v. the needle points south
The boy Ken looks to the high and inevitably snow-encrusted peaks of the crescent-shaped Cape. "Do you know what this place is? Do you know where my Stingmon has brought you, human?" A slight sneer mars the otherwise innocent inquiry.
The correction is ignored, pointedly. "Well?"
"I suppose I could name off all the islands that I've ever heard of…" Daisuke says slowly. "Paulet, the Shetlands, Deception, the Falklands, Tierra del Fuego (my favourite by the way), the Sandwiches…"
Ken interrupts. "How about South Georgia?" He asks acidly. "Heard of that?"
"Yes." Daisuke answers in the small voice of a student who has just been reprimanded for an extremely stupid answer. South Georgia is easily the most significant island in the region. "Obviously, obviously. Very important…" Ken's expression does not waver, but he does not interrupt so Daisuke blathers on. "Famous. Lord Shakleton's Last Stand and all. And… and… there are reindeer here…"
Daisuke trails off. He fears he is making a poor impression and burns with shame. He wants to look good, for the pride of his people if for no other reason.
"Reindeer." Ken tastes the word. "And do you know why there are reindeer here, when they are native only to the opposite side of the world?"
"No." Daisuke says wretchedly. The only reason he knows as much as he does is because he thinks reindeer are cool.
"Humans brought them."
"And what does it mean, that humans brought them?"
Daisuke looks at Stingmon, but unfortunately the large insect-man person is not exactly equipped to mouth the answer. Stingmon seems to telegraph a rarified sort of sympathy and reassurance, however, so Daisuke gives Ken's preposterous question a shot: "It means… mmm… that they must have been needed to do things, like carrying stuff and dragging things around and… er… reindeer games." Daisuke is not very clear on the uses of reindeer. There are none on his island.
"It means, you simpleton, that there are humans here. Faugh."
Of course. Daisuke knows that. He opens his mouth wanting to say as much, but then closes it again. These questions serve to reinforce one thing very well: Daisuke does not know this "Ken" boy at all. He cannot predict what the pale-cheeked boy is driving at with these leading inquiries. He asks questions that might have many answers, all complex: but when Daisuke falters the Prince invariably offers the simplest, most obvious one. Daisuke cannot decide if this means that the Prince is trying to humiliate him, or educate him.
Whichever it is, Daisuke finds it annoying. So he decides to remain silent, shrug, and pretend like he doesn't care.
Surprisingly, Stingmon speaks up. "There's no reason for the child to be concerned about other humans, your Highness. He's never had personal cause."
Daisuke grins, suddenly pleased. Because Stingmon is bigger and acts like an adult, it suddenly feels like he has Authority Power on his side… so he sticks out his tongue at Prince Dork. Thus, he is totally surprised when it is Stingmon who picks him up and dangles him menacingly. "Do not presume, child. His Highness is your liege now and you will respect him… as I do."
"But he's treating me like I'm stupid…" Daisuke protests then chokes, and because Stingmon grabbed him just a little too tightly there are tears in his eyes as well.
"Put him down, Stingmon," Ken commands.
Gently, Stingmon places Daisuke near a rock so that he can sit if he needs.
"This is a very dangerous place for me." The tone is almost apologetic, but strangely devoid of true emotional affect. "I came here to receive you, as well as…mm… oh, never mind." Ken coughs, then continues "Leaving here will be difficult… I was attempting to impress upon you the precariousness of my situation because this problem is now your own. We cannot be seen by the humans who live here." Suddenly, the Prince is lit with a burst of emotion. Frustration, perhaps. "It's critical."
"Why not?" Daisuke looks up at Stingmon, checking to see if he sounds appropriately deferential, if his question is proper. Stingmon nods slightly. This whole "in service" thing is turning out to be more difficult then he'd imagined. He hopes the gods will deal him death soon if the rest of his life is going to have to be this hard. But maybe, this is all a part of his punishment. Daisuke tries to take it like a man.
Ken doesn't answer. His royal blue cloak whips suddenly with a chill wind, and the two children shiver slightly. Daisuke thinks that there is something odd about the shape of the Prince's cloak, but is distracted by a thin wailing sound that causes both of his new companions to become deadly still.
"What's that?" he whispers, but Ken waves for silence. The expression on his face is unapproachable, remote.
"Do we fight, your Highness?" Stingmon asks, and to Daisuke's amazed (and deeply appreciative) surprise, deploys a deadly looking spike from the armor on his forearms.
"It's far away. We have time… not much, but it will do. Take the boy to the way station on Paulet. I will meet you there."
Stingmon looks up at the sky. "Calling him down risks alerting the humans, your Highness."
"It's a minor risk. Shakleton called this Cape Disappointment for a reason… no sane person would willingly come here. We will have to come back later to complete our… errand." Ken bristles in irritation. For the first time, Daisuke is totally impressed with the boy… he handles himself like a clan leader. Like the clan leader of Singe, in fact.
Before Daisuke can react, he is lifted into Stingmon's arms (the spike no longer in evidence).
"Go." Ken commands.
As Stingmon lifts above the black beach, Daisuke has the presence of mind to call out. "Good luck… your Worship…er. Highness."
The prince is replacing his purple-tinted goggles on the bridge of his nose, and looks up in surprise. He says nothing, but Daisuke imagines that he sees a crooked grin before the other boy shrinks out of detail.
Stingmon is whisperingly fast. Cutting through the eddies of air that chop up the sky around any sizable island, he seems to have a perfect instinct for speed.
"What was that noise?" Daisuke asks, when Stingmon seems to have slowed down.
"You've heard of wolves?" Stingmon hisses, darting to avoid an albatross who seems to be reclining comfortably in the air.
"That was a wolf?" Daisuke says with credulous twinkling excitement, but then his tone grows suspicious. He tries a little Ken-style critical thinking. "Ah… wait… there are no wolves on any of the islands…" He pounds the chestplate of the insect's armor with a tiny balled fist, once and only for emphasis. "Heeeey."
"You're right. It was not a wolf," Stingmon says. Before Daisuke can hit him again, he is distracted by something that he knows is a lot more impressive than ice.
A blue dragon streaks by, aimed like an arrow towards some point on the island below.
"That-was-a-dragon-oh-my-god-I've-seen-a-dragon-a-Dragon-(!!!)-and-it-was-blue-and-sharp-and-fell-and-amazing-and-wow." A deep breath, and Daisuke opens his mouth to continue…
"It was an Airdramon. I told you that before. And be still… if you possibly can." Stingmon's tone is slightly acerbic, but no wonder: he's been listening to Daisuke prattle for the better part of a half hour, as they waited in the "way station" of Paulet. Daisuke is too excited by the brief glimpse of a Living Myth to have begun commenting on the place where they waited, but were he feeling less perky he might find much to say.
Daisuke tries to be quiet, but he squirms on a pile of sealskin blankets carefully stacked and tacked in the corner and occasionally bursts out with tiny sighs of seeming eternal contentment. The way station has turned out to be nothing more modern than a cave, although it seems to be quite well appointed with food stock and kindling, as well as a surprisingly expansive collection of pre-twentieth century weaponry and battle gear. Wax candles stand in the recessed walls, of all different colors and sizes. Many are lit.
Stingmon's eyes are as difficult to read as his expression. Daisuke wonders if it would be okay to ask a question, but decides to wait. His imagination is captured by the Dragondramon (or whatever) anyway… reaching under his shirt collar, he draws out something that had been a gift from Hikari. It sobers him up a bit, but makes him smile too. A compass.
Hikari…thank you. He hopes she is safe.
The compass is made of brass, heavy for its small size, and hangs around Daisuke's neck by a sturdy cord which had been cut specifically for this purpose. Looking at the burnished face, Daisuke is comforted and enchanted by the familiarity of it. The needle swings with every motion that Daisuke makes, the movements seemingly frentic and yet precise.
Daisuke tries to be still, and the black needle quivers and then freezes. It points south.
The heavy capes that hang before the entrance to the cave are disturbed, and Daisuke looks up. It is Ken, returning from South Georgia. Daisuke does not bother to hold in his gasp when he see that the front of Ken's imperially gaudy jumpsuit is slashed from shoulder to breastbone.
"You stayed to fight," Stingmon says flatly.
"There was only one," Ken pants, and his previously porcelain cheeks are now pink from exertion. His pupils are large, darkening the whole feel of his face and making him look quite different. Daisuke stands up.
"Can I help?" he asks.
"Oh, sit down," Ken says quickly. "It's nothing."
Daisuke finds himself looking at Stingmon, who hasn't moved an inch. He raises an eyebrow.
"Listen to him."
At this, Ken shakes his head. "Human… come here."
This is authority. This is how it sounds: not yelling, not boasting, not angry. Daisuke does not fear anything now that he is doomed to die, and yet he feels very impressed, enough to shake, as he brings himself a few paces before the Prince.
The prince slaps him. It is measured, and not very painful. "Never check. If I order you to do something, just do it." Daisuke holds his ground stoutly.
"I'm sorry," he says finally, in a small voice. "I just… you look like you really are hurt."
"I'm not. See?" Ken undoes the clasp of his cape, and lets it fall. Never taking his eyes off of Daisuke, he shrugs off the top of his jumpsuit, revealing a creamy silver-pale expanse of flesh only slightly marred by a superficial scrape.
It is strange. Standing there, so close to his new "Lord," looking at his not unimpressive body, Daisuke is struck with a bleak sense of homesickness. Just the day before, he had been laughing with his friends, happy with his family, at peace with the world. Now he is outcast… and the only thing holding him here in the world is this puzzling boy, who is not only perilous but alien as well.
His face falls. "I see."
Daisuke forgets about the dragon. He forgets about the strange and wonderful experience of flying. Why is it that proximity to Ken is tearing his heart apart in exotic loneliness?
Were this all of it, Daisuke might have dropped to the floor in despair right then, convincing himself to die by giving up hope entirely. But then Ken lifts a hand, and touches the compass which dangles there. "What's this?" he asks softly, his strangely low-pitched voice touched with vivid harmonics. Ken almost sounds as if he cared.
"You tell me," Daisuke says, half-laughing, half-choking. He tries hard not to cry. "You know everything and I'm such a 'simpleton'…"
"Is it your heart?" Ken asks, oddly.
Daisuke really laughs then. "My heart? It must be, if you say so 'My Lord.' A heart made of brass, with a needle that always points south! It must be! You are…" Daisuke breaks down, "…so, so… clever…" He sobs, and then sniffles, whipping at his nose as a little clear fluid leaks out.
Ken surprises him. Brushing the stray locks of auburn-red hair off Daisuke's brow, Ken begins to shush. "Stingmon is right. You are a child. I shouldn't forget…"
Turning, Ken lights a few more candles, lifting one votive to kiss the others with fire. Then he wordlessly slips his arms back into the top of his marred suit, while Daisuke stands, arms hanging at his sides, and cries. When Ken has his cloak back in place, he looks at Stingmon and seems to come to a decision. "We stay here tonight. It's not very comfortable but I think this one is too drained to go any further."
This seems to suit Stingmon just fine. He goes to stand watch just outside the cave.
"You need to sleep," Ken says, and it sounds like he is making an effort not to have that come off like a full-blown command. Daisuke just nods, but doesn't move. He feels embarrassed for his weakness, and forsaken because the gods are turning their backs on him, and guilty because he allows himself to be tricked from time to time that he is still alive.
"Bury me," Daisuke sniffs.
Ken seems helpless in the face of such despair. He'd never met someone who didn't want to live before… not only does he recognize the inherent difficulties in commanding such a person, he is shocked to realize that for once, he has met a challenge which does not faultlessly crumble before his magnificence. Daisuke is bending, yes…but he cannot be allowed to break or he will die. Clumsily, Ken takes Daisuke's hand in his own.
"When you chose to enter my service, that obligated you to me. I'm sure you know that. But perhaps you do not understand that I am also obligated to you." Ken squeezes the bare brown hand gently. "I will not let you die."
Shockingly, Daisuke is not reassured. "That's not your choice to make. You cannot forbid fate."
At this, the Prince offers a rare and brittle smile. "Watch me."