked to call the maze. I wove in and out of the bamboo stands with years of expertise while he yelled in his strange tongue and fell further and further behind. Soon I could no longer hear him and pulled my prize into a tight stand of trees to wait and watch.

I could hear a lot of shouting in the distance, but none of it was a voice I knew, or even a language I understood, so I was hopeful that my friends and family had gotten away as neatly as I had. This would show that old hag of an Empress. You can’t keep a good band down by killing their leader, it only makes them strike a little closer to home.

I smiled and turned the basket so that I could undo the latch on the lid. I lifted the lid expectantly, trusting the prize would be a delight to my eyes.

There was a flurry of motion and my loot erupted from the basket in a storm of feathers and honks. I pressed myself against the bamboo to avoid the wild pecking and flapping wings as the gander struggled to escape its surprised captor. Feathers and bamboo leaves rained down around me as the gander found its way out of the tight copse.

I took a moment to recover from my shock and then threw the basket to the side as I climbed out of the copse. Stupid foreigners, having princes carry geese in baskets! Who brought a live goose to a wedding?

I was going to be the laughing stock of the thieves’ camp tonight. I was tempted to not even go home for a few days, but I knew my mother would worry, and then would be angry when I showed up late, whole, and empty handed. I hadn’t even the stupid bird to show for my trouble.
I was picking my way through the forest, keeping an eye out for stray guards when I heard a strange sobbing nearby. I crept towards the sound, alert for a trap, but was unprepared for what I saw. The prince knelt on the ground, tears running down his face, as he held a knife point to his chest. His hands trembled as he tried to summon the courage to plunge the blade into his heart.
I was across the grove to him before I had even thought of my reasons for doing it. The thief in me wanted nothing to do with the death of a nobleman, but it was the woman in me that snatched the blade from his hands.

He fell backward in surprise and then cringed under the tongue lashing that flowed past my lips unbidden. What a fool he was. “Get up and go,” I told him. “Don’t lay your death at my door. Be a man!”

The only word he seemed to catch was death and he nodded crawling towards me, motioning towards the blade and his throat repeating “kill” as he groveled at my feet.

I placed my foot on his shoulder and kicked hard sending him sprawling on the ground. He just lay there, waiting with his eyes closed and his chest heaving with silent sobs.

I was wasting my time, the guards would find him soon enough, if there were any left. I shoved his jeweled knife in my belt and slipped silently back amongst the trees. How on earth did someone that stupid get to be a nobleman anyway? The world was completely backward.
I got to camp later than the others, but the knife distracted my mother from her lecture. It was soon hanging from her belt and I pretended to be proud of my conquest while the others divided the spoil all around me. Taker always got first pick, leader got second, and the rest was divided evenly amongst the band, that was the way my father had always done it, and it was the way we carried on now that he was gone.

“Is the dagger really all you got, Mei?” my friend Jun asked me later as he sat down beside me. Jun was one of the few foreigners in the band, and he spoke with a thick accent, though his vocabulary was improving.

“Yeah, the goose got away,” I admitted with an embarrassed smile.

“Goose?” he asked, then seemed to know the answer. “Oh, the gander! Ha, I’d forgotten about

“Forgotten about what?” I asked him, not happy he was laughing at me.

“Well… you know we just attacked the prince of my homeland, don’t you?” he asked.

I pretended I had, though of course I hadn’t had a clue.

“In my homeland the groom brings a wild gander to the mother of the bride,” he said looking thoughtful. He stared at the embers of the fire for a while, lost in thought, and then shook himself and asked, “I didn’t see you grab the dagger though, your hands must be getting faster.”
I tried to lie at first, but I could tell I wasn’t convincing him so I gave up and told him the truth. He wouldn’t tell on me anyway, he liked me more than the others.

“Almost makes you feel sorry for him,” Jun said turning a coin over and over in his hands as I finished my tale.

“Why would he kill himself over losing a goose?” I asked.

“Gander,” Jun corrected me. “It’s the symbol of the groom’s devotion. Ganders mate for life.”
“Still doesn’t sound like a reason to kill yourself,” I said picking up some dirt and throwing it in the fire. It snapped and crackled angrily.

“It wasn’t just the goose, Mei,” Jun said glowering at the fire.

“You really are feeling sorry for him,” I said looking at him severely.

Jun chuckled and shook his head. I had never seen him like this in the five years I had known him. Watchful, yes, he was smart, he was always thinking, but this odd mood was strange, even for my favorite foreigner.

“You aren’t going soft on me are you?” I asked him jokingly.

He smiled, “As soft as my blade,” he began.

“And twice as sharp,” I finished for him. He was back to normal now, or at least I thought he was in that moment.

Later that night I found I couldn’t sleep and went for a walk in the forest. The gentle swaying of the bamboo had always calmed me, but tonight it did little for my mind. The strange prince was in my thoughts, the tears on his face, the knife in his hand. Why would a person who had everything be so upset over the loss of a goose and a few gifts? Kings were rich, he could just explain to the Empress, and go home and get more.

I hadn’t realized where my feet were taking me until I saw the form laying on the forest floor, just the way I had left him. I watched him sleep through the trees, his face still streaked from the dust and his tears. He looked as though he wouldn’t move if a horse was galloping his way. The man was broken.

A single step behind me had me spinning and reaching for my knife, but Jun’s hand was over mine at my belt before I could draw it. He placed a finger to his lips and drew me back into the forest, away from the broken prince.

“Do you want to help him?” Jun asked in a whisper at my ear.

The hairs on my neck stood up to have him so close to me, but I pretended as always that he was just another brother to me. I nodded while I fought the tightness in my throat.

“Good, because I can’t do this alone,” Jun said. “Go and find the basket and meet me here.”

“Where are you going?” I whispered after him, but he was already slipping through the trees.

I went and found the basket and returned to our meeting place. Jun was not there, so I left the basket and went to peek at the prone prince. He had rolled over in his sleep, and something about the change in position comforted me, though I didn’t know why.

I went back to the meeting place and waited. I waited half the night before a wild flapping sounded through the trees. It was a few moments before Jun entered the clearing, a gander caught in his capable hands.

It made a lot of noise as we shoved it in the basket. The thief in me jumped at every honk, but it went quiet once the basket was closed. Jun latched it shut and then handed the basket to me.

“What are you giving this to me for?” I asked. “This is your plan.”

“You are the one who stole it, you must return it,” he said giving me a little shove in the right direction.

I crept through the forest and then sat on an old stump near the prince, waiting for him to wake up. I may have dozed off once or twice, but I was watching as the first rays of dawn struck his face and his eyes fluttered open. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized why this man’s sorrow tugged at my heart so.

He looked just like Jun.

The prince saw me within moments, and blinked in surprise. He sat up, but his expression wasn’t one of fear, or even of hatred. Instead he looked at me as if he thought I was a spirit. I stood and carried the basket towards him, placing it within his reach and then backing away. “Go marry your princess,” I told him, pointing the way towards the road. He reached for the basket with an expression of unbelief and picking it up looked the way I had pointed. He looked back at me and I shooed him away in irritation. Some people just couldn’t understand plain Chinese.

He turned and looked again at the way to the road and I took that moment to slip away through the trees. From our vantage point Jun and I saw him look back, surprised to find me missing, and then carry the bird basket towards the road. It wasn’t long before he stumbled upon one of his guards and was conveyed safely to the summer palace.

Two days later Jun and I slipped into the crowd of celebrating peasants that thronged the gates of the palace hoping to get a glimpse of the royal wedding taking place in the garden. The mounted prince was crossing the large pond on a footbridge that ended on a small island in the middle. He dismounted, leaving the horse with a groom as he carried his bird basket to the Empress. He placed it in her hands with a formal bow and she passed it off quickly to a servant.
Jun was shaking his head at the lack of regard for the Kaya tradition, but my eyes were on the basket. The servant didn’t seem to know that the basket should remain closed and set it on the ground to open it for his Lady.

Laughter erupted from the crowd as the gander burst from the basket and flew at the Empress. She wheeled around in her efforts to get away, tripped over the still kneeling servant, and toppled into the pond. The entire party on the island rushed to help her, dredging their finery in the mucky water, and slipping and sliding themselves as they struggled to right the Empress.

The Empress was enraged, the princess was weeping behind her veil, and Jun and I were swept away with the rest of hastily ejected crowd. We giggled the whole way home.

A week later we were sitting in our shadowy perches over the road when the prince left the summer palace, accompanied only by his guards. When they reached the place on the road where we had attacked them on their first passing the prince reigned in his horse and looked around him. For a rejected groom he appeared quite content, even thankful.

Within my heart I wished my victim well.

Part 2 The Prince

The bamboo grew thick in this section of the forest, crowding in around the road to the summer palace as if it longed to reach out and touch the noblemen that passed this way. Over the sound of my horse’s hooves I heard a bird call out, somewhere close by but unseen in the treetops. The forest was restful, with its rustling in the wind and peaceful creatures, but I was not comforted by it.

I clutched the basket that sat in front of me on the horse’s back. Within it lay the gander we had caught with some effort this morning. It was a present for my future mother-in-law, the symbol of my commitment to a life of devotion to her daughter, a union that would bind out families and lands together.

This union was a long time coming. Diplomatic relations with China had been a bit tense since my brother had disappeared on the journey to this self-same palace four years ago. It had not come to war, but my father was most anxious to pacify the Empire and protect our people. The price of continued peace was the hand of a son, and so I had come to this place, this time, and this unavoidable task.

Judging by the beauty of the Empress I had some hope that my bride would be pretty at least, but that was the end of my hopes for a pleasant marriage. I wasn’t looking forward to the months that it would take us to cross the language barrier, much less the cultural barriers, the religious barriers, and the barriers of the heart. However, I was a prince, and therefore crossing barriers was my duty, if not my joy.

A monkey cried out most painfully in the trees and I thought perhaps it was being chased through the treetops because the trees swayed vigorously and leaves rained down upon us. Then in the blink of an eye a black specter had streaked up next to my horse and brought us to a halt. It laughed at me and swung with lightening movements up behind me upon the horse. I twisted in my seat and felt a light tug at my hair as the specter knocked the ceremonial hat off of my head. I had barely registered the fall of my father’s wedding hat before my basket was wrenched from my grip and the specter was whisking away with it in its grasp.

I more or less fell off my horse in my instant instinct to reclaim the gift that was meant to purchase peace for my people. My soft silk shoes were not much protection against the ravages of the forest floor, but I kept up my pursuit with singular determination. I had to get that gander back.

The pursuit of a specter is a fruitless endeavor though, even for a prince, and soon I was hopelessly lost without even a glimpse of specter or road to guide me. I called and called, begging the black spirit to return my gift, calling and calling for my guards to come to my aid, but I heard no response, saw no path out of my predicament.

Strange sounds came from all around me, and they echoed through the woods. The sunlight slanted down on me, its sideways direction casting all around me in strange shadows and harsh contrast. The walls of bamboo twisted and turned, like a maze of bars hemming me in.
I followed one sharp turn after another until my bruised and throbbing feet protested with each step. I sank down in a clearing, overcome with confusion, the old and broken bamboo jabbing into my legs. It was hopeless.

I thought about the black specter that had stolen my gift and lead me away from the safety of the road I was on. What was it? What did it want? Why had it chosen me as its victim? What had I ever done to anger the spirits of this forest? Was this the same spirit that has caused the disappearance of my brother? Was this spirit going to hold me captive forever? Was I ever going to see my family and homeland again? Was I doomed to wander this forest until I died?
What would happen to my kingdom? Would this lead to war? Would my people die because I had failed them as my brother had? Would our home and our culture be absorbed into the Empire like so many others? Would all that made Kaya great be lost forever?

Tears for my homeland, for my family coursed down my face, and the dam I had built to hold back my emotions burst from this little breech. The hopelessness of my situation, the anger of the Empire, the enormity of the number of people I had let down pressed down on me until I could bear it no more. I was lost, with nothing to do but rot here day by day until death claimed me at last.

I curled into a ball but a sharp jab in my side gave focus to my grief. The Dagger of Kaya, the gift of my father upon my departure pressed its jeweled head into my side. “Use me,” it seemed to whisper, “Death before dishonor, do not die like a helpless animal in the forest.”

I sat up and drew it from its sheath. The silver length glimmered gold in the dying sun, the last sun I would see. I pressed the point to my chest. The point pierced my tunic easily, it would slide into my heart easily, the pain would be over soon, and with me would die the last hopes of my kingdom.

I raised my arms and gathered the strength to make my final act. My hands shook, my heart ached, and then like a vapor the hilt was gone from my hands!

I opened my eyes, not knowing what to expect, the spirit world or the forest, instead I saw the pale angry face of the black specter. It spoke to me in a strange tongue that only held a small resemblance to the Chinese I had been taught. I caught two words only, death and door. Yes death was the door, death was the only course left to me. I knew it and the specter knew it, but it did not seem to wish me an easy death. It wanted me to die slowly and painfully, as my people and culture would.

“Please kill me,” I begged it, and I repeated the words in my halting Chinese. I begged it, kneeling before it, touching my head to the ground at its feet.

With a shove of some unknown power it repelled me back and I hit the ground hard, waiting for the end to come, waiting for the power to strike again and finish me. The blow never came. I lay there waiting, empty, broken, praying for the end, but the end stretched further and further away from me.

I was a disgrace, I couldn’t even die right.

I woke to the sound of whispers in the trees and opened my eyes to see the moon’s eye looking down on me. The silver light was a balm to my soul, and I let it wash over me. The moon was like me, surrounded by darkness on every side.

No, the moon was better than I, for though it battled the darkness every night and was over come again and again, it always came back, growing until its strength could light the path for all. I wished I was more like the moon. I rolled over on my side and curved my body like the crescent moon as I thought and thought. My people, my country, my family needed me. Without my brother and without me the kingdom would fall into civil war, and that would leave us exposed to attack from the outside.

I had to fight the darkness, I had to come back from this dark moment like the moon did. I knew not how, or where I would get the strength, but only I could do it.

When I opened my eyes again the sun was falling on me. A new day had dawned for me and for the world. My eyes immediately fell upon the black specter. It sat just out of reach, and in its lap lay my gift. It had not been lost at all, and now that I had learned my lesson the spirits of this forest were returning my life to me, so that I could make it better.

The specter came towards me without a noise and placed the basket near my side. It moved away, then pointed opposite the rising sun and spoke again. “Marry” and “Princess” it said and then seemed to be angry at my lack of immediate response. The basket in my hand I looked away in the direction the spirit was sending me. I looked back to thank it, but it was gone, and I was left alone to make my way.

I had not traveled far when my guard found me, and I was welcomed most warmly at the palace. The guards and Empress were all convinced that we had been beset by a band of thieves, and I kept silent about the spiritual message that had been the real intent behind the experience. I did not think I could explain it in a way they would ever understand. I wasn’t sure I would ever fully understand it either, but I respected it enough to keep quiet.

In spite of the lack of treasures the Empress agreed to allow the wedding to proceed and after two days I mounted my horse again in order to take my bride. I moved forward with singular determination, and only realized something was amiss in my pursuit of my course when I heard the flapping of wings and screams behind me.

I turned in time to see the Empress falling, the gander flying away above her. I rushed to the Empress’ side like all the others, but she refused the hand I offered.

Each day for a week I appealed to the Empress and her daughter, and each day for a week they again rejected my hand. This situation was hopeless, but each night as I looked up at the moon, waxing stronger it its victory over the darkness, I found hope in the end of this situation. I found hope that Kaya could be strong without the Chinese Empire, that we could stand without a people so unlike ourselves. I dreamed of a Kaya that chose peace instead of trying to buy it.

I left the Summer Palace and rode into the forest once again. My guards were anxious and kept their weapons ready, but I knew I had nothing to fear from the spirits of this wood. I stopped, in the place I will never forget, and lifted my face to the wind. I whispered a prayer of thanks to the black specter that had stolen my old self from me, and given me back so much more.

Part 3 The Prince of Thieves

I wondered, as I did every time we did this, exactly what she was thinking as Mei watched our victims go by below us. Her face was bright in the shadows, pale like the moon, but sculpted like a gemstone. That face had been a source of fascination to me since I had first seen it, back when I was her victim not her comrade.

I heard the birdcall from her mother’s lips and readied myself at the signal. My bamboo tree swung slightly with my movement. My clumsiness in the tree tops had been a source of amusement for some in our band of thieves, but Mei had never mocked me, only helped me. Now I was better than most of those that had mocked me.

Mei’s stayed perfectly still, as if the tree was part of her, another leg from which she would spring into action. She had been born to this life, born to the freedom and also the prison of the life of a thief. She moved like the wind, climbed like a monkey, and had the fingers of a musician.
Of course these were things I could never say to her, or reveal that I felt. Not to her, not to her family, not to any of my new friends, could I speak the thoughts of my heart. For with the skills and profession came a strange mixture of pride and humility that refused compliment, and demanded respect.

The sound of the monkey called us to action. I followed Mei down to the forest floor. I would follow her anywhere, truth be told; into death, into fire, and today, into battle against my own blood.

No one would recognize me. When I had joined the band not even Mei had recognized me for the pampered Prince Jun of Kaya she had robbed on this very road four years ago. In her company, with her training, and in a thief’s clothes, not even my brother would know me, much less the guards.

I watched her fly past the guards like a bird on the wind and confront my younger brother with that fearless laugh. I knocked out the closest guard and rushed the cart, trying to stay alive, earn my keep, and keep an eye on Mei at the same time. I saw her up on his horse, then sprinting through the trees, headed straight for the maze she had taught me turn by turn.

I would have worried about his pursuit of her, if I hadn’t known exactly how hard it would be for him. All the military training that had been pounded into me had failed me four years ago, and his would too. Even if he had vastly improved his fighting skills since my departure, my brother’s studious and spiritual nature would not have prepared him for a force like Mei.

I grabbed a share of the loot and faded back into the tree line with the others. The few guards who were still conscious were struggling to their feet far too late to take action. We had executed the plan perfectly, and our leader would be pleased. With my secret intention to marry Mei, I liked to keep our leader happy.

As we lit the campfires the stragglers wandered into camp, their loads of treasure heavy in their arms and their hearts light within their chests. Mei was one of the last to return. When I saw her face I let out a silent sigh of relief. She was whole, not happy, but whole and home.

Her mother was quite pleased with the gift of the dagger. I recognized it of course, had coveted it in another life, but somehow the fact that it was with Mei’s family just felt right to me. Mei had taken it as deftly has she had taken my heart. Perhaps the dagger would be strengthened and sharpened by them too.

I sat beside her, trying as always to act like she was a sister to me, and not both the captor and liberator of my heart. Her hands were empty and her face downcast. “Is the dagger really all you got, Mei?” I asked her in surprise. She had a knack for picking the parcel with the best loot. I had never figured out how she did it either.

“Yeah, the goose got away,” she said, her head ducked down and her cheeks coloring.

“Goose?” I asked in confusion, then of course I knew the answer to my own question. “Oh, the gander! Ha, I’d forgotten about that.”

“Forgotten about what?” she asked grumpily. She didn’t like to be laughed at, none of them did, not when it was something as serious as loot.

“Well… you know we just attacked the prince of my homeland, don’t you?” I asked her. I wondered if any of them had made the connection between my accent and the target of our latest excursion.

She nodded, but by the lost look in her eyes I knew she was faking it. I tried very hard not to laugh. I didn’t want to hurt her thieves’ pride any more than I already had.

“In my homeland the groom brings a wild gander to the mother of the bride,” I told her. I had rarely spoken of my homeland with her, with anyone, since the day that had changed my life.

The moment she had dropped from that tree and laughed at me my whole life had faded from my mind. I thought of it sometimes, but it was like trying to remember a dream, a strange night fancy with no substance or meaning. I had thought I was such a good Prince, would be such a good king, but if I could forget it all at the sight of Mei’s face, then it was better the kingdom rested in my brother’s thoughtful hands.

Father had always preferred me, as the eldest, as the stronger son, but my mother had been the right one to prefer the younger son. She, and he, saw things I didn’t see, thought in ways I could never think. The world was changing. Leaders didn’t need action, they needed words, words that could cut and intimidate better than any dagger.

I laughed inside again. She had taken the Dagger of Kaya. She had taken the dagger from Kaya, just as she had taken the Crown Prince of Kaya from Kaya, and Kaya would be the better for it.

“I didn’t see you grab the dagger though,” I said to her. Then I veiled the compliment in an insult so that she would accept it, “Your hands must be getting faster.”

Something in the set of her mouth told me she was lying, and as she told me about grabbing it and the basket at the same time I had to hold back a smile. She could see it in my eyes though, and rolled her own as she suddenly decided to tell me the truth.

I would have preferred the lie. The truth made me sick inside. For the first time since I had wandered away from my unconscious guards I regretted leaving the country to my brother. When I flipped the coin of my life upside down I hadn’t thought, hadn’t realized I would be flipping his too. His advice had always been so good… I hadn’t thought about if he hadn’t wanted to be more than an advisor.

“Almost makes you feel sorry for him,” I said, wishing I could share even a small part of what I was feeling with her.

“Why would he kill himself over losing a goose?” she asked, and her lack of understanding clearly defined for me all the things I needed her to know, but couldn’t tell her. Now was not the time. I couldn’t have her thinking my loyalty was with him, not when I had worked this long to earn her regard. How could I fix this without giving myself away?

“Gander,” I corrected her as gently as I could in my raw emotional state. “It’s the symbol of the groom’s devotion. Ganders mate for life.”

“Still doesn’t sound like a reason to kill yourself,” she said picking up some dirt and throwing it in the fire. It snapped and crackled angrily at me, like the voices of my people, censuring me for deserting them and then failing my brother.

“It wasn’t just the goose, Mei,” I said angry with myself.

“You really are feeling sorry for him,” she said looking at me with furrowed brows.

Oh if she knew, if she knew how sorry I felt. I laughed at the twisted way my fate had brought me back four years, to the same place, the same circumstance, and the other side.

“You aren’t going soft on me are you?” she asked me in a tone that told me she wanted to believe the opposite.

I smiled at the sign that she cared, that my state of mind meant something to her. “As soft as my blade,” I said, beginning the old thieves saying she had taught me.

“And twice as sharp,” she finished for me comforted by the show of strength.

I hoped she would always think of me as that strong, that sharp, because for her I was trying to be. I never wanted to lose that faith. I didn’t want to fail her like I had failed others when I reached for her.

My conscience would not let me sleep that night, every lump in the mat beneath me was a sharp reminder of the things I couldn’t ignore anymore. I got up and went into the forest. I searched in and around the maze until at last I saw him.

He lay so still in the moonlight that at first I thought he might be dead. Then he twitched in his sleep, a look of fear clouding his expression, and I felt both joy and pain. I wanted to wash his face, wipe away the mark of all I had done to him.

Instead I watched, watched from a distance, not knowing what I should do.

I could go to him, wake him, lead him to the road. He would know me at that distance though, without the others to distract him. Then I would have to explain, and I wasn’t sure I understood it all myself.

I could walk away, leave him to find his own way as I had done, let his encounter with Mei change him as it would, like it had changed me. What would that do to him though? What would that do to my people? I had failed them, and if I failed him then he would fail them too and all would be lost.

Off to the east I saw a movement and watched in awe as Mei moved like a dark fog through the trees. She had come to him too. Though she was a thief born of thieves, she was a woman of great compassion for those unable to help themselves. I should have known she would not leave him helpless.

I crept up behind her, trying to be silent as not to alarm her, and not wake my brother at the same time. A testament to the training she had given me herself, she did not hear me until I was right behind her. I barely caught her hand before she drew her blade. Her eyes flashed in anger and fear, until she saw my face, and then something flashed within them that once again threatened to knock all else from my mind.

As her arm relaxed in my grip I forced myself to release her, fighting instead the urge to hold her that was nearly overwhelming me. Pressing my finger to my lips, I drew her back so that we could speak without waking my brother from his fitful slumber. I leaned in close to her, breathing in her earthy scent as I whispered in her ear, “Do you want to help him?”

She nodded once, her jaw set in determination. Her determination flowed into me, and suddenly I knew what I we must do.

“Good, because I can’t do this alone,” I said. “Go and find the basket and meet me here.”

“Where are you going?” she whispered to me, but I continued through the trees. I had no time to explain, I needed a lifetime for that.

It took hours to find the gander, and I counted myself lucky when I captured it on the first try. Fate was back on my side it seemed. I carried it back through the forest, only attempting to walk silently when I was close to where I knew she would be waiting. The goose was not so concerned about stealth, but my own thieves’ pride could not abide my own false steps.

She took in the gander and its meaning in a moment, and we hurried to put it in its basket. It protested to the very last, then went silent as the lid closet over it. Once the latch was secured I held it out to her and she took it with reluctant hands.

“What are you giving this to me for?” she asked. “This is your plan.”

“You are the one who stole it, you must return it,” I said, hoping someday she would understand, understand the request and also my every thought.

She cast a nervous glance at my brother, and then walked with her characteristic certainly and silence down the pathless way.

I waited, she waited, and the sun crept over the hills. The light landed on my brother’s face and I watched as he looked at her with the kind of wonder I knew all too well. I watched her give him the basket, the symbol of his future, and then shoo him on his way in her tough and loving way.

Then she returned to me and I was back where I belonged. It was not long before I captured a wild gander of my own and became a different kind of Prince.

People fear us thieves because they do not want to lose their things, but it is only after we come that they know what they have really lost, their security. Mei took that from me, she took that from my brother, and we will both love her for it endlessly.

For in loosing what we thought we had, we found our devotions; we found what was worth living for, we found ourselves.

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