The man heaved loudly, climbing up the mountainside. It felt steeper than the last time he was here and the pebbles on the path more eager to slip from under his feet, slowing him even further.
He had to pause frequently to regain his breath, which proved that too long time has passed since his last journey.
But the way back would be easier, he reminded himself as he looked at the remaining road. Soon, he will feel all his strength coming back, not only what he lost during the journey, but all of it spent since the last time he was here.
The man stood up and resumed the hike. It was well past dark already and he did not dare use a lantern but he kept moving forward; he knew the path well.
His persistence was eventually rewarded by the sight of a familiar clearing. Some other who would climb all the way up here might have taken a moment to admire the view which spread before his eyes – magnificent mountains framing a composition of green forests and yellow fields and even further, though now barely visible – the capital of the neighbouring kingdom.
The man paid no attention to the view, even picturesquely illuminated by the slowly appearing moon. He has been seeing it once a year for the past two centuries and it has long lost its appeal.
What did interest him was the large, wicker basket, placed upside down on the ground, covered in vines, creeping on the ground on better part of the small clearing as well.
His pulse quickened slightly when he removed the cover... But, no, needlessly, the flower was still there as always.
The fear of anyone discovering it was irrational, he knew it was. Why would anyone wander here?
However, every once in a while he lay awake at night, paralyzed by the fear of the flower perishing. It would ruin everything. Everything he has been working for so long.
Two centuries ago, when he seized the reign of his kingdom, he quickly realized that only he truly understood its needs and how it and its people ought to be governed; the kingdom needed him and he did it a great service removing his brother from he throne. But he had no way of securing the matters after his death. So he secured himself from dying.
Even though he took the crown by force, people eventually made peace with it and his long life only proved his reign to be the will of Heavens.
The man gently stroked the golden glowing petals of the flower. It was said that it grew from a drop of sunlight which fell upon the ground, and looking at the petals one had no trouble believing it. Touching them felt like putting a hand in a sunlit spot and its glow subsided only in comparison to the actual light of the sun. Only slightly – enough to allow looking at it.
The man silently intoned an ancient song which was believed to appeal directly to the sun and its spirits themselves. He had to travel far and search long to learn it; those who still remembered the old beliefs were scarce, even when he was young.
He did not have a particularly pleasant voice – too harsh, too dry, but it never mattered. The petals glowed even more intensely and the man felt strength running through his fingers and spreading around the rest of his body. He could see his hands regaining what flesh they lost since the last time, the swollen veins and vessels meting back with the skin and the skin itself growing more firm and less pale.
He stood up, gladly not hearing his joints crack - a most irritating thing he began to notice recently. Carefully, he placed the basket over the flower, checking for any holes or gaps where the light might shine through, and to his satisfaction, finding none.
The flower was safe and so was he. And so was his kingdom.
The following year has not been kind to him. It was nothing too much out of ordinary – such years happened every once in a while, one could get used to it in two centuries. Usually due to a couple of unfortunate circumstances – poor crops, insufficient fishing, natural disasters. This year the last straw was the reported birth of another descendant of the long ousted royal line – not only the first in this generation, but also a boy, a potential heir. It was said that his name was Mianning. And while not being much of a threat now, he might one day grow to be one, should he someday wish to fight for his right to the throne.
Emperor Yongxing made sure not to appear in public too much. He let his people see him every once in a while, so as not to give reason to provoke rumours of him being ill or dead or otherwise unfit for ruling. But in general, he preferred to pull the strings from concealment. It also allowed him to perform his annual escapades, the Emperor being gone for a few days not raising any eyebrows, since it was not noticed.
He had thought of transporting the flower closer to the palace for easier access, but eventually decided that its secret would be revealed too easily when kept within crowded palace walls; and the risk of hurting the flower while removing it from where it grew was too high.
Although he felt he ought to uptake some precautions soon. Decade by decade, he felt his body returning to its true age faster and faster and his journeys would soon need to be more often.
Because of the delay and his failing strength this year he travelled in haste, not only to reach his destination, but also to return.
Little did he know that while climbing up the mountain he was not, as usual, alone.
Few weeks prior, in the neighbouring kingdom of Allendale, the court was awaiting the birth of a royal child. Awaiting with delight, but not much excitement, as the child was only third in the queue to the throne, after two older princes.
However, joy turned to horror, as the Queen fell ill and within days she, and with her the baby, were on the verge of dying.
If the choice was between the Queen's life and the baby's, the King would not hesitate long, lightly sacrificing the third of his sons. He was not a particularly affectionate parent. But he was not given even that poor choice; the physicians were helpless.
Desperate times called for desperate measures and the King resolved to myths and legends and gossip in search of anything that might help his wife. Among the things repeated to him, was the legend of a flower which could heal any wound, any illness, even senility, growing high in the southern mountains.
Without much hope, the King sent out a search party. The Queen was a kind, charitable woman, much closer to her subjects than the King was, and the people loved her. Therefore even those who believed the magical flower to be nothing more than a tall-tale searched with determination.
All the determination in the world would not be enough however, if not for the very fortunate coincidence.
Upon realizing that he was not alone, Emperor Yongxing quickly concealed the flower and retreated in haste. One of the buttons of his coat got caught up in a vine growing on the basket and tugged it away from above the flower.
Yongxing hid behind a bend of the rockface at the last moment and when he saw the damage it was too late.
The flower was carefully taken away and its petals used to make a brew which would heal the Queen.
Powerless with anger, Yongxing returned to his palace, knowing that he would have to figure out a way of retrieving the magic of the flower within the next year or else his reign is done for.
Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Allendale, celebration took hold of the court – the Queen has returned to health and given birth to a boy, with hair as gold as the sunlight. He was named William and to honour him and the Queen a magnificent show of flying lanterns was held in the capitol.
The year was passing quickly and Yongxing was finally too desperate to wait longer.
He crossed the mountains, wandering into the foreign land to regain what was stolen from him. What he overheard from the men he came across in the mountains on that fateful night led him to the conclusion that the flower was transported to the King's castle.
He waited until nightfall to venture into the palace walls, beginning his search at the royal couple’s quarters, having learned that the flower was to be given to the Queen.
He did not find what he searched for neither in the King's, nor the Queen's chambers. However, in the adhering room slept a baby boy – he could not have been older than a year.
Yongxing approached him. Even in the pale moonlight, the boy's short hair had a familiar, golden gleam.
The man hummed silently, taking one of the locks in his fingers as the hair began to glow, looking like a halo around the boy's chubby face.
Still keeping an eye on the door for any sign of commotion, Yongxing took out a pocket knife and cut a strand of the boy’s hair.
Immediately, it stopped glowing and turned dim and dull, now the colour of ripe rye.
The man froze.
He could not take the hair. But... he could take the boy.
He picked up the child, careful not to startle him.
Then, as quickly as he could, he went back the route he has previously taken and out of the castle, out of the city, as far as he could before boy's disappearance is discovered. No sooner had the sky turned pale with dawn when he heard the distant sound of bells, ringing the alarm.
But he was far from it already. Giving the scarce settlements a wide berth, he travelled to the safety of the mountains undisturbed. A couple of miles further and he was already on his own ground.
Making use of his old small residence in the country – a tower which he had built for him to observe the stars and study in peace, in one of the shallow ravines not a day's ride from his palace – he created a place for the boy to live safely hidden, away from everyone.
Naturally, he had to be with him often, at least in the first years, but at least now he had the power much closer.
The child has been very burdensome, even when it finally learned to walk and talk and eat on its own. Despite that, Yongxing might have grown fond of the boy. Might have, but did not, as every look at the boy’s golden hair reminded him of the foreigners' greed and selfishness which deprived him of the flower and its magic. The boy's laughter and babbling as he played around with toys Yongxing was bringing to keep him occupied did not allow the man to forget that somewhere in his own country, there was another little boy, of same age; a boy that one day may challenge him, even if now his whole world were wooden horses and tin soldiers.