- Ayame-chan, where are you?
- Up here…
At the edge of the imperial complex there was a small forest that stretched for a few kilometers. It stood between the complex and the main entrance, protecting the imperial buildings from view. That was the place where Ayame Kinnosuke decided to spend the afternoon of this day of spring. The weather was unusually warm for that time of the year. The sky was clear and the wind was blowing gently.
Ayame was 17 and was now enjoying one of the rare moments when she was allowed to go outside of the castle. Now, she was sitting on top of a tree, scanning the horizon. Climbing trees was one of her favorite activities, second only to sword fighting. These were not the usual activities a princess should have but, then again, Ayame was a rather unusual princess.
- Ugh, this girl is more like a wild animal than a princess, said Nomiya to himself, while climbing the tree and stopping on the branch next to her.
- I heard that, you know, responded Ayame in a joyous manner. And you’ve gotten old sensei. Took you too long to get up here.
- You should be careful not to fall. This branch is not very reliable, he replied, ignoring her teasing comment.
- You’ve been teaching me how to climb trees ever since I was five and now you decide to worry about me falling?
- Yes, well…I was an irresponsible teacher then and I am trying to make amends now, he said sarcastically.
They looked at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter. They have had this type of relationship ever since the beginning. He was first appointed as her training partner when he was fifteen. After a couple of years, he took on the role of her sensei, training her in the martial arts and basic ninja techniques. She was seven at that time. Now, he was more like her bodyguard and dear friend than her sensei.
- Why did you want to come here today? he asked her, trying to find a more comfortable position.
- Because of that, she said and pointed at the small gate that could be seen at the end of the forest.
Nomiya let out a sigh and shook his head.
- I never understood why you’ve always liked that gate.
She looked at the gate with longing eyes and a smile on her face. Then replied in a sad, resigned voice, never once taking her eyes off of the small figure of the gate.
- Because I am not allowed to walk past it. Because no matter how close I get to it, I can never take a step beyond it.
Not even once, in her whole seventeen years of life was she allowed to leave the imperial complex or its forest. She has always imagined what lied beyond the gate, how the rest of the capital looked like and how the people live there. The only knowledge she had about the world came from books, visitors and her teachers.
- Being a princess may seem like heaven to some people, she continued, but I think even heaven can become a torture when taken to the extreme. Followed everywhere, not allowed to leave this place and having almost the entire schedule planned might just make one think their life is not their own.
- And that person would be right to think so. You are a princess. Your life belongs to the people, to the capital.
- And now you sound just like my grandfather.
Nomiya let out another sigh and started playing with a leaf, while avoiding to look at her.
- It can’t be that bad, Ayame-chan. You know your grandfather. He is always worrying about you. And besides, he continued, blowing the leaf away, if you weren’t restricted like this, who knows what trouble you might have gotten into.
- You really think that about me? she asked him incredulously.
- You are not the most complying creature this earth has ever seen, after all, are you?
She smiled and shook her head, clearly amused by his remark.
- You do know me well, sensei.
- Only the Gods know in how much trouble I’d be if I didn’t know you well.
Upon hearing this honest declaration, she started laughing.
- You know, sensei, I’d really miss you if you were to leave at some point.
- I am not planning on doing that any time soon, he replied surprised. What made you say such a thing?
- Well, nothing really good lasts forever, she told him smiling.
- Being serious now, are we?
- Oh, but am I not always se…
Ayame’s answer was suddenly interrupted by a song. It was a beautiful, slow and soft song that seemed to come from the direction of the gate.
What is this song? she thought, I’ve never heard anything like it before.’
- It seems to come from there, she said out loud, pointing at the gate.
Nomiya was also looking in the same direction. His green eyes were concentrated and his muscles tense and ready for action. His abilities as a fighter and also as a spy were second to none in the capital. He was now scanning the forest in front of them, trying to identify the actual source of the song but before he could, the song stopped.
- What was that, Nomiya-sensei? Ayame asked, turning to him. It sounded like a flute.
- I am more worried about the one using the instrument, than the instrument itself.
He was already climbing down and he reached the ground with the dexterity of someone used to the movements.
- We should get back, he said looking up at her. Everyone will start getting worried.
- Pfft, why in the world would they be worried if I am with you? she replied amused but still she decided to listen to him and climbed down as well.
She landed right next to him, with the agility of a cat, proof of the many hours and days of training. They then took the path that would take them directly to the imperial Palace, without talking much to each other. One was too preoccupied with the unusual softness of the song they just heard, while the other was engrossed in his own worries about the one singing it.
They reached the Palace just in time. The Emperor, Ayame’s grandfather was just entering the inner court and was asking about them.
- Ah, here you are, both of you.
He smiled as they approached and accepted Nomiya’s bow with a slight movement of the head. He then turned to his granddaughter, smiling happily.
- So, was the walk pleasant, my dear?
- Since it’s the only way I can get outside, then I guess it has to be, she replied rolling her eyes.
- Oh, come come. Today is not a day for this kind of talk, he said, waving his hands as in trying to banish her sarcasm. Today is a joyous day. A day of important guests.
- What important guests? both Ayame and Nomiya asked in surprise.
The Emperor gave them an all knowingly look and smiled satisfied. He then turned around and started for the Palace with the whole procession of servants after him.
- You’ll both find out in good time, he told them over the shoulder. Until then, try to get yourselves a bit more presentable. Leaves are not part of our today’s menu.
They stared at each other in disbelief. The Emperor, usually untouched by jokes, was acting so joyous and he even used sarcasm. No, this was indeed a strange day, Ayame thought. But she had to agree with her grandfather on one aspect: they both needed a cleaning. Her long black hair was filled with leaves and bits of wood, while Nomiya’s spiky red hair was ruffled more than usual.