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Soul Hunters (Reboot)

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When Frey Lombard died, the last thing he felt were the shaking arms that cradled him like a child.  When he looked up, the last thing he saw was a tear-stained face staring back at him. When his vision failed, the last thing he heard was a familiar voice muttering the same words over and over again.

"I'm sorry."

When Frey Lombard died, the last thing he remembered were the words his murderer whispered regretfully…sorrowfully…repeatedly.

"I'm so sorry."

And Frey didn’t understand, or did dying just slow down his brain? Why was he apologizing? ‘This is stupid,’ Frey decided. He almost opened his mouth to tell him so but then remembered that he shouldn't. Things had changed. They were enemies now.

Frey looked up straight into his murderer’s eyes, someone he’d tried so hard to kill in return. The man seemed devastated. Frey almost laughed, certain that had he succeeded and the other failed, he would have worn the exact expression. He wouldn’t have found pleasure in the man's death despite the things he’d done. Still, Frey was a bit touched. He hadn’t expected any display of emotion here at the end of things.

He closed his eyes. He couldn’t think. He was tired. He was going to die.  Something wet trickled down his cheek, and somewhere in the muddle that was his brain, he realized he was crying too. He wanted to accept that this was the end, but a sense of failure and regret lingered, holding him back.

He…

…didn’t…

…want…

…to…

…die.

Not like this.

But it was too late.

 


 

‘I don’t want to die like this.’

The Soul Keeper cursed under his breath, forcing his body to move, straining his muscles to the breaking point in a futile attempt to escape. He half-ran, half-stumbled toward the entrance, unable to see clearly through the foul-smelling smoke that filled the air.  The whole place was burning. He was going to burn.

He pressed onward, adrenaline pushing his unresponsive limbs to the limit. He was nearly there. The door was wide open. Just a few more steps—

"You there! Stop!"

The Keeper faltered, panic shooting through his limbs.  The voice came from behind him, and in the second that it took him to glance back, a gigantic hand reached out through the haze and clamped tightly around his throat, hauling him up until his feet hovered inches above the ground. The Keeper caught his breath, eyes wide with terror.

His assailant was huge, muscled, and undeniably strong — someone he’d want fighting beside him, not struggling to get away from.  The Keeper kicked and flailed for a moment, but he might as well have attacked a solid wall for all the good that it did. He went limp, surrendering, but to his surprise, the man put him down and shouted to somebody he couldn’t see:

“I found someone!”

A shape emerged from the fog.  The Keeper caught a glimpse of a red-and-white cloak — their colors! — and for a stupid moment, he dared to hope. But then the figure came close enough to be seen, and the Keeper choked back a cry, shocked and repulsed at the same time.

Whatever was moving toward them looked like another Keeper alright — or more accurately, what remained of him. This Keeper’s head lolled from side to side, unsupported by a broken neck. There was practically a hole in his abdomen, making it impossible for him to have stood up and walked, much less be alive. But he — it — was sauntering casually toward them, heedless of the fact that its left arm was twisted at an awkward angle or that one of its thighs was nearly stripped to the bone.

"What about this one?" The brawny man lifted the Keeper up by the scruff of his collar, as though he weighed nothing, just an object being offered for scrutiny.

"Ah," the walking corpse said, head flopping uselessly.  “An acolyte?”  It looked more revolting up close, its movements jerky and erratic, like a marionette held up by unskilled hands.  The Keeper retched — this and the stress of the past minutes turned his stomach over.

“Can’t blame him for that,” the brawny man snickered. “You look disgusting, Weisser.”

"And whose fault was it?” the corpse retorted. It was inconceivable that it even had a name. “This was the only viable body I could find."

“If you’d gotten here sooner—”

“You didn’t have to kill everyone, Tier.”

"Not my fault,” grunted the man called Tier. “These guys are just so damn fragile."

“Lucky this one isn’t,” said Weisser, scanning the Keeper from head to toe, his gaze calculating. “Let’s keep him that way.  At least for the meantime.”

"Fine," Tier huffed, disgruntled, slinging the Keeper over one shoulder.  The man’s spiky hair felt like brambles where it touched the Keeper’s skin.  "You’d think someone out here would’ve put up a good fight, but no.  They just waved those swords around like they didn’t even know what they were doing.”

The corpse snorted. "What's there to know? You aim, stick it in, then pull it out."

"That sounds so wrong."

"Everything sounds wrong to you."

They were moving, the Keeper realized, toward the center of the room.  The smoke cleared a little, revealing the carnage that had taken place while the Keeper had been trying to get away.  The usually spotless floor was littered with broken tiles, shards of glass, and — the Keeper nearly gagged again at the sight — several mangled bodies. The dust obscured the faces, but he recognized the uniforms: red-and-white cloaks trimmed with silver, just like his own.  His mentors.  His fellow acolytes.  His friends.  The fools who fought back when it had been more prudent to retreat.  Dead.  All dead.  And he was a “meantime” away from joining their ranks.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, the Keeper thought numbly. This was supposed to be the safest place in the Crypt, heavily defended by a battalion of guards and fortified by a wall of magic.  How did the intruders even get in?

“Reminiscing?” he heard Tier ask, grinning slyly at the corpse.

“I didn’t think I’d ever come back here,” Weisser said, his tone almost wistful.

“Bet they didn’t think they’d see you again either.”

“Their mistake.”

The Keeper’s mind reeled at this exchange, and he ogled the corpse with renewed disgust.  Its appearance suddenly made sense to him.  What was it the corpse said earlier? ‘This was the only viable body I could find.’  The Keeper had heard about Anomalies, lost souls with no bodies of their own.  He’d never seen one before, least of all one strong enough to hijack a body that wasn’t its own.  Whoever the corpse had been in life, it must have been powerful. And if the Keeper had to stake his remaining lifespan on a guess, he’d bet the corpse was just like him once — a Soul Keeper, a guardian of souls.  That would explain how they breached the Crypt's defenses so easily.  And if so, the Keeper also thought he knew what they were after.

They broke in to steal a soul.

He must have made some sort of noise, for the corpse's lifeless eyes suddenly locked onto his. “Don’t worry,” it said, lips widening into a ghastly parody of a smile. “It will be over soon.”

They had reached the stone dais that stood at the very heart of the room. This, the Keeper was now sure, must be the object of the intrusion. The brawny man set him down but kept a firm grip on his collar, keeping him close like some animal on a leash.

“Ryuu—” Tier started, then cursed and drew back in surprise.  Something stirred within the dais.  With a blinding flash, a small circular object flew out into the open ceiling. It catapulted out into the skies and disappeared, leaving a bluish trail in its wake.

“What the hell was that?” the man sputtered.

"Souls," a voice answered.

A third figure stood before the dais, a young man clad in white that made him almost disappear amidst the surrounding smoke.  He was slender, a striking contrast to Tier’s massive built, and pale as the other man was dark. The Keeper noted a sharp face framed by a mane of long white hair.  The eyes that regarded him were cold, the irises, silvery-white.  Something flashed around the man's neck, a large green stone set into a metal pendant.

“Saw anything you like, Ryuu?” said Weisser, his tone light, almost teasing.

The pale man’s eyes narrowed and the air around him seemed to darken.

“Bad mood?” Tier whispered to the corpse.

“Bad joke,” the corpse admitted.  In a more somber voice, he added, “We found someone.  He might be useful.”

The Keeper shuddered as the pale man fixed an eerie eye on him.  "Then use him," he said, turning back to the dais, his fingers twisting and turning around the pendant’s chain.  “There are so many…”

‘Many’ was an understatement.  They were beyond count — orbs of various colors, sizes, and luminosity — all floating idly, shimmering faintly, within the confines of the dais, like a tiny universe of stars.  The pale man seemed to be taking everything in, mesmerized, and the Keeper was suddenly reminded of the first time he’d seen this too.  He’d thought then that it was a privilege to stand guard over such a place, the origin of everything, the Crypt of Souls.  He hadn’t yet decided if it was a privilege to die for it too.

"You think he's in there?" Tier asked.

"He must be," Ryuu answered quietly. An odd expression crossed his face, a hungry sort of longing, but it was quickly gone that the Keeper thought he must have imagined it.

"How do we find him?"

Ryuu caught the Keeper’s eye.  "You should know," he said. "Tell me: which among them is Frey Lombard?"

The Keeper stared back. The name meant nothing to him. Did the intruder expect him to know?  "I–I can’t tell," he managed to stammer in response.

"You could find out, couldn't you?"

The Keeper wanted to lie, but some remaining instinct of self-preservation urged him to speak the truth.  The pale man didn’t look as intimidating as the muscular Tier or as grotesquely frightening as the corpse, but he had a strange feeling that this was the most dangerous of the three.  The glint in the man’s eyes clearly said he expected an honest and swift reply — or else.

"I can,” the Keeper said, semi-truthfully.  He’d never done it himself, but he’d seen the older Keepers at work before.  “But I need—"

“—a Stone,” Weisser finished for him.  “There should be one around here.”

The Keeper glanced at the corpse, his suspicions confirmed.  He barely noticed when Tier finally released him and left the group to look for a Stone.  The Keeper fidgeted with his hands, but for once, escape was no longer at the front of his mind.  He was itching to ask, and before he could stop himself, he blurted out, “You’re a Soul Keeper.”

Weisser’s head moved but it was difficult to tell if he was nodding.  “Was,” he said after a moment. “I quit.”

‘A lie,’ the Keeper thought — beings like them are bound by their oaths until the end of their days — but he deemed it wise not to disagree. “Why did you leave?”

“Difference of ideas,” said the corpse casually.  “For reference, this isn’t the first soul I’m stealing.”

The Keeper had more questions, but Tier had returned, setting a black spherical object in front of him.  A Soul Stone.  That mystical device that Keepers use to identify souls and pinpoint their exact locations.

Ryuu pinned the Keeper with another commanding stare. "Find him."

The Keeper gritted his teeth and placed a clammy hand atop the Stone. It flickered immediately upon contact, as though it was coming alive at its master’s touch. Then it turned dark. Small blotches of light appeared throughout its black surface so that it now looked like a replica of a starlit sky.

The Keeper swallowed hard, fixing his eyes on the Stone, not exactly knowing what to do. He thought of the name — Frey Lombard — and concentrated with all his might.  Maybe if he willed the Stone to show him where the soul was, just maybe…

The surface of the orb shimmered, showing one dot after another, one soul after another, with astonishing speed. Then it stopped, focusing on a single speck of light surrounded by several others.  The Keeper felt his legs weakening with relief.  He did it.  It worked.

"I think…that's it."  He glanced at the pale man.  There it was again.  That hungry look.

"Where?"

The Keeper’s eyes flicked back to the Stone.  He squinted at the dot, trying to decipher the grids and symbols which he knew were visible only to his eyes. "He is…no longer here," he said, and he could tell from the intruders' reactions that this was unwelcome news.  "He was reborn…"

"When?"

The Keeper focused on the blinking symbols below the dot's location. "About…eighty years ago."

There was a low whistle.  The brawny man asked, "Is he still alive?"

"He must be," Weisser said. "Otherwise, his soul should have returned here."

"Find out where he was taken," Ryuu ordered.

The Keeper peered at the Stone once more. "In a place called…" He paused, then slowly sounded out the name, "Shin…Ma…koku…"

Silence reigned once more, but this time, the Keeper thought the stillness was more out of disbelief rather than anything else. This was yet another thing the men hadn’t expected.

"That was clever," Weisser said, sounding torn between contempt and grudging respect. "He’s with the Mazoku all along.”

"That bastard makes me sick," Tier said with feeling.  “All this way for nothing.”

“Not nothing,” said Ryuu. "We know where he is.  Let’s go get him."

The Keeper felt a stirring of hope.  The intruders were leaving…and he was still alive.  He’d helped them.  Surely, that should count for something?  But then the pale man nodded to the Keeper and said, “Take him.”

The Keeper shuddered.  What more did they need from him?  Where were they taking him?  But Ryuu wasn’t talking to the brawny man; the order had been directed to the corpse.

“He’s still alive,” Weisser observed.

“Tier,” said Ryuu.  The name must have been enough of a command, for the brawny man bent down and gripped the Keeper’s head between his giant palms. ‘He’s going to crush my head,’ thought the Keeper foolishly, and the man might have if the corpse hadn’t intervened.  The Keeper couldn’t make sense of what it was saying.  Something about not breaking anything…about wanting a functioning body…

The Keeper’s vision faded as the man covered his nose and mouth, choosing to smother him instead. ‘Not like this,’ he pleaded to his gods as the life ebbed away from his body.  He heard the pale man ordering his companions to move faster, felt the hands over his face tightening in response.  He saw the corpse fall to the ground.  Then something icy cold, like a gust of air, seeped through his mouth, his nose, his ears, the pores of his skin—

The Keeper had the strangest sensation of being…dislodged. The pain was gone, and so was, he realized with disinterest, his body.  He thought he could see it still, as though he was looking at it from the sidelines, his body sprawled on the floor like some discarded piece of clothing.

He was dead, the Keeper knew.  But as he watched, his body started to shift, minuscule movements rippling from the head to the toes, muscles and bones slowly but surely coming alive.  The eyes opened. Then it propped itself up.  Stretched its legs.  Shook its arms.  Finally, it grinned.

“This will do,” it said with what used to be the Keeper’s voice.

“Less disgusting,” agreed the brawny man.

The pale man said nothing.  He turned to leave, flanked on both sides by the brutish man who towered over him like some giant sentinel and the smaller body cloaked in red and white that used to belong to the Keeper.

The intruders left as the Keeper thought they must have arrived — determined, filled with purpose, and hungry for something that they still didn’t get.

 


 

'I don’t want to die like this.’

Shibuya Yuuri wasn’t a stranger to near-death experiences.  He’d survived all sorts of danger before: kidnappers, armies, feral beasts, a fire-wielding demon with a serious jealous streak…he’d faced all that and lived.  But dying during a mock swordplay scene by accidentally tripping over his own feet and hitting himself in the head with his own prop of a sword? Now, that was just about the height of pathetic lameness.

Bizarrely, his thoughts turned to Wolfram, fiery and insufferable Wolfram, who’d definitely scold him for his lack of practice and then drag him to the courtyard for additional training.  Yuuri could just hear the impending sermon: ‘What kind of king are you if you can’t even use a sword?’

But Yuuri wasn’t a king now. Not Shibuya Yuuri, Demon King of an ancient race in another world, but just Yuuri, a high school student trying to survive this hectic week leading to the Cultural Festival.  Yuuri honestly couldn’t see the entire point of this, but he’d rashly promised his mother that he’d put in more of an effort at school.  In Yuuri’s book, that meant helping make banners and flyers to promote the play their class would be doing.  He couldn’t remember how he’d ended up being one of the actors instead — and the lead one at that.

“Are you okay, Shibuya?”  Murata Ken’s face swam in front of his eyes.

‘Right,’ Yuuri thought, sense returning to him.  This smiling bastard was the one that got him into this mess in the first place.

“Shibuya?”

“I,” Yuuri said deliberately, “still want to kill you.”

Murata had the nerve to laugh.  “That’s the spirit.  Are you dizzy?  Can you stand?”

Yuuri sat up, still a bit dazed from his…accident.  “I’m fine.”

“He’s alive, everyone,” Murata announced to the collective relief of the entire room.  Nearly every student in Yuuri’s class had stayed behind to work on the play, which meant nearly everyone had witnessed Yuuri’s stupid mishap.  “Come on, Shibuya,” Murata added. “I think you deserve a short break.”

“Make that a week,” Yuuri grumbled, but he took the hand Murata offered and stood up.  “I need to get out of here.”

“Ten minutes is the only offer on the table, my friend,” said Murata. “And don’t you dare think about running away.  There’s no time to look for a replacement.”

“I told you I can’t act,” Yuuri whispered furiously, a tired refrain of the past two weeks, when Murata had first shoved the damned script into Yuuri’s hands and asked Yuuri to read it.  It wasn’t Yuuri’s thing, but the words 'Kyou Kara Maou – A Play' did catch his eye.  It was, Yuuri soon realized, a loose retelling of the past three years of his life, starring a high school student who was accidentally transported to another world and who unwittingly became the ruler of a strange kingdom.

There was one major difference though, and Yuuri could understand why Murata chose to write it that way: Although based on everyone they’d both met in Shin Makoku and beyond, apart from the king, the characters were all females. Murata had even given them alternate feminine names.  The one that made Yuuri chuckle was ‘Elizabeth’ for ‘Wolfram.’  Yuuri thought the real Elizabeth would probably hang herself before she’d marry the king.

All in all, Yuuri had been impressed with Murata’s work — and he would’ve remained impressed, had Murata not offered him the lead role right then and there.  Scratch ‘offered.’ ‘Tricked’ was more like it.

“I can’t act,” Yuuri had laughed when the topic was first broached. Honestly, he’d thought it was just a silly joke.

“You won’t have to act,” Murata had said with that maddening smile of his. “You’re a real Demon King, Shibuya.”

Yuuri had said no but Murata had been persistent.  The next day, he’d introduced Yuuri to a blonde, green-eyed girl who marched into the classroom fully clad in a blue outfit that looked eerily familiar.  The girl had stopped before Yuuri, and the expression on her face made him draw back cautiously.

“What are you staring at, wimp?”

Yuuri’s jaw had dropped comically.  That face, that speech, and the way she held herself…was she seriously channeling the Wolfram von Bielefeld?  “Who…?” Yuuri began, but the girl crossed her arms together in a very Wolframish manner and snarled, “Spit it out, wimp!"

Yuuri’s mind went blank for a moment — it was all so confusing.  Then the girl smiled brightly, breaking out of character, and turned to Murata. "So? What do you think?"

"Accurate," said Murata, beaming. “The role fits you.  You remember Saiga Amane, Shibuya?” he said to Yuuri. “She’s the best actress in our year. She’ll be playing the part of Elizabeth."

Yuuri had seen Saiga Amane around, and he could swear she didn’t look like…that.

“Saiga is very dedicated,” said Murata, seeming to read Yuuri’s thoughts.  “She bleached her hair for this.”

“Don’t forget the contacts,” said Saiga, batting her eyelashes at Murata.  “When’s practice going to start?  Ready when you guys are.”

“That really depends on Shibuya.”

“You haven’t read the script?” Saiga frowned at Yuuri.  “Get to it, wimp.”

Yuuri felt himself going red.  He had an inkling where Murata was going with this. 

"Shibuya’s having second thoughts," said Murata, a little too innocently. “I was hoping you could talk him into it.”

“Why?” said Saiga. “What’s the problem, Shibuya?”

That annoying smile again.  Murata’s glasses flashed ominously.  “Actually, Saiga, would you mind doing it in character?”

Saiga was dedicated to her craft, Yuuri realized with horror.  She looked almost possessed — a change in her posture, a petulant frown, an arrogant lift of her eyebrows — and she was, once again, the Elizabeth of Murata’s play.  But Murata had made a mistake.  If this was supposed to be a version of Wolfram, no amount of whining, scolding, or shouting would get Yuuri to budge.  He’d gotten far too used to Wolfram’s tantrums — those Yuuri could handle.  Besides, the girl could never channel the real Wolfram’s source of convincing power: fire.  There was nothing like the threat of being burned alive to get Yuuri agreeing to Wolfram’s whims.

But Yuuri should’ve known that Murata was always a step ahead.  “And try to do it in a…persuasive…way,” the sage had added with a wink. “Think about how this character might try to seduce her fiancé.”

That was the first time Yuuri had threatened Murata’s life.

Murata obviously didn’t care.  He’d gotten what he wanted because Yuuri finally said yes before Saiga could do her own interpretation of a temptress.  Later, Yuuri told himself that the entire situation was just too embarrassing, and he’d relented to avoid any awkward moments with Saiga.  (And if thoughts of how a certain hot-tempered fire demon might “try to seduce” his fiancé popped into Yuuri’s head, he wasn’t going to think about it.)

The next two weeks seemed to pass in a blur.  Plans for the stage design, costume, and props had been settled, and Yuuri found all his free hours occupied by rehearsals.  Before he knew it, two weekends had passed without any of his usual excursions to Shin Makoku.  He’d tried to compute the number of days he’d been gone, but the math was beyond him. Murata himself said that cross-dimensional travel wasn't an exact science anyway. Still, Yuuri worried he’d been away for too long. Greta would miss him. Wolfram would be furious.

“Seriously,” Yuuri said as soon as they were out of the other students’ earshot, “I need to get out of here.”

“The play’s that bad, huh?” Murata looked dejected.  If he wanted Yuuri to feel guilty, it was working.

“No. That’s not what I meant.” Yuuri cast his mind around for something else to say. “I just wanted to check on the castle.  Something could’ve happened while I’m gone.”

“Shibuya,” said Murata patiently, “don’t you think I’d tell you if something bad were happening over there?”

Yuuri winced. Murata got him there.

“Of course, something’s always going to happen,” Murata continued. “But Lord von Christ is more than capable of running the castle.  In the off chance that he’d mess up, there’s always Lord von Voltaire to keep him in line.  The kingdom’s in good hands.”

“I know that,” said Yuuri, “but—”

“You don’t trust them?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Yuuri muttered.

“Then why the rush to go back?” Murata grinned at him. “Unless…you’re missing someone?  I’m sure Lord von Bielefeld misses you too.”

Yuuri felt his cheeks heating up. “It’s not anything like that! It’s just…”  Yuuri didn’t know how to finish that.  Just because he liked Shin Makoku better?  He felt more at home at Blood Pledge Castle?  He was happier with Greta, Conrad, Gwendal, Gunter, and yes, even Wolfram, who somehow always got on his nerves?

“They’re worried they’re losing you, you know,” said Murata quietly, his expression shifting. “Your parents. Your brother.”

“What?” Yuuri said, distracted.

“Your mother’s very concerned.”

And at last, Yuuri understood.  There’d been a talk with his parents several weeks before, something about Yuuri missing out a lot of the “normal” high school experience.  Yuuri hadn’t thought much about it, but now, that ridiculous smile on his mom’s face when she’d heard how Yuuri took a role in a school play made a little more sense.

“Oh,” he said.  Then he narrowed his eyes at Murata.  “That’s why you wanted me for the part.  To make sure I stay here.”  That annoying smile again.  Yuuri scowled.  “And you just happened to have a script like this lying around?”

Murata looked smug. “It took an hour to write, give or take.”

Yuuri didn’t know whether to laugh or throw something at Murata’s stupid face.  “They could’ve just asked. Or you could’ve just told me.”

“Would you have stayed if they did?”

Yuuri honestly didn’t know.  Again, Murata got him there.

“Fine, fine,” he said. “I’ll stay until this thing is over.  Unless I’m needed at the castle.”

“Reasonable,” agreed Murata. “That shouldn’t be for a while, I hope.”

But Yuuri found himself sort of hoping for the opposite.  A trip to the other world at this time would mean that something had gone wrong, and Yuuri felt guilty for wanting it regardless.  Yet why not admit it?  He did feel more at home at Blood Pledge Castle, and he did miss his friends.  (And if he was missing a certain green-eyed blond more than any other, Yuuri wasn’t going to think about it.)

Chapter Text

It was a day like any other when Frey Lombard found a strange man bleeding all over his mother’s rose garden.  He’d scaled the stone wall to find a good place to sketch when something caught his eye from the opposite end of the lawn.  Something — or someone — that didn’t belong.

The man was half-hidden amidst the bushes, seated with his back pressed against the wall, like a weary traveler taking a rest from the road.  If he’d meant to conceal himself, Frey thought the man was doing a shoddy job of it.  True enough, a patrolling guard spotted the figure and raised an alarm.  Frey turned away as three more liveried guards came to the first one’s aid.  The guards were always up to the task of hunting down intruders in the Lombard Manor.  But a surprised chorus of pain got Frey to double back.

The guards — all four of them — were on their knees.  The stranger loomed over them, a dagger held in one hand, though a bit unsteady on his feet.  ‘They probably didn’t even see him coming,’ Frey thought, impressed.

One of the guards cursed and threw a knife at the intruder.  The stranger dodged a little too late, the blade nicking his cheek.  But swifter than Frey thought was possible, the man aimed a kick at the guard’s face.  Frey knew the stranger would have taken the other three guards easily enough, but he didn’t wait for a demonstration.  Launching himself from the top of the wall, Frey rocketed through the air, reaching the opposite end of the garden just in time to catch the stranger’s wrist.  He landed on his feet and twisted around, using the momentum to throw the stranger back against the wall.

The intruder was quick to react.  Before Frey could even consider his next move, the man was already surging forward, dagger glinting, murder in his eyes.  Frey’s first thought was that there was a very good chance he’d die in the next heartbeat.  His second thought, unbidden and utterly pointless, was that the man was beautiful, in a strange sort of way.

He had a very unusual appearance, Frey dimly noted, taking in the long white hair and colorless eyes. He was reminded of a sketch, as though some unknown artist had drawn the man on a whim but had neglected — or refused — to do anything else.  An incomplete masterpiece.

Wait. What was he even thinking? More to the point — how was he still alive?  Then realization struck.  The stranger hadn’t taken the swing that would have lodged the blade into Frey’s throat.  For some reason, the man had hesitated.

“Lord Frey!”

From the corner of his eyes, Frey could see reinforcements pouring in, weapons drawn, surrounding him and this strange man who’d just spared his life.  The man retreated, releasing his weapon and slumping back down against the wall.  He looked suddenly travel-worn and beaten.  Vulnerable.  He was injured, Frey saw, the scarlet splotches on the ground indicating the extent of his wounds.

“You’re bleeding on the roses,” Frey said.

The man laughed, angry and bitter but also somewhat…amused. “That’s what you’re worried about?”

“They don’t agree with blood.”

“Perhaps you do,” the man snarled. A threat of sorts. All around them, the guards bristled, but Frey held up a hand.

"What's your name?" he asked. When the stranger merely glared back at him, Frey snorted. "You do have a name, don't you? Or do I have to torture it out of you?" The stranger looked taken aback, and Frey decided to press his advantage. "I'm Frey."

The man considered him for a very long moment, perhaps wondering whether Frey was right in the head.  This wasn’t a conversation a normal person would be having with someone who’d just tried to kill them.  But the suspicion in his eyes was eclipsed by curiosity.

"Ryuu," the man said heavily, as though revealing his name had been a life-or-death decision.

Frey grinned. “Nice to meet you.”

 


  

Yuuri might have reached an understanding with Murata, but the urge to end the sage’s life hadn’t completely disappeared.  It skulked at the back of Yuuri’s mind, surfacing every now and then as rehearsals for the play took on new levels of stress.

The sword scene was turning out to be the bane of Yuuri’s acting career.  It was weird, given that he’d been in actual swordfights before, never mind the fact that there’d always been one or two expert fighters with him at the time.  Yuuri thought he could at least pride himself in knowing how to swing an actual sword, but his ineptitude made him reconsider how having a sentient weapon like Morgif actually created the illusion of skill.  His fellow actors had been supportive, but Yuuri sometimes suspected they were just being nice.

Then one afternoon, just five days before the festival, something drove swords completely away from Yuuri’s mind.  Somebody — and Murata was quick to deny that it was him — had the brilliant idea to make one “minor revision” to the script.  Apparently, the play needed a bit of spice, which was perhaps theater code for “the main characters needed to kiss.”  Ever the professional, Saiga was up for it.  Yuuri thought she was up for just about anything.  Yuuri wasn’t.  When they’d reached that part in the rehearsals, Yuuri had been inches away from a total nervous breakdown. Mercifully, Murata had chosen the moment to suggest that they all take a break, and Yuuri had promptly ran away.

There were students everywhere, so Yuuri found an abandoned corner near the gym and sat down.  He realized he was still clutching the script, the page turned to that infernal scene, and with a groan of disgust, he threw it aside.  He was so close to breaking his promise to his mother and his agreement with Murata.  It was so much easier now.  He just needed water, just enough to open a portal—

"You dropped something," someone said.

Yuuri looked up, startled.  Maybe it was his recent thoughts of escape that made his entire body tense with fear — he couldn’t quite explain it — but his first reaction was to place as much distance as he could between him and the stranger who’d spoken.

The voice belonged to a foreigner — pale skin, long hair leached of all color, weird vacant eyes — who regarded Yuuri with an amused sort of smile.  Even in Shin Makoku where hair colors like lilac and neon green were deemed normal, Yuuri thought the guy would’ve still looked out of place.  The stranger was also dressed in all-white, and much as Yuuri tried, he couldn’t recall a neighboring school with that kind of uniform.  A green pendant was the only spot of color in the guy’s entire body, and it was this that drew Yuuri’s eye.

"Are you alright?" the stranger asked. Yuuri turned red, realizing he’d been staring.

"I-I’m sorry," he said, flustered and yet unable to shake off the feeling that he was in danger. The stranger looked like he’d stepped out of another world, and if Yuuri were to go by experience, he wouldn’t be surprised if the guy turned out to be an assassin or something of that sort.  Yuuri thought the guy certainly looked the part.

The stranger smiled and sat down cross-legged on the ground, gesturing for Yuuri to do the same.

Yuuri didn’t move.  He felt safer standing where he was.  “Uh, do I know you?” 

The stranger shrugged, turning his attention to a sheaf of paper on his hands — the script, Yuuri realized.  “This is interesting,” the guy said, leafing through the pages.  “For the festival?”

Yuuri watched the stranger without comment.  The man didn't look like a student; Yuuri would’ve noticed him before if he were. And although his Japanese was nearly flawless, he was clearly not from anywhere around. 

"Which one are you?" the stranger asked after a beat.

“I — what?”

"Which one do you play?”

‘This is getting weirder,’ Yuuri decided, but he felt compelled to answer: “The king.” He added, a little defensively, “Someone asked me to.”

“Fitting,” said the stranger. “You like being the king, don’t you?”

Yuuri didn’t know how to respond to that.  Besides, why did he have a feeling that they weren’t talking about the play?

“Everyone’s relying on you,” the guy went on.  “Must be difficult.  Must be nice, too.”

Yuuri swallowed the lump in his throat.  “If you say so…”

“That said, I’m honored to meet you.”  The stranger paused to let that sink in, then went on with a strange, icy smile, “Your Majesty, the Demon King.”  He chuckled at Yuuri’s reaction, waving the script in the air.  “That’s what it says here.”

Yuuri blinked, belatedly realizing that the guy was reading a line from the play.

“I could practice with you,” offered the guy, turning another page before Yuuri could respond.  He proceeded to recite the villain’s line with convincing malice: “You will never win, Demon King.  I will destroy you if it’s the last thing I do.”

Yuuri remembered the next lines — “And I will fight you, and I will win. I won’t lose to someone like you.” — but he couldn’t force the words out.

“I’m going to take everything you have.”  The stranger was improvising now, Yuuri realized.  "Your crown.  Your kingdom.  The one you love.  I’m going to take them all.  I’m going to destroy you, Demon King, as the very last thing I’ll ever do.”

“I’m sorry,” said Yuuri, deciding that whatever prank the guy was pulling on him had gone on long enough, “but who are you?”

The stranger laughed, but something like anger, like hatred, seemed to radiate from him.  "You’re a little braver than they say you are, aren’t you, Demon King?"

Yuuri drew back, now definitely alarmed. The stranger got to his feet and took a step forward, one arm raised.  For a wild moment, Yuuri thought the guy was going to hit him, but then he saw that the stranger was swaying and that he’d flung out an arm to try to steady himself.

All sense of danger forgotten, Yuuri moved, taking hold of the guy’s elbow and using his body as a brace to keep the stranger from falling.  “Are you okay?”

The stranger’s head snapped up, and Yuuri met the full glare of those eerie eyes.

Don’t touch me.”

The voice came out in a hiss, vicious and filled with all sorts of implied threats.  Yuuri didn’t need to be told twice.  He retreated once more, fists clenched.  He had a feeling that if this were to turn into a fight, he’d be at a huge disadvantage.

But the stranger moved back too, his composure shaken.  He seemed to recover after a moment, and when he looked back at Yuuri, his face seemed calm.  Almost.  "I have to go," he said. "You’ll see me again, Shibuya Yuuri."

“Wait,” Yuuri said slowly, “how did you know my name?”

The stranger ignored him.  He’d already turned the corner of the building and disappeared from view before Yuuri decided to just go for it.  Something was wrong with that guy, and Yuuri had a suspicion that he knew far more than he was hinting at.

‘Your crown.  Your kingdom.  The one you love. I’m going to take them all.’

"Wait!" Yuuri yelled, running after the guy.  The grounds were filled with students and more were coming out of the gym, but even as Yuuri scanned the crowd, he could see no sign of the pale stranger.

"Hey, did you see a foreigner around?" Yuuri asked a passing student, but the girl looked at him blankly.  The next ones Yuuri stopped along the way all seemed perplexed at the question, and after a few more minutes of searching, Yuuri was forced to conclude that the guy must have taken a different path out of the school.  There was no way he could blend into a crowd of students without anyone noticing him.

‘I’m going to destroy you, Demon King, as the very last thing I’ll ever do.’

Yuuri’s life had been threatened before but not quite like this.  Besides, the stranger hadn’t promised death; he’d vowed Yuuri’s destruction.  And Yuuri didn’t want to imagine what fate was worse than death.  He shuddered. Maybe he was overthinking this.  Maybe this was a prank.  Maybe...

The thoughts hovered over him like a dark cloud on his way back to the classroom.  He didn't even notice Murata until he all but bumped into him by the door.

"There you are," Murata said, grabbing Yuuri's elbow and leading him out. “We need to talk.”

"I know, I know,” Yuuri said quickly.  “I’m sorry but there was—” He broke off at his friend’s expression.  “Wait…what’s wrong?”

"Something came up,” said Murata. “I don’t have all the details, but they need you back at the castle.”

Yuuri suddenly felt nervous.  He’d wanted this, but now that it was here, he couldn’t shake off the feeling that it was going to be one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for things.  A disaster in waiting.

“What for?” he asked.

“The usual,” said Murata lightly, but there was no humor in his eyes. “Stop a war.”

 


 

“That was stupid,” Weisser said.  He’d watched the exchange between Ryuu and Shibuya Yuuri from a nearby rooftop, counting the minutes inside his head.  The conversation didn’t last long, but Ryuu had barely been able to hold his ground.  Just as Weisser expected.

“How long?” Ryuu asked.  He was paler than usual, Weisser noted with a sharp twinge in his gut, fading faster than Weisser thought was possible.  The pain must be more intense now.  Again, another thing that he’d already expected.

“Four minutes,” Weisser said.

Ryuu’s jaw clenched.  “Not enough.”

“No,” Weisser agreed. “You’d be dead before we reach the other side.”  He didn’t need to voice out the reproach in his head — ‘What were you expecting?’ — because more than anyone, Ryuu should know how things worked.  The rules of the universe were rarely fair, but they could never be changed, not even by lawbreakers like them.

“I can get close to him,” said Ryuu after a moment, a stubborn gleam in his eyes.  “I can kill him.”

“And Frey?” asked Weisser.

Ryuu bristled. “What about him?”

“He’ll be there, beside the king.”

The details of Frey Lombard’s rebirth had been unsettling to say the least, and the shock of Frey’s location had just been the first salvo.  Having Frey reborn as a Mazoku was an unexpected bit of trickery — Shinou’s work, no doubt. But if that wasn’t enough, there was also the matter of Frey’s current identity: a nobleman, heir to a prominent Mazoku House, and engaged to the king.

“I can handle him,” said Ryuu. “Finish what I started.”

“You can’t take both of them at once.  The Demon King—”

“—will die by my hands,” Ryuu snarled. “Frey can do whatever he wants.”

“Which is go after you,” said Weisser, not missing a beat. “Is that what you want?”

Ryuu said nothing.  Weisser sighed.  “Sounds like a plan.”

They watched the swarm of people below in silence.  It was getting dark.  The students were packing up their things, all preparing to go home.  Home.  Weisser could no longer recall what having somewhere to return to felt like.  He lifted a hand to his face — a stranger’s hand, a stranger’s face — noting that the fingertips were already turning black.  Then again, he mused, he couldn’t recall what having a body of his own felt like too.

Ryuu glanced at him.  “So soon?”

“This body is rejecting me faster than usual,” said Weisser.

“We’re always running out of time,” Ryuu pointed out.  The fact of their lives.

“Can’t help that now.”

“How long do we have?”

"I think a few months. Maybe less." Weisser stared glumly at his decaying hand. “But I’m going to need a new body.”  Below, the crowd was thinning out.  Weisser surveyed the bodies that remained, trying to pick one that might be of use.

“We have time, don’t we?” Ryuu asked, more to himself than anything else.  It wasn’t like him to doubt himself, but the reality of his helplessness against Shibuya Yuuri must have eroded his resolve somehow.

“We’ll make it,” Weisser promised.  “We’ll see this through.”

The imminent problem was crossing over to the other world, but they’d already set enough of a bait for that.  Tier had remained as a lookout at the last place they’d hunted, but if there was a sign of the target, Weisser had yet to receive a message.  It shouldn’t be long now.  Just a little more push and they’d be in Shin Makoku before the Crypt could track them down.  At least, that was the plan.

They needed something else to tip the scale, draw the prey out, make him desperate enough to make a mistake.  Weisser regarded the people below with a critical eye, then made a decision.

"That one.”

Ryuu followed his gaze. "The girl?"

Weisser nodded, the seed of a plan germinating inside his head. “She’s perfect.”

Ryuu looked skeptical but knew better than to argue.  Weisser wasn’t as good a fighter as Tier or as adept with weapons as Ryuu, but his constant scheming had gotten them out of tight places, kept all three of them alive for longer than they were supposed to.

“You or me?” Ryuu asked.

“Let’s both go,” said Weisser. “You need to…”

‘To feed,’ he finished inside his head.  Again, the sense that Ryuu was wasting away before his eyes hit him like a blow in the gut.  There were a lot of things he couldn’t remember anymore because of Ryuu.  A home.  A body of his own.  And yet because of Ryuu, Weisser couldn’t recall a time when he’d ever felt alone.

Survive together.  Die together.  That had always been the plan.

“Together,” Weisser said.

“Together,” Ryuu echoed.

They vaulted off the roof, hitting the ground at almost the same time, landing on both sides of a startled girl who, until just a second ago, was walking alone toward the school gates.

Ryuu straightened up.  Weisser tapped the girl on the shoulder.  She screamed.

Then all was silent once more.

 


 

'Can’t come home tonight. Tell mom.’

Shibuya Shori received the text message just as he arrived at the restaurant for an emergency meeting with his boss.  He typed a quick response — ‘What happened?’ — then waited impatiently for the reply as a waiter ushered him to a secluded table out in the patio.

‘Castle stuff,’ texted Yuuri.

‘I thought you’re staying put for now.’

‘Emergency.’

Shori scowled at the word, having heard that for the second time in the past hour.  How incompetent could those people at Blood Pledge Castle be?  What problem couldn’t they solve that they’d need to pull Yuuri away from home again?

‘About to go,’ came another text. ‘See you.’

Shori stared at the words in disbelief, his mind already conjuring an image of Yuuri in some whirlpool of water, getting sucked into the portal leading to the Demon Kingdom.  That annoying friend of his might be with him too.  ‘He’d better be,’ Shori thought.  Otherwise, Shori might just punch him tomorrow.

“Is there something wrong?”

Through a haze of cigarette smoke, Shori could just make out the form of Bob, his boss and king, seated at one end of a small table.  Before the man was an ashtray filled to the brim with cigarette butts, as though he’d resolved to burn a hole into his lungs while waiting for Shori.  Either that or whatever this was about had the usually unflappable man so strung up.  Shori had been wondering whether he was being summoned as an employee of a big-shot businessman or as a subject of the king of the Earth Mazoku.  He could now say with certainty that it was the latter.

“Yuuri just left.”  Shori sat down opposite the man.  “He said there’s an emergency.  Do you know anything about that?”

Bob’s brows drew together — a sign of concern.  “I don’t know.”

A worried king who didn’t know what was happening wasn’t an encouraging combination.  Shori could feel the stress piling up.

"As for us, we have a problem," Bob said, tossing a cluster of photographs across the table.  Shori leaned forward to examine the photos: an old woman sprawled over a tiled floor, the ashen face of a teenage girl on a hospital bed, then a man in a business suit dead in a dark alley…

There were several more, all depicting dead people in various positions and backdrops. Shori shuffled through the photos with a rising feeling of revulsion.

"All Mazoku," said Bob.  “Dead of unknown causes.”

“Unknown,” Shori repeated slowly.  “A disease?”

“No.”  There was a twitch at the corner of Bob’s mouth — a sign of anger.  “Murder.”

Shori took that in.  The logic of it all was eluding him.  “But…the bodies weren’t harmed in any way, right?”

“No.”

“But you think they were killed.”

Bob lit another cigarette and took his time puffing through it, watching the fumes rise up into the air. He flicked the edge off, puffed once more, and inhaled deeply.  Shori didn’t mind the wait.  At least it gave him some more time to process what he’d just been told.

“Do you know Erhard Wincott?”

Shori blinked.  Whatever he was expecting, it wasn’t this.  He nodded, although he didn’t understand the connection. "The Mazoku inventor."

“Wincott kept a journal all through his life.  We have a copy at the base.  It’s an interesting read.”

“Wincott is dead,” Shori said blankly.  Long dead.  “What has he got to do with this?”

“Wincott wrote extensively about souls,” said Bob. “Do you know what he said? ‘The body is a vessel. The soul is the essence and existence.’ What do you think that means?”

“That you are what you are because of your soul,” said Shori promptly, “and you exist because of it.  The body is a mere container.”

Bob nodded, lips quirking into a hint of a smile — a sign of approval.  “He also said, ‘Death is passing. True death is the destruction of the soul.’

“When the body dies, the soul moves on.  But when the soul is destroyed,” — Shori frowned at the implication — “you’re gone forever.”

“True death,” said Bob, nodding.

Shori stared at the photographs, the realization dawning on him.  “You think these people…?”

“They weren’t harmed, but they’re dead.”

“Their souls were taken,” said Shori, a shiver of fear slithering up his spine.

“Or worse,” said Bob.

“But why? How?”

“The more important question is, ‘Who?’” said Bob, his eyes burning with a fury that Shori had never seen before.  “They’re hunting souls, Shori.  Mazoku souls.  It’s a declaration of war.”

Shori thought of Yuuri and his parents, and for the first time, he felt relieved that Yuuri at least was out of harm’s way.  Unless…

“Is it just here?  Or is this also happening in the other world?”

“I’m not certain,” said Bob.  “I’ll let you know as soon as I hear something from Shinou, but for now, we have work to do.”  The man’s eyes burned with the promise of justice — or revenge.  “Help me run these bastards down.”

“Of course,” Shori said, ignoring the doubt niggling at the back of his mind.  He didn’t ask what Bob intended to do afterwards.  Whatever it was, Shori reasoned in his head, looking down at the soulless bodies in the photographs, these murderers definitely deserved it.

 


 

Shinou felt a shift in the air, a slight disturbance that heralded the arrival of an unexpected visitor.  They hadn’t seen each other for nearly eighty years, but the visitor didn't waste any time on pleasantries.

"The Crypt was infiltrated," the visitor said.

Shinou understood. Truth be told, he’d expected something of this sort to happen. Eventually.

"Was it them?"

"They were looking for the soul.”

“Of course.”

“They know it is here.”

“Hm.”

“You are sure it is safe?"

“As safe as anywhere in the world,” said Shinou.

The visitor was unmoved.  “They will find their way here.”

“It does not matter.”

“They are desperate,” the visitor said.  “I hope you do not run out of tricks, Shinou. You know what is at stake.”

“I know,” said Shinou.  He wanted to say that he was desperate too, but when he turned, the visitor was already gone.

Chapter Text

“Why didn’t you kill me?” Ryuu asked.

Frey turned the question over in his head.  He’d been asking himself the same thing.  His father had demanded an answer to the same thing.  The other clan members had been whispering about the same thing.  Only Frey’s mother, the Lady Rin Lombard, had offered a…suggestion.

“You like him,” she’d said matter-of-factly.

“He’s a good fighter,” Frey had said. “He can be useful.”

“An unknown quantity.” Lady Rin had smiled. “He can be dangerous.  Both things you like.”

Danger and mystery, Frey considered, sizing Ryuu up. He supposed his mother was right. But there was also something he hadn’t told her — or anyone else, for that matter.  The guards hadn’t noticed anything, but Frey couldn’t shake off that one moment back in the garden, that crucial instance when Frey should have died but didn’t.

“Why didn’t you kill me?” Frey asked too.

“It’s about that?” Ryuu said, disgusted with Frey or himself or both.  “Some stupid code of honor? My life for yours?”

Frey smiled.  This was the most words Ryuu had spoken in over two weeks.  He’d slid in and out of consciousness for several days, and when he’d woken, he’d taken down three guards and scared the hell out of a servant who’d just been delivering his meals.  Frey had to knock him down, and even in the man’s weakened state, it hadn’t been easy.  Ryuu was calmer when he fully recovered, but there was always an undercurrent of anger and frustration in the way he looked at Frey.

Ryuu was glaring at him now, dissatisfied, as though Frey was falling short of some expectation.

“I won’t kill anyone without a reason,” Frey said.

“Without a price, you mean,” scoffed Ryuu. “I heard a Lombard’s sword is worth a fortune.”

“So is a life,” Frey countered, holding Ryuu’s gaze. He wondered what color would best suit the irises of Ryuu’s eyes. Perhaps black. Ebony-black. Night-sky-black. The hair would be black too. Make him look more his age, Frey thought.  Ryuu seemed only a little older than Frey, perhaps nineteen at most. Or maybe it was because Ryuu looked so serious all the time.

He was very serious now. “How much is my life worth?” he demanded.

“Probably more than you value it for,” said Frey, “seeing how you’re so eager to throw it away.”

“I was told I was a mistake.”

The words were spoken with a curious sort of weight, like a secret, held closely like a shameful truth.

Frey shrugged. “A lot of people are. But only the stupid ones will die trying to make up for it.”

“Are you calling me stupid?”

“Because that’s what you are,” said Frey, laughing at the look on Ryuu’s face. “And stupid mistakes are the worst kind.”

Ryuu stared at him.  “Do you have an answer for everything?”

“Try me.”

A pause.  A sharp intake of breath.  An imminent leap of faith.

Then Ryuu said, “What am I supposed to do now?”

“Live,” Frey answered. “Stay, if you want to.”

Ryuu looked doubtful.  But when he was still there the next morning, waiting outside Frey’s door, following silently wherever Frey went, Frey knew that — from that day onward — the man was his.

 


 

“Tell me you’re kidding.”

Murata looked back.  “What?”

“’Stop a war,’” Shibuya quoted, eyebrows knitted in concern.

Murata winced.  “Sorry. I meant it as a figure of speech. It’s just…well…you’ve got visitors.”

“Visitors?”

Shibuya made a face, looking like he’d take ‘war’ over what the other word implied: Politics.  It wasn’t Shibuya’s strong point, Murata knew, which was why the task of entertaining political dignitaries had fallen to Gwendal von Voltaire.  It was an efficient arrangement, given von Voltaire’s diplomatic skills. (Besides, he had a way of overpowering his adversaries into submission with just a raise of his eyebrows.)  Lord von Voltaire did his tasks without complaint, only summoning Shibuya when other kings or heads of state were involved — which, Murata surmised, was likely the case here.

Murata ran through the options in his head, eliminating Lord Cruyff of Cavalcade, Lady Flynn of Caloria, and King Antoine of Francia.  A visit from any of those three would amount to a happy reunion among friends, not something that would rattle Lord von Voltaire and require Shibuya’s presence.  The playing field was still broad, but Murata was almost certain one of these visitors was King Saralegui of Shou Shimaron.  As for the other…did Dai Shimaron already have a new king?

“Stop being so mysterious,” Shibuya griped. It was nearly all he’d done for the past two weeks, and it was, Murata thought exasperatedly, getting quite old.  But he was the Great Sage, destined to play glorified babysitter to another impetuous king.

“They didn’t tell me much,” Murata said, “just that we’d better get there before things get out of hand.”

Shibuya groaned, but he didn’t protest when Murata shoved him toward a drinking fountain.  Murata turned on the water and stuck his hand in; Shibuya followed suit.

This, at least, was something Shibuya did well.  He’d struggled with his maryoku at the beginning, always needing to be half-submerged in water before he could transport himself and anybody else who decided to tag along. But after almost three years and many, many accidents, Shibuya had finally gotten to a level where touching a water source was enough.

“Go to Shinou’s first,” Murata said.

The water glowed, followed by that familiar tingling sensation signaling that they were about to enter the portal connecting their world to the other side.  Murata held his breath, finding himself momentarily immersed in water before his head broke the surface of…

…the fountain at Shinou’s Temple.  That was fast.  Despite his grumblings, Shibuya must have been eager to return.

"Welcome back, Your Majesty, Your Eminence," said a chorus of voices.

It was the most unusual welcoming party Murata had ever seen in recent years.  There were the usual people: Conrad Weller, Gwendal von Voltaire, Gunter von Christ, and Wolfram von Bielefeld.  And yet no one looked quite like themselves.  Lord von Voltaire’s face was more scrunched up than usual, his eyebrows almost converging at the center of his face. Lord Weller’s smile looked forced. Lord von Christ didn’t seem excited to see his beloved king.  And Lord von Bielefeld seemed just about ready to strangle someone, if he hadn’t done so already.

Behind the group were four people.  Two were strangers, but Murata was right on the money about the others.

"Sara!" Shibuya exclaimed.

Murata grimaced at the delight in the king’s voice — and he wasn’t the only one.  Lord von Bielefeld looked ready to explode.

"Yuuri."

King Saralegui was smiling brightly, always a stunning sight, always charming when it suited his purposes.  Belias, his bodyguard, stood imposingly a step behind, a watchful ready-to-spring-and-kill-you shadow.

“It’s so great to see you,” said Shibuya, grinning. “How are you?”

“Better, now that you’re here,” said Saralegui, always delightful whenever he needed to be. His hands clasped Shibuya’s.  “I wanted to see you."

“Me too. I’m relieved, actually.”

“Oh?”

Always coy, always a step ahead of everyone.  Saralegui was in Shibuya’s space, far too close for decorum, but Shibuya seemed oblivious to how they might look to an observer.  Different though their reasons might be, Murata could feel he wasn’t the only one who wanted to break the two kings apart.  He took the initiative, forestalling whatever it was Lord von Bielefeld had in mind.  He could see the Mazoku’s hands twitching, and Murata had no desire to be cremated just yet.

“Shibuya,” he said pleasantly, planting himself between the two rulers, forcing their hands apart.  Not so subtle, but effective.  “We have other guests.”

Shibuya’s head turned to the strangers, and as though some sort of curse holding everyone in place was broken, there was a sudden flurry of movements around them.  Lord Weller was handing out towels.  Lord von Voltaire stepped aside to let the strangers move forward.  With a huff, Lord von Bielefeld made his way beside Shibuya.

Lord von Christ swooped in to make the introductions. “Your Majesty,” he said with a very passable smile, “this is Lord Greyheim Schwarz and his nephew, Lord Damien Schwarz, of Dai Shimaron.”

“Dai Shimaron?” echoed Shibuya, and all prayers that the king would somehow dial back the surprise in his voice went unheard.  Lord Greyheim, a thin, hawk-faced man, bowed stiffly, eyeing Shibuya with distaste.  Lord Damien, a frowning youth no older than Shibuya, didn’t so much as acknowledge the king.  He looked bored and raring to escape, like a child dragged into a business meeting by an overbearing parent.

Murata regarded the two men with interest.  The resemblance was definitely there — the sandy hair and matching hazel eyes — but there was a jarring contrast, too.  Lord Greyheim was all stiff edges and straight lines, very carefully put together.  Lord Damien was all untucked shirt and unruly hair, as sloppy as his uncle was pristine.

“They wanted an audience with Your Majesty,” Lord von Christ said, his tone carefully neutral.

“We have a proposal,” said Lord Greyheim. “If you — if His Majesty would care to listen.” 

"A proposal for me?" Shibuya asked, perhaps not intending to be rude but succeeding all the same.

Murata resisted the urge to roll his eyes.  Very un-sagelike.  Instead, he plastered on his most benign smile. “Lord Schwarz, is it?  The king needs a word with his advisors. If you could wait outside for a moment? Of course,” he added, turning to acknowledge the other party, “King Saralegui will keep you company.”

Shibuya looked about to protest, but Lord Weller put a hand on his shoulder and steered him away.  Saralegui opened his mouth to say something. Fortunately, a glare from Lord von Bielefeld readily changed his mind.

‘Disaster averted,’ Murata thought, smiling at the affronted look on their visitors’ faces, watching as Lord von Christ herded them out of the temple. ‘For now,’ he added, for King Saralegui had glanced back, gold eyes flashing, and the smile on his lips was hard to dismiss.

When Murata joined the others in the adjoining room, Shibuya was in the midst of demanding answers.

“What was that about?” he was asking, his eyes flitting from Lord Weller to Lord von Voltaire and then to Murata, deliberately avoiding Lord von Bielefeld’s piercing gaze.  “Did I miss something?”

“Someone talked,” Lord von Voltaire growled. “No one should have known you were arriving today.”

“I don’t think so,” said Lord Weller. “We’re the only ones who knew. Lord Saralegui could have found out some other way.”

“And Greyheim?”

“He must also have his ways.”

“Spies,” muttered Lord von Voltaire. “I don’t like any of this.”

“Any of what?” Shibuya said. “Why wouldn’t you tell Sara I was coming?”

Don’t,” Lord von Bielefeld said, speaking for the first time, eyes flashing dangerously.  Shibuya flinched.  “Don’t you dare—“

"Wolfram.” Lord Weller’s voice was calm as always, but there was a warning note there as well. “Yuuri doesn’t know about the situation."

“He gave them the impression that he’s on Saralegui’s side!” Lord von Bielefeld fumed, pointing an accusing finger at Shibuya who, Murata knew, was impressively resisting the impulse to hide behind Lord Weller’s back. “He might as well declare his support for Saralegui!  He might as well put the crown on that — that bastard’s head!”

“Wolfram—”

“You know I’m right!”

“Wolf—”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Saralegui himself told Greyheim about this.  Don’t you see?  It was practically a demonstration!  He was showing off just how much he had this — this wimp wrapped up around his finger!  And he — he —” Lord von Bielefeld’s rage was beyond words now, but his anger was too great, he was practically exuding heat.  The stones beneath his feet were melting.

“Wolfram!” Shibuya cried, noticing what Murata did half a second later.  “You’re—”

“Shut up!” Lord von Bielefeld roared, his eyes kindling, his entire body igniting into flames.

‘Never pick a fight with a fire demon,’ Murata thought wryly, and just as he was wondering whether they’d all get incinerated after all, Lord von Voltaire’s voice thundered out:

“Von Bielefeld!”

The fire stuttered, as though doused with water.  Lord von Bielefeld blinked, catching himself.  The flames disappeared; the anger had abated, pushed back somewhat by some emotion.  Shame?

“Get out,” snarled Lord von Voltaire.  “Your recklessness is endangering the king.”

Lord von Bielefeld looked horrified.  “Brother, I didn’t—”

Out.”

For a second, Lord von Bielefeld seemed like he was going to cry, still very much a child at eighty years. But he was a soldier too, and Murata could see him fighting to rein in that jealous, selfish part of himself before it could throw a full-blown tantrum and burn the temple down.

“You’re relieved of castle duty,” said Lord von Voltaire. “Effective immediately until the visitors are gone, you’ll be on border patrol.”

‘That was a bit harsh,’ Murata thought, and he couldn’t blame Lord von Bielefeld for lashing out, “I can’t leave now!  Not while Sarale—”

“If that is all you’re ever going to think about, then you’re not needed here.”

“I should think about it!  I’m Yuuri’s fiancé!"

“What we need is a soldier,” said Lord von Voltaire. “The king’s fiancé is just getting in the way.”

“Gwendal,” said Lord Weller cautiously, “we need Wolfram here to help protect Yuuri.”

“Gwendal,” said Shibuya in a small frightened voice. “I don’t mind if Wolfram stays.”

Considering Shibuya’s record of Wrong Things Said At The Wrong Time, this wouldn’t even reach the top three.  It wasn’t even the wrong thing to say per se, Murata reflected, but it wasn’t enough of a right answer either.

“No,” Lord von Bielefeld said after a beat.  If there was one thing greater than his jealousy, it was his pride. “No, I understand.”

“I’m serious,” said Shibuya. “Stay.  It’s not a big deal—”

“That’s kind of you, Your Majesty,” Lord von Bielefeld said through gritted teeth.  “But His Excellency is right.  I’ll leave right away.”

If he was waiting for Shibuya to say something else or do anything, he was bitterly disappointed.  Lord von Bielefeld didn’t go quietly, and while it wasn’t anywhere near his top three Most Dramatic Exits Ever, Murata had a distinct feeling that it was a pivotal one.

“What?” Shibuya said defensively after the last echoes of Lord von Bielefeld’s footsteps had died down.  “What did I do?”

‘You’re going to lose him,’ Murata could have said, but Great Sage or not, he had to draw the line at Shibuya’s love life.  His wisdom was needed someplace else. “What’s the situation with Dai Shimaron?” he asked instead. “I’m assuming this is about the crown?”

“They’re both aiming for it,” said Lord von Voltaire, ignoring the reproachful look his other brother was giving him. “Saralegui and Schwarz.”

“They’re arguing bloodlines,” said Lord Weller, still frowning but seemingly willing to let things go for the moment. “Both have valid claims to the throne.”

“And they each want Shin Makoku to back their claims?” Murata guessed. He couldn’t keep himself from laughing. “And Shibuya’s supposed to be the tiebreaker?”

They all looked at the king, a mere boy in over his head, once again holding the balance of their world in his raw, inexperienced hands.

Shibuya, wide-eyed and bewildered, still very much a child at eighteen, glared back at them and demanded: “Can somebody tell me what the hell is going on?”

 


 

If Shori thought they'd have a hard time looking for leads, a phone call before the night was over changed everything. They'd already descended to the ground level where a black sedan was waiting when Bob stopped to answer a call, his brow furrowing at the caller's name. "What is it?"  He glanced at Shori meaningfully. "Where?" His frown deepened, and he gestured for Shori to hop into the car.  "We're on our way."

Shori’s stomach clenched, already guessing what this was about.

“They found another body,” Bob said, and there was something in his expression that put Shori on alert. "In a high school."

"What school?" he asked with foreboding.  Bob told him and Shori felt the knot in his stomach tightening. That was Yuuri's school.  Was it a coincidence?  Or had the hunters gone there looking for a specific Mazoku?  ‘It’s a declaration of war,’ Bob had said, but Shori couldn’t shake off the feeling that everything was personal, as though someone was sending them a message of sorts.

“There's a witness,” Bob went on. “A student who found the body.”

‘A lucky break?’ Shori asked himself.  Yet why did it feel so wrong?

Shori mulled this in silence on their way to the campus.  An officer met them at the gates, escorting them beyond the areas already cordoned off by yellow police tapes: Do Not Cross. Police Line.  Before Shori had time to marvel at Bob’s connections, they’d reached the corner of a school building where other officers were gathered.  A plump, bearded man detached himself from the group and plodded over to shake Bob’s hands.

"He’s your trainee?" the man asked, giving Shori a once-over.  “Bit too young for this, don’t you think?”

“This is Shori,” said Bob.  “And he can handle it.  Shori, meet Officer Sato.  He’s one of us.”

Shori bowed.  A Mazoku in the police force.  How convenient.

“If you say so,” said Sato, still looking doubtful.  “The body’s over here.”

As they neared a lumpy thing on the ground that Shori supposed was the body, he felt another lurching in his stomach that was half fear that he couldn’t live up to Bob’s endorsement and half a reaction to a pungent, sickeningly sweet smell in the air.  ‘It’s just like those photographs,’ he told himself before forcibly craning his head down to take a look.

He was wrong.  It wasn’t like the bodies in the photographs.  It wasn’t what Shori was expecting either.  Everything about it was wrong: the corpse looked too old to be a student, his features too strange to even be a local.  Shori didn’t have much experience with this, but he thought the body also looked too far gone for someone who’d just died.  ‘Just killed,’ he quickly amended.

“And speaking of being one of us,” said Sato, “this one isn’t.”

Not a Mazoku.  Bob glanced at him, and Shori could tell they were thinking the same thing: Was the murderer hunting humans now?

But Sato went on, “No identifications.  No hits anywhere.  It doesn’t seem like he’s from here at all.”

“A foreigner?” Shori suggested.

“Farther out, kid,” said Sato, and there was a shrewd look in his eyes as he watched for Bob’s reaction.  “I’m saying this guy is from out there.”

Bob seemed to grow pale, or was it just the light?  He didn’t remark on what the officer said but just asked, “Cause of death?”

“He’d been in a fight, this one,” said Sato. “Bruises everywhere.  But COD’s multiple organ failure.  It seems he’s been dead for a while, perhaps a day or two.”

Shori didn’t understand any of it.  None of it was barely connecting to the previous cases.  All past victims were Mazoku, and all had died with their bodies unharmed.  But if this guy had been dead for a while, how did his corpse end up at Yuuri’s school?  The logical answer was that someone had dumped the body, but Shori wondered whether this was one of those cases that defied any rational explanation.

“You said there’s a witness,” said Bob.

Sato nodded.  He started walking again and motioned for Shori and Bob to follow.  “She’s a student here.  Saiga Amane of Class 3-A.  She was walking home when our guy apparently accosted her.  Jumped from the roof—”

“Jumped from the roof?” Shori repeated, astonished.  So the guy wasn’t only dead but also extremely mobile?  ‘Impossible’ was the first word Shori thought of, but then some part of his conversation with Bob earlier in the evening came rushing back.  The body is a vessel.  “Are you saying someone’s manipulating the body?”

“You’re a quick one,” Sato said, grinning.  “Good trainee you’ve got here, Bob.”

Shori couldn’t see the man’s face, but it seemed to him that there was a distinct note of pride in Bob’s voice when he said, “Successor.  He’s next in line.”

Despite the strain of the evening’s events, Shori allowed himself a smile.

“That’s what I thought too,” said Sato. “I think we’ve got ourselves an Anomaly.”

Shori’s smile faded.  “A what?”

“An Anomaly.  A lost soul.  Either one that can’t cross back or one that won’t.”  The man’s face darkened. “I’m guessing this is the ‘won’t’ kind.”

“And this soul just…took control of a body?” said Shori.  He supposed souls did have to go somewhere once the body dies, and it did make sense that some would linger after death, like ghosts and spirits perhaps?  But why had Shori not heard of something like this before?

“It’s uncommon,” said Sato, “but not impossible.  For one, you’d need an insane amount of power.  Magic.”

“Like maryoku. Demon magic,” said Shori.

“Doesn’t matter what type it is.  This Anomaly has loads of it, enough to keep existing within a body that’s not its own.  Until the body eventually rejects it.”

An alarm was going off at the back of Shori’s mind.  Something was telling him to piece the facts together, to understand, but it was like trying to grasp water in his hands.  That unease that he’d felt since earlier that evening was growing into a sense of terror that sent goosebumps all over his skin.  ‘Danger, danger,’ kept playing on repeat in his ears, but from what, Shori yet couldn’t tell.

Sato led them to a room off the side of the gym where two police officers stood guard.  A girl was seated at one side of a small table, head bowed, shoulders hunched together.

"This is Saiga Amane," said Sato. The girl looked up and Shori was suddenly struck by another sense of foreboding.  Her hair was bleached blonde, her eyes an unnatural shade of green.  She reminded Shori of someone, but he couldn't quite put a finger to it.

“Miss Saiga, these are friends of mine who’d like to help,” Sato continued. “Can you tell them what you told me?”

The girl glanced at Shori and Bob uncertainly.

“It’s okay,” said Shori in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “My name is Shibuya Shori.  I think you might know my younger brother, Yuuri?”

That got her attention.  Something that seemed like eagerness sparked in her eyes, but in the next moment, all Shori saw was fear.  “Shibuya’s brother?” she said timidly. 

“Yes,” said Shori, slightly disconcerted.  There was that alarm again, but he couldn’t see where it was coming from.  “Can you tell us what happened?”

“I–I was on my way home,” said Saiga with a shudder. “These guys, they came out of nowhere.  From above.”

“Guys?” Shori repeated.  There were more?

This seemed like news to Sato as well, for he frowned at the girl.  “You said there was just one.  The dead guy.”

Saiga looked confused.  “No, sir. There were two.  One grabbed me from behind.  The other just started asking questions.”

“And you’re just remembering this now?” said Sato, annoyed.

The girl bowed her head, looking like she might start to cry.  She might have been in shock, but still…

“Let her finish,” said Bob.  There was an edge in his voice that heightened Shori’s anxiety.  Danger. Danger.  “What did the man ask you?”

“Y-Yuuri,” Saiga said tremulously. “They were looking for Shibuya Yuuri.”

Shori’s heart nearly stopped.  “What did you tell them?”

“I said I d-didn’t know.  He left early.  Murata was with him, but they didn’t come back.”

Of course, thought Shori.  Yuuri and Murata must have crossed over by then.  That was a close call.

But oddly enough, Shori could feel no relief.  There was that nagging feeling at the back of his mind again, alerting him that something in the girl's story didn’t ring true.  He wondered how she’d gotten away from the hunters.  How was she still alive to tell the tale? Unless…

Danger. Danger. Danger.

The realization struck him like a slap in the face: They must have let her escape on purpose!  Shori saw the pieces coalescing inside his head.  The soulless Mazoku in the photographs.  This recent attack in their own backyard.  Bob had only been half-right.  This was a hunt alright, but not just for any Mazoku.  They were after the king.  Perhaps both Demon Kings!

The alarm was now a full-blown siren inside Shori’s head, and the words had taken a more concrete form: Trap. Trap. Trap.

The moment of comprehension came a second too late.  Shori turned to Bob, but his warning was drowned by the girl’s scream.

“That’s him! That’s him!”  Her eyes were wide with terror, and she was pointing at somebody behind Shori.

Shori’s first foolish thought was that a ghost had just materialized in the doorway.  Then he felt the “ghost’s” fist connect with his chest and he realized his mistake.  He doubled over, barely seeing the leg that hit him once more on the same spot, effortlessly breaking two of his ribs.   Another strike, this time aimed at his neck, sent Shori crashing to the floor.  

Everything was a blur after that.  He had the vaguest memory of Bob shouting his name, of a gun being shot, of the “ghost” striding in with a purpose, a dagger in hand.  He saw Bob fall to his knees, an ugly gash on his cheek.

Shori’s brain that had moved sluggishly during the calm moments was ironically processing everything with lightning speed. ‘Trap, trap,’ it screamed as Shori caught sight of the “ghost’s” daggers.  ‘Lies, lies,’ it screeched as Shori dimly saw a large someone enter from the other side of the room, easily lifting Bob away as though the man were a rag doll.

‘Maryoku,’ Shori thought desperately. ‘Magic.’  But he wasn’t Yuuri.  Shori’s powers were still unrefined, not strong enough for a fight like this.  Not strong enough for anything, really.  His vision faltered.  Shori tried to keep the darkness at bay, tried to keep awake for as long as he could.  There was an unpleasant ringing in his ears, but Shori thought he could still hear voices:

“We should take him too.”

“What for?”

“Back-up.”

Shori felt his body being lifted off the floor.  And then someone was screaming once more, and Shori’s head was pounding, and the alarm in his brain was abuzz with mixed warnings:

Danger.  Lies.  Trap.

Anomaly.

 


 

"Is this really necessary?" Yuuri asked, examining his reflection in the mirror. As soon as he’d set foot in the castle, he was quickly ushered into his room and fitted into his ceremonial clothes — the Shin Makoku version of his school uniform with a red cape slung over one shoulder.

"I'm afraid so," Conrad answered behind him, a tray containing Morgif held aloft in both hands. "Just think of it as a normal dinner with friends."

Morgif moaned in what seemed to be agreement, although Yuuri suspected the demon sword would approve of anything that’d end its semi-permanent confinement at the treasure room.

"As long as it’s just us and the guests," said Yuuri, fastening Morgif to his side and glancing back at the mirror.  He looked ridiculous.  ‘You look strong,’ Wolfram might disagree, but he wasn’t there to say it now.  Things with Wolfram had somehow gotten too complicated at the moment.  Yuuri caught Conrad’s eye in the mirror.  “Hey, uh, about Gwendal and Wolf…”

Conrad smiled in reassurance.  “Wolfram needs to calm down.  This is Gwendal’s way of giving him what he needed.  It’s not ideal…or easy…but it’s how things work with them.  They’ll be fine, and Wolf will be back in no time.”

Yuuri wasn’t entirely convinced, but if Conrad said so…

“I just don’t get why he’s so angry,” he said. “The situation’s not so bad…”

Back at Shinou’s Temple, Gwendal, Conrad, and Murata had taken turns explaining how things currently stood.  Shori had told him once that politics was just like shogi — a battle of wits and strategies — which simply meant it was going to be way out of Yuuri’s depth.  But Yuuri could understand a marathon, and this was exactly what everything felt like.

“It was chaos,” Conrad had said, bringing Yuuri up to speed on the events following the abdication of Dai Shimaron’s most recent king, Ranjeel. “No one with royal blood remained in the kingdom — Ranjeel had seen to that.  There were stewards, a family called Stein, but they weren’t very popular.  There’d been talks of a revolution or a change in government but nothing too concrete.  Then Saralegui came into the picture.  He’s descended from one of the ruling families back when Shimaron was still a single country, so his claim is good.”

“And he’s ruling over Shou Shimaron now,” said Yuuri, nodding.  It made sense to him.  Sara was intelligent and very capable. Someone born to rule.  “What does Damien Schwarz have over Sara?”

“Damien Schwarz is a direct descendant of a recent king,” said Gwendal. “The last true king, most would say.  Belal was a usurper.  So was Ranjeel.”

“So where was he all this time?” asked Yuuri.

“Self-exile.  Apparently, he refused the throne and left the country.”

“Why wasn’t I given that option?”  He’d meant it as a joke, but Gwendal wasn’t amused.  Yuuri quickly backtracked. “Uh…why’s he back now if he didn’t want to be king before?”

“We’re still trying to figure that out,” said Conrad.  “I heard Yozak might have something for us later.”

“Okay,” said Yuuri, slightly surprised that everything was becoming clear to him.  He might get the knack of this politics business after all.  “So Sara’s going against this Damien person, and both have good claims.  What do I have to do with this?”

“They both want in on our alliance,” said Conrad. “We’ve got Caloria and Cavalcade, and we’ve nearly reached an agreement with Francia.  Dai Shimaron needs the trade routes and agreements — everything that comes out of it.”

“But the alliance will not tolerate another hostile leader,” said Gwendal.

“Then it has to be Sara,” Yuuri said.  “We know him.  We’ve worked with him before.”

“And look how that turned out,” said Murata, joining the conversation at last.  He’d been brooding in a corner for the past minutes, glancing occasionally at a point on the ceiling as though waiting for someone to descend from above.

“Sara’s changed,” said Yuuri. “He’s our friend. My friend.”

“This is precisely why Lord von Bielefeld’s mad at you.”

“What?”

“He made a good point,” said Murata. “You are on Saralegui’s side, Shibuya.”

“Shouldn’t I?  Sara—”

“—betrayed you,” Murata finished for him.

“All in the past,” said Yuuri sullenly.  Why were they giving him such a hard time about this?  Wolfram would understand.  Wolfram had always understood.  It had been Wolfram who’d cheered him up after everything that happened. ‘You can get betrayed as many times as you like,’ he’d said. ‘I’ll protect you no matter what.’

But ironically, Wolfram wasn’t with him on this issue.  Wolfram had left him to fend for himself, and a selfish part of Yuuri felt a little betrayed.  Wolfram had always been a solid presence beside him, but then he’d opted to leave the castle when Yuuri was telling him to stay.  He knew Wolf wasn’t a big fan of Sara’s, but why would he oppose Sara’s political ambitions?

“Regardless,” said Murata, “I don’t recommend being too cozy with Saralegui at this time.”

"’Cozy’?" Yuuri echoed, one eyebrow raised.  He felt like he was six again, and his brother was telling him not to sit beside the scary-looking kid who’d just transferred into his kindergarten class.

"For starters, please don’t flirt with Saralegui in public.”

“Flirt — what?” Yuuri sputtered, blood rising to his cheeks.  “We weren’t — I wasn’t flirting!”

“I’ll rephrase,” said Murata. “Don’t do whatever it was that you did earlier. In public.”

“We were just talking!”

“About how much you missed each other?”

“It didn’t mean anything!”

Murata shrugged and muttered something under his breath. Yuuri thought he heard the words 'denial' and 'stupid.'

Murata didn’t come back with them to the castle.  After giving Yuuri a stern warning to “keep his hands off Saralegui” (“Stop, please!” Yuuri had whined, blushing) and “give Damien Schwarz a chance,” the sage had gone off in search of Ulrike.  Yuuri had hoped Murata would return before the banquet started, but that didn’t seem likely anymore.

“It’s time, Yuuri,” Conrad said after a moment.

Yuuri nodded glumly.  He felt a little bit exposed.  Conrad being there was a consolation, but still, Wolfram’s and Murata’s absence left Yuuri feeling a bit off-kilter.  He doubted he’d ever be a good politician, and if all this was pretty much like shogi, then it was like Yuuri was starting a game without his bishop and his knight.  A good way to lose before he’d even began.

“It’s going to be fine,” said Conrad.

Again, Yuuri wasn’t entirely convinced, but if Conrad said so…

“Yeah, I know,” he said, throwing a final glance at his reflection.  The scared-looking boy in the mirror didn’t seem to agree.

Chapter Text

"What’s that supposed to be?"

Frey looked up from his empty parchment, scowling.  Ryuu had always been less than appreciative of Frey’s artistic endeavors, and he was never shy in telling Frey so.

“That looks like a rock,” he’d once said of a sketch that Frey intended to be a winter rose in bloom.  “Scene after an earthquake?” he’d asked of Frey’s painting of the Lombard Manor.  “Puddle of water?” he’d guessed after looking at another drawing, to which Frey had roared, “It’s a mountain!”

For some reason, Ryuu seemed to take pleasure in Frey’s outrage.

“A sinking ship?”

“A sunset!”

“Severed head?”

“It’s a sparrow!”

“Naked man?”

“IT’S A TREE!”

Now, glancing at the blank page on his lap, Frey thought, ‘Let’s see what he’d make of this.’ He lifted it up, smiling his I-dare-you smile that always seemed to make Ryuu stand a little straighter.

Ryuu didn’t miss a beat. “That’s the best thing I’ve seen so far.”

Frey crumpled the parchment and chucked it at Ryuu’s face.  “You can have it.”

Ryuu caught it deftly, smoothing it out.  He held the parchment up, as though examining the non-existent details. “No contest.  This is your best work, Frey.”

“Really? It’s a portrait of you.”

It was so sudden, a downward shift in Ryuu’s mood as he stared at the empty page, and Frey thought he knew what this was all about.  ‘I was told I was a mistake,’ Ryuu had said before, and although Frey had never pried into the man’s past in the year that they’d known each other, Frey could at least understand the pain of being told you shouldn’t have existed.

“Give me that,” Frey said, snatching the parchment back. “I wasn’t done, you know.  And stop looking so pathetic. It doesn't suit you.”

He grabbed a black chalk and started scribbling the outlines of a face: a sharp jawline, a slant in the eyes. Thin lips and a crooked smile.

“You’re messing it up,” said Ryuu after a moment, seeming to regain some of his humor. “You haven’t even looked at me.”

“I’m drawing from memory,” Frey snapped because he simply was.  But then the impact of what he’d said hit him and his hands stilled.  He couldn’t remember when he’d started doing it, but he’d been looking at Ryuu so much, it was beginning to hurt.

“Frey.”

Ryuu sounded like he was in pain, and Frey hated that he was somehow the cause of it.  There’d been moments like this before, when Frey was almost certain that Ryuu wanted him too.  But the moment always passed, wasted, as though Ryuu was too afraid of…something.

Ryuu was always afraid of something.  Sometimes, Frey thought that Ryuu was terrified of Frey himself.

“Frey!”

There it was again, that fear.  Panic almost.  Frey glanced up, annoyed, but Ryuu was looking past him, behind him, to a looming shadow that Frey noticed a moment too late.  Other details flashed rapidly before his eyes: a hulking figure, large hands, an eagle with outstretched wings.  Frey recognized the emblem of the Souma, a rival clan.

He should have dodged left, Frey thought after.  If he had, Ryuu would have had a clear view of the enemy and taken him down.  But in that instance, all Frey could think about…care about…stupidly and irrationally…was shielding Ryuu.

The world exploded in a flash of pain and blinding light.  Colors danced before Frey’s eyes. The dull gray of the pavement, the blue of the skies, and the red of his own blood.  And then everything faded to black.

 


 

The night wind stung Wolfram’s eyes as he galloped past the castle gates. Somewhere behind, he could hear a faint shout and the unsteady cadence of horses' hooves as his squad struggled to keep up with him.

"Your Excellency!" someone was shouting. “Please wait—!”

The rest of the plea was lost to the wind.  Wolfram flicked the reins harder, urging his horse to go faster, farther, away from all of it — the castle, the overbearing visitors, the bastard Saralegui, and that eternally clueless wimp of a king.  Wolfram had half a mind to go back and punch Yuuri in the throat, but that was like proving to Gwendal that Wolfram couldn’t be trusted around the king after all.

This was all Yuuri’s fault, Wolfram fumed.  He was used to it by now, but there was just something so maddening about the sight of Yuuri and Saralegui together, talking so freely, so easily, when that had never been the case between Yuuri and him.  They never said things like, ‘I wanted to see you,’ to each other, never held hands like it was the most natural thing in the world.  And Yuuri had never smiled at Wolfram like that, like Saralegui was the first person Yuuri had wanted to see if given the choice.  Most times, Wolfram could tell that Yuuri preferred the company of others over his.  It stung, but he was fine losing to Greta or even Conrad on some occasions, but he refused to be upstaged by Saralegui, especially not on his own turf!

‘This is exactly the kind of thinking that got you banished,’ said a mocking voice inside his head that sounded exactly like Gwendal. ‘Get a grip of yourself, von Bielefeld.’

Wolfram felt his cheeks warming with remnants of the shame he’d felt at the temple, when Gwendal had berated him.  ‘The king’s fiancé is just getting in the way.’  Well, Gwendal would be pleased.  The farther away that Wolfram got from the castle, from Yuuri, the easier it was to just be what Gwendal wanted — a soldier.  For what seemed to him like the first time that week, Wolfram started to breathe.  The fog clouding his senses seemed to clear away.

They’d be having a banquet at the castle by now, Wolfram remembered.  He was supposed to be there too, to see that Yuuri didn’t embarrass the kingdom in front of their guests or make any promises he couldn’t keep.  Despite his anger, Wolfram felt a prickle of worry for the king.  But, no.  Gwendal and Conrad would be there, Wolfram assured himself.  They could handle Greyheim.  And there was no danger from the young one, Damien, who was obviously just a pawn in his uncle's game and could be safely ignored for the meantime.

But Saralegui…

Wolfram’s temper flared at the mere thought of the Shou Shimaron king.  Yuuri might have forgiven Saralegui for the schemes he’d pulled on them in the past, but Wolfram would never forget that lost, empty look in Yuuri’s eyes when Saralegui had double-crossed him.  Anyone with half a brain could have taken advantage of pure, innocent Yuuri, and Saralegui was devious on a whole other level.  Yuuri hadn't stood a chance against him.  He’d never stand a chance should Saralegui decide to use him again.  True, Wolfram had given Yuuri the license to keep trusting even if it meant getting betrayed.  And of course, he’d keep his promise: he’d always protect his king.  But was it too much to ask that Yuuri learned to protect himself too?

"Your Excellency!  Look out!”

Wolfram had just enough time to register the warning when he felt a sharp gust of air from above, followed quickly by the whooshing racket of large flapping wings. Something huge flew over his head, landing forcefully on the ground a few feet away.  Wolfram couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  A dragon!

It took Wolfram another split-second to realize that he was going to plow straight into the beast. He yanked the reins abruptly, causing the horse to rear back, neighing in confusion. The horse bucked frantically, terrified, and ended up hurtling Wolfram to the ground.

For a moment, Wolfram lay still where he’d fallen, stunned. A sharp pain was radiating from his head, down to his spine, all the way to his extremities. His vision faded and the world started to spin.

"My lord!"

Someone was leaning over him, helping him up.  He could hear more voices as the rest of the soldiers reached his side.  Wolfram blinked. The pain in his head intensified, and touching his scalp, he felt something wet and sticky.  He tried to breathe, tried to collect himself, but though the dizziness faded, the pain in his head and limbs lingered.

There was a menacing roar as the dragon bore down upon them.  Wolfram took in the blood-red eyes, scarlet scales, and the bat-like wings spread out to their full length. ‘What is it even doing here, so far from the reserve?’ Wolfram wondered, hoping against hope that it was alone.

The soldiers surrounded Wolfram, swords drawn, trying to keep the dragon away. Wolfram gritted his teeth and slowly, painfully, drew himself up, taking a moment to take stock of what was happening.  His men were struggling with the dragon.  At least one was knocked out of the way, two were wounded, and the rest were scattering.  Wolfram drew his sword, cursing when he found his hands shaking.

"My lord!" a soldier yelled. "Please go! We'll hold it off!"

Wolfram made a mental note to punish the soldier later for even daring to suggest that.  The fool had better be alive after this.

Ignoring the pain in his head, Wolfram charged forward.  The dragon screeched, stomping to meet him, as though accepting an unspoken challenge.  Wolfram veered left, avoiding the tail that came swishing across the air.  The dragon reared back and Wolfram ducked to avoid the claw that would have squashed him to a pulp.  This time around, Wolfram didn’t see the tail.  It struck him squarely on the torso, throwing him backward, knocking the air out of him.

From the corner of his eyes, Wolfram saw the dragon’s head darting forward, ready to clamp its jaws around his body and tear him apart.  His arms felt like lead.  His maryoku came out in a stuttering, pathetic burst of flame. Nothing substantial to use as a weapon or a shield.

"Stop!" Wolfram shouted desperately.  He felt the dragon’s breath, scorching and rancid. But to his immense surprise, the dragon hesitated.  The beast’s head was tilted to one side, regarding Wolfram with something like…curiosity.

They stared at each other, demon and beast, and for some reason, Wolfram no longer felt afraid. He had a strong, incomprehensible feeling that the dragon would listen to him, and he repeated firmly, "Stop."

The dragon backed away.

"Your Excellency!"

The shout came from the sidelines.  A spear pierced the dragon’s side, and it retreated with a howl, thrashing angrily.

“No!  Wait!” Wolfram cried, but the dragon was making too much noise, it was impossible to be heard.  He tried to catch the dragon’s eye, to forge that silent understanding he’d felt with it a while back. But the strange bond that held them was broken.

The creature lifted itself off the ground, enormous wings flapping madly, and started to propel itself away.  Wolfram felt a glorious moment of relief — until he realized where the dragon was headed.  Blood Pledge Castle!

Wolfram cursed under his breath.  This was going to be a long night.

 


 

This was going to be a long night.

Yuuri’s gaze shifted nervously to the guests seated on either side of the long table.  Lord Damien and his uncle sat to his right, next to Conrad and Gunter, while Sara was at the left side, beside a stony-faced Gwendal.  The cooks had outdone themselves with the food, but no one had much of an appetite.

‘Awkward,’ thought Yuuri, picking at his meal.  He found himself missing his mother.  She’d definitely have no problem breaking the ice in this situation.

“Lord von Bielefeld isn’t joining us?”

Yuuri looked up, but the question hadn’t been for him.  Saralegui’s face was inclined toward Gwendal, who answered with a gruff, “No.”

“I hope he’s fine,” said Sara, now turning to Yuuri. “He didn’t look too well at the temple.”

“Wolfram’s on border patrol,” Yuuri said without thinking.

“Oh,” said Sara, a smile tugging at the edges of his lips. “You didn’t have to send him away.”

Yuuri didn’t need Gwendal’s glare to know that he’d said something he shouldn’t have.  “It’s not like that,” he said quickly, trying to repair the damage, “Wolfram is…”

Is what?  Sulking?  Angry?  Never going to talk to Yuuri again?

“This is overdue, Your Majesty,” Greyheim said, and Yuuri was almost glad for the interruption. Until the man went on, “But let me congratulate you on your engagement.  I don’t fully understand how it works here, but I was told your eventual marriage to Lord von Bielefeld won’t affect any lines of succession?”

There were big words there that Yuuri didn’t want to think about.  Engagement.  Lines of succession.  Marriage.

“I don’t—”

“Because they say you were selected by…divine providence?”

“His Majesty was chosen by the spirit of Shinou, the First King,” Gunter supplied.

“Efficient,” said Greyheim. “Sadly, we don’t have a system like that in Dai Shimaron.  We rely on lines of succession.”

The atmosphere suddenly crackled with tension.  Even Lord Damien, who’d seemed detached from everything around him until then, finally stirred.  He glanced at his uncle, and Yuuri was surprised to see his young face contorted with what seemed like…hatred.

“That same tired argument,” Saralegui said, sounding almost bored.  “There’s no such thing in Dai Shimaron now.  Ranjeel had no heir.”

“Ranjeel had no right to an heir,” said Greyheim dismissively.  “I was referring to King Johannus Schwarz, the last true king.”

“Ah,” said Saralegui.  “Him.”

“His heir is right here,” Greyheim said, clapping Damien on the shoulder.  “Damien returned to take back what’s rightfully his. And I hope,” he added, eyeing Yuuri gravely, “that Shin Makoku will see that he gets his kingdom back.”

“He abandoned Dai Shimaron,” Saralegui interjected.

“He fled the country,” Greyheim shot back.

‘That didn’t sound right,’ thought Yuuri, remembering Gwendal’s voice back at the temple. ‘Self-exile. He refused the throne and left the country.’  In hindsight, Yuuri realized it hadn’t been a good time to flaunt his newly acquired knowledge, but the question was already out of his lips: “I thought Lord Damien went on self-exile after his parents died?”

It was an innocent question, Yuuri would later argue, but he couldn’t deny that the effect had been disastrous.

Saralegui’s smile was dazzling, but for the first time, Yuuri thought he saw something strange, something so…wrong…in there too.  “Thank you, Yuuri,” he said. “As you’ll see, Lord Greyheim has a knack for rewriting history.”

Greyheim’s lips twisted into a disdainful sneer. “I’m stating facts, Lord Saralegui, unlike the lies you’ve been spouting at the Assembly.  I’ve heard your false claims regarding your lineage—”

“I presented proof,” said Saralegui, unperturbed, “verified by the Assembly’s scholars.  My father,” he added for everyone’s benefit, “belonged to one of the first ruling clans of Shimaron.  He was crowned king of Shou Shimaron for a reason.  He would have ruled all of Shimaron if it hadn’t been for the civil war.”

“And your mother?”

Again, the atmosphere shifted.  The voice had come out of nowhere, low and thick with disgust.  Yuuri was startled to find that it belonged to Lord Damien, who was now glaring at Saralegui from across the table.  Now that Yuuri thought about it, he couldn’t recall ever hearing the boy speak out before. His uncle had always done the talking for the two of them.

“I beg your pardon?” said Saralegui, still smiling, although Yuuri could see no warmth in his eyes.

“Your mother,” repeated Lord Damien. “The Shinzoku.”

Yuuri fidgeted on his chair. He’d met Sara’s mother before (‘met’ being she’d taken him hostage and kind of tried to kill him — but all water under the bridge now).  He didn’t know if Sara had patched things up with Alazon, but the last time she was involved, Sara had a major meltdown.  Sara seemed calm enough now, but his voice had lost its usual pleasant note.

“I didn’t know you were paying attention to me,” he said. “Should I be flattered?”

“Not at all,” said Lord Damien. “I’ve always kept an eye out for half-breeds.”

There was another silence, darker and uglier than the last.  ‘That was out of line,’ thought Yuuri.  Besides, Saralegui wasn’t the only half-human in the room.  Yuuri glanced at Conrad to see how he’d take the insult, but the man’s face was impassive.

Saralegui’s, however, was anything but.  “Is that what you’ve been up to?" he said, his tone dangerously low. “Everyone’s been wondering why a so-called heir to the throne ran away after his parents were murdered.  It makes you think, doesn’t it, whether he’s hiding something about how his parents really died.”

“Damien’s parents were assassinated,” said Greyheim cautiously. “There were witnesses—”

One witness,” corrected Sara. “And he’s seated right in front of me.”  His smile was back, cold and vindictive. “Call me what you want, Lord Schwarz, but at least I didn’t kill my parents.”

Time seemed to stop.  The blood drained out of Lord Damien’s face.  “You don’t know anything—"

“Did you have an argument?  They said something you didn’t like?  Or maybe, it’s about your brother—"

Sara had clearly gone too far.  There was a screeching, scraping noise as Lord Damien threw his chair back.  He was already lunging for Saralegui, a table knife glinting in his hand, before anyone in the table could react.

But it was over before Yuuri could yell a warning.  Dishes clattered to the floor as a figure — Belias, Yuuri saw a little too late — sprang up from nowhere, landing on the table and pressing a sword against Lord Damien’s throat.  Everybody else was standing, alarmed at this turn of events.

Saralegui hadn’t moved an inch.

“What are you doing?” Greyheim cried, recovering from his shock. “Stop him, Your Majesty!”

It took Yuuri a second to realize that the man was screeching at him.  “I — sorry — Sara!”

“Let him go, Belias,” said Saralegui, waving a hand lazily. “It’s my fault.  I think I’ve offended Lord Schwarz.”

Belias obeyed, but only after Lord Damien dropped the knife.  The boy stepped back, holding a hand to his throat where the barest line of a wound could be seen. “That’s not much of an apology,” he muttered.

“You just tried to kill me,” Saralegui pointed out. “Where’s my apology?”

“I’m sorry your guard stopped me,” said Lord Damien.

“Damien,” warned Lord Greyheim, “this isn’t helping.”

“And this is? Groveling before the Demon King? I thought you had more sense than this, old man.”

“This isn’t the place—”

Lord Damien’s eyes burned with anger.  “I don’t want to be king.”

“Damien!” Lord Greyheim protested.

“I don’t want to be king,” Lord Damien repeated in a louder, more decisive voice.  His gaze moved around the table, landing first on Saralegui.  “But I’m not handing the throne to someone like you,” — then Yuuri — “and I’m not going to beg you for anything, Your Majesty.” He glared at his uncle.  “I don’t care what you say.  I’m leaving.”

With his chin held high, face red from anger or embarrassment or both, Lord Damien Schwarz stomped out of the hall.  Greyheim looked shaken, but he said calmly, addressing the room at large, “Don't mind him.  He’s just…I must go talk to him.  He will see reason.”

And he was off too before anybody could say another word.

For a long moment after the uncle and nephew had gone, Yuuri heard nothing but water dripping down the edge of the table, as all the contents of an upended jug flowed out without anyone noticing or caring.

“Well, that was enlightening,” Saralegui remarked, breaking the awkward silence. He picked a piece of fruit out of his hair as he stood up.  “I think I’ll call this a night, too.”

Yuuri frowned at Sara.  It was weird, but it seemed to him as though he’d never really seen Saralegui’s face before.  Beautiful’ was the first word he would’ve used, but now, he could sort of see why everybody else called Saralegui of Shou Shimaron ‘devious.’  Dangerous.

“We could talk some other time, Yuuri,” Sara said, flipping his hair back. “Alone, I hope.”

“Sure, but…are you okay?”

“Splendid.”

“He was out of line,” Yuuri finally said what he’d been thinking.  “But so were you.”

Again, it was weird, but the way Saralegui gazed at Yuuri right then seemed like he, too, was looking at Yuuri for the first time.

“I beg your pardon?” Saralegui said.

“You accused him of murder,” said Yuuri. “I mean, I’m not sure what you know, but really?  That was too much.”

Saralegui didn’t say anything for a moment, his eyes probing, as though he was trying to figure Yuuri out.  Then he scoffed. “I preferred you better when you were innocent.”

And on that note, he strode out of the hall much like Lord Damien had done, head up, face flushed from anger or embarrassment or both, his uncle and protector trailing closely behind.

 


 

The alarms followed Shori in his sleep, loud and unrelenting.  He reached out blindly, arms grasping for something. ‘I’m going to be late for work,’ he thought, forcing his leaden eyes to open.  But he wasn’t at home.  He didn’t know where he was.

Shori sat up, inciting a sharp twinge in his chest, reminding him of his injury.  Right.  Broken ribs.

“Don’t move,” said a familiar voice. It was that girl. Saiga something.  “You’ll hurt yourself.”

Shori tried to focus.  He was in another room.  Small.  Cramped.  Dark.  There was a door to his left but no windows.  No Officer Sato or Bob.  Just him and the bleached-blonde girl.

“Are you alright?”

Shori shook his head.  His brain swirled with a dizzying eddy of faces and objects and things that were done and said for the past — wait.  How long was he out?

“We were attacked,” Shori said aloud, more to himself than the girl.  Fragments of memories were rushing back to him, still jumbled, but now a tolerable mess that he could somehow untangle.  “There were two of them.”

“It happened so fast,” Saiga agreed.

“Where’s Bob?” said Shori.  “Officer Sato?”

“I don’t know.”

Shori’s mind continued to race.  They’d been taken.  There were two enemies at least.  Bob could be nearby.  Shori was weak but alive.  The girl was unharmed.  Simple facts.  Simple answers.  Simple truths.

Shori stopped.  Thinking was painful.  Breathing was painful.  He sat still for a moment, gathering his wits and his strength.  “You’re Saiga, right?” he said. “Are you okay?”

“What? Yeah…I was scared. But they didn’t hurt me.”

And there it was again, that something nudging at the back of Shori’s head, whispering, ‘Lies. Lies.’  He breathed slowly and tried to clear his mind, to grasp that one stray piece of yarn that would unravel this entire mess.  He studied Saiga for a moment, itemizing what he knew about her.  The girl had been in shock.  She’d given Officer Sato the wrong information.  She’d alerted them to the enemy when they’d been attacked.  Shori had heard her screaming as he was lifted away.

Lies. Lies.  Shori retraced that moment in his head.  Who wasn’t telling the truth — and why?  Simple facts.  Simple truths.  His mind whirled.  And then…he saw it.

“It was you,” whispered Shori, meeting Saiga’s gaze, seeing every action she’d taken from a different perspective.  She’d lied to Officer Sato.  She’d directed their attention to the ghost in the doorway and distracted them from the other man who came right after to take Bob away.  It hadn’t been her screams that Shori had heard: it had been Sato’s.  As Shori’s memories became clearer, he remembered she hadn’t been screaming at all.  She’d been talking.

‘We should take him too.’

Shori’s skin prickled with horror.  “You’re with them,” he said.  “You…who are you?”

The girl was silent for a moment.  Then a grin slowly twisted her lips.  “Saiga Amane of Class 3-A.”

‘Lies,’ said his brain, replaying a mental image of the corpse in the school grounds.  A body that moved and lived far longer than it should.  The body is a vessel.  And then one word, spoken in Officer Sato’s voice, came to the fore: Anomaly.  A lost soul.

“No, you’re not,” Shori said. “The dead man — that was you.  You did attack Saiga.  You took her body.”

The girl smiled sweetly.  “I’m liking you so far.”

“But…what did you do to her soul?”

The girl’s face told him all he needed to know.  Anger surged through Shori’s body, numbing the pain in his chest.  He felt unusually alert. Strong.  Powerful.  The girl must have felt the change too, for she backed away at once, her eyes cautious.

Shori drew himself up.  “The others…the Mazoku you’ve killed…their souls…”  He felt the power pulsing through his veins and vaguely noted that his body seemed to be glowing.  Images of the dead Mazoku flashed through his head.  Was this what they had planned for Bob?  For him?  “Where is Bob?”

“You have magic too,” said the girl who had once been Saiga Amane.  “Must run in the family, huh?  Your brother, Yuuri—”

Shori had no conscious thought of leaping forward and pinning the girl against the wall, but he wasn’t at all surprised that his body moved of its own accord.  “What do you want with Yuuri?” he growled, his hands closing around the girl’s throat.  “You said those guys were looking for him!  Why?  Who are they? Who the hell are you?”

Some remaining smidgen of logic told him that the girl couldn’t respond while he strangled her to death.  But someone else did:

“Calm down, Shori.”

Shori whirled around, grabbing the girl toward him and flinging one arm across her throat, keeping her close in a stranglehold.  The ghost-like boy stood at the doorway, and the alarms in Shori’s brain went haywire.  Danger. Danger. Danger.

“If you’d like to see your master,” said the ghost, “release the girl.”

“No,” Shori snarled. “Take me to him or she’s dead.”

The ghost looked unimpressed, but his eyes weren’t on Shori.  “Remind me again how useful that body is, Weisser?”

The girl managed a coughing sort of laughter.  “He won’t kill me.”

Shori tightened his grip. “Give me a reason not to.”

“That’s my name, by the way,” said the girl, undeterred by Shori’s ferocity. “Weisser. The grump in front of you is Ryuu.”

The ghost made an impatient sound. “You’re wasting time.”

He stepped back outside the room, moving so quickly, so silently, that it was like he’d just drifted through the door.  Shori hesitated, half expecting the boy to magically reappear through the walls.

“You’re supposed to follow him,” the girl, Weisser, said.

“Shut up,” Shori snapped, but he obeyed all the same.  It was dark outside, but Shori could see enough to recognize where they were.  They must be in one of the nearby buildings.  They hadn’t left the campus at all.  The room they’d just come from must have been an empty supply closet.  Several steps ahead, Ryuu was waiting in front of a classroom door.  A wooden sign above read ‘3-A’.

Ryuu entered.  Shori followed, pushing the girl forward in front of him like a shield.  The light from the windows revealed boxes littered all over the room, along with banners, other oddments, and one painted structure that looked like the turret of a castle.  Shori felt another twinge in his chest, knowing that Yuuri had been here earlier in the day, living his high school life the way they hoped he would.

A man was waiting inside, a brute of a man so huge that Shori couldn’t see how he could have fitted through the doorway.

“It’s not going well,” the brute was telling Ryuu.  His dark brown hair stuck up all over the place, a few strands clumped together by drying blood.  His eyebrows rose when he saw Shori.  “I’m guessing it’s time for Plan B?”

“Whatever it takes,” said Ryuu.

“Not fun at all,” complained the brute, stepping aside to reveal a bloody, heavily beaten figure sprawled on the floor.  Shori’s stomach lurched with dismay.  It was Bob.

“And this good man who likes beating people up is Tier,” said Weisser.

Rage swelled inside Shori once more, a roaring wave of light and energy coming together and clamoring to burst out.  He wanted to hurt them all as much as they’d hurt Bob, and the very thought seemed to shatter something within him.  Power poured from his fingertips, cold and fluid, twisting and turning into the form of a dragon.  A water dragon.

That looks fun,” said Tier, crunching his knuckles, eyes alit with excitement. 

“You may want to let go of me if you’re going to fight,” Weisser said, looking meaningfully up at Shori. “If this body dies, I’d take the nearest one I could find.  And I see a dying man right over there.”

With a disgusted grunt, Shori pushed her away, his eyes now trained on the enemies before him.  He doubted he could take two at once, but it wasn’t as if he had any choice.  Shori raised his right hand.  The water dragon curled around it, obedient, pliant, as though waiting for an order.  He could do this.  He refused to think otherwise, not when doubt could mean his defeat and whatever horror came after.

“We don’t want him dead,” said Weisser to his companions.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Ryuu, his voice as hollow as his eyes.  “Just make him do it.”

Tier grinned.  “Leave this to me.”

Shori quelled the fear in his chest and held his ground, steeling himself for the worse.

Chapter Text

The attack left Frey bedridden for the better part of a week.  His father was furious — at Frey.

“Careless!” Lord Garez fumed when Frey was finally conscious enough to understand what was happening around him.  He’d hit his head and broken an arm, but he hadn’t been as hurt as he’d expected.  It seemed like he owed Ryuu again.

“A single thug got the jump on you?” Lord Garez demanded.  He rounded on Ryuu, who’d been lurking at the foot of the bed, watching silently throughout the man’s tirade. “Both of you?”

“It wasn’t his fault—” Frey started to say, but his father silenced him with a look.

“And how is launching an attack on the Souma clan going to help?” he said, eyes narrowed at Ryuu. “Are you trying to start a war?”

“I was defending myself,” said Ryuu.

“You were in their territory!”

“I didn’t know that,” Ryuu said with a shrug. “I must have gotten lost.”

For a second, Lord Garez looked a little lost himself, both amazed and amused at the response. Then to Frey’s astonishment, his father let out a bark of laughter.  “You have no sense of direction at all.  Is that your defense, boy?”

Ryuu nodded gravely. “Yes, my lord.”

“And if they come after us?”

“’Us?’” Ryuu looked way too innocent. “But I’m not under any oath to the Lombards, my lord.  Unless you’re planning to recruit me.”

Ryuu had been more of a visitor at the manor until then, an outsider who was tolerated because of Frey.  Although he’d stuck to Frey and had accompanied Frey on missions, he'd never expressed any desire to formally join the Lombards. Nor had Lord Garez trusted him enough to offer him a place or a position in the clan.

“You defeated half of the Souma’s forces on your own,” Lord Garez mused. “I’m surprised a fighter like you hasn’t been recruited elsewhere.”

“I only fight for people I trust,” said Ryuu.

Lord Garez said nothing, but that was the first time Frey had seen his father look so mightily impressed.  He ignored the jealous pang in his gut and instead asked Ryuu a while later, when they were finally left alone, “What was that about? You getting ‘lost’ in the Souma territories?”

Ryuu sat down on the bed, next to Frey, his expression pained.  His eyes were on the bandages around Frey’s forehead.  “I had to do something.”

“Which was?”

Ryuu reached out, his fingers brushing the sling on Frey’s arm. “I may have broken the arm of their leader’s son…among others.”

‘Among others.’ What a sight that must have been, Ryuu marching into the Souma territories like some avenging angel.

“I thought I’d lost you,” Ryuu added softly.

Frey blinked.  He supposed he should be grateful, or pleased, or…whatever. But instead, he felt a sense of bubbling anger.  Ryuu was doing it again, making Frey think, making him hope — and hope was perhaps the most hurtful thing in the world.

“Frey.”

And there it was, that tone that made Ryuu sound like he was hurting too.  Frey couldn’t look at him.

“Your father’s right,” Ryuu said. “That was careless.”

Frey scowled at the windows.  “I’m glad you two finally agree on something.”

“Why didn’t you dodge?”

Frey glared at the drapes.  “What kind of question is that?”

“You didn’t need to protect me.”

“I’ll try not to save your life next time.”

“Frey.”

“What?” he snapped, turning to look at Ryuu.  He immediately wished he hadn’t.  Ryuu’s eyes were bright.  Earnest.  Beautiful.

“You could have died.”

“Well,” said Frey, exasperated, “I guess now we know how much your life is worth.”

A pause.  A sharp intake of breath.  An imminent leap of faith.

‘Jump,’ Frey urged silently. ‘Try me.’

“Why do you always have an answer to everything?” Ryuu muttered, shaking his head.

Then he leaned forward to kiss Frey.

 


 

An attempted murder.  Guests walking out.  One probable enemy made and one friendship possibly destroyed.  All in a night’s work.

“So,” said Yuuri, glancing at the men around him, “how badly did I mess up?”

Gunter looked aghast. “Your Majesty has done nothing wrong!”

“It’s not that bad,” said Conrad. “I agree with King Saralegui.  That was ‘enlightening.’”

“I didn’t expect that from the Schwarz boy,” said Gwendal. “Did you find anything on him?”

The question was directed to a tall redheaded maid who’d helped serve the meal earlier.  Gwendal had dismissed everybody else but her, but she didn’t seem too keen on cleaning up the clutter the guests had left behind.  Instead, she plopped on the seat Saralegui had just vacated and proceeded to help herself to a glass of wine.

No one but Yuuri seemed to find this odd.  Everybody else was looking at her expectantly.

“Well,” said the maid in a deep baritone, causing Yuuri to draw back in surprise, “King Pretty Boy is on to something there.  Little Schwarz is definitely hiding a lot of stuff about his parents’ deaths.  Relax, Kiddo,” she added, winking at Yuuri. “And good job calling Pretty Boy out on that.”

“Y-Yozak!” Yuuri gasped.  “How long were you…?”

“From the start,” said Yozak, yanking out the red wig to reveal an untidy mane of bright orange hair.  “Anyway, I didn’t find out as much as I’d like.  If I didn't know any better, I’d say the Schwarz family entries were intentionally destroyed from their Royal Archives.  Lucky one of the army generals threw a birthday party and ordered some…entertainment…for the night.”  The man's eyes twinkled with meaning.  “You know, for him and his men. Good thing I packed that lace outfit—"

Gwendal cleared his throat loudly. "Yozak."

"Focus, Yozak," Conrad chided, a small smile playing on his lips.  Gunter looked far too scandalized to say anything.  Yuuri was just struggling not to laugh at the image of a scantily-clad Yozak gyrating atop a table to the cheers and catcalls of a battalion of soldiers.

"Right. Sorry, Captain," Yozak laughed, completely unabashed. "So, I hooked up" — Gunter made a disapproving noise, and Yozak changed tack at the speed of light — "I talked to a Shimaron official, and he said the Schwarz family were actually immigrants from a faraway land, somewhere from the mountains."

"Immigrants?" echoed Conrad thoughtfully. "They weren't originally from Shimaron."

“Yes.  King Pretty Boy has an edge there.  His family’s definitely one of the early settlers.”

“Is this common knowledge?” Gwendal asked.

“Surprisingly, yes.  But I know where you’re going with this, General,” said Yozak. “Why aren’t all the noblemen rallying behind Pretty Boy?  Well, Little Schwarz summed it all up.”

“No way,” said Yuuri. “They don’t like Sara because he’s half-Shinzoku?”

“Prejudice runs deep, Your Majesty,” said Gunter sadly. “You saw how Lord Damien reacted.  There are bound to be many more like him.”

“But they came to us,” Yuuri protested. “You said they’re willing to ally with us—”

“Because there’s something to be gained,” Gwendal said. “I’m sure they’d turn their coats as soon as Dai Shimaron is back on its feet.”

“Are you saying let’s just back Sara?”

Gwendal spared him a withering look.  “Although I don’t doubt His Majesty would like that,” — Yuuri flushed at the insinuation — "I’m saying neither of them is a good option.  Who else is there?”

“Well, there’s this rumor going around about the true prince,” said Yozak.  “Little Schwarz had an older brother — Maximilian IV — who vanished shortly after their parents died.”

“Lord Damien isn’t next in line to the throne?” Gunter said.  “That changes everything.”

“Apparently, it was Old Schwarz who kept the prince rumor going for years.  I think he’s been looking for this Maximilian fellow all that time. When he couldn’t find him, he settled for Little Schwarz and began singing a different tune.  But from what I’ve heard, Little Schwarz is a hard sell.  You’ve heard him talk.”  Yozak downed another glass of wine.  “Very hung up about this half-breed thing.”

“And the ‘killing his parents’ thing?” Yuuri asked, determined to show Gwendal that he was, as Murata instructed, giving Lord Damien a chance. “That can’t be true, right?”

“That was five years ago,” said Yozak. “There were a lot of versions, but the most straightforward — and the one that tallies with evidence — was that the king and queen were burned alive.  Little Schwarz was thirteen at the time.”

“And did he…?" Yuuri couldn’t bring himself to complete the question.

“He was the only one there, Kiddo.  Some say he started the fire himself, but Dai Shimaron officially blamed rebels for the deaths. Little Schwarz didn’t defend himself, but the official I talked to did say something odd.  When he was first found outside the palace, he apparently kept saying something about…well…dragons.”

Dragons?” Yuuri repeated.  “In Dai Shimaron?”

Yozak shrugged. “They thought he must’ve been in shock.  But he never said anything about his parents’ deaths after that.  There were doubts, of course, but the nobles didn’t want a civil war on their hands. When they can’t find the older brother, they pushed for Little Schwarz’s coronation despite everything.”

“But he left,” said Gwendal. “He chose exile.”

“Strange, isn't it? Old Schwarz was elected as Steward, but nobody liked him much, too.  He made it very easy for Belal to grab the throne."

"And now Lord Damien is back," said Conrad. "Any idea what he’s been up to?"

“Sorry, no,” said Yozak, who looked troubled by his own incapacity to obtain the information. “He’s always been on the move, like he’s been looking for something all these years.”

“Or someone,” Gwendal put in.  “Keep at it, Yozak.  I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the Schwarzes just yet.”

Yuuri's head was starting to throb.  Yes, he could admit it now.  He’d been on Saralegui’s side the entire time.  Sara was ambitious, he admitted so himself.  But despite his faults, Yuuri knew Sara genuinely cared about the people of Shimaron, and that was a crucial trait for a ruler.  As for Lord Damien…Yuuri didn’t know what to make of him.  Sure, he’d scolded Sara for accusing Lord Damien of murder, but hearing all that Yozak had to offer, Yuuri couldn’t shake off the ugly thought that Sara might have been right.

“Hey, what if—?” Yuuri began, but a muffled commotion outside the hall cut him short.  Soldiers were rushing in, their eyes wild with panic.

“Your Majesty!” one soldier panted, pointing at the windows.  “Outside!  There’s a—“

Yuuri's stomach clenched with fear. The rest of the soldier's statement was unintelligible, but there was no mistaking the fright and urgency in his voice.  Then Yuuri saw what everybody was pointing at and he understood right away: A huge, flying creature had blotted out the moon.

“What the hell is that?” Yozak blurted out.

But there was no mistaking the silhouette of their unwanted visitor.  A dragon!

 


 

"There you are," said Murata. "I thought you’d never show up."

Shinou paused, turning ever so slightly to smile at him. "You are still here? Are you not needed at the castle?"

“I wanted a word with you.”

“You just had it.”

Murata narrowed his eyes.  "You've been avoiding me."

“Hm.”

He took that as a 'yes.' “Ulrike told me you’ve been…visited.”

Shinou chuckled.  "I could never keep a secret from you two, could I?"

"What's going on, Shinou?"

"Nothing that concerns you."

There was a hard note in his voice, a warning in his eyes, hints of something that Murata felt locked out of.  And Murata understood.  This was something Shinou couldn’t talk about, something no one was supposed to know.  Not even — or perhaps, especially? — the Great Sage.

“I see,” Murata said after a moment, averting his gaze. “How bad is it?”

But even that must have been too much to answer.  The silence stretched on until Murata realized that Shinou was no longer there.

Murata sighed and pushed his hair back.  “That bad, huh?” he muttered softly to the night.

 


 

"My lord, it's going that way!"

Wolfram chanced a glance at the sky, to where his soldiers were pointing.  He could easily make out the dragon's form, a scarlet gash against the inky night.  He rode forward, leading the charge.  The guards at the city gates must have spotted the dragon for Wolfram could hear alarms being raised.  ‘Good,’ he thought, hoping that reinforcements from the castle would arrive.

“It’s coming down!”

Wolfram looked up again.  They were nearing the city walls, and for some reason, the dragon was losing altitude, rapidly descending to ground level.  Wolfram felt a little relieved.  If they could head the beast off before it decides to take a stroll through the town, maybe they could drive it away.  He’d call that a win for now.

The ground seemed to vibrate as the dragon crash-landed.  The horses whickered in fear, stopping, unwilling to approach any further.  Wolfram vaulted off, the rest of his squad following suit, all sprinting as soon as they hit the ground.  The dragon, however, didn’t seem to mind them.  It seemed preoccupied, its nose lifted, tongue darting forward, as though tasting the air for something.

“Wait,” Wolfram warned.  Of the ten men that he’d had with him, only six remained, all of them injured in one form or another.  Wolfram still felt dizzy too, distracted by a strange thrumming in his head, like something was trying to burst out of his brain.  He tried to focus.  “Don’t get too close. Just try to get it away from the gates.”

The soldiers nodded, determined.  Then they took off as one, weapons drawn.  The dragon paid them no heed.  It turned abruptly, as though following a scent, ambling unsteadily toward the main road.  The ground trembled as it trudged away.

What in Shinou’s name is it looking for?’ Wolfram wondered, running alongside it.  Then in the darkness, he heard the clattering noise of a carriage riding past.  Wolfram had little trouble recognizing it: It was the Schwarzes'.

He had no time to wonder what the carriage was doing there in middle of the night.  With a burst of speed, faster than Wolfram thought was possible, the dragon rushed forward, wings outstretched and jaws bared.

“Look out!” Wolfram yelled at the coachman, but the man had already lost control of the horses.  The carriage crashed and tumbled, a horrific tangle of shattered wood, whinnying horses, and terrified men.  Figures were emerging from the wreckage, but Wolfram couldn’t clearly see their faces.  Someone shrieked.

Cursing, Wolfram sped up toward the commotion.

 


 

“You’re making a mistake.”

Damien ignored his uncle, again regretting that he hadn’t found the carriage fast enough before the man could join him on his midnight escape from the Mazoku’s lair.  ‘I should have kicked him out,’ Damien thought.  If Greyheim was so eager to ally himself with the Mazoku, spending another night in the Demon King’s castle wouldn’t hurt him.

“This is a mistake,” Greyheim repeated.  “You can’t take the throne alone.  We need the Mazoku.  We need the Demon King.  We have to go back.”

Politics.  Damien hated the word and all that it signified.  He wasn’t — and was never meant to be — a statesman. His parents had given all the training to their first son, his older brother, the one who was meant to ascend the throne.  Damien, on the other hand, was left to do as he wished and be what he wanted to be. As the second son, nothing was expected of him.  Damien was fine with that arrangement, until…

‘Five years,’ Damien thought grimly.  Had it been five years already since that night?  It had felt longer.  A long wait for justice.  A longer wait for revenge.

"I won’t stand for this," Greyheim said, rousing Damien from his memories. "Have you forgotten our agreement?"

Damien couldn’t keep quiet any longer.  “Our agreement?” He all but spat the word.  It wasn’t anything like that to start with.  It was a trap.  Blackmail.  Coercion.  “I agreed I’d take the throne.  How I do that isn’t up to you.”

“Then let’s agree on another thing.  Do as I say, or the deal is completely off.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t need me—”

“Oh, I do,” said Greyheim, “but you need me too.  Unless you want to spend another five years chasing a ghost?”

Damien hated to admit it but the despicable man had a point.  He hadn’t had any luck in five years, but if Greyheim’s words meant anything, the man could at least lead Damien to the half-breed he’d been hunting.  Assuming, of course, that Greyheim was telling the truth.

“I’m not stupid to offer something I don’t have,” said the man, as though reading Damien’s thoughts. “It’s simple: Get the throne, and I’ll tell you everything I know about your brother.”

It was hard to accept sometimes that this man, his father’s brother, was family — his only living relation as far as the public knew.  But families do need to stick together, Damien thought wryly.  At least for the time being.

“Fine,” he said after a long reluctant moment.  “But if you’re lying, I—”

The carriage suddenly staggered onward, picking up speed.  Damien reached out for something to steady himself, but his hands only closed on thin air.  He pitched forward, nearly knocking against Greyheim.  He could hear the horses whinnying in terror and the coachman shouting something indistinct.  Moments later, the carriage was toppling over, throwing Damien back against the wall.

Damien took a second to catch his breath.  His uncle was cursing fluently, his composure shaken.  The ground seemed to be quivering.

‘Earthquake?’ Damien thought.  But through a crack in the wood, he thought he saw…a monster.  Gleaming blood-red armor.  Sharp knives for teeth.  Leathery wings.

“What is that?” said Greyheim, looking around wildly.  He hadn’t seen anything but he’d definitely heard that unearthly growl that confirmed Damien’s fears.  There was a dragon out there, and from the sounds of it, they were under attack!

“Out!” Damien shouted.  “Go!”

Maybe Greyheim heard the panic in Damien’s voice, for he scrambled out of the carriage with no protest.  Damien followed and was quickly overwhelmed by the mayhem that greeted his eyes.  People were shouting.  The trees were on fire.  Debris were scattered all over the road.

Then a shadow obscured the moon.  Damien heard the rustling of large wings, and the wind surged through him, almost blowing him away.  The ground shook as something massive and heavy landed a few paces away.  Greyheim was already moving, running for cover, but Damien was frozen to the spot.  It was like the monster of his dreams, the beast that had plagued his nightmares for five years.

The dragon seemed to be glaring at Damien, the slit of its crimson eyes locked on his own. Damien couldn’t move. The dragon advanced, a menacing growl building in its throat.

Death was coming for him.

But then…an angel came. Or, at least, that was what Damien thought it was.

His savior descended from nowhere, golden hair whipping like a halo around his face, landing between Damien and the beast. The dragon snarled at the newcomer, but the angel pushed the monster back with a slash of the sword, deflecting the dragon’s flames with his own blaze of fire.

Damien stared, fascinated. The angel turned to him, eyes wide with something like disbelief and rage. "What are you standing around for? Run!"

Damien gaped at his rescuer, suddenly realizing that the “angel” was dressed in a blue military uniform.  This was a Mazoku.  A beautiful Mazoku.  An extremely angry Mazoku.  Damien recognized him although he couldn't remember his name.  He was at the temple, the one who’d proudly declared himself to be the Demon King’s fiancé.

"Run!" the Mazoku yelled, and this time, Damien took heed, taking off straight toward the trees.  Glancing back over his shoulder, Damien saw that other soldiers in blue were rallying around the Mazoku, who was fighting the dragon, fire on fire. The other soldiers moved in, flinging spears and knives that just glanced off the dragon’s scales.

The dragon didn’t even seem to be paying full attention to them.  It held its ground, red eyes scanning its surroundings for something.  To Damien’s horror, the dragon turned sharply toward him, as though it could somehow see him…sense him.  A spurt of fire streamed from its mouth.  There were screams all around and the soldiers scattered for cover. The dragon lifted itself up, hovering in the air for a moment, before diving straight to where Damien stood.

Damien ran for his life. He heard a swishing noise, ducking just in time as a set of claws ripped through the air, at the spot where his head had been seconds ago. Damien stumbled, falling hard on the ground. The dragon reared its head in triumph.

“Move!” someone shouted, and for the second time that night, the Mazoku came to Damien’s rescue.  Damien stooped low as the Mazoku swung at the dragon, distracting it for a moment.  The Mazoku landed next to him.  “Come on!” he yelled, grabbing Damien’s wrist and pulling him along while the dragon screeched in pain.  Damien realized the Mazoku had struck one of its eyes, perhaps blinding it for good.

They paused behind a jutting protrusion of rock to catch their breaths. 

“It’s after you,” said the Mazoku, rounding on Damien, eyes ablaze.  Damien noticed for the first time how they were a startling shade of green.  His grip on Damien’s wrist tightened.  “Why?”

“W-What?” Damien panted, swatting the Mazoku’s hand away.  “That’s ridiculous!”

“You weren’t supposed to be out here.”

“I was leaving.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“What does it matter?”

The Mazoku scowled.  “Because you’re in the way!”

"I don't need help from a Mazoku," said Damien angrily.

"You could have told me that before I saved your life twice, human."

“I don’t—”

The dragon barreled through the trees, cutting off Damien’s protest.  With a snarl and a beating of its gigantic wings, it arced up into the skies, jaws parting, tail swinging madly.  With a jolt of dread, Damien realized it was gearing up to set the forest on fire, to burn them alive.  There was no escaping it this time— 

“Stay low,” said the Mazoku, leaping on top of the boulder.

"What are you doing?" Damien hissed at him.

The Mazoku actually grinned back.  "This isn't over yet."

And then to Damien’s astonishment, the Mazoku sheathed his sword. He lifted his hands instead, palms toward the heavens, as though in prayer.  He was muttering words, some sort of incantation.  Fire erupted out of his palms, coiling and twisting into a ball of flame.

The dragonfire came, a furious unrelenting stream.  Despite the scorching heat, Damien couldn’t turn away, his jaw dropping when he realized what the Mazoku was doing.  He was catching the dragon’s flames, forcing the dragonfire to blend with his own.  The fireball he’d conjured doubled in size, then tripled, until it was as large as the boulder he was perched on.  With a roar, the Mazoku lobbed the fireball at the dragon, hitting it directly from below.  The monster shrieked, its entire body shrouded in flames.  Whatever the Mazoku had done, it must have made the dragon vulnerable to fire.

Damien regarded the Mazoku with fascination.  He’d never seen such display of power before. It was reckless. It was dangerous. It was incredibly amazing.

But the dragon wasn’t done.  It lunged toward them, screeching with rage.  The Mazoku drew his sword and leapt away.  For one terrifying moment, Damien thought the Mazoku had left him to fend for himself, but then with a graceful pirouette and an upward thrust of the sword, the Mazoku buried the blade deep into the dragon’s underbelly.   The beast spun out of control.  Damien crouched low as the dragon hurtled down to earth, spraying gravel and debris everywhere with the force of its crash.  It lay where it fell, wings bent, bloody, and broken.

For what seemed like an eternity, the air was filled with the crackle of burning trees, the distant shout of soldiers, and the ghastly noise of something that was slowly dying.  Damien turned to the Mazoku, not sure what to say or do.

The Mazoku was breathing hard. Drenched in dragonblood, he made quite a sight on his own. But his eyes flashed with something like…pity?  Regret?

“Is it gone?” he gasped.

“I-I guess,” said Damien, sparing the dragon a frightened glance.  “It’s not moving.”

“Oh,” said the Mazoku.  His steps faltered, his green eyes glazing over.  Then he began to fall.

Damien lurched forward to catch him.

Chapter Text

"Don’t go," said Ryuu quietly.

"Oh, please," scoffed Frey.  “It’s going to be fine.”

“It’s dangerous.”

“What mission isn’t?”

But Ryuu was still frowning. “This is different.  You’re marching into a clan’s territory on your own.  And not just any clan.  The Schwarz are strong fighters—”

“Hypocrite,” Frey muttered.  “You did it too.”

It had been three months since Ryuu’s now-legendary assault on the Souma clan, a feat that earned him a place as the Lombard chief’s newest protegee.  Not that it changed anything between Frey and him.  Ryuu still followed Frey everywhere, except when he was needed elsewhere by Lord Garez.  Ryuu was “needed elsewhere” now, and while Frey appreciated that Ryuu was staying longer than he should, Frey was liking the lecture less and less.  He loved Ryuu, but Ryuu had this irksome habit of treating him like a child.

“Frey.”

There was a different tone now whenever Ryuu said his name.  It wasn’t pain or fear but more of a plea for something, something Frey couldn’t give.  It wasn’t much of an improvement.

“I can handle myself,” Frey huffed, now definitely annoyed.

“I know that.”

“Right.”

“But if you’re just doing this to impress your father—”

“I’m not!” Frey lied.

“I can tell—”

“You just know everything, don’t you?” Frey snapped. “I’m sorry I’m not you!”

It wasn’t fair, Frey knew it.  But the resentment that his father trusted Ryuu’s abilities more than Frey’s, his own son, had rankled deep inside.  He loved Ryuu, but Frey didn’t want to lose to him either.

“You’re right,” Ryuu said in a measured tone.  “You’re not me.  Don’t try to be me.”

“I can handle myself,” Frey repeated.  “Don’t tell me what to do.”

“Frey, please—”

“Please what?”

Ryuu opened his mouth to say something but couldn’t — or wouldn’t — go on. His next words sounded small and pitiful: “Just…don’t go.”

If he’d been more clear-headed, perhaps Frey would have heard the desperation in that plea.  But he wasn’t.  And he didn’t.  “I can’t,” he said flatly, turning away.  “Leave me alone.”

He’d never told Ryuu that before, and Frey immediately regretted it.  But when he calmed down enough to swallow his pride and apologize, Ryuu was already gone.

 


 

Yuuri saw the smoke rising near the city gates, and the fear in his chest rose up another notch.  They’d seen the dragon from afar and heard the intermittent noise of a raging battle, but they hadn’t been able to know for sure what was going on until they reached the gates.  On the way from the castle, they’d heard bits and pieces of information from people fleeing the scene: A dragon had attacked a carriage.  A squad of soldiers had engaged the beast.  The battle that ensued led to the forest, where a fire was still raging.

It was a while later, when they finally arrived at the gates, that they all discovered that the “carriage” had belonged to the Schwarzes and the “squad” had been Wolfram’s.  Soldiers wearing Wolfram’s colors were crowded beside the overturned carriage.  Covered in soot and with his immaculate clothes in disarray, Lord Greyheim Schwarz was almost unrecognizable. They didn’t look good, but most worryingly, Yuuri couldn’t see Wolfram at all.

“Your Majesty!  Your Excellencies!”

Voices rang out as they galloped into the scene.  Yuuri was somewhat relieved to see that the healer, Gisela, was already there, barking instructions to the others, keeping everything in order.  Yuuri caught her eye and she immediately rushed over, Lord Greyheim close on her heels.

“What happened?” Yuuri asked as he dismounted, eyes roving wildly over the soldiers.  “Where’s Wolfram—?”

But Gisela wasn’t listening to him. “Your Majesty!  The fire, please!”

Of course.  Yuuri had nearly forgotten about that.  He closed his eyes, thinking of the fire and how he needed to keep everyone safe. The water dragons came easily, as though they’d been waiting for Yuuri to summon them this whole time. They soared through the air, merged with the clouds, and brought forth the rain.

“Thank Shinou,” Gisela sighed, raising her head up to the skies. “We’ve been trying to go inside, but we—”

“I can’t find Damien!” Lord Greyheim had contained himself long enough.  “He must be trapped inside!”

“Inside what?” asked Yuuri, horrified.  “The forest?”

“The dragon!” Greyheim was yelling still, outraged, as though the incident was somehow Yuuri’s fault.  “That thing went after Damien—”

“Went after?” echoed Conrad.  Yuuri had no idea how long the man had been hovering over his shoulder.  “Why would it go after—?”

“Your soldier was with him, and they—”

“What soldier?” Gwendal snarled, his face dark with apprehension.  “Where is—?”

Nothing was making sense.  Yuuri wanted to shut them all up, but he was beaten to it by Gisela.

“Alright, listen up!” she snapped, a large vein ticking on her forehead.  Even Lord Greyheim froze to look at her, perhaps sensing that mild and gentle though she might seem, Gisela von Christ was no pushover either.  “The soldiers said they encountered the dragon along the road.  They chased it all the way back here to the gates and engaged it in combat.  It escaped toward the forest.  All the soldiers except for Lord Wolfram made it out.  They said Lord Damien may be inside too.”

At this, Lord Greyheim quickly regained his voice.  “You have to find Damien.  You have to do something—!”

“Yes, I know!” Yuuri yelled back, surprising himself.  His nerves were already on edge, and there was only so much whining he could take.  The only thought he could focus on was Wolfram hadn’t made it out.  What if he…?  ‘No, he’s fine,’ Yuuri assured himself.  Wolfram was impervious to fire, wasn’t he?

“We have to find Wolfram,” said Yuuri.  “And Lord Damien,” he added when Greyheim looked like he was about to say something again.  “Conrad—”

“I’ll go,” said Gwendal.  “Conrad, take the king back to the castle.”

“Wait, what?” Yuuri protested. “I’m going with you!”

“We’re not sure if the dragon is dead, Your Majesty.  It’s dangerous.”

“Yeah, well, I’m the one who controls water,” Yuuri pointed out. “I can help.”

“He’s right,” said Conrad. “And I’m not leaving without Wolfram.”

Gwendal glared at them. But before they could argue the point further, one of the soldiers gave a cry and rushed forward, meeting a tall figure who had just stumbled out of the trees, carrying someone on his back.  The other soldiers converged around them, helping one up and carrying an unconscious form out into the main road.

Yuuri was already running, the others right beside him.

“Damien!” Greyheim exclaimed.  For someone who had just emerged out of a burning forest and had apparently survived a dragon attack, Lord Damien Schwarz looked none the worse for wear.  He spared them all a weary look before returning his gaze to—

“Wolfram!” Yuuri cried.  His steps faltered.  It was Wolfram, yet it didn’t look like him at all.  For a second, Yuuri could only stare, taking in the gash across Wolfram’s cheek, the soot that clung to his skin, the ugly stain on his chest, every tear on the uniform that he’d always kept in pristine condition.  Wolfram was partly covered in…was that blood? And someone had wrapped torn pieces of cloth around his hands.

“Move,” Yuuri heard himself say.  It sounded like someone else’s voice, and when he rushed to Wolfram’s side, it felt like something was propelling his body forward.  He was only dimly aware of what he was doing as he placed a hand over Wolfram’s chest and let his maryoku flow out of his palms.

Someone gasped.  The bruises — dark against Wolfram’s skin — slowly disappeared, like ink dissolving in water.  The gash on his cheek closed in on itself, knitting together flawlessly, leaving not even a hint of a scar behind.  But something was off, Yuuri could feel it.  There was a sort of resistance somewhere, something that wouldn’t bend to his will.

“Your Majesty.”

Gisela knelt down beside him, and there was a note of fear in her voice that made Yuuri’s heart skip a beat.  Someone gasped again, not out of wonder this time, but in shock and revulsion.  Gisela had unwrapped the crude bandages around Wolfram’s right hand, and Yuuri immediately felt sick.

“I don’t understand,” Yuuri said, aware for the first time of the rancid smell of burnt flesh that turned his stomach over.  He didn’t always know how his maryoku worked, but it had never failed before to do exactly what he intended.  He’d wanted to fully heal Wolfram, so why wasn’t it working?

“Dragonfire,” said a voice.  Damien Schwarz, Yuuri also noticed for the first time, was on his knees on the other side of Wolfram.  “I did what I could, but I’m afraid it’s not enough.”

“Dragonwhat?” Yuuri asked.

“Dragonfire,” Lord Damien repeated with a bite of impatience, not bothering to look at Yuuri.  His hands moved over Wolfram’s neck, feeling for a pulse.  “It was too much, even for a fire-wielder like him.  I think it’s been nearly half an hour since he lost consciousness.”

“He must have used too much maryoku,” said Gisela. “We have to take him back to the castle.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Lord Damien.  “Maybe I can help.”

Yuuri supposed he should be grateful, but there was something about the look Lord Damien was giving Wolfram that annoyed him a little.  Gisela glanced at him, a question in her eyes, but Gwendal was already issuing orders before Yuuri could speak his mind.

“Take a cart from the garrison,” Gwendal barked at a soldier. “Gisela, take him and all the wounded home.  Lord Damien and Lord Greyheim will go with you.”

“That's agreeable,” said Lord Greyheim, who looked quite pleased for some reason.

“What about the dragon?” said Gwendal, turning to glare at Lord Damien, who was visibly suppressing a shudder.

“Dead.”

“Are you sure?”

“I didn’t check,” Lord Damien admitted with a grimace. “But I think so.”

Gwendal’s eyes narrowed.  “We’ll have to see. Let’s go, Your Majesty.”

Yuuri had to tear his eyes away from Wolfram.  “Uh, what?”

“We have to take a look at the dragon.”

“But—”

“His Majesty controls water,” Gwendal said in a clipped tone, echoing Yuuri’s own words. “I could use the help.”

Yuuri wanted to protest, but Gwendal was already moving, ordering a squad to follow him.  Conrad looked torn too, but ever the voice of reason, he said, “I think we need to see this, Yuuri.”

“But what about…?”

Gisela glanced at him.  “Leave Lord Wolfram to us, Your Majesty.”

Yuuri must have looked skeptical, and he must have been staring far too long at Lord Damien’s face, for the boy met his gaze, lips lifted slightly in a wry smile.

“I won’t apologize for my behavior at dinner, Your Majesty,” the young lord said, “but just so you know, I don’t usually go around trying to stab people.”

Honestly speaking, Yuuri wasn’t even thinking about that fiasco at the banquet.  But wasn’t it yet another reason why Yuuri shouldn’t trust Lord Damien with Wolfram?

“He saved my life,” said Lord Damien, perhaps reading the doubt on Yuuri’s face.  “I owe him.”

“R-Right,” said Yuuri, embarrassed.  “Uh, then please take care of him.”

Lord Damien looked like he was trying not to roll his eyes, and there was the tiniest bit of irony in his voice when he said, “Of course, Your Majesty.”

Yuuri managed a smile, but for reasons that didn’t involve Lord Damien’s anger management issues, he didn’t feel reassured.

 


 

Shori found himself facing off against the brute.  Ryuu had retreated to the back of the room, as though to give them all the space they needed.  From the corner of his eyes, Shori saw the girl, Weisser, standing over Bob’s unconscious form.

“What’s wrong?” Tier jeered. “You do know how to use that, don’t you?”

Shori gritted his teeth.  The dragon was coiled around his arm, waiting for his command, but he didn’t know exactly how to make it move.  ‘Go,’ Shori thought. ‘Attack.’  That did the trick. The dragon shot forward like a javelin.  There was a loud splash, and the brute disappeared in a burst of foam and water. Shori thought he’d made a solid hit, but then the water receded and his eyes narrowed at the sight before him.

“Nice try,” said Tier, who hadn’t moved from his spot.  “My turn.”

For his size, the man was incredibly fast.  Shori jumped to the side, barely avoiding the fist that would have cracked his skull open, the kick that would have crushed his legs.  ‘Defend me,’ he thought, and the water came roaring back, engulfing his entire body.  A kick connected and slammed Shori backward.  It still hurt but not as much as he’d imagined.  He could still see, hear, react.  Attack.  Shori waited until the man was close enough, waited for that moment when he’d raise his gigantic arms for another punch.

There!  Shori fell forward, landing in a crouch.  ‘Freeze,’ he ordered the water and it obeyed, crystallizing, leaving a single shard of ice in his hands.  Shori had meant for a sword of some kind, but this was good enough.  He lunged upward, aiming at the man’s stomach.

The ice collided with flesh — and shattered like glass against concrete.  Shori staggered back, reeling from the impact.  He didn’t see the fist that came pounding from above, knocking him to the ground.  The pain stunned him.  His ears were ringing once more.

“Not bad,” he could hear Tier grumbling.  “But not good enough.”

“I don’t think he’s trained at all,” said Weisser.  “I guess we shouldn’t have let Yuuri go, huh?”

Yuuri.  Shori felt the rage rushing into his veins and the power returned.  ‘Freeze!’ he commanded the water around him. Needles of ice rained from all directions, slashing and striking and finally drawing blood.  Tier howled, retreating, hands covering his face as the needles drove onward, burrowing into his skin.

Shori stood up, finding that his body felt lighter than it should.  “Leave Yuuri alone,” he growled. “If you so much as touch him, I swear—“

“I promised I’d kill him.”

Shori’s eyes shot to the ghost-like boy at the back of the room.  His voice had been cool, quiet, but the hatred in his eyes was unmistakable.  ‘Danger!’ Shori’s head started to scream once more.

“Ryuu,” said Weisser, glancing apprehensively at the ghost, “leave this to Tier.”

Tier, who was furiously shaking off the ice needles, grunted, “I can handle this brat, Ryuu.”

Their dynamic was strange, Shori noted.  It was like Weisser and Tier would go to any lengths to keep Ryuu from fighting, as though they were afraid for him — or was it of him?

“I promised I’d kill him,” Ryuu repeated, ignoring his companions.  “I am going to kill him.”

“Don’t you dare,” Shori warned, the light and energy throbbing brighter and stronger around him, his fear of this ghost diminished by the need to protect his brother.

“Try and stop me.”

Ryuu lifted his hand, copying Shori’s movement.  Water rushed from the floor, the ceiling, and the walls.  ‘Impossible!’ Shori thought, shaken.  ‘A water-wielder?’

The floor beneath Ryuu started to glow, like sun filtering through the surface of a lake.  Ryuu held Shori’s gaze, the challenge clear in his eerie eyes.  Then before Shori could react, the water seemed to swirl, like a drain had just opened and was sucking everything from the room.  Shori had seen this strange phenomenon before, and he realized what the ghost had done.

Ryuu had opened a portal.  He was going after Yuuri!

“Wait! No!” Shori cried, lunging forward.  But there was a snap, a flash of light so bright that Shori was rendered blind for a moment.  When his eyes adjusted, the room was drenched but ominously empty.

The enemies were gone.

 


 

Greyheim Schwarz observed his nephew with interest.

Damien was seated beside him on the floor of the cart, knees drawn to his chin, eyes trained to the horizon, apparently engrossed in the ever-changing scenery. But every so often, his gaze would wander back to the unconscious figure lying opposite them — the Mazoku who had saved his life.

‘Lord Wolfram von Bielefeld,’ Greyheim thought.  ‘A scion of the Bielefeld House. Third son of the 26th Demon King. Fiancé of Shibuya Yuuri, the 27th Demon King. All in all, a good pedigree.’

Greyheim neither knew nor cared what the Mazoku was doing at the gates when the dragon attacked.  He didn’t put stock on fate and coincidences either, but this one seemed to come at exactly the right time, resolving Greyheim’s problems in one fell stroke.  They were going back to the castle just as he wanted, and Damien didn’t look like he was leaving any moment soon.  And…

The carriage hit a bump in the road.  Lord von Bielefeld stirred, a groan escaping his lips.  Damien leaned forward to place a hand on the Mazoku's shoulder, steadying him. He stayed in that uncomfortable position until they reached the paved roads of the inner city, all the way through the winding path leading to the courtyard.

Greyheim regarded Damien thoughtfully.  His nephew was acting oddly.  Five years hadn’t changed the boy Greyheim remembered.  Damien was still willful, undignified, a bit rough around the edges.  Certainly not the ideal pawn for what Greyheim had in mind: reclaiming the throne of Dai Shimaron.  Greyheim didn’t care so much about the boy’s prejudice against non-human races for as long as he didn’t spout it off like he did during the banquet.

Although…

Something was different about the way Damien was treating this particular Mazoku.  It wasn’t like him to care about someone like this at all, but now…

Snatches of a plan started to coalesce inside Greyheim’s head.  They needed support for Damien’s campaign, and if they couldn't have the Demon King, the backing of one of the Mazoku Noble Houses would be a good start.  The influence of someone like Wolfram von Bielefeld would be helpful.

Very, very helpful.

Chapter Text

"This isn’t wise, Lord Frey," the tamer told him. “You have an early start tomorrow. You should be resting.”

“I’ll be quick,” Frey promised.  “I just need to get out.”

“Lord Ryuu isn’t coming?”

Frey shrugged.  Besides the fact that Ryuu hated flying, Frey hadn’t spoken to him in a week.  Ryuu had left without saying goodbye; he’d returned without even talking to Frey.  And Frey learned to his chagrin that tracking Ryuu was impossible if Ryuu didn’t want to be found, even if they were practically living under the same roof.  Once again, that mixture of admiration and jealousy struck him.  The difference in skill was undeniable, it was infuriating.  Yet Frey couldn’t deny that he missed Ryuu too.

“I’ll take Drache,” Frey said, shoving all thoughts of Ryuu away.

“Not him,” the tamer groaned, as Frey knew he would.  “Couldn’t you—?”

An answering roar came from above them, and Drache descended, landing maladroitly on the ground.  The tamer yelped, ducking just in time to avoid the creature’s wings. Frey had to laugh. The dragon was the youngest one the Lombards had, and he was always so eager and so unruly, the tamers had practically given up on training him.  But Frey liked Drache and the dragon had taken to him as well.

‘He’s unpredictable,’ Lady Rin had said. ‘Something you like.’

His mother said the strangest things sometimes, Frey reflected as he leapt and settled on Drache’s back. "Let's go," he said, stroking the dragon’s neck.

“Lord Frey,” the tamer called out, censure ringing in his voice.

“One hour,” Frey shouted.  “We’ll be right back.”

Drache took off and Frey immediately felt his worries melting away.  He closed his eyes and held his arms out, reveling in the rush of the wind against his face.  “Faster," he said and Drache obeyed at once. Frey held on as the dragon went into a dive, plummeting down toward a lake.  At the last second, Drache slowed down, his claws breaking into the surface of the water.  Frey roared with laughter.  It felt good to let things go, at least for a brief moment.

But he had to face real life, like it or not.

Frey kept his promise.  He flew back to the dragons’ keep with a few minutes to spare.  He saw the spires from a distance, and his heart leapt at the sight of a solitary figure perched upon the highest peak.  It was Ryuu.  ‘Was he there all this time?’ Frey wondered.

When he landed, Ryuu was already on the ground.  ‘Too fast,’ Frey thought as he disembarked.  Drache let out a loud roar, snapping his jaws at Ryuu.  Ryuu ignored the dragon.  For some reason, they never liked each other.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” said Ryuu, and Frey forgot that he was annoyed, that he was jealous, that he was frustrated at himself for feeling annoyed and jealous.  Instead, he felt unsettled, scared at that look in Ryuu’s eyes.

"Really?” Frey said casually, stroking Drache’s neck to silence him.

Ryuu turned and gestured for Frey to follow him.  “We need to talk.”

 


 

“There,” said Conrad, pointing.  As it turned out, they didn’t have to go far to find the dragon.  Gwendal was already standing over it, prodding it with his foot.  The other soldiers lingered a few paces away, arms at the ready.

But the dragon didn’t move.

Gwendal’s posture relaxed somewhat, and he signaled for them to come closer.  Yuuri followed Conrad down a ridge, past a large boulder, and into a small clearing where the dragon lay.  The beast looked like it had fallen from a great height, smashing through the trees before finally crashing into the underbrush. A ring of charred grass surrounded its immobile body.

Yuuri wrinkled his nose, taking in the dragon's once proud form. It looked sad and pathetic, lying there on the ground, broken.  A metallic something protruded out of its belly.  Gwendal saw it too and bent down to pull out a sword.

“Wolfram’s?” Conrad guessed.

Yuuri felt nauseated. "Wolfram killed it?"

“It attacked, didn't it?” Gwendal grunted, shaking the sword free of blood and other things Yuuri didn’t want to think about.  “Wolfram had to defend himself."

"Yeah, I know.  I just wish Wolfram didn't—"

"Didn’t what, Your Majesty?" Gwendal said impatiently.  "That he didn't hurt the dragon?”

“I didn’t mean—"

“He would have died if he didn’t fight.”

"He didn’t have to get hurt at all if you didn’t send him away!" Yuuri said heatedly.  He regretted the words right after they’d left his lips.  Gwendal must’ve been beating himself up already. “I’m sorry,” Yuuri said in the silence that followed. “I just…”

"Yuuri," Conrad said in a warning tone, throwing an arm out.  Gwendal tensed, and for a confused moment, Yuuri thought the man was about to hit him.  But Gwendal and Conrad weren’t looking at him.  Yuuri followed their line of vision and saw a flicker of movement just beyond the trees.

“What is—?” Yuuri started to say, but Conrad made a shushing gesture to quiet him.

Seconds later, a man emerged at the top of the ridge, panting heavily, as though he’d ran a great distance to reach the place. He looked like an ordinary wayfarer, but the expression on his face when he saw them indicated that he wasn’t there by chance.  The man took one look at them and at the dead dragon, then he took off once again, crashing blindly back through the trees.  Gwendal cursed, already sprinting up the slope, his men reacting a second later. Conrad hesitated, glancing at Yuuri.

“Don’t give me that,” Yuuri said.  “We have to help them.”

They set off in pursuit.  Yuuri couldn’t see the stranger, but he followed Gwendal’s back and tried to keep pace with Conrad.  He knew he was probably slowing Conrad down, but the ground was wet and slippery, Yuuri kept stumbling over his own feet.

'Wait,’ Yuuri thought. ‘Water!’  It was still drizzling and there was water everywhere.  Yuuri waved an arm; the water parted and fizzled away for him, allowing him to move forward without any more accidents.  They’d nearly caught up with Gwendal and the rest of his men, but everyone was soon retreating, shouting a collective warning: “Get out of the way!”

Conrad reacted faster, grabbing Yuuri’s arm and yanking him behind a large tree.  Yuuri saw the others take cover too before something sort of exploded.  There was a deafening noise followed by a burst of fire and wind, before rocks and debris rained over them.  Yuuri raised his arms to shield himself, but squinting through the dust and smoke, he saw what had caused the ruckus.

A dragon was launching itself into the air, its scales a sickly green spattered liberally with black.  It was larger than the one Wolfram had defeated, almost as big as a small hut, its shadow engulfing them completely.  But it wasn’t its size that made Yuuri stare in shock.  The man they’d been chasing was seated upon the dragon’s back, and if Yuuri didn’t know any better, he’d say the man was riding the beast away from there.  ‘Did people here just do that?’ Yuuri wondered madly.

“Stop him!” Gwendal yelled, doubling back to where Yuuri and Conrad had taken cover.  Yuuri fumbled for his maryoku, reaching out to the water particles in the air.  His water dragons came roaring out of the skies, jaws grasping for the actual dragon, which swerved expertly to avoid them.  Yuuri had to admire the maneuver; the rider obviously knew what he was doing.

Yuuri tried to rally the water dragons once more, but with a turn and twist, the real dragon shot up toward the clouds and disappeared from view.  Beside him, Gwendal let out a loud, profane curse.

“I’m sorry,” said Yuuri, his water dragons dissolving as soon as his concentration broke.  “I don’t think I can follow it—”

“You did what you can, Your Majesty,” said Gwendal in a tone that still made Yuuri feel inadequate.  “If I'd only caught up with him...”

“The dragon’s another story though,” said Conrad. “That man, is he…?”

Gwendal nodded. “Without a doubt.  I heard him.  He was commanding the dragon.”

They stood together, eyes drawn toward the direction the dragon and its rider had gone.  They looked too different, brothers though they may be, but their faces were pinched in identical masks of concern.  Gwendal stirred first, calling out to the soldiers and divvying up tasks.  They were going to make a sweep of the surrounding area, Yuuri heard the man say, "to make sure there are no more surprises."

“What was that about?” Yuuri asked, looking up at Conrad.  "What is that man?"

Conrad smiled but his eyes remained hooded.  “Did Gunter tell you about the three ancient tribes that wield magic?”

He might have, in one of their private lessons, but Yuuri could only remember two.  “You mean the Mazoku and the Shinzoku?”

“The demons and the gods,” said Conrad.  “And then there were the dragon riders — the Ryuzoku.”

“They control dragons,” Yuuri said, the realization hitting him at once, the implications sending goosebumps up and down his skin.

“But they’re supposed to be gone,” Conrad went on. “All gone after fighting a war with one another.”

'They don’t look gone to me,’ Yuuri wanted to say, but Gwendal — done giving his soldiers their assignments — turned back to them for more of the same.  Yuuri had never thought himself a king, but Gwendal had a way of making him feel unworthy of being one.  He braced for a scolding or something of that sort, but Gwendal just said, "You should head back.  We’ll take the dragon’s remains once we’re done.  Tell Anissina what happened. Tell her to be ready to examine the remains.” He paused in mid-stride, his gaze turning to his brother. “And...see to Wolfram, will you?”

Conrad nodded, one hand already on Yuuri’s shoulder, ready to marshal him away. But Yuuri resisted for a moment; it didn’t seem right to leave Gwendal and the men when there was still the slightest chance of danger.

Gwendal seemed to guess what he was thinking. “We’re enough here without you, Your Majesty.”

Yuuri winced, taking that to mean that he’d be more of a hindrance than a help. “Okay,” he relented. “But be careful. And…” He worried his lip. He didn’t like fighting with his friends, most of all Gwendal, whom he’d always looked up to almost like an older brother. He took a deep breath and just went for it.  “And Gwendal? I’m really sorry about what I said a while back, about Wolfram...”

Gwendal made an impatient noise. “I understand, Your Majesty.  At any rate, I appreciate your honesty.”

It felt like acceptance, a dismissal, far from the forgiveness Yuuri was hoping for.  First Wolfram, then Sara, and now, Gwendal.  Why did it feel like Yuuri was slowly losing everyone around him?

 


 

The dragon chased Wolfram into his dreams.

He was in the forest, eyes locked with the beast, waiting as its jaws opened, as the fire spurted out.  Wolfram’s hands burned, blisters exploding all over his skin.  He couldn’t stop…couldn’t run…couldn’t hide.  He had someone to protect.

Then somewhere, a voice rang loud and clear, taking Wolfram by surprise: “Don’t go.”

It was beyond madness to take his eyes off the dragon, but Wolfram couldn’t help himself.  He turned.  Someone was standing behind him.  He couldn’t see his face, but Wolfram could hear his voice, plaintive and scared: “Just…don’t go.”

Wolfram reached out, but his hands clasped nothing but air.  The world shifted.  Wolfram was in the air.  He was riding a dragon, up, up, through the clouds, before plummeting down, down, to the water.  A lake, Wolfram vaguely realized.  He gazed down at his reflection — green eyes, blond hair — but the face wasn’t his.  Then the dragon turned, and Wolfram could hear himself saying, “Let’s go home.”

Home.  Where was home?  Wolfram was soaring, falling, diving, and then from a distance, he saw him.  His heart ached with…something.  He wanted to jump off the dragon and run to him.  Wolfram wanted to throw his arms around him and kiss him—

What?  Why?  Who…?

“I’ve been waiting for you,” said the faceless man.  It was so bright, it was like staring at the sun.  “We need to talk.”

Then the man called his name—

“Lord Wolfram?”

Wolfram opened his eyes and the world slowly came into focus.  He turned his head slightly.  He was lying on a narrow bed, directly beside an open window where he could see a patch of a bleak, watery sky.  This was…the infirmary?

“Here,” said a voice, and someone helped him sit up.  A cup of water was lifted to his lips, and Wolfram took a sip, relieved at the coolness that settled in his throat.  His eyes focused some more, and he made out Gisela's face, her gentle eyes and calming smile.

“What happened?” Wolfram croaked, shaking the dizziness away.

Gisela’s smile widened.  “How are you feeling? You had us worried for a while there, Your Excellency.”

“Us?” Wolfram echoed, his eyes moving to somebody who was standing next to her.  It wasn’t who he’d expected…or wanted.  It was…Wolfram faltered for a moment, trying to place that scowling face and those distrustful eyes.  Who was this again?

“Lord Damien helped treat your wounds,” said Gisela.

Right.  Damien Schwarz. It was coming back to him now.  The dragon…the forest…the fire…the agony of wielding flames that weren’t his own…the soothing touch of somebody…somebody who’d lifted him up…carried him out of that raging hell…

“You…brought me out of there,” Wolfram said, a little confused.  He had the impression the human boy hated Mazoku.  “It was you, wasn’t it?”

Lord Damien raised an eyebrow. “You expected me to leave you behind?”

“No.  No, I just thought…” Wolfram leaned back, his head pounding. “I didn’t peg you for a healer.”

“I’m…not,” said Lord Damien, his eyes shifting warily. “I just did what I could.”

Wolfram looked down at himself.  Someone had bathed him, changed him, and dressed his wounds.  His body felt fine, although his hands were heavily swathed in bandages.  He recalled the searing heat, the blistering pain.  He tried to move his fingers, but they were too stiff, he could only manage a slight wiggle.  And even that hurt like hell.

Gisela touched his arm.  “Your hands will heal.  Eventually.  So please take it easy for now.” She went on to talk about how burns incurred from dragonfire were the hardest to heal because of the dragon’s own magic.  How Wolfram was lucky that he still had his hands after the ordeal.  How Wolfram had Damien Schwarz to thank for that.  How the Demon King had also used his magic to treat the rest of his wounds.

But it was hard to feel anything but frustrated when he couldn’t move his hands without feeling like every finger was being skewered with needles. What could he possibly do without his hands anyway?  What use was he when he couldn’t even wield a sword?  He wouldn’t even be worthy of patrolling the borders.  Gwendal would probably send him back to Bielefeld Castle until he recovered.

“How long will this take to heal?” Wolfram asked, interrupting Gisela’s litany of the things he should and shouldn’t do while recuperating.

“I’d say give it a month or more, Your Excellency,” Gisela said before casting a sideways glance at Lord Damien.  “But if Lord Damien has other ideas…”

The boy looked startled at being consulted on the matter.  “I — I don’t.”

Gisela smiled a strange, meaningful smile then stood to leave.  “Well, then please excuse me, Your Excellency.  I have to check on the other soldiers.  They’re all fine,” she said quickly at Wolfram’s look of alarm. “Three had to be confined — they’re at the other ward — but no major injuries.”

She said more but Wolfram was no longer listening. So preoccupied was he at the thought of his impotence that he barely noticed Gisela’s departure — and Lord Damien’s continued presence.  It wasn’t until the boy cleared his throat that Wolfram realized he wasn’t alone.

Wolfram frowned. “Why are you still here?”

The boy gestured to the bed right next to Wolfram’s.  “Your healer confined me here,” he said.  “The Demon King wasn’t as generous with his powers as he was with you.”

“You look fine,” said Wolfram irritably. He'd never really had any tact to begin with, and the pain was doing a fine job of stretching his patience thin.

The boy shrugged. He scuffed the floor with his toes, ran a hand through his hair, picked at the hem of his vest…he was fidgeting, which was both painful and annoying to watch. It reminded Wolfram too much of a certain wimp who couldn’t talk straight when he’s nervous.

"What?” Wolfram said. "Spit it out."

Lord Damien turned a bit red, hesitated for a moment, before finally blurting out, “I just wanted to say that I’m here if you need anything.”

“I don’t need anything from you,” said Wolfram reflexively. What he needed — and Wolfram cursed himself for it — was Yuuri.  He felt a stab of anger at the thought of the Demon King, that good-for-nothing wimp who couldn’t even be bothered to be by his side.  ‘You’re doing it again,’ he chided himself as Gwendal’s words echoed in his head: ‘The king’s fiancé isn’t needed here.’  The situation called for Wolfram von Bielefeld, the soldier, to step up and do his part.  He was just starting to reconcile himself with the idea, but with his injuries, how was he supposed to defend anything?  If he couldn’t be the king’s fiancé or the king’s knight, what did that make him?

To his horror, tears pricked his eyes and he raised a hand without thinking, intending to wipe this sign of weakness away.  A sharp sting stopped him halfway, and he swore loudly as the pain rippled through his entire arm.

“Careful,” said Lord Damien, leaning forward to catch Wolfram’s wrists before any more damage could be done.  “Don’t move.  Just relax.”

“Don’t touch me!” Wolfram snarled, his eyes watering at the pain.  Being vulnerable was one thing.  Being weak and exposed in front of a stranger was another matter.  “Leave — me — alone!”

Leave me alone.  Leave me alone.

The words echoed inside Wolfram’s head, shocking him into silence.  He’d said that before, to someone important.  A face hovered briefly at the edges of his mind, but Wolfram couldn’t quite remember who it was.  What he did recall was a heavy feeling of regret, and it was this that made him look up at Lord Damien.  The boy seemed different up close...so young and so...

Wolfram looked away.  “Just...leave me alone.”

Lord Damien loosened his hold.  “You’re in pain,” he said.  “Maybe…maybe I can help you.  But I need you to calm down.  That’s it…just lean back…don’t move…close your eyes…”

Though Wolfram rather resented being treated like some invalid, he felt obliged to comply.  The boy had seen him at his worst anyway, he reconsidered, beaten and bloody and Shinou knows what else.  What was the point of trying to save face?

“Good,” he heard Lord Damien say.  “Stay like that.”

Wolfram could feel the slightest pressure of the boy's palms over his, but he didn’t look like he was doing anything else.  Then relief came; Wolfram felt the pain subsiding, as though it was being drawn out a little at a time.  When he opened his eyes, Lord Damien quickly let go and stepped back.  The pain returned, albeit a throbbing and less intrusive feeling of discomfort rather than the agonizing sensation that it was a moment back.

“What did you do?” Wolfram asked, both curious and a little awed.

“Don’t ask,” Lord Damien said.  “And don’t tell anyone.”

“Tell anyone that you’re a healer?”

“I’m not,” insisted the boy.

“My hands beg to differ,” said Wolfram.

The boy’s lips quirked, but he quickly schooled his features into one of irritation.  “I didn’t heal you.  I just…numbed the pain a little bit.”

“Sounds like healing to me,” Wolfram said.

“Whatever you think it is, don’t make me regret doing it,” warned Lord Damien.

“I didn’t ask for it.”

“But you deserved it.” Lord Damien glared at him.  “You saved my life.”

“And you’re not happy I did,” said Wolfram.  “Don’t worry.  You don’t owe me anything.”

“Of course, I do!”

“You brought me out of the forest.  I’d say we’re even.”

“Right,” said Lord Damien wryly.  “You battled a dragon and I carried you.  In what world is that a fair trade?”

“In a world where any decent creature will risk his life to save another.”

“Seriously?” Lord Damien looked torn between amusement and exasperation. “Do you always have an answer to everything?”

An answer to everything.

Something was wrong with his head, Wolfram decided.  Words that shouldn’t have any special meaning to him were suddenly sounding too…familiar…like he’d heard them somewhere before.

“Are you alright?”

Wolfram blinked. “I-I’m fine.  Just a little tired.”

“You should get more rest.  It’s too late for anyone to come visit, anyway.”

“I’m not waiting for anyone.”

Lord Damien looked skeptical. “Well, just so you know, I heard the Demon King just came back to the castle this morning, so he might still be asleep.  Last night, he went with the others to make sure the dragon's dead.”

So that was where the wimp had gone.  At least one of them knew how to put their responsibilities first.  Wolfram wished he could do that too, to just lose himself within one role without having to think of the other.  He sighed.  “He probably went to see whether he could still save it.  Yuuri wouldn’t hurt anything.”

“Bloodthirsty dragon included?” asked Lord Damien.

“Bloodthirsty dragon included,” Wolfram affirmed.  “If it were him, he’d probably find a way to subdue it without killing it.”

Yuuri would — that was certain.  Yuuri would try to reason with a wild beast, if he could pull it off. Yuuri would never taint his hands with blood — that was Wolfram’s job. And Conrad’s. And Gwendal’s.

“There wasn’t a choice,” said Lord Damien.  “I was there.  It would have killed you.  And me.”

Relief washed through Wolfram yet again, a different kind than just respite from physical pain.  He realized with a jolt of surprise how much he’d needed to hear that.  He regarded Lord Damien with renewed interest.  Maybe he’d judged the boy a little too harshly…

“It almost sounds like you’re thanking me, human,” he said with a smile, testing the waters.

Lord Damien frowned at the jibe, perhaps deciding whether to take it lightly or be insulted.  A slightest quirk of the lips indicated that he chose not to take offense.  “I believe I am,” he said, “Mazoku.

“It wouldn’t hurt to say it clearly.”

He expected an outright refusal or maybe a sarcastic remark, but Lord Damien met him squarely in the eyes and said with unmistakable sincerity, “Thank you, my lord.”

Wolfram found himself laughing at the formality.  “Wolfram is fine. Or Wolf. Some people call me that.”

Lord Damien looked at him in surprise. Then a smile lit up his face, exuding a warmth that Wolfram hadn’t expected underneath all that sullenness.  It was like getting a glimpse of the person Damien Schwarz must have been — perhaps as innocent and carefree and naïve as Yuuri — before life took all that away.

“Wolfram,” Lord Damien said, as though sounding out a foreign word he’d just learned.  His face softened, and he looked like a weight had been lifted off his chest.  Maybe it made a difference somehow.  It made them less like strangers to one another and more like…allies, perhaps?  Like comrades who survived a hellish night together.  Lord Damien cocked his head and repeated, “Wolfram?”

"Hm?"

“I’m pleased to meet you,” the boy said.  “I mean, really meet you.  I’m Damien, by the way.”

“Damien,” Wolfram repeated.

"Hm?"

Wolfram smiled.  “Nice to meet you too.”

Chapter Text

Frey had never been in Ryuu’s room before.  Ryuu had always come to him, and Frey had the oddest feeling that Ryuu wanted a space all to himself, a sanctuary where even Frey wasn’t allowed.  Now Frey felt like he was crossing a line — for better or worse, he couldn’t yet tell.

Frey hesitated at the doorway, watching Ryuu cautiously.  Something was different about him, and Frey couldn’t tell if the change was good or not.

“What’s wrong?” Ryuu asked.

Frey shut the door behind him.  He stayed like that, refusing to move any further.  He supposed he should ask what Ryuu wanted to talk about, but what came out of his mouth instead was, “I’m sorry.”

“What?”

Frey winced. “About what I said.  I was just…”

“Frey.”

Even his tone had changed, Frey noted.  There was no fear, no plea.  There was just…wantA shiver of anticipation shot through Frey’s body.

“I won’t stop you from going,” Ryuu said. “I guess it’s time anyway.”

“Time for what?” He was forcing his throat to work.  The air seemed to grow thin, and his pulse was starting to race.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Ryuu.  “I don’t care anymore.  You’re the only one that matters now.”

He smiled and took a step toward Frey.  And then another.  And another.  He didn’t stop like he always did, always at an arm’s length that had felt like an ocean away to Frey, a distance Ryuu hadn’t bridged on his own.  Except for that first kiss, Frey was always the one leaning forward, the one taking a step closer.  Always the one wanting more than this stalemate they’d been on for the last three months.

Frey didn’t move.  Hope was choking him.  If Ryuu drew back now, hope was going to break him, and then everything would be over for sure.  There was only so much hoping Frey could take.

But then Ryuu was holding him, kissing him.  Ryuu’s hand was in his hair, sliding down to his nape, angling Frey’s chin up to deepen the kiss.  When they parted, Frey was too breathless to say anything.  Ryuu laughed, a wonderful, wonderful sound that Frey would kill to hear again and again.  Ryuu seemed pleased with himself for rendering Frey speechless, and for the first time, Frey didn’t care that Ryuu turned out to be much more capable than he was at something.  He wanted to know what else Ryuu could do better.

“Frey...”

The sound made Frey tremble.  He liked this new tone Ryuu was using — that and the touch of Ryuu’s lips on his neck, the pressure of Ryuu’s hands against his hips, the friction of their bodies moving against each other.  Frey lost himself entirely, he didn’t quite know how they’d managed to reach the bed.

Ryuu was laughing again, and the words were out of Frey’s mouth before he realized it was the first time he’d said them out loud: “I love you.”

“I thought you might,” Ryuu said, and that frightened, pleading note was back.  Frey tensed for a moment, certain that he'd somehow scared Ryuu again.  But Ryuu’s eyes cleared, driving the fear and uncertainty away.  Something else sparked in those eyes, and with another shudder, Frey recognized that gnawing hunger that was surely reflected in his own face.

The next kiss was fierce, heavy with both desire and meaning.  Frey’s heart was pounding too loudly, he almost missed Ryuu’s response:

“Frey, I’m so sorry, but I love you too.”

 


 

Growing up in his uncle’s estate, Wolfram had always had a room to himself. He’d had one too when he moved to Blood Pledge Castle — until he insisted on sharing the Demon King’s bed. Sharing a space with a near-stranger, however, was a different matter. But privacy between him and Damien Schwarz was quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Their ordeal at the forest had brought about a truce, and the night before held the promise of a possible friendship.  These bonds — shaky and fragile and forged through necessity — were immediately tested at dawn.

Wolfram had been jolted awake from yet another dream where a dragon roasted him alive, finding himself parched and extremely hungry. Someone had placed a pitcher of water by his bedside, which Wolfram had promptly knocked over when he tried to reach for it.

“You could have asked for help,” said Damien, cracking open one eye to look at him.

Wolfram gave a start. “I thought you’re asleep.”

“Not really. And stay where you are,” the boy added sternly when Wolfram made to stand up. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

“Why don’t you light a lamp?” Wolfram suggested, watching as Damien proceeded to blot the spilled water off the floor. It was still a bit dark; the light from the window wasn’t really helping.

Damien made a face. “I don’t like fire.” At Wolfram’s puzzled expression, he explained, “Family situation.”

It sounded like a code for, “Don’t ask.” Wolfram could respect that.

“Here,” said Damien after a moment, lifting a cup of water to Wolfram’s lips.  For a moment, frustration warred with his bodily needs.  He didn't like any of this, but he could see no way around it.  He supposed he’d have to get used to this treatment for a while.  Wolfram drank deep, and then swallowing another chunk of his pride, he admitted that he was hungry too.

Damien’s efficiency was thoroughly unsettling.  No sooner had the request for food been made when he stepped out of the ward and reappeared bearing a tray laden with bread, cheese, berries, and a bowl of porridge.  

“I told your healer to have breakfast prepared at around this time,” Damien explained, seeing Wolfram’s raised eyebrow.  “I thought you’d wake up hungry.”

“Oh,” said Wolfram, eyeing the tray morosely. It just struck him that — like an infant — he’d have to be fed too.

Damien seemed to sense his mood.  “I think we need to talk first,” he said, setting the tray aside for the moment.  “You’re injured.  You need help.  Can you accept that?”

Wolfram scowled.  “I assume you’re trying to make a point?”

“You will need help,” Damien said.  “A lot of it.  Someone’s got to be beside you all the time for things like this.”  He hesitated, carefully selecting his words, before adding, “It doesn’t have to be me, but…I do want to help you.”

“You mean, stay beside me?” Wolfram couldn’t even begin to fathom the silliness of that idea.  “Aren’t you going a little too far just for the sake of guilt?”

“For gratitude,” Damien corrected.  “And…”

“And?”

“I don’t know,” said Damien, running a hand through his hair.  “Friendship?”

Wolfram could find no reason to refuse.  Though he didn’t trust Damien completely, he didn’t dislike the boy either.

“Alright,” he said after a beat.  “Friends.”

“Good,” said Damien, reaching for the tray. “So…porridge?”

Wolfram sighed, surrendering to his fate, and for the rest of the day, he found himself relying on Damien much more than his pride would have allowed.  But food and water quickly became the least of Wolfram’s worries, for a more pressing (and embarrassing) matter soon presented itself:  He needed to go to the bathroom.

“Do you need help?” asked Damien through the door of the lavatory, as Wolfram fumbled to relieve himself.

“Shut up!” Wolfram roared. He could swear he heard Damien laughing.

But all in all, Damien Schwarz made for a surprisingly pleasant company.  There was nothing to do but talk, and one thing they found in common was a shared distaste for a certain king. Wolfram had to laugh when Damien recounted what had happened at the banquet, down to the part when Belias had nearly beheaded him. That must have been quite the scene.

“It’s not funny,” Damien said, miffed. “I could have died.”

“He wouldn’t have killed you there,” said Wolfram, chuckling, “Not without an order from Saralegui.”

“Well, thanks for that. I feel much better.”

“What did he say though?” said Wolfram, raring to know what button Saralegui had pushed to drive Damien into a murderous rage.

But Damien looked away and shrugged. “Nothing. Let’s just say it’s another family situation.”

Wolfram understood that that was his cue to change the subject.

Visitors came and went throughout the day, mostly for Wolfram, with just one for Damien — his uncle.  Wolfram had never liked the looks of Greyheim Schwarz, and he could immediately tell that there was no love lost between the uncle and his nephew. They talked in hushed tones, and although Wolfram pretended to be asleep, he could tell that Greyheim had been casting several anxious glances in his direction. 

Wolfram strained to listen, but he only caught a few fragments of the conversation.

“Von Voltaire will talk to you,” Greyheim was saying. “Just get your story straight. When are they letting you out of here?” Damien said something indistinct, to which Greyheim replied, “Find an excuse to stay. That shouldn’t be too hard.”

The man said something more, and Damien argued back.  It went back and forth for a while, and at one point, Wolfram thought he heard his own name.  Then Greyheim said, “Why don’t you ask him?” Seconds later, the door to the ward snapped close.

There was a creak and a rustle, and then Wolfram heard Damien’s voice: “How much did you hear?”

Wolfram turned a rueful gaze at the boy.  So much for pretending.  “Just that bit about my brother,” he said honestly. “And you staying here.”

Damien looked grim. “What do you think he wants?  Von Voltaire?”

“To talk,” said Wolfram at once. “Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll just ask you questions about the dragon.  That thing did look like it had some score to settle with you.” Damien had gone pale, and Wolfram quickly backtracked. “I mean, who knows? They’re intelligent creatures, though, aren’t they?”

“I don’t like them,” muttered Damien, turning away, lapsing into a thoughtful silence.

Greta, on the other hand, was obsessed with dragons.  She was a frequent caller, coming in before and after her lessons and any other time she could escape the clutches of her tutor.  Wolfram made a show of scolding her, but they both knew he didn’t mean it. He was too happy at her company, he didn’t mind repeating the “dragon story” over and over for her entertainment.  Even Damien obliged with a comment or two.

His men dropped by too, but Wolfram found that he enjoyed the encounter a little bit less. While they all seemed glad to see him, there was a tinge of something in their eyes that Wolfram didn’t like: guilt. The ones he saw in the rest of his squad were much worse: pity. The ones he saw in Yuuri’s eyes, when the blasted king finally came to visit, were the worst of the lot: guilt and pity.

It was nearly sundown when Yuuri finally walked into the ward, apologizing profusely for not dropping by sooner. Conrad and Gwendal came too, but after a few questions about Wolfram’s health and chances of recovery, they sauntered over to Damien’s bed and asked the boy out “for a word.” Wolfram caught Damien’s eye.  He might have said something to reassure the boy, but he was distracted when Yuuri started talking.

Yuuri was still apologizing.  This time, it was for something he’d failed to do back at the city gates.

“Your hands,” Yuuri groaned. “Do they hurt? I’m really sorry. I tried but—”

“Enough, wimp,” Wolfram cut in. “My hands are fine.” They weren’t, of course, but there wasn’t anything Yuuri could do about it. “Gisela said they’re on the mend. And Damien…”

He caught himself. He’d nearly said that Damien was helping with the pain. He didn’t even know the exact mechanics of it, just that Damien’s touch always brought relief. Besides, Damien had insisted that his abilities remain a secret between the two of them.

“I just wish I could do something,” Yuuri said, sounding dejected.

“You did enough,” said Wolfram.

“You sound just like Gwendal, you know?” said Yuuri, a trace of bitterness coloring his voice.  “You’re not going to believe what happened…”

Quietly, Wolfram listened as Yuuri recounted everything that took place that fateful night, after Wolfram had collapsed.  There’d been another dragon in the forest, Yuuri said. And what was more, there’d been a rider.

“A rider,” Wolfram muttered to himself. “You mean, a Ryuzoku?  I thought they were all gone…”

“I know, right?” said Yuuri.  “Gwendal searched the forest but he found nothing out of the ordinary.  He brought the…uh…dead dragon back with him. That’s where I’ve been, at Anissina’s.”  Yuuri leaned forward conspiratorially.  “Anissina said the dragon was obviously under someone’s control.  We all think it was ordered to attack.”

Wolfram frowned at that. To attack him? But the dragon didn’t go after him — it went after Damien.

“It’s him,” Yuuri said, correctly following Wolfram’s train of thought.  “Lord Damien.  There’s something wrong with that guy.”

This was new, Wolfram thought.  Yuuri finding “something wrong” with another person.  “What do you mean?” he asked, brows furrowed.

“Do you know what Lord Damien did at the banquet?”

“He told me,” Wolfram said, bristling, feeling defensive for some reason. “But Saralegui said something to provoke him, didn’t he?”

“Wolf, there are rumors that Lord Damien’s involved with his parents’ deaths.  That’s what Sara hinted at.  But Yozak did some digging.  Lord Damien apparently said that his parents were murdered by dragons.” Yuuri went on, voice lowered, as though he was afraid someone might overhear them, “So we were all thinking…what if it’s them? What if the Ryuzoku are behind this, and they’re here to…you know…finish the job?”

Much as Wolfram hated to admit it, that theory made a lot of sense.  “Have you told Damien this?” he asked.  “Is that what Conrad and Gwendal are doing?”

Yuuri shook his head emphatically. “Gwendal said not to tell him or Lord Greyheim. He’s having them watched. He thinks they’re hiding something.”

Wolfram’s head was starting to hurt.  He felt torn.  The Wolfram from before the dragon attack would have understood the logic of Gwendal’s decision.  But the Wolfram who’d saved — and had been saved by — Damien Schwarz felt uneasy at having to keep such a crucial information to himself.

“You should be careful around Lord Damien,” Yuuri said. “We talked to Gisela. We agreed that you should go back to your old room tonight. That way, you won’t have to share a room with him.”

Everything about that rubbed Wolfram the wrong way.  How they all thought Damien was dangerous.  How they all made the decision for him.  How nobody seemed to think that his opinion mattered.  But everything paled in comparison to those three words — “your old room.”

My room,” Wolfram said blankly. He felt rather like he’d been punched in the gut.  Why wasn’t he allowed back in their bedroom?  It hurt.  Everything was starting to hurt.  His hands were beginning to throb again, and suddenly, although he’d been waiting for a private moment with his fiancé all this time, Wolfram just wanted Yuuri out of there so he could suffer in peace.

Yuuri wavered. “I–I thought your old room would be more comfortable. Gisela said you should have your own bed…”

“I have my own bed here,” Wolfram said, tossing his head defiantly. “I’m fine right here.”

“But Gwendal—”

“Tell Brother it’s my decision.  If he’s got something to say to that, he can tell me so himself.”

“Wolf—”

“Go,” said Wolfram. “I’m sure you have other things to do.”

Yuuri looked at a loss.  For a moment, he seemed like he’d protest and give Wolfram a piece of his mind.  Wolfram wanted him to.  But then the king sighed, relenting, refusing to argue.  Out of guilt, Wolfram surmised. And pity.

Wolfram turned away in disgust.  Talking to Yuuri had been so draining. Thinking about Yuuri felt so tiring. Having feelings for Yuuri was turning out to be so exhausting.

He wondered how long he could keep it up.

 


 

Alone in the drenched classroom, abruptly deprived of his adversary, Shori tried to make sense of what just happened.  He snapped to attention when he heard a groan, remembering the one other occupant, Bob, who was starting to stir feebly.

“Bob!” Shori knelt down and shook the man awake.  “It’s me!”

The man seemed dazed.  “S-Shori…?  What happened…?”

There was no time to explain everything.  “Bob, the portal!  Can you open a portal?  Send me to Blood Pledge Castle!”

“What…?”

“They crossed the portal!  They’re going after Yuuri!”

“No,” said Bob slowly.  “They can’t…I didn’t do it…”

“I saw them go!  Bob, please!  I have to go to Yuuri!”

“Yuuri…?  No, no…he’s not the one…”

The man wasn’t making sense. And even if he was more alert, he didn’t seem like he’d be in any condition to wield his maryoku.  Shori gripped the man’s arm, now desperate.  “Then tell me how!  What do I do?”

“No…no, you shouldn’t.  They can’t cross…they don’t have…the power…”

Shori was no longer listening.  He was trying to think back to the times he’d seen Yuuri disappear through the bathtub or the kitchen sink.  Yuuri had only needed water, just water, and the water would glow when he’d touch it.  Sometimes, his annoying friend, Murata Ken, would tag along.  Shori had once heard them arguing destinations.

“Go to the temple, Shibuya,” he’d heard Murata say.

“The bath is closer,” Yuuri had complained.

“Well, yes, if you want to see Lord von Christ naked again.”

“That was an accident!”

“Just stick to the fountain,” Murata had said.  “Easier to visualize.”

Could it be that simple?  Use maryoku and visualize the destination?  Shori had to try.  He turned to Bob.  “Bob, do you still have your phone?” 

“Pocket…” the man mumbled.

Shori found the phone inside the man’s coat.  If the police were still around, they’d surely notice the ruckus of the earlier fight and would come to investigate.  But just to be sure, Shori dialed the emergency hotline and called for help.

“What are you doing…?” Bob said when Shori placed the phone in his hands and stepped away.  “Shori?”

Shori concentrated, trying to reach for that power within him, forcing it to flow out of his fingertips.  Water gushed out, creating a puddle around his feet.  In his head, Shori pictured Blood Pledge Castle, the battlements, the cold hallways paved with stone…

Shori frowned.  Nothing was happening.  Water, he realized.  He needed to connect to a water source.  His thoughts shifted to Shinou’s Temple.  He’d been there once, and yes, he could recall the details of the fountain that stood at the courtyard.  He could picture it clearly now.

Slowly, the water shone a bright yellow.  Relief washed over Shori, but at the same time, he felt strangely weak and lightheaded.  The floor seemed to twist, to shrink, then tear open like fabric.  Shori felt himself sinking, like he was standing on quicksand.

“Shori!”

Bob sounded desperate.  Shori turned to reassure the man that he knew (or at least, he thought he knew) what he was doing.  But the shout had been meant as a warning.  In a flash, as though it had been dark that entire time and someone had just turned on the lights, Shori found that he wasn’t alone.

Three figures surrounded him.  How long they’d been standing there, Shori couldn’t tell.  He staggered back in surprise, but the large man with the spiky hair grabbed him from behind, nearly choking him.

“Not bad, kid,” Tier said.

“Problem solved,” said Weisser, beaming. “Thank you, Shori.”

What was happening?  ‘Trap,’ a voice inside his head answered promptly as he looked up and met Ryuu’s gaze. The truth hit Shori like a blow in the head.  The enemies hadn’t disappeared.  There was no portal.  It was a trick of some kind.  A bit of water, a flash of light, and Shori had assumed—

Shori cursed himself.  How could he have been so, so stupid?  This was what they wanted, what they’d tried to force Bob to do.  But Shori had done them a favor.  He’d opened the door for them.

"No," he groaned. “No, please…”

But all four of them sank to the ground, swallowed whole by the open portal.  The water rushed up to meet them and waves tossed them around until Shori could no longer tell which way was up or down.

Shori couldn’t see.  He couldn’t think.  He couldn’t breathe.

 


 

Watching someone sleep should have been a tedious task.  What was so interesting about the way someone tossed and turned in bed?  How their hair got all tangled from moving way too much?  How their breathing seemed to change every now and then, or how they mumbled senseless words while they dreamt? And yet Damien couldn’t keep his eyes off Wolfram von Bielefeld, something that his uncle had caught on and encouraged with frightening enthusiasm.

“Do everything you can for him,” Greyheim had said when he'd come to visit, casting a glance at Wolfram’s bed.

Wolfram was feigning sleep, Damien could tell. He lowered his voice. “No,” he said. “I told you. No.”

“He has influence,” said Greyheim. “Once he comes into his inheritance, he’ll have an even stronger voice in the running of this country.”

This country,” Damien pointed out.  “He won’t sway Dai Shimaron.”

Greyheim smiled, always an ominous sign.  “But if Lord Wolfram were to ally himself with us—”

“Get to the point,” Damien snapped.

“I’m saying if you were to marry Lord Wolfram, his family would have to support your claim to the throne.”

Damien thought it was a ridiculous idea, but much as he wanted to dismiss it outright, he found a teeny part of him that actually began to consider it.  “Wolfram is engaged,” he finally said. Then he wondered why that was the first reason that came to mind.  Whatever happened to, “Wolfram is a Mazoku”?

“I heard it was an accident,” said Greyheim. “The Demon King didn’t know he was proposing.”

Now, that was just absurd.  But if that were true, that would make Shibuya Yuuri one of the biggest idiots to have ever held a throne.  “They’re not in love?” Damien asked.  “Their engagement is merely for show?”

“Most likely,” said Greyheim, adding blithely before he left, “Why don’t you ask him?”

Ask Wolfram.  ‘Right,’ Damien thought. What would he even say? ‘Are you in love with the Demon King? Or would you like to marry someone else instead? Like me.’

‘Great job, Damien,’ he scolded himself.  ‘Throw everything you believe in for a Mazoku with a pretty face.  Propose after just a few weeks of knowing him.’

‘Great marriages have been built on less,’ a dissenting voice inside his head reasoned with him. ‘Take your parents, for example.  Very much in love until the day they burned.’

‘And cursed with sons who brought them nothing but pain,’ countered Damien.

You can change everything. Secure the throne. Rebuild their legacy.’

‘I don’t want to be king.’

‘Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad,’ said the voice. ‘You’ve lived your life around Max. What would finding him bring you? What would killing him do for you?’

Damien gritted his teeth.  He’d had these internal debates before, but that logical voice inside his head always knew what to say to silence him.  Not that it changed anything Damien did.  He still pushed through with his plans, a little reluctantly perhaps, but it didn’t stop him from moving, from searching.  He dreaded the day that reason would finally win and make him stop, make him give up.  He needed to find Max before that happened.  He needed to honor his end of the deal with his uncle.  Maybe Greyheim had a point.  Maybe marrying Wolfram—

Damien shook his head to diffuse that treacherous thought.  This was wrong.  So wrong.  He’d be using Wolfram in the same way that Greyheim was using him.

‘But you like him,’ said his voice of reason. ‘Admit it. You’re attracted to him.’

‘It doesn’t make it alright,’ thought Damien.

‘Hah! You admitted it.’

‘But what difference did it make?’ Damien thought.  Wolfram was still a rich and stunning Mazoku.  Damien was still a losing contender to a throne he didn’t want, a mere human whose goals lay elsewhere—

‘Human,’ the voice in his head mocked.

Damien wanted to slap himself.  He shouldn’t have stayed.  Wolfram was on the mend anyway.  It was time to move.  He could leave the castle — leave Shin Makoku like he’d initially intended, though it would be more difficult with all the guards that were apparently assigned for his "protection."  Greyheim had told him that they were both being watched, and that the Mazoku were on to something.

‘Could they know?’ Damien wondered.  Earlier, he was almost sure that the promised interrogation courtesy of Lord von Voltaire would take place. But the man merely asked what Damien knew about dragons.  Damien had lied, of course.  Then Lord Weller shifted the conversation to Wolfram, and that was that.  No one mentioned what Damien feared they would — the Ryuzoku.

‘Not yet,’ said the nasty voice in his head.

“STOP IT!”

Damien twisted in his bed, startled at the sound.  He thought for a moment that he’d shouted his thoughts aloud — but that hadn’t been his voice.

It was Wolfram’s. The Mazoku was thrashing wildly, limbs moving jerkily, like he was trying to fight off an enemy.  Damien had discovered that Wolfram was a rather…violent…sleeper, but even by the Mazoku’s standards, this seemed a bit excessive.

“NO!”

The scream pierced the silence.  ‘He’s going to hurt himself,’ Damien realized, before logic kicked in and he all but threw himself out of his bed and into Wolfram’s.

“Wolfram!” he said loudly, grabbing the Mazoku by the shoulders. “Wake up! WOLFRAM!”

Wolfram’s eyes flew open, but to Damien's disquiet, they were glazed with fear and confusion.  He looked like something that belonged in the wilds, merciless and deadly, and Damien froze in pure fright, knowing well what the Mazoku could do.  Wolfram struggled against Damien’s grip. His skin felt hot as a brand…like a kindling fire.  Wolfram growled and pushed himself up—

“Wolfram!” Damien cried, desperate now.  “Wolf, please!”

Wolfram stopped.  They were still as statues for a heartbeat — Wolfram breathing unevenly, and Damien, almost not at all — before Wolfram’s arms fell limply to his sides.  With a jolt, Damien realized that Wolfram’s cheeks were wet.  He’d been crying, lost in whatever nightmare his brain had conjured.

“D-Damien…?” Wolfram croaked.  “I didn’t…”

Wolfram started to shake, and Damien reached for him without thinking, drawing him close.

“It’s alright,” he said, finding that he was starting to shiver too. Wolfram’s skin still felt warm to the touch, but it didn’t stave off the cold that seeped through Damien’s entire body. His heart was beating too quickly — the jittery rhythm of having brushed too close to danger. It didn’t make sense to hold such a volatile creature in his arms, but Damien found that he was willing to risk it.

“It was so real…I thought…” Wolfram mumbled into Damien’s shoulder. “Someone was calling me…but it wasn't really me…”

“It was a dream,” Damien said firmly, recalling what his mother used to tell him, when he’d wake up screaming in the middle of the night.  “You’re back now.  You’re going to be fine.”  He wisely left out, ‘I’m here.  I’m going to be right here.’  It was a lie anyway.  Damien had never stayed for anyone.  Not for that dark-haired girl back at Dai Shimaron when he was still a prince or that boy he'd lived with at that small village where Greyheim had found him. The search for his brother had always trumped everything else.  So why was he still here, in a hostile land, in a Mazoku's bed of all places?

"Damien?"

Damien gazed down at Wolfram, his heart picking up speed once again as he became aware of a different sort of danger that the Mazoku posed.  There was a seed of something here, something that could potentially destroy Damien's plans. 

“Do you want me to call anyone?” he asked, half-hoping that Wolfram would say yes.  He ignored the other half that longed for something else.

Wolfram shifted.  He drew back until his eyes focused on Damien, seeming to come fully awake.  He looked like he was on the verge of saying a word — or a name — but then something in his eyes hardened.  “No,” he said.  Then in a stronger voice, he repeated, “No.  Of course not.  It’s just a dream.”

Damien nodded and also withdrew.  “How are your hands?” he asked.

“Fine,” Wolfram muttered.

It wasn’t, Damien could tell.  But if there was one thing he'd learned, Wolfram von Bielefeld wore his pride like a second skin.  Recent events had forced him to cast it aside, and Damien understood that he was seeing a side of Wolfram that few people had ever known.

“You’ve ruined the bandages,” Damien pointed out.

Wolfram said nothing, but he didn’t protest when Damien took his hand.

“Lean back,” Damien said.  Even in his state, Wolfram bristled a little at the order, clearly used to commanding others and not the other way around.  But perhaps it was a sign of his distress that he just did as he was told.

Damien worked quickly in silence.  Wolfram watched him but it was like he wasn’t really looking at him. When Damien was done, Wolfram held his hands out.

“It’s less painful now,” he said. His voice was off, like he had a cold, but it was steady at least. “Thank you.”

“You don’t have to thank me every time,” Damien said. “And are you sure you don’t want me to call anyone?”

Wolfram shook his head — the gesture seemed more sad than anything. “You’re here. That’s enough.” He stopped, perhaps realizing what he’d just said.  “I mean…”

“No, it's fine,” said Damien, smiling, the warning in his head overpowered by the warmth spreading from his heart.  He knew he was treading on thin ice, but for whatever stupid reason he didn’t want to acknowledge just yet, he wanted to stay.

“You don’t have to stay for me,” Wolfram said, as though he’d read Damien’s mind.

“I know,” said Damien, reaching out once more to gently take Wolfram’s hands in his own.  The words were out of his lips before he could stop himself: “But I’m here. I’m going to be right here.”

It was an utterly inappropriate thing to say, more so because Damien actually meant it.  But when he looked up, he was relieved to find that he wasn’t the only one who was blushing.

Chapter Text

Ryuu shook him awake two hours before sunrise.  Frey rolled on his side, already alert.  He was supposed to leave at dawn.

“You have time,” Ryuu said, guessing his thoughts. He set a platter of bread and wine on the side table. “Eat.”

Frey sat up, the covers falling off his shoulders.  He shivered, and noticing his state, Ryuu handed him his tunic from where it had lain, discarded, from the night before.  Frey mumbled a ‘thank you,’ feeling a bit awkward as he got semi-dressed, aware that Ryuu was watching him.  They didn’t talk for a moment, and more to give himself something to do, Frey started on his meal.

Then, with a sly tilt of the head, Ryuu said, “You know, I didn’t expect you to be such a wild—”

Frey choked on a chunk of bread.

“—sleeper,” Ryuu finished.  “I seriously considered putting you in restraints—”

Frey continued to cough violently.

“—the entire night,” Ryuu went on.  “You should do something about that.”

“Not my problem,” Frey managed to get out. “Besides, you’ll get used to it.”

“I will?” said Ryuu, the humor fading from his eyes.

Frey scowled. “Don’t give me that look.  You can’t back out of…of whatever this is.”

“I’m not trying to.”

“Good. Or I’m putting you in restraints.”

Ryuu didn’t laugh.  “Maybe you’d have to,” he said. “Soon.”

“If I have to, I will,” Frey promised, “because I’m not letting you go.”

Ryuu’s eyes softened.  “Always an answer to everything,” he sighed. “I wish I’d met you sooner, Frey Lombard.”

Frey grinned. “Me too, Ryuu whoever-you-are.”

Ryuu had never told him and Frey had never asked.  Frey didn’t think he’d ever know.

He thought wrong.

“Schwarz,” Ryuu said calmly.  “My real name is Maximilian Schwarz.”

 


 

Over breakfast, Saralegui was once again treated to the riveting tale of Lord Wolfram von Bielefeld’s battle with a dragon.  It merited enough interest the first time it was told, but several iterations later, Saralegui wanted to scream whenever the words “dragon” and “Wolfram” were mentioned in the same sentence.

The dining hall was again filled with a babble of voices inanely discussing that same subject.  Saralegui could feel a vein ticking on his forehead, and from the corner of his eyes, he saw Belias giving him his I-told-you-so look.  He could have taken his meals in his room, but Saralegui wanted to be amidst people, no matter how small or big the crowd may be.  It was the best way to obtain information, he’d told Belias.  But Belias had looked at him and said in that blunt, quiet way of his, “You just don’t like being alone.”

Saralegui shrugged the thought off.  Why he was doing it didn’t matter anyway.  What mattered was what he was getting out of it.  That morning, however, Saralegui wondered whether he should have just stayed in bed.

“—and the dragon fell out of the sky,” concluded the maid, Doria, once again narrating everything she claimed she’d heard directly from one of Lord von Bielefeld’s soldiers.

“The beast was huge,” boasted the guard, Dacascos. “I helped bring it to Lady Anissina’s quarters.”

“How huge?” said the girl, Greta, flapping her small arms excitedly. “Wolfram said it was larger than a horse and the wings were wide as this.”

“There’s another one that’s as large as a house,” said Dacascos.

“Ooooh!  I want to see that!  Have you ever seen a dragon, Sara?”

“No,” said Saralegui, following up with the usual praise, “Lord von Bielefeld was very brave.  I don’t know if I could do what he did.”

“Damien said the same thing,” said Greta, beaming proudly.

Saralegui’s ears pricked at the name.  “Ah, so Lord Schwarz is still staying with your father?”

“He’s helping Wolfram.”

‘Helping.’  Saralegui mulled that over.  Why would someone as bigoted as Lord Schwarz help a Mazoku?  Gratitude for saving his life?  Or a determination not to owe anyone a favor, a Mazoku most of all?  What sort of “help” would Lord Schwarz be even capable of offering?  There was something strange about that too.  And, most curious of all, Yuuri trusted the boy who nearly killed Saralegui with Lord von Bielefeld, his precious fiancé?  Why?

“I tried to go see the dragon, but they won’t let me,” said Greta. “Oh, I’d love to see an actual dragon.”

“A dead dragon isn’t anything to see,” said a grim voice.  Yuuri had entered the room, throwing everybody a look that wiped the eagerness off their faces.  Nearly the same entourage followed the king, but this time, Greyheim Schwarz walked haughtily by Yuuri’s side.  Neither Lord Weller nor Lord von Christ looked happy about this arrangement.

‘He’s changing,’ Saralegui thought, noting the lines in Yuuri’s usually carefree face.  Something had happened, and it didn’t seem to bode well for Saralegui.

Yuuri looked directly at him.  “Sara,” he said, “we need to talk.”

Everybody else was leaving, taking their cue from the king’s expression.  Even Greta seemed to read the atmosphere correctly.

“I’ll go see Wolfram and Damien,” she announced.

“Tell your father I wish him a speedy recovery,” Saralegui said.  “And tell Lord Schwarz that I look forward to our next…ah…meeting.”  Greta smiled and promised to relay the messages.  On her way out, Yuuri patted her on the head, but Saralegui didn’t miss the flicker of irritation on the king’s face.  Yuuri clearly didn’t like Damien Schwarz either, but that still didn’t explain what all this business was about.

“So,” began Yuuri, seating himself opposite Saralegui, with Greyheim taking the other side. Lord Weller and Lord von Christ opted to remain standing.

“So,” said Saralegui, refusing to lose the initiative in whatever this was turning out to be, “any news about the dragon?”

Yuuri winced.  “Yeah.  You’ve heard about what happened?”

“More times than I’d like.” Saralegui turned to smile at Greyheim, who was obviously raring to say something.  “Your nephew was very lucky.”

Greyheim returned his gaze, the edges of his mouth twisted with disdain.  “Where were you that night?”

And finally, Saralegui understood.  This was a witch hunt.  Disasters, after all, had to be blamed on someone.  Yuuri made a face, as though to say he didn’t have a choice in the matter.

“I was in my room,” Saralegui said evenly, “enjoying the view from the window."

"Can anybody vouch for that?"

"Belias was with me."

"Anybody else?"

Saralegui smiled.  “What exactly are you accusing me of, my lord?”

“Sara,” said Yuuri cautiously, “Anissina has been working non-stop on the dragon’s…uh…corpse.”

“Did she find anything interesting?” Saralegui asked, still smiling, although he felt a little stung.  He was used to people distrusting him, but Yuuri was supposed to be different.  He couldn’t believe that naïve, gullible Yuuri — of all people! — would actually have the audacity to interrogate him.

Yuuri must have sensed something of Saralegui’s ire, for he winced again, his face crumpled in apology.  His words came out in a rush, as though he hoped spouting everything out quickly would make them less terrible: “Anissina said the dragon was very weak when it fought Wolfram.  She said the dragon couldn’t have possibly moved on its own.  She said it may have been controlled against its will.  For the record, I don’t think you had anything to do with it, but Lord Greyheim” — he gave the man a reproachful look — “insisted that this needs to be clarified.”

‘Insisted that this needs to be clarified.’  Definitely not words the Yuuri he knew would use.  Saralegui glanced back at Greyheim.  “Are you asking me if I commanded a dragon to kill your nephew?”

“I know what you can do,” Greyheim said. “I heard what happened when you attacked the Dai Shimaron fleet.”

From the corner of his eyes, Saralegui saw Yuuri’s jaw clench.  Was he remembering it too?  That moment at the ship, when Saralegui forced the famous Demon King to attack Saralegui’s enemies?  The Demon King was easy to control, Saralegui knew that, but he was also difficult to break.  Deficient though he may seem in running an actual country, Shibuya Yuuri had proven himself to be a strong, respected, and well-loved leader.

But despite his strengths, Yuuri was still such a child in many ways.

“I didn’t do it,” Saralegui said.  It was strange to be denying something that he didn’t actually do.  Usually, he’d always have a hand in there somehow.  Was he losing his touch?

“What proof do you have?” demanded Greyheim. “How can we even trust—?”

“Sara didn’t do it,” said Yuuri, and there was something in that declaration that didn’t ring with the blind trust that Yuuri often bestowed, indiscriminately, to others.  The Demon King knew something, something he wasn’t telling.  Or, Saralegui noted, glancing at the expressions of the men behind the king, something he’d been forbidden to tell.

"We’ve been attacked," Greyheim said in a tone of outrage. "Damien nearly died.  Your own fiancé was gravely wounded. I do hope you're taking this incident seriously, Your Majesty."

"I am taking this seriously," Yuuri said defensively. "And we’re considering all possibilities."

Ah, so there was another possibility.  Saralegui filed this information away for future use.

"That’s not good enough, Your Majesty," said Greyheim.

“We’ll let you know if something else comes up,” said Yuuri.  “In the meantime, you and Lord Damien are…welcome to stay.  For as long as needed.”

“That’s generous of you,” said Greyheim stiffly.  The man obviously didn't miss the pause before the word "welcome."  “I’m sure Damien would love that.”

“Wouldn’t he?” Saralegui chimed in.  He couldn’t help himself.  There was something about Damien Schwarz’s return to the castle that spelled trouble, and Saralegui was curious to see what it would lead to.  While he’d liked to believe he'd changed from the scheming bastard everyone thought him to be, there were certain things that were just too amusing to let go, like stirring up a little trouble once in a while.  And, if he were being completely honest, Yuuri’s distrust had irked him.  Some sort of punishment was in order.  He favored the Demon King with an innocent smile.  “It’s sweet that he’s staying for Lord von Bielefeld.”

Yuuri frowned, like a sulking child, but said nothing.

“They get along well,” Greyheim said.  “Damien’s well enough to leave the infirmary, but Lord von Bielefeld asked him to stay.”

The words were uttered with the intent to hurt.  ‘The man has no subtlety,’ Saralegui thought, but it was probably what was needed to get the Demon King’s attention.

He was right.

“That's not possible,” protested Yuuri. "Why would Wolfram want him there?" He stopped, blushing at his outburst. “I mean..."

“We should drop by to see how they’re doing,” Lord Weller suggested mildly, coming to his king’s rescue.  “I'm sure Wolfram wants to see you again, Yuuri.”

“Y-Yeah,” said the king with a forced laugh.  “You’re right.  I should really talk to him.”

“I’ll walk with you,” said Saralegui brightly, beaming at the wary looks everybody was suddenly throwing at him.  Now this was more his speed.  “You did promise we’d talk.”

Greyheim didn’t even bother to hide his distaste.  Lord Weller looked exasperated; Lord von Christ, agitated.  Yuuri seemed like he wanted to throw up.

‘Oh, this will be fun,’ Saralegui thought.

 


 

Wolfram dreamt again.

The nightmares continued from where they’d left off.  Always, there was a dragon.  And always, there was a boy.  And always, Wolfram awoke to find Damien’s worried gaze upon him.

The sun was shining brightly by the time Damien shook him awake from yet another dream.  “You’re talking in your sleep again,” he said.

At least he wasn’t shouting, Wolfram thought.  Or threatening bodily harm to the person who’d woken him up.  He pushed himself into a sitting position and mentally took stock of his body.  He felt so strange.  His clothes clung to him, and he realized he was drenched with sweat.  There was a dragon in his dream; he’d been riding it. And there was that boy whose face he couldn’t see.  And they’d been…

Wolfram cast his mind back and the sensations returned in full force. He could almost feel the boy’s arms around him, his mouth opened against his. He could feel the contour of his body, and—

Wolfram felt his face burn.  He was aching for a boy he’d only seen in his dreams, for a boy who wasn’t Yuuri.  What was wrong with him?

“Wolfram?”

Wolfram took a deep breath and consigned the dream to the darkest pits of his mind, hopefully never to be relived again.  “I'm fine,” he said. "I just...I need a change of clothes."

Damien was already rifling through a pile of trousers, vests, and other articles the servants had left earlier in the day, holding out his selection to Wolfram.

“Do you need help getting dressed?” he asked.  He always asked, a reminder that Wolfram could refuse if he wanted to.  And though Wolfram didn’t — couldn't, really — the illusion of choice made him feel a little less out of control of his life.

“Yes,” Wolfram said.

Damien took it in stride, echoing his customary instructions: Lean back. Stay still. Close your eyes. Wolfram did as he was told, allowing his mind to wander.  He started when he felt something cold and wet touch his skin — a sponge, he realized.  They’d been at this before, but it never got easier.  Wolfram held himself straight, determined not to make the situation any more awkward than it already was.

Damien’s hands were always sure, steady. But this time around, Wolfram thought he could feel a tremor whenever his fingers brushed against Wolfram’s skin.  Damien always worked quickly, quietly.  This time, however, as though he couldn’t stand the silence, he cleared his throat and began, “I haven't seen the healer around—”

"Gisela," Wolfram interrupted, eyes still closed.

"What?"

“That’s her name.  It’s easier to accept someone if you know what they’re called.”

Damien might have gotten over some of his biases where Wolfram was concerned, but he still treated everybody else with detachment and distrust.  For one, he never seemed to bother learning the names of people around him, opting for generic terms like "the girl," "the healer," or "the Demon King."

“Gisela,” Damien said, a little grudgingly.  He was right, though.  Gisela hadn't dropped by like she'd promised.  She must have known that Damien did something, Wolfram reflected.  She didn’t pry; she just seemed content that Wolfram was healing nicely.  In the end, she’d all but entrusted Wolfram’s care into Damien’s hands.  "So any reason why she hasn't come back?"

Wolfram could guess — she was with Anissina, perhaps assisting with whatever tests they were doing with the dragon's remains.  But he kept the thought to himself, remembering that he wasn't supposed to talk about dragons or the Ryuzoku with Damien.  It didn't feel right, and it weighed on Wolfram's mind.  Yet he knew Damien kept secrets of his own, so Wolfram could be forgiven for holding some information back, too, right?

"She might have other assignments," said Wolfram. "But if you want to see her that badly..."

"That's not what I meant to say," said Damien.

"Relax. I just think she likes you."

"Good to know there's at least one in this castle who feels that way," muttered Damien.

"Two," said Wolfram.

"Oh?" There was a shift in Damien's tone, but the tremor in his hands belied the composure in his voice. "And the other one is...?"

"Greta."

There was a pause.  Then Damien was laughing, and Wolfram couldn't help but smile at the joy in that sound...and that he'd been the cause of it.

"The girl...I mean, Greta was just here," said Damien after a beat.  "Guess who's wishing you a 'speedy recovery'."

There was a mocking note to the last two words, and Wolfram immediately understood. Saralegui.  He should have felt more annoyed, angry even, but Wolfram found that he was too distracted for it.  Other things filled his head lately...like divining the meaning of all these baffling dreams he'd been having these past nights...or picking apart the feeling that he was forgetting something important...

"See, that's where your wrong," Damien went on when Wolfram didn't respond.  "I knew Saralegui’s name before I met him, and yet..."

"There's always an exception," said Wolfram. "He just might be it."

Damien seemed to consider that as the sponge glided down the length of Wolfram’s back.  “You dislike him,” he observed.

“He’s a visitor,” said Wolfram deliberately. “Unless he poses a danger to the king, he’s none of my concern.”

“That’s what a soldier would say,” said Damien. “Would the king’s fiancé like to weigh in?”

“He’s not here,” said Wolfram, a trace of resentment bleeding through his voice. “I was told I can’t be both.”  He sighed.  “But Saralegui is something, I'll give you that.  I can't tell you how much I've wanted to burn him alive on various occasions.”

He’d said something wrong, Wolfram could immediately tell.  Damien had stopped, and opening his eyes, Wolfram saw the blood drain out of Damien's face.

“Damien? What’s wrong?”

“N-Nothing,” Damien said, resuming his task, though his hands shuddered a little. “I told you.  I really don’t like fire.”

“Oh,” said Wolfram, frowning in remembrance.  ‘He said his parents were murdered by dragons,’ he recalled Yuuri say, and Wolfram realized...they’d been burned.  Burned alive.  Pity twisted Wolfram's heart.  “But that night, at the forest…”

Damien managed a laugh. “I had no choice.  I had to move or we’d both burn.”

He made it sound so simple, and yet Wolfram now knew how horrifying it must have been for him.

“I wield fire,” he said after a moment’s thought.

“I noticed,” Damien said, frowning.  “And I’m not taking that against you, if that’s what you mean.  Fire is just…a really awful way to go.”

Wolfram had never seen it that way. But then, he reflected, looking down at his hands, Damien had a point.  Fire could hurt.  Fire could kill.  “But fire is beautiful too,” he said aloud. “I mean, it really is, if you look at it.”

"I know," said Damien, glancing at Wolfram. “You made it look beautiful.”  He averted his eyes and added, suddenly shy and nervous, “I-It’s just an observation.”

Wolfram didn’t know what came over him, but he felt a bit giddy and reckless and not quite himself.  “Well, if it’s worth anything,” he said, “you made bandages look beautiful, too.”

Damien looked back at him, surprised.  Then laughing, he said, “That’s your comeback?”

“It’s just an observation,” Wolfram said.

“You need to observe some more,” said Damien.

Wolfram grinned. “Maybe I will.”

It felt to him like another hurdle had been cleared, and they’d just taken a step forward — into what, Wolfram didn’t know.  But to his surprise, he didn’t dislike wherever this was going.

 


 

"Your Eminence?"

Murata heard Ulrike approach and felt her soothing presence as she came to stand next to him by the window.  But he didn’t meet her eyes until she touched his arm gently, as though telling him she knew what was troubling him — and that she understood.

"He won’t talk to me,” Murata said. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t of much help.”

“You hate not knowing,” said Ulrike, simply stating a fact.

“It’s an occupational hazard,” agreed Murata. “Know-it-alls like me become sages for a reason.”

“Or perhaps, it is the other way around?”

Murata smiled, conceding.  “I guess you’re right.  I hate not knowing what’s happening.”

“But you always know,” said Ulrike softly.  “You have always known how His Majesty thinks.”

That would have been true of one of his former selves, and perhaps there’d been a time when that was the case.  Now, however, Murata had to wonder.  What did he know about Shinou?  Could he even presume that he was privy to all of Shinou’s secrets?

“Your Eminence, there is something else. We have news from the castle—”

Ulrike stopped suddenly, her eyes unfocused and impossibly wide with surprise. She stumbled, and Murata caught her by the elbow.

"Ulrike?  What is it?"

"Your Eminence, the portal…something is wrong…"

Murata tried to sense for it too.  There it was, like a crackle of electricity in the air.  A disturbance.

"Somebody is crossing…" said Ulrike in a far-away voice.  “They are coming here…”

That didn’t sound right.  Only the Demon King had the authority to use the portal directly to the temple.  Unless it was Bob of the Earth Mazoku?  But why would he cross without giving them any warning at all?

Murata heard shouts resounding below; the shrine maidens were already rallying around the fountain.  He shared a look of consternation with Ulrike before they made their way down to the courtyard.  They arrived just in time to see the water flash brightly. Then with a huge splash, four people materialized out of its depths.

Murata was hoping for familiar faces, but his wish was both fulfilled and frustrated at the same time.  Two were people he definitely knew: Shibuya’s older brother, which would explain the portal, and then unexpectedly, Saiga Amane, a classmate that Murata knew was as ordinary as could be.  He didn’t have time to wonder what she was doing in this world. Murata’s gaze was drawn to the other half of the newcomers, and a shadow of fear instantly gripped him.

A large, muscular man had Shibuya’s brother by the neck.  Shibuya Shori was sputtering, struggling to breathe, and when he saw Murata, he gasped out, “You!  Where’s Yuuri?  Warn him—”

“Shut up,” said the muscular man, tightening his grip until his captive fell limp.  Shori fell with a thud.  Murata started to move, but Ulrike grabbed his arm and refused to let go.

“No, Your Eminence,” she said in a whisper.  “Please.”

Then Murata felt it — a hostile, dangerous presence if he ever sensed one.  Something that just felt so out of place and so...wrong.  A man with long white hair stood beside Saiga, surveying his surroundings impassively.  His eyes met Murata’s, and Murata was struck by a sense of…familiarity…like he knew the man from somewhere. Perhaps not in that body, not with that face, but where…?

“This is it,” said Saiga. “Shin Makoku at last.”

Murata felt like he should say something but his voice wouldn’t come out.  He caught Ulrike’s eye, wondering what she thought of this.  Her face was white as alabaster, and something in the way her lips quivered made Murata realize that — of course — she knew these people!  She recognized them, and she was terrified of them.

“It’s been a long time, Ulrike,” said Saiga, grinning.  “Is your master around?”

“Lord Weisser,” Ulrike said tremulously.  “What did you do…?”

Weisser? Murata thought he recognized the name too.  He rifled through the memories in his head, most that weren’t his, surprised that his recollections took him so far back…just after the Soushou incident…the Crypt of Souls and…now, why on earth was he remembering Susanah Julia?

Murata shook his head.  Nothing made sense.  Why was Saiga even here?  How did she know Ulrike?

Saiga caught his eye.  “Murata!  I thought I’d see you here.”

“I’m sorry I can’t say the same,” Murata replied, keeping his tone smooth, indifferent.

“It’s not her, Your Eminence,” said Ulrike.  “It’s not her soul.  That body…he took a child’s body.”

“Don’t go all righteous on me now,” laughed Saiga, who — if Murata understood correctly — wasn’t really the Saiga he knew anymore.  “This child had lived five lives, all as uneventful as the last.  A lot of souls aren’t as lucky.”

“You didn’t have the right to interfere with a soul!”

“And Shinou does?  Your reasoning amazes me, Ulrike.”

Their exchange made no sense. And yet at a deep, unreachable level, it also did.  Murata struggled to remember—

“That's enough," said a low voice, and Murata's thoughts grounded to a halt.  Shinou was suddenly standing behind him, his expression, inscrutable.

"Shinou—" he began.

"There is nothing to worry about," Shinou said, waving a dismissive hand at the maidens. “Leave us."

The maidens obeyed without hesitation, as they’d been trained to do.  Shinou’s word was absolute.  Murata used to think so, too.

“Leave us,” Shinou repeated, and Murata realized the words were directed to him as well.

“Shinou—”

“Go.”

Murata’s entire being rebelled against the order.  Why was he being kept in the dark?  What game was Shinou playing?  But then Shinou turned to look at him, his eyes solemn and imploring, and Murata was again faced with that age-old dilemma he’d always had to contend with where Shinou was concerned: to trust or not to trust?  Shinou had never failed him before — at least not on purpose — but why wouldn’t he seek Murata’s help?  What was at stake?  What was Shinou trying to protect?  Or maybe the question was, what was Shinou trying not to lose?

“No,” Murata said, drawing himself to his full height.  “No, Shinou. This is enough.  Tell me what’s going on.”

“Yes, Shinou,” said Saiga mockingly. “Tell him what’s going on.”

“It does not concern you,” said Shinou. “Go.  Take the Demon King’s brother.  I will not ask again.”

Murata glanced at Shori.  He looked pretty beaten up.  “What happened to him?” he said. “What did—?”

“Enough,” said Shinou.  He didn’t sound angry or displeased, just…tired.  He waved a hand and the water shot up from the fountain, engulfing Shori’s unconscious form before rushing toward Murata.  Murata had the sense to evade, but the water merely parted, then closed over his body.  Murata held his breath as the water surrounded him, eyes wide with comprehension of what Shinou was about to do.

The water shone a luminous gold.

And then Murata was pushed back…down…away.  Even as Murata drowned, the memories started whirling inside his head, tumbling over each other in an endless repeat.  Soushou.  The Crypt of Souls.  Susanah Julia.  Soushou.  The Crypt.  Julia.

Murata couldn’t breathe.  The last thing in his head before the darkness overtook him was a name: Shibuya.

Chapter Text

Maximilian Schwarz.

The name felt strange. Foreign. As unknowable as the man who suddenly claimed to own it.  Frey stared, open-mouthed, at the confession.  His thoughts were thrown in disarray, and he hated how Ryuu looked so calm and collected in comparison.

“Schwarz?” Frey repeated dumbly. “The Schwarz clan of the Shadow Pass?”

Ryuu nodded.  Frey had pored over maps of the Shadow Pass, committing every nook and cranny to memory.  Ryuu had watched Frey prepare for the assault.  He'd seen Frey train for the task.  And all this time…all this time… That look on Ryuu’s face when he’d first learned about the mission made a lot more sense now.

“Linnaeus Schwarz,” Frey said. “My target.  Who’s he to you?”

“My father,” Ryuu said.

Frey laughed, sounding close to hysterical.  “Your father? I’m supposed to kill your father!” He jumped to his feet, throwing food and cutlery to the floor, and started pacing, the need to move pumping through his veins. “When exactly were you planning to tell me all of these?  Why now?  Why only now?”

Frey had nothing against Linnaeus Schwarz — damn it, now the name meant something to him — but somebody had paid a fortune for his life.  The Lombards had taken the contract, and breaking it would spell disaster for the entire clan.  Frey supposed he could talk to his father, but what was he even going to say?  What would Lord Garez even do to Ryuu, the errant son of another clan leader who — through his silence and deception — had gained a high-ranking position in theirs?

“I’m not stopping you, Frey,” Ryuu said.  “I wanted to, but I guess it’s time.”

“You honestly don’t care?” Frey demanded. “You don’t give a damn if I—" Frey stopped and rounded on Ryuu, eyes wide with disbelief.  “I. Am. Going. To. Kill. Your. Father.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Ryuu.

“You don’t think I can?”

“I know you don’t need to.”

Frey had now lost his patience. “WHAT’S THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?!  WHAT’S THIS SUPPOSED TO MEAN?”  He was breathing hard, but he tried to stop and regain a semblance of control.  He lowered his voice, now begging, willing Ryuu to say something that made sense. “Do any of these even mean anything to you?”

“Frey.” That tone again, the same way he’d whispered it last night, when he’d taken Frey completely. “You’re the only thing in this world that means anything to me.”

Anger surged through Frey’s entire body, partly for Ryuu but mostly for himself, because no matter what logic might dictate, Frey still, still, still believed in Ryuu.

“What should I do?” he asked, horrified at the crack in his voice.  He blinked back tears, swiping his hand angrily at the few that escaped.

“Go,” Ryuu said.  “Go and come back.”

Go and come back.  How dare he make it sound so simple! Go to what he now discovered to be Ryuu’s home.  Come back to his home.  And then what?

Frey felt so suffocated, he couldn’t think properly.  He gathered his clothes and put them on hurriedly, wanting nothing more than to escape.  Ryuu watched him in silence.  He looked like he was about to say something, but Frey ignored him and walked out.  He paused outside, feeling so, so sick, his thoughts a muddled tangle he couldn’t make sense of.

Now what?

 


 

Yuuri stopped on his tracks, frowning.  Beside him, Saralegui broke off (he’d been asking about Anissina’s findings) and glanced at him with thinly veiled irritation.

“Sorry,” Yuuri said, looking around, perplexed.  For a moment there, he thought he heard his name.  “I just…never mind.  What were you saying?”

Sara regarded him with a raised eyebrow.  “It’s fine.  It wasn’t important.”

There was a note of displeasure there, but Yuuri was too distracted to care.  “Listen, I’m really sorry, but can we talk some other time?”

“Of course,” said Saralegui graciously, although his smile looked a little forced.  “But you wouldn’t mind if I go with you to the infirmary?”

“Uh...why?  You want to see Wolfram too?”

“Actually, it’s Lord Schwarz I want to see,” said Saralegui nonchalantly.  “He’ll be there, correct?”

Yuuri couldn't stop himself from scowling. ‘He did that on purpose,’ he thought.  He knew somehow that Saralegui was trying to provoke him.  If Sara wanted something, why couldn’t he be straight about it, just like before?  When did he become so difficult to deal with?  Or was he always like that?

"I do need to talk to him," Sara added.  "To patch things up."  His expression didn’t change, but there was also a sad gleam in his eyes that Yuuri didn’t quite understand.

Yuuri nodded absently. But as he led the way, he found himself dreading what he was sure was going to be another awkward encounter with Wolfram and Damien Schwarz.  His last conversation with Wolfram didn't really end well, and Yuuri's interactions with Damien Schwarz seemed to always occur amidst confusion and chaos. The thought of those two together in such close quarters, at each other's side at all hours of the day, disturbed Yuuri in ways he couldn't express.

Yuuri almost convinced himself he was overthinking things.  Then they found Wolfram and Lord Damien in bed.  Well, sort of.

Wolfram was propped against the headboard, looking flushed and slightly disheveled for some reason.  Yuuri took in the tousled hair and the redness in Wolfram’s cheeks, and he felt his heart sinking.  Lord Damien was seated, cross-legged, on the bed.  They'd been laughing at something; Yuuri heard their muffled voices just as they entered the ward.

“Your Majesty,” said Lord Damien by way of greeting.  He looked a little annoyed, as though Yuuri and company had interrupted something.

Wolfram didn’t look like he was still mad at Yuuri, but he also looked embarrassed, which was worse.  The last time Yuuri had seen Wolfram so flustered was when he’d accidentally bared too much of his real feelings. ‘I’ll protect you no matter what.’  ‘If you fall, I’ll fall with you.’  Yuuri had thought it was sweet.  The fact that Wolfram would die for him and with him had seemed like a given, but now that Wolfram had actually nearly died for somebody else, Yuuri felt so…

Yuuri didn’t know what this feeling was.

“Yuuri?”  Wolfram was looking straight at him, green eyes bright but oddly detached.  His eyes narrowed slightly as he looked past Yuuri’s shoulder.  “Can I help you with something?”

Yuuri wanted to slap himself.  He should have asked Saralegui to wait outside.  Now too late to say anything, Yuuri wished Saralegui would have the sense to state his business, get Lord Damien out of there, and leave.  But Saralegui seemed perfectly content to stand where he was and watch everyone in that calculating way of his.

“I just wanted to see how you were doing,” Yuuri said.  For the first time, he was acutely aware that he’d said it wrong.  What he meant was, ‘I wanted to see you.'  But Damien Schwarz was staring at him and Yuuri felt so out of his depth.

“How are you feeling, Wolf?” said Conrad, ushering Yuuri forward.  He glanced at Lord Damien and added with a smile, “I hope my brother hasn’t been too much trouble.”

Lord Damien actually smiled back, a stark change to the sullen boy Yuuri had to deal with the past days.  “Not at all. He’s absolutely delightful.”

“Oh, shut up,” Wolfram muttered.  Lord Damien chuckled.

'They’re friends,’ Yuuri realized with a sharp twinge inside his chest.  He waved it away, berating himself for feeling…feeling what exactly?  His eyes strayed to Wolfram’s hands, and he felt another twinge, though it was easier to identify what it was this time around: Guilt.

“So how are you?” Yuuri asked.  “You feeling better?”

He moved closer to the bed, which Lord Damien seemed to have no intention of vacating.  Yuuri quashed the urge to push the boy off and focused on Wolfram instead.  He must be bored by now, stuck in bed as he was with nothing to do.  Bored and frustrated.  Wolfram had always been at his strongest, at his freest, and at his happiest with fire on one hand and a sword on the other.  When he was what he was — a protector.  Yuuri’s protector.  Friend.  His...fiancé.

“Better,” said Wolfram, though he must have misinterpreted Yuuri's question, for he added, “Though I don’t think I’d be ready to resume my duties any time soon.”

“That’s fine,” Yuuri said at once. “There’s no rush.” He realized too late what that must have sounded, that he didn't want Wolfram back.  Mulling over his own words, Yuuri realized what he should have said: ‘I don’t want you getting hurt. You have to rest and get better.’

“I won’t be of much use,” Wolfram went on with a casual shrug that didn’t convince Yuuri.  “I'm supposed to be on patrol anyway, so I was thinking of going back to Bielefeld Castle for a few—”

“No,” Yuuri said.  The word came out as a firm order, driven by something deep inside that pushed away Yuuri’s exhaustion and cleared the fog from his mind.  “You’re not leaving me.”

He paused, surprised at himself.  Did he just say that?  Yuuri should feel self-conscious, but instead, he felt oddly confident.  He raised an eyebrow at Damien Schwarz, who seemed to be listening intently, judging every word that left Yuuri’s lips.

“You don’t need me here,” argued Wolfram.  There was none of the petulance that Yuuri had grown accustomed to.  It was like Wolfram was just stating a fact, not throwing his usual tantrum.  Yuuri could appease Spoiled Brat Wolfram with promises or gifts or a few kind words.  He didn’t know how to deal with this Matter-of-Fact Wolfram who spoke of leaving Yuuri as though it were nothing.  The old Wolfram couldn’t even bear to be parted from Yuuri’s side, yet this Wolfram seemed keen to get away from him.  What the hell happened to him?

Yuuri could think of one reason — and the said reason was still seated on the bed, barely an arm’s length away from Wolfram, watching their exchange with undisguised curiosity.  And not just watching.  Waiting was more like it.  Suddenly, it was more than Yuuri could take.

“You,” Yuuri snapped, “get out.”  The words were his but the voice didn’t sound quite like his own.  Lord Damien scowled, ready to defy him.  But Yuuri had already raised one hand, his fingertips glowing blue for a moment as the maryoku pooled into his palm—

“Yuuri!” Wolfram’s eyes were impossibly wide.  “What the…?”

“Yuuri.” Conrad had stepped forward just in time.  Gently, he lowered Yuuri’s arm and spoke calmly to Lord Damien: “What His Majesty meant to say was he needed to speak to Wolfram alone.  Besides, Lord Saralegui wants a word with you.”

For a second, no one seemed inclined to move.  Lord Damien, Yuuri noted with both guilt and satisfaction, looked thoroughly disconcerted, his eyes darting from Yuuri to Saralegui.  Then Wolfram glanced at the boy; he nodded slightly and a quiet understanding seemed to pass between them.

“I see,” said Lord Damien, swinging his legs off the bed. “I’ll see you later, Wolf.”

‘Wolf.’  Yuuri registered the use of the nickname and immediately felt another stab of irritation.  He kept his eyes on the mattress, barely acknowledging Lord Damien’s glare or Saralegui’s parting remark.

“I’ll see them out,” said Conrad, tapping Yuuri on the shoulder, adding, “I’ll wait outside.”

Yuuri nodded, hearing the door open and shut close again after a moment.  Left alone with Wolfram, the silence stretched on for longer than Yuuri was used to.  They’d never been this quiet when they were together.  They’d be arguing, talking, laughing, and then arguing some more.

‘When did things start to change?’ Yuuri wondered.  When Wolfram met Damien Schwarz?  When he’d fought the dragon?  When he’d left the temple?  Or was it way before that?  How had things become so messed up?

“What in damnation was that about?” Wolfram demanded.

“I don’t know,” Yuuri sighed.  He suddenly felt so tired.  He just wanted to lie down and take a long rest.  “Can I sit down?”

Wolfram narrowed his eyes at him, but he also shifted to make room.

“I’m sorry,” Yuuri said.  “I don’t know why I did that.  I guess it’s just been stressful, you know.  With the dragon incident and all.”

“That’s not an excuse.”

“I know.”

“You should apologize to Damien,” Wolfram said.

“I know,” Yuuri said, too tired to argue.

“He’s been really helpful.”

“I know.”

“He saved me.”

“For god's sake!" Yuuri snapped, temper flaring. "Can you please stop talking about him?”

“Of course,” Wolfram said, eyes cold. “Your Majesty.”

Yuuri groaned.  He’d always been able to get along well with anyone — wasn’t that what made him a passable king? — but Damien Schwarz was just a different story.  He’d hoped Wolfram would understand, but they hadn’t been seeing eye to eye on a lot of things lately.  Why was it so difficult to get things right with him?

“Wolf, I’m sorry, okay—”

“You don’t have to apologize to me, Your Majesty—”

“Stop calling me that!"

"Fine!"

"Fine!" retorted Yuuri.  "If that's what you want, Your Excellency."

It was all so childish, so silly, and the satisfaction of seeing Wolfram's startled expression lasted for only a second.  Without even thinking, Yuuri leaned forward, reaching out to touch Wolfram's cheek.  It was the sort of action that seemed like his and not quite his, like an instinct that escaped, unhindered by the social conventions of his upbringing.  At that moment, being so close to another boy didn't seem so wrong.

"Wolfram."  Even his voice had that same in-between quality.  His but not quite his.  "I don't want to fight."

Wolfram's anger seemed to melt away.  "Neither do I."

"I don't want you to go."

"Yuuri—"

"Stay."

Wolfram gazed back at him, mesmerized, caught in the moment.  "Why?" he whispered.

"Because..."

This was a Wolfram he could reach, Yuuri knew.  He was there, right where Yuuri wanted him.  All Yuuri needed to do was say the right words...

Because I want you here with me.

Yuuri blinked, as though breaking out of a trance.  Like before, the confidence deserted him, leaving nothing but confusion and awkwardness in its wake.  He recoiled, hand jerking back, like he'd been scorched by Wolfram's skin.

"W-We need you here," Yuuri stammered.  "I-I need your advice.  There's that stuff about the Ryuzoku.  And we still haven't settled what to do with the Dai Shimaron throne."

Wolfram's eyes clouded over.  "I see."

“I know you were upset about me supporting Sara," said Yuuri, who couldn't seem to stop himself from babbling, "but it’s just because I’d known him longer.  But I'm willing to give Lord Damien a chance.  I promise I won’t make any decisions without consulting you or Conrad or Gwendal…” He trailed away, noting the changing expressions on Wolfram’s face, from confusion to realization to a sad, almost pitying smile.  "What?"

Wolfram regarded him unhappily.  “You don’t understand anything, do you?”

“Understand what?”

“Yuuri…”

“Tell me,” Yuuri pleaded.  

“This was never about the Dai Shimaron throne,” Wolfram said.  “I didn’t care about that.  I only cared about us, I guess.”  He sighed and added softly, “Maybe I should have cared a bit less.  Brother was right.”

Yuuri’s heart pounded. He didn’t like where this was going. “You mean Gwendal?  He was right about what?”

“Yuuri, I was just upset,” said Wolfram slowly, as though confessing a petty offense, “that you preferred Saralegui over me.”

Yuuri took that in.  Was that what it was all about, Wolfram's anger back at the temple?  Wolfram was always accusing him of cheating, even when Yuuri was just shaking hands with other people, that Yuuri had never thought twice that Wolfram might be right.  Yuuri hadn’t really thought about his closeness with Sara the way that other people saw it, the way that Wolfram saw it.

“Oh,” he said. “But Sara and I, we’re not like…that.”

“I think I know that,” said Wolfram.  “I don’t know why I haven’t seen it before, but we’re not like that either, are we?”

“C'mon, Wolf.  We’re engaged.”  He’d said it.  He’d actually said it — aloud.

“By accident,” Wolfram added.

Yuuri’s chest hurt.  Wolfram had actually said it too.  Yuuri felt as though the ground was moving.  There were words that could still save him, save Wolfram and him, but Yuuri was too scared to reach for them.

“Wolfram, please," Yuuri found himself saying instead, "can’t we just go back to how we were?”

Wolfram’s entire body seemed to relax, but not in relief or acceptance.  If anything, it seemed like all the fight had gone out of him, and he was just too tired for whatever Yuuri was asking.

“Yuuri…” Wolfram shifted, resting one arm on Yuuri's shoulder, leaning closer until their foreheads were touching.  "I think we've gone far enough."

Yuuri fought down the impulse to push Wolfram away.  "That's ridiculous," he said, but there was no strength, no conviction, in his words.

Wolfram lifted his chin, a slight movement that brought his lips against Yuuri’s.  A brief, passing sort of kiss.

Yuuri froze.

Wolfram drew away.  “See?” he said, as though he’d just proven an important point. And maybe he did. “You can’t even handle that, can you?”

Yuuri wanted to disagree, but could he actually follow through?  He’d always avoided thinking about what their engagement meant, especially in the physical sense.  He’d honestly been hoping that something would happen in three years.  The engagement could get dissolved, Wolfram would find someone else, or Yuuri would muster the courage to end everything himself.  But after the three mostly happy years they’d been together, Yuuri couldn’t imagine a life without Wolfram now — and yet the image of a married life with Wolfram was still shrouded with fear.

This was as far as Yuuri could go.

“Conrad’s waiting,” Wolfram said, and Yuuri understood that he was being dismissed.

Again, Yuuri knew there were words that might still fix everything.  His heart held the answer, and Wolfram would surely be overjoyed if he only knew what Yuuri wouldn’t acknowledge.  A part of Yuuri, the part closest to the Demon King, would have spoken the truth.  But the part closest to the insecure high school boy still held the reins.  It was this that made Yuuri get up and leave without a word.

Wolfram lay down and clumsily drew the covers over himself.  He seemed to fall asleep after a moment, but when Yuuri closed the door, he thought he heard a sob.

 


 

Damien followed Saralegui through a deserted hallway and into a spacious bedroom adorned with jars of sweet-scented flowers.  He paused at the door, bemused.  If it weren’t for the four-poster bed at the far-end wall, he’d think he was walking into an indoor garden.

“Courtesy of the maids,” said Saralegui, waving at the bouquets.  “And other admirers.”

“Admirers?” Damien repeated, frowning.  Then it hit him.  “This is your room?”

Saralegui smiled and settled himself on a chair, crossing his legs and resting his hands on his knees.  It was all so fluid, like a choreographed dance, and the picture he made screamed ‘royalty.’  King.

Damien felt so vulnerable.  Saralegui didn’t offer him a seat.

“Where’s your bodyguard?” he asked, trying to sound unconcerned despite the fear that was slowly twisting his insides.  Maybe it hadn’t been the best idea to leave his own guards outside and be alone with Saralegui.

“On an errand,” Saralegui answered idly. “But don't worry.  I can defend myself just fine.”

Damien winced.  Alright.  Maybe he deserved that, but still…

“I’m not apologizing,” he said, “if that’s what you wanted hear.”

“I don’t expect you to,” Saralegui said. “In fact, I should be apologizing.  Yuuri said I was out of line.”

“He did?” Damien kept his voice light.  He could play this game of pretend civility.  “And here I was thinking he didn’t like me.”

“He doesn’t.  For obvious reasons.”

“Obvious?”

Saralegui laughed.  Even that seemed practiced, a predetermined action toward some end.  Damien thought he was starting to understand what kind of person Saralegui of Shou Shimaron was.  The type that never did anything without gain or reason.  A performer in a mask, every movement synced to the next scene of a script that was his own making.  Damien wryly wondered what “role” Saralegui had in store for him.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Saralegui said. “Lord von Bielefeld is stunning.”

“He is,” Damien agreed, mentally cursing himself for blushing a little.  “I suppose you’ll tell me what a hypocrite I am?”

“Well, I am curious,” said Saralegui. “You profess to hate anyone with Mazoku and Shinzoku blood, and yet you’ve made an exception.  A full-blood Mazoku at that.  It got me wondering whether you truly hate all non-humans or just one particular non-human.  Perhaps a half-breed?”

Damien’s heart pounded.  What did Saralegui know?  He’d hinted at something during the banquet…about Damien’s parents…Damien’s brother…but nobody knew what really happened five years ago.  Greyheim had made sure of that.

“Let’s cut to the chase, my lord,” Damien said. “What do you want from me?”

“Answers,” said Saralegui. “And perhaps, if you’re willing, a deal.”

Damien hated the sound of that word.  He already had a “deal” that was slowly ruining his life.  He didn’t need another complication.

Saralegui smiled.  “Don’t worry, my lord.  I’m not Lord Greyheim.  I’m sure we can agree on something that’s mutually beneficial.”

Damien paused.  “You know what my uncle promised me?”

“Let’s see,” said Saralegui, his sharp eyes scanning Damien from head to toe.  “What could a vagrant who’d thrown away his wealth and title possibly need?  Why would a boy with no political ambitions claim the throne?”  Saralegui shrugged.  “Information.  Lord Greyheim knows something.  Something you want to know or something you don’t want known.  Maybe both.”

If he knew he'd hit the nail on the head, Saralegui didn't show it.  Damien tried not to show his distress.  “What do you want, Lord Saralegui?”

“You know what I want.”

“The Dai Shimaron throne.  You want me to back out.”

“That’s entirely up to you,” said Saralegui.  “But if you do, I’d be in your debt.  And I’d do something for you in gratitude.”

“And what would that be?”

Saralegui leaned forward.  “I can get the information you need from Lord Greyheim.”

Despite himself, Damien stepped closer, tempted by this trickster's words.  “You can?”

Saralegui rose to his feet.  At the same time, the door swung open and two men strode in. Damien recognized the grim-faced bodyguard, Belias, who’d nearly decapitated him.  A second man, thin with a shiny bald pate, followed, bearing an urn of freshly cut flowers.  He was wearing the uniform of a castle guard.  Damien glanced nervously at Saralegui.

Saralegui smiled, placid and in control.  This was the next scene, Damien realized, and Saralegui was wearing the mask of a charming monarch, warmly ushering the castle guard into his room.

“Dacascos,” he said, “thank you for helping Belias.”

“It’s no problem, Your Majesty,” said the guard, setting the flowers down on the nearest table.  “Anything you—”

“Kneel,” said Saralegui.

It was so sudden, Damien didn’t even know what was happening until the guard had already fallen to his knees, a vacant expression stealing over his face.  Saralegui had taken off his glasses, and Damien saw that his golden eyes appeared to be…shining.  Greyheim had warned him about Saralegui’s abilities, but Damien had never imagined how it could be so quick and so insidious.  Was there even any defense against it?

“Consider this a demonstration,” Saralegui said without taking his eyes off the guard’s face.

Damien tried to keep his voice steady. “Do you realize you’ve just attacked one of the Demon King’s subjects?”

“Don’t distract him,” warned Belias, and Damien nearly jumped.  He’d never heard the man speak before. “Just watch.”

It was the most unsettling thing Damien had ever seen.  Saralegui questioned the guard about the dragon Wolfram had defeated, and the guard told them every detail in a dull monotone.  Someone called Anissina had examined the dragon's remains and declared that it definitely had been under someone’s control.

“I heard you telling Greta about another dragon,” said Saralegui. “What did you mean by that?”

“There was another,” the guard replied automatically. “I saw another dragon.  In the forest.  As big as a hut.  Lord von Voltaire forbid us to talk about it.”

Saralegui leaned a little closer to the man. “What else aren’t you supposed to talk about?”

“Ryuzoku,” said the guard without missing a beat. “There was a rider.  Dragon rider.”

“You saw the rider?”

“Chased him,” said the guard. “Didn’t catch him.  Lord von Voltaire has spies following Lords Damien and Greyheim Schwarz.  He suspects there's a connection.”

Ryuzoku.  The mere word made Damien shudder.  What was a Ryuzoku doing in the forest that night? To make sure the dragon killed Damien?  To finish the job if it hadn’t? Damien could still smell the smoke that clung to him, suffocating him as it nearly did five years ago.  It had only been the need to get Wolfram out of the forest that gave Damien the strength to move and keep moving.  If they’d stayed a moment longer…if they’d lingered a second longer…would the Ryuzoku have killed him?  Killed Wolfram?

“Stand,” said Saralegui, and the guard drew himself to his feet.  “Wake up.”

“—need at all,” said the guard, continuing where he had left off, as though the intervening moments had never happened.  ‘He’ll have no memory of it,’ Damien realized with discomfort.

Saralegui pushed his glasses up his nose and smiled.  “That’s kind of you.”

The guard beamed with pleasure and gave a smart salute.

“What was that about?” Damien asked when the guard had left.

“An act of good faith,” said Saralegui.  “You can tell Yuuri if you want.”

“To what?  To discredit you?” Damien ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “You realize we both look like fools who keep begging for the Mazoku’s approval?”

Saralegui’s smile faded, and Damien had the distinct impression of a mask slipping.  “How is it any different from what you’re doing?” he said. “Begging for a single Mazoku’s attention?”

Damien reddened.  “That has nothing to do with politics.”

“Then you’re a fool,” said Saralegui. “Lord von Bielefeld’s influence can only work to your advantage.”

“Now you sound like Greyheim.”

“So that was his plan?” Saralegui scoffed. “How obvious.”

Damien stared.  He hadn't fully appreciated, until now, how dangerous of an adversary Saralegui was.  “What else is obvious to you, my lord?” he asked through clenched teeth.

There was a pause.  Saralegui’s glasses caught the light, and his eyes seemed to flash. “Lord von Bielefeld’s hands.”  Damien caught his breath, and Saralegui went on, “They kept saying you were helping him.  I saw his hands.  Was that your work?”

Damien had never felt so exposed.  How in the name of all the gods did Saralegui figure everything out so easily?

“His hands were healed by magic,” Saralegui said, watching Damien intently. “You have magic.”  Damien's heart stopped for a second, then sputtered wildly.  Saralegui’s voice was even, self-assured.  “You’re not human, are you?  Or not completely, at least.”

Damien didn’t say anything, but he supposed his silence was enough of an admission.

“You’re not Mazoku or Shinzoku,” Saralegui went on, “which means…the Ryuzoku, the dragon riders.  You’re one of them.”

“Obviously,” Damien quipped. “Is that what you wanted to say, my lord?”

“No,” said Saralegui.  His lips quirked.  “Try ’half-breed.’”

Alright.  Damien deserved that too.

“But no harm, no foul,” Saralegui said, waving a hand.  “I don't care what you are.  I can work with you...if you're willing.”

“You can do…that…to Greyheim?” asked Damien. “Make him answer your questions?”

“Perhaps. If I’m in a good mood. But that is entirely up to you.”

“Tell me one thing first,” said Damien. “Why don’t you just order me to do it?  Use your eyes.”  Something that looked like apprehension crossed Saralegui’s face, and Damien felt his suspicion confirmed.  “There’s a limit to what you can do, isn’t there?  Glad to know.”

The mask slipped again.  Saralegui was frowning at him, and it was, for once, an unscripted face.

“I can’t make a decision right now,” Damien said. “I’ll have to think about this.”

“You have until tonight,” said Saralegui. There was no patronizing smile this time around, no fake cheerful tones. He looked just as Damien felt — a little bit exposed, a tiny bit vulnerable. He seemed wary of Damien, and Damien took heart in Saralegui’s caution. Beyond the mask of the king and the consummate manipulator, he could see a glimpse of yet another boy who was playing at politics.

“I’ll see you tonight then,” said Damien, “my lord.”

His guards were waiting anxiously outside Saralegui’s room, but Damien ignored them.  Saralegui’s offer felt like a game-changer, but Damien knew that he was still in the same boat, merely trading one blackmailer for another.

But much as he hated to admit it, Saralegui also felt different.  Greyheim was a puppeteer in his own right, looping people with strings of favors and bribes.  But Saralegui was promising Damien the fulfillment of a goal, everything Damien had wanted up to this point.  Damien should be pleased, if only the things he wanted were as clear-cut as they once were.  Damien would finally find Max, get his revenge, and move on.  But then what?  He’d be penniless, landless, nameless.  Never be good enough for someone like Wolfram von Bielefeld.

Damien swore under his breath, as the truth struck him, clear as day.

He was falling for a Mazoku.

 


 

“I didn’t think we’d see each other so soon,” Weisser told Shinou, His Divine Majesty, the First King, and unbeknownst to his worshipers, devotee to the Crypt of Souls and also the bane of Weisser’s existence.  “How have you been?”

Shinou said nothing, his gaze moving to Tier and then Ryuu.

“I don’t think you’ve officially met Tier yet,” said Weisser, “but of course, you remember Ryuu?”

Shinou nodded. “I know what you are here for.  I cannot allow that to happen.”

“We’re not asking your permission.”

“The Crypt knows you will find your way here,” Shinou said.  “They are watching.  The Soul Keepers are on their way.”

Weisser felt a smidgen of unease.  That could be problematic, but Tier, the war freak, actually looked delighted at the prospect.  The man was in fighting form, and thanks to him, they’d always been able to fight off the Keepers in the past.  But with Ryuu’s condition...

Weisser caught Ryuu’s eye.

“We have no time for this,” Ryuu said, and that settled everything.  Frey should be their priority.

But Shinou was stepping forward, arms outstretched.  The entire temple seemed to vibrate with the pulse of his maryoku.  “You would have to get past me.”

“Get back,” said Ryuu, and both he and Tier moved to shield Weisser.  Maybe he should have selected a body more suited for fighting, Weisser mused, but it was too late to regret anything.

The stones beneath their feet trembled.  The world seemed to turn sideways, throwing their balance off.  Shinou, the bastard, was flying, spiraling toward them.  Tier roared and swung his fist but Shinou was ready for it.  With a sweep of the hand, steam hissed from the ground, suffusing the temple with white smoke.

Weisser couldn’t see anything, but he thought he could feel Ryuu moving.  He heard a clang of metal…stones cracking…Ulrike’s cry ringing from way across the yard…

Then a sharp wind blew against his face, diffusing the fog, and Weisser's vision cleared.  Ryuu had pinned Shinou down on the ground, had driven a dagger straight into Shinou’s chest.  The arrogant god had taken a bodily form to fight, but it was, Weisser noted with satisfaction, also his undoing.

Weisser’s delight was short-lived.  The Shinou he remembered wouldn’t be defeated this easily.  The Shinou he knew wouldn’t make such a stupid mistake in combat.

“Ryuu!” he cried, scrambling to his feet.  From the corner of his eyes, he saw that Tier was running too.  Weisser pushed his body onward, but even as he did, he knew he wouldn’t reach Ryuu on time.

He saw Shinou raise his head; his mouth moved, saying words only Ryuu could hear.  Ryuu froze for a moment, his eyes widening with disbelief.

And then the ground exploded.

Chapter Text

Frey wandered aimlessly through the hallways, mind still churning from Ryuu's revelation.  'This is so like him,' Frey thought.  Because it wasn't enough to be beautiful and skilled and powerful.  No.  Ryuu also had to have the most messed-up secret in the world.

“Frey?”

He stopped at the voice and doubled back.  His mother had poked her head out of a nearby room, raising an eyebrow at the state of Frey’s clothes, his hair, his face.  She smiled knowingly.

“So, how was your night?”

His face burned. Trust her to know everything already. “I’m going to be late,” Frey mumbled, turning to go, but his mother deftly caught his arm and held him back.  “What?”

“You had another fight?” she asked.  “A bit of competition is always good, but—”

“It’s not that,” said Frey.

“Well, I’m sure you know we like Ryuu.”

Now, that was the problem.  Would they still like Ryuu if they knew the truth?  Accept him as part of the clan?  And if they didn’t, what would become of him?  Them?  ‘No one should know,’ Frey decided.  Maybe Ryuu ran away from home.  Maybe he’d been banished.  Or maybe…

‘I was told I was a mistake.’

Frey recalled Ryuu’s words all those months ago and the state he’d been in when they'd first met.  Ryuu had been in a fight.  He’d nearly died from his wounds.  Did his own clan turn against him?  Did Ryuu’s own father order his death?  Was that what Ryuu had meant?

‘I should have asked him,’ Frey thought, but he was still too angry to look at Ryuu and not punch him in the face.  “Mother," he said instead, "I need you to tell me something, no questions asked.”

“Is this about Ryuu?”

“No,” Frey lied easily.  “It’s about…this job.  About the Schwarz clan.  Who ordered the hit?”

“Ah,” said Lady Rin, her eyes shrewd.  “You’ve heard something, haven’t you?”

“No questions asked, Mother,” Frey reminded her.

“Alright.”  She looked around casually before answering: “Lord Friedrich Rosenthal.”

Rosenthal.  The most powerful of the dragon lords.

“I don’t know what you’ve heard, but things are about to change.” Lady Rin smiled, her eyes misty with anticipation of a future only she could see. “Lord Rosenthal is building an army of dragon riders.  Soon, we’ll all fly under one banner, all the Ryuzoku united.”

Frey had no idea any of this was even going on.  Was this what his father had been so busy with?  Did Ryuu know?

“And Linnaeus Schwarz?” Frey asked.  “What does he have to do with anything?”

“Schwarz has betrayed the cause,” said Lady Rin, standing tall and proud.  It was so easy to forget sometimes that she wasn’t just his mother; she was also one of the strongest fighters in the clan, second only to her husband.  And she loved the Ryuzoku just as fiercely as she did Frey.  “They’ve cut all ties with the rest of us and refused all attempts for an alliance.  The last we’ve heard, they’ve made contact with the Mazoku.”  She patted his cheek affectionately.  “Your father wanted you to focus on the task ahead, not get distracted by anything else.”

Frey wanted to laugh as the weight of his mission became clear to him.  Not only was he off to kill Ryuu’s father, he might just be the key to a crucial turning point in the history of his race.

“He should have told me!” he burst out.  “Why wouldn’t he trust me with anything?”

“Of course, he trusts you,” said his mother.  “He wouldn’t give this mission to anyone else, not even Ryuu.  You’re his son and heir, Frey.  Never forget that.”

That should have made him happy, and before this morning, it would have made him swell with pride.  But for once, Frey wasn’t even thinking about his father’s approval.  He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to be the heir of the Lombard clan either.  It was so funny how the things he wanted had all changed just because of a name.

‘Damn you, Ryuu,’ Frey thought bitterly.

 


 

Yuuri couldn't sleep.

It was weird, since he no longer had to share the bed with someone who'd made a habit of kicking him out of it.  He'd had the room to himself ever since he arrived, but it was only now that he felt the impact of Wolfram's absence.  It was different somehow, the finality of knowing he had no one to wait for.

The thought of Wolfram made his chest hurt.  From this night onward, he didn’t have to wake up sprawled on the floor.  From this night and all the other nights ahead, his sleep wouldn’t be marred by sudden jerky movements from the other side of the bed.  There’d be a permanent empty space where Wolfram used to be, and the thought of this future made Yuuri feel so confused and so...cheated.

He didn’t understand how things had gotten from just another argument mere days ago to Wolfram breaking up with him hours earlier.  He’d wanted to pour his heart out to Conrad, but talking about what happened felt like he’d be betraying Wolfram.

Thankfully, there’d been a lot of other things to do after that.  He’d gone with Conrad to Anissina’s laboratory, where they found an argument in full swing.  Yuuri wasn’t surprised to see that Lord Greyheim was in the thick of it all, demanding full disclosure on whatever they’d discovered about the dragon.  Gwendal, in what Yuuri now saw as a calculated move, casually mentioned the word “Ryuzoku.”  The effect was subtle, but Yuuri thought he could spot it.  Greyheim had paled a little, and there was a little less belligerence in his tone.  Shortly after, he’d excused himself, saying that he needed to rest.

“A hundred gold coins says he’s going to Little Schwarz,” said a voice, and who Yuuri had assumed was a guard tilted his head up to reveal Yozak’s grinning face. “These guys definitely know something.”

“What happened to your maid costume?” asked Yuuri, looking Yozak up and down.

“I was too pretty, I got noticed too much,” said Yozak, wagging his eyebrows.  “A guard’s nearly invisible.”

“Tell His Majesty, Yozak,” said Gwendal, settling into a couch and leaning his head back.  He looked unusually haggard, and it seemed like he'd been sleeping with the same clothes on for some nights now.

“Right,” said Yozak, imitating the salute and the clipped tone of a sentry reporting to his commander. “Concerning the second dragon spotted at the scene, I have good news: we might know where it is.  Bad news: it’s not alone.  There are no other incidents within our borders, but it seems like they’re gearing up for something.”

“They haven’t done anything except try to kill Damien Schwarz,” said Conrad.  “They’re careful not to draw our attention.”

“But how is that even possible?” Gunter burst out.  “How did they cross the borders?”

“A cloudy night?” Anissina suggested.  She was still circling the dragon’s remains, prodding and clipping things here and there, scrutinizing each item under what Yuuri assumed was the equivalent of a human-made microscope. “How many are there?”

“Reports say six,” said Yozak. “More or less.”

“That sounds like a squad,” said Gunter, twisting his fingers together.

“Or an advance party,” said Anissina, now adding a drop of liquid to a dragon scale, which immediately made a series of tiny explosions that reminded Yuuri of cooking popcorn.  Gwendal’s brow was starting to twitch irritably, but Anissina didn’t seem to care.

“Advance party?” Gunter echoed, now truly agitated.  “Do you mean from an army?  We should issue an evacuation!”

“It’s too early for that,” said Gwendal. “We don’t know if they do have an army.”

“But if they do,” said Conrad, “we won’t be able to protect the outlying towns.”

“What about talking to the squad?” said Yuuri, and everyone turned to look at him.  “Ask them what they want.”

For a second, Yuuri didn’t know if he’d said something stupid or something so simply brilliant that nobody had even thought about it.  When Anissina started laughing, Yuuri thought it might have been the stupid thing. But then she said, “And here we all are, talking about armies and attacks!  The boy is right.  Let’s send a message.  Ask one of them to come.”

“Without a dragon, of course,” said Gunter.  “And don’t call His Majesty ‘boy,’ Anissina.”

“Worth a shot,” said Yozak, nodding appreciatively. “Put it in an official document and I’ll take it myself.  They could’ve moved, but I have scouts keeping track of them.”

“How soon will you get to them?” asked Conrad.

“A day or two depending on their location,” said Yozak. “What do you say, General?”

All eyes turned to Gwendal, who regarded Yuuri silently, as though weighing something in his head.  “Your Majesty," he said, frowning, "what if the dragon riders want something that we can’t or won’t give?”

Yuuri hadn’t thought that far.  “Um, offer something back?” he said. “Hash it out until we find something to agree on?”

“And if we still don’t find a common ground?  The Ryuzoku aren’t people who’d sue for peace.”

Yuuri thought he knew what Gwendal was asking.  What if they had to fight?  What if they had to engage the Ryuzoku in battle?  Yuuri glanced at the dead dragon.  He might have to kill one too, if he could even manage what Wolfram had done.

Wolfram.

The name was like a sudden prick to the heart, and Yuuri drew in a sharp breath. After he was starting to feel a bit better, too.  Yozak’s humor, Anissina’s bluntness, Conrad’s calming voice, Gunter’s outbursts, and even Gwendal’s brooding silence all felt so familiar, so normal, he could pretend nothing had changed in his life.  He could pretend for a moment that Wolfram hadn’t said what he said.  Hadn’t kissed him.  Hadn’t decided to stop waiting around for him.

Only Conrad seemed to notice that something was off.  He kept giving Yuuri these worried looks, but Yuuri didn’t want to explain or talk or just even think about it.  Yuuri shook his head.  He needed to focus on the Ryuzoku.

“If that happens, Gwendal," he said, "you’ll decide what’s best.”

Gwendal looked surprised, but he must have seen something in Yuuri’s face that satisfied him, for he almost smiled.  “Then we’ll do as you say, Your Majesty.  Gunter…”

Gunter didn’t need to be told twice.  He was already rummaging for a quill and parchment, scribbling away at a message.  It wasn’t long before they all agreed on every carefully selected word. Then Yuuri was signing it and putting his seal on it, handing it to Yozak, who tipped his helmet and cheerfully went on his way.

After that, Yuuri threw himself headlong at whatever task they needed of him.  There was the usual paperwork, but for the first time, Yuuri took his time reading each document.  He could tell that Conrad wanted to talk, so Yuuri tried to appear as busy as he could.  Later, he returned to Anissina’s to look at the dragon again.  But at the door, Anissina had shaken her head at him, nodding to the couch, where Gwendal seemed to have passed out.  Greta was there, about to be thrown out too, so Yuuri took her instead to the gardens and spent the rest of the afternoon picking Wolfram flowers for…Wolfram.

There was that sharp, stabbing pain again, as Yuuri watched Greta weave the flowers into a crown.  Greta asked him a question, and Yuuri only nodded, keeping the words unsaid.  'Yes, those would look good on Wolfram.'

Afterwards, Yuuri walked back with Greta to the infirmary, heart thudding every step of the way.  He kept thinking of an excuse not to go in, but it would seem so weird if he didn’t so he swallowed his fears and followed his daughter through the door.

Lord Damien was there, looking over Wolfram who was fast asleep.  They greeted each other politely for Greta's sake, and though Yuuri remembered his promise to apologize, his tongue just seemed stuck.  Greta, however, chatted animatedly with Lord Damien, who responded with the sort of smile that he'd only ever directed at Wolfram.  Something fierce and ugly reared its head inside Yuuri's chest.  'No,' he thought. 'You're not getting her too.'

"Let's go, Greta," he called out.  He felt restless, like something might explode out of him if he didn't get out.  "It's nearly dinnertime."

Greta pouted at him.  "But I thought we can wait for Wolfram to wake up, and then we can—"

"Not now," said Yuuri, impatient to get going.  "Just come back tomorrow, okay?"

"But Yuuri—"

"Maybe we can drop by Anissina's again," Yuuri said.  He immediately felt guilty for the lie, but at least he got what he wanted.  He might have called it a win, if Greta hadn't tugged at Lord Damien's sleeve and handed him the flowers.

"For Wolfram," she said.

"This will look good on him," said Lord Damien.

It took all of Yuuri's willpower to stop himself from slamming the door.  He didn't even realize that he was walking way too fast, or that Greta was running to keep up with him, or that he was heading in the opposite direction from Anissina's laboratory.  Yuuri muttered some reason for how strange he was acting, then made up more excuses for not going to Anissina's like he'd said.  Greta looked hurt and bewildered, forcing Yuuri to promise that he'd really, really take her to see the dragon tomorrow.

Everything else proceeded like always.  They'd had dinner.  They’d talked (mostly about dragons), then Yuuri had tucked Greta into bed.  Everything felt like normal — except that it wasn’t.  There was an empty seat at the table, an empty spot by Greta’s side, and an empty space at Yuuri's bed where Wolfram used to be.  Where Wolfram should be.

He'd give anything to go back to the way things were.  They were fine, weren’t they?  Why did Wolfram have to say those things?  Why did he have to kiss Yuuri?

'You can't even handle that, can you?'

Wolfram had looked so sad when he'd said it, and now reliving that moment, Yuuri wondered whether he could ever do what was expected, what was needed.  His thoughts turned to Damien Schwarz.  If Wolfram had kissed Lord Damien instead of Yuuri, he’d surely kiss Wolfram back, wouldn’t he?

‘There’s a difference,’ Yuuri argued to himself.  Lord Damien had lived here all his life.  Being with Wolfram wouldn’t bother him.  It wasn’t the same for Yuuri.  Yuuri had grown up in a different world, a less accepting world.

Then it hit him.  He was in a different world, a more accepting world.  And people here hadn’t judged Wolfram or him for getting engaged.  What had he been scared of all this time?  What was he still so afraid of?

Yuuri didn’t know where to find the answers.  He still didn’t know what to say or do, but there was one thing he felt sure he did know: he wanted Wolfram in his life.  And Yuuri would do everything to keep him there.

The thought hardened Yuuri’s resolve.  He’d talk to Wolfram first thing tomorrow.  He’d tell him…well…Yuuri didn’t know yet, but he’d tell Wolfram simply what he felt. And for the first time, the words came easily to Yuuri: ‘I don’t want to lose you.’

Yuuri turned, his eyes finally closing with the sense that his world wasn’t ending after all.  Wolfram would see reason.  Yuuri could fix everything tomorrow.  He sighed and finally drifted off to sleep.

What seemed like a second later to Yuuri, he heard the explosion.

 


 

He awoke with a start.

He sat up, slightly disoriented.  For a second, he struggled to remember…to understand...

Where was he?  What was he doing here?  Who was he?

He started to move but immediately felt a tenderness in his hands.  A memory flashed in his head.  He’d been burned.  He’d been fighting a dragon.

Someone had been here, he remembered.  Someone had sat here on the bed, and a voice came to him: “Wolfram, please, can’t we just go back to how we were?”

He nearly laughed with relief.  Wolfram.  That was his name.  And then panic struck and his heart pounded against his rib cage.  Something was wrong.  How had he forgotten his own name?

“Wolfram,” he whispered to himself. “Wolfram…Wolfram…”

Then another voice — deeper and nearly as familiar — rang through his ears: “I won’t stop you from going.  I guess it’s time anyway.”

That voice — Wolfram had dreamed of that voice.  There’d been a boy in his dreams…someone who’d waited for him…kissed him…held him… It felt almost like Wolfram…loved him.

Wolfram breathed out, slowly, deeply.  That was the dream.  In real life, the one Wolfram loved had left him behind…the one he loved won’t kiss him…won’t hold him…someone who didn’t love him back.

Wolfram groaned as another memory flashed through his head.  A kiss.  A question that held all the hopes of his heart.  And Yuuri's answer had been...nothing.  Yuuri hadn't done anything.  Just sat there until everything was over.  They were over.

“Wolfram?”

Wolfram turned, startled from his thoughts.  He’d forgotten someone else was in the room.  The name took a moment to come to him, as though he had to dredge it up from some deep corner of his mind.

Damien.

Damien was peering out the window, hair windswept, a cloak wrapped around his shoulders.  “What do you think that is?” he asked, pointing at something in the distance.  “You heard that too, didn't you?”

Wolfram got up and joined Damien by the window.  Smoke was rising in the horizon, and Wolfram remembered what had woken him up.  There’d been a loud noise, like a distant explosion that reverberated through the very foundations of Blood Pledge Castle.

“The temple,” Wolfram said, his stomach twisting.  “Something happened.”

“A fire?” Damien suggested.

Wolfram couldn't tell.  He could hear noises outside the room, and a moment later, a guard poked his head in to tell them what was happening.  Shinou’s Temple had been attacked, the guard said.  All the soldiers had been ordered to assemble at the courtyard, where the Demon King was assembling a troop.

“They said the Great Sage didn’t return to the castle,” the guard added.  “They’re worried about him too.”

Wolfram felt the fear rising in his chest.  Of course, Yuuri would go.  He was never one to sit out of danger, especially not when a friend might need help.  And of course, Conrad would go with him.  In normal circumstances, Wolfram would be there, too.  Wolfram should be there.

“An attack?” Damien echoed softly to himself when they were left alone.  “Do you think it was that other dragon?”

Wolfram blinked, distracted.  “How did you know about that?”

"I don't..."  Damien paused, his face alternating between guilt and suspicion.  "Wait a second...how did you know about that?"

Wolfram took a moment to decide, then settled on the truth:  "Yuuri," he said.  "You?"

"Saralegui," Damien said.

'I should have known,' thought Wolfram.  Damien was acting a bit odd when he'd returned after his talk with Saralegui.  Wolfram would have asked what was wrong if he hadn't still been struggling to keep the tears at bay.  In the end, they'd stared at each other, and an understanding passed between them: Truce.

It was in the spirit of this unspoken agreement that Wolfram didn't prod Damien into saying more.  “You think the dragon attacked the temple?" he asked instead.  "Why?”

“I don’t know.  It’s just too much of a coincidence.”

“We’ll have to wait to find out, won’t we?” said Wolfram bitterly.  He wanted to be there, but what use would he be?

Damien was silent for a moment, frowning.  Then as though coming to a decision, he asked, “Do you want to go?”

“And what?” Wolfram demanded.  He knew he shouldn’t take out his temper on Damien, but he couldn’t help it.  “Watch?  Stay out of the way?”  He looked down at himself in disgust.  He couldn’t even change out of his clothes by himself, for Shinou’s sake!  He started pacing, the word ‘useless’ running through his head in an endless loop.

“Wolfram,” said Damien, catching him by the elbow, forcing Wolfram to look into his eyes.  “Look, there’s something I can do.  I didn’t want anyone to notice, but apparently, it was all so obvious anyway.”

“What?”

“May I?” Damien asked, reaching for Wolfram’s right hand.  He made quick work of unraveling the bandages until their palms were touching, skin to skin.  This time around, he didn't ask Wolfram to close his eyes.  “I hope you don’t think any less of me,” he said, his brows creasing with concentration.

Something warm flowed from Damien’s palms, from the point of contact, spreading to the tips of Wolfram’s fingers.  Wolfram’s skin seemed to glow, rendering the bones transparent, each muscle fiber tingling, returning to normal.  A breath of air glided over Wolfram’s skin, smoothing over the scars, the burns, even the calluses.  Damien let his hand go, and holding it up and flexing his fingers, Wolfram marveled at how fully restored it was.

He was healed.

Wolfram regarded Damien in wonder.  “And you said you weren't a healer.”

"I'm really not."

"But...this is amazing."

Damien shook his head.  "You do realize I could've healed you completely from the start?"

Wolfram nodded slowly but couldn't find it in himself to feel resentful.  "You didn't want anyone to know what you can do?"

"I didn't want anyone to know what I am," said Damien.  “Wolfram...I was born with this power.”  There was a look of misery in his eyes, as he ran a hand through his hair, messing it up further.  “You know about the dragon clan, right? The Ryuzoku?”

And it clicked.  Yuuri and the others suspected that Damien was hiding something, a connection to the dragon riders that would explain the attempt on his life.  This was the information they'd all been looking for, and Damien had just lain it down on Wolfram's feet.

“You’re a…Ryuzoku?” Wolfram whispered.

“Partly,” said Damien. “From my father’s side of the family.  His grandfather fled to Shimaron after the tribal war, and he—”

“You don’t have to tell me this,” Wolfram cut in.

Damien shrugged.  “One annoying person already knows anyway.”

But Wolfram felt his knees buckling at the weight of Damien’s secret.  His soldier’s instinct and his pride as a Mazoku were telling him to pass on the information to Gwendal.  Maybe a week ago, he would have.  But this was Damien, the boy in the forest, the friend who'd helped him so much, and now, the one who'd made him whole again.

Was it enough?  They’d known each other for barely a month, cheated death together, and shared some tender moments that Wolfram always wished he’d had with Yuuri.  Was that what Wolfram had seen in him?  A replacement for Yuuri?

The thought made him so ashamed, and when Damien reached out for his other hand, Wolfram drew away.  Damien didn’t deserve this.

“Wolf?”

Damien sounded hurt and Wolfram’s resolve crumbled.  He stopped; his legs seemed to have a mind of their own, taking him forward instead of back, closer, until his forehead touched the crook of Damien’s neck.  Wolfram sagged into him, and as though he’d been waiting all this time, Damien’s arms closed around him, keeping him steady. Anchored.

‘This was it,’ Wolfram thought.  The arms that held him in the forest.  It felt warm and safe and good, and Wolfram hated himself for wishing that the arms belonged to Yuuri instead.

“I’m sorry,” he said, drawing back.  “We shouldn’t…”

Damien released him.  “There’s no need for that,” he said.  He gestured to Wolfram’s injured hand.  “May I?”

Wolfram hesitated.

“After this,” Damien said, “we can finally call it even.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” Wolfram protested.  But Damien shook his head and just wordlessly repeated the healing process.

Wolfram clenched and unclenched his fists.  Then experimentally, he muttered a short chant.  The flames sizzled upon his palms, dancing and coiling into a ball.  He laughed, delighted, reveling in the sight for a moment before he remembered that Damien hated fire.  He made a fist and the fireball imploded.

“I’m sorry,” Wolfram said. “I forgot.”

Damien smiled. “No.  You were right.  It was beautiful.”  His eyes shone, and there was a bit of mischief in his voice when he asked, “So...do you need help getting dressed?”

Wolfram felt like laughing and crying at the same time.  Something was ending here, and yet Wolfram understood that, should he allow it, something else could begin.

"I'll manage," he said.

"I'll wait for you outside then," said Damien.

Alone in the room, Wolfram stood still for a second, feeling the strength and confidence return to him.  He was a soldier again, and that at least gave him fresh hope.  He could still be Yuuri’s shield, his subject, his loyal knight.  The thought of not being anything more was agony, but Wolfram could learn to be content with his place.  Maybe it would get better with time.  Or maybe not.

But it wasn’t as if Wolfram had any choice.  He knew himself well, and if there was one thing he was sure of, it was that no matter what or who came between them, a piece of his heart would still be Yuuri’s.

 


 

Damien Schwarz had completely forgotten about him.

Saralegui told himself that he didn’t care, not when there were plenty of distractions to go around.  After all, an explosion at a god’s temple wasn’t something you’d see every day.  Saralegui had heard the blast and seen the smoke from his window, and afterwards, Belias had come to inform him that the Demon King was leaving for Shinou’s Temple.

“What do you want to do?” Belias asked.

Saralegui had been dressed the entire time, anticipating a message from Lord Schwarz.  If their deal wasn’t happening tonight, it would be a waste of a good outfit.  He stood up; Belias was already opening the door for him.

Soldiers were assembling before the front gates.  Stable-hands were saddling horses and preparing wagons.  Bodies weaved in and out of the crowd in the sort of organized chaos that Saralegui loved.  He drank in the tension, the almost-but-not-quite mode of panic that seemed to be gripping every person there, forcing each one to move faster and work harder.  The power to move all these people almost made Saralegui’s mouth water.

They found Yuuri at the front, surrounded by his advisors as per usual.  Unsurprisingly, they were arguing about who should stay and who should go.

“Murata is there!” Yuuri was saying, gesturing wildly with his arms. “I have to go!  You should stay, Gwendal.  You haven’t slept at all, have you?”

“I had enough rest,” said Lord von Voltaire.  “I should—”

“This man needs more sleep,” interjected a redheaded woman, the Lady Anissina von Karbelnikoff, if Saralegui remembered correctly. “Say the word and I will knock him out.”

“Anissina,” Lord von Voltaire warned, but there was something in his eyes that actually looked more like a plea.  So even the gruff Mazoku lord had a weakness after all.  ‘But then again,’ Saralegui considered, ‘everybody has a weakness.’  Saralegui’s gift was finding it, and his skill was exploiting it.  It was only a matter of when and how.

“Conrad’s with me,” said Yuuri.  “And Gunter will lead the soldiers.  Gisela’s coming to help, too.  It’ll be fine.”

“Not enough,” said Lord von Voltaire.

“It’ll have to do.  Someone has to stay here.  And besides, if Yozak returns with the message—”

“Yuuri,” said Lord Weller, alerting everyone to Saralegui’s presence.  Yuuri swiveled around, his eyes finding Saralegui’s.

“Sara!  Um, sorry.  This is a bad time.”

Saralegui smiled.  “If you need another guard for you, I can spare Belias.”

No one, especially Belias, seemed to like the idea.  But it was pragmatic.  Saralegui could move freely in the castle, and Belias would gather what he could from this incident at the temple.

“We don’t want you defenseless, Your Majesty,” said Lord von Voltaire stiffly.  “This isn’t necessary.”

“What could possibly happen to me here?” Saralegui said.  No one could seem to argue their way out of that and admit that Blood Pledge Castle was unsafe.

“Okay,” said Yuuri when no one said anything.  “Gwendal, please—”

“No,” said the man, still adamant.  “You need one more beside you—”

“I’ll go,” said a voice.  Everyone stopped to gawk at the person who’d volunteered.  Dressed simply, not in uniform and without the usual frilly accessories, Saralegui almost didn’t recognize Wolfram von Bielefeld.

Saralegui felt his eyes narrowing, bemused at the transformation.  The Mazoku who’d been at his sickbed barely days earlier now seemed so…strong.  And his hands…they were bare, unblemished, perfect.  Saralegui saw Lord Schwarz hovering over the Mazoku’s shoulder, and he understood what must have happened.  How unexpected.  Did Lord Schwarz no longer care that he’d be exposed?

He wasn’t the only one who was staring.  Yuuri looked like he’d seen a ghost.  “Wolf…are you…I mean…what are you doing here?”

“I'll go with you,” Lord von Bielefeld said, not really answering the question.

Lord von Voltaire was frowning at his brother, but Saralegui could see the relief and tenderness in his eyes.  Yet another weakness.  “Your hands?” the man was asking. “Your injuries?”

“I’m better,” Lord von Bielefeld said, still evasive but also looking stubborn. “I can help, Brother.  Let me go with them.”

“Not after Gisela has taken a look at you,” said Lord von Voltaire.

But when she was summoned, Gisela only said, “What do you think Lord Damien?”

Lord Schwarz, who had somehow managed to remain unnoticed by skulking behind Lord von Bielefeld’s back, drew himself up.  “He’s better,” he said, looking uncomfortable at the attention. “He can do whatever he wants.”

“That’s fine by me,” said Gisela. “Are you coming, Lord Damien?  We might need a hand.”

Lord Schwarz threw a startled glance at Lord von Bielefeld, who nudged him on the shoulders.  “She doesn’t bite.”

“Not what I was worried about.”

“Then what's the problem?”

Lord Schwarz winced.  “I don’t like horses.”

“Another family situation?” asked Lord von Bielefeld.

“You could say that.”

The exchange made little sense to Saralegui or, as far as he could see, anyone else.  Yuuri looked particularly confused — and annoyed.  Saralegui could commiserate with the feeling.

“We’re on the wagons,” Gisela told Lord Schwarz. “You can ride with us.”

“No,” Lord von Voltaire interjected. “We can’t allow a guest to—”

“Let him come,” said Lord von Bielefeld.  “Please, Brother.”

‘Weakness,’ Saralegui thought, as Lord von Voltaire wavered and didn’t argue his point further.

And just like that, everyone was on the move again, mounting their own horses for those who’d be going after all and walking back to the castle for those who weren’t.  Belias tapped Saralegui’s shoulder as a sort of goodbye.  Saralegui nodded.

Then he turned and met Lord Schwarz’s gaze.  It was only then that the boy seemed to remember their agreement.  Lord Schwarz excused himself for a moment and pulled Saralegui aside.

“Not tonight,” he said under his breath, his gaze darting around nervously.

Saralegui almost rolled his eyes.  Could the boy be any more obvious?  “Stand up straight, will you?” he said. “And look me in the eye.”

“What?”

Now, Saralegui did roll his eyes.  “Talk normally," he said, "like this. Not like you’re plotting someone’s murder with me.”

Lord Schwarz scowled at him but he straightened up just the same.  “I’m surprised no one has told you this, my lord,” he said, “but the way you talk isn’t normal.”

Saralegui blinked, taken aback.  “I’m sorry?”

“You’re too…sweet.”

Whatever word Saralegui was expecting, it wasn’t that.  He didn’t quite know how to take it.  “Well,” he said, “let’s get this over with, shall we, so you won’t have to hear me talk again.”

“Agreed,” said Lord Schwarz, glancing over his shoulder as the first row of horses started to canter away, “but not tonight.”

“You healed him,” Saralegui said, noting the direction of the boy’s gaze.  Lord von Bielefeld was riding next to the Demon King, back straight, eyes toward the horizon, seemingly oblivious to the furtive glances Yuuri was throwing at him.  Side by side, they made quite a contrast together: the black and light hair, the king and the soldier, the wielders of water and fire.

Saralegui tore his eyes away from the two and asked, “Does he know about you?”

“I told him,” Lord Schwarz said quietly. “If this thing’s going to come out anyway, I’d want him to know the truth from me.”

Saralegui felt a tiny, inexplicable sting somewhere inside his chest.  “You thought I’d tell someone? Or you think I already did?”

Lord Schwarz looked at him, surprised. “No,” he said so earnestly that Saralegui had no trouble believing him.  “The dragon riders are here and even the Mazoku have started asking questions.  It’s something they’re bound to discover.  As you so charmingly put it, my lord, won’t it be obvious?”

“Of course,” Saralegui said, annoyed with himself.  The conversation wasn’t going the way he wanted, and he didn’t like this feeling of losing control.  “Lady Gisela is waiting.”

“Right.  I guess I’ll see you again…my lord.”

Saralegui crossed his arms.  “My offer stands until you get back.  If you’re not up for it, I will consider working with somebody else.”

There.  A threat should be the perfect way to end this.  Saralegui began to turn away, intending to leave Damien Schwarz as irritated as he felt.

But Lord Schwarz moved too, blocking Saralegui’s path.  “I am up for it,” he insisted.  “You can hold me to that.”  He grinned so suddenly, as though he knew something Saralegui didn’t.  “And by the way, my lord, that is the normal way to speak.”

He was gone before Saralegui could even formulate a response, leaving Saralegui more annoyed than he had ever felt in a very long time.

Chapter Text

As it turned out, Frey was early.  After bidding his mother goodbye, Frey had gone back to his room, washed, and quickly changed into fresh clothes. Then he sprinted out to the keep before he could make any ill-advised detours.  He wanted to see Ryuu, but he still didn’t know what to say or do.  He hated this feeling.

The tamer was still saddling Drache — or at least, attempting to, seeing that the dragon was snapping his jaws at every limb that came too close.  Frey laughed.  Drache probably thought the man was trying to play with him.

“Are you sure you want to take this runt?” said the tamer, noticing Frey. “You’d need someone more reliable.”

“He’s perfect,” said Frey, taking the saddle from the man’s arm.  “I’ll take it from here.”

The tamer made a face and let Frey be.  Then a voice said, “I’ll help you.”

Frey didn’t have to look to know who it was.  Besides, Drache had let out a menacing grumble, already bristling with dislike.  Ryuu had always ignored Drache, but this time, he stared the dragon in the eyes and said, “Stay still.”

Drache paused, tilting his head.  Then he did as he was told.

“You’re a rider,” Frey said blankly.  And pretty accomplished from the looks of it, if he could extend his command to a dragon that wasn’t his own.  But what else did Frey expect?  Ryuu had always been so…perfect.  Frey scowled.  “I suppose you hating flying was just another lie.”

“I never said I hated flying,” said Ryuu.  He’d taken the saddle off Frey’s hands and made quick work of preparing a very compliant Drache for the journey.  “I refused to fly with you, and you just assumed—"

“You let me assume a lot of things,” Frey accused, crossing his arms.

Ryuu finished the task in silence.  His hands were quick, moving with a practiced efficiency that obviously came with experience.

“Show-off,” Frey muttered.

Ryuu smiled.  “I have something for you.  Can we talk?”

He led Frey to a quiet corner, away from prying eyes.  And then, without a word, he unsheathed a gleaming double-bladed sword and handed it to Frey. It felt lighter than it looked, and it was more beautiful than anything Frey had ever seen. The hilt was encrusted with a mosaic of blue and green gems, clustered together in the shape of a sparrow with outstretched wings — the Lombard clan's crest. When the blade caught the light, Frey briefly saw a figure etched along the center. Tracing it with his finger, he felt the scaly contours of a dragon in mid-flight.

Ryuu was watching him closely. "What do you think?"

Frey raised the blade to eye level to examine the hilt. "Emeralds?"

"Just like your eyes.”

"A bit much, don't you think?”

"You don't like it?"

Something in Ryuu’s tone prompted Frey to glance at him. Then realization hit home.  "You made this?"

Ryuu nodded modestly. "I had some time, and I’ve been thinking…”

"So now you're a blacksmith too,” said Frey, impressed and touched and annoyed all at the same time.  “Is there anything at all that you can’t do?"

Ryuu's face flickered with an odd expression that Frey couldn’t identify, and all at once, he was struck by a sense of…finality.  Everything Ryuu had said and done these past days came rushing to him in a jumbled blur.  It felt to him like Ryuu was trying to say goodbye.

Frey’s hands shook, and he was swinging the sword down even before his mind could catch up with what he was doing.  Ryuu stepped back, evading easily, perhaps instinctively as his face clearly showed his surprise.

“Frey—!”

“What’s this supposed to be?!” Frey snarled, advancing, slashing, forcing Ryuu back.  “A keepsake?” He charged, putting his weight and his fury behind each attack.  “What was last night supposed to be?  Something to remember me by?”

He had Ryuu pinned against the wall, blade against his throat. Frey could just move his hand and kill him, and for one blind, livid moment, Frey was sure he wanted to.  Then Ryuu’s eyes flashed with hurt and Frey let his arms fall.  Before he could stop himself, he was kissing Ryuu, both urgent and demanding, the anger mingling with desperation.

“I can’t let you go,” Frey said after, his breath coming out in gasps.  “I won’t.”

That’s what you’re worried about?” said Ryuu as he, too, tried to catch his breath. “Something’s really wrong with you, you know that?”

“Shut up!”

“Frey, I’m not leaving.”

He could see the truth in Ryuu’s eyes and the relief washed over him.  Frey could almost forget why he’d been so angry.  “You could have led with that, you idiot.”

Ryuu laughed.  “I told you: you assume too much.”

“Don’t you dare,” Frey warned.

“I’ll be right here,” said Ryuu, pressing a kiss against Frey's brow, as though to seal the promise.  “Come back quickly, alright?”

“Idiot,” Frey repeated.

 


 

Light was beginning to break through the skies when they finally reached Shinou’s Temple — or what remained of it.  Yuuri stared at the devastation.  It looked like the ground had opened up and swallowed the temple whole.  Only bits and pieces of shattered stonework and a few remaining pillars hinted that a god’s abode had once stood at that very spot. It made Yuuri think of those ancient ruins he’d seen on his mother’s travel brochures, except it had taken those a hundred years or so to get to that state.  Shinou’s Temple, on the other hand, had collapsed almost in the snap of an eye.  It was just there yesterday.  Now it wasn’t.

The soldiers were spreading out, mobilized by Gunter, who was loudly issuing instructions to search the rubble for survivors.

Survivors.  The word felt bitter and so, so wrong.  It also implied the search for the others who didn’t fit the description: the dead.

Yuuri dismounted.  Conrad was already on the ground, taking Ao’s reins from Yuuri’s trembling hands.  Yuuri forced himself to move, scanning the scene for any sign of life. Where was Murata? Ulrike? Shinou? The shrine maidens?  What happened to them?

Yuuri made his way down to what used to be the entrance.  It was too quiet — not the respectful silence of a temple but the stillness of a tomb.

A movement caught his eye.  It was so subtle, so minuscule, that Yuuri thought for a moment he was imagining it.  He looked up and saw nothing but the glare of the rising sun.  Then there it was again.  Yuuri squinted at that spot, focusing, and after a moment, he thought he could see…a person's shape.  Someone was perched on top of one surviving pillar, perfectly straight, perfectly still.  The movement Yuuri had seen was the person’s cloak flapping in the breeze.  The cloak seemed insubstantial for a second, but then it appeared to solidify, a fluttering banner of red and white with a hint of something flashy like…silver.

“Hello?” Yuuri called out.  The figure shifted, but the face wasn’t inclined toward Yuuri.  It seemed like he — or she — was searching the grounds too.  “Hey!” said Yuuri, louder, waving a hand to catch the stranger’s attention. “Hello!”

Finally, the cloaked figure looked straight at Yuuri, and with a jolt, Yuuri saw why he couldn’t seem to make out a face.  The figure was wearing a mask.  Yuuri stepped back, goosebumps erupting across his skin.

“Your Majesty?”

Yuuri jumped, startled.  He turned to find Wolfram staring at him, eyes wide with concern.

“Are you alright?” Wolfram asked.  “Who are you talking to?”

“At the p-pillar.” Yuuri looked back, pointing.  But there was no one there.

“Maybe you should sit down,” said Wolfram.

“No,” said Yuuri, squinting at that spot again.  “I definitely saw someone…”  Then something clicked, and he looked back at Wolfram, completely distracted.  “Did you just call me ‘Your Majesty’ again?”

Wolfram shrugged.  “I'm not trying to pick a fight.  I just thought it was more…proper…now that we’re not…”

‘Oh, god,’ Yuuri thought with dismay.  The break-up.  “Look, about that…I was sort of hoping we could talk…”

“I know," said Wolfram.  "But not now.”

He was right, of course. This wasn’t the time for it. Not in the midst of a rescue — or gods forbid, recovery — effort, and not with all these people around.

“Okay," said Yuuri, conceding.  "But don’t call me ‘Your Majesty.’ Conrad’s just fallen out of the habit, and I don’t need you getting into it.  Just call me what you always do.”  He’d said it without realizing that Wolfram would have several options:  Yuuri.  Wimp.  Fiancé.

Hurt clouded Wolfram’s eyes, and Yuuri wanted to bash his head against the nearest pillar.  He could charm an entire nation (or so Gunter once said) but could never get it right with the one person who mattered.  Yuuri was starting to feel like he’d been cursed.  He realized he might like a boy when the boy no longer liked him back.  Definitely cursed.  The freaking curse of stupidity.

“Right,” said Wolfram, frowning.  He'd always been a bit too transparent, Yuuri thought, with all his feelings on his sleeve.  He was different from Sara, who’d never be caught dead with them.  They were both beautiful, Yuuri reflected, but he’d never met two people who were so unlike one another.  One fiery and passionate; the other, serene and subdued.  Fire and ice.  Day and night.

Yuuri thought he knew which one he preferred.

“Yuuri! Wolfram!”

It was Conrad, calling them over to the other side of the temple.  Belias was standing beside him, and before them was a girl — no, a group of girls — all clad in flowing white overalls.  The shrine maidens!

“What happened?” said Yuuri, rushing over, Wolfram right beside him.  “Are you guys okay?”

“They were just telling us what happened,” said Conrad, motioning for one of the maidens, a brown-haired girl who looked no older than Greta, to continue.  “This is Ilse, Yuuri.  She was just saying that His Majesty, Shinou, had some…visitors.”

“From the portal, Your Majesty,” said Ilse, her voice cool and quiet.  The other maidens bristled at this.  “There were four of them.  One was His Majesty’s brother.”

“Shinou’s brother?” Yuuri asked, incredulous.

“I meant your brother, Your Majesty.”

Yuuri stared.  Shori?  Shori was here?  Shori had been here?  It wasn’t until Wolfram placed a placating hand on his shoulder that Yuuri fully absorbed what that meant: Shori had been in the temple when it blew up!  Yuuri felt a bit faint.  He thought he was going to fall, but Wolfram threw an arm over his shoulder and helped him over to a slab of rock.  Yuuri sat down, still a bit dazed.

“You said four,” said Conrad.  “Who else was there?”

“We don’t know, Your Excellency.”

The maidens shared another look.  Somehow, Yuuri could tell Ilse wasn’t lying; she just wasn’t telling the entire truth either.

“Can you describe them?” asked Conrad.

“Two men,” said Ilse, “and a girl.”

‘That could be anyone,’ Yuuri thought, as the maiden told them about a young girl with blonde hair, a man built like a sandbear, and another boy with long white hair—

The last description felt like ice through Yuuri’s veins.  He’d seen someone like that, back at school.  Could it be him?  The strange boy who came out of nowhere and disappeared without a trace?  The words the boy had spoken still rang, loud and ominous, in Yuuri’s ears: ‘I’m going to destroy you, Demon King, as the very last thing I’ll ever do.’

Had the stranger come for him as he’d promised?  Come to take his crown, his kingdom, and — Yuuri glanced at Wolfram — the one he loved?

“Yuuri?” Wolfram was frowning at him, but Yuuri thought he’d never heard a more soothing sound.  “Do you want to rest for a bit?”

“No,” he said, feeling his mind clearing.  “It’s just…I think I might know that guy.  The one with the white hair.”

“Oh.” Wolfram’s eyes seemed to glaze over, as though he too was remembering something.  Then to Yuuri’s surprise, the color bled out of Wolfram's face.

Yuuri reached out for Wolfram’s hand, squeezing it tight.  It was strange.  It really was healed completely, soft and warm to the touch.  “Wolfram?”

Wolfram looked at him, his face blank.  Then seeming to catch himself, he squeezed Yuuri’s hand back.  “I’m fine.  I just thought I…” He licked his lips, and Yuuri felt a strange stirring inside his chest. “No…never mind.”

Yuuri could tell there was something more to it, but he let it go for the moment.  He turned to Ilse.  “But what happened to the temple?”

“We don’t know,” she said, sounding honestly confused.  “His Majesty told us to leave.  We heard them arguing…fighting.  And then…”  She gestured helplessly to the wreckage of what had once been her home.  “We’ve been searching, but we couldn’t find anyone.  Not Lady Ulrike or the Great Sage.  Not your brother either.”

“Is everyone accounted for apart from them?” asked Conrad.  “You and your sisters?”

“We all made it out,” said Ilse.  “I know it was His Majesty’s guidance that brought us to safety.”

‘But why not Shori, Murata, and Ulrike, too?’ Yuuri thought bitterly.  He shook his head in self-reproach.  It wasn’t in his place to blame Shinou.  Yuuri was sure Shinou did his best.

“What about Shinou?” he asked. “What happened to him?”

“We’re not sure,” said the girl.  “But we can’t feel His Majesty's presence.  It’s like…like His Majesty is no longer here.”

Yuuri looked back at the destruction around them and his heart sank.  A ruined temple.  A fallen god.  Three loved ones missing.  And here he was, a king who couldn’t do anything.

Someone started to cry, a young maiden who hadn’t yet learned to make the stoic faces the older ones were giving them.  Yuuri was almost glad she did because he felt like crying too, and it was like she was crying for him, for her sisters, and for all the rest who were too shaken or proud or numb to even shed a tear.

 


 

Wolfram tried to keep his heart rate steady, tried to talk himself into standing straight and looking like he wasn’t going to fall apart.  Tried to convince himself that he was fine.

Except he wasn’t.

The shrine maiden had been talking, her voice a distant echo as Yuuri looked up at him with those wide, fearful eyes.  He didn’t know what to say except suggest that the king take a rest.  Yuuri had refused.  And then he’d said, “It’s just…I think I might know that guy.  The one with the white hair.”

And then, with no warning at all, something happened.  Wolfram felt nauseous, pain drumming into his skull.  Then the images came, like fragments of memories that broke out of nowhere.  A face.  Eyes that shone with laughter, with fear, with desire.  Eyes that begged for understanding.  Then he heard a voice.  A word.  A name.

“Frey.”

Frey.  His heart clamored against his chest.  Frey.  Someone was calling him—

“Wolfram?”

Yuuri squeezed his hand, and Wolfram came to his senses.

“I’m fine,” he said, glad that his voice came out steady.  “I just thought I…”  What was he supposed to say?  He thought he might know the guy, too?  He swallowed the words.  “No…never mind.”

Yuuri didn’t look convinced, but he returned his attention to the maiden and asked some more questions.  The girl answered, words that clashed and resounded in Wolfram’s ears without leaving any trace of meaning behind.  Then someone was crying, a terrible, choking sort of sound, and Wolfram felt like he was crumbling inside too.  He couldn't deny it any longer: something was terribly wrong with him.

“Your Majesty!” someone shouted at the other end of the ruins.  Soldiers were converging near a wall that had miraculously withstood the explosion.  They’d found someone.

Yuuri stood up, and Wolfram noticed that the king hadn’t let go of his hand.  He couldn’t bear the feeling of Yuuri drawing away again, so Wolfram pulled back first, avoiding Yuuri’s gaze, afraid of what he’d find in Yuuri’s eyes.

“Let’s go,” he said, looking straight ahead.

Gisela and Damien were already there, both bent over the unconscious form of a girl.  Wolfram could see the hope in Yuuri’s eyes.

But it wasn’t Ulrike.

Still, Yuuri gasped.  “I know her!” the king said, his eyes roving over the girl’s body, moving from head to toe and back again.  Gold curls covered part of her face, and she was wearing a black ensemble with a skirt that ended high above her knees, definitely way too short for modesty.  Her slim legs ended in one bare foot and the other, wool-clad and stuffed in a black leather shoe.

“This is the girl, Your Majesty,” said Ilse, hanging back a little, her posture wary.  “She was with the others.”

“But she’s not from here,” said Yuuri. “She’s from my world.”

Your world?” asked Damien, looking up.

Yuuri waved him off.  “How is she?”

“Breathing,” said Gisela.  “She seems…alright.”

“Lucky her,” Damien muttered, rising to his feet.  His eyes sought Wolfram’s and whatever he’d seen there made him frown.  Damien arced an eyebrow at him, a silent, ‘Are you alright?’  Wolfram shrugged.  ‘I don’t know.’

The girl stirred, her eyebrows pinching together before her eyes suddenly flew open.  One eye, Wolfram saw, was bright green. The other was black.

Yuuri knelt by her side, waving a hand slowly above her face.  “Saiga?”

“Shibuya?” the girl whispered, trying to prop herself up.  Yuuri moved to help her, but she must have been too weak, Yuuri just ended up cradling her in his lap.  “What’s…going on?” she asked, sounding bleary and confused.  “What happened?”

“We don't know either,” Yuuri said. “Saiga, how did you get here?”

“Shibuya…Shori…” she said after a very long pause.  Wolfram couldn’t tell if she was in shock or if she just took the time to carefully consider her response.  On an instinctive level, he didn’t trust her.  But again, Wolfram couldn’t tell if it was for any good reason other than the fact that Yuuri was practically embracing her.

‘You have no right,’ he told himself firmly.  They hadn’t made any formal announcements yet, but Wolfram found that he needed to drill the truth into his head.  He was not Yuuri’s fiancé anymore.

“You saw Shori?” Yuuri asked eagerly.  “Where is he?”

The girl closed her eyes.  “Don’t know,” she mumbled. “Don’t remember…”

“Wait…Saiga?”

“She needs rest, Your Majesty,” said Gisela, gesturing to a pair of soldiers who hurried forward with a wooden litter.  “I’ll give her something to help her regain her strength.”

“Your Majesty,” Ilse said urgently, “she’s not who she seems.  Lady Ulrike said...she said it’s not her soul.”

“I don’t understand,” said Yuuri, and frankly, neither did Wolfram.  “What’s not her soul?”

“I don’t know,” said the maiden.  “But please, Your Majesty, I know she’s an enemy.”

Wolfram could almost hear the words before they were out of Yuuri’s mouth. And despite the fact that he agreed wholeheartedly with Ilse, he couldn’t help but smile at the familiar pronouncement:

“It’ll be fine.  She’s a friend.  I trust her.”

“Is he serious?” Damien whispered to him as they watched the unconscious girl being lifted away.  Yuuri was talking to Gisela, perhaps making sure the girl was going to be fine.  Wolfram tried not to think about that and instead focused on what Damien was saying. “What if she does turn out to be an enemy?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Wolfram.  That was the deal, wasn't it?  Even if Yuuri got tricked or cheated or betrayed, Wolfram would always be there.  “I’ll protect him no matter what.”

Damien wasn’t impressed.  “Are you serious?  Because that’s the kind of thinking that can get you seriously hurt.”

“It’s what soldiers do for their king,” said Wolfram.

“And what do soldiers get in return?”

Wolfram shrugged. “A soldier doesn't expect anything.”

“Maybe he should,” said Damien, his eyes grave.  “Especially if he's engaged to the king.  Otherwise, I think the said soldier should rethink his life choices.”

“Well, he can’t think of anything else he’d rather do,” said Wolfram.

“How about someone else he’d rather be with?”

The words hang in the air between them, and it was clear from Damien’s expression that he meant exactly what Wolfram thought he meant.  Damien's face was red, and Wolfram felt the same heat mirrored in his cheeks.

“Don’t say that,” Wolfram muttered.  “Damien, I—”

He broke off.  Yuuri was leaving, following Gisela’s lead toward the wagon where the soldiers were taking the girl.  Wolfram didn’t hear the king call for him — and then he realized that Yuuri didn’t.  Had he completely forgotten about Wolfram, worried as he was about that half-naked girl from his world?  Or he just didn’t notice or care if Wolfram was around or not?

“See?” said Damien, poking his cheek.  “It’s hurting you already.”

“Shut up,” said Wolfram, brushing the hand away.

Damien let out a humorless laugh.  “Come on.  I’m sure you don’t want him out of your sight.”

They were to keep searching for survivors, they heard Conrad announce as they rejoined the group.  Gunter would lead a squad to the surrounding areas to see what they could find.  Gisela volunteered to go with him, turning over the care of the unknown girl to Damien.  Damien couldn’t seem to find an excuse to say no.  Wolfram made a face and mouthed, ‘Be careful.’  Damien grinned at him.

Yuuri seemed annoyed at the arrangement, turning away from them with a huff.

“Let's go.  We should keep looking too,” Yuuri said, and Wolfram felt foolishly relieved that he hadn’t been forgotten this time.  But when he glanced at the king, his gut twisted painfully.

Yuuri wasn’t even looking at him.

 


 

“Are you sure about this?” Tier asked, watching the soldiers milling around the ruins of the temple, fanning out into the grounds.  Ryuu had been right; they’d taken Weisser with them with hardly another doubt.  “He’s got no idea what’s happening at all.”

“He’ll understand,” said Ryuu.  “Weisser can handle himself.”

Tier grunted.  Shinou blowing the temple up had been thoroughly unexpected.  Tier hadn’t realized what was happening until everything was already in bits and pieces.  He didn’t even know how he’d survived, how any of them had gotten out.  Weisser would, of course, just move on to another body, but for Tier and Ryuu, the consequences would have been dire. 

And yet, here they were.

“I still don’t get it,” Tier said. “What happened back there?”

Ryuu didn’t answer.  He’d been too quiet, more unresponsive than Tier could ever remember.  He didn’t like it.

“You’re not blacking out on me, are you?” he said.  Tier loved the thrill of a fight, but Ryuu was the one person he’d never challenge to one.  He'd learned his lesson the hard way, a lifetime ago, when he'd foolishly thought he stood a chance.  Ryuu had broken his arm the first time.  He'd nearly killed Tier the second time.  Tier decided that there wouldn't be a third time.  They'd kept Ryuu from fighting as much as they could, but sometimes, Ryuu would lose control.  And in those instances, there was nothing but death — true death — for anyone in his way.

“I’m fine,” said Ryuu, who sounded anything but in control.  Something had unhinged him.  Somewhere between the smoke and the explosion, something had changed.

“Shinou said something, didn’t he?” Tier asked, and he could tell from the way Ryuu’s jaw hardened that he was right.  “Because you know he’s just riling you up, don’t you?”

“It doesn't matter,” Ryuu said.  His eyes hadn't left a particular group of Mazoku, his gaze lingering on a golden-haired boy standing just behind the Demon King.  Frey Lombard.  Or Frey’s soul, at least.  His current name was a mouthful: Wolfram von Bielefeld.

“We could take him,” suggested Tier, but even as he said it, he knew what a task that would be.  The Demon King and his soldiers aside, there were the Soul Keepers too.  Tier had seen at least one shadowing the wagon where the Mazoku had carried Weisser.

“Not yet,” said Ryuu.  He clasped the pendant around his neck, the stone digging into his skin.  His face was suddenly a palette of emotions, and his entire posture screamed with indecision.  If they didn't move soon, they'd be seen.  Ryuu must have realized this too, for he straightened up and said, “Let’s go.”

Tier followed.  “Where to?  What’s the plan, Ryuu?”

“Take it all,” Ryuu said softly, eyes narrowed into dangerous slits.  If it was something Shinou said or if it was because of seeing Frey again, it had sparked something in him — a roiling burst of anger that scared even Tier.  He wished Weisser was here with them; he'd known Ryuu longer and had learned how to deal with Ryuu's moods.  Tier, on the other hand, had no clue.

“Take it all,” Ryuu repeated.  “Leave nothing behind.  Destroy everything.”

“Right,” said Tier.  “But how exactly are we—?”

Ryuu held up a hand, silencing him.  “Don’t you feel that?”

Tier frowned.  For a moment, he didn’t know what Ryuu was talking about.  But then he caught a scent of something in the air, acrid and oh so familiar.

“Dragons,” Tier said with relish.  “Are they here?”  He couldn’t help but laugh.  It was like luck, or fate, or just a god with a twisted sense of humor was on their side.

“Take it all,” Ryuu said again, and as he raised his head to the skies, there came an answering roar in the distance.  Ryuu was calling, and Tier knew the dragons and their riders would have no choice but to rejoin their master.

Chapter Text

Frey landed near the borders of the Schwarz territories, on a clearing beside a lake. It was too quiet, too still. There were no sentries, no enemy riders patrolling the sky.  Nothing.  Frey might have suspected a trap, but he knew in his gut that that wasn't it.

He patted Drache's neck. "Want to return up there and take a look?"

The dragon gave a snort of assent, unfurling his wings and launching off. Frey kept his eyes sharp, searching the grounds below for any sign of movement.  Again, nothing.

‘Higher,’ Frey urged.  Drache obeyed, bringing Frey up until his feet grazed the clouds. Far down, in the distance, Frey could just see…ruins…where the Schwarz Manor should have been.  He felt a chill run up his spine. Something was wrong.  The clan looked like they’d been attacked and had been, hard as it was to believe, completely destroyed.

'This can't be right,' Frey thought. The Schwarz clan were celebrated fighters, at par with the Rosenthals and the Lombards. The thought of them defeated, annihilated, was just…impossible.

Throwing all caution aside, Frey flew closer to the manor.  The place looked abandoned. The damages to the building and its surrounding structures looked old, but as he drew near, a shiver prickled his skin.  Even Drache snarled to express his disgust, perhaps sensing what Frey did.  The place reeked of death.

Frey dismounted, his boots squelching against the muddy ground. It must have rained before he arrived.  He looked down, revolted. Then he quickly stepped back, realizing what he was standing on.  A graveyard.  A graveyard that stretched out for almost half a mile in every direction.

"Who are you?" a voice demanded, and Frey whirled around, drawing his sword. An old, decrepit-looking man emerged from somewhere within the ruins, leaning down heavily on a cane.

"Who are you?" Frey shot back.

The old man frowned, his beady eyes flickering from Frey's weapon to the dragon. "I asked you first, didn't I?"

"I...I have business with the master," Frey said.  It was partly true anyway.  "Lord Linnaeus?”

The old man looked him up and down, realization dawning in his eyes.  "You're from Raven Port."

"Yes."

"I don't have anything to say to you or your master!" the man spat. "Lord Linnaeus died because of him!" 

Frey let the words wash through him.  'Lord Linnaeus died.'  A dragonlord was dead.  Ryuu's father was dead.  How had nobody known about this?  Then Frey realized...one person didHe felt his chest constricting, recalling his argument with Ryuu:

“It doesn’t matter.”

“You don’t think I can?”

“I know you don’t need to.”

And Ryuu was right.  Frey didn’t need to lift a finger.  The target was dead.

"How did he die?" Frey demanded.  A futile question.  He should know the answer — he really should — but his mind resisted the idea.  He needed to hear it.

"Don't play dumb—"

Frey surged forward, bringing the edge of his sword just below the old man's chin.  "How did he die?" he repeated.  "What happened to the other riders?  The clan members?"

The old man regarded him with confusion.  "You really don't know?"  he asked, heedless of the blade against his throat.  "You...aren't you a Rosenthal?"

"No," said Frey, as another prickle of fear slithered up his spine.  Lord Rosenthal couldn't possibly know about this, could he?  Why would he pay for the death of a man that he knew was already dead?

"You don't know anything," said the old man slowly, almost in surprise.  "So why are you here?"

Frey retracted his sword.  "It doesn't matter now, does it?  Just tell me the truth."

There was a reluctance in the man's eyes, but finally, he answered, "One of the dragon riders went mad and killed everyone.”

Frey swallowed hard, hanging on to every word.

"The other riders never stood a chance," the old man went on, "especially not after the master was defeated.  I helped the women and the children escape, but  I stayed to bury the dead.  Won't be long before I follow anyway.”

"And the rider?" Frey asked.  "The one who killed everyone?"  There was no need to brace himself.  He knew exactly what the old man would say.

“The master’s son.  The white-eyed monster.”

And still, Frey's heart almost stopped.  Behind him, Drache let out a low, mournful howl.

 


 

Wolfram wasn’t looking at him.

Yuuri tried hard not to feel so abandoned.  Tried with all his might to ignore all those strange, charged looks that kept passing between Wolfram and Lord Damien.  Tried not to feel so annoyed at the way Wolfram seemed to gravitate back to wherever Lord Damien happened to be as the day wore on.

‘It’s like he’s guarding him,’ Yuuri thought, but even that felt like a punch to the stomach.  That didn’t sound like Wolfram at all.

The first time they’d met, Wolfram had taken Yuuri’s breath away with that stunning face and those bright green eyes.  Then in the same night, he’d snapped Yuuri’s patience completely with his arrogance and his careless remarks about Yuuri’s mother.  Wolfram had been opposed to Yuuri’s selection as the Demon King, and it had taken Yuuri nearly a year to earn Wolfram’s trust, his respect…his love.  That Damien Schwarz could just swoop in and take everything away when he’d only known Wolfram for barely a month felt wholly unfair to Yuuri.

He couldn’t decide whom he was mad at more: Wolfram, for giving up on him, or Lord Damien, for even coming to Shin Makoku and ruining Yuuri’s life.  His irritation simmered throughout the remainder of the day, tempered only by the anxiety that ate at him as they continued their search and still found no sign of Ulrike, Murata, or Shori.  By midday, they were forced to conclude that they wouldn’t find anything in the rubble.

“Don’t tell me they’re…” Yuuri couldn’t say the word.

But Gunter emphatically shook his head.  “No, no, Your Majesty.  This is good.  We didn’t find anything, which meant they weren’t at the temple when it exploded.  I’m sure of it.”

Yuuri wanted to believe him.  “But the shrine maidens didn’t see anyone.”

“Yuuri,” said Conrad, “there’s another way out of the temple, remember?”

Of course.  The portal.  For the first time, Yuuri allowed himself to feel relief.  “You think they got through it?”

“His Eminence would know what to do,” said Wolfram, and it was hard not to cling to the familiar note of confidence in his voice.  “We should send messages to the other territories.  Maybe they’ve ended up somewhere.”

“Excellent idea,” said Gunter. “I’ll get to work immediately, Your Majesty.  We’ll find them, don’t you worry.”

“But what if they ended up outside Shin Makoku?” asked Yuuri.

“Then we’ll go and find them all the same,” said Conrad.

“But—”

“They’re going to be fine,” said Wolfram. “Have a little faith, wimp.”

It was strange, that for all the other reassurances Yuuri had heard, it was that one familiar word that dispelled all the tension in his body and unraveled the tightness in his chest.  He felt like laughing and hugging Wolfram — and maybe something was wrong with his brain, because the impulse was just a thought for a second, just a wish.  But then in the blink of an eye, the thought became an action and the wish became real.  Wolfram made a little surprised noise as Yuuri collided with him, arms thrown around his neck.

It was a feeling Yuuri didn’t know how to put into words.  They hadn’t done enough of hugging before for Yuuri to miss doing it, but at that moment, it felt like Yuuri had been missing this contact, the weight of Wolfram’s body against his own, his entire life.  Now he understood what people said when something just felt right.

“Yuuri…” Wolfram said in a low tone, and with a jolt, Yuuri realized that Wolfram hadn’t moved.  His hands were balled into tight fists by his side, and it felt like the tension that had escaped Yuuri’s body had all flown into his.  Yuuri’s laughter died in his throat.  He released Wolfram and stepped back, face red with embarrassment.

Then somebody cleared his throat.  Yuuri’s gratitude for the interruption quickly turned into a burst of resentment.  Damien Schwarz had just joined their circle, his eyes radiating annoyance.  The boy’s gaze moved to Wolfram, and there was that strange, knowing look again, as though the two of them could somehow communicate with just their eyes.

“What do you want?” Yuuri said, not caring that he probably sounded rude. He remembered the scene at the infirmary — he hadn’t apologized and still felt no desire to.

Lord Damien raised an eyebrow.  “The girl is awake,” he said tersely.  “She’s asking for you.”

“Fine,” Yuuri said, hurrying off to where the wagon was parked.  He replayed what just happened inside his head.  Wolfram’s reaction.  The tone Wolfram had used.  Had Wolfram seen Lord Damien coming?  Was that a warning for Yuuri to stay away?  And that look they kept giving each other…could they actually be together now?

Again, the sense that everything was so unfair struck Yuuri right in the gut.  Barely a day had passed after Wolfram had ended things between them and he was already replacing Yuuri?  Or had he broken up with Yuuri because there was somebody else?  Yuuri knew that he’d forfeited every right to complain — after all, he’d had Wolfram to himself for three years — but everything still kind of hurt.  He deserved every bit of pain this was causing him, Yuuri knew, but couldn’t he, at least, get the chance to win Wolfram back?

Wolfram’s answer seemed clear.  He’d closed the door on them, just like that, and it was like a vise had gripped Yuuri’s heart and squeezed so tightly, he couldn’t breathe.  Yuuri could feel a sharp stinging in his eyes, and he walked faster to avoid looking at either Gunter or Conrad.  And Wolfram.  Especially Wolfram.

“Shibuya!” someone yelled.  Saiga was seated at the edge of the wagon.  She jumped down when she saw him, unmindful of the fact that she was missing a shoe, and promptly threw herself at Yuuri.  She was saying something, but Yuuri just buried his face in her hair, trying to hide from the reality he was confronted with.  The future of Wolfram with someone who wasn’t him.

When they drew apart, he saw that Saiga was beaming at him.  Yuuri noted that one of her contacts was missing.  “I can’t believe it’s you,” she said.  “I thought I — wait, are you crying?”

Yuuri hastily wiped his eyes.  “Um, I was worried about you.  I thought you were…uh...” He cleared his throat, keen to change the subject. “Anyway, how did you get here, Saiga?”

“Here?” Saiga looked around.  “Where is ‘here’ and…who are they?”

Everyone had followed Yuuri, forming a semi-circle around Saiga and him.  Even Belias had come out of nowhere to observe.

“Everyone,” Yuuri said, keeping his eyes as far away from Wolfram as possible, “this is Saiga Amane.  She’s one of my classmates.  Saiga, these are my…friends.”  He called each one by name, even Lord Damien, who, Yuuri saw, was leaning sideways to whisper something in Wolfram’s ears.

Yuuri caved, his gaze turning to Wolfram.  Wolfram’s lips were drawn tight, and for a moment, he looked like the old Wolfram who’d soon yell, “Cheater!” and hit Yuuri over the head.  Yuuri stared back, feeling suddenly angry and defiant, silently daring Wolfram to speak up, shout, burn Yuuri to a crisp if he wanted to.  Yuuri wanted even the loud, jealous Wolfram back, any piece of the Wolfram he knew. The Wolfram who used to be in love with him.

But Wolfram looked away, toward Lord Damien, who shifted closer until the space between them all but disappeared.  It was clear that he wanted to do more but was forced by a sense of propriety to hold back.

And Yuuri couldn’t help but hate Damien Schwarz.  And he hated himself for hating Lord Damien, who wasn’t doing anything wrong — just everything Yuuri wished he should’ve done from the start.

 


 

“Nice to meet you, Shibuya’s friends,” said Weisser with the brightest smile he could muster. “Please take care of me.”

They were staring at him with expressions ranging from curiosity to suspicion to outright distrust, and Weisser drank it all in.  Everyone he needed was here.  The Demon King, Shibuya Yuuri.  Frey’s reincarnation, Wolfram von Bielefeld.  And surprisingly, but not entirely unwelcome, Damien Schwarz.

Damien had grown older, Weisser noted, wondering how much time had passed in this world since they’d last seen each other.  Damien wouldn’t recognize him, of course. Not in his current body.  And though he wasn’t sure whether Damien’s presence would be a hindrance or a help, Weisser knew he could find a use for the boy when the time was right.

“You’re in a different world, Saiga,” the Demon King was explaining to him.  “Like another dimension.  I don’t understand how you got here, but do you remember anything?”

Right.  Weisser had feigned memory loss earlier.  How much could he say?  From the corner of his eyes, he could see the shrine maidens watching him closely, and Weisser decided for half of the truth.  “I don’t really remember anything,” he said, going for a wide-eyed innocent look.  “I was just walking home from practice, and then these two guys took me.”

There.  That should explain why he was with Ryuu and Tier.

“They kidnapped you?” the Demon King asked.  “Why?  What about Shori?”

Hm.  What about Shibuya Shori?  Shinou had sent him somewhere, along with the Great Sage.  He could only hope that neither of them was nearby to debunk Weisser’s story.

“They got him too,” said Weisser, sticking to his strategy of telling half-truths.  “We were trying to escape, and he did something with the water.  And then I woke up here.”

There. That should explain how he got to this world.

“You mean at the temple?”

“I don’t know,” said Weisser, making a show of looking around him in a bemused sort of way.  “Is this a temple?”

“Weren’t you…talking to someone?” the Demon King asked.

Weisser shook his head.  “When I woke up, I just saw you.”

“And you don’t remember where Shori went?”

“No.”

“What about the guys who kidnapped you?”

“No.”

"I see," said the Demon King, nodding.  “Did you see anyone else?  What about Murata?  There might be a girl with him.”

"I don't know," said Weisser.  "I don't remember."

“Right,” said the Demon King.  “Uh, wait here, okay?”

They gathered a short distance away, the Demon King and the men he’d introduced as his “friends.” One of the shrine maidens was also there, and she looked like she was begging the king for something.  The Demon King was shaking his head.

Weisser hid a smile.  He’d been a bit disoriented when he’d woken up, not really knowing how or why he was suddenly looking up at the face of Shibuya Yuuri.  He’d pretended to sleep, giving himself time to collect his thoughts, dissect his memories of the past hours, and gather more information by listening to the babble around him.

What happened back there?  Obviously, Shinou had done something again, that bastard.  But if this was his trump card, Shinou hadn’t played it well.  Weisser was alive, and judging from Ryuu’s and Tier’s presence a while back, it seemed that they, too, had escaped unscathed.  Weisser understood that they’d intentionally left him for the Mazoku to find.  They needed access to Frey after all.

But doubt started to nudge at Weisser’s mind.  He didn’t have any problem splitting up to cover more ground, but everything just seemed to be going too smoothly for them.  Everything they wanted was happening too easily.  Why hadn’t Shinou stopped them from crossing?  How were they still alive after that explosion?  And what — Weisser thought, recalling the last thing he saw before the ground opened up — did Shinou tell Ryuu?

Weisser didn’t like any of this.  Ryuu and Tier were no longer nearby, but someone else was still lurking in the shadows.  The cloaked figure of a Soul Keeper continued to watch him, a dim shape that seemed to shimmer for a second before vanishing completely from view.  Weisser wasn’t fooled.  The Keeper was still there, perhaps waiting for a chance to take Weisser out.

‘Let him try,’ Weisser thought.  He may be vulnerable in his current form, but ensuring his safety was simple enough.  Weisser beamed as the Demon King returned.

“Saiga, we’ll return to the castle for now,” the king said.  “You should go with us.”  The pronouncement was accompanied by a stony silence all around, indicating that the decision was definitely not made by consensus.  Frey — Wolfram, he corrected himself — looked mutinous.

“Okay,” said Weisser, hooking his arm around the Demon King’s.  He won’t stand a chance against the Keeper, but Weisser wouldn’t even need to fight for as long as he had the gallant, do-gooder Shibuya Yuuri to cover him.

‘Let them come, Weisser thought, but he sure as hell wasn't going to leave the Demon King’s protection.

 


 

‘What in perdition’s name was Damien thinking?’

Greyheim kept pacing the floor, pausing once in a while to look out of the window.  The sun was about to set, but he could see no sign of a returning party.  ‘Stupid child,’ he thought angrily.  Why couldn’t Damien just do as he was told?

Greyheim had found out too late that Damien had joined the Demon King’s group.  He’d been all over the castle yesterday, looking for the boy, but Damien had disappeared for a suspicious stretch of time.  They hadn’t yet talked about the dragon and what the creature’s appearance could possibly mean.  Surely Damien was thinking it too, wasn’t he?  If the Ryuzoku were here, could Max be back as well?

‘But how is that possible?’ Greyheim thought.  He’d scoured the lands for Max, and though he couldn’t believe it at first, the information he’d gotten was solid:  Max had gone to a world beyond theirs.  Damien, fool that he was, would never find his brother.  Greyheim would tell him the truth, of course, after they’d secured the throne.  And by then, what could Damien even do?

But if Max was back…

‘Damien will lose,’ Greyheim thought.  Between the two Schwarz boys, there was never any doubt who was brighter, stronger…better in every conceivable way.  Max, the golden child, would have made a perfect king.  If only he wasn’t born a monster…

‘Does it matter?’ Greyheim reflected.  His plans were slowly crashing and crumbling into dust.  All those years of scheming and bribing and plotting, and he still had nothing to show for.  He had to take a risk, even if it meant casting his lot with the devil himself.  Now if he only knew what exactly was happening out there...

‘That’s it,’ Greyheim thought after another round of increasingly anxious pacing.  He needed to do something.  He strode out, ignoring the pair of guards who quickly fell into step behind him.  He knew Lord von Voltaire had stayed behind, but where could he be at this hour?

“Take me to Lord von Voltaire,” he told one of the guards.

The guards exchanged uncertain looks.  Finally, the taller one said, “His Excellency has given instructions not to be disturbed, my lord.”

“Even by his guest?” said Greyheim, annoyed.

“He was very…firm about it, my lord.”

Greyheim pursed his lips together.  He didn’t like any of this.

“I know where Lord von Voltaire is,” said a voice, and whatever gratitude Greyheim might have felt evaporated on the spot.  Saralegui of Shou Shimaron had just turned the corner, looking so odd standing there all by himself.  Greyheim heard that the brat had offered the services of his personal guard to protect the Demon King.  ‘Spy on the Demon King, more like,’ thought Greyheim sourly.

“How kind of him to inform one guest and not the other,” said Greyheim.

Saralegui ignored the taunt. “I was about to go there myself, if you’d care to join me?  We can take care of ourselves, gentlemen,” he added to Greyheim’s guards. “You might be needed elsewhere.”

Greyheim had to marvel at the nerve of this kid, acting like he owned the castle. “Go,” he told the hesitating guards, more to save face and show the brat that he wasn’t afraid of him.  “I’ll talk to Lord von Voltaire about this.”

Saralegui was already leaving, and Greyheim sped up to catch up with him.  The guards didn’t follow.

“Are you worried about your nephew?” Saralegui asked after a long moment.  He was leading Greyheim through a long corridor that looked no different from all the others Greyheim had traversed in the past days.  Saralegui could be marching him into a trap and he’d have no idea.  The thought didn’t sit well with Greyheim.

“Of course,” he said, struggling to keep the anxiety out of his face.  “Damien is important to me.  But I do wish he’d stayed in the castle until this entire thing is over.”

“You’re worried he could get attacked again?” asked Saralegui. “But why would the Ryuzoku go after him though?”

“I never said they were after him.  They just—”

Greyheim broke off, cursing himself, belatedly realizing what Saralegui had just said.  The Ryuzoku.

Saralegui looked at him askance. “So you do think the Ryuzoku is behind this.”

“The Ryuzoku are gone,” said Greyheim, but even as he said it, he knew even a child could see through the lie.  He tried again: “The Ryuzoku are extinct.  You know your history.”

“Of course,” said Saralegui with another infuriating smile.  “Then what would you say if I tell you that a dragon and its rider have been sighted here, inside the Mazoku’s territories?”

Greyheim froze. The brat had stopped to study his reaction, and Greyheim fought hard to conceal them — the shock, the alarm, the dawning realization that a long-hidden family secret was on the verge of being discovered.

"Can you tell me about that, my lord?" Saralegui said, his glasses slipping down his nose, revealing his eyes.

Greyheim tried to turn away, but he was soon lost in Saralegui’s golden eyes…the eyes that seemed to grow brighter…and brighter…

His mind felt strangely blank. Something was warning him that he was in danger, but all Greyheim could feel was a blissful nothingness. 

"Tell me." He heard Saralegui's voice as if it were coming from somewhere far away. "What are you hiding, my lord?"

And promptly, peacefully, Greyheim started to talk.

Chapter Text

The white-eyed monster.

Monster.

Monster.

The word resounded through Frey's head, doing nothing to lessen the fear that spread like a dark stain over his heart.  Ryuu destroyed his own clan.  Ryuu killed his own father, his own family.  Could he be planning to…?

He didn’t allow the thought to finish because he couldn't bear it if Ryuu had planned this all along.  If everything Ryuu did was an act.  If all the things Ryuu had said was a lie.

‘No, no, NO!’ he was screaming inside his head, causing Drache to veer off-course in surprise. The dragon could feel his agitation, but Frey was too anxious to care.  They had flown non-stop from the Shadow Pass, with barely any sleep or rest. And now, with both of them just running on fumes, they were nearing the borders of the Lombard territories.

Even from afar, Frey could sense that something was very wrong.

They flew past the watchtower, where Frey saw the guards sprawled against the ledge.  They looked like they could just be sleeping, but Frey knew they were dead.  He didn’t stop.

He passed the training grounds.  Here, death was more evident.  Bodies of the other riders were strewn all over the ground.  Frey rocketed past the keep. The dragons were out of their dens, heads inclined toward Frey and Drache.  They didn’t seem hostile, which would mean, at least, that his father was still alive.  Drache landed and Frey leapt down, bursting into the manor's main door.  There were dead bodies everywhere he looked.

He rushed upstairs, his heartbeat echoing in his ears.

Then he heard it.  Cries. Voices. Curses. A metallic clang. The noises were coming from his parents’ room.

Frey ran, pushing the door with such force he nearly tore it off its hinges.

He came to an abrupt halt.

Frey stared at the scene before him in stupefied silence.  His eyes were drawn to the floor, where his father lay on his stomach, struggling for breath. Lady Rin was beside him, her throat slashed open.

Frey stumbled inside.  "Father…"

Lord Garez looked up at him. "Frey, I'm so sorry.  I didn't mean—”

But even his last words were cut short.  A dagger flashed and struck deep into the man's back, lodging right into his heart.  Frey staggered forward, reaching blindly, but the murderer drew the blade out and turned to him.

"Welcome back, Frey," Ryuu said dully.

 


 

“I have something for you.”

He stopped, breath caught in his throat.  The hazy figure of a boy stood before him, less substantial than an actual person but more solid than smoke.  The boy was smiling, his long hair swaying slightly in a nonexistent breeze. His heart leapt with recognition.  He’d seen the boy before.  He’d been there in his dreams.  He stretched out a hand in wonder—

“Wolf?”

Wolfram blinked.  Someone clasped his outstretched hand, and the dream, the mirage — whatever it was — vanished.

A different boy stood before him, peering down at him with anxious eyes.

“Are you alright?” Damien asked.

Wolfram gasped, like a drowning man breaking the surface.  Had he seen what he thought he saw?  But…how?

“Wolfram.”

The name was uttered with such care and deliberation, and a wave of gratitude washed over him.  It was the only thing that always pulled Wolfram back to himself.  Back to reality.

“I’m fine,” he managed, trying to smile, but his best attempt came out as a wince.  The headache was back in full force and the bile rose to his throat.  He’d never felt so sick like this before, at least not on dry land.

“Are you dizzy?” asked Damien, “Is your head hurting?  I’ll ask Gisela—”

“No,” Wolfram said, grasping Damien’s arm to steady himself.  “Just…hold still…for a second…”

They must look odd, standing there by the side of the road, arms clasped.  It felt rather like time had frozen for just the two of them while the rest of the world still moved, fueled by a restless sort of energy.  The soldiers, the healers, and the shrine maidens were preparing to move out, as Yuuri had ordered.  Wolfram had gone to talk to Damien.  They had been talking — Wolfram could remember as much.  And then that apparition came and Wolfram saw nothing else.  Wolfram forgot everything else.

“You know you’re scaring me, don’t you?” said Damien in a low tone, and Wolfram gave a start.

“It’s nothing,” he muttered.  Tentatively, he let Damien go, relieved to find that his legs could still support his weight.  “It’s just a headache.”

“Right,” Damien snorted.  “You spaced out for a very long time there.  Or do Mazoku routinely fall asleep with their eyes open in the middle of conversations?”

“I don’t know,” Wolfram said, keeping his voice light.  “Just me, I think?”  Damien wasn’t amused, and there was that stubborn gleam in his eyes that was becoming a familiar sight to Wolfram.  “Fine,” he sighed.  “But don’t tell anyone.”

He tried to explain, as best as he could, what was happening.  Damien already knew half of it anyway.  The nightmares, the migraines, the voice he’d been hearing.  Everything sounded worse, spoken aloud.  It was real now, and Wolfram would never have the luxury of pretending that everything was fine.

“You’re…hearing things?” Damien repeated.

“Just a voice,” said Wolfram, as though that made it less unusual.  Of course, he had to add, “And just now…I think I’m starting to see things, too.”

Crazy.  He sounded crazy.  He must be going crazy.

But Damien looked more contrite than worried.  “I’m sorry.  This is my fault.  I should have known you weren’t feeling well.”

“Don’t do that,” said Wolfram.  “You had nothing to do with this.  I wanted to come here.”

“No. I wanted to come,” said Damien.  “I wanted to see if another dragon was involved.  I knew it would be easier if you were coming too. I didn’t mean to make you feel worse.”

“I needed to come.  I won’t be able to rest in the castle anyway.  Not when—”

“Not when you don’t know what’s happening to the Demon King,” Damien finished for him.  He rolled his eyes, nodding toward something past Wolfram’s shoulder.  “Speaking of whom, I think he’s looking for you.”

Wolfram glanced back at the head of the formation, where he’d left Yuuri with the others.  Where he’d left Yuuri with the girl.  Against all advice, the girl called Saiga had insisted on riding with Yuuri.  Yuuri didn’t refuse her, and as Conrad helped her up the horse, as she clambered behind Yuuri and placed her hands around the king’s waist, all eyes seemed to be directed at Wolfram, gauging his reaction.  Even Yuuri was giving him a searching sort of look that made Wolfram feel like he was being tested.  Wolfram thought he’d reacted appropriately.  He’d kept his mouth shut through it all.  And if he gave the girl the cold shoulder and kept as far away from her as possible, surely Yuuri wouldn’t begrudge him that.

“I should go see what he wants,” said Wolfram.

“While you’re at it, tell him that you’re riding here with us,” said Damien.  “There’s no way you’re getting back on a horse in your state.”

“What a great way to tell everyone that something’s wrong with me,” said Wolfram.

“Then just say you want to keep me company.”

“I don’t think—”

“Or something else,” said Damien quickly.  “Your king’s not happy about me being here, is he?”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Wolfram. “Yuuri likes everyone.”

“Except the one that’s keeping his fiancé occupied.”

Damien was teasing him, Wolfram knew, but he couldn’t see any humor in the situation.

Former fiancé,” he corrected, and there was something so draining and liberating about admitting that out loud for the first time.  That was real now too, and Wolfram would never have the luxury of pretending that nothing was broken.

Wolfram registered the surprise in Damien’s eyes, reddening when he saw something else there too: hope.  Yuuri had, at the very least, made Wolfram feel that he was needed.  But Wolfram now realized that this was what he’d been missing — a look that said he was wanted too.  His stomach fluttered, and yet his heart also sank at the same time, because despite everything, Wolfram couldn’t stop himself from wishing that the eyes that gazed back at him were black, not hazel.

“What happened?” asked Damien.  “I mean, if you don’t mind me asking.”

Wolfram found that he didn’t.  It was strange, that he felt more at ease with Damien than with any other human, or half-human, he’d ever met.  “I’m just not who he wants.”

“He’s an idiot.”

“Not really,” Wolfram said.  “A wimp, definitely.”

“And yet you want to stay by his side,” Damien said, in a tone one would use when scolding someone who kept insisting on doing something stupid.

“He needs me,” said Wolfram, his gaze returning to the front of the procession, where Conrad was now waving at him, summoning him back to their circle.  Yuuri was poised to ride out, flanked on all sides by Conrad, Belias, and Gunter. The sight struck right at Wolfram’s core, forcing him to wonder: Did Yuuri truly need him?  Already, the king was surrounded by more experienced and powerful fighters.  Wolfram had gained his place by the king’s side because of their engagement, by association and not by skill.  He’d been too proud to see that he was utterly replaceable.

Damien seemed to guess Wolfram’s thoughts, but he was tactful enough not to mention them.  “I’ll get Gisela to tell him that you need more rest," he said, "because you really do.”  He lifted a finger to forestall Wolfram’s protests.  “You’re hallucinating, Wolfram.  That’s never a good sign.  And if your king really cares about you, he’s going to let you go.  Get away from the castle.  Go back home, like you said you would.”

He was probably right.  Wolfram understood the logic of it, and he was serious when he'd told Yuuri that he might go back to Bielefeld Castle.  But the thought of actually leaving, without anything to return to, was unbearable.  His brothers were here.  Greta was here.  Blood Pledge Castle had been his home…

Home.

And suddenly, Wolfram wasn’t even thinking of a castle.  He was thinking of a rose garden, a handsome manor surrounded by stone walls, and a keep where dragons slept—

“Wolfram?” Once more, Damien’s voice shattered the illusion.  “It happened again, didn’t it?”

Wolfram shook his head.  He didn't know how exactly to describe it, but it wasn’t an image per se this time.  It felt almost like a…memory.

“That’s it,” Damien said. “I don’t care what you want or what your king says.  You need to take a break.  If I have to tell your brothers, I will—”

“Alright, alright,” Wolfram said in surrender.  The thought of falling apart with everyone he loved watching him made leaving a significantly better option.  Who knows?  Maybe a change of scenery was all he needed.

“You understand you’ll have to give up…your duties?”

Giving up on Yuuri sounded implied.  At least that was how it sounded like to Wolfram.  He sighed.  It felt like anything he said now would indicate a step backward or herald the beginning of the end.

“I will,” he said.  “I promise.”

Damien looked unconvinced. “No offense, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Thanks for the confidence,” said Wolfram.  “But you’ll eat your words, you’ll see.”

“I can’t wait.”

“I’m serious.”

A smile grazed Damien’s lips, and in the gathering dark of the early evening, his eyes were almost black.  “I’ll wait,” he said.

 


 

Shori could breathe again.  He could hear again.  He could see again.  He was alive.

He sat up, feeling oddly restored.  He tried to sense for all the things that were broken or hurt, but his body felt fine.

“How do you feel?” said a voice.

Shori looked up, heart pounding.  He was in a strange room paneled with wood, with antique furnishings strewn about in a haphazard sort of way.  Heavy draperies on the open window blocked the only source of light, but even in the darkness, Shori could make out enough to recognize the figure standing across the room: Murata Ken.

Shori didn’t relax.  The last time he’d woken up, the first person he’d seen was an enemy in disguise.  What assurance did he have that this boy was really Murata?

“Who are you?” Shori demanded, watching the boy’s face carefully.

“What?” said Murata, sounding aptly confused.  “Why are you asking me this?”

“What were you doing at the temple?”

“That should be my line," came the response.  “What were you doing there?  Who were those people?”

If this was Weisser controlling Murata, she was doing a very good job at being as irksome as the boy Shori remembered.  But he didn’t have time to play games.  “How do I know you’re who you say you are?” he demanded.

“Who else could I possibly be?”

“A dead body controlled by another soul.”

Murata hesitated.  If this was an act, it was a very convincing one.  “Is that what Saiga Amane is?” he said in a whisper.  “Ulrike said…she called her by another name.”

“Weisser,” said Shori. “She said that’s her name.”

“I’ve heard that name before,” muttered Murata, almost to himself. “I think I’ve met that person.”  He looked up at Shori, eyes worried but earnest.  “I’m not being controlled.  I don’t know how to prove it, but I’m not.”

Shori mulled that over.  There was no warning note in his head, no screeching alarms to alert him of danger.  His instinct had been spot-on so far.  Too bad he hadn’t listened to it much more than he should.

“Just tell me what happened,” Shori said, coming to a decision. “Where are we?  How did we get here?”

“You tell me first,” said Murata. “How did you get here?  You opened the portal, didn’t you?  Or was it Bob?”

A hot bubble of guilt rose to Shori’s throat, but he swallowed it down and forced the truth out of his mouth: “It was me.  I thought…”

He took a deep breath and straightened himself.  “There’d been attacks on Earth Mazoku,” he began, and once he started, the words seemed to flow out more easily.  Shori recounted his and Bob’s conversation, the dead body at the school campus, and then meeting Saiga for the first time.  When he got to the part where Ryuu tricked him into opening the portal, Murata finally interrupted him.

“They disappeared?” the boy asked.  “You didn’t see them?  Sense them at all?”

“No.”  The memory was a brand of shame Shori was sure he’d carry forever.  “I just thought…I really thought they’d crossed over.  Bob was trying to tell me, but I wasn’t listening.”

“You were worried about your brother,” said Murata kindly.

Shori grimaced.  He didn’t feel he deserved a pass for his blunder.  “They’re after Yuuri,” he said with a growing sense of urgency. “That boy, Ryuu…he said he was going to kill him.”

Murata nodded, his jaw set hard, his expression filled with purpose.  “Alright. I don’t know what Shinou is up to,” he said, “but he sent us here.”  He raised a hand to forestall any questions.  Shori held his tongue, even if that one statement already sent his thoughts flying into all terrible directions. “This is the Wincott Castle, west of the capital.  We’re under the care of our host, Lord Del Kierson von Wincott.  He’s going to want answers soon.  A reasonable demand,” continued Murata. “If I had two Double Blacks appearing at a trough in my stables, I’d want answers too.  Especially when one of them looked like he’d been in a terrible fight.”

“And what are we going to tell him?” asked Shori.  “I don’t even know what’s happening!  Why would Shinou send us here?  Why would he send you away?”

He’d touched a nerve.  For a second, Murata looked like he wanted to yell at him, but the moment passed, and he was, once again, the picture of composure.  “I’m not sure," he said, "but I think I might have known those people.  I’m trying to remember where…and when.  I keep thinking about Susanah Julia von Wincott.  And you mentioned Bob was interested in Erhard Wincott.”

“You’re thinking the Wincott family might have something to do with this?” said Shori.

“I’m thinking Shinou meant so…” Murata trailed away.  He looked spent.  Lost.  Confused.  Shori’s fears rose another notch.  His troubles had started with that same look on Bob’s face, the sight of a king who didn’t know what was going on.  Now Shori was looking at a sage, the Great Sage, who was as much in the dark as Shori.  When the people who should know what was happening didn’t have a clue, what hopes were ordinary mortals like him supposed to hold on to?

“I don’t know what you think Shinou meant,” Shori said, “but my priority is Yuuri.  Did you send him a message?”

“Not yet,” said Murata.  “I couldn’t act without knowing what you know, but I asked Lord von Wincott a favor.  We should go talk to him…”

Shori was already up, marveling once more how light his body felt.  As he led the way out of the room, Murata explained that Shori had been healed by Lord von Wincott himself.  “You should thank him,” said the sage, opening the door to an adjoining chamber.

A man stood by the window, cutting an impressive figure in an overcoat lined with elaborately embroidered leaves.  This must be the lord of the castle, Lord von Wincott. He looked less like a lord to Shori and more like a fresh-faced schoolboy.  His hair was a long, silky pale blue, and he had a kind, almost shy, smile.  The smile vanished instantly when he saw them enter, and his face took on a somber, uneasy expression.

‘A Mazoku lord who doesn’t know what’s going on either,’ Shori thought, recognizing that look once again. ‘Great. Just great.’

“Your Eminence,” Lord von Wincott said.  “Lord Shibuya, I’m glad that you’re up and about.”

“Yes,” said Shori, trying to sound like being called ‘Lord’ was normal for him. “Murata said I have you to thank…uh…my lord.”

“Not at all,” said Lord von Wincott.  He turned to Murata, suddenly all business. “Your Eminence, I did what you asked.  I sent a message to my soldiers in the capital asking if anything out of the ordinary had happened.  Of course, I didn’t mention that you’re here.”  He glanced at Shori.  “Both of you.”

“Well?” Murata said.  “What did they say?”

“A dragon,” said Lord von Wincott, nodding to an unfurled piece of parchment at his desk.  “Word has it that Lord von Bielefeld fought a dragon.  I’m surprised His Eminence had no knowledge of this.”

“I was at the temple,” said Murata, who sounded truly surprised.  “I didn’t hear about it.”

“Word has it that there are other dragons as well.”  The Mazoku paused, then added with emphasis, “Along with their riders.”

Shori couldn’t quite wrap his mind around it.  Dragons meant video games to him, the CGI stuff of fantasy movies, not actual creatures to be feared.

“What about Yuuri?” Shori asked. “What’s he doing?”

“His Majesty has initiated negotiations with the dragon riders.”

“And?” asked Murata. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”

Lord von Wincott’s tone was careful, almost accusatory. “Your Eminence, why did you come here?  Why was Lord Shibuya wounded?”

Shori didn’t see the need for the secrecy, but Murata must have his reasons.  The problem was whether the boy’s agenda aligned with Shori’s.

“An accident,” Shori said, deciding that he needed to stay at Murata’s corner, at least for the time being.  Murata’s expression didn’t change, but Shori could tell the boy appreciated the gesture.

“An accident,” repeated Lord von Wincott. “Would this ‘accident’ include blowing up Shinou’s Temple?”

Shori gasped.  Murata had gone pale, but his voice remained neutral, “What do you mean?”

“The temple is no more, Your Eminence," said Lord von Wincott. "It has been destroyed in an explosion.  Am I to believe that you had no knowledge of this either?”

Murata didn’t, Shori could clearly tell.  Besides, he was sure Murata would never harm Shinou.  If anything, this was definitely the work of those three: Ryuu, Tier, and Weisser.  First, Bob.  Then they’d taken down Shinou, the god of the Mazoku.  Now nothing stood between them and Yuuri.

“We have to go back,” Shori said, the panic rising in his chest.  “You have to help us—”

“I'm afraid I cannot, Lord Shibuya,” said Lord von Wincott, and the image of the schoolboy shattered completely in Shori’s eyes.  What was he thinking anyway?  This was a Mazoku who'd lived far longer than Shori, a being who'd seen too much and had learned to trust little. “I apologize, Your Eminence, but in the name of Shinou, I am going to hold you two under arrest.”

Arrest.  Shori's mind whirled at the word.  He could never catch a break, could he?

“I do apologize,” said Lord von Wincott. There were heavy footsteps behind them, and guards started pouring in, enclosing Shori and Murata. “But the only way you’re getting out of here is in chains, when I present you to the Demon King to answer for treason.”

“You can’t do this,” said Shori, stunned at this turn of events.  Murata didn't say anything, his face blank.

“I just did,” said Lord von Wincott.  And with a wave of the hand, the guards moved in unison, marching Shori and Murata away.

 


 

It was taking every scrap of self-control Yuuri had to keep his eyes on the road ahead and not look over his shoulder.  That feeling that something was twisted around his heart hadn’t let up, only growing worse when Wolfram told him he wouldn’t ride next to him on the way back.  Yuuri took that to mean that Wolfram wanted to spend more time with Lord Damien instead.  It should be fine, since it was what Wolfram wanted, and Yuuri told him so.  Still, Yuuri had hoped for some sort of reaction, a shadow of regret, a hint of disappointment, or maybe even just a remaining spark of jealousy over Saiga.  But Wolfram only looked in a hurry to get away from him.

It didn’t help that Saiga, who was free to let her eyes wander and was indeed using the time to observe her surroundings, kept up a running commentary on nearly everything she could see.  Yuuri managed to tune her out — until she started asking him directly about Wolfram.

“The one called Wolfram,” she said, whispering the name in Yuuri’s ear.  “What’s he like?”

Yuuri turned just so, finally catching sight of the wagon, where Wolfram and Lord Damien sat side by side.  As he watched, Lord Damien shifted to place both palms against Wolfram’s temples.  It was a gesture of concern, of care, yet Yuuri felt a violent urge to cut Lord Damien’s limbs off.

Yuuri snapped his head around, appalled at his own thoughts.  The vise around his heart twisted a little tighter, and a lump formed in his throat.

“Shibuya?”

“Why do you ask?” Yuuri said gruffly.  If she had a crush on Wolfram, he might just let her fall off the horse.

“Just curious,” said Saiga.  “Is that guy his boyfriend?”

Yuuri felt his face heating up.  “No.”  Then he added, “I don’t know.”  Then he said, “Why don’t you ask him?”

“Oh. I thought you said you were friends?”

Yuuri grunted in response.

“So you’re not close?” Saiga persisted.

“We don’t talk about things like that, Saiga.”

“I see.”  Saiga shifted slightly.  “And what about that Damien guy?  What’s he like?”

“I don’t know,” said Yuuri irritably.  “He’s just a…visitor…here.”

“Oh,” said Saiga, then thankfully gave the topic a rest.

Yuuri, however, was grappling with a new scenario.  Lord Damien was only a visitor in Shin Makoku.  He'd leave eventually — he should’ve actually left already if it weren’t for that incident with the dragon.  The thought lifted Yuuri’s mood.  He shouldn’t have worried so much.  Lord Damien would be gone soon.  Then he wondered whether Wolfram would go with Lord Damien, and Yuuri’s mood took a steep dive.  But that was the future, wasn’t it?  It didn’t have to be Lord Damien.  Wolfram would find someone, and he’d settle down somewhere, away from Blood Pledge Castle.  Away from Yuuri.

The thought preoccupied him all the way back to the castle grounds.  News of their arrival had reached Gwendal, and Yuuri could see the man already waiting up the steps.  Saralegui was there too, beside Lord Greyheim Schwarz.

Gwendal would surely need to talk to Yuuri.  Saralegui and Lord Greyheim might too.  And after that, there’d be more things to do, people to meet with, and kingly duties to fulfill.  There was never going to be a right time to talk to Wolfram, Yuuri realized.  In fact, each second that he wasn’t talking to Wolfram was just going to widen the gap between them some more.  ‘It has to be now,’ Yuuri thought, determined.  He would suffer no more interruptions, no more distractions.  He’d never been one to go after what he wanted, yet he couldn’t recall a time when he’d wanted something so much that he couldn’t bear the thought of losing it.

Yuuri caught Conrad’s eye.  The man was beside him in a second, helping him dismount.  Yuuri ignored Saiga for the time being, and instead turned to Conrad, “Stall them for me.  Everyone.  I need to talk to Wolf.”

Conrad nodded, no questions asked.  He turned on his heels and was off to run interference.

“Wait, Shibuya—!” Saiga called out, but Yuuri hurried away.

Wolfram was with Lord Damien, and it seemed like they were taking the least crowded path back to the castle.  Yuuri felt another twinge inside his chest, realizing that Wolfram didn't even intend to say goodnight.  Yuuri quickened his pace, glad that the soldiers immediately parted for him.  Finally, he caught Wolfram by the elbow.  “Wolf, I need to talk to you.”

Wolfram looked at him, startled.  “Now?”

“Now,” said Yuuri.  “Please.”

“Wolf,” said Lord Damien, and Yuuri gritted his teeth.  If Lord Damien tried to stop Wolfram, Yuuri might just drown him in a bubble of water.  Something stirred inside him, ready to bare its fangs at the slightest provocation.  But what Lord Damien said was, “Tell him.”

Wolfram made a face.  “Now?”

“Now,” said Lord Damien, his voice as firm as Yuuri’s had been.  “Go.  I’ll wait for you.”

It felt wrong, not at all a good way to start the talk Yuuri had envisioned.  He’d hoped for a more private place too, but given the circumstances, a dark corner of the courtyard would have to do.

“Wolf—” he began as soon as they were out of anyone's earshot, but Wolfram headed him off.

“Can I go first?” he asked.  “And I want you to listen until I’m done, alright?”

"But—"

"Please," said Wolfram.

"Fine," Yuuri relented, though his gut was telling him that he should have said no.

Wolfram took a deep breath.  “Tomorrow,” he said, “I’m going to make arrangements to go back to Bielefeld Castle.”  He glared at Yuuri, who’d already opened his mouth to protest.  “I hate to admit this, but I’m not ready to resume my duties.  I thought I was, but I think I need more time to rest—”

You think,” Yuuri cut in, unable to stop himself.  He repeated, incensed, “You think? You’ve got to be kidding me!  It’s his idea, isn’t it?”

“You mean Damien?” asked Wolfram, who looked bewildered at Yuuri’s burst of temper.  “Well, yes.  But he has a point—”

“When did you ever let someone tell you what to do?” Yuuri demanded.  “Honestly!  What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you?” Wolfram shot back, voice raised to match Yuuri’s.  “I’m not doing this because Damien said so.  I want to—”

Want to?” Yuuri jeered, drawing himself to his full height.  “You want to leave me?  That's it?  Don't I get a say anymore?”

Wolfram stopped, his eyes flashing.  But like before, he deflated, as though all the fight had left him.  “I need time away from everything,” he said quietly.  "I'm just...Yuuri, I'm exhausted."

It was Yuuri's turn to stop.  It hadn't struck him, until that moment, how true it was.  There were dark circles under Wolfram's eyes, and his skin had a sickly pallor.  Yuuri had been too bitter, too wrapped up in his own issues, he couldn't even see what must've been so obvious from the start.  Wolfram was suffering.  He was still hurting, both in body and spirit, and Yuuri had done nothing but deepen the wound.

Words deserted him.  He didn't know how to apologize.  Then Yuuri shook his head and just gave way to that lurking impulse to draw Wolfram into an embrace.  This time around, Wolfram accepted the gesture, wrapping his arms around Yuuri's neck.  It wasn't clear to Yuuri who exactly was comforting who.

“I can order you to stay,” Yuuri said after a beat.  It made him sick, to think of having to pull rank just to get what he wanted.

“You can,” Wolfram agreed, his breath tickling Yuuri's ear.

“You’ll hate me,” said Yuuri.

“I’ll threaten you with fire,” Wolfram said.  “But I can’t hate you even if I tried.”

Nothing about this was right.  No matter what Yuuri did, they just ended up making one wrong turn after another.  Yuuri had wanted to fix them, but if anything, all he could seem to do was force them further apart.  And now, here was his worst fear realized: Wolfram was leaving.

“Yuuri?”

Yuuri stirred, drawing back a little to look Wolfram in the eyes.  “Is Lord Damien going with you?”

“He is,” said Wolfram.  “He’s taking a ship back to Dai Shimaron anyway.”

Yuuri felt his heart skip.  “And you?”

Wolfram blinked.  “What about me?”

‘Are you going with him?’ he meant to ask, but Yuuri could now see how ridiculous that was. So he said instead, “When are you coming back?”

“When I’m better,” said Wolfram.  He regarded Yuuri with a smile.  “Wait…is that what you’re worried about?  I didn't think you'd miss me.”

Once upon a more clueless time, Yuuri would have denied any suggestion that he felt anything for Wolfram.  But he was wiser now.  At least, he hoped so.  “I would,” he said.  “And you made it sound like I’m not going to see you again.”

Wolfram actually laughed.  “You’re not getting rid of me that easily, wimp.”

“You mean it?” asked Yuuri, and if his fingers clung a little tighter onto the folds of Wolfram's cloak, Wolfram didn't seem to mind.  Wolfram was going away, but he was coming back.  Damien Schwarz, on the other hand, was leaving for good.  Yuuri thought he must sound like a child, but he repeated all the same, hungry for reassurance, "You really mean it?"

"Of course," said Wolfram, ruffling Yuuri's hair.  He was so close that Yuuri could almost kiss him.  It felt easy.  It felt like Yuuri wanted to.  Then Wolfram added in a soft voice, "You know, I'm glad we could still be friends."

Yuuri's heart sank.  “Look, Wolfram, I—”

He stopped, distracted at the sound of footsteps coming from behind him.  Wolfram was frowning, already stepping away to meet the person who’d dared interrupt their time alone.  Yuuri thought at first that it must be Gwendal, impatient to discuss something with Yuuri.  But the figure that burst from the shadows was a frazzled-looking Damien Schwarz.

“Damien?” Wolfram called out.  “What’s wrong?”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Lord Damien demanded.

Wolfram blinked, confused.  “What?”

“About the attackers!” Lord Damien burst out, eyes ablaze with fury.  “I overheard the shrine maidens talking.  I had to hear it from them!”

“I didn’t think it mattered to you,” said Wolfram.

“And why do you get to decide that?” Lord Damien snapped.

“Hey, don’t yell at him!” said Yuuri, who’d held himself back for as long as he could.  “Wolfram’s right.  That’s none of your business.”

“And this is none of yours!” Lord Damien spat, voice scathing.

Yuuri could feel the energy rushing out of him, calling for blood.  He was never one to pick a fight, but Yuuri couldn't let this pass.  Why had he been so jealous of this boy?  He was nothing, nothing compared to him, the Demon King—

“Don't,” said Wolfram, blocking Yuuri's view. “Please.”

Yuuri wavered. The air crackled around him, and lightning flashed across the sky, as though to mirror Yuuri's mood.  Lord Damien stood proudly, unflinching, eyes focused not on Yuuri but on Wolfram.

“You should have told me,” he said in a tone that suggested he’d just been stabbed in the back.

Yuuri bristled but Wolfram threw him a warning glance.  With great effort, Yuuri forced himself to contain his maryoku.  It surprised him that he managed; his control of his powers had always been a bit shoddy.

“Damien,” said Wolfram in a gentle voice, certainly something he’d never used before on Yuuri.  “I'm sorry.  I honestly didn't know.  Do you want to talk about this...?” 

'Not this again,’ Yuuri thought. Just when he thought they were finally going somewhere, why was Wolfram walking away again with Damien Schwarz?  Either Yuuri had the worst luck in the world, or it just wasn’t the right time for it.  ‘But there’s never going to be a right time,’ Yuuri thought, and he was getting tired of second-guessing himself.  He'd meant to talk to Wolfram, but he’d never gotten his turn.  What did it matter where they were or who could be listening?

"We can go further,” Yuuri blurted out.  He could hear more approaching footsteps, and Yuuri knew they’d soon be surrounded.  But he no longer cared, even if he had to shout his feelings out for the entire castle to hear.

Wolfram froze on his tracks.  “What?”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you,” Yuuri said.  The words were his.  Completely his.  “Yesterday, you said we’ve gone far enough.  I wanted to say that we can go further.  I mean, I want to…if you’d still have me.”

It was too dark to see Wolfram’s face, but whoever was coming had brought a torch with them.  It was a soldier, Yuuri saw from the periphery of his vision, perhaps coming to drag them back to the thick of things.  Yuuri was about to tell him to wait, but the soldier seemed more interested in talking to Lord Damien.

The soldier turned, the torchlight briefly illuminating his face.  With a jolt of recognition, Yuuri realized…it wasn’t a soldier.  Not even one of them.  It was the guy they’d chased in the forest, the very same who’d escaped on a dragon’s back.

It was a Ryuzoku.

Chapter Text

Frey had forgotten how to fight.

His hands felt like lead, and his feet collapsed from under him.  He was crying, but he didn't realize it until his vision started to fade, the tears clouding his sight, briefly concealing from view the dead bodies that were once his parents. Then the tears trailed down his cheeks, and the truth of what just happened struck him in the heart.

Everyone he loved was dead.

"Stand up."

Ryuu's voice came to him as though from a dream. From where he knelt, Frey could only focus on Ryuu's bloodied hand.  The dagger he held seemed almost like an extension of him, like a claw.  'Monster,' Frey thought. 'He's a monster.'

"Stand up," Ryuu said again.  "Fight me."

"Why?" Frey asked, surprised that his voice came out calm and collected, a stark contrast to the maelstrom of emotions churning inside him.  "Why did you do this?"

"Fight me," said Ryuu, ignoring the question.

“All this time…was this what you wanted?”

“I said, stand up.”

“Was this what you wanted?” Frey repeated, his eyes finally meeting Ryuu's. “Just tell me!”

Ryuu opened his mouth to say something, but then he seemed to change his mind. He regarded Frey with an expression akin to remorse, and for a split second, he looked like the boy Frey had known, the boy Frey loved.

But the moment passed, and a cruel smile twisted Ryuu's lips. "Stand up and fight," he said, "or die on your knees.  Your choice, Frey."

Frey drew in a sharp breath.  As he stared at Ryuu, something inside him seemed to break.

 


 

A Ryuzoku had infiltrated the castle grounds — and no one but Yuuri seemed aware of the danger.

Wolfram was staring at him, perhaps still processing Yuuri's confession.  Lord Damien had his arms crossed, scowling at Yuuri.  People were approaching from all around them, and from the corner of his eyes, Yuuri was relieved to see that Gwendal, Gunter, and Conrad were nearly within shouting distance.

But none was close enough to do anything should the Ryuzoku make a move.

The thought spurred Yuuri into action.  He didn’t know how fast he was moving, but somehow, he managed to snatch Wolfram’s arm and draw him away from the enemy in disguise.  Wolfram made a surprised sound, still oblivious to the danger.  In the same instant, the Ryuzoku threw the torch at them, the fire singeing Yuuri's hair. 

The look of surprise on Lord Damien's face might have been comical, had the situation been less dire.  The boy turned a little too late; a well-aimed strike at the back of the neck sent him crashing to the ground.  By the time everybody else caught on to what was happening, the Ryuzoku was already running away, with Lord Damien's unconscious form slung over one shoulder.

“Damien!” Wolfram cried, swiveling on his heels.

But Yuuri pulled him back, sensing the approaching danger.  The horses were whinnying with fear, and Yuuri could hear a general murmur of panic rising from everyone around them.

“Let go!” Wolfram barked at him.

“Wait!” Yuuri snarled back.  “Can’t you see—?”

There was no need for an explanation.  The green-and-black dragon had appeared, as Yuuri predicted it would, catapulting over the city walls and landing with an almighty thud just before the enemy.  It looked more impressive up close, clearly a weapon of death and not like one of the cute, cuddly creatures Yuuri had once tamed.

“Your Majesty!”

Gunter seemed to spring out of thin air, sword drawn.  There were cries of "Protect His Majesty!" and soldiers were soon hurtling forward, rallying around them, ready to fight and, if need be, die.

But their courage was unnecessary.  The enemy moved with a purpose, none of which seemed to involve fighting.  While they hesitated at the sight of the dragon, the man threw his captive upon the creature’s back before quickly getting on too.

“Yuuri!”

Yuuri snapped to his senses.  Wolfram was looking at him, his green eyes imploring, and Yuuri knew he couldn’t just sit by.  He reached for the power inside him, to that being who seemed fused with his very soul.  He could feel the raw energy taking over, surrounding his body with light.  The water called to him once more, and he, to it.  When Yuuri looked up, it seemed to him like the night was clear as day, and he could see through every movement the dragon and its rider were about to make.

“Stay back,” said Yuuri, and even to his ears, his voice sounded deeper, harsher.  He raised his arms, and in the same moment that his water dragons appeared, his feet left the ground.

The dragon was about to take off.  Yuuri could see where the wings started to rise, and he sent his water dragons soaring to intercept the movement, stalling the creature’s flight.  Yuuri heard the rider cursing, the dragon roaring in frustration.  Yuuri waved a hand, concentrating on Lord Damien’s form.  The water obeyed, engulfing Lord Damien and lifting him up, back toward them, to where Wolfram was waiting to catch him.

There were shouts and cheers all around, and the task done, Yuuri turned his attention to the dragon and its rider.  Deprived of his quarry, the rider looked torn between trying to escape or attempting to regain his prey.  Yuuri decided to give him a third option.

“Surrender,” he said, the word carrying across the courtyard.  “Take another step, and I won’t show any mercy.”

The rider hesitated, but Yuuri could tell what the man was about to do.  He could sense the weakening of the rider's heartbeat, the sagging of his muscles, the uncertainty and exhaustion that had plagued him for a very long time now.  The dragon was in the same state, almost as though they were one and the same being.

There was a tense moment, with each side waiting: the Mazoku soldiers on one end against the lone Ryuzoku on the other.  Finally, the rider stepped down, arms raised.  “I surrender,” he croaked out, and in unison, the dragon laid its head on the ground, suddenly docile.

“Come closer,” Yuuri said.  The man obeyed, and Gunter hurried forward to divest the man of his weapons.

Yuuri was starting to feel the power leave him.  He descended, grateful to find himself on solid ground.  The light around him seemed to shimmer and fade, and he felt very sleepy. The fatigue of every conceivable disaster he'd faced since his arrival weighed on his mind and body.  The water dragons broke into a shower of water, and Yuuri swayed on his feet.

Someone gripped Yuuri's shoulder, keeping him steady.  Glancing up, he met Gwendal's somewhat astounded gaze.

"Stand up, Your Majesty," the man said, none too gently but not as harsh as usual either.  "This isn't over yet."

Yuuri nodded.  He could feel many eyes on him, waiting for his command.  And though Yuuri didn't relish the idea of having to decide a man's fate, enemy or not, he knew he couldn't delegate the task to anyone.  This was his privilege, and his responsibility, as king.

“Gisela,” he called out.  The healer, Yuuri saw, was by Lord Damien's side.  The boy was starting to stir, drawing a sigh of relief from Wolfram, who was cradling Lord Damien's head on his lap.  Yuuri hated the image they made together, but addressing his jealousy would have to wait.

“See to him,” Yuuri told Gisela, nodding to the dragon rider.  To Gisela’s credit, she looked neither surprised nor hesitant.  She regarded the man with a professional eye, then called for her soldiers to escort the man to the infirmary.  The rider seemed bemused, his eyes flickering to Yuuri, but he allowed himself to be led away.

“Your Majesty!” cried Gunter in a tremulous voice, probably moved to tears by Yuuri’s show of compassion.  But his practical side also presented itself.  “We should restrain the dragon, Your Majesty.”

"Do what you can," said Yuuri, although he knew somehow that there wouldn’t be a need for it.  He stood for a while longer, watching as Gunter rallied the soldiers for the task ahead.  He heard Gwendal cursing after a moment, and following the man's gaze, Yuuri saw that Anissina had ventured too close to the dragon.

"It's safe," Yuuri said, but Gwendal was already striding away, muttering something about "hard-headed women" being the death of him.

Yuuri teetered on his feet, like a marionette that had been cut loose.  He was certain he would have collapsed right then, but someone was again breaking his fall.

“Yuuri," said Conrad, one arm thrown across Yuuri's shoulder. "We should go.  You need to rest.”

"Yeah," Yuuri muttered.  "I just want..."

He trailed away.  Lord Damien was up, helped to his feet by Wolfram, who was leaning up to whisper something in the boy's ear.  The vise around Yuuri's heart constricted.  He could understand Wolfram's concern, yet it pained him to have to watch Wolfram fuss over someone else.

Yuuri averted his gaze, turning to find Saiga looking up at him in awe.  She’d lost her remaining contact lens at some point during the trip, and now, both eyes that regarded him were black and admiring.

“You're amazing, Shibuya!” she gushed.  “I didn’t know you can do that.”

Yuuri tried to smile.  He was just probably tired, but there was an artificial quality to her voice that he didn't quite like.  He shook it off.  He couldn’t think straight anymore.

"T-Thanks...uh, Conrad, can someone take care of her...?"

"No need," said Saiga at once. "I'm going with you."

Conrad said something in response.  But Saiga must have won the argument because she remained stuck to Yuuri's side as he was ushered through the crowd.  People appeared to be cheering for him, but their voices felt like a meaningless clamor to Yuuri.  They passed by Saralegui halfway up the stairs, but the other king seemed too distracted to notice them, his eyes fixed on something on the grounds below.  There was a time when Yuuri would have called out to him, but Yuuri felt too tired for anyone who wasn't Wolfram.

It felt like an eternity before Yuuri was finally in bed.  He thought he heard Greta.  He thought he heard Gwendal and Gunter again at some point.  He definitely heard Saiga.

Then somewhere in the darkness, in the deep of the night, another voice came to him.  It was quiet, a mere whisper, though he felt no breath against his ear.

"Do not lose him, Demon King," it warned. "There are some things you can never get back."

 


 

Shori was going to break down the door.  He could visualize it in his head.  He was going to ram his shoulder against the panels until the wood gave way, and then once outside, he’d karate-chop the guards in the neck to render them unconscious.  Then he’d run and never look back.

Or at least, that was how things would have gone down in the movies.  Real life — even in a world filled with magic and demons and all sorts of fantastical stuff — was a little harder.  Though his wounds had healed, he still felt too weak for anything as vigorous as door-breaking.  His maryoku, when he’d tried to summon water from the vapors in the air, merely fizzled and died, like a broken lamp.  Had he used too much to open that godforsaken portal?

He turned to Murata.  The sage had been quiet the entire time, casually perusing the bookcase that stood at one end of the room, where they'd been confined for the past hour.  Shori was fine to let him be, not when he was too preoccupied with his own thoughts of escape.  But when he’d exhausted every possible option and still came up with nothing, Shori set his sights back to forcing answers out of the reticent sage.

“Hey, you,” he said.  “You’re not seriously thinking of staying here until this Wincott guy turns us over to Yuuri, are you?”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” said Murata, who was running a finger along the spine of a book in the uppermost shelf.

“What I want,” said Shori irately, “is to warn Yuuri that he’s in danger.  What I want is to be there now to protect him.”

“Shibuya is well protected,” said Murata.  “And you underestimate him.  He’s the most powerful maryoku-user in the land.”

“Does that even matter?” Shori shot back.  “Yuuri wouldn’t hurt a fly, and those ‘protectors’ of his wouldn’t fight if he tells them not to.”

“Lord von Bielefeld might.”

“And he’s out of action,” Shori pointed out.  “You heard von Wincott.  The brat fought a dragon!”  Shori threw another glance at the locked door, reconsidering the merits of forcing it open, all threats of physical pain be damned.  “Don’t you even get how dangerous those guys are?  They’ve been taking souls for gods' sakes!”

Murata froze.  Then he turned to look at Shori, eyes wide with realization.  “Souls!” he exclaimed.  “Dragons and souls!  The Ryuzoku and the Crypt!”

“The what and what?” Shori demanded, annoyed at the sudden gibberish.

“Ryuzoku,” Murata repeated, with the air of an elated child who’d just solved a difficult puzzle.  “The dragon riders.  That’s where I heard that name.  Weisser.  He was there.  The Crypt of Souls was hunting them!”

The boy leaned back; the burst of excitement from his discovery seemed to trickle out of his body.  His eyes slid out of focus, giving Shori the impression that he was sorting through images in his head.  Whatever the sage saw must have been horrible, for he made a sound of dismay and stayed completely still for a long moment.

“What?” asked Shori when he could no longer contain it.  “What’s this about dragon riders?”

“They’re an ancient race that used to exist here along with the Mazoku, the Shinzoku, and the humans,” explained Murata.  “But a war broke out among the dragon clans, and they destroyed one another.  Or at least, that’s how the stories go.  The way I remember it, there was…a soul.  That’s where Weisser fits in.  He stole a soul.”

“From this Crypt place?” asked Shori, struggling to keep up.  He still didn’t get the entire picture, but it seemed like Murata was grappling with his memories too.

“The Crypt of Souls,” Murata went on, “is like a bridge between life and death, a place where the souls of the dead go. Weisser was a Soul Keeper, a guardian of souls.  I’ve been there,” added Murata, seeing the skeptical look on Shori's face, “a long time ago, because of Shinou.  When his soul was tainted by Soushou, the Crypt intended to dispose of him. They said it was too dangerous to let his soul move on.”

Shori couldn't quite keep the derision from his voice.  "And I'm guessing you stopped them?"

"I didn't," Murata said. "I knew it was the best way to go. It was a very…difficult…time, knowing that I’d never see him again. But the Crypt changed their mind. They said that as long as Soushou is trapped inside the Forbidden Boxes, there’s nothing to worry about."

"But the seals on the Boxes broke!" exclaimed Shori.  "You knew that they would, and you didn't point that out?"

Murata frowned, but his eyes were devoid of remorse. "I did. But I was happy that Shinou would get to live longer.  I never lost hope that his soul might be saved somehow.  That’s why I made a deal with the Crypt. I asked them to let me help Shinou, to let me be with him.  They granted me access to all my past memories.  It wasn’t an existence I’d want for myself, but I was ready to live like that for as long as it takes — until Shinou is either saved.  Or destroyed."

Shori let that sink in for a moment.  He wanted to say that maybe it hadn’t been the best idea to save Shinou, but questioning Murata’s devotion seemed hypocritical.  Shori knew he was ready to do those things too, for his brother. For Yuuri.

“So Weisser worked for this Crypt?” Shori asked instead, attempting to organize the information inside his head.  “Then what?”

“I don’t know,” said Murata. “I heard that he stole a soul and left the Crypt.  That would explain why he hasn’t got a body of his own.  I’m guessing when his original body perished, he just kept transferring to other bodies.  I don’t fully understand how the process works though.”  He pinched his forehead, as though the mere thought of everything was giving him a headache.  “Anyway, the Crypt found Weisser many years later, in a place called Raven Port, the Ryuzoku’s capital city.  Apparently, he was trying to rally the Ryuzoku into conquering the entire world.  I remember because that’s why the Crypt decided to intervene.”

“And you just happened to be there?”

“Shinou,” Murata said, as though the name was enough of a reason.  Perhaps it always would be.  “He and Erhard Wincott were allies of a dragon clan.  Shinou asked me to look for Weisser, to ask him to come—”

“Wait a second,” Shori said, eyes narrowed.  “To come?”

“I don’t know,” said Murata again before Shori could ask the obvious question — Why?  “But that soul he'd stolen…I remember now…the Crypt claimed it was corrupted, something that shouldn’t have existed. I think it was that guy with the white hair.”

Despite himself, Shori shuddered at the mental image of the pale boy with the empty eyes.  In a way, he was right.  Ryuu was a ghost, a remnant of something that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

“He shouldn't even be here,” said Murata.  “Corrupted souls don’t get reborn.  The Crypt makes sure of that."

"Well, would it help if he has a former Soul Keeper on his corner?"

"Perhaps.  But even if he gets reborn, he shouldn't have lived this long.”

An idea struck Shori, and the very thought of it made him nauseous.  “The souls they’ve taken from their victims…is it possible that he’s…using them?”

Murata pondered over that for a moment.  “It’s entirely possible to consume another being’s soul,” he conceded. “It makes you powerful, perhaps extend your life.  But I can’t imagine the drawbacks.”

It was a horrific thought, but the information had the odd effect of calming Shori down.  Now, at least, he wasn’t dealing with the unknown.  Now, at least, he had an inkling what Weisser was — a traitor and a thief.  And now he knew what Ryuu was too — a monster that had to be stopped at all costs.  He’d been preoccupied with protecting just Yuuri, Shori thought in self-reproach, when everything wasn’t just about Yuuri from the start.  This was about avenging every soul Ryuu and his group had stolen, every soul they’d deprived of the chance of rebirth.  This was about protecting every soul in the kingdom while they still could.

“We need to do something,” said Shori. “We can't let this go on.”

“I know,” said Murata, though he still looked uncertain.  “But we’re missing something else.  A lot of things, actually.  I don’t understand why Shinou wouldn’t tell me this...or how the Wincott family is tied to this.”

“Maybe there’s nothing to understand.  Has it ever occurred to you that you may be trying to see something that’s not there?”

“I don’t know,” said Murata, admitting ignorance more times than a sage should be allowed.  “I hate not knowing.”

“You might have to get used to it,” said Shori.

“I don't think so.  At any rate, there's still one thing we haven't seen: Erhard Wincott's journal."

Shori perked up.  Truth be told, he'd been thinking about that too.  “Then let's add stealing that to our to-do list,” he said wryly, "right after 'escaping from a locked room.'"

“Done,” said Murata with a hint of his old enigmatic smile.  "I suspect it'd be much easier than you think."

Shori doubted that, but to his immense surprise, the sage turned out to be right.

 


 

Yozak found the bodies of the scouts in the clearing.  At first glance, they seemed to be sleeping, but Yozak saw the eyes, blank and unseeing, and he quashed the impulse to rush forward and inspect them.  Instead, he melted back into the shadows, quieting his breathing, trying to sense for any sound, any indication, that the murderer was still nearby.

He was, and he seemed like he’d been waiting for Yozak.

“Come out,” a voice said.  “I want a word with you.”

Yozak had stared death in the eyes countless of times before, but the face he saw when he peeked through a gap in the trees hinted at something worse than death.  It was the face of madness, of fury, of someone who had nothing more to lose.

It wasn’t the face of a creature you could reason with, Yozak thought grimly.  He clasped his breast pocket where he had stowed the Demon King’s letter, the contents of which now seemed unnecessary.  ‘Sorry, Kiddo,’ Yozak thought. ‘Looks like negotiations are a no-go.’

He took one tentative step to the right, moving noiselessly.  He was thrown off his feet in the next moment as a giant hulking figure rammed into him.  Yozak reached out for something to break his fall, catching a branch and using the momentum to heave his body forward in an arc.  He let go and caught another, quickly tucking his feet up until he managed to prop himself onto a tree branch.

Someone whistled; looking down, Yozak saw the grinning face of the giant who’d nearly broken his spine.

“Impressive,” said the giant.  “Sure you want to stay up there?”

“I’m fine here,” said Yozak, smiling. “Thank you very much.”

The giant shrugged, then promptly punched the bark of the tree.  Yozak cursed, barely managing to leap off and avoid getting crushed.  He kept his eyes sharp, looking for an opening, but just when he thought he could make a run for it, the giant jumped into his path.

“Relax,” the man said. “We just want to talk.”

“Like you 'talked' to the men back there?” Yozak asked pleasantly, reaching for his knives.

“No,” said a voice, the madman’s voice.  Yozak pivoted on his feet, knives slashing, but he struck nothing but air.  The madman continued, as though there had been no interruption, “I have a message for Shibuya Yuuri.”

Yozak stepped back a little so he could keep both men in his line of vision.  “Sure.  Do you need me to write it down?”

The giant snorted, but the madman's gaze was hard as flint.  “Tell him he'll see me soon,” he said. "Tell him I'll keep my promise."

Yozak would have made a joke out of that.  Taken out of context, he could spin that into something that'd drive Lord Brat insanely jealous.  But, alas.  He'd never heard the word "promise" uttered with such hatred and malice.

So he kept his face neutral, his tone cheerful.  “And who should I say is sending this message?”

“Maximilian Schwarz IV,” the madman said. “The Lord of the Ryuzoku and the rightful king of Shimaron.”

Chapter Text

Frey was going to lose.

He felt angry and cheated and very confused, all useless emotions that had no place in a fight to the death.  He knew he was getting reckless, uncoordinated, too confused to deal any serious damage to the enemy.

Ryuu made a scornful sound, deflecting Frey's pathetic attempts with an idle flick of the hand.  They’d sparred before, and although Frey had lost more than he’d won, he liked to think that the gap between them wasn’t that huge.  Had Frey grown soft, or was Ryuu just going easy on him all this time?  He felt a bitter taste in his mouth at the thought.

Frey charged forward, ramming into Ryuu, hoping to get him off his feet.  But Ryuu stepped away at the last second, his arm swinging back, one hand closing around Frey’s throat.  Frey gasped, his vision blurring.

“I’m sorry,” Ryuu said, sounding almost like he meant it.  “I wish there was some other way.”

Ryuu didn’t hesitate this time.  His eyes were steady, determined, as the dagger came flashing toward Frey’s heart.

 


 

Gwendal von Voltaire glared at the pile of letters on his table, as though they were sentient beings who could feel his resentment.  News of the appearance of a second dragon — and right within the grounds of the castle — had reached the ears of nearly everyone in the realm.  Predictably enough, the lords of the other Noble Houses had immediately sent messages, demanding a detailed account of the incident while also lambasting what they perceived as a serious lapse in castle security.  The explosion at Shinou’s Temple and the apparent disappearance of the god himself almost seemed like less of a concern when compared to a looming attack from an army of dragon riders.

Gwendal would agree, but he’d managed to stay level-headed, knowing that they didn’t have all the pieces of information yet to know for sure what they were dealing with.  Then by mid-afternoon, Yozak burst into his quarters with more disturbing news, an anxious-looking Conrad following right behind.  Now, Gwendal saw no reason to remain calm.

“Maximilian Schwarz IV,” Gwendal repeated blankly.

“The Lord of the Ryuzoku,” echoed Conrad.

“And the rightful king of Shimaron,” Yozak finished.  He looked like he would fall over in another second, and perhaps he would have, had Conrad not pushed him down into a chair.

“Describe him again,” said Gwendal, although he already knew every detail by heart.  A young man with long white hair and white eyes, accompanied by a giant of a man who could apparently cut down a tree with his bare hands.  In short, the same men who had destroyed Shinou’s Temple.

Conrad sat himself beside Yozak, the circles under his eyes betraying the fatigue he must also be feeling.  “Maximilian IV?  Isn’t that Lord Damien’s older brother?”

“The true prince,” Yozak muttered.  “He’s alive and well.”

“And blowing up temples and killing scouts,” Gwendal said in disgust.  “He said he’ll keep a promise he made to the king?”

“Your guess is as good as mine, General,” said Yozak.  “Kiddo should know though.  That” — he struggled with a nickname for a second before settling with — “Dragon King made it sound like they’d met before.”

“Yuuri did mention that,” said Conrad, frowning in remembrance.  “I heard him telling Wolfram that he might know one of the attackers.  I’d been meaning to ask him, but he’d been a bit…distracted.  And after last night…”  He gave Yozak a quick recap, starting with their march back to the castle and ending with the surrender of the dragon rider.

Gwendal’s face darkened at the memory of last night.  A dragon had entered the castle grounds, and an enemy had tried to abduct a guest — under his watch!  If it weren’t for the Demon King, who managed to detain the rider without a fight, they’d have a diplomatic crisis on their hands.  Not that the appearance of another claimant to the Dai Shimaron throne didn’t qualify as a major crisis.  Add the fact that the said claimant also decimated a sacred Mazoku site, and they had the perfect recipe for a catastrophe.

Gwendal cursed under his breath, regretting his decision to forego the interrogation of Lord Damien and his uncle.  It had been a courtesy of sorts, for all the things Lord Damien had done to help Wolfram recover.  But this recent development left no more room for courtesies or expressions of gratitude.  He didn’t know what he’d soon unearth, but the Demon King had entrusted the decision to him should negotiations fail.  Now that it had, he hoped their pacifist of a king would be ready with whatever recommendations Gwendal might have to make.

“That’s the kid, alright,” Yozak remarked after a beat.  “But I don’t think this Dragon King would surrender so easily.”

Gwendal was afraid of that.  He didn’t want to say it, but he knew Yozak and Conrad were thinking it too.  They could all sense where this was going.  They’d been there before.  They just didn’t expect to be there again with Shibuya Yuuri on the kingdom’s helm.

And yet here it was.  A war was brewing.

“Did the rider say anything useful?” Yozak asked.

Gwendal shook his head.  “He’s in the infirmary, and he’s not in the best state to talk.  Not that somebody didn’t try to make him…”

He shared a dark look with Conrad.  There’d been an ugly incident early in the morning, when Lord Greyheim Schwarz bullied his way into the infirmary, demanding to speak with the dragon rider.  If Gisela hadn’t been there, the man might have gotten his way.  But there was no getting past Lady von Christ when she was in a protective mood — and Lord Greyheim learned this lesson the painful way.

“The rider’s delirious,” Conrad told Yozak.  “He just keeps asking for Damien Schwarz.”

“So why don’t we let them meet?” Yozak suggested.  “Find out what the Ryuzoku want from him.”

“That’s ultimately the king’s decision,” said Gwendal.  “But I don’t trust the Schwarz boy.”

“It could be dangerous too,” Conrad added thoughtfully.  “The Ryuzoku have been targeting Lord Damien from the beginning.  They even tried to kill him.”

Yozak frowned at that.  “Do you suppose that’s the Dragon King’s intention?”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Conrad argued.  “If this is about the throne, the older brother has the stronger claim.  Lord Damien would have nothing on him.  So I think that means…”

The conclusion went unsaid: The dragon rider was acting on his own.  ‘But to what end?’ Gwendal wondered. ‘What could he possibly want from Damien Schwarz?’

“Too tired to think,” groaned Yozak after a moment, echoing Gwendal’s sentiment.  Conrad was obviously in a similar state, but he plastered his usual smile and pushed himself to his feet.

“I should go back to Yuuri and give him an update,” he said.  “I told him to rest for a bit longer.  He’s been so tired…”

“Who’s guarding him?” asked Gwendal.

“Gunter.”

Yozak’s eyebrows rose in a question.  “What happened to Lord Brat?  Still not feeling well?”

“Well…” Conrad’s smile looked almost apologetic. “Wolfram is with Lord Damien.”

“He hasn’t gone to see the king yet?” Gwendal asked, scowling when Conrad shook his head.

“Really?” said Yozak.  “I’m surprised the rumors haven’t started flying.”

“Actually,” said Conrad, “they already have.”

‘What are those brats doing?’ Gwendal fumed silently.  The least they could do was show a united front in these troubled times.  They’d never been demonstrative or sweet or anything like that, and Gwendal preferred it that way.  But Wolfram and the king had been friendly at the least.  Though they were occasionally hostile (mostly Wolfram’s fault, Gwendal knew as much), they’d always stuck together like the engaged couple that they were.

“And,” said Conrad, “Lady Saiga’s presence isn’t helping much.  She hasn’t left Yuuri’s side either.”

“Don’t tell me she spent the night…?” Gwendal began, but one look at Conrad’s face told him everything he needed to know.  Gwendal clicked his tongue impatiently.  “We don’t need this — whatever this is — right now!”

“We prepared a separate bed for her,” said Conrad.  “And Greta was there.  There were guards posted inside the chambers the entire time.”

“Do you think it matters?” demanded Gwendal.  “People will think what they want to think.”  He stood up too.  He’d had it with all these theatrics.  Something must be done.  “This ends now.  I want that girl sent home at the earliest possible time.”

“If Yuuri’s strong enough,” Conrad said.  “You realize he’ll want to go with her, to make sure she gets home safely?”

Conrad was right, of course, and not for the first time, Gwendal found himself wishing for a less chivalrous king.  “We’ll have to convince him otherwise,” he said, though he didn’t have any idea how to accomplish that. “This Maximilian Schwarz is a problem.  We need to deal with him first.  I’ll handle Damien Schwarz.  Conrad, do something about the girl.”

Conrad regarded him worriedly.  “Gwen…Wolfram actually likes Lord Damien.  They’ve gotten pretty close.  Whatever you’re thinking…”

“I’m not going to torture him,” said Gwendal, affronted at the insinuation.

“I didn’t say that,” said Conrad.  “But please be more careful how you go about it.  I don’t want you and Wolf fighting again.”

“Fine!” Gwendal snarled.  “I promise to tread lightly.  You just make sure that girl is gone before the day is over.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Conrad.  He smiled ruefully at Yozak, who moved to follow but seemed unable to keep his head up for long.  “Stay.  Get some rest.  I’ll see you later.”

“Do as he says,” ordered Gwendal when Yozak opened his mouth to object.  “We’ll need you rested and alert for whatever’s coming next.”

“Yes, sirs,” said Yozak with a mock salute.

They left him like that, but Gwendal was sure the spy — exhausted from his hasty retreat to the castle and drained from his encounter with the “Dragon King” — had fallen asleep as soon as the door slammed shut.

 


 

“Damien?”

Damien jerked upright, coming fully awake.  He’d been staring blankly at the wall for the past minutes and must have dozed off at some point.  He shifted; something fell out of his hand and clanked noisily down to the floor.  A cup, Damien saw.  He couldn’t remember how long he’d been holding it, but it was empty and dry, so he must have long drunk its contents.  Was it water?  Wine?  Damien couldn’t even say for sure.

He reached for the cup, but someone beat him to it.  Damien looked up, momentarily blinded by a ray of sunlight from the window and the golden halo of Wolfram’s hair.

“What are you doing?” Wolfram asked, frowning.  “Have you been drinking?”

Had he?  Damien felt dizzy, though he wasn’t sure if it was from alcohol or from lack of sleep.  He massaged his temples, weary from worrying and thinking and wondering.  Too many things were happening.  Too many things were spiraling out of control.  And yesterday…

‘He’s here,’ Damien thought, recalling the conversation he’d overheard from the shrine maidens.  There was no mistaking it.  The man they’d described was him.  Max.  He’d been at the temple — had apparently destroyed the entire thing and vanquished the god that resided there.  That sounded like his dear brother, alright.

“Are you still mad at me?” asked Wolfram.

Damien sighed.  They hadn’t had a chance to talk after what happened last night.  To Damien, most of it was a blur.  He knew there was a dragon rider.  The man was wearing a Mazoku soldier’s uniform, and though the recognition came a moment too late, Damien soon realized who it was.  It had felt like he'd gone back in time, five years ago, to the throne room of the palace that had once been his home.  For a moment, Damien was thirteen again, hiding behind the columns, listening to what he didn’t know then was the very last argument his parents would ever have with their eldest son.

“You should have killed me when you had the chance.”

“No, Max, please!  Listen to me…!”

His parents had continued begging, for time, for understanding, for mercy, but his brother had only laughed.  When the palace burned, Damien didn’t even have the courage to run.  He had no idea how he’d gotten out.

“Damien?  I swear, if you don’t start talking, I’ll…”

Wolfram’s voice startled him out of his memories, and Damien shook the images away.

“You’ll what?” he said, attempting to smile.  His memories of last night were nebulous at best.  He knew he’d blacked out at some point, and when he’d woken, the first person he saw was Wolfram.  He couldn’t recall how he’d gotten back to the infirmary, just that Wolfram’s was the last face Damien saw before sleep and exhaustion overtook him.

“I was about to hit you,” Wolfram said.

A bitter laugh escaped Damien’s lips.  “You’re more than welcome to.  People seem to enjoy knocking me out.”

Wolfram scowled.  “That’s not funny.”

“Tell that to the dragon rider,” Damien said peevishly.  He caught himself; he was letting his temper get the better of him once more.  He’d even lashed out at Wolfram last night, when Wolfram obviously had no clue what Damien was so mad about.  He sighed, brushing the hair out of his face.  “I’m sorry.  I just….”

Wolfram sat down opposite him, brows creased with worry.  “I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I’m here if you want to talk about it.”

“It’s a long story,” Damien muttered.  “Are you sure you have time?”

I do,” said Wolfram.  “You, on the other hand, might not.”

“What?”

Wolfram’s voice dropped to a whisper.  The door was closed, but Damien could hear movements from beyond.  They were being guarded — heavily, from the sounds of it.

“I’ve been talking to my soldiers,” said Wolfram.  “They said Yozak — he’s our master spy — came back an hour ago.  I just found out about this, but Yuuri had sent him to negotiate with the dragon riders.”

“There are more?” asked Damien, his blood growing cold at the information.  Was that what Max had been doing all these years?  Amassing an army?

“They’re talking about a Ryuzoku army,” said Wolfram, confirming Damien’s fears.  His frown deepened.  “You really don’t know anything about this?”

Damien flinched, stung at the question.  “You think I have something to do with this?”

“I’m saying it doesn’t look good for you,” said Wolfram, not really answering the question.  “And the man last night, that dragon rider, he was obviously after you.”

“Trying to kidnap me,” Damien pointed out.  “Or you think I deliberately got myself knocked out?”

“Did you?” said Wolfram.  There was no suspicion in his voice, but there was fear.  Of what, Damien couldn’t tell.

“You think I’d do that?”

“The Ryuzoku are after you,” said Wolfram, evading the question once more.  “They need something from you.”

“I don’t know what they need,” said Damien, frustrated.  “Maybe if you’d let me get taken, I’d find out, wouldn’t I?”

“Actually,” said Wolfram, leaning away from him, “it was Yuuri who saved you.”

Oh.  Damien paused to consider that.  He should be grateful, he told himself, but owing the Demon King his life wasn’t the same as owing Wolfram.

“Then he should’ve let me get taken.”

“Yuuri would never do that.”

“Of course,” said Damien, temper flaring once again, “because he always does the right thing, doesn’t he?  Except when it comes to you.”

Wolfram pushed himself off the bed, his eyes clouded with hurt.  “You don’t get to say that,” he said, voice tight and harsh.  “You don’t know Yuuri.  Or me.”

“I know you—”

“Not enough,” Wolfram said, crossing his arms.

“It goes both ways then,” said Damien, the bitterness twisting his face.  “You don’t know me either, do you?”

The air grew thick with tension, as they stared at each other, both too annoyed to speak. Damien expected Wolfram to walk out — he wouldn’t blame him if he did — but it was perhaps a mark of their growing friendship that Wolfram stayed.  Tight-lipped and enraged perhaps, but he was still there.

It was enough to melt Damien’s own annoyance away, and with a thump of the heart, he realized that he would have done the same.  This was someone Damien wouldn’t leave behind, someone Damien would follow.  Sometimes, when he was with Wolfram, Damien could almost forget the past, tempted by a future he never thought he wanted.  It was simply a matter of making the right choice.  Did he want to be the heir to a throne or an aimless wanderer?  A friend or a lover?  A king or an avenger?

But choosing one or the other terrified the life out of him.

A knock at the door broke the silence and Wolfram moved to answer it.  A soldier in a blue uniform entered, handing a note to Wolfram before saluting and turning on his heels.  Wolfram's eyes flew over the paper and just as quickly, he burned it in his palms, the ashes falling to the floor.

“It's a warning,” Wolfram explained, seeing Damien’s questioning gaze.  “My brother is on his way.”

“Please say it’s the smiling one,” said Damien.

Wolfram’s lips quirked, and the ice between them seemed to thaw.  “It’s Gwendal, the other one.  I’m sorry.”

Damien groaned.  “He’s going to demand answers, isn’t he?”

Wolfram’s face turned serious.  “We don’t have time, Damien.  Is there anything you want to tell me?  Like last night, why were you so angry about the attackers?”

The mere mention of the incident brought a wave of fury crashing over Damien, thick and hot and smothering.  And Damien realized with sudden clarity and insight…it would never go away.  His past was too potent to forget, his brother’s sins too wicked to forgive.  And with Max so close, Damien would surrender everything — wealth, status, or a shot at love — just to get his revenge.

“Because I know them,” Damien said at last.  “The one with the white hair and eyes…that’s my brother, Max.  He’s the leader of the Ryuzoku, what they call a dragon master, and he’s a very dangerous man.”  The hatred burned inside him, an unquenchable fire.  “He killed my parents.”

Wolfram covered his mouth with a hand, looking nauseated.  He sat back down and closed his eyes for a moment, as though the revelation had been too much to absorb.

“Max?” Wolfram repeated weakly, his voice muffled.

“Maximilian,” said Damien, “the fourth of his name.”

And as soon as the name was spoken, Damien found himself telling the rest of the story. There’d been three other Maximilians in his family’s past, all of whom bearing two distinctive features — the white hair and eyes.  They were said to be reincarnations of the first Maximilian, the most powerful warrior in the Schwarz family’s history.

“They’d all gone berserk,” Damien went on, although ‘berserk’ was putting it mildly.  The first Maximilian destroyed the original Schwarz clan, when it was still comprised of full-blooded Ryuzoku.  The second led the Schwarz family into a war that further fractured Dai Shimaron.  The third murdered his siblings in cold blood.

“The fourth Maximilian,” said Damien, “is my brother.  When he was born, my parents took a different approach.”

Again, ‘a different approach’ was putting it mildly.  Previous generations of Schwarzes had learned to fear the birth of the “white-eyed monster,” but Damien’s parents had believed the opposite.  The previous Maximilians had been legendary fighters.  Their skills in combat and weaponry, and their knowledge of strategy and politics were unsurpassed.  Damien was told that when the fourth Maximilian was born to them, the king and queen had refused to kill or banish him.  They’d thought they could change this Maximilian’s nature.  They’d thought a loving home, doting parents, and a normal family would make Max more pliant, more obedient to their will.

They thought wrong.  Maximilian IV had brought nothing but destruction, surpassing his previous two namesakes by tapping into a power the Schwarz family thought was long gone: controlling dragons.  This was the Maximilian that Damien grew up with — a cold, unfeeling creature that their parents had wholeheartedly adored.  The same son who had burned them in their own home.

All past Maximilians had eventually killed themselves.  This Maximilian didn’t seem to have the same intention.  Damien was itching to remedy that.

“He’s here,” Wolfram whispered, more to himself than anything.  “Why is he here?”

“That’s what I want to find out,” said Damien.  “Wolf…will you help me?”

Wolfram was so pale, his eyes seemed too bright for his face.  “What sort of help?”

Damien understood the gravity of his request, but he had run out of options.  “I need to talk to the dragon rider,” he said.  “He might know something.”

He half-expected Wolfram to refuse, or to balk at the very least.  Damien, after all, was asking him to break the rules.  But Wolfram’s gaze never wavered.  “You need to get past the guards?”

“Yes,” said Damien.  He'd heard what Greyheim had done and how the man was thrown bodily out of the ward by Gisela von Christ.  Damien had no desire to follow his uncle's footsteps.  “Discreetly, if that's possible.”

Wolfram’s eyes were clear, the green of spring and the promise of new beginnings.  Another thud of the heart prompted Damien to look away.  Wolfram was too distracting…tempting…an indulgence Damien could never afford.  He cursed himself for his weakness. 'This is the last time,' Damien promised himself.  'After this...'

“Alright,” Wolfram said, and Damien let the thought go unfinished.  “Follow me.”

 


 

“Shibuya?”

Yuuri turned blearily toward the voice, blinded for a moment by the glare of the sun and a golden flash that made his heart skip a beat.

“Wolf?” he mumbled, but the blurry image resolved itself and Yuuri found himself staring at the grinning face of…Saiga Amane.

“It’s past noon, sleepyhead,” Saiga said cheerfully.  Somebody had given her a change of clothes — a red beribboned dress that cascaded down to her ankles.  She looked oddly childish, like a girl playing dress-up.

‘Better that than the nightgown,’ Yuuri thought darkly, recalling his shock and discomfort when he’d woken up to find Saiga sitting on his bed, wearing a very familiar pink nightie.  For a second, Yuuri’s heart did a series of somersaults, fooled into thinking that Wolfram had come back — the resemblance was so uncanny if he didn’t look too closely.  But then Yuuri noticed the eyes, black and eerily sharp, and before he knew it, he was yelling at Saiga to “take the damn thing off!”

It was embarrassing enough as it were, the moment made even more awkward when Saiga actually started to strip.  Thankfully, Gunter came whooshing out of nowhere to drag Saiga to the closet.  Yuuri had burrowed into the covers to hide his face, grateful to find Conrad by his bedside when he resurfaced.

But Conrad, for once, didn’t bring any comfort.  “Yozak’s back,” he said, a distracted look in his eyes.  “I need to see him.  You don’t have to come,” he added quickly when Yuuri made to get up.  “Just rest.  I’ll come back later, alright?”

“Okay,” Yuuri said, following Conrad’s advice and using the rest of the time to catch up with Greta and all the others who'd dropped by.  There’d been a steady stream of visitors: Gisela, who relayed to him the dragon rider’s request; Anissina, who gleefully told him that she’d managed to find a way to “contain” the dragon; and Saralegui, who brought with him a gigantic urn of flowers.  None of them lingered, correctly sensing that Yuuri was waiting for someone else.

Wolfram didn’t come, and Yuuri tried hard not to look so dejected. Wolfram needed space, Yuuri reasoned inside his head.  Besides, he'd already heard what Yuuri had to say.  This was a waiting game now.  The ball was on Wolfram's court.

“Hey, Shibuya.” Saiga was looking at him, head tilted coyly, and Yuuri realized he'd been ignoring her for the past minute.  "You like my dress?" she asked, twirling around.

Yuuri watched her, frowning.  Saiga didn’t leave his side the entire time, regardless of the side comments and raised eyebrows she'd been receiving.  Yuuri didn’t know her too well, but he didn’t recall her being this clingy.  'She’s the best actress in our year,’ Murata had said, and Yuuri couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was acting still.  He didn’t know what it was, but something was different about her.  Something didn’t feel right.

“Yuuri!”

Yuuri turned, glad for the interruption.  Greta had returned from her lessons, sprinting to the bed and throwing her arms around Yuuri’s neck.

“Are you feeling better?” Greta asked when she drew back.

“I’m okay,” said Yuuri.  He glanced up; Gunter had moved forward, bowing.  He looked like he totally wanted to throw his arms around Yuuri too, and Yuuri was glad the man held himself in check.  Or it could just be because his hands were occupied with a tray bearing what looked like chicken smothered in sauce, along with a steaming cup of tea.

“Your Majesty,” said Gunter, “please eat and recover your strength.  I’m afraid you’ll have another full day ahead.”

Yuuri nodded, absentmindedly ruffling Greta’s curls.  “Is this about Yozak?”

“Yes,” said Gunter, his eyes flickering briefly to Saiga.  “Conrad should be back soon.  I think we might need to convene…somewhere else.”

“Okay,” said Yuuri.  He cleared his throat and strived to sound as casual as he could.  “Someone should tell Wolfram.”

“I heard he’s busy,” Saiga chimed in.  She reached for a piece of the chicken and started devouring it, the sauce painting her lips red, like blood, so that she looked like she’d just eaten something raw.  There was something so inhuman about the image she made.

“He needs to come,” Yuuri said, trying to ignore Saiga, who’d proceeded to lick her fingers in a way that Gunter obviously found unsettling as well.

“I’ll tell him,” said Gunter, tearing his gaze away from Saiga.  “Your Majesty, have you decided what to do with the dragon?”

“I want to see that one,” Greta said at once. “Please, Yuuri? You promised.”

Yuuri winced.  So he did.  "Well..."

“Anissina has done an excellent job,” Gunter put in.  “You should see her contraption, Your Majesty."

"How's the dragon?" asked Yuuri.

"Mostly asleep," Gunter said. "But when it's awake, it seems terribly agitated.”

“And the rider?”

“The same, Your Majesty.”

Yuuri mulled that over.  He wasn’t at all surprised.  Last night, when his maryoku was at full blast, he could sense the rider’s state and could nearly see the connection the man had with his steed.  The rider and the dragon were linked together, although Yuuri couldn’t tell exactly how.  He supposed it was in the same way that a Mazoku was connected to his element.  Maybe a Ryuzoku was bound to their dragon by some sort of pact too.

"I guess I'll have to talk to the rider," said Yuuri.

“He's not very coherent, Your Majesty,” said Gunter. “You heard Gisela.  He wants to talk to Lord Damien Schwarz and no one else.”

That didn’t surprise Yuuri either.  That was twice now that the Ryuzoku had targeted Lord Damien.  The first time, they’d tried to kill him.  Last night, they’d tried to kidnap him.  Or did they intend to take him from the very start, and Wolfram just got in the way?

The thought sent goosebumps up Yuuri's spine.  Wolfram nearly got in the way again last night.  Whatever the Ryuzoku wanted from Lord Damien, it must be so important that they’d even risked infiltrating Blood Pledge Castle itself.  Yuuri was sure they’d keep trying, and with Wolfram beside Lord Damien…

“Is Wolfram still with him?” he asked, though the answer was painfully obvious.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Gunter, bewildered.  “Should I summon Wolfram…?

“No,” said Yuuri, his mind made up.  “I’ll go see him first.  And I want to talk to Lord Damien too.  It’s not right that he keeps dragging Wolfram into danger.”

Even as he said that, Yuuri felt distinctly like a hypocrite.  He’d put Wolfram in more danger than he could ever count.  But Yuuri had been risking his life then too, hadn’t he?

“We can go see Anissina after,” Yuuri added.  “In fact, why don't we just meet there?”

"I don't know, Your Majesty," said Gunter uncertainly. “I think we should wait for Conrad...”

But Yuuri was already out of bed, putting on his jacket.  Greta was bobbing on her heels, looking hopeful, and Yuuri felt really sorry to have to disappoint her.  “You can’t come with us, Greta,” he said. “Some other time, okay?”

“But Yuuri—”

“And Saiga,” Yuuri said, turning away from his daughter’s pleading eyes before he could change his mind, “please stay here too.  I should be able to send you back home.  I can go with you, but would you mind waiting for a few more hours?”  Yuuri knew it was the right thing to do, although the thought of leaving, even just for a second, made his stomach clench with worry.

“But Shibuya—”

“No,” said Yuuri firmly, his eyes flitting from Saiga to Greta.  “You two stay here.”

He marched out of the room before anyone could argue, a flustered Gunter hurrying after him.  Gunter was saying something, but the words just went over Yuuri's head, busy as he was mentally rehearsing what he'd say to Wolfram.  Everything he came up with sounded a little too much like a demanding king or a jealous ex-boyfriend.  In the end, Yuuri decided that the "Concerned Friend" route was the best way to go.

But Yuuri’s preparations were all for naught.  They arrived to an empty ward; Wolfram and Lord Damien were gone.

Chapter Text

The pain didn’t come.

Frey fell to the floor, heart thudding, lungs expanding, arms shaking.

He was alive. He had a strange sense of déjà vu, like he was back in the gardens when he’d first met Ryuu. Ryuu hadn’t killed him then. He hadn’t killed Frey now. And even as he fought hard against it, hope blossomed inside Frey’s chest.

But hope was the most hurtful thing in the world.

Ryuu stepped back, the dagger falling with a clang. He was clutching his head, his eyes wide. A strange sound escaped his throat, somewhere between a groan and a cry. Outside, a cacophony of shrieks and growls rose to the skies.

Frey’s hands twitched. Now was his chance — he should grab the dagger and go for it. Go for the kill. Ryuu was distracted, defenseless. Ryuu was in pain.

Frey’s eyes clouded with fresh tears. He couldn’t see, but he was finally moving.  He scrambled to his feet and shot off toward the stairs, the combined sounds of Ryuu’s cries and the dragons’ screeches ringing harshly in his ears. He reached the grounds in no time and saw the dragons hurtling about, mirroring their new master’s state. Frey saw Drache amongst them. He called out, mentally at first, and then aloud.

Hope flickered when Drache turned to look at him.  Then hope broke Frey’s heart once more as the dragon shrieked and ambled away.

Frey turned and kept running.

The clan was gone.

His parents were dead.

Drache was lost.

And Ryuu was no more.

 


 

Shori’s luck was turning.  At least he hoped the fact that he was finally in a carriage bound for Blood Pledge Castle meant so.

Murata was right.  Getting out of a locked room was easy — in a pain-free, no-physical-confrontation-needed way.  As Shori quickly realized, Lord Del Kierson von Wincott didn’t deal in violence.  No.  The Mazoku’s preferred currency was information, something that Murata now seemed less reluctant to pay.

Shori took that as a good sign.  The sage seemed like he was back on his game, that maddening smile hitched on his face once again.  And he must have expected von Wincott’s move, because when the man barged into the room where they were being detained, Murata was completely unfazed.

“Back so soon, my lord?” Murata asked casually.

“The carriage is ready, Your Eminence,” von Wincott said, sounding for all the world as though he hadn’t threatened to clap Shori and Murata in chains just hours earlier.  “We are all set to go.”

“I see,” said Murata.  “Please lead the way then.”

Wait — what?  Shori’s gaze bounced from the sage to von Wincott.  “What the hell is going on?” he demanded.  “Go where?”

“Blood Pledge Castle, Lord Shibuya,” replied von Wincott, turning a placid gaze on Shori.  “I shall escort you back.  The Demon King is looking for you.”

What?

“Forgive me,” said von Wincott, though he looked anything but apologetic.  “Perhaps I should mention that I received a message from Lord von Christ earlier regarding the attack at Shinou’s Temple.  He included an account and a description of the perpetrators.”

Shori blinked in realization.  Lord von Wincott knew from the start that they weren’t involved.  And yet…

“You were unwilling to tell me the truth,” explained von Wincott, seeing Shori’s bewilderment. “I did not see why I should reciprocate.”

“You played us,” Shori accused, rounding on Murata. “And you knew, didn’t you?  You guys played me!”

“My decisions are my own,” said von Wincott.

“I suspected something was off,” said Murata, shrugging.  “I could only guess that we’ve offended our host somehow, but I wasn’t sure.”

“And what?” Shori growled.  He couldn’t believe he’d fallen for another ruse.  Had he always been this easy to fool?  “You locked us up to make a point?”

“I did,” von Wincott said in that same unrepentant tone. “But I meant you no harm.  All the same, I needed you out of the way while I made preparations for our departure.  I am not your enemy, Lord Shibuya,” the man added when Shori continued to glare at him. “But I admit I took your reserve as a personal affront.  My family, after all, has always been loyal to the crown.”

‘That still didn’t make this right!’ Shori would have retorted, but Murata gave him a look that plainly said, ‘Drop it.’  Shori understood that it wasn’t the time to antagonize von Wincott, lest he decide to lock them up for real, but—

“So what did Lord von Christ say about the attackers?” asked Murata before Shori could burst into a tirade.

“He said there were two,” said von Wincott, proceeding to describe two individuals whom Shori immediately recognized as Ryuu and Tier.  There was no mention of the girl, the body Weisser was using.  “The letter ended with an appeal to search for both of you.”

Shori’s stomach churned unpleasantly, his anger quickly abating at the reminder of their enemies.  There was a slim chance Weisser didn’t survive the explosion, but if he did, he could pretend — he must already be pretending — to be the real Saiga Amane.  And knowing Yuuri, he’d welcome the girl into his home with open arms.

Murata must have arrived at the same conclusion, for his smile faded.  There was no delaying it any longer: Yuuri must be warned.

“We need to send a message to Blood Pledge Castle,” said Murata. “Can you arrange that, my lord?”

“Of course,” said von Wincott.  “I assume it’s for the king?”

“No,” Shori said, thinking quickly.  If Weisser was already at Blood Pledge Castle, Yuuri’s inner circle could already be compromised.  “Not Yuuri or anyone close to him.  It has to be someone else.”

Murata nodded his agreement.  “Let’s address it to Lady Gisela von Christ.  It’s less likely that she’s being watched…”

“And who might be watching the king?” von Wincott inquired politely, though his eyes bored into Murata’s, demanding a response.  “I will settle for nothing less than honesty, Your Eminence.  You owe me that, at least.

“And so we do,” Murata conceded, his gaze flitting to Shori, as though to ask, ‘What do you think?’

Shori gave a sharp nod of assent.  Everything had gone so wrong for him since this entire mess started; at that point, he trusted Murata’s judgment more than he did his own.

“Alright,” said Murata.  “But would you grant me a favor before anything else, my lord?  I need to see Erhard Wincott’s journal.”

If von Wincott found the request odd, he made no indication of it.  The man excused himself for a moment, and while he was gone, Murata used the time to compose the message they’d be sending to Blood Pledge Castle.  Shori looked over the sage’s shoulder, but the text just seemed like a collection of hieroglyphs to him.  Murata did read the message out loud for Shori’s benefit:  They’d compromised by issuing a warning about Saiga Amane but leaving out any other details about her real identity.  They both knew that wouldn’t satisfy Yuuri, but it would, at least, put the men around him on alert.

Moments later, von Wincott returned with a book tucked under one arm and a messenger pigeon perched on his shoulder.  He read the letter with a frown, before rolling the parchment up and securing it to a cylinder attached to the pigeon’s foot.  As they watched the bird soaring away, the man turned to them, brows furrowed in concern.

“There’s a spy in Blood Pledge Castle?”

“You could say that,” said Shori.  “He — she is definitely working with those men you’ve mentioned.”

“And who exactly are these people?”

“We can guess, but we’re hoping the journal would have definite answers,” said Murata.  “May I?”

Lord von Wincott held the book close, clearly hesitant to part with a family heirloom. “You believe this might help?” he asked, tapping the book’s cover with one hand.  The leather looked worn-out, the spine creased and bent with use.  “Why?”

“A hunch,” said Murata, smiling. “There’s something I need to confirm…”

Lord von Wincott was clearly dissatisfied with the response, but without any recourse, he thrust the journal into Murata’s hands.  “Here, Your Eminence.  I hope you find it instructive.”

“You and me both,” said Murata.  “Well, we have a long road ahead of us.  Shall we?  We can talk more on the way.”

Lord von Wincott nodded and led them down to the front gate, where the promised carriage was waiting. Shori had to pause at the sight that met them. Lord von Wincott failed to mention that they’d also be accompanied by a battalion of cavalrymen.

“Precautionary measures,” explained von Wincott, gesturing for Shori and Murata to go in first.  “We do not know who else may be looking for you.”

And on that ominous note, they were finally off, clattering their way through the city, the paved streets soon giving way to rough roads, the stone structures thinning out in favor of isolated huts and farmhouses.  Shori watched everything pass by, while Murata immersed himself into the journal and their self-declared escort lapsed into a pensive silence.

Yes, Shori’s luck had turned.  He only hoped it would hold out long enough before disaster — his boon companion for the past days — struck once more.

 


 

The ward was empty.

Yuuri glanced at Gunter, who’d already turned to interrogate the guards at the door, all six of whom stuttered with some embarrassment that they’d been ordered to stay.

“You’re not obliged to follow Lord Schwarz’s orders!” scolded Gunter.

But the guards were shaking their heads.  One said, “The orders were from Lord von Bielefeld, Your Excellency.”

“And they only went to see Lady Gisela at the other ward,” another chimed in.

And it all clicked inside Yuuri's head: Wolfram and Lord Damien went to see the dragon rider.

‘He’s going to get Wolfram in trouble again,’ Yuuri thought, incensed. And yet he knew Lord Damien wasn't completely to blame. Wolfram must have agreed. Stubborn, pigheaded Wolfram, who’d always stuck to rules and conventions no matter how irrational they were, was actually breaking the rules for that guy! The idea was infuriating beyond measure, Yuuri thought he might just slap Wolfram again if it would return him to his senses.  And if Wolfram mistook that for another marriage proposal, then all the better for Yuuri.

“Let’s go,” Yuuri said.

 


 

“I understand,” said Gisela calmly. “Please give the order, Your Excellency.”

Wolfram couldn’t believe how nonchalant Gisela was being about the situation.  But then again, she seemed to have developed a strange liking for Damien from the very start.  Whatever it was, Wolfram felt guilty for taking advantage of Gisela’s goodwill. It was the only way to do this discreetly, like Damien wanted.

“We want to talk to the rider alone,” Wolfram said.  “Leave us.”

“Of course,” said Gisela.  She marched out without so much as a backward glance, taking the rest of the guards with her.

“I’m sorry,” Damien whispered for what seemed to be the tenth time.  “I don’t want to get her in trouble—”

“She’s not going to,” said Wolfram.  “She could say she was just following orders.”

“So I’m getting you in trouble,” Damien said, wincing.  “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”

“Right,” Wolfram snorted. “Retreat when we’re already here.  Don’t be such a wimp.”

Wimp.  The word made Wolfram pause, his thoughts suddenly turning to Yuuri.  Wolfram hadn’t really considered what the repercussions might be when he’d decided to help Damien.  He’d prepared himself to deal with an angry Gwendal or a disappointed Conrad, but it hadn’t yet crossed his mind what Yuuri might think or do or feel.

But Yuuri should be fine, shouldn’t he?  If he’d managed to get over Saralegui’s betrayal, surely this little bit of deception on Wolfram’s part wouldn’t be such a big deal. Besides, it wasn’t as if Wolfram had no stake in this.  Damien’s past had been surprising enough as it were, but the discovery that that boy, the one Wolfram had been dreaming about, was somehow connected to Damien’s brother, filled Wolfram with a sense of dread and excitement. He wanted answers just as much as Damien did, and here was someone who could give it to them.

“Wolfram?” Damien was staring at him, the doubt written all over his face.

Wolfram nudged him forward.  “Go on.”

The dragon rider was awake.  Or at least, his eyes were wide open, just staring vacantly at the ceiling.  Chains connected his limbs to the four corners of the bed.  Despite Yuuri’s show of kindness last night, the restraints clearly showed that the man was still considered a threat by everybody else.  Wolfram could just imagine Yuuri admonishing Gwendal or Gunter for keeping an injured man in such a state.

The rider had noticed them, and with a clanking of his chains, he pushed himself into a sitting position.  The mangy hair and the bony face all point to years of rough living, and with a stab of pity, Wolfram realized that the rider was perhaps only a few years older than Damien — just drastically aged by whatever his circumstances had been.

“Lord Damien,” said the rider in a hoarse voice.  “You came…”

Damien stiffened, his fists clenched.  “I came for answers, not for anything else.”

“I’m sorry—“

“I don’t want your apologies either,” Damien cut in, stepping forward but remaining out of the rider’s reach.  “Just tell me one thing — where’s Max?”

Max.  Once more, Wolfram felt a strange prickle at the name.  It felt like he’d known that person and it hurt to be reminded of him.  But could he even say he knew someone when he’d only seen him in his dreams?  Even if that someone turned out to be real?

“Please listen…” the rider begged. “I…we…don’t have much time…”

“'We?'” Damien repeated sharply. “Are the others here? Is Max with them?”

“They’re dying…” the rider said, ignoring Damien’s questions.  “We’re all dying…the dragons are dying…you have to help us…”

'He's telling the truth,' Wolfram realized, a chill running down his spine as he recognized that look the man had on his face. It was the face of a man on his deathbed, making a final, desperate request.  Damien didn’t seem to notice.  Either that or he just didn’t care.

“Help you?” Damien echoed, his voice harsh. “You tried to kill me! You ordered that dragon to attack me!”

“No, no…” moaned the rider, shaking his head.  “You don’t understand…his own rider just died…there was no successor…he was lost…he only remembered the order to find you…and bring you to us…”

“'He?’”

“The dragon…the one the Mazoku killed…”

Wolfram bit his lip.  Everybody else thought him a hero for defeating the dragon; it was startling to listen to another perspective that painted him as something else — a murderer.

“And what does Max want from me?” demanded Damien.

“It wasn’t him!” the rider cried. “It was us. We decided we needed help…the entire clan is—”

“I don’t care about your stupid clan!” Damien snarled.  There was a venom in his voice that Wolfram found disconcerting.  He would never have suspected that Damien could even make that kind of sound. “You filthy rats—”

“Damien!” Wolfram cut in. Damien glanced at him, and Wolfram tried to ignore the vehemence in the boy's eyes. “Let him talk. We don’t have much time.”

Damien seemed disgusted, looking like he'd argue, but the rider was already seizing the opportunity to say his piece. “The entire clan wants out of the pact,” he said quickly.  “We all want to be free of the Master...”

“And what pact is this?” asked Wolfram.

“A Ryuzoku clan is not formed by blood ties,” the rider answered, his eyes never leaving Damien. “One becomes part of the clan only if he chooses to. It’s more than just a declaration of loyalty. It's a…a very strong…bond.  There’s no turning back once you make it. Your life…your entire being…even your soul…all cease to be yours and become the Master's. Our lives are tied to his, so we have to follow him, protect him…to be his servants in perpetuity.”

“Before we met the Master,” the rider went on, “the Ryuzoku were just a group of drifters who didn’t belong anywhere. The Master…he promised us glory…of the Ryuzoku rising from the ashes…he promised us a home…” His voice shook a little, the bitterness coating his words.  “But he left us…barely a year after he got us all together…he traveled to another world!”

Wolfram's eyes widened.  Could he mean Yuuri’s world?

“He left us to die,” said the rider.  “He wanted us to die.”  He leaned closer to Damien, who, at last, seemed too riveted to interrupt. “A month ago, we felt him again. It was like a premonition. We all know he’s going to come back here, to this world.  And if he does, we’d have to follow him. The pact holds for as long as we live…for as long as he lives…and we can’t do anything about it…”

“I was wrong,” the rider continued in a somber voice. “We were all so wrong about him…we were blinded by his promises…but we have our own lives now, and he’s going to ruin everything! So we all agreed...we needed help. The pact prevents us from harming the Master. We can’t kill him." His eyes pierced Damien.  "But you can. And if you do, the pact will transfer to you…”

Wolfram drew in a sharp breath, the full picture of what the Ryuzoku wanted finally dawning on him. They were going to pit brother against brother and turn Damien into a murderer. 'Don't do it,' Wolfram would have said, but the words were lost as Damien started to laugh, a cold, mirthless sound that made Wolfram's skin prickle with unease.

“You want me to take over as dragon master?” Damien sneered. “After everything you’ve done?” He inched closer to the rider, his voice cracking with fury.  “You were there that night. You helped Max burn the palace.  You helped him kill my parents!”

“I didn’t think it would go that far,” the rider whispered, twisting his hands together.  “The Master…your brother…he didn’t know what he was doing.  It’s hard to explain, but he’s…he’s not himself all the time…it’s like he’s—”

“Liar!” Damien snarled, grabbing the rider by the scruff of the neck.  “You think I’m a fool, don’t you? You think I’d—”

“The Master brought you out,” the rider said, and Damien froze where he stood. “He could’ve let you burn, but he didn’t.”

“Liar,” Damien repeated, though there was a little less conviction in his tone.

“Lord Damien, I—”

The rider broke off, distracted by a noise coming from outside.  Wolfram heard it too.  There were raised voices.  People were coming.

“Damien,” Wolfram warned.  With a snort of disgust, Damien released the rider and stepped back.

“I’ll do it,” Damien said, and the ice in his voice was enough to make Wolfram regret that he'd ever agreed to this. There was too much hatred here, it felt like Damien could drown in it.

“I’d kill Max and take over,” Damien vowed.  “And when I have control of the Ryuzoku, I’d order every last one of you to die.”

The words hang in the air, noxious and suffocating, and Wolfram wanted to reach out, to call Damien back from the twisted turns his mind must have taken.

But then the rider was laughing too, a frantic, maniacal sound. “It doesn’t matter,” he choked out. “We’re all dying anyway…”

There was a shout. From outside the ward, the voices had escalated — it sounded like someone was yelling an order — and the footsteps were drawing near.

Damien,” Wolfram hissed in warning. “We need to—”

A scream cut him short, and out of nowhere, Wolfram felt the world shifting.  Try as he might, he couldn’t clearly recall what happened next.  Damien’s back was to him, and Wolfram couldn’t see where the knife had come from.  But there had been a knife, a metallic blur that slashed the rider’s throat open.  At the exact moment that the rider cried out, the door was flung wide open, and Yuuri — an angry, grim-faced Yuuri — was striding forward, with Gunter not far behind.

Everything came to a standstill.  Then Wolfram thought he could see everyone moving again, albeit excruciatingly slow: The dragon rider fell clumsily to the bed, gurgling, drowning in his own blood.  Damien staggered backward, his face and hands stained red.  Gunter’s jaw dropped in shock.  Yuuri gasped, his dark eyes seeking Wolfram’s.

And just like that, everything seemed to disappear.  Wolfram was no longer in the infirmary.  He was in a smaller room, and the boy that stood opposite him wasn’t Yuuri.  The eyes that regarded him weren’t black but silvery-white, almost like the gleam of a sword.  The boy in his dreams, the boy in his nightmares, was there.  He could see his face clearly this time, and his voice rang in Wolfram’s ears: “My real name is Maximilian Schwarz.”

‘Oh,’ Wolfram thought, oddly calm despite the chaos of everything around him.  Wolfram could hear a strange howling, and the entire world seemed to fade away into nothing.  Then from the darkness, he heard that name once more: “Frey.”

He blinked. The white-eyed boy was suddenly right in front of him, pale hands reaching for Wolfram’s face.

“Frey,” he said. “I’m so sorry, but I love you too.”

When the boy kissed him, Wolfram swore he tasted blood.

 


 

Ryuu had been dreaming again.

In his dreams, he was back at Raven Port, at the Lombard Manor.  In his dreams, Frey was there, seated at some window, intent on sketching the view.  Or he’d be dueling with another rider, his body twisting and turning easily, almost like he was dancing.  Or he’d be flying with Drache over the training grounds, hollering with delight whenever the dragon twisted in midair.

No matter where Ryuu looked, Frey was always there.  Laughing.  Teasing.  Kissing Ryuu.

In his nightmares, Ryuu kissed him back.  In his memories, Ryuu killed him.

Almost as a reflex, Ryuu gripped the pendant around his neck, his fingers stroking the stone.  It had been a “gift” from Weisser all those years ago, when they’d stood at the ruins of the city, amidst the burning bodies of riders and dragons alike.  The Ryuzoku had fallen and Frey was gone.  Tired as he’d been, Ryuu kept himself up for one remaining task, one more loose end to snip.

Weisser had been wearing the body of an older, venerable-looking man, a body he’d taken to fight alongside Ryuu.  “Here,” Weisser had said, handing Ryuu the pendant. “It’s a Memory Stone.” The Stone glinted in the glare of the flames, and Weisser had added, “Frey’s memories.”

“I’m surprised he gave them up,” Ryuu had said, regarding the Stone with a sad smile. It was all that was left of Frey, an entire life compressed into one, insignificant piece of rock.  “What did you tell him?”

“The truth,” said Weisser with a shrug.

The truth. A precious commodity in any world, in any life, but one that rarely mattered in the grand scheme of things. Even in this case, Ryuu doubted if the truth would change anything.

“He surprised me,” Weisser added. “When his memories return, I think he might just surprise us all.”

Ryuu had never asked what Weisser meant. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he told himself then, just as he reminded himself now. He twisted the pendant’s chain around his fingers, the Stone now a pale, dull green.  He’d let the contents slowly trickle out, allowing fragments of the memories to find their way to the soul that had once owned them.  Frey would soon remember him, know who Ryuu was and what Ryuu had done.  And the final battle would commence.

Frey.

Ryuu hadn’t known what to feel at first, when he’d learned about Frey all those lifetimes ago. But when the implications had sunk in, his first reaction had been disbelief.  A soul destined just for him.  He couldn’t believe the Crypt of Souls would go that far.

It had taken yet another tragedy to compel Ryuu to seek out Frey Lombard, but when Ryuu met him, he’d hesitated. Before he knew it, Ryuu had gotten too close, too invested, too involved. When it was finally time, Ryuu had lost his nerve and things hadn't turned out the way they should.

But this was his last chance.  It was time to end this.

“There is another way.”

The anger rose inside him at the words — Shinou’s words — that did nothing but mess with his resolve.  ‘Lies,’ Ryuu thought.  Shinou must be lying, a ploy to draw Ryuu away from his path while the devious god continued to scheme in the shadows.  It wouldn’t work.  There was no other way.

But if there was…

Ryuu shook the thought away.  He stood up and walked the length of the ridge, near which he’d been resting, undisturbed, for the past hour or so. Tier was with the riders, the ones who’d responded to Ryuu’s summons, whipping them back into shape.  Ryuu didn’t bother with those who didn’t show up — he knew they were good as dead anyway. He wasn't pleased that the Ryuzoku's numbers had dwindled further in the years that Ryuu had been gone, but he had more than enough for what he needed. More than enough to burn a city to the ground.

“There is a way to stop this.”

Shinou’s voice intruded into his thoughts once again, chipping away at Ryuu’s long-built defenses, a tendril of hope slithering out of the cracks, reaching for purchase. It was enough to stop his breath for a moment or two. Enough for old feelings to resurface. Enough for Ryuu’s brain to conjure an image of something he knew he’d never have — a future.

But it wasn’t enough to keep the darkness at bay.  Even if he wanted to, Ryuu could never turn back.  It was too late for him.

Ryuu steeled himself and returned to the task at hand, his eyes drawn to the distance, where Blood Pledge Castle loomed like a giant beast upon a hill, the turrets sharp as a demon's horns.

He had promises to keep. A kingdom to raze, and a king to uncrown.

And then, at the end of it all, he had a destiny to fulfill.

A life to end.

A soul to destroy.

Chapter Text

The hours bled into days and the days into wakeful nights, and all Frey could seem to do was run.

He was acutely aware of being pursued, although by whom, Frey couldn’t tell.  He was sure none of the Lombards survived — he could feel the loss in his bones.  Ryuu must be working with someone, probably another clan, and not long after, Frey’s suspicions were confirmed.

He'd been heading south, away from the city, when he saw a pair of riders perched on a cliffside.  He’d intended to reach the sea, with only the vaguest idea of somehow getting himself aboard a ship and just going wherever it took him.  He’d had no moment of peace to think about what happened or to consider what to do next.  Escape was still the best recourse his mind could offer.

But the sight of the riders made him draw back.  It was easy, even from a distance, to see the crests on their cloaks — a falcon spiraling for the kill.  The Rosenthal clan.

The treachery went deep, Frey realized, and it jolted him awake from the grief that had clouded his thoughts.  The gears in his head started to turn, slowly, painfully, dredging up questions that, until then, he’d never thought to ask.  How did Lord Rosenthal figure into the destruction of the Schwarz clan? The Lombard clan? And how did Ryuu manage to kill two dragon masters, one tied to him by blood and the other, he’d taken a pledge to serve?

Frey drew himself straight, as another path — the path of retribution — presented itself as a more inviting prospect.  The time for grief was past.  What he’d lost, he could never get back.  He needed to move forward and settle the score.

“Verryyy goood,” said a whisper in the dark. “Your resolve is noteeed.”

Frey swiveled on his feet, surprised at the proximity of the voice.  But he was alone.

“I have the answersssss,” said the voice again, this time from somewhere to Frey’s left.  Frey glanced sharply at the empty spot where the speaker should be, wondering if some forest sprite was trying to lead him astray.

But then the voice went on: “I know what he issss.  I know why he killsss.  I know how to destroy himmm.”

A shiver ran across Frey’s skin, his heart pounding in a tangle of doubt and fear and anticipation.  He didn’t dare talk aloud lest he carelessly announce his location. ‘Who are you?’ he asked in his head.  He immediately felt foolish when there was no response, but just as he was about to dismiss the disembodied voice as a figment of his imagination, it spoke again:

“Head wessssst. Find meeee.”

“What?” Frey asked in an undertone.  He waited, straining his ears to listen, but whoever it was must have left.

Frey took a moment to regain his bearings.  The Rosenthal riders were still on the cliff, watching the harbor.  Going by sea now ceased to be an option.  Going back was impossible either, at least not as defenseless as he was.  He could risk the eastern territories, seek help from his father's allies, but that would take him too close to the Rosenthals’ borders.

Frey turned his eyes west. There was a reason he didn’t take that route in the first place. West meant the lesser clans, the Souma amongst them, who Frey was sure would kill him on sight.

But what difference did it make?  He had nowhere else to run.

‘West, it is,’ Frey thought grimly.

 


 

The kiss took his breath away, sending a spark of fire through his body.

The kiss sent his heart skittering, a shudder of dread rippling through his spine.

‘He loves me,’ he thought happily.  ‘He loves me?’ he asked, horrified.

Then his eyes flew open and the boy disappeared.  The scene changed, like some curtain had been drawn aside to reveal another tableau. He was standing before a closed room, breath caught in his throat, perhaps in premonition of what lay behind the door.  The door swung open.  It was dark.  With a jolt, he realized the boy was there…a dagger held in one hand…the blade drenched with blood…dripping…dripping…dripping…

The boy turned to greet him.

“Welcome back, Frey.”

All the strength left his limbs.  He felt his chest constricting and he was falling.  Someone was dead.  Someone he loved was dead.  He felt like his chest would burst even as his mind tried to deny the truth.  No, no, no, no, NO—!

“Wolfram!”

Someone caught him by the shoulders and held him up.  Wolfram gasped, finding his breath at last, his eyes adjusting to the sudden light.  His vision cleared and the reality before him came into sharp focus.

“Hey, are you okay?”

He blinked, his brain moving much slower than it should, taking a long moment to peg the face to a name.

“Yuuri?” Wolfram whispered.  Then something clicked into place, and everything he’d done leading up to that point returned to him.  Heart heavy with foreboding, he looked back at the bed.  Damien was rooted beside it, blood-spattered and dazed.  Gisela had rushed over to check on the rider, but after a moment’s examination, she turned to them and shook her head.

The man was dead.

Wolfram couldn’t believe it, but what he thought was impossible seemed to be the truth.  Gunter and the guards had surrounded Damien, holding him at sword point.  Damien’s eyes were wide with surprise, his gaze flitting to Wolfram.

“Wolf, I…” His voice shook with emotion.  “I didn’t…”

“He killed the prisoner,” said Gunter, the gravity of the offense hanging over them.  “Arrest him.”

“Wait—“ Wolfram began, but Yuuri tightened his grip on his shoulder and held him back.

“Don’t,” said Yuuri.  “He could be dangerous.”

“No, he’s not!” protested Wolfram. “It’s my fault! I brought him here.  I—”

“He killed a man,” Gunter said.  “Your Majesty, we need to—“

“I didn’t kill him!” Damien cried, pointing an accusing finger at the dead man.  “He had the knife.  He forced it into my hands!”

“And then cut his own throat?” Gunter asked dubiously.

Wolfram’s heart sank.  Even to his ears, the story sounded too bizarre to be true.  Damien caught his eye once more, clearly looking for support.  But Wolfram couldn’t lie.  He hadn’t seen anything, and with the hatred in Damien’s voice a while earlier, Wolfram wasn’t even sure what Damien would or wouldn’t do.  He was prepared to kill his own brother, so why would a mere rider be any different…?

His doubt must have been obvious — the betrayed look in Damien’s face told him as much.  Wolfram didn’t know what to say, but at the very least, he felt like he should take some portion of the blame.

“If you’re going to arrest him, take me as well,” he said.  “I brought him here.  The rider’s death is on me, too.”

It made things worse, Wolfram could tell.  Damien looked angry and hurt and altogether disgusted with everything. Yuuri, for some reason, looked exactly the same.

“Wolf, stop it,” Yuuri muttered.

“It’s true.  I’m—”

“Stop it!” Yuuri snapped, his eyes flashing, looking less like the boy he was and more like that ancient spirit who’d occasionally take over whenever he used too much of his maryoku.

Wolfram’s stomach curled with fear.  Yuuri hadn’t seemed like himself these past days.  He’d been more forthright, a little more…aggressive.  Truth be told, Wolfram couldn’t tell what Yuuri would or wouldn’t do either.

“Don’t hurt him,” Wolfram said.

Yuuri’s eyes softened. “No, of course not,” he said.  “I meant…”  He shook his head and turned to Damien.  “We’ll need to figure this out.  Until then, you’ll be escorted back to the other ward and you’re going to stay there, okay?”

“I don’t seem to have any choice, Your Majesty,” Damien said through gritted teeth, carelessly defiant even as his gaze met Wolfram’s.  “And thank you for all your help…my lord.”

Wolfram felt a lump form in his throat.  Yuuri tensed, hackles rising, but Wolfram touched his arm to calm him.  Yuuri subsided, but there was a harsh note in his voice when he commanded Gunter and the guards to take Damien away.  Damien went willingly, his head held high, though there was a wobble in his steps that belied his insolence.

‘He couldn’t have done it,’ Wolfram thought, wanting so desperately — but failing miserably — to believe it. His gaze fell once more on the dead man. Gisela had covered the rider with a sheet, but the blood seeped through…dripping to the floor…dripping…dripping…

Wolfram felt the pressure building in his head.  The scent of blood was in the air, the taste of it lingering on his tongue.  His eyes chose the moment to play tricks on him once more, the ward shifting alternately from a dark room to a ruined mansion to a muddy graveyard to a rose garden to—

“Wolfram?”

Wolfram looked up, relieved that it was the right name, uttered by the right voice.  The right boy.

“You have a lot of explaining to do,” said Yuuri.  He didn’t seem angry anymore, but it was clear he intended to get answers of his own.  Wolfram had hoped for the same thing when he’d entered the ward, not even an hour ago.  But the encounter had left him more confused than ever.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said.  The truth of it all seemed to mock him, and he couldn’t help but laugh at his own stupidity.  He couldn’t stop either, and the more that he failed to master himself, the more the anxiety bloomed in Yuuri’s eyes.

“I’m…f-fine…” Wolfram managed to get out.

Yuuri sighed and drew him closer, holding him tight.  “No, you’re not,” he said against Wolfram’s ear. “I’m not blind, you know.”

Wolfram felt his defenses crumbling, and the laughter turned into a sob.  He threw his arms around Yuuri’s neck, desperate for whatever comfort Yuuri was willing to give.

“No, I’m not,” Wolfram cried.

 


 

Greta threw aside the book she’d been reading and reached for the next one.  She felt like she’d cycled through everything she had, and still, Yuuri hadn’t come back.  Not surprising, really.  He’d been a little less reliable about keeping his promises lately. 

Greta couldn’t blame him.  She knew Yuuri was busy — and he wasn’t the only one.  Anissina had locked herself up in her quarters.  Lady Cheri was still away on one of her cruises. Greta barely saw Gwendal or Conrad, and Gunter always seemed so distracted, it was like he wasn’t even there.  Even the maids, whom Greta could always turn to when she was bored, had less and less time to chat or play with her.

At least she’d gotten the chance to hang out with Wolfram…and Damien was very nice to her.  Maybe she’d go see them after this…

“He’s taking a long time, huh?” Lady Saiga plopped down next to her on the bed. “Want to go look for Shibuya?”

“Yuuri said to wait here,” said Greta stiffly, turning away.  She’d heard things over the course of the day — everyone in the castle was whispering about “the pretty girl the king brought to his bed.” Greta wasn’t stupid.  She knew what that meant, and she didn’t fancy having the girl, or anyone else, take Wolfram's place.

“What are you reading?” asked Lady Saiga, looking over Greta’s shoulder.

Greta pouted and showed her the book cover.

Dragon Tales?” Lady Saiga read, lips twisting into a smile.  “I love dragons!”

Greta shrugged and buried her nose back in the book.  She’d been around all sorts of grown-ups before — many who told lies and other false things — that she could readily pick up the phony note in Lady Saiga’s voice.  Greta decided that she didn’t like her at all.

“You said you wanted to see an actual dragon?”

Greta shrugged again.  That she did, and Yuuri kept promising to take her.  But, yeah.  Her father hadn’t been very good at keeping his promises lately.

“I’ll ask Yuuri again,” said Greta.  “He already said yes before.”

“Does he have time for things like that?” said Lady Saiga.  “Besides, you heard him.  He’s taking me home first.  Who knows how long it’ll take for him to get back…”

Greta frowned, realizing there was some truth there.  Yuuri’s trips to his world usually took several hours at the shortest and months at the longest. What if something were to happen and he’d return too late? Gwendal would be in charge, and it’d be much harder to convince him to let Greta near the dragon.  She didn’t think Wolfram would be any help there either…

Greta shook her head.  Again, she wasn’t stupid.  Whatever Lady Saiga said, she couldn’t possibly help Greta there, too.

“I might be able to do something,” said Lady Saiga, as though she’d read Greta’s mind. “What do you say?  You up for a little adventure?”

“What adventure?” asked Greta, curious despite herself.

“A fun one,” said Lady Saiga, winking.  She sat there, grinning for a moment. Then, in a snap, the light faded out of her eyes and she fell back on the bed with a dull thump.

Greta froze.  Hesitantly, she reached out to shake the girl.  “L-Lady Saiga?”

But there was no response.  Lady Saiga remained still; she wasn’t even breathing.

There was a flurry of movements all around her, and Greta turned, expecting help of some sort.  Instead, a pair of guards were caught in a tangle, fighting against each other.  One had his arm around the other’s neck, choking the air out of him.  The two by the door ran to break the scuffle, and perhaps hearing the commotion, the ones from outside also came rushing to help.

Greta watched in horror as the guards fell, one by one. ‘They’d all gone mad,’ she thought.  Even as the group restrained the one who started the fuss, another would start attacking the others.  And on and on it went until the only man left standing willingly bashed his head against the wall.

A sickening crack echoed across the room, and Greta opened her mouth to scream.

But a hand immediately silenced her.  Turning her head, Greta saw that Lady Saiga was awake again.  “They’re all going to be fine,” she said.  “The last one might have a concussion, but he’ll live.”

Greta tore the hand away and gasped, “D-Did you do that…?”

Lady Saiga laughed.  “Are you kidding? I was here with you the entire time, wasn’t I?" She drew herself up and patted down her dress. "Now, let’s make a run for it while they’re all sleeping."

“They’re hurt!” Greta moaned, a sob torn from her chest.  "We can't leave them like this!"

“Well, they shouldn’t have been fighting,” said Lady Saiga, rolling her eyes when Greta continued to wail.  “Fine. Fine. Let’s go get help. Just stop crying, for gods’ sakes!”

Greta didn’t protest when Lady Saiga grabbed her arm and led her out of the room.  It wasn’t until they were nearly out of the castle that she realized Lady Saiga had lied.

 


 

At long last, Yuuri had Wolfram to himself — and yet it was a far cry from any of the scenarios he’d hoped for.

In his mind, they’d at least be somewhere private, like his — their — bedroom.  Not at a vacant study, where anyone could just barge in.  In his head, he’d resigned himself that they’d be talking about Damien Schwarz, but definitely not in the context of murder!  Yuuri had never factored in a dead body in their conversation either, but it looked like that was the first thing they’d have to get out of the way.

It had taken a while to calm Wolfram down, and even when the tears had stopped, that haunted look in his eyes lingered.  It didn’t help that Gwendal came charging out of nowhere a few minutes later and was soon looming over them, his face a fright to behold.

“Start talking,” Gwendal had said, eyes narrowed.

“Gisela will fill you in,” said Yuuri with as much authority as he could muster, adding before Gwendal could protest, “We need some time alone.”

Gwendal must have sensed Wolfram’s distress — there was no way he’d let them go otherwise.  Regardless, Yuuri didn’t know how long Gwendal would allow them this reprieve.  There was no moment to waste.

“What happened back there?” Yuuri asked.  Wolfram had sunk into a seat, shoulders hunched forward, while Yuuri leaned against the door, keeping it firmly shut.  “Why did he kill him?”

Wolfram looked up, lips pursed, his entire posture defensive.  “Damien said he didn’t,” he said.  “You heard him.”

Yuuri frowned.  “That’s what he said.  But what did you see?”

“I didn’t see anything.”

“Wolf…you don’t have to lie for him…”

“I’m not lying!” Wolfram snapped.  “And you’re one to talk! You would have done the same thing!”

There was a time when Yuuri would have retreated at the glare Wolfram was giving him. But Yuuri was a little pissed off himself, he felt like he could win a staring contest against Wolfram any day.

“Why would I do the same thing?” he asked, unable to imagine himself ever coming to Damien Schwarz’s defense.

“I meant Saralegui,” said Wolfram.  “If it’s him back there, you’d give him the benefit of the doubt, wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t think Sara would kill anyone,” said Yuuri thoughtfully. “At least he wouldn’t do it himself.”

“And you think Damien would?”

“Given his history? Yes! Remember how he nearly stabbed Sara during the banquet?”

“He was angry. If Saralegui hadn’t said what he did—”

“You weren’t there!  And angry or not, it’s not a good reason to hurt anyone, Wolf.”

“Really?” said Wolfram, already half-rising from his chair. “Because I think I really want to hurt you right now.”

“Do your worst,” said Yuuri, surprising himself at the challenge in his voice.  He’d never thought there’d be a time when he’d be standing off with Wolfram like this, but he’d already reached the end of his rope.  He didn’t know what kind of hold Lord Damien had over Wolfram, but it had to stop at murder!

“You’re always so brave when it comes to him,” said Wolfram bitterly, sinking back down.  “Yes, I wasn’t there, but you shouldn’t judge Damien too quickly because your precious Saralegui nearly got hurt.”

“What?” said Yuuri, thrown off-guard at what sounded to him like a change of topic.  Then a memory came rushing to the fore — this felt exactly like that time at Shinou’s Temple, when Wolfram had raged at him about Saralegui.  The image connected to the Wolfram before him, and Yuuri couldn’t help but break into a smile.

“You’re jealous,” he said, triumphant.  He’d take any sign that Wolfram was still into him and run with it.

“I’m not!” Wolfram said, the flush on his cheeks betraying the lie.  “I’m merely pointing out — oh, for Shinou’s sake, stop smirking, wimp!”

“I’m not,” said Yuuri, who couldn’t help but smirk some more.  “And can we please stop talking about Sara?  Trust me, this isn’t about him.”

“Right,” Wolfram snorted. “Who is this about?”

“You,” said Yuuri, sobering down.  “And me, I guess.  And what we’re supposed to do with this mess.”

A groan escaped Wolfram's lips at the reminder, and he leaned back, looking suddenly exhausted.  “You don’t have anything to do with this,” he said softly.  “This is my mess.”

“You didn’t kill anyone,” Yuuri said at once. “Lord Damien, on the other hand…”

“I really didn’t see anything, Yuuri,” Wolfram said, shaking his head.  “I’m not lying.  And I don’t think Damien would necessarily hurt anyone.  I do want to believe him," he added in a plaintive voice, "I trusted him.  I still want to.”

Yuuri felt a bitter taste in his mouth at that pronouncement, silently wishing that Wolfram would dial down his feelings a little bit.  “Okay,” he yielded. “So innocent until proven otherwise then.”

"Well, yes," said Wolfram, raising an eyebrow. “Hasn’t that always been your way?”

“I guess,” said Yuuri.  “But Lord Damien is…I mean…I just don’t get what you see in him.  You’re being a little too trusting, if you ask me.”

“And you’re being a little too distrustful,” Wolfram countered.  “Why don’t you like Damien?”

Yuuri shrugged. “I don’t think he’s good for you.  He nearly got you killed, you know.”

He winced at his own words, but the retort he’d feared — “So did you.” — didn’t come.  Instead, a smile flickered at the edges of Wolfram’s lips.

“That's what you do for friends, Yuuri,” he said. "You taught me that."

“Some friend,” Yuuri muttered darkly.  “He wants to be more than that, Wolf.”

“I know,” said Wolfram, a little too casually. “I mean, he told me that he — but I said — wait — what does that have to do with anything?”

The old Yuuri would have changed the topic by now, always scared that Wolfram would misinterpret things and blow them out of proportion.  Wolfram’s feelings had been a bit too much to take, but Yuuri found that he’d rather have every part of it than go without any at all.

"I need to know," said Yuuri, silently thanking the gods for that opening.  He cleared his throat.  “So you’re not together?”

Wolfram blinked at him, bewildered.  “What?”

“I mean, did you guys kiss or anything like that?”

What?

“Did you?” Yuuri pressed.  Maybe it was a good sign that Wolfram looked indignant.  But he was also turning redder, so Yuuri wasn’t sure what the answer really was.

Finally, Wolfram said, “No.”

“You’re not…?”

“No,” Wolfram repeated firmly.  “Again, what does this have to do with anything?”

Yuuri took a deep breath, already half-expecting an interruption of some sort — a knock on the door, a shout down the corridors, or even the sound of another temple exploding.  But for once, all was still.  They were truly alone, and Wolfram was looking at him — just Yuuri — for the first time in what felt like forever.

It was like the universe had finally decided to give Yuuri a break.

“Because I meant what I said last night,” Yuuri said at last, taking his time with his words. “We can go further.  I think…we should still be together.”

Wolfram gaped at him. "You want to talk about that now...?"

"I am talking about it now."

"Yuuri..."

"I don't want to lose you, Wolfram."

Wolfram stared at him, unblinking, for a very long moment.  Another smile flickered…then vanished.  Then Wolfram was rising from his chair, and Yuuri was meeting him halfway.  Wolfram stopped, and Yuuri could see a glimmer of a decision, half-formed, behind Wolfram’s eyes.

When Wolfram took another step forward, Yuuri echoed him, again and again, until they were standing close enough to embrace, but not touching.  It was like the beginning of a dance, slow and awkward and uncertain, with both partners too nervous to take the lead.

Yuuri wouldn’t have minded the wait if only time were on their side. But this was just another borrowed moment that could easily slip out of Yuuri’s grasp.  Impulsively, he closed the gap between them and brought his mouth to Wolfram’s.  It was brief, a fleeting touch really, not remotely enough to be a kiss.

Wolfram must have thought so too, for he tilted his head curiously, as though wondering what the hell that was even about.  Yuuri flushed, but he didn’t look away, didn’t flinch, didn’t freeze, even as Wolfram leaned in to return the favor.

His lips felt softer than Yuuri realized, though the kiss itself grew deeper, fiercer, with a hint of that fire Wolfram had always had inside him.  It burned; it felt like Yuuri was drowning, yet he couldn’t be bothered to think of something as trivial as breathing.

Wolfram didn’t seem to care either, clutching desperately at Yuuri’s shoulders, mouth parting. And Yuuri felt a hunger rising within him, quite unlike anything he’d ever felt before.  He didn’t question it, content that kissing Wolfram was enough to slake whatever it was.

Yuuri forgot everything for a moment, lost in the heat of it all, of something he’d been taught was wrong but felt so right and so damn good.  If there'd been any shred of doubt in his head, this settled everything.

Yuuri could handle this.  True to his word, he could go further.

He could kiss Wolfram forever.

Chapter Text

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—

‘Oh.’

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.

“Wolf?”

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?”

“He won’t."

“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.

“Let’s go.”

 


 

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.

"My lord?"

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."