“Tell me a story, Mother,” the young prince requested with words slurred by sleep.
The empress smiled, “Once upon a time a young woman’s morning was interrupted when a fellow maid crashed into her and begged her to come to the washrooms…”
Tanvi already had two strikes against her, and judging by how the jug in her hands trembled, she knew it. Unfortunately, the giant heap of pink satin sheets – once pure white – was undoubtedly her work. Miku released an exasperated sigh.
“I thought maybe if we poured water and – ”
Miku held up a silencing hand. There was no fixing this, despite the girl’s desperately hopeful eyes. Miku calculated how much the sheets would cost and, more importantly, the cost of inconvenience their absence would have on the palace. The more she calculated, the grimmer she grew. Plus, the empress would want to hear directly of this matter. Of all the words to describe the empress, Miku would not use “forgiving” as one of them. She massaged her temples attempting to ward off the developing headache.
“Okay,” Miku paused, shifting through her plan once more and failing to find a better option. “Alright. Here’s what we are going to do. You will tell the mistress that a guest left his robe tangled in his bed sheets, and that I failed to sort it out.” Miku waved Tanvi’s protests silent. “I will go and tell the same story to the empress.” Tanvi stumbled forward:
“But –” Her outcry cut short when her foot caught in one of the sheets. This sent her sprawling. Luckily, she didn’t drop the extremely breakable ceramic in her hands. The cost of this drenched Miku head to toe.
“But,” Miku finished for Tanvi, “first I am going to change.” And she left the washrooms without another word, only a trail of water to follow her out.
Her ear was on the blitz, sensitivity turned to the max. Miku tried to keep from grimacing, otherwise someone might find out her secret. It wasn’t that she was a cyborg, per say. Born deaf, the procedure to correct her hearing just so happened to involve a bit of cybernetics. Not enough to make her something else, to make her one of them. Right? She dared to wonder what else could possibly go wrong today.
Dripping with water and curses, Miku opened the door to her quarters with such a force that the handsome prince lounging on her neatly made bed tumbled off.
“Rikan!” Admonished Miku. A lopsided grin broke on the man’s face as he lay on the floor. Miku tried very, very hard to stay mad at her childhood friend, but that was a very, very attractive smile. Fortunately, the pain in her ear kept her from grinning like a fool. “Are you enjoying my floor?”
“Technically,” Rikan lifted one arm off the ground pointing to no one in particular, “it’s my floor.” Miku rolled her eyes and went to grab his hand, pulling him back to his feet.
“Ah!” Rikan hissed, as he poked the back of his head several times. “That’s going to leave a bruise.” He shot another one of those grins at Miku, but it quickly faded into a quizzical brow.
“You are very wet. Why are you wet?” He reached out to grab a strand of her hair, but she backed away, desperate to change the subject:
“I didn’t realize you were home. Weren’t you off chasing princesses or something?”
Rikan drew the blanket off the bed and draped it around Miku’s shoulders. He then plopped down, patting the spot next to him. Miku didn’t move an inch; she crossed her arms and glared at him. A princely sigh:
“I searched the globe far and wide meeting princesses,” Rikan began dramatically, waving his arms around, “but none of them seemed princess-y enough,” he shrugged.
“Princess-y enough? What, they weren’t lathered in jewelry? Their dresses weren’t frilly enough?” Miku snorted. She looked down at her own bland clothing. It matched her face, clear of makeup, and her hair, falling limp down her back. At twenty, she should take more pride in her appearance. “Or maybe their nails weren’t manicured.” She finished, her heart not into it, plopping next to the prince.
He sat perplexed, and for a moment Miku thought she might have offended him. Rikan was smart enough to deduce that if she thought princesses were frivolous, she didn’t think much better of princes.
He finally spoke after some thought. “I want a hard working princess. Who cares about more than just herself, and has a witty sense of humor.”
She rolled her eyes, “I think you misunderstand the term ‘princess’.”
“Miku, I love – “
“RIKAN!” The shriek interrupted him. The two simultaneously flinched, though Miku more noticeably.
“You were hiding from her, weren’t you?!” Miku hissed.
Rikan shrugged guiltily. He desperately tried to jump behind the bed, but not fast enough to avoid his mother’s piercing glower as she burst into the room. The intensity of the atmosphere suddenly made it a lot harder to breathe.
Miku jumped to her feet and bowed, “Your Maj-”
“DON’T ‘YOUR MAJESTY’ ME!” The woman, once beautiful, snarled, “I heard about your little ‘mistake’ down in the washrooms. And instead of owning up to it, you consort with my son, who still hasn’t chosen his bride.”
“Mother I – “
“DON’T ‘MOTHER’ ME!” Miku’s eyes started watering from the frequency assaulting her ears. “I send you out time after time, but is no woman good enough for you?! You’re twenty-one years old, I figured you would take what you could get at this point! If you must, you know you can take lovers like your father! No one ever claimed royal marriages had to be happy ones! Now go to your chambers!” She took a deep breath and smoothed her hair, although not a single strand was misplaced.
Rikan slowly backed out of the room, exchanging one last panicked glance with Miku before leaving entirely. “Sorry” she heard him mumble as he walked away. But sorry wouldn’t help her now. She lifted her chin and braced herself for the empress’ punishment.
“Now Miku.” The empress smiled sweetly. “I have been kind to you. I have even been generous to you. When your mother, one of my ladies in waiting, passed, and you had no other family to take you in, I gave you a job here. Most, regardless of blood, would have been turned out into the streets. AND YOU GO AND PAINT MY SHEETS PINK!
“Now, I could be very cruel with my punishment. I could give you a thief’s punishment. Instead, in honor of your dear mother, I sentence you to two nights in the dungeon. The only thing you may bring with you is those ruined sheets, and do not expect any food or visitors until the second morning.”
Miku tried not to look too relieved. Despite starvation, the solace of the dungeon would provide respite to her barraged senses. It seemed more a mercy than a punishment. Two guards appeared in Miku’s small doorway, one for each woman. Miku bowed as her majesty passed, her heightened hearing following the footsteps all the way to the elevator.
The dungeons were cold, and the floors were hard. So for the first time since Tanvi ran to her trembling that morning, Miku felt grateful to the girl for how many sheets she ruined. When she arrived, they had already haphazardly thrown the discolored luxuries into a tall pile. So with nothing better to do Miku crawled to the top, laid down, and listened to the sounds of the dungeon.
It bothered her the first night, when other noises quieted and only it remained. There was something in the sheets. It made a static whistling, barely audible even with her increased sensitivity, but by the beginning of the second night, Miku had enough. She plowed through the pile until she found the source at the very bottom. There, embedded in the hem of the red robe that started this mess, was a small, spherical device made of a strange material.
“What the – “ The door to the dungeon opened with a loud bang. Who would come here in the middle of the night? Thought Miku, and so loud, too. Two guards dragged a man between them. This was quickly and brashly followed by the royal family: emperor, empress, and prince.
“That information was in a private conversation!” roared the emperor.
“Well clearly your consort didn’t think it was private! Now how did he get the information to Luna?!” shrieked the empress.
Rikan just looked tired. His gaze traveled until it met Miku’s. Eyes widening, he bolted past his parents to her cell. “The Lunars have learned about – oh! Never mind that. Are you alright?” He said breathlessly.
“Just hungry. Maybe hungry enough to eat a prince.” Rikan had no response to Miku’s failed attempt to make him smile. In the uncomfortable silence, she stole a glance at the new prisoner, and it dawned on her what the mysterious sphere could be. “I found this in a robe.” She held up the sphere. “I think it might be a microphone.” Rikan’s eyes widened.
“Father!” His parents stopped bickering and glared at their son. “Miku found this. We think we’ve been bugged.”
Miku woke up on a silk bed in one of the upper wings of the palace. A room meant for a princess surely. She was moved there after the bugging incident weeks ago – payment from the emperor and empress as thanks for stopping ‘the end of life as we know it’. The empress, for one, now looked at Miku with a hint of approval. Her ear couldn’t be fixed, but Miku slowly grew used to all the new sounds she could pick up on: Such as the small knock on the door that repeated.
“Come in,” Miku called.
It was unsurprisingly Rikan who walked through the door. Miku smiled lazily, sleep still in her eyes:
Rikan returned a polite smile and nodded, stopping a few feet from the foot of her bed, his face sobering up. She straightened up, mouth now tilted into a slight, teasing pout. “If this is about the whole ‘I could eat a prince’ thing, you should know I was kidding.” Rikan smiled politely again. “Mostly.” And there. The lopsided grin appeared.
“Do you enjoy your new rooms?” The prince enquired.
“Yes, very much.” Miku tried to mimic his tone. Then she dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Assuming they are actually mine, since I know you lay claim to all the floors in the palace, and that I get to stay here. I haven’t heard of your princess quests lately, so I assume you found one.”
Miku tried not to let her face fall too much. “Ah.”
He cleared his throat, a hint of a blush on his cheeks. “I don’t think I’ve told you this before, but you’re the most princess-y person I’ve ever met.”
“There, that is a true story.” Miku finished, but Kai was already asleep.