When Sena stepped off the plane as the official Ambassador from the Nation of Jiluka to the Nation of Veekay for the first time, he was back to quietly fuming about his new position, even though he’d been optimistic when the plane took off. A long, long flight had given him plenty of time to think and mull.
He’d been through his nation’s rigorous training program for prince-candidates, during which all young relatives of the current king learned all about running a government, and the next king and his advisers were chosen from among the pool. Everyone had commented about how he’d applied himself, how he’d come such a long way from when he first arrived at the palace and was known as the frivolous “Slut Prince.”
He thought for sure he’d at least be chosen for the cabinet. And instead, his uncle the king had named him an ambassador – the same title given to other candidates who hadn’t worked nearly as hard as Sena had.
His uncle had explained to him that it was actually a title of highest honor – Veekay was Jiluka’s greatest ally, given that their royal families shared a common ancestry. He wouldn’t send just anyone there, he’d said.
So Sena agreed to go and accepted the title. But that didn’t mean he still didn’t feel a bit like he was being sent into exile.
The one thing that made all this bearable was that he was allowed to bring his personal knight with him. Well, his fiancé now. Hayato sat next to him in the plane, holding his hand and being uncharacteristically quiet.
“You think they’re going to send a welcome committee for us?” Hayato said.
Sena let out a long sigh. “I don’t know what to think anymore,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Hayato said. “We’re together, right? That’s what matters. They weren’t able to separate us. We’re together, and your uncle let you bring my entire squadron, and we’re all going to a new place where nobody ever called you names. Hey, maybe they’ll have a swanky embassy for us to live in! That would be a good thing, wouldn’t it? We’d have a small palace all our own! Maybe even with our own staff! This could be a good thing, right? This . . .”
The plane gave a sudden stomach-churning lurch as it started its final descent into Veekay. Great, Sena thought. Now we’re going to all get killed. My uncle didn’t even care enough to send a decent pilot.
He stared out the window as the airfield came into view. There it is, he thought. The new home I never wanted. He had to agree that Veekay looked pretty impressive from the air – a lot of very modern buildings, far more automobiles than there were in Jiluka, and towering above it all, the royal palace.
What are they going to be like, he thought, this progressive royal family that my uncle seemed to think was so important . . .
The plane finally came to a halt, and the front door was opened. The flight attendant walked over to Sena’s seat. “Lord Ambassador, we have arrived. Please disembark.”
“My Knights go ahead of me,” Sena said.
“That is the way it has always been back home. Any royal is preceded by his Knights to make sure he is protected.” He gave the attendant a look that said, I am still the king’s nephew. You can take the Prince title away from me and give me one that’s virtually meaningless, but I am still royal by blood.
“Of course.” The attendant bowed and stepped aside.
Hayato stood up and turned to the other occupants of the plane. “You heard the Prince,” he said. “Knights first.”
“Aren’t we not supposed to call him the . . .” meN-meN said.
“He’s a Prince and he’ll always be one,” Hayato said. “Now, let’s go! We’re keeping the royal family waiting, right? They probably sent someone to meet us and bring us to the palace! Come on, hurry up, we can’t keep them waiting, we can’t make a bad impression on our first day in a new . . .”
“We’ll move as soon as you shut up!” meN-meN replied. Kana laughed. Chamu just rolled his eyes. Yume was just quiet.
The Knights of Codomo Dragon departed the plane, and then Sena stood up, slowly. Here goes, he thought. The first moment of the rest of my life.
He stepped onto the stairs, and saw there was, indeed, a welcoming party for him. Two young men in formal uniforms, another two young men with large and heavily jeweled collars around their necks, a line of Royal Guard . . .
The whole group bowed as Sena touched ground and walked over to them. “Good day, Your Honor,” their leader said.
Sena bowed back, but looked confused. “Your Honor?” he said.
“Your title is Baron of Faizh, is it not?” the man said. “That is how we address a Baron in our country. We want to make sure you’re given the full honors you’re due.”
I’m a prince, dammit, Sena thought. But he replied. “Thank you . . . may I ask who you are?”
“I’m Crown Prince Yo-ka of Valluna. This is my Pledged, the Grand Archduke of Lycaon” - he indicated the violet-haired man next to him with the jeweled collar, who rolled his eyes at the mention of the title. “And this is my brother, Prince Toya of Charlotte, and his Pledged, the Duke of Royz.”
Now Sena looked surprised. “You BOTH came out to greet me personally?” So, this was the Prince Yo-ka his uncle had spoken of – the Crown Prince who was supposedly so progressive. Well, that was accurate on at least one front – royals had never gone to personally greet newcomers where Sena came from. Not that Jiluka had a lot of visiting foreign dignitaries.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Yo-ka said. “You are important to us, to my nation, and should be treated as such.”
Sena looked genuinely surprised. “Well . . . thank you.” Okay, this was encouraging - he certainly didn’t consider Sena a throwaway from his own country. He remembered his own manners - “May I present my Knight and my fiance, Hayato of the Knights of Codomo Dragon, and the rest of our Guard – Knights meN, Kana, Yume and Chamu.”
“It is an honor,” Yo-ka said, bowing to the Knights. “I’ve been informed of the status of Knights within your country, and they will have accommodations befitting them in your Embassy. Now, if you would come over here, the cars are waiting . . .”
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
“Please – just Yo-ka.”
Sena blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Just Yo-ka. And you can call my brother just Toya – at least when my father’s not around. Look we’re just regular guys, we just happen to have been born into a certain family. We’re going to be working together on a person-to-person level, not working around a bunch of titles.”
Now Sena’s head was spinning. Working . . . on a person-to-person . . . level? That sounded more like what a company CEO would say than a royal. It was, in a way, kind of counter to anything he always knew about being royal.
“I’ll have someone come to your embassy later to see how you’re settling in,” Yo-ka added. “And I want to let you all know – I am genuinely glad to have you here.”
Sena made his way past bowing staff members to the limousine that had been sent for them. Who is this prince? he thought. And just what have I gotten myself into with this?
* * *
He had to admit that the embassy they’d been given was definitely impressive.
An old mansion on the street across from the palace, it featured a large office and a ballroom downstairs and the living quarters upstairs, accessible by an elevator. And, oh, what living quarters.
There was a huge parlor, a smaller entertainment den, and an enormous master bedroom suite for the Ambassador and his significant other. There were guest suites on the second floor as well, and accommodations for the Knights and household staff were on the third.
“WHOA!” Hayato said, as he stepped into their suite. “Look! It’s got a dressing room bigger than your bedroom back home! And you could fit NINE bedrooms in this bedroom! Look at the size of this bed – I’ll never be able to find you in here!” He turned to Sena. “I AM living in this room, aren’t I?”
“Of course, you are,” Sena said. “You’re my fiancé, aren’t you?” He added, quietly, “You’re the only reason that living here is bearable.”
“You’ll be okay.” Hayato went over to Sena and hugged him. “Hey, this isn’t so bad, is it? They gave us a nice place to live and the princes themselves came out to greet us and the country itself looks cool! Seriously, did you see all the STUFF they have? I’ve never seen a city that big! I mean, our palace back home was in the middle of the woods, and the town where I lived as a kid was tiny and in the middle of nowhere and . . .”
Sena put fingertips to his lover’s mouth. “Hayato . . . stop talking and just kiss me.”
Hayato pulled his fiancé into his arms, brought their lips together . . . just as there was a loud cough from the doorway.
“Pardon me, Lord Ambassador,” the voice said, “but I would like to introduce myself. I’m Kaseki, your Chief of Staff.”
Sena parted from his fiancé with a groan. He bowed politely and said, “Welcome. You worked in the palace back home, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir. The king sent myself and a few other people here to be your household staff. We’ll hire additional people from the Veekay population if you like.”
“We’ll see what we need,” Sena said. “We’re just now getting settled in.”
“Let us know if you need any assistance.” Kaseki bowed again. “Your Knights have already met some of the other staff members.”
And at that, another voice from the doorway shouted, “HAYATO! You have to come see where we’re living! They’re swanky rooms! And there’s one for each of us!”
“No way!” Hayato turned to Sena. “Hold on, I gotta go see this. I’ll be right back!” He rushed out the door after meN-meN leaving Sena shaking his head.
“That was my Knight and my fiancé, Hayato,” he said.
“Oh, everyone back home knew your Knight,” Kaseki said. “He was very much the . . . enthusiastic one, wasn’t he?”
“You might say that.”
“By the way, I have an important message from Prince Yo-ka,” Kaseki added. “He wants you to join him for lunch at the palace tomorrow. Just the two of you, a meet and greet and an introduction to the function of ambassadors in the country.”
“The Crown Prince again?” Sena said. “Not his father?”
“From what I’ve heard so far from the staff over there?” He pointed toward the palace. “Prince Yo-ka is the one everyone listens to and respects. Not his father. The prince represents well, a new way of thinking for this country.”
“Which is why I’m here in the first place,” Sena said. “My uncle told me I got sent here because of all the change taking place in Veekay.”
And if it wasn’t for this prince, he thought, would I have been made an ambassador? Would I have been given a palace position instead, and one of the guys who got a job in the palace over me would have been sent away?
Suddenly, part of him was starting to resent this prince and his revolution.
“That is what I understand,” Kaseki said. He bowed. “Let me know if you need any assistance, Lord Ambassador.”
“Thank you. And Kaseki? In the future, please refrain from coming into my quarters without knocking first.”
“Oh, of course, sir.” The assistant turned and left the room.
Sena leaned against the wall with a big sigh. He was really having to practice his diplomatic skills even with the staff. There was a time where his younger self would have taken this guy’s head off for interrupting him with a lover.
But he knew he had to keep up the politeness, keep up his best face. Because in a way, he was still proving himself.
He had to do a good job in this new, unwanted position – both to show his uncle that he was capable, dammit, and also . . .
The king had been known to add new advisors to his staff from time to time. Perhaps . . . a slot in the next king’s cabinet would still open up, and if he impressed them back home enough, he’d be given that slot.
I’d be able to go home, he thought. I’d be serving my country IN my country, doing what I worked my ass off to do . . . instead of being exiled to this place that’s under the thrall of this prince.
Tomorrow, he’d find out what this guy’s game was . . . and what his place in it would be.
* * *
Hayato and Sena arrived at the palace at the appointed time. “They said just the two of you?” Hayato said. “They don’t have Knights with them all the time in their dining rooms?”
“I don’t even think they have Knights here,” Sena said. “They just have guards and police.”
“What good is that?” Hayato said. “I mean, if you’re a guard, you’re just a guy with a gun and a sword, right? There’s no sense of honor in it, is there? No sense of duty? They told us about the difference between us and the regular guards they have in other countries back when I was in training, and I think . . .”
Sena gave him a hug just as a member of the palace staff approached them. “I think they’re coming for me,” he said. “I’ll call the embassy as soon as I’m done so you can walk me back, okay?”
“But . . . but . . .”
“I have to do what they expect here. And the prince, apparently, wants to have lunch with just me.” He lowered his voice and said, “Hayato, I am NOT going to screw this assignment up. I am not going to prove everyone who ever called me The Slut Prince right.”
“Oh . . . oh, yeah.”
“I’ll be fine.” He hugged his fiancé again and bowed to the staff member. “Good day,” he said.
“Good day, Your Honor,” the staff member said. “Right this way.”
Sena found himself being led through corridors . . . and more corridors. How big IS this palace? He thought. It’s three times the size of the one at home!
Eventually, the man paused at an ornate door and bowed. “The royal family’s private dining rooms, sir,” he said. “Prince Yo-ka is inside.”
Sena entered the room, and sure enough, the prince was waiting at the table. He stood up and bowed. “Hello, Your Honor. I hope you are settling in well to your embassy?”
“Very well, thank you. My Knights absolutely love it. They’ve never lived in a place like that before.”
“It’s impressive. Very impressive.”
“Have a seat,” Yo-ka said. “I’ve asked the staff to produce a menu of Jilukan specialties to make you feel at home. You were living in your uncle’s palace, weren’t you?”
Sena let out a sigh. “Yes. I was a prince-candidate. I was in training there for, well, forever. And I didn’t get chosen for the royal cabinet, so . . . I ended up here.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Yo-ka said.
Oh, it is, Sena thought. It’s a horrible feeling to find out your hard work was for . . . nothing.
“It was unexpected,” he said out loud.
“I can promise you that you’ll enjoy living here,” Yo-ka said. “And you’ll have a lot to do, so you won’t be bored.”
“There’s that many Jilukan nationals in Veekay?”
“Not many. Your country has tended to . . . keep to itself. No, your primary role will be with our Parliament. We’re asking all ambassadors to be involved in all discussions of international affairs to make sure that the interests of all countries are represented. Veekay is increasingly becoming a globalist nation. We believe that no one country is necessarily better than all other countries, and that they all deserve to be heard out.”
“Your whole country believes that?” Sena said. “Or YOU believe it?”
“You’ve got me there,” Yo-ka said. “You might say I’ve been trying to influence my father to adopt my own ideas. Like the Parliament itself. That was my doing.”
“Yours alone?” Sena said.
“I did a little research into constitutional monarchies,” Yo-ka said. “And I found out that countries where the people have a voice are a lot happier and more prosperous than countries where there’s an absolute monarch. Besides . . . I thought it was important that the people be heard.”
“But why is that important?” Sena said. “That’s why there’s royalty, isn’t there? To rule over the people?”
“Royalty is an outdated institution,” Yo-ka said.
Sena nearly fell out of his chair. “Um-WHAT?”
“Not an attitude they have in your country, is it?”
“Well . . . not exactly.”
Fortunately, at that moment the waiters arrived to pour wine and serve the salads. It gave Sena time to absorb that. Outdated institution? Outrageous! Everything he’d learned since he was a child was that as the nephew of the king, he had to live up to the royal legacy and he had to participate in the prince candidate program so he could become a royal himself, because that was what he was born for . . .
When the waiters left, Yo-ka said, “I know it’s a shocking idea to you. It’s not one I held myself in my younger days. But as I grew up, and met more and more gentry, and eventually commoners, I found out that the circumstances of your birth don’t determine who you are and what you’re capable of. There could be a middle-class guy working a desk job in some nondescript district who would be a better politician than the idle rich guy who just happened to be born with the title of Duke. Did you know my brother’s fiancé was born into a poor fishing family?”
Sena nearly fell out of his chair again. “But . . . you called him a Duke . . .”
“He earned the title,” Yo-ka said. “Both by being the love of my brother’s life and a very dear friend to me, and by helping me solidify my vision for this country.” He paused. “I know people like to have titles – including royal ones. I know how important it is to the country that we carry on, well, tradition. But in an ideal world? There would be no titles. Everyone would be recognized for their accomplishments, not for their birth.”
Now Sena nearly choked on his salad. What Yo-ka was saying . . . back home it would be sacrilege. Commoners in government? The son of fishers being elevated to a duke? A nation with NO royalty and nobility at all?
“It all sounds . . . extraordinary,” he said. He paused. “But if you don’t believe in titles, how come you gave one to your future brother-in-law?”
“I gave titles to a lot of my friends,” Yo-ka said. “It’s to show the world what I know already – that these people are something special. And the way this country is now, the main way you do that is through titles of nobility. But I also don’t expect the people I give titles to stop following their hearts and their dreams. One friend I made an Earl is now the royal perfumier and running a perfume brand. One who got named a Viceroy – and is probably going to be promoted to Baron – started a comedy troupe. They’re quite successful now, by the way. Oh, and my own Pledged is keeping his career as a professional singer – even after we get married.”
“Wait a minute – he’s going to be ROYAL PRINCE CONSORT and a professional singer?”
“Because that’s what he wants out of life,” Yo-ka said. “And it’s not my place to tell him he can’t do it.”
Sena’s head was absolutely swimming. The consort of a king singing on the radio and in nightclubs? A Baron as part of a comedy troupe? He came from a place where if you were highborn, you were a noble and if you were lowborn, you had a job. Their singers and comedians usually came from the working class.
“Your country is . . . unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“Well, remember, these are very recent developments, and my father and his generation are still bucking against them,” Yo-ka said. “Until now, nobles were nobles and commoners were commoners and that was that. We had two duchys break off and become independent countries because of that. But yes, our world is changing to one where everyone is equal. And you’re going to be an important part of that, Your Honor.” He paused. “Or . . . may I call you Sena?”
Nobody has ever called me just Sena who wasn’t a family member, a close friend, a lover or my Knight, he thought. I’ve always been addressed by a title. But . . . if this is the way this guy sees things, does things . . . I’m going to have to get used to it if I’m going to prove myself.
“You may,” he said.
“Wonderful,” Yo-ka said. “Now, let’s go over the Parliament, and how they function . . .”
* * *
By the time Sena left the palace, he was dizzy from everything he’d absorbed. He was just about staggering while he walked.
He really believes all that, he thought. He really believes in judging people by who they are and what they do and letting everyone follow their heart regardless of birth.
It was a lot to take in. It was revolutionary, all right. And it was also . . . strangely appealing.
Under his system, he thought, there would have been no pressure for me to be a prince, or live up to my family, or . . . anything like that. And nobody would have called me The Slut Prince, either.
After they went over Parliament, Yo-ka had asked about the prince training system in Jiluka, and about what was involved, and day-to-day life in their country. He’d listened with interest and a total lack of judgement.
“I promise you,” he told Sena, “you might find life a bit more fast-paced here than you were used to, but it will be comfortable. You’ll have respect, and your traditions will be respected. That includes your Knights – I understand they’re crucial to your culture?”
“Hugely. Though they started in YOUR country, from what I understand.”
“Years ago. But we no longer have Knights – our orders were abolished years ago by a king who thought the Knights were getting too uppity and had to be reminded that they served the Royal Family, they weren’t nobility themselves.”
“Sounds like a jerk,” Sena said.
“We’ve had some kings who were . . . winners,” Yo-ka said. “But I won’t be one of them. In fact, if I have my way, I’ll . . .” He stopped. “Never mind. You’ve had enough of my ideals for one day.”
I wonder what he was going to say, Sena thought now as he left the palace. Knowing him, he was going to say he was going to be the last king, and he was planning to abolish the royal family and titles of nobility. But that’s just craziness – right?
Hayato met him outside the palace and hugged him. “How did it go? Was it fun? I was given a tour of the grounds by one of the staff members, by the way. You wouldn’t believe this place! I swear they keep it up with an army! It makes our palace back home look like a cottage! We get to come here a lot, don’t we? I mean, for royal-type stuff? I hope so, because this place is amazing! AMAZING!”
“It’s amazing,” Sena said. “And the prince, well . . . he’s a unique person, shall we say. And he . . . gave me a lot to think about.”
“Oh, yeah? Like what?”
“I’ll tell you later. It’s . . . a lot to take in.”
They walked back to the palace, Sena deep in thought. It really was unlike anything he ever encountered before.
What if, he thought, Prince Yo-ka’s ideas actually WORK, and that’s the way to go in the future? What if he really is onto something when it comes to a new world?
* * *
Sena headed to Parliament for the first time the next day – and it wasn’t exactly the kind of experience he was looking forward to repeating.
It seemed most of the day was taken up with roll calls. Initial check to see what was here, then brief discussion of a bill, then voting, then more discussion of another bill, then voting. Nothing seemed particularly controversial – at least not that day.
It’s smooth and efficient, at least, he thought. They get the job done. This Yo-ka really knows what he’s doing when it comes to government.
His mind wandered, flashing back to their conversation of the day before. The whole idea of everyone following their hearts instead of a destiny foreordained by birth, of poor people becoming nobility and nobility pursuing careers in the arts . . .
It was shocking, and daring . . . and part of it spoke to him. Another part, though, went against everything he stood for.
Why did I work so hard to try to become a prince, he thought, if becoming a prince means nothing?
But he had to admit that part of him did love the idea of nobles being able to comingle with commoners on equal ground. He was, after all, engaged to a Knight, and Knights usually came from humble origins. He remembered his uncle screaming at him about being with “a common knight” when he caught them together in the pool.
If I believe knights are on the same level as nobles, he thought, that Hayato and I have a connection I could never have with someone born in my own social class . . . why does what Yo-ka said seem so revolutionary?
He’d spoken with his uncle on the phone last night, but he didn’t tell him the full concept of Yo-ka’s ideas. He’d just said the prince had “some interesting concepts about government by and for the people.”
In light of what we used to do back home, he thought, it was all flat-out absurd. So . . . why did it feel, in a strange way, like it all made sense?
He was leaving the Parliament hall and heading toward the Embassy when he saw two figures approaching him – a tall, thin man with violet hair, and a shorter blond. They look familiar, he thought, but I can’t quite place them.
“Oh!” the blond said. “You’re the new ambassador from Jiluka, aren’t you? We met the other night. I’m Subaru.”
“Subaru?” Sena tried to remember where he’d heard the name.
“Okay, okay, formally I’m the Duke of Royz,” the boy said. “I’m Prince Toya’s Pledged. And this is Yuuki, he’s Prince Yo-ka’s Pledged . . .”
“And no need to announce my title,” Yuuki said. “You KNOW I hate it.”
“Oh, yes.” Now he was starting to remember. “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you without the huge collars.”
“We only have to wear those on official occasions,” Subaru said. “So, how do you like our country so far?”
“Well, I haven’t had a chance to see much of it . . .”
“We can go get a car and driver and give you a tour of the capital,” Subaru said.
At that moment, Hayato showed up. “OH! You left the Parliament already! I’m late!”
“Calm down, I’m all right,” Sena said. “These two are harmless.” He turned to the two other men. “You met Hayato the other night. He’s my Knight and my fiancé.”
“Hello!” Subaru bowed and introduced himself and Yuuki. “We were just offering the Ambassador a tour of the capital . . . wait, what’s your name again? Your given name?”
“Sena. And yes, you can call me that.” It seemed to be the thing to do among this group, call each other casually by first names. He assumed they stopped that as soon as it was a formal occasion.
“Sena!” Subaru said. “Well, how about it?”
“I’d like to see it!” Hayato said.
“All right,” Sena said. “We’ll go, thank you.”
They piled into the limo and took off and set about exploring the biggest city that Sena had ever seen in his life. It seemed there was a district for everything. Fashion district, arts district (Yuuki made a point of noting the club where he and his band had a residency), Restaurant Row, financial district, a huge waterfront . . .
“There’s great surfing here,” Subaru said. “I noticed that as soon as I arrived!”
Sena looked blank. “Surfing?” he said.
“You mean . . . you don’t have surfing where you’re from?” Subaru looked shocked.
“Um . . . that depends on what it is?”
“Oh, my God, surfing is the greatest thing ever!” Subaru leaned forward, and he seemed even more animated than usual. “You have a wooden board – there’s two types, a short board or a long board – and you use it to literally ride a wave! You lie on your stomach on the board until the wave comes, and when it does you climb on top and keep your balance and try to ride it in to shore without falling off! And you have to know what the wave is doing – you have to be thinking every single second! But it’s the greatest thrill anyone ever had!”
“Subaru likes it just a bit,” Yuuki said, dryly.
“It’s how I met Toya,” Subaru said. “He heard I was a surfer the second day of the Culling and he asked me to teach him!”
“What’s this Culling, anyway?” Sena said. “We heard about it back home. Does the prince literally round up a bunch of candidates for his affections and pick them off one by one?”
“Unfortunately,” Yuuki sighed. “It’s an unnecessarily huge production. Yo-ka hated the idea from the start and so did I. You end up traveling from one royal palace to another across the country, going on either group or individual dates with the prince, and at the end of the week, he decides who he’s keeping or who he’s getting rid of.”
Sena shuddered. “It sounds barbaric,” he said.
“It kind of is,” Subaru said. “But I wouldn’t have met Toya without it. They chose one guy from literally every district in the country to participate, which is the only time a person from a Lower Class district would get anywhere near the palace unless they were a servant.”
“You really did grow up among the lower class?” Sena said.
“Yep!” Subaru nodded enthusiastically. “I grew up in Royz. It’s a fishing and boating village. When I joined the Culling, I was working as a clerk in a tugboat company, taking bookings for the boats.”
“And you kept getting chosen to stay in the Culling?”
“Subaru and I were the last two candidates in the end,” Yuuki said. “Though it was apparent that Toya was in love with Subaru, and Yo-ka told me he knew it was going to be me from the very start.”
“All of us in the top 6, except for Yuuki, were from Middle or Lower Class Districts,” Subaru said. “Yo-ka said he preferred their company to aristocrats. You’ll meet them all at one of the formal events. We’re still really good friends!” He pointed to a huge billboard on the side of a wall showing a comedy troupe in crazy costumes. “That’s my friend Hiyori’s group, My Dragon! He said being in the Culling helped him fulfill his dream.”
Sena shook his head. “It’s all so . . . new to me.”
“The Culling idea is pretty unique to Veekay,” Yuuki said.
“No, I mean . . . the fact that Yo-ka considers the common people on the same level as royals. That people with titles are holding everyday jobs.”
Hayato was being uncharacteristically quiet until now. He’d just been staring at the window, mesmerized by everything he saw. But now, he turned to Sena and said, “You could do that too, now, you know!”
“Do what?” Sena said.
“I mean, I know you were raised in a noble family and you knew you were always going to be a prince candidate and that’s what your entire life was built around, but come on, there’s got to be something you’ve always wanted to do, right? I know we haven’t talked about anything like that, but I knew that you were busy as hell, and you were always doing everything you could to further yourself in the prince program . . .”
“That was AFTER you became my Knight,” Sena said. “Before that, I was just interested in exploring my freedom.”
“But you had to have thought about doing SOMETHING, right? Something that noble boys weren’t supposed to do?”
“Hayato’s right!” Subaru said. “We have no judgements here. Especially not if you’re in Yo-ka’s group of friends. And it does sound like he wants to be friends with you!” He looked at the driver. “Oh, let’s stop here for a moment!”
The driver pulled over in front of a coffeehouse. “I like this place,” Subaru said. “We can get coffee and hang out a little – you don’t have anywhere to be, do you, Sena?”
Sena shook his head. “Not until dinner,” he said.
“I’m up for it!” Hayato said. “Look at this place! It’s so . . . cute! We don’t have coffeehouses like this back home! Sena, we’ve landed in the best country ever! We’ve hit the jackpot! You were worried that your uncle was sending us into exile? He did us the best favor ever! This place is AMAZING!”
“This is just the capital,” Subaru laughed. “You should see the rest of the country!”
Sena was quiet. Did my uncle, indeed, do me a favor? he thought. Did I get sent here . . . because this might be where I really belong?
* * *
When they were settled in with their coffee, Hayato immediately started grilling Subaru about surfing. “I mean, it sounds incredible! It really does! And it’s something that I’d like to try! I mean, it’s not something where you have to be born with the talent, is it? Pretty much anyone could do it? Because I would be so all about that!”
Subaru laughed. “You don’t have to be born with talent. Anyone could do it. Sure, I’d be glad to give you lessons, if Sena can spare you and I’m not busy with . . .” He sighed. “Duke training. The king has insisted I be schooled in everything about the country and the nobility and the social graces before he’ll let me marry Toya.”
“Sounds a lot like your prince training,” Hayato told Sena. “Minus the social graces part, of course. Your parents drilled that into you when you were a kid, didn’t they? Since you were nobility and all, and you were expected to be a prince-candidate, and . . .”
Sena nodded. “Yes, but all of us who were prince-candidates had to study social graces, too. As in, how to deal with people of different countries.”
“So tell us about this prince-candidate thing,” Yuuki said. “The crown is literally open to anyone who’s a relative of the king?”
“Well, sort of,” Sena said. And he went on to tell them about the whole thing – how every son and nephew and cousin of the king was enrolled in prince training, how the next king and his advisers were picked from the group . . . and how the current king had decided to make everyone who wasn’t picked an ambassador.
“I worked my butt off,” Sena said. “I really did. Everyone had considered me the least likely to succeed, and I wanted to prove them wrong. And I thought I had done a good job, but . . . I got sent here. My uncle said that it’s because Veekay is important to us and he wanted to have someone he could trust here, but . . .”
“You still feel cast aside,” Yuuki said. “I don’t blame you. I’d be pissed off, too.”
“But Sena,” Subaru said, “maybe this is best for you. You said that their system is very rigid, and you were rebelling against it at first. Maybe it’s because . . . you never REALLY wanted to be part of it. You went along with it . . . just to prove everyone wrong about you. Here?” He spread his hands. “You have nothing to prove.”
“Well, I do,” Sena said. “I have to prove I can be an ambassador.” And that I’m worthy of a palace position if one opens up, he thought.
“But when you’re off-duty? You have a chance to be YOU. You didn’t have that back home, did you?” Subaru said.
“Nope,” Hayato said. “I can testify that prince-candidate training was pretty damn intense. Yep, I saw it firsthand. I was next to him the whole time. He used to practice diplomatic situations with me, do you know that? We used to rehearse with him being a prince and me being a representative from this country or that country or whatever. And afterwards, we’d . . .”
“They get the point,” Sena said, quickly, knowing full well what happened afterwards was the two of them tumbling into bed. But Subaru had a point – the only recreation he’d had back home was, well, sex. First his sleeping around, and then his relationship with his knight . . .
Is there really something I wanted to do? he thought. Something I thought was out of my reach, because nobles didn’t do that . . .
I need to find out what that is, he thought. If what these people say is true, then maybe that’s my true purpose in being here. Not to become a prince, but to finally become . . . me.
He was actually scaring himself with that thought. It sounded as revolutionary as Yo-ka’s far-out ideas. But also, it sounded very, very right.
* * *
Those thoughts were still buzzing in his head during his second day in Parliament. There was a lot of boring chatter going on . . . again. They were talking about trade, this time, and leveling tariffs on various imported goods.
I never thought about anything other than being a prince, Sena thought. At least once I met Hayato. Everything was devoted to getting rid of that damn nickname.
The Chamberlain, the head of the Parliament, was at the lectern in the front of the room, saying, “And now, we need to discuss the taxes on various fruits . . .”
I always wanted to ride my own motorcycle, Sena thought. I thought the ones the knights had were cool and I loved riding on the back of Hayato’s. Plus, prince-candidates weren’t supposed to ride them, because they were “dangerous.” But . . . is that really, well, a calling for me, the way surfing is for Subaru, or music is for Yuuki?
The Chamberlain was saying, “And now, we move to non-citrus fruits, including apples, pears, and peaches . . .”
That suddenly drew Sena’s attention. Peaches? That was the number one export of Jiluka. The country was renowned for its peaches. In fact, peach exports were a huge part of their economy.
“We propose expanding the tariff on imports of these fruits to . . .”
He named a figure so outrageous than Sena’s jaw dropped. No, he thought, they can’t do that! If the taxes are that high, people won’t import as many peaches, and Veekay is one of our biggest partners for imports, and the farmers back home will suffer, and . . .
Suddenly, Sena leapt to his feet. “Mr. Chamberlain,” he shouted, “I would like to formally register an objection!”
He noticed the entire room grew quiet as a mouse. All heads turned to him in shock. Did this new ambassador just . . . interrupt a vote?
Sena didn’t care. He went on. “Peaches are the very bedrock of the economy of Jiluka,” he said. “If you overtax them like that, it will do irreparable damage to our farmers, our packing plants, and, indeed, our entire country. We have families who have spent generations after generations building up their peach farms. They literally have done nothing else, and CAN do nothing else. Overtaxing them would stab a knife into their backs – and Veekay is supposed to be my country’s greatest friend and ally!”
Now there were murmurs throughout the room. He didn’t care. He was fired up. He was just going to keep talking.
“Please, I beg of you – don’t do this. Don’t strike out at my country where it would hurt the most! Let’s negotiate a lower, more reasonable tariff. I don’t want to have to report back to my king that our greatest trading partner has failed to protect our interests.”
The Chamberlain banged his gavel. “The Lord Ambassador from Jiluka will be silent!”
One of the MPs got to his feet and said, “Mr. Chamberlain, I move the ambassador’s words be entered into the formal record, even though he was not recognized by the bench when he spoke. He has a point. We WOULD be hurting a country where they are economically vulnerable.”
“I second it!” another MP shouted. “And I further move that we open the peach tariff to further negotiation, and that the Ambassador be at the center of the talks!”
A third MP – a slender, blond man considerably younger than the others – rose to his feet as well. “I third the motion, and request that we take a vote on it!”
The Chamberlain sighed. “All right. At the request of the Representative from Anli Pollicino, we will take a vote on reopening the peach tariff for discussion.”
Sena sat down, slowly. Holy hell, he thought, I just defended my country from certain doom, didn’t I? I might have kept our economy from being crippled.
It felt . . . nice. Like he had just accomplished something that would change his country’s fate. If I hadn’t been here, he thought . . . what would have happened?
* * *
Later, when he was leaving the meeting hall, the young blond man came up to him and gave a polite bow.
“Hi,” the man said. “I’m the Marquis of Anli Pollicino. I just want to congratulate you on what you did in there. It was a hell of a gutsy move, and believe me – if you hadn’t said something, they would have voted for the tariff. Too many of those guys – especially the ones from the Upper Class districts – are looking out for our own interests and not enough for other countries.”
“Thanks,” Sena said. “But I just had to. I couldn’t sit there and let them do that to our livelihood. I mean, why have an ambassador sit in the Parliament at all if we’re just going to be quiet when they try to slam us?”
“That’s why you’re so important,” the other man said. “When the Parliament first formed, there were some people who were questioning whether we should have the ambassadors there, but I knew they were going to be vital. Some people really need to understand that the state of one country affects the state of us all.”
“If that kind of thing is going to pop up again,” Sena said, “I’ll be looking out for it. They are NOT going to get away with it. Ever.”
“They’d warned us that Jiluka was sending an ambassador who’d protect the country with his life,” the representative said. “They weren’t kidding.”
“Wait, what?” Sena said.
“Before you arrived the other day, your uncle telephoned the Duke of Versailles – our Chamberlain – and told him all about you. He followed that up with a telegram, which was read during our session. It seems he was counting on you a LOT to help your country.”
So he really did mean it, Sena thought. He really did send me because he knew these bastards were going to try to screw us over . . . and he knew that I would stop it.
“I’m not going to let him down,” he said. “Ever.” He paused. “Wait a second – did you say that the Chamberlain was a duke? And that you were a marquis? There’s nobles in your Parliament?”
“I’m kind of an unusual marquis,” the young man said. “My father was our district’s regional governor for years – and he was beloved by our people. He died around the time the Parliament was formed – he had a rare form of cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” Sena said.
“But our people petitioned the Royal Family to appoint me to the Parliament in his memory. So, yes I have his title and what would have been his Parliament seat. The first Parliament consists of former regional governors, by the way. Except the Chamberlain. He was appointed directly by the king. It was the one concession he asked his son to make when he agreed to the Parliament being formed – that he be able to choose its leader.”
Sena nodded. From what he’d heard of the king, it sounded like he’d do something like that.
“A lot of those regional governors were noblemen – and they’re kind of stuck in an old-fashioned noble mindset. Their own needs first, everyone else second – and that includes the lower classes of our own country. Fortunately, there’s representatives from the middle and lower class districts to look out for their own people – and, of course, ambassadors like you to protect foreign interests. You’re really valuable.”
I really am here for a reason, Sena thought – to help connect my country’s traditions to the new world Prince Yo-ka is trying to build, and to keep these people from doing us harm. This isn’t an exile. It seems I’m crucial to my country’s continued well-being.
“Anyway, I have to get going,” the other man said. “I have a tennis lesson before it gets too dark. You can call me Shindy when we’re not in session, by the way. I’m one of those people who believes in names over titles.”
“All right . . . Shindy,” Sena said. “And you can call me Sena.” Might as well, he thought. It’s the way things are done here among the younger, more progressive people. And it seems that I’m one of them.
He bowed and said his farewells to the young representative, and continued outside, where his knight would be waiting.
Tennis lessons, he thought. And then he remembered sitting in class back home, the classroom that was opposite the tennis court where the servants took their recreation. He would watch them play, and think that it looked like so much fun, and that it was the kind of thing he wanted to do, but he knew that he’d never get time to do it . . .
He suddenly knew what the thing was that he could do now that he was here. The first step to truly becoming himself, the person he wasn’t allowed to be back home.
Hayato rushed up to him as soon as he was out of the door and gave him a big hug. “How did it go?” he said.
“Well, I might have singlehandedly saved our country’s economy. Also, I’m going to start taking tennis lessons.”
* * *
He made his report about the Parliament session to his uncle by phone that night, and the King of Jiluka responded with an exclamation of joy.
“Well done, my boy!” he said. “I knew I sent you there for a reason! Your abilities would have been wasted behind a desk here. You’re doing exactly what you were meant to do.”
“For the first time,” Sena said, softly, “I actually believe that.”
“I’ve always had faith in you,” the king said. “What I said the night of the party, I meant. You’re going to do us a lot of good, my boy.”
“I plan to,” he said.
“See what I meant about a changing world? Nobody is changing faster than Veekay – but change is always imperfect, my boy. They won’t arrive at a progressive world for some time – and that is why you are there. To keep things pushing toward the future.”
“I think I understand it better now. And I understand this country a little more.” A mixture of the old and new, of Yo-ka’s progressive ideas and nobles fiercely trying to hold on to tradition . . . oh, yes, it was a lot more interesting than it first seemed.
“You need to,” the king said. “You need to get out there and show them who we are, what we’re made of and that we’re not to be trifled with! In many ways, boy, you ARE Jiluka on the world stage.”
“I understand,” he said. He paused. “Uncle? Thank you for sending me here.”
The king sounded surprised. “I didn’t think I’d hear you say that, Sena.”
“I didn’t think I’d say it, either. But I know it to be true now.”
He hung up the phone, stretched, and yawned. This . . . had been a productive day. And it wasn’t over yet.
Hayato paused in the doorway. “That was your uncle, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, yes. He’s thrilled at what I did in Parliament.”
“Well, I mean, he should be. A peach tariff? That would have destroyed us. You came to our rescue. Seriously, Sena, you’re amazing. Of course, I always knew you were amazing from the moment I laid eyes on you. That’s why I was going to be your knight at all costs. You just confirmed what I already knew. And when we got here, well, you just became even more amazing, and . . .”
Sena walled over to his fiancé, pulled him into his arms, and gave him a long kiss to silence him. Hayato paused, and then kissed back.
“I’m so glad we’re here together,” Sena said. “We’re going to have such a terrific life in this country.”
“I was always going to go wherever you went,” Hayato. “Even if it was to the gates of hell.”
“You’re dramatic sometimes, you know that?”
“I’m just being myself! It’s all I know how to be, you know? I don’t know how to put on airs. I mean, I’m a good knight, but I’d be a lousy nobleman, wouldn’t I? Noblemen have to put on airs all the time. I wouldn’t be able to do that. Not at all. I . . .”
Sena silenced him with another kiss. “Know what I want to do?”
“Um . . . what?”
“Subaru said his friend’s comedy troupe has a show tonight. If we call the palace, he’ll get us in. I want to go!”
“Um, sure. It’s not the kind of thing we’d usually do back home, but . . .”
“We’re not doing the kind of things we did back home anymore. We’re doing the things people do here. We’re going to have a real LIFE – at last.”
He headed for the elevator to the living quarters, along with his knight, so they could change into going-out clothes. There’s going to be a lot more days and nights like this in the future, Sena thought. For the first time, I know that this is where I’m supposed to be.
* * *
Over the next several months, Sena developed a real presence in the capital of his new homeland.
He continued building friendships with the princes and their significant others. He befriended their circle of friends as well – the former Culling candidates, old school friends, other relatives.
He also became friendly with Shindy and other younger members of Parliament – where he especially made an impact. He became known very quickly as “The Lion of Jiluka.” The old school-minded members of the governing body knew better than to even try to pass a bill that would cheat or sell out that country.
When he was done with his sessions, he attended tennis lessons – and applied himself to the game with the same ferocity he showed in Parliament. He rapidly built skills, as his fiancé learned to surf from Subaru himself. Sena even learned to ride a motorcycle – and bought his own.
Never again did he question why he was there or consider himself in exile. In fact, he knew that he was fulfilling his ultimate destiny – and he had the right person by his side.
He knew that when he and Hayato held their wedding ceremony, it would be right here in Veekay – what had become their true home.