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Fairest of them All

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Burning incense left on low table tops filled the air with the spicy sweet scent of sanna ginger lilies, calming the inhabitants in the room. The curtains hanging by the tall, ornate windows, though dark are made mostly of lace, allowing delicate trickles of sunlight to dance in the shadows of the large otherwise unlit room. A small boy about the age of 5 sits on a royal purple cushioned ottoman, his mother standing behind him. The woman smiles softly as she gently combs the boy’s hair. The comb is golden in color with dragons acting as the edges, joining in the middle and twisting together. The boy idly swings his legs with his hands in his lap, enjoying the attention bestowed upon him by his mother.

“Your hair is so silky smooth, Hanzo. It shines so well in the light too. Take pride in your hair and your appearance,” she says, smiling at his reflection in the tall mirror before them. Hanzo perks up and turns his head to look at his mother, his hair falling from her grasp in the process.

“Is my hair as nice as yours, Mother? You have the best hair in the world! You’re so pretty!” The woman chuckles and kneels to be of the same height as her son. Hanzo just watches, amazed by the grace and fluidity of the motion. She gently brings a hand up to cup his cheek, rubbing her thumb in a slow back and forth.

“Of course it is, Hanzo. I am the most beautiful woman in the world, and you are the most beautiful son.” She pauses momentarily to adjust his play yukata as it had fallen off-center from its perfect position. “But being beautiful takes work, Hanzo. You must be diligent and work hard everyday to stay beautiful. Being the most beautiful is the most important thing. As long as you’re beautiful, people will respect you. What’s better than a beautiful, respected emperor after all?” The five year old pauses to think.

“You, Mother!” The child bounces in his seat and throws his arms around his mother’s neck. Her long black hair crumples a little in the embrace, but like silk it adjusts itself so as to not be ruined. Hanzo’s mother smiles and wraps her arms around him tightly, like he’ll disappear if she doesn’t.

“One day, my son, you will become more beautiful than me… but only if you work hard for it.” Her voice is quiet, like she doesn’t want to be heard. Soon, she pulls away from the embrace and holds Hanzo at an arm’s length. For a moment, Hanzo can hardly tell if she is smiling or frowning. “Please, promise me this, Hanzo. Promise me that you will always do your best to be the fairest in the land.” The boy hesitates a moment, not really understanding why his mother looks so conflicted, but if it will bring a smile back to her face…

“Okay, Mother! I promise to be the fairest in the land! Oh, but if I’m the fairest, then you can’t be! Can I be second fairest?” The woman shakes her head.

“No, I won’t always be here, Hanzo. When I’m gone, I want you to become the fairest. Do you understand? Don’t let anyone take that away from you.” Hanzo nods, and his mother stands once more. She turns the boy to face the tall mirror once more and picks up her golden comb. Her gentle humming is the only noise that can be heard now as she continues grooming her son. Hanzo returns to swinging his feet from his too tall seat, closing his eyes to relish the gentle care given to him by his mother.

These combing sessions usually happen daily, but after this time, they gradually happen less and less often. What starts as daily becomes every other day, then twice a week, then once a week. Though infrequent, this small amount of time Hanzo spends alone with his mother is still his favorite. It is for that reason, he begins to worry when during his 8th year, his mother starts distancing herself as well. Whenever the two cross paths in the palace, the woman glares or sneers at Hanzo before seeming to realize herself. She then abruptly leaves, tears in her eyes. After three months of receiving that treatment and their weekly sessions spent in silence, Hanzo can take no more.

On a day his mother had shouted at him, Hanzo decides to get advice. The palace is open to all its denizens to come voice their complaints to the emperor Sojiro. Hanzo enters the consulting chamber after walking past numerous citizens and waits for the commoner currently speaking to finish before addressing his father. Keeping his mother’s words to heart, he is dressed in a fine blue silk kimono with the family crest of golden dragons on his back, his hair pinned into place with silver hair pins. He marches to the center of the room and stands proudly, demanding attention.

“Father, is there something wrong with Mother?” he asks, trying to keep his voice even. Whispers from the commoners start to fill the room. Hanzo almost feels self-conscious until he hears someone say “what a beautiful child.” He starts to think that perhaps his mother was right. Beauty does garner respect and attention.

Sojiro sighs from upon his throne and brings one hand to rub at his temple. “Hanzo, I’m working. I’m listening to everyone’s concerns right now, but I am sure I can listen to yours over dinner tonight.” Hanzo frowns. Sojiro hasn’t joined him and Genji for dinner in two years. Neither has his mother for that matter.

“I’m part of this empire too, so can’t you listen to my concern?” Hanzo counters, tilting his chin up to seem confident. Sojiro pauses, his eyes shifting about the room. Eventually, he lifts a hand and the guards on the perimeter start to usher everyone to wait just outside. Soon, the doors shut leaving just Sojiro, Hanzo, and Sojiro’s personal guard in the room. 

“Come, Hanzo. I believe it’s time we had a talk.” As his father outstretches his arms, Hanzo moves forward. With a groan, Sojiro lifts Hanzo and places the boy in his lap. The eight-year-old shifts around a bit to get comfortable on his father’s bony legs. Sojiro winces once at the awkward placement of weight then settles into his throne once more. “Now, what makes you think there is something the matter with your mother?” Hanzo frowns, remembering why he came.

“She… always seems angry with me lately, even if I haven’t done anything. She doesn’t comb my hair as often as she used to either. Does she not love me anymore?” Hanzo hiccups on the last word, feeling his tears stream down his cheek. Sojiro stays silent and just rubs circles on the boy’s back to soothe him. Once Hanzo’s sobs are quieted to small gasps, the emperor speaks.

“Your mother could never hate you, Hanzo. Every night she tells me how much she loves you and Genji.” Sojiro’s voice is kind but sounds far away to Hanzo, like it’s a practiced speech.

“Then why won’t she look at me anymore?” Sojiro frowns. He doesn’t speak for a long time. Hanzo fears he may never get an answer and is about to ask again until Sojiro finally speaks up.

“She… Your mother is struggling with herself right now. She’s going through a hard time, but I want you to know that she loves you more than anything. She loves you more than she loves herself. It’s just hard for her to show you that right now.” Carefully, Sojiro grips Hanzo’s shoulders and leans to the side to look him in the eyes. “I think the best thing you could do right now is give her some space and let her come to you. When she does, she’ll be back to the way you remember.”

Hanzo almost asks “but what if she never goes back?” but even just the thought of that same loving mother never returning scares him more than anything. Eventually, his tears slow to a crawl and he feels comfortable enough to hop down from his father’s lap. Sojiro leans forward to wipe away the tear tracks on his son’s face.

“Now you’ve gone and dirtied your pretty face. What would your mother say?” The emperor smiles softly, rubbing this thumbs into Hanzo’s cheeks. The boy frowns and looks at his shoes, no longer feeling confident now that he isn’t beautiful.

“I should go clean myself up,” he whispers, his voice tired from the crying. Sojiro nods.

“There you go. Please see that you do clean up. I meant it when I said I would be joining you for dinner tonight.” Hanzo nods and scurries off to the door. A glance back shows his father talking with his guard, a heavy frown on his face. As the door opens and the common folk are let back into the room, Hanzo hears Sojiro mutter “she isn’t even eating anymore” before he’s guided back to his room by a palace guard.

Before cleaning up, Hanzo goes to Genji’s room to inform his younger brother. The five year old had been just as worried as Hanzo. With the increasing distance from their parents and the lack of other children in the palace, the two could only find solace in each other. Knowing what he does now, Hanzo pledges to keep Genji happy in place of their mother until she starts to feel better. The two even start planning a tea party to cheer her up when she feels good enough to be around her children. Hanzo spends so long with Genji that he nearly forgets to get cleaned up in time for dinner. Rushing to his room, Hanzo pauses at the sound of shouting a bit further down the hall. Tiptoeing silently, the boy pauses outside his parents’ bedchamber, listening to their shouting.

“You can’t keep doing this, Kureha! Look around you! You’re hurting Hanzo and Genji, and you’re even hurting yourself!” Hanzo watches the shadows on the wall closest to the door jump, the taller one’s arms waving frantically. The smaller one seems to curl in on itself.

“I can’t help it, Sojiro! Everyday I look in the mirror and see myself is another day I’m closer to seeing one of them. I can’t stand it. If it’s not me, I-I… You know what I’ve done,” Kureha’s voice drops to a whisper at the last part. Hanzo presses closer to the door, eager to hear more. He can hear his father sigh.

“I know… I know what you’ve done, and I’ve forgiven you for all of it. But I draw the line when it comes to our sons!” One of the shadows points towards the door and at first, Hanzo worries he’s been caught, but when no footsteps comes, he relaxes once more.

“I don’t want to hurt them either, Sojiro, but look at me! I’m falling apart because of them! Every time I look at them, I’m reminded of what little time I have left! I can’t bear the sight of them anymore!” Hanzo hears his mother gasp loudly after that, like she shouldn’t have said that. There’s a bit of silence before he hears her sobbing. “You know I love them… don’t you?”

The shadows on the wall merge into one large lump, like the taller one enveloped the smaller once. “Then stop hurting them… Is beauty really that important to you? What matters more? Beauty or our sons?” The shadows break apart as the smaller one pushes the taller one away.

“Beauty is the only thing that matters!”

“Prince Hanzo?” The child gasps and turns around, coming face to face with one of his maids. Despite the guilty expression on his face, the maid frowns when she realizes where he is. She grabs him by the hand and pulls him away towards his room. “Come, we need to prepare you for dinner. Your father is joining you tonight.” Hanzo glances back towards his parents’ room.

“And my mother?”

The maid never answers.

What was weekly combing sessions with his mother turns into every other week then once a month until they cease altogether. Whenever Hanzo sees his mother around the palace, she is like a beautiful ghost. There is still no hair out of place and no outfit any less pleasant than the last, but her eyes no longer shine. Her pale face is no longer the product of makeup. Her slender limbs are now bony and frail. It makes Hanzo’s chest hurt every time he catches sight of his mother, so he too does his best to avoid her. It isn’t until halfway through his ninth year that his mother finally seeks him out.

Much like before, Hanzo sits on the same purple ottoman. The same sanna ginger lily incense burns on a tray placed on the bedside table. Kureha uses the same golden comb to gently sift through Hanzo’s hair though it has gotten longer. What used to only brush the boy’s chin now falls brushes against his shoulders. Hanzo sits in silence as his mother combs his hair, wondering why she decided to do this after 7 months had passed since she last did.

“My, your hair has gotten quite long, Hanzo.” Kureha’s voice is just as soft as before only somehow it sounds more frail. Hanzo resists the urge to nod, knowing it would only undo the work already done.

“I haven’t cut it in a year, Mother. Only trimmed it to keep it neat. I was thinking of growing it out to be as long as yours,” he answers truthfully. Kureha chuckles. Her hair comes well down her thighs, stopping halfway to her knees. Though that kind of growth is not impossible for Hanzo, it is highly unlikely. The two fall to silence again. The gentle scrape of the comb against Hanzo’s scalp slows until it stops altogether. Silence still. Hanzo turns and looks up at the woman. “Mother?”

“Hanzo… I have something I want to share with you.” Hanzo straightens his posture to show he is listening. A gentle nod is all the recognition he gets before Kureha sets the golden comb down and glides over to the tall oak bookcase in the room. Hanzo tries not to notice how her movements seem less graceful than before. Soon, she returns with a purple book larger than most, but not comically large, trimmed with silver and gold. She squats in front of Hanzo and holds the book out towards him. “I have magic within me. I’m a witch.”

“A witch? Can you fly?!” Kureha chuckles and pats the top of Hanzo’s head, something she has not done in years.

“No, I cannot fly, but I can cast spells. Do you remember the Foundation Day from when you were 4?” Hanzo thinks for a moment.

“When the fireworks were almost cancelled because it rained all day then when it became night the rain suddenly stopped?” Kureha smiles and nods.

“That’s right. The rain didn’t suddenly stop. I cast a magic spell to stop it myself.” She pauses for Hanzo to shout in wonder and joy. Once the boy settles again, she places the book in her lap. “I may not be able to teach you, but I would like it for you to learn magic as well. You can start with this book, and when you’re ready, you’re welcome to any of the magic tomes I have in my library.” Hanzo frowns.

“Why can’t you teach me?” Kureha frowns and stands.

“I may not be around much longer.” Before Hanzo can even question her, she picks up the golden comb and resumes their usual activity. The boy tries to busy himself with the book in his lap instead. His mother is finally talking to him again after all. He doesn’t want to upset her and cause her to not talk to him again. He idly flips through the pages, amazed by the illustrations within.

“So… if I read this book, I could be a witch like you?” Hanzo asks. He turns his head up to look at his mother. She has such a sad, fragile smile on her face that makes it look like she is about to cry. Kureha reaches out a hand and cups Hanzo’s cheek.

“That’s right, you can. Hanzo… I want you become just like me when you grow up. I want you to be the prettiest in all the land, the strongest witch too. You must work hard though and never let anyone else be prettier or stronger than you. If someone does become prettier or stronger than you, I’ll be sad.” Hanzo blinks. Is Kureha allowed to be prettier and stronger than him? The boy wonders about the meaning behind his mother’s words before he realizes she is waiting for a response.

“Of course, mother! I’ll become the prettiest and strongest in all the lands!” he agrees cheerily. He puts a hand to hers, hoping to cheer her up. Instead, she gasps and pulls away as if burned. An unsteady moment passes before a smile is on her face once more.

“Good. There are spells within that book to help you become even more beautiful than you are now, so work hard, my little prince. Now, I’m sorry to cut today short, but mother isn’t feeling well. Perhaps you could go play with Genji before your next lesson starts?” Kureha asks, turning away from Hanzo. She busies herself with washing the golden comb and renewing the incense in the room. The boy nods and hops down. A chill goes down his spine as Hanzo heads for the door, so he turns just before leaving to get another look at his mother. She stands, as beautiful as ever as she flits about the room with grace and poise. Yes, I will be just like her one day, he thinks as he finally leaves the room. If only he knew the meaning behind the chill he had felt.

Just a week later in the dead of winter, Hanzo stands on a platform in the palace plaza near the gates, overlooking thousands of people. He stands, tall, dressed in fine black silk with his hair pulled back by a single golden comb. Though the boy tries his hardest not to, tears stream down his cheeks, sullying his otherwise beautiful face. Genji stands beside him, cowering in on himself and crying freely. Sojiro stands tall just a few feet away, speaking to the crowd gathered at the palace.

“...to remember Kureha as a beautiful empress, a kind guide, a fierce protector, and a loving mother to my sons. It is my greatest sorrow to finally part with my wife like this, and I hope that none of you should ever endure such hardship as this. I know that Kureha will be deeply missed, not only by me and my sons, but also by you, the people, as she was beloved by many. For now, our monthly tea ceremonies will be put off and…”

Hanzo doesn’t hear much of what his father has to say. He’s too busy staring at his lifeless mother lying on a bed of black velvet roses. Earlier in the week, there was talk among the palace of importing those special flowers from a kingdom far away, but Hanzo couldn’t help but hate the sight of them. The flowers are being used to take his mother away. They are so cruel yet so beautiful. Those flowers have no right to lay beside his mother like that.

It feels like an eternity before the ceremony is over, and yet, it passes by all too quickly for Hanzo. Once Sojiro finishes speaking, some man wearing a tall, black hat and robes Hanzo has never seen before speaks, then Kureha is boxed off from the world. Though he was silent through the speeches, seeing the cover placed on his mother compels Hanzo into action. He shouts and chases after his mother, held back by Sojiro. The boy thrashes in his father’s arms as 6 men carry the box his mother is in through the crowd and away to a place he doesn’t know. Once Kureha cannot be seen anymore, Hanzo stills, crying heavily into his father’s arm. Sojiro pulls Genji in with his other arm, and together, the three men return to the palace. They have a short time together before Sojiro is called away to his duties, leaving Hanzo and Genji to console each other.

Hanzo spends many days of the following months in his mother’s study where Kureha would comb his hair. More often than not, the boy curls into himself on the ottoman and cries gentle tears at his mother’s memory. Sometimes, Hanzo lights some incense and reads the magic tome Kureha left him. It is increasingly hard for each of his tutors to pull him away from the room for their lessons that eventually, they each give up and decide to hold their classes in the study to comfort the boy. Despite such a comfort, Hanzo’s performance steadily decreases.

“Hanzo?” At the sound of his father’s voice, Hanzo curls up tighter on the ottoman and turns his back towards the door. Sojiro exhales, patient not a sigh, and his footsteps can be heard as he enters further into the room. “I had a feeling I might find you here. This has really become your favorite room in the palace.”

Hanzo sniffs, feeling the oncoming tears produce more snot than his nose can hold. “Because… this is where mother and I…” He sniffs again, his vision growing blurry. “Where mother and I…” A tear escapes. Hanzo wills himself to hold back, to not cry and ruin his face. Someone has to uphold Kureha’s beauty after all.

“I know, son… She always cherished the time she spent with you in this room.” Silence befalls the two again. Hanzo can hear Sojiro awkwardly shuffle into a squat beside him, but he can’t bring himself to look up from his misery. A hand falls to his knee, too large and masculine to belong to his mother. This only makes him want to cry more. “Your mother… she… I have something she wanted you to have.” Hanzo’s head snaps up to glare at his father.

“Why haven’t you told me yet! It’s been 3 months since Mother died!” he shouts. Sojiro pauses, his face the picture of patience and forgiveness. After a moment, he speaks again.

“I haven’t told you yet… because I wasn’t sure if it would help you in your grief or only make you feel worse. I can see now that it could only help you, but…” Sojiro waits for Hanzo to turn his body to face him completely before continuing. The two stay in silence for a few minutes before the boy finally relents, turning his body and letting his legs down to sit properly. “If I give this to you, you must promise me that you’ll take your lessons seriously again. You were such a good student. I want you continue working hard.”

Hanzo thinks for a moment. On the one hand, he had enjoyed his lessons before his mother’s death. Knowledge is something he wishes to absorb and obtain at any time. There is not enough time in the world to learn all he wishes. However, on the other hand, his motivation is still low from grieving over his mother. Anytime he thinks about enjoying his life without her, a heavy guilt and sadness weighs him down. Hanzo can see the same happening in Sojiro, so he wonders why his father is asking this of him. Perhaps it is because Sojiro is also suffering that he asks. Maybe applying himself once more will help the awful feeling in his chest. There is also the added bonus of inheriting something of his mother’s.

“...Okay, I promise. I’ll try harder in my lessons.”

Sojiro smiles. It’s the first Hanzo has seen since before Kureha died. Immediately he knows this is the right choice. Sojiro grabs Hanzo’s hands and gives a light, encouraging squeeze. “Okay, follow me then.”

The two stand once more and leave behind Kureha’s study. Sojiro holds onto one of Hanzo’s hands as they walk, though the ten year old has little need for it. Perhaps if he was still Genji’s age, he would appreciate it more, but he does not pull away. Both of them need the small comfort it gives. 

They walk for a long time as the palace is quite large. It has eight different wings, six courtyards, ten gardens each featuring flora from different regions, four ballrooms, two throne rooms, three armories, six kitchens, twenty dining rooms, an entrance hall for each wing, three libraries or studies for each wing, and finally thirty different bathrooms. Each person who worked in the large estate could all be housed in the servants quarters located in one of the Western wings and there would still be enough beds to house them all once more. The palace is lavishly large, unreasonably so as Hanzo realizes through their journey that he has yet to venture into this part of his home.

Sojiro leads Hanzo to a lower floor of a southeastern wing of the palace. This part seems much older than the rest, perhaps part of the original building created several hundred years ago. The wooden floors are duller than the rest of the palace and more worn while the walls seem to be made from various stones instead of one solid structure. There is a slight thrumming Hanzo can feel in his bones that must not be bothering Sojiro any at all. At least, if it is, the emperor hardly shows it.

The pair finally stop before an arched door made of various panels of colored glass. It glitters different colors in the sunlight that streams in from the floor to ceiling windows of the hall, mesmerizing Hanzo. Within the glass’s colors holds a story, that much the boy can see, but what story he does not know. He can only see two dragons at the top of the arch and two humans standing at the bottom. It reminds him of his mother’s comb, currently lodged into his hair to hold it in place.

“This room is the most magical room in all the palace, Hanzo,” Sojiro starts. He holds a hand out to the painted door, a wry smile on his face. “Though our family does not carry magic, we benefit from it greatly for we have dragons to grant us power. One day, Hanzo, you too will receive your own dragon… But that is not why I brought you here today.”

“Then why did you bring me here?” he asks impatiently. Sojiro pulls a silver key from within his robes and unlocks the door. He smiles back at his son as he opens it.

“Your mother re-purposed this room to practice her magic in. She told me that she had let you know who she really was so… I want to allow you this room to practice your own magic. Spells can hurt the palace if not done correctly, so in this room, you can practice your spells without destroying the palace,” Sojiro explains. Hanzo follows his father in to see a rather spacious room. 

There is a desk towards the back of the room, a lamp upon it to shed some light on whatever books lie there. Tall bookshelves filled with magic tomes span the length of two walls. A third wall is made entirely of painted glass much like the door. The last wall has a large painting of Kureha, sitting and smiling at the artist and a tall oval mirror edged in gold. Hanzo nearly tears up at the sight of the painting so he pushes his attention to the cauldron in the center of the room.

“Is magic dangerous?” he asks. Sojiro hums.

“It can be, but most magic is harmless. When I said it could hurt the palace, I just meant small things like summoning strong winds or starting a fire. I don’t think magic can really hurt people, but I am not a witch so I do not know. You will have to study hard so you can tell me the answer one day.” Sojiro stays by the door, never venturing more than a single step inside. Hanzo turns to smile at his father.

“I will! I’ll become the best witch ever, just like mother!” 

Sojiro’s smile is small and uncertain. “I’m sure of it. For now though, you need to focus on the rest of your lessons if you will become emperor like me one day. So, until your tutors are satisfied with your work, I will keep the key to this room. You will only be able to practice magic once a week. Tomorrow you can come back and start. I just wanted you to see the room today.” The emperor holds out his hand to have the little prince join him. Hanzo reluctantly goes to his father’s side, feeling something within him drawing him closer to the magic the room holds. Just before leaving, Hanzo sneaks another glance at the portrait of his mother and the large mirror below it intrigued by its purpose in the room.

And so, just as promised, the little prince Hanzo regains his focus when studying and impresses his tutors with the growth and knowledge he achieves. Every week, his father--or a palace maid if Sojiro is too busy--escorts Hanzo to Kureha’s atelier where he practices his magic and reads from the large purple tome given to him by his mother. Though the boy does not have the chance to practice anything more substantial than what could be seen as party tricks--such as opening and closing curtains, lighting candles, boiling tea, and so on--he is content enough to know this is the knowledge his mother chose to leave him behind. As far as he knows, Genji does not even know of the room or his mother’s magical upbringing, so he feels special, closer to her somehow.

Then the day of Hanzo’s fifteenth birthday comes and he is once again given special attention. Sojiro invited many special guests to the palace that day as Hanzo was cared for by numerous servants. There were servants to wash and dress his hair, to clip and care for his nails, to scrub his feet, to apply the white and red make up and paintings to his face. Hanzo is just as pleased with the special treatment as he is by the beautiful appearance he strikes dressed in his fine silk ceremonial robes. Before the ceremony is to begin, the young man looks into Kureha’s large mirror to admire himself and he begins to understand.

Beauty is confidence and confidence is beauty.

Hanzo can only hope that he is half as beautiful as his mother as he stands before his father and their esteemed guests in the courtyard. It is his wish that he moves with the same grace as she as the prince performs the ritual’s dance. It is with great pride that he accepts the two exquisite dragons who request to dwell within him. His father’s proud smile is what gives Hanzo’s beauty and confidence form, allowing the prince to come into his own life as which is customary with the Dragon Ceremony.

Hanzo carries that same confident, alluring air throughout the week’s festivities. His stunning appearance charms most of the palace’s guests while his newfound confidence assures the most auspicious guests of their alliance with the empire. The compliments hardly seem to stop. All week, Hanzo hears words of praise and holds onto them.

“This is the most beautiful boy I have ever seen, your majesty.”

“A boy this handsome will surely grant you adorable future heirs.”

“Prince Hanzo is quite gorgeous, isn’t he? If only he was of marrying age…”

“The prince is just as pulchritudinous as his mother!”

“To think that it would take a boy as stunning as Prince Hanzo to earn two dragons.”

The praise never stops, nor does Hanzo wish for it to. Though the ceremony is the first day of the week of celebration and only one of three days requiring ceremonial garb, Hanzo continues to pretty himself everyday to continue hearing such flattery. Instead of ceremonial robes, Hanzo dresses in fine silk kimonos, some of which drag on the floor behind him. Instead of the white and red face paint, Hanzo takes great care to use colored makeup to even his complexion and enhance his strong cheekbones and eyes. Instead of the ceremonial headgear, Hanzo instead opts to keep his long hair free or pinned back by his mother’s golden comb. 

The compliments never cease, even as the week ends and the palace guests leave. Hanzo continues to put maximum effort into his appearance and without fail will hear compliments from all he passes. He is so concerned with compliments and his appearance that he hardly ever sees Genji around the palace anymore, though Hanzo is unsure what he would do if he did. The younger Shimada knows little about his brother anymore. Genji knows nothing of magic and cares not for his appearance. Hanzo would scorn the boy if he weren’t too busy crafting the perfect appearance and studying magic.

With this newfound purpose in his life, Hanzo thrives in his life. Lessons to one day become emperor are more interesting, and before moving onto more difficult magic, the prince strives to perfect what little the tome his mother left has to teach. Every time he enters Kureha’s old atelier, the dragons living within him buzz. It takes the young man months to figure out that the dragons are trying to communicate with him, but when he does, Hanzo releases them in the atelier. The two blue dragons now considerably smaller than their meeting at the ceremony glide and twin around him, circling him appraisingly. Eventually, the two stop, one on either side of the prince and speak.

“Considering the length of time your ancestors took to begin speaking with us, you are quite the accomplished boy,” the one on the left starts. The dragon speaks slow and drawn out, emphasizing the ‘s’ sounds. Though impressed by their speech, Hanzo feels himself beam at the praise.

“And you yet have much to learn from us. Accept our guidance, little one, and we can show you the way,” the other says, whispering into Hanzo’s ear. The young man looks between the two dragons and nods. “Excellent… Let’s start with that mirror over there.” The dragon glides over to the large mirror below Kureha’s portrait.

“This mirror?” Hanzo asks standing before it. He inspects the mirror once more. “What’s so special about it?”

“This is no ordinary mirror, little one. Speak to it. Say ‘mirror, mirror on the wall’ and you shall see,” the first dragon says, perching himself on Hanzo’s left shoulder. The prince stares at the mirror and can see the surface cloud slightly, then realizes that the mirror is not growing cloudy but rather starting to dim as if it reflects nothing.

“Uh… Mirror, mirror, on the wall…” As soon as Hanzo finishes speaking, the mirror clouds even further. The prince sees an infinite space of darkness behind the mirror and watches curiously as a face that is not his own appears. The woman pictured in the mirror is of dark skin and long dark hair, and though her expression appear bored, she is undeniably attractive due to her symmetrical features. The woman in the mirror blinks at Hanzo impatiently.

“You called?” She asks in a calm, even tone. Hanzo startles for a moment before he feels his dragons nudging him forward from his back.

“Ask her who the most beautiful in the land is. She will answer with only the truth,” the second dragon instructs, curling over the top of the mirror. Hanzo swallows past the lump in his throat. Though he has received numerous compliments as of late, the prince is uncertain if his goal to be the fairest like this mother has been achieved or not. Another look at his dragons warns him of their impatience.

“Um…” Hanzo takes a deep breath and decides to begin again from the beginning. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” The woman in the mirror blinks again, only this time in surprise.

“Why, my prince, you are the fairest in all the land.”

Those words are like the sightings of the first cherry blossom flower to bloom in early spring after a harsh winter. Hanzo feels his chest lighten and notices his posture straighten considerably. The mirror cannot lie after all. He must be the fairest in the land, just like Kureha. This position must be upheld, so Hanzo takes the mirror into his room. Daily, the young prince asks, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” and for every question he is responded with the answer he most wants to hear.

So long as he hears those words, his spring will continue for all eternity.