There were a great many things the prince, firstborn heir to a kingdom spanning most of the continent and confirmed incarnation of the life-bringing darkness that had created them all, had to do today. There were diplomatic meetings his father wanted him to sit in on and tutors waiting to meet with him. And all of those things were overridden by two simple facts: the prince was nine years old and very very bored.
Prince Judai had discovered the hole in the hedge just yesterday. It was hidden away by some overgrowing branches, giving the hedge the impression of solidness, and it was just large enough for a limber nine-year-old to climb through. The other side of the hedge gave out on the outskirts of one of the traders' villages that had been established near the palace long before even Judai's father had been born. Judai remembered the road well enough to get there unnoticed. Even his guards weren't following him! He couldn't even really remember the last time he'd been alone. Really, they were all treating him like he was so special for the Darkness thing, but they didn't believe he'd be fine on his own?
The village was full of people who never came up to the castle, dressed in clothes Judai only vaguely recognized from other kingdoms. And all the things they sold! Judai toyed with his wallet. He had money enough to get whatever he wanted to buy and he fully intended on doing so.
He got distracted by a group of children running past. Judai didn't know a lot of kids at the palace. He had a sister who was way too young and stupid to play with, and the prime minister had a son who was afraid of everything. Those kids probably had way more fun in life than Judai did. Maybe they'd let him play with them? But he hadn't eaten at all today yet, and there was a food stand right across the road from him!
Two minutes later he was holding a kind of stuffed pastry he'd never seen before. There was definitely meat in there, and vegetables, and he absolutely loved it. He'd have to tell the cooks to make it when he got back home.
He was chewing on his last bite when someone slammed into him, making him choke and cough violently.
"I'm sorry! Are you okay?" a girl asked, patting him on the back. "Keep coughing, c'mon."
Judai groaned as the urge to cough finally subsided and he got a good look at the person who'd ran into him. The girl couldn't be older than Judai himself. Her tangled hair was a peculiar shade of greenish blue that matched her eyes. Judai had never seen that kind of color before.
"Sorry for running into you. I tripped," she said.
Judai should probably say something nice to that. Instead he said: "Your hair's weird."
"Right," said the girl with ill-concealed impatience. "Well, if you're going to be okay, I'm off."
And she walked off, disappearing from sight within seconds. Were all kids this weird? Judai definitely wasn't that weird.
Oh well, he could still go buy things! He turned on his heels and walked towards what looked like the main street of the village. So many shops and stalls!
Oh no. Judai set his shoulders and watched as captain Amyntha of the royal guard strode over, her every step carefully measured. He'd never seen her run in his life.
"Your highness, you should not disappear like that," she hissed, guiding him away from the now-stupified vendors. She led him to an empty building with unerring accuracy. Probably one of the many buildings the royal guard owned everywhere. "You'll be happy to hear that we've caught the thief."
"Judai frowned. "Thief?"
"The one who stole your—" Captain Amyntha paused, her mouth quirking into a vague half-smile. "Your highness, did you realize that your wallet got stolen?"
Judai's hand flew to his belt. "Hey, my money!"
"Yes." Captain Amyntha looked outside. "Rest assured that the culprit will be punished severely."
On cue, two more guards whose names Judai had never bothered to learn showed up. With them was the girl from before. Her blue-green eyes narrowed when she spotted Judai.
"Hey, it's you!"
"Could you please tell them to let me go?" she asked. "I have places to be.
Captain Amyntha smiled grimly. "I don't think so, girl. The money?"
The guard on the right handed over the wallet. "She was carrying it."
"I thought so. Do you know what the punishment for stealing is, girl?"
In an instant, all of the girls anger vanished, and her face paled in a sickening kind of fear. Life in prison for stealing from a member of the royal family, Judai remembered. Possibly even execution. But it was just a wallet! Judai wanted to say so, but the girl beat him to it.
"I just wanted to eat!"
"A judge will decide—"captain Amyntha said, as Judai asked: "Can't you just ask your parents to buy you food?"
Where the girl's face had been pale before, it now turned a blotchy red. The guards exchanged uncomfortable looks with captain Amyntha.
"I don't have any parents, you idiot," the girl spat. "Did you ever stop to think that not everyone gets to live in a castle with stupid servants following you around all day?"
"You will not address the prince like that," said captain Amyntha. "Take her away. I will escort the prince back to the castle."
"Hey, but," Judai told her as the captain took his arm. "It's just a wallet! I don't care, she can have it! You can let her go!"
"I don't need your charity!"
Judai frowned. The girl looked pale again under her anger. He thought he could see her tremble. Did she really have nothing to eat? She looked very small and her shirt was torn in several places. He turned pleading eyes on captain Amyntha.
"Can't we just let her go? Dad won't know!"
"Your highness, it's highly unethical to leave a criminal on the loose."
Guard-on-the-left shifted uncomfortably. "It's just a child," she said.
Captain Amyntha sighed. "I have to report this. But I suppose... How fast can you run, girl?"
"Then I suppose you could have outrun us."
Judai cheered. The girl's eyes widened. "I can go?" she asked.
Captain Amyntha nodded. The girl didn't need to be told twice. She darted out of the door as soon as the guards let go of her. Judai frowned at her retreating back.
"You know," said captain Amyntha, following his gaze. "We never did catch her. I'm sorry about your wallet."
She offered him his wallet. Judai smiled and ran.
"Hey, wait!" He caught up with the girl and pressed his wallet into her hands. "They couldn't find you, so that's yours."
"Still don't need charity," she said, but she pocketed the money anyway and handed him his now-empty wallet back. "I suppose you could be worse. For a spoiled brat and all."
Judai pulled a face. "Look, listen, I'm sorry. but there's a hole in the hedge on the east wall, left of the water tower. You can come if you want to."
"Why would I?"
"There's food?" Judai tried. The girl shook her head.
"I can find something here."
"Well, just once," Judai begged. He never had anyone to play with and this girl was kinda cool when she wasn't angry. "Please? Tomorrow, this time."
"You don't even know my name."
Judai gave her a wide smile. "What's your name?"
The girl rolled her eyes, but Judai counted the small smile as a win. "It's Yubel."
"Yubel." Judai liked that name. "Will you come?"
Yubel brushed off her clothes and took a few steps back into the crowd of shoppers. "I'll consider it," she shouted.
Good enough for Judai.