Light rain pattered the roofs of Shenkuu, the wind whistled through the mountains like some giant instrument, and the featureless grey sky was darkening imperceptibly to blackness. Pào sat on a rooftop niche where several eaves came together to make a crude shelter. She was a small red Nimmo, no more than ten or so years old, though she didn't know exactly when her birthday was, nor had she bothered to count the passage of time. When other children should have been served cake and given gifts, Pào's birthday was just like any other day living homeless on the streets and cliffs of Shenkuu.
The Nimmo was small but tough, lithe and speedy. Whatever she owned was either begged or stolen, but that was what had to be done. That was how you survived. However, right at that very moment on the rain washed roofs, soaked through to the skin and shivering with cold, Pào couldn't care any less about the world in which she had lived her whole life. The only thing she gave any mind to was the figure that lay in a sprawled heap on the cobbles below.
She clambered down the familiar path from the rooftops to the alleyway that smelled of stagnant refuse and raced to the corner of the street, peering owlishly around the corner. She glanced around nervously but didn't see anyone else. This was an opportunity she couldn't miss, and she knew it well. After all, it wasn't every day a man falls from the sky right in front of your safe little alcove. This is exactly what had happened just a moment prior.
With the careful furtiveness of a seasoned street urchin, Pào darted forward and seized the man by his shoulders, turning him over roughly on the wet cobbles. But instead of picking his pockets and stealing his jewellery as was her usual custom upon discovering someone lying in the street, Pào leapt back in shock. She dashed behind a pile of broken crates that lay off to one side and kept still and silent, waiting for the shout that would inevitably come.
But nothing happened. No guards rushed to the rescue of the unfortunate crumpled heap, no flicker of his eyes or movement of his fingers betrayed his conscious state. When she could no longer feel her heart pounding in her throat, the Nimmo stepped out again cautiously and approached the man. What had given her such a turn was this; the unconscious noble was not some lordling's seventh son out for an evening stroll, nor some pudgy merchant with a purse full of gold and no reputation to him
It was none other than Prince Yang, first son and heir to the Emperor himself.
Pào gave the prince a firm but gentle push, but he didn't stir. She glanced around again with an anxious look on her face, frightened lest anyone see her or, worse, find her with the unconscious prince and accuse her of accosting him. Any other street dweller would have robbed him blind and left well enough alone, but Pào was much cleverer than that, and she knew an opportunity when she saw one. The problem was that her plan was as big a gamble as any she could take. If she failed, she could lose everything.
The petite Nimmo made up her mind at the same instant she heard a shout and the wet slap of boots on slippery cobblestones. Guards! Heart pounding, Pào slipped her arms under the prince's shoulders and began to drag him away. Her progress was laborious and her arms ached with the effort of shifting such a heavy weight, but she had to make it as far away from the main streets as possible.
Through an impressive effort of will, without really knowing how, the petite Nimmo managed to drag the dead weight of the Crown Prince down two side streets, up a short hill, over a pile of trash and onto the rooftops of the city. She made her way to a familiar little alcove. Pào would have made this her home except that it was on the outskirts of the city where things began to get a little wild. People were poor and begging was scarce. It was also a difficult area of the city in which to find your way. While this made the alcove a terrible home for a street dweller whose life depended on being able to beg or steal the essentials of life, it did make it a perfect place to hide a great treasure from city guards and other urchins.
Pào maneuvered the prince into the shelter of the roof and divested him of his sopping wet cloak, which was sure to make him sick. The Nimmo nursed him as best she could with her limited supplies, checking him over for injuries, cleaning the various cuts and abrasions he had managed to acquire. Living on the streets was a dangerous lifestyle, and though Pào had never been trained in any way, she had learned the best ways to tend various wounds.
The crown prince of Shenkuu awoke with a mighty pounding headache. He tried to take a deep breath, but it was cut short by a sharp pain in his chest. He blinked away the cobwebs in his eyes and made to sit up, but thought better of it. By the feeling in his chest, he had at least one broken rib. Prince Yang glanced around and saw he was in a gloomy shelter of sorts. There was a small fire sputtering fitfully and by the sounds of it, it was raining heavily outside.
A face appeared in his line of vision. The grubby face of a Nimmo in raggedy clothing. She was smiling.
"Feeling better, sire?" asked the Nimmo cheerily.
The Prince tried to speak and found his mouth was dry, his throat sore and rasping.
"Ah, never fear, I can help with that," she replied. Her form disappeared and then reappeared with a clay bowl in her hand. With her free arm, she supported his head and tilted the bowl for him to drink.
The water tasted brackish and sour, but he drank it down gratefully.
What on Neopia had happened?
"Who are you?" he rasped after drinking most of the water in spite of the taste, then found he was able to prop himself up against what felt like a brick wall. He finally got a good look at the Nimmo who was tending him and blanched at the sight of her.
She saw his expression, but just smiled again. "I am Pào. Just Pào."
"Why am I here?" he asked, now inspecting his own raggedy state. He was dirty, his royal clothes were ripped and it was clear he had been unconscious for quite some time.
"Oh, you fell. From a balcony or something. Rolled down a roof and onto the street. It was quite spectacular!" replied the Nimmo with genuine enthusiasm. "You were just lucky there wasn't a cliff. They're quite common around here, you know. And you were lucky I was there to find you." She flashed him a grin.
"Lucky..." he coughed as he tried to laugh. From what he could tell, this wasn't very lucky at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. His memory was returning slowly, but the puzzle was slowly revealing what had led to his fall. The balcony... the Emperor's guards... Prince Yang suddenly sat bolt upright, earning him a great wave of pain as his body protested the movement.
"Sire, it isn't good for you to be up," Pào said forcefully, laying hands on his chest to push him back down again.
"Are we hidden? Are we safe here?" he asked, clutching at the front of her grubby shirt frantically.
"Yes, sire, we're safe. No one else knows about this place."
The Prince relaxed, allowing himself to be laid back down. Perhaps, given the circumstances... yes, staying would be safest. For now.
Pào went through the motions of preparing a modest meal with some of the food she had been hoarding for rainy days, and as she worked she began to wonder at what the prince had said. Perhaps he'd thought she wouldn't hear, or maybe he didn't even know he'd spoken aloud, but she had expected him to want to return to the palace immediately to be reunited with his father, the Emperor, at which point they would both thank and reward Pào generously from their vast treasury. Or, at least that's what she hoped. That was the whole reason she was tending him rather than robbing him. She was playing a long game.
But the prince had said "staying would be safest", and had asked if they were hidden away. It dawned on her, then, that the prince didn't actually want to be found. Having established this, her mind began the task of trying to discern what reasons a prince could have for avoiding his father. Perhaps he wasn't supposed to be out and about, and returning injured would only serve to prove the Emperor right. Maybe he wanted to wait until he could return with his pride intact.
But then why would he have fallen from the balcony of some lowtown merchant's middleclass house? For that matter, why would a prince go to such a lowly place? Surely if he wanted to see the people who lived there, he would save them the embarrassment and invite them to the palace.
And then it hit her.
She shuffled to sit next to the prince and glanced at him casually. "So," she began nonchalantly, "what would the mighty Prince Yang be doing in the house of the lowborn?"
The prince didn't seem to react to this, but Pào's eyes were keen and sharp, trained from her many years of spying and keeping close watch for things others would miss. That is why she saw the brief flicker in his eye, the subtle twitch of his hand. He said nothing. She wasn't surprised, and continued relentlessly.
"And in the dead of night, too," she chided. "It must have been some shifty business."
Still, he remained silent, unyielding.
"Some might gossip and wonder at the scandal of such a thing. Word about this sort of thing gets around, you know."
The prince stiffened. "Is that a threat?" he bristled, cutting a rather unimpressive figure in ripped and dirty clothes, slumped and injured as he was. Pào stifled a laugh.
"No, it's a question. Rumour spreads unless the truth outruns it," she retorted. Beneath her hard eyes and street-wise tongue, Pào had a mind like a diamond.
Prince Yang hissed, though whether in anger or dismay, the Nimmo couldn't tell. He balled his fists a couple of times as if he thought to strike her, but thought better of it.
"I was merely visiting an old acquaintance," he said defensively.
"What do you know of it!" he nearly shouted, then winced as pain tore at him.
"I know when someone isn't being honest with me, and right now you're not in much of a position to bargain. You can't sit up and I'm the only one who knows where you are. That might change unless you start being a little less tight lipped." Pào smiled to soften her words. She wasn't a bad sort, but she hated being lied to, and prince or no, she needed to know what it was she had gotten herself into.
The prince glared furiously at her. "Fine!" he hissed. He shuffled a bit. "Fine!" he said again, as if he couldn't quite fathom being forced to do anything, let alone by a street urchin. Pào waited.
"I was visiting friends who have some influence in the court and in... other matters. They know people," he began. Pào didn't have to ask what "some people" meant; criminals. The prince cleared his throat awkwardly and continued. "They were going to assist me in a little endeavor of mine, but before we could lay down some plans we were ambushed."
"And you just fell off a balcony?" she asked incredulously.
The prince flushed a beautiful shade of puce. "I jumped," he said tightly. It was only through a great effort of will that Pào managed not to laugh long and loud at this.
"So you would rather jump off a balcony than be caught. That means your prospective punishment was a good deal worse than falling about twenty feet, and that means you were involved in something big. I'm the one who's rescued you. I need to know how much trouble you're in," she said frankly. Honesty deserves honesty in return.
The prince shuffled uncomfortably. And then it hit her.
"You're after the crown."
It wasn't a question. The guilty look he gave her was more than enough to assure her she was right. Pào buried her head in her hands and rubbed her eyes, cursing her bad luck as she did so. Of all the possible twilight activities he had to have been plotting treason!
"Well, what did you expect!" the prince cried. "The old fool's had the thing so long it's worn away his fur!"
"So you just decided you'd take it from him?" she spat back at him, furious.
Prince Yang scowled. "I wouldn't expect a peasant to understand matters of high station," he said sullenly, and then fell silent.
Pào crawled out from the alcove. The rain had subsided to a gentle patter, and the sun was peeking shyly through small gaps in the clouds. "I should have robbed you," she said over her shoulder, before climbing down off the roof and disappearing into the gloom.
Pào wandered the streets aimlessly, and for the first time in her life she was actually hoping to stumble across a guard. To someone whose life depended on thievery, guards were among one of her worst fears on the streets, but what she had to do became clear to her as her bare feet padded over the wet cobbles. The emperor was a much-loved Gnorbu, the prince, a spoiled brat. There wasn't any hope for much of a reward anymore, but Pào had at least some sense of morality.
But she couldn't find a single guard. Whether by chance or some unconscious thought, her steps led her right to the palace gates. And even as she arrived, she found she didn't feel right being there. Partly it was that these were the estates of royalty and she was just a beggar girl, but something felt wrong. Something didn't quite add up.
Half an hour later, Pào found herself climbing back onto the roof where Prince Yang lay hidden amid the eaves. He was asleep when she crouched next to him, giving him an odd look.
"Sire?" she said gently. He stirred and looked at her coldly, saying nothing. "You weren't being entirely truthful, were you."
"Did you turn me in? Should I expect to be dragged away by guards any moment?"
"No, sire. I made it all the way to the castle gates, and then it occurred to me that the Emperor is very old. If all you wanted was the crown, you wouldn't have had much longer to wait. It wouldn't have been worth the risk of committing treason."
She stared at him expectantly, making it a question. Prince Yang sighed.
"It isn't any of your business."
"I know that. I won't turn you in, and I'll stay and take care of you until you're well enough to be up and about. After that, you're free to go on your way. I won't trouble you anymore, you have my word."
Prince Yang looked startled, even a little shocked at this sudden change in attitude from the tiny Nimmo. She seemed a lot older than she looked. Wiser. Kinder.
Pào rekindled the fire that had burned to ashes while she had been away, fanning it gently until it crackled merrily. She strung a line between two gables and hung the wet clothing over it, humming gently as she worked. And all the while, the prince watched her. She took no notice. She had made her mind up about what the right thing to do was, and she was sure of herself. Even without a reward, she knew she was right to let the prince be.
"I have a great fondness for a commoner," the prince said softly. Pào didn't turn around, but she did pause in the act of wringing out the prince's cloak. She waited, and after a moment he continued. "Such things are frowned upon among the nobles. If I am to be Emperor, I must have an Empress of the gentry. Princesses are not the only ones pressured into arranged marriages."
Pào stopped working and came to sit next to the fire, facing Prince Yang. There was pity in her eyes. "You thought to slip away with her, thus avoiding any unpleasantness."
He nodded sadly. "A guard saw me leaving the palace, gathered some watchmen and followed me. He thought he was supposed to keep me safe, but he overheard what was going on. There was a struggle and I fell."
"The place you fell from, is it the home of this commoner you seek?" Pào asked gently.
Another nod, and this time there was despair plain on his face. He would rather have been thought a treacherous criminal than reveal the truth.
Pào stood and began to leave.
"Where are you going?" the prince asked.
"You'll see, don't worry!" she called as she skipped over the tiled roof and down into the alley.
She raced along street after street, darted through alleyways and made her way swiftly to the rooftop where her secret place was. She looked up and saw the balcony of a rich house built into the side of one of Shenkuu's many sheer cliff faces. There was a street that wound its way around and a series of buildings leading up to it. With a will, the Nimmo began to climb.
"It's just up here..."
Prince Yang heard Pào's voice and a few footsteps. He stiffened, fear creeping into his heart as what sounded like two people climbed onto the roof where he was hidden. He made a small effort to move deeper into the alcove, but there wasn't much room and nowhere to hide. The fact that his chest no longer burned with pain when he sat up was of little consolation.
And then he heard the voice that belonged to the second visitor.
All the fear left him at once, and was replaced by such a radiant joy that he couldn't help but give a strangled cry of relief. Pào appeared on the roof and was shortly followed by a thin Wocky with flecks of gold in her brown fur. She gasped and lifted a hand to cover her mouth when she saw him then rushed to his side.
"Yang!" she said, tears filling her eyes.
His eyes became noticeably wet as well as he reached up to brush her cheek. "Mei, I'm so sorry for everything."
"Don't be. I'm just glad you're alright," she said happily, dabbing the wetness from her face. "In a manner of speaking," she added wryly as she looked him over.
"I'm quite certain I'll heal fast enough. I already feel better. But Mei, what are we to do?" he said, "your family will wonder where you've gone..."
"Silly," she chided, "they know. And it's time we were leaving Shenkuu."
Prince Yang's eyes widened in understanding, and his face split into a broad grin. Pào and Mei helped him to his feet, and though he moved slowly, he seemed to be well enough.
"You should go as quickly as you can," Pào said, as she helped Prince Yang climb down into the alleyway below the rooftops. Mei slipped her arm around the prince and he put his around her shoulders for support. Pào nodded formally, which was as much of a farewell as she was given to, then turned to dart away.
"Where are you going?" asked the prince. The Nimmo paused and glanced over her shoulder. The disheveled prince was smiling at her gently. "Without your reward?" he teased. He dug into his pocket and held up a leather purse which was bulging gloriously.
Pào approached him cautiously, not quite believing her luck. She had given up hope of getting anything for her trouble, but she had made two people very happy, and she considered that a good day's work. She took the purse and stared at the two of them, dumbstruck.
"Kindness deserves kindness in return."