Part 1 - In Those Far Away Days
In those far, far away days
That warmth was the only thing I can feel,
So that when getting lost in the darkness at the end of the road,
All I could do is cry in loneliness.
Reprise l. 1-4
Once upon a time, the oceans were born and the earth laid down within them. The worlds were one then. The water people, the dragons, were the first people. To them, the gods gave dominion over the waters. Obeying the dragons' call, the sea formed a castle of shining globes. These great translucent pearls hung in the water above the great reef at the western border of the Sea, and many traveled far to see the glistening spheres and the dragons who lived there. It was there that the first Dragon King brought his bride, Amaterasu. Since then, the worlds have been violently cleaved. Amaterasu has long since left. Her husband has died. The palace passed through the hands of generations of their children. This is where our story begins.
On this day, the youngest son of the Dragon King, the young dragon Nigihayami Kohakunushi, stood at the window of his bedroom, gazing into the gardens beyond. He was daydreaming, as he often did, that he was flying through the air with the human girl named Chihiro on his back. In his imagination, fluffy clouds floated leisurely past below, and she was whispering into his ear. Then they were falling, her small hand warm in his, her hair billowing in the wind, her eyes shining and she smiled at him and pressed her face to his…
Haku suddenly looked up. Someone was walking through the arch and up the garden path. He peered more closely through the window, and recognized the bent posture and hobbling walk at once. It was old Tenryu, no doubt here to seek an audience with the King once again about the war. That won't be happening today, he thought grimly, not if Fujisan has anything to say about it.
He hurried through the little used servants' passages to the hall where Fujisan presided - currents scattered the light within the walls as they melted away to let him pass - and settled in a back corner where he would blend into the rippling shadows sprawled over the walls.
Tenryu slowly made his way up the path to the Dragon King's palace. The first King had built it as a gift to his bride, Amaterasu, in the beginning of the world, and it was a wonder to behold. Today, however, Tenryu had no eyes for the glimmering schools of fish that filled the reefs or the forests of kelp in the palace gardens, or the shining spheres of solid water that made up the rooms of the palace. He had seen the white figure peering down from a window high above the sea floor, and had recognized it.
Tenryu watched the figure back away from the window and smiled to himself. Kohaku had expressed his disinterest in the war to Tenryu on numerous occasions in the past. Tenryu knew how hard Kohaku had been trying to avoid him. So the prince is intrigued in spite of himself, is he? It was about time. Tenryu remembered the human girl at the bathhouse who had pulled the pollution from his banks. Sen, she was called. He had recognized at once what an invaluable jewel she was: a human child untainted by greed. When he had gone back to the bathhouse to look for her, she had gone, and no one knew where. He heard rumors that Prince Kohaku had loved the girl. If anyone knew where she was, it would be him.
It wasn't long before Tenryu came up the steps and into the entrance hall. A man stood there on the dais, blocking the open door to the throne room. He had sharp black eyes and a short black beard. His long hair was tied back loosely, and hung until it blended into the shadows of his flowing, floor-length kimono. He was ten thousand year old.
"My prince," Tenryu greeted the younger man, bowing low respectfully.
Prince Fujisan only acknowledged this deference with the slightest of nods – an insult. "You're here to see my father," he said coldly.
It wasn't a question – another insult – but the old man gave no indication of taking offense. "Yes," he agreed mildly.
"As you can see, he's busy. Too busy to attend to any business of yours, Tenryu. Especially if it concerns your obsession with the humans."
"My prince, would we walk away from all that we have loved and protected for eons?" Tenryu asked earnestly. "Walk away from our homes and from our very souls?"
"If we stay, it would only be to repulse the monsters," the prince said lightly, as though discussing the weather. "Not to coddle the ones slaughtering those very homes and souls."
"The humans aren't evil, my prince," Tenryu said, shaking his head. "They have only made a very grievous error." The prince's attitude saddened him. He remembered when Fujisan used to play happily with human children.
"Are you blind and deaf, Tenryu?" The prince spat, "or have you been cowering in your den these past centuries? Have you not tasted the poisoned air and breathed the sickened water? Did you not feel the earth shaking only yesterday in protest to the abomination the monsters have unleashed? In many places I can no longer feel starlight on my scales. It breaks me more than the spilling of blood on my slopes. No. Look what they did to Kawauso*, who loved them. They killed him. They think they can use a word like "extinct" and pretend it wasn't murder.
"They have taken everything from me, and they'll have no more. They are evil, greedy, ungrateful beasts." He calmed himself down with a visible effort. Then, steadily, he said, "You are a fool, Tenryu, and my father will not hear you."
For the first time since Tenryu had entered the room, he looked toward the corner where Kohaku stood silently in the shadows, and acknowledged his presence. Tenryu spoke as if half to the Prince and half to the silent figure: "Somewhere out there, there is a girl who would prove you wrong about the humans. She is the pure, innocent child every one of us holds dear in our hearts. Even you, my prince, would not be able to deny it."
The prince followed Tenryu's gaze and glared at the young man in the shadows, ignoring this last comment. "You think he can get you an audience with the king? Kohaku, my disgraced brother? They killed him. They stole his power, and you think he'll side with you? You think he has the strength? Look at him, Tenryu. They have almost made my baby brother one of them, a pathetic human. You should pity him, and look to the ones with power. And they say you are wise. You should go now, and I wish you luck, chasing that fairy tale as you do."
Kohaku barely heard Fujisan's contemptuous words. The blood had drained from his face.
Haku emerged from behind a clump of coral along the path and into Tenryu's way. "What are you doing, Tenryu?" Haku asked, his eyes narrowed.
"I came to see your father, my prince."
"The king won't be seeing you, with only a few months until the coronation," Haku said. "You should've known Fujisan wouldn't permit it. You shouldn't have come."
"You could get me an audience," Tenryu said.
Haku laughed bitterly. "Maybe I would've tried, before today. But why would I, if the girl you mentioned to Fujisan is who I think it is?"
"So you agree with me, that she is the one we need."
"If we were in agreement, then you would not even consider dragging her into this."
"We need her, Prince Kohaku, just as we need you."
"I've told you before. I can't be the king you want."
"Your father must abdicate this year. We're low on candidates and we're low on time. We're not picky, Prince Kohaku," Tenryu told him.
"Perhaps you could offer Fujisan that loyal support. He would appreciate it, I'm sure."
Tenryu ignored this. "I want you to help find the girl," he said.
"I will not."
"So you know where she is," Tenryu said.
"It does not matter. You will not involve her. Besides, she's eighteen now," Haku said. "She's not a child anymore; I doubt she's still as "pure and innocent" as the girl you imagine, and her life is not yours to appropriate. Find someone else. Leave her alone."
"You won't be able to ignore the war for much longer, my prince," Tenryu warned. "The bridges between the worlds are crumbling, if you haven't noticed, and then you'll never see her again."
"I can't cross the border anyway," Haku laughed. "She is cut off from me. I'll never see her again. Do you get it? My brother is right. They killed me. I should be dead, understand? Dead, like Kawauso is dead!" Haku's voice rose until he was shouting. Then, looking straight at Tenryu, he said: "Stop searching for her. Leave her out of it."
Haku bowed deeply as he entered the king's private study, and then folded himself onto a mat before the low table. He watched the king sift green powder into two bowls and slowly whisk steaming water into the powder.
The study was one of the only rooms within the palace that was dry. It was a bubble, suspended beneath the ocean's surface, and designed to allow the preparation of tea. The king always made the tea himself. It was a time of peace for him to spend with his youngest son, the last one left at home.
Haku sipped the green foam slowly, aware of the king's eyes gazing at him above the clay rim of the bowl. He replaced his tea on the table before meeting his father's gaze and speaking: "What is your stance on the evacuation, honored father?"
"No one has asked me to intervene," the king replied impassively. "Thus, I have no stance."
"Is it true that the bridges between the worlds are close to collapse?
"The connection has been weakening for some time," the king said.
"We can't let the worlds break apart," Haku exclaimed.
"If all decide to evacuate, there is nothing to be done. Human rulers may make decisions on their behalf, but under our laws the king's role is to be the judge and the servant of the people. The king must not infringe on the pride and autonomy of our people."
"But you disagree."
"It does not matter whether I agree or disagree. The king's opinion counts for little if there is no one willing to plead his case. It counts for even less in the year of the coronation. It counts for nothing. Such is the burden of the arbiter. In that way, I have less say than the weakest of my subjects." He looked intently at his son. "Kohaku, as long as I am king, you are one of my subjects as well as my son. Bring your evidence. Plead your case. I will hear you just as I hear any other dragon who wishes to be heard."
Any other dragon who makes it to the council room, Haku thought dryly, but keeping the thought to himself did not stop King Nihonkai from hearing and replying to it.
"Prince Nigihayami Kohakunushi," he said sternly. "At this moment you are in no place to even think disrespectful thoughts about Fujisan. So you are dissatisfied with the way things are. What are you going to do about it?"
"What could I possibly do about it, Father? And after this year, I will have even less power than I do now, if that were even possible." Haku was still ashamed of his outburst in front of Tenryu, but he was too tired to keep the bitterness from his voice. "You can't mean for me to pursue the throne. I know you and Mother hoped I would, before, but that's foolishness now. What good is a crippled king to the people?"
The king looked at his son without pity. "King or not, you are not powerless as your brother seems to think. As the king is not free, neither are you free. You may not have a choice."
Soon after Chihiro went back to the Human World, Haku had quit his "apprenticeship" at the bathhouse. He had tried to find her then. He still had nightmares about that time, of finding the Gate encased by an invisible barrier like glass, of throwing himself at the forcefield at the border between the worlds until his scales cracked, of wandering around the moors of the borderlands, lost. All of his memories of that time were foggy. It only ever came alive again in his dreams. In his waking moments, the small web of scars on his back and sides proved that he had lived through those days.
It had been seven years since Chihiro left the Spirit World. Seven years since he had promised Chihiro he'd see her again. Seven years since he had told Chihiro that he would be fine.
Haku regretted those words every day. He had not been able to keep his promise, and he was far from fine. He now understood many things about the worlds and people who inhabited them. He understood that without his river, he was not a true dragon, not anymore, and that he would never, ever see Chihiro again.
And now Tenryu wanted him to help find Chihiro. He had a feeling he knew what role Tenryu wanted Chihiro to play in the war, and he didn't like it. He could think of nothing more dangerous than bringing her to Akuma's attention. Especially after Kawauso's death, which was certainly Akuma's doing. He would have to dissuade Tenryu at the next possible opportunity. She deserved to be safe. And happy.
Haku had almost fallen asleep when a servant knocked with a note for him. He lay in bed awake for a long time, staring at the words trying to control the hope that was bubbling up in his chest, hope that he thought had died years ago. The note said:
I found her. - Zeniba.
*Kawauso is Japanese for "river otter." The Japanese River Otter was officially listed as extinct in September 2012, while I was working on the first draft of this story.