Day 2: Fate / Reassurance
Soulmate AU. “You’re so lucky, Princess. Your soulmate is a prince.”
Whenever Kougyoku heard those words said to her, she would always look down and trace the soul mark on her wrist. The lines seemed to shimmer faintly, and she thought she heard the crackling of flames.
Gosh, this took me so long I missed the rest of the prompts. Anyways, this AU follows Alibaba and Kougyoku from their childhood up to the Balbadd arc, with a few select changes, canon divergence, and a more simplified, less pain-filled story.
“You’re so lucky, Princess. Your soulmate is a prince.”
Whenever Kougyoku heard those words said to her, she would always look down and trace the soul mark on her wrist. The lines seemed to shimmer faintly, and she thought she heard the crackling of flames.
She was only eight years old when the mark appeared, and she didn’t understand exactly what it meant. Her teachers and servants simply told her that there was someone out there who was meant for her. A person with a matching mark who she had a special, unique connection to.
Kou Empire was a military country. Few people believed in the marks. And for the Royal Family, whose priority was keeping power and order in the empire, soul marks were more often than not an inconvenience. They had to keep the bloodlines pure or forge alliances through arranged marriages, after all.
Ka Koubun had told the young princess that if Kougyoku’s soulmate had been a commoner or even a noble that the Empress didn’t favor, Kou’s sorcerers would have done to her what they had already done for some of her older siblings and cousins – they would have cut the bond.
“What happens when you cut the bond?” she had asked.
Ka Koubun had smiled softly. “You will not be connected to the other person anymore. But you don’t have to worry about that, milady!”
Because her soulmate was a prince , her guardian said happily, even proudly. A prince of Balbadd, a land across the sea, one that Kou has been looking into offering an alliance with for the past few years.
“They would arrange your marriage soon, I presume.” he continued. “You really are lucky, Princess. The Empress is very pleased! You will help seal an alliance with a rich land! They say your prince is favored by his King father as well – who knows? You might be Queen yourself, someday.”
Up until then, her lessons, besides court manners and traditions, had been practical – martial arts, the art of war, how to lead armies… After they discovered who bore her matching mark, she was encouraged to read stories, romances, fairy tales. Gallant princes saving beautiful princesses. Falling in love, living happily ever after. She wouldn’t realize until much later that it was to make her more compliant.
Having a prince as a soulmate made her feel special. Her other cousins and sisters were to be married off to noble strangers, who didn’t share anything special between them. She, however, was going to be married to someone who was connected to her. They were meant to be!
After that, she was proud to bear the mark in her wrist, alive and vibrant compared to the others, whose marks were more like scars, colorless and faded because of the broken connection.
Alibaba , they told her his name was. Prince Alibaba Saluja of Balbadd, third son of King Rashid Saluja. He was the same age as her. A perfect match, everyone said.
Kou was busy fighting a war with another country, so chances to visit Balbadd for a formal meeting never came up. This didn’t worry her so much. The Empress herself had told her that King Rashid was very pleased at their offer to wed her to his son.
Gyokuen promised her that after the war, they would send her to Balbadd to formalize the arrangement.
“You are still young, my dear. Let’s not be so impatient. I hear from Ka Koubun that you are doing wonderful in your lessons. Keep it up, so we can show the King of Balbadd that his son is most fortunate to be promised to you.”
She was only nine, then. And as any obedient royal daughter would, Kougyoku smiled and bowed her head to her aunt and stepmother. “Yes, Your Highness.”
His brothers teased Alibaba whenever they caught him looking at the marks on his wrist. Ahbmad would huff and say that having a soulmate is not that special, which always made Alibaba feel smaller. Thankfully Sahbmad was kinder and his teasing was a friendlier kind, asking Alibaba if he was thinking of his future wife again.
They didn’t understand, Alibaba thought. Maybe they would if they get soul marks too. His mother once told him soul marks manifest in different ages depending on the people, and sometimes they never do. There was no easy explanation to it. Until his brothers get theirs as well, perhaps they would never understand why Alibaba was always fussing over his mark.
At first, it was the color. It was eye-catching – blue like the ocean standing out against his pale skin, and it shimmered faintly. Of course his eyes would be drawn to it.
Next, whenever he touched it, he could hear soft sounds behind his ear like a whisper, only it wasn’t a voice but rather the sound of waves crashing softly into the shore.
It puzzled him as an eight year old, and when his father told him that it was something only he could hear because of his soul mark, his eyes lit up with delight.
Rashid chuckled. “Yes, Alibaba. Perhaps it is.”
Then his King father told him that Kou’s Empress reacted favorably to the proposal, and they were only waiting for the war in Kou to end before formalizing it.
He wondered what Princess Kougyoku was like, and so told his father he wanted to meet her. He was too young to really comprehend the thought of being married to anyone. Instead, he was more curious about this connection he supposedly had.
He wanted to know why this magical something thought he should be connected to a princess from another kingdom whom he didn’t even know existed. He wanted to ask her how it felt when her soul mark appeared. Soul marks were supposed to look exactly alike, but usually they differed in color. What was her mark’s color then? What does she hear when she touches it?
“Soon, my boy. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. You are soulmates. You will meet when it’s the right time.”
Alibaba was ten when it first happened, when he first felt the connection really tug at him. He was resting after his fencing lessons, drinking water when he suddenly felt the pain in his chest. At the sound of his goblet dropping to the floor, his teacher looked towards him and saw him curled up on himself, clutching his chest.
He was brought to the palace’s healer, and when the old man didn’t find anything wrong with him physically, he insisted that there must be something wrong.
“Please, it… it really hurts- ”
He was already crying when he reached up to tug at the healer’s robe. He barely registered the man taking his arm to examine the soul mark on his wrist.
“My Prince,” the healer said softly. “It could be your soulmate.”
“She might not be in a very good place right now. The pain… is it in your heart?”
He tried his best to think about it. He was taught to always be honest with the people trying to help him. And yes, his chest did feel heavy, as if something had clutched his heart and squeezed harshly.
“I… It could be? I’m not sure.”
“Sometimes, when one needs help, or when one is in pain, it can be felt by their soulmate, specially if they have a strong bond.”
“But- I haven’t even met her-”
“As long as you believe in your connection, your bond remains. Can you try reaching out to her? Comfort her, to lessen the pain you’re both feeling?”
Alibaba understood the concept, but it did not make sense… Comfort her? Princess Kougyoku was on another country. But it did make him worry. Why should she be in pain? Where was she? Was she sick? In danger? He wouldn’t wish either on anyone.
He looked up at the healer and asked, “How?”
“Think about her, about your bond. Touch your mark if it helps. Focus, try to send your thoughts, your wish for her to feel better.”
Alibaba wasn’t sure he understood fully, but if the pain he was feeling now was actually hers, then he wanted it to stop. For her. So he pressed his hand against his wrist and closed his eyes.
The dinner had gone very wrong. Kougyoku was never the best at conversations and politics. Her brothers and older sisters were much better. They were born and bred in the court. She was only brought in when her mother died when she was six.
A guest was being too friendly and intimidated her. She said something she shouldn’t have, and ruined a supposedly perfect evening. The Empress had looked at her in disdain, in disappointment.
From the first day Kougyoku joined the Kou Royal Family, she had tried her best to fit in, to gain their approval despite her own doubts.
She could not handle disappointment, not after the past few years of endless lessons to live up to their expectations.
So after that disaster of a dinner, after a stern conversation with the Empress, she fell into her bed in a flurry of broken-hearted, frustrated tears. She ignored Ka Koubun outside her door, asking after her.
She wanted to shout for him to leave her alone. But no kind and proper princess would do that, even to a servant! Suppressing the urge made her feel worse somehow. Even now, even in the confines of her room, she felt like she had to keep up appearances.
That was when she felt it, a sensation at the back of her mind. It was strange, and she was so confused she actually stopped sobbing to sit up.
It was a warm feeling that seemed to wrap around the cold chill she had been feeling. She didn’t know why, but she felt an urge to hold on to her soul mark. As soon as her fingers touched the red marks on her wrist, the feeling intensified, like an invisible embrace while someone told her that everything was going to be alright.
She closed her eyes and slowly laid back against her pillows, holding her hands close to her chest, letting the comfort calm her down until, tired from crying and from the day’s events, she fell asleep.
The ‘pulls’ came more often after that. When her teachers confirmed that it was indeed possible for soulmates to feel each other through their bond, Kougyoku accepted the change easily. After all, it had already happened.
It was easier, almost subconscious after that. Sometimes when she was feeling particularly nervous about appearing in court, or attending another state dinner, she would feel a gentle nudge of support through their bond. Sometimes when she felt happy, there was something like a nod or a content smile from someone in her thoughts.
She had learned how to give back, too. She thought if he could do it, she should be able to as well.
Once, she was walking around in the palace gardens, when she felt a sudden tightness in her chest. She paused and sat down on the nearest surface – a fountain – then touched her mark and sent her sympathies through the bond. She couldn’t know exactly what the source of the fear and agitation was, but a distant feeling seemed to whisper the word ‘nightmare’ , and she accepted that too. It was alright to feel scared and upset after a bad dream.
‘It’s alright.’ she thought. ‘I’m here for you. You’re not alone.’
It was strange at first, for Alibaba, to know that there was someone connected to him who felt the same things as him. If he was hurt or upset, why should she suffer too? But there never seemed to be any resentment whenever he felt so. He will just be surprised at the sensation of his soulmate trying to comfort him through the bond.
It wasn’t all bad things, of course. Once in the middle of dinnertime, he suddenly felt a foreign lightness in him. A surge of happiness, he recognized. He broke into a smile and even released a very soft chuckle, catching his father’s and brothers’ attentions.
“What’s so funny? Are you laughing at me?” Ahbmad asked, eyes narrowed and accusing.
“N-No!” Alibaba replied quickly, blushing in embarrassment at being caught. “I just… It’s- She’s… she’s feeling really happy right now. I feel it too.”
Ahbmad scowled in confusion. “She? Who?”
“Your princess?” Sahbmad supplied curiously before their eldest brother could start a tantrum.
Alibaba blinked, then slowly avoided their gazes. “…yes. My princess.”
“That’s good. You already get along.” Rashid nodded his approval. “Let us hope the war in Kou ends soon, no? So you can finally meet her.”
Thewar, however, went on for another year. Other countries had sent their forces to join. Alliances had been broken and built. Kougyoku was not told much, but she was informed that King Rashid of Balbadd had sent some men and aid to Kou as well.
“Of course he would want Kou to win.” Ka Koubun explained to her. “His son’s future bride is here, after all.”
With the emissary from Balbadd came a sealed letter. Empress Gyokuen handed the letter to Kougyoku herself – a message from Prince Alibaba, the woman said.
During the past years, the Empress had seemed to favor her over her other sisters. The woman gave Kougyoku the message unopened, then dismissed her to read it in privacy.
She went into her favorite spot in the gardens to do just so.
The message was written in strokes that looked neat and careful. With an awed smile, she read the contents. It was addressed to Princess Ren Kougyoku, and started with formal greetings. An introduction, indicating the prince’s name and full title. He was glad to finally be able to send a message through the safe hands of their emissary. He was honored to be her soulmate, and would do his best to fulfill his duties as his father’s son if their kingdoms were to arrange their marriage. He extended his hopes and loyalty to the Kou Empire and prayed that they win the war.
It sounded very formal for an eleven year-old, even a prince. It felt a bit off, somehow – very different from the image she had of the person on the other side of the bond…
She read on, and the tension broke – she couldn’t help but let out a smile at the next words.
‘My teacher made sure I wrote all that before I write anything else. Sorry if it’s boring. I meant every word but I think you already know that.’
There it was, it sounded more like him somehow. Warmer and more carefree.
He wrote that he was glad to be writing to her, and was curious about her. He said it would be nice to be friends, although he already thought they were so but found it polite to still ask. He said he would like to get to know her better, but before he asked her anything, he shared himself first. She was thrilled to learn these small facts: he liked reading adventure stories, he was good at economics and arithmetic but didn’t enjoy them as much as he did his swordfighting lessons, he had friends when he was younger that he dearly missed, his favorite color was red, and the soulmark in his wrist was blue.
‘When I touch it, I hear ocean waves. Why do you think it’s so?’
In his letter, he apologized if it was too much. He said that he was hoping to hear back from her, but she should write a reply only if she felt like it.
Of course she felt like it! She wanted him to know about her too. She wanted to tell him she liked stories too, about heroines who were good at fighting because while she was trained in combat she had never been to a real battle. She liked doing calligraphy and sewing, but found her other lessons boring. She could never bond properly with her sisters, but felt closer to her brothers. She sought Kouen’s approval the most, but she loved Koumei’s kindness and Kouha’s open displays of affection. She wanted to tell him about her wish to approach her cousins Hakuei and Hakuryuu, about Empress Gyokuen who was intimidating but whose strength was admirable. She wanted to let Alibaba know that like him, she did not like state dinners and formal gatherings, did not enjoy being stuffy and pretending to be perfect by smiling all the time. Her favorite color was pink, her soul mark was red, like the flames she heard whenever she touched it. Perhaps he hears the ocean in his mark because she liked looking out to the ocean as it brought her peace and calm.
She must have been sending her feelings through the bond, because she felt a light nudge back. A tentative one, inquisitive (because surely he did not know what exactly was happening with her at the moment). She relaxed and sent him her feelings of excitement and gratitude. He happily pushed back, with a hint of confusion at first, but it was followed with calm and content, an acknowledgement.
It was in this state when Judal found her. He was a child her age who was training as a royal sorcerer. Unlike the other trainees however, he was being kept in the palace grounds upon the Empress Gyokuen’s orders.
He huffed when he saw her smiling to herself, then made a rude remark about her sanity. Rightly offended, she whirled around to voice her displeasure, but stopped when something about her friend caught her eye.
“Judal-chan, you got your soul mark! Do you-” she stopped abruptly, noting something wrong. “T-that’s a… strange… color…”
Judal scowled, hand involuntarily touching his neck and the faded marks circling it like a necklace. “What are you, stupid? It’s cut.”
“What?” she asked, almost dropping Alibaba’s letter as she looked at the marks in the boy’s neck. She tried to remember when the last time she saw him was – it couldn’t have been that long… maybe about a week ago? “W-When did you get it?”
“I dunno. Like, three days ago. Then they cut it.”
“Cut it? W-Who did it? Why? Did you know who your soulmate was?”
“No. I don’t need to know. My teachers just cut it. And the Empress. She said I don’t need a soulmate if I’m gonna be a strong magician.”
“What? Just ‘cause you’re all happy with yours doesn’t mean the rest of us should be.” he said, expression visibly disgusted. “And you only got it ‘cause you need to marry him for Kou, right?”
She reached for her own wrist, covering her soul mark defensively. “That’s… not really-”
“Just sayin’.” Judal scoffed, although he didn’t sound as aggressive as usual. If anything, as he glared at her covered wrist, he looked… bitter? “If the stupid bond’s so special, then why’s it so easy to cut?”
Kougyoku looked away, hastily folding up the letter in her lap and clutching it to her chest.
“You… You don’t understand.” she said softly, willing herself to be angry and call the boy off – who did he think he was to talk to his Princess like this? – but at the same time, she felt sad for him… and for the people around the palace she could remember having faded marks, who had bonds purposely cut so they could serve their country better.
She had never cared much before, but it was painful to think of now. As she felt the ever-present pull of Alibaba’s bond wrap around her, unprompted, reassuring her without questioning why she needed it, she came to the conclusion that she couldn’t imagine how unbearable it would be, to lose her soul bond with Alibaba.
For Kougyoku, who lived the first few years of her life feeling isolated and out of place even among her own family, it had grown to be unthinkable to do without her soulmate, to go without the feeling of knowing she was never alone as long as they were connected.
The next time she saw Judal, his faded marks were hidden under a layered gold necklace.
But of course, Kougyoku thought, because it was to good to be true: to be a favored daughter, to be bonded to a kind and loving soulmate, to be treated like a prized jewel – of course it would all end.
King Rashid’s decision to send half of his army to Kou, the rapid decline of their economy caused by wars left and right on countries Balbadd traded to, and the ambitious traitors who were in his council – all of those made it all-too-easy for detractors to start a civil war in Balbadd.
After another year of struggle, it was too much for a man already old and ailing, and the King passed away too soon. Then it was chaos for Balbadd royalty, until First Prince Ahbmad Saluja was crowned the new king. A boy king. A puppet of his sly, power-hungry council.
The Second Prince, submissive and non-threatening, was reduced to clerk duty, to be his elder brother’s assistant.
The Third Prince, intelligent and a born leader who had been favored by both his father and the people, was sentenced to exile for crimes the council pinned on him, his title and birthright withdrawn, his whereabouts unknown.
Empress Gyokuen, cunning, ruthless and cruel if she willed herself to be, broke the news to Princess Kougyoku herself, followed by the words, “You know what is to happen, right, Kougyoku?”
Kougyoku knew. She didn’t understand.
But the Empress had called her by her name, not ‘sweet child’ , or ‘darling’ , or ‘my girl’ , which told Kougyoku enough about her situation.
Stilll – “He’s alive!” the princess cried. “I’d know if he wasn’t!”
“That’s why this is necessary, isn’t it?” Gyokuen said, no trace of remorse or pity in her voice. If the Prince was dead, they wouldn’t need to cut to the bond.
Kougyoku begged – pleaded – “N-No…” the girl sobbed. “Please! I’ll do anything! I’ll marry anyone you want me to marry, I’ll fight in the war with my brothers! Just-… Please, your majesty- Don’t take this away from me- Not him , I beg of you-”
The Empress frowned, and rolled her eyes. When she looked back at her, it was in exasperation. “You foolish girl.”
Travelling on his own was difficult, but Alibaba already knew that when he fled from Balbadd. He struggled to lay low and hide his identity while also trying to get by.
He shouldn’t be thankful for it, but the desperate economic situations of their neighboring countries left even a homeless and scruffy thirteen-year old like him with jobs from employers and traders who needed workers but would not be able to pay enough for more demanding adults.
He tried to keep it in, his grief and his loneliness. because after his initial shock a few months ago, he felt Kougyoku’s anxious and scared call through the bond. He had thought something happened to her, but he faintly realized her fear was for him – she was probably surprised to feel his anguish all of a sudden and worried over it. She had always been that way, he had learned. Whenever he felt sad or scared, she nudged back with almost anxious concern.
After that, he tried to numb himself… he didn’t want to rely on her support so much. But sometimes it slipped, him feeling a genuine sadness in his situation and her worrying over the bond. Would his constant mood of misery alarm her enough to wonder if something terrible had happened in Balbadd?
He was not prepared when, a month after his exile, he froze dead in his tracks as an overwhelming flood of emotions pulled at him through the bond. He stumbled towards an empty alley, leaning his back against a brick wall and sliding down to the ground, clutching his soul mark to his chest and trying his best not to drown in the emotions his soulmate was sending him. He tried to pin the emotions down, to identify them: there was shock, then crushing sadness, perhaps grief, a huge dose of worry, and… and fear? She was scared, so scared that it sent chills down his spine.
He wondered if this was how she felt when he reacted to his father’s death and his exile.
He tried to help – that was what they did, always. Without fail, or question, they always tried to help each other. He breathed deeply and tried to send his own concern for her. ‘What’s wrong?’ he thought. ‘Why are you so scared?’
He felt her reach out, holding on to their connection tightly. Her pull was strong – stronger than ever, and he could feel a sort of desperation to it. As if she was clinging, hanging onto a tether.
Something was wrong. Something was very very wrong.
He couldn’t do anything but to try and grip back as tight as he could, to let her know that she was not going through whatever this was alone, just like that first time she pulled at their bond years ago.
Except this was much more painful than that, and his soul mark felt like it was burning in his wrist, all while the sound of waves crashing in his ears were the loudest they have ever been. It almost sounded like someone’s scream.
And then… then there was nothing. No feeling, no burn, no noise except his own labored breathing.
It was gone, just like that – and it took Alibaba so off guard he just sat there with wide eyes for a full minute.
Slowly, he looked down and uncovered his soul mark, just to see its usual vibrant blue fade into the color of a scar in his skin.
“No.” he whispered, letting out a choked sob. “Not her too.”
Kougyoku lay in her bed, under layers of thick blankets.
“Princess, we could leave a fire for you.” one of her handmaidens said, gazing warily at the cold fireplace in her mistress’ quarters. “Are you sure you don’t want us to? There is a storm tonight.”
“Yes.” the princess said, burrowing further into her sheets. “I’ll be fine.”
She couldn’t bear to hear the sound of the flames.
“The fastest route would be by the sea, of course. But we will be traveling by land. It’s a much longer journey. Would you be fine with that?”
Alibaba shook his head. “No, I-… I don’t like boats much.” he said, trying on a smile for the leader of the group of traders he had asked to come with. “I get sea-sick.”
“Not in a hurry to get to your destination, are you, boy?”
His smile turned sheepish now. “Not really.”
‘As long as I get away from here.’ Alibaba thought.
She whirled around and froze when she saw who was standing by the entrance of the training grounds.
“Big brother Kouen!” she said, sending the man a smile as she jogged towards him. “Welcome home.”
“It is good to be home.” he nodded, spared her one of his curt smiles, and then eyed the practice sword she held in her hand. “I heard that your skills have greatly improved. Koumei told me you are a formidable fighter now.”
She looked down, fiddling with the hem of her training robes. “A-ah, I… I wouldn’t say that… I’ve simply been… training every day…”
“You put too little credit on yourself.” Kouen said as he laid a hand on top of her head, a rare gesture of affection. “I will be leaving soon. How would you like to join me?”
“J-Join you? Where to?”
“I am going to conquer a dungeon.”
She did not think twice before bowing her head. “It would be my honor!”
“Why did you choose me, Vinea?”
“Oh, little queen. It’s because I have never met someone so lonely, yet still strong enough to face me.”
He met Aladdin during his travels. Then Amon happened, and Morgiana was free, and he had conquered a dungeon, and Alibaba suddenly had enough gold to last him several lifetimes.
Aladdin came up with an offer of exciting adventures to come, an invitation to see the world.
He would have taken it – it would be so easy, to go with the boy in his flying carpet just like that. But for some reason, he thought, ‘No, not yet.’
Before anything, before leaving his old life behind, he needed some closure.
It was time to go back to Balbadd.
“Is this some sort of twisted joke?” Kougyoku asked softly, hands clenched tightly together in her lap.
Ka Koubun did not know what to say, but he tried all the same. “It is what the Empress wants for you, Princess.”
The young woman let out a humorless laugh. “When I was eight, she wanted me to be a pretty princess, fall in love and marry my soulmate to secure her alliance with Balbadd. When my soulmate lost his status, she changed her plans, cut off my soul bond. My soul bond that she had always told me was special and sacred. When she told me I need to make myself useful for the war, I trained and studied for it.
“Now she wants me to go to Balbadd to marry their King, so she can hold Balbadd again, now that it has recovered from the civil war’s damages? What, so now I’m back to being a bargaining chip?”
“Princess, you know you are the only candidate left.” Ka Koubun said, trying to appease her. “Your other sisters have been married or betrothed-”
“I am not like my sisters anymore, though, am I?” she demanded. “I’m not eight anymore, she can’t- She can’t fool me into thinking this is all I am good for anymore. I’m eighteen! I conquered a dungeon with my brother. I was chosen by Vinea. I am a warrior, a King Vessel! I-”
She choked on a sob now, because despite her genuine anger, her Empress and Kingdom’s orders were all she had known and she already knew there was nothing she could do.
She wondered if this was what Kouen wanted for her too, when he said he was proud of her upon earning Vinea. She wished Koumei was here, maybe she could ask him for his advice. He was wise, and he might be able to offer another solution. She wished for Kouha. Kouha would comfort her, he always did. But they weren’t here. They were off expanding the Empire. Even Hakuei – surely Hakuei would understand her. Why was Hakuei free out there while she was ordered to stay put?
“Balbadd’s King is a puppet of his council.” Ka Koubun started explaining, his voice low. “This council had asked the Empress for an alliance. The Empress has gained their loyalty. We just need a way in. Princess, it is your duty. If you marry him, you secure a whole country for Kou. This is more than an alliance. We could have it.”
She understood, she really did. Even though she had never been good at politics, she understood this much, yet-
“I deserve better than this.” she whispered, but closed her eyes and bowed her head.
She tried not to think of a pull, at the back of her thoughts, on a thread tied to her soul, assuring her that ‘yes, you deserve better’ . She knew it wasn’t coming. Even after years, there were still traces of her broken bond left in her instinct, like a void that could never be filled. Even after years, she was still learning how to not cling to it.
“They rebuilt Balbadd on the backs of slaves.”
Alibaba hadn’t seen his friend since that night of the attack on the palace all those years ago but Cassim’s eyes were clear and sharp on his own, and Alibaba could see the sheer anger and determination in them.
“Sure, trade’s opened again, tourists come and go, and the streets are cleaner. But that’s ‘cause they starved us little people down here until we had no choice but to be their slaves so we’ll at least have food.”
Alibaba looked down. Had he stayed… had he tried to plead for his place in the palace at least, could he have helped or persuaded Ahbmad to put more consideration to all his citizens?
“Look. You’re smart, you’re a good fighter, and you have these… resources. We don’t have to tell the others about who you really are.” Cassim said, this time his voice going softer, persuasive. “Just… help us. We’re your people.”
Alibaba knew he was right. These were his people, prince or not, and he already abandoned them once.
“Alright.” he said, finally nodding. “But what you did when you attacked those royal guards in the market earlier? That wasn’t right. We’re not getting innocent people hurt. If we’re doing this, we won’t be doing it as terrorists. We’ll be a resistance.”
Cassim only nodded back. He extended a hand and Alibaba took it, shaking it firmly. “Welcome home.”
Alibaba smiled. “Thanks.”
“Oh, and… I’m sorry, I guess.”
A blink. “For what?”
“For… that?” Cassim said, gaze wandering towards his friend’s wrist. Alibaba followed it to rest on his faded soul mark. “It’s sad that you… lost them so soon.”
Whenever people saw his soul mark, they quickly assume his soulmate had died. They usually saw it as a tragedy, for someone as young as he was.
Cassim of all people would understand. Alibaba looked at his friend’s shoulder, eyes soft of Cassim’s faded mark. They both missed Mariam, but Alibaba knew the scar ran infinitely deeper for Cassim.
He let out a breath and a small sad smile. “Yeah. It’s… It’s okay. It’s been a couple of years now. We move on, right?”
“Yes.” Cassim said, this time giving him a comforting pat on the shoulder. Alibaba was relieved when he didn’t ask further, simply saying, “We do.”
Balbadd had a beautiful capital, Kougyoku would give it that. The palace was not as big as Kou’s of course, but that was to be expected. She was welcomed with all the proper accommodations, and the people were very warm and pleasant.
The king was… not as she had expected. She did expect him to be only a few years older than her, because she was told as much. But she had to steel herself when he only spared her a glance and scoffed, commenting that she wasn’t as pretty as she should be, and that she seemed boring. Puppet king or no, Kougyoku had expected a little more maturity , perhaps. King Ahbmad was too much a spoiled and arrogant brat to her.
The second Prince was the opposite – too sheepish and shy, and though he cast her an apologetic look, he did not even try to call off his brother’s behavior.
The third Prince- no. She would not think of that. They had not mentioned him, it was almost as if he did not exist. Even Ka Koubun never went there.
The palace grounds were pretty enough, she supposed, to distract her from the situation. She took her time to roam around, two quiet servant girls trailing after her. She had left the arrangements and talking to Ka Koubun. It might seem petulant of her, but she really could bear no more of it, knowing that she was and would continue to be surrounded by the same people who had exiled her soulmate and cost them their bond.
She stopped by the palace’s gardens, which were very different from the one in Kou, but still held a simple, peaceful beauty.
It was here that Sahbmad happened upon her, and he offered a polite greeting and a shaky bow. She returned it as proper, and would have quietly watched him leave had he not glanced back at her before stopping again. He seemed to brace himself before turning back towards her.
“M-My brother…” he started, and Kougyoku thought that, finally , maybe he was going to apologize for the King’s behavior. He seemed like a nice person, simply very fearful and submissive.
“Yes, your Highness?” she prompted, almost eager-
But then he said, “He was very fond of you.”
She stood frozen, hand instinctively coming to her wrist, which she now always kept covered under her wide sleeves. They had not mentioned him , ever since she arrived. She was not prepared for this. “Y-Yes, I am honored to grace His Majesty’s court.”
Sahbmad looked even more sheepish. “I… I meant Alibaba. Our- The third-… former- third Prince. He’s not here anymore, but- I still remember.” This time when he met her gaze, he looked very sad. “He worried a lot when he felt that you were upset, and he would smile all day and tell us you were feeling happy so he was, too.”
She wanted to lash at him. ‘Why?’ she wanted to ask. ‘Why would you say this? I am betrothed to your other brother now – why would you remind me of the one whom you must know I long for?’
But hadn’t Alibaba once told her in one of their letters that Sahbmad was always kind to him? That he was glad he had one brother who did not make him feel unwelcome?
So she held herself back, and waited for the prince to finish.
“It’s just… He… I am sure he would have loved to meet you. And… And I know your bond has been… ended, but- he must be happy for you and all you’ve achieved.”
Kougyoku felt weak but spared him a small smile, and if her lips trembled, she didn’t bother hiding it. If Sahbmad was the person Alibaba told her he was, he would understand her. “Thank you. I appreciate your kind words.”
“Y-You’re welcome. Have a pleasant day, princess.”
He left, shoulders stiff and ears red. When she turned to the servant girls with her, they avoided meeting her eyes. Kougyoku sighed. They probably know. Did they judge her, for resigning to her fate, for marrying a King instead of her soulmate?
Suddenly she felt tired, in a country not her own, in a palace her younger self looked forward to being in but now felt like a prison, in a situation that was forced on her.
She simply sighed and told her companions, “Please take me back to my room, I would like to retire early tonight.”
There was a resistance in Balbadd, they told her. Poor people from the slums who were in over their heads and who did not have any sense of loyalty to their masters, they said. Just a minor discontent. They were of no consequence, and would be taken care of before the wedding.
“If they were such a small threat, then why does it look like more than half of the city is gathered at the castle gates?” Ka Koubun demanded of their hosts, while Kougyoku stood behind him, not hiding her displeasure.
They would fix the situation quickly, they said. Their leaders were willing to negotiate with the King. While they were sure the palace guards would be enough, it would be better if the Princess was kept in a safer part of the palace.
Kougyoku only spared them one last look of disdain and a few scathing words. “When you asked for an alliance with my country, you assured us that Balbadd was a peaceful and thriving nation. We would not ally with a government not able to keep their citizens content.”
Then she left, escorted by guards. Ka Koubun would stay to oversee the proceedings.
It had only been an hour after she had gone back to her room when the door burst open, and a breathless prince Sahbmad stood before her.
She stood up, on high alert. “What is this? Where is Ka-”
The prince shook his head vigorously, then said, “It’s him!”
She did not need to ask more. She already knew .
Alibaba knew negotiating with Ahbmad would be nearly impossible. He also knew the council would do anything to discredit him and silence the people. But they had let him in, granted him audience. Cassim and the others stood behind him, and if he did not prove to them that they could find a way to appeal for change without bloodshed, Alibaba knew they would not hesitate to return to their violent ways.
If he failed here, one of his two families would undoubtedly suffer. He had lost enough, he had to set things right.
But Gods, he was trying his hardest and was still losing the fight.
“Ahbmad, honored brother, please-”
Ahbmad scowled. “You are not my brother! And you have no right to call me by my name!”
Alibaba grit his teeth. “Your Majesty. Please, all we ask is-”
“I will not listen to the words of a slave.” the boy king sneered. The council behind him looked pleased.
“I am not a slave. An exile, maybe. But for crimes you do not have proof of and cannot hold against me now.” Alibaba said, sparing a glance to the councilmen behind his brother’s throne. “I am a trader, a citizen of Balbadd, and I only stand in your court for an appeal. If you weren’t willing to listen, why did you even let us grace your presence-”
“You may not be a slave but the rest of those trash you call your people are! I called you in to tell you that no matter how much you shout, or how long you stand in my gates… I don’t care! I will let you starve out there, and I will never listen to the likes of you-”
The King froze abruptly when a voice cut right through his words, cold and firm – “Oh, but you will.”
Ren Kougyoku walked into the throne room, head held high, red eyes piercing. Sahbmad looked out of breath and nervous behind her, while the councilmen along with Ka Koubun were visibly panicking. The group of rebels looked to her in surprise and confusion.
Her eyes scanned the room imposingly, until they found Alibaba’s golden ones. His brows furrowed in question, and he opened his mouth to speak but Ka Koubun beat him to it.
“P-Princess, I… I think it’s best that we stay out of local affairs-”
“No.” she said firmly, walking forward. “As someone who would potentially stay in this country as a ruler, this is my concern as much as it is theirs.”
Ahbmad narrowed his eyes at her as she stopped to stand right beside a baffled Alibaba. “What are you saying,” he asked scathingly, “Princess?”
“I am saying that I, Princess Ren Kougyoku of the Great Empire of Kou, am breaking off our engagement until you listen to the concerns of these people and solve the local unrest that prompted your good citizens to stand in front of your gates to appeal their concerns,” she replied, then added a challenging, “Your Majesty.”
A stunned silence filled the room.
“Kougyoku?” was Alibaba’s shocked whisper, looking straight at her. “Is-… Is it really you-”
She looked back at him and smiled.
“Princess,” Ka Koubun stepped forward, torn. “This is not what the Empress-”
“The Empress is not here.” Kougyoku said firmly, eyes still fixed on Alibaba. “My duty is to secure a beneficial alliance for the Kou Empire, and Kou would not ally with a country whose people would turn on them because of an incompetent government.”
She turned her gaze towards Ahbmad again, then at the seething councilmen behind him. “This is my decision, so I suggest that you do what needs to be done to come to an agreement, before I deem you unworthy of our support and go back home.”
“P-Princess, don’t you think you are being… a little biased?” one of the councilmen asked, sounding desperate. “You do not have to take this… this traitor’s side just because he’s your-”
The princess shook her head, resolve unwavering. “I take no sides but Kou’s. Alibaba Saluja and his companions came here in peace. If they hold the solution to restoring order here so Kou can gain a worthy ally, I will support them. End of discussion.”
Alibaba watched as the councilmen argued among themselves, and then crowded over to Ahbmad scowling in his throne to offer their advice.
He spared Cassim and the others a glance – they looked as shocked as he was, but they were clearly impressed by what just happened.
Then he looked at Kougyoku again, looking defiantly at Ka Koubun, who was still shaking his head at her actions.
Before he could hesitate, he grabbed her attention by getting down on one knee and bowing his head. “Princess, we thank you for speaking up for us.”
Kougyoku smiled softly at him, then at his companions who bowed awkwardly. They were rebels, and she understood that their gesture were more out of respect for her fairness than them yielding to her status. “You are most welcome.” she replied, in a voice much kinder and vulnerable than what she used towards the king and his council.
When he looked up at her, he had a brilliant smile that reminded her of all the sunny comfort and happiness she felt through their bond all those years ago. “It’s good to finally meet you.”
“It’s good to meet you too.” she said, offering him her hand. She held her breath when he took it gently and pressed a fleeting kiss to it. “My Prince.”
“My Princess.” he returned, getting back on his feet but not letting her hand go.
It was a dull ache, seeing the faded mark on his wrist. A chain of little flowers, twined together. When her own sleeve slipped down, revealing her matching mark, she wondered if he felt the same pain, the same longing.
The marks were nothing more than scars now, but as they stared into each other’s eyes, with fiercely determined gazes and small smiles on their faces, they thought perhaps they didn’t need their old bond back to understand each other.
There was no feeling, no pull, no call from an invisible thread. Their hands dropped to their sides, but they knew what the other was trying to say, because they have said it to each other countless times before – and they would not stop now.
‘I’m here. You’re not alone.’
‘We will get through this together.’
One of the councilmen cleared his throat.
Alibaba and Kougyoku stood to attention to listen to the king’s decision, facing whatever happened next side-by-side.
When everything was over, after the King agreed to hear the people’s pleas, corrupt officials got exposed of their crimes through the evidence gathered by the resistance, Balbadd was declared a democracy and Kougyoku’s engagement had been effectively cancelled due to the change in government, the two found themselves sitting on the grass in the palace’s gardens, huddled together.
Alibaba was busy twining tiny flower stems together and Kougyoku was watching him work in rapt attention.
“I still can’t believe you don’t know how to make a flower chain.” he snorted, amused.
She only pouted. “I was busy learning other things!”
“You’ve had a flower chain drawn in your wrist since you were a kid, but you never thought to make a real one?”
Her answer was an indignant huff, but before she could come up with a fitting reply, he reached out, took her hand, and then wrapped a simple but elegant chain of flowers around her wrist, right on top of her faded soul mark.
They were quiet for a moment, and then Alibaba brushed his thumb over her wrist. “I’m sorry this had to happen to you.”
Kougyoku frowned, looking at both of his hands cupping one of hers, holding it carefully as if it was something precious and fragile. “It happened to us.” she replied softly. “I know you must have felt it.”
“I did.” he nodded. “It was my exile, though. Losing my status. That’s what made them cut it, right?”
“It doesn’t matter.” she shook her head. “I’m sorry I didn’t fight for it.”
“We were kids. We couldn’t have done anything.”
Slowly, she finally nodded, squeezing his hand in comfort.
“I guess Father was right, after all. I had started to stop believing.” he chuckled, and when she tilted her head in question, he continued. “He always told me not to worry about when I’ll meet you. He said we’re soulmates, we will meet when it’s the right time. When our bond was cut I thought it would never happen.”
“It did, though.”
“I don’t know if we got lucky, but I’ll take it.”
Kougyoku smiled softly, and with her free hand, she plucked a small flower near her and then tucked it behind the young man’s ear. “What-… Where do we go from here? I can’t-… I might have disappointed my aunt. Not that I regret it, but maybe- I don’t think I should head home just yet.”
The question made him pause to think. They dropped their raised hands, resting them by Alibaba’s knee with their fingers still linked.
“You know I’ve been traveling, right? Before I got Amon and… and went back here?”
“I’ve heard stories, I’m not sure how true they are,” he took a deep breath, “but I’ve heard that the priestess in Reim can restore broken soul bonds as long as both people are still alive. And-… and there’s Magnostadt, with magicians who study these things, and- I don’t know, Aladdin and Morgiana, I promised them we’ll go on an adventure, to see the world and- I mean, Balbadd would be fine without me now, it’s in the right hands, Cassim and the others can do this… Maybe, if you want to-… Uh, if you’ll still have me, maybe… maybe we could try-”
She didn’t wait for him to finish, and dropped any and all restraint she had left. She pulled her hand from his grip so she could throw her arms around his neck and bury her face on his shoulder.
“Of course I’ll still have you! Why would you even ask that?” she said, voice muffled against his shoulder. “I’ll go with you! I-… I’ll go with you and your friends. Ka Koubun will try and stop me, I won’t let him. We’ll go to Reim or Magnostadt, or wherever… Just- I want to stay with you.”
He laughed and returned her hug just as tightly. It was their first, but it felt like they’d been doing it forever. And maybe they had, all those times they wrapped each other in the security of their bond even miles apart. “Okay. Okay… I’m glad to hear that. We’ll do this together, yeah?”
She nodded, not bothering to hold back her tears. “Yes.” Then she drew away to look at him and let him wipe her tears. “B-But what if-… What if it’s impossible after all? To fix this? You said you only heard the stories.”
She looked down at her wrist again, at the marks now covered with tiny flowers that reflected it almost perfectly. Was that… was that the reason why their soul marks were flower chains? Was it some sort of sign? She had always wondered why it was so.
“Well,” he shrugged, a boyish smile on his face. “If it doesn’t work, then I guess… I guess we’ll just have to use our words to communicate this time around?”
She didn’t know how she knew, but she thought it was so much like him to say that. She let out a carefree laugh, and nodded. “Maybe we will.”
It doesn’t matter now, she supposed. They were starting over, together, and perhaps this time around they wouldn’t need the invisible thread and shimmering marks. Just having each other was enough.
The rest of the prompts shouldn’t take too long, I think. 😛 Thank you for reading!