Happy Hump Day everyone. Today, I have another chapter of Jade for your reading pleasure. It doesn’t immediately follow the first chapter I posted last week, but it does focus on another character. Hope you enjoy!
Chapter 5 – Akira
The hour after dinner was Akira’s favorite time of the day. More than just a mere opportunity to bathe, it was a brief escape from the marble confines of the palace walls. Within his little, rocky pool, the scalding water and smothering mists wrapped around him like a blanket, and he would often drift to sleep under the steam, floating on his back over bubbles that rose up from the bottom of the spring. That night, his mind raced with visions of Princess Sayomi, an unburdened lightness settling over his thoughts as he concentrated on every small detail of those few brief moments. The way her eyes had widened slightly. How a lock of her hair had fallen down over her left eye, adding a touch of soft elegance to her overall beauty. And, how the faintest hues of pink had blossomed across her cheeks as her eyes had found his. He grinned up at the fog. He had taken a risk, smiling at her. In the ten years that he’d been a chef in the palace, he had simply watched her, daring nothing more than fleeting glimpses. That evening, though, it had simply felt right, as if smiling was the only thing he could do. An urging at the edge of his thoughts, assuring him that every night before had been building until that moment, existing only to push reason from his mind and bring a smile to his face. It couldn’t have gone better. In the instant following his uncontrollable urge to smile, a multitude of doubts had rushed in. Perhaps the princess would scowl and shake her head, or alert her father and send the guards after him. Maybe she would walk back to the chef’s alcove and slap him, or have him executed on the spot. But no, she had returned the smile. A shy, beautiful glow of a smile that turned Akira’s insides into blissful fire. With that simple act, she had obliterated his definition of beauty, replacing it with herself- a pale, jade-eyed goddess, dominating his thoughts like nothing he could ever imagine.
He let out a small sigh, sending the thick mist swirling above him, illuminated in the pale glow of a crescent moon that peaked out from behind the true clouds, high above. The sight sent the Emperor’s announcement creeping into his mind. The Jade Moon. The mythical legend that village elders told to the young at harvest festivals. His grandfather had been one of those elders, back in the village that he had been torn from as a child. His thoughts swirled and shifted, mimicking the mists above him. A forgotten memory suddenly surfaced within his mind. An unusually vivid recollection of a small, bamboo hut rose up from some distant corner of his thoughts. The hut had been that of his grandfather- a small, shriveled old man with a deep, singsong voice and a constant twinkle in his beady brown eyes. He blinked, and the memory changed, sending him to the interior of the hut, seated next to his grandfather. Akira could not remember when this had occurred, but the words returned to him like a forgotten friend. In his memory, just as it had been so many years ago, his grandfather had spoken of the Jade Moon legend, his words slow and hushed. He described a beautiful green moon, large enough to fill the entire sky, bathing the entire world in a soft jade glow. His grandfather had said that the Jade Moon was sent from the Gods themselves, to heal the mortal world. Crops would flourish, droughts would cease, and plagues would end. Heroes would rise up to defeat ancient foes, and legends would be forged while the Jade Moon lit the night sky.
As suddenly as it had arrived, the memory vanished, leaving only his grandfather’s words behind. Akira starred absently into the mist above him. It appeared thinner than it had earlier. The dark patches of night sky were more pronounced, bleeding through the fog like light under a door. He shook his head slightly, dismissing the legends. There would be no miracles. No heroes would free him from his prison within the palace kitchen. The night of the Jade Moon would arrive, and the only meaningful difference in his life would be the heightened stress and responsibility of preparing more soup than he had ever prepared before. Beyond that, it would simply be another day, with the same drunk Emperor, the same laughing nobles, the same life. He sighed, reaching an arm behind him and feeling around through the water until his fingertips brushed against the rocky edge of the pool. With a slight kick of his feet, he floated towards the rim of the spring, coming to a stop as his shoulders bumped against the stone. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head on the cool rock behind him, and focused the princess once more. A grin returned to his lips. At least she would be there. The sight of her was more than enough to counter the absence of a heroes and legends. Her smile was all that he needed-a small piece of light in an otherwise dark existence.
“How could she be the Emperor’s daughter?” He thought. She was so pure and lovely, while he was, well, a monster. “Perhaps she was the counter to his evil. ” Akira’s thoughts were a whirlwind inside his head, jumping from one to the next without pause. It was overwhelming, exhausting even, but he cherished the cascading maelstrom of images that a simple thought of the princess had caused. It made him feel closer to her, as impossible as that was. He had watched her every night for the past ten years, had grown up with her, albeit from across the dining hall, and in her beautiful jade eyes, had found a rare friend, a beacon to hold onto. Despite the fact that he would never truly meet her, or speak to her, or even come any closer to her than was afforded to him by his position of chef, he loved her.
His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a faint feeling of change-an arrival of some new sensation around him, bringing with it a subtle difference in the mist above him.
“Why would anyone be walking through the springs?” He asked himself. The fog made navigating the pools treacherous to anyone who didn’t know where the edges of the springs lay hidden under the mist. And, he hadn’t heard the call for the end of the hour, so it shouldn’t be a guard. His brow furrowed and, as his mind wondered in slight confusion, a feeling of puzzled curiosity urged his eyes open. The image that greeted him made his breath catch in his throat. An angel, wrapped in green, stood above him in the mist. He blinked several times, unable to peel his eyes away. Princess Sayomi- beautiful and shivering under a thin, green cloak- stood over him at the edge of the pool. She was silent, her eyes were closed as she held her hand against the back of her neck. Akira realized he was holding his breath, unable to do anything but stare. He had never seen her from such a short distance before and he realized that his notion of her beauty had fallen far short of the truth. She was beyond captivating. The fog around her seemed to glow as the dim moonlight shone off of her face. Small whispers of wind lifted a stray lock of hair from her face, sending it dancing, fluid against the mists. He wanted to reach out to her, to say her name, but he couldn’t find the words. Suddenly, his mesmerized stillness vanished as one thought burst into his mind.
“Why is she here?” The question burned within him, threatening to send him into a panic. If he was caught next to her, in the hot springs of all places, he would be lucky to be sentenced to a swift execution. Straining, he managed to lift his head an inch from the rock, urging the rest of his body to cooperate. He was able to wiggle a finger when her eyes opened, and he found himself staring into two pools of jade. Akira watched those eyes widen in startled surprise, a small gasp escaping her lips as she began to step back, away from the edge of the pool. Suddenly, her hands flew above her head, and he heard a faint swish as her feet slipped on the slick rock. Her body pitched back and she stared at him, wide-eyed.
Before he could fully comprehend what was occurring in front of him, he was pulling himself from the pool, feet gripping the wet stone as he leapt towards the princess. In an instant, he was beside her, his arm wrapped around her waist, holding her just inches from the rock. His eyes drank in the sight of her as he stared down at her face. Her cheeks were red, and her eyes like saucers, but she seemed unharmed. Panting softly, he pulled her to her feet, silence beginning to stretch between them.
“Princess Sayomi,” Akira began in a whisper, feeling her body shiver slightly as a gust of wind swirled around them. With a start, he realized that his arm was still cradled against the small of her back. His cheeks grew hot. Stepping back from her, he dropped to a knee and bowed his head. “Princess Sayomi,” he began again, “Why are you here?” He stopped, horrified at his question. The red of his cheeks flushed down to his neck. “I mean, why have you come? No, wait!” His tongue became a brick in his mouth, his words falling out like chunks of lead as he stammered into the fog. Frustration creasing his brow, he turned his eyes up to her, helplessly silent. To his surprise, he found a shy smile crossing her lips.
“Please stand, I didn’t walk out here in the middle of the night just to see the top of your head.” She held out a small, delicate hand. Gently, as if he were reaching for a snow flake, Akira clasped his fingers around hers and rose to his feet, captivated by her voice. He had never heard her speak before, and her words made it difficult to focus on anything. “There, much better.” His stomach twisted, a lump settling in his throat as he nodded at her. With a sudden realization, his eyes widened and he glanced around, aware that they stood in the open, with nothing but the mist to hide them.
“Princess, follow me.” He turned, still holding her hand, and walked towards the grassy wall of the ravine that rose out of the mist. She followed, walking up next to him. From the corner of his eyes, he saw her peering back over her shoulder into the mist. Reaching the wall, Akira placed a hand against the slick green surface, sweeping back and forth until he felt what he was looking for. A shaded cleft, carved out of the rocky soil, waited a foot to his left. “In here,” his eyes locked onto her face as she passed into the crevice. Quickly, he followed behind her, casting a final wondering glance over his shoulder before turning to face the princess.
“Princess, it is not wise for you to be here. There is little love for your father in the kitchens, and even less love for chefs found speaking with his daughter.” He looked down at her. She was small, the top of her head reaching just below his shoulders. But, he sensed a strength to her, a faint glint within the jade of her eyes. It reminded him of what he, and no doubt the other chefs, felt every day. It was an aura of hardness, caused by their imprisonment and the general lack of hope that each of them had. “But why would she feel such things?” He wondered. She grinned softly, interrupting his thoughts.
“I told myself as much while walking over here. What could I be thinking, sneaking out into the cold like this to visit a bathing chef? I didn’t know until just now.” Her cheeks flushed a deeper pink and her smile grew. “I wanted to say thank you.”
He blinked at her, taken aback by her words. “For what, Princess? The food? You are most welcome, but that is my duty. It is my honor. Actually, I only make the soups. The other chefs–” He stopped and looked down, words cut off as the princess’ hands wrapped around his.
“Not the food. Thank you for smiling. It was the first I’ve seen in a long time.” A trace of sadness crept into her voice, and her shoulders drooped slightly.
“It was you that made me smile, Princess.” Akira spoke softly. “You make me smile every night, though I’m ashamed that tonight was the first time I’ve been able to do so in front of you.” His heart slammed against his chest, a mixture of fear and elation surging through him. He glanced past the princess, looking out into the mist that swirled past the entrance of their impromptu shelter. “But as I said, the kitchen has no love for the emperor, or any of the royal court,” he hesitated. “Yourself included, Princess. If anyone knew you were here…” His voice trailed off, concern darkening his words slightly. Sayomi squeezed his hands, smiling up at him.
“Don’t worry about me. It’s you who are in danger, just by me being here.” Her eyes gleamed with a small sadness as she spoke.
“I’ve watched you for years, Princess.” His voice was a whisper. “I’ve always wished for just a moment with you, together, such as we are. Well, not together, but close to one another. No, what I mean is–” Her giggle silenced his words, filling his ears like a blissful song. Her nose crinkled as she smiled, and a stray lock of her jet black hair freed itself from the hood of her jacket, falling in front of her eyes. Akira’s heart ached. Not from sadness, though. It was a new feeling for him- a dull, throbbing pulse that swelled within his chest. It rose up his neck, settling behind his eyes. It was a wonderful pressure of pure happiness, a feeling he could have never imagined.
“This must be love,” he thought, staring down into the princess’ eyes. A wide smile crossed his face, uncontrolled and flashing through the darkness of the cleft. He tried to find words, something, anything he could say to her. He found he couldn’t focus. She had captivated him completely. Her eyes, her smile, the way she puffed out of the corner of her mouth to clear the lock of hair from her face-each enhancing her splendor. His mouth opened, but he realized he had nothing to say. He wanted to tell her everything that he felt, everything he thought at that moment. How she had been his light from the day he had first seen her. How this night, standing in the shadows with her, would be a memory that he would carry with him forever. He blinked. He didn’t know any words that would have properly conveyed his feelings. She was more beautiful than he could have imagined. He had always thought her beautiful before, but as he stood in front of her-away from the chefs, the soup steam, the sizzle of the meats and the roar of the fires, hidden from the withering stares of the Emperor and Hisoka and everyone else- he realized that beautiful was not a strong enough word. She was more.
“Princess, I–” The sharp crash of a gong shattered the night air. He winced, his words dying within his throat. “Princess, you must go now. The guards search the pools every night.” He squeezed her hands gently and a sad smile crossed his face. “Thank you for coming out here tonight. It was an honor to finally meet you.” He bowed in front of her and released her hands with great difficulty. Head down, he stepped back, the fog rushing in to fill the void between them. Moments passed without a response and he began to wonder if she had left. The slight touch of small, delicate hands on the sides of his face erased his doubts. He raised his eyes and stared into hers, lost in their jade depths.
“Do not believe this is the last meeting we will have. I had hoped I could come back tomorrow night?” Her words were a whisper through smiling lips, and Akira felt as if he heard with his entire body.
“That would be…wonderful, Princess. But what about the guards? And your father? What if you’re caught?” He struggled to find his breath as she held his gaze.
“Don’t worry about me. I will be careful.” Her eyes glittered as she spoke, slowly tracing across his face. He followed their every move. Her fingertips brushed his hair, and his heart felt like it would burst. His mind was a storm of emotions that both horrified and amazed him, and it was difficult to form even a simple sentence. With a deep breath, he managed a low, slow whisper.
“I will be waiting for you here tomorrow, Princess.” She giggled, just like she had earlier that evening, and though her hands shot to her mouth to stifle it, her smiled stretched out from under her fingers.
“I don’t even know your name.” She whispered through her fingers, muffled splashes and the clamoring voices of the other chefs echoing out from the fog.
“My name is Akira.” He spoke, feeling color darken his cheeks.
“And I am Sayomi. Not Princess. Only Sayomi for you.” Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes lingered on his for what seemed like an eternity, but she finally stepped back from him. She curled her fingers into a small wave before she turned and walked back into the mist. Akira was rooted to the pool rock. He was cold, wet, and the happiest he had ever been. He knew he had to move, but the bliss of the past minutes fought against him. Slowly, as if he were made of stone, he lifted his leg and turned back to the palace. The side door of the palace, illuminated through the fog as a yellow rectangle of light, lay some 100 yards ahead of him. It would be flanked by two guards. And after the chefs were inside, those guards would patrol the pools, checking for anything out of the ordinary. He bent and retrieved the crumpled ball of his tunic from the side of his pool. Faded grey, thin, scratchy and oppressive. Just like his imprisonment. What an absolute opposite of the princess this tunic was. She was bright, with skin smoother than silk, and a joy that seemed to physically radiate from her and fill him. She was the light in the darkness-beauty, bliss, and love where only hate and oppression had existed. With a smile, he swung the tunic up over his right shoulder and made his way toward the glow of the door.
He had taken only a few steps when small arms reached out from behind him, grabbing his shoulders and turning him around. Delicate hands pulled his head down, and he had enough time to see a flash of jade eyes as soft lips brushed against his. In an instant, she was gone again, and Akira-red cheeked and dizzy from emotions that were entirely new- stood motionless, mouth agape in utter astonishment.
“She kissed me!” He breathed in a hoarse whisper. His heart was in his throat, head swimming as the fog swirled around him. He felt drunk off of happiness. He placed his fingertips to his lips, feeling a lingering tingle where her lips had touched his. He suppressed a laugh, blinked, and took an awkward step backward toward the palace. He stumbled over the slippery stones, caught his balance, and staggered through the mist.
“A kiss…” he thought as the mist thinned and cleared around him. The palace towered over him, the soft yellow glow stretching out over the grass, as if a carpet had been rolled out for him. The two guards stared at him from behind their masks, watching as he strode past and into the palace. The door closed behind him, and he beamed one last time into the emptiness of the corridor. With a silent chuckle, he pulled his tunic down over his head, fighting to clear the emotions from his face as he made his way to the chef’s apartment.
“I love you Sayomi.” He thought as he arrived at the closed door of the apartment. With a quick shake of his head, he suppressed his elation and opened the door.