Frey woke up to the feel of cold steel against his throat.
“Well, well, well,” drawled a voice, a large shadow blotting out the light. “Nice of you to visit, Lombard.”
“Souma,” Frey breathed in recognition, squinting up at the bearded figure kneeling over him. He tried to sit up, but the edge of the blade dug deeper into his neck. He must’ve been too exhausted that such a large, bumbling creature managed to sneak up on him.
“You’re way off track here, aren’t you?” said Souma with a grin, relishing Frey’s helplessness.
“Get off me,” said Frey. The man was alone as far as he could tell, and though Frey would stand no chance in terms of brute strength, he might be able to take out a limb or two if he could just reach for his sword…
“Don’t bother,” said Souma, guessing Frey’s intent. “I don't want to fight.”
“That’s a first,” Frey muttered. “What do you want?”
Souma rolled his eyes. “You’re pretty feisty for someone who’s clanless. You’re not in any position to order anyone around, you know.”
Frey took that in. So news about his clan’s downfall had reached these parts already. What else had been rumored about? What lies had been told? Frey wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bounty over his head, but information was scarce since he’d been on the run. At least going west had shaken off his pursuers; they probably hadn’t expected Frey to head this way.
So far, he’d had no cause to regret his decision. Until now.
“What do you want?” Frey asked again, watching with narrowed eyes as Souma retreated, grabbing Frey’s weapon along the way.
“Fancy,” the man said, whistling in appreciation at the bejeweled hilt. “Must cost a fortune, huh?”
“It was a gift,” Frey bit out, trying hard not to think about the giver. He’d kept the damn thing for its practical value — or at least, that was what he told himself. The truth came with complicated feelings that Frey didn’t want to face just yet. “Give it back.”
“And arrogant as always,” Souma scoffed. "You'll get this back once we’re done talking."
“I have nothing to say to you.”
“Then shut up and listen, you annoying brat. Your clan started this mess, and you’re going to stop this even if you die trying. You understand?”
There was a sudden ferocity in the man’s eyes that threw Frey off-guard. “What are you talking about?”
“Ryuu,” Souma spat the name out. “That monster you’ve unleashed is going to destroy us all!”
“We didn’t know!” Frey said heatedly. “In case you haven’t noticed, my clan is gone!”
But Souma was shaking his head in disgust. “We warned you. My father spoke to your father, but the fool wouldn't listen. Why do you think we took matters into our own hands?”
A memory stirred, taking Frey back to that day when he’d been injured, shielding Ryuu from a Souma thug. He’d assumed he was the target. Any other possibility had never crossed his mind.
“You protected him,” Souma went on. “Then he came marching in here, threatening to wipe us off if we even dare go near him again!”
Ryuu had broken the man’s arm, Frey remembered. Back then, he’d been touched at the gesture, thinking it had been done for his sake. Now, Frey realized…Ryuu had just been protecting himself.
“And then we find out that he’s taken over the Lombards?” Souma continued to rant. “You’ve doomed us all!”
“We didn’t know,” Frey repeated, weaker this time. The truth stared him in the face: Ryuu had played them all along. And it was Frey who’d taken Ryuu in, in the first place. It was Frey who’d repeatedly vouched for him even when the other riders had expressed their doubts. His parents’ deaths, his clan’s destruction…everything was on him. This was his fault.
“You have to fix this,” said Souma, a note of desperation mingling with the anger in his voice. “Apparently, you’re the only one who can.”
It took a beat for the last phrase to register. Frey blinked. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Souma regarded him for a long moment before throwing the sword at Frey’s feet. “He spoke to you, didn’t he?” he asked. “He told you to come here.”
Frey tensed, remembering that disembodied voice in the forest. “How did you know about that?”
"He wants to meet you,” said Souma. “Lord Gottfried.” The name didn’t ring a bell, and Souma grinned wryly at Frey’s confusion. “You won’t know him, but he knows you. Ever heard of the Crypt of Souls?”
“No,” said Frey, mystified.
Souma’s grin widened. “Well, then. It’s time you found out.”
After all the nightmares of the past nights, it was a blessed relief to dream of something infinitely more pleasant. It wasn't new, by any stretch of the imagination. This image of Yuuri and a long burning kiss.
And yet by some miracle that Wolfram couldn't fully grasp, this wasn’t a dream. He was really kissing Yuuri! Yuuri, who had always kept his distance. Yuuri, who had rejected him at every turn. Yuuri, who wasn’t running away but was actually kissing Wolfram back and—
Wolfram’s thoughts scattered as Yuuri’s mouth opened against his. His grip tightened on Yuuri’s shoulders, as he tried hard to steady himself. He felt a bit weightless, as though he might get swept away if he didn’t hold on to something. He’d since stopped caring that he might be coming on too strong, not when Yuuri was just as eager and hungry and—
Yuuri pulled back, panting, “Wait. Wolf, I…”
Wolfram forced himself to stop, a sense of dread already spreading from his core. He knew it — he’d crossed a line somewhere. “Too much?” he asked, fearing the answer even as his entire being screamed for more. “I thought—”
“No, no,” Yuuri said, pressing a finger to Wolfram’s lips to silence him. “It’s just…don’t you hear that?”
Wolfram paused. The ground could have opened up and he wouldn’t notice a damn thing. But there it was, a rapping at the door accompanied by a muffled voice.
“Your Majesty?” someone called. “Your Excellency?”
“Looks like our time is up,” Yuuri said, laughing nervously. He took a deep breath, his brows creasing with worry. “Are you ready? I’ve never seen Gwendal so mad before…”
Wolfram hadn’t either, but he didn’t dare wallow on the thought of his brother’s anger. There was nothing left to do but face the consequences of his actions. “We should go,” he said, just as the voice outside called out to them once more. “We can’t avoid him forever.”
“I’ll be right beside you,” Yuuri promised. “If Conrad’s there, I’m sure he’s going to be on our side too.”
Wolfram nodded, though the idea didn’t comfort him as much as it should. He couldn’t rely on anyone else to defend what he’d done. This was his decision, and everything that came with it should be his responsibility.
A warm hand cupped his face, and soft lips were pressed lightly to his forehead. Wolfram’s heart fluttered, a breath torn out of his chest. Perhaps Yuuri took it as a sign of discomfort, for he wavered for a second, fingers hovering uncertainly over Wolfram’s jawline.
“I’m fine,” Wolfram said, finding that he actually meant it this time around. He clasped Yuuri’s hand in place and pressed his cheek against Yuuri's palm. “Thank you. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Yuuri blushed, but his gaze remained firm on Wolfram’s face. “Then don’t do anything without me,” he said. “I’m always here for you, so tell me if there’s something wrong, okay?”
A lot of things were wrong, Wolfram thought, and the urge to come clean nearly pushed the truth out of his mouth. But the voice outside was calling, more insistent now, a reminder of the world beyond that needed them to play their roles. Outside, Wolfram would have to explain a crime, mend a friendship, and seek answers to all the questions in his head. Yuuri, the king, couldn’t get involved. Wolfram had promised to fall — not drag Yuuri down — with him. And with a twinge of sorrow, he realized that this kiss behind closed doors would have to remain the dream that it was.
“C’mon,” said Yuuri, tugging at his arm. “Or else Gwendal might — Wolf!”
His name was spoken in a gasp of surprise; Wolfram had turned Yuuri around and pushed him back against the door. Yuuri’s eyes were wide, though Wolfram noted that there was more anticipation than fear. Wolfram leaned in, tempted to indulge himself one last time, but the reality of what he was about to face gave him pause. He had no right to take anything he wasn’t sure he could give back. If only this had happened earlier…days, weeks, or months earlier…before the nightmares…before the dragon…before Damien…Damien, who needed him now…
“I can almost hear you thinking,” Yuuri sighed. “What is it?”
Wolfram shook his head. “Nothing. I just...I wanted to say that I’ll always protect you, no matter what.”
“I know,” Yuuri said, smiling, and Wolfram seared that image in his increasingly unreliable memory. He drank in the sight of Yuuri — the way the corners of his eyes crinkled, how his lips quirked with affection, and the red flush on his cheeks as he tilted his chin expectantly. “Was that all?”
Wolfram’s throat felt dry. That clearly sounded like an invitation. But he shouldn’t. He knew he shouldn’t, but…maybe…one last time…?
There was another knock on the door, and Wolfram drew back, taking that as a sign that the dream was over. But Yuuri cursed under his breath and rushed forward, his lips colliding with Wolfram’s, his fingers tangling in Wolfram’s hair. It was clumsy at best, though still a marked improvement from earlier, with Yuuri making up in fervor what he lacked in technique.
And Wolfram allowed himself to melt into the kiss, all his worries temporarily forgotten, as he savored this last fragment of a dream for however long it would last.
If someone wasn’t already dead, Gwendal felt sure he might just end somebody’s life himself. It was only a matter of choosing who did the most imprudent thing in the past hour or so. His little brother, for bringing Lord Damien Schwarz to the prisoner. Gisela, for standing aside. Or Lord Damien himself, for apparently silencing a probable informant who could have told them all they needed to know about the Ryuzoku and their leader.
He’d listened quietly as his temper would allow, but it didn’t take long for him to finally let his rage free at Wolfram, Gisela, and — because he’d obviously picked a side in the matter — the Demon King.
“It’s my fault,” said Wolfram at once. “I brought Damien to see the rider. I ordered Gisela to—”
“No,” said Gisela firmly. “It was my choice, too. I trusted Lord Damien.”
“They didn’t know that was going to happen, Gwendal,” said the king.
Gwendal wasn’t appeased, and he turned a critical eye to the one that started it all. Wolfram seemed to shrink beneath his gaze.
“You defied protocol,” said Gwendal. “Your carelessness led to the death of a valuable prisoner.”
“I don’t think Damien killed him,” said Wolfram, a slight tremor marring his voice.
“Are you willing to stake your name on that?”
Wolfram drew in a steadying breath, scared but defiant. “I am.”
“And you still won’t tell us what he and the rider talked about?”
“It’s not mine to say.” Wolfram’s voice cracked a little, but he held his ground. “It’s a personal matter…a family matter. If you’d let me talk to Damien, I think I can convince him to tell you everything himself.”
Gwendal frowned. Something was bothering him, and his stomach lurched a little when he realized what it was. He’d had his doubts about the Schwarz family, and Maximilian Schwarz styling himself as the “Lord of the Ryuzoku” had all but confirmed his suspicions. Wolfram couldn’t — shouldn’t — have the same insight. And yet…
“You knew Lord Damien is a Ryuzoku,” Gwendal said, the accusation ringing through his voice.
When Wolfram flinched, Gwendal got his answer. Wolfram had known all along; he’d been protecting Lord Damien all this time.
“Consider your answer to this question carefully, Lord von Bielefeld,” said Gwendal. “Were you planning to tell us the truth about Lord Damien?”
There was a tense moment, a long silent stretch that seemed to suck the air right out of the room. Gwendal willed his brother to say the right answer, the one that wouldn’t get him accused of dereliction of duty — or worse, treason. But to his dismay, Wolfram’s answer was, “No. No, I wasn’t.” He looked around the room, his gaze resting on the king, his eyes pleading. “He told me in confidence. As a friend.”
Gwendal glanced at the king, who, to his exasperation, looked conflicted. A friend. How many times had the boy said that same line in defense of his ill-placed trust in people? Of all the bad habits to pick up from Shibuya Yuuri, Wolfram had to go with the one that put him in a precarious situation. For unlike the Demon King, Wolfram didn’t have the luxury to trust people blindly — or the immunity to be pardoned should he make a mistake.
“Wolf,” said the king, “do you think Lord Damien trusts you too?”
Wolfram held his chin up. “I think he does. Or he did, at least.”
“I still don’t trust him though,” muttered the king.
Gwendal clenched his jaw at that. That was a first for the usually naïve boy, and Gwendal could guess what had brought this on. The accusation of murder aside, Lord Damien Schwarz could have been a good match for Wolfram. A union would cement an alliance with Dai Shimaron and perhaps bring about a measure of peace between humans and Mazoku. But Wolfram’s heart had long been taken — for good or worse, time had yet to tell.
“Then trust me,” Wolfram was begging the king. “I can handle myself.”
Yuuri made a face. “I don’t know, Wolf. Are you sure he won’t hurt you?”
“And you’re going to find a way to talk to him even if I say no,” the king guessed, half in frustration, half in censure. Wolfram blinked, but the guilty look on his face was enough of a confirmation. Yuuri sighed and turned to Gwendal. “I say we let them talk, but we'll stay close by—”
“Yuuri,” Wolfram protested. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“We’ll stay close by where we can see you,” said Yuuri, in a tone that brooked no argument. “And if he lays a hand on you, I swear—”
“He won’t,” Wolfram repeated, standing proudly. “And I told you. I can handle myself.”
“He could,” agreed Gwendal. “It’s keeping his loyalties straight that seems to be the problem.”
Wolfram winced and turned away, cheeks blazing.
“Gwendal!” the king hissed, glaring at him. Even Gisela was frowning in disapproval. Gwendal ignored them both. He didn’t regret the words; he regretted that they needed to be said. Wolfram had to be warned, else he might do something that even his status wouldn’t shield him from.
“There’s another matter,” Gwendal said, moving the discussion along. “Yozak is back with some unfortunate news.” He relayed the spy’s report, word for word, carefully watching as the king’s face turned from annoyance to surprise to fear. At the word “promise,” Yuuri went very, very pale.
“It’s really him,” the king whispered, almost to himself. “I wasn’t sure before, but now…what did you say his name was again?”
“Maximilian Schwarz,” said Gwendal, enunciating each syllable. “Lord Damien’s missing brother. Where did you meet him?”
“In the other world,” said Yuuri, shuddering in remembrance. “He just came out of nowhere, and he said…he’ll come to take everything I have.”
No one said a word. Gwendal’s head was pounding. Could this be a trick of some kind? But, no. The man had an army. Of dragons. The threat must be real. They couldn’t afford to treat it otherwise.
“Well, that’s another thing to ask Lord Damien, right?” said Yuuri bracingly. “Wolf, can you…?”
He trailed away. Gwendal caught Wolfram’s reaction and he, too, got the message.
“Of course, you’d know all about him too,” said Gwendal wryly, the anger and dread churning inside him. How deep had Wolfram gotten into this mess? “What else aren’t you telling us?”
Wolfram averted his gaze once again, biting his lip, and Gwendal knew the battle was lost. No matter what he said now, it was clear Wolfram wouldn’t turn against Damien Schwarz.
“I might know him,” said Wolfram in a soft voice, “but I can’t explain how. But if you’d just let me talk to Damien—”
A loud crash at the door cut him short and made them all jump. Gwendal scowled at the man who’d just rushed in.
“Conrad!” Yuuri exclaimed. “What the…?”
“What now?” Gwendal snarled. Everything was going so wrong so fast, and Conrad’s harried expression only spoke of more problems to come.
“Greta and Lady Saiga are missing,” Conrad said quickly. “The guards have been knocked out.”
"What?" said Yuuri and Wolfram at the same time.
It was that girl, Gwendal thought grimly, listening as Conrad launched into an account of what took place. Apparently, he'd arrived to find the Royal Chambers in disarray, all the guards sprawled on the floor, and the girls nowhere to be seen. Gwendal was fairly sure they were about to pay the price of their negligence — or in the king’s case, the price of his trust.
"You left Greta with that girl?" demanded Wolfram, rounding on Yuuri, who raised his hands defensively and said, "You can’t seriously think Saiga had anything to do with this!”
“A maid saw them near the entrance,” said Conrad. “The guards can't remember what happened, but if the shrine maidens were right and Lady Saiga is working with the enemy…”
The rest didn’t need to be said. Greta was in danger.
“No,” Yuuri moaned. “Saiga's been my schoolmate since first year. There's no way she's on that guy's side!”
The king's fear and confusion were mirrored in everybody else's faces, and though Gwendal felt exactly the same, he had no right to indulge in such frailties. There would be time for that later, when he was alone.
“Order the garrison to bar the gates,” he told Conrad. “Take Yozak with you. Gisela, you search the castle. Get Anissina to help.” He turned to Wolfram and the king. “And you two…”
“I want to search for Greta,” they both said at the same time.
Gwendal expected the response, and he knew no amount of threat or logic would get them to change their minds.
“We’ll split up and search the town,” he said, conceding. “If you encounter another Ryuzoku, do not engage them on your own.”
His eyes lingered on Wolfram, who nodded stiffly. Gwendal turned to the others, uttering a silent prayer that he’d see them all back, safe and whole.
Damien wanted to hurl the tray of food out the window. He’d been escorted back to the other ward and left with double the number of guards, half of them stationed inside, forming a barricade by the door. Apart from a maid who’d dropped by to bring him food and water, the only other person Damien had seen was Greyheim.
“What did you do?” his uncle had demanded, looking more disheveled than Damien could ever remember. “They said you killed someone!”
“This is none of your business!” Damien spat. He'd taken off his vest and rubbed the blood off his face, but the smell of death seemed to hover over him.
“It’s the rider, isn’t it?” boomed Greyheim, forgetting — or perhaps, no longer caring — about the guards who were listening to every word, ready to report back to their superior. “Did you talk to him? He told you something, didn’t he? Did he tell you where the others are? Where are they?” He barely paused for breath before he was ranting again, “You know where they are! Is Max with them? You're going to him, aren't you?”
“Shut up!” snarled Damien, eyes narrowed. The man looked unhinged, his usual mask of haughty condescension all but gone.
“Why not?” demanded Greyheim, his eyes bulging with disbelief. “Are you daft? Don't you understand what's happening? This is your chance! If you could talk to Max—"
“There’s no talking to anyone!” Damien growled, voice rising despite himself.
“You stupid, stupid boy! You don’t know anything, do you? Max has dragons. If you side with him, you won't need to continue with these negotiations! You don't need to see that von Bielefeld brat—!”
Damien was moving before he could even think, and without pausing to consider the consequences, he'd punched his uncle in the nose.
“Don’t bring Wolfram into this,” he said, breathing hard. He looked down at his fist and thought, 'Great. More blood.'
Greyheim coughed and picked himself up (none of the guards moved forward to intercede), his eyes focusing on Damien, a sneer curling his lips. “I can't believe this. You've fallen for that Mazoku brat!" he said, laughing. "Gods, Damien! You were supposed to use him, not fall for him!”
“Get out,” said Damien through gritted teeth. A minute longer and he'd gladly break the man's jaw.
"With pleasure," his uncle retorted, regarding Damien with contempt. “Rot in this castle for all I care. I'll give Max your regards when I see him.”
The guards parted for Greyheim, their faces stiff, their critical eyes boring onto Damien. And Damien nearly laughed at how well his uncle had orchestrated that entire scene. He wasn’t only a murderer now but a manipulator too. The guards would definitely tell everyone what they saw and heard, and in the eyes of the Mazoku, Damien's name would be mud. He might finally get to see Lord von Voltaire’s interrogation skills in action, and he could only imagine what the Demon King might do. And Wolfram…
Damien threw himself on the bed, stifling a groan. His head was about to explode and his heart felt heavy. He’d had full confidence that Wolfram would believe him, and he’d been wholly unprepared for the stab of pain that followed when Wolfram hadn’t taken his side. He knew he had no right to expect anything — he'd been prepared to let Wolfram go anyway — and yet for some stupid reason, he'd thought...
'You thought you meant something to him,’ said a vicious voice in his head. Damien flinched at the mockery, even as a small part of him held on to the hope that Wolfram would still come for him.
But when the door opened some minutes later, Damien found himself looking at a thoroughly unexpected face.
It wasn't Wolfram. Not even Lord von Voltaire or the Demon King.
It was Saralegui.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, my lord..."
Waltorana von Bielefeld didn't bother to look up from the letter he'd been reading. News and reports from the capital were frequent these days, each direr than the last that Waltorana had already ceased to be surprised.
It started with something a little more benign. Waltorana had been ensconced in his study, as he was now, when the steward walked in with the same impassive face, the same calm voice.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, my lord, but we've received word that visitors from Shimaron will be arriving by sea in a fortnight. Lord von Voltaire expects you to welcome them..."
This, Waltorana had done with grace, hosting the king of Shou Shimaron before packing him off to the capital to await the arrival of the Demon King. He'd done the same for the statesmen from Dai Shimaron, that pompous old man and his nephew, when they'd arrived days later. All the while, Waltorana had kept an open ear to the goings-on in the capital. But the news that reached him next wasn't what he'd anticipated.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, my lord, but there'd been an incident in the capital. Lord Wolfram has been injured..."
Waltorana had nearly packed his things right then and there, ready to depart for Blood Pledge Castle. Then he'd changed his mind, knowing that Wolfram would most likely return home, either voluntarily or by force. Waltorana had waited, but Wolfram didn't so much as write to him. By then, the rumors had started pouring in, mostly about Wolfram’s strained relationship with the Demon King and how the Schwarz boy was apparently very smitten with Wolfram.
Then more news came.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, my lord, but something happened. The temple has been destroyed, and they say the First King has disappeared..."
Before the implications of that incident had even settled on Waltorana, more followed.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, my lord, but we were just informed that a dragon attacked Blood Pledge Castle..."
"I'm sorry to disturb you, my lord, but we've received reports that a squad of dragon riders was spotted near the capital..."
Waltorana fully expected to hear about another attack, but when he waved a hand for his steward to continue, the rest of the statement came as a complete surprise:
"I'm sorry to disturb you, my lord, but there are ships heading this way."
Waltorana looked up, frowning. "Ships? Are they flying any colors?"
"Flags of Dai Shimaron," said the steward, "and Shou Shimaron."
"Together?" asked Waltorana, perplexed. Something was amiss. What would a combined fleet of human ships be doing in their waters? Why would they sail when their leaders were still at Blood Pledge Castle, engaged in talks with the Demon King? He rose to his feet, intending to go up to the tower to see for himself. But another man came sprinting in before he could even take another step.
"I'm sorry...to interrupt...my lord..." panted the man, clutching a stitch in his side, "but...there are...dragons! At the gates!"
Waltorana's blood ran cold, wishing with all his might that he'd misheard.
But the steward said, matter-of-fact as always, "We're under attack, my lord."
"By land, air, and sea," Waltorana muttered in disgust. They were surrounded.
Both men were looking at him, waiting for his command. And though Waltorana had been prepared for this, to say the words he hadn't thought he'd utter once again in his lifetime, it gave him no pleasure at all to give the order:
"Prepare for battle."