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Shatoru

Chapter Text

Bright red stained the fluffy white snow. It spread away from Takato's body flowing like water down the slight incline melting the frozen water beneath it, thinning as it ran. His sword was still clutched in his fingers. His light brown hair was steadily growing wet in the swirling storm.

Akihito sat next to his body, the pain in his side unfelt, the blood pooling at his own knees unnoticed, and the battle around him muted to his hearing while his focus centered on the ever expanding pool of watery blood around one of the only two friends he had. He knew no words were coming from his mouth but his mind was screaming. Get up! Get up! Takato you have to get up! From the distance his name was yelled. He couldn't find the strength to even look around.

A strong hand gripped his right arm, "Aki, you've got to get up! Come on!" Akihito looked up into the face of Kou; his only other friend was dragging him insistently up the side of the small hill all the while spiting instructions at him. "Pull yourself together, Aki! We're being overwhelmed; you've got to do something."

The pair topped the small hill. It had a narrow top and the ground beyond slopped almost immediately downward again. Kou threw Aki to the ground and stood over him ; his katana raised as he faced the oncoming group of marauders.

Time had slowed for Akihito. He could almost see each individual flake that fell through the tall cedars in the early winter storm. He could clearly delineate the participants of the battle and easily identifying the fallen members of the caravan Kou had signed them up to help guard. Of the twenty armed men that had settled in the clearing earlier only he and Kou still breathed. It did not sooth his mind that only ten of the forty bandits remained.

Kou looked over his shoulder at his friend. They'd taken this trip for him. Takato and he had been certain they'd be able to keep Akihito's social status hidden on the long trek from the capital and through the mountains. Until today things had gone exactly as planned. The dye applied to his friend's hair had only just started to fade and Aki's habit of looking at the ground and refusing to meet anyone's eyes was easily explained by his constant need to 'study' the large tome he'd carried. So they'd foolishly believed they'd be able to get Akihito out of Consortium lands and into the Republic of Vehnä. Now ten blood thirsty bandits stood between them and their destination.

His friend looked totally lost. He'd never been in combat before; never seen the gore of battle nor watched as comrade and friends fell around him. He didn't understand it was the loss of bodily functions as someone died causing the terrible stench of urine, feces, and bile across the narrow clearing.

Kou stilled himself; he had enough strength to protect Aki, but only Aki could defeat the men coming up the hill. He growled and then shouted at his pallid friend, "Pull yourself together! You've got to pull something out now, Aki!" He shot a glare at the young man, "Don't make Takato's sacrifice be in vane!"

It was the sound of steel on steel that actually roused Akihito from his stupor. Kou beat back a tall bearded man and the sparks from their blades glowed in the shadowed glade. Aki looked up at his remaining friend, swallowed, and began to sing.

Kirishima glanced at the sky again. The swirling snow was getting thicker and the clouds showed no signs of thinning. He shook his head and pulled his cloak tighter about his shoulders. He caught Suoh doing the same from the corner of his eyes as he looked behind him. Both men were looking at their leader. The raven haired man had paused on the trail. He was also looking at the clouds.

It took only seconds before he sighed, "We're not going to make it much farther today." He looked at Kirishima saying, "The cave should be just another couple of hills ahead. Let's make for that." He looked at the sky again, "it is a better place to hole up than the valley. This is turning into an early blizzard."

Kirishima and Suoh nodded, "Aye, Asami-sama." The three men trudged on. Going slower and slower as the snow piled up on the narrow path. They were exposed on the cliff edge and soon enough Suoh, the taller and wider of the three had to take the lead.

Things grew easier as they got below the trees, the blizzard higher up the mountain not yet having reached the lower hills. They were only twenty to thirty minutes from the cave they were making for when the sounds of battle rose up the sides of the steep path. They paused to watch at the top of a rise.

It was clear who the winners would be. Brigands had obviously overcome a small merchant caravan. Considering it was still early in the evening, Asami guessed the raiders had waited until the wagons had just reached the small clearing. The caravan leader had probably intended to utilize the tall cedars to break the winter wind and aid in keeping the heat from their fires from escaping fully. It would normally be a good plan. However the small valley below was also perfect for raiders. The tall narrow hills on the peak side of the valley were perfect for hiding behind and the large grouping of trees muffled any sounds larger or more open spaces would have allowed to travel.

Next to him Suoh shook his head, "They didn't stand a chance."

Kirishima nodded, "Though it looks like they gave as good as they got. There are more bandits downed than caravan guards." He pointed at a hill to their left, "Look two of them still stand."

Asami glanced away from the carnage to the two people at the top of a nearby hill. One was tall with raven locks much like Asami's though shorn in the typical Consortium military style. He held a katana and had just successfully fended off the brigand that had reached the top of the hill ahead of his comrades. Even Asami could tell the man wouldn't be able to fend off another attack.

The other appeared smaller and was crouched behind the taller one. For the first few seconds Asami watched it appeared as if the smaller one had no offensive abilities at all. He clearly held no weapon and was all but folded in on himself with his face clearly seeing nothing. Then the young man, and young he was to Asami's eyes, gathered himself and started to sing.

They couldn't understand the words from where they stood, but a high tenor rose from the hillside and all but echoed across the small valley. The brigands just below the warrior's feet smiled at each other. Clearly they believed the smaller man had lost his senses. Asami and his companions knew otherwise. They watched as the magic built, each note drawing the primal essence of the universe to the boy. It built and built until Asami was certain the youngster would explode from the pressure.

Explode it did. A bright white light tinged at its edges with gold burst from the young man's hands. Flowed down the hill and engulfed the bandits. It was an almost completely uncontained burst of magic. It was raw and primal as it burned the now screaming men turning them, their clothing, their skin, and even their bones to white hot ash.

It didn't stop there however; what if any control the boy had exerted over it was lost as he slumped, clearly unconscious, to the ground. The gathered magic became completely wild burning cedar and undergrowth alike. The hitched horses screamed as the magic set the wagons and the surrounding ground ablaze. The trees behind and above them lit the morning sky.

Asami frowned and took a deep breath before raising his arms and chanting. His deep baritone raised above the horses screams. A whirlwind of snow rose from the surrounding hills and plunged into the trees. Moments after the magic the boy had loosed started turning into a forest fire it was smothered by the controlled strands of Asami's will.

Only steam rose from the clearing as he led his two most trusted men down the steep incline of their hill through the wreckage of the caravan and up to the two survivors. Kirishima knelt next to the raven haired man first and mentally reduced the survivor list to one. He glanced where his leader knelt next to the young boy before saying, "he wasn't fast enough." He rose and gestured to the sword embedded in the young raven's leg. "His last attacker sliced open the femoral artery."

Asami nodded as he gathered the remaining boy to his chest and pulling off his small pack. "Get the other one," he said nodding towards the pack on the dead raven's back. He passed the boy's to Suoh and pulled apart the young man's tunic and pushed the boy's cowl above his exposed nipples. There was a long bleeding slice over his left ribs. It started at the shoulder and split the skin down across his chest nearly to his right hip. It was only the shallowness of the cut that had prevented it from killing the boy.

Asami ripped the tunic free from the boy's body using it to wipe away the worst of the blood. He let go of the breath he'd not known he was holding as the clean skin revealed no exposed bones. The boy's chest was bloody but the slice had not done more than mar the skin, it had only reached muscle at the shoulder. With proper care the boy would survive.

Suoh knelt next to him. Neither were true healers. However, Suoh had trained in the rituals of combat medics and given the time could muster enough magic to seal shallow wounds. Asami left him to the task. Glancing at the thickening storm clouds he made his way to Kirishima's side. The man had rifled through the younger raven's pack. Below a whet stone with oil, a fire starting kit, and several days' worth of dried rations, wrapped in a small, thin, woolen cloak was a thick leather collar and leather wrapped parchment.

Kirishima stuffed everything but the parchment back in the pack. Other than the lack of cloak, collar, and parchment, the living boy's pack was filled with the same things. Kirishima handed the protected parchment to Asami and repacked the other things he'd pulled out, "They look like regular guards."

Asami glanced at the small body Suoh was working and grunted, "That kid is no solider." He untied the string keeping the leather bound closed and unrolled several pieces of parchment. One was the decommissioning papers of a sergeant by the name of Hamasaki Kou from the Consortium army. The other two papers were a bill of sale and the ownership papers for a slave. Both were clear forgeries.

Asami read through the bill of sale and then the ownership papers. They were good enough to fool anyone that did not deal with the system regularly. The ownership papers described a young male between fifteen and twenty with white blonde hair, green hazel eyes, and slight build. The identifying mark for the slave could be found tattooed along the right side of property's neck. It would be the Kanji for 'koneko'. Asami glanced at the young boy again before rolling up the parchment and sticking them into his own pack.

Suoh rose, "I've done what I can but he'd already shivering. I suspect he'll have a fever before night fall."

Asami nodded before kneeling, pulling his cloak off and wrapping it about the boy's body. He stood with the boy in his arms ordering, "Kasumi, lead the way. Kei, bring both packs with us and the sergeant's sword."

The three men climbed the tall hillside they'd descended from and soon were settling into a deep cave and thought still cold it was significantly warmer under the earth and the entrance to the smooth sided cavern was long and narrow preventing all but the most determined of wind from reaching the area though the sounds of the storm could still be heard. Along the back was a natural fissure traveling up the side of the wall towards the roof. The three men knew from experience it created a natural chimney. Nearby this was a large pile of split logs and twigs and a large wooden chest.

Suoh set about starting a fire from the supplied wood as Asami settled his burden near the crack and proceeded to strip the boy entirely. Red light soon bounced off hairless pale skin. Kirishima crossed to the chest and pulled several large bearskin rugs from the top. He layered two in front of the fire now warming the cave and Asami move the boy onto them after pulling the last of the wet clothing from him. Clearly visible along the right of his neck was the Kanji for 'koneko'. Inked in dark indigo and outlined in startling gold. Asami ran his thumb over the mark in contemplation.

Kirishima pulled three large glowing crystals from the chest and set them about the cave spreading their light evenly. Next he pulled a box of cooking gear and a box of root vegetables and several cloth wrapped items. After setting up an ingenious folding table, Kirishima passed Asami a large rectangle and a small square both made of cotton and hemmed around the edges. He pulled out a metal bowl filled it with water and set it near the fire.

While Asami waited for the water to warm he used the small square to rub the first layer of dampness from the boy's neck, chest, arms, and legs. The boy's limbs and chest were covered in small white scars only visible now they were in a well-lit area. It was clear from their positions the boy had been lashed on numerous occasions. Asami turned him over grimacing at the crisscross pattern of permanent welts someone had left on his lower back, buttocks, and thighs.

Kirishima watched as anger curled through his boss and paused to pull a sheet of parchment from his own pack along with quill and ink. He wrote for several seconds before placing the written work into the bottom of the chest and closing the lid. When the water started steaming Kirishima added a small amount of cold water to it before passing it to Asami, "I sent for some warmer clothing to replace his ruined items."

"Thank you," Asami muttered as he started wiping the boy clean. He spent several minutes ensuring the dirt and grime, from what had to be several weeks of travel, had been cleaned from his body. Before he extracted the extra wool shirt his pack contained and pulled the garment over the boy's head. The shirt hung to the boy's knees, off one shoulder, and had to have its sleeves rolled several times before Asami found the young boy's hands again. He then laid the boy down, pillowed on a folded cloak, and covered in several thick blankets Suoh had pulled from the chest.

While Asami tended to their unexpected guest, Suoh had set up three additional palettes near the fire and hung two thick blankets across the narrow cave opening. While little wind could get in he preferred the heat from the fire to not travel out. Kirishima, after handing Asami the warmed water set about placing a large pot of ham and potato stew on the fire. Soon enough the three men were seated near the boy blowing on spoons and discussing the day. More specifically Asami was talking while his two trusted aides listened and took note of any orders he may have or questions he might ask.

The conversation didn't start until Asami had consumed over half of his bowl of stew which took longer than normal due to his continued vigil at the boy's side. Every other bite interrupted by the boy's breath hitching as his body warmed. Finally he handed his bowl to Kirishima waving away the offer of a second helping and spoke, "An untrained magic user and slave?"

Kirishima pulled open the parchment and reread the falsified paperwork, "According to this the boy was originally sold to pay off a debt. If any of this is true then he was ten at the time."

Asami frowned, "He would have been showing his powers soon after." He gently moved the boy's light brown hair from hanging over his closed eyes. "Unless he's a late bloomer his first owner should have given him over to the guild soon after."

Kirishima read through the record again, "He's been sold a lot according to this. It looks like only the last part of the document is actually forged the seals are all correct until his purchase by the sergeant three months ago." Kirishima looked up, "He's nineteen and named Akihito after his hair color, if the notations are correct. He was born in early May."

All three looked at the boy's hair; Asami ran his fingers through it chanting and smiling as the dull brown faded under his magic to nearly white silver. The hair was very soft, fine, and the primary color was almost striped with the gold highlights like a ginger cat's fur. "A run away."

Kirishima nodded, "Perhaps the sergeant was trying to help him reach the republic. As long as he made it past the border guards he could have been free."

Suoh grunted, "It would have been a hard sell, those guards are trained to spot falsified paperwork." He glanced at the seal notarizing the boy's most recent 'purchase'. "I doubt this would have passed muster."

Asami nodded, "Kei, I'll need you to fix it. Replace the sergent's name with mine and ensure the date is set for the last time I was in the Capital." He pulled the thick leather collar Kei had sat beside the sack and fingered it. "I want thinner softer collars for him too."

Kirishima nodded but frowned. Asami raised an eyebrow at him asking, "You don't like the idea of me owning him? You know I can't just let him run loose. He's an untrained magic user. There are reasons for the guild laws."

"I understand not allowing him to run free sir. It is just…" Kirishima trailed off but then swallowed and plunged on at his boss's glare, "You aren't returning to the Consortium capital for pleasure. Taking an untrained mage with you could put you in significant danger. The pass is only two weeks away, Suoh or I could take him over the border and entrust him to Master Arbatov."

Asami's glare deepened into an outright scowl, "I wouldn't trust Arbatov to train a dog properly, much less a mage capable of pulling as much power as this boy did." He glanced down at the boy again and ran his fingers through the boys hair a second time.

Suoh spoke then, "You're thinking of what Master Ichiori said as we left."

Asami nodded, "He did say I should seize the light I found on this trip."

Kirishima sighed, "I will instruct Sion's quartermaster to prepare what is necessary."

Chapter Text

There was blood everywhere. He ran and ran through the trees, but still his toes squelched in the thick bloody mud, worse were the voices screaming and the terrible raging fire chasing him. So he ran. He ran through the darkening gloom trying to escape the blood and screams and fire.

Akihito opened his eyes. Everything around him was red. He must be dead for only hell could have fires that burned cold. He found himself physically weak, unable to move his arms or legs beyond a couple of centimeters and the light from the hell fires made his eyes sting. He scrunched them mostly closed and peered about. The walls of where ever he lay were stone and reflected the red fire back at him. He looked down his body finding piles of thick wool blankets and fur rugs piled on top of him. He was certain that if he could just move them he would be able to shift his legs and arms.

Somewhere to his left were several demons snoring. He turned his head, scratch that thought it was just one giant demon. Then he heard a laugh. It was deep and rumbly, and for some reason made his stomach flutter. A face appeared above him. The demon's hair was coal black. It fell in shiny waves across the Oni's piercing golden eyes which flanked a narrow nose perched above strong lips and a pointed chin. He's skin was bronze and Akihito had never seen a more beautiful man.

Asami smirked at the just awaken boy. He was snuffing through his nose and peering around the cave in solemn curiosity. The young man scrutinized him with wide eyes then frowned. Asami attempted to explain where he was, "You're safe now." He rub his thumb over the slave mark, "I have you kitten."

He'd spoken and Aki's stomach fluttered again as the deep baritone washed over him. The fluttering irritated him. Stupid stomach, so what if the Oni was good looking; that was no reason to fill with butterflies. He glared at the Oni who had the audacity to smirk back at him while rubbing the horrid slave mark on his neck.

The heat from the boy's skin was scorching. Asami shook his head leaning over to pull the bowl of cool water Kirishima had set out before curling up on his pallet to sleep. "You need to rest, Akihito. Go back to sleep; you'll feel better with rest." He tried to brush the hair from the boy's forehead so he could place the cool rag on it.

It spoke once more. The baritone rumbled and the Oni reached out to push the hair falling over Aki's eyes. Akihito couldn't look away. He was certain the Oni was casting a spell over him; well wouldn't he be surprised.

Aki opened his mouth to sing only to find his voice cracked a croaked instead. It felt like he'd swallowed burning hot porridge after having his throat sliced open by the jagged edges of week old bread. He knew the feelings; Akihito was no longer surprised at what people would eat when they were starving. He frowned and tried again; oh gods it hurt. It hurt so bad he wanted to rub his throat, but he couldn't free his hands. He glared at the Oni again and shook his head violently to free his cheek where the monster's hand now cupped it. He tried whispering only have the searing pain shoot through his throat for a third time.

Asami frowned at the boy. He was clearly in pain, probably a sore throat from singing in the bitter cold and wet snow. It didn't help the youngster was running a raging fever. Asami wet the cloth near him and tried to run it over the boy's face but the young boy shook it off glaring at him with a murderous glare. At least that is what Asami assumed the boy was trying to effect. What it really looked like was a snarling spitting kitten; it made Asami chuckle.

Based off of the boy's reaction, chuckling was the wrong thing to do. Asami reached out with the rag again only for the boy to jerk away again. Now it was no longer funny; in fact, it had begun to piss him off. He grabbed the boy by the back of his neck, leaned close to his face, maintained their matched gazes, and then said, "You. Will. Obey. Me. Akihito." He stressed each word slowly running his thumb over the slave mark again.

Aki forced his thoughts past the pain in his throat, "Never." He wanted to say more but now his head was swimming and his sight blurred. He pulled away from the hand gripping him. He couldn't tell if he was successful or not. Tear's filled his eyes. Damn it he'd been a slave in life! Why was he damned to still be property now that he was dead? He croaked out the word again softer than the first, "Never."

Asami watched the boy slip back into sleep. The brief battle of wills, between them, had strained him past endurance. Asami laid the now lax head down on the pillow of cloak. He bathed the boy's face and cooled him off as best as he could. Kirishima had sent for medicinal herbs after supper. They would likely be ready by the time the sun rose over the mountains.

After setting the now warm water outside the cover to the entrance, Asami settled down in his own blankets. He was nearly asleep when the boy cried out weakly. The sound was full of pain and woke both of his sleeping men. The strength the boy had fought to wield when awake previously was now utilized to toss the blankets and furs about. He tried screaming again before settling into sobs. He called out to someone named Takato begging the person to get up.

As quickly as he started he quieted to murmuring. However that was worse. Asami watched as the magic started pooling about the boy's head. It pulsed white. Asami rolled to his feet and started chanting. His magic was stronger, but the boy's was strangely structured making dispelling it difficult. It became a race. Akihito built the burning light almost faster than Asami could dismantle it. Endurance proved the winner; Akihito passing out again before Asami was no longer able to hold his own spell.

Asami slumped to the ground; the boy was incredibly strong. Also, he was not as untrained as he appeared. Though, where the boy had learned the structures he used Asami didn't know and he was one of the few mages in the world that knew of all recorded structures even if he couldn't form them.

The boy started mumbling again. Asami looked at Kirishima, "I'm going to have to force the bond."

Kirishima frowned but stepped up to the chest and opened it. He smiled and pulled out a stack of clothes. Among them was a wide white ribbon as long as the boy was tall and an ornately handled silver knife. He set the clothes on the table and brought the knife and ribbon to Asami. "Would you like me to hold the boy?"

Asami paused as he was taking the items from Kirishima's hands; he was strangely reluctant for either of his most trusted men to touch the boy any more than they already had. He shook his head, "No, I only need you to thread the ribbon."

He rose and pulled the rest of the covers from Akihito's body; he also brought over a cup of cool water. The boy would need to be able to speak a little better than he had so far in order for this to work. Once they had everything they needed he settled down next to the boy and tapped his cheek. "Akihito, it is time to wake up."

Aki had been trying to get Takato up again. He just knew this time his friend wasn't really dead. The blood he was standing in wasn't from his friends. Suddenly he wasn't surrounded by fighting men anymore. Cool air swept over his body and someone was tapping him on his cheek. Yet, Aki felt terrible. His muscles hurt as did his throat.

He opened his eyes again; he was still in hell. The Oni from earlier had been joined by two more one tall with dark brown hair and glasses he was busy pouring over a scroll laying on a nearby table. The other was even taller and a wall of muscles. His shoulders were broader than any Aki had ever seen and his head was topped with very short yellow blonde hair. He was standing to the side of the raven as if waiting for orders. Aki was quick to ascertain the Raven from earlier really was in charge, but decided to confirm his suspicions. "So are you like the king or something?"

His throat was scratchy and injured still so the question came out as soft whisper that made his face scrunch in pain. A cup of water was held to his lips. Aki tried to hold it himself but his arms could barely raise his hands so he gave up and drunk until the cup was pulled away. He was certain it wasn't nearly enough and watched the cup leave longingly. The Oni King, as Aki now dubbed him chuckled and handed the cup to the glasses wearing one before his lips settled into a smirk.

The smirk irritated Aki and he couldn't understand the buzzing noise the one in glasses was using to speak to his King. So, Aki decided to just ignore them and go back to sleep. He tried to settle back down on what felt like soft fur, but the raven haired Oni wouldn't let him. He glared at the demon who he now realized was holding him up. Aki pulled on the arm the demon held, "let me go." At least that's what he thought he said but all that came out was buzzing.

He glared again. "What did you do to me?" the buzzing was still there. Aki shook his head and the buzzing stopped, he tried again, "Let me go." That was better. He could at least hear himself though the words were soft.

Asami nearly laughed at the boy, he pulled the nearly limp body closer before whispering into his ear, "I haven't done anything to you, young one. You're not going anywhere; soon you won't want to." He leaned back an captured the boy's gaze with his.

Aki shook his head but was unable to look away from the golden eyed demon holding him. He whispered, "No, I'll get free from you. I don't care if you are the demon king."

Asami smiled and started chanting Aki watched as magic gathered about the Oni. The color was dark nearly black but bits of gold ran through the indigo notes flowing towards the demon. The Oni nodded to the one with glasses who reached out with a sliver knife and sliced open the creature's forearm.

Aki tried to pull the arm the raven held but he couldn't escape the cut the glasses demon placed from the inside of his wrist to nearly his elbow. He hissed in pain pulling harder but the raven proved stronger. Akihito still couldn't look away from the raven's eyes. The raven demon press their two cuts to each other and nodded again at the glasses wearing one.

A long white ribbon was wrapped around their arms twice and tied at the wrist. The magic the Oni King gathered was pooled in their joined hands and then ran about their bound forearms. The chaniting rose in pitch and power. It was entrancing and Aki soon found himself whispering along. White notes also edged in gold flowed into the magic. The Oni King's eyes widened before his lips split into a grin.

Aki misunderstood the grin and smiled himself, that's right you jerk. I can do magic too. His voice strengthened and soon was matching the Oni King's in power and inflection. Tenor and Baritone joined together as the chant wound down to its last phrase and resonated off the cave walls. Aki's grin grew as the sound reached his ears it was one of the most beautiful sounds he'd ever heard.

He was so focused on the beauty of their joined voices he didn't notice the other two being in the cave slowly pushed to kneel under the power of the chant; nor the way the ribbon soaked up the blood that had been dripping between his and the raven's arms. It wasn't until the last line of the chant stopped reverberating through the cave that he even realized the two of them had stopped gathering the magic or even cast a spell.

He was suddenly exhausted; it was worse than the feeling he'd woken with. His throat ached again raw and burning. His head hurt and his eyes watered. To make things even shoddier he could no longer hold his head up.

Asami watched all the strength flow out of the boy. He caught the falling body and pulled it to his chest before whispering; "Now you really do belong to me."

The boy moaned and pried his eyes open to glare at Asami, "I belong to no one."

Asami smirked at the green glare, "Oh, kitten, but you do." He leaned down and kissed the boy's lips.

Aki watched as the Oni's lips descended to his. He moaned at the contact opening for the invasion of his mouth. The demon's lips were warm and his tongue wet against the roughness of his own. He tried to shake his head but the raven gripped the back of it with strong fingers tugging on his hair as the Oni pressed their bodies closer to each other. Their bound arms were pressed between their chests.

Aki's head stung from the hair pulling he moaned again; he felt his groin thicken and his nipples tighten. His body was reacting to the dominance display of the demon. It was his one weakness, at least that is what he always told himself. He liked being held down during sex and if the kiss was anything to go by this demon was more than ready to take him.

Asami felt the boy grant him dominance of the kiss. He also felt the boy's obvious arousal growing between their stomachs. Asami wasn't far behind the boy in those terms. He pushed the boy to his back and lay atop him. Akihito's eyes were blown wide and he panted slightly when Asami pulled his lips away to trail them down the boy's neck. He covered the tattoo, bit down and then sucked hard leaving an already purpling bruise over the kanji, He raised his head and smirked at the mark, "My kitten."

He rocked up and put their faces close together capturing the boy's eyes again, "Mine to teach, Mine to control." He gazed deep into the boy's eyes daring him to disagree all the while rocking their crotches together.

Aki growled at the words, but his protest still came out of his abused throat in a whisper, "just because I'm willing to have sex with you doesn't mean you own me." He glared back at the demon, "I'm not property."

The switch from docile sub to growling antagonist intrigued Asami. It was almost heady to know the boy wasn't beaten down by his position or who ever had placed the scars across his skin. What had started as obligation and duty was suddenly welcome. He'd bound the boy to him so he could exert control over the magic the boy seeming gathered unconsciously. Now he reveled in the thought the boy was bound to him by more than just a forged piece of paper. He looked forward to teaching the boy how relative freedom really was.

For now though, the boy needed to rest. His body, though highly aroused was still burning with fever. His lungs were straining to catch a proper breath. He smirked at the boy's words replying, "You are mine, Akihito. You will learn soon enough." He kissed the boy again tugging on the blonde locks until the boy's body relaxed under his. He raised his head then and chanted under his breath before leaning down and whispering into the boy's ear, "Sleep, Kitten."

He watched as the boy's eyes widened just before he slipped back into slumber. He'd clearly recognized the magic flowing into him, but the bond they had formed prevented him from fighting his shishō. Though that is not what he knew Asami as yet. The Raven smirked as he unbound their arms. The ribbon always started out white in the ceremony. It never ended that way, always taking on some color or combination of colors that represented the relationship the teacher and student would share.

The wide cloth was often used as part of the student's clothing. Most often as a belt or hair ornament. Asami folded the length before handing it Kirishima to place back with the clothes procured for the boy. Neither he nor Suoh commented on the belt, though both wondered at the gold threaded green that ran randomly through the now black cloth. The two colors shone in the dim light of the fire through what could be easily viewed as cracks in the otherwise black cloth. Both swore the edges of the cracks were lightened with thin lines of indigo.

Chapter Text

Akihito woke to the sounds of talking. At first he didn't open his eyes spending the first minutes of waking to mentally feel his body. He honestly hadn't expected to be alive. Kou must wield a sword better than he claimed.

Once he'd inventoried his arms, legs, toes and fingers he tried swallowing, that didn't work as well as his other tests. His throat was raw and once that feeling had been recorded his brain registered several other aches and pains. His chest ached from his left shoulder diagonally across his ribs and nearly to his right hip, his left forearm hurt like it had been burned, and he had a gods' awful headache.

He paused in his wish for pain herbs and thought with excitement; if he and Kou were not dead then did that mean they had made it? Was he lying on a bed in some inn on the Republic side of the mountains? He was so excited by the idea he tried prying his eyes open only to find them held closed by something heavy and moist. He was attempting to convince his arm to raise his hand and remove the rag when he heard a deep baritone chuckle.

A raven haired, golden eyed, male's chiseled face came to Aki's thoughts and his stomach fluttered. Strange he didn't know any raven haired men other than Kou, who didn't have gold eyes. He must have dreamed the man. The baritone drew closer; it was talking about checking on his minarai. Aki was briefly jealous of the man's apprentice, but he'd long ago accepted he'd never get to be one.

It didn't matter where his talents lay, surēbu were not allowed to learn the higher arts and crafts of the world. Had he been larger or stronger he might have been allowed to learn how to slaughter and prepare animals for consumption, the tanning of animal hides, or the dyeing of weaved cloth. Aki almost snorted at the idea; he was blonde and green eyed; an exotic combination in the Consortium controlled lands. That combined with his smooth muscles and long limbs had only allowed him one position as a slave.

Though he'd never lasted at any brothel long; he wasn't docile enough. The one near the army barracks to which he'd been sold at fourteen had been his longest stay with any owner. Aki suppressed the shiver memories of the place tried to bring forth. He mentally shook his head; that was the past and the place had one good memory, it had been where he'd met Kou and Takato. Friends, people that hadn't cared he was a slave. Two people that had treated him like a person.

Kou and Takato had helped him escape that place. They had hidden him and protected him as the three crossed western Asahi. Takato had given his life to take him to the Republic a memory that caused the pain in his chest to worsen. It was yet another person he hadn't even gotten too bury. However, he wouldn't allow the past to mar his future lest Takato refuse heaven to haunt him. Maybe he could get training now he wasn't trapped on Consortium lands any longer? The idea made his breath hitch.

The voice's footsteps stopped hear his head and he felt someone kneel near his head. Aki breathed in slowly trying to make his breaths long and even like those he would have if he were still asleep. The smell of burned vegetation, tobacco if he remembered his herbs correctly, wafted from the clothes of the person meaning it wasn't Kou. It wasn't until he could also smell sweet alcohol that he realized the person had leaned over him. The baritone chuckled over his face before saying, "I know you're awake, Kitten."

The man's breath was warm on his cheek and slightly calloused fingers brushed his skin as they removed the wet cloth from his eyes. Aki opened his eyes blinking as the light hit them. Then the face of the man leaning over him came into focus. It was the face from Aki's dream. The man's lips were twisted into a self-satisfied smirk and Aki found himself fighting both the urge to smack the look from the man's face and throw his arms around the man's neck and kiss him to see if he tasted as good as he smelled.

The man pulled several blankets and rugs from atop Aki who took the removal of weight as an opportunity to sit up. Though he found himself extremely weak and the man had to steady him as he pulled his limbs into working order. Even after sitting up the man ended up folding several of the rugs and placing them behind Aki's back so he could lean on them. Akihito was just about to ask who the man was and where he was when his stomach growled loudly. Aki blushed and stared at his lap.

Another man with glasses offered him a bowl of steaming porridge. It was topped with honey and Aki stared at the bowl for several minutes without eating any lost in the memory of the last time he'd had honey.

He hadn't known the old tree belonged to the Grand General. It was hidden in the thicket and Aki had never seen anyone visit the location in all the months he'd lived at the Army brothel. So when he'd fetched the combs of sweetness from the tree he didn't think anyone would care. How wrong he'd been. He hadn't even gotten the sweet treat back to the slave quarters before one of the General's aides had grabbed him by the hair.

The man had dragged him to the central square, placed his head and wrists in the stocks, and then ripped his tunic from him. They'd left him there, all day, naked and exposed to the harsh summer sun and then the cool insect filled night. At revelry the next morning the Grand General had ordered Aki to be whipped from the top of his back down his legs. Fifty lashes in total as warning to any other surēbu that might think to steal from him.

Asami frowned down at Akihito, the boy was staring at the porridge bowl with wide eyes. When he started panting slightly Asami reached out a touched his shoulder.

Akihito flinched from the incoming blow then looked up in shock when all that happened was a warm hand settling on his shoulder. Oh, right, he was in the Republic now. He looked at the golden eyes searching his face and then smiled at them, "Arigatō. Itadakimasu!" He raised a spoonful of the gruel and ate it.

The switch from fearful contemplation to eager eating was swift. It was almost like the boy had two personalities or maybe more. Each emotion almost had a life of its own. There had been hints of the boy's inability to contain his emotions over the past week, nightmares ripping all of them from sleep followed by angry tirades about not belonging to Asami even if he was the King of the Oni. An accusation made by the boy in one of his more lucid moments. It was a title that Asami himself found immensely funny.

The boy focused completely on eating. Even now Asami found him fascinating to watch. Akihito would watch each spoonful like it might get away if he didn't keep an eye on the utensil. Then once the wooden spoon made it to his mouth he'd wrap his lips about it and draw the thing out slowly sucking on the utensil the entire time he extracted the thing. It was the constant moans of enjoyment that went straight to Asami's groin however, never before had Asami been turned on watching someone eat.

Asami watched until Akihito dropped the spoon into the bowl he was about to offer more when Aki reached out and ran a finger over the bowl's edge and brought the small amount of honey to his lips. If Asami were younger the small pink tongue that darted out to lick the digit clean would have given him a nose bleed. He decided against offering another bowl. The boy could eat more after they talked.

Kirishima took the bowl from the young man and brought it to the table to wash. He heard his leader laugh again as the boy tried to get to his feet and stumbled. The laughter had become strangely normal. Until the boy it had been a sound rarely produced and then only when the man was beyond angry with someone. That laughter was typically followed by someone's death.

The laughter over the past week had been soft and full of true amusement. The boy had pulled something soft out of the hardened Mage and Kirishima wasn't certain if that was a good or bad thing. He'd spoken to Kazumi about it the one time both Asami and the boy had been asleep. The boy wrapped in blankets and Asami's arms peaceful again after yet another nightmare. Kirishima had quietly voiced his concerns that Asami was not as focused as he used to be. They had important business inside the Consortium capital and yet Asami-sama had spent the last week babysitting the youngster. Something he or Kazumi could have done just as easily.

Suoh had just scoffed at Kei's concerns. Then he'd said something that had made Kei pause, "You should be happy for him Kei. Asami-sama has never really had anything that truly just belongs to him."

Kirishima had frowned, "I am completely loyal to Asami-sama."

"Not the same thing." Suoh had looked off into the air with that statement. "You don't belong to Asami completely; neither do I. We both have spouses and mothers. I have two kids to worry about." He'd turned and looked at the two sleeping figures. "That boy literally has nothing but himself and if the colors on that ribbon are any indication then well….." Kazumi trailed off with that statement.

Kei had grunted with it, "That is another thing, I sort of feel sorry for the boy. Asami-sama's life is full of darkness. He took the position of Grand Wizard so young. He's obviously going to swallow the boy whole."

That had made Suoh laugh, "I don't think that's what the ribbon says at all." They both looked at the long strip of cotton on the top of the chest. "No," Kazumi continued, "I think it means the boy is going to bring Asami-sama back from the edge of the Abyss he's been standing on for so long." He looked at Kei again, "Those colors are cracks in the darkness shining through. They aren't being consumed. Maybe we'll get to see Asami-sama return his standard back to the indigo it used to be?"

Kei watched his leader, Grand Wizard of the Asahi islands, Council member for the greater eastern hemisphere and Master of the Yōsei structures. The boy wasn't far off when he had called Asami the King of the Oni in his more lucid moments. That same man was now teasing the youngster about not being stable on his feet, offering to carry the boy to the corner of the cave where they'd set up the chamber pot. Kirishima shook his head and returned to cleaning the dishes.

Akihito pushed the man away again. He could relieve his full bladder without help, thank you very much. He may have started out unsteady but that was partly because he was swamped by the ridiculously large tunic covering him. It was the size of a night shirt on him and the sleeves were way too long. The man was insistent though and while Aki never let the man actually carry him, he could admit the man had provided a must needed arm to lean on as he'd crossed the cave. The hand the man had insisted on resting on his hip had left a warm spot distracting Aki from his purpose in getting up.

Now that he was behind the current though he pushed the distracting thoughts the man's hands left in his head away, pulled the shirt above his waist, and concentrated on taking care of business. When finished he tried to remove the chamber pot from the strange contraption it rested in. the object was made of white stone cold to the touch and it held the brass pot up off the ground arguably at the proper height to sit upon; it made urinating a hassle. Aki wasn't used to having to aim this early in the morning.

He now needed to empty the thing though, and he couldn't figure out how to remove the pot from the stand and spent several minutes feeling around before the golden eyed man's voice came through the curtains, "Need help, Kitten?"

Aki growled under his breath at the name, but the man had been kind enough so far and Aki really did need help with the stupid contraption. He peeked out of the curtains with a blush asking, "How do I get the chamber pot out to empty it?"

Asami smiled at the boy's confusion; toilets were not common in the Consortium lands. In fact only houses of the highest ranking had them. Magically enhanced toilets like the boy had just used were even rarer. As a slave, it was doubtful that Akihito had ever encountered one. Asami pointed to the hinged lid resting against the cavern wall, "Just put the lid down, the magic will take care of the rest."

The boy's eyes grew wide and he almost skipped to the pot and gently lowered the lid until it covered the pot. Somehow his eyes got wider as the sounds of rushing water filled the enclosure. When they stopped he all but jerked the lid back up before staring at the now empty and sparkling brass pot. He lowered the lid again smiling at the sound of rushing water. This time he tried to pull the lid up while the water still ran.

Luckily that was one of the safety features Asami had insisted be on all the magically enhanced toilets in the Republic. Before his mandate several children had been sucked into the warp tunnels generated by the magic set off by closing the lid. Since all the warp portals were connected to a spot far out in the Taiheiyō Ocean to the east being pulled into one was certain death. He reached into the toilet area, took Akihito's hand, and pulled him out from behind the curtains. "The lid won't open while the magic is flowing."

Akihito allowed his self to be pulled from the curtained area, but looked up at the raven curiously, "Why?" Getting the answer to his question was important enough he didn't even notice when he stumbled into the larger man's chest.

Asami grinned down at the boy. The youngster's fever had broken the previous day and this morning his skin was pale and lightly touched with the blush of warmth from the cave's fire. The same fire caused the gold flecks among the soft green boy's eyes to shine and his hair though limp and greasy still reflected the light creating a soft halo about the locks. "To keep curious kittens from getting harmed."

Asami almost laughed at the scowl that crossed the boy's face. However the look didn't last long as the youngster looked around the cave. His eyes settled on the sword leaning against the wall and Asami steadied him as he shuffled across the floor to it. A frown settled in his eyes and on his lips as he knelt and took the sword in his hands. Asami suddenly didn't want to confirm the look that crossed the boy's face as he asked, "Where is Kou?" the boy looked up at Asami tears glistening on his lashes, "Why did he leave his sword? He never goes anywhere without it."

The cave got completely quite as Kie stopped washing the dishes and Kazumi who had been cleaning their weapons paused. Both looked at the boy with pity. The boy glanced around franticly, "Where is he?" Looked back at the golden eyed man and gripped the man's tunic, "please, where is my friend?"

Asami knelt and took the boy's shoulders, "He's dead. The bandits attacking your caravan sliced open his leg. He bled out before we could reach you."

For a brief second Aki knew his heart stopped. When it started again it was galloping. He wanted to scream, to throw something, or find the men that had killed his friends and burn them all over again. Yet, all he could do was sit on the floor with tears streaming down his face clutching Kou's katana. Maybe if he squeezed it hard enough Kou would come from behind one of the hung blankets in the room and tell him it was all a bad joke.

Aki looked up at the gold eyed man it was a joke right; they were playing a cruel, horrible joke on him. He dropped the sword and starting pummeling the man's chest, "THAT! ISN'T! FUNNY!" He used his whole body causing the man to rock backwards.

Asami caught the distraught young man to him; wrapping his arms about the boy's upper arms and palming the back of his head before pulling him to his chest, "I know it's not funny, Akihito. I wouldn't joke about this."

Aki shook his head, "no, no, no, he wouldn't have left me all alone." He broke down into sobs gripping the man's clothes.

Asami settled to the floor and pulled the boy onto his lap. He ignored the wet snotty mess the boy's sobs left on his clothes and just held the boy close whispering nonsense into his hair. When the boy quieted Asami looked down. At first the boy's sudden heaviness led him to believe the boy had passed out. Instead Asami found the boy was just completely lax. What little strength the bowl of porridge had given him had fled and he was now leaning heavily on the person nearest him.

Akihito's mind was suddenly empty. Then thoughts crashed upon him, numerous and rapid. He tried to pick out just one and concentrate on it. He found he couldn't. The hand holding the back of his head came around to cup his cheek and tilt his face up. He found his gaze captured by the gold eyes of the man that currently held him. Finally one thought a question, settled forefront and burned his mind. If Kou was dead, how had he gotten past the boarder guards?

Before Asami could ask how he felt the boy whispered, "I'm not in the Republic of Vehnä am I?"

Fear settled over the boy's features causing Asami to tighten his hold before answering, "No, I'm afraid not."

He tensed with the answer. Aki had not attempted to hide his slave mark. The practice was illegal in the Republic after all and the mark was less important than finding Kou. Now he forced his gaze lower, stared at the man's chest, and asked the only other question that mattered, "You will be retuning me to the Grand General then?"

Aki shivered at the thought; the last slave that had run away and been returned had spent nearly a month in the latrines. He'd been charged with keeping them clean and had been forced to rummage for food and water. The other slaves had been unwilling to approach the older man and when Aki had started saving part of his food and giving it to the man the other slaves had trapped him in the slave quarters tied him face up to the bed and whipped his entire body. He still had small scars all over from the beating.

The next day Akihito learned the old man had hung himself. The other slaves started ostracizing Aki. Suddenly he was the cause of several mishaps in the brothel or responsible party for lost items and goods. Finally another group of the slaves cornered him in the General's stables where they had beaten him nearly dead. Kou and Takato were the ones that had found him. He had apparently been unconscious in the stable for nearly two days. That was the day the three of them had hatched the plan deciding they would help Aki escape and take him over the mountains to the Republic of Vehnä.

It took nearly two months to gather forged papers, travel clothing that would fit Aki, and provisions. Then one late, moonless August night nearly three weeks after Takato and Kou had mustered out of the Army Aki had snuck past the lax perimeter guards and met his two friends behind a large hill. They'd immediately set out to a town in the south. It took several weeks of seemingly random trails before they reached Kōeki-sho a small mountain town where caravan's gathered to hire guards to cross the dangerous mountain passes. We were so close.

Asami frowned down at the boy. Akihito was looking towards his face but his mind was obviously far away. He rubbed the back of the boy's head before saying, "You and your friends would have been stopped at the border. There is a reason so few slaves make it to the Republic."

Aki refocused on the man holding him cold settling into his gut. "I killed them." The man started to shake his head then stopped.

Chapter Text

Asami glanced at the boy over the parchment he was reading. Akihito sat on the cave floor staring at the entrance. Kirishima sat a bowl of squirrel stew next to Asami's shoulder before carrying a second and sitting it on the floor. His second in command put a spoon in the boy's hand and instructed him to eat.

They had taken to ordering the boy in order to get him to consume anything. Even then Akihito ate unenthusiastically. In fact, he did everything unenthusiastically. All of his movements were slow and jerky like it took far to long for his muscles to follow the commands his brain gave them. He'd been like this for last four days.

Asami was aware it was grief driving the boy's actions. Twice now he'd tried to take his own life. First he'd tried to use his friend's sword intending to cut his self. Fortunately Kirishima had already peace tied the weapon and Aki had been unable to release the complicated knot. Asami had woken to the boy's nearly quiet sobs as he'd struggled with the cords. That happed the night after he learned his friend Kou was dead. The next night he'd chosen to walk out of the cave in only the tunic he'd been wearing and into the still raging blizzard. Had Asami not woken to the cold draft the boy's departure had allowed inside the boy might have succeeded. Now Asami kept the boy wrapped in his arms when they slept.

Strangely the boy hadn't fought when Asami stopped his attempts. He'd just look at Asami without seeing him and then blindly follow whatever order the raven gave him. Dropping the katana on command and crossing the cave to kneel at Asami's feet without protest the first time and merely turning around in the blizzard and walking back to the voice that had ordered him to return. It had taken additional orders to get the boy to walk back into the cave, strip out of the wet tunic, and dry off.

Kirishima had suggested that if the boy had something to do he might snap out of his melancholy quicker. Asami had instructed the boy to help Kirishima. Since then Kei had been having the boy help prepare the meals and keep the cave straighten and clean. Akihito performed every chore quickly and precisely. Kirishima had been surprised that he never had to follow behind and do a job the way he felt it should be done. Meals were prepared efficiently and actually tasted better than Kei's. The dishes were cleaned well and packed away correctly, the floor swept and the few pieces of foldable furniture were kept dusted.

However, the boy did every task Kirishima set him completely silently and mechanically. Had the boy not been so animated when he'd been fevered or when he'd first truly awoken this wouldn't have bothered the three men. However, they knew the boy's current state was unnatural.

Asami had put down the scroll he was reviewing to eat the boy's delicious stew. Akihito appeared at his elbow just as he swallowed the last bite and reached for the bowl. Asami reached out and took his hand, "Leave it for Kirishima. I want to talk to you." Akihito blinked at him, surprise flitting across his eyes before they settled back into a blank look and he lowered himself to his knees.

The raven took the surprise as a good sign; perhaps there was still a spark in the boy. "The storm is dwindling and we'll be leaving here in a couple of days." Akihito tensed and tugged on his hand. "I want to ensure you understand what is expected of you." The boy nodded his head as Asami picked up the parchment he'd been pursuing. "You belong to me now. Kirishima and his people are much better forgers than whomever it was your friends hired."

He turned the writing to face Akihito, "I had my team date your last sale date to the last time I was in the capital which coincided nicely with the time period you were also last there. See?" He pointed to the last entry on the parchment.

Asami wasn't surprised by the look of confusion on Akihito's face; very few slaves knew how to read. It was something he would be correcting for the boy, but not today. Today was about preparing the boy for what the next few weeks of travel would involve. "This means I've owned you since you were fifteen."

"Twelve."

Asami paused at the word. It was the first the boy had spoken in days without being prompted. He looked up to catch the boy's eyes, "Even the consortium has rules on what ages slaves can first be sold. That age is even higher for freemen on the debtor's block."

"He lied." Aki reached out and touched the parchment at the top.

Asami glanced where the boy pointed. The original seller's name was under his finger. 'Takaba Fujida', listed as the boy's legal guardian. Asami had read the original document they'd found with the sword owner. It had stated that the boy's deceased father had accumulated a large amount of debt trying to keep his farm afloat after a major drought. When the due date came Takaba Fujida had sold his brother's only surviving child to the collectors rather than giving up the farm land the older had originally used as collateral.

It was an old story, unlike the farmers in the Republic there were no protections for poor yields in the Consortium. It didn't help that in lean years farm taxes were often higher with eighty to ninety percent of the yield required for military maintenance than the normal seventy. Asami nodded, "Ok, I've owned you since you were twelve. I'll have Kirishima alter the paperwork."

"It doesn't matter, I just wanted you to know." Aki dropped his finger

Asami almost asked why, but instead said, "Thank you for telling me. Now, since I've owned you for so long I would have had you re-tattooed to clearly display you belong to my house." He reached up and ran a thumb over the Kanji on Aki's neck. The boy flinched. Asami found himself saying, "Don't worry, it won't hurt." Then he began to chant.

Akihito watched the magic build. The notes were dark nearly black indigo and edged in gold. They gathered into a dark ball which the man pressed against the kanji marking his neck. The magic didn't last long and other than feeling very warm had no physical presence. When the raven pulled his hand from Aki's neck the tattoo felt strangely cold. Aki placed his own hand on the spot to warm it.

"There now you are marked with symbol of Sion. Would you like to see it?" Asami pulling down a small glass mirror Kirishima had placed on the table while the talked.

Aki nodded and leaned over the glass. He had to tilt his head but could see that the indigo kanji originally tattooing his neck had been covered by a reclining leopard. The animal was dark indigo like his original tattoo with gold tipped fur. There was no visible part of the original tattoo remaining. However, as if in homage to it, wrapped in the front paws of the lounging leopard was a tiny silver, white kitten. Its fur was also tipped in gold. He looked at the raven.

The man smiled, "No the little one is not an official part of my house crest; that is purely to represent you." His eyes were shining with repressed laughter. Aki glared back at the man which only made the raven release the mirth he'd been holding in.

It was quick but deep and Aki was kneeling close enough to the raven for him to almost feel the man's chest bounce. He found himself disappointed when the laughter quieted to chuckles and then altogether. He briefly wondered if he could get the man to laugh again, but then dismissed the idea. When the man returned him to the Grand General anything he did now would no longer matter. Aki pulled his fingers from his neck and asked the question burning in his mind, "Why?"

Asami had rolled up the ownership papers as he chuckled over Akihito's 'fierce' glare. He was tying the leather about it when the boy asked his question. He looked up, "Why, what, kitten?"

"Why change my tattoo? Why change the papers?" Aki stared at the floor, "The Grand General won't care what tattoo I have on my neck when you give me back to him." Now he really was cold; he started rubbing his arms almost frantically.

Asami reached out and took the back of the boy's head using his hair to tilt his head so that he was forced to look at him. "I'm not giving you to anyone; I told you. You now belong to me. In more ways than you know." He pulled the boy closer so he couldn't escape Asami's gaze without closing his eyes. "You are mine, Kitten, mine to teach and mine to control."

Aki would normally argue such a statement. However, he was too shocked about someone actually wanting to keep him to do so. Even the Grand General had only owned him because he'd lost to the previous owner at mahjong. He stared at the Raven's gold eyes, "Why?"

"Because, I want to." Asami wasn't about to explain that he'd taken the boy as a minarai yet. He would need to soon, but frankly the youngster had enough to process. It was enough that Asami could now control the boy's intake of magic or smother it if needed. The boy stared for a few seconds, curiosity growing in his eyes before he shut them and frowned. When he opened them again the curiosity was still there, but it was shadowed by the disinterest he'd been affecting for the past few days. Good, there really was still a spark of life in the boy. Asami just needed to figure out how to draw it out.

He leaned back against the cave wall. The boy was staring at nothing again and Asami wished Detect Thoughts had been one of the spells he could form the structures for. Unfortunately like healing magic Asami had difficulty forming the patterns for divination even though they were stored in his brain with all the others he had learned over the years. It was his inability to cast those spells well that had originally brought him to Kirishima.

Kirishima, though able to cast the spell on himself, couldn't summon the necessary magic to fuel a Detect Thoughts spell for someone else. That left Asami without the ability to just read his kitten's mind; he sighed and picked up the other parchment on the table. He read it again; the situation across Asahi was growing worse.

He glanced at the boy again recalling Kei's suggestion he send the boy into the Republic and ask Arbatov to teach him. The thought made his chest ache which wasn't acceptable. The boy wasn't going anywhere he couldn't keep an eye and preferably his hands, when Asami felt like it, on him.

Akihito had slipped into his own thoughts again. He still couldn't fathom why the man would want him. He glanced at him again. He was reading a separate parchment. It was the one that had come through the chest that morning. The chest, much to Aki's joy, was another magical device.

Apparently, their party of mages traveled a lot and had small caves or huts all over the wilds of Asahi, each one empty except for the magic chests. Kirishima-san had explained that all the chests had small warp holes in them and that when you opened them you had access to a special room at one of the two main Sion buildings. The rooms were kept stocked with traveling gear for all five of the Asahi seasons, Lumimyrsky, Taifuuni, Kylvää, Kuivuus, and Korjata.

Aki would have been full of questions had he not been seeking a way to end his despair. He'd caused the death of his only two friends. How could he have done that? They had wanted to free him and how had he repaid them? By being a weakling and allowing them to carry his weight on the journey. He should have loosed his magic sooner. So what if he didn't have perfect control, so what if it hardly ever stayed in the shape he set it to, so what if his only useful spell put people to sleep.

That at least would have helped during the attack; instead he'd frozen. As soon as the arrows had first hit the people around him he'd frozen. Takato had rushed to his side while the bandits had come screaming from behind the hills. He'd stood over Aki's frozen body slicing and stabbing all that came near before an arrow took his throat. He should have helped; oh gods, he should have done something, anything but let them die.

Akihito sobbed breaking Asami's thoughts. He looked down when the boy's weight buffeted his leg. He was leaning against Asami's knee gripping the soft wool of his pants in one hand while he attempted to muffle his noises with the other. Asami's chest started hurting; he put down the missive from Kuroda and stroked the boy's head.

Like most of the boy's crying jags it quieted quickly and was followed by closed eyes and slumped body. The youngster used all his energy when he had one. It was like he put his whole body and mind into the act and when stopped he was exhausted. Asami smiled as he looked down at the boy now fully leaning against his inner left thigh. Mouth open and completely relaxed, young Akihito had started drooling.

Kirishima went to move the youngster. Asami shook his head, "Leave him." HE picked up the message from Shinji again before saying, "The random attacks have increased. The Council of Nine has starting posting military personnel at the larger outlying towns in response." He glanced up at Kirishima.

Kei shook his head, "I am sorry, Asami-sama. I have been unable to divine who is tampering with the great seal. The best I have been able to see is Alkuperäpaikka."

"Then we'll have to continue to the capital until your spell tells us otherwise." He glanced down at the boy and grimaced. Kirishima reached out to remove the boy again, certain his leader had finally grown disgusted with the wet spot the boy was drooling onto his leg, only to have the gold eyed man block him again before saying, "He's going to need a pack."

Kirishima almost shook his head. Their packs were not yet mass produced, unlike the toilets, the freeze boxes, and the stash trunks. Mainly because the spell used was constrained so its power would not stress the seams of the leather packs which were much more fragile than the seams of oak trunks. This meant that only small items or very flexible items could be pulled from the store rooms through the warp they held. Sion research and development were still working on how to create packs equivalent to the trunks. This meant that there were a limited number of the packs in existence and Asami had just commandeered one for the youngster.

Kei pulled parchment and quill to the edge of the table and looked at his leader before asking, "Is there anything else I should have set aside for the boy?"

Asami looked up from where he'd been stroking the boy's fine hair and smiled, "Yes, actually there is."

Aki folded the last of the furs he'd shaken out. It had been at the bottom of the pile he and his new master had been sleeping on since he'd tried to walk out into the blizzard. He'd spent the morning helping Kirishima-san clean and pack away the items they had been using while living there. After carefully sweeping it and folding it he placed it gently on top of the large pile already in the chest. Then he lowered the lid.

A few seconds later he raised the lid again; the box appeared empty. Aki knew though that if he stuck his hand into the box and thought about an item one would normally find in a storage room, for example a dried apple, it would appear in the bottom of the chest seconds after he reached in. A smile crept across his lips. The magic was fascinating and he found his hand inside the chest holding just the item he thought about without realizing he'd reached inside.

"Akihito, we're preparing to leave." Asami's voice startled the boy. Akihito jerked up and dropped the withered apple onto the cave floor. Asami chuckled, "Put your snack in your pack and close the lid, Kitten. You need to get bundled up before we leave. Just because the Blizzard is over doesn't mean it's not freezing out there."

Aki glanced at his feet in horror; the apple had rolled almost to the middle of the room, now it sat there drawing every eye in the space. "I…I'm sorry. I wasn't stealing honest."

The boy was staring at his feet, scuffing his new boots, and twisting his fingers. Had fear not been crowding his face, Asami would find the whole thing adorable. Right now though he needed to get Akihito bundled up in the layers Kei had sent to keep the boy warm. He bent down and scooped up the dried apple as he crossed the space between them. "I know you weren't stealing, Kitten." He pressed the sweet treat into the boy's hands.

The effect of the statement was twofold. First the boy relaxed accepting he wasn't in trouble. Then he realized Asami had used the hated nickname and looked up with his glare. Asami smirked; the small boy really was too adorable. He reached out and ruffled the silvery locks, "come on, you have several layers to pile on."

Akihito glared after the man; he was always treating him like he really was the Kitten he kept referring him to. It was very irritating. He started to say something but squeezed the apple he was hold at the same time and paused to look at it.

When Asami took the wool vest Kirishima was holding and turned to the boy he found Akihito grinning from ear to ear. It seemed to make the boy's whole body glow. Akihito looked up at Asami and somehow the grin broadened; he trotted over to the man and Asami felt something in his chest move. He stood there starring at the bright boy for several moments, only returning to himself when Kei coughed behind him.

Aki shook himself when the guy wearing glasses coughed. He'd been mesmerized by the look in the raven's eyes. He'd be so caught he'd even forgotten to put his apple away. So he continued to hold the precious item as his master slipped on the wool lined vest and buttoned it up.

Akihito could dress himself. Though until earlier that morning he'd just wondered about the Cave in the tunic he'd awoken in. He'd assumed that it was all the clothing he'd get; it wasn't uncommon for masters to supply on the barest of cloth to their slaves. So he'd been a little shocked when Asami had called him over as he put the last of the clean dishes in the Stash Chest. The man had been holding up a pair of wool trousers and not the cheap scratching kind that gave Aki rashes. No this pair was much like the mages pants whose wool had been carded and twisted into fine thread before being woven into almost smooth cloth.

They were lined with cotton not that it had mattered for the man had slipped a pair of long cotton tights over his legs and up around his waist before helping him don the dark grey woolen trousers. He removed the tunic Aki had been wearing, then slipped a long sleeved cotton shirt over his torso and tucked it into the trousers. That was followed by a thick wool tunic of light grey with dark indigo needlework along all the seams. He'd picked Aki up and sat him on the wooden table before adding long woolen socks and fleece lined leather boots.

A long leather belt was wrapped about his waist over which the man had spent way too much time wrapping and tying a long black cloth with jagged, indigo, green and gold wedges. It looked like nature was trying to escape a dark cloud. His master had smirked the entire time he'd spent putting the cloth around Aki's narrow waist.

Now the man had added the wool lined leather vest over which he put a long sleeved leather jacket. He helped Aki into the small backpack they'd pulled from the chest that morning tying the long strings that dangled from the shoulder straps across his leather jacket which not only helped to keep the shoulder straps in the correct place but effectively held the Jacket closed as well. Asami slipped fleece lined leather gloves onto his hands and then swung a fleece lined wool cloak about his shoulders.

The cloak was hooded with a cowl and dyed dark indigo with the Sion symbol embroidered on the left shoulder. The pointed seams were re-enforced with silver cornering like Aki had only seen on expensive leather bound books. Around the raised hood Asami wrapped a light grey wool scarf nearly three times longer than Akihito was tall several times. The ends were tied loosely under his chin and all that could be seen of the boy was his bright green eyes. He felt smothered, but was not layered in any more clothing than the three older men had donned once his master seemed satisfied with how Akihito was dressed.

Aki felt the need to thank his master profusely. They'd climbed for over an hour and it was so cold the boy's breaths were freezing with every exhale. The trail they were following was narrow with an almost sheer wall of rock on their left and a deep drop on their right. The wind whipped the snow around them into almost constant flurries. It buffeted Aki about and he was forced to walk with both hands gripping the cloak of the person in front of him lest he get knocked to his knees. He walked between Asami and the large man introduced to him as Suoh. The two men would have been crowding him had he not needed their larger bodies to shield him from the worst of the wind and snow.

Aki's fingers ached where they clung to his master's cloak and though he tried to hold in the coughs that had started quietly halfway into their journey, but the cold had seeped into his chest and now he couldn't take a breath without the need to rapidly expel the freezing air. So they got louder and louder. Asami halted their march and crowded Akihito between the cliff wall and his body. He leaned over the boy and chanted into his ear holding the wool scarf between both hands. Suddenly the wool was warm and smelled strongly of cedar. The pungent aroma and warmed air eased the ache in Akihito's chest.

Asami leaned farther over his kitten sheltering the boy from the driving wind, "We'll be starting back down in another hour or so. Can you keep going or should I carry you?" The boy looked up at him with wide eyes and shook his head no. Asami nodded, "Don't try to keep going if you really are tired. The path beyond this crest is actually harder to travers than this." Asami reached out and tucked up the loosening scarf and hood, "If you get to tired you'll get hurt. That will make me very angry, Kitten, understand?" The boy nodded and Asami moved away from his slowly. They didn't start out again until Aki had gripped his master's cloak again.

It felt like hours and hours had passed before Akihito noticed the downward slope of the trail and Asami was correct about it being harder to traverse. In several locations all four of them had to turn completely around and almost crawl down steep rock walls. They were almost past the roughest portion of the trail and were carefully lowering themselves down the steepest wall between them and fairly flat portion of the pass on the western side when Aki slipped. He was only half way down the tilted wall when the tips of the fingers on his right gloved got wedged in a ragged crevice.

He paused to try and jerk the glove free rather than allowing it to slide off his hand. Not only did that not work he had pulled to hard and caused his other hand to slip from the rock he was holding. Before he understood what was happening he tumbled down the Cliffside. His stomach encountered rock, at least that was what his brain registered the long hard object as before he felt himself slammed against a heavily muscled chest. He was suddenly pressed between Asami and the cliff face.

"Climb on my back." The order was terse and Asami's voice was hard. It spurred Aki to obey. His brain almost fried by the near miss urging him to comply quickly. He clung to the broad back legs wrapped around Asami's middle and arms nearly strangling him.

It felt like hours but several minutes after he'd climbed onto Asami's back the man reached the bottom of the wall. Aki slid off his master's back and immediately started shaking. He'd nearly died, but that wasn't what had his thoughts jumbled or his limbs shaking. No that was caused by the fact Asami, his owner, had risked falling himself in order to catch him. All Aki's brain could see was Asami falling, landing, and bleeding out on the frozen rocks they now stood on.

His master turned and reached for him; Aki stepped backwards as the man grasped his shoulder. He looked up into the man's eyes, "WHY?" He wrapped his arms about himself, "Why did you do that?! I'm heavy! I could have made you slip!" Aki's legs gave out and he dropped to his knees before his hands, one gloved and the other not, knocked his hood back and started pulling his hair, "Why, why, why?"

Asami grasped the boy's wrists pulling his hands from his hair and his body to his feet. He wrapped both arms about the boy, one about his back just under his shoulders trapping the boy's arms and the other about his head palming the back of it. He leaned down into the boy's hair answering the question, "Because you are mine, Kitten."

"I don't understand." Aki could hardly be heard with his face pressed to Asami's chest. He admitted to himself that his panic attack had calmed as the man rubbed the back of his head. He stepped closer raising his arms to circle the man's waist and breathed his in the raven's scent.

Asami tilted the boy's head back and captured his eyes, "the best thing about being my property, Kitten is that you don't have to." He smirked when the fierce glare came back; Asami certainly wasn't going to tell the boy his own heart had nearly stopped as he watched the boy slip. A few centimeters to the left and Asami would not have been able to swing far enough to catch him. He heard Suoh drop to the ground next to them. The man wordlessly handed Asami the boy's other leather glove.

Asami nodded in thanks, stepped back from his Kitten and placed the glove back on his now freezing hand. He then ran his hands down the boy's arms and legs, "Akihito, does anything hurt?"

Aki took a deep breath and inventoried his arms and legs, wrists and ankles, and his hands and feet. He shook his head, "No, master, nothing hurts."

Asami smiled, "good." He looked at Kei; the bespectacled man looked like he'd nearly had a heart attack. Asami nodded at him, "Kirishima, how much farther to the next camp site?"

Kei took a deep breath and let it out before replying, "another four to five hours sir."

Asami looked around the small glen the cliff bottomed at, "Then let's break for some food. We could all use a rest."

Suoh set about building a small fire with the pile of wood he'd been carrying since leaving the cave Aki had woken in. It gave off just enough heat to boil a large pot of snow from which Kirishima made a dark tea. Asami took off his pack and pulled a rolled leather mat out and placed it on the ground. He then pulled Aki's pack from him and pushed Aki to sit on the mat.

He pulled jerky, cheese and bread out of his pack handing them to Aki, "Eat. You've used up breakfast already."

Aki nodded, he still felt strange when any of the three older men served him. He was the slave. It was unnatural for freedmen to serve a slave. It was unheard of for a slave to eat before his master. Yet, Asami seemed to take perverse joy in stuffing Aki full. The boy still found how closely the man watched him eat weird.

However, in the past couple of days he'd noticed that the raven would smile whenever his slave stuffed himself. So Aki would do just that whenever food was offered. After all he much preferred the man's smile to his smirk. He tucked into the bread first. It was still warm; and to his delight filled with thick sweet custard. He was unaware of the moans he made swallowing.

Asami settled next to the boy accepting a cup of the warm tea from Kirishima. He nodded at the steaming pot indicating that Suoh and Kirishima should take a break also. He knew that the travel from here on was technically all downhill but the first half of the day had been a lot rougher than he'd planned for. The weather was colder and harsher than usual for early Marraskuu. Blizzards were usually short and less cold even on the peaks this early in the season.

Akihito finished his meal with the dried apple he'd gotten from the stash box earlier in the day. When he was done he downed the last of the warm tea and gave Kirishima back the cup. He stood and looked around before stepping behind a group of short snow filled bushes. He had business to take care of.

Asami watched the boy seek privacy to relieve his self and turned to Suoh, "We'll need to keep a better watch out as we move down the mountain. The wildlife will have realized Lumimyrsky season will be harsh this year. The wolf packs will be hunting."

Suoh nodded, "Understood." He glanced at the bushes, "Should we arm the boy?"

Asami shook his head, "Not right now. He hasn't had any training and I'd rather he just hide behind us should something attack."

His man started to respond when Akihito came back from around the bushes. He was holding his pants up with a red face. He approached Asami and mumbled something. Asami chuckled and showed Aki how to wrap and tie both the leather and cloth belts. He then proceeded to help Aki straighten the rest of his clothing. The boy blushed all the way to his roots. It was so adorable Asami couldn't help but lean down and breathed on the boy's ear as he lifted the hood over the boy's hair, "If you need this much help, Kitten; I can help you disrobe when we reach tonight's camp."

The boy looked up at him with a glare and the smirk Aki had grown the hate settled across Asami's features. Aki Stormed off only to have Kirishima stop him, "The trail we are taking is this way, Akihito-kun."

Aki hadn't thought he could get any redder, but the glasses wearing mage had proved him wrong. He stopped and spun about sending snow spraying around him and joining the rest of the group. He muttered the whole way.

Asami placed the boy in front of him during the afternoon trek. One he knew the boy was tired and he didn't want him to stumble and fall when Asami could easily reach out and steady him. Two he was enjoying the angry twitch of the boy's body as he stomped his way along the trail. Soon enough though Aki had forgotten he was angry and had started really looking around the trail. He'd never seen trees until he'd been sold beyond the confines of the city walls. It wasn't until the mountains that he's ever seen tress this tall.

It was just the trees that captured his interest though. When Kou, Takato, and he traveled with the caravan they'd continually made him ride inside the kitchen wagon, telling the Caravan owner that he required almost constant study to be able to cast magic. They mainly did it so that other travelers along the trail wouldn't see him. However, that had meant that he hadn't gotten to see any of the natural sights along the trail.

Asami stopped them again when he noticed the boy was stumbling again. It had happened frequently since they'd descended the final cliff. The bitter winds of the higher pass were muted by the thick trees and undergrowth and though still below freezing, Akihito didn't need to protect himself from wind driven ice and snow. Without his head tucked up he was free to look about and see the world about them. Apparently he found the site fascinating.

Not long after they had started out Akihito had come to an abrupt halt on the trail and stared into the forest. At first Asami hadn't known why the boy had stopped. He'd taken the extra step so he could reach out and pull the boy to his chest and ask what was wrong. Akihito had turned his head enough to look at Asami, "I didn't know trees could get so large." He pointed at a tree.

Asami had looked at the tree then. It was a lone larch among a grove of birch. The conifer seemed out of place, except it was incredibly large both in height and girth. He looked back down the boy who had whispered as he stood entranced by the tree. Asami had asked what the boy said and when Aki had repeated his words Asami answered the boy's question. He had taken several minutes to tell the boy the name of the tree, how long had probably taken to grow that large, and even why it was by itself among the birches. Trees the boy hadn't known the name of either.

That had been nearly two hours ago. Since then the boy had tripped along the pathway, clumsy as he pointed at everything and asking around a million questions. What had started as a quiet walk through almost silent forest glades was now broken by a young, inquisitive boy. Were it not for the glowing smile Asami could see in the boy's eyes the frequent inquiries might have annoyed him. He hadn't realized that his offer of information about the first tree that Aki had stopped and stared up at would pull forth the boy's curiosity.

Kirishima came back down the trail frowning at his boss and the boy. They had stopped yet again. The boy pointing at a small patch of white tipped blue flowers peeking out of the snow. His boss was explaining they were blizzard roses. Strange flowers that only bloomed after the first blanket of snow covered their spiny branches. Kirishima sighed and mentally added another two hours to their trip to the next shelter.

Really their leader should put more of a damper on the boy. At the rate they were going it would be past twilight before they reached shelter. He watched as the boy bent over the bush to smell one of the beautiful flowers as Asami explained the petals were naturally sweet and when dried made excellent substitute for honey in the Lumimyrsky months. Asami pulled his knife and was cutting several of the blooms from the plant. He was busy removing the thorns from the stems when a large grey furred creature knocked him to the ground.

Akihito was nearly bouncing with delight while his master told him about the plant. The man had indulged his curiosity all afternoon stopping every time he'd shown the least amount of interest in anything. Now he was cutting several of the blooms for Aki to take with them so he could dry them and see what they tasted like later. He was so absorbed with what his master was saying that he screamed in shock when the furred beast tackled the man.

Asami felt the weight of the beast on his chest. He thanked Kirishima as the teeth of the creature failed to bypass the tough leather of his cloak and coat. He used the momentum of the fall to pull his legs up and kick out at the beasts' belly. It ended up getting tossed over Asami's head. The grey creature flipped in the air like a cat and landed on its paws. Suoh quickly stood between Asami and what Asami now recognized as a Glacier Cat.

The creature stood almost as tall as Aki at the shoulder. Its fur was a pale grey with an under coat of dark blue. Cold fog rose from the creature's body and the sown beneath its feet was hardening into thick ice. Asami slowly stood and told Akihito to come to him. He never took his eyes off the creature but felt the boy crowd his back as Kirishima stepped up to Suoh's shoulder.

Asami could feel the boy shake at his back. However, he couldn't take the time to comfort him. Glacier Cats weren't really cats. They were large elementals, in this case water elementals that hailed from the far north of their plane. If one were to travel farther north and to the islands nestled near the Arctic Circle one would not be shocked to find a Glacier Cat. However Asahi was mostly temperate with only the highest elevation of the Lohikäärmeen Selkä kept snow in the height of the Kuivuus season.

Asami thought about the missive from Kuroda he'd read the day before. It seemed the rumors were actually true. There were elementals roaming outside their normal habitats. The cat hissed and growled at the two men facing off with it. Kazumi wielded a katana; its handle studded with bright white gems. Kei held two kodachi, both with hilts wrapped in bright red braided silk.

Now that Kirishima was backing Suoh Asami spared Akihito a glance. The boy was shaking at this point and gripped Asami's cloak like he had when they'd been buffeted by the winds. He glanced back at the elemental. It was making feints at his men. This could go on for hours until one of them tired. Asami raised his hands and started chanting.

The structures of Abjuration were easy compared to some other schools. At least to Asami they were. The words that called the primal essence of the universe to him and molded it in response to his desires all but tumbled from his lips. Once he'd gathered the raw material he set about repeating the stanzas to shape it. A quiet but bright tenor joined his baritone. The warp hole Asami was creating almost snapped into existence. It was so quick the Glacier Cat was sucked into as soon as it raised a paw to feint at Suoh.

The portal was dark and purple in the center a perfect reflection of Asami's power. However right around the edges were swirls of silvery gold. Asami glanced down at the boy huddled into his back. He was singing along with Asami's chant. Repeating the words Asami loosed milliseconds behind the raven. It was a wonder to behold. There had only ever been one other mage in known history that could so seamlessly meld their magic into another's. That mage had been lost during the raising of the Lohikäärmeen Selkä mountain chain nearly seven hundred years in Asahi past.

Asami wound the spell to completion, closing the portal before stepping away from the boy. He turned in just enough time to catch the boy as he passed out. Akihito might be able to meld his magic with Asami's but he had no stamina and the enormous physical stress gathering and controlling magic put on his young body. Asami pulled the boy up into his arms and nodded at Kirishima. The man turned and led the way down the trail. Asami nodded in thanks as Suoh paused to gather the roses he'd cut for the boy. It would be a shame to leave them now and his kitten did love sweets.

Chapter Text

They traveled slower with Akihito and it wasn't just because his legs were slightly shorter. In truth, with the way he explored the forest around them, he probably walked two or three times as many steps as they did. No the real cause of their 'sudden slowness', as Kei called it, was the way the boy had to stop and investigate nearly everything. Plants, animals, weather, and even rocks could illicit excited questions. Each one the three men felt compelled to answer. Each answer always led to more questions. Aki soaked up the knowledge, absorbed it, mulled it over, and then probed deeper with surprisingly insightful observations.

Though teaching Aki was really just a byproduct of why the men answered the boy's inquiries. They really did it to help the boy keep his nightmare producing sorrow at bay. Every day was spent keeping the boy distracted and his face crowned with the glowing smile he'd give them each time they paused to teach him something new.

By the time Kei or Suoh would find a camp site each night the boy was always exhausted. In the beginning he'd helped set up the camp, at first fetching the firewood and digging the fire pit. A couple of days into the trip he'd asked them why they didn't pile the leaves and needles under the piles of blankets and furs to make warmer beds. He had then taught them about keeping warm when one was supplied no covers. A pile of dry leaves, collected from tree hallows or the leeward side of closely growing trees, made for a cushiony mattress. He'd even found their responses funny saying, "I'm a slave, not stupid."

However even those chores were fairly quick to complete and since Kei usually had a good stew going by the time tent and beds were ready the boy would often sink into gloom long before the group turned in to sleep. It wasn't until the fourth night of their journey that Asami decided to give the boy something to occupy his mind between building camp and sleeping. All three had noticed the boy only sunk into depression when he had too much time to think.

So four evenings after leaving the cave, after the tents were raised, the bedding was laid, and food was started, Asami had the boy sit next to him on a long leather mat and open his small back pack. Inside Aki found a pile of parchment, a thick wooden board, several quills, and a small pot of black ink. He took the items out as Asami instructed and then looked up at the man questioningly.

"I'm going to teach you to read and write." Asami smiled down at the boy's widening eyes.

He pushed the pile of things towards Asami and shook his head, "no".

He started to rise only to have Asami grab his wrist and pull him over the pile of parchment and writing utensils. "What did you just say?" Asami pulled the boy until he fell against his chest and stared at the boy's face, "Say it again."

Akihito stared up at his master. The man was angry. Aki had never seen Asami angry. It was terrifying. The raven's eyes had narrowed and the grip the man had on his arm was starting to be painful. None of this however was as frightening as the thought of someone learning he could already read. It was against the law for slaves to be educated beyond basic mathematics and the ability to write their name.

Not that there weren't exceptions, older teens and adults from the farming class sold to pay off debts often had slightly better educations and the rare merchant class debt slave would often be educated enough they could serve as assistants and secretaries to their masters.

Children born into slavery or children sold before twelve, though, should have little or no education at all, especially if they were from the lower classes. Education was not free in the Consortium and it was unusual for anyone not ranked in at least the merchant class to get any opportunity to attend lessons before they entered apprenticeships. When one considered how hard apprenticeships were to come by, the fact the bulk of citizens of the Consortium did not know any math beyond repetitive addition and even less knew how to read was unsurprising.

He had seen the reaction other brothel slaves had to more educated slaves brought in. He'd been abused in the same way just because of his voice. He hadn't met any of Asami-sama's other slaves yet. Until he knew how they would react to him, Aki wasn't about to share his mother had taught him to read, write, or mathematics and algebra. He wasn't going to sing and he certainly wasn't going to reveal he could cast magic. He took a deep breath closed his eyes and repeated his earlier resistance, "No."

He tensed as Asami shifted his hold on him and brought Aki closer, "Open your eyes and look at me, Kitten."

Asami tried to relax. The past week had caused him to forget that Akihito had a rebellious streak. He'd long ago realized the boy's spirit was probably why he'd run away. The boy was a free soul and he instinctively rebelled against the Consortium's attempts to constrain him with social structures and chains.

It took much longer for the boy to open his eyes than Asami would have liked, and when the boy did Asami didn't like what they held. Stubbornness overlay fear. It was something Asami had seen glimpses of over the past week. He had no compunctions about plowing over the boy's obstinacy. In truth he enjoyed the boy's reactions to his 'high handedness' too much to think about stopping. The fear however always made him pause. That wasn't an emotion he ever wanted Akihito to associate with him. He set aside his annoyance at Akihito's refusal, took a deep mental breath, and counted backwards from sixty.

Akihito relaxed as he watched his master's face and he felt the hands gripping him loosening their hold. He didn't remove himself from the man's lap though. Asami stared down at him relaxing his grip and smoothing out the wrinkles his face had taken on with his anger. Everything else in camp became muted to Aki's ears when the man quietly asked him why he didn't want to learn to read.

"You are obviously eager to learn everything else I'm willing to teach you, why not reading?" Asami was genuinely curious. The boy had been more than eager for Kazumi to teach him what animal tracks meant what along the trail. He'd paid rapt attention to all of Asami's lectures about the plants, and had all but begged Kei to teach him new recipes each night they camped. What about reading could have triggered his refusal?

Akihito took a while to answer. It was the first time he'd ever seen Asami actually look angry at something he, Akihito had done. Not even Akihito's sniping at him or the frequent lapse in honorifics had elicited anger before. Apparently it took out right refusal of the man to bring it forth. However, even angry, the man had not struck him. It was the lack of painful retribution and obvious effort by the man that had Akihito wavering in his response.

Akihito had been hiding his gifts since his parents had died. First from his uncle, who had taken delight in reminding the boy he was lucky that he was provided a roof and food. Then from the trainers at the surēbu re-education institution who had spent numerous hours trying to beat or starve his spirit from him. He'd even hid them when sold to the old baker that had all but treated him as a son. The brothel owner, he'd later been sold to, hadn't allowed him to attend the old man's funeral marking the second burial of family and friends he'd missed.

There had been no need to hide his talents in the city and army brothels. As far as his education went, the rooms he'd worked from had contained no reading materials anyway. As for his magic, well there was a reason he was so good at putting people to sleep. After all he'd had years of practice.

Asami watched the boy's face as he thought about his answer. It was clear the boy was giving it serious thought. Several emotions passed over the boy's face rapidly, before he apparently settled on what his answer would be. Asami placed a finger on the boy's lips as he opened his mouth, "Be careful how you answer me, Akihito. I will know if you lie and that I will not tolerate. Lying to me will be met with severe punishment."

Akihito pulled from the man's finger and frowned, "I don't lie. If I don't want you to know something I just won't tell you." He glared at the man crossing his arms. "You don't need to know everything, bastard."

Asami smiled then, "I have ways to make you talk, Kitten." He pulled Aki closer to him and whispered into his ear, "Want me to use one right now?" He trailed his fingertips across the boy's jaw, delighting in the youngster's shiver. "I could have you telling me every secret you have." He crushed his mouth over the boy's lips.

Akihito moaned at the warm contact allowing the man to slip his tongue past his teeth; then he struggled which didn't last long. Within moments of starting to squirm Asami had his wrists trapped behind his back and his hip gripped painfully. Pleasure rippled up from the bruising grip on Akihito's hip past the arm nearly crushing his ribs and joined the deep tongue fucking he was getting to combine behind his now closed eyelids and explode. That rippled back down his body straight to his groin which also exploded.

Asami had had numerous lovers. Most were one night stands; some were couple of week flings; a very few were people whose name he could remember. Of the lot not many had responded well to his dominate tendencies and each of those had expected gifts, money, favors, or just association with his name in return. None, not even one, had orgasmed from just his kiss. He raised his head in shock.

Akihito panted in his arms and stared at him with wide blown out eyes. He felt the blush crawling up his skin. Kama he was in trouble if the man could make him feel like this from just a kiss. His trousers and leggings were wet now and his hope the man didn't know were dashed when Asami leaned down to run his tongue along his ear before nipping it.

Asami smirked as Akihito shuddered at the touch of his tongue, but it was a full grin that sprouted when he nipped the boy's ear lobe and he moaned. Asami increased the pressure of his teeth then licked the resulting bruise. The boy keened. He tried pressing his groin against Asami but Asami's firm grip on the boy's hip prevented any real movement.

Akihito was too distracted to hide the bulge growing in his pants. He'd made the man angry. He'd first refused to respond to the man's question then he'd snipped at him about needing to know anything. Akihito had heard the curiosity in the man's voice. Asami wanted to know his reasons and it was a heady feeling to know the man was waiting on him to answer.

Aki knew he was currently at Asami's mercy, yet it felt nothing like the men that had held him down in his past. It wasn't even close to the feelings the unwashed, fat, obnoxious, and sadistic men that had always visited him in the brothels. They had wanted to hurt someone and his refusal of them had only been an excuse to bruise and break him. This man, the mage, could easily break his body. Akihito held no doubts that should Asami decide to he wouldn't be able to fight any beating the man might dish out. His Master, however, had chosen coercion instead.

How Asami knew he liked being manhandled, that he liked the feeling of being held at someone else's mercy was unknown to him. Though, his recent orgasm certainly hadn't helped hide the fact. The arms imprisoning him while warm breath was trailed over his ear sent pleasurable shudders through his body. He needed to cum again. His erection strained at his wet pants; its sensitive head rubbed painfully at the cloth. He tried begging then, pressing his face into the older man's chest.

A semi-constant stream of 'Master, please', interspersed with high pitched whines and guttural moans had Asami straining to contain his self. He did release a dark chuckle and move the hand on Akihito's hip to his hair. The boy whimpered but then released a breathy moan when Asami grabbed his hair. Asami used that hold to pull the boy's face from his chest and capture the boy's gaze, "Answer the question, Akihito. Why don't you want to learn to read?" He leaned back to the boy's ear, "Tell me and I'll give you what you're craving."

The boy licked his lips, the small pink tongue darting in and out rapidly. He pressed them together and held his breath briefly. Asami captured Akihito's gaze again and the boy responded with, "My mother taught me to read before she died."

Akihito closed his eyes with that statement waiting for his master's response. Asami tugged on his hair again, "Keep your hands behind your back." The order was nearly guttural and Aki tensed as the man released his hands and moved around to loosen the belts tied around his waist. Aki clasped his right wrist in his left hand squeezing almost painfully as his Master reached down, unlaced the front of his trousers, and gripped his penis. He did throw his head back, close his eyes and moan.

Asami smiled at Akihito's response to his touch. Oh, yes, this one he was keeping. It had long stopped being about training the young man to control his magic. They were also past Asami's desire to keep the boy's inner flame burning bright. No, even had those two things not been needed for this he'd keep the boy. No one else would be allowed to have what was currently in his arms.

Tears sprouted in Aki's eyes as he tried to fuck himself in Asami's hand. It was large and warm and gripped him just short of true pain but every time he came close to orgasm the bastard would tighten enough to prevent him. Each time the man would whisper in his ear with hot breath telling him he wasn't ejaculating until Asami wanted him to. He whispered short possessive sentences into the boy's ears. Aki was his, his to control, his to command, his to dominate.

Asami palmed the top of the boy's penis. Precum was all but gushing from the young man. Asami wet his fingers with the sticky mess and pressed them behind the boy's ball sack. The boy's anus was clenched and it took several minutes alternating between the boy's throbbing erection and the pucker before it relaxed. Asami pushed one finger deep lowering his other hand to grip the boy's cock at the base tightly.

Asami whispered instructions in Aki's ear and the boy blindly wrapped his arms about Asami's neck rising to his knees. When the boy buried his face in Asami's neck he released the boy's hair and used both hands to control Aki's orgasm. He alternated stroking the boy's dick with the probing of his anus. Refusing the boy's begging he worked at the opening until he had three fingers in him. He paused in his ministrations then asking, "Which to do want to cum from, Kitten? My hand on your dick or my finger's in you." He pumped both as the boy whimpered. "You only get to pick one."

Aki couldn't think and honestly didn't know which he wanted. The man's hands on his dick were heaven and the fullness inside him was delicious. He opened his eyes to bring his tumbling thoughts and feeling into some semblance of order and peered up at his Master the man was staring down at him eyes blown wide with barely contained lust. Asami-sama, his owner, was holding himself back to pleasure his slave. Akihito knew then what he wanted and it wasn't the man's hands. He sucked in a breath and replied, "Neither; I don't want your hands." He reached down and pressed Asami's crotch, "I want this."

Asami's breath hitched in his throat. Then a filthy grin spread across his face, "Well then, I guess you'd better get my pants open then little surēbu"

Aki's fingers fumbled with the knots holding the man's pants together. Then tugged and pulled the strings free to release the man's member. It was large and thick and bulging with veins. One large blood vessel looked near to bursting as it ran from crotch to tip. Aki licked his lips. He jerked his eyes upwards when Asami loosed a beep chuckle, "You'd better suck and tongue it well. I don't have any oil with me." Asami then flexed his fingers inside Aki's bottom before pulling out causing the boy to whine.

He laughed as he tugged on the boy's dick, "get to it, Akihito, or this will be a very dry fuck."

Aki scrambled off the man's lap and surrounded his member with stretched lips. Asami buried his fingers in the boy's hair tugging the locks sharply to direct the boy's mouth. Soon saliva was dripping from the boy's straining lips. Asami fucked the warm cavern sliding down the youngster's mouth and pressing the boy's face into the fine hairs covering his crotch. Aki just moaned around his dick. Asami soon found he was fighting the urge to empty himself down his surēbu's throat and pulled free as he turned the boy and sat him in his lap again, this time facing the camp fire.

By now Aki had been reduced to babbling, he begged Asami to fuck him, repeating a litany of 'please, master' and 'fuck me, now'. He helped push his trousers past his knees. Ignoring the fact they trapped his legs together. He pulled his knees to his own chest as Asami gripped both of his butt cheeks and spread them before driving his dick into Aki's aching hole. He screamed when he came.

Asami paused when Aki orgasmed, sheathed in the boy's tight bottom he did nothing but tighten his hold on the boy as Aki's body shuddered through his post orgasm bliss. When the boy finally stopped shuddering and sat nearly boneless Asami leaned down and spoke softly into Akihito's ear, "My turn."

He lifted the boy sliding him off of his erection slowly. Aki moaned, eyes closed meaning he missed the man's face smiling just before he slammed the boy back down.

Aki was caught, his own clothes working against him. He couldn't escape the sensations of Asami filling him. The man's thickness stretched his hole and burned slightly as it slid in. The burn lasted until the tip rammed Aki's prostate sending white lights off behind his eye lids. Then the man would slide out before slamming into him again.

Aki babbled, unable to even form words as the pressure in his groin built again. Soon enough he was cumming again. This one though was completely silent. It evolved every muscle he had and the pleasure was so good he stopped breathing. Coming down from the high had him passing out.

Asami smiled as he came in the boy's behind. Aki had orgasmed again; this time passing out as he came down. The boy's anus still spasmed around Asami' dick, milking it until Asami ejaculated. He pulled out of his Kitten and his smile broadened as he watched his cum leak from the boy's hole. He laid the boy face down across his lap and only looked up when a cloth and bowl appeared in his vision.

Kei held the items, giving him the same frown he normally reserved for when Asami would cancel meetings last minute forcing the man to issue apologies and excuses in equal measure. Asami chuckled. He knew Kei was frowning to hide his embarrassment. Public affection, especially sex, was not something the reserved man approved of. However, he'd long grown used to Asami's willingness to flaunt convention. Now he just ensured Asami was able to indulge without interruption and kept changes of clothes on hand. Kei grunted, "There are clean clothes, for both of you, in your tent."

Asami nodded tied his now messed trousers and stood with boy. He entered their tent, took the bowl and wash rag from Kei and then tied the flaps closed before stripping the boy down to his skin and cleaning him. Akihito didn't do more than shiver as Asami pulled the soiled clothing from him, wiped up the results of their sex and redressed him sans boots, vest, jacket, and cloak. Asami covered him in thick blankets and furred rugs before cleaning and redressing himself. He rolled their soiled clothes together and took them out of the tent with the now cooled water.

Asami paused at the tent entrance. It had taken special maneuvering to carry the boy into it. They kept the tents low to the ground with little space between their tops and the ground. It helped to keep the heat inside. Though it was the primary reason Asami had not moved into the tent earlier. There really wasn't enough room for much more than sleeping in the damn things.

He tossed the bowl of water behind the tent under some bushes and then brought the clothes to the leather rug he'd laid out to sit on with Akihito. The pile of parchment, ink and tablet had already been put away and one of Kei's leather bound volumes of herb ology sat in their place. He glanced over at his right hand man, "Plants?" He held up the book.

Kirishima turned to Asami and shrugged, "They boy loves to cook which is not that far from herbal medicine." He glanced at the cook pot and stirred it. "Also I believe even you have noticed how he avoids watching Kazumi slaughter the animals that get caught in his snares every morning."

Asami nodded and tucked the book into Akihito's pack before stuffing the soiled clothing into his. Come morning his would contain fresh sets for both of them. While Akihito's would remain light and carrying only the items he and Kei instructed Sion's main house to place there. He picked up both packs and set them just inside their tent flaps.

When he was done Suoh was striding back into the small clearing, "Snow's getting thicker. We'll want to reach the hostel before dark tomorrow." He settled next to Asami after brushing the spot free of snow. "didn't set any traps, animals will be burrowing down for the winter now."

Asami nodded and took the offered bowl of stew from Kei, "I'll let the boy know he'll need to curb his curiousness." He started eating. Kei and Kasumi smiled and tucked into their bowls.

Akihito woke up ravenous. His stomach was growling so loudly he worried it would wake Asami. He tried to wiggle out from under the man's arm and the innumerable blankets and rugs his master insisted on piling on top of them each night.

That is what actual woke Asami. He tightened his arm about the boy, "Where are you going?" He checked his internal clock and frowned, "It is another two or three hours before daybreak." The boy muttered and Asami chuckled, "Say again?"

Akihito frowned up at the man preventing him from getting up, "I said, I'm hungry." He wiggled again and was surprised when the man let him lose and even helped him get out from under the blankets.

"Look in you pack," followed Akihito to edge of their pallet.

Aki paused and looked back at the man. He'd planned on dressing and stroking the camp fire back to life to see if he could reheat any stew left from supper. A meal he'd missed. He glared at the man in bed with that thought. However, whenever Asami instructed him to look in his pack it always held something interesting. So he pulled his small pack to him and opened the draw string under the thick leather flap.

Sitting on top of two leather bound books was a small reed basket holding something wrapped in cloth. Pork, if Akihito's nose was correct. Aki quickly unwrapped the cloth to find three fist sized meat buns still steaming from being cooked. He was quick to wrap them back up. He tied the top of his bag and crawled back under the covers. Then frowned at Asami's questioning look, "What? It's cold out there." He ignored the resulting laughter and opened the cloth again.

The meat buns were almost too hot to eat but Akihito didn't let that sway him. He nibbled at them moaning with each bite and licking his lips often to prevent any of the thick gravy from escaping his stomach. When he was done he glanced longingly back at the entrance of the tent. Now pleasantly full he desperately wanted something to drink. He thought for several seconds before starting to crawl out of the covers again. A few handfuls of snow should slack his thirst enough for him to return to sleep. Besides he'd already disturbed his master long enough.

He started only to have Asami wrap a large arm about his waist. "Where are you going now?"

The man growled the question causing Akihito to pause more than the arm did. He glanced up at his master but couldn't see the man's face in the dark tent. He thought for several seconds before replying, "Sorry, I planned on thanking you after I got something to drink." He did his best to bow though lying on his side, "Thank you very much for the food, master." He licked his lips again.

Asami chuckled and pulled the boy close and held his hand near the boy's mouth. "tap my arm when you've had enough." He then started chanting. His palm slowly filled with clear cool water. Aki's eyes widened before he set his lips to the man's palm and slurped the clear liquid up.

Asami was hard as a rock by the time the boy tapped his arm. It had really only been several seconds but the boy's lips sucking on the water and his tongue lapping at his palm had groin straight to his groin. When the boy raised his head and opened his mouth to thank him Asami slammed his lips over the boy's mouth.

Hours before predawn Asami discovered the tent wasn't too small to have sex in and Akihito learned that giving in to his master's lust was potentially dangerous to his ability to walk.

Chapter Text

The sun was setting before the small traveling party saw the lanterns of the Consortium Hostel and for once Asami appreciated the western government's insistence on rule and protocol. In order to better serve the army's movements, the consortium had built numerous hostels along the major roads at specified distances. Each building was constructed exactly the same and had the same rooms, the same amount of staff, and the same rules about acquiring housing.

He had Suoh help him lower a sleeping Akihito to stand on his own feet. The boy grumbled as he leaned against Asami while Kirishima settled a glinting gold chain of command about the man's neck before settling a silver one about his own. Aki glanced at the other mage to catch Suoh securing a similar silver chain around his own neck and sighed. The emblems on the chains were very specific.

Kirishima and Suoh were Kenraalimajuri essentially grand generals of the Consortium. It was the highest rank a person could purchase. It meant that the two men were incredibly rich or that Asami was rich enough to purchase their ranks for them. For while they were mages that profession would only afford them Everstiluutnantti. Not even the powerful mages could start out with more power than the original landed noble families.

Asami held the rank of Kenraali. It was the only rank that could not be bought into. Akihito sighed to himself. It was one thing to be chattel to a powerful mage. It was quite another to belong to a member of the monarchy. He stepped back worrying at his lower lip. He was never going to fit in at the castles and he could only image their reaction to his inability to remember to use even the most basic of honorifics.

Asami watched Akihito look around their party with wide eyes. He sighed to himself. He probably should have taken a few minutes to explain their ranks before this. However the snow had been swirling and Aki had had trouble walking so they'd started late. The second could be laid directly at his feet. He'd found his lust for the boy had not slacked much between their round of sex just after midnight and predawn. So when he'd awaken hard and aching he'd rolled the boy under him before aroused the young man with deep kisses, tugged hair, and an almost bruising grip on his hips. The resulting sex was fantastic. However, it left the boy hardly able to walk.

Asami was a large man, tall and broad, with thick muscles and corded legs. He could effortlessly wield large swords and pole axes, string and fire a longbow with ease, and had been known to win wrestling matches with the largest of Sion's non magical guards. It was something that he took pride in considering that most mages were not athletic. He was glad he'd continued to maintain his physical strength as it meant he'd been able to carry his small lover for most of the day.

Akihito glanced at the walls peeking through the trees again. He bit his lower lip harder turning it dark red. Asami reached out and tugged at the boy's chin working the lip from between his teeth, “Look at me."

Aki glanced up. His eyes were full of not quite fear. Asami tugged him closer with his fingers and then cupped the back of his head and tilted his face to capture Akihito's eyes, “What is wrong?"

“I...um...well......" Aki honestly wasn't certain how to explain his trepidation about entering one of the hostels. Nor was he able to explain it stemmed from a larger issue. The hostels were extremely formal and Akihito was certain he'd not be able to stick to any of their strictures. He blinked as Asami frowned at him before closing his eyes and blurting, “I'm going to embarrass you; I don't know how a surēbu is supposed to act around a prince."

He heard the mage chuckle, “Just act like you always do." He brushed a quick kiss to Aki's lips. “Follow me closely and don't worry."

Akihito nodded and Asami released him before turning to Kirishima, “Let's go. They are going to want everyone to remove their hoods and scarves and I don't want Akihito out in this wet snow any longer than necessary." Kirishima nodded and once again they moved down the narrow path.

The deer trail emptied out onto a main road just south east of the large walled Consortium hostel. The pair of gate guards couldn't see them in the darkening gloom but had heard the creaking and groaning of the underbrush as they pushed their way into the open. One called out for them to identify themselves and Kirishima called back they were travelers returning from the Republic on their way to Alkuperäpaikka.

They traveled the road north to reach the dimly lit gate and its nearly frozen guards. There they stopped, removed their scarves and tossed back their hoods. The men saluted Asami at the sight of his golden chain. Right fists pounded their chests as they bowed nearly in half while a third guard rushed to raise the portcullis. Asami just nodded and swept through the opening as soon as it was high enough. Kirishima and Suoh placed their fists over their hearts before following. Akihito trailed along behind.

He had almost made it to the gate when one of the guards grabbed his arm and flung him backwards, “Round to the back with you."

Aki, surprised at the assault, tripped over his feet and landed on his already sore backside. Pain ran up his spine leaving him breathless. He had barely gathered his wits when he heard the portcullis slam back into position. One of the guards was laughing. The other pointed to the side of the wall, “Take yourself along that way and present yourself to the hostel overseer. He'll see if your master wants you housed or not."

Aki glanced through the bars of the gate. Asami was growling at a low bowing man who was shaking his head rapidly while gesturing towards the hostel's interior. His master looked at him through the gate with a frown and then tilted his head towards the path the guard had indicated. Aki nodded and trotted around the building.

At the back was a set of rough lean-tos against the back walls. There were several older slaves huddled together under the two closest to the small portcullis in the center of the back wall. Aki walked quickly towards the gate doing his best to ignore the others around it. He almost made it. Just as he was reaching out to pull the long rope near the gate, a large hand grabbed his backpack. It was securely tied around his chest so instead of it slipping off the action pulled Aki off his feet. He was dragged backwards and into one of the lean-tos where several large raggedly clothed men surrounded him.

Aki opened his mouth and yelled as he kicked out with his feet trying to get them to release him. What he got was a strong punch to his stomach, a dirty cloth shoved into his mouth, and his body tossed roughly to the ground. Hands grabbed and ripped at his clothing while two held his arms and legs down.

It only took a few minutes and when it was over he had only a torn undershirt on. The men gathered the things he'd worn and carried them off into the woods. One grabbed him by the hair and whispered into his ear, “Shouldn't be so careless little vittu. It's a shame you dropped all you stuff on the way back here." He shoved Aki back to the ground and kicked his ribs.

Akihito curled in on himself, wrapping his arms about his knees which were pulled up against his chest. He didn't know how he was going to explain what had happened to Asami. In truth he wasn't certain what had happened. He'd intentionally avoided looking at anyone or bothering them. What had he done?

Asami glared at the fawning little hostel keeper. He'd nearly lost his temper when the gate had closed without Akihito inside the courtyard. He'd asked politely for the boy to be let in only for the man leading them to their suite of rooms to inform him that slaves were not allowed past the front gates. The law required all slaves report to the hostel overseer and should his highness require the slave's presence after settling into his rooms the boy could be sent for.

Asami frowned deeply at that. The last time he'd been through the hostels slaves had been allowed where ever their masters were. Still he didn't want the boy out in the snow any longer than necessary so he growled that he required the boy to be brought to him as soon as he reached the back gate. Then he'd glanced at Akihito and nodded for him to follow the guards' instructions.

The oily manager led them to the largest set of rooms. It was three small sleeping chambers arranged around a large common room. Slaves were busy lighting the logs laid out in each of the three fireplaces. Each fireplace was open to both rooms in the wall it was situated in. Another set of slaves were bringing in large tubs and setting them before each fire where they were quickly filled with steaming water.

The common room was split into thirds, the second closest to the door held a large round oak table with six matching chairs. In the center of the room facing the three fire places were four low thickly padded couches, and at the far end near the large window were two square tables with comfortable chairs and numerous candles. Asami, Kei, and Kazumi each entered one of the sleeping chambers. They were identical, each having large wide beds with thick mattresses close to the ground and single ironbound wooden trunks.

The large table at the hallway door end of the room was set with several bowls and platers of food. Had Asami not kept watching the suit door for his boy he might have been impressed with the hostel manager's efficient team of surēbu. He glared at the man as he bowed his way out of the room gesturing to the three female surēbu kneeling near the bath tubs and encouraging Asami and his men to enjoy the hostel's elite services.

Akihito meanwhile pulled himself to his feet. It was freezing and his feet stung as he limped across the dirty trail to the back entrance for the second time. He kept one arm wrapped around his middle holding his lower left ribs which even he could tell were at least bruised. He pulled on the rope and waited until the bell had summoned a large, overweight, fetid man to open the wooden door just beyond the portcullis. “What do you want?"

“Please...I'mmmm.... sup...spposed to go to my… master?" Aki found it difficult to speak and breathe at the same time and once he'd told the man what he needed he found he had to lean against the gate to remain up right.

The man grunted, “No one's asked for a vaalea surēbu. Go back to a hut."

“Please, I'm…"

The man didn't allow Aki to finish. He raised a short club Aki hadn't known he was carrying and banged on the metal gate. The sound rang through the back of the hostel causing Aki to jump away from the gate. The man growled, “Get back. Don't ring the bell again or I'll come out of this gate and knock some sense into you." He gestured back to the lean-tos. “Go on."

Aki turned and hobbled back to the empty lean-to he'd been left in by the gang. Only after he sat and curled up again did the man slam the back door shut.

Asami was livid. It had been at least half an hour since they'd arrived at the hostel and Akihito had yet to be seen by any of the three men. After dismissing the three females left to see to their needs, he had stomped out of their rooms and back to the entrance in an attempt to find Akihito. He had interrogated the hostel manager who tried his hardest to explain that the boy had been sent for but still not responded to his summons.

It was the manager's crass remark about ungrateful surēbu and how they should be better disciplined that caused the current situation. The Hostel manager was unconscious and the assistant manager was coming close to joining him. Currently though the man was hanging from Asami's clinched fist. His feet couldn't reach the floor and he was gasping for breath. Two Yliluutnantti and an Eversti, all civil servants, stood off to the side of the hostel tap room and watched with growing fear.

Kirishima was standing in the main entrance staring down at a now comatose hostel manager. The man would be lucky if his jaw wasn't broken. Though the man's current state was his own fault. He really shouldn't have insulted Akihito in front of Asami.

Kei sighed and grabbed one of the guards scurrying to get away from Asami's wrath, “Where is the back gate?" The young man stared at him while gaping like a fish; Kei rubbed his forehead with a finger and sighed again. “Look, if you want him to stop you'll take me to the back gate so I can fetch his surēbu. The next person he hits will likely not survive."

The man nodded and pointed his finger behind the receiving desk. Kei released him and grasped Asami's arm tugging as he said, “Akihito is this way, sire." Asami dropped the assistant to the floor and followed Kei and the guard closely.

A large portly man with greasy black hair, missing teeth, and excessive body odor tried to stop them from opening the back door. He joined his manager on the floor. Kei had the guard raise the small portcullis blocking Asami from exiting the building. He stayed in the door way to ensure it wouldn't be closed again.

Aki's world had reduced to chattering teeth and stinging feet and hands. He'd started to grow numb. He wasn't certain if that was bad or not. He'd looked about the other lean-tos and thought about trying to join one of the piles of bodies huddled under thread bare blankets. The glares the other sent him however had him scooting backwards into the dark of the empty lean-to he inhabited. He pulled the thin cotton undergarment he'd been left with around as much of his self he could and tucked his toes into the palms of his hands. Asami, Kirishima, or Souh would come get him. He just had to wait; they wouldn't forget about him. Right?

The sounds of rattling chains woke Aki which was bad. Because it meant he'd fallen asleep and released his toes. He raised his head to look at the back door and nearly cried when his master exited. Aki tried to get up on his feet but it felt like they were being stabbed when he tried to stand. He gasped and whimpered before falling back to the ground. He was trying again when large warm arms scooped him up and held him tightly against a broad chest. The smell of tobacco smoke was followed by a deep baritone. Aki shuddered as warmth seeped into his muscles. He found himself crying.

Asami rose with his boy in his arms and glanced around the small clearing before striding through the door. “Kei get these people a fire." He moved past the guard at the portcullis crank and said, “Make sure they get something warm to eat and more blankets; then find Akihito's pack."

Kei bowed, “Yes, sire."

Asami carried Akihito through the central receiving room and down the hallway to their suit. His legs were littered with dark red splotches Asami knew were burgeoning bruises. Akihito had both arms wrapped about his middle and his breaths were shallow even after reaching the warm air inside the building. He had all the signs of bruised and, or broken ribs. Additionally the boy shivered and his teeth rattled as his body fought to warm itself. The fingers he wrapped in in Asami's shirt were freezing.

Asami shouldered open the door to their suit and stepped through and moved to the unused tubs. He crossed the room and lowered the boy into the still steaming water. Akihito cried out as the warm water covered his feet.

He attempted escaping the now burning feeling in his feet and fingers. He sobbed and twisted trying to free his arms and legs from the sudden burning pain. Asami held him down, “Stay still." He picked up a wooden jug off the floor and used it to pour steaming water over Akihito's head. After several jugs he paused, “Can you still feel your toes?"

Akihito's brain was still trying to process events between his assault, the gate keeper refusing him entrance, and Asami carrying him into the hostel. He had stopped fighting the stinging heat but now sat looking up at his master owlishly. Asami reached through the water and grasped one of his feet pulling it up and twisting the smallest toe.

“Owe!" Aki yanked his foot back and glared at the man. “That hurt!"

“Good." Asami stood and started pulling off his now wet shirt. “It means they're not frost bitten and I don't have to chop them off."

Akihito surged up to his feet ignoring the fact that standing on his feet hurt and that his ribs were screaming, besides the water was still too hot to him. “Chop them off! What are you a barbarian?" He went to climb out of the tub, “First I get beat up and have all my clothes taken." He clenched his teeth trying to stop them from chattering.

Asami picked him up and set him back down in the tub, “Stay seated or you won't be able to after I paddle your behind." He glared at the boy.

Akihito crossed his arms though it was more like wrapping his arms about his ribs and tried to glare back, but quickly averted his eyes and ended up looking at his knees. “Then that pig at the gate said you hadn't sent for me."

Asami saw the flash of doubt and frowned, “I sent for you before I ever got to the room."

Aki squeezed his eyes shut and paused before rubbing at them with his hands, “Stupid water getting in my eyes."

Asami shed his trousers and climbed into the large tub; settling behind the boy cause water to slosh over the sides. He pulled the boy back into his arms. Akihito didn't fight him; he did keep his eyes closed as he was pulled between the older man's legs. His behind was pressed into Asami's groin and his back was nearly flush with Asami's broad chest.

When Asami started to remove his shirt though, he clamped down on his crossed arms shaking his head, “I'm not getting naked with you."

“Kitten, you know I can overpower you." Asami paused in trying to remove the shirt. He reached around and tugged Akihito's chin until they looked at each other. “You're riddled with bruises; I want to check your ribs." He allowed the boy to think for several seconds then reached for the shirt again. Aki turned back to face their feet, relaxed his hold on the thin garment, and allowed it to be drawn off.

Asami tossed the wet clothing on to the pile already on the floor with an inward curse. Aki's ribs, back, and chest were covered with dark red stains and just under his arm his chest had started to swell. He reached out and gently poked the swelling.

Aki jerked forward with a curse, “Bastard!" he tried twisting away but instead cursed again. “Don't poke them." Asami chuckled causing Akihito to look over his shoulder at the man with a frown.

Asami sobered as he glimpsed the worry on his boy's face, “What's the frown for?"

“I lost your gifts." He hunched over, “sorry."

Asami tugged Aki into his lap, “No worries. I'm just glad you're not hurt more than this." He leaned back pulling and turning the boy so he was lying on top of his chest in the water. “Though it's too bad about your ribs. This is a rather large tub." He groped the boy's bottom with both hands.

Aki slapped Asami's chest, splashing water over the side of the tub, “Pervert." He huffed when his attempts to wiggle away failed, “Is sexing me up in small spaces all you ever think about?"

“No, I think about sexing you up everywhere." He smiled at the blush rising over Aki's cheeks. He gently rubbed the boy's bruised chest again. Ignoring the gasp of pain, “Though right now my mind is filled what I'm going to do to the people that put these on you."

Aki pushed away from Asami until he was kneeling between the man's legs, “Don't hurt anyone, please."

Asami looked up from the boy's ribs, “Why not?"

“They were slaves also. They probably had no choice." Aki twisted his fingers together before looking up at his master. “I don't know how you treat the bulk of your slaves. I hope that your kindness to me is the norm for all of your chattle." He shrugged, “Not that it matters for this." He looked down at his fingers again, “Most slaves get nothing; not even food. Cows, horses, goats, even pigs are worth more and harder to replace. I can see why any group faced with a slave treated as well as I am would want to steal it away. If you wondered where your next meal would come from what would you do?"

“I would like to think I would never be in that position." Asami sighed, “I can only promise to take what you've asked into consideration. Depending on the condition of the stuff when it is found and who their owner is I may not have much say anyway."

Aki nodded and allowed the older man to tug him back down into the warm water. His teeth had stopped chattering and his muscles were no longer seizing. In truth he was suddenly very tired. He rested his head on Asami's left shoulder and closed his eyes. By the time Kei and Kazumi had returned from searching for his things he was sound asleep.

Asami nodded at his men as they carried the bulk of the clothing Akihito had worn as well as his pack into the room. Asami singled them to be quiet, and then stood with the boy in his arms. Kei crossed the room and wrapped a large bath sheet around Akihito. He was shocked when Asami released the boy to his arms with soft instructions to put him into bed with extra blankets. “He's only just warmed up. I don't want him catching a chill."

Kei nodded and carried Akihito into the middle room, tucked him up, and returned to the main chamber where Asami was explaining the injuries he had found on the boy to Kazumi. They both sat at the table. Asami was serving a third plate of food as he talked. “He's got bruising along his thighs, upper arms, across his back and chest. At least one of his ribs is cracked on the left side."

Kazumi frowned, “I can take care of the bruising but I don't think I can power a healing spell enough to heal any broken bones. I'm only trained in combat casting." He shook his head, “Those spells aren't as strong as ones cast by the clerics."

Asami nodded, “I'm aware of that." He glanced at the bedroom Akihito was in. “Though I have an idea for that we can try." He set the plate of food in the spot to his left and glanced up at Kirishima.

They ate quietly for several minutes before Kei chuckled. It was such and unusual sound for the man to make that both Kazumi and Ryuichi looked up with surprise. Kei shook his head at their unasked questions, “Sorry, I was just thinking the silence was abnormal." He glanced at the room his lord has spent the meal watching, “when in fact it is the brat's noise that is actual abnormal for us."

Ryuichi chuckled then, “Yes, he is quiet loud when he wants to know something."

“Yet, he's strangely silent when he's thinking." Kazumi smiled, “He's a lot like that nickname you gave him, quiet when exhausted and unrestrained energy the rest of the time."

All three men laughed before Ryuichi responded, “Yes, well I don't know who gave the name to him, but I plan on keeping it." He pushed his plate back, “Let's go see if we can heal the boy." He stood up, “Kei, send for some horses. We should be able to meet up with them at hostel located near Risteys two days from now."

Kirishima nodded, “I will also instruct the staff to replace the boy's clothing. He paused as he crossed the room. “Speaking of which; I have placed the ruffians that attacked the boy in the one cell the hostel has. What are we to do with them?"

Asami frowned thinking back on his kitten's request. He took so long replying that Kirishima started to ask again. Asami looked up though, “Are they slaves?"

Kirishima paused before answering, “Not all of them sir. The two youngest found with them but I am not certain they actually participated in the theft. They're children; younger than Akihito I believe."

“Hum, bring them here. I'd like to speak to the two youngest before I address their elders." Asami entered the middle room and sat on the edge of the bed next to the boy.

Kei and Kazumi looked at each other; each shocked at their leader's thoughtful mood. The children were already safe from physical punishment. In truth he'd usually have Kei or Kazumi put the fear of the gods into any child pranksters or thieves before setting them on their way. This was the first time he wanted to speak to one. Both men watched Asami carefully pull the covers over Akihito down before gently probing the boy's bruises. Then they looked at each other again, things were definitely changing. Kazumi gave Kei a small smile and joined Asami in the room. Kei just shook his head and finished his quest for parchment, quill, and ink.

Asami looked up as Suoh entered the room, “Akihito asked that I not harm them." He looked back down at the boy. “First person I've ever met that didn't want revenge."

“Hum," Suoh approached the bed and stood looking down at the youngster. “He's a strange one." He glanced at his boss. “It has been over a decade since any of us were in the Consortium. Things were not great for slaves when we left but even I have never seen them housed like the ones in the back were."

Asami grunted, “I agree. Shinji gave us hints. I've been too busy corralling the Jin practitioners until now, though." He gestured Suoh closer, “Start the spell I'm going to see if I can get him to join you." He pulled the last of the blankets from Akihito.

Suoh hissed at the darkening skin. There was little on the boy that wasn't bruised. With the amount he was shocked there were no spots broken open and bleeding. Asami stood and moved to the boy's head. Suoh raised his hands over the boy's feet and started chanting. White light gathered about his hands.

Asami knelt next to Akihito and brushed the pale hair from his forehead, before whispering, “Sing for me, Kitten."

Akihito was having the demon dream again. This time when he opened his eyes the big giant one was holding his hands over Aki's legs while the king whispered into his ears. The golden eyed one wanted him to sing. Not surprising considering that the big one was barely holding a decent tune. The white notes flowing into the demon's magic were only half formed. Whenever the giant's voice screeched the notes became broken and ragged.

The demon king need better minstrels, so Aki sang. The large demon's song was simple, so Akihito added to it. Words and melodies coming to him much like they always did when he was free to sing as he wished. However, he didn't want to hurt the large demon's feelings so he sang his part softly allowing the White notes to remain the largest part of the work. His own gold tinged silver ones merely dancing about the white ones, shoring them up and smoothing out their edges.

Suoh's eyes widened as his own magic smoothed out and flowed more easily into the spell. Once he was ready to release it the transition was seamless. Usually he lost much of the gathered essence during the shift from gathering to release. With boy's voice joining him it was smooth and clean. He wound the spell down and lowered his arms.

Akihito's eyes closed as Suoh had started releasing the gathered magic. Strange the large demon looked an awful lot like Suoh-san. Aki chuckled to himself; better not tell the man or the demon that. Both were rather large and a little scary when he thought about it. Besides, his master might not like his friends being compared to Oni. He slipped back into slumber with that thought.

Asami smiled down at his young lover. The boy had no idea he talked in his sleep, Oni indeed. It was one of the compelling reasons he hadn't confronted the boy about his magic yet. It was clear the boy was trying to cast it on the sly. Only mages with the breadth of experience that he and his men had would probably even be able to tell the boy was casting at all. After all it took special training for mages to see another collect the essence and the only other person they knew that could, besides each other, was their teacher.

Ichiori-shishō was getting old and had actually sought Asami out to pass on the technique he having learned it from his master just before that mage had died. Ichiori had taught them both the skill and the lore surrounding it. It was the one Bard skill transferable to Adepts and Clerics. Adepts and Clerics each had concentrations in which the magic came easily to the caster.

Clerics typically cast healing magic, both for humans and animals. They were originally only found in the old temples. While magicians were only found at the two large centers of learning sister schools in Alkuperäpaikka and Yoakenomachi. At that time there was no mountain chain splitting the large island and the two great cities were ruled by the hereditary emperor and his council of magicians.

At the time it was believed that Clerics were blessed by the infinite gods and goddesses that made Asahi their home, Immortal spirits of the land, sea, and sky that granted favor to certain men and women that followed the proper strictures and practiced solemn meditation and communion.

Magicians pulled their power directly from the five elements. Earth, water, fire, wind, and void were mindless power sources with little form until directed by either man or the immortals. Magicians needn't pray to anyone to pull the essence to them and shape it. The more specific the shape or effect needed the harder the essence was to shape. The harder the essence was to shape the longer the verbal component of the spell had to be. Each mage seemed to be able to memorize and chant the verbal components to some spells easier than others. It was these specialties that created the separation of magical study into schools.

Bards though didn't seem to even cast spells. They merely sang and the shapes or effects they desired sprang forth. Some never had to utter a word their music collecting and forming the essence into the desired shape straight from their instruments alone. Most clerics and magicians of the time were found by accident with another seeing them cast their first spell in the middle of a stressful situation. It was long hypothesized that the situation that caused the mage to bloom is the school of magic they would be a specialist in. Bards were identified by the fact they could see the magic.

A thousand years ago a mage from the university in Yoakenomachi took a tour of the Asahi islands. The scholar was a poor magician but friends with one of the rare Bards. Together they undertook the study of the source of magic. There were books filled with tales and songs from the ten years they supposedly roamed the island. Numerous works dissecting their travels, personal notes, and published papers took up space in both great libraries. The school had once erected large statues of the two adventurers. Yet there was no monument to their discoveries was greater than the Lohikäärmeen Selkä mountain chain.

They didn't raise it. In truth the chain was raised nearly three centuries after their deaths. However, all mages agreed that it was their discoveries that led to the chain of events requiring the mountains to be pulled forth. It was why their monuments were desecrated and their names stricken from the public records. There were none now alive that could speak of the two friends without disdain, however regardless of the outcome of their research the two of them forever changed how magic was studied.

Asami glanced at Suoh, “What did I tell you."

“I had wondered when he helped you in the mountains. Now," Suoh paused. “A Bard." He grunted, “his ancestors would be appalled at his treatment."

“Yes, so would the universities. Though it is no wonder no one saw him cast any magic. Bard spells are nearly undetectable." Asami pulled the covers back over the boy and stroked his brow.

“Asami-sama," Suoh paused until his boss looked at him. “You know how rare he is. The University Lords will want him in residence."

“No, he is mine. The Minarai, Shishō bonding ceremony took." He gestured to the strip of cloth lying on top of Aki's recovered things. “Not even the University Lords can refute it."

“They will argue that you are not able to train him." Suoh looked back at the boy.

Asami scoffed “There hasn't been a Bard since the raising of the Lohikäärmeen Selkä." He pulled the wrap he'd donned off, circled the bed, and slipped under the covers. “I don't plan on telling any of them what he is." He drew the boy to his chest and looked at Suoh, “I will expect you to help me keep it secret."

Suoh nodded but paused as he was leaving the room. He looked back over his shoulder, “Are you planning on telling him?"

Asami looked down at his lover, “not until I have no other choice." He glanced back up at his friend, “Please ask Kei to include the beginner's book of spells for tomorrow."

Suoh nodded and exited the room.

Chapter Text

The sound of childish laughter woke Akihito. At first he thought he'd dreamed it and kept his eyes closed. The bed was warm and his master had left him cocooned in the blankets, even his head was covered. The laughter started again to be followed by Kirishima-san's scolding tone. The laughter silence and even Aki could feel the sudden tenseness in the air. He pushed his way out of the blankets, sat up and looked at where the door to the room was.

It stood open and through it he watched as two small children bowed lowly to Asami's secretary. Aki pushed the covers off his self and felt his ribs. He looked down at his legs and felt across his stomach and shoulders. Someone had healed him. His ribs were sound and not even tender. He smiled; Asami certainly took care of his property.

There were new clothes lying on the end of the bed, cotton undergarments, a thick woolen shirt, as well as woolen lined leather pants and boots. He slid out of bed and dressed quickly. At least he tried. The long belts still confused him. Instead of fighting with them he held his pants up and went in search of help.

He stepped into the bedroom doorway and paused. He'd not been able to take in much of the room the previous evening. It was a large rectangular space with a low wooden beamed ceiling. There was only one window, so large it almost took up the entirety of the wall at the far end of the room. Next to it were two small tables with small crystal lights and two chairs. Across one table were several piles of parchment, a set of quills, and two pots of ink. Kirishima's glasses lay atop the parchment.

Asami and Suoh were sitting at a larger table near the suite's entrance looking at what Aki thought might be a map, in the center of the room facing the three fireplaces was a small sitting area where Aki saw the two small children. They were perched on the edge of a short but thickly padded couch, sitting across from them was Kirishima. He was speaking to them in a low voice; Aki no longer felt the tension that had prompted him to exit the bed. He stepped towards the small group when his stomach growled. Every eye in the room turned to him and Asami laughed.

Asami had watched Aki leave the room while half listening to Suoh explain how the new snow storm was going to hamper them along the road. Though even his head of security agreed that the road was probably better than staying at the hostel. Neither of them had been happy with the laws pertaining to the assault of a slave. According to the Hostel guards Asami could have the five men charged for stealing the clothing and pack Akihito had been wearing however his injuries were considered immaterial considering he was, as the guards said, "nothing more than shatoru."

Luckily Asami had no problems taking ownership of the two small children. Kei and Kazumi had found them chained up in one of the tents. No one challenged Asami when he declared he was taking the two young surēbu in recompense for his damaged property.

It was from those children that Asami learned that the group actually worked for the Hostel keeper. Their job was to assault any slave of a guest that looked to be carrying decent goods. They then split the goods with the hostel keeper after the guest left. Apparently little was ever accomplished in terms of searching for the perpetrators seeing as the hostel keeper was always charged with finding them and most of the owners choose to place the blame for the lost goods on the shoulders of the beaten slaves.

The head guard was glad Kirishima had searched for the ruffians himself as the man believed the group was also responsible for the attacks on several small merchants traveling the roads. The Hostel keeper had out ranked them all and they'd been ordered to not look for that group.

Asami's insistence that the group be locked up and questioned by Suoh had led to the additional arrest of the hostel keeper, the hostel overseer, and two of the lower ranked guards. Asami had pulled one of the Yliluutnantti, traveling tax collectors, to manage the hostel until a replacement could be sent by their Eversti, the province governor or their Kenraalimajuri, the land owner. The Eversti staying at the hostel was returning from a visit to the local mines, was a central government inspector, and on an errand for the Council of Nine.

Asami's only comfort in the whole mess was that Akihito would get his wish. The persons responsible weren't slaves so neither he nor Suoh had any issues with wringing as much information as they could from them before Asami took control of the hostel, him being the highest ranking Consortium government official there, and pronouncing their sentences. Theft had only two prescribed sentences. They were handed down at the whim of the governing official. Luckily, Akihito's request staved off the harshest consequence.

Even if the six men were not slaves Asami held off pronouncing the death sentence. Though considering where the ten men were bound they may curse Asami for allowing them to live. Just that morning nine new slaves were escorted by spare hostel guards to the nearby tin mine. They were branded with the mark of thieves and the amount owed to the government for the thefts, ten percent of the worth of goods for the items stolen. Asami didn't have a list of all items the group had taken but he knew the worth of the small backpack in creation cost. Just ten percent of that alone had ensured the group would never be able to pay back the debt in their lifetimes.

Now it was nearing noon and while he could easily stay another night in the hostel he had developed the urge to remove his party from the place. He'd just been about to go wake his boy when Akihito emerged from the room holding up his pants and gripping his two belts. He watched as Akihito paused; he was watching Kirishima speak to the two children in the seating area.

The two had been brought to Asami the previous evening. Both had worn threadbare woolen tunics that hung past their knees. Their feet and calves had been wrapped in several strips of thin cloth as had their hands and arms but they had had no shoes. They had each worn torn thin blankets as cloaks. They were very young, the older only seven and his younger sister only five. They were born slaves. Their mother and father both worked the tin mines. Children were typically either put to work in the tunnels or sold off to passing merchants needing small hands for busy work. The two of them had been taken from a merchant as part of the goods the group had stolen several months before. The thieves had been unable to find buyers for them.

Kirishima had taken it upon himself to see that the children had warmer clothes and shoes. He'd patterned their clothing off what Asami had provided Akihito and acquired them by asking Suoh's wife to pull bits and pieces from her children's old sets. Now the two were warm, fed, and utterly attached to the serious man. Asami wasn't patient enough to deal with small children for very long and glad they were set on Kei. Though Suoh had five small ones of his own, he knew his friend had always wanted children and conveniently found himself with other things to do when the new additions to their party needed something.

It was Kei the girl had gone to when she grew bored with the puzzles Suoh's wife had also sent. The woman had sent books and two stuffed fabric animals as well, one a bunny and the other a black cat. Suoh's wife was a conjurer whose specialty lay in making fabric goods. However the attention span of five year olds was short and there were only so many things that the young girl's brother was able to do to keep her entertained.

So once she'd put the puzzle together for the third time she hopped up and peered over the edge of the small table Kirishima had been using as a desk. She has spent several minutes just watching the man as he read one pile of parchment and scratched ink onto another. Kirishima had picked up the letter he was writing in reply to one of the missives when the girl had reached up with a giggle and tugged on the bottom sheet of parchment. It was only Kirishima's quick reflexes that saved the bottle of ink from tipping over.

He'd snapped at the child as he saved the ink from its tumble. The older brother had rushed across the room thrown his self in front of the girl raising his arm over his head in preparation of defending himself. The gesture had stopped Kei in his tracks. He had glanced down in shock, slowly lowered the ink well until it rested on the table, and then stoppered it. Kei had then slowly reached out and placed a hand on the boy's head. The girl had giggled. Now he sat across from them speaking quietly. Even Asami could tell the man wished his wife were present.

Akihito's stomach growled again and Asami chuckled aloud. The boy looked at him, then glanced at the couches before moving next to Asami's side, "I still can't tie these things." He held out the belts as Asami turned in his chair. His stomach growled again.

He took the belts with a smile, "You slept through breakfast." He wrapped the leather belt about the boy's waist slipping it through the wide loops Kazumi's wife had engineered into the waist line. He cinched it tight and picked up the sash.

Akihito frowned, "Sorry, you should have woken me up."

Asami shook his head, "You needed to sleep; we weren't going to be able to leave before now anyway." He pulled Akihito on to his lap then nodded to Suoh, who pulled the map they had been studying from the table before walking to the suite door and speaking to someone on the other side.

Aki had gone back to watching the two children in the seating area. They were carefully putting away what looked to be wooden puzzles. The young boy held open a large cotton drawstring bag into which the little girl dropped the pieces. She'd giggle each time one fell from her fingers before announcing a number in a loud voice. It was clear she was attempting to count how many she put in the bag, however, she appeared to only know her numbers up to five and once she reached that she started making up numbers to say. Aki glanced at Kirishima; the man had been putting away the work on the desk but was now standing there watching the girl with a soft smile.

Fingers gently grasped Aki's chin and he found his head pulled until he looked at Asami again. The man was rubbing his thumb in circles across Akihito's lower back. The spot was warm and Akihito felt a blush climbing his cheeks. He squirmed in Asami's lap trying to dislodge the man's hand. When Asami only chuckled and pulled Aki closer to his chest Akihito glared up at him.

Asami smirked, "Be still before you tumble off." He picked something up off the table and sat it in Akihito's hands.

Aki looked down and found he was holding both a small leather bound book and a wide leather collar. The leather of the book was light caramel with darker patches located in the spots the book would have been held while carried closed and open. Those spots were also thinner though otherwise the book had been taken care of. The corners were reinforced with brass and there was dark leather binding buckled around it helping to keep it closed. Embossed in gold along the bottom of the front was 'Property of Ryuichi Asami'.

The collar was as wide as two of Aki's fingers. It was dark indigo. The ends were enclosed in a complicated brass clasp currently open. The front held a small brass ring on a square brass loop. To the left of ring was the lounging black leopard symbol of Asami's house. To the right embossed in gold were once again the words 'Property of Ryuichi Asami' followed by 'Akihito Takaba'.

Aki looked up in confusion, "What are these?"

Asami pulled the collar from Aki's fingers and placed it about his neck. His smirk turned into a smile when the clasp clicked, "This is your collar." He rubbed a thumb across the leopard tattoo. "I have been informed that had you worn one yesterday you'd have been allowed past the gates with me." He frowned then, "I don't know when the rules changed but I won't have a repeat." He looked into Akihito's eyes, "Your tattoo only makes you property of my house; this," he rubbed the edge of the collar, "marks you as mine exclusively. No one other than the king, those I grant permission, and I may order you about. Should someone try, just show them your collar and tell them you mush first validate the order with me."

Aki nodded and held up the small book, "What is this?"

"That is a beginner's spell book."

Akihito dropped the tome on to the table and attempted to climb out of Asami's lap. He almost made it before two strong arms hauled him back. Akihito was shaking his head, no, no, no. This wasn't happening. It was one thing to know how to read and write. Aki figured that most of Asami's slaves probably could, given the man's response to learning that fact about Aki. However, no one wanted a slave that could cast magic. They knew they'd have to give him to the Mage's College. The surēbu reeducation center had been horrible enough. What would the mages do to him?

His mother had told him to keep his' gift a secret; she'd shown him the scars across her arms and legs. Scars the masters at the college had given her whenever she displayed her powers. Scars that not even his father's healing spells could remove. The thought of his parents cracked the door he'd long thought shut and other memories of them seeped out. There were memories of the three of them riding to the small village near their farm. The cart they rode filled with sacks of barley, rice, and dried herbs. One of his mother sitting next to him as he struggled with remembering what order he was to calculate the operands in the long equation she'd written on his slate. There was one of him and his father feeding their small clutch of chickens and gathering the eggs while his mother's voice sounded across the yard as she pulled the dry wash from the line. Finally was the one memory he'd never wanted.

His mother lay dying. She still sang. This one a haunting lullaby to the tiny babe in her arms. His father had done everything he could, but he'd never been a strong caster. That combined with the fact the small family was starving had prevented anything from working. The army had taken more of their yield that year than ever before even going as far as forcing them to give up most of their private stock.

That winter had been especially brutal and only the loans his father had taken out prevented them from losing the farm entirely. The money hadn't been enough to keep decent food on the table though and his mother and baby sister paid the price. The babe was born too soon. It was too small to even cry out with its first breath and his mother bled. Aki remembered her reaching out to grasp his hand softly asking if he would sing with her. So he had.

Nuku, nuku nurmilintu,
Väsy, väsy, västäräkki.
Nuku nurmelle hyvälle,
Vaivu maalle valkialle.


Lintu tuopi liinahapaijan,
Haapana hyvän hamehen.
Kaskeloinen korvatyynyn,
Pääskynen peäalusen.


Nuku, nuku nurmilintu,
Väsy, väsy, västäräkki.
Nuku nurmelle hyvälle,
Vaivu maalle valkialle.

The first thing Asami did when he woke up was look for Akihito. He'd tried to corral the magic the boy had loosed. However whatever had caused Akihito to start drove the boy to complete it and there was too much primal essence in the spell to prevent it from going off. So instead he'd switched to placing a damper on the room. They would still be affected but it would be for a shorter period of time. He'd only just finished his own casting when he felt the boy's spell drag him into unconsciousness.

Now he searched the room; actually fearful the boy might have made a run for it while they all slept. He didn't even try to hide his relief when he spotted Akihito huddled against the wall near the door to the room they'd slept in the night before. His knees were drawn to his chest with his arms wrapped about them. He rocked and chanted "Please don't send me away. I won't do it again."

Asami glanced about the room Kei and Kazumi had been standing when the spell went off, but a quick glance reassured Asami that his longtime friends were fine. Kei sat up and glanced at the two children asleep on the floor their bag of puzzle pieces between them. Suoh likewise was shaking himself as he pushed off the wall he'd slid down near the suite's door. Asami stood and slowly crossed the room before kneeling next to Akihito. He grasped the boy's arms, unwrapped them from about the boy's knees, and pulled the young man into his arms.

"Shush, it is ok." Asami wrapped both of his arms about Akihito as the boy attempted to burrow his way into Asami's chest. The boy was shivering and kept whimpering how he hadn't meant to put them to sleep and that he wouldn't do it again followed by begging not to be sent away.

Asami wasn't quite certain how to handle Akihito's reaction to casting his magic. He knew from the other times the boy had done so he wanted to hide his skills. The only open casting the boy had done was when he believed himself to be dreaming and among the Oni his half-awake mind turned Asami and his two men into. The boy's other castings had all been quietly covert and had Asami and his men not been trained would have been passed off as random snatches of songs the boy sang.

Akihito quieted in Asami's arms. The smell of tobacco and sweet alcohol filled his nostrils and warmth from the man's arms and chest seeped into his limbs. They were strange smells seeing as how Akihito had yet to see the man smoke or imbibe in any spirits since meeting him. Yet, the scents lingered in the man's clothes and upon the man's breath. He should really ask the man why. Akihito knew he was grasping at random thoughts. He desperately needed something to drive away the memory of his mother's and sister's last living moments. He knew if he dwelled on it he'd only reach the end of the memory.

It was still crowding his brain, chasing away his attempts to push it back behind the walls he'd built around it. He'd finished the lullaby alone. Neither his mother nor his sister had lived through to its end. His father torn by grief had sent Aki to fetch his uncle who had lived in town with his wife's parents over their small tanning shop. When the two of them had gotten back to the farm they found the shack Aki's father had kept their winter supply of wood in ablaze. It ran too hot for anyone to approach.

Aki had gone back with his uncle's that evening listening to the man complain and curse about having to feed an extra mouth and complaining that his brother hadn't taken his brat with him. When the collectors arrived two days before his eighth birthday, his uncle lied to the Consortium official before signing him over as payment on the farm's debt. He never got to see his parent's or sister buried the ground had been too hard to dig into in early Maaliskuu and too muddy during the Taifuuni season. It was the first family funeral he missed.

Asami stood scooping Akihito into his arms and against his chest as he rose. He carried the boy into their sleeping chamber and sat upon the bed. There he arranged the boy so he straddled Asami's lap, his arms encircled Asami's neck, and his head rested on Asami's chest. He kissed the top of Akihito's head before asking, "Why do you believe I'll send you away, Kitten?"

Aki jerked his head up to look at Asami's face, "You have to. I can cast magic; the law says you have to send me to the magic College." He shuddered, "I don't want to go there."

Asami frowned down at him, "Why ever not? They would have removed your slave tattoo? You'd have been apprenticed and learned to control your power."

Aki shook his head, "mother warned me that the college must never know I could cast magic like she could. She showed me the scars from where her teachers had beaten her for not following their strictures. I've always tried to hide my gift."

"How did you think you could hide it from me, Kitten? I am a mage myself." Asami rubbed the boy's back. He'd need to look into the treatment the students at the college were getting. His master had been from the Republic of Vehnä and had treated him with the upmost respect. Though, that could have been because he was the son of the King. However, Kazumi had also trained under a college master and he had no stories of abuse.

Akihito looked up at Asami, "None of the mages that visited the brothels caught me even when I cast sleep on them. I never thought I'd become the slave of a mage." He leaned back into Asami's chest, "If I had made it across into the Republic of Vehnä, I'd have sought their college. Father always said they'd have never tolerated students being treated the way mother was." He shook his head, "Please don't send me there. I promise I won't ever cast a spell again."

Asami shook his head, "Yes, you will." Akihito tensed and Asami grasped the back of his head and tilted the boy's face up, "listen to me. I am a Master of the College. You are my apprentice and I will teach you how to control your gift, before you harm yourself or others."

"What?" Akihito's eye widened and he shook his head, "but my tattoo? My collar?" he rubbed at his neck, "Why?"

Asami smiled, "Because I wanted to." He grinned at Akihito's glare, "Sheath your claws, Kitten. I kept you as a slave to protect you. As my apprentice others will try to use you to get to me either through flattery and bribery or through physical coercion." He ran his fingers through the boy's hair, "As my slave most won't see any value in you and ignore your presence." He fingered the boy's collar, "Though with this the more observant ones will wonder."

Akihito nodded then paused, "Wait, does that mean I'm not actually a slave?"

"No, you are my slave. Unless I register you with the college as my official apprentice you'll remain a Consortium surēbu." He leaned over and kissed the top of Akihito's head again, "I won't ever register you with the college, especially considering how frighten you are of the place." He chuckled when the boy's face pouted.

"I'll never be free will I?" The words were low and sad.

Asami shrugged, "Not in the way you are thinking." he watched as Akihito slump into his chest. "I can't promise you that freedom Kitten. You are an untrained mage. You have the ability to pull forth massive power that could harm you or others if not controlled properly. Even if you weren't a slave as my apprentice you will be bound to me for years to come." He forced Akihito to look at him again. "What have I told you?"

Akihito felt himself captured both physically by his master's arms and mentally by the man's golden gaze. What was he to the man? He'd been told. Aki thought and remembered, "I am yours, yours to control, yours to command, yours to dominate."

"Correct. That will remain true whether you are my surēbu or my minarai." Asami released the boy from his gaze. "I am actually happy you know how to cast covertly. It will help hide what you really are from prying eyes."

Aki shook his head, "I'm still sorry I put you and everyone in the room asleep."

Asami stood placing Akihito on his feet. "Any idea how long we were all out?"

"I pulled the spell short once I realized what I was doing so no one outside the room should have been affected. I'm actually pretty good with that spell. As for time, maybe ten minutes?"

Asami could hear the pride in the boy's voice. The spell was quite good, not that it made the fact the boy had cast it on Asami any better. "Yes, well perhaps next time you could also exclude your shishō from the spell's influence."

Aki blushed, "Sorry, but I didn't mean to cast the spell at all." He paused, "I guess I never really understood that mom was teaching it to me when she taught me that lullaby."

"Did she teach you any other songs?" Asami was curious about the boy's mother. She had instilled a fear of the college into him, convinced him that open casting of his magic was forbidden, and yet also had taught him at least one spell.

"Oh, well there was one to light the fire place and another that she sang to keep the mice and bugs out of the house. I don't use them though."

Asami could tell by the blush that crept up the boy's cheeks that there was at least one amusing story associated with those spells. "Well, I will teach you more."

The boy looked up at him, "What if I can't learn them?"

Asami reached out and ruffled the boy's silvery hair, "Then I will adjust your lessons until you can." That brought forth the smile Asami had grown to love. Then the boy's stomach growled again. Asami laughed as the boy blushed again. "Come on let's feed you so we can leave."

Suoh was overseeing the last of the dishes being placed on the table. Roast, root vegetables, and rice were nearly overflowing their bowls while their steam joined that coming from the covered soup pot in the middle of the table. Kirishima was settling the two children at places on either side of him. The girl was sitting on a stack of books while the boy was raised by two stiff pillows. Suoh ushered the hostel surēbu out the door and joined them at the table.

Aki paused before sitting down and bowed to both men, "I apologize for casting that sleeping spell on you I hope neither of you were hurt." He looked up as the two men brushed his concern aside and told him to sit.

Asami was the last person to join the table. He introduced the two children as he loaded up Akihito's plates, "This young man is Tapio," he gestured to the boy, "and that is his younger sister Nea." He sat the load plate in front of his boy. "Tapio, Nea, this is Akihito."

Tapio paused in eating, "You're a surēbu, like us?"

Aki nodded, "Yes." He picked up the fork and knife sitting next to his plate, he preferred chopsticks but the large roast had been sliced before it and the root vegetables had been covered in gravy; that meant he'd have to cut the meat into bite sized pieces. He noticed Kirishima did that task for the two children.

"Does your mommy work in the mines?" The little girl's question caused Aki to pause as he was bringing his first forkful to his mouth.

He sat the fork down and shook his head, "No, my mother grew herbs and raised chickens on my father's farm."

"Did they sell you?" the young boy had paused his own eating. His gaze bore into Akihito.

Aki glanced down at his plate while trying to blink the tears away as he shook his head, "No, they died owing some people a large amount of money. When the people came to collect all that was left was me." He played with his fork for a few minutes before saying, "I'm certain your mother didn't want to sell you. She probably wasn't given a choice."

The boy shook his head, "I heard her talking to the overseer. He told her that whatever was earned for selling us would go against her debt." The boy took another bite of his food, seeming to forget the conversation.

Akihito started eating but he was slower and the food was like sawdust. After a few bites he started just pushing the food around. He wasn't comfortable remembering the days surrounding his parent's death and sale by his uncle. He wasn't eager to relive the bleakest memories of his life. He certainly hadn't taken them as well as the child before him. The table was silent for several minutes and Akihito did his best to consume the plates in front of him.

Asami watched his boy eat. The child's question had brought back the melancholy Akihito had barely gotten past. It clouded the boy's eyes as he pushed the food about rather than eating it. Asami frowned; spell casting took a lot of energy and while building thick muscles was not necessary, consuming the proper amount of calories day was. The boy was already thinner than Asami would like and loss of appetite due to over whelming emotion wasn't something he understood. What he did understand was that Akihito, as both his property and his apprentice, was his to take care of. He leaned over as Kirishima helped the two children down from the table and whispered into his boy's ear, "I expect you to eat all of it, Akihito. You're going to need the energy later."

Aki looked up from his plate and into Asami's eyes. He jerked back slightly in surprise at how close the man was. He wasn't really cognizant of what the man had said. He'd been stuck reliving the last conversation with his uncle. "I'm sorry, what?"

Asami had edged his chair closer to his boy's before leaning over him. Now he rested one arm across Akihito's chair back and the other atop one of the boy's legs. He rubbed circles in to the base of Akihito's head with his thumb while the other hand rubbed the inside of the leg it rested upon. "I said to finish your plate of food. I have plans that will require a lot of energy later." He smirked down at his boy's wide eyes and allowed the hand in Aki's lap to brush against the boy's genitals as the one in his hair tugged on the boy's hair.

A sharp intake of breath preceded the almost moan that escaped Akihito's lips. He closed his eyes and tightened his grip on his fork as Asami's hand twisted to grasp the rising erection he was developing. The tug on his hair grew sharper and Aki heard his master tell him to eat and that he expected the whole plate to be finished. Aki raised a fork full to his mouth.

The rest of his meal was a study in control. Each fork full he chewed and swallowed got him rewarded with Asami's hand, which after the first mouthful had worked its way into his pants, squeezing and fondling his penis. Each pause caused the hand to grip the appendage painfully. Akihito could hear the other two mages as they moved about the common room and the two young children were high voices at the edge of his awareness. Asami had whispered early on that he shouldn't bring any attention to what he was doing and the look on his face held dark promise for reward or punishment Aki wasn't certain. So it was with barely burgeoning control that Akihito finished his meal.

When Akihito ate the last bite he glanced up at Asami. The man ruffled Akihito's hair then fixed Akihito's clothing. He leaned over and whispered into Aki's ear, "Very good, surēbu, very good. You deserve a reward for obeying me." He stood and scooped Akihito into his arms and carried him into the bedroom they'd shared the night before. He pointedly ignored the frown on Kirishima's face and the chuckle that escaped Suoh's lips.

They stayed another night at the Hostel.

Akihito stood in the Hostel courtyard hunched against the bitter wind several hours before sunrise the next morning. The little boy and girl were seated on a large sled that Suoh-san had made the previous evening having used the extra time provided by the reward Asami had bestowed on Akihito to get all the pieces collected, crafted, and assembled. The sled was wide enough for both of the children to sit among the large quantity of camping gear it held and the harness attached to the long leather pulls would allow for both hands of whoever pulled it to be free.

Akihito gave the contraption one more longing look before turning back to the front gate. He knew there was no way the two little ones would be able to keep up with the three larger males unless someone, or in this case something, carried them. The fact that they had both slipped back into sleep tucked up against the rolls of furs and belted with long leather strips into the hallow Suoh had made in the gear before Kirishima had settled them only reminded Aki of how tired he was.

The benefits he should have gained by sleeping an additional night in a warm bed had been almost negated by his master's use of the time. Now Aki stood near, or more correctly leaned against, one of the Hostel porch's stone columns fighting off the urge to join the two children in dreamland. He pushed himself off the stone when he heard the sound of Asami's voice as he exited the building followed by Kirishima.

Asami paused when he reached Akihito standing at the base of the steps leading down from the hostel doors to the front stone garden. The snow fell thick about the yard though the thick walls surrounding the place kept the bulk of the wind down. Kirishima and Suoh passed him to cover the tall backed sled with two large leather blankets. The two men tied the edges down before slipping both a small light crystal and a small heat crystal into the resulting traveling tent. The year Suoh spent with the Izhemtsi tribes in the far north near the Artic proved beneficial to the group now that they were faced with an early freezing Lumimyrsky season.

Kirishima helped Suoh into the leather harness and the two men set out towards the Consortium road. Asami looked down at Akihito who'd watched the pair create the curious contraption. Now the boy smiled as the last pieces of what the two were accomplishing came to light. He glanced up when he felt Asami's stare, "I envy the two of them."

Asami placed his hand on Akihito's back and guided him through the small courtyard, "Who, Kei and Kazumi?"

The laughed, "No, Tapio and Nea." He paused as he and Asami passed through the open gate actively avoiding the frowns of the guards. Not everyone had been happy the old hostel keeper had been caught.

Asami glared the two guards who quickly found something else to occupy their eyes as he and Akihito passed beyond the hostel walls. He promptly forgot them as the two of them caught up to his men. He nodded to Kei who as usual took lead down the road. Kazumi took the middle so that should it be needed Asami could help the sled over any snow drifts or other road hazards.

The group made relatively good time. Several kilometers had been traversed by the time Asami called ahead to their lead to find a place to rest. The road had remained clear of both debris and other travelers. The first was primarily because of the Consortium's obsessive need to keep their road free of overhanging branches and any other natural growth that could someday tumble down across a road one of their officials could be traveling upon. The second was because only two types of people would choose to brave the swirling snow and freezing temperatures of the lowlands first blizzard for the year, the completely desperate or three powerful mages.

Akihito nearly cried though when his master finally called a halt to the walking. He'd started the day out already tired, but the previous hours had exhausted him and it wasn't because of the walking. As soon as they had passed out of sight of the hostel gates Asami had handed him a tall candle. His shishō had decided the road was the best place to start his lessons.

It had started simply enough. Asami had told Akihito to watch as he lighted the candle and Aki had paid careful attention as Asami's baritone produced one beautiful note, set it to the tip of the wick and set the candle aflame. The man had snuffed the candle soon after and instructed Akihito to light the candle himself. After nearly three hours the candle remained cold and dark.

It wasn't a lack of magical power on his part. In truth he gathered the notes about him successfully every single try. It was that he consistently drew too much. The first time he'd pulled the power to himself he'd nearly shrieked when dark indigo notes surrounded his and smothered them. He'd actually gotten mad and sniped at Asami, "Bastard, why did you do that?"

The man had chuckled, "If you'd used that much power you'd have melted the candle and probably set the trees around us on fire." He smirked, "I thought you were paying attention when I lit it?"

"I was." Akihito growled and even repeated the word Asami had used to channel his power into the wick.

Asami's smirk grew. "Well you were listening at least." He pointed to the candle, "This time watch." He lit the candle again. One gold edged dark indigo note hovered briefly above the wick before the flame shimmered in the cold air. Then he snuffed it out again.

Aki had closed his eyes at that, "oh." He looked up to apologize only for Asami to stop him.

"No apologies, just don't call so much power this time."

So he'd tried. He really had but each and every start had his shishō smothering his gathering. It had been going on repeatedly for several hours and reached the point where Akihito was now so frustrated and exhausted that he swung between not being able to call any power at all to scaring himself with how much responded to his attempts. It was the last attempt where he'd all but cried while trying to do what Asami wanted that prompted his master's call for a break.

Aki didn't even wait until a leather throw was laid out before sinking to the ground. He never recalled his mother being so tired after lighting the fireplace each morning. Nor could he remember any signs of frustration as she called forth the Kuivuus winds to dry their hanging laundry. She'd always done everything with complete control. He however couldn't seem to pull forth anything resembling the coveted state.

He cracked his closed eyes when Asami picked him up and settled him on the large leather tarp covering the snowy ground. He didn't fight the man when he suggested he lay down and rest and thought nothing of allowing the man to settled his head upon his lap and stroke his head. Akihito just allowed his master control and allowed him to sooth his pounding head as he succumbed to the heaviness of his eyelids.

Asami watched as Kei fed the two small children before Suoh chased them around the small clearing Kei had found on the roadside. He sipped from the warm cup of tea the man had steeped for the group and munched on the buttery biscuits Kei's wife had put in her husband's pack. Less than half were plain. The bulk had been sandwiched together with apricot jam a treat that his boy typically enjoyed for breakfast.

The children had consumed the bulk of the treats at this break while Akihito snored in Asami's lap. They boy had done remarkably well in his first formal lesson. In truth he'd done better than Asami had. Asami reached down and stroked his minarai's hair as he allowed his early lessons to consume his thoughts.

He'd been nine when the mage he would eventually call shishō had come across him taking potshots at the palace squirrels with his first evocation spell. It was nothing more than a tiny spear of indigo light. He'd discovered it several days before when his stepmother had locked him in his chambers while the current Prime Minster of the Republic visited. It was common knowledge that while he was first born his young half-brother would ascend the throne.

Asami's mother had not been of the correct caste for him to be a legitimate heir. It was only his father's decision to take him from his grandparents and declare him as his son that had prevented him from facing the same fate his young minarai now lived. While the decision prevented him from being subjugated to the indignity of being someone's property, it had not kept Asami from facing other problems, namely a step-mother that despised his existence.

His father had loved Asami's mother even though she was the daughter of his head steward. The man's marriage to the Asami's step-mother was political and Asami's father never attempted to transfer his affections to the woman even after Asami's mother died. So it was that the first nine years of Asami's life were spent avoiding the sharp words and even sharper slaps of a bitter jealous woman.

It had not helped that Asami never showed any sign of desiring the throne. In truth Asami wished he could save his brother from the fate but the young man had refused to speak to him once he took the position of Master of Mages, Grand Wizard of the Asahi islands.

So there he'd been shooting the poor fat squirrels of the royal gardens when the mage accompanying the Prime Minister had come across him. The man had nearly scared him to death. He'd thrown a spell between Asami's latest victim and his spear with a harsh word. Then Asami had found himself bound by twisted ropes of grass. Arms tied to his sides and held several inches off the ground.

The days that followed were still somewhat blurred, but by the time the Republic delegation had started for home, Asami had become Ichiori-shishō's minarai. His first lesson was as frustrating to him as Akihito's was to the boy. It had not been about control of the primal power that Asami had so effortless wielded against the poor squirrels. No Asami's first lesson was about responsibility. Anger and bitterness had ruled much of his childhood. It had either been visited upon him by his unpleasant stepmother or he had visited it upon others slaves and animals. How Ichiori-shishō had known of his petty and cruel tricks he'd played on the palace shatoru he still didn't know.

However the man's lesson to fix Asami's warped personality was both simple and direct. Asami was given a puppy. He'd never had anything of his own before; everything had belonged to his father and as his step-mother was wont to remind him would one day belong to his half-brother. Ichiori had brought the puppy to Asami as he watched his step-mother oversee the palace slaves pack a small chest of things for him to take to the Republic with him.

It was a mutt, part Klee Kai and part Corgi, It had looked like a tiny but fat wolf. The little thing had been calm with practically zero barking or whining. Ichiori had told him it was his responsibility to take care of the pup. That it wouldn't get fed unless he did it and any messes the puppy made he would be held responsible for cleaning up. Asami remembers being so excited he had a puppy that he'd found the first week of taking care of the puppy easy. The small animal had showered Asami with affection playing with him and licking his face with its wet doggy kisses regardless of how long or short of a time they spent apart. The two of them had adored each other.

However, when they reached the hardest part of the pass over the Lohikäärmeen Selkä Asami had grown tired of having to take the pup out of the warm tents in the middle of the night to urinate or defecate. So he'd started reducing the amount of water and food he gave the pup.

He hadn't meant to harm the pup just reduce the number of times the animal woke him in the middle of the night. His intention hadn't mattered. The pup without enough food and water started running off to hunt for itself. The first few times Asami found it easily and carried it back to the camp before anything bad happened. The last time though he was too late. The little pup had tried to snag a bit of meat left by a lone wolf.

The pup was still breathing when he found it and he'd gathered it against his chest running back to the camp. It died on the way. He still remembered falling to his knees in front of Ichiori and begging that he save the pup. Ichiori had just frowned and asked why the pup would want to leave Asami's side. He remembered telling the man he'd stopped feeding the pup as much and he remembered the man telling him that it was his fault and that there was nothing that could be done to save the pup.

He still remembered Ichiori questioning his tears, "You didn't care about the thing when it was alive, Asami. Why does its death affect you so?"

He'd replied, "I love it."

The man had harrumphed, "Easy words to say now that there is no more work involved." He'd had one of the servants fetch a shovel and hand it to Asami. "Bury the poor thing and change your clothes."

Asami remembered burying the pup alone. He fell asleep next to the mound of earth that night only to find himself in his blankets the next morning. Ichiori sat nearby watching him. Asami had tried to apologize only for the man to tell him to keep his words. Apologies mean little to those harmed by thoughtless actions. If Asami really wanted to make amends, he'd learn from the pup's death and ensure that he never failed to take care of his responsibilities again. Asami spent the next ten years learning not only magic but exactly what his responsibilities really were.

Asami swallowed the last of his tea and handed his cup back to Kirishima. Suoh was tucking the two children back into the sled while Kei packed away the last of their cups and snacks. Asami stood rising from the leather blanket with the still sleeping Akihito in his arms. He glanced at Kirishima, "Keep the biscuits out. Akihito will be starving when he wakes."

Kei nodded and slipped the handful remaining sandwiches into a small square cloth before tying it closed and then to one of the boy's pack straps.

The blizzard though harsh had cleared the sky by the time the group had camped three evenings into their trip and the morning sunlight bounced blindingly off the white snow drifts. Disassembling the camp took longer than normal due to the bouncing light. Before they started out Asami set a pair of glasses made of light grey glass upon Akihito's nose. The boy was confused for several seconds before he realized that the bright light was muted.

At first he'd thought that the cut glass was magical, however Suoh explained that the glass was just colored in a way to defuse the light shining in their eyes. His eldest son was a glass blower and had created the original pieces when he'd seen how his Uncle Kei struggled with bright sunny days causing glare on his spectacles.

The morning was once again spent trying to light the candle. Aki was growing to hate the thing; but his master only made him practice casting in the morning. After their noon break, which Aki now slept through, the man would revert to answering any questions Akihito could think of as they trudged through the piles of snow. The evenings were spent with him reading whatever book he found lying at the top of his pack or playing with the two children to help keep the occupied. On the fourth day out from the hostel the group reached the crossroads.

Chapter Text

The crossroads was actually a small town called Risteys. Akihito's friends had gone around the location because it was the one location that more military personnel than the capital, though even Kou had had to go into the place to buy supplies and research caravans they could join once it reached the low hills further north. The town was not walled, other than around the twenty odd buildings making up the large military complex on the north eastern corner of the place. It actually had only three buildings. There was one three story location consisting of a large common tap room bar and tavern which let out small rooms on its middle floor to wealthy travelers. It was located in the south western corner and unlike the military complex its front porch was almost right on top of the wide beaten road traveling east and west.

Across the north, south road from the tavern was a large barn behind which there were numerous fenced in fields. Horses were running among the snow in the one nearest to the building but Aki could see cattle and goats in the smaller areas beyond them. A large general store sat across the east, west road from tavern. There were large camp grounds behind the tavern and the store.

On those grounds there stood numerous camps. Some were small made of only one or two tents near small fires; others were large with several pavilions spread out around large bonfires. It was clear that the camps of the wealthier were closer to the store and tavern. While the less fortunate were shoved farther away from the town proper with some practically pushed into the edges of the forest. Akihito was certain it was wealth and rank that allow certain groups to camp so near the military complex.

Akihito figured that Asami would take them to the military complex seeing as he most likely out ranked everyone in the town visitors included. So it was with surprise he followed the man into the large store.

The place was as large inside as it appeared from out. The front opening into a low stone tiled floor with stone steps leading up to a raised wooden platform that from the entrance appeared to fill the rest of the building. At either end of the steps were tall open cabinets in which Akihito saw numerous pairs of shoes and boots. There were low stone benches near the cabinets and several slippers were lined at the top of the steps. Asami led Akihito over to a bench and pushed him down before helping him remove his scarf, cloak, and boots.

Aki had not been in a place where shoes were to be left in the entry since he was a child. He carefully prevented any of the dirt on the stone floor from getting on his socks as he slipped on the pair of slippers and stood waiting for his master. He tried to get a better look at the store.

The back of the place was hidden by long free standing shelves. Numerous items covered the shelves and Aki noticed everything from dried vegetables to tan hides arranged throughout the parts of the store he could see. When Asami pulled him farther into the place he also saw camping gear, hunting and fishing gear, and several racks of premade clothing. There were several shoppers in the place many with surēbu following behind and carrying their baskets. Several of them looked up with a frown at Akihito as he was tugged along behind his master.

Asami went behind the back counter where an old woman was measuring cloth and through the swinging double doors. The room beyond was a large kitchen with three massive fire places running along the back wall. The delightful smells drifting from the long tables reminded Aki that he'd once again missed their noon meal.

There were trays of shortbread, loves of wheat bread, and several racks of rice buns spread across the tables near the windows. The ones closest to them were covered in numerous roasts of beef, pork, and goat. There were also several baked fish and large bowls of steaming rice.

Half a dozen people between Akihito's age and their early twenties were rushing about the room. Some were ladling up soup from large pots still over the fires, while others were off loading the racks of breads into massive reed baskets, and still more were piling the various meats into large boxes. Over them all was a man older than Asami directing what otherwise would have been chaos.

The man swung to the door when it opened, "Mai, I told you not to disturb me while filling this order! Do you want General Sudo breathing down our necks!"

"If he has any sense he'll just be grateful that he got to taste your cooking." Asami's baritone sounded over the otherwise loud kitchen staff.

The man's mouth snapped shut and he rushed over to bow lowly to Asami, "Grand Wizard! I did not know you were coming!" He stood and then frowned, "Wait, you would be the cause of Sudo's sudden need for everything to be perfect." He didn't wait for a reply and gestured to a small table set in the bank of several windows. "Kuo! A meal for our guests!"

Aki jerked to a halt at the shout of the name. He'd been stumbling along behind Asami as the man took him to the small table too busy watching the hustle and bustle of the kitchen to watch where he was going. At the name of his lost friend though he whipped his head around to stare at the raven haired youth carrying a tray piled with pork and vegetables to the table Asami was now seated at. He sat the platter on the table and looked up, "Ojisan, do your guests need soup?"

"Yes, yes, of course they do. Soup first my boy." The older man started setting out numerous dishes at the three chairs. Once plates were placed he handed a stack of bowls to the youngster and took another set himself before moving to the tables and piling the bowls with large servings of rice.

The raven boy smiled at him, "You should go ahead and sit. Uncle won't wait once he's starts talking to your master. I'm certain they won't mind you eating while they speak."

Aki had to blink several times. The boy didn't sound like his friend. The voice being younger and higher than the sergeant's had been and his eyes were the wrong color, being dark brown rather than near black. It was only when the boy frowned at him that Akihito realized he was crying. The boy asked, "Hey are you ok?"

Asami reached out and pulled Akihito to his lap. The boy buried his head in his neck and sobbed silently. He looked up at the youth. He'd forgotten the chef's nephew was named Kuo. Not that it would have mattered much since the last time he'd seen the boy he was a child not yet five years old and he hadn't known the boy was apprenticed to his uncle. Asami rubbed Akihito's back and nodded at the young man. "He'll be ok. You just happen to share the name of someone he lost recently."

The boy looked shocked then saddened. He pressed his lips together, nodded, and sat the three bowls of soup on the table. He looked back over his shoulder once as he returned to help the rest of the kitchen staff.

The old chef sat and served two of the three place settings from the large pork roast platter. The meat was soft and grey pink in the center of the dark red outside and went well with the rice and vegetables. He glanced at the boy in Asami's lap, "Unusual to see you with any surēbu, Asami-sama."

Aki felt his master shrug, "Unusual to see you kowtowing for someone I know you don't like." He pulled the plate of food closer, picked up the chopsticks and held a mouth full to Akihito's lips. He smirked when the boy blushed and glared at him, but didn't remove the offering. The boy took the mouthful before turning his face back to Asami's shoulder. "What is Sudo Shu doing out this far from the capital anyway?"

The chef grunted, "He's been sent to instruct the garrisons to increase their patrols for invasive creatures. He also escorted a group bringing horses for an important traveler from the Republic." He glanced up from his food, "I can only assume that is you. He's been demanding I cook for his entire group since he got here, though I've noticed only he and his cohorts get to eat any of it. Second day here I had to insist the man allow my staff to clean up so we could save the left overs."

Asami held another bit up for Akihito to eat. The boy blushed deeper but didn't glare, "Sorry he's bothering you. There was a reason I didn't take him as an apprentice before I left for my tour ten years ago." Asami looked at the man, "I came back due to some disturbing rumors around the elementals, but I've found several other things very different since I arrived. Is my brother still on the throne?"

The man grunted with a nod, "but his uncle Yan retains control, you should have been here when he turned twenty-one, as both his brother and the Master of Mages."

Asami frowned, "He didn't want me here. His letters were very clear."

"All I know is that the Fei Long we knew as children would never have allowed the military such control. His voice would have been that of your father's urging calm and restraint in these turbulent times." The man grunted again. "He certainly wouldn't have allowed all the changes to the quartering and provisioning laws if he was actually in charge."

Asami frowned and fed Akihito another bite. The boy had sat up and was clearly paying attention, "What changes?"

"Provincial generals now set the provision tax rate and are allowed to take unmarried children as young as seven if a farm or manufacture can't pay the full amount. Several of the provinces have had open revolt against the new rules. Fie's official response was to send out more military. Though I find it suspect that the only time anyone sees the king is when he waves to us from his festival balcony."

Asami set his chopsticks on the now empty plate, "How long has it been since anyone's seen him outside the palace grounds?"

"Seven years." It was Akihito that answered. Asami glanced at him frowning, "I was taken to the capital to be trained. The King was supposedly attacked while at the slave market and though he survived has not ventured outside the palace grounds since."

The old man nodded, "Even we heard the rumors of the attack out here, but I think it is more than that. The attack took place only a couple of months after he turned twenty-one." He lowered his voice, "I have tried to get into to see him with no luck. I even brought my dim sum for him, which you know he wouldn't turn away."

Asami nodded with an even deeper frown, "Who leads the Capital Military?"

The old man grunted as he stood, "Sakazaki and his pet Syopyr wizard, Yuri." The cook gathered his dishes and turned before saying, "There are rumors of ships leaving the southern harbors with no goods on them and returning with Syopyr gold and silver." He looked over his shoulder, "I've always found it strange that the South seems to be where all the surēbu taken to cover taxes end up disappearing to."

Asami stood and then pushed Akihito to sit again, "Eat some more. You've missed three noon meals already." He glanced at the youngster Kuo, who came back to the table and slid in front of the unused place setting, "Kuo-kun, I want to leave Akihito here while I talk to some people in town and make arrangements to collect my horses. Would you keep him company?"

Akihito's breath hitched at that request and Asami glanced down at him, "I'll be back soon, Kitten, don't leave building and stay out from under foot. Shefu Chimon is not above smacking a hand with his rice paddle."

The youngster Kuo laughed and nodded at that, "No he's not." He glanced at the surēbu across from him, "We'll take care of him, Asami-sama." The two teens watched as Asami walked back to the swinging doors where he was stopped by the old man for a brief chat. Kou glanced at the blonde again, "We won't let anything happen to you."

Aki looked back at the raven, "Sorry I cried earlier."

The boy plated some food for his self then asked if Aki would like more with a gesture to the empty place in front of him. Akihito nodded and the boy replied while filling Aki's plate. "No problem. I cried a lot when my mom died. Uncle says tears are important. Until we finish shedding them the sorrow doesn't allow us to move on."

Aki nodded slowly, "Feels like I've cried a river. How long before I move on?"

Kuo shrugged, "I don't think there is a set time for the crying. I thought I was done with it only to break down and cry like a baby on her barsy." He ate several bites then before looking up and pointing at Aki's plate, "You'd better eat. Ojisan is going to think you don't like his food."

Aki picked up the chopsticks Asami had fed him with. The first plate hadn't had much on it and Aki had eaten only because Asami had held the food to his lips. Though the man's calm response to his crying jag had gone a long way in allowing Aki to stop and center his thoughts again. He hadn't tasted the food the first time around but now the flavors and textures of the meal came through and Aki made several appreciative noises as he fished the plate in front of him.

When he fished a third helping and put his chopsticks down he glanced across at the teen still eating his own third helping. "That was delicious."

Kuo swallowed then smiled, "Thanks, first time I've ever made it on my own." The teen laughed at the surprised look on Akihito's face.

"You said your uncle would think I didn't like his food!"

"Well it is Ojisan's recipe. I cooked it though." He looked around the kitchen and sighed, "I'm going to miss this place."

"Why?"

The boy shrugged, "I've been apprenticed to Ojisan since I turned eight, but there isn't really a need for two chefs out here. If I ever want to have my own kitchen I'll need to move to another location as a journeyman." He glanced back at Akihito, "I'm hoping to head to the Capital soon. There are always young nobles looking for good cooks to set up on their houses for cheap."

Aki nodded, "just avoid the brothel district. They don't care about the food in most of those places." He looked down at his empty plate and fiddled with the chopsticks before saying, "and they like to drug it."

"I'll remember that."

Asami left the general store and crossed the wide square to the tavern. Suoh and Kirishima had taken the two small children there to provide Asami time to chat with is old friend more privately. Unlike the Store the tavern did not practice the removal of shoes by its patrons. Asami passed through the small foyer and glanced around the dark room for several seconds before spotting his comrades. He grimaced at the extra person sitting with them.

Sudo Shu would never be one of Asami's favorite people. He was a low level mage with only one specialty, Illusions. The young man might have been a better mage had he actually studied when apprenticed to the college. However, he was a natural born noble, though he was a second son and unable to inherit his father's title. He was still arrogant and self-centered which seemed to be the natural personality of most nobles born to their titles.

Worse when Asami had returned from his own apprenticeship to take up the reins of Master of Mages for the Consortium the then fourteen year old Sudo had brazenly barged into his office at the college and proclaimed himself Asami's apprentice. Asami had spent the whole year he was in residence avoiding the young man who spent more time trying to get his attention that attending to his lessons.

Asami grimaced and cross to the table. He nodded to both of his men as he sat pointedly ignoring the unwanted presence now sitting to his left. "Suoh, I want to leave at sun rise. Could you please ensure the horses we've ordered are in order?"

Suoh, eager for any excuse to leave the table stood up with a nod, "Hai, Asami-sama, I will ensure everything is ready." He paused and looked at the little boy, "Tapio would you like to go with me?" The youngster looked at Suoh then at his sister who slept tucked up against Kei's chest.

"It's ok, Tapio. I'll look after Nea." Kei's voice was quiet.

The boy started to nod when the unwanted guest at their table snorted, "Go on slave. Your betters have asked instead of ordered. You should be more grateful."

The boy flinched at Sudo's biting tone but relaxed when Suoh placed a hand on his shoulder before saying, "Watch your mouth, Shu. Kei and I don't take well to others ordering our people about and these two belong to Asami-sama." He nodded at Asami again and led the boy out of the tavern.

Asami turned to the Sudo, "What brings you to Risteys, Sudo?"

The man puffed up at being directly addressed by his obsession, "Grand General Sakazaki has sent me out to oversee the redistribution of troops. I'm also here to check if any escaped surēbu have made it out this direction. A friend of his lost a good one several months ago and while the little vaalea is probably too stupid to make it this far the owner thinks he might have gotten help." He grunted. "I'm only searching as a personal favor of the Military Head. I wouldn't dirty myself otherwise."

"Interesting, and I assume you are sitting here in Risteys' tavern because the blonde was spotted eating here?" Asami's voice held mild curiosity and significant ridicule.

Sudo huffed, "Of course not." He smiled then, "I saw your two trusted men and thought I'd bring them up to speed on the state over a break in my normal duties. Much has changed in past few years."

"Tell me." Asami signaled a server and ordered several bottles of warm sake. "I would love to be caught up on recent events."

Kirishima ran his fingers along the bottles the server had bought in a warm bath. Then he set one each in front of them. Sudo preened after being served by him. Kei reminded himself that it wasn't really an honor he was paying the man. He was only ensuring the bottle without the de-alcohol spell on it ended up in front of the prattling man.

He watched as Asami plied the man with free sake each batch treated by Kei first to ensure that neither he nor Asami got drunk while the flashy upstart in front of them was soon plastered. Kirishima had never liked the man finding him self-centered and obnoxious, an opinion Kei developed the first time the man had ignored his instructions about not disturbing Asami-sama without an appointment ten years in the past.

Kirishima paid close attention to what the man said however. Asami would have never started the conversation if he didn't think the man could provide something worthwhile. Much of what Sudo said would have been communicated to them by Kuroda once they arrived at Asami's estates in the Capital and Kei was beginning to wonder why Asami was willingly allowing the man to continue.

Sudo had long dropped the honorific due not just a prince but also the Master of Mages for the Consortium and Grand Wizard of the Asahi islands. He was leaning very close to Asami and Kirishima knew that the man's hand was running up and down Asami's thigh under the table. It was then that Asami gently led the conversation to the escaped slave that Sudo was supposedly looking for.

"Oh, it is a teen. Blonde, I believe. He's supposed to have strangely colored eyes." The man leaned into Asami with a drunken smile, "Oh, you would be interested in this. It is really Sakazaki's pet wizard that wants the boy, something about him casting a spell on Yuri when the slut should have been servicing the man at the brothel." Sudo laughed at that, "Like any brothel slave could cast spells."

Asami's eyes darkened with that information. He glanced at Kei and gave the man a brief nod. Kirishima reached over and put the man asleep. He then stood with the still sleeping Nea and bowed to Asami, "I'll let Kazumi know we'll be leaving in the next couple of hours."

Asami looked down at the man, pushing his hand off his leg in distaste. "Please do so. Oh, and we'll be taking Chimon's nephew with us. The old man wants me to put him up as an under chef for the main residence in the Capital."

Kei nodded, "I'll notify, Jona, she'll be glad for the help." He looked down at the head of the little girl in his arms.

"I'll get Sinjin to expedite the paperwork as soon as I can." Asami smiled up at his man. "Though I think I might want to talk to Jona first. Are you certain the two of you are ready for this?" He gestured to the child.

"As ready as you are to have a minarai," Kei smiled fully then frowned, "I will admit I worry about what changes this trip has already brought."

An inelegant snore interrupted Asami's reply and had both men looking at the drunken Sudo. He was obnoxious even asleep. Asami stood, "Let's go." They paused at the foyer to collect their cloaks; Asami looked back at the unconscious Sudo, "Is it wrong that even the thought of that man makes me sick to my stomach?"

"No, sir, you've always had excellent taste."

When Asami returned to Chef Chimon's kitchen he found Akihito up to his elbows in soapy water. The blonde stood over a large copper tub someone had placed on a new cleared table and filled with steaming water. Akihito was busy washing dishes. Several pots and pans were already drying on raised wooden racks set out for the purpose. He was laughing at something Chimon's nephew said. The raven haired boy was busy sweeping the large stone floor and directing much younger children to towel dry the dishes, wipe the tables down and carry the food scraps out and around to the stables.

Asami paused and watched the blonde interact with young raven. He leaned against the door frame smiling at teenage antics and the way the two teens teased and play fought even while completing the necessary work of setting the kitchen to rights in preparation of starting the evening meal. Only once everything was nearly done and Kuo started shooing the smaller children to one of the large tables as Akihito started ladling out soup did Asami push himself away from the wall.

Chimon came through the kitchen's back door then and smiled at the scene of the teens corralling the smaller children so they could eat. He saw Asami and crossed the room, "I end up with more every year."

"I'll see what I can send to help." Asami smiled as his boy knelt to help a young girl younger than even Nea up into a tall chair. "They are getting younger."

The older man grunted, "Yes, and harder to feed."

"Still have no desire to come back to the capital? I have numerous houses." Asami looked at the older man. "One of the few things I missed when away was your cooking."

The chef smiled. "No," he looked at the group of children eating, "I can do more out here. While there is never enough there are still several groups that help these children in the capital. Out here I'm the only one."

"You're certain you want me taking young Kuo?" Asami watched as the raven teen helped the youngest of the children with their soup. "He seems to be of great help here."

The old man grunted again. "Yes, he needs to step out on his own some." The man's eyes settled on Akihito, "Besides that one needs at least one friend."

Asami glanced at his boy; Akihito stood apart from the group at the table. His eyes traveled over the laughing group. However, while a smile was plastered on his lips, his eyes held a sad desperation. He clearly wanted to be part of the boisterous crowd laughing and teasing as they ate together, yet felt he wasn't allowed. Asami went to cross the room only for his old friend to stop him.

The man nodded in Kuo's direction. Asami watched the young teen move around the table and grasp Akihito's hand. His boy stumbled with wide eyes as the teen pulled him towards the gathering. Akihito glanced around the room panic lit his eyes. When he saw Asami he halted his steps and not even Kuo's insistent pull on his arm moved him until Asami gave him a slight nod. Once Akihito was sitting next to the other teen a smile back in his eyes Asami turned back to Chimon, "Yes, he does."

Several hours later Akihito sat on a large bale of hay inside a well-kept barn. Next to him Tapio and Nea where peppering Kuo with rapid fire questions about who he was, why he was going with them, and couldn't they just have one of the short breads while they waited? Kuo was busy expertly dodging their grasping fingers while he informed them he was a journeyman chef, Asami-sama was taking him to the Capital to make him an understudy at one of his residences, and no the short bread was for after supper. Though, if they were good, he might be inclined to give each of them a piece while he cooked the meal.

Aki almost snorted at the teen's response. If the teen's actions, after feeding the group of children at his uncle's place were any indication, Tapio and Nea would be munching down on shortbread before his master had finished saddling his horse. Aki glanced back at the man with that thought.

Asami was saddling his own horse. It was a giant beast with bright eyes and a healthy dose of belligerence. Apparently it was a grandson of the thoroughbred Asami had owned before he started his tour of the Ashai islands. Asami had smiled when he'd seen the beast and had out right laughed when the flustered when the stable master had apologized for the horse not being in a stall when they arrived. It seemed the beast had kicked his way out of the one assigned and taken his self out to run in the fields regardless of the stable master's wishes.

Now the animal was preening under Asami's attention. Akihito's master had gone out and fetched the horse himself after it had refused the entries made of it by several stable hands. The creature was seventeen hands high, as tall as Akihito at the withers. His coat was coal black from nose to tail and it seemed to only behave when Asami's baritone spoke the commands. Aki felt he understood the beast a little. He didn't like being corralled any more than the creature. Yet he too shivered whenever Asami spoke to him in low tones.

Asami led the horse past Aki out into the front yard. He, Kuo, and the children followed. There Kuo handed Nae up to Kirishima, who was already mounted on a dark gray mare almost as tall as the black beast. Suoh helped Tapio onto his brown gelding before double checking the attached sled and mounting behind the young boy. Kuo pulled his self into the saddle of the last horse which also pulled a sled behind it. The three of them trotted out of the yard and turned onto the southern road.

Asami mounted his beast and held his hand down to Akihito. The animal seemed eager to start and pawed the ground with several huffs. The sun shone down on the two and Akihito found he had to shade his eyes as he looked up. Asami looked a lot like the Oni King he sometimes dreamed of seated on his trusted Yōkai steed. His mind image caused Aki to pause as he reached up for Asami's hand. The horse shied towards him and Aki flinched away. Asami's low baritone sounded as he soothed the horse then it turned to Akihito, "Kitten, take my hand."

The command was all it took for Akihito to grasp the offered appendage. Asami pulled him into the saddle in front of him setting him astride the beast and nestled between his master's hips. Akihito blushed at the contact as Asami wrapped his cloak around the boy, flicked the reins, and joined his men on the road.

Asami allowed the beast to run for a while. For one thing the creature needed the exercise least it become unmanageable later in the evening. For another, he enjoyed the blush that rose up his kitten's cheeks as the horses gate rubbed the boy's behind against Asami's ever growing erection. He pulled the black beauty to a stop at the side the road when he saw an approaching caravan coming north along the trail.

The wind during the ride had pushed both his and Akihito's hoods from their heads and Asami pulled his boy's up to cover his distinctive blonde locks before the first wagon team could see them clearly. He didn't want anyone remembering a blonde headed anywhere out of Risteys.

It was a long procession and Asami could tell it was actually several separate caravans banded together to reach the crossroads. The group would probably split once there and set out to their individual locations as soon as the sun rose in the morning. Neither he nor Akihito spoke while the wagons past them, until the last wagon came into view. Akihito hissed as the trail of chained children and young teens came into view. A large man riding an old dappled gelding road next to them flicking a whip whenever one stumbled or slowed.

Asami quickly smothered the power he felt his minarai gather. The boy looked up at him angrily and Asami leaned down to whisper into his ear, "Not here Kitten. Calm yourself, I will send back to Chimon the funds to purchase them and if that isn't possible the man has other ways of seeing they are no longer harmed."

Akihito nodded, "I won't be able to hold it in if that man actually hits one of them."

Asami chuckled, "He won't." He chanted, softly but clearly and gestured towards the whip.

When the man yelped, dropped the offending weapon, and gingerly held his hand, Akihito smiled up at him whispering "What did you do?"

"Broke his hand. It will be several weeks before his can use it to wield anything again." Asami looked north and nodded to Kirishima as he and the others trotted their horses up to where he and Akihito waited. He then glanced at the trail of children filing past them.

Kei nodded, he knew what his leader wanted. While Asami was not an abolitionist, the man, however, believed only certain people should be enslaved. The list was rather short consisting only of adults found guilty of stealing for profit, nobles that failed to fulfill their responsibilities, and men or women that abused their spouses or children. Enslavement due to debt or other transgressions was not approved and no one under the age of twenty summers, regardless of crime, would ever be on the list.

It was one of the reasons Kei found Asami's reluctance to formally free Akihito strange. However, he accepted his leader's reasoning as it was. The boy was much less likely to attract unwanted attention as the man's surēbu than as his minarai. Asami's refusal to take an apprentice was almost legendary in both wizard schools.

So it was with dark eyes that Kei counted the number of children that followed the caravan. He took note of gender and ages to add to the orders he would be passing on the Chimon. His only prayer was that the old cook had enough space to house the alarming number. He'd have to make sure that Sion teleported extra food and clothing to the man's storeroom.

Asami waited until the caravan was out of sight before turning their group south again. He allowed Kirishima, Suoh, and Kuo to get ahead of him and Akihito then pulled the candle his knew his kitten had grown to hate from the large satchel across his horse's rump. He held it up and smiled when Akihito groaned, "I didn't make you practice this morning and that random pull you did earlier just proved you needed to."

Akihito looked up with pleading eyes and Asami laughed, "Nope, you are going to practice. If I had let you loose with whatever you'd planned earlier it would have brought the whole forest down." He placed the beeswax stick in his kitten's hands. "Light the candle, Akihito."

Chapter Text

Akihito blinked as sun peeked through the heavy curtains and shone directly into his eyes. It made it hard to continue to pretend he was asleep so he sat up in the massively oversized bed and pushed the heavy down comforters from his shoulders. Asami had woke him before dawn, first to sex him into breathlessness, then to teach him a new spell, and lastly to sex him into incoherency. It had been the man's pattern for the past week and frankly Akihito was exhausted with it.

He rose from the bed and crossed the cold stone floor to the small desk pushed under the large window in the west wall. The fact that there was no direct sunlight filtering through the heavy drapes meant that he'd probably not missed lunch today. He smiled and quickly washed and dried his body before slipping into the house hold uniform of black trousers, indigo tunic, and a dark grey sleeveless doe skin jacket with Sion's lounging panther in black and gold thread over the left breast.

He then tidied the room, making the bed neat with the colorful blankets and quilts folded to Asami's specifications at its end and pillows fluffed and piled at its top. The heavy purple curtains around it were drawn back and tied to each post. He ran a duster across the exposed wood of the bed, then the wardrobes and desk, and finally the stone floor. Lastly he ensured the oversized two person copper tub and the small bathing room around it was cleaned and set up for the evening.

Once the whole suite was in order he sat down at his small desk and opened the leather bound folder that had been left for him. It contained the lessons he was supposed to finish before Asami joined him for their evening meal. The lessons for the day weren't difficult and Asami ensured that all the books he needed to complete them were stacked at the end of his small desk. So it did not take Aki very long to finish the work.

Now he was bored. He was stuck in the room by himself until Asami said his punishment was over. It still irritated Aki that he was being punished especially since it meant he didn't even get to see Kou while it was going on. He was surprised at how much he missed his new friend and how much he missed not seeing other people than Asami. Other than the knock that proceeded delivery of noon meal he might well have been convinced only he and Asami were alive in the whole building.

Thinking about lunch had him glancing at the door. If the incoming angle of the sun through the windows and his growling stomach was any indication lunch was running late. He almost pouted but instead picked up the small song book he'd been studying and rubbed the dark leather cover. He opened it and started pursuing the ballad he was currently trying to memorize but his thoughts strayed to his current house arrest.

It didn't help that he'd been put into house arrest by the man over something Akihito had had zero control. Though, Aki, even in the moment, had admitted that the situation had been exasperated by his inability to keep his mouth shut.

It had all started with Asami granting him and Kou the pleasure of exploring the shopping district located just at the bottom of the hill from the estate. It had been their second day in the city. The first day had been spent with Asami introducing Akihito and Kou to the other residents, especially Kirishima's wife and the estate chef. Both teens were had been hyped to be in the city. Kou because he'd never been in one and Akihito because he'd had zero chance to look around the years he'd spent in one.

So when Kirishima Jona had instructed her new journeyman cook to take the day's shopping list down to the market and purchase the goods with a pouch of silver coins Kou had immediately asked if Akihito could go with him. Aki had been sitting at a small desk in corner of Asami's rather large estate office while his master had been pouring over the very large pile of missives that Kirishima had sat on the man's desk just as they had entered the office that morning.

Akihito had looked up from the book he'd been reading when Kou knocked on the door and Asami had bid him to enter. Kou had bowed and asked if Akihito could join him to collect the items Jona-sensei had asked for. Asami had looked at Aki, who admitly had been sitting on the edge of his seat, and then nodded. Aki had bounded towards the door only to be pulled up by Asami calling him back to his desk while pushing a coin pouch across to him.

Akihito had picked up the pouch only to frown when he noticed how heavy it was. He'd peeked inside and gasped before looking up at his master with wide eyes. The pouch had contained four gold coins. He'd almost shaken his head when the man had smiled at him, "Once the two of you have secured delivery of whatever it is Jona-san wants, use this to pick up the books Kei-san ordered yesterday. You can use what is left for anything you find you want."

Akihito had relaxed at those words and smiled, "Yes, Asami." He and Kou left the office then, stopping at Kei-san's desk to pick up the list of books he had ordered.

The grocery list had been quick to finish, though it had involved stopping at nearly twenty individual shops. The merchants at each place were used to orders from the Sion chef and had already been told through the grapevine that new staff had joined. Each shop spoke to Kou with difference, answered any questions he had, and otherwise allowed him to pick the goods he wished before arranging someone to deliver it up the hill. Because of this it had only taken the two boys about three hours to complete the task.

They had wondered about the district then looking for the bookshop Kei-san had instructed them to go to. On the way they had passed a small pastry shop out of which the smell of honeyed steam buns wafted. Akihito had paused to glance inside the large open door and saw that the prices of the small western style cakes and pastries were mounted on small pieces of chalkboard just below each treat. He smiled when he saw the prices and hoped that there would be enough left of his master's money to perhaps purchase one or two of the cheaper ones. He and Kou had glanced at each other as they stepped away from the shop and both their stomachs had growled.

They had laughed and rushed off. Several narrow streets later just as they were about to cross to the bookshop a large carriage came rumbling through. It had almost hit them as they leapt out of the way both falling to the ground. It had turned a corner by the time they stood. Kou had made a sarcastic remark about the coachman's ability to drive causing Aki to laugh again before shaking his head and entering the small windowed shop. Neither had noticed the widening eyes of the passenger.

The door chimed when they opened it and entered. The sounds of the street almost silenced once the door was closed again. The two boys found themselves surrounded by the leather and cotton of old tomes. Kou wrinkled his nose at the smell. Aki had taken a deep breath. Books, to him at least, were worth twice their weight in gold. He took his time looking over the shelves of leather spines as they made their way to the back of the shop where they found a short rotund man seated on a tall stool. Small round spectacles sat upon his pudgy nose and he seemed absorbed in the open book on the counter in front of him.

He looked up and smiled when Kou cleared his throat, "Oh, I'm sorry; I did not hear the bell." He hopped off the stool and extended a hand out to the two boys, "What brings two young men such as your selves into this old man's shop?"

Kou shook the man's hand but Aki choose to bow instead holding out Asami's list as he did so, "My master said to pick up this order, Tenshu-san."

The man had smiled as he took the piece of parchment, "Ah, yes! Asami-shishō's order!" He glanced at the list and nodded, "It seems he's added a couple since yesterday." He glanced up, "Let me just pull them and add them to the package; I'll be right back. Please, feel free to look around." He gestured to the store before disappearing behind a thick curtain at the far end of the counter.

Akihito looked over the titles of the books on the shelves closest to the counter while they waited. Kou took himself off to a small area where he'd seen several books on cooking, opening one at random and immediately getting lost in the recipes. The books on Akihito's shelves were filled with music. It contained narrow books with actual sheet music for various instruments, several large tomes discussing the history of music, instruments, or famous artists as well as numerous song books. It was one of the last types that Akihito was flipping through when the door chimed again. He'd been looking to see if he could find the price of the hand sized, blue leather bound tablature when the cold wind came blowing in along with a very loud group of young men.

There were four of them, though only three actually seemed grouped. The fourth, a tall golden haired blond actually frowned at the noise the other three were making and was quick to disappear down an aisle the boisterous three were not traversing. The three loud ones however took no notice and were cracking jokes about the tiny shop and its obvious age. They pulled volumes from the shelves at random laughing at the titles before shoving them haphazardly back on different shelves or dropping them to floor. When they reached the back of the shop they noticed Aki and Kou and started including the two of them in their insults, casually talking about how peasants shouldn't be allowed in their part of town and surēbu should be kept on leashes.

The noise drew the shopkeeper back to the front where he glanced around the shop taking in the sudden mess it was in. He grimaced at the trio of young men before plastering a smile to his face and addressing the trio, "Good morning gentlemen, please wait a moment while I finish up with these patrons and I will be right with you." He gestures to Akihito and Kou, who had returned to the counter

The tallest of the three glance at them and sneered, "No, they will wait." The youngster shoved Kou to the side and pulled a sheet of parchment out of his coin pouch before shoving it across the counter top. "The school says I have to purchase these from your shop." He looked around with a sneer, "Don't' know why they'd insist that," he laughed then, "unless you're sleeping with Kita-sensei." All three laughed.

The shop keep's frown deepened, "You should have more respect for the Master of Illusion; she is a formidable woman."

The teen laughed, "Yeah, right. She's a worn out old biddy preaching about the proper use of illusions, the weakest of magics." He leaned over the counter and grabbed the shop keep by his tunic, "Now get me these books or I'll show you real magic."

The man nodded and the teen released him. He turned to Kou and Akinito, "I am sorry gentlemen, but if you could wait a brief moment while I deal with these patrons first?"

Akihito heard the question in the man's voice and nodded, "No problem, Tenshu-san, we aren't in any hurry."

The man smiled and hurried behind the heavy curtain again. The leader of the group frowned at the man's back and then turned to Akihito and Kou. He looked the two of them over and sneered.

Akihito couldn't understand the teen's response to them. They were dressed in the official Sion uniforms. Black trousers and dark indigo shirts covered by dark grey vests bearing the Sion panther on the left breast. They had removed their hooded and cowled indigo cloaks while waiting on the shop keep; Kou was carrying both over one arm. Their black boots were dusty from their walk but otherwise shone in the weak sunlight. Kou wore his chain and emblem of rank which also contained the Sion Panther clearly displaying he was a Ylivääpeli (Journeymen apprentice). Aki had on his collar.

The teens were dressed similarly in dark trousers, colorful shirts (two green and the leader in bright red) over which they all wore short capes of tan bearing the swirling multi-colored star emblem of the Consortium school of Wizardry. Akihito and Kou recognized it because they had seen the headmasters of each discipline visit with Asami, Kei, and Kazumi just the previous afternoon. These were students, two from the School of Conjuration and the leader from the School of Evocation. All three wore chains with emblems displaying they were Kapteeni (Aprentice Mages) all the chains were made of silver.

The leader kept sneering at them while the other two went back to pulling books from the shelves. When the two teens reached the shelves of music works Aki started gritting his teeth at least until the pages of one song book were torn as one of the boys tossed it to the floor. It was the last straw for Akihito and he took the three short steps to reach the shelving and snapped at the two boys, "Are you heathens? Stop messing up the shelves, you are tearing the books!"

The teens stopped mid drop of the books currently in their hands. Anger crossed their faces and the one on the right swung the book in his hands backwards across Aki's cheek. It was a heavy tome of history and Akihito, not being very large, was knocked to the ground. Kou ran over with a shout, "Aki!"

He checked on his friend then stood and shoved the boy that had hit his friend, "What was that for?"

The boy sneered, "You really are a peasant. Standing up for a surēbu, the little paskaa shouldn't have touched me."

Kou yelled back, "he didn't lay a finger on you."

The other one laughed, "Yes he did."

"Liar!" Kou was ready to punch the one that had hit Aki. He reached out and grabbed the boy's tunic while pulling his fist backwards. The bell sounded at the front of the shop and in walked a tall man dressed in fine clothing and thick wool cape. All of his clothing was black or grey and he carried a silver tipped black sword cane. He was silver blond with short cropped hair and sported a long and wide jagged white scare down the left side of his face. It ran from his hairline through his left eye, down his left cheek, and ended just past his chin.

The student from the School of Evocation stood straight and bowed, "Lord Aaron." The other two teens followed suit.

The man smiled, though it never reached he's eyes and Aki felt sudden fear run up his spine. He'd seen the man somewhere before, but he couldn't remember from where or when. Then the man spoke, "Eiji-san, what brings you to this quaint little shop?"

The boy stood straighter at the form of address and reported his reasons as if he were speaking to his immediate commanding officer, "Our professor of Illusionary Magics has required us to purchase a reference book only sold at this shop, sir."

"Oh, well it is nice to see such fine upstanding young men pay such dutiful attention to their studies." He glanced around the shop and frowned, "What ever happened to Sotilasmestari Elias's shop?"

The ringleader of the mess quickly pointed to Akihito who was still lying on the floor; having only just pushed himself to his elbows when the older mage had walked in. "we caught that surēbu stealing, sir. We tried to stop him but he started throwing books at us."

"Well, I believe I'll have to take this one into custody then." He grinned down at Akihito causing the shiver of fear to run along his spine a second time. "Thank you, boys for stepping in on the poor shop keepers behalf."

The man leaned down to grasp Akihito's arms; Kou was gaping and trying to get words out that would convince the man that it wasn't Akihito's fault. One of the teens struck him hard in the stomach. Aki's arm was grasped tightly bruising it as he was jerked to his feet. The man pulled his resisting body to the door. Just as they reached it a dirty blond haired teen stepped from behind the narrow bookcase closest to the door and bowed very low.

He spoke lowly but his voice seemed to reverberate across the shop, "I am sorry to interrupt Lord Aaron, however, I feel compelled to remind you of Consortium Laws pertaining to the surēbu owned by the Kenraaliluutnantti and Kenraali. If you are caught with one in your possession without their expressed permission it means an automatic lowering of your official Rank and possible jail time." The young man stood straight, "Depending on the Kenraali whose surēbu you have." He looked the older Wizard in the eye, "Sir."

The wizard frowned at the young teen before replying, "Yes, thank you for reminding me young one. However, I doubt those rules will apply when I am merely taking this unruly slave to the local constable. I assure you nothing you're worried about will befall me."

The teen looked indecisive and glanced at the door twice before finally nodding, "Of course sir, I am sorry for interrupting, I just cannot stand the thought of your actions being misunderstood. You have provided so much to your adopted home that I would hate to see the lower class guards and constables mistake your intentions. You know how they are with people they believe to be foreigners." He went to step aside then paused, "Perhaps I should go with you, to ensure they listen."

The man shook his head, "I couldn't take you from your studies, young man. Please worry not, I'll attend to this surēbu. Go on about your business."

The teen slowly nodded and after giving the door one last look stepped out of the way. Aki had gotten his feet under himself as the exchange happened. The grip on his arm however had increased and when the man moved to the door once again he jerked Akihito so hard the boy was certain he heard his shoulder pop.

Aki dug his heels in again; he wasn't certain how he knew, but he was positive that if the man succeeded in getting him out of the shop that he'd never see Asami again. He was tugging backwards gritting his teeth at the pain in his arm when the shop door bell sounded again. In panic Aki started humming lowly the music gathering the world's primal essence into his free hand.

He had mastered lighting the candle two days before they'd reached the city and Asami had moved him on to lighting the nightly fires. He only intended to pull enough power to scorch the hand gripping his arm, but he realized almost as soon as he started that the amount of energy he'd pulled into the spell was much greater than intended if released it would burn the shop down and most likely the whole street.

As soon as he realized what was happening a familiar mental blanket covered his fist, shattering the collected energy into tiny pieces and allowing them to scatter harmlessly about the shop. Aki looked up from the hand gripping his arm into angry gold eyes. Tears actually rose in his eyes as he whispered, "Asami."

The man hardly looked at Akihito. He bored holes into the man gripping the teen's arm. He filled the door way; Kirishima and his second's wife, Jona, were behind him, helping to ensure there were no gaps through which anyone in the shop could escape. Asami's voice was low and heavy, "Good Morning Aaron, where might you be going with my personal surēbu?"

Akihito's arm had been released so quickly he'd fallen backwards a step and to the floor. The teens that had started the mess and had been holding Kou's arms to prevent him from following the older wizard out of the shop released the young cook just as quickly.

Aaron smiled at Asami, "Ah, Master of Mages."

Kirishima interrupted, "That is Grand Wizard to you, Everstiluutnantti."

Aaron frowned but didn't comment on what Kirishima had said, instead he continued as if he'd not been interrupted. "Asami-sama, it is a pleasure to see you in the Capital once again. Had I been informed of your arrival, I would have presented myself at the college."

Asami smiled back, "No need Lord Aaron. Only members of the Consortium Koulu Taikuus Akatemia (Scholastic Wizardry Academy) need present themselves to me. As a visitor to this country you only need concern yourself with official invitations." He nodded at the man then and stepped around him.

To Akihito's surprise, at the time, Asami seemingly ignored him as his master walked to the small group of students and Kou. Only a quick flick of his eyes letting Aki know he was to stay where he'd fallen had given the boy any indication Asami even really saw him. Instead his master asked in a low voice as he approached Kou and the other teens, "What are students doing in Sotilasmestari Elias's shop at this time of day? I am certain there are lessons or study you should be attending to."

The three boys bowed low and the leader stammered, "We were just picking up a volume of study for our second semester Illusion course, sire."

"I see." Asami stepped up to the counter and nodded politely to the shop keeper behind it, "Elias were you able to find these young men their books?"

The shop keeper smiled, "Ah yes," he placed three small hard backed cloth covered books on his counter. This is what they are looking for."

Asami picked up the volumes and passed them to the group's leader, "Here you are; now take yourselves back to campus." The students nodded quickly and moved towards the front of the shop. As they reached the door Asami called out, "Oh, Watanabe-san, Hisakawa-san, and Kita-san," the three boys stopped and looked nervously over their shoulders, "next time remember that the campus library will gladly order any books you need and have them delivered to your mailstops in the dorms. There is no need for you to travel so far from the school for study materials."

The teens bowed lowly and mumbled understanding before almost tripping out of the shop. Jona moved past Aaron at that point and stepped up to Kou placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. She pulled him away from the front of the shop and out the door talking softly the whole time. Aki watched from the floor and gave his friend a small nod when Kou had looked at him in concern. The two of them paused and pulled the sandy haired teen out of the door with them

Kirishima glanced at his wife, Kou, and the blond teen with a small smile and held the door for them as they exited the shop. He then glanced at Aaron with a slight grimace and walked past the man to smile at the shop keeper who was holding a low voiced conversation with the Asami. Aaron glared at Akihito before striding out of the door, his cane tapping loudly on the wooden floor as he went.

For his part Akihito mostly stayed where he'd fallen when Aaron had released him. He'd done little more than pull himself into a kneeling position. His legs were tucked under him, feet top flat on the floor bottom resting on his heels while he allowed both arms to hand loosely down his sides and his hands rested palms down on the floor near his hips.

With his head lowered slightly it was very close to one of the positions the surēbu re-education center had attempted to beat into him almost eight years ago. It had felt strange to Akihito as he sat there all but forgotten. Other than that first glance his master had effectively ignored him, yet Akihito felt certain the man was pleased with him he just couldn't tell why he thought that.

Kirishima did little more than pick up the stack of books that Aki and Kou had originally come to the shop to fetch. He said a few brief words to the shop keeper and then left. Akihito had heard him address his wife and Kou who he could hear talking but not understand outside. All three voices soon moved away from the store front. The shop keep had followed Asami's second to the door where he pulled down the rolling shade and locked the door. Curtains were drawn over the bay windows to the left of the door effectively blocking any passerby from seeing into the shop and lowering the light until the inside was mostly shadow.

It was only after the man went back into the back of his shop that Asami had finally spoke to Akihito, "Can't let you go anywhere by yourself can I?"

Aki remembers surging to his feet, "I didn't start it. Those jerks were destroying books." He'd looked around the shop and shook his head. "Look what they did." He remembered kneeling again and stacking books that had been carelessly dumped. "Who does this to books?"

Surprisingly Asami had knelt next to him and helped to gather the books strewn about, "Mainly overly egotistical and excessively vain people with little or no understanding of proper etiquette."

When Aki had gotten to the pile of music tomes tears had reached his eyes, "They just dumped them and the shop keep didn't say anything. Do you know how expensive books are? How much money has he lost because of them?" He glared up at Asami at that point, "and he can't do anything about it. Those snotty nosed brats out rank him."

"Don't worry about Elias, he knows how to repair the bulk of these and he'd have sent those boy's names to Kei. Appropriate punishment would have been dealt out for their behavior." He'd taken Aki's chin in one of his hands, "You however were almost kidnapped." Asami had stroked the bruise forming on Akihito's cheek, "I am very displeased with you about that. So much so I'm going to have to punish you."

Aki had gotten mad, "What? Why are you mad at me? I didn't do anything; I certainly didn't start this mess."

Asami had grinned, "Oh, and calling them, and this is a quote according to Elias, 'heathens' isn't starting something?" Akihito had just glared at his master and finished collecting the books from the floor.

Asami had then introduced the shop keeper to Akihito and allowed Aki to help the man put the store back to rights. For though Aki had held firm it wasn't his fault the shop was a mess he'd insisted that since he'd made matters worse by confronting the bratty teens he should at least spend time helping to clean up. Asami and the shop keep spent the time while Aki cleaned chatting.

It took him nearly two hours to correct the mess the three teens had made in a few short minutes. When he was done he was sweaty, dusty, tired, and very hungry. He was also grinning from ear to ear. When he came back out to the front of the shop after putting away the keeper's broom and dusting cloths he found Asami and the shop keeper waiting for him at the door.

Aki approached them and bowed to the shop keep, "Sorry I couldn't stop them from making such a big mess Tenshu Elias-san."

The older man had smiled and shaken his head, "No need to apologize for something that wasn't your fault." He'd bowed then and held out the small song book Aki had been holding when the whole mess had started, "Please take this as thanks for helping set my shop to rights."

Aki remembered panicking at the bowed figure before him had glanced up at Asami. The man had reached out and settled a hand on his head ruffling his hair. Aki blushed as he remembered leaning into the man's touch. He closed his eyes and felt the man's hand again. He unconsciously leaned into only to be startled from his memories by the man's deep chuckle. He glanced up and saw the man smiling down at him. He blushed and moved his head out from under the warm hand.

He was just about to snap at the man for sneaking up on him when his stomach growled again. Asami chuckled and sat the tray he held down on the des k, "Eat." Akihito glanced at the man as he moved back and settled into the wing chair near the bed. The man rested his arms on the chair and smiled at him. "What? Not hungry?"

Aki shivered at the tone in the man's voice and swiftly picked up his chopsticks and uncovered the tray. It was full of his favorites; a small dish of rice was accompanied by piles of Beef Tataki, Chicken Teriyaki, and Pork Shogayaki. In another bowl was a small amount of seaweed salad and in yet another there was an assortment of small pickled vegetables. There was a mound of Daifuku for dessert.

Placing his chopsticks between folded hands he cheerfully sang, "itadakimasu" then dug in. As much as he liked meat, his love of seaweed salad was only topped by his love of sweets. So, the piles of meat, rice, and pickled veggies were quickly consumed first. He spent longer on the salad, taking his time to savor the salty sweetness of the long green tendrils. When he finally bit into the Daifuku he moaned only to nearly choke when Asami laughed. He coughed dropping his chopsticks and swiftly gulped the cooled green tea that was also on the tray.

Only once he could breathe again did he glare at the still chuckling man, "Why do you do that!?!"

Asami just smiled at him, stood up, and picked up a second Daifuku with his fingers and held it up to the young man's lips, "Do you want the rest of these or are you finished?" Aki shook his head and took the offered sweet. Asami talked as he watched his Kitten chew and swallow. "I have plans for you this afternoon." He picked up another and held it out, "It is going to take all of your energy so eat up."

Aki finished the sweets blushing red. Each was picked up and offered by the man's long warm fingers. Each time the fingers lingered on Akihito's lips. With the final one the man rubbed his bottom lip and Aki found his tongue slipping out to lap at the rough pad. He eyes gazed up at Asami. The look in the man's eyes caused his groin to tighten.

Asami always found watching his pet eat strangely fulfilling. It was a delight to teach the boy. He absorbed knowledge like a sponge and could remember the strangest details of conversations. He was always active even when perusing a tome or scroll at the small desk some part of the boy was always moving. A toe tapped or a leg swung to the ever rolling music just behind the boy's lips always causing Asami to grin. He was most enjoyable to watch when he ate though. The boy loved food and while it was obvious that meat and sweets would always be favored Asami had yet to find anything the boy wouldn't eat. Even better the soft gasps, giggles, and moans the boy made so unconsciously always went straight to his groin.

Now as the boy finished his sweets Asami knew that Kirishima was going to whine at him yet again. They were supposed to be planning the visit to his half-brother, the Consortium King, that would be happening the following morning. Asami was taking Akihito to have him formally inscrolled into his list of personal assets. Once done the documentation around his 'purchase' would be destroyed and though still a surēbu he would not be available for resell even should he run way or be taken. There were certain protocols that had to be followed though and Kei had wanted to teach the boy that afternoon.

First though, Asami smiled down at Akihito. The smile was full of filthy promise and widened when Aki's breath hitched. He felt Aki's flight instincts kick in and when the boy started to raise Asami used the momentum to pull the boy off his feet and toss him onto the bed.

"Asami!" Akihito woofed out as he landed with a bounce. He went to scramble off, only to find he was just as suddenly trapped underneath the larger male.

Asami pulled free the long ribbon he always insisted that Aki keep wrapped about his waist and used it to tie the boy's wrists first together and then to the top of the bed's headboard. Aki's clothes were removed with a whispered spell. Then he started stroking the boy's skin.

The room was cool. The fire had long settled to red burring coals. Akihito still wouldn't add additional wood until he'd cleared it with Asami. A hold over from the time using wood without permission could lead to painful retribution. So once his clothes were removed Akihito shivered. Goosebumps rose on his smooth skin. Asami rubbed his skin gently and slowly with his full palms turning the chilled paleness into warm pink.

Asami started at his feet taking each one into his large hands and rubbing them from toe to heel. Then he traveled up his boy's legs stroking and petting, all the time warming the cold body beneath him. He purposely skipped the boy's crotch as he rubbed the pale expanse of his kitten's chest paying close attention to the two rosy nipples tweaking them with his thumbs and fingers sharply before rubbing out the sting with his palms. Each arm was stroked and kneaded as well as his shoulders and back and behind.

Akihito didn't know how long Asami spent stroking him. It felt like hours but frankly was over far sooner than Aki would have liked. The man had turned him to his stomach in order to reach his shoulders, back, and buttocks. So when his hands stopped and the man rose from the bed he could not see what the man was doing. So it was with shock that he felt a rope encircle one of his ankles and tied to its nearby bed post.

He tried to squirm away with a token protest on his lips but Asami was prepared and when Aki opened his mouth he found a velvet covered, wooden bit shoved between his teeth and tied around the back of his head. The other ankle was tied to the post nearest it just before Asami wrapped an arm under his stomach and pulled him up to stuff a stiff round bolster beneath it. Asami took a few moments to move the pile of fluffy pillows from around Aki's head. The first time the man had tied him up like this Aki had accidently shoved his face between two and nearly suffocated himself. Now the only thing Asami allowed near the boy's face was a stiff piece of soft wool which kept the thick down comforter from rolling during Akihito's struggles.

Once the bolster and the wool were in place Aki felt Asami leave the bed and the room became quite except for the sounds of Asami's movements. Several pieces of wood were thrown into the hearth and the fire was stroked back to a blaze. The narrowest of the wardrobes was unlocked and Aki tensed as the smell of leather and oils filled the room.

He squirmed not because he was afraid but because he really, really wanted to be able to see the man he knew was now standing next to the bed and staring down at him. Aki felt his dick grow, until a week ago he hadn't known how turned on a person could get just being stared at. Of course he hadn't known then that there was more to his kink of being manhandled either.

The past week Asami had fulfilled his promise to punish his kitten for nearly being kidnapped. Along the way he was discovering just how deep his kitten's kink ran. So far the boy had come almost untouched by Asami spanking him and the boy had cum hardest just after Asami had belted his buttocks and sunk into his heat while he was almost raw. That however had resulted in some tearing that Asami was not going to repeat and the last four nights had found him not moving past fingering his pet's hole.

The boy had also been taught to deep throat, though he was still perfecting it, having promised after his first failed attempt to learn how to bring Asami to orgasm with his mouth alone by Tōji. Asami smiled at the thought of all the practice his kitten was going to require.

For this afternoon though Asami decided he was going to sink back into his pet's heat. The tears had been minor with little blood and Asami had taken great care in treating them each night. So today he would prepare his little kitten thoroughly, taking care to stretch the boy with plenty of slick oil. Before that however he wanted the boy to become a sobbing mess.

They had explored most of Asami's tools finding which the boy loved, which he found uncomfortable and which he actually feared. It had not taken Asami long to discover that though the boy had a high pain tolerance he didn't enjoy and frankly feared any implement that reminded him of his days before Asami had taken ownership of him. Metal shackles and chains would send him directly into fight mode but any sort of whip would cause his pet to curl into a fetal ball which could take hours to pull him from.

The fear of them was so strong that the sight of them alone would send his kitten over the edge. Asami just opening the lock on the wardrobe where they'd been kept would find his Aki backing into a corner of the room and panting heavily. So early on the second day of Akihito's confinement, Asami had made a great show of removing them and the metal shackles from the wardrobe packing them away in a large locked box and having Kazumi take the box away.

After that the sound of Asami open this cabinet had filled the boy with curiosity. So, on day three he'd allowed the boy to investigate the contents of the cabinet himself. Asami answered all the boy's questions none of which had been why? Instead the boy had surprised Asami by pulling one of the wide leather belts from the wardrobe door and asking what it felt like.

Not one to use words where action was a better teacher Asami had offered to use the belt on the boy so he could find out himself. His pet had not disappointed smiling as filthily as Asami had been feeling when he'd asked what he needed to do.

Asami was not about to repeat his slip up from the night before and had first sat the boy down and talked about safety. Asami insisted on tying him up. Soft rope and wide strips of linen and cotton cloth were pulled from the wardrobe and their uses for binding were explained. Then Asami had tied the boy to the end posts of the bed. Several lines of ropes about his lower arms connecting them to each other from wrist to elbow and pulled forward before being used to pull the boy to the balls of his feet by attaching them via a long rope to the top of the beds canopy frame. More rope tied over long strips of cotton cloth were wrapped about the boy's lower legs which were then spread and attached to the bed's feet. It had left the boy bent mostly forward across the end of the mattress.

Asami had then spanked the boy with his hand, sharp smacks soothed with his palm. He'd started slow and then decreased the time between swats quickly. By the time he stopped the boy's bottom had been red and very warm. The belt the boy had chosen was thick and heavy from end to end. If Asami wasn't careful it could leave deep bruises if slammed into the boy's cheeks to hard or too fast.

While the thought of leaving tangible evidence of a session like this on his boy, ones that would last for days had very appealing he really felt he needed to work up to it. So he'd carefully take out a less thick version of the implement and walked around the bed to discuss with his boy. He explained his concern with using the larger thicker belt and had been greatly pleased when his kitten had nodded in agreement about using the lighter one.

Akihito had already been aroused painfully by Asami's hand spanking so Asami shouldn't have been surprised at how quickly the boy came from the touch of the belt. Asami had only gotten about half a dozen swings in before Aki screamed in release.

That was not going to work for what Asami had planned for the afternoon. To ensure his little kitten didn't cum before Asami wanted him to he'd also taken out a long leather strip made from the hide of fawn. It was soft to the touch and warmed quickly when next to the skin. He spent several minutes wrapping his boy's already engorged and leaking cock in the leather. He started at the base of the member using the center of the leather strip.

He wrapped it around the base and brought the strips together before twisting them and wrapping them around the member again he repeated this until only the head of his boy's dick was uncovered. When he was finished there were still several feet of leather hanging from the end. He used this to pull the boy's member up and flat against his stomach before wrapping the long strips around the boy's waist and tying them off at the small of the boy's back.

He went to the head of the bed and kissed the frustrated tears leaking from his Kitten's eyes. He stroked his kitten's hair and kissed his cheek, "You still ok?" He grinned when the boy nodded. Asami tapped the side of the bit, "I plan on making you scream, Kitten. This will prevent you from breaking any teeth."

Asami waited until the boy had nodded understanding then continued, "So we're going to use a different signal tonight to tell me if you're getting overwhelmed." He picked up the soft leather encased dildo that he'd pulled from the shelves and placed it in Akihito's bound hands. The boy was tied with his palms together so he would have to intentionally drop the item for it to actually fall. Asami grinned at the boy's nod. His hands were over his head in his current position and he couldn't see what Asami had given him. The older man actually looked forward to the blushing irritation that he knew would follow should the boy found out what he currently held.

Asami kissed his kitten again and then worked his way around the bed. He palmed the boy's raised ass for several minutes enjoying the control Akihito handed him in these moments. Then he drew his hand back and slapped the boy's bottom. He repeated the action rapidly shortening the usual warm up; he didn't even pause to rub away the sting like he usually did.

He would always use his hand first after all he was pretty certain that his Akihito preferred it over the other implements they'd explored so far and this was for his Kitten's pleasure as much as it was for his. So he used his hand smiling when the cries his pet could get past the bit in his mouth turned from pained whines to lust filled groans and his body relaxed while actively trying to push his bottom up to meet each strike.

He stopped when his boy's bottom had turned a bright strawberry red. He glanced at the dildo in his boy's hands and almost chuckled at how the boy's fingers were turning white with his grip. The delicious moaning had not paused with the cessation of the spanking, in truth the boy was still straining to push his bottom up towards Asami. Asami stepped back and picked up the leather strap he'd taken from the cabinet. It wasn't very thick in truth it was hardly thicker than the strap currently tied around the boy's penis but wielded properly it could leave a stinging lash. It was the closest to a whip that was left in the cabinet, not that the boy would have been able to tell as it had no handle or lead attached.

Asami stared down at his kitten before taking a deep breath; he'd have to be very careful with this. Akihito's only experience with this type of lash was of pain and abuse. The boy was covered in the fine marks left when a whip was wielded as an implement of derogation and Asami would be damned if Aki felt anything but the pleasure he intended this bright afternoon. So, he started slowly.

Aki knew he was a mess. His bottom burned and his dick was so hard it hurt, but he also knew that his master wasn't close to being done with him. He couldn't keep the pants and moans inside and they caused him to drool around the bit. He wished the thing wasn't in his mouth. In truth he still didn't understand why the man had placed it there. The spanking while harder than any previous ones hadn't made him clench his teeth the way Asami had warned him. In truth he'd love it if the man would go back to the sharp smacks and was actively trying to incise this man into doing just that when said man stepped away.

When the lash struck his bottom his whole body stiffened including his jaw. As his teeth tighten around the bit and he was suddenly glad that Asami had given it to him. The action only lasted seconds and the pain across both butt cheeks dulled as quickly as it had come leaving behind a single line of throbbing flesh. Several seconds turned into what felt like minutes as Aki's brain wrapped around the feeling. He knew it wasn't a whip that his master was wielding; all of them had been packed away nearly three days ago while he'd huddled on the bed desperately trying to control his breathing and prevent a panic attack.

While the initial sting was a perfect match to the whippings he'd received, the line of throbbing flesh left behind contradicted the assumed instrument. Whips left small sharp bites at one end often made from broken bleeding flesh and Akihito was certain that even wielded by his master the bite of the tips would not be lessened so whatever Asami had struck him with wasn't a whip. With that thought the rest of the tension his body had held eased away and the object he had been gripping and releasing rhythmically in his bound hands was gripped tightly once again.

Asami's hand gently rubbed his head before palming the back of it; Aki hadn't even felt the man move back to the head of the bed. The man leaned down and kissed Aki's temple whispering, "Ready to continue?" Aki nodded getting another gentle kiss in response before the man moved back. He wasn't any more ready for the second lick of leather. However, it took fewer seconds for his brain to work out what was happening and who he was doing it with.

Asami had almost held his breath after the first stroke of the soft leather belt. When his kitten had tensed and the boy had come close to dropping the dildo Asami had started preparing to end their play dropping the belt and quietly moving to the head of the bed. Then his kitten surprised him relaxing and gripping the dildo harder before pressing his bottom upwards. Though, Asami was certain the last action was not done with any conscious thought.

Still the boy's initial reaction had him checking verbally with his boy by gently carding his finger through the already sweaty hair and kissing him in reassurance before asking if he wanted to continue. He was glad his Kitten couldn't see the filthy grin that crossed his lips when the boy had nodded yes.

He applied the next five lashes slowly, at least for him. Pausing between each one for several seconds to ensure his boy was still with him. Then he started to slowly increase them. Each lash left his penis thicker and heavier as each caused his boy to strain against his bonds in his attempt to raise his bottom to meet the kiss of the leather.

Asami kept the lashing confined to the boy's bottom careful to prevent any part from hitting the top of the boy's thighs or the upper or lower part of his back. Someday perhaps his Kitten would trust him enough to allow him to place marks there but for now he concentrated on pulling the most out of his boy's bottom and what a lovely bottom it was. The soft round globes made two perfect handfuls of now purpling quivering flesh.

Asami tossed the belt to the floor and swiftly removed his own clothing with the same spell he'd used on his Kitten when they started. He removed the bolter under the boy and then released the boy's ankles. He pushed his Kitten up the bed using the arches in his feet to position his legs wide and knees bent up near his chest. He then opened the pot of slicking cream on the bedside table and thoroughly covered his fingers.

Aki had groaned when the man removed the pillow he was laid over. Partially because he was finding it difficult to hold his self up without it, but also because he knew the man was finally getting to his favorite part. He groaned again when he felt himself positioned but it was a whine of pure need he loosed when he heard the pot of slick open.

When Asami put the first finger in Aki arched off the bed as far as his bound arms would let him. He heaved against the pain tipped pleasure the man's finger was giving him. Then the man grabbed one of his tender throbbing butt cheeks and Aki's whole body tensed again. He whined again and the man finally removed the bit. A second finger was added and all Aki could do was beg, "Asami…ugg….please… please… please…"

The man's voice was dark as he worked a third finger into his boy, "What do want Kitten? You have to tell me."

"Ugg… pls…. pls…. asa…."

Asami chuckled; he knew what his kitten wanted, what his boy needed. He knew he wanted it too. Yet, he stalled instead choosing to pull the boy free of the headboard and loosening the knots he'd bound about the boy's wrists. For each knot he loosened he drove his three fingers into the boy just scraping the spot the boy really wanted him to touch. "What is it, Kitten? Tell me?"

Aki couldn't even speak, tears flowed down his cheeks and sobs filled his throat. He was putty in his master's hands, allowing Asami to manhandle his body until his hands were wound behind the man's neck and his fingers pulled at the man's hair. He and Asami were now kneeling on the bed Aki's back to the larger warmer chest. He moaned again when he felt the man's thick member rubbing along his back bone leaving tails of precum across the bony nobs. Aki's brain couldn't form words but somehow he managed to whine out, "Fuck me! Please!"

Asami smiled and removed his fingers seconds before slamming his full length into his boy's hole. He pounded into his boy's channel several time feeling the boy clench around him then he untied the leather around his kitten's waist and fingered the wrap about the boy's penis open while stroking the tip of the now purple head. He paused when he reached the last part of the wrap pulling almost completely out of his Kitten's hole.

"Let me hear you cum, kitten." Asami whispered the command as he slammed to the hilt in his boy's hole while pulling away the last of the boy's restraints.

Akihito saw nothing but bright white; someone screamed and then darkness took him.

Asami felt his boy clench powerfully around him as his kitten loosed a primal scream while shooting his orgasm across the bed. Long lines of cum burst from his boy; they nearly reached the head board. Asami came immediately after reveling in the boy's body clenching about his member as he filled the boy with his own cum. Then Akihito passed out.

Asami chuckled. They really needed to work on the boy's stamina. He lowered his Kitten to the sheets and rose from the bed. He filled the large tub with steaming water using a more powerful version of the spell he'd used several weeks before to provide his kitten with something to drink. The memory of the boy's tongue stirred his lust but he pushed it way; Aki had performed well that afternoon and the boy would be far too sore to engage in any more play for several hours. He picked up his boy and whispered short spell to clean up the sheets and both of them free of sweat, cum, and tears before returning to the washroom and lowering them both into the steaming water.

Chapter Text

Aki pulled at the tunic he was wearing before climbing into the large horse drawn carriage, once again wishing the garment was longer. It wasn't that he was cold for Asami had cast a warmth spell on the clothing and sandals as he'd donned them. That added to the thick black cloak with hood and cowl also bespelled with warmth kept him quite comfortable. No, Aki tugged at the garment because it was, as he'd already told his master, too damn short. The tunic was cut in such a way that it barely covered his crotch in the front and ended up sitting just below the swell of his bottom in the back. He was very aware of the fact that while he was technically considered dressed once his cloak was removed anyone behind him would see his bottom.

It didn't help that the tunic was not sewn shut on the sides. Instead the garment was nothing more than two cream colored rectangular pieces of cloth held together around his hips, under his arms, and on shoulders by several large gold and copper buttons. Each stamped with the Sion panther, which also graced the front of his garment and the back of his cloak.

The garment was traditional for the ceremony that Asami was having performed before they visited the King. Which was the only reason Akihito had donned the clothing with little more than snide comments about Asami's perverted-ness. Those had only made the man laugh and cope a feel of his butt cheeks before swinging the cloak about Akihito's shoulders.

Asami was contracting Akihito as a Nenkibōkō. It was a position of honor for a slave. In short the ceremony meant that Aki was considered part of the man's personal belongings and he was indentured directly to him; not to his property nor to his household. While the terms of indentured servitude varied across relationships it typically included the lifetime of one or more parties. This meant if Asami died before Akihito, Aki would become a freeman even better should Akihito ever have any children they would not be surēbu.

Aki missed most of the journey to the castle. Firstly, Asami refused to allow the shades on the carriage to be opened. When drawn closed the magic they contained would ensure a nearly complete seal to form around the openings they covered and prevented any cold air, wind, rain, sleet, snow, or other undesired weather to enter the interior. Aki had tried to complain but Asami refused to expose him to the elements any more than required for the trip.

Secondly, he was stretched out across the bench of the carriage with his head in Asami's lap. For though the School of Magic and Asami's personal estates were located in the same city as the Royal Castle the capital was the largest city on the western side of the Lohikäärmeen Selkä; it took nearly three hours to cross the city proper meaning they had set out for the palace before the sun had risen. The warmth of the carriage and Akihito's weariness combined with the soothing comfort of his Master running his fingers through his hair had Akihito sound asleep less than twenty minutes into the ride.

Asami shook him awake when the carriage stopped. Akihito sat up and yawned. He rubbed his hands over his face and stretched while blinking slowly to clear the blur from his eyes. He looked much like a large kitten waking from a long nap. Asami smirked at him and then laughed when the boy glared at him with sparking hazel eyes. He ruffled the boy's hair and hooked a long chain lead to the boy's collar. "Remember what Kei taught you?"

Akihito looked at the chain with a frown but nodded. He looked up with his eyes still sparking with fire, "Until the ceremony is over I must be collared and chained to you. I am to walk directly behind you buy four to five paces with my head down. Whenever you stop I am to immediately close the distance and kneel at your heels until you tug on the chain twice to rise so you can continue moving."

"And?" Asami prompted for the last part of his second's instructions.

"Um..." Akihito was having a hard time remembering anything else. Then Asami tugged on his cloak and he recalled the last part of Kirishima's instructions, "Oh, right, I have to take off my cloak before we exit." he shrugged out of the garment and carefully folded it before placing it on the carriage seat.

He looked up and blushed; Asami was staring at him with dilated eyes. It took Kirishima coughing discreetly to pull Asami back to where they were. Akihito found himself of two minds about that. The older man stepped out of the carriage and forward to speak to the smartly dressed man bowing towards him. Akihito followed quickly. The chain attached to his collar and held at the other end by his master wasn't very long.

The man that had bowed to Asami turned out to be the head of the palace scribes and was there to ensure that the ceremony was completed and recorded correctly. He was rapidly going through the procedures with Asami when a richly dressed gentleman stepped into their path. Asami, Kirishima, and the scribe stopped immediately. The scribe bowed; his head almost touched the floor. Asami and Kirishima merely nodded as Asami said, "Yan, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company." Asami's tone removed any feelings of delight from the greeting.

The man frowned at him, "I am your king's right hand, Ryuichi-kun. That I would seek out to identify who was stealing our scribes' time should have been a given." He glanced at Kirishima and then at Akihito.

Aki didn't have to raise his eyes from the back of Asami's boots to know that the man in front of him was displeased. Nor did he need to look at his master to know Asami was seething. Aki could only pray for his country if this Yan really was their king's most trusted confidant. No one in their right mind would insult the most powerful wizard of their lands by using the childish honorific 'kun'. Still Aki blushed at his Master's answer to the man's unasked question.

"I am en-scrolling this surēbu into my personal assets. His family in Vehnä owes me a large debt and this young man offered to join me here in exchange for taking on the entire debt himself. His parents agreed after we contracted that he would not be able to be sold to another." Asami stood directly in front of Akihito blocking the other man's attempt to scrutinize the boy.

Realizing that Asami would not allow him to study the young man he fell back on attempting to insult the man, "Make certain that you do not take up too much of our scribes' time. The king requires them for important work."

Asami smiled, "Of course. Though, if my brother cannot spare the one that is required for this, perhaps I should offer to provide some from my estates when I visit with him after court this morning?"

The man Asami had called Yan paled at this question before blustering, "King Liu, has no time for a visit this morning. I will gladly check his schedule and see what he has free later in the month."

At that statement Kirishima pulled out a scroll of dark parchment and handed it over to the man as Asami said, "I do not believe you understand Yan. I am not requesting an audience; I am demanding one. Under the Lohikäärmeen Selkä accords, as the Grand Wizard of the Asahi Islands, I do not require that Fei Long grant me time in his schedule. I expect to meet with him for the noon meal."

With that Asami swept past Yan and down the long hallway. Akihito almost tripped as he stood and rushed to keep up. The court scribe with them bowed once to Yan and all but ran down the corridor to catch them as they traveled, "Your Grace! Please allow me to guide you to the Chamber of Covenants."

Akihito was surprised when they stepped out of the castle proper into what at first appeared to be well manicured gardens. The walkways were paved with dark brick freshly swept free of snow. The same brick bordered large flowerbeds sleeping beneath the winter blanket. Tall cedars and holly lined the far walls of the enclosed area. Even in the cold Akihito could smell the moist earth wait to push forth the life it cradled. All it waited for was Kylvää and the warmth of the sun the season would bring.

The scribe led them to a long three story granite building. It was fronted by a portico held aloft by four white marble columns of western thicker in the middle than at each end, carved with smooth vertical lines, and capped at top and bottom by large square stones. Wide shallow steps led up to the large double doors of wrought iron shaped into two hatch cross gates locked together with gold and silver clockwork. The building was otherwise plain.

Akihito almost missed the three people waiting for them at the doors as he concentrated on climbing the steps, but once he reached the top Asami brought his attention to them by saying, "Thank you for agreeing to help with this Takenaka-sensei." He gave the tall grey haired man a small bow.

The man smiled, "It is my pleasure, Ryuichi." He gestured to the slightly shorter but much younger man standing to his left, "This is my grandson, Takato. He would like to formally ask Lord Kirishima for an apprenticeship when we are done here."

The young man bowed as Akihito stared. It was the same young man that had held up Lord Yuri at the bookstore over a week ago. The boy had also been the one to inform Asami that Akihito was in trouble by use of a message spell. Apparently had Asami and Kirishima not known the Takenaka name Akihito would have been long gone before Kou could get even get back to the Sion estates. Still it was tears of gratitude that were leaking from his eyes as he watched the blonde teen talk quietly to Kirishima.

In truth he wasn't aware he was crying until he felt warm fingers cup his cheek and wipe them away. Asami's baritone washed over him, "Let me guess, Takato was the name of your other friend?" Aki nodded but couldn't find words choosing instead to bury his face in Asami's chest breathing in the scent of tobacco and alcohol. Asami chuckled as he rubbed the back of the boy's head. Then he looked up and noticed head scribe taking notice of the boy's long pale legs. He glared causing the man to swallow nervously and turn away. He glanced at Suoh and nodded at the scribe. Suoh stepped up to the man and started whispering.

Asami looked back down at Akihito and smiled. The boy was looking up at him now trying to smile. Asami smirked, "Is my kitten ready to meet a friend of mine?"

He chuckled when the boy frowned at him asking, "Are you going to introduce me with that horrible nickname?"

Aki smiled when the question made his master chuckle. He was leaned against the man's chest and he'd discovered numerous weeks ago that there were few things more pleasant that being pressed against the man's chest as he laughed. The chuckles rumbled through his body leaving behind a pleasant buzz in his muscles. He still wasn't certain if it was the physical sensations of leaning into Asami as the man laughed, the knowledge he was the cause of the man's happiness, or a heady combination of both. All he knew was that he couldn't think of any other place he'd like to be than plastered against the man in this moment.

It was Kirishima that broke the quiet spell about them and Akihito couldn't help glaring at the man which made Asami chuckle a second time before responding, "Come along Kitten, I'd like to introduce you to the Master of the school of Necromancy. He is a longtime friend of the family."

The older man bowed to him after Asami introduced them to each other. Aki tried to bow back only to have the man stall him by gesturing his grandson forward. The teen smiled at him, "I'm sorry I couldn't introduce myself at the book store." He held his hand out in a Western style of greeting, "Takenaka Takato at your service."

Akihito stared at the extended hand for several seconds before he felt Asami take his hand and place it in the other teen's hand saying, "It is a pleasure to meet you Takato-kun. I trust you will help take care of my Nenkibōkō."

Takato bowed, "Certainly, my liege."

Akihito felt Asami nod before he stepped away and pulled an ornate key from his pouch and unlock the gates baring entry into the large building. He tugged on the chain Akihito had forgotten was attached to his collar and pulled Aki closer to him before saying, "Welcome to the Chamber of Covenants, Kitten."

The chamber was enormous. Two lines of columns set approximately a meter and half from the walls ran along each side of the building holding up the flat roof of long building. Light filtered through thick seemingly random stained glass in the roof and shone in mutli-colored patterns on the long white marble floor. The weak sunlight seemed to catch on the intricate carving of the Asahi Islands in the flooring.

It was a depiction of their lands before the raising of the Lohikäärmeen Selkä. Akihito knew it to have been carved before the great calamity, in fact before the source of magic was truly understood. He paused in the center of the carving and realized that the stained glass in the roof was not as random at it had originally appeared.

The colors that shone upon the floor perfectly reflected the original landscape of the islands. Warm greens and browns across the land mass and various blues surrounding the edges of the island. Now that he stood in the middle he realized that regardless of season the glass plates would reflect upon the floor at the proper angle and density to show the original landscape properly. In truth he could even feel the subtle magic supporting the glass and stone around him whispering in blue and silver tinged notes.

He was so caught up in the sight and sound of the magical energy around him that he momentarily forgot that he was in the place with anyone else. He could see the mages and clerics and musicians that had built the tomb. They were gathered about the carving hands raised and joined together as they pulled upon the life stream of the universe and funneled it into the lone person in the middle of the hall.

The young man sang and danced. His notes were low and filled with pain, sorrow, and love. Emotion fed the magic flowing into him and he wielded it more finely than the greatest of stone masons. He'd lost his second half and this place would be his lover's enternal resting place. He carved the man's greatest legacy into the floor and warped the building's ceiling to ensure it was forever lit by the world's light.

Akihito watched the boy in his mind's eye until it felt like they were the same person his hands rose and the notes gathered in his palms the urge to sing weighed on his brain. His entire focus narrowed on the carving below his feet, he rose to the balls of his feet and his mouth opened.

"Kitten."

That was all it took. The deep rumbling of Asami's voice and Akihito was broken from whatever it was that enthralled him. He stumbled back to his heels startled and confused for several seconds. He glanced about until his eyes came to rest on his master. No one seemed to have noticed his distraction, even Asami held his hand out as if his call was to bring Aki to his side and not a question about what he was doing. They apparently couldn't see the large gathering of magic users surrounding them, nor the boy that had stopped wielding their offerings and now stood in the center of the carving facing the large statue at its end.

Akihito moved forward and took Asami's hand. If he saw the other boy smiling at him as the group faded, he knew it had to be a trick of his imagination and by the time he reached his master's, side the spirits were all gone.

Asami frowned down at Akihito for several seconds after he took his hand. The boy was distracted, which might be a good thing considering that the ceremony they were about to perform went a lot farther than the traditional one usually carried out in this chamber.

He leaned down and whispered instructions into the boy's ear as he removed the warmth spells from the boy's clothing and sandals. No external magic could surround the boy except that from the ceremony they were about to perform.

He watched as Akihito bent over and removed his sandals, the boy's perfect bottom exposed to Asami's heated gaze. Lust speared through his gut and he had to force his gaze from the boy. He really shouldn't have given into the temptation and should have instead dressed the boy in less traditional garments for the ceremony. It wasn't as if the magic required the garb. He glanced about the chambers and caught the royal scribe eyeing the boy with wide shocked eyes.

It was time to get the ceremony started. Waiting much longer would Asami physically harming the one scribe they'd decided to use to record the event and he really didn't want to have to deal with the headaches that would cause. He pushed Aki to kneel in front of him and gestured to the other three master mages in the tomb. "let's begin."

It was hard for Aki to keep his tears back as he clicked the lock closed on the thin torc replacing the leather collar he'd been wearing about his neck since the hostel. It was made of blackened silver with gold and platinum inlays. The circle of silver sat high on the chest at the base of his neck, leaving the entirety of his slave tattoo visible. The inlays were of unreadable magical script being mainly patterns and symbols of the spells woven into the metal by the individual Masters of Divination, Conjuration, Necromancy, and Enchantment.

The emotions running through him were both elated and subdued by the thought that the most powerful mage on the entirety of the Asahi Islands had asked him to form this contract. He was elated by the thought that none would be able to remove him from his master's side regardless of social position. He was subdued by the understanding that he'd just willingly tied his life to the man standing over him chanting in his deep baritone and weaving the complicated spell to its completion. He was quiet as the voices of the four mages washed over him, but he hissed when the torc seemingly melted and embedded itself into his skin.

As the last strains of spell were whisked away by the soft breeze blowing through the building Akihito opened his eyes willing the near tears away so he could look up at Asami's smiling face. Kirishima stood to the south, Suoh stood to the west, and Takenaka, a longtime friend of his master's and Master of Necromancy for the School, stood to the east. Asami stood to the north. Akihito knelt facing the north; knees resting on stone slab covering the tomb of the first wizard of the Asahi Islands and second son of the original country's founding monarch. The location was both symbolic and necessary for the casting. As was the requirement of three other high ranking wizards that formed the four pointed cross around Akihito's kneeling body.

The ritual was old and required the combination of several smaller spells cast in a specific order continuously and repeatedly for nearly an hour. However, it wasn't the constant kneeling on the cold stones, the near freezing temperature of the air about him, or the long droning of the men's voices that had brought tears to his eyes. It wasn't even the tiredness that came from Kirishima spending the first two hours of the morning drilling decorum and procedures into his head. No, what made Akihito cry was the understanding the spell wouldn't work, no matter the strength of the caster, had Akihito not agreed.

Asami reached out and thumbed away the tears leaking from his Kitten's eyes. He had spent hours the previous evening explaining what he wanted from the boy though he'd successfully avoided answering Akihito's repeated questions about 'why'.

Other than the fact that he'd now always know where his pet was in relationship to his self he honestly wasn't certain of the answer anyway. The ritual was stronger than the most biding of contracts. It connected the two of them through blood and gave Asami far more control over his kitten than any normal shishō and minarai rite ever could. He pulled his cloak from his shoulders and wrapped Akihito in it as he simultaneously pulled the boy to his feet. The area around the tomb was kept well lit and the many ever-burning torches supplied some heat, but the building was still made of stone and the floor was actually grey marble and the little amount of warmth the flames provided was lost to the wind the high open windows of the structure allowed inside.

He picked up Akihito and carried him to a stone bench located between two giant pillars of granite. The surface of the seat had been covered by a blanket of leather touched by a warmth spell. To one side sat a pile of equally enchanted blankets and four pairs of boots and wool socks. Asami pulled one of the warmed quilts from the pile and wrapped his boy in it while Kirishima helped to put the boy's socks on.

The four men were equally bare of feet, but unlike the young boy they knew the simple warmth spell that kept their toes from freezing and while Asami had cast the magic on the boy when they prepared for the ritual, he had be required to remove it so it wouldn't interfere with the bonding magics. The spell should be the next one he taught the boy, especially considering how cold the season had been thus far. Asami filed the thought into the back of his mind as he sat Akihito on the bench and set about rebooting his own feet.

Once his feet were warm Asami pulled the pile of clothes closer. Akihito stood and holding the blanket with his arms out to block the rest of the room allowed Asami to dress him. It had quickly become a ritual between them. Every time they awoke together or were near each other and Akihito needed to dress or change clothes Asami insisted on putting the clothing on Aki.

This time the man slipped on a pair of dark grey, soft wool trousers and an equally soft lighter grey long sleeved tunic. Asami re-buttoned the tabard over the shirt a slow smile spread over his face that Aki would swear was partly feral. Asami drew him closer and Aki leaned into the kiss. His stomach growled. Aki felt himself blush all over when the deep masculine voices behind him laughed.

The two boys that had come with Takenaka-sensei all but pounced on his kitten when Asami released him and stood from the bench. Kou and his new friend, Takato, had asked Asami that morning as the group had gathered at the estate receiving hall if they could witness the ritual. Kou arguing that as Akihito's only friend he should be there and Takato reminded his grandfather that he wanted to be Kirishima's official minarai and it was important he learn all but the most forbidden of strictures. Asami had always planned for Kou to be there and he was happy that Takato seemed to have no issues with being a surēbu's friend.

Still Asami could only smirk as the two older boys petted and coddled his kitten as the boy recovered from what Asami could only assume was overwhelming emotions. Kou pulling out a selection of bite sized sweets and warm green tea from the large basket Joan had given Souh as they'd left the front steps. The three boys set the food out and poured cups before bring them to the four men now standing slightly apart from the young group.

Kou and Takato brought tea and snacks to Kirishima, Souh, and Takato's grandfather, Takenaka. Asami glanced down at Akihito as the boy shyly held out a cup for him. His kitten whispered, "Would you like a shortbread? Joan- shishō packed them just for you."

Asami smiled down at Akihito, "No, just the tea, please." Their finders brushed as he took the offered cup and he couldn't hold back the smirk that took over his lips when his kitten gasped. He leaned over as the boy jerked his hands back, gripped the back of his head and pulled him up and into a kiss.

It was all Akihito could do to not beg in the dry cold tomb of one of Asami's ancestors; he was unable to keep the moans and whimpers at bay. It was the bastard's fault though that he was making such undignified sounds in resting place of the second most famous wizard of their little country. It was also his fault that Aki couldn't breathe. Just when he was about to panic over lack of oxygen Asami pulled back smirking.

Akihito turned red blushing down from his cheeks past where his new collar rested. The blush more than anything else made him conscious of that fact. He reached up and touched where metal met skin. His eyes widened as he realized that the torc has become soft and moved across his bones like his own skin. He'd felt the magic take he was certain and Asami had been far too smug about completing the spell for it to have failed. He flattened his palm over the base of his throat and looked up at Asami, "Why can't I feel it?"

Asami smirked, "the torc just held the script. When you accepted the magic into yourself the metal melded with your body. I added script to keep it soft and pliable so it didn't hurt." He took Akihito's hand and folded up all but one finger, "Here you can still feel it if you press in the right place."

Akihito could feel the lines of the script as Asami ran his finger over the curve of the torc. He could also feel the heat of the man's skin warming not just his small hand but pooling in his stomach and traveling slowly downward. Aki was staring up at Asami as the man bent towards his lips.

"Sire, we are expected to see the King in a half hour." Kirishima's voice was abrupt.

The statement startled Aki who jumped back and whipped his head about to stare at the man. He didn't know his mouth was gaping until Asami chuckled and closed it with two fingers before saying, "Alright Kei, we'll let Akihito finish his tea and then head that direction. Knowing Yan, he'll keep us waiting for an hour anyway."

Akihito blushed and turned back to cross the small room and sit on the bench again. Kou and Takato were already pouring second cups and talking about Takato's upcoming magic test. Kirishima had decided to administer it in an effort to discern what level of casting the boy should be learning. Kou poured Aki a warm cup of tea and handed him a short stack of sweet cookies. Aki consumed the treats and the tea in record time.

He was interested in meeting the King, though he was certain he would not actually be introduced. Mainly he wanted the chance to observe someone that was at least his master's half-brother. It helped that by hurrying he also kept the disapproving glare that often settled on Kirishima's face from appearing. The man actually gave him a nod of approval when in less than ten minutes Aki had consumed his snack and the boys had packed up the basket.

The group split in two at the gate to the royal gardens. Suoh, Kou, Takato, and Takato's grandfather Takenaka all turning towards the front gates. The royal scribe spoke with Kirishima shortly and then bowed lowly before totting off to the far corner of the gardens and around a corner. Kirishima told Asami that the scribe would have the official paperwork completed by the end of the day and would send it around by courier once it was completed.

Akihito didn't pay much attention He was busy watching the gardens slip into Kylvää. Which made absolutely no sense. He knew for a fact that the Korjata season was barely over and the snows for Lumimyrsky were early. Then he saw the boy from the tomb. He was younger though not by much and he laughed as an older man chased him through the budding trees. The man caught him and tossed him over his shoulders clamping down on his legs in front and allowing the boy to push himself up by his arms on his back. They looked incredibly happy.

"Kitten?"

Aki snapped back to the present. He wasn't certain how but this time he was positive the boy had winked at him. Aki shook his head trying to clear the images swimming across his eyes. The scene he'd just witnessed played out over and over again the seasons changed and the two people got older. Then the boy ran through the trees in the snow. This time it wasn't the older man that chased him but palace guards. How Aki knew that he wasn't certain but he held his breath as the group threw their spears at the boy's fleeing back.

"Kitten!" Asami was shaking his shoulders.

Aki looked at his Master. "um…. Sorry, what?" He wished he'd seen how the image played out. Did the boy make it? Did he live or was that the boy's death he'd just witnessed?

"Kitten, what is wrong? You look like you just saw a ghost."

Aki was finally able to focus on Asami, but grunted as his initial answer. Then he took a deep breath, "I think I may have. I've been seeing things since we entered the Chamber of Covenants."

"Things?" Asami gently guided Akihito up the paths that would take them to the King's Private waiting rooms. The ritual had taken longer than original planned because the magics making up the tomb had kept getting mingled into the weave. They only finished in little over an hour because Asami had finally stopped trying to keep them out and had allowed them to bind with the rest of the magic making the larger spell. He'd figured out that for what ever reason the tomb wanted to include a two way telepathy path along with a longevity spell to the final weave.

Since the spell they crafted applied to Asami almost as much as it did to Akihito he was delighted that the tomb had taken such an interest. For the place was not known as the Chamber of Covenants because of ceremony but because it was known that Oaths, Pacts, Contracts, and Agreements made in the tomb because mystically binding and that anyone that broke one was magically punished. Additionally parties that fulfilled their portions of said bindings were often rewarded beyond the original agreements. It was for this reason that special permission to use the tomb for such rituals was rarely granted. It wouldn't do for every business conversation and hand shake deal to be magically binding.

For the tombs magic to add to the spell however was more than Asami had hopped for. He mainly had wanted to use the chamber to help ease the strain on Suoh, Kirishima, and Takenaka. Long castings were hard enough when there was readily available primal material in the air about you. The tomb rested over one of the two most magically charged locations in the south west corner of the Consortium. The other was where the High Testing tower sat at on the ground of the Academy.

Still that his Kitten had been seeing ghostly images since entering the place could be part of the reason the tomb had granted favor. There were very few people that could see across the veil that separated the living from the dead. They were almost as rare as Bards. His Kitten became more and more intriguing the longer he kept him.

"I would very much like to speak about these visions, Kitten. However, we've arrived at the sitting room we'll be waiting in to have a private audience with the King. Do you remember what Kirishima taught you?"

"Yes, you will sit across from the King while you lunch, I will sit at your feet and eat from your hand." Aki's tone of voice made no effort to hide what he thought of that. "After the main course while the dishes are being cleared away you'll ask if the King would like to hear a song. Provided he gives permission I will get up and sing the spell Kirishima made me memorize this morning."

"Excellent. Don't worry about the performance. We're not here to impress them with your singing. All I need is the spell cast before they finish serving desert." Asami squeezed Aki's hand, "Oh, and pay no mind to what I say or how I act in front of Yan. I don't want him to take any notice of you so I may sound different when replying to some of his questions and innuendos."

Aki stopped walking and stared at Asami. Asami turned when he felt the boy pause. "Something wrong?"

"You're worried I'll believe you think the same things he does about surēbu and nenkibōkō?" Aki didn't let Asami answer, "I won't. You've been the best thing to happen to me since I ran away. He can say and imply what he wants. I know you don't think like many other's in the Consortium." He raised his hand and touched where the torc lay under his skin, "This proves it. There isn't anything anyone can say to make me think otherwise."

Asami shook his head, he'd forgotten in his worry over Yan's normal insulting behaviors that his Kitten though young and very, very fragile on the outside had a backbone of steel. Aki was afraid of a lot of things but not words. Asami kissed his forehead, "Thank you, Kitten. Let's go bear the dragon's den."

Asami's prediction that Yan would make them wait for close to an hour proved to be true. In fact the man sent three seperate messages saying that the midday meal was delayed due to first the public session going long and then secondly the King requiring a short rest before he interacted with additional visitors.

Aki didn't mind; though it was obvious that Kirishima wanted nothing more than to just leave. Asami entertained himself by telling Aki about the room they were waiting in and the art pieces that graced it. The man was on his third story, which by this time Aki had decided were all made up anyway when a servant entered the room and announced, "His royal Highness, Emperor of the Western Seas, Grand Ruler of Alkuperäpaikka the one and only Capital, and King of the Consortium." The servant dropped to his knees and a slim young man with raven hair hanging in silken sheets down to his knees swept into the room. He held a leash of silver links attached to the leather collar of a young boy.

The king sneered at Akihito and Kirishima alike then growled at Asami, "We will eat quickly. I've no time for you today." Behind the young king Yan entered and smiled.

The servant lead them all to a small but formal dinning room. The table was round and sat for four people. Asami though technically of the same rank as the King allowed young Fei to sit first and waiting untilt he King gestured for everyone else to sit before taking a seat just to the king's right. Yan was left to move to the King's left seeing how Kirishima sat to Asami's right.

Aki and the little boy knelt at their respective master's feet. The was provided a thick cushion to kneel upon. Though, Aki decided it was more because it made it easier for the king to feed the boy than for the comfort of the boy's legs. If Asami noted that no cushion was provided Aki, he made no mention of it.

Talk over the meal was subdued and cover the weather and how early it had gotten truly cold and the possibility for a brutal cold season, followed by the increasing cost of grain in the Consortium and possible solutions for getting the farms to increase yield with out damaging future crops, and lastly to the uptick in violet uprising by the outer provinces.

Soon enough however the table was being cleared in preparation for the last course. Since the desert portion of the meal involved tea made according to custom at the Kings hands the table had to be completely cleared and the dressed with the proper tools for Fei to perform the ceremony.

This could take as few as several minutes to as much as a quarter of an hour depending on the titles of the people for which the King would make tea. Asami ranked as high as a visiting Monarch meaning that the most elaborate of the ceremonies would be required.

When the servants withdrew with the first set of dishes Asami looked at Fei Long and casually asked if he was still a student of Music.

"I practice in my spare time. Ruling is very taxing however and I have little time for trivial tasks." He looked down as his surēbu then and gave the first smile he'd worn the entire afternoon, "Young Tao here is an excellent flutist however and I truly enjoy when I can just relax and listen to him play." He looked at Asami then and frowned, "Why do you ask, I never knew you to enjoy music of any kind."

"I happened to acquire quite the song bird in my own surēbu." He gestured down to Akihito. "I was hoping to show him off. Perhaps he could sing for us and then your Tao could play? You could tell me where my little song bird can improve."

Fei looked at Akihito for several seconds before acquiescing, "Certainly, you were quite tone deaf if I'm remembering our childhoods correctly. With any luck your song bird will at least be pleasant though frankly I won't be surprised if he hurts my ears."

Had Akihito had thinner skin he'd have been insulted. AS it was he vowed to prove him self worthy of Asami's trust with the task he'd been given. Aki stood at Asami's command, opened his mouth, and sang.

Chapter Text

The song started just as he intended. It was low, lyrical, and soothed the listeners’ thoughts and emotions. Akihito started to sway as his tenor filled the small dining room.

Once in long years past lived a noble set of twins
The younger shone with sunny locks over a haughty brow
The older darker Raven scarred with piercing eyes of gold
More than color split these twins
For one was crowned with battle glory
The other eager but untested
To war, they marched with untold men

When all was said and all had bled
There on the ground one lay
The younger dead no wisdom gained
While all about the living bled
The dark one knelt and wept
The bloody ground soaked up his grief
And so, began our history

Lumi was forest born
He sang with the passerines
He ate the forest berries and drank from its cold streams
When forest born
There was distaste for nurtured fruits
You could not partake of cultured field
And would not eat their autumn's yield

Lumi was forest child
His white hair left unshorn
He skin remained unclothed
Lumi was a wild child
He ran and played
But knew no harm
Not even from nearby farms

The forest was forever green
Yet Lumi knew its mysteries
Spring was blue, Summer red, and Autumn gold
In winter time stayed the green
On cedar tree and holly bough
The fruits and nuts had fallen
Still, secret ways kept him alive when the snow came calling

One winter strangers came
Two horsed men through the cedar boughs
One living and riding tall the other dead and gone
To the oldest forest these strangers came
To Lumi's home and sanctuary
One drew his bow and threaded his arrow
Not knowing the coming sorrow

The sages said there is a wine
Cleaner than freshly fallen snow
And thicker than a stream can flow
It is said those who sip this wine
They will find enteral happiness
Life eternal will resume
The body free of wounds

Raven Prince hunted a white fawn
To collect the healing wine
He shot all which moved that winter day
Bright Lumi fled like a fawn
Now flowing white mane was stained
Bright red pools under cooling limbs
Just another of the Raven's many sins

The Raven came upon Lumi
And was moved by his wild splendor
The Raven bound the boy to his side
He had not come to slay Lumi
But to revive his brother
By use of elixir from the magical white fawn
Instead, he captured Lumi brighter than the golden dawn

Lumi fought the heat of fever
The Raven halted his hunt for the mystical fawn
To wet Lumi's brow and tend his wounds
Five days Lumi lay with fever
Five days devoted the Raven to his care
From Lumi only came the Passerine lyrics
The Raven watching his weakening spirits

In Winter sounded the song of the Passerine
Music sounding from bough to bough
It was calling and should bring the spring
Deep within the forest sang the Passerine
Ready to herald the return of life entered a young deer
Into the clearing of the Raven and Lumi's melody
Bright and beautiful facing the Raven's bow now drawn

Lumi's song changed and burst beyond the trees
Lumi's song changed and begged for harmony
Lumi's song changed and called for life
His pleas were clear among the trees
The White Fawn was the life of the forest
It's blood sacred to the land
It's death blasphemy to the gods

The Raven knelt and wept
The ground pooled his tears
And formed a tiny pond
The White fawn wept
And overflowed the Raven's pool of tears
They spread across the forest floor
And healed his sibling and the boy

With the magic came a voice
It was cold and hard as it asked
What the Raven would sacrifice
A ransom demanded the voice
For the magic of the forest answering his prayer
The Raven drew his sword, "I will give my life"
The boy stayed the Raven's hand for all he had needed was love

The spell he cast was three-fold and Aki had warned his master and Kirishima that to hide what he was doing, he'd have to sing a rather long ballad. He recently memorized three from the book he'd gotten. He picked the longest most involved of the stories to better hide the magic. Little did he know the ballad contained magic of its own.

The ballad was just one of the Asahi Islands creation stories handed down by their oral traditions. It was also the first in the Epic series of the adventures of the original nation's founders. Men that united the feuding territories into one large united government backed by law and supported by the magic of the island.

Several of the individual tales were epic on their own. Together they framed the five tenants of the Asahi's original religion: Family before Country, Peace before War, Health before Wealth, Compassion before Condemnation, and Love before All. The faith was not really practiced as a whole. In truth, most people regarded the tales as little more than morality tales far removed from the realities of life. That the castle of the royal family that was built in the last ballad was pretty much ignored.

Aki allowed his voice to change as the raven prince chose to spare the beautiful Fawn and offer his own life in exchange for his brother's and companion's. Which is where the song took a turn he had not memorized. In the last stanza of the song, as recorded, the white Fawn accepts the Raven's sacrifice and drinks his blood before using it to empower the magic that heals the boy he'd shot by mistake and brings his brother back to life. These two men bound by the Raven's sacrifice go on to build the kingdom in his name or at least the references to him in later Ballads are supposed to proclaim. When Aki reaches the last stanza, he finds he is incapable of killing off the Raven.

Additionally, rather than singing the transition line between the Raven's death and the Fawn granting life back to both the boy and the brother, he instead has the boy stall the man's suicidal blow reminding the audience that all he'd required was the man to show he loved them. The lyrics were jarring to his brain, and at first, he worried the change messed up the intended spell. But when he opened his eyes, Yan sat glassy-eyed and stiff. A cup of tea raised halfway to his lips while the rest of them were still mobile.

The King was entranced. He'd never heard a tenor quiet so pure. Fei Long found his self actually smiling by the end of the first stanza. He'd heard the story multiple times; it was something that he had been taught as King. His family was supposedly descended from the younger twin of the creation stories. Which he'd always found strange considering that they had no blondes in their family ancestors. He nodded at Asami, "I will go ahead and bow to superior skill." He reached out for his own cup of tea and noticed that Yan was frozen.

He looked at his guest and growled, "What have you done to Uncle Yan?"

Asami smiled at him, "I cast a spell while you and he were distracted."

Fei watched as his half-brother ran his fingers through his slave's blonde hair. "I see. And how long will the spell last?"

"For about an hour. The whole keep will stay away from this room and Yan will believe you and I spent the hour sniping at each other and that I got nothing for my time." He held a cup of the tea to his slave's lips allowing the youngster to drink. "However, I will have gotten exactly what I want."

Fei bristled at that, "I think not. You'll get nothing from me, Lord Wizard."

"'Sami."

"What?" Fei jerked backward from the name.

"You used to call me 'Sami. Even years after I had gone to the Republic, you still called me 'Sami in all your letters. Why did you stop?"

Fei grit his teeth, "Why did I stop? I stopped nothing. You are the one that stopped. You stopped writing, and when you were here, you didn't even visit." He tossed his napkin to the table top, "I kept writing right up until the day they crowned me. I knew when you didn't come you no longer cared." He stood then, "I don't know what you are after, Asami, but I will not give it to you."

"I didn't come to your coronation because you told me not to."

"I did no such thing." Fei turned and gripped the leash in his hand tighter, "Leave, I have nothing to say to you."

"Fei, look at me."

Asami’s voice was beguiling, the low baritone crossing the space between him and Fei Long sending shivers down Fei’s spine. He knew then that Asami was aware of his failings. The man knew he'd allowed things to get out of hand. He knew that Fei was a terrible king.

"Let me help you."

Fei was paralyzed. His brain told him to ignore the siren pull of his older brother's voice. He must stiffen his back and take care of things on his own. It mattered not that he was trapped in his own castle and little more than a pawn to his uncle. He was the one that had failed to recognize the threat. He had to fix it. It would be the only way he could feel worthy again.

A small hand gripped his fingers and he looked down at the boy wearing his collar. Tao was the one good thing he'd done since becoming King. The only life he'd been able to protect from his uncle. He was staring up at Fei now, smiling, "Let him help, Master Liu."

Asami watched the small boy turn his brother back to the table and seat him. The child then poured his brother another cup of tea before kneeling at his feet again. Fei twisted the cup in his hands. Asami wanted to speed things along but he knew better than to rush this. If he really wanted to know what was going on in the kingdom, then he'd have to wait for Fei to tell him.

Fei could feel the tension in the air. He understood that Asami was silently urging him to get on with telling one of his most embarrassing moments. He sipped the last of the tea in the small cup and cleared his throat. "Seven years ago, not long after I was crowned, I went to the Surēbu market. It was time for the Annual clearing of debts. As I was reading the proclamation, an arrow came whizzing out of a nearby alley and struck me in the arm." He rubbed his left bicep and grimaced. "I wasn't wounded badly, but Yan insisted I call out the Army and place the city in lockdown while the perpetrator was found."

"The capital remained under Martial Law for nearly two months. Yan insisted that all communications about the investigation go through him." Fei laughed, "Apparently I was too distraught to be included. Eventually, the 'culprit' was found. Yan had the poor man hung in the central square, but it took another nine months for Martial Law to be lifted." He looked up then, "While it was in effect Yan convinced me to give part of the decision making to the provincial Generals. I thought his reasons sound at the time; however, every time I try to take control back, I find myself facing numerous obstacles from the Kenraaliluutnantti council. They've grown empowered by my lack of rule and Yan always speaking on my behalf. They believe I am nothing more than a spoiled child pretending to be King. Yan does his best to ensure they see nothing else."

Asami nodded, "I figured it was something along those lines. Do you know anything about the changes in military provisioning over the past few years? Or where the surēbu go once they reach the southern coast?"

Fei shook his head, "I know that taxes have increased all in the name of protecting the kingdom. Yan only gives me the barest of information. At first, I protested, but when I did, I'd find myself getting sick and Yan would place me on house arrest again to find the ingrates that poisoned me. It only took a couple of supposed poisonings for me to realize that my uncle was the perpetrator. I believe that Grand General Sakazaki, my Uncle Yan, and the Syopyr Wizard Yuri are in league to keep the throne controlled. The council of thirteen has proposed that should I fail to marry and produce an heir the kingdom should be ruled by the Kenraaliluutnantti going forward rather than declaring a distant cousin.

Asami sighed, "A Nation cannot be ruled by committee alone. Even the Republic knows that they must have a strong central leader for the population to trust, a single person that is the face of the decisions and holding the authority to stop legislation from the top." He looked at Fei Long, "What could Yan be getting out of this?"

It was the child at Fei Long's feet that answered, "His own kingdom. The council has agreed to allow Yan to secede from the Consortium and create his own small kingdom on the coast. They do not realize that he is taking one of the few safe shipping ports with him. Nor do they know that his people are taking large chunks of the gold that the Syopyr buyers send back for each boatload of slaves."

Fei nodded, "Tao, is right. Yan is buying up mercenaries to block his boarders once he secedes." Fei sighed, "If he does that, the Kenraaliluutnantti will have no choice but pay him for use of the port or increase the number of state-sponsored caravans traveling over the mountain."

Kirishima questioned, "Why haven't they just assassinated you? What do they possibly get by stringing you and the country along? Also, none of this explains the disturbance of the great seal."

Asami nodded, "I agree, Kirishima, it feels like Yan may be being strung along as well. The Kenraaliluutnantti taking over is politics, and the general population won't stand for it. The army may report to them through the chain of command. But ultimately, they all swore fidelity to the King. Most of them, especially in the lower ranks, will stick to that."

"Even with the pay and benefit cuts made in recent years?" Fei looked disheartened. "I know all about the 'increase' in military taxes and the new rules about how to fulfill paying them. However, only the top three to five percent of the ranks are seeing any of the largesse. The lower ranks have been told that cuts had to be made. Pay was reduced; uniform replacements were cut, and there have been several reductions in meal and boarding allowances. The grunts have already protested at the Palace gates once."

"A disgruntled army would be less likely to seek out your assassin should you be murdered," Asami agreed. "That still doesn't explain the cracks in the Great Seal."

"Maybe someone wants to attempt another bonding?" Akihito's voice was quiet but his statement caused everyone to swiftly inhale and hold their breaths as he continued, "Think about it. It was very similar circumstances that released the Great Spirit over five hundred years ago. A King perceived weak by his council due to meddling family. A foreign mage closely aligned with one of the army's most powerful generals. All that is missing is for King Liu to have a hidden heir."

That had everyone releasing their breaths as they all looked at young Tao. Liu Fei Long sighed and pulled the child onto his lap, "Ryuichi, I'd like you to meet your nephew, Tao Liu. His mother died in birth. Uncle Yan does not know hence the subterfuge." He shook the long leash, "Mother had father marry me to Kenraaliluutnantti Sakarias Vanhakettu's only daughter when I turned eighteen. Yan has always assumed our visits to the man's properties were because mother was interested in remarrying after father died. Which was partially true, she lived nearly five years with him before succumbing to a blight."

"I'm sorry to hear she has passed." Asami murmured.

Fei laughed, "No, you really aren't." He smiled then, "Mother was a cruel hearted bitch that was almost always in heat. Father knew about all of her admirers when he was alive, including Sakarias. The old fox actually asked our father if he was allowed the privilege." Fei sighed, "I'm glad he never told mother about that though. She was like a different woman after marrying him." He looked down at Tao, "And I'd not have Tao had she not desired grandchildren to please him."

Asami smiled then, pulling Akihito up into his own lap, "Since we're actually being open with one another, this is Akihito. He is my surēbu and my minarai, though I would appreciate the second being kept to yourselves." He gently stroked the band low on Aki's neck, "He and I entered into a Nenkibōkō contract this morning."

Akihito looked up at his master's face. He was smiling softly, and Akihito found his gaze focused on his lips. He licked his own and was leaning up when Kirishima coughed. He shook his head startled and then buried his face in his master's chest. He could feel the crimson flush rise across his neck and cheekbones.

Fei Long laughed, "Yes, well I know you will keep Tao's secret; it would only be proper for me to keep Akihito's."

"Thank you," Asami said. "Now, I believe my kitten is correct. Someone is trying to crack the Great Seal so they can summon and attempt to bond with the Great Spirit. Can anyone think of any other reason for the current state of affairs?"

We all shook our heads before Kirishima breathed out the only remaining question, "Who would be that insane?"

Chapter Text

Aki bounced on the balls of his feet his face and hands pressed against the tall, enchanted windows of the Summoning room watching the swirling snow. He was restless, partially because of the terrible weather that had plagued the capital and surrounding areas, and partially because it was his first formal lesson as an official student of Consortium Koulu Taikuus Akatemia. To say he was nervous was an understatement.

Asami had spent the past month drilling the basic structures of beginner's magic into him. He now knew nearly three dozen spells: from "Warmth" to "Freeze," and "Sleep" to "Wake." He knew how to light various sized fires by merely modulating the amount of power he collected, and how to spread or focus the power affecting only the area or point he wished. His shishō had taught him without once raising his voice or belittling him. Even better, Asami had done it without once hitting him.

Now Aki was attending classes like every other hopeful wizard candidate. He, like all the other students, would have to prove his abilities in order to advance up the rankings, and hopefully graduate from the university a wholly-recognized Journeyman Wizard. He fully intended to do his Master proud and would ensure he was one of the twenty percent of students that finished his Novice training and took the Magician's Oath.

Whatever was going on in the country, Aki fully intended to be able to help. Especially if there was someone trying to crack open the Great Seal. It had taken nearly all the practicing mages to close the elder elemental behind the seal nearly seven hundred years ago. Should they be unsuccessful in patching the cracks, it would take that many again. Akihito intended to be among them.

First, however, he had to pass Summoning I and II. Many of the students in the class had already progressed past the spell Nakano-shishō was demonstrating to the younger students, Aki among them. It was why he had allowed himself to become distracted by the storm. When the instructor called though, he joined the group of students surrounding the practice circle. He watched as the younger students demonstrated their varied ability to summon ice sprites.

The demonstrations were being completed at a brisk pace and Aki found himself watching the students around the circle more than the students casting their spells. It was only because he was watching that Aki knew of the additional spell cast by Watanabe Eiji while the youngest female student attempted to call forth her own tiny sprite. Aki couldn't tell what Watanabe actually cast, however the effect caused the poor student to trip while standing still. Watanabe, in fact most of the students, burst into laughter at the flailing limbs of the poor girl. Only Aki saw the enormous amount of power the girl's sudden embarrassment pulled into her spell.

Green and white notes wound around the basic structure like growing ivy. It amplified the spell. Instead of the inch-tall winged sprite the spell should have summoned, the circle was suddenly filled with a frightening roar of a huge white-furred and ice-covered bear.

The laughter turned to screams. Master Nakano attempted to corral the students, but terror had seized the group and chaos ruled their actions. The bulk of the students fled the room, knocking Nakano-shishō over and trampling him with fear fueled-strength.

Two students, including the unfortunate caster, had been trapped against the wall farthest from the door while the beast towered over them. Aki worked his way back to the tall windows. It positioned him about seven feet from the creature's right shoulder and enabled him to see the situation more clearly.

He hummed under his breath, cognizant of the promise he'd made Asami before attending his first class. No one was to know he could cast magic through song. It was to be kept secret or Aki would not be allowed to attend classes and he'd have to attain his Journeyman's rank the hard way. Luckily for Aki, the students against the wall had fainted. As soon as the last screaming student ran from the building, he raised his voice from a hum to actual song.

Blinding snow and driving sleet
Send this beast back to its seat
Cave of rock and cave of stone
Winter drifts do hide his home
Swirling, dancing, screaming wind
Put this creature back therein

Blinding wind whipped through the room. Sleet and snow shimmering with silver sparks swirled around the frost bear, hiding it from sight. The sounds of screaming wind rose forcing Aki to cover his ears just before a large snap sounded through the room. The bear, the snow, the sleet, and the wind were gone.

The sudden silence made Aki flinch before he slumped back against the wall unable to bear the pain of holding his own body upright. He could hear the sounds of running feet and yelling voices. His eyes slid closed as the door previously forced closed by the howling wind slammed open.

"Still, sir, the fact the boy was able to free-shape an incantation to send the beast back is more than just impressive. Really, he needs to be placed in the advanced classes."

Aki thought he should recognize the voice but the headache thrumming through his brain wasn't helping him place it. He opened his eyes only to close them immediately. The lamps, even as low as they were, cut into his sight and shot bright pinpoints into his brain. He tried to bring his hand up to block the light now seeping past his eyelids only to find the pain in his body prevented movement.

Every muscle he knew of, and some he'd not known he even had, hurt. The pain was deep, like he'd been walloped with bruising force. Exhaustion pulled on his mind and he was just about to return to sleep when he heard his Shishō respond.

Asami's voice rumbled through Aki's chest, "I'll take your suggestion under advisement, Takenaka-shishō. However, as you can see, Akihito does not have the stamina for casting the spells in the advance courses. I'd like to avoid a repeat of today's effect if at all possible."

"I would normally agree, Master of Masters. However, Summoning I and II are the only classes taught by the head of a school. The rest of Novice courses are spread across lower ranked mages and higher ranked apprentices. Do you really want one of them attempting to instruct your gifted ward?"

Aki heard Asami sigh before saying, "No, but I can't afford for him to attend the higher ranked courses until he's taken the Novice I exam. I will not have it said that the apprentice of the Grand Wizard wasn't held to the same standards as the rest of the students."

"What prevents him from taking it?"

"He doesn't have a very large selection of learned spells. He might understand enough to create his own but he can't pass the test until his memorized list is a lot longer. The examiners don't care if the student can create spells, they care that they can cast the basic low-level ones nearly perfectly and can choose which to use in any given situation."

"True, and it is not like Honda-san, Tachibana-san, Itou-san, or Nakano-san particularly like you. They will already judge the boy poorly because he was enrolled at your suggestion." The voice laughed, "You should have had Kirishima-san or Suoh-san bond with him."

"No, that would not have been possible. Akihito is mine. If you really feel he needs to avoid the lower level courses, I'll just teach him myself."

"With what time Asami-sama? You have been away from the Asahi Islands for nearly four years and away from the Consortium for nearly ten. There is much you must now oversee personally. When will you have time to truly teach the boy what he needs to pass the test?"

"I don't know."

The voice hummed, "Let me help. I have no apprentices at this time and I taught Takato most of what he needed to pass the test myself. It is why he only needed one semester of Novice courses rather than the regular four."

"I..."

"Let me help with this. You know I can do nothing for the other situation; this I can do. Especially if it gives you more time to study how to patch the Great Seal. Besides, it will give the impression that I am his Shishō and not you. That relationship is something I know you've tried hard to hide."

Asami sighed, "Very well. I will pull Akihito from the lowest level Novice classes with an official recommendation from you and seconded by Kita-san. You will take over ensuring he can pass the Novice I and Novice II practical exams."

Aki heard steps cross the floor and a door open before Asami spoke again, "Takenaka-san, no one can know, including Akihito."

Takenaka sighed, "He's a Bard Asami, possibly the last one alive. His existence should be celebrated. Given his history why you haven't told him."

Aki held his breath with that statement. Part of him was stilled by the fact that Asami had not argued when Takenada-san had called him a Bard. Another part was stilled because he really wanted to know why. Bards were legendary, mythical beings of fanciful tales and ballads descendants of the daughters born to the Lumi and the golden-haired prince that had consolidated control over the Islands and created the original country. Why would Asami wish to hide that possible legacy from him?

Though, if he was a Bard, then hadn't his mother been one as well? Why would the school treat her so abominably if she was special?

It took what felt like hours for his Master to respond, "At first, it was to protect him from greedy, conniving sycophants. As horrid as his life has been, he's remarkably un-jaded. I refuse to have him taken advantage of." Aki heard the man's chair squeak as he shifted. "Since Aaron, Yuri's brother, tried to take him. The threat has become too great." He heard Asami sigh. "I fear that Yuri knows what Akihito really is and his requests to Kenraaliluutnantti Sakazaki are to gain control of his power."

"You believe that Yuri is behind the cracks in the Seal?"

"No. After our research, Kei, Kazumi, and I believe the cracks are natural. The ley-lines of magic have shifted over the centuries. The cracks we've been scrying all exist along the former edges of the streams. Kei's hypothesis is that the gradual movement of the streams has allowed the original containment spells to fray at their edges." Asami loosed an irritated chuckle. "It seems that the mages' may have set up the Great Seal to be continuously refreshed by use of those ley-lines, their shifting has drastically reduced the amount of magic the refreshing spell has available to feed into the chains. The schools should have never stopped their annual personal check of the Seal."

"Their reasoning was sound at the time. The spells were supposed to take care of themselves, and the fewer people that know where exactly in the Lohikäärmeen Selkä the Great Sprit is sealed, the better."

"Still, the former Master of Mages for either country, or even the previous Grand Wizards of Asahi Islands, should have at least checked every decade or so."

Takenada chuckled at that, "It would have at least made your current job easier."

Aki heard Asami shuffle papers and scrolls on his desk before replying, "It might have given us some clues about how to fix the original spells used to trap and chain the creature as well."

"Probably true, though none of that answers why you are hiding the greatest magical discovery of the past four hundred years from the world."

Asami grunted, "Akihito is more than just young. He does not have complete control over his powers. You saw the summoning room. It will take weeks for everything to be repaired. Can you truly stand there and claim it is safe for anyone to know of his potential until he comes into his own power?" Papers and parchment were shuffled again. "If I expose his true status, even only to the colleges, Yuri would know he's found what he needs; a Bard to break the finial compulsion placed on the beast. My minarai cannot take Yuri in a battle of magic. He is too young and too inexperienced. It is safer for him to grow into his power while hidden. It is why I intended to keep the knowledge to a limited few. I hadn't meant for even you to know."

"Why keep it from Akihito though? Given the little history you've shared with me, I would think you'd want him at least to know how special he is."

"Akihito is mine, Takenada. Don't forget that while you teach him." Asami's chair creaked "As for why I don't want him to know, those reasons are between him and me. Even Kei and Kazumi know better than to question me when it comes to my property. Akihito's true magic will not be revealed to the world until I decide to allow it."

"Until you allow it?" Takenada laughed, "I'd love to see you convince a Bard to stop singing." The door clicked cutting off the laughter.

Aki allowed the quiet that settled over the room to lull him back to sleep.

When he woke again, it was to a heavy weight across his stomach and the smell of sweet alcohol and burned tobacco. Warm skin lay under his cheek and the soothing rhythm of his master's heartbeat thumped under his ear. His head was clear and pain free. He mentally checked his physical state, inventorying his muscles and joints before swallowing to check his throat.

"I know you're awake, Kitten." Asami's voice rumbled through his body.

He opened his eyes to find they were lying in Asami's bed with the curtains drawn. Their heavy brocaded velvet blocked most of the light from the outer room, and muffled sounds providing the illusion he and Asami were the only two people in the world.

He looked up into his master's eyes before blushing and lowering his gaze to the man's toned chest. "How much trouble am I in?"

Asami ran his thumb along the slave tattoo he could still see along his minari's neck. He had thought about removing it completely; however, the mark gave Akihito a small amount of invisibility considering that Yan and his cronies paid no attention to slaves beyond their usefulness to serve.

Instead, when he'd agreed to allow Akihito to attend regular classes at the school he'd cast a concealment spell on the image. When serving as his nenkibōkō, the concealment spell would be removed. Meaning each time they visited the castle and Fei Long it would be visible. The tattoo allowed Akihito to roam the bulk of the royal grounds and buildings almost freely while he met with Fei Long. This had gleaned several pieces of useful information for both him and his brother.

Aki was small in size and his slight build and blonde hair made him seem much younger than he really was. The arrogant court members, the council sycophants, and even the pompous Grand Generals overlooked his presence constantly. This was especially true when the boy would plant his self in one of the many council anterooms and sing softly.

Asami chuckled to himself as he thought of the large stock of silver and gold the boy had accumulated over the past month. The same people that should have wondered at the boy's presence in the rooms where they met to plot and scheme had instead casually tossed the boy coin after coin in recognition of his talent. None considered the fact that they blatantly exposed their inner most thoughts and loyalties to the boy as they allowed his music to wrap around their minds.

He returned to the present when he felt Akihito shiver. The boy's eyes were dimming with fear. He shook his head and rolled over to trap the boy beneath his large frame and running his hands across the boy's chest and down his ribs to grasp his hips. "How much trouble do you believe you should be in, Kitten?"

Aki sighed in relief closing his eyes and relaxing as his master petted him. Asami might not be happy he used his "power of verse," as Kirishima called it, to send the poor ice bear back to his home, but the man wasn't angry at him. If he had been, he wouldn't have called Aki "Kitten," rolled on top of him, nor be gently stroking his skin and Aki's thought processes wouldn't have stopped as Asami wouldn't have wrapped a large warm hand around his burgeoning erection.

He opened his eyes to catch the smirk on the man's face. Like some sort of switch, the look flicked Aki into full annoyance. Some day he was going to have the nerve to physically smack that look right off his Shishō's face. Right now, however, he tensed and placed both hands on his master's chest pushing with all his might. Asami didn't even rock backwards on the ridiculously soft mattress.

"Hey, get off. I'm tired."

Asami kept stroking and laughed, "If you're still tired, it is because you've slept too much by now." He leaned down until his lips hovered just above Aki's, "And since you've gotten so much sleep, you are more than ready to see to my needs."

Aki's reply was smothered by Asami's kiss.

-----

Several days after the incident with the Ice Bear, Aki stood in front of a darkly stained, iron bound oak door. There was no knob or handle that Aki could see; only a large brass knocker adorned the exact center of the door. He raised his hand and used the stiff lever to knock.

The door swung open silently, releasing a small breeze from the interior of the room beyond and ruffling Aki's locks as he peered into the darkness. He had heard no sounds of footsteps nor could he see anyone that had opened the door, and he was suddenly nervous that his knock had pushed the door open and he was somehow too early, or possibly too late, for his first tutoring session with Takenaka-shishō.

"Well don't stand in the door, young man. You're letting the warmth out."

The voice was older than Asami's, as well as slightly higher. It was soft and Aki might have missed it altogether had he not been straining so very hard to hear or see anything beyond the dark opening. He was caught off guard by the statement though; surprised his seeking had gotten any response. He jumped slightly before nearly tripping over the threshold.

He came to an equally tripping halt. The room beyond wasn't dark at all. In fact, it was well lit by tall windows made of nearly clear glass blocks as they curved around the circular wall of the space. There were six in all; each extending up the walls for over three stories. There were no curtains and the bright winter light bounced off numerous metal and glass objects stored along the multilevel book cases that took up the wall space between all but two windows. Tall moving ladders were attached to each book case.

The room was larger than Asami's office, or seemed that way given the fact that little to no furniture took up the twelve by twelve floor space. The only furniture consisted of two wing-back chairs in dark red velvet with a small round table between them situated in front of the fire place directly across from the door. There was a large pit of red and black sand in the middle of the room settled into a depression in the floor. The fire was ablaze and two books were stacked on the round table next to the makings of tea.

"Close your mouth young man; haven't you ever heard open mouths attract flies?"

The voice was from above him causing Aki to look up. He'd snapped his mouth shut when the man had called him on it being open only for it to fall open again when he saw that Takenaka-shishō was calming sitting cross-legged on absolutely nothing.

He floated near the top of the book case to the left of the fireplace calmly flipping through a thick leather-bound tome on his lap. The man smirked as he looked down on Aki, "Ah, I see now that Ryuichi really has been lacking in providing instruction to you."

Aki felt the sudden need to defend his Shishō. Asami was busy and already spent too much time trying to balance his duties as Grand Wizard of the Asahi Islands and Master of Mages for the Consortium while helping his brother retake control of the Consortium as well as finding a way to plug the cracks some idiot mage was making in the Great Seal. If Aki was lacking knowledge about casting magic and the ways spells could be used, or even specific spells, that was his fault, not Asami's.

Takenaka laughed as he descended through the air and landed lightly on his booted feet, "I apologize for my disparaging remarks about Asami-sama." He chuckled again, "If only my real apprentices (Actually minarai means apprentice so I'll say that word here to remove confusion.) defended me as much as you defend yours."

Aki blushed and closed his mouth. He'd not been aware he'd said those thoughts aloud. He bowed low, "Sorry, Takenaka-shishō; that was uncalled for. I should not be critical of your opinions. I am only a novice."

Takato's paternal grandfather pursed his lips and shook his head, "No, in this, I was in the wrong. Asami-sama is extremely busy. It is the whole reason you are here after all, and not sitting in his office pouring through old tomes by yourself." He snapped the book his was hold closed and crossed to the table. "Please sit, there is much we must discuss and determine so that I may advance your knowledge as quickly as possible."

Aki gave the older man a sheepish smile and skirted around the sand pit to sit. He followed the man's instructions to pour them both cups and began his first of many afternoons having tea with Takenaka-shishō.

Chapter Text

No fire had been laid to warm the antechamber. After all, the space was only to keep the surēbu close but unseen. Tao didn't really mind as he typically ran hot anyway. Besides it gave him the perfect opportunity to eavesdrop on any conversation that took place just outside the King's receiving chamber. Like the one that Yan was having with Grand General Sakazaki.

"I told you to keep contact between us outside the castle." Sakazaki's voice was irritated and angry. "Especially with your nephew back in town. I do not have the manpower to waste keeping that one in check."

"I don't answer to you, Sakazaki. I called you here for a reason; Fei is acting specious. We need to move up the time table."

"Yuri doesn't have control of the spirit yet. The Seal has been harder to crack than he thought it would be." Silence sounded for several moments before Tao heard the Grand General huff. "Children aren't very good sacrifices, we need actual mages. A bard would be even better."

"You know there aren't any bard's left. The last one was taken to create the Seal. That is why we decided on the blood of innocents."

"Humph, I'm not certain how innocent some of those teenagers were. Never mind about that. Let me think." At first, Tao believed that the two men had left, then Sakazaki spoke again, "If only that blond surēbu hadn't escaped. Yuri was positive he was a latent bard."

"Blond?"

"Yes, a boy that I won in a game. His previous master said he wasn't worth much and was by all accounts terrible in bed. He was only ever complained about at the barrack brothel. Then Yuri came to me begging to let him purchase him. I was going to give him to the mage but the boy up and ran away. Still don't know how he escaped."

"Why did Yuri think he was a latent Bard?" Tao heard Yan scoff. "Your pet mage is crazy."

"I don't know, he claimed the boy sang him to sleep when he started on him."

"Don't believe his lies. He was probably just too drunk to get his dick up."

"Maybe, but as strange as it may sound, the boy's visitors were often found asleep when he served at the barracks."

Feet moved away from the chamber. Then Tao heard Yan muse, "You know, Asami had a blond surēbu that can sing. He's quite good."

"Is that so? Any chance we'll be able to take him?"

"Maybe, let me think on it, and I'll get back with you. Asami always brings him when he visits."

Tao waited until he could no longer hear footsteps then peeked out of the curtained area. The small room beyond his hiding spot was empty. He crossed the room and peeked out the door sighing when he found the hallway clear. He scampered out the door and all but ran towards his father's room. They didn't have any proof to put in front of the other grand generals but Tao could now confirm it really was Sakazaki and his pet Syopyr wizard, Yuri that were trying to crack the Great Seal.

Sudo frowned from the corner of the chamber where he stood rendered invisible by his magics. Kenraaliluutnantti Sakazaki had entrusted Sudo with detecting any lies told him in any meeting he attended. The only time he didn't attend a meeting was when the Syopyr wizard, Yuri, attended in his place. Typically he did not attend incognito via his invisibility spell, however, Grand General Sakazaki believed that Minister Yan was hiding things from him if not outright lying. So, Sudo had entered the meeting room with Sakazaki already invisible when they entered the castle.

Sudo had found no deceit in Yan or even intent to deceive. He shared all the information that he knew and truly trusted that Sakazaki would allow him to succeed from the Consortium once the monarchy had been successfully overthrown. He had no idea about the plans that the Grand General had for him as part of the royal family.

What he had caught was the sight of the small surēbu sneaking out of the curtained off area of the room. Neither he nor Sakazaki had had time to search the room for extra people an oversight Sudo now regrets. Had it only been a common surēbu Sudo would have allowed the boy to flee as no one in their right minds would believe anything a slave had to say.

However, Sudo recognized the raven haired boy cautiously peering up and down the hallway through the room's heavy door. Most people wouldn't listen to a member of the lowest cast. It was rumored, though, that King Liu doted on his young surēbu. A fact often evident when on considered the quality of the boy's clothing, the fact the boy had been taught to read and write and that his sleeping chambers were located immediately next to the king's.

Sudo had no instructions about intercepting any peepers. He was certain though, that Sakazaki would become violently angry should he learn the boy made it back to the king after overhearing his and Yan's conversation. It was with that thought in mind that Sudo cast a short message spell to his General's ears and exited the room only a few steps behind the boy.

Sudo's invisibility spell included muting the sounds of his movements and spell casting. So with the aid of a swift spell he quickly passed the boy and rounded the corner at the far end of the hallway. He whispered another spell to strengthen his fists and set in wait for the surēbu to come around the corner.

Tao worried at his lip as he traveled the hall away from the king's receiving chambers and towards his father's personal wing. He wanted to rush into the throne room and declare his great uncle Yan a traitor along with the man's collaborators. However, the one thing his father had fully instructed him on was how to tell the appropriate time and place for actions and words. Blurting out what he knew in front of the rest of the advisors wouldn't yield much more than insistence that he be punished for interrupting the proceedings.

His father had carefully cultivated the image that Tao was a slave. Tao knew that if he went to the throne room and said anything right now his father would either have to punish him harshly where the councilors could watch or reveal his actual standing in the royal family. So to the royal bed chambers is where he headed.

Tao rounded the corner distracted by his thoughts and smashed directly into the magically enhanced fist of Sudo Shu. The wizard had aimed his fist low towards where he believed the boy's diaphragm would be and Tao's own momentum drove the air right out of his lungs. A second well placed aim to the base of his neck had Tao falling to the floor.

Sudo picked up the slave. He hadn't killed the boy since the grand General's friend from Syopyr seemed to like younger boys especially when he could use them in his quest to gather enough latent magic to power bonding with the Great Elemental. Sudo cast a second invisibility spell this time on the boy's body after picking it up. It wouldn't do for him to be caught carrying the King's favorite slave out of the palace.

----

It was pounding on their bedroom door and Kazumi's voice that woke Asami and Akihito in the wee hours of the morning. Asami sat up and called for his trusted third to enter the room. He pulled the blankets up to his waist and effectively covered Akihito's skin from sight as the door opened.

"What is going on, Suoh?"

"Fei Long has sent a message through our spy. Tao is missing."

Asami threw the covers back and stood. He crossed the room and started pulling clothing on. "Wake Kei and pull the concealment cloaks. I don't plan on taking the long route to the castle."

Aki rose from the bed as well, pulling the clothing his master had removed from him from the floor and dressing, "What can I do to help?"

Asami looked at him, "Nothing. You need to rest; your test is in two days and it will be grueling."

"Tao is my friend, Asami. We've spent the past three months spying on the people in the Castle together. I'm going to help." He yanked the Sion uniform tabard over his head and secured it. "I'm ready."

Asami stared at Akihito for several minutes, as if weighing how to respond to the boy's insistence he was coming to help. Then he sighed, "Fine, but you are to stay by my side and do everything I tell you. No questions, no attitude. If Yan has removed Tao, it can only be for one of two reasons."

"He knows Tao is Fei Long's son or that Tao has been secretly collecting information for the King and possibly you." Akihito nodded as he stated aloud the very reasons Asami had alluded to. "Either one puts his life in danger."

Asami nodded, "I am hoping it is the second. An eavesdropping slave passing on information to his master is an annoyance and potentially worth money in the right circles. The crown prince is nothing but a threat to his position and plans."

Akihito nodded, "I'll obey. Do I need to change into the court outfit?"

"No, we're not going for an official visit. What you have on is fine." Asami turned and swept out of their room. Aki followed closely behind.

The trio all but raced through the Sion mansion, traversing the upper floor and descending the staircase four levels before swiftly entering Asami's personal office. Kirishima was waiting on them. Three colorful and voluminous cloaks were folded over his left forearm while a fourth in hung from his shoulders.

Aki was careful to not look pleased when the bespectacled man handed him one of the cloaks without asking why he was present. Asami's scowl said all he needed to know about everyone's assumption: Akihito would be assisting his Shishō. Irreverent he may be, but even he knew not to press his luck with Asami's current mood.

He pulled the cloak about his shoulders smiling when the bright blue circle cloak proved to be trimmed short enough to end just atop his soft-soled boots like the taller men's cloaks did. Kirishima had apparently had the cloak made just for him. He smiled and nodded to the man in thanks before turning to Asami.

Asami was also nearly swallowed by a dark indigo circle cloak of his own. From the corner of his vision, Aki saw Kazumi wrapped in creamy white. Each cloak was clasped closed by a reclining panther in blackened copper with amber eyes. Though, Aki saw a tiny ivory carved kitten with chips of sapphire for eyes were curled in his broach's front paws.

The three older mages pulled weapons from their displays about the large stone fireplace. Kazumi fastened a katana with a diamond pommel about his waist while Kei strapped on blades not long enough to be short swords but too long to be knives. Each blade had arm long red silk ribbons intricately braided about their black grips. Asami pulled down a small rod of steel just shy in matching the length of his arm from shoulder to wrist. Runes of white, red, and blue were etched into the steel from end to end.

He also pulled a short stick of carved rowan from the same location. He paused, looking at the rod with a flicker of a smile before handing it to Akihito. "Here. It is not bladed but packs a mighty punch. I should have taken time to teach you some combat skills." He looked Akihito in the eyes, "Though, if you stay close to me you shouldn't need to use this."

Aki reached out and took the rod. It was surprisingly heavy for a normally lightweight wood. He understood why when he studied the carvings. Several spells were woven into the wood each by runes in thin lines of gold. He could feel the magic running through the wood and singing in his ears. Even if the imbued magic that ran out the rod was worth a small fortune. He looked up and nodded, being too overwhelmed with his master's trust to answer in words.

They gathered between the back of the small couch and the wall of dark walnut bookshelves that ran the length of one interior wall. He nearly missed Kirishima pulling out a book on the top shelf of the middle case as he watched Suoh tie the long leather sleeve that the Rowan rod could be slipped into on his belt.

The bookcase slid backward and to the left, revealing a spiral stone staircase descending into unknown depths. Kirishima and Suoh led the way down them. Asami placed Aki between him and Suoh. Aki had only gone about ten feet when the bookcase slid back into place and plunged the stairs in darkness. He nearly tripped but felt Asami's hand steady him by grasping his shoulder. "Easy, the stairs lead down at even intervals. If you need a guide, the walls run all the way to the bottom."

Asami moved Aki's right hand to the wall nearest, "Put your hand a few inches in front of yourself on this wall. As soon as your hand meets air, you'll be on the bottom step."

Aki nodded then realizing Asami couldn't see him either replied, "Ok," before stepping down the unseen steps with Asami following closely behind.

Even with the wall to guide and steady himself, Aki nearly tripped two more times. Each time, Asami reached out and steadied him. The dark was almost oppressive and time held little meaning as he descended. Sounds that he would ignore in a lighted world caused him to tense and flinch. Aki was glad he could feel his master's presence behind him as it was the only thing preventing him from believing the whole thing some horrid nightmare.

Finally, there was open air on his right fingers and he gladly took the last steps from the stairwell. One step to land on what he felt was a proper floor, and a second to give his master space to step off.

Asami placed both hands on Aki's shoulders and gently nudged him to resume walking, "The path is straight forward fourteen steps. Walk it like a tightrope. I won't let you get lost in the darkness."

Aki relaxed with Asami's hands holding his shoulders and carefully counted out fourteen steps. When he reached the noted number, he found his nose touching wood. Asami crowded him towards the wooden barrier and fumbled with his right hand for several seconds. The wood swung away just before he pushed Aki through the opening and following behind.

Aki heard the sounds of a shutting door and flint striking steel. The sudden flare of a smoking torch would have blinded him had Asami not shielded his eyes with a large hand. When the light settled to a fitful glow, Asami withdrew his hand and said, "You are now one of only five people that know of this secretes passage."

Aki looked about the small room they were in. It was barely large enough to hold the four of them, and Aki hoped the door across from the one they entered by opened outward, or Kirishima was going to get smacked by it when they went to leave. Aki glanced over his shoulder, asking, "Where does it lead?"

Asami smirked, "You'll see."

Asami took the lit torch from Suoh and held it steady while the large man lit a second. The other door did open outwards into a roughhewn stone passage, almost too short for Suoh and nearly too narrow for Asami. Neither man so much as grunted when the passage scrapped heads or shoulders.

They moved more quickly in the passage than they had in the darkness before, but still, Aki lost track of how long they traveled. He was about to ask how the route could be shorter than the normal roads to the palace when he realized the path had started to climb upwards. Soon enough, the incline was steep, and like the ridges they had climbed down to traverse the Western side of the Lohikäärmeen Selkä, they had to almost crawl up it; only this incline had hand and footholds carved into the rock, making the trip significantly easier.

Like the steep ridges of the mountain pass, they stopped on a deep but narrow ledge of rock. Aki could clearly see the outline of a wooden door and a steel lever in the rock wall backing the ledge. Once Asami crowned the edge, Kirishima pulled out one of his blades and then pulled down on the lever.

Rocks ground together and seemed to crack under the weight of the door. Open, Aki realized it was very thick, and the wood on their side was backed with stone and mortar on the other.

Kirishima slipped through and to the left, followed closely by Suoh stepping to the right. Asami took Aki to the door and then slipped around him into the opening, pausing several seconds before stepping forward enough for Aki to enter the area beyond with them.

From the corner of his eye, Aki saw Kirishima take Asami's torch and toss it back through the doorway. Suoh followed with his and then pushed some spot on the wall to slide the door back in place. Aki, however, was too busy inspecting the room to catch what spot the large man had poked.

They stood in a children's nursery, though the furniture was covered in canvas and sheets so dusty as to be dirty. The walls were covered in murals. Many were images from the ballads of the Asahi Islands creation stories. There were scenes of the bright prince who founded the kingdom, fighting the Oni he had subdued to gain control of the fertile east. There were skies painted with hundreds of passerine swooping and looping above golden leaved gingko trees and, behind them, on the wall they had come through, was the largest painting of Lumi's story Akihito had ever seen.

A white doe stood at the edge of a clear pond of what Aki knew was supposed to be tears. Laid upon the ground surrounded by the pond, were two blond-haired bodies. Both were male, one older and dressed in fine embroidered clothing, while the other was obviously younger and wore little more than rags. A dark knight knelt before all three. Aki could see how the doorway they had come through was concealed by the large tree trunk painted around and over it. He would not know it was there if he had not just come through it.

Asami started forward, kicking up dust across the parquet floor. He crossed the large room, opening one of the double doors silently and peering out before pulling it closed again. He came back to them and spoke softly, "There appears to be no one about. However, we'll use the cloaks from here until we reach Fei." He looked at Aki, "Do you remember where Fei's rooms are?"

Akihito nodded, "Though, it may take a few to figure out where this room is in relation."

Asami thought for several seconds. "Flip up the cloak's hood and then grasp the back of mine and give it a small tug. I'll wait to engage mine until I know you're hanging on. Oh. and the cloak will dampen the sounds you make, not mute them, so tread quietly."

Aki nodded and pulled up his hood. He didn't feel any different and didn't think there was much difference between his hood being up then down until Asami raised his own. Aki was glad he was holding on to the man's cloak because as soon as the hood was raised, he could no longer see the man. Kirishima and Suoh disappeared just as quickly.

They traveled through the halls of the palace in near silence skirting, around surēbu and courtiers alike. Everyone they encountered was oblivious to their presence. The only worrisome spots were where they were forced to wait while hallways cleared so they could open doors. However, even that didn't really slow them down, and less than ten minutes after they left the royal nursery, they were entering Fei Long's private quarters.

The long-haired King stood when his door opened of its own volition. He eased a hand under the back of his royal military jacket and wrapped his hand about one of the many knives his brother had supplied him with. Someday he'd get enough practice in to not need the true strike spell cast on each one, but for now, he was grateful the spell would prevent him from missing should he need to use the bladed weapons. He pulled the knife out when the door closed just as mysteriously.

Asami's head appeared first followed by, Akihito's, Kirishima's, and Souh's before their bodies became visible. Fei nearly sank back into his seat with relief. Instead, he returned the knife to its hidden sheath and crossed the room. "I'm so glad you got my message; I wasn't certain the person I sent it with could be trusted."

"How long has Tao been missing?" Asami asked, skipping pleasantries.

"I noticed he failed to return from his free time near the end of my audience hour. Yan also left the proceedings early, and when neither returned at the closing of the visitations, I went looking." Fei's eyes were desperate, "I can't find either of them, and many of the castle servants don't actually see me as being in charge."

Asami nodded, "We'll need something he was wont to always have on or near him."

Fei stood and pulled out a small painting, pausing to stroke it gently before passing it to Asami, "He sleeps with this picture. It is the only one we have of his mother."

Asami nodded again, and Kirishima stepped forward to take the painting carefully, saying, "The painting will be fine, your Majesty. The spell cannot harm it," when Fei found it difficult to release into Kei's care.

Fei took a deep breath and nodded before releasing the image slowly. Then, he turned back to Asami, "How long will the search take? If Yan has him..." Fei trailed off, refusing to speak further about his fears.

"The spell is not short but will take no more than ten minutes. Getting a response will depend on how far the seekers must travel to find what we need."

Chapter Text

It had been nearly forty hours since Suoh woke Akihito and Asami from their sleep, and everyone in the small group that knew Asami had come to the King's aid were strained and irritated, not to mention exhausted. Sleep had eluded Akihito, Asami, and Fei since the first set of Kirishima's seekers had returned empty of information regarding Tao's whereabouts. The trail had been easily found, but something or someone had seemingly erased it just past the edges of the Royal Gardens.

The results had forced Kirishima to cast numerous higher-powered spells from the divination school he held expertise in. Though, he wouldn't have been able to cast some of the spells at all had Akihito not joined his notes with the bespectacled mage's during the molding of the magical energy.

The last of those spells had been completed nearly fourteen hours before Aki found himself walking the perimeter of the King's empty private receiving room. He concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other while counting how many steps each wall took to traverse. He'd taken a short, forced nap earlier in the morning. Asami having used the Shishō Minari bond between them to prevent Aki from fighting the sleep spell the man cast upon him.

He had just awoken begrudgingly refreshed only to find that his master had teleported himself and Suoh back to the Sion Manor house. When Aki asked Kirishima why they hadn't just teleported into the Castle to begin with, he'd learned that there was only one location in the complex not completely shielded from that particular spell. It was located in a small room just off the King's main chambers and, until this morning, utilized to store extra blankets and linens for the King's bedding.

Asami had spent several hours removing the stored items and shoring up the wards about the space before resetting the inscribed circle with Asami's personal office as the destination. Once completed, he'd immediately used it so he could make a meeting with Kenraaliluutnantti Sakarias Vanhakettu. Yan had been absent for nearly two days. Asami and Fei Long hoped that stirring up support for Fei's position as king would take Fei's uncle's mind off anything he might be planning for the missing boy. Asami and Fei had devised for Fei's unknown father-in-law to publicly visit with the King, along with his retinue of loyal Prikaatikenraali, Eversti, Everstiluutnantti, Majuri, and Kapteeni.

There were gentry from nearly every level of the Consortium loyal to the royal bloodline, and, by extension, Fei Long. They had merely been waiting to be called upon to serve. Asami and Fei had originally intended to have the group meet privately with King Liu in the coming weeks. This was to allow each to realize that Fei was not a puppet to Yan but merely lacking in manpower since the public assassination attempt in years past.

The abduction of Tao, the unannounced crown prince, had accelerated their timeline. Yan, and hopefully by extension, Sakazaki and Yuri, would become too engaged with controlling the political situation that they would totally miss the ongoing search for Tao.

Suoh had returned to Sion to keep things running there while Asami was preoccupied with the political mess, and Kirishima was busy with the searching and rescue planning. Fei Long spent the hours reviewing his plans for the upcoming meeting and worrying about Tao. By intention or accident, Aki was left to his own devices. He'd promised to stay in Fei's private Royal Chambers and out of sight of any visitors. That was still a large area, consisting of nearly an entire wing of the palace.

He blamed the boredom that came with inaction the first time he saw the nearly translucent blonde standing in the doorway of the sleeping chamber Fei long had provided Asami. The second time he saw the young man, he shrugged it off as the left-over visions from his support of Kirishima's spell casting.

The third time, however, he could no longer pretend the boy was a figment of his imagination. This time, he saw the blonde not in his peripheral vision, not with only a glance as he passed by, but directly in the path he was walking.

If he was honest with himself, it was not the first time he'd seen the boy. Every visit to the castle, including the first, had included at least one vision of the boy's life among the walls. Aki had even tried to find the boy among the royal portraits several weeks ago. He never saw the boy in anything less than royal clothing and weighed down by numerous jewels and layers of silk and brocade of the old styles of clothing Aki had ever seen.

He'd not found the boy among the images in the main hall, nor was he depicted in any lining in the halls of the sprawling buildings that made up the greater complex. Still, he knew the boy was a ghost, though why he'd chosen to haunt the Castle rather than move on, Aki did not know. Nor did he understand why the boy was only seen by him, or that the boy seemed to know Aki could see him.

Since he didn't understand, Aki continued refusing to acknowledge the boy's existence. Typically, when Aki firmly turned his mind from the visions, the boy would disappear. With that in mind, Aki closed his eyes and slowly opened them a second time. The boy was still there. Then the ghost, specter, spirit, apparition, whatever it was, moved to stand in his face.

It laughed silently when Aki leaped backward and nearly tripped on his own feet, doubling over with shaking shoulders while wrapping its arms about its stomach. Aki frowned, "Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. If I was ignoring you before what makes you think this will change things?"

Yep, he was bored out of his mind. Aki shook his head at his own silliness and turned his back on the apparition. He needed to find something useful to do, if he was so mind numb, he'd started talking to ghosts. He'd almost reached the room's exit when the boy moved in front of him again.

The specter shook his head with a frown and pointing towards the wall Aki had been measuring. Then, the boy slipped through the wall disappearing from Akihito's sight.

Aki sighed and again moved to leave the room. He really needed to stop allowing the history of the castle to pull him into daydreams. Certainly, that was all the specter was, a figment of Aki's imagination in light of his boredom and stress. To be honest, he'd only ever seen the apparition when he'd grown tired of wandering the halls with nothing but the council sycophants, and pompous Grand Generals to spy upon, and the specter was most clear after he'd spent hours bewitching the same groups.

Just as he reached the door, the boy popped back in front of his face. This time the boy looked anything but pleased. He quietly stomped his foot and furiously pointed to the wall again. Aki leaped away from the boy bumping into the wall the boy had disappeared through just moments ago.

Aki scrambled at the wall with his hands uncertain how he should react to the now obviously angry ghost. His fingers found purchase upon the wide chair rail that ran at his waist height around the circumference of the room. His left index finger found and pressed into a small intention along the bottom of the rail. An audible click sounded before Aki tumbled backward.

The floor behind the wall was at least ten feet lower than the floor of the room he'd started in. It was also hard, and Aki's pinwheeling arms did nothing to slow his fall or even change the angle. The sudden stop at the end was particularly painful, causing his vision to dim. The last thing he saw before blackness took him was the secret door swing shut.

----

Asami felt the jolt. His head snapped up from the papers he was reviewing while catching a ride with Sakarias and the rest of the General's retinue. Pain blossomed through his body, nearly stealing his breath. "Akihito!" the boy's name escaped his lips as he realized the pain he felt could only be a tenth of what had befallen the boy.

Sakarias looked over at Asami and frowned, "Did you speak, Grand Wizard?"

Asami shook his head at the older man, "No, sorry General. I was reviewing these reports from the school, and trying to remember someone's name. I'm sorry for disturbing you."

The older man smiled slightly and nodded. He turned to look out of the carriage window, but Asami's hope the general was lost in his own thoughts was dashed when he turned back and said, "I would like to thank you for your aid in the matter of Fei Long's reign."

Asami forced the need to seek his Kitten and ensure he was whole to the back of his mind and answered the man's unspoken question, "I may not be directly loyal to the consortium throne Grand General, but I am loyal to my brother. Fei is my brother. Half or not, I will do what I can to ensure he is kept well and on the throne."

"I thought that the Grand Wizards of the world were above politics and, as a rule, did not interfere in the affairs of any single nation?"

Asami sighed, "Typically, that is true. However, Grand Wizards are expected to meddle when a country's internal conflicts could, or do, threaten the safety of the world."

"You truly believe that Yan is aiding in an attempt to release the Great Elemental?" Sakarias frowned, "Yan is a fool, but I have never pegged him as stupid."

"You do not know him as well as you think," Asami said. "Yan is, among other things, a narcissist with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement." Asami put the papers he was originally reading away. "He is possibly the single most destructive person in the government right now."

"Really? Sakarias looked surprised at Asami's declaration. "I would have thought you'd believe Grand General Sakazaki was the person we need to ensure gets removed. After all, he's leading a movement in the Council of Thirteen to effectively remove the royal family from all power even in name."

"No, Sakazaki is power-hungry, but he knows that he has to work to get what he wants, and that any of the other Generals on the Council of Thirteen could easily garner enough votes to have him cast from the ruling group. Yan's family connection to Fei, and the fact that Fei's mother left Yan in charge for most of Fei's formative years, has led to an unbalanced opinion among the other royal councilors that Fei's uncle is always speaking for the King."

Asami looked out of the carriage windows and watched the hustle and bustle of the Capital's citizens for several minutes before turning back to the Grand General in front of him, "No, Sakazaki knows that he's no match for the older members of the Council. That is the reason no actual changes to the laws have ever been voted on, and only emergency commands have been issued. Our citizen's lack of education on how their government actually works has played into his hands. Most of the so-called changes to the provisioning and other laws should only have lasted forty-five days, but since they don't know that, and no retraction of the writs, they have been allowed to continue. This is especially true in the outer provinces."

He captured Vahhakettu's eyes, "You and the other elder members of the Council could have prevented this. I hold you as responsible for this mess as anyone else. What were you old geezers thinking, to leave the Capital practically unmanaged?"

Vahhakettu had the sense to look embarrassed, "Would you believe that I was caught up by my fascination of Fei's mother?"

Asami grunted.

"It is true. Her majesty Sanna, Queen Mother to Fei Long, was more than just beautiful. She was enchanting." Vahhakettu looked Asami in the eyes. "You know, she regretted that she treated you the way she did. Don't get me wrong, her regret was much later in life and far past the time she could mend any damage. She did regret it, though." He peered out of the window before saying, "She and your father were engaged at her birth. She had been raised with the belief that the king was her one true life partner. She didn't know what to do when, after marrying, she learned she would always be second to your mother."

Asami nodded, "I forgave her, though I never spoke of that to her. I had to in order to move on with my own life. I only wish she'd shown as much love to Fei as she displayed in hatred to me."

"Another regret of hers, but by the time she understood what she'd done to the both of you, you were grown men and past her ability to nurture. She arranged my daughter's marriage to Fei in penitence, telling me that Fei grew up to hard and unforgiving due to her influence. She worried her son would fall from the perch she placed him on and, my Hellä was to be his soft landing place." Sakarias laughed then, "You will not believe me, but she always wished she could have arranged your marriage to my other daughter, Anniina. She said you needed a soft place to land too."

Asami thought of Akihito. His kitten wasn't soft. He was lean muscle and wiry strength atop a spitfire attitude. Images of Akihito interacting with the servants at Sion, the shop keepers down the hill from the main house, the younger students at the school, and even complete strangers on the streets rose in his memories. Each interaction had led to smiling faces, and often open joy. Then there were the nights Asami came to their sleeping chamber late. Akihito always tried to wait up for him, and though the boy often fell asleep in the room's one padded chair, he was always woke enough to smile sleepily and whisper "Okaeri" as Asami gathered him from the chair and tuck him into their bed. Perhaps his kitten was soft.

The old general continued, "It would not have worked out, Anniina has never really been soft. Your step-mother once called her a cactus out of place." He laughed then, "Though, Kuroda seems to enjoy her rather prickly nature."

Asami smiled then, "My cousin and I have more in common than he would admit."

"Oh?" The general smirked. "Fond of Cacti yourself, are you?"

"No, but I am enamored of small, sharp-clawed kittens." Asami's return smirk was quickly replaced by concern, however, as he'd reflexively reached for Akihito's mind, only find darkness and pain.

The general was about to say something in relation to Asami's now narrowed eyes, but the coach pulled to a rocking stop in front of the palace's main entry. Asami could hear the coaches and horses of the general's followers as they pulled up behind and around them. He shook his head mentally. His kitten wasn't dead; he was awake, and while in pain, he wasn't bleeding, if the mental look through his mind was any indication. It helped that the spell the Camber of Covenants had bestowed upon their contract enabled Asami to know that his kitten was also still inside the castle. Very near the royal chambers, though no longer in them.

He almost smiled at the punishment his kitten was earning himself for being away from the location Asami had told him to wait though, only after Asami had ensured the boy was not truly injured. The fall had been hard, and though he could tell there was no blood, it was clear that his Kitten was in pain and didn't know where he was, or how to get back to the Royal Chambers.

The carriage door was opened by a palace surēbu and Asami gestured for the Grand General to step out first. As soon as Asami stood upon the welcoming carpet laying across the icy stones, which led to the palace's great doors, the carriage rumbled away to make space for the next one.

Asami and the Grand General strolled along the bright blue woven rug, ignoring the lines of palace staff, minor nobles, and slaves as they went. The two men talked of the weather and the effect the excessive snows would have on the coming spring. Asami mentioned the very real threat that blizzards from the Lumimyrsky, season combined with the rains and winds of Taifuuni, would extend the normal number of weeks it was impossible to pass through the Lohikäärmeen Selkä, and the effect that would have on trade. Neither spoke of the Council of Thirteen nor its ongoing contention with King Liu.

That didn't prevent the whispers from starting as they passed. Numerous quiet voices pondered why Sakarias, the oldest Grand General and longest-serving member on the of the Council of Thirteen, and Asami, Grand Wizard of the Asahi Islands and Master of Mages for the Consortium, would be visiting the king.

Asami found hope in the fact that the largest number of them expressed hope that he and Sakarias were there to replace Yan as the Fei's primary minister. He took note, however, that the small group of actual ministers sounded more worried and irritated at the prospect than happy. He did not know all of their names. However, he did know their faces.

He and Sakarias entered the palace. The first part of rescuing his nephew Tao had commenced.

----

Aki came awake to sharp pain radiating from the back of his head, down his spine and through his arms and legs. He groaned and opened his eyes to see darkness. The black that met his open eyes wasn't that of a cloudy night, no, it was the same deep unending darkness that forced one's other senses to sharpen. He could hear his lungs heave with shallow panting breaths. His nose smelled the dampness about him long before his skin became attuned to the chilly air.

He was lying on his back upon what his fingers told him was most likely unpolished granite. There were tiny pools of cool water about him, one under his left elbow and another under his right hip. They splashed as he pushed himself upwards and to his feet. He felt the air move about him in an almost steady stream of cold.

Everything was dark, but he could feel the power radiating from the surrounding stone. He needed to see where he was. He raised his hands and chanted. His tenor echoed off the unseen walls about him. Silver-tinged bright-white notes swirled about his fingers as he rolled and shaped them into a fist-sized glowing orb.

"Tiny sprites of unseen light
Gather here and give me sight
Join together in my hands
Follow now, my mind's command."

He set the orb to hover just above his left shoulder.

First, he looked up. The sight made him sigh. He could clearly see the secret door high over his head, as well as the cavern wall in which it sat slick with almost running water and the remains of the rope ladder which hung tattered and torn far out of his reach. Aki really wished he'd mastered the levitation spell that Takenaka- shishō had been teaching him. The ability to rise to the height of the door and open it would have solved all of his current issues.

However, the best he'd thus mastered was hovering for brief seconds only centimeters off the floor. Therefore, he would have to find another way out of the very damp cave he found his self in. He looked about the small space. The wall, where the door resided, extended past the floor into what upon closer inspection proved to be a very narrow, shallow stream. The water originated about two thirds up the wall and trickled downwards to the almost slit in the floor before disappearing down a fist-sized round hole at the west end of the little stream.

Aki knew it was west because the room he'd fallen from had been an east-west room with the door to the room on the east wall and the windows looking out on the Palace Gardens to the west. He'd stumbled against the southern wall. That meant that, unless there was strange magic affecting him, which he could not see with his mind's eye, facing the wall, he was looking north and the stream running off to his left was flowing westward.

This was important to know, because westward was the gardens, the Kings' Tombs, the royal waterways, and the Chamber of Covenants. Since most secret passages were meant to allow the royals' escape from the palace in times of siege, there had to be another exit. Since no one in their right minds would flee into a battle, the west wall of the chamber should've been where any exit existed.

After thinking the room through, Aki turned to the West wall. The small glowing orb bounced light off several large deposits of uncut gems. At first, their presence made no sense to him. While he did not know much about gemstones, he was pretty certain that in his material studies with both Kirishima- shishō and Takenaka- shishō that he'd read, or was told, that gemstones were found in certain types of rocks.

Diamonds were distinctly volcanic if he remembered correctly. Even if he was wrong, the narrow archway the nearly perfect line of black diamonds he could see in the west wall couldn't be natural. The stones refracted his orb of light and sent showers of dark rainbows back at him. He placed his hand in the center of the arch, jerking it back when his hand passed through what looked like solid rock.

Now that he knew about it though, the illusion of the blocked opening was easy to see through. It wasn't even a spell. The short path was hidden by nothing more than clever cuts in the stone.

Aki crafted a second orb of light and sent it ahead of him down the tunnel. He ensured it preceded him by about half a meter, enabling him to see any pits or spikes along the way. It felt longer, but Aki was certain that only several minutes past before he found himself in another stone cavern. It was large with vaulted ceilings, held aloft by granite pillars carved into the likeness of giant conifers and hardwoods. The stone trees marched along the sides of the cave with their branches of stone holding aloft the most exquisitely carved stone leaves and cones meters above his head.

The space felt huge and, in an effort to see where he was, Aki formed several more orbs of light. When he had nine, he fed each with additional magic to increase their area of illumination before sending them flying forwards, deeper into the large cavern.

The place was actually not as large as he'd thought. The feeling of vastness came from the height of the cave and not the floor's actual measurements. The lights he'd sent up seemed to travel forever before they floated among the vast number of carved cedars and oak along the walls. Along the back of the cave was a group of holly trees and mistletoe laden birch, and Aki wondered at the craftsmanship that allowed the holly berries to be so very red, and the mistletoe to look freshly grown. Beneath these trees rested a pure white statue of young stag upon a blanket of moss-colored stone, slightly raised above and behind a shallow pool of clear water. Two statues of men lay surrounded by the water.

Aki walked quietly to the edge of the pool closest to the entrance of the cave. He was unsurprised to find that one of the men was crowned with golden hair with a face devoid of scars or lines while the other was raven locked, scared across his left brow and chin. Both men held empty scabbards bejeweled in diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds. If he hadn't known better, he'd have sworn the deer and the men were just sleeping.

Then the stag spoke, "I had hoped to bring you here sooner."

Chapter Text

Asami stepped out into the Royal Gardens. His Kitten was in the Chamber of Covenants if the location magic the Chamber had added to their contract was functioning correctly. He walked carefully, as the stone pathways were ice-covered.

When Sakarias and Asami had fully entered the Palace, Kirishima began overseeing the official meeting between Fei and his father-in-law. Kei knew that the meeting couldn't have been arranged by anyone other than Asami, a fact that the world may already know as well, considering the political situation. However, as Asami had discussed with Sakarias in their coach, the Master of Mages for the Asahi Islands was not supposed to interfere with local or national politics unless those politics were endangering the greater archipelago.

So, Kirishima had met Asami and Sakarias at the Palace entry, and made a grand but dignified showing of thanks for his aid in bringing the Grand General to the Palace, and having the surēbu show Asami to a room in which he could bide his time while the Grand General and the Consortium King met with their advisors.

While Kei had shaken his hand in "gratitude" for his help, he'd also passed a folded piece of parchment. The last of the seekers had returned. They knew where Tao was located. Even better, they knew that Yan, Sakazaki, and Yuri had left in a panic when a sealed missive was delivered. Only Aaron and, unsurprisingly, Sudo were left guarding the group of young surēbu where Tao was located. Now, Asami was headed to fetch his Kitten so they might rescue Tao.

The gardens were eerily quiet in the snow, even his footsteps were muffled by the thick layer of white covering the beds and walkways. Yet, the place held a sense of anticipation, as if something the sleeping plants and cold stones had waited on for a long time was about to happen. Asami slowed his steps and concentrated on visualizing the lay-lines that flowed through the sleeping vegetation, and converged on the Chamber of Covenants. He smiled at the sight of gold-tinged, sliver notes flowing through the streams of magic. Akihito was singing.

Aki sang long low notes, where the ballad was sad and high bright notes for the returning joy. He still wasn't certain why the song was so important for him to learn. He only knew that stag was insistent, and who argued with a talking stag?

The song was a creation story—though older than any he'd ever heard before. It spoke of darkness and the sudden explosion of heat and matter. The explosion was followed by long stanzas of airless space and absolute freezing temperatures. Aki found himself dancing through the cavern-- spinning about as the song spoke of endless years of nothing other than the dull thrum left behind by the explosion.

The tempo of the song changed, and Aki found he was no longer singing aloud. Still, the history of the world flashed through his mind along with the words the Stag had placed in his head. Most of the world's history was fraught with fire and death along with one seemingly catastrophic event. Another smaller planet crashed into them. Much of the resulting debris were absorbed by their still forming surface, but a large portion of the smaller planet was flung into a steady orbit about them.

Suddenly the thrumming was joined by a sparkling chime a sweet counterpoint to the dull thrumming of the universe. On their little blue dot in the universe out on the very edge of creation, life formed. Aki watched as the tiny moving cells of the microscopic life swam among the raging seas.

Then the unexpected happened. A star fell. The tiny meteorite splashed in the giant sea of proto-cells. The impact broke the rocky surface of the star apart, releasing the frozen liquid it had housed, and flooding its fiery interior with cold waters. The tiny unseen lifeforms it held were vastly different from the ones that had formed on their planet. These lifeforms quickly multiplied and evolved. Soon they were crossing the planet in numerous collections formed as huge insects and tiny animals.

The original life also evolved—utilizing the energy the other life forms ignored. The original life forms didn't take on giant forms, though, preferring to stay tiny. So tiny they could live inside and around the others without detection. They learned to communicate with each other while the larger creatures were still lumbering about the land and feeding off each other.

The song sped up, skipping through millions of years of planetary history. Humanoids soon walked the earth. Several varied kinds rising and falling as the secondary life forms worked through what form would work best. They developed language, then joined together as family units, and then tribes. Eventually, large groups formed cities and the written language.

While the immigrants fought to master the tiny planet they had been loosed upon. The native life learned to manipulate the world about them, forming long streams of traveling light and energy. They slowly manipulated the forms the immigrants took into strange and wondrous beings with but one exception. They manipulated all except the intelligent group calling themselves humans.

The humans fought each other and war would often cover the globe. Though they were far apart and no fight was long, the natives were disturbed. Many had found joy in watching the humans grow and learn. Many often adopted small family units and provided protection to them in times of trouble. That these humans would, in turn, label them gods, the natives found amusing. Still, they kept themselves mostly separate. They swam across the world along their shining pathways hidden in plain sight for any that could see.

Then, catastrophe happened. A small group of the natives took it upon themselves to manipulate the humans. They had altered the bodies of the mindless beasts for generations setting them loose in the wilds of the world. Emboldened by their successes, they turned to the groups of humans that worshiped their existence, changing them often into grotesque and deformed beings.

The natives argued and fought among themselves. A huge power struggle that depleted the world of its powerful energy streams. The loss took its toll on the natives. The creation of new natives almost ceased and the death of existing natives rose to uncountable heights. In a last-ditch effort to save their dying race, an unrecorded number of them gathered at the last of the powerful streams. They pushed into each other, melding and joining with each other the way the immigrants had in a time long passed. From their joining, Lumi was born.

The song ended there, and Aki found that at some point he'd closed his eyes. He opened them to find himself standing in front of the Stag the clear pool of water rippling about his ankles and the Stag's warm breath blowing through his hair.

He was spellbound by the knowledge he'd just gained. Lumi was immortal, and he was the stag guarding the resting place of the first kings of Asahi.

The stag shimmered with light, and the boy Aki had seen playing and working and laughing and loving about the place stood before him. He was significantly more solid than the ghost Aki had seen in the place halls. "I don't understand. Why do you hide down here?"

The boy laughed humorlessly. "Humans crave power, and when my beloveds passed from this world, I found that not even my magics could protect me from a human blade." He shrugged before walking past Akihito into the pool of water and placing a hand on each of the stone men. "I would have joined them in their eternal slumber, but my choice to give them children set off a series of events that I was unaware could happen."

"What?" Aki carefully removed his feet from the pool and sat upon the very green grass that backed it. "What could be so bad about giving your loved one's children?"

Lumi turned and smiled sadly, "They were born mortal, but with my powers." He gestured around the cavern where Aki could clearly see the numerous lay-lines that flowed through the space. "When I walked among the humans as my lovers' mate, these lines followed me. The Natives nearly destroyed themselves in their hubris. Their attempt to save themselves resulted in me. It also resulted in all-new Natives being formed mindless."

He scooped his hand through one of the flowing streams and pulled a palm-full of bright gold and silver motes from the streams. "Once, these tiny specs were the most powerful beings on this planet." He shook his hand free, allowing the motes to float back into the streams. "Now, they are nothing more than power cells for greedy magicians, and I am their conduit."

"Wait, are you saying that if you were to die, then there would be no more magic?" Aki half rose from his seat on the grass. "No wonder you haven't joined your lovers."

Lumi nodded. "Yes, the world would not function very well without magic now. Perhaps if I had joined them as soon as they passed the world would have figured out how to exisit without it. I choose to stay for my children and grandchildren, though. I did not know what the loss of magic would do to them."

"When a great-grandson was born without the power to control the magic, even though his twin could, a schism between the members of the ruling family arose. The younger magic-wielding twin barely escaped with his life, and I was speared in the back and left for what they thought was dead in the gardens my loving Kage had built for me."

"I escaped to here where I had actually laid my lovers to rest. I knew by then, that I could not take my life and separate magic from the world. I spent the next hundred years devising a plan to join them and not take the world's magic with me, but about the time I had enough progeny to make it work, a greedy magician chose to attempt to bond with the great elemental."

"Back up, I thought you said that your children with the first kings were the mages?"

Lumi shook his head, "No, I said my children had my powers but not my life span." He smiled. "The first mages were humans that Kage and Kirkas deemed trustworthy enough to teach how to harness the power streams. Lay-lines as they are called now. I taught them both how, though it was soon discovered that some humans will just never be able to cast the magic. It seems that only those that descended from the bloodlines of humans the Natives altered have the capacity to access the power."

"Oh." Aki frowned while staring at the pool, then looked up in shock. "Oh, I remember now. The Bards are descended from your children!"

Lumi smiled sadly. "Yes. The Bards are direct descendants from mine and my lovers' line." He rested his hand on the other stone. "It was surprising to find that Kage's children were the strongest, even though he was hardly able to cast a single spell when he was alive."

"So you had plans to utilize your childrens' childrens' children to keep magic in the world but not have to be here yourself?"

"Yes. I discovered early on that my great-grandchildren were not only able to manipulate the lay-lines freely but could, in fact, act as conduits like me." He shook his head at Aki's confused look. "Here let me show you."

Lumi crossed the space separating them and touched Aki's forehead. Aki felt himself grow lighter, and a warm, soothing energy flowed through his limbs. He'd shut his eyes as Lumi had reached for his face; when he opened them, he realized the warm flow of energy was a thick lay-line flowing through his chest before spreading back out into the world from each of his limbs, fingers, toes, and even his hair. The thick stream was broken into smaller but no less powerful lay-lines, and they now flowed in varied directions from the ones that moved through Lumi.

"Wow."

Lumi laughed. "'Wow' is an apt description. Just think of the magical power the world would have had I been able to pass a lay-line on to each of my Bards, and they had been able to pass them on to their children?"

Aki looked at Lumi. "Wait does this mean that the Bards that helped trap the Elemental had lay-lines attached to them?"

Lumi nodded sadly again, "Yes. There was a time that Bards were celebrated by the kingdom. They were welcomed to the palace and had free reign in the Chamber of Covenants. Each adult Bard was eventually summoned here through the lay-lines so that I could pass one onto them."

"What happened when so many of them died at the binding ceremony?"

"At the time the lay-lines flowed through the dragon, acting as chains and binding it to the magic. They became that which both fed it and imprisoned it." Lumi shook his head. "If the creature were stronger, I might have passed more lines to it myself. However, the beast had no blood of the naturals in him and thus was incapable of using the lay-lines to extend its life. Eventually, it grew too weak to even feed off the energy, and those lay-lines returned to me. The Great Elemental is dead now, and even the magic used to bind it is drifting back to their originator." He pointed to his own chest. "I am once again the only conduit."

"But surely some of those Bards had children! Why didn't you call them?"

"I tried. But the ones they left behind were extremely young, and the colleges' determination to burn and destroy the original copies of Tuntemusetsijä and Ritarinvirittää work prevented the information from reaching them. By the time the colleges stopped trying to wipe their existence from record, the damage was done, and none knew the true source of magic. It did not help that the raising of the Lohikäärmeen Selkä to cover the great beast changed the island's weather and seasons--meaning even the poorest were too busy trying to survive to remember the old songs and stories."

He sighed. "By the time things settled enough for me to search again, there were few left that knew anything of the Bards and their magics."

Aki nodded, then asked, "Who are Tuntemusetsijä and Ritarinvirittää?"

Lumi opened his mouth to respond, but a deep baritone beat him. "They were the studious mage and his bard lover that traveled throughout the Asahi Islands to record all forms of magic and discover their source."

Aki turned to see Asami standing in an entrance to the cave he had not seen among the tall carved trees. "Asami!" He didn't think before crossing the cavern and throwing his arms about the man. The tension he hadn't known he was filled with flowed out of him, and the lay-line now running through him shone brighter and encased Asami in a silvery layer of golden glowing light.

He gasped at the sudden light, pulling away from his master's chest slightly to stare at the air about them. Asami chuckled and pulled Aki back into his embrace before looking at the young boy that his Kitten had been speaking with. "I always thought that the old stories my father's mother told me were fiction. I remember you, though. You were there when my mother passed."

Lumi frowned. "I tried. She was a Bard, though untrained. She never could see me. I had hoped that one of her children would be able to. You never acknowledged you could see me, and I could not keep your little sister alive." He looked down at the ground. "I am sorry."

Asami shook his head, "Do not be. At the time, I thought my frightened brain had conjured you up. A kami come to save my mother and sister. When she cried out at the still form of the babe, I forgot you."

Lumi smiled. "I have been called Kami before."

"So you and not the Great Spirit are the source of all magic?" Asami questioned as he stroked Aki's hair.

He was doing his best to be polite to the being when speaking with them; however, he was terrifyingly furious. Akihito was practically glowing with lay-line power. That would be worrying enough if it wasn't for the fact that his kitten was clearly sagging. His boy still had issues containing and controlling the power he naturally drew to himself when casting. There was no way he'd be able to permanently withstand the force of an entire lay-line using his body as a conduit.

Worse, Akihito didn't even realize the drain the flowing magic had on his fragile body. He smiled brightly, completely unaware of the droop his shoulders had taken, the slowing of his breath as his body naturally started taking longer breaths in an effort to pull more oxygen, or that he currently leaned heavily against Ryuichi hardly attempting to stand on his own.

Still, when he'd followed the magic pointer that told him where to find his boy, he'd not expected to find the secret staircase in the base of King Kirkas's statue. The larger-than-life image had been seared into his brain during his childhood. Mainly because until his father's and Fei's mother's marriage all royal weddings had been held in the Chamber of Covenants. The couple would usually stand over the ancient king's tomb. The Chamber was where he'd hidden when his then soon-to-be-step-mother had told him to stay out of sight during her wedding. His mother had been in tears and refused to see even him. Instead, he'd spent that day and several after it, hidden in the Chamber of Covenants playing with his imaginary friend.

Asami's eyes widened in realization. His playmate, the sandy-haired boy that always seemed the same age as him but so very much smarter was Lumi. He nearly choked as he spoke. "It was you? Everytime."

Akihito looked up questioningly as Lumi nodded. The magical being before them spoke softly, "You were so lonely and there were no Bards able to hear my summons, which made me lonely also. You looked so much like my first-born with Kage; that I could not resist. When your father bent to political pressure instead of marrying the Bard I had delivered to his hands, I admit that I also spent time so I could tamper."

"Tamper?" Aki pushed himself from Ryuichi's arms and turned to stand in front of his master. "What do you mean by 'tamper?'"

Lumi smiled and shook his head. "Kageichi's look-alike would have made a decent mage. However, Kageichi had been born the most powerful mage of his time. I could not, in good consciousness, allow his distant twin to be anything less. So while Ryuichi and I played hide and seek among the pillars of Kirkas's tomb, I fed his young body on a generous diet of lay-line magic."

"Had he not determined he was too old for imaginary friends soon after his half-brother was born, I'd have fed him a lot more. Still, it has made him the perfect match to you, grandson."

Akihito shook his head. "I'm not your grandson. I'm a surēbu, well a nenkibōkō, really. Still, descendants of the first kings aren't slaves." Aki heard Ryuichi chuckle. He turned his head and looked up, "What? Did I say something funny?"

Ryuichi shook his head. "Did you not remember the connection you made earlier, Kitten?"

Aki shook his head. "What connection?"

Lumi moved closer and touched Aki's forehead again. "All Bards are my descendants. Your mother was a direct daughter to daughter descendant of my only female child. You, my boy, are my many times removed grandson, the last of my only daughter's line."

Chapter Text

Aki frowned, "But, I'm not…"

Asami placed a hand over Akihito's mouth interrupting his self-depreciation, "Shush, you are a Bard, Akihito. I have known for quite some time. Lumi's revelation about your lineage just explains why you're so powerful."

Lumi smiled at Akihito, "You will never know how happy I was when the two of you performed the bonding ceremony. There has not been a bonded Mage and Bard pairing since the deaths of Tuntemusetsijä and Ritarinvirittää. Until that I had been worried I would be required to save the Lohikäärmeen Selkä myself."

Akihito pulled his mouth away from Asami's hand asking, "Save the Lohikäärmeen Selkä?"

"Yes. The Syopyr wizards attempting to bond with the great elemental have crafted a powerful spell. It pulls at the ley-lines and ties them into a great knot. They don't realize what they've done and it will require both of you to undo their mess." Lumi walked back up to the bank from the pool and glowed briefly before settling his stag form upon the green grass once more.

His voice rang through the cavern, "I have fed one of the most powerful lines of magic through my Bard. It is up to you Grand Wizard of the Asahi Islands to wield the power that only Akihito can feed you and undo what the Syopyr wizards, Yuri and Aaron have wrought."

"What about Tao?" Akihito nearly surged forward in his agitation.

Asami held him back, "I understand what you want us to do, but I must be able to see to my nephew's welfare first."

The stag nodded and Lumi's voice echoed again, "I understand your need to see to family. However he is now tied to the tangled ley-lines along with numerous other youths. You will have to undo the malicious spell anyway if you are to save him."

A bright glow spread from the stag's horns before coalescing into a large portal. Akihito's eyes grew large at the size and color of the magic. He'd learned that each mage had their own unique color pattern when casting. Kirishima's was red often with black edges, Suoh's was white with green and brown flecks, and his own was often silver with gold edges. Asami's was black with dark indigo streaks.

Lumi's spell encompassed them all. Every color Akihito knew and some he didn't have names of swirled through the magic of the portal. The stag looked at him and Akihito heard Lumi's voice in his mind. "Yes the color's mean something. I am glad that my grandson's darkness has found a light. Perhaps he will return to the royal shade he was born to wield."

Akihito shook his head; he'd not even realized he was wondering if there was any meaning behind the colors, but learning that indigo was the one Asami's magic should be cast with mad him wonder what caused it to go black and was there any meaning to the silver golden hue of his magic? If there was Lumi did not answer his question.

Asami pulled Akihito closer before asking aloud, "How long will this ley-line flow through my minarai, Lumi. He grows tired even now."

Akihito pushed himself away from his master's chest. "I'm not tired." He protested as his knees attempted to give way under him. He stiffened his muscles and forced himself to stand without help. He clenched his fists in an effort to hide their trembling. Damn, he thought. The ley-line really was draining his energy. He looked at Asami and watched as the golden glow his master had had dissipated now that he wasn't touching him.

Lumi's voice rang out again. "I am aware of the drain a ley-line like the one I've passed him can have on the human body. It is for that reason I would only give one of such power to a paired Bard. You, Ryuichi have the ability to draw the magic of the line directly from your bonded puoliso."

Akihito jerked in response to that designation. "I'm not..." only to once again find Asami's hand covering his mouth. He looked at Asami and frowned, unseen but not un-felt by the man if his smirk was any indication.

Asami shook his head at Akihito; choosing to move quickly past Lumi's revealation of Akihito's actual status. He was certain that Kirishima and Suoh were unaware of the extra verbiage added to the contract he filed with the royal scribes the day he took the boy as a Nenkibōkō. Like being a Bard, Asami had not yet made up his mind on when or even if he would ever tell Akihito they were wedded. "How do I go about pulling from my Nenkibōkō directly?"

The stag seemed to smile, "There are many ways to pull directly from him, Ryuichi. However, in the case of using his power to unravel the tangled spell having him touch you while also casting your spells would be most beneficial."

Asami pulled Aki closer as he gestured to the swirling portal, "This will take us to the spell?"

"Yes, and you should hurry. There is little time before the tangle becomes so unstable it will explode. It is already pulling the magical creatures of the world to it, yanking them from their homes into regions they do not belong along the spine of the mountains."

Asami nodded, "That is the link between the seemingly random events of elementals out of place, the lowering of the age of debt enslavement, the encroachment of foreign mages."

Lumi nodded, "You can stop it all if you unravel their spell. Be careful though. Dismantling it to quickly could cause a backlash; I would hate to lose my favorite humans so soon after finally getting them together."

Asami nodded. "Climb on my back Akihito."

"What? Why?" Aki started to back up, but Asmai caught his waist and pulled him back to lean on him.

"I know that touching me pulls the power through you. If what I can see is any indication I am further defusing the ley-line and giving your body a place to relax against as it funnels your limited energy into managing the power." He cupped Akihito's cheek and smirked, "I don't want you tiring out before we even get a chance to save the world."

Aki growled, "I won't tire out, old man. You're the one that needs to watch yourself." He hated that smirk. It made him feel foolish and childish. He'd show Asami, he could do this without leaning on the man. He pulled away from his Master's arms and nearly fell flat on his face.

Asami held his sigh in as he caught Akihito and swung him up into his arms. It was, after all, his fault the boy felt the need to prove something. He really should pick a better time to tease the younger man. Still the boy had ended up very close to where he wanted him and he couldn't really fault him for his spitfire reaction to teasing. It was one of the many reasons that made Asami choose to keep him.

Akihito hid his embarrassment in his Master's chest. He wondered if this was to be his life falling only so Asami could catch him. He wiggled and Asami let him set his feet on the floor asking him, "Ready to let me carry you, Akihito?"

Aki nodded and climbed on the man's back. The memory of the first time he'd been carried this way flitted through his mind. They'd reached a Consortium hostel and he'd learned that Asami was a prince and more than just his master. Asami had taken care of him from the moment he'd awoken in the warm cave up on the Lohikäärmeen Selkä. He hugged the man's back whispering, "Thank you."

Asami kept his satisfied smirk behind his lips and merely responded, "Ready to save the world, Kitten?"

Akihito smiled at the nickname. Being this man's kitten wasn't so bad especially since Asami allowed him to be a tiger when needed. He nodded, "Yes, let's go save Tao and the world."

Asami carried them through the portal. The trip was disorienting and Aki was glad he'd gone through on Asami's back. The colors and patterns that had met his eyes nauseated him and having Asami's back to lay his head upon while he closed his eyes and willed the bile climbing his throat down was a boon he welcomed.

Asami himself stumbled as the portal closed swiftly behind them leaving the area they were in cloaked in blackness. Aki opened his eyes and raised his hand; chanting his light spell before sending the orbs to hover about their heads.

The cave they were in was hardly any bigger than the two of them together. Three walls pressed close to their bodies while the fourth held a small opening that Asami would have to duck through in order to get past. The man reluctantly lowered Akihito to his feet. They traversed the passage silently. The light orbs behind them to keep the magic from altering any enemies that may be ahead of them.

The passage wasn't long and opened onto a cliff edge far above a large cavern. Below them were several figures. Most notable among them was Tao chained to the floor near several other children. Asami and Akihito both could see the spell sucking the children's life force from their bodies and into the large tangled knot of ley-lines surrounding what Akihito could only assume was the Great Elemental.

The beast was huge with a large body supported by four thick legs ending in powerful claws. The scaly body had a long tail which ended in spikes and two enormous leathery wings were folded at its sides. The creature's head was held aloft by a long muscled neck and held a long snout with powerful jaws full of long sharp teeth.

Six horns traveled in twos up from the beast's forehead growing ever longer and sharper until they topped his crown. Below the first two were two large eyes with slit pupils. The entire beast was covered with varicolored scales larger and thicker than a fishes and joined together like a patchwork quilt. Aki could see where the legends of dragons had been formed.

While Akihito gawked at the Great Elemental Asami took stock of the Cavern floor below them. Other than the chained children there were six guards bearing the livery of Grand General Sakazaki and four mages clothed in Journeyman's tunics over which they wore tabards from house Shuu. He could not see anyone from Syopyr meaning that other than Yuri and Aaron they should not encounter anyone of notable strength.

He looked about the edge of the cliff and smiled when he realized that Lumi had set them in a cave that led directly to the only cliff with a natural staircase down to the cavern floor. The only other openings in the cave either had no safe decent from their heights or were guarded by the armed men and women below.

He then studied the spells in the room. There were nine of them. All similar in their nature but each were of different construction. He could see why the ley-lines were tangled as each spell directed the power to do the same task but in slightly different ways. Below was the prime example of why Bards had been required to trap the Great Beast to begin with.

No mage thought like another and even if all the mages cast the same spell it took a Bard with the innate understanding of magic and the ability to see it as it was cast to weave the various intents into cohesiveness. The only other way for mages to cast together is for them to be casting completely different spells on the same creature or being, like was done when Akihito submitted to becoming his Nenkibōkō. With the power he felt welling in him and pouring out of his very skin Asami knew he'd be able to dismantle the tangle.

He tugged quietly on Akihito's arm before whispering in the boy's ear. "I see how the spells are set, but I will need to get closer in order to separate them from each other. Can you put the cavern asleep?"

Aki nodded and took a deep breath before singing softly.

Go to sleep, go to sleep.
You know you are weary.
Go to sleep go to sleep.
Time to rest little one.

Close your eyes, rest your head.
Dreams are coming to find you.
Close your eyes, rest your head.
Dreamland's waiting for you.

Go to sleep, go to sleep.
For the night is not long.
Go to sleep, go to sleep.
Soon the morning will come.

Close your eyes, rest your head.
Let your dreams take you.
Close eyes, rest your head.
Time to sleep little one.

Aki was careful to keep the magic notes from surrounding his Master. He wasn't frightened like he'd been the last time he'd cast the sleeping spell. Asami wouldn't grow angry at his magic. He concentrated the magic around the guards first. Wrapping them in his silvery gold notes all the while feeling a sick satisfaction as each adult besides them in the room collapsed to the cavern floor. Next came the children already drawn and tired from the spell stealing their lives. He didn't have to use much magic to send them into what he hoped were peaceful dreams.

They moved down the steep steps from the ledge then. Asami going first often turn his back to the cavern in order to utilize his hands as well as his feet. Aki felt another sense of déjà vu as he followed. When he slipped halfway down and Asami grabbed him about the waist he remembered why and didn't argue when Asami gestured him to climb upon his back.

He was fatigued from the magic pouring through his body though unwilling to admit aloud he needed a place to lean. He still gladly took his master's offer to carry him the rest of the way down the incline.

Aki studied the lines of magic flowing into the growing knot at the front feet of the elemental as they descended and then crossed the cavern. Nine lines of magic all vied with each other to unbind the ley-line chains surrounding the beast. They tangled with each other at the point where the original binding spell joined together. The new spells swirled about the original fusion of magic pushing and pulling in far too many directions to ever be effective.

The ley-lines making up the original chains were far weaker than what Aki was certain had been used to originally bind the beast. He could see how many smaller lines of magic had been woven to make the strong chains. A weave of hundreds of channels were used to create the bindings covering the elemental. They wove together the thoughts and feelings of the mages that had joined in a combined effort to save the island.

As he studied the chains and the knot forming at the creature's base he could see the mages and the bards weaving the spell. They were insubstantial and ghostly, but they still stood encircling the beast and chanting their spells. The mages stood motionless but for the movements of their mouths and hands. Through their double circle Bards played. Some wove the mage's magic with instruments of winds or strings. Others joined the weave with drum or horn. Some danced around and about the other casters. All funneled their share of the weave in support of the singers.

Aki saw nine of them, each unique in form and feature. There were four men tall, broad, and stalwart against the ley-lines being woven about them and four women beautiful in their power as they gently guided the larger strands woven into one final Bard.

The last was also female but smaller in stature than even the mages and bards that made up the other women weaving the magic. She stood alone right at the base of the great beast. Her tiny form drew the woven ley-lines into her body through the center point between her shoulder blades. The ley-lines came out in colorful chains from the young bard's fingers smaller than what had been fed her but thicker and stronger. The bard's voice couldn't be heard in the time period he and Asami stood, but Aki could feel the power behind the silent song.

Asami led them across the cavern skirting the sleeping guards and shackled children until they stood directly in front of the tangled knot of magic. He stopped directly in front of the ghostly young woman finalizing the original bindings. Aki turned as he slid from Asami's back, taking the opportunity to glance at the young bard's face. He gasped breaking the otherwise silent cavern with the sharp intake of breath.

Asami turned, "Is something the matter, Akihtio?"

"No, no. The floor is just harder than I thought." Aki responded. He certainly couldn't tell his master that he thought he might be looking at a mirror. For the young woman standing in front of him could easily pass as a nearly identical twin. Other than gender all that was differnt were the minor scars than ran up and down Aki's forearms. They even shared the same eye and hair color. His attention was pulled from his study of the ghost by Asami raising his hands. His master's baritone rang out through the cavernous space and Akihito felt the tug on the ley-line that he currently conducted.

It wasn't painful at first but it wasn't comfortable either. The spells were tangled and ley-line fuled. Asami had apparently determined that fixing them would require a greater amount of magic. Akhito had originally felt very little of the magic flowing through him even though it was draining his physical reserves as it passed through his body and split into smaller more powerful streams.

He felt the pull on the disparate streams when the Grand Wizard of the Asahi Islands actively gathered them. What started as a small tug quickly turned into a set of persistent sharp yanks. He desperately wanted to pull away from Asami, but he knew that to do so would disrupt the magic the man was weaving. So, instead he turned his mind from the discomfort and set himself to watch for others entering the cavern while the man worked.

Asami swelled with power. He'd always been able to draw more than his fellow mages. It was one of the reasons he was the Grand Wizard. With Akihito touching him and channeling an entire ley-line through his body Asami was near to bursting with magic. Luckily he had practice with overflowing power and quickly turned it into the spell he needed to weave.

He was slightly glad that neither Kirishima nor Kazumi were there to watch him untangle the poorly wrought magic. The spells looked like a great ball of tangled twine. So to separate them he built a large magical crochet hook which he took in one hand while holding the tangle of spells in the other. Then he started chanting the common unbinding spell all mages learned in level one novice class.

It was a simple spell to chant but required intense concentration to use particularly in the manner he currently wielded it. Even with his advanced experience Asami could not ensure a successful unbinding without acute focus. So he allowed his attention to narrow. It wasn't long until all he could sense was the mass of spells tangled about one hand and the tool he'd fashioned in the other. Only then did he set about picking apart the mess the Syopyr wizards had created.

Aki lost track of time and had long allowed his mind to wonder as he casually watched the area about him. Soon after Asami had sunk into the casting the painful yanking on the ley-line magic evened out and became a steady, gentle pull. This along with the lack of things to pay attention to in their time caused him to turn his sight back to his ghostly twin.

Akihito didn't know how long he watched the female version of himself, but he eventually realized he could understand the words and by extension build the tune of the song the girl was singing. The song was full of love and the longing for someone just out of the young girl's reach. As Akihito watched he realized that his twin knew that neither she nor any of the casters with her would survive the binding of the great beast.

The song she sung was a lullaby. The tune and words as familiar to him as the back of his own hands. It was the same music his mother had sung to him through his childhood and had softly whispered to his dying sister. He just sung a shorter version to earlier to send the occupants of the cavern to sleep.

Go to sleep, go to sleep.
You know you are weary.
Go to sleep go to sleep.
Time to rest little one.

Close your eyes, rest your head.
Dreams are coming to find you.
Close your eyes, rest your head.
Dreamland's waiting for you.

Go to sleep, Go to sleep.
Mother's gone roving.
Go to sleep, go to sleep.
But she is singing for you.

Close your eyes, rest your head.
Mother's singing so softly.
Close your eyes, rest your head.
As her magic is weaved.

Go to sleep, Go to sleep.
You may play on the morrow.
Go to sleep, Go to sleep.
Rest while you can.

Close your eyes, rest your head.
Let your dreams take you.
Close your eyes, rest your head.
Time to sleep little one.

Go to sleep, go to sleep.
For the fight is a long one.
Go to sleep, go to sleep.
May mother's magic prevail.

Close your eyes, rest your head.
Here you are protected.
Close eyes, rest your head.
While Mother defends us all.

Go to sleep, Go to sleep.
The stars now are shining.
Go to sleep, Go to sleep.
Dreamland's waiting for you.

Close your eyes, Rest your head.
Let your dreams take you.
Close eyes, rest your head.
It is time to sleep.

Go to sleep, Go to sleep.
Mother's gone to the dream land.
Go to sleep, go to sleep.
Where she can spend time with you.

Close your eyes, Rest your head.
Though she's fallen in triumph.
Close eyes, rest your head.
Mother was fighting for you.

Go to sleep, Go to sleep.
While the moon's light surrounds you.
Go to sleep, go to sleep.
Forget all your troubles.

Close your eyes, Rest your head.
Dreams are coming to find you.
Close eyes, rest your head.
Soon the morning will come.

Go to sleep, Go to sleep.
In your dreams you will find her.
Go to sleep, go to sleep.
Mother's waiting for you.

Close your eyes, Rest your head.
Mother's gone to the dream land.
Close eyes, rest your head.
Where she can spend time with you.

Go to sleep, Go to sleep.
Mother's singing so softly.
Go to sleep, go to sleep.
She is singing for you.

Go to sleep, Go to sleep.
Mother's singing so softly.
Go to sleep, go to sleep.
She is singing for you.

The last line of the full song passed Akihito's lips with a heavy sigh. Tears streamed down his face and he was hard pressed to refocus on his surroundings as he watched the casters of the binding spell be slowly sucked into it. The ground around them shook as giant slabs of earth rose and crashed about their circles. Only the large magic wards they'd apparently woven first prevented the creature they had just bound from being crushed. Instead they allowed the mountains to form around the space leaving the large rounded cavern they now stood in.

He wiped his eyes with the edge of his cloak and took a moment to glance around the cave. He checked the guards and children satisfied they still slept soundly. He looked to each entrance checking once again if any were entering the cavern where his master worked. Seeing nothing he turned his attention to Asami. He never saw the heavy fist that connected to the side of his head.