without, the thorns

“Oh, no,” Gyokuran says.

“Absolutely not,” Gyokuran says.

“Surely, you must be joking,” Gyokuran says.

The princess blinks at her in the mirror, wide-eyed and innocent as always. She is in the middle of plaiting one of the long tails of her hair for the evening, leaving the other to be brushed out by Gyokuran, first. “But it is quite so,” she says. “Father informed me of this just the other night, at dinner. We’ll be hosting him and his family next weekend. Do try to be nice to him, Gyokuran, I know how upset you get–”

“This is unacceptable!” Gyokuran wails. “Princess! How can you allow something like that? He’s not even royalty, he’s just–he’s just–!”

“He is an Oak, Gyokuran,” the princess says, unconcerned even when Gyokuran yanks a bit at her hair in distress. There is unusual steel in her voice–but something that is still quiet and gentle for that. And while sometimes she can be flighty and distracted, there are moments where she is every inch who she was born to be. Gyokuran looks in the mirror and sees a queen looking back. As always, the sight makes her breath catch and her heart flutter in her chest; she is a loyal servant of the Empire, of course, but before that, she is her princess’ devoted attendant. “That means he is more than suitable. Besides,” she goes on, and the illusion breaks: she’s just a young girl again, Gyokuran’s friend and mistress for so many years, “his cousin is very nice and clever, after all. Surely the whole family can’t be that bad.”

Gyokuran, in deference to her lady, waits until she is back in her own room before she starts throwing things and shrieking her response to that.

+++

It wouldn’t bother her as much, she knows, if Hakuren Oak wasn’t so damn smug about the whole thing. Oh, he acts innocent enough–he’s always unfailingly polite to the princess (which is perhaps the only reason why no one else seems to get it–even Kururu, faithful Kururu, is fooled by this man!)–and properly respectful of the Emperor, the few times they’ve interacted, but he’s a smug bastard, through and through. He’s an Oak. Gyokuran comes from a family born to serve the imperial line, and she knows Oaks very well, from both her own experiences and those that she hears from cousins who are in their employ. They are smug sly creatures, too obsessed with their own power to be truly kind. It galls her that she has to leave the princess alone with him for any reason–Kururu stays, of course, but Kururu is also seduced by the man’s damnable good looks; she’d probably just pretend to ignore anything that might be happening, if the princess just asked nicely–! She would bet anything that he is laughing about his triumph right now, behind his insipidly polite smile–maybe he won’t marry into the imperial line, borderline disgrace that he is, but he will still have power and influence that comes from having a close family member on the throne.

She can’t stand it! After all, if the Oaks are only good for the military and for politics–and if Hakuren Oak is the best that the political side of the famous Oak family can produce–what sort of bumbling oaf will a general’s son be like? And not only that, but an idiot who would have the princess and sit by her side and eventually succeed her father as Emperor–to think of her beloved princess, bowing her head to an idiot like that–!

Something must be done, she decides. Right away, before the idiot can arrive and ruin everything.

+++

The first thing that must be done, however, is the hardest. After all, she knows nothing of her coming enemy, and the best thing to do is research. No one else in the palace knows him very well, either; a handful know his father, whom is mentioned to be a doting jolly man, but that tells her nothing of the son he’s produced. There is no one who would know–no one except…

Ah, she consoles herself, as she stalks through the garden. Be strong, Gyokuran! Have faith, Gyokuran! You’re doing it for the princess, and that will be its own reward!

She finds him sitting under a tree and reading. Even though he’s left the church behind (and how ridiculous is that, really, an Oak in the church? she’s amazed it took over a year for them to throw him out again), he still studies their texts diligently. When he’s not with the princess (which to Gyokuran’s relief is still not even most of the time), he usually reads–though once or twice she has seen him go down into the lower city and speak with the people there. Sometimes he drops coins into the hats of beggars.

(“You know, maybe he’s not sooooo bad,” Ohruri had said once, in the middle of examining her drying nails. “He passed the exams, after all. Technically he’s a Bishop–they don’t let you get that far if you’re not a good person, right?”

“Ohruri!” Gyokuran had shouted. “Don’t be fooled by him! He’s just lulling you into a false sense of security–you’ll see!” Though months later Ohruri still didn’t see, and really, Gyokuran just despaired of ever really making her point known.)

But most of the time he can be found in the gardens, usually in the shade of the largest trees, reading. And that is exactly where Gyokuran finds him on this morning: with his silly little glasses perched so low on his nose she has to wonder if they do any good, and some heavy dusty book open in his lap. She takes a few deep breaths before she can make herself go up to him.

“You,” she says.

He looks up and adjusts his glasses. She wonders if he thinks they make him look adult, but they really just make him seem pretentious. “Ah, Miss Gyokuran,” he says. His tone is blandly polite, and that rubs up against the open sore of her irritation; she has to bite her cheek to keep the automatic retort from rising up. “May I help you?”

She clenches her fists, then forces them to relax. “I have some questions for you,” she says.

“About?”

Oh, she wants to throttle him so much! Through gritted teeth, she says, “Surely you’ve heard that Her Highness is betrothed?”

He raises an eyebrow and adjusts his glasses again. Really, he’s paid enough, couldn’t he afford any that fit him better? “Of course I have,” he said. “The Lady Ouka told me so herself.”

The title comes so casually to his lips. Gyokuran fantasies about throttling him again. “Well, of course,” she says. “Because the princess is a good and kind girl, she would want us to be prepared for this change that’s coming up in her life–”

“But?” His tone is dry.

But,” she goes on, glaring at him for good measure, “it does not help the fact that those of us in court have very little to go on about her fiance, other than his reputation.”

“Miss Gyokuran,” Hakuren Oak says slowly, “please realize that I have spent the last five years studying in the Seventh District to become a Bishop–I assure you, I am as much in the dark about any gossip surrounding the Lady Ouka’s suitor–”

“And his name,” Gyokuran goes on, raising her voice over his. She pauses for dramatic effect–she has been told before that she’s quite good at it–and she points an accusing finger at him. “Shuri Oak!”

What happens next is nothing short of amazing: Hakuren Oak’s eyes go wide and his mouth drops open. It is the first genuinely human reaction she has seen in him since he arrived, and really, if he could just do this more often, maybe she wouldn’t find him such an insufferable man! “What,” he says, and then, “You must be joking,” and then, “What were they even thinking–?”

“So you do know something,” Gyokuran says, basking in her triumph. “And you’ll tell me everything you know. Right here. Right now. At once.”

+++

She is grimly pleased when all her worst fears are confirmed. Hakuren Oak does, in fact, know his cousin–first cousin through their fathers, he tells her automatically, absently, when she deliberately makes a wrong wild guess–and everything he knows paints a terrible picture. The boy–no, the child–that is coming to marry her princess is spoiled and selfish, raised as the precious firstborn and only son of his rich and doting parents. Hakuren Oak’s face goes through a whole myriad of expressions that Gyokuran has only dreamed of seeing, all of them various levels of discomfort and defeat, as he answers her questions. In the end, she doesn’t know if she’s learned anything new–not that she thinks that that man would have anything really worth telling!–but she has confirmation at least, and now she’s forearmed with the knowledge.

Of course, a servant can’t just simply go barging into a royal meeting and demand an audience–and a servant most definitely cannot criticize the decision of the Emperor and his advisers. What she can do, though, is spread rumors–and so she tries, starting with Ohruri and Kikune.

“Hmmm, so he’s a lazy boy,” Kikune says. “Ah, but that’s all right, because the princess will not have to worry about him doing too much, then.”

“Ahhh, maybe Hakuren-kun’s jealous,” Ohruri says happily, clapping her hands. “Maybe he secretly likes the princess too! Wouldn’t that be so romantic?”

Ohruri!” Gyokuran yells, and Kikune yells with her, so that’s acceptable. She tries the cooks next, but they’re more curious about what sort of things the coming guest would prefer to eat. The footmen just laugh like it’s no big deal (she’ll make sure they regret that later). Some of the maids are sympathetic, but they are also far too accepting of the princess’ fate–Gyokuran decides it is because they don’t interact with her very often: of course they like her, because to know the princess is to like her, but they don’t know her know her, not like she does, or Ohruri or Kikune or Haku–

No, no, no! There’s a line she refuses to cross, and that’s it! Obviously this tactic is failing, but she refuses to give up! She’ll never give in! She–

“Gyokuran,” Ohruri trills, “isn’t he cute?”

Gyokuran blinks a few times. She looks at where Ohruri is and sniffs, resisting the urge to toss her head. “We must talk about your taste in men, later,” she says out of the corner of her mouth. The smile on her face makes it ache, it feels so stiff and unnatural; she’s surprised no one has called her on this yet. He doesn’t look like much–too much like that damnable cousin of his, with too-fine features and bright empty blue eyes–but he smiles like he already owns the entire place and struts like his head’s too heavy for his skinny body. He’s been nicely dressed for the occasion, the lines of his uniform pressed crisp and his boots polished to a glossy shine, and his hair is smoothly slicked back. He looks like a good match, but Gyokuran knows better.

Dinner is a strained awkward sort of thing: only Gyokuran is allowed to tend to her lady, as the senior maidservant, and she knows the princess well enough to see the faint signs of strain around her soft smiling mouth. That in and of itself is unusual–it’s so difficult to get the princess upset, and Gyokuran stares at that tightness and plots the newcomers slow punishment. He talks too loudly and enthusiastically about himself, and the princess just has to smile and nod and make occasional noises of agreement. Gyokuran simmers in her anger because her princess will not allow herself that, and it’s like physical pain to watch even that small hint of suffering. To the credit of his stupidity, the boy doesn’t even notice, and by the end of the evening, Gyokuran is almost–almost!–convinced that she should perhaps revise her opinion on Hakuren Oak, because even he isn’t insufferable as his cousin.

After the meal ends, and the princess says goodnight to her fiance (who just beams and babbles even more idiotic inanity at her, and Gyokuran has to restrain herself from slapping his smug mouth), and they’re heading back, Gyokuran says, “Princess–”

“I’m tired,” the princess says quietly. She stares at the ground, at the hem of her fine dress and the toes of her new elegant shoes (which Gyokuran had been sure to compliment her on) and she smiles. It’s strange and it’s distant and makes something in Gyokuran’s stomach twist. Someone less practical would call it longing; Gyokuran merely calls it foolish. “I think I will retire early tonight.” She lifts her head and there is the queen she will be one day again, ethereal as moonlight. This is someone very sad that lives inside of her princess, and Gyokuran thinks she would do just about anything to help.

Instead, helpless, she says, “Your highness–”

“Thank you for being with me, Gyokuran,” she says. “As always, you are a blessing.”

She continues on, and Gyokuran stares after her, her belly twisting again. She’s not sure how long she waits–long after the princess has disappeared–before she turns and she finds herself face to face with the princess’ fiance, Hakuren Oak’s cousin, the idiot Shuri Oak. His expression is a familiar one of haughty arrogance, well-suited to his delicate Oak features. He already sees himself as master, she knows, and all she can do is bite her cheek at that. It’s not too far from the truth.

“You,” he says. “You’re one of the princess’ attendants, right? Tell me, where is her room?”

Gyokuran narrows her eyes. “Why would you ask?”

“I wish to see her, of course!” he exclaims. His face twists for a moment, and he says, “It is a good idea for us to become more acquainted before our wedding, and we will have only a short time before I leave again.”

The words sound so coached that Gyokuran almost laughs in his silly face. She wonders who put him up to saying that–the general? one of the equally empty-headed servants that accompanied the retinue?–and puts her hands on her hips.

“She’s sleeping,” she says. “And no one is to bother her until tomorrow, by her express orders.”

It’s a lie, but only a small one; Gyokuran thinks she might well hate herself if she allows anything to disturb the princess at rest.

The boy looks surprised for a moment, and very young. She wonders how old he really is–if anyone’s ever told him no in his entire charmed life. She rather doubts it. “But,” he flounders, “I, I’m her–”

“And a good husband must be respectful of his wife’s needs!” Gyokuran jabs a finger into his chest with enough force to drive him back several steps. “You have to listen, but you can’t do just that, you have to pay attention! The princess is a good girl, she would never outright complain, so it’s your job to make sure she never needs to! Do you understand!”

Shuri Oak’s hands half-lift, fluttering uselessly. His blue eyes are huge and stunned. “I–but–don’t you know who I–”

“I’m a very good guesser!” Gyokuran draws herself up to her fullest height and notes with some satisfaction that she stands bit taller than him. “So you had better listen! I will not tolerate any disrespect for the princess, not from you, not from anyone! Do we understand each other!”

He squeaks, mouth open in a fishlike gape. Gyokuran decides she likes him better when he’s not blathering on about himself; the silence nearly makes him tolerable. Just in case he gets any ideas, though, she goes on: “I’m watching you, Shuri Oak, and you get just one chance. Are we clear!”

Eventually, very slowly, never once blinking, he nods. Gyokuran smiles, still standing as tall as possible. “Good,” she says, and pivots sharply on her heel to stalk towards her own rooms. As much as she wants to look back and see what sort of foolish look is on his face, she knows the value of a dramatic exit while she has one. She comforts herself with thinking that it must be quite funny indeed, with that sort of malleable stupid face he must have. As much as she hates to admit anything about that intruder Hakuren Oak, she will give him the dubious benefit of being more clever than his cousin.

Gyokuran sleeps well that night, better than she expected with a man like that under the same roof. In the morning, she goes about her daily ritual, eventually going to knock on the princess’ door before she lets herself inside. To her surprise, her lady is already awake, slowly brushing her hair and looking at a vaseful of roses on her vanity. It’s the wrong season for flowers, with the snow lying heavily outside, but each bloom is fresh and lovely. Hothouse flowers, Gyokuran thinks with some disdain, forced out of their natural rhythm and cut without second thought. Probably another coached move. Still, it’s better than she expected, so she swallows the disdain back and says, “Princess?”

The princess turns to her and smiles a little, her mouth twisting into a bemused moue. “Gyokuran,” she says. “These were delivered by Master Shuri himself this morning. One wonders why the sudden display. He seemed a little frightened.”

“Maybe he’s smarter than he first seemed,” Gyokuran volunteers. She heads to her lady’s side and takes the brush in one hand and half of the princess’ long hair in the other, beginning to brush out the plaits from the night before.

“Or perhaps someone put fear into his heart,” the princess says. She meets Gyokuran’s eyes in the mirror and her smile is less knowing than her eyes. “You had no need to put yourself through so much trouble for my sake.”

“I’m only doing my duty,” Gyokuran protests, because there’s no point in lying to her lady. “As your aid and your humble and most loyal servant, I have to do what I can to make you happy–”

“You only need make certain that I am cared for,” the princess says. She turns and catches Gyokuran’s wrists in her slim cool hands. Her smile is sweeter than the flowers on her vanity. “Happiness is not ever part of it.”

Gyokuran does not blush, though she can feel fluttering in the pit of her stomach. Ah, she thinks, this is something she will let no man take away, whether interloper or husband or anyone. This is a girl who will be a woman and the Empress, and the most important person of Gyokuran’s life. “Princess …”

“You have my gratitude,” the princess says, and lets go. “As always, Gyokuran, I am glad you are here.”

Gyokuran waits long seconds for the tingle in her wrists to fade, then begins to run the brush through the princess’ hair again, long and fine as silk. It whispers through her fingers as she lifts her hand up and up and watches its graceful slide.

“Wherever you go, my lady,” she says, “I, Gyokuran, will follow.”

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