T’was a clear summer’s night, yet throughout the land, there was a sense of unease. For months now, there had been rumors of a Hun invasion.
It was on that night that those rumors came true.
A soldier lit fire to the signal.
“Now all of China knows you’re here,” he hissed at the chapped mess standing before him.
The villain leaned in close so that he and the soldier were eye to eye. His raggedy breath reeked of rot, and as he scratched his neck, flakes of dry skin fell to the ground. With wide and bloodshot eyes, he breathed one word that sent chills down the soldier’s spine.
Emperor Nezu paced the throne room floor restlessly. He had awoken in the middle of the night for reasons that even he did not know, and he could not fall asleep again. He feared for the worst, for he only awoke like that when something truly terrible had happened.
His chief advisor, Present Mic, rubbed his eyes and stared at Emperor Nezu with both irritation and exhaustion. “Your Majesty, are you sure that the Huns have arrived tonight ? After all, the last time you were up like this, all that had happened was a three minute deviation from your normal breakfast time.”
Nezu folded his little paws behind his back and faced his advisor with a very grave expression. “Present Mic, you are my most trusted advisor. You have served me for many, many years. Ever since you were old enough to hold a brush, you have been a part of my palace staff, taking inventory and keeping scribe of all the ins and outs of all the little people in the home. And now, here you are, living up to your self-given name. You give commands—”
Fortunately, it was at that exact moment that the renowned general Endeavor burst into the room, effectively cutting off the emperor before he could really get into the groove of his ramblings. “Emperor Nezu!” he cried. “The Huns have managed to break through the North.”
The tiny, animalian ruler nodded his head. “So I feared.” For once, he did not meander with his words.
“There are no surviving witnesses yet, but it is assumed that they are being led by Shigaraki. I come only to tell you that I will be rallying my army and marching out at once to defeat him.”
At this, Emperor Nezu shook his head. “First, you must grow your numbers. I shall have draft notices posted throughout the land. Call up reserves and acquire as many new recruits as you possibly can. I fear that this fight will be more than we have anticipated. After all—”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty, but my army is one of your best! I’m sure that we will win without any trouble.”
“Only second best.” Nezu smiled, causing Endeavor’s blood to boil. “Besides, we shouldn’t be taking any chances. All who are able should fight.”
With a scowl, the hotheaded general left the room.
The emperor looked at his advisor and said, “His youngest son is old enough to lead a squadron now, is he not?”
Present Mic nodded. “I can only hope he does not turn out like his father.”
Nezu sighed. “I do too. By the way, that reminds me…”
Momo sighed and played with a single grain of rice out of the many in her bowl. She propped up her chin on her elbow and stared out her room window at the rising sun. Today was the day, the day she knew she was going to fuck up in one way or another.
Today was the day she was to present to the matchmaker and meet her future husband, if all went well. Then she would get married in a few months’ time, bring honor to her family, and live a normal life until she died.
She flicked away the grain of rice with her chopsticks. It wasn’t like she considered getting married and settling down to be a necessarily demeaning end, but it sounded so unfulfilling . She still had so much more to learn and do!
She turned her attention back to her rice bowl. After popping a tiny amount of rice into her mouth, she put the chopsticks down and left her room. The maid would get the rice while she was gone.
She walked over to the family shrine, where her father was praying to their ancestors. She helped him up when he was finished. He smiled at her and put his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry about the matchmaker, my child. You are already a wonderful young lady. You will easily bring honor to the family.”
Momo smiled uneasily back at him. Despite being told that for the better part of the last few months, she still found it hard to believe that the matchmaker would be able to find her a husband. She was, at the end of the day, nothing special. What man would want her?
Her father patted her shoulder. “You should go now, otherwise you’ll be late.”
Momo Yaoyorozu truly seemed to be the ideal bride. She was pale and tall and obedient, and she was certainly very pretty. She carried herself with grace, and rarely did she ever speak out of turn. Her interest in the arts only brought out all her fine qualities. Indeed, many of the neighboring families agreed that she was a picture perfect daughter.
“Momo,” her mother said as she carefully brushed her daughter’s hair. “Are you ready for today?”
Momo herself sunk lower into the lukewarm bathwater. “No,” she truthfully said, causing her mother to laugh.
“Don’t worry, my child. You’re already such a wonderful young lady. Just do your best at the matchmaker’s, and you will surely bring honor to us all.”
Her grandmother burst into the room. “Futaba, what are you doing still brushing that girl’s hair? Her meeting with the ‘maker is in half an hour! Get her out of the tub right now or else she’ll be wrinklier than a prune!”
“Of course, mother!” Momo’s mother yelped, quickly detangling the last few snarls and helping Momo out of the tub.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Momo, your mother never was the best at time management,” Grandmother Yaoyorozu said as she helped Momo into her dress. “I’m so sorry that we have to rush you now, but don’t worry. If your mother was able to pass through the matchmaker’s hands into her husband’s, then surely you , the wonderful little blossom you are, will be able to do it without a problem. Even if you were rushed.” She patted her granddaughter’s cheek.
Momo could only nod as the older women put on her makeup and did her hair. A feeling of unease was rapidly growing in the pit of her stomach. Everyone was telling her she’d be able to bring honor to the family with both hands tied behind her back, but all that it was doing was making her nervous.
“Hey, hey now,” her grandmother said softly as she popped an apple into Momo’s mouth. “If it makes you feel any better, I found a cricket this morning, and something tells me it’s a lucky one.”
Momo nodded. Her mother gave her one final once-over as her grandmother tied the cricket cage to her waist.
“Oh! And one laaast thing,” her grandmother said, hurriedly fetching a calligraphy brush and ink stone. Momo winced at her grandmother’s terrifyingly strong old lady grip as the old woman very carefully, very beautifully wrote the characters for honor and prosperity on her forearm.
“There,” the old lady said with a smile. “ Now you’re truly ready. Aoyama will love you.”
Momo inspected the wet characters drawn on her arm. A little shaky, but still beautiful. She only had to hope that it dried before she could accidentally soil her sleeves.
With smiles on their faces, both women sent her outside to join the other girls waiting to meet the matchmaker.
Momo silently prayed for luck, for honor, as she joined the train of brides-to-be.
The sun beat down upon Momo’s paper umbrella as she waited for what felt like hours before the matchmaker’s house to be called upon. She was going to be a bride. She was a perfect porcelain doll, seated upon a shop owner’s shelf, ready to be sold to whomever deemed her beautiful and affordable enough.
The door burst open, and the apparent matchmaker stepped out. Momo couldn’t see him, but he already sounded like the most extra person ever.
A scroll was snapped open in the most dramatic way possible. “Momo Yaoyorozu?” the matchmaker singsonged.
Without a word, she stood up, closed her umbrella, and walked up to the matchmaker, a strange, blond man who seemed to sparkle. Aoyama, was it? She bowed in greeting, and with a smug smile and a curt nod, he let her in.
“So, Miss Yaoyorozu,” Aoyama said as he whipped out a brush and scroll, “Please recite the final admonition.”
“Fulfill your duties calmly and respectfully,” Momo recited as she pulled out a fan, but in the process, she accidentally loosened the latch on the cricket cage. “Reflect before you act. These things shall bring you honor and glory.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the cricket take its chance and bounce away, but with the matchmaker’s eyes trained on her at all times, she didn’t want to take the risk of failing her exam by catching him.
“Veeeery good, Miss Yaoyorozu!” the blond man crooned, strutting around Momo in a circle, observing her from all angles. “It’s nice to know that you’re living up to my expectations.” With a pleased sigh, the blond man knelt down at a table and gestured to the teapot and teacups sitting upon it. “Now, be a dear and pour me some tea?” With a smile that looked more self-absorbed than anything else, the matchmaker rested his elbows upon the table and laced his fingers together, watching her intently.
Momo obediently knelt down and took the teapot.
“ If you’re to impress your future in-laws, you must be able to show grace! Poise! And dignity! All while merely pouring a simple cup of tea.” With every word he said, Aoyama struck a different ridiculous and dramatic pose, to the point where Momo was so distracted that for a moment, she missed the teacup.
“Ahhh…” a teeny-tiny voice sighed, and she looked down at the teacup in alarm to find the lucky cricket relaxing in the scalding tea. Hurriedly, Momo filled the cup and gave it to herself, immediately starting on a fresh one for Aoyama when—
“Tsk, tsk, Miss Yaoyorozu! As the server, you should be the last person to receive your drink,” he reprimanded, reaching for the tea himself.
“My apologies, sir, but there’s—”
“Nope! No excuses, Miss Yaoyorozu. And how dare you talk back to me!” Aoyama exclaimed as he succeeded in getting the tea. He sniffed it delicately and sighed. Momo felt her stomach sink as he began to take a sip…
…and promptly spilled the whole thing on himself with a shriek upon seeing the cricket within. Momo covered her ears and got up. Just in time, too: the matchmaker scrambled to his feet and knocked over the table— fortunately, Momo managed to snatch the teapot before it hit the ground— causing formerly barely-alive coals to burst into flame on the floor.
“You dare put a cricket in my tea??” Aoyama demanded, taking a threatening step forward, only to step on the fire that he had somehow not noticed. He yelped in pain.
With no idea what to do, Momo whipped out her fan again and tried to blow it out, only to make it worse instead. Panicking, she snatched up the still-alive cricket and shoved him back into the cage and turned her attention back to the matchmaker.
He snatched the teapot from her hands and extinguished the flames with the remaining liquid inside. Fuming, he took a step towards Momo, and terrified, she took a step back.
“ So not cute!” he cried as she crashed into the door. “Not only do you try to poison me with a nasty little insect in my drink—” he slammed open the door, and Momo took a further step outside, into everyone’s view. “But you also set fire to my home!” Everyone present winced.
Momo took one terrified look backwards, and her eyes met with her mother’s hurt ones. Guilt and shame immediately built up in her gut, but there was no time to think about it.
Aoyama snatched the fan out of her hand and threw it down in a rage. “You terrible little wretch! You may look like a bride, and it may seem that you act like one, but you will never, EVER be one!” Furious, he stormed away.
Faintly, Momo could hear him call for a Miss Itsuka Kendo, but she wasn’t truly listening. Her mother immediately put a protective arm around her daughter as the latter tried very hard not to cry.