Evandar had been enjoying her tea when the palace guards rudely interrupted. They walked into the room in their uniform manner, then got down on one knee with their heads bowed. Her maid, Milla, came rushing in behind them.
“Your Highness,” Milla and the guards said at the same time.
Evandar kept sipping at her tea. “Yes, what is it?” she asked, trying not to let her annoyance show. She didn’t have the energy to deal with this. She had gotten up, put on her best clothing and jewellery, did her make-up all nice with the pure intention of staying inside to drink tea and contemplate life.
“There has been another incident,” the guard said.
“Your father wants to see you,” Milla said.
However, they said it at the same time, so Evandar didn’t hear either of them clearly.
Evandar held up a bejewelled hand, and stood. She shifted her eyes to the guards. “Please learn that I do not like people trekking outside dirt into my tearoom,” she said, watching as the guards’ faces turned the colour of beetroot as they rushed for an apology. Evandar held up her hand again. “Also learn that the lady always speaks first. What was it you said, Milla? I’m afraid I didn’t catch it before.”
Milla’s expression was serious. “His Majesty would like to speak to you,” she said.
“Tell him that I don’t have time,” Evandar said. Today was also a day where Evandar would like not to have to deal with her father. She pointed her fan at the guards. “Now you two, what are you here to report?”
“There has been another incident,” they said.
“Incident is quite a vague way to describe it,” Evandar said. “Care to be more specific?”
They stepped closer and lowered their voices. “You remember last week when we found one of His Majesty’s concubines dead?”
Evandar twisted her lips. “Let me guess? Another one is dead.” Saying that out loud most certainly made her uneasy. “Who is it?”
“We are not sure,” the guard said. “That is why we came to you.”
“Right,” Evandar said. She knew all of her father’s concubines, and the drama that went on amongst them. “Are you going to take me to the body?”
“Actually, Your Highness, I think that is the reason your father wants to see you,” Milla said.
Evandar tried her best not to lose her calm. “I think I care more about seeing to this dead concubine than Father.”
“Is that really so?” a deep voice resounded from behind the guards, who along with Milla, quickly hurried onto their knees.
Evandar swallowed. “Greetings, Father,” she said.
“Leave,” Emperor Juyong said to Milla and the guards. “I would like to speak to my son alone.”
Evandar opened her fan and made a show of fanning herself rather than looking at the emperor. It wasn’t the fact that her father had called her his ‘son’ that bothered her – she couldn’t care less what he called her.
Ever since Evandar was young, she had made the fluidity of her gender quite clear. She didn’t think she needed to spell it out for her father again.
Evandar sat down and poured herself another cup of tea. “I apologise,” she said, looking up at the emperor in his regal attire. “This cup is very unique, I don’t have another one.” It wasn’t that unique, but it was one of her favourites – a classic white base with intricate blue flowers.
“I see you are wearing a dress,” Juyong said, a scowl itching at his face.
Awkward tension filled the space between them. “If this is about the concubine, I will hear you out, but if it turns into another lecture about how I should dress, I will probably have to see you out.”
The corners of the emperor’s lips were pulled tight. Evandar knew the thought of her on the throne – someone who did not behave within the boundaries of what was acceptable when identifying as male or female – kept her father up at night.
But that was his problem, not hers.
“Fine, I will make this quick,” Juyong said. “Do you remember when I went hunting and I came back with that nine-tailed fox?”
“Yes, I can recall,” Evandar said. “You kept it in a cage after killing its mother, and effectively tortured it. Am I wrong?”
The emperor looked like he had sucked on a lemon. “Well,” Juyong said through gritted teeth. “I am afraid that it might have escaped.”
“And it is killing concubines, how delightful,” Evandar said. “It’s probably saving you for last.”
“I am under threat here!” Juyong growled. “If I die, then it is you who will be sitting on my throne. Being the emperor is not the easy fun and games that your life has been so far, I doubt you would be able to handle it.”
Evandar held in her need to retaliate – she wasn’t in the mood for an argument. “Just tell me what you want me to do, Father,” Evandar said. “I would like to get back to my tea.”
Juyong huffed. “The nine-tailed fox is a magical creature, which means it can only be combatted by magic.”
“So, you want me to find you a sorcerer,” Evandar said. “That’s easy enough.” She set her cup down. “I know just the person.”
Rhyvahr set the letter aside, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He ruffled his wings, a loose feather falling onto the ground.
“Shh,” Rhyvahr hissed to the raven that delivered the letter, whose croaking was only getting louder.
Fenndon appeared behind Rhyvahr as quietly as a ghost, easily reading the letter over his shoulder. Evandar is asking you to go to the palace, he signed, for a nine-tailed fox? Those are rare. I have never seen one before.
Rhyvahr knew that was Fenndon’s way of asking if he could come. This nine-tailed fox is killing concubines apparently. It’s dangerous, Fenn, Rhyvahr signed back. However, he couldn’t ignore the spark that had lit up in his boyfriend’s eyes. Fine, you can come.
Fenndon smiled and gave him a peck on the cheek.
Evandar stood over the body of the third dead concubine. Her name had been Ilana, she was relatively new. Her nickname was ‘red-rose’ for her pink cheeks that attenuated her angular features.
Now, she held the beauty of a cracked porcelain doll.
“Nine-tailed foxes are maneaters,” Milla said. “This one did not consume their flesh at all.”
“It’s not after flesh,” Evandar said, twisting his ring in unease. It wants revenge. Of course it would. Who wouldn’t after being kept in a cage like the pet it was not supposed to be – especially when the owner had killed its mother.
Guards came into the room, heads bowed. “Your Highness, the sorcerer has arrived.”
“Thank the moons,” Evandar said, stepping into the courtyard; the fresh air certainly did him well after seeing a dead body.
Rhyvahr was waiting by the door with Fenndon, whom Evandar had only heard about and never seen. His white-blond hair was pulled back in a half-updo, seeming silver under the sunlight, his eyes were grey, and bore a kind of wisdom lulled by calmness.
He didn’t strike Evandar as the type that Rhyvahr had liked to bring into his room late at night after a party. It seemed that they had both grown tame since their wild days.
Rhyvahr stood with his gleaming, black wings folded behind him. Evandar still remembered the awful days after those hunters had taken his wings from him, when he stayed in his room and accepted the comfort of nobody. He had gotten them back, but that was a whole other story.
Fenndon bowed as Evandar approached, so did Rhyvahr – for formality’s sake.
“It’s nice to see you again, old friend,” Evandar said.
Rhyvahr arched a well-drawn brow. “We’re not elderly yet, Ev,” he said, signing his words for Fenndon.
“Neither were the concubines,” Evandar said. He turned and gestured with his fan for them to follow him. “My father killed a nine-tailed fox and captured its child. Now, its escaped. So far, we’ve only been assuming that it’s the fox, no one has actually seen it.”
Rhyvahr’s eyes were on Fenndon who was signing something. “Nine-tailed foxes are known for being shapeshifters, it could have disguised itself as anyone in the palace,” Rhyvahr translated.
“That is wonderful to hear,” Evandar said, trying his best not to sigh. His stomach grumbled, which he hoped nobody heard; he had been so wrapped up in the newly dead concubine that he had forgotten about breakfast. Evandar turned to Rhyvahr and Fenndon. “Have you both eaten already?”
“Couldn’t come to the palace on an empty stomach,” Rhyvahr replied.
“Well, I haven’t eaten yet,” Evandar said. “And I think my father expected me to eat breakfast with him,” he measured how high the sun was in the sky, “roughly two hours ago.”
Rhyvahr held his breath as they ascended the countless stairs to the throne room. It was quiet. Too quiet. Something was definitely wrong. The doors were open and the guards were missing from their posts. A servant girl came stumbling from around the corner, tripping over her own feet to get to Evandar.
“Your Highness,” she panted. “Your father… the fox, it was hiding amongst the concubines.”
“Milla, slow down,” Evandar said, gripping the girl’s shoulders. “Where is my father?”
Milla took in great, gulping breaths. “He’s inside.”
Evandar’s face paled, fan slamming against his wrist at a quickening pace; Rhyvahr knew he only did that when he was scared, truly scared. Rhyvahr quickly grabbed Evandar’s wrist to stop him from hurting himself. “Ev, don’t let your mind get ahead of itself,” Rhyvahr said. “We will go inside together, all right?”
Evandar swallowed thickly, then nodded. If the emperor was killed, then Evandar would ascend to the throne; an event that Evandar had told him many times that he was not ready for.
Fenndon leapt up the stairs in front of them, sword in hand. Rhyvahr caught up with him, but Fenndon blocked the door. Stay with Prince Evandar, he signed. I will go in first to see if the emperor is all right.
Rhyvahr would rather Fenndon not be put in the line of danger, but he was a skilled fighter, he didn’t need Rhyvahr trying to protect him at every turn.
Fenndon pushed open the already-ajar door, and stepped in, looking around. Rhyvahr peered in behind him to see that the main hall was empty, not even a scuff mark or a broken chair to indicate that there had been an attack.
Heeled-footsteps tapped against the pristine floor. “Am I the one you are looking for?” a slow, drawling voice came from their right side.
A woman leaned against the wall, wearing a black dress that was sheer at the bottom, with a wide slit to expose two long, pale legs. She fluttered her lashes over unnaturally blue irises. “Or is it the emperor?” Holding out a hand adorned with sharp red nails, she curled her pointer finger. “Oh, come out, darling.”
Emperor Juyong stumbled in like a drunk, his yellow robes were torn down the front. The woman shone her gaze on the emperor, pulling him to her by the collar. “We were having a grand time before you so rudely interrupted.” She smiled, showing her fangs. Rhyvahr stepped closer. “You have wings,” she said. Her mouth twitched in fear. “Sorcerer,” she hissed.
“I will not hurt you,” Rhyvahr said. “If you do not hurt the emperor.”
The woman sneered at Juyong, who was still under her spell, looking up at her like a lovesick puppy. “He killed my mother,” she said, tone strangely calm. “So I must kill him.” Her head snapped back, mist rose around her as her limbs contorted.
She emerged from the mist with glistening white fur like crystallised snow, where a fox usually had one tail, she had nine. She made a lunge for the emperor, but Rhyvahr held himself in front, magic swirling from his palms.
She skidded to avoid being hit, then leapt over Rhyvahr with seamless grace. Having snapped out of the spell, Emperor Juyong began to scream. “Get that thing away from me!” He fumbled at Fenndon’s sleeve. “Quickly! Kill it! Kill it!”
Fenndon’s eyes narrowed, shaking his arm from the emperor’s grip. The nine-tailed fox growled, unable to get to Juyong with Rhyvahr and Fenndon in front of him. Fenndon struck at her with his sword, but Rhyvahr could tell that he didn’t want to hurt her.
The fox flashed her razor-sharp teeth, snapping it at Fenndon’s hand – showing him that she had no intention of backing down. They played their charades of striking and dodging, moving to protect the emperor.
However, after a while, Rhyvahr didn’t think he could keep it up any longer. The only option he had left would be to kill her, which deep-down in his heart, was something he didn’t want to do. The magic he had was that over death – control over spirits and shadows, he didn’t particularly like using it to cause death.
Rhyvahr closed his eyes. Tendrils of black spiralled from his palms, writhing like snakes towards the fox. She tried to avoid them, but there were too many; they wrapped around her neck, her stomach, her tails, bringing her to the ground. However, even then, she refused to give up, using her teeth to gnaw at them.
Rhyvahr pulled them tighter, ignoring how the coldness of his magic stung his fingers. The dark tendrils were strong, but the nine-tailed fox was stronger, with one more bite, she would break free. Rhyvahr struggled to hold her, his arms beginning to shake.
He didn’t feel Fenndon tapping his arm, but out of the corner of his eye, Rhyvahr saw him signing, Her mother, find her. What would he ever do without Fenndon? Breathing rapidly, he pulled back the tendrils. Rhyvahr calmed his mind, and just as the nine-tailed fox lunged again, he reached for her mother’s spirit.
His vision blurred for a moment, but when it cleared, there was the shimmering spirit of a nine-tailed fox before him; she stood taller, and even in death, gave the impression of ancientness.
“Child,” her voice was low and husky. “How many times have I told you that anger is not the answer?”
She changed back into a woman, tears causing her make-up to run. “This is trickery. You’re not my mother.”
“I am, sweet girl,” her mother said. “I am.”
Rhyvahr had to let go of the connection as his knees gave way. The nine-tailed fox remained still as the guards rushed in, coming to a halt at the woman on the ground.
The emperor pushed past Rhyvahr and Fenndon. “What are you all doing? Kill it!”
“No!” Evandar shouted, but it was too late, the arrow had already been fired from the bow. The woman watched as the arrow soared towards her, finding its mark right in her heart.
She fell back, no mist surrounded her this time as her form once again became that of a fox.
Evandar opened his fan, then it closed again, watching the detailed flowers vanish. Just like that, a life could be taken. He didn’t know why he had screamed, ‘no’, the fox had killed three concubines, and would have killed his father if they didn’t stop her.
Maybe it was because he had noticed the faint scars on her seemingly-smooth skin. The marks of torture and abuse at the hands of his father. He lifted his sleeve; maybe it was because he understood her.
Because his skin too, was imperfect.
A tear splashed onto Evandar’s hand.
“I have seen her to the spirit realm,” Rhyvahr said. He took a seat beside him, his wing pulling Evandar closer. They had sat there throughout so many moments in their childhood.
Same bench. Same pond.
Except once upon a time, Rhyvahr hadn’t gone through losing his wings, and Evandar hadn’t needed to worry about one day ruling Jahara.
“Will she be at peace there?” Evandar asked.
“I think she will,” Rhyvahr said.
Evandar’s breath was shaky. “He was so horrible to her,” he said. “What if I become like him once I sit on that throne?”
“The throne is not some evil, twisted thing, Ev,” Rhyvahr said. “As long as your heart is good.”
“I have missed your words of wisdom,” Evandar said, opening his fan; this time he didn’t close it. “How did you know to summon her mother?”
“I didn’t,” Rhyvahr replied. “Fenndon did.”
“He’s the one for you, isn’t he?” Evandar said, staring blankly at the fish gliding through the water.
“Yes,” Rhyvahr said. “But it wasn’t always so easy with us either.”
Evandar nodded. “I know.” He laid his head on Rhyvahr’s shoulder, tucked in the warmth of his wing. “I wish that sometimes I could just turn into a fish. They’re never in a hurry swimming in the water.”
“Yes, but would you still be pretty as a fish?” Rhyvahr asked.
Evandar snorted. “Is that even a question? Of course I would be.”
They laughed together, it reminded him of the days they spent sitting on the rooftop and watching the sky, how the clouds morphed and changed.
Evandar looked up at the sky now, a brilliant sun-touched azure. Days were filled with the unexpected, but each morning, they awoke to the same sky – an entire world could change in that one day, but the sky would always be the way it was.
Blue or grey, sunny or raining, with a sprinkling of everchanging clouds.