The Kingdom of Binan was celebrating. The royal couple's first son was born at the first light of that summer day: the news had already reached everyone in the Capital and was slowly spreading through the villages nearby.
It was good news indeed; the King and the Queen had been married for more than a few years now, and for a long time there had been the hope that her Majesty would become pregnant. Eventually, and only a few months earlier, the Court had announced the arrival of the long awaited heir to the Kingdom. However, even after his conception, the baby had taken his time with coming into this world. More than the usual nine months passed before he had decided it was about time to be born, and even after the first labor pains, the baby had made his mother and the midwives sweat in what had to be the longest childbirth ever. Finally, accepting the inevitable fate that awaited him, the child had given up; he was born healthy and pretty big too.
“Well, the little prince surely didn't seem eager to leave the comfort of his mother's belly. Better late than never, I guess,” the midwife said, bringing the child, cleaned and dried, to his mother.
The Queen pulled a strand of sweaty hair away from her face, holding the boy close and kissing his forehead.
“Welcome, my little En,” she whispered in his hear.
Abiding the tradition, the Court would soon officially celebrate the Prince's birth, with a feast so sumptuous that the Kingdom would go on talking about it for decades.
In truth, it happened that that party would be remembered not only for years, but even for centuries to come – and in that sense, given that the circumstances which led to this outcome weren't exactly the happiest, it would certainly exceed the biggest hopes of their Majesties.
The summer's evening was hot and lively, the huge hall of the Royal palace, its walls cluttered with tapestries and flags, shone with gold and precious fabrics, crowded and radiant in the luxurious outfits flaunted by the crowd that filled it.
The party given in honour of Prince En's birth had already begun. The guests, who were nobles coming from the Kingdom of Binan but also from nearby realms, had started arriving by early afternoon. Each one of them brought gifts to the newborn; jewels, exquisite fabrics, ornaments shining with gems, and even foals of rare breed. These presents weren't only a sign of welcome to their future king; in a bigger sense, they served the purpose of demonstrating the loyalty and support to the Royal family time and time again. The Kingdom was indeed living in a period of peace, but every chance possible was taken to strengthen the bonds of friendship and alliance that tied their families together.
For this very reason, the most honoured guests that evening were the King and Queen of the neighbouring Kingdom of Boueibu. In addition to the more traditional gifts, they were bringing something extremely precious not only for the newborn, but for the whole realm as well. King Yufuin from Binan and King Kinugawa from Boueibu had long since dreamt of strengthening the political bond that tied their two little states. Now, with the birth of the Prince, it was the perfect occasion for them to seal the project, though they had only talked about it in theory so far.
The Kingdom of Boueibu already had an heir, a princess, who was only a few years old and was now quietly standing next to her mother, under whose dress the gentle curve of a new pregnancy was already evident. In front of all the nobles gathered in the hall, the little princess had been taken to the cradle where En was sleeping soundly, blissfully unaware of the crowd around him and deaf to the clamour echoing among the walls of the palace. As the girl touched the boy's hand, the two queens smiled to one another while the two kings exchanged a satisfied look; as soon as they became old enough, their two heirs would marry, forming an unbreakable bond between both kingdoms.
While the sun was setting, the servants hurried to lighten up torches and chandeliers in the vast hall, their flames dancing merrily in the breeze that came in from the windows, left open to soothe the heat that filled the inside.
Now only three guests were still missing, but it wasn't long until they arrived. Under the respectful yet delighted gaze of the crowd, there appeared what looked like small balls of colourful lights – or possibly oversized fireflies. Accompanied by a soft buzz of small wings, they swirled under the vaults of the ceiling until they reached the stage where the sovereigns were seated on their thrones, stopping just in front of where the cradle was placed. Three loud explosions of light followed one after the other – gold, red, and pink – and, instead of oversized fireflies, those who appeared afterwards were three young men dressed in bizarre white outfits.
Since the dawn of time, the tradition required that every young prince or princess received a gift from his or her guardian spirits, and En's had just arrived: Io, the earth spirit, with a bob of hair the same colour of spring's new grass; Ryuu, the fire spirit, whose pink strands of hair fell messily over his eyes; and Yumoto, the light spirit, who had eyes as scarlet as rubies. The three bowed in front of the Royals and then gathered around the cradle with an impatient shuffling and tipping of pointed shoes.
“Waaah, look at this adorable baby! So wrinkly and fluffy! Can I hold him?!” Yumoto, not really used to the Court's etiquette, had already stretched his arms towards the sleeping child. Luckily, before he could grab him, Io hit his wrist so that he would stop.
“He's not one your pets from the forest, leave him alone!” he rebuked him promptly. “We're here for the gifts, remember?”
The now slightly disappointed Yumoto moved away from the cradle, leaving room for the older spirit. Io smiled, holding his magic wand between his fingers while he ceremonially bowed in front of the baby.
“My little prince, here is your first gift,” he said, reaching towards him with the tip of his wand, which ended in a golden sphere circled by a copper ring. “My gift to you is wealth. You'll grow up and always live surrounded by prosperity and riches, more than any other king has ever had.”
As he said this, he gently touched the baby's forehead with the wand, which gave off a small cascade of golden glimmers.
Ryuu snorted as the earth spirit walked to his side to make room for him next to the cradle. “Shouldn't you have given him talents or, I don't know, qualities of the soul?” he objected in a whisper. “Riches and wealth, for real? He's a prince, he'll always have plenty of that stuff!” he muttered, vaguely annoyed by the fact that the other didn't seem to think about anything other than money.
Io shrugged seraphically. “The wheel of fortune has its ups and downs for nobles too, you know? And anyway, how can he cultivate his spirit if he can't rely on economic stability?”
Ryuu rolled his eyes. “Anyway, we shouldn't give him something that we would want for ourselves,” he added, leaning over the cradle.
“Hello there, my sweet baby prince. You'll see, uncle Ryuu will give you something that you'll find way more useful in due time,” he winked and raised his wand, which ended in the delicate reproduction of a flame. “My gift for you is beauty! None of the girls you'll meet will be able to resist you and all of their hearts will be yours,” he said with a smile, touching the baby's nose with the wand as it gave off a gentle burst of small boils made of pink light.
“...All the girls will fall at his feet?” Io raised an eyebrow skeptically when the fire spirit returned to his side. “How rude to say that when there is his future bride-to-be standing right in front of us,” he pointed out, looking at the small princess. The little one was staring at them in awe, not really caring for what they said to the prince.
Ryuu chuckled nervously. “...Well, until the wedding. That’s what I meant.”
The earth spirit nodded thoughtfully. “Oh, and what was that you said about not giving him anything that we wish for ourselves?”
“C'mon, stop it! And anyway, what do you mean by that? Am I not already beautiful?”
Io frowned. “Hey, don't make me say things that I didn't intend to say. What I meant is...”
Ignoring the quarrel between the two, Yumoto leant over the cradle, holding his heart-shaped wand as if it was the only thing that prevented him from grabbing the prince for some apparently prohibited cuddles. “So, my dear little prince, the gift I want to give you is-”
His sentence was abruptly interrupted by a strong gust of wind which echoed throughout the hall and blew out all of torches and chandeliers. Many of the nobles turned to the windows, wondering whether an unexpected storm could have hit the city, even though the night sky was clear and filled with stars.
Like it was planned, everyone's attention was suddenly brought back to the center of the hall, where, surrounded by silence, someone had spoken.
“Well now, what a magnificent party.”
In the void that had been quickly created around them stood three young men dressed in black and crimson. Even without their special effect-like entrance, the trio would have immediately caught the attention of everyone in the hall. Their faces radiated with supernatural beauty while their features betrayed their origin, the fairy world. The first who spoke was the tiniest of the three, also having a pale complexion and sharp eyes under tuffs of moonlight coloured hair.
“Mhm, yeah, it seems like they really tried their best – for being human beings, that is,” the guy beside him commented. This one was the tallest and had thick hair the colour of dark moss.
“You think so? To me, everything looks so inexcusably dull and ordinary. Given the occasion, they really could have tried harder,” echoed the third apparition, with a long mane the same shade of cherry blossoms. He was twirling a lock of hair between his long fingers while his blue eyes wandered over the people surrounding him, appearing as if he was worried that such dullness could assault and infect him.
“Akoya, humans do what they can,” the tallest one replied, as though he meant to justify the mortals.
Meanwhile, the shortest of the three had stepped forward, his gaze constantly fixed on the Sovereigns in front of him, to whom he bowed rigidly.
“I was worried I would be late, your Majesties, and I would have been very sorry for such an occurrence, given how much I love punctuality. However, since you forgot to remind us of the event, it was not easy to guess at what time we should show up.”
“Humans really are careless sometimes,” the tallest one chuckled.
King Yufuin, who had been frozen in his seat staring at the apparition, suddenly stood up to confront the silver haired man. “There was no carelessness. What makes you think you would ever be invited here? There is no place for you in my palace, you demons of darkness!”
“Oh. Well, if this isn't an embarrassing situation,” the other replied in a cold tone which didn't display any emotion, let alone embarrassment. “You will excuse me then, but since you invited all the nobles from the nearby cities, and since my castle isn't that far away, I feared you had simply neglected us.”
“My Lord Kinshiro, they didn't want us here because we outshine all the other guests in beauty, isn’t it obvious?” Akoya commented with a shrug, dropping the lock of hair on the golden ornaments of his jacket.
“You stop bragging!” an angry Ryuu had just emerged from behind the King, his finger pointed aggressively at the three newcomers. “Haven't you heard? You're not welcome here, so you have to leave! Now!”
Akoya directed an amused grin towards the fire spirit. “Look, they even invited you, the poor flower fairies, for the special effects! What a tasteless choice, we could have provided a much more spectacular entertainment.”
Ignoring the bitter exchange between the two, Kinshiro stepped forward. His long black leather boots were silent on the hall's marble floor. “We surely do not mean to remain where we are not wanted, nor to spoil the fun,” he said calmly. “However, since I very well know the meaning of the word education, I did not come here empty handed. In fact, I have a gift for the prince too.”
The King, now alarmed, raised one hand, commanding the guards to intervene. At his gesture, the soldiers threw themselves at the trio, but were unable to reach them. One tiny movement of the fingers from Kinshiro's subordinates had the men stumbling and falling, tied by chains which seemed to be made of darkness and which squeezed them as if they were snakes of the shadows.
“Since those spirits were allowed to give him their gifts, I don't see why I cannot do the same,” Kinshiro spoke as he walked towards the cradle. The King moved to get in his way, but he and the other sovereigns ended up tied like prisoners just as the soldiers had.
Ryuu, Io and Yumoto stood in front of the cradle, ready to defend the prince even though they feared they would be useless against Kinshiro's magic. However, the demon stopped before getting too close. Slowly, he reached out with his right hand, covered in a refined white glove, and opened his fingers. Over his palm, a needle of light was floating – a light which was green and poisonous. With a motion so fluid and fast that no eye could have followed it, he threw it at the prince. The needle formed an arch in the dark air and it stuck in the newborn's chest, disappearing quickly inside. The child stirred and opened his eyes, and for a moment, they shone of a dark purple light. Yumoto threw himself over him while Ryuu turned furiously towards the demon.
“You bastard! What did you do to him?”
Kinshiro looked at him with an attitude of arrogance. “Have you never seen a curse being casted?” he asked. Without waiting for Ryuu's answer, he turned to the sovereigns, who were looking at him with eyes filled with pure terror.
“Listen to me; you don't have to worry about that child now, as he will grow up as strong and healthy as you have wished. Keep playing with your combined weddings and your alliances, but remember that your time will be up on his eighteenth birthday. When the sun sets on that day, your prince will prick his hand on a spindle and he will die.”
His last words echoed in the hall, filled with the sense of magic and incredulity. Kinshiro's violet lips folded into a small smile, satisfied with the theatrical effect obtained. Without any further word, he turned and disappeared in a puff of black light, immediately followed by his two subordinates.
The chains that kept the soldiers prisoners vanished in that very moment. The guards immediately and uselessly searched every corner of the hall and palace, until it became quite obvious that the three demons had disappeared. The Queen hurried to hug her son, sobbing in fear. However, the small boy, who seemed unharmed, simply fell asleep in her arms.
Yumoto, still trembling, was staring at where the trio had vanished, holding his wand as a weapon.
“...those demons! I'll follow them and I'll force them to come back here so that they can lift that stupid curse!”
Io reached out for him, grabbing his shoulder and making him lower the wand. “That's unreasonable and you know it. Besides, the curse they put on the prince is too strong to be taken back.”
The King looked at them in terror. “The curse cannot be lifted? What about your magic?”
Io shook his head. “Our magic is not enough to lift the curse casted by that demon, it's too powerful.”
Ryuu, who had thoughtfully been tipping his chin with a finger, suddenly turned to Yumoto. “Hey, you haven't given your blessing to the kid yet, right? There must be something you can do to get in the way of that braggart!”
The light spirit looked at him questioningly, and then slapped his forehead. “Yes, you're right!” he cried, hurrying to stand beside the Queen and leaning over the baby. “Well, I meant to give you a funnier present, but I think circumstances don't allow for much of a choice,” he began, placing his wand on the newborn's chest. “I don't have the power to prevent the curse from coming true, little prince, but I can modify its effects. If, on the day of your eighteenth birthday, what has been foretold will happen, you will not die. Instead, you'll fall asleep, in a slumber so deep that nothing will wake you up, nothing but your true love's kiss,” he said. A scarlet light wrapped around the child's body, embracing him for a few long moments before dissolving in a multitude of small drops on the floor below in the silent hall.
“...true love's kiss Yumoto? Seriously? Couldn't you think of something simpler, I don't know, maybe some bird's chant, or a magic plant...?” Ryuu spoke in a tired voice.
Yumoto shook his head, and despite the situation, he had a satisfied smile on his face. “Magic plants, what nonsense! It's widely known that the only thing that can defeat such a curse is the power of love!” he exclaimed, reaching out one hand to touch the sleeping child's face.
“Don't worry, little prince, everything will be alright!” To seal his promise, he pinched his cheek, but even though the gesture was sweet, En grimaced, beginning to cry desperately in his mother’s arms.
Later that night, after the guests had left, the three spirits joined the Kind and Queen in their chambers in order to think about what they should do next. All of them agreed on the fact that Yumoto's blessing would not be enough to keep En safe in the future. What if Kinshiro discovered that his curse had been somehow opposed? Would he try to harm the prince again? The best solution, they thought, would be to take the baby away from the palace, some place far where the demons wouldn't find him and accomplish their plan.
“Why would they take it out on a baby?” the Queen sighed sadly, holding the child to her chest, well aware that she was hugging him for the last time in what was going to be years.
Ryuu raised his eyes from the scroll he was writing on. “They chose him exactly because he's helpless, that's how brave those arrogant demons are. They are so full of themselves that they think they're better than everyone else, and they'd do anything to make life miserable for creatures they think of as inferior,” he explained with a motion of annoyance, before dipping his pen in the ink bottle.
Yumoto, who was making origami out of the pieces of scroll Ryuu wasn't using, shrugged with a sigh. “Kinshiro once was a spirit of the light, just like me. Nobody knows what happened to him, why he became a creature of darkness, or why he hates humans so much.”
The King, who was studying a map together with Io, spoke in a dark voice that was full of resentment. “What I know for sure is that those demons have been stationing near the borders of my Kingdom for years now. We have tried to drive them away more than once, but we’ve had no success. They had never dared to come inside our capital, at least until today, that is.”
“Why did they get so offended at not being invited to a party thrown by someone they don't even like anyway? I don't understand,” Yumoto commented, rolling a failed origami into a small ball and throwing it on the floor.
“They're probably just jealous,” Ryuu answered, sealing the last scroll and adding it to the pile that had formed next to him.
Io looked at him questioningly, eyebrow raised as he was looking for some kind of explanation.
“What?” Ryuu reacted defensively “I'm just writing to all my nymphs and fairies. I have to tell them that I won't be around much in the future, or they'll worry,” he caressed the scrolls with his fingertips. “I'll miss them,” he sighed languidly, “but I won't have time for my girls if we are going to take care of the kid.”
Hearing those words, the two sovereigns exchanged a vaguely apprehensive look. If they had to think of a list of people to whom they would have entrusted their child without further thoughts, the three spirits surely would not have been at the top or anywhere near it. However, they could not deny their good intentions and their dedication to the cause. That day, together with the gifts, they had offered their loyalty and services to both the prince and the Kingdom. They surely were going to do their best to keep En safe.
It seemed like the three had a plan of their own. They knew a place, hidden in the deep of the forest, far from the demon's lair, where the prince would be kept away from danger. They had not revealed to the sovereigns the location though. If the couple had known where to find their son, the temptation could easily win over reason, and if anyone had followed them while they were visiting the prince, it would have put all their efforts in vain. The three had promised to keep the parents always informed about their son's wellbeing, and that they were going to be back to the palace the day of his eighteenth birthday so that the family could be reunited. With their heart squeezed in a painful grip, the King and the Queen entrusted their child to the spirits.
They had waited until dawn before leaving, as the light of the day would make demons lose most of their powers, and this would make it harder for them to be followed.
Thus, as the first sunbeams touched the roofs of the city, three shapes left the capital's walls, venturing through the fields and carrying a sleeping child with them.