Actually, when he’d been a child, Shuri saw his extended family quite a bit.
Those were the days before Papa had become a general, when Mama would throw grand parties at least once a week. There would be all sorts of people, including every member of the family within easy traveling distance, and from them there was always a gaggle of cousins that were lumped together, under the supervision of several sour-faced nursemaids. Those came as part of some other branch of the family, of course; Shuri’s own nurse was a comfortable round pixie of a woman, whose only real purpose was to fuss with the line of his collar and tell him where his parents were at any given time. At parties, though, he always knew exactly where Papa and Mama were at all times–and how could he not, when they were clearly the most dashing and wonderful adults at the whole thing?–so he ignored her, letting her sink to insignificance in his world view until he needed her again. She was a servant, after all; that was the way things were.
Still, he did not particularly care for the nurses his cousins brought: they were very stern and quick to frown, faster to say no than he was to even ask for anything.
Therefore he doesn’t. It was his house, after all; one day, he would be lord and master–in fact, he already was a master, and while he would never dream of ordering Papa or Mama around, servants were just servants. They were property. If his chair started telling him to sit up and put his feet on the ground, well! It wouldn’t have a place in his home for very long, that was for certain!
Which was why, sometimes, Shuri would–not so much sneak away, as wait until Papa or Mama swung past, then attach himself to one or the other. And because he was their darling–Mama liked to scoop him up and cuddle him, and Papa would hoist him up onto his shoulders–they would carry him away from those horrid nurses and his stupid cousins, who were more interesting than the other children brought to these gatherings, but only just. Being and Oak meant being better, though in his heart, Shuri knew he was the best. It was a good feeling, warm and secure deep in his chest, and he would think Yes! I’m Shuri Oak! and knew there is nothing more perfect in the world.
Back then, there was one cousin he sees more than the others: six months older than him and always quick to remind him of every single day of that age gap. He used it shamelessly too, and since he wasn’t just any cousin but the son of Papa’s older brother, Shuri usually had to go along with it. Sometimes, if Shuri protested enough, digging in his heels and repeating himself until the words stopped making sense to himself, he could still get his way. And while his cousin would acquiesce eventually with all the good grace expected of an Oak scion, it felt less like a victory and more like an allowance, more petty and small than he really wanted a win to feel like. He had no good way of explaining it, how acutely this cousin could make him aware of childish behavior, when all he wanted to do was argue for his way. There was nothing wrong with that, right?
One day, he thought, one day, he would be older and then it wouldn’t matter so much. His uncle had the same air about him, coldly and clinically perfect, without the warmth that Shuri’s papa was so very fond of sharing. Maybe that was why his cousin had no sense of humor–or even compassion, since usually if Shuri complained, he found himself subject to a quick ear-box rather than capitulation. He thought this was hardly fair, but when he complained to his father (because of course he would, he told Papa everything), Papa only ever laughed.
“It’s because he’s jealous of you, my boy,” he said, and chucked Shuri once under the chin. “He wishes his papa were as wonderful as yours.”
Which made more sense than anything else, because his papa was the best in the entire world. With that thought in mind, he decided he felt sorry for his cousin. Certainly he couldn’t blame anyone for envying his wonderful papa!
So he did what any good son of the Oak family would do: he pushed it aside as unworthy of his time and energy, until it sank into oblivion.
Then one day:
They were hiding for some reason–Shuri had already forgotten the reason by the time they’d tumbled into the closet, yanking the door shut. It was small, especially by Oak standards, and packed so full of linens that there was barely room for even two skinny boys pressed closely together. Someone had sprinkled too much lavender among the cloth, and the cramped little space was too close, too still, for them both. They didn’t fit together very well, too gangly and bony and awkward. Shuri’s nose itched. His cheek was pressed right against his cousin’s, and the other boy’s thin fine hair tickled. He tried to move an arm to scrape it aside, and got an elbow in his ribs for the trouble.
“Ow!” he yelped. “What do you think you’re doing, you–”
“Shhhhhhhh,” his cousin snapped. “They’re coming this way.”
For that, Shuri glared, but kept his mouth shut. The footsteps came down the hall, soft and measured, but no one was calling for them, which probably meant it was just a regular servant, not the nurse–but he still sucked in a breath and held it when they paused outside of the closet. In the resulting sudden quiet, his own heartbeat seemed inordinately loud, and he half-expected another jab for that, too. He glanced sideways, but it was too dim in the closet and they were too close, so all he could really see were fine wisps of pale blond hair, and the curve of cheekbone. When the footsteps moved on he let out an explosive breath, and breathed in something that smelled faintly like apples.
“Can we go?” he whined into the quiet. “You’re all hot, get off.”
“Open the door,” his cousin said. He sound equally irritated. “You’re the one by the handle–ow, ow, hey–”
Shuri squirmed, straining for the doorknob; in the process, he mashed his cheek right up against his cousin’s, and the smell of apple didn’t really meld very well with the lavender of the linens. It actually made his stomach clench a little, and he wanted to get away from it before it made him outright sick. He squirmed and his cousin squawked, and it took some tussling before Shuri actually reached the door handle and managed to turn it, getting it open and spilling them both into the hallway. Shuri hit the ground first and his cousin landed half on top of him, driving the breath from his lungs. For a moment he just lay there, blinking the stars from his eyes, and once he was aware of the thin press of his cousin’s elbow in his stomach, he shoved the other boy off and scowled.
“You’re heavy,” he said. “Honestly, keep your hands to yourself!”
The protest earned him a glare; his cousin was too busy trying to smooth down his too-fine hair. Parts of it stuck up in wispy clumps, so he looked more like a servant tumbled at his master’s feet than a son of the Oak family. “I wasn’t the one grabbing, ” he said. He drew himself up as he spoke, and though they were the same height, he definitely gave the impression of looking down his nose. “Watch your hands, in the future.”
“We’re never doing that again,” Shuri protested. “Ugh, no, like I’d ever be caught anywhere with you–”
“At least we’re agreed,” his cousin said. He undid the ribbon in his hair, combing his fingers through the mess, muttering to himself as he tugged it back again. Shuri sucked on his bruised fingers for a moment and watched from the corner of one eye. It was on the tip of his tongue to say something more–some sort of clever insult that would just prove his superiority–but that was the precise moment that his nurse discovered them, bearing down on the two of them; she grabbed him by one arm and his cousin by the other, and that had been the end of that.
He bathed that night, holding his nose and sinking until he was completely submerged in water scented with lavender and rose, but that faint apple hint took over a day to fade.
Several months later, they received notice that his aunt was gravely ill. Mama dressed him up in his best clothes–the dark blue and the violet, to emphasize the paleness of his hair and the brightness of his eyes, as she told him–and they went to visit his uncle.
Their house was very different–Shuri had only been inside three other times in his life, but he disliked it as much as the first time. Everything was spotlessly neat, surfaces dusted and polished until they gleamed, reflecting his face when he stopped to look. The servants were quietly efficient, sweeping away his coat and Mama’s shawl as soon as the doors swung shut behind them. He stayed close to her down the entire wide length of the hallway, the two of them following a maid to his uncle’s office. Shuri was left to wait inside as his mother swept in, and it seemed to be forever of him sitting in a stiff high-backed chair, swinging his feet until the backs of his heels kicked against the underside of his seat.
Eventually, Mama emerged, pale but smiling. “Darling,” she said, “your auntie is very tired, so we’re not going to be able to see her today. We’ll leave our presents for her and you’ll kiss your cousin for luck, and we’ll go, all right?”
He’d wanted to protest, but bit it back, nodding once. He waited as Mama sent a maid off to fetch his cousin, and pretended to find a loose thread in his sleeve.
When his cousin arrived, he was pale and thin-lipped, unhappier than Shuri ever remembered seeing him. He didn’t speak to answer Mama’s consolations (which Shuri thought was terribly rude–even if she wasn’t his mother, she was a mother, and she was his mother, so she was obviously the best–couldn’t that be enough? how ungrateful), and when she suggested the same kiss for luck, Shuri’s cousin didn’t even bother to hide the way he wrinkled his nose, as if the very idea of being that close to Shuri was anathema to him. Abruptly determined, he tromped forward, mashing his lips against his cousin’s cheek. His nose collided with the other boy’s cheekbone (which hurt), and he made a smacking noise before pulling back.
The startled wide-eyed look on his cousin’s face was worth it. Shuri smirked at him, every inch the proud lordling, then turned on his heel and marched out, with his mother calling her good-byes after them and following his lead the whole way out. He didn’t look back, but in his mind’s eye, he could see it clearly: his cousin touching his face, looking startled and for once not at all superior. The image carried him all the way, where outside, the sun was hot and bright on his face. He didn’t look up at Mama’s face to see her proud little smile.
She bought him a pastry on the way home, as a reward for his behavior. Most of it got all over Shuri’s fingers, and he took particular satisfaction in licking each finger clean, leaning against his mother’s side the entire way.
Later, he would say he wasn’t surprised when the letter came. Mama was throwing another one of her parties–this one for his birthday, so it was more lavish than most–and the first guests were due to arrive at any moment–so of course, that was when the servant knocked on the door with a message for his parents. Shuri hid behind a curtain to listen, since it was a letter before his birthday, which meant that perhaps if he listened in, he’d know what some of his presents would be–
He didn’t expect Mama’s face to go pale, or Papa to look more serious than Shuri had seen in his entire life (there had been an incident once, years ago, when a servant whose face he could no longer remember had backhanded him for not wanting to do something, when Papa had been furious; the memory of it still sometimes haunts his guiltiest nightmares). They didn’t raise their voices, so he couldn’t hear what was being discussed when they bent their heads together, but the whole thing seemed terribly awkward and sadly unrelated to his birthday presents. He waited until they both swept out before sneaking out himself, holding his breath all the way back to his own room.
At his own party he hovered closer to his parents than usual, trying to catch them in revealing their secret, but without luck: Mama was lovely and charming as well, and Papa acted like nothing was different at all. Men in the same crisp black uniforms as Papa ruffled his hair or spoke nicely to him, congratulating him on his acceptance to the Academy (as if there would be any doubt, he’d thought, putting the force of that into his smile; he was an Oak, after all) and their birdlike wives, fluttering at and around him in their long skirts and jeweled fans. There were the same crowd of sullen-faced envious cousins as always, each personally presenting Shuri with their gifts before dinner, and him himself as king–
But after the last cousin had curtseyed to him and scurried to hide behind her father’s legs, Shuri stared at the elegantly-wrapped package in his hands and frowned.
“Shuri?” his mother asked, sweeping behind him and resting her slim hands on his shoulders. Her long fingers curled in, as if she meant to hold him in place. “Darling, is there something wrong?”
He looked at the crowd of cousins, all faces turned towards him. He looked at his mother, pale and nervous–up close now, he could see the faint gleam of sweat on her brow. Her smile was too wide and too sharp, like the pressure of her hands. When he twisted to glance at his father, there was an oddly unreadable expression on his face. The name was there on the tip of his tongue, so close to the surface that he was vaguely surprised it didn’t slip out with his exhale. When he smiled, it sat awkwardly on his face.
“No, Mama,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”
Years later, attendant and attachment to the Black Hawks, darling of his parents both, Shuri Oak overheard a minister say a name from his childhood, and thought that he had learned the lessons of his family well indeed: despite the stab of surprise in his gut, none of it showed in his face as he went on his way.