Past the gate on the way to Kiku Castle, Sorin observed the small birds flying by. There were large trees growing on either side of the path as Kiku lead the way to the doors of the castle.
“There! Look there!” Kiku exclaimed. “That’s where mother holds the initiation ceremonies for the military!”
She pointed to a nearby garden where some soldiers were training. Gale and Sorin watched for a small moment until Igor spoke up.
“Madame Izumi, we aren’t tour guides,” he said. “Surely you understand how concerned your mother is, do you not?”
Kiku tilted her head and looked up. “I remember your initiation, Iggy,” she said. “It was quite a scene when you forgot the general’s name!”
“Well, I had a lot going on that day,” Igor replied.
“Sounds like it,” Kiku said. She turned her sights over to Gale. “You’ve been awfully quiet for a while now, Gigi.”
“Are… are you talking to me?” Gale asked.
“Of course,” Kiku replied. “You and Wilkie have been in total awe ever since we set foot into the courtyard. Surely you two have something to say?”
“It’s very beautiful, Kiku,” Gale said.
“Yeah,” Sorin added, “We’re just… trying to find the right words to say.”
“That’s all you’re worried about?” Kiku asked. “Oh I wish I could just laugh, but that would be unbecoming of me.”
“Madame, you don’t need to worry,” Ayame said. “I can easily escort these two out if that’s what you want.”
“Is that a hint of jealousy, Aya?” Kiku wondered. “That would make the most sense, I suppose.”
“J-Jealous!?” Ayame asked. “Of course not… I only worry about your safety, as any soldier of Kikuishan blood would!”
Kiku giggled. “You’re cute when you’re jealous,” she said. “Oh, if only Iggy would have that same enthusiasm, then maybe he would be fighting Wilkie here.”
“You don’t need to remind me,” Igor said. “Just give the word and I will show you what I got!”
“Hold on!” Sorin said.
“Come now, you two,” Kiku said, “It’s merely a jest. Only in my wildest fantasies would two men fight each other for my sake.”
“So it doesn’t happen at all?” Sorin asked.
“Actually, scratch that,” Kiku continued, “My wildest fantasy would be to see two men fighting each other, only to realize that what they really want is each other’s love.”
Sorin stared at her. “That didn’t answer my question…”
“Oh, sorry!” Kiku said. “I suppose I got carried away. Now you asked me whether or not there have actually been fights over me?”
“That was the question,” Gale said.
“It’s unfortunate,” Kiku replied. “At birth I was cast with a curse: in exchange for beauty, all men would be too afraid to profess their love to me.”
Sorin and Gale looked at her and wondered if that was true.
“What a shame,” Kiku said. “Even Iggy knew that I was making that up.”
“Of… of course I knew,” Sorin replied.
“Me too,” Gale said.
“So what are we waiting for now?” Sorin asked. “We’re here in front of the castle, so I assume you’re going to let us in, Kiku?”
“Wait, Madame Izumi, for one second,” Ayame said. “I know we’ve let them into the courtyard, but into the castle?”
“Gosh, why must you be so wary, Aya?” Kiku asked. “I’ve told you that Gigi and Wilkie mean no harm.”
Ayame wanted to speak up, but her attention was turned to the castle doors opening in front of the group. Several soldiers from both sides of the door stood as the Empress of Kikuisha stepped forth. Her long, dark hair and green, sparkling robe put Sorin and Gale at awe. Ayame and Igor knelt down while Kiku closed her eyes, smiled, and curtseyed.
“Mother,” Kiku said, “You are looking especially remarkable today.”
“My, what a compliment,” she replied. “I’m wondering who you are and what you have done with my daughter.”
There was a brief moment of silence as everyone tried to process what was happening.
“Just kidding,” the Empress said. “Please come here, my daughter.”
“Of course,” Kiku replied.
Kiku went forth and entered her mother’s embrace. After that, Kiku turned back to the group.
“Come now,” Kiku said. “You can’t just stay silent in front of my mother like that! Gigi, Wilkie, this is Kiku Yamazaki, the current empress of Kikuisha!”
“Wait, your name is Kiku, too?” Sorin asked. “I’m confused.”
“Does that surprise you?” Yamazaki asked. “It was the name of the founder, who named her daughter as such, and so on and so forth.”
“Thank you for not boring them,” Kiku said. “You usually like to prattle on and on needlessly about the useless details.”
“So what brings these two here, my dear?”
“Oh, these are just my new friends,” Kiku answered. “I told them about how you knew Wilkie’s father.”
“Well, it’s not Wilkie, um, miss Empress,” Sorin said. He introduced himself as did Gale. Yamazaki could only chuckle to herself when she heard about Kirk.
“It was quite a while ago,” she said. “Back when my darling was a small child, Mr. Wilk visited me. I could only remark about how noble his quest was.”
“How well do you know my father?” Sorin asked.
“Oh, it’s not like we were deeply bonded,” Yamazaki replied. “He stayed for only a fortnight before he left for Jiaikohn.”
“That’s a little underwhelming,” Sorin said. “Your daughter made it sound more exciting than it actually was.”
“I did no such thing,” Kiku said. “I merely stated that they were friends, that was all.”
“My daughter can be quite fantastic, Sorin,” Yamazaki said.
“It’s not like it’s a lie, Madame,” Igor said. “You can be a little out there when it comes to our conversations.”
“Not you too, Iggy,” Kiku said.
“Anyway, since you’re already here, I should inform you about your tournament,” Yamazaki said. “Your clothes should be all packed and ready for you for when you leave for Jiaikohn tomorrow.”
“Please tell me that my favorite dress is in there,” Kiku replied.
“How could I forget?” Yamazaki asked
Kiku laughed. “Oh, I can never doubt you, can I?”
“So, since I assume that these two will be staying the night, they can enjoy themselves to a nice dinner tonight,” Yamazaki said. “Ayame, Igor, this will not be a problem, will it?”
“Of course not!” Igor replied. “I’m not… I’m not concerned at all.”
“Then it is settled,” Kiku said. “Thank you mother for allowing these two to stay the night.”
“Thank you, Empress,” Gale said.
“You’re welcome,” Yamazaki replied. “I will be ready within the hour. You and your friends are free to do as you please until then, my daughter.”
Kiku bowed as her mother left into the castle. Sorin stretched his arms as Gale turned to Ayame and Igor.
“I should thank you guys, too,” she said. “Kiku is lucky to have people like you on her side.”
“You don’t need to mention it,” Ayame replied. “It’s our jobs… Though I guess you could say we are friends with her in a way.”
“I knew you’d say that,” Kiku said. “Oh I wish I could show you the level of my affection right now, Aya, but sadly we are out in the open.”
Ayame smiled and placed her hand on Kiku’s shoulder. “Later tonight,” she said. “You spent the previous night with Iggy, so it’s my turn tonight, is it not?”
“Hehehe, that’s correct!” Kiku replied.
“We’re still here,” Gale said.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Kiku said. “I should show you two around, shouldn’t I?”
“That would be nice,” Gale replied.
Kiku turned to Sorin. “How about you?”
“I… agree,” he answered.
“Great! I’ll start showing you around,” Kiku said. “Aya and Iggy will be helping with dinner tonight, so it’s just us three.”
“Sounds great,” Sorin said. “I do have questions, though.”
Kiku smiled as she grabbed Gale by the hand. “I’d be glad to answer them,” she said, “But first you have to follow us!”
She led Gale into the castle. Sorin followed after them past the doors as he wondered what they would be looking at until dinner. Meanwhile, Ayame and Igor headed off for the kitchen in order to prepare the food for the night.
To be continued…