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The cellar was not a pleasant place.

It was a deep, dark, pit of a sight. The walls were built with rough, black bricks, sewn together with mortar and grout. Somehow, the cold still slithered in, creeping under clothes and settling like a thin, wet film beneath. Every breath tasted stale, mold and something metallic sitting heavy on the lungs.  No ordinary man would find solace in such a place, let alone revel in it. No man would want to venture there at all.

But Yashiro Gaku was not an ordinary man.

Down in that cellar, he whistled a tune. His fingers danced along paper labels as he perused his wine collection, dusty bottles clinking against each other. The sound bounced along the walls before tumbling away into the dark.

After careful consideration, he plucked a red out of line, tilting it into the torchlight. Yashiro squinted, dutifully inspecting the year. Not one of his finest, but it would do.

“I’d offer you some,” he said, pulling at the cork, “but I don’t think you’ve quite earned it yet.”

An ugly and wet sound fell from the other man’s mouth. “P-please—”

The seal came free with a resounding pop. “I think that’s fair, don’t you?” The bottle gargled as wine met his glass. Yashiro swirled the liquid around, watching it dance. “We all deserve a return for our efforts. This wine is mine, and yours—well.”

He turned around, drinking. “I think you know yours.”

The man shook his head with a sob, thick saliva and blood frothing off his lips. Yashiro hummed, his eyes trailing upwards. The ropes that kept the man’s wrists tied to the ceiling hook were holding. That was a relief—the last batch couldn’t handle the dead weight. “I am not without mercy,” he offered, walking to his work bench. “You can pick the next one, if you like.”

“But I didn’t,” the man wheezed, “I didn’t, I didn’t—”

“You did.” Well, probably not—but that wasn’t the point. The flickering torch was casting a beautiful glow on his tools. Yashiro ran his hand along the blades, pincers and screws, fresh blood still clinging to their teeth. “You can confess, of course. Or you can choose. It makes no difference to me.”

The man’s whole body shuddered, his feet twitching at the air. The stumps where his nails had been wept red, and Yashiro was glad he’d had the foresight to install a drain in the floor. He smeared one of the puddles with his heel, watching how it smudged across the stones, and took a long, savouring sip. Out of the corner of his eye, the hanging man’s chest stuttered to rise.

“No?” Yashiro asked, giving a short shrug. “I trust you don’t mind if I do the honors, then.”

The man began to whine, the sound building until he was wailing at his own shadow, mangled face drooping towards the floor. “No more—please, no more—”

Yashiro licked his lips, setting down the glass. He liked knives. They were simple. Efficient. He plucked one of his favourites from the tray—a sharp, lightweight little thing—and held it over a torch. The fire lapped at the edge, starving for a taste.

“If you can still beg, you can still talk,” Yashiro said. The knife’s edge began to glow. “Let’s address that next.”

 

 

By the time Yashiro finally prowled up the cellar’s uneven stairs, the afternoon light was already fading, the sun tucking itself behind the horizon. He bit back a sigh, shutting the door closed behind him. It was earlier than he would have expected, earlier than he would have liked. He had hoped this one would take a little more time. It was easy for a man in his profession to get bored, after all.

And he was getting bored. Yashiro had felt the tedium of it all setting in, until even his long, delicate sessions felt routine. That was the thing about developing a reputation: it preceded you, haunting in your stead. By the time most people tumbled into Yashiro’s hands, it only took a glimpse at the cellar, the promise of the pain, for them to fall to pieces at his feet.

Frankly, it was… mundane. His fingers were itching for with a bit more spine, a bit more bite. Yashiro glared at the darkening horizon, stretching and popping his shoulders.

He didn’t find that excitement tonight, but it did work up an appetite. Tucking the confession into his coat pocket, he began his march towards the dining room. The kitchen must have started his supper by now, and he was keen to sink his teeth into something.

A voice piped up from behind him. “Pardon the intrusion, sir.”

Yashiro grit his teeth and turned. One of the house maids was standing there, her back snapped into a low bow. “What?” he asked.

“Company has arrived for you.”

He frowned. “Who?”

“Duke Takahashi,” she said, never raising her head. “He said he has business to discuss.”

Yashiro’s face twisted further. Unfortunately, he was beholden to the duke’s summons—even if they were in his own home. “Where is he?”

“The sitting parlor, sir.” The woman seemed to hesitate, her spine straightening just enough to extend a handkerchief his way. “I-if it pleases you… there is something on your face, sir.”

His fingers went to his cheek. They came away red. Snatching the cloth from her hand, he scrubbed at his skin. “Prepare a plate for us.”

“Of course,” she said, scampering away. Yashiro watched her go before turning around, expression dark. The sanctity of his home was a line Yashiro did not like to see crossed, even if it was by the man who paid him. Shoving the stained handkerchief into his pocket, Yashiro adjusted his coat, tugging the wrinkles out of his sleeves. If he had to play the gracious host, then so be it.

By the time he sauntered into the parlour, there was an smile on his face and a skip in his step. “My duke!” he called, dipping his head low and extending a hand. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Viscount,” he greeted back, turning. The duke was a fat bulb of a man, like an overstuffed sausage shoved into fine threads. His stomach spilled over his belt, and he reached around it to shake Yashiro’s hand. “I hope I didn’t take you from your work.”

“Not at all,” Yashiro said, motioning for him to sit. They settled on opposite couches as a servant quietly set a platter of grapes, cheese and drink on the table between them. “Your timing is impeccable, actually. The criminal confessed not ten minutes ago.”

“Efficient as always, aren’t you?” he laughed, plucking a grape from the stem. “Do I need to organize an execution?”

Ha. “That won’t be necessary.”

“I see.” The duke leaned back, drinking from his cup with a lax satisfaction. “I knew you would flourish in this position, you know. Not everyone has what it takes to keep the riff-raff in line.” He shook his finger at the ceiling, emphasizing. “But I could tell you’d have a knack for it. I always can with these things.”

Yashiro stamped a smile onto his face, his finger tapping at his knuckles impatiently. The idea of having to endure small talk with the duke was torture. He would know. “I appreciate your kind words, my grace, but I suspect you didn’t come just to sing my praises.”

The man barked out a laugh. “Right to the point, eh?” The duke pushed off his backrest, leaning forward with a grunt. “You’re familiar with my son, I assume.”

Unfortunately. Yashiro had no love for the duke, but at least he was—tolerable. The same couldn’t be said of his dim-witted heir. “A bright young man.”

The duke waved his hand dismissively. “I’m trying to make something of him,” he said, rubbing at his face. “I told him to start a business in the city, you see. I coddled him, I can see that. Wanted him to build up some experience and all that.” He scratched at the back of his neck, sighing. “Boy bought a bunch of slaves from out east to get started. I doubt he thought too hard about who he was buying them from.”

“I take it you’re concerned.”

The duke shrugged, hands open. “He’s young. A bit daft,” he admitted. “Was someone slipped in there to steal secrets? Assassinate him? I’d like to be sure.”

“Of course.” Yashiro threaded his fingers together, still tapping against his knuckle like a metronome. He could think of at least a dozen things he’d rather be doing, frankly—but these sorts of favours aged well, especially with men in high places. So he clapped his hands together, smiling kindly. “It would be my pleasure to look into this for you, my grace.”

“I appreciate it,” the duke said with a deep nod. “It would be quite the weight off my shoulders.”

At least it would be coming off somewhere. Yashiro bit his tongue and played polite, leaning back and crossing his legs. “What kind of business did you say he started?”

 

 

Yashiro stared up at the building with open disdain. He knew the duke’s son was thick, but of all things—a brothel. Really.

The building was nice enough; he supposed that’s what cracking open a duke’s vault would get you. Sturdy and tall, with pretty windows that poured warm light out onto the cobblestones. There was a creak overhead, and Yashiro looked above the door. A woman’s curves had been carved in to the sign, the wood painted with elaborate pinks and golds.

Scowling, he made sure his gloves were on tight. The less he had to touch, the better.

He pushed at the door, and the siege on his senses was immediate.

The sound hit him first, like a wave of drunk men hollering and women laughing as the band raised a ruckus in a corner of the room. The cloyingly thick smell of roses was everywhere, thick incense hanging in the air like a fog. Through the smoke, Yashiro watched as scantily-clad whores bustled every which way, like bees chasing honey about a hive.

Customers lay sprawled out on seats with deep red cushions, scattered across the room. The wood that made up the walls and beams were polished and dark, but golden details and lush curtains were tastefully hung throughout the hall. Intricate chandeliers hung high above it all, glass prisms winking at the people below.

The whole thing reeked so obviously of money that it was a wonder it hadn’t been ransacked yet.

A long bar was nestled against one of the walls and a woman came bounding from behind it. “Welcome to Oasis, my lord!” she greeted, leaning forward and puffing out her chest. “How may I be of service?”

Yashiro dragged his eyes around the room. “A private seat,” he said. “And some wine.”

“Of course,” she said, motioning towards the hall. “Please, follow me.”

They pushed through the drunkards, a difficult enough task when they were wildly swinging their cups, alcohol splashing to the floor. The women in their laps laughed along, clapping at some feat of stupidity. The waitress stopped in front of a plush sofa with a small table set before it, a single candle flickering on its surface. “Does this please you, my lord?”

“It will do,” he said, stiffly sinking into the velvet. Thankfully, the other tables were a little distance away—instead, next to his seat was a large circle that had been carved into the floor. The wood inside had been replaced with some sort of mat, a dusting of powder scattered across the surface. Nearby couches were arranged around the edge, including his own, all facing the centre. “What is this?”

“A stage for the dancer, sir,” she said, bending low towards him, breasts threatening to pour out of her excuse for a shirt. “Can I offer you some company this evening?”

Disgust rippled through his stomach. “No. Just the drink.”

“Of course,” she said, ducking back out of sight. Yashiro propped an elbow on the armrest, leaning his head in his hand. He had planned to just get the lay of the land tonight and come back another time for a more thorough investigation—but he was increasingly tempted to just get it over with and sack the place. The musicians wrapped up their song, and for a few seconds, precious silence hung in the air.

That’s when Yashiro heard it: a soft ringing, like a bell.

His eyes moved towards the sound. Someone was moving through the crowd, expertly weaving between the tables and toppled glasses. Their bare feet stepped into the circle, and Yashiro raised an eyebrow.

He hadn’t expected the dancer to be a man.

At first, he thought he’d been mistaken, but no. The dancer’s tight top hugged the plane of his flat chest, and Yashiro leaned back in his seat, intrigued.

His shirt left his stomach bare, but layers of thin, billowing fabric were cinched around his waist, flaring behind him as he settled on the stage. Yashiro could still hear that subtle ringing, the small bells woven into his clothes chiming with every step. Even his head was covered with gold, thin chains tied into his dark hair.

The dancer paused, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, dragging his toes through the chalk. His shoulders stretched and rolled, his breathing slow and controlled. In the back of the room, the musicians reclaimed their instruments, fingers leaping into position. The dancer waited until they were ready, adjusting his feet. Yashiro leaned back, throwing one leg over the other.

The music began slowly, plucked strings creeping out from the shadows—but the dancer stretched out his foot to greet it. His body gripped the melody, twisting it around his waist as he began to move. Short ribbons trailed from his wrists as he spun on his heels, and the drums swelled to the beat of his hips, the speed building to a punishing pace.

But if anything, the dancer seemed to relish it; his eyes slipped closed as he sank into the sound, his body conducting the choir. Yashiro watched, a small smile tugging at his lips. It was like a war between the musicians and the dancer—both of them raising the pace, demanding more, pushing farther.

Despite itself, Yashiro had to admit that the struggle was… amusing. The dancer’s brows were furrowed, pushing himself to keep pace, sweat glistening off his skin.

Undeterred, his feet moved lightly, barely touching down before taking off again, the skin of his thighs flashing between the folds of his skirt. His stomach twisted and rolled to the music, fingers grasping at the air for grip. The tempo was reaching to meet its crescendo, and Yashiro leaned forward, balancing his elbows on his knees. One of the dancer’s legs left the ground and he turned, ribbons circling, hips reeling, the crowd jeering, until—

The melody gave one last, deafening cry. With the final note, the dancer skidded to a stop, bowing low with a flourish of his hands.

For a brief second, Yashiro could hear the man’s ragged breath—but the sound was quickly drowned out by applause, drunk men hollering at the stage. Yashiro straightened and found himself clapping along, begrudgingly impressed. For the first time in months, he could feel his own heart beating in his veins, the thrill of a light adrenaline singing in his blood.

Some coins were half-heartedly tossed into the ring. The dancer bent forward, gathering the paltry sum in his palm. Yashiro reached into his pocket, rifling for something. As the man pushed himself to his feet, Yashiro reached out towards him, a gold coin balanced between his gloved fingers.

“Here. For the dance.”

The dancer stopped, still panting. His eyes moved from the viscount’s outstretched hand up towards his face, blue eyes searching Yashiro’s own. For a short moment, he thought the man might not have heard him—but then the dancer’s shoulders raised, like hackles, eyes narrowing into a bitter glare.

“Keep it.”

Yashiro sat there, stunned. “Excuse me?”

The waitress reappeared, smiling sweetly with a bottle of wine. The dancer seized the opportunity, turning his back and rushing away into the crowd. The woman slid a goblet towards him, batting her eyelashes. “Your wine, sir—”

Yashiro flew to his feet and pushed past her.

His boots stomped across the room, the gold coin clenched in his hand. His lips were pulled into a deep frown, his eyes narrowed as he chased the man’s back. No one turned their back on Yashiro, no one had dared to in years—and the indignation of being rebuffed by a whore off all things was burning in his bones.

The dancer’s ribbons disappeared around a corner, and Yashiro followed, slipping into the hallway after him. “Stop.”

The dancer whirled around to face him. His body was tense, hands fisted at his sides—but he didn’t try to run as Yashiro closed the distance between them, holding out the coin again. “You forgot this.”

He didn’t look at it. “I told you to keep it.”

Yashiro’s fingers curled closed over the gold. “You seemed content enough to pick scraps off the ground.”

His shoulders tensed. “It’s not blood money.”

Oh? “I see my reputation precedes me,” he said, reaching out a hand. “Have we met—”

The dancer jumped back in a flurry of fabric. “Don’t touch me.”

Little could take Yashiro by surprise, but he barked out a short laugh, brows lifting. “I think touching you is supposed to be the point.”

“Not me.” The man squared his shoulders, defiant, even as one foot slid backwards. “I’m not for sale.”

“Is something the matter here?”

Yashiro felt his gut churn, as if trying to spit out a particularly bad piece of meat. But he was smiling when he turned. “Young Takahashi,” he greeted. The duke’s son looked as useless as he always did, his narrow eyes and unkept hair making him look less like a man and more like an exceptionally vacant lizard. A young woman was standing at his elbow, actually dressed.

“Viscount,” Takahashi greeted back, openly surprised, before his chest puffed with pride. “I have to say, I’m pleasantly surprised to see you visit!”

“Your father mentioned it,” he said, his smile sharp, “so I stopped by.”

At the mention of the duke, Takahashi seemed to visibly deflate. The implication was clear enough, and the man’s lips formed a bitter line. “I see,” he said. “Airi, can you escort Satoru back to his room?”

Yashiro watched as the girl scurried past them to the dancer’s side. The dancer—Satoru, apparently—took her hand. She offered a wobbly smile before tugging him down the hall. They fled up the stairs without giving so much as a glance back. Yashiro stared until the dancer’s delicate feet disappeared above, leaving smudges of chalk in their wake.

When he turned back, he found Takahashi to be staring too, his fingers twitching where the girl had been.

Once the two were out of earshot, his hand curled into a fist, his mouth pulled into a deep frown. He was probably trying to be intimidating, but it came across like it always did—like a child playing at being an adult. “Does my father think so little of me?” he asked. “Is that why he sent you?”

“I wouldn’t take it so personally,” Yashiro said. “It’s not uncommon to check in on new businesses. If anything, it would be irresponsible for me to treat you any differently.”

The man crossed his arms. How petulant. “Is that why you were interrogating my dancer?”

If he thought that was one of his ‘interrogations,’ then he was even more naïve than Yashiro expected. “He said he wasn’t for sale,” he said. “I was curious.”

Takahashi shrugged. “He’s good. And you know how it is with men,” he said, waving a hand. “Not made for it. He might be too sore to dance the next night.”

Yashiro hummed at that. He doubted Takahashi actually cared about whether or not his whorehouse had live entertainment. Frankly, Takahashi was more likely to think with an organ other than his brain—and throwing a girl’s friend to the wolves probably wouldn’t get her to open her knees. But he filed that tidbit away for future use, looking back to the stairs. “Where did you find him?”

“Same place as the others,” he said, nodding back to the front room. “Slave market. Katagiri’s the only one I took on as a hire.”

Hm. How… interesting—and it had been so long since something had been interesting. There was a tiny thrill bubbling in his blood. Yashiro wanted to gorge it down. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” he announced.

The younger man’s shoulders sank, and Yashiro flashed him a winning smile. “As a well-paying customer, of course. I just have one small request.”

Takahashi’s eyes narrowed. “What is it?”

 

 

Any hopes that the brothel would be quieter the second time around were quickly dashed. Life outside might twist and change, but behind these smoke-stained walls, it was as if nothing had changed. The clamor of the drunken crowd seemed to bloat the air itself, until every breath tasted hot, heavy and damp.

Yashiro resisted the urge to scrub the feeling off his skin as he was shown to his seat in front of the stage. The wine was already flowing by the time he settled in his seat, beautiful red flowing into a golden glass. He set a second goblet aside, allowing himself to get comfortable as the clock on the wall ticked steadily down.

Right one cue, that tell-tale ringing returned. The dancer—Satoru, he reminded himself—marched through the crowd like a man proudly walking to the guillotine. Like before, he made his way to the centre of his ring, flexing his toes in the chalk and finding his footing. Only then did his eyes sweep around the room, before finally landing on the viscount sitting in the front row.

Suddenly, all at once, his body tensed, like a spring being pressed in from all sides. Not out of fear—if anything, he looked offended, like an especially drenched cat. Yashiro took a long sip of his drink, smirking over the rim.

The dancer stood there lamely for a second, and Yashiro wondered if he would try to run. Satoru did turn away—but he stormed over to the musicians with purpose, leaning close to speak in hushed tones. They seemed to come to an agreement, and Satoru returned to the stage, shaking the tension out of his arms. Yashiro reclined back into his cushions, leaning his head in his hand.

Sound exploded out of the musician’s corner, like a call to arms. Satoru immediately led the charge, his body twisting and kicking along with the swelling notes, conducting an army at his fingertips. Last night, the dancer had been sensual—but there was nothing romantic about the way his feet pounded at the mat now, limbs moving like each one was a bayonet, skewering an invisible opponent with every beat.

Yashiro dragged his hand across his face, grinning wildly. So few people had so blatantly told him to fuck off to his face before—and never before through dance! A hysteric laugh was bubbling up from his gut, but he swallowed it down, his entire body buzzing with the effort. The absolute insolence of it all—and from a slave, no less—was barrelling past the point of absurd.

Yashiro adored it.

The tempo was rising to a fever pitch, and Satoru’s feet flew to the rhythm, toes kicking up clouds of chalk. His movements were rough, like a soldier on a battlefield—but Yashiro could catch the tight control in every lurching move, each swing and sway carefully crafted, determined to draw blood. Satoru’s face itself was flushed, and Yashiro wondered where his limits lay, how much long the dancer could go on.

The drums began to roll, louder and louder, until everything cut out at once. Like a puppet with its strings cut, Satoru fell to one knee, shoulders heaving. The stupid audience clapped their approval, hooting and hollering for another pretty dance—but Satoru was only staring at him, blue eyes glaring straight into Yashiro’s very soul.

Then he gripped at his skirt, turned his back, and stomped off.

Yashiro threw his head back and laughed. He was tempted to go after him, but he decided to get comfortable instead, reclaiming his glass.

It was only a few minutes before Satoru reappeared. Yashiro pretended not to notice him until the dancer was literally standing at his table, his hands curled into fists. “What are you doing?”

“I’m afraid I don’t catch your meaning,” Yashiro said, feigning innocence. “Can’t a man spend some coin for an evening with company?”

“I told you. I’m not for sale.”

“Maybe not for bedding,” he conceded, swirling his wine. “But your master seemed happy enough to sell your time for conversation. That’s why he sent you over, isn’t it?”

Satoru’s face twisted into a scowl, gaze dropping down to the table. From this close, he could see every mussed strand of his hair, the smudged eyeliner at the corner of his eye, the way his exhausted legs were shaking with the effort it took to stand.

Yashiro filled the empty glass with a smile. “I would sit if I were you,” he said. “We have all night, after all.”

There was a moment where his eyes went from Yashiro, to the table, before quickly flicking around the room. Finally, he seemed to surrender to his fate, sliding into the seat opposite Yashiro’s own. The viscount smiled politely, pushing the goblet across the table. “Here. Have a drink.”

Satoru looked down at the wine. He didn’t touch it. “What do you want?”

“Do I need to want something?”

The dancer gave him a flat look. It was oddly refreshing, like a breath of fresh air.

Yashiro smiled. “You’re a slave, I take it.”

“Obviously,” Satoru snapped, before biting at his lip. Ah, he must not have meant to say that out loud. What a fun little habit!

“The cuffs on your wrists give it away, I admit,” he said. Leaning back, he brought his cup to his lips. “But I had a question for you. What use does a slave have for money?”

Satoru stared at him, unimpressed. “Does money lose value in the hands of a slave?”

“Not necessarily,” he said. “But you don’t get the chance to go to market to spend it. You can’t use it to buy your freedom—but you probably knew that already. And young Master Takahashi has no need for your meagre earnings, either.” Yashiro tapped a finger against his cup, leather meeting metal. “So what was the point in gathering those coins after your show?”

The dancer didn’t answer, but there was a tension in his limbs that wasn’t there a few seconds ago. “Why do you care?”

“It’s my job,” he said. That was, strictly speaking, true—even though Yashiro couldn’t care less about his obligations right now. “But the money isn’t for you at all, though, is it?” He leaned forward then, smirking, fingers threaded together in his lap. “I knew I had heard that name before. Katagiri.”

Ah, that did the trick. Satoru’s eyes flared. “He stole some gold jewelry, if I remember correctly,” Yashiro continued, pushing further, watching the reactions flitter across the slave’s face. “A relatively small crime, all things considered. I remember his interrogation well. He confessed—”

“After you tortured him,” Satoru growled, his hands curling into fists. “An innocent man—”

“A thief,” Yashiro corrected. He tilted his head, eyes narrowing. “Why are you so convinced otherwise? Because his daughter told you so?”

“Don’t talk about her.”

“She inherited his debt to the crown after the execution, I take it?” he asked. “Makes sense, I suppose. Why else would a free young woman work in a whorehouse run by the son of the Duke?” He pressed the tip of his finger onto the cup’s rim, feeling it dig through his leather glove. “And for some reason, you’re helping her pay her due.”

It had been obvious: the way Katagiri led Satoru away, how he cupped the money in his palm before grabbing her hand. Subtle enough to fool Takahashi, perhaps. But not him.

“Is that a crime?” Satoru asked, shoulders tight.

“No,” Yashiro conceded. “But judging by how… fond your master is of young Katagiri, I’m sure he wouldn’t be particularly pleased.”

“Probably not.” The dancer tilted his head, the jewelry in his hair ringing. “Will you tell him?”

Most people would be begging by now, but Yashiro allowed it. “What do you think?”

Satoru watched him like he was picking something apart. “No. You won’t.”

“Oh? Why not?”

The dancer shrugged, before looking away to scan the crowd. “There’s nothing for you to gain from it,” he said. “And I don’t think you care for him any more than I do. Am I wrong?”

“You think I would put that before my duty?”

“I don’t think you care much about your duties, either,” Satoru said, scowling, “or you wouldn’t be wasting your time irritating me.”

Ha! A satisfied smile stretched on his face as he reclined in his seat, legs crossed. “I’ve had people flayed for saying less, you know.”

Satoru’s entire body turned to stone, the tell-tale fear of having said too much flitting across his face—but then he buried it back down, staring at his untouched wine. “And you were surprised I didn’t want anything to do with you?”

“I was surprised you said it so plainly,” he corrected, waving one of the waitresses over. “Not many have the spine for it.”

“I wonder why.”

A moment of silence came over the table as the server filled Yashiro’s cup. Satoru looked off again, like he was trying to will himself out of this conversation. The way he sat—not touching anything, his limbs rigid with near-military precision—spoke to a discomfort that had nothing to do with their seats.

The young woman retreated with a small bow, and Yashiro leaned forward again. “You’re very blunt,” he said, yanking the dancer’s eyes back to him. “That seems dangerous, for someone in your situation.”

“Someone should be,” Satoru said. “Besides, you can’t touch me.”

“Because you’re not a whore?”

Satoru glared across the table. “Takahashi doesn’t care about me,” he said, a simple statement of fact. “But he cares if one of his father’s lapdogs decides to break one of his rules, just because they think they can.” His eyes narrowed, challenging. “What would your duke say about that?”

Yashiro laughed. “You’re banking your safety on your master’s pride?”

The dancer stared across the table at him, one eyebrow raised. “It’s working, isn’t it?”

He smirked. “That’s quite the assumption.”

“If you want to prove me wrong, go ahead.”

Yashiro rolled past Satoru’s challenge, leaning his head against his hand. “You place very little stock in your own survival, don’t you?”

His blue eyes blazed to life. “You don’t know anything about surviving.”

“I think I know better than anyone.” He’d seen the lengths a man would go to survive. Hundreds of faces, thousands of screams, but it always ended the same way. They spilled secrets, condemned innocents, threw their own families in front of Yashiro’s sword just to save their own skin. It never changed their fate, of course—but damned men clutched at that thread of hope like it was salvation itself.

Satoru stared through him, like he could see all of Yashiro’s sins. “That’s not survival,” he said. “It’s desperation.”

He tapped his finger against his cup. “What’s the difference?”

Satoru’s face settled into a light frown. “The fact that you don’t know,” he said, speaking slowly, “says more about you than me.”

 

 

Days later, in the safety of his cellar, Satoru’s voice still echoed in his bones. Yashiro could feel it, like an itch underneath his skin, as if those words were worms were gnawing at the sweet marrow inside. His fingers clenched around the hammer in his hand, and he brought it down again, listening to that satisfying crunch.

The prisoner wailed, straining against the ropes that strapped him down. The chair creaked and moaned, and the bloody mess that had once been a hand twitched, smearing red against the armrest.

Yashiro waited for that old familiar thrill. It didn’t come.

That’s not survival.

“Please,” the man cried, ragged breaths catching in his chest. “I’ll say anything—"

It’s desperation.

The hammer swung true, kneecaps bursting into sinew and bone. The man’s mouth was stretched wide, spittle and screams pouring out his open jaw. Yashiro’s chest heaved, standing still in the sound. It bounced off the cold stones, impossibly loud, washing out his ears—but that god forsaken dancer was still there, whispering into his very soul.

The fact that you don’t know—

The iron head came down again, and again, and again. Yashiro could feel his arm burning, his lips pulled back into a snarl. The prisoner’s voice died, his head hanging limp—and Yashiro slammed his hammer into that too, until the skull splattered like an egg, shell shards scattering at his feet. Only when there was more pulp than bone did he throw the tool aside, letting it skid against the slick floor.

His clothes were painted red, and Yashiro couldn’t help but laugh at the state of himself. To be brought so low—and by what? A slave?

Sighing to himself, he started his trek up the stairs, rolling the stiffness out of his shoulders. Clearly, there would be no relief for him here. He pushed open the door, squinting into the daylight. They day was still young.

A servant was passing by with linens. At the sight of him, her eyes widened, skin draining to a sickly shade of green. She still snapped down into a bow, towels clutched against her chest. “S-sir.”

“Send someone to clean up down there,” he said, wiping his wet hands on his shirt. “And draw a bath. I will be going out tonight.”

He took the care to scrub the blood out from under his nails and make himself presentable before he found himself at the brothel again. Something told him Satoru wouldn’t be too amenable if he’d come straight after work in that condition. Giving his reflection one last glance in a window, Yashiro adjusted his hair before pushing the door open.

Without a word, he was led back to his table. Takahashi must have said something—no women threw themselves at him this time. Instead, he was silently brought wine and a small platter of food. The waitress hovered for a moment after, but he waved her away, settling back into his seat and waiting.

Satoru came out before long. At the sight of Yashiro, his steps faltered—but then he stepped into the ring with an exasperated, long-suffering look, like someone burdened with a particularly annoying chore. Yashiro happily smiled back, raising his goblet in greeting.

He watched as Satoru settled in the centre of the ring, fully content for the first time in days. The itching noise in his bones was already fading, replaced by a low hum of satisfaction. In front of his table, Satoru gave the audience a respectable bow, ribbons sweeping across the floor.

From the musician’s corner, a solitary flute gave a long, melancholy cry. Satoru took a slow breath, his eyes slipping closed, body swaying into the sound. He let it take him like a gentle current, turning with the notes, every movement soft and deliberate. Satoru cradled the music with his body like he was holding something precious, something that had broken a long time ago. Yashiro leaned forward, balancing his elbows on his knees, and watched.

The whistle of the flute disappeared with one last long, mournful note—and the rest of the instruments surged to life in its place, a revolt against the quiet. Now Satoru was truly awake: his eyes flashed as he danced along to the surging sound, fabric chasing after his hips. The drums pounded like a pulse, and Satoru fell aggressively into the rhythm, just like the night Yashiro first saw him dance.

Yashiro carefully watched the way his stomach rolled, how his legs kicked out from underneath his skirt. It wasn’t that the sorrow was forgotten—the flute had returned, lending its voice to the choir. But it was just one of the many. Even now, he could pick out some of the same gestures Satoru had used in the beginning—just faster, the sadness traded out for something different.

Not desperation. Never that. Yashiro finally leaned back, a little more satisfied.

The music finished, and as always, Satoru took a brief bow, his breath ragged and fast. Crouching down, he gathered whatever tips had been thrown his way. Yashiro poured him a glass while he waited, just to be polite.

To his credit, Satoru came over immediately, staring him down. “Why are you here?”

“A pleasure to see you too,” he said, offering the dancer the other seat.

For a brief moment, Satoru looked to the ceiling, cursing whatever god had subjected him to such a fate. Then he slid into the opposite sofa, slapping his money down on the table. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“I enjoyed our last conversation.”

“I’m glad one of us did,” he said, eying the food.

Yashiro nudged the platter closer to him invitingly. “Is that so strange?”

Satoru’s fingers twitched, but he didn’t partake. “Yes.” He tore his eyes away from the food, glaring across the table. “Why are you really here?”

God, this was refreshing. If Yashiro had known his urges could be addressed just by visiting this one dancer, the city would have fewer dead men. But admitting what he wanted—asking Satoru what he meant by surviving—would be giving over too much, even to a slave.

 Instead, he asked: “When did you learn to dance?”

Satoru straightened in his seat. “What?”

“You’re quite good,” Yashiro said. “I was curious.”

“I don’t want to hear that from you,” he muttered.

“I can’t imagine Takahashi had the foresight to train someone.”

Satoru eyed him cautiously for a moment, before looking away. “It doesn’t matter.”

Yashiro gave a low hum. “That’s a shame,” he said. “I paid handsomely for good conversation.”

“You bought my time,” Satoru bristled. “I don’t owe you anything else.”

A different tactic, then. “I am surprised someone taught a boy to dance like that,” he said, swirling his drink.

Satoru shot him a dry look. “Because only women should dance?”

“If you’re training slaves, it would make more sense,” he said, motioning at the room around them. “There’s definitely more clients who want to fuck one.”

“Sex isn’t the only reason to dance,” Satoru countered, looking away. “It’s just the only one you people seem to care about.”

Not that Satoru seemed to put much stock in that. They put him in a whore’s clothes, but he never danced like one. Which made sense, in hindsight. Yashiro should have guessed it sooner. “You didn’t learn how to dance as a slave, did you?”

Satoru frowned at whatever he was pretending to look at. “It doesn’t matter,” he repeated.

“Indulge me,” Yashiro said, smiling. “Is dancing a custom where you’re from?”

His hands curled into fists in his lap. He didn’t answer.

“You must have been young,” Yashiro suggested, prodding. “You speak fluently. I take it you’ve been away from your home for some time.”

“What are you trying to prove?” Satoru snapped, whirling to face him again. The gold chains in his hair swung with the movement, lightly chiming. There was something about that look—that glare—that sent a thrill racing down his spine. He wouldn’t push Satoru’s buttons if the dancer didn’t make it so enjoyable.

“I’m just curious,” Yashiro repeated, sinking the serving knife into the cheese. “Is that a crime?”

“You tell me,” he shot back. “You’ve killed people for less, haven’t you?”

Yashiro buried his grin. “I suppose that’s fair.”

“Why do you do it?”

“I thought you weren’t interested in conversation, Satoru.”

“You’re avoiding the question.”

“That makes two of us, then, hm?” Yashiro lifted the pitcher, smiling politely. “Wine?”

Satoru’s cup still sat on the other end of the table, untouched. Yashiro pretended not to notice and topped himself up, setting the carafe down between them. A boisterous, drunken cheer erupted from somewhere, and for the thousandth time, Yashiro cursed the fact that there weren’t private sitting rooms.

He’d much rather spend his time with Satoru alone.

“Can I be honest with you?” Yashiro asked.

“I don’t know,” Satoru said, sinking into his seat, “can you?”

“I was thinking about what you said,” he continued, “about surviving. I have a theory.”

Satoru’s eyes snapped back to him, suddenly attentive. Yashiro kept going.

“A child, kidnapped from home, forced into slavery? In a whorehouse, no less? Most people would have given up. Kept their head down, accepted it as their lot in life.” He toyed with the serving knife, spinning it on its tip. “But not you.”

Satoru was sitting stock-still, watching him warily, like a caged animal trying to assess a threat. Yashiro tapped at the hilt of the knife as he stared back, a small, knowing smile on his face. “But I think I understand you now.”

“Is that so.”

“Yes.”

He recognized it, now. Underneath the varnish of perfume and powder and gold, Satoru was tired. The disinterested way he stared out at the brothel, the people, the smokescreen—Yashiro had seen that look before, in every mirror, every day of his life. Watching Satoru perform just confirmed what Yashiro already suspected.

Dancing was the only way Satoru felt alive anymore.

And Yashiro, standing upon his mountain of corpses, knew the feeling well.

“I don’t think we’re that different,” he said, matter-of-fact.

“We’re nothing alike,” Satoru snarled back.

“Is it so impossible to believe?” he asked, tilting his head. “We both need something to fill the void in our hearts. Otherwise, our lives would be without meaning.”

“And what’s yours?”

Yashiro smiled, sweet and polite. “Guess.”

Satoru watched him for a moment, considering—then recognition dawned on his face, his teeth grit and fists clenching. There was something dangerous in his eyes, crackling like lightning, and Yashiro realized it was rage. “You—”

“See?” Yashiro said, his blood singing. “You understood.”

Satoru’s shoulders were tight. “I understand you’re a monster.”

“Oh, please, Satoru. I think we both know you can do better than that.”

The dancer inhaled sharply, holding the breath in his chest. His white knuckles gripped the table’s edge. “You want to know what I really think of you?”

Yashiro leaned back, hands open and inviting. “Please.”

The table was thrown, tipping violently to the side—and Yashiro’s knife, the cheese, Satoru’s pitiful money all soared through the air in a beautiful arc. Wine splattered onto the floor like a bloodstain. The table finally crashed into the ground, and the metal platter followed a heartbeat behind, ringing loudly before going still. All around, the rest of the brothel fell silent.  

Yashiro didn’t care. Not when Satoru was straddling him in his seat, hands braced on either side of his head. His hips hovered above the viscount’s own, never touching—but Yashiro could feel the weight of his skirt settling on his thighs, one of the dancer’s ribbons sitting on his shoulder like a snake. Satoru’s face was close, so close Yashiro could feel his breath, hot and heavy, on his skin.

“I think you’re pathetic,” he said, voice sinking to a whisper. “You’re so lonely, you need to pay for a slave to talk to you like a real person, because everyone else is too fucking terrified to. You kill people because it’s the closest you’ll ever get to something real. You think it gives you power.”

Satoru’s eyes narrowed, gold chains hanging loose off his hair. “But you’re just a coward. The duke’s lapdog, too scared to step even an inch out of line.”

Yashiro took a long, deep breath. Beneath than the smell of spilled wine was something else; a vaguely floral scent that could only be Satoru, more intoxicating than the alcohol could ever be. “You’re making a lot of assumptions,” he purred.

“Then prove me wrong.” Satoru tilted his head, looking off to the side. “Takahashi is watching. Touch me.”

Yashiro grinned wildly, his heart beating in his throat. When was the last time he’d felt cornered like this? He didn’t know, but the moment was so delicious, so sweet—he just wanted to sit here and savour it, guzzling every detail down. Satoru’s skin was still shining with sweat from his dance, the long slope of his neck flushed red; even his chest was beating fast, his wet lips parted as he breathed. His tired legs were quivering like a newborn deer, and Yashiro’s fingers twitched, itching.

His hands were on the seat, tantalizingly close to Satoru’s knees. It would be so easy, nothing at all, to prove him wrong.

He didn’t.

Satoru watched him for a second or two more, eyes narrowing. “Coward.”

He shoved off the sofa, feet landing in the spilled wine and food. Without a word, he stalked off, leaving red footprints in his wake. Katagiri and Takahashi gave chase.

A gaggle of waitresses descended upon him, chirping frantic apologies like headless geese. They fell to their knees to clean, righting the table and mopping at the wine on his boots.

Yashiro crossed his legs to hide the bulge in his pants.

 

 

Takahashi sent a letter first thing in the morning, apologizing profusely for the inconvenience. It was mindless, as far as apologies went—dryly promising a better experience and offering to pay for Yashiro’s next visit. He noted that Satoru was being “duly punished” for the insubordination, apparently, and would not be dancing tonight. It was signed with a flourish.

Yashiro read it carefully before throwing his chair across the room.

He paced back and forth across his chambers like a rabid animal, eyes wild and grabbing at his hair. This wasn’t what he wanted. As it was, he’d been up all night—too haunted by the way Satoru looked in his lap, the smell of his perfume sitting heavy on Yashiro’s tongue. Even now, the itch to touch was overwhelming, like worms writhing under his skin. It was a miracle he hadn’t tried to tear them out with his teeth.

Something had been roused in him last night—a fire blazing like nothing he had ever known.

And now he couldn’t see Satoru at all.

His hands curled into furious fists—and he forced himself to stop, sinking down onto a plush seat. His leg bounced like a metronome doing double-time. There were too many unknowns buzzing through his brain—namely what exactly the duke’s son meant by punishment. The idea of Satoru being beaten, or starved, for something it turned out Yashiro so desperately craved seemed like such a profound waste.

Unless that wasn’t the punishment Takahashi had in mind. If Satoru lost his protection as a dancer—if he was for sale, like any of the others—if anyone so much as touched him—

For the first time in so, so long, Yashiro just wanted to kill something.

Instead, he pushed himself to his feet and marched out of his study. The guard outside his door jumped to rigid, nervous attention.

“Tell the driver to prepare the horses,” Yashiro said, stalking towards the stables.

In the light of day, the brothel almost looked like a respectable establishment. The curtains were drawn, the raunchy crowd and dolled-up slaves chased away by the light of day. The only hint of its true nature was the sign above the door, hanging limply and creaking in the wind.

Yashiro stepped out of the carriage, his nose curling in disgust. The smell of last night’s stale alcohol was still hanging in the air, wafting up from the dark puddles on the roadside. He stepped around them to reach the entrance, knocking his knuckles against the wood.

It was a moot point, in the end: the unlocked door swung open without resistance. Yashiro slipped inside, pushing the door closed behind him. The main room was dim: the curtains only let the smallest slivers of sunlight in. They cut across the unlit room, falling over the empty tables.

Yashiro huffed to himself, folding his hands behind his back. Takahashi’s office was unlikely to be on the ground floor, where anyone could just wander in. So he retraced his steps from that first fateful night, when he’d chased Satoru to the stairs. The floorboards squeaked under his boots as he turned the corner, and came face-to-face with Katagiri.

The girl startled when she saw him, her face draining of colour. Her fingers curled around the laundry basket in her hands. “Viscount Yashiro,” she whimpered, bowing as best she could, linens threatening to spill over the rim. “I—I’m sorry, we’re closed until—”

“I’m well aware,” he said, stepping closer. “I’m here to speak with your master, actually.”

“I… see.” Her spine stiffened, and she turned around, still clutching at the basket, as if it could protect her. “Please, follow me.”

She climbed the stairs, Yashiro at her heels. The upper floors were little more than a series of hallways filled with closed doors. It was quiet enough that he could hear Katagiri’s breath, quick and panicked, despite her leisurely pace. “Where is everyone?” he asked.

Her shoulders jumped at his voice. “Everyone works late into the night, sir,” she answered. “They tend to sleep through the morning.”

“I see.” Yashiro dragged his eyes across the doors. Satoru must be sleeping behind one of them. He wondered what he was wearing. He wouldn’t sleep in his dancing clothes—and the idea of Satoru, stripped of all the gold and finery, defenseless in his bed, set Yashiro’s blood on fire.

How would he react, woken up by the viscount’s hands slipping under his clothes? Surprised, of course—he might even put up a bit of a fight. But Yashiro would take him apart, piece by piece, until Satoru was flushed and panting underneath him, legs shivering like he’d just finished a dance. It would so easy to pin him down, then; to push his aching cock in, even as Satoru squirmed, his pale fingers tangling into the sheets. And Yashiro would fuck him until he’d had his fill, until he—

“This is his office,” Katagiri said, peering through the open door. The desk was empty, and she set her basket down, frowning. “I’m sorry, he’s usually here—I’ll go find him for you, sir.”

Yashiro forced a smile. “Of course. Take your time.”

The girl scampered away. Yashiro released a rough breath, swallowing down air, forcing himself to calm down. He could feel his own heartbeat, fighting against the collar of his shirt, his fingers drumming restlessly against the wall. Losing control so easily, and for such idiotic urges—it could not be allowed to continue. Something had to be done.

He stared down at his feet, his eyes wandering to Katagiri’s laundry basket.

There, poking out from under a sheet, was one of Satoru’s ribbons.

Yashiro’s hand curled into a fist against the wall.

Several minutes later, when Takahashi rushed to his office, he found the viscount patiently standing by one of the bookshelves, cool and relaxed. “Yashiro,” he greeted, patting down the wrinkles in his shirt. “I-I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I apologize for dropping by unannounced,” he replied, turning to the duke’s son with a polite smile. “Do you make it a habit of leaving your office unlocked?”

Takahashi frowned, moving towards his desk. “It’s not like any of them can read, anyway,” he muttered, sinking into his seat. “Is this about last night?”

Yashiro waved him off with a laugh. “Oh, no, of course not,” he lied. “Though I did appreciate your letter. I hope you didn’t take it too seriously—I found it all rather entertaining, in truth.”

“Is that so,” Takahashi muttered, before shrugging. “Well, I’m glad to hear it.”

“Do you have any idea when he’ll be dancing again?” Yashiro asked, pretending to scan the shelves. “I’m trying to arrange my schedule.”

Takahashi leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms and thinking. “I locked him in his room until further notice,” he said, scratching his face. “But if he’s not making me money, it’s just another mouth to feed, so… the day after tomorrow, probably?”

“I’ll make sure I’m available,” Yashiro said, smiling. As long as Satoru wasn’t being sold to someone, nothing else mattered.

“What did you say you wanted to talk about, again?”

“Ah, yes. A petty thief has been stealing from businesses in the area,” Yashiro said. It wasn’t untrue, strictly speaking, but it certainly wasn’t the reason he’d bothered to come all the way here. “I was hoping your people could keep an eye out for anything suspicious. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was where he’s spending his stolen coin.”

“Huh,” Takahashi said, before nodding. “Sure. I’ll let you know if they notice anything.”

“Thank you.”

Yashiro endured through the idle chitchat for as long as he could before excusing himself to take his leave. As he descended the stairs, he could feel the gears in his mind turning, a grin slowly stretching across his face.

He strode out of the front door and straight up to his driver. “I have a job for you.”

It wasn’t the first or the last time. There were the official guards, of course, but Yashiro’s own web of henchmen was a tight-knit thing, a hand of cards he played close to his chest. “How can I be of service, my lord?”

“Come back here tonight,” he said, fingers drumming against the carriage. The viscount himself would spark too many questions. “Buy a girl for the night. Not one of the popular ones. When you’re alone, I want you to make her a deal.”

The basics of the plan were simple. The man listened silently, attentive until the explanation was done. “And what should I offer her in return, sir?”

“The only thing she can use,” Yashiro said, smiling. “Freedom.”

 

 

That night, Yashiro watched the city from the window of his chambers. Heavy clouds had rolled in, hanging low above their heads, snuffing the stars out of the sky. Even the moon couldn’t penetrate the darkness, and the only proof the town was there at all was the candlelight spilling out of every window, winking in orange and golds.

Somewhere out there, his driver was sitting with a whore, whispering promises into her ear.

And farther still, beyond the winding streets, his fastest horseman was racing towards the capital, a royal stamp and a scroll tucked away in his coat.

But Yashiro didn’t think of them now. Instead, his hand drifted to the pocket of his jacket.

Satoru’s ribbon was as soft and he thought it would be. Yashiro cradled it in both hands, running his thumb along the fabric, like a priest caressing the cross. It was a soft, pale blue, thin enough that Yashiro could see the lines of his palms through the fabric. The thread shimmered in the low light, and he released a shaking breath, his entire being aching.

Twisting the ribbon tight around his hand, he buried his nose in. There it was: that delicious mix of sweat and perfume, and Yashiro moaned, leaning into the scent. “Satoru…”

He sank back into his bed, the plush pillows pushing back against his spine. Fumbling with one hand, Yashiro undid the buttons on his pants, fingers wrapping around his length. His breath stuttered, eyes falling shut. He never touched himself like this, had never seen the point of it before—but with Satoru’s smell sliding down his throat, he couldn’t find it in him to resist.

He inhaled again, and could see Satoru as he was that night: eyes blazing in the brothel’s dim light, straddling Yashiro between his thighs.

In the comfort of his chambers, with his hand furiously moving between his legs, Yashiro let himself imagine: the look on Satoru’s face when Yashiro finally touched him, bare palms sliding up his thighs, under his skirt. The sounds he’d make when Yashiro pulled him down onto his waiting cock, eyelashes fluttering as he was stretched open. How he’d grasp at the viscount’s shoulders, moaning, his hips rolling like Yashiro knew they could—

Inhale. Satoru, on his knees in front of him, dragging his tongue along his shaft, hot breaths landing against his skin. Yashiro would tangle his hand into that soft hair, pushing the tip against his thin, wet lips. Satoru would oblige, mouth parting open for him, eager to serve. And Yashiro would be sweet: would rock into him so slowly, listening to every beautiful sound Satoru’s mouth made around his cock, dragging his thumb gently along his smudged eyeliner—

Inhale. Satoru, sprawled out on Yashiro’s bed, hands trapped behind his back. The gag over his mouth would keep him from speaking, but his glare would tell Yashiro everything he needed to know. Even if Satoru kicked and fought, it would be so easy to tear at his clothes, the thin fabric ripping apart in his hands. Satoru had been so confident, so untouchable; Yashiro would wrench him down from that pedestal, pushing his cock inside, muffled cries and ringing bells like music to his ears—

Yashiro dug his heels into his mattress, hips arching. With his free hand, he pressed the ribbon against his cheek. Soft, so soft—just like Satoru’s skin must be. Yashiro had seen the way he flushed, how his neck burned pink when Yashiro prodded him just right. He licked his lips, panting openly, tension building in his stomach.

He wondered what Satoru would think if he saw him now.

Yashiro threw his head back with a loud moan, cum splattering over his stomach.

His body sagged back into the bed, his hand giving one last pull for good measure. He clumsily tugged his collar loose, cool air meeting his overheated skin. His pulse was still beating in his ears, his skin covered in a thick film of sweat and semen—but Yashiro couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so satisfied, like everything in the world was as it should be. He draped his arm across his eyes, and for a long moment, he just floated in it, fingers idly stroking the ribbon at his side.

But it only took a few minutes before reality set in again, his soul aching for more.

His own hand was no replacement for the real thing, after all.

Yashiro sighed, looking over at the clock. It was past midnight, now—less than 48 hours until he saw Satoru.

And after that, he’d never have to wait again.

 

 

Most people thought Yashiro excelled in his profession because he was a skilled murderer. Not so.

It wasn’t the torture that made someone a good inquisitor—though, he supposed, he did have a talent for it. No, it was the deception of it all, lining the little lies up like breadcrumbs for the right person to follow. Sure, he could drag someone in without any evidence—and had done so, when the right person asked him to—but where was the thrill in that?

Yashiro smirked to himself, practically skipping through the halls. His driver had successfully turned one of Takahashi’s whores, a simple girl with pigtails and a permanent scowl. His man assured him she knew what she had to do, which piece of evidence had to go where and when.

Then they turned two more. Yashiro liked to cover his bases.

Meanwhile, the viscount welcomed the King’s personal guard into his home. The soldiers rode into his stables, their uniforms hidden under thick, black cloaks. In the privacy of his manor, Yashiro played his role: a humble servant to the crown, plagued by the weight of his duty. His voice cracked as he wove conspiracies into their ears, tears in his eyes.

It helped that he looked ragged—though it had nothing to do with his work, and everything to do with Satoru’s ribbon, tucked underneath his pillow.

They spent the evening preparing, drawing circles on a map of the town, organizing their supplies. They wouldn’t make their move until the morning, they said, taking the night to rest and prepare. Yashiro was free to do as he pleased.

So he eagerly settled back into his seat in the brothel, foot tapping as he stared at the empty stage. The past few days without Satoru were—productive, he had to admit. But it felt like his soul had been starving to death, until it was little more than a husk crying out for relief. Fucking his own hand was the only thing that had kept him together.

But now, the cure was so close he could almost taste it. His eyes furiously darted the back of the room. Yashiro swallowed down his impatience with grapes and cheese.

After what felt like hours, Yashiro heard that soft little ringing. His head whipped around to look, the knot in his chest immediately falling loose. Satoru looked the same as he always did—untouched and unbruised, no worse for wear from his days in confinement. If anything, he looked more alluring than ever, and Yashiro’s lust-addled brain struggled to commit every exposed inch of skin to memory.

One thing had changed, though. Satoru’s normal ribbons were nowhere to be seen; pink replacements were tacked on to his wrist cuffs instead, and Yashiro smirked to himself, satisfied.

The dancer stepped onto the stage, eyes promptly landing on Yashiro’s table. His body tensed, but not in the way Yashiro knew. Satoru looked away with a frown, but there was no bite to it. If anything, he looked almost embarrassed, his face burning an uncomfortable red. Even his hands were fisted at his sides, his entire stature screaming that he’d rather be anywhere else.

Before he got the opportunity to run and hide, the music started.

The melody was smooth and slow—the kind Yashiro would have expected in a brothel to start with. Satoru shut his eyes and let out a short breath, but forced his body to relax, beginning to sway with the sound. His waist began to steadily twist to the rhythm, then his shoulders, then his feet. He moved like he was dancing around an invisible partner, every step leaving trails in the chalk.

His hands fell to his own hips, fingertips drifting along the gold chains—before they began to crawl up, dragging over his bare stomach, up past his poor excuse for a shirt. His palms slid up his own neck, into his hair—and Yashiro found himself losing the ability to think. But he didn’t care, couldn’t care, not when Satoru was staring at him from the stage like that, eyes half-lidded and mouth parted open, worse than Yashiro had ever dared to imagine.

This wasn’t his normal dancing. This was seduction, and Yashiro wasn’t sure he would survive it.

A leg stretched out, and Satoru bent down low, his fingertips brushing against his exposed thigh.

Sex isn’t the only reason to dance, he had said, once. It’s just the only one you people seem to care about.

Of course. Being locked in his room wasn’t the only freedom Satoru had lost. No wonder he looked so flustered: before, he’d been able to dance however he wanted—but this wasn’t Satoru’s choice. This was his master’s doing, and it might be the most useful thing Takahashi had ever done.

Satoru was facing away from him now, his arms extended to either side, delicate wrists turning to the light drumbeat. Yashiro’s eyes trailed down his spine, past his hips, to the part hidden by the folds of his skirt. One gloved hand was still holding on to his wine—but the other was clenching at the sofa beneath him, the wood frame crying out under his grip.

Satoru looked over his shoulder, dark hair falling into his eyes, and Yashiro had to bite back a moan.

The music was picking up speed, like it was trying to race his heartbeat. Satoru began to move faster, spinning around in a whirlwind, his arms held high above his head. He danced like temptation incarnate, a bead of sweat dripping down his slender neck. He licked his lips, just to wet them, and Yashiro’s toes curled in his boots.

It was pure torture—he would know. This dancer had ruined him, and he probably had no idea. Yashiro shifted in his seat, as if that could stop the blood that was rapidly rushing between his legs.

Finally, the music ended—and Satoru stood in the spotlight, panting openly, his ribbons finally falling still. Hollers and jeers filled the air, and the coins swiftly followed, cheap change landing at Satoru’s feet. As always, he bent down to collect what little he’d earned. Yashiro took the opportunity to cross his legs and try to think of anything except Satoru, who was right in front of him, on his knees.

At last, the dancer staggered up to his table, his cheeks a feverish shade of pink. Yashiro could think of much better ways to get him so spent. None of them involved dancing.

“I need some water,” Satoru said, his voice breathy as he set his coins down. “I’ll be right back.”

And before Yashiro could stop him, he was gone.

While Yashiro knew it wasn’t a lie—he’d left his money behind, after all—it didn’t stop him from rising to his feet. He pushed through the tables, as drunk as the rest of the crowd, leaving his untouched drink behind.

He found Satoru in one of the back rooms, leaning above an open barrel. Yashiro watched as he skimmed a ladle across the water’s surface before bringing it to his lips, his throat bobbing. Some spilled out of the corner of his mouth, sliding down his chin. Satoru let out a heavy breath, sluggishly wiping at his face with the back of his hand.

Yashiro hovered in the doorway, holding his breath. Satoru dipped down for another drink, and the viscount held his breath, hand curling into a fist at his side. His eyes raked over the arch of that spine, the slope of his neck, the way Satoru’s mouth curled around the edge of the ladle. After so many days without, after that sinful excuse for a dance, this—it was too much for one man to take.

Possessed by their own will, his feet crossed the distance, his shadow falling across the floorboards.

Satoru’s eyes snapped to him, like a snake striking from the shadows. “I said I’d be right back.”

Yashiro detangled his tongue. “It’s easier to talk back here, isn’t it?” he asked, stepping closer. “It’s quieter. More private.”

The flat of the spoon landed against Yashiro’s chest. Satoru’s eyes narrowed, his arm extended like a fencer who’d just won a bout, aggressively guarding the gap between them. It was a silent, if unsubtle warning, and Yashiro grinned openly at the audacity of it.

Satoru just glared back, hand shifting around his makeshift weapon. “Someone’s probably stealing your wine.”

“It’s watered down anyway.”

“My money, then.”

“I’ll repay you.”

Satoru’s jaw clenched. Yashiro could feel a wet patch growing on his shirt. “Why did you follow me?” he asked.

Yashiro gave a short laugh, hands sliding into his pockets. He wished he had an answer, but ultimately, it was just because he’d wanted to. Somehow, he got the sense Satoru wouldn’t appreciate that. “I have a question for you.”

The dancer frowned, circumspect. “What is it?”

Yashiro leaned forward ever so slightly, pressing against the wet ladle. His voice dipped to a quiet purr, barely more than a whisper in the dark. “If you could leave this place behind,” he asked, “would you?”

For a brief second, Satoru’s eyes widened, taken aback—but his face settled into a light frown, the gears turning in his head. Satoru’s fingers shifted against the handle, and the pressure on Yashiro’s chest eased, just a little bit. “As a slave, you mean.”

So clever. “Yes, I suppose so.”

Satoru watched him, gaze darting across Yashiro’s face, before letting his arm fall. “No.”

Now it was Yashiro’s turn to be surprised. “No?”

Satoru turned away from him then, setting the spoon down on the barrel’s lid. “No.”

Yashiro’s fists clenched at his sides. “Why?” Surely Satoru didn’t enjoy being paraded around like a whore for men’s enjoyment, even if that man was him.

The dancer sighed, as if he were dealing with a particularly annoying child. “You were right about one thing. I’ve been a slave for a long time,” he said. “Which means I’ve been sold enough times to know that change isn’t always good.” He pressed his lips together, staring at a point on the wall. “It’s almost always worse.”

Yashiro watched him, considering. “You’re not satisfied like this.”

“Of course not,” he said, his shoulders tight. “But I’m alive. It’s more than most of us get.”

The viscount hummed at that. He knew Satoru had been a slave long before he’d arrived here, but Yashiro had never considered what that history entailed: how many places Satoru had been, the things he must have seen. He wondered how many corpses Satoru had to step over, to make it this far. The idea sent a thrill up Yashiro’s spine.

A burst of laughter came from the front rooms, bawdy and loud. “We should get back,” Satoru said.

Yashiro grit his teeth. No, this wouldn’t do—even now, in the privacy of this room, it was taking everything he had not to just grab Satoru and run. He wouldn’t be able to make it through the evening, at this rate. And he couldn’t have that, couldn’t risk it all, not when he was so close.

He took out his pocket watch and pretended to care about the time. “Unfortunately,” he said, “I’m afraid I have to take my leave.”

Satoru raised an eyebrow, skeptical. “Really.”

“I have some business in the morning,” he said, smiling as he tucked the watch back into his coat. Satoru’s expression soured, no doubt imagining the worst. “But I will see you tomorrow.”

“If you insist,” he mumbled, and Yashiro laughed.

 

 

The next morning was, by all accounts, perfect. Dawn hadn’t yet broken, but the last of the stars had been squeezed out of the sky as it shifted to a soft, misty blue. Thin clouds glowed orange and pink above their heads, heralding the coming sun. Even the air felt glorious: fresh and wet with just a hint of chill, like morning dew on the lungs.

Yashiro breathed it in with a smile, his horse pawing at the dirt beneath him.

All around him, the King’s soldiers sat on their own steeds, armour shifting as they fastened swords to their hips. But there was a quiet murmur coursing through the regiment—the naïve excitement and anticipation that could only come from idiots with heavy weaponry. Yashiro ignored it and slipped his hand into his pocket, stroking Satoru’s ribbon with his fingertips.

A few of his own men were clustered around him, adorned in black and silent like the dead. The captain of the King’s guard cut through them, pulling up next to him. “I hope you’re right about this, viscount.”

“I am.” He’d made sure of it.

The servants pulled the gates open. The captain raised his hand, and the soldiers fell silent, their saddles creaking under their weight.

Then, with nothing more than a flick of his wrist, it began.

The captain led the stampede, his men following close behind, spilling out into the city like a flood. Their hooves hit the streets like rolling thunder, the sound bouncing through the back alleys. Yashiro held fast to his reins, letting himself get carried with the current of the charge, galloping among the King’s prized stallions.

Half a dozen men broke rank, disappearing down one of the main roads. Another detachment followed, then another as the soldiers scattered into town. He paid them no mind—he knew where he was going. He knew the way by heart, and Yashiro rode until it was only the captain and a handful of men by his side, right up to the brothel’s doors.

Their horses skidded to a stop, hooves sliding over the cobblestones. The soldiers leapt from their saddles, swords drawn. Yashiro frowned, turning to the captain as they kicked the door open. “I thought there wasn’t supposed to be bloodshed,” he said.

The commander looked over from atop his own horse, unimpressed. “You’re the inquisitor.”

His mare shifted underneath him, anxious. “It just seems like a waste.”

Even from outside, he could hear it: the pounding of the soldier’s feet as they stormed up the stairs, the surprised shouts of women suddenly pulled from their beds. Not long after, the first of the whores stumbled out of the door. Yashiro watched as they were pushed outside, some of them clutching blankets around their shoulders, corralled by the soldier’s blades.

Katagiri came first, her hair mussed from sleep with little more than a thin nightdress on. But Satoru wasn’t far behind, scowling as he was shoved out the door. He was still in his dancing clothes, ribbons dragging through the dirt, and Yashiro felt sweet satisfaction curling in his stomach.

Satoru’s head turned towards the captain, before landing on Yashiro himself. “You—!”

A guard shoved him towards the crowd. “Move it!”

Satoru stumbled into line next to Katagiri. She reached down, wrapping her hand around his clenched fist—but Satoru didn’t look away, still glaring in Yashiro’s direction, all hellfire and fury. Yashiro smiled back.

Finally, the soldiers dragged the young master out. Takahashi was barely dressed, the strings of his pants open and shirt in disarray. A guard was on each arm, pulling him out the brothel, even as he kicked and yelled, digging his heels in. “My father will hear of this!” he said, head swivelling back and forth between them, panicked. “M-my father—"

They dropped him down in front of the horses. Takahashi lurched to his feet, chest heaving and sweat pouring off his skin. “Viscount Yashiro!” he said, his eyes tearing up with relief. “Thank god! Tell them, please, this is all—”

“Quiet,” the captain growled. Takahashi’s mouth snapped shut. “You’re the duke’s son?”

“Yes!” he cried, shoulders sagging. “Yes, exactly!”

“Good.” The captain lifted his head, raising his voice. “You’ve been accused of high treason for conspiracy against the crown. How do you plead?”

The colour drained out of Takahashi’s face. “W-what?” he muttered, shaking his head. “No, that’s—I wouldn’t! Never!”

A shrill voice screamed: “Liar!”

The captain raised his head, looking out into the crowd. “Who spoke?”

A slave girl, her hair pulled into pigtails, stepped forward. Yashiro buried his grin.

“I heard him, sirs,” she said, wiping at the tears in her eyes. She was a good liar. He supposed most whores had to be. “In the early hours. Some men would come by his office, and they were talking about—about—” Her voice hiccupped. “K-killing the king.”

“It’s true!” Another girl pipped up from the crowd. “I saw them! The duke was there, too!”

“Me too!”

In front of them, Takahashi’s mouth gaped like a dead fish, his knees quaking underneath him. “W-why—?”

“Sir!” A soldier stepped out the brothel’s open door. He jogged up to his commander’s side, speaking quietly. “We found these in the office.”

Yashiro watched as a familiar stack of papers changed hands. The captain flipped through them, expression darkening with each page.

Finally, he handed them back to his subordinate, his voice low. “I think I’ve seen enough.”

“I-I don’t know what those are!” Takahashi cried, like a strangled dog. He fell to his knees before them, shaking. “Please, kind sirs—there must have been some kind of mistake, I—"

The hilt of a sword slammed into the back of his head. Takahashi fell forward, his forehead slamming against the stones. One of the guards wrestled him down as he screamed—or maybe sobbed. Probably both. Yashiro watched for a moment, but quick grew bored of the display, turning to the captain instead. “What now?”

“I will rejoin my men at the Duke’s residence,” he said, his voice gruff. “Once we have him and their accomplices, we’ll hang the lot of them. I take it you can handle things from here?”

“Of course,” the viscount said, ducking his head. “It would be an honour.”

Takahashi was thrown over the back of saddle, arms and ankles bound. The slaves stepped back to make way, watching warily—but no one shed a single tear for their master. They didn’t even look away. With unfeeling eyes, they watched as their so-called keeper was damned to death, leaning into each other like bees swarming around their hive.

Yashiro smirked to himself. To think, he only got involved because the duke was worried about the slaves turning on his son. It was funny, how things worked out sometimes.

The captain dug his heels into his stallion’s sides, and the animal took off down the street. The rest of the soldiers followed suit, Takahashi’s limp body bouncing against a horse’s rump. Yashiro’s own mare snorted at their backs.

He waited until he could no longer hear the sound of their hooves. All around him, Yashiro’s own henchmen and guards silently dismounted from their steeds. One of them approached his side, his voice a quiet whisper. “What now, sire?”

His eyes raked over the crowd. Satoru alone met his gaze, his blue eyes beautiful in the light of day.

Yashiro smiled. “Bring him to me.”

Satoru froze, but Katagiri charged.

“No!” she yelled, her fist slamming into the face of the nearest guard. She jerked her hand back for another blow, blood coating her knuckles. The man stumbled back, his hands flying to his nose—and a second charged in from behind, grabbing a fistful of her hair. He tried to yank her back, but the girl roared like a wild animal, her elbow colliding with his stomach. “Satoru, run!”

“Airi!” Satoru rushed forward, aiming for the man who had Katagiri by the head. One of Yashiro’s men caught him around the stomach instead, wrestling him back. A punch struck Katagiri in the face, sending her crashing to the ground—and Satoru clawed at the guard’s arms, trying to fight his way free, twisting in his grip. “Leave her alone! Airi!

It took two more men to pin the bloodied girl down, smashing her face into the ground, and another two to hold Satoru back. The dancer shouted profanities as he was pulled away from the crowd, his legs kicking at the air. A guard grabbed at each of his arms, holding him steady as they hauled him over to Yashiro’s waiting smile.

Satoru glared up at him, murder in his eyes and lips twisted into a rabid snarl. He looked stunning.

“You bastard,” he spat, straining against the guards. “What have you done?!”

Yashiro’s smile widened. Satoru was so quick, already wise to Yashiro’s little schemes. He should have expected as much—the dancer could never disappoint Yashiro like that. Grinning, he leaned down in his saddle, his gloved hand brushing against the dancer’s cheek. Satoru recoiled as if it burned. Adorable.

Yashiro straightened in his seat, schooling his face into a scowl and nodding to his men. “Take him to the cellar.”

Satoru’s pretty face drained of colour, and Katagiri howled into the dirt.

The guards began to pull, but the dancer stubbornly dug his feet in, trying to wrench himself free. “Let me go!” he yelled, heels scraping over the stones. Someone approached with rope. “Yashiro, you—!”

A gag was forced past his teeth, and Yashiro indulged himself and watched as Satoru tried to fight the inevitable. One of the remaining guards—the one Katagiri had struck, judging by the blood on his face—sidled up to him. “What should we do with the rest of them?”

Regrettably, Yashiro’s turned his attention to the crowd of slaves, and Katagiri, still pinned in her own blood splatter. “Put them in some cells for now,” he said. “I’ll decide what to do with them later.”

He had more pressing issues to attend to, after all.

 

 

When Yashiro returned to his manor, the first thing he did was draw a bath.

He didn’t ride often, and when he did, it was more of a leisurely trot in the woods—not a full-on gallop through the city, like he’d done this morning. Yashiro took the care to scrub the dust and sweat off his skin, running sweet-smelling soap through his hair and combing out the knots in a way he hoped was pleasing. As he dried, he cleaned underneath his fingernails, clipping them short. It was only polite.

There was, unfortunately, some work he had to attend to. The King’s guard said they would handle the pomp and circumstance of the execution—but that didn’t mean there weren’t logistical issues to be solved. In total, twelve men were set to die for their role in Takahashi’s “plot”—more than had ever been executed at once under Yashiro’s tenure.

Which meant they were short on gallows. Not to mention that more space had to be cleared in the town square, and notices sent to the public to inform them of the duke’s treason. The actual time of the hangings still had to be set, as well. The whole affair was more paperwork than Yashiro would have liked, but that was government, he supposed.

He finished up over a light lunch of bread and fruit, before delegating the rest to his subordinates.

Only then did he finally leave his office, bounding down the stairs and through the cellar door.

Yashiro closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The stale, cold air met him like an old friend, and he turned the lock closed behind him. The mechanism settled into place with a loud, rusted clang. The sound bounced off the stone walls before tumbling into the dark below. Yashiro descended after it, his boots clicking against the stone steps as he went.

His feet found the bottom, and he let out a happy sigh.

There, surrounded by the soft torchlight, was Satoru.

The ropes around his wrists had been hoisted onto the ceiling hook. It was a bit too tall for him, his heels hovering just off the ground—but like this, nothing could be hidden. Yashiro could see his entire body stretched out before him on display, an absolute feast for the senses. His chest was beating fast, like a hummingbird, the muscles of his stomach fluttering with every breath. Despite the chill, there was a thin sheen of sweat on his skin, shining in the low light.

Satoru slowly turned his head his way, eyes narrowed, his breath fast around the gag in his mouth.

Yashiro smiled at him. “I apologize for the rude welcome,” he said, walking over to a desk in the corner of the room. “Ideally, I would have invited you here under… better circumstances.”

Satoru huffed behind his gag, his hands flexing above his head. Yashiro draped his blazer against the back of the chair and started unbuttoning his vest. “I hope you don’t get the wrong impression, Satoru. I have no ill-will towards you.” His smile stretched. “Quite the opposite, actually.”

The vest joined his jacket, until all that was left was his thin linen shirt. Yashiro rolled his shoulders, feeling them stretch. Pulling up his sleeves, he casually strolled towards his wine collection. There was a bottle he’d been saving for a special occasion, and Yashiro plucked it from its place on the rack, brushing the dust off.

The cork came loose with a small pop. Satoru jumped at the sound.

“Can I offer you a drink?” Yashiro asked, pouring himself a glass. “It’s much better than whatever they sold at that cesspool, I can assure you.”

Satoru didn’t answer, of course. Yashiro claimed his drink, sauntering closer—and Satoru immediately tensed, his feet bracing against the floor as he tried to scramble backwards, snarling something behind his gag. He didn’t get very far, but the effort was… cute. Yashiro stopped in front of him, watching the furious way he glared, taking a long, leisurely sip.

Then, with his free hand, he reached behind the dancer’s head. The gag fell loose from Satoru’s mouth with a slow droop, a long trail of saliva following in its wake. Yashiro watched those wet lips swallow down air, before asking: “Better?”

Satoru’s voice was hoarse. “What do you want with me?”

He pressed the goblet to his lips. “Drink.”

Satoru frowned, squeezing his eyes shut and wrapping his lips around the rim. Yashiro tipped the cup forward, letting the wine spill into Satoru’s mouth. His thin throat bobbed with every sip, until he suddenly coughed, turning his head away. Yashiro pulled the cup back, and Satoru panted openly, red running down his chin.

Yashiro pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, pressing it to Satoru’s face. “Careful, now.”

Satoru sneered, leaning away from the touch. “Is this a strategy of yours?” he growled. “Getting your victims drunk?”

“Ha,” Yashiro smirked, pulling away. “No. It may make things easier for you, though.”

“Are you going to kill me?”

There was that refreshing bluntness he’d come to adore. Yashiro took another deep sip of his wine, running his tongue over where Satoru’s lips had been before setting it down on the table. “I meant what I said,” he explained. “I have no intention of harming you.”

“Then why am I here?”

That was the question, wasn’t it? Yashiro didn’t know the answer himself, not really. His feet carried him back over, slowly circling, like a predator assessing its prey. “I appreciated our conversations,” he said, raking his eyes up Satoru’s legs, down his waist. “But there’s something else I want from you.”

“Something… else?”

Yashiro stopped behind his back, hovering a hair’s breadth from his captured prize. “Yes, Satoru,” he whispered. His fingers reached out, gently brushing at a lock of his hair, feeling the soft strands against his skin. “Something else.”

There was a beat of silence—then Satoru jerked away violently, the chains above them ringing, his own breath suddenly fast and frantic. “You—you’re,” he started, tugging at his wrists, “if you touch me, I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” he asked, grabbing a fistful of his hair. Satoru hissed as his head was pulled back, and Yashiro dipped low, whispering into his ear. “You should think more about the situation you’re in, Satoru.”

The dancer grit his teeth. “You’re a monster.”

“So you’ve said,” he muttered, before turning to bury his face into his hair. Yashiro inhaled deeply, releasing a heavy breath. There it was: that light floral scent that he’d been craving, turned heady with Satoru’s sweat and fear. The things it did to him. Yashiro moaned openly, his free hand coming up to caress the dancer’s jaw. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to do anything.”

Satoru opened his mouth, ready to snap back—but then Yashiro’s lips were on his neck, and a soft little gasp came out instead. Yashiro grinned against his skin, dragging his teeth over his throat, tasting it with his tongue. Satoru tried to wrench his head away, but Yashiro kept his grip tight, holding him firmly in place.

It was so soft, so warm and alive. Yashiro shuddered, his hips pressing forward into Satoru’s back. As he pulled away from that beautiful neck, and his hands slowly made their way down, settling on the dancer’s exposed waist. “You have no idea,” he moaned, “how much I’ve wanted this.”

Satoru hissed as Yashiro’s palms spread across his stomach. His body tried to squirm away, but there was nowhere to go—and Yashiro’s fingers moved higher, his thumbs brushing against the hem of his thin shirt. “How I just had to sit there,” he muttered, “pretending I didn’t want to take you, right where you were standing.”

His fingers slipped under the edge of the clothing, pushing his shirt up. Satoru bit back a noise, his eyes squeezing shut. “D-don’t—!”

“Shh,” Yashiro cooed, burying his face into Satoru’s hair again. “Let me touch you.”

He’d been denied long enough. Now, Yashiro took his time, his fingers slowly roaming across the flat plane of Satoru’s chest. His fingertips pressed into his skin, grasping at whatever he could, memorizing every dip and curve. His thumbs brushed against his nipples, and he was rewarded with the most beautiful sound as Satoru moaned, a shiver going through his entire body.

Yashiro grinned into his hair, running his hands across his pale skin, then back down to his stomach, before climbing back up again. His fingers toyed with his nipples, gently twisting and tugging, lavishing them with attention. His lips pressed against the nape of his neck, lightly biting at the skin there, just to hear Satoru’s breath hitch.

He could spend the rest of his life doing this, but Yashiro forced himself to step back. He had to take this slowly—had to make this last. It would be a waste, otherwise.

Yashiro moved in front of Satoru again and took in his handiwork. The dancer’s shirt was bunched up under his neck, his chest and stomach exposed. The skin was flushed, some parts redder where Yashiro had taken extra care. Yashiro cupped the dancer’s cheeks with both his hands. “You look beautiful,” he assured him.

“Fuck you,” Satoru hissed, trying to tug his head free.

Yashiro smirked, and dragged a thumb along Satoru’s bottom lip. “Such a dirty mouth,” he said, leaning closer. Satoru’s brows furrowed as Yashiro toyed with his lips, pushing a thumb inside, swiping against his wet teeth. “The things I’ve imagined doing to it.”

Satoru’s eyes flared, and Yashiro leaned in.

It wasn’t quite a kiss—not with Satoru trying to wrench away from him like that—but he managed to press their lips together. Satoru huffed and squirmed, his legs kicking at Yashiro to try to make distance. But the viscount didn’t move: he just held Satoru’s head in his hands and forced their faces together, openly moaning as his tongue prodded at his closed mouth.

It was sloppy, and desperate, and absolutely exhilarating. Yashiro pulled back eventually, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Maybe he’ll get a proper kiss next time.

But for now, he fell to one knee. Satoru’s eyes widened above him, stepping away. Yashiro’s hands shot out like a snake, grabbing at his calves and dragging them back. “I want to be gentle with you, Satoru,” he said, his voice thick, even to his own ears. His thumbs stroked circles in his skin soothingly, even as they climbed higher with every pass. “Just, let me—”

One hand reached up, grabbing a fistful of his skirt. Satoru flinched, and Yashiro’s other hand squeezed at his knee, a silent warning. Slowly, he lifted the fabric, until there was nothing left for Satoru to hide. His legs, thick from a lifetime of dancing, twitched under the stare.

Yashiro sighed, and dove in.

Satoru gave a short cry as Yashiro’s tongue found the inside of his thigh. He let the skirt go, letting it settle on top of him like a tent as his hands grasped the back of Satoru’s legs. It was so smooth, so soft and strong—Yashiro licked a long stripe up, and Satoru made a sound like a sob, legs shaking around him. The scent of musk was stronger here, and Yashiro chased it upwards, a man possessed.

His tongue brushed against the dancer’s length.

“A-ah!” Satoru cried, squirming. “S-stop—!”

Yashiro didn’t. He mouthed at the flesh between Satoru’s legs, licking and sucking at his cock, pulling those beautiful moans loose. He could feel Satoru’s body trembling underneath him, the pleasure echoing through his bones. Yashiro pulled back to catch his breath, biting marks into the soft skin of his thighs. “You’re being so good for me, Satoru.”

“No,” Satoru whined, as Yashiro dove in for another taste. “G-get off—"

He said that, but Yashiro could feel him getting closer, his tightly-wound body quivering underneath Yashiro’s tongue. So he moved faster, lapping at the skin there, tasting the salty sweetness of Satoru’s sweat. Somewhere above him, Satoru whimpered, and Yashiro saw stars.

Just a little bit more, and Satoru would—would—

Yashiro ripped himself away, emerging from underneath Satoru’s skirt, panting. No—if Satoru was going to come, it was when Yashiro was inside of him. The viscount pushed himself to his feet, letting the cold cellar air settle on his overheated skin.

Looking at him now, Satoru was absolutely ruined. His face was flushed and feverish, cheeks wet with tears—but his eyes were unfocused, a mix of fear and lust as his body was pushed to the very edge without release. His legs might as well have buckled underneath him, for all the good they were doing him now.

Still, he gave a half-hearted pull at his wrists. As if Yashiro would ever let him go.

The viscount’s hand found its way into his pocket. He pulled out a small bottle of oil, pouring it over his shaking fingers. Satoru’s bleary eyes zeroed in on the it, snapping to attention. “W-what’re—?”

“You worked in a whorehouse, didn’t you?” Yashiro said, pressing up against the dancer’s front. His clean hand reached around his waist, grabbing at the back of his skirt. “Guess.”

“No!” Satoru jerked away, and Yashiro pulled him in closer, pinning him against his chest. “Don’t you—touch me—!”

Yashiro remembered that first night, when Satoru first said those words, defiantly dancing away from his hands. Not anymore. He hiked the dancer’s skirt up, until it was bundled around his hips, his backside exposed to Yashiro’s slick fingers. “Just relax, Satoru,” he murmured, sliding his hand down. Yashiro took a second just to stroke the soft skin there, his finger swirling around the rim. “It’ll be over soon.”

“No,” Satoru whispered. The defiance in his voice was waning, something like fear trickling into his tone. The sound went straight to Yashiro’s cock. “D-don’t—”

He pushed the finger in. Satoru’s entire body jerked against him, a strangled noise escaping his throat. God, of course—Satoru was a dancer, but still, he was so unimaginably, deliciously tight. Yashiro shuddered, inhaling the smell of Satoru’s shampoo as he pushed the finger in further, twisting and flexing inside.

“A-ah!” Satoru moaned, his head pitching forward, pressing against Yashiro’s shoulder. “T-take it—out—!”

“That’s it,” Yashiro whispered, encouraging. His finger pulled out just far enough for a second to join it. Both fingers gently stroked at his entrance, coaxing him into submission. “Just let it happen.”

His fingers pushed back in. Satoru gasped, panting against Yashiro’s shirt, the linen turning damp. “No,” he panted again, the sound turning into a whimper as the viscount’s fingers stretched apart. Slowly, Yashiro began to work him open, forcing Satoru’s body to take what the dancer had so desperately tried to deny.

Satoru’s hips tried to writhe away from it, but that just pushed him up against the bulge in Yashiro’s pants, grinding against his erection. Yashiro’s let out a little moan of his own as he pushed back, pinning Satoru’s waist between his fingers and his cock, rutting into him at both ends. With his free hand, Yashiro tipped Satoru’s chin. “Look at you,” he said, breathless. “You were made for this.”

Made for him. Satoru tried to glare, keeping up that cute little defiance—but it didn’t last long when Yashiro’s fingers were fucking in and out of him. Yashiro smirked, watching as Satoru’s face curled in discomfort, his mouth twisted shut. It was cute, how he didn’t want to give Yashiro the satisfaction of hearing him moan. As if Yashiro would leave here anything but satisfied.

His fingers pulled out. Yashiro wiped them off on Satoru’s skirt. “That should be enough.”

It would have to be, because he couldn’t wait any more. Yashiro pulled at the string on his pants, finally freeing his aching cock. Satoru resolutely refused to look, staring at somewhere over Yashiro’s shoulder, his eyes wet. No matter—he’d get well-acquainted with it soon enough.

Yashiro moved behind him, his hands settling on Satoru’s waist. The dancer immediately tried to jerk away from it, but Yashiro pulled him back, his toes skidding against the cellar floor. “Let go!”

Yashiro leaned forward, pressing his lips to the back of Satoru’s neck. The tip of his cock nudged against Satoru’s slick hole, twitching. “You have no idea,” he murmured, “how much I’ve dreamed of this.”

He could feel Satoru’s heartbeat under his lips. “W-wait—”

He didn’t.

Yashiro pushed his way inside, a deep, guttural moan bursting out of his mouth. It was everything he’d ever wanted—so warm and tight around his cock, hugging him tight. Satoru let out a cry, trying to squirm away from it, but it only made Yashiro want him more. His hands grasped at Satoru’s hips and pulled him in, forcing himself deeper, stopping only when he was fully seated inside, buried to the hilt.

“That’s it,” he muttered, staring down at the place where their bodies met. Satoru’s shoulders were shaking, short hiccups popping out of his throat. Yashiro pulled out, watching the way Satoru’s body stretched around him—before he plunged forward again, feeling every inch as it welcomed him in.

Yashiro took his time, slowly fucking him open, relishing in his victory. There he was: Satoru—so proud, so beautiful and stubborn and untouchable—shaking and moaning around his cock. The ultimate prize to be won, and Yashiro had him all to himself. The viscount let out a happy sigh, adjusting his grip on Satoru’s hips, holding him steady.

He’d held back long enough.

Yashiro thrust into him, setting a brutal pace, his cock roughly driving in and out. He fucked him like he’d always imagined he could, chasing his own ecstasy without a second thought, his own moans bouncing across the cellar walls. Satoru gasped against him, trying to twist himself away, but there was no escape—Yashiro forced his way into him again and again, the concepts like slow and gentle forgotten.

“A-ah!” Satoru panted, his hands curling into fists. “Y-Yashiro—!”

The sound of his name only spurred him on, his fingers gripping at him tighter, moving faster. Sweat was building on Yashiro’s brow, his own breaths ragged and dry, but he didn’t care. Not when he could feel Satoru clenching around him, his back arching like he was trying to drive Yashiro wild. A short cry burst out of the dancer’s mouth with every thrust, his whole body trembling, balanced on his toes.

Yashiro pushed himself forward, as far in as he could go, his cock twitching inside of Satoru. Not coming, not yet—but he stayed there for a second, just to feel how Satoru squirmed against the feeling of Yashiro’s cock, filling him up to the brim. “St-stop—”

A small laugh burst out of Yashiro’s mouth, verging on the hysterical. If he could stop, he would have done it a long time ago. Instead, he kept fucking into him, his skin slapping against Satoru’s ass. “How does it feel?”

Satoru’s face twisted, his head shaking—but he was never a good liar. Yashiro could feel the way Satoru’s spine pressed back against him, twisting with a moan, his toes curling against the cellar floor. His untouched cock pushed at his skirt, begging for attention—and Yashiro could never deny Satoru anything. His hand slipped between the folds, grasping blindly until he heard his dancer whine.

“Don’t,” Satoru panted, writhing. “I-I’m—”

An arm snaked around his waist, pulling Satoru back against his chest. The pressure was building inside of him, and Yashiro dragged his teeth along that slim neck, sucking marks into his skin. “That’s it,” he whispered again, his thrusts turning shallow, erratic, chasing that high. “Just let go.”

Something like a sob fell from his mouth—but Yashiro felt the instant Satoru came, that tight heat going stiff around his cock. Yashiro fucked him through his orgasm, murmuring praise into his ear, cum coating his fingers.

Satoru’s head finally fell back against his shoulder, his body going limp as Yashiro continued to use him. His wet hand grasped at his thigh, his stomach, his exposed chest; he mouthed as the side of the dancer’s face, tasting the salt on his cheeks and kissing at his jaw. “Oh, Satoru,” he breathed, “Almost there, Satoru—”

Both his arms wrapped around the dancer, crushing him close. Yashiro buried his face in the crook of his neck, hips stuttering into him one last time. Satoru’s breath caught as Yashiro came inside him, groaning loudly into the crook of his neck.

His hips arched forward, giving a few parting thrusts to wring himself dry. Every sleepless night poured out of him in thick, white spurts, the sweetest relief he’d ever known.

For a long moment, Yashiro just stood there, hugging Satoru as semen leaked out around his cock. His hand rubbed soothing circles into his stomach, silent praise for a job well done.

When he finally pulled away, he couldn’t resist one last look. With both hands, he spread Satoru’s ass apart—the dancer flinched, half-heartedly trying to pull away. But he couldn’t hide the oil and cum creeping down his thighs. Yashiro sighed, satisfied, before letting go. Satoru’s skirt fell back down, hiding that delicious view—but he’d seen enough. For tonight.

Tucking himself back into his pants, Yashiro moved to his work bench. His tools were all there where he left them, and he picked up his knife, wrapping his hand around the familiar weight.

Satoru didn’t say a thing as Yashiro sawed through the ropes on his wrists. The cords fell loose, and Satoru fell with them, sinking down to the cold, stone floor. Red lines were burned into his wrists, but he didn’t seem to notice; his legs curled closer to his stomach, muscles spasming in the aftershocks of their lovemaking.

Yashiro crouched down next to him, his knife balanced between his fingers. “You did well.”

From under sweat-soaked bangs, Satoru glared at him, his lips pressed into a line. “Are you going to kill me now?”

The viscount stared down at him, surprised—before his face melted into a fond smile. “No. I won’t kill you, Satoru,” he assured him, fondly brushing his hand through his hair. “I’m going to keep you.”

Satoru’s eyes widened. Somehow, that seemed to scare him more.

 

 

Yashiro melted into the couches of his sitting room, satisfied in a way he hadn’t known in years.

After their courtship, he’d helped Satoru climb the steps, coaxing him back into the light. The maids met them outside the door, and Yashiro left his lover in their care, with instructions to give him a hot bath and something to eat. Satoru didn’t look back even once as the women led him down the hall, whispering softly as they supported his weight.

Yashiro watched them go, a hollow feeling spreading in his chest. It would fade, in time. He’d had the servants prepare a suite in advance: a beautiful room with soft sheets and its own tub, not too far from Yashiro’s own chambers. Satoru would never be far from him again.

There was only one last thing to do. A guard appeared at the door, bowing low. “I brought her, sir.”

Yashiro straightened in his seat. “Let her in.”

Somehow, Katagiri looked worse than she did before. A dark bruise was developing in the middle of her face, one cheek swollen and inflamed. Her nightdress was still caked in dirt and crusted blood. Someone had given her shoes, at least, probably for the express purpose of not muddying up his floors. They were several sizes too big.

She took in the doorway, her hands clenched at her sides. Yashiro smiled warmly and waved her in. “Young Katagiri,” he greeted, motioning to the opposite seat. “Please, join me.”

Her throat bobbed, thick with fear—but she did as she was told, sitting stiffly on the plush sofa. Yashiro poured water from the pitcher into a glass, pushing it in her direction. “I do apologize for this morning,” he said, the picture of remorse. “I had hoped to avoid such an… ugly outcome.”

Her hands curled around the cup, and after a second of deliberation, she guzzled it down in one go. Only when it was empty did she set it back down, her eyes like steel. “Where’s Satoru?”

“Upstairs,” he said, nonchalant. “Resting, in one of my guest rooms. He had quite a morning.”

Katagiri stared at him, her eyebrows knotting. “But—you said…”

“The cellar?” he asked, smiling. “I hope you understand, I never intended to torture Satoru. I just needed to… remove him from the equation.” He refilled her glass. “Treason is nasty business, as you can guess. And when it comes to routing traitors, the King would rather go too far than not far enough.”

“W-we didn’t have anything to do with that!” she said, leaning forward, suddenly desperate. “We—”

Yashiro held up a hand. Her voice died. “I know that,” he assured her, “but did you think they did?” He leaned back, crossing his legs at the knee. “You were his second-in-command. And Satoru received special attention. Who knows what they could have thought?” He opened his hands, shrugging. “The safest place for you was in my custody. Though I had hoped to avoid the unnecessary violence.”

She frowned, staring down at her lap. “But I thought…”

“I know what you thought,” he said. “It’s no matter.”

She was silent for a moment, twisting her ruined dress with her fingers. “What happens now?”

“With Duke Takahashi and his heir dead, I’ve seized all of his assets. The brothel, the slaves—and your debt.” He smiled, threading his hands together. “Which means you are in my service.”

Katagiri looked vaguely sick, her face pale and tense. “D-doing what, exactly?”

“Satoru belongs to me now,” he said. The words sent a thrill of pleasure creeping up his spine. “I thought I would keep him here. A personal dancer, if you will.” He leaned forward, elbows balanced on his knees. “I thought he could use an attendant.”

And a leash. Satoru was so stubborn and proud; Yashiro didn’t have any illusions about that. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but he would try to bite back, somehow. He may even try to run. But if Yashiro had Katagiri—if the girl was tethered to his side—Satoru wouldn’t leave. He wouldn’t dare.

The dancer might as well be eating out of his hand.

“Oh,” Katagiri said, blinking. “That’s… all?”

“That’s all,” he said, beaming at her. “Does that sound fair to you?”

“Y-yes!” she stuttered, jumping to her feet and bowing low. “Thank you! I—I won’t disappoint you!”

“I doubt you could.” He leaned back, motioning to the guard by the door. “This man will show you to the servant’s quarters. Clean up, rest, and tomorrow you can start by bringing Satoru his breakfast.”

“R-right,” she said, turning towards the door. She fell into step behind the other man—but then her feet slowed to a stop in the threshold, her shoulders tense. “C-can I ask you one thing, sire?”

Yashiro bit his tongue. Smiled. “Of course. What is it?”

“The women who spoke up against Takahashi,” she said, her eyes darting around the room, anywhere but at him. “They… they were taken from the cell, but they didn’t come back… I wanted to know if they were alright.”

“Oh, yes,” Yashiro said, waving a hand. “I thought I should repay them for their service to the crown. I freed them of their servitude.”

Somehow, that didn’t bring Katagiri any joy. She frowned down at the floor, her feet fidgeting in her ill-fitting shoes. “But… Misato… didn’t come back to say goodbye…”

Of course they didn’t. Loose ends don’t get last words. “I’m sure they were just excited to go home. I wouldn’t dwell on it.”

“R-right,” she said, her voice wobbling. She didn’t raise her head. “Of course. Thank you, viscount.”

She turned to go. Yashiro pushed himself to his feet. “Oh, yes. One last thing, Katagiri.”

Yashiro smiled, the corners of his lips sharp as a knife.

“It’s Duke Yashiro, now.”