The Troublesome Prince
Even when he was young, Ling of the Yao Clan proved to be a very odd prince. As soon as anyone had taken their eyes off of him, he would disappear, and turn up later lying face down on the street in the middle of the city marketplace.
Very often he'd be found being treated by a merchant in a restaurant, filling his belly and flirting with the female servers. It was as if he were not aware that at any moment, his life could be in danger. Always wearing that disarming smile, like he was anything but a noble with the fate of his clan in his hands.
To his bodyguards, this behavior was very troublesome. To his mother, it was infuriating. Ran Fan had seen him being scolded many times- "Why do you have to act this way? We are not so low as the Chan Clan; you are not a peasant! Take pride in your royal upbringing, or you will be surpassed by your brothers and sisters!"
Ling would simply shrug and continue chewing on his fish bone.
He was, however, rather popular with the other servants and the commoners. Many times people would even go through an entire conversation with him without realizing his noble birth. The merchants in the marketplace had long gotten used to seeing him there, and would always laugh, dust the young prince off, and carry him to the nearest food stand. They called him the Prince of the People, one not afraid to share a table with the poorest of peasants.
But again, this was very troublesome. Ran Fan had grown up with the fear of losing track of him, and the idea of finding him too late, unable to protect him from the deadly blade of his enemies, featured prominently in her nightmares.
One day, the Prince was put under her watch alone, while the rest of her family was sent to fulfill some other duty. She stood near him in the garden, where he sat practicing his calligraphy among the spring bloom.
Ran Fan stood still and silent, like a statue, but beneath her mask she felt nervous and alert, this being her first time guarding him on her own.
There was a rustle in the bushes, and Ran Fan had her kunai in hand at once, preparing to defend her charge against the assassin hiding in wait. But the noise was caused only by a sparrow, and Ran Fan turned back to resume her silent guard- only to realize that within that one second, Ling had disappeared from his seat!
She searched everywhere for him in the house, hoping he hadn't gone too far, but in the end there was only one place to look. Sure enough, there he was, hiding behind stacks of plates and bowls. When he saw her beside him once again, all he said before taking another bite of meat bun was, "Oh, there you are. That was fast."
A part of her was thrilled that he'd complimented her (in a way), and mostly she felt very relieved that he was okay, but she still couldn't help but be utterly exasperated.
As he continued stuffing his face, she hesitantly opened her mouth. "Young master, may I ask you a question?"
Ran Fan knew what her grandfather would say if he was with her now, and despite Ling's relaxed nature she felt horribly scandalous speaking out like this- but she also knew her grandfather felt the same, for she had seen him grumbling to himself the last time this had happened.
"Why do you keep doing this? It would be much easier to protect you inside the house, and you're putting yourself in much danger out here in the open. You can eat the finest cuisine made by the clan's finest cooks, but you choose to dine out here in the dirt. Why?"
Ling swallowed and turned to look at her. He spread his hands out at the food before him and answered smoothly, like he had been expecting someone to ask him this someday.
"Well, look. Don't you think it's more likely for the assassins to come looking for me in my own home? It's much more pleasant for me to eat out here with friendly company than in a silent room where my food may very well be poisoned."
Ran Fan had to admit, he had a point. "But eventually, they will figure it out. What will you do when the assassins come to attack you here?"
Ling's smile faded away, and his eyes narrowed in a steely leer. It was jarring to realize that even his usual smile could become so cold and calculating, and Ran Fan realized that if he did stay locked up inside his house, that look would probably become permanent.
"Then I'll fight them when it comes to that. I've become stronger, out here. You wouldn't believe all the things I've learned by talking to these people. They belong to my clan too, you see. So let the assassins come. I'll be ready for them."
Ran Fan could not believe the sheer recklessness of that statement, but at the same time she felt her admiration for him grow. The people around them in the restaurant were grinning proudly, as if thinking, 'That's our Prince!'
"It is my job to protect you. That's what I was born to do. You needn't worry about your own safety, because I- because we, will ensure it."
Ling's smile returned, and the serious look went away as quickly as it came. "Thank you. Then I'll do as you say, and won't worry about it. Hey there, miss! I'd like some more roast duck..."
The people around them laughed. Ran Fan felt grateful for her mask that so effectively hid her blush, and tightened her grip on the handle of her blade.
Then so be it, she thought. She would protect him so he wouldn't have to, no matter where his whims would take them.