The bedroom was exactly the way Yuri remembered it. It hardly seemed as though a day had gone by since he was last curled up on the extravagant bed that made him feel so tiny amongst the large comforter and the expansive mattress. It was an intimidating bed, one he was perhaps afraid to grow into. Even were he to grow as tall and broad as Gwendel, to fully fill the bed it would take two.
It was never hard to determine whether Yuri would sleep alone any given night or not. Some nights he'd open the door to find his darling daughter Greta bouncing cheerfully at the edge of the bed, awaiting her father to snuggle into sleep with her. Those were wonderful nights that brought a smile to Yuri's own youthful face with memories of bedtime stories and late night conversations about the days gone by and what the next one might bring. They would look at the stars some nights and make up constellations--Yuri's favorite was the one of the Maou and the dragon. Of course, there was also one for Greta and Conrad and the others. It was Greta who had decided the cluster of stars next to the Maou looked like they should be a wolf. She gave those to Wolfram, letting him always keep close watch over the Maou of the heavens.
If not Greta in his bed, there was only ever one other person who could be waiting there for him. Tonight was no different.
Blonde hair ruffled across the pillow under his head, Wolfram's deep green eyes pierced into Yuri's black ones as he crossed over towards his bed. It was a bothersome sight most nights to see the pale, beautiful man in his bed. It had been so long though, and their last goodbye so final. He smiled this time at his friend as he slid down in the blankets, happy for the sleep over for tonight if no other time.
"You know, Wolfram, you should have gone easier on me today. It wasn't exactly my fault. Why don't you yell at Murata next time a little?"
"He's not my fiancé, so he's not my concern. You should take more responsibility for your actions."
Yuri sighed and settled in on his side of the bed. He'd have liked to have forgotten their engagement, or, better yet, to have had Wolfram move on in his absence. That was too much to ask for in his eternal city, he supposed. When one ages five times slower than a human, maybe things like love, grief and happiness last five times longer.
The arms that wrapped around him gave him a brief start as Wolfram pulled their bodies together, resting his head on the Maou's shoulder, his left hand delicately curled along the contour of Yuri's face.
"It's getting warmer, Yuri. Could you tell?"
A sudden but deep feeling of unease began to grow in the pit of the king's stomach. "Oh...uh. Yeah. I guess."
Wolfram's husky voice sent warm, moist breath across his neck, his softly spoken words uttered delicately, as though there were others present were not privy to what he had to say. "Do you know what that means?" he asked, his hand gently caressing the side of his face.
"Ah...Wolfram...." Yuri swallowed the lump that was forming in his throat, trying to think of an escape.
"It will be your birthday soon."
The Maou's black eyes blinked in surprise and a relieved sort of laugh filtered out through his grinning mouth.
"Right, of course! It's summer here in July, too." He relaxed into his bed as much as he could with his fiancé still nestled close. "Wow, I hadn't even started thinking about that. I wonder what kinds of parties are thrown for the Maou on his birthday." Visions of large expensive gifts popped into his head, as well as friends from far off distances paying him long overdue visits. He'd never imagined having so many important friends in so many different places on the map.
Wolfram nuzzled his shoulder. "It will be your coming of age party. My brother and Gunter will make the arrangements for your crest to be made and coordinate the ceremony accordingly. Since this will mean you have become a man, we can announce our plans for the wedding."
Dread began to set in again and Yuri cleared his throat nervously. "Ah...Wolfram... I'm still too young to think of marriage."
"What is there to think about? You've got me. All we need is to set the date."
"Wolfram...." Yuri closed his eyes. It had been a good day. A very good day. He hated to think of it ending badly. But there it was, the conversation he dreaded to have yet knew needed to be had. Proposals, engagements, marriage...it had to be put right eventually.
He sighed with resolve. It would have been nice to have put off this encounter for a long time. "Wolfram, I'm not interested in other guys. I've told you this before, I've tried to make you understand; I have no intention of marrying you, Wolfram." He could feel the sting of his words in the flinching of the body clinging close to him. "I'm sorry. You're a very dear friend of mine, but that's it."
"That's not fair, Wolfram. I'm not saying I'm interested in anyone else. I'm not interested in anybody, you included. We're just friends."
"Why?!" Wolfram pushed himself up, looming over Yuri, trapping him against his bed. It was the second time that day that Yuri stared up into his face and saw it barely able to contain its tears. It made the anger in his words tremble over his tongue. "Why don't you love me?!"
It was so hard to talk, to form coherent sentences with words that would say what he wanted them to and not create more havoc then had already been unleashed. "I just told you, I'm not gay. I like girls."
"I can't be a girl, Yuri!"
"I know that, Wolfram!" he shouted, almost instantly ashamed he had.
Wolfram bowed his head, his hands fisted around handfuls of Yuri's pale blue night shirt. "Why aren't I enough as I am?"
The blonde mazoku slowly lowered himself over his king, body trembling as tears began to fall and dampen the shoulder of Yuri's nightshirt. Yuri wrapped his arms around his friend, wishing the incident so long ago when he'd slapped the spoiled young man had never happened.
He allowed Wolfram to cry on him, rubbing his back soothingly, ignoring the weakly spoken insults that came out through the sobs. Wolfram's temper was something he was used to. His sadness was not.
"I love you, Yuri.... I tracked you across the world to save you, I've chased behind you wherever you've gone to make sure you were safe. I'd die for you, I'd kill for you, I'd do anything to please you. Why aren't you satisfied? Why can't you be pleased to have me? Don't you know how lucky you are? How...happy you'd make me?"
The tears made him incomprehensible again and his fists clutched possessively at his body. Yuri didn't dare move to push him away. "I'm sorry. I wish you hadn't taken the proposal so seriously."
"It's marriage! Of course I took it seriously! You're my king and it is my duty to perform in any way which you desire to the best of my ability!"
"Then be my friend."
Wolfram's moan was caught in his throat as he buried his face in Yuri's neck, not wanting to let go of what he so treasured in his heart.
It was a long time before he spoke again. The room seemed dead in the quiet after the storm of their words and Yuri had himself almost been lulled into slumber by the warm quiet of the night. The tired voice in his ear roused him gently, pulling at his heartstrings as he opened his eyes to the canopy above.
"What about Greta?"
The king sighed and nestled his head into the pillow. Greta was only Wolfram's child because he had been so adamant on the subject. He had wanted her because she was Yuri's of course. But since that time he had watched them together, the concern Greta showed for her other father and the love they had for each other.
"I won't take Greta from you," he said at last, feeling sure of his decision. "She'll stay both of ours. She needs someone when I'm not here, anyway." He looked down at the blonde head still resting on his shoulder. "You accept that the engagement is off, then?"
Wolfram nodded only slightly. "On one condition."
"Tomorrow night you will come to me as my lover."
Yuri pushed Wolfram away from him at an arms distance, eyes wide. "I'll what?"
The mazoku's face was grave and sullen, every bit as serious as the low words he spoke. "It is customary that a married couple not sleep together until after the ceremony. But since our engagement I have spent my nights in your bed. Pure as your intentions have been, outside this castle people believe we have been intimate. It's a logical conclusion when two people who are to be married share a bed."
"Who cares what other people think? That doesn't mean we--"
"You shame me when you call off the engagement. You are the Maou and I was not able to please you. The people I lead to battle will know this, the people we fight will know this, only the people who are closest to me here will know that it has been a lie from the start. That is was never your intention to marry me and it is through no fault of my own that it ends like this; that I at least tried."
Yuri was bewildered. "Wolfram, that--"
"If in the future I find myself fit to marry someone, they will come to me with the preconceived notion that I have been intimate with you and was turned away. I am a man of loose morals who was bedded by my king and not attractive enough or skilled enough to keep his affections. And there are no words that can be said that will dispel that thought because when they look at me they will find it hard to believe that I spent so many nights by your side and you never felt the desire to touch me."
Yuri was silent for a moment. In truth, he had never conceived of what others might have thought their relationship entailed. The way he said it it did indeed look bad but....
"If I am to be judged as such, I would rather be guilty."
"...Wolfram. I've never had sex with anyone. I've never even kissed a girl. If I'm going to lose my virginity at fifteen, it's not going to be to another guy."
"You talk about justice. Where's mine?"
Yuri paused, feeling trapped and scared. He let his arms relax a bit and watched as Wolfram pushed him back against the bed and lay down beside him, their eyes transfixed on each other's: dark, unyielding green versus bewildered black. Wolfram leaned closer, nearly drowning Yuri in the complex emotions drifting through his gaze. "Come to me tomorrow night and I will open to you as a woman and let you take of me as a man."
Unexpectedly, the husky whisper sent a surge of excitement through the king's veins. Yuri blinked at the lovely face across from him on the pillow, unsure what to think about the sudden rush. He was curious now. Was it that the words would have aroused his lust coming from anyone, or was it that the bold young blonde was so bluntly offering himself that made his toes tingle and his face flush?
He saw a slow, sad smile cross the blonde's face before he even realized he was nodding. He had been betrayed again by instinct; first by a slap and now by a nod. Just as before though, he felt he couldn't take it back. He didn't want Wolfram to hate him or to be unhappy.
"The engagement will be called off in the morning then. I am trusting you to be faithful to your word this time."
Yuri flinched at that but continued to nod. Wolfram was never the most tactful, but his insults were normally in jest. Not tonight, though. As the blonde regained his strength of will, he curled up to Yuri as he had been before. The motion was less affectionate now, though. It felt more like someone clinging onto their hopes and dreams with every futile ounce of strength in their worn out limbs. Yuri held him there to assuage the guilt that was mounting within him. He had hurt his friend and now his mind was reeling with his promise.
Tonight, he did not need Wolfram's taunts to point out the obvious:
He was a wimp.
Yuri found it very hard to remain focused through the next day’s routine. Every word Gunter spoke seemed to blend together to form a backdrop of fluctuating excitement to the king’s frantic thoughts. In his mind he could still see Gwendel’s furrowed brow when he’d come to him after breakfast with the long anticipated answer to the open ended question of his engagement.
“Annulled?” he had asked in his more surprised of tones.
Conrad had shared his surprise, his face slack with widened eyes that stared at Yuri and then at the figure of Wolfram who had accompanied his ex-fiancé. Gunter’s astonishment only led to a long discussion of protocol, which captured Gwendel’s attention but failed to seep past Yuri’s inner dread. He had turned his face away from Conrad, seeing the look on the soldier’s face. It was the only thing more terrible than Yuri’s private thoughts. A look of disappointment directed at the young king as he stood there silently at attention while details were agreed upon on both Yuri and Wolfram’s behalf.
For his part, Wolfram had behaved better than Yuri had expected. His crying done the night before, he seemed only irritable and disinterested when the time had come. It was as though he were as happy to end the charade as Yuri was, if not a little resentful. It was the small crack in his voice as he answered his brothers’ questioning looks that had given away the pain he still sheltered.
“Hmph. I don’t care. If he wants to be rid of me so badly, then fine. It’s his loss. I’d like to see a wimp like him do better.”
“Don’t call me a wimp,” was the automated response but it seemed dead on his lips. He didn’t care what Wolfram called him, not when it was truer than he could express on his own.
The talking had seemed to go on forever. Gunter had produced zealous declarations of the annulment, which were full of such adoration for his king. Gwendel’s responsibility had turned to pointing out the backlash such biased praises could produce against Wolfram. Yuri found it difficult to stand and listen to them. He did not feel great or wonderful at the time, nor did thoughts of the speculations against Wolfram’s character fill him with anything but more guilt. He felt stupid listening to them validate Wolfram’s statements from the night before, showing much more perception on the matter than had ever crossed Yuri’s mind. For being the easy part, it seemed more complicated and intricate to bring into being than summoning the words to speak to Wolfram had been.
He had only been too happy to put the whole matter into Gwendel’s hands. With papers piled high from his absence and other duties to perform, Gunter and himself had left the brothers alone to their complicated task.
Now Gunter stood at his side, explaining the details of some treaty or parchment sitting before him and the only thing Yuri could think of was the night to come.
Making the announcement had been the beginning of the end. Never before had he heard of an annulment being consummated through sex but under the circumstances, there seemed no way around it. It had been Wolfram’s last request as his fiancé, and he had agreed to it in a rather embarrassing lack of self restraint. If he backed out now, what reason did Wolfram have to ever trust him again? What kind of king makes empty promises to a friend?
Yuri did not want to be such a king. But as a man, it was a dreadful thought.
Sex with another man—touching another man's penis and letting him touch his—the thought made him pale and swallow hard. He couldn’t conceive himself being aroused in such a situation. He tried not to think of the thin, calloused fingers sliding up and down his length the way his own did. His color turned from white to green as more forbidden thoughts of came to mind.
Excusing himself in a hurry, he fled from Gunter’s sight and the piles of work still undone and went to his room. He needed to lie down, to figure a way out that wouldn’t end in hurting his friend more than he already had and wouldn’t involve his involvement in such acts.
The day seemed to shorten in spite of him as the sun began its fateful descent on the horizon. Yuri took refuge in the bath to buy some time, vowing to tell Wolfram he had just wanted to be clean and refreshed for the act if he was put to questioning. The hot steamy water made him genuinely relaxed for a moment before his thoughts could catch up to him. There really was nothing like a nice, hot bath. He had always thought so, especially after a hard day.
“If life was a baseball game, I’d be calling for my relief pitcher about now,” he mused as he soaked comfortably in the large pool. Perhaps if he took long enough, Wolfram would fall asleep before he could come to him. Then it would be the blonde’s fault things had not gone according to plan and Yuri could find a way to get control of the situation again.
Such thoughts were poison, though, and Yuri dismissed them with a guilty conscience, reminding himself of all the problems he was causing his friend and the look Conrad had given him that morning. He imagined how it must feel to be the subject of someone who had broken your brother’s heart.
Yuri held his breath and sank under the surface of the water.
He had called Conrad his brother, once. It was meant to be reassuring, to raise his spirits when his true brother lay practically dead in a coffin shaped box. He hated to see Conrad worried or sad. He just wanted to cheer him up.
Wolfram had looked so....
Yuri’s ears began to pop and he let some breath out in bubbles that rose in front of his nose.
Maybe he had meant it as a sign of his intentions. Maybe. But things had changed. He was told he could never return; he had tried to move past his life in Shin Makoku. Whatever was said before was out of desperation and a desire to comfort and tie up loose ends. He’d resolved his issues with his marriage in his time on earth. He wasn’t in love with Wolfram. Wolfram was a guy and, as fond of him as he was, that fact could not be altered.
Yuri felt the pang in his chest as his lungs burned for air and rose up with a gasp, hearing the splash of waves as they crashed against the edged of the enormous tub. He kept his head down, droplets of water riding down the edges of his black hair and dripping to the dying waves.
His good intentions seemed to add up to a mess of lies. He had a feeling that if he kept thinking so hard about events, he’d regret his own birth.
The king froze, his eyes snapping wide.
It was Wolfram’s voice.
Yuri tilted his head to the side and looked at the blonde. Wolfram sat on the edge of the tub beside him, legs curled under with a small beige towel wrapped around his waist. The warm mist of the bath seemed to part around him giving an ethereal grace to his appearance. “You were supposed to come to me tonight.”
“I was...” Yuri looked back at the water. “I was avoiding you. I’m sorry.”
Wolfram splashed him and Yuri threw his arms up in defense should Wolfram decide to jump on him and beat him to death. “You wimp! I held up my part of the bargain!”
“Yes, Wolfram, I’m a wimp. I’m also a coward. I’m everything you have ever said I was.”
“Now’s a fine time to agree with me!”
Yuri felt his blood boiling. “There’s no pleasing you, is there, Wolfram? Why do you always have to get so damn defensive?”
“I’m not the one who can’t figure out what he wants.”
Yuri glared at him and stalked over to the end of the bath. Taking hold of Wolfram’s forearm, he pulled the gawking blond into the water. Emerging, Wolfram grabbed Yuri’s shoulders and dunked him backwards, following him down to roll and tumble while their hands clawed at each other with almost ruthless abandon.
Neither one remembered when their lips met but each would blame the other for the contact. Breathless from their fight, still ready to go, Yuri pulled back in shock. His lips tingled and he felt what he figured was the proverbial spark that people always talked about. It was a sensation that did not pass and he felt numb as his tongue licked across the stimulated flesh of his mouth.
Wolfram’s arms were already around Yuri’s torso from their death roll under the rippling surface. He tightened them instinctively, changing his grasp to one of less aggression, the palms of his shaking hands laying flat against his king’s back as he stared into Yuri’s face with hopeful eyes.
Yuri hesitated then leaned in; Wolfram tilted his head as they kissed again. The young king placed his hands on the soldier’s narrow hips, his thumbs curling in towards his naval on the flat surface of his stomach. It felt like everything was in a haze, as though he’d held his breath too long and was clutching the edge of consciousness. It was warm and delicate, though, with a sweet scent that hung in the air like it would melt away if he tried too hard to catch it.
He felt Wolfram’s experimental caress against his rising arousal and jerked in surprise. “No...uh...you don’t have to.”
“I want to.”
Yuri shook his head. “No.... Let’s just....” He looked around, then started pulling them back towards the side of the bath. “Just...face the wall.”
Wolfram looked at him curiously, as though Yuri were planning something, some way to disengage from the direction things had deviated.
“I...if we’re going to have sex it’ll be easier if you face away from me...to, uh...put it in.”
Wolfram made a face but did as instructed, parting his legs and arching his back to press his hips in Yuri’s direction.
The king had never been so turned on by the small of someone’s back. The dip of his spine before the rise of his backside seemed almost ridiculously erotic and he found his hands following his back from his shoulders to the globes of his ass to enjoy the contours of Wolfram’s young body. Despite the narrow angle of his hips, it wasn’t hard to pretend the lean body belonged to a woman. A thin, blonde, green eyed, beautiful woman.
Yuri didn’t know whether to feel betrayed by or grateful for his now fully developed erection. This was a guy, he reminded himself—but not too sternly. This was one promise he could make good on. It didn’t make up for the past but it set a new precedent for the future. If he could save the world from the clutches of evil, he could have sex with Wolfram Von Bielefeld and vice versa.
So why was he so scared?
Worried Wolfram might turn around and dispel the allure of his body, Yuri felt down along the crack between his cheeks for the small entrance to the passage where their love-making would be consummated. His finger ran against the rippled flesh as Wolfram’s frame rocked into the touch. Upon insertion of his first digit he expected perhaps a gasp or flinch from his partner. He’d never personally inserted anything into his ass but he imagined that the sensation of an ‘out’ turning into an ‘in’ would be strange at the least. Wolfram didn’t seem to mind, neither pain nor pleasure showing in his body language. He simply stood still and allowed Yuri to feel him out from the inside.
Yuri’s finger was enveloped in a strange, silken warmth that felt more enticing than dissuading. The way the flesh of Wolfram’s outer ring formed firmly around his finger made him bite his lip, imaging his dick being hugged in its clutches and rubbed across the velvety inner walls. Guys had anal sex with girls all the time. Enjoying it wouldn’t be the same as being gay.
Wolfram’s breath came in heavier as Yuri worked him with two fingers, this time hearing hitches in his breath as he pushed in and tested the resistance of his body as he scissored out. He was rocking against him again, causing the water to wave and slash. Yuri wasn’t afraid of them being disturbed, though. This was the Maou’s private bath.
“Yuri...stop stalling. Come on,” Wolfram protested huskily, head thrown back a bit, moisture rolling down his back from his hair.
“This isn’t stalling.”
“It is the way you’re doing it.”
Yuri glared at the back of his head and pulled his fingers from him. “If you’re got a problem with-a-aah....” His body trembled as Wolfram rubbed his ass against his stiff arousal, hands instantly clutching his pelvis to press back into the contact.
“I want you, Yuri. Take me now,” was Wolfram’s sultry whisper as he twisted and curled back, kissing Yuri’s open lips while his hand caressed his cheek. “Show me the power of a wimp’s convictions.”
After that, it was a blur. There were fragments, bits and pieces here and there that put together a whole enough picture, but in all there was a haze like the mists of the bath over his memories of their time together. He could remember the instance when he was immersed in Wolfram’s passage, how he’d made noises deep in his throat that drove Yuri wild. He remembered how his name sounded echoing off of the stone walls, the splashing of the water, their labored breaths. He knew he heard Wolfram tell him he loved him but the words he used were gone from his mind. There was passion, pleasure, and release all rolled into an instant, too small a time to contain the details that made it whole. Yuri wondered mildly just how much time had passed in reality.
The lips that kissed him were so much warmer than the stone on his back. He was resting on the side of the bath, he figured, too calm and relaxed to open his eyes. He kissed back slightly, almost disappointed it only lasted a moment.
Without a word spoken, he heard footsteps fade towards the door. Looking over, he saw Wolfram’s retreating form, beige towel wrapped around him again, a slight change in his step. He changed back into his clothes near the door, just a simple pair of blue sleep pants he’d thrown on before searching for Yuri earlier.
Not his nightgown, Yuri noticed, still watching quietly. He hadn’t seen Wolfram sleep in anything but his pink gown for as long as he could remember. It was funny that something so simple would cause a pang in his chest. Things were changing.
The door opened and shut with a small inrush of air. It felt cool over Yuri’s flesh and made him wish for the warmth of his own clothing. Sitting up, Yuri felt his hand strike something light that toppled over at his touch. Turning his head, he stared at something he had not seen in a very long time that caused him to pause mid-motion as his mind replayed the night’s events in new light.
Laying on its side, half empty, was a bottle of Cecilie’s perfume.
Wolfram stood in his older brother’s office with a solemn expression on his beautiful face. His green eyes rested half closed with a weary sort of pain that came with the feelings of loss and futility. His mouth was drawn thin as though the thoughts in his head were so numerous he had to strain to hear each one coherently and no amount of grooming could hide the dark circles that marred his face from the nights of unrest such thoughts brought. It was a look Gwendel had grown accustomed to since the time of their king’s absence though it annoyed both men of action that it was still present now with his return.
“I would ask that you not hold your emotions back,” Gwendel said simply. “You are not a tactful man and I do not believe anyone expects you to take this gracefully. If you are unhappy it is best to say so and have done with it.”
Wolfram stared at his beloved brother’s desk without the slightest flicker of life across his face. “If I were to scream, I would not be able to stop. As his subject, it should be more your concern that your king is now happy with this arrangement.”
“He will not be so pleased when he is told of this.”
Wolfram saw the papers his brother made motion to but made no action to read or acknowledge them. He knew very well what they said. It was he who had handed the papers to Gwendel in the first place.
A request for reassignment.
“That’s because he’s a wimp and an idiot,” Wolfram said flatly, aware that his brother was looking at him harshly. “He has no need for me here. His powers far exceed my own, Conrad is all the steel he will ever need at his side, you are the one he comes to for advice on how to handle sensitive situations, Gunter teaches him everything else relevant to our country. There’s no reason for me to stay here.”
“You underestimate your importance.” Gwendel stood and turned, facing the window behind him. “The king looks to you for companionship, as you are identifiable as being of his age. Being able to relate to you makes you important to the success of his rein.”
“He has the Great Sage, Conrad and Greta if he wants companionship,” Wolfram spat. “I am a full-blooded mazoku soldier with a contract with the flames. I will not stoop to becoming a mere playmate for a child king. Let me go where I am needed. Put me on the border where I can actually be of service to my country!”
Gwendel stood in silence, back turned to the blonde whose hands shook in balled fists.
“I will not accept your request.”
“Your place is at your king’s side.”
There was silence between them, heavy like a set of arms and twice as sharp. Wolfram crossed steadily to him, taking into his trembling fists a handful of moss green overcoat. Gwendel did not turn to him but let his arm hang limply beside him within his brother’s grasp.
“For me, then. Brother, please.” Wolfram’s voice was not as steady now, full of desperation and fear. “Now that he’s free there will be marriage prospects which he will entertain. I can’t watch that. I won’t. I can accept that he won’t be mine in time but I can not accept that he may become someone else’s, not ever.”
Gwendel nodded slightly, his head bowed to the sunlight. “So, that is your true reason for this request.” There was no uncertainty in his question.
“They’re both applicable. I want to serve Yuri in any way I can. But it will kill me to watch him flirt with women so openly.”
Wolfram leaned his forehead on his brother’s arm, eyes squeezed tight to try and block out the images that came to mind. Behind closed lids he could see the hordes of noble men that had flocked to court to impress his mother. How she delighted in their attention, laughing and blushing at their advances, forgetting her stately position in the mist of her lusting heart. To see Yuri sitting on his throne with a plague of women displaying their robust chests for him in their elegant clothes, hoping to attract the slightest bit more attention than their competition made his stomach churn with disgust. No woman deserved to marry Yuri. For his kindness and thoughtfulness, he meant more to his kingdom than could be handed over to some greedy female with delusions of grandeur. To be married to the king, to have all the status and power of the position in addition to being loved more than everyone else by the king, was too great an honor to be given so easily.
Such a gift could only be earned and no one would ever be good enough in his eyes. No one save himself and that door had been closed.
“...I will send message to the troops at the southern border to prepare for your arrival.”
A genuine smile crept upon Wolfram’s face, a swift rush of relief from the burden he felt coursing through his veins. He let go of his sleeve, standing a bit taller, moving aside from the taller man respectfully. “Thank you, brother.”
“Wolfram.” Gwendel turned to him, hand clasped on his smaller shoulder. “Do not despise his highness for the hurt you feel. For what’s taken place, you are a better man for it.”
Wolfram’s eyes were cold again. “You wouldn’t say such things if you were me.”
The eldest brother shook his head and sat back into his comfortable chair. In ink black as the Maou, he scribed his name on the parchment given to him by Wolfram. “I know nothing about affairs of the heart. But I have known the boy who was my selfish brother and I am proud to know the man he has become. That is something I credit his highness with, no matter how things have changed.”
The blonde nodded mutely, watching as his brother signed the document and with it granted him the power to escape. It was not in his nature to run. To fight to the bloody end had always been his intention. With a sword or with his heart, he had never imagined backing down from what he set his mind too.
How could one wimp mean so much? More than life, pride, dignity, or anything that granted him pleasure.
Wolfram paused for a moment, thinking back to the previous night in the bath where he’d had his first encounter with the indescribable nature of sex. No matter what, he had left his mark on the life of the king. In that, he had not backed down.
“You will tell Yuri for me, then.”
Gwendel shook his head in displeasure. “It would be in bad taste to leave without notice. He should hear it from you.”
“I leave immediately. I’ve already packed,” Wolfram informed him. In fact, he’d spent most of the night gathering the items he would want with him and readying them at the stables for a hasty departure. There were things best to leave unspoken and at times like this, there were things best to avoid altogether.
“Then you are also leaving without speaking to Conrad or Greta?”
“Greta has Yuri right now,” Wolfram reminded him. “When Yuri decides to visit his other home, send word to me and I will come to take care of my daughter. It is not goodbye. As for Conrad, he’ll want me to stay. I don’t have the patience to explain myself to both of you. You can inform him of my wishes and reasoning if he asks.”
“You are acting in cowardice.”
“I am acting in self defense!”
Gwendel stared at his brother in slight surprise at his outburst. It was comforting, though, to hear it from him. If he could still snap at him, there was hope he would overcome his current feelings. “Very well. I will make your excuses this time. You will however be in attendance for his majesty's coming of age ceremony and I will expect you to entertain any further questions from them at that time.”
Wolfram nodded, bowing slightly to the dark haired man. “If there is nothing further then, brother, I will take my leave.”
Gwendel held out to him the generic notice that stated his business in the parts he would travel. The youngest took it from him and folded it into fourths, sliding it behind the leather of his belt. As he lifted his head, he saw something else extended towards him in his brother’s strong hands. It was a strange looking creature made of knitted wool, with thin pointed ears and evil looking eyes.
“It’s a penguin,” he explained, sounding a bit annoyed. “Take care, Wolfram.”
Wolfram took it carefully from him and held it in his fist. “You as well, Brother. Thank you.”
He turned his back and quickly left the room, hurrying to the stables where his horse waited for him. He thought about his new assignment with a less than enthusiastic anticipation. It would be dull but better would come, he was sure. Being on the border would take him far away. From there, should there be a need for a delegate, perhaps his location would make him first in line to be sent even further. There were plenty human and mazoku villages squabbling with the remnants of prejudice from the past ages to deal with for the time being, beasts to slay, perhaps covert operations that would send him undercover should intelligence advise such action. There would be no time to think about Yuri there. He could work himself to exhaustion in the daylight and sleep well through the nights to keep the nightmares and memories of Yuri and home away.
Wolfram ran his hand along the cool stone walls of the hallway as he walked, saying goodbye to what had been his home before memory served, long before Yuri had arrived. He’d spent most of his childhood behind these walls while his mother ruled as Queen. These were the grounds he’d played on, learned to use a sword, ride a horse. These were the balconies he’d stood on, watching his brothers grow in the time of war into important people to their country; Gwendel the wise and Conrad the brave. He worshiped them and their success while he'd remained simply Wolfram the beautiful.
One wasn't made beautiful by courageous actions or intelligent moves, though. One was born beautiful. Perhaps a woman of noble breeding would find being defined by her looks to be the most prestigious of all, but as a soldier it was insulting, much more so than Wolfram the spoiled brat, Wolfram the selfish loafer or Wolfram the stubborn stalker. These were at least things he had earned though his actions, as much as he despised them. It would be his great pleasure to make another name for himself, one that was favorable to him and with tales of his deeds to back up such a boastful reputation.
There were no more wars to fight though, no need for heroes, and Wolfram the 27th Maou’s fiancé, favored above all others, had never truly existed.
Wolfram pressed on to the courtyard, pleased to find Conrad absent from the grounds. No one, in fact, was there to see him off. The Maou had returned only two days earlier and the castle still buzzed with that excitement. There were a few guards at post, none who cared all that much who left the castle so long as no one unwanted came in.
Bags settled along the saddle, Wolfram hung the small penguin from the side, pinning it there as a good luck charm for the road ahead. As his horse trotted past the front gates and flew down the winding trail, not a single voice called out. He willed the horse to fly, to carry him away faster than the wind that blew over them. With every step that pounded against the dirt road he was that much further away from the world he knew.
He’d never left Shin Makoku faster and for a moment the emptiness faded as he raced forward to the horizon and to whatever hope could be found there.
It was mid day when Gwendel explained Wolfram’s absence to the court. Despite shouts of outrage and confusion, he made his brother’s case known, omitting the details he felt were spoken in confidence. With Cecilie on her return cruise to the capital, there remained only Conrad who was present and could argue fairly with his older brother. Gwendel had no desire to be questioned, though, and went about his business as quickly as possible once the news was shared. Lunch had never been so hard to swallow and even now, sitting on the steps of the courtyard in the early evening, Yuri found it hard to believe the report.
He was gone. Without a word. No letter, no personal message, just a million and one unanswered questions left behind without answers.
Conrad sat beside him, looking calmly into space at his king’s side, his own thoughts of the situation wrinkling his brow. Yuri mused for a moment that it was with such expressions that the brother’s truly looked related: they all had the same scowl. Conrad’s face was the one least accustomed to the pinched look, though, and it seemed quite out of character to see him brooding rather than supporting. “I had thought he might try something like this but I am surprised Gwendel allowed it,” he said at length, guessing as to what thoughts cause his king’s own silence.
Yuri sighed, running his fingers through his short, black hair. “Why would he do it? Last time I saw him, he was fine. He didn’t say anything about leaving. Didn’t say anything at all,” he added the last words softly, more to himself than for his friend’s ears.
“It is...difficult, your highness, to be in the presence of one you love when such love is not returned.”
“But he’s my friend...why isn’t that enough? Why does he have to sleep in my bed and tell everyone we’re engaged to be happy?” Yuri looked to Conrad for an answer, hoping his insightful companion could help him understand the enigmas that had confounded him since his engagement's retraction. He was always there with the right answers and a smile. Yuri desperately wished he would continue to be such a man with this over their heads.
Conrad shook his head, brown bangs blowing in the gentle breeze. “It’s not the same. Wolfram may have a hard time showing it, but he is a very gentle hearted young mazoku. He wears his heart on his sleeve, as you would say, though he tries to disguise it. To him, he has been very straightforward with you about how he feels. Having been dismissed as your fiancé, it is too difficult to simply become a friend. He’s never been your friend, no matter how you perceived things. He probably doesn’t know how to be.”
The king hung his head, feeling weighed down by too much in too short a time. Conrad laid his hand on his head, trying to comfort his friend with his presence. “You are not alone in this feeling,” he reminded him. “Wolfram for many years would not accept me as his brother through no fault of my own. He felt it easier to despise me than to love me and have me die. I’m half human, so my life will much shorter than that of a full-blooded mazoku. Wolfram does not cope well with loss, or anything outside his control for that matter. I know my brother well, so I have never held his feelings against him. I understand his fears and that even at eighty-two he is still too young to know how to deal with them. I would hope you would not hold such things against him either. He is a child of an age of war and hate. He has seen more fighting than embracing and felt more anger than joy.”
Yuri winced internally. He’d seen Wolfram during their world’s time of great strife under the rein of the ex-Maou. He’d been anxious and melancholy, eager to join battle and grieving for those close to him who might not return, unable to do anything but sit back and watch as men marched to their deaths. He was a quieter Wolfram than Yuri was used to, still stubborn and full of pride but also distant and empty in private. It was hard to recall such moments with the brash young prince when there were so many more in which he was being bossed around or insulted by him. Even then, he supposed, Wolfram didn’t bother dulling the sting of his words. Maybe he was more honest with his emotions than Yuri noticed. Perhaps when he was yelling at him, it was because his actions honestly did offend him. He’d never meant for them to.
“It’s my fault then, right? There must have been something I could have done to make him stay.”
Conrad shook his head. “Perhaps, had these things been dealt with in the beginning, it would have been easier. At this point in time, he is so in love with you it is impossible to extinguish those emotions. You cannot change how he feels or how he reacts, though. It’s not your fault.”
“How does he know he loves me? What if he’s just confused and doing all this for the wrong reasons?” Yuri asked. There were so many questions.
“I know he loves you. I have seen it in the everyday things you have done together. He has taken this more seriously and more to heart than any other task he has taken on. And it has brought him more joy and satisfaction than any, as well.”
Yuri ducked his head between his shoulders, scared to ask more of what bothered him. Conrad was his best friend in this world. But he was also the brother of the man who caused him such grief.
“What is it, your highness?”
The king took a deep breath and put his face in his hands. What if Conrad hated him for what he was about to tell him? He’d lose two friends, maybe more, all over the mess he’d made in just his few days home.
“I just...Wolfram and I had argued about the engagement. He was so mad at me and I...I felt guilty, you know? So when he said he’d agree under one condition, I figured I owed it to him. I shouldn’t have done it, Conrad. I made a mistake,” he admitted, shaking his head back and forth in the palms of his hands.
“What is it you’ve done?”
“I...we had sex...in my private bath. He said people would think we’d done it anyway...and then Gwendel brought up all that stuff when we told him about the annulment.... I’d promised, Conrad, I had to do it, didn’t I?”
Conrad’s face looked cold and impassive for a moment then relaxed slightly. “I have underestimated my younger brother’s impulsiveness. I hadn’t thought him that desperate.”
“You’re disappointed in me again, aren’t you, Conrad?”
Yuri watched as his friend's emotions cascaded across his face, unsure if they would end in a stern frown or melt into a charming smile that would dispel his sadness. Conrad settled on seriousness though and patted Yuri on the back gently.
“I’m not so much disappointed as I am confused and worried about my brother. I would have preferred such an event had not taken place, especially as you are both very young, but it has happened and cannot be undone. I trust you were gentle with him.”
Yuri blushed deeply but nodded. “He wanted me to hurry up but I...I really shouldn’t be talking about these things with you.”
“Did you say anything to him?”
“No....” Yuri thought back, still confused by the blur in his memories. “When it was over we laid down on the stone beside the bath to rest. He kissed me, then left. I haven’t seen or spoken with him since.”
“Hm.” Conrad patted his back once more, then stood. “No, Yuri, you didn’t have to go through with it. Same as with your proposal, such important decisions are worth thinking over and it is normal to have doubts or to change your mind. Next time you are cornered into such choices, do not hesitate to speak with me. Even though he is my brother, I will not guide you in ways that will please him but rather in those which are just and suited to you.”
“I’m sorry, Conrad.” Yuri spoke after a moment’s hesitation. “This is all my fault. When Wolfram comes back I’ll talk to him and try to get everything back the way it was...more or less.”
Conrad smiled cheerfully at his young companion. “I would not ask for more from you. Thank you for caring so much about Wolfram. We are all very fortunate to have someone like you reigning over us.”
He walked away. Yet again, Yuri did not feel like a person worthy of any amount of praise. When all one ever hears is that he is wonderful and magnificent, it becomes harder and harder to believe it. He wished Wolfram were there to remind everyone of his faults, including himself. Maybe then he’d feel wonderful again.
“Yuri...oh my god! Yuri!”
The Maou smirked in satisfaction as he rocked savagely into his lover’s virgin passage, sending spasms up Wolfram’s frame as he panted and moaned. The prince’s knees hovered over the stone as he balanced on the balls of his feet and his hands, jerking and swaying with every thrust that claimed him. All the while Yuri groaned as he held tightly to his hips and deeply penetrated his prey over and over while their flesh slapped and squished audibly against each other. It was an assembly of sounds and smells that were pungent and obscene but only served to fuel the lust that tore at their loins and urge them to go faster, delve deeper, scream louder. It was a wonder the guards didn’t come as all manner of desperate howls and cries of ecstasy echoed around them.
“Yuri, I...I can’t.... Oh god...I love you....” Wolfram threw his head back, his body racing backwards to meet Yuri’s forward thrust, driving him in faster and harder. “I love you, Yuri.”
Yuri felt it all ending, his body constricting around his cock as his muscles tightened and his balls clenched upwards. The only things that mattered in the world were the sensations searing through him and the one who bowed before him for this offering.
“Wolfram,” he whimpered, the name caught up on his tongue as the explosion occurred. His eyes went cross as his body buckled and spewed out the private substance that was unique to him. It shot out to into the trembling tissue as the willing body constricted around him in its own traumatic euphoria. He sank to his knees, Yuri’s once proud and stiff erection going soft as it slipped from Wolfram’s backside and left a trail of glistening white to ooze down his thighs.
It was at that time Yuri noticed the wetness in his pants and cracked his eyes open, his dreams fading back into the space where they would be forgotten if not held tightly to. He sat upright as the sleepiness began to fade and peered under his thick comforter at the crotch of his light blue sleep pants.
They were indeed wet, though from a much more embarrassing substance than urine. Yuri stared in shock at the tent in his pants as it resumed its normal size, balking at the occurrence as though it were somehow a fault he could blame someone else for.
Yuri shook his head in disbelief, thinking back to the sensuous scene from his dream and the payers in it. Was it perhaps as memory? He couldn’t imagine he was capable of such throws of passion, especially with another man. Admittedly, to be capable of such sexual prowess would be a skill worth boasting of and nothing short of a miracle coming from someone with his lack of experience. To make a woman look as alluring as Wolfram had though, to make her make those noises and say those words, would be sexier than anything imaginable.
But it hadn’t been a dream about a woman that had made him cum. It had been Wolfram. Yuri fell back against his pillow and pulled it over his head, giving an exasperated scream into the feathery down. Even when he was far away, Wolfram was still in his bed, only now he invaded his thoughts and dreams as well.
Feeling disgusted and foul, Yuri rose from his bed and quickly cleaned himself off with the water from the basin in his room, removing and then rolling up the pants that held evidence of his tainted visions and hiding them to be dealt with later. He couldn’t afford one of the maids finding it. There would be no telling what sort of rumor might spring up then and there was no explanation he feared more than the truth.
He remained awake for many hours, sitting up in his large bed, thinking off all the things that he wished Wolfram were there to answer and trying not to see his bruised, pouting lips as they kissed flash across his eyes with the thought of him. Gwendel had promised Wolfram would return on his birthday, and so Yuri brought himself to think on the future rather than the past, writing out the guest list in his mind as he thought about the people he wished to celebrate with most. Soon the nightmare was nothing more than a nagging memory and sleep reclaimed him again before the sun began its ascension.
It would be the perfect ceremony and before that night was over, Yuri was sure everything would be settled and fixed between himself and his beautiful friend. The foreboding chill he felt was surely just the wind.
Wolfram extracted his face from his mother’s cleavage with an annoyed furrow of his brow, wondering absently if the lace along her bosom had imprinted its pattern on his cheeks. “Mother, you act as though you haven’t seen me in years,” he said in exasperation, straightening out his formal attire so it lay flat, its creases crisp and collar uncurled.
“Oh, Wolf, it’s been months!” Cecilie exclaimed, grooming his hair for him in a nervous fashion. “Are you sure you’re eating alright? You look thin. Maybe you should stay home for a while just to be sure you’re not coming down with something.”
Her son smiled at her tiredly, taking her hand and petting its back fondly. “Mother, I’m fine. Besides, I have too much to do to simply stay here. If I hadn’t promised Gwendel I’d come, I wouldn’t have bothered tearing myself away just yet.”
“Oh, but you couldn’t have missed this! Isn’t it grand?”
Cecilie gestured to the great hall around them, which was adorned with the new crest of the Maou. It was packed full of familiar and friendly faces along with guests invited simply out of social and political etiquette. The music was cheerful yet calming, no doubt picked by Gunter to accentuate the personality of the one they were brought together to honor. Everyone was happy and having a good time, laughter ringing almost louder than the joyful tunes that sang above the excitement. It truly was a marvelous evening, reminiscent of several others he’d spent in the castle, some with bittersweet memories.
“Yes. It’s very nice,” he admitted. He found himself searching for Yuri in the crowd and scowled at himself, turning back to his mother to distract himself from such destructive behavior. “How have you been?”
“Simply wonderful, Wolf. I met so many charming gentlemen on my cruise—I wish you could have met some of them. They might have been your type more so than mine.” She raked her long nails along his scalp in a soothing manner. “What about you? Have you been all right? I heard about what happened between you and his highness, Yuri.”
“Oh? And what is it you’ve heard?”
“You know. Nothing too vulgar. I think you were both too young to settle down, anyway, as wonderful a match as it was. Now you’re both free to find new and exciting romances!”
Wolfram nodded a little, more to pacify his mother than because he agreed with her. “So...Yuri. Have many woman been presented to him as marriage prospects?”
“Several. Oh, Wolfram, you should have seen them. Such lovely young girls. I know many of them are here tonight under special invitation. His highness is beside himself.”
The young man felt his insides twist and calcify, becoming a cold mass inside his body that weighed more than he could bear.
“Wolf? I’m sorry. How insensitive of me. I was carried away, I suppose. I get so excited when love is in the air,” she apologized, wrapping her arms around her youngest son once more. “Why don’t we get you a nice flute of champagne and we’ll talk about more pleasant things. You can tell me all about what you’ve been doing with yourself these past months.”
Wolfram nodded again, this time in agreement. They stepped out from the balcony and into the crowed, dipping past royals and diplomats and smiling in proper fashion. It was then that he heard the whispers. Nothing too obvious, hardly even audible. They didn’t need to speak loudly though; there eyes were on him as he cut through beside his mother. This was the first time he’d appeared in public since Yuri had announced the cancellation of their engagement. It was now a brewery of suspicion and gossip.
“Actually, Mother, I don’t feel so good. Perhaps you were right. I think I may just find my quarters and rest a bit.” He smiled at her pouting face. “Don’t worry, I’ll rejoin you later. Then you can tell me all about the hearts you broke tonight in your stunning gown.”
Cecilie chuckled to herself, as though she’d had enough drinks for one night already. “You sound like Conrad.”
Wolfram smiled a bit and nodded to her as he made his way quickly to the main hall, eager to leave the stares and whispers, as well as the would-be-brides and the pleasantries of the court, behind him. He hated them and their judgmental hearts and he felt no need to tolerate them in his presence.
He heard his name called and paused, his heart rising into his throat at the all too familiar sound. It used to give him such pleasure to be called by him. Now it gave him goose bumps, a mixture of dread and anticipation sending shivers down his spine.
He turned, facing the approaching figure that was his king. “Your highness?”
Yuri made a face at him as he came to stand before him. “What’s with this ‘your highness’ stuff? You know you can call me by my name.”
“Of course, your highness Yuri. Happy Birthday”
“Wolfram.” The king’s face softened into a sorrowful pout. He really was still such a child. “Are you leaving again already? I’d rather you stayed. I want to talk to you about things.”
“I’m retiring to my quarters for a moment, that’s all. It’s too hot and stuffy in that room; they’re likely to ruin my suit with their sweat.”
“I’ll walk you there, then,” Yuri offered, standing beside him. “Which room is yours?”
Wolfram rattled off its location and, by the king’s _expression, he was not pleased. “Those aren’t even proper guest quarters.”
“I am a soldier on duty. They suit me just fine.”
Yuri shook his head. “This is your home; you deserve to sleep somewhere nicer. If all you want to do it sit down for a bit, let’s go to my room and you can use my bed. I’ll see about moving you into a nicer room for tonight.”
“As often as you've tried to drive me out of your room, I never thought I would hear you offer to let me in,” Wolfram jibed. “I don’t expect kindness from you, your highness. My room is fine.”
“As you wish. We can talk in private in my room for now, though.”
“Is there something you wish to speak to me about, your highness?”
“It’s Yuri. And yes, you know there is. How can you not think there is?”
Wolfram’s face remained impassive. “Fine. In private then.”
The king nodded and took him by the elbow for the first few steps to make sure that he accompanied him back to the elegant quarters. It was not a long walk from the grand hall, but there was a large dampening of the noise from the ongoing celebration. Behind the large closed doors, it was as though they were in another world entirely.
Wolfram kicked his boots off and lay down on the bed, habitually going to his side of the mattress. It was much cooler in the room and he could fell the stress begin to melt away in the calm cool of the king’s quarters.
Yuri sat bedside him, looking down at him with a pained _expression. “You didn’t even say goodbye, Wolfram. That wasn’t very nice. Whatever it was that had you upset could have been worked out.”
“No, your highness, it could not have been,” he stated, refusing to look him in the eyes. Wolfram tried not to let the nostalgia of the place soften his heart. “Didn’t Gwendel tell you goodbye for me?”
“Yes, but it’s not the same. Especially not since we had...you know. I mean, did you leave because I was terrible? Was it something I did?”
“Something you didn’t do,” the blonde said truthfully.
“You didn’t love me back.”
Wolfram could hear the exasperation in his king’s voice. “You expected me to fall in love with you after having sex with you?”
“No. The sex was goodbye. I’d already planned to leave the next day.” He turned over onto his side, daring to look up at the one he had once called his fiancé. “I don’t have any hope that you’ll ever learn to love me. That hope is dead. You are an eyesore.”
Whatever reaction he had been expecting, the small smile that crossed the black haired man’s face was not it. “I was hoping you’d insult me. It’s not the same being in the same room with you and you being mostly pleasant.”
“You’re my king, it is not my place to insult you. Even if you are a wimp.”
Yuri smile broadened and he leaned down, hugging Wolfram gently. “I’ve missed you.”
It was the strangest reaction and turn of events Wolfram could have imagined. Yuri smelled wonderful, though, and his hair felt soft against his face. Wolfram melted into his embrace though he told himself not to get so comfortable.
Yuri pulled back after a moment, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly.
Wolfram watched him, finding himself growing fonder of him by the minute. There was just something about him. No matter how much he tried to hate him or forget him, laying there in his presence, it was impossible to do. He smiled a bit to himself, feeling more like his old, antagonistic self in these surroundings.
“Why did you ask if you were terrible? Don’t you remember?”
Yuri blushed, not expecting for Wolfram to return to that question. “No, actually.... I didn’t...you know...change, did I?”
Wolfram chuckled a bit. “You were too quiet to have been that loud mouth.”
Yuri’s blush deepened. “So...why did you use your mother’s perfume to drug me?”
“I didn’t drug you, Yuri, it’s a pheromone. There’s a difference.” He sat up to fluff his pillow then flopped back down. “Like you said, you were avoiding me. I was just giving you a little help.”
“What if it had only made me really mad at you and we had nearly drowned each other?”
“I was willing to risk it,” Wolfram stated honestly.
“You were what?” Yuri’s pitch rose and he glared at his friend. “Wolfram, I really doubt getting into my pants was worth the risk.”
“Sorry it was so regrettable for you.”
Wolfram looked away again, closing his eyes as though he would fall asleep, though his mind was too involved in their conversation to let him relax any further.
“I didn’t say that. I mean...we shouldn’t have done it, but we did and...it’s stupid, I guess, but I actually have dreams about it.”
The blonde peeked through his long lashes at his king in surprise. “About me?”
“I guess. I mean, you wouldn’t do half the things you do in the dreams, I’m sure. The person just looked like you probably”
“What sort of things did I do?” he asked, honestly intrigued.
“I can’t tell you that!” Yuri squawked.
Wolfram sat up, rolling his eyes. “How can you still blush like a virgin after what we did?”
“I told you, I don’t remember all of what happened,” he combated.
“Are you saying you want a reminder?”
They blinked and stared at each other, both a little shocked at the words that hung between them. Wolfram bit his lip, wondering if he should take it back with a jest at Yuri’s integrity or let it be--see what answer Yuri had for him. Did he even want to sleep with Yuri again? He reminded himself where they were, alone in the king’s bedroom with all of the castle attending the celebration a long ways down the halls. They were completely isolated from the world with no worries of interruption.
Why not? He was leaving again in the morning. Why shouldn’t he take advantage of the moment? Out there were many women who would gladly give anything to sit where he was with the same sort of opportunity. One day, perhaps one would even get this far. It wouldn’t be this night though, he promised himself. Even if the dark haired king was now of age, he would not celebrate with the flesh of a woman tonight.
“What did you say?” Yuri asked, skeptical and shocked.
“Why not? I didn’t bring you a present. And it is your birthday.” He leaned in closer, watching Yuri shrink away with widened eyes. “That’s the thing about sex. Once you’ve done it once, however many times you do it afterwards doesn’t really matter. It’s how many people you do it with that counts.”
Yuri nodded mutely. “But I’m not....”
“You said you dreamed of me. Aren’t you curious just how far I’m willing to go? I can make your fantasies come true.”
“They’re not fantasies, just...dreams.”
Wolfram leaned over and kissed him. Yuri’s lips moved against his own clumsily, lacking the strength of will he’d possessed the last time he was kissed. Wolfram pulled back, gazing deeply into his eyes from the close distance.
“I know how it feels. You touch yourself, but it’s not the same anymore. You need more so you can feel that good again.” Wolfram rested his hand on Yuri’s thigh. “If tonight is your night, then I am the one you should bed.”
Yuri’s Adam’s apple dipped as he swallowed hard. “Wolfram...will you still be there in the morning?”
Wolfram nodded, pressing Yuri down till his back rested against the bed. “Anything for my king.”
The king blinked his eyes blearily, sleep still clinging to his eyelashes and making it difficult to see. In an instant, a solid shove to his side sent him flailing off the edge of his large bed and down onto the hard floor below. Groaning and rubbing at his backside, Yuri sat up, glaring daggers at the bed’s remaining occupant.
“Wolfram, what do you think you’re doing? Ah!” Yuri ducked as his black formal garments came sailing down over his head. He pulled them down into his arms, his annoyance growing. “Wolfram!”
“You have to get up and go back downstairs! They’ll probably send somebody up here any minute now and you can’t let them find you like this.”
Yuri frowned again at his clothes. “I’d really rather stay in bed. I’m tired.”
“Wimp. I did all the work, if anyone should be tired it’s me.”
“Don’t call me a wimp!” Yuri smiled a bit, deciding it best to obey his blonde haired friend as he slowly began to figure out the pieces of his suit from the mass of black thrown at him. “I don’t see why you’re in such a hurry. Conrad already knows about what happened before so it’s not such a secret if he walks in anyway.”
“What if it isn’t Conrad they send to find you? What if it’s Gwendel or Gunter or my mother?”
Yuri could not fathom any human or mazoku being able to dress faster than him at that instant. He cast nervous glances at the door as he pulled on his clothes haphazardly. When he was dressed, he let out a large sigh before dropping back on his bed. “I’m so glad,” he exclaimed, turning his head to see if Wolfram had managed to get dressed yet himself.
Wolfram sat on the edge of his bed, watching him, still completely nude from their activities earlier.
“Wolfram, hurry up, someone might come in!”
The blonde smiled a bit and just climbed back into the bed and settled in between the sheets.
Yuri stared at him for a minute, not sure what exactly his friend thought he was doing. “Wolfram?”
“I’m tired, Yuri. You go on without me.”
The king’s jaw dropped. “Are you serious? You just kicked me out of bed! You can’t sleep yet if I can’t.”
Wolfram waved his hand dismissively and curled up under the comforter.
Yuri frowned. “What did I do to deserve this?”
“You’re the Maou is what,” the lump in the bed explained. “If we leave at the same time, people might guess we’ve been together the whole time and wonder what we were up to.”
“I see. Why can’t you ever just be nice and say that in the first place?” Yuri stood, adjusting the deep purple sash across his shoulders. “You’re worried about my reputation. Next time, why don’t you just say that rather than push me out of the bed? I’d have gotten up and dressed just the same. I don’t want anyone thinking badly of either of us.”
Wolfram sighed and peeked out at his king with a serious expression. “You told Conrad?”
“Oh...yeah. Don’t get mad or anything, though. You left. I needed to talk to someone and, really, who else was there to talk to? Murata’d just make fun of me.”
“What’d he have to say?”
Yuri rubbed the back of his neck. “Um...pretty much that he wasn’t all that happy about it. Not that I blame him. It was pretty stupid of us.”
“Do you mind explaining to me then why I was riding your dick less than an hour ago?”
The king turned scarlet. “That doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do. Just the...the fun thing to do I guess. I don’t know.” Yuri turned away from the bed. “I mean, you’re right. It’s different when you’re with someone else rather than when you’re alone. And I guess I’m no better than the guys at school I used to think were pigs because I kept thinking about it when you were gone. So, I guess, you know...thank you. For offering.”
“Of course, your highness.”
Yuri winced and looked back at his friend. “Wolfram, don’t start calling me that again. It’s like there’s a barrier between us when you do. Even if I am your king, you’re my friend first and as my friend, you should just call me Yuri.”
“Your guests are waiting. Yuri. You should go downstairs now.”
Yuri shook his head and sat back on the bed. He was getting nowhere at this rate, but he refused to walk out just yet. “I’m not going until you’re not mad at me.”
“Who said I was mad at you? Stop being such a wimpy king and take care of your obligations,” Wolfram instructed, looking furiously at the black haired man.
“You’re leaving tomorrow. Can you please just humor me and tell me what’s wrong?”
Wolfram threw a pillow at him.
“I didn’t say I thought the sex was bad! I meant it was a bad idea to do it! I like it just fine,” Yuri shouted, throwing up his arms in defense. “It’s just that you’re a guy and we can’t keep doing this.”
“You’re the one who keeps bringing it up. I’m just trying to sleep.”
Yuri paused. “That’s true but...I thought that’s what you were so grumpy about.”
“If I’m grumpy, it’s because you won’t let me sleep!” Wolfram pushed Yuri from the bed again and crawled over to the edge to glare down at him. “Now go downstairs. I’ll still be here when you’ve thanked your guests and it’s all over.”
“You’ll...be in here?” Yuri looked up at him in surprise. He smiled and stood back up, straightening his sash again.
“You asked me to stay till morning. I assume you meant in here with you.”
The king nodded. “Yeah, that’s fine. We’ll have plenty of time to talk and catch up on things then.”
“Good.” Wolfram yawned and resumed his position under the blankets. “And shut the door behind you.”
“I know. See you later.” Yuri smiled and did as instructed, walking quietly to the door and making sure to pull it closed as soundlessly as possible as he stood in the hallway. He leaned his back against the door for a minute, basking in the odd glow that surrounded him. It was more than just a post sex high, though it admittedly gave him an added bounce to his step. Wolfram was acting like his old self again, something Yuri had missed a great deal. Being called a wimp again had been the best birthday present ever.
He was only a couple feet down the hall when Gunter rounded the corner with a worried expression on his pale face. His expression changed instantly as he smiled upon his king and ran to him, embracing him strongly with a warriors grip.
“Your majesty, I was worried you’d been swept away by that bold Lady Emily. How happy I am to find you here on your own. I should have realized earlier that you had stepped out. Was it too warm? The music too loud? Oh, your majesty, if there is anything wrong with the ceremony or something I can do to make it more to your liking please let me know.”
Yuri smiled and patted him on the back. “Don’t worry so much, Gunter. It’s wonderful. I’m having a great time.”
The platinum blonde gave a content sigh as he clasped his hands in joy. “I’m so glad. Some of the banners hanging from the arches seemed a little too far to the left and I could not have lived with myself had you noticed and had your entire evening ruined.”
Yuri laughed a little, never surprised by how seriously his friend took such small details. It was sweet, if not a little disconcerting. It seemed a lot of his subjects took his pleasure into a great deal of consideration. “It never crossed my mind.”
Gunter smiled and began walking back to the festivities with his king in tow. “You seem to be in excellent spirits, tonight. It truly is rewarding to see such a genuine look of happiness on your handsome face.”
“Ah, well, it really has been a perfect night.” Yuri cast a glance back at his bedroom door before it passed out of sight. “So, which one is Lady Emily again?”
“The rather stunningly beautiful and well spoken of lady that was brought to you last week. You’ll remember she had several private attendants who went in before her and you remarked that it seemed more like a wedding precession than a formal greeting.”
The king thought back and smirked a bit. It had been quite a sight to see the rows of lovely young woman lining up to present the Lady. Gunter was right, though: she was stunningly beautiful. That such lovely women to be interested in him was a thought he found hard to get used to. The Lady Emily was half human and half mazoku, like himself. It had been her land’s selling point in the deal. Her auburn hair was heavily curled and it seemed to Yuri that she would look very much like Greta’s mother were they to stand next to each other. It was for that reason he’d extended the invitation to the party, he recalled. He felt bad for not spending more time with her.
“Has she left already, then? I guess if you thought that she might be with me, then she’s been missing for a while.”
Gunter gave a curt nod. “I believe the Lady Emily has retired for the night. Many of your foreign guests are still in assembly, but a few who had not intended to stay with us till the morning have departed.”
“I guess it was rather rude of me to disappear like that.” Yuri sighed. “I am pretty sleepy though, Gunter. Would it be alright if I walked around for a bit and then turned in?”
“Quite alright. Though I do believe Conrad was looking for you earlier. Perhaps you should speak with him once we return.”
“Alright. Thank you, Gunter.” Yuri quickened his pace, not one to make Conrad wait longer than necessary.
The great hall was still busy with people dancing and mingling when they arrived. Yuri could feel his pulse quicken with the excitement in the room. Everyone was happy and having a wonderful time. This was what he enjoyed most about being the Maou: having the power to restore peace and happiness to all who were willing to work towards it. All things considered, this had the possibility of being the best day of his life.
The king turned and smiled at Conrad as he came to stand beside him. “Hey. Gunter said you were looking for me.”
Conrad nodded and gestured towards the balcony behind them. “If you’d follow me, I’d rather we speak in private.”
Interest piqued, Yuri gave a worried frown to his friend. “Is everything alright?”
“Perfectly, sir. It’s more a personal matter, is all.”
Yuri gave an affirmative nod and hurried to the balcony at Conrad’s side. With the drapes half down the merriment seemed much further away than just behind the tasseled cloth. The stars were lovely though, sparkling unlike anything Yuri had seen on earth. He took a moment to find his own constellation then turned his attention to the matter at hand.
Conrad’s face was downcast and shadowed, making his normally lively and smiling face look sinister and grim.
“What’s the matter, Conrad?”
The patriot paused, hand resting on the hilt of his sword. “Yuri...were you any other man, I would strike you.”
“I saw you leave with him.”
Yuri’s stomach twisted into a knot.
“I waited outside the door in case you two should fight. I know what you were doing. ”
“Conrad.... ” Yuri swallowed hard, unable to form words suddenly.
“As I understand it, he is not good enough to be your husband but he is good enough to be your whore?”
“Conrad! That’s not it at all!” Sweat dripped from his brow. “I’m not that kind of person, you know that. He was just...it was his idea. That doesn’t excuse it, but when he said it, it sounded like a good idea and the next thing I knew....” Yuri blushed slightly. “We didn’t plan this. It just happened. And he’s acting a lot more normal now, so I think it made him happy.”
“No, Yuri. Even if he did offer you his body, along with that he has offered his heart. You can’t accept one and not the other, no matter what he may say to the contrary.” Conrad’s fist clenched with restraint. “What would make him happy is to be married to you. This is a shallow substitution. If he can’t see that, then it is your responsibility to turn him away for his own good.”
Yuri stared unblinking at his companion, frightened of many things that seemed to come at him from the dark. “Conrad, if I turn him away, he’ll be unhappy. He’ll hate me and he might never come back.”
“Every victory has its sacrifices. You have your freedom now. The sacrifice was him.”
“It shouldn’t have to be that way.” Yuri’s voice was frantic, as he scratched at his mind for some sort of solution, something he hadn’t noticed before that could make everything alright again. “I never meant for it to be like this. Please believe me, Conrad. I care a lot about Wolfram. I’ll talk to him, I promise. Tonight. This won’t happen again.”
Conrad shook his head. “Don’t make that sort of promise to me. What is important to me is my brother’s welfare. Given events, I think perhaps Gwendel was right to let him go. If it’s best he leave here, then that’s as it should be.”
Yuri shook his head. “Conrad....”
“I’m sorry, your highness. This does not compromise my feelings for you as our sovereign. This matter is personal and just happens to involve you and my family. I will not let it affect my service to you.” Conrad gave a small bow then exited the balcony to the noisy celebration.
For a moment, the laughter inside filtered out louder than before, mocking the king in his silence, then withdrew as the drapes fell back to obscure most of the archway. The night no longer seemed crisp and lovely and the stars seemed dull and boring in their heavenly abode.
Alone in the darkness, Yuri wept.
The darkness didn't seem to notice the young king kneeling on the balcony with his head in his hands. Like the rest of the world, and those enjoying the festivities behind him, he was simply an object out of place. His head hurt as he tried to keep from drawing attention to himself. To explain why he was crying would be worse than being seen with tears streaming down his face. It felt as though we were overflowing with guilt and remorse, so much so it could only leak steadily from his eyes or he'd have no choice but to scream it out at the top of his lungs.
If this was what it was like to be a man, he'd have preferred being a boy much longer.
"Your highness? Is that you?"
Yuri jumped, rubbing at his eyes to try and wipe away their moisture. "Ah, sorry. Don't mind me, it's nothing."
"But you're crying."
It took a moment for Yuri to realize it was not the voice of one of his more familiar friends. He looked around, trying to see where the voice came from. It was obviously a young woman, by the sound of her.
Peeking out from the doorway, her curled auburn hair playing gently at her shoulders, she stood looking down at him with concern.
"Lady Emily." Yuri truly felt like a fool now. "I'm alright, really. I appreciate your concern."
The Lady stepped closer to him, her pink ball gown rustling gently with every step. "I thought I heard your voice out here but, I hadn't realized there was something amiss. Did Sir Weller bring you bad news?"
"No. Sort of. It's nothing."
"Is it about Sir Von Bielefeld?"
Yuri looked panicked. "What did you hear?"
Emily frowned and brought her hand to his cheek, caressing the red skin with her smooth fingers. "Nothing. Actually, I had wanted to speak with you, but I saw you were walking away with Sir Von Bielefeld and thought it best to not interfere. It must be difficult to see someone you were once in love with. All those feelings still inside resurfacing."
How could someone be so right and yet so completely wrong? Yuri thanked the stars for her misunderstanding and smiled at her calmly. "Not exactly. I never meant to become engaged to Wolfram. Where I come from, slapping someone on the face is more an insult than anything else. It was all a mistake. It was never about love."
"How does one propose engagement where you come from?" she asked, letting her hand come to rest on his shoulder.
Yuri was a little surprised. Normally, no one was curious about such small details of his world. It made him feel important in a way to have someone there who seemed interested in him to that degree. "Well, usually the woman stands and the man kneels down on one knee in front of her and shows her a diamond ring. If she accepts the engagement, she accepts the ring."
Emily cocked her head slightly. "What if they are both men? Do they both then kneel and exchange rings?"
Laughing gently, he shook his head. "In my world, two men can't marry. Two women either. It's just something a man and a woman can do."
"And that is why things did not work out for you and Sir Von Bielefeld?"
Yuri nodded. The look of understanding on the Lady's face made the weight in his gut seem lighter. There was compassion there in her eyes and curiosity to know more, not just about his failed engagement, but about him and his world.
"How silly of Sir Von Bielefeld to take it so seriously. Being new to our world and the customs here, how silly of them all to expect you to understand and abide by such things." She caressed his face again as Yuri let his eyes close lightly and lean into the soft touch.
"No, they're wonderful people. But I do wish they saw things like you do. It's like they all blame me and there's nothing I can do right anymore."
"There, there, now." Emily wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his head to her chest, cradling it against her breasts as she stroked his hair. "It's alright."
For a moment, Yuri froze in near terror. His mother and Cecilie aside, he'd never before been held to a woman's breasts. It was an awkward position to be in, himself standing an inch or so taller than her, and it strained his neck to be pulled down at that angle. He could hear her heartbeat, though, through the generous mounds his head rested upon and watch her breathe as his head rose and fell slightly with every breath. The way she stroked his head was as soothing as the words she spoke and he felt as though he'd cry again now that he was being held so securely and affectionately.
Instead he wrapped his arms around her waist, changing his stance so it was less awkward in the position she had chosen, and let out a deep sigh.
"I suppose you're more accustomed to a man's chest than to a woman's," she remarked.
Yuri nodded, thinking to himself how very lucky he was to have someone so observant to comfort him.
"Some women might find that intimidating, but not me. I've heard tell that a man who has been with another man is the gentlest of lovers."
The king stiffened, unsure what to say, what to do.
"As lovely as Sir Von Bielefeld is, I'm sure you are quite skilled. I'm not intimidated. In fact, I'm glad that you have been engaged once before. Such maturity is hard to find in men your age."
Now the atmosphere was quite stifling. Yuri stood up, turning his face to the side to try and hide the scarlet hue. "I'd forgotten just how bold a woman you were."
"You blush!" Emily's delight was hard to conceal. "How modest and noble! I wouldn't expect such a worldly man as yourself to blush at such simple praise. Your highness is beyond expectations, which were high enough indeed."
Yuri rubbed his face a bit to hide the increasing shade of red, though his smile was less easily disguised. "Lady Emily, please, just call me Yuri. You're my friend, after all."
"Then you must call me Emily and I will gladly call you by your name, Yuri."
It was as though his life had all led up to that moment. Suddenly it was hard to remember why he'd felt so devastated by Conrad's words or why for months he'd had only images of Wolfram to award his sleepless nights. They stood on the balcony for over an hour as he told her about his home and family. She never once seemed bored with him or disinterested. She held his hand as he spoke and looked into his eyes, her sincerity and honesty becoming a very welcome companion indeed.
After escorting her to her room, he kissed her goodnight, his lips only daring to touch her cheek, and asked her to stay as long as she could in the comforts of Blood Pledge Castle. He needed someone like her around, someone who didn't blame him for one thing or another. As though she understood without his explaining, she accepted before bowing to her king and leaving him alone in the hall outside her room.
Once again, he walked down the hallway with a bounce to his step. Upon entry to his own room he had forgotten most of his troubles. He pulled back his blanket, ready to sleep with happy thoughts dancing in his mind when the tussled blonde hair across his pillow caught his attention and his mind snapped back to grim reality.
Wolfram didn't seem to be awake, his hands pulled close to his chest as though he guarded his heart while he dreamed. Yuri frowned a bit at his beautiful face as he lay there in peaceful slumber. It wasn't that he didn't want him there, but the thought of having this night to himself with all the exciting new feelings he had had been a pleasant one.
Slowly, as to not wake the other, Yuri slid into bed. As though he could sense his presence, Wolfram shifted closer to him. There was nothing but silence in the room and the even sound of the blonde's breathing in his ear. Surrounded in the warmth of his bed and with the exhaustion brought on by his emotions, Yuri felt himself quickly falling into sleep's grasp.
"You smell like perfume."
The king sighed. It was as though Wolfram hated the idea of him sleeping. "I what?"
"You smell like perfume."
Wolfram shifted, sitting up on one elbow so he could look him in the face.
Yuri didn't dare look back at him. "Oh. Does it smell bad?"
"Why do you smell like perfume?"
"It probably rubbed off. I was talking to Emily outside on the balcony," he explained. He could see his friend twitch out of the corner of his eye and prepared himself internally for whatever storm would be unleashed.
"How does one get perfume rubbed off on them while simply talking, Yuri? I'm not a fool." Wolfram's voice was harsh and cold like forged steel.
"I was crying. She held me." Yuri pulled the blankets up over his chin. "Do we have to talk about this now?"
Despite his best efforts, the blankets were quite forcibly pulled off of him, exposing him to the cooler air of the room. "Why were you crying?"
Glaring at the ceiling, Yuri thought back to his reasons why. He rolled over to face his friend, feeling more tired and worn than he could remember. "Wolfram, do you think I treat you like my whore?"
"I wish you did."
Yuri sat upright in an instant. "You what?"
Wolfram's gaze was all but emotionless. His thin brows were narrowed with his serious stare while below them hurt and determination danced together in his green irises. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm beautiful."
That was perhaps the last thing Yuri expected him to say, second only to what he had said before that. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Our armed forces don't need beautiful people. I can't be a spy because I stand out, I'm a good swordsman but there are plenty who are better than me, I'm useless in human territory and I get sick when I travel over seas." Wolfram's hard stare melted into a frown. "I've tried to be great soldier but I'm not Conrad. I'm irrational and impulsive so I can't ever hope to be like my older brother. All I am is beautiful. And if in this way I can be of service to you then I am glad for the opportunity."
Yuri shook his head in disbelief. "That's not true, Wolfram. You've got a lot more than your looks going for you. You're a great soldier. You've saved my life lots of times. Besides, this isn't right. I know I keep saying that and then doing something incredibly stupid, but I'm really serious. You still say you love me and maybe you still do. And that just makes it worse. I don't want to hurt you."
"And I don't want to be useless."
"Even if we kept seeing each other like this, it wouldn't last. Eventually I'm going to get married and start a family and then where would that leave you? No matter what you think, I'm not a cheater. I wouldn't cheat on my wife, especially not with another man."
Wolfram turned his head. "I've gotten used to the idea of you not being in my life. Even when I was your fiancé, since you're only half mazoku, I understood I'd be without you eventually."
"That doesn't mean anything, Wolfram. If you're still in love with me, how is sleeping together supposed to help you move on? What do you do when I'm settled with someone else? Go find someone else who finds you attractive and do the same for them?" The very thought made Yuri feel sick. It wasn't that he was possessive, but thinking of someone else touching, kissing or at the very worse having sex with his friend was enough to raise bile in his throat. It was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling that felt like fire in his veins.
"At such a point, what will you care?"
Yuri shook his head, trying to push down the strange emotions that rumbled through his body. "I really don't want to talk about this anymore. I just want to go to sleep."
"Were you crying because of me?"
Yuri hesitated then nodded slightly. "A little bit, I guess. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't want to lose my friendship with you because I called off the engagement or because we've slept together. And the more people talk, the more confused I feel as to what's the right thing to do."
Wolfram pushed Yuri back against his bed and curled up beside him. "If you cry for me, I don't want you to go to some woman's arms for comfort. Especially not when I'm here. Cry about anything else you want to, wimp, but if it's me, I want to see it."
Yuri nodded his reply, closing his eyes to the nightmares that were on the other side. His blood still boiled and his gut still felt ready to spew forth its contents. Without any real reason he could think of, he took Wolfram's hand in his and held it. The feelings inside seemed to calm with the touch, more so even as Wolfram's thumb ran gently across the top of his hand.
"I don't know what to do, Wolfram. I don't know what to say or ask or even be anymore."
"Cry all you need to if it makes you feel better. But you have to act eventually. Staying indecisive is a weak thing to do."
Yuri curled up against his friend, still holding his hand, and dreamt away the rest of the long night.
It was the bottom of the ninth and Yuri’s team was only one run away from tying with the visiting team with two outs. Wolfram had successfully made it to first base on his last hit. It had looked as though it would run foul but the air swept it back in bounds and before the ball was thrown and caught in the second baseman’s glove, Wolfram stood proudly on first.
Now it was up to Yuri to bring him home and keep them in the game.
His helmet felt a little snug but he tried to not let it distract him. He swung the bat experimentally, getting a feel for the heavy steel in his grip and positioned himself for the incoming pitches.
The sun was out, making him squint to see the pitcher. Over all though, it was a perfect day for a baseball game. Not a cloud in sight, though presently he would have wished for some coverage to clear his vision. Still, there was no threat of rain and so long as he hit hard and straight, there was no reason why they couldn’t win the game.
Conrad stood behind the catcher, his eyes set on the strike zone. It seemed odd to Yuri that his friend would be playing umpire, but of those playing, besides Yuri, he did have the best knowledge of the rules of the game.
Yuri eyed the pitcher, watching the silent conversation he had with his catcher, wondering what pitch they were deciding on as anticipation and excitement mounted inside him. He saw the ball release and could hear the scuffle of cleats on the dirt. He stepped forward and put all he had into his swing.
The ball curved at the last minute and sailed into the catcher’s mitt.
Yuri stood frozen. Somehow, he hadn’t expected it to do that. He corrected his stance and looked out at the field, glad to see Wolfram had at least managed to steal second on that pitch. He stared down the pitcher again, ready and waiting to send the ball right over his head.
The pitcher threw the ball, Yuri swung, and not only did the ball curve, it did a loop-de-loop in the air, sailing above, below and around the bat as Yuri’s swing connected with nothing.
“Strike two!” Conrad’s voice called out.
Yuri had never seen a pitch like that. All at once, it seemed as though he as way out of his league. How was he supposed to hit something like that?
“Come on, Yuri! Just hit the ball!”
Yuri looked up at third base to see Wolfram had again managed to make it. Indeed, all he needed was for Yuri to hit the ball. It was the only base he wouldn’t be able to steal. It was up to Yuri to make sure he made it home.
If he struck out though, it would have all been for nothing. He couldn’t miss this ball. But the pitches were so difficult, like none he’d ever dealt with before. Chances were, he’d just swing and miss again. Yuri couldn’t let Wolfram and the team down like that.
“Strike three! You’re out!”
Yuri blinked then stared behind him at the catcher and the ball in his glove. He hadn’t been paying attention, hadn’t even seen the pitch sail past, hadn’t been ready to hit it. And there it was, sitting at home plate where Wolfram should have been running while Yuri’s bat still hung loosely in his hands with its top in the dirt.
He looked over at third, but there was no one there. He looked to the dug out, but the team seemed to be missing one blonde haired prince.
Yuri watched the umpire walk away, going to the where the rest of the team sulked at their loss. “Conrad?” he called out.
Conrad did not acknowledge him.
Yuri fell, sitting hard at home base with the bat out in front of him.
He’d blown it
Wolfram woke up before dawn with a slight start as the hand that held his squeezed hard, smashing his bones together in a painful grip. He glared halfheartedly at the sleeping form of his king for disturbing him and pulled his hand from the sweaty grasp, shaking the discomfort from his joints.
Yuri slept on fitfully as he grasped the sheets with his now empty hand, his lips uttering indiscernible words.
Wolfram sighed and thought for a moment he should wake him, but decided against it. Not yet anyway. He threw his legs over the side of the large bed and got up, stretching the sleep from his body as he yawned. He needed to be out of the king’s room before too many people were out and about. The fact that he would have to walk around in formal dress until he got back to his room to change would certainly make for more talk. He’d wake Yuri when he was dressed and ready to go so that he kept his promise but was not delayed.
As he tied the sides of his small black under garments, the door to the room opened. Turning to grab his sword, Wolfram’s green eyes blazed with more than just embarrassment. He grabbed the hilt and had the blade pointed in the direction of the intruder when the breath he’d held suddenly left him and he felt himself growing warmer.
“Conrad, how dare you enter here without knocking.”
His older brother smiled faintly, closing the door behind him. “It might have woken Yuri. Please keep your voice down.”
Wolfram sheathed his blade and leaned it back against the wardrobe. “I take it you came here to speak to me then. Or do you make a habit of watching Yuri sleep now?”
Conrad shook his head and crossed quietly over to him. “No, I came for you. His majesty has enough people watching him during the day, I let him have his nights.” He took from inside his shirt a change of clothes and extended them to his brother. “Wear these. I’ll see to it the others are taken care of.”
Wolfram looked at the clothing in mild surprise. He accepted them and began changing, not one to stand around in a state of undress no matter who the audience was. “Yuri made it sound as though you were angry at us.”
“Whether I am or not, I have a responsibility to you both. As you have gotten yourself in here without being seen well enough, it comes to me to get you out without any undo attention.”
“I can manage well enough on my own.”
Conrad sighed. “You’re not showing that to be very true.”
Wolfram buckled the brown leather around his waist with a furrowed brow. The last thing he was in the mood for was a lecture from his perfect younger older brother. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?”
“No.” The blonde grimaced. He sat on the end of the bed and began to pull on his boots.
“Then what is the reason?”
Wolfram looked up at Conrad with an almost sour expression. “With you, Yuri comes first. As it should be. So forget it. I don’t need you like that wimp does.”
“You’ve got him very confused, Wolfram. Your advanced aren’t making it any easier for him to sort himself out. And it’s not making it any easier on you either.” Conrad’s hand rested on his brother’s shoulder. For a moment, Wolfram felt the desire to shake him off. It was nice though, even if it was perhaps more pity than concern. “Why not try something different? The say absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
“It also goes ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”
“You know that’s not how it works.”
Wolfram turned his face away from him, looking instead at the sword he needed to attach to its bindings. No, it certainly hadn’t worked for him. Every night away from Yuri and Blood Pledge Castle had just made him home- and heartsick. “You told me he cared for me. That if he could have stayed here, he’d have married me.”
“I’m sorry. I had thought those were his intentions. I didn’t speak them solely to comfort you at his loss.”
Wolfram stood and fastened his sword in place. “Maybe not.”
“Sometimes friendship can be stronger than love, Wolfram,” Conrad spoke.
Wolfram glared at him. “Then I hope the two of you will be very happy.” He walked to the head of the bed and shook Yuri gently. It was time for him to leave.
Yuri blinked at him, the sweat on his brow trailing down the sides of his face. “Wolfram?”
“I should be heading out.”
Yuri sat up and looked for a clock but found Conrad instead. “Conrad?”
The older man smiled a little at him. “It’s not yet sunrise. You don’t have to get up yet. You look rather feverish--I’m sure you could use the rest.”
Yuri shook his head and looked back to Wolfram. “You said you’d stay till morning.”
“It’s morning enough.”
Yuri shook his head again and grabbed Wolfram’s arm. “We’re not done talking. And I know there’s no big hurry.”
Wolfram opened his mouth to protest but his brother’s voice intervened.
“Wolfram can stay till breakfast is over. Gwendel has special orders for him that require he wait until the rest of his team arrives at the castle.”
This was the first Wolfram had heard of this. “When was that decided?”
“That’s the other reason I came so early. I knew you’d try sneaking out again and needed to be sure you were here to be briefed.”
Wolfram glared at him. This smelled of conspiracy.
Yuri seemed pleased though and relaxed back into his pillow. “That’s good. There’s still time then.”
Conrad nodded and came to stand beside his brother. “We shall see you then, Yuri. I should escort Wolfram to less conspicuous parts of the grounds.”
Their king nodded. “You’re not still mad at me, are you, Conrad?”
The soldier shook his head. “I do not put the blame solely on you for this situation. I am sorry if my words caused you distress.”
Yuri’s smile broadened and he closed his eyes. Wolfram both hated and loved that Yuri seemed happier than he had been the night before. “I’m glad,” the king said, as he slowly drifted back to sleep.
Wolfram looked at him for a moment; to be sure he was asleep, then leaned forward and kissed his brow. Conrad said nothing, simply stood and waited for him to join him at the large doors to the room.
They walked to the courtyard, where they watched the sun explode over the tops of the castle walls, neither one saying a word. It would still be hours till most of the inhabitants were awake aside from the servants. Wolfram contemplated what mission his brother had decided for him and prayed that it was something more interesting than his initial assignment. It made the anticipation of the morning linger all the more.
Before their morning meal, Wolfram met up with his daughter and mother, ditching Conrad with Gwendel after being told he’d have to wait to be informed of his new job till later. It was infuriating to be kept in the dark but with his daughter sitting beside him, telling him about all the fun she’d had recently with her friend Beatrice, it was easy to forget. His mother, of course, still had plenty of tales of love and lust from her travels to tell, most of which earned her a grimace and landed Wolfram’s palms over Greta’s ears.
By the time breakfast was served, Wolfram had almost forgotten all his trouble. He walked into the room holding Greta’s hand, letting her run to her seat once she smelled the delicious scents of fresh fruit and baked confections.
He expected plenty of their foreign guests to be in attendance for the meal, but what he did not expect was for a woman to be sitting in his seat to the right hand side of the king.
“Who are you and what are you doing in my seat?”
The Lady smiled at him and stood, dipping down in a curtsey to him. “Sir Von Bielefeld, it’s an honor to meet you. I am Lady Emily. I’m here at his majesty's request.”
Whatever appetite Wolfram had thought he had had vanished and was replaced with repulsion. He wanted to throw down her knife and fork and for her to accept. He wanted to grab her by the bow on her blouse and escort her to the stables where she could roll around in the dirt and act like the beast she was. He wanted her to disappear forever and never insult him again with her presence. “Oh,” however, was the only response he could muster.
“I hope you don’t mind. I know a lot has changed since you left. It’s customary however for a prospective bride to sit beside her king. I’m sure there’s plenty of room for you on the other end of the table.”
“Mm.” Wolfram glanced back to where his mother sat. “Just so you know, I will kill you if you hurt Yuri.”
The woman smiled cheerfully at him, though her eyes looked much darker. “Believe me, I will do the same if you make him cry anymore.”
Wolfram nodded slowly and stepped away, feeling his insides chip away with every step. She was right though, it was no longer his place beside Yuri, as much as it pained him to see that it was now someone else’s, even if only for the present.
Yuri was the last to join them, which was his prerogative. He still seemed sleepy, his face made even paler by its contrast to his dark hair and eyes. Wolfram watched the woman cater to him as she recognized his weakness, how she took it upon herself to cut his food as he sat back in his chair looking blearily out at his guests, obviously embarrassed by the attention, though he made no move to ask her to stop. The look he gave Wolfram was sad and curious, as though he thought it was of his own desire that he sat so far away from him. Wolfram would have loved to have stood and proclaimed that the only reason he sat apart from him was the creature he’d chosen to invite but for once, he kept such an outburst to himself. Instead he just watched as Yuri smiled and chatted with the Lady as she wiped milk from his upper lip and inquired about his health.
“Don’t they look lovely together?”
Wolfram looked at his mother in shock. “Must you say things like that in front of me?”
“I’m sorry, Wolf,” Cecilie said with a small pout. “You have to admit though, she’s very kind to him. Isn’t that what you would want your replacement to be like? Someone who is good for his majesty, Yuri?”
Wolfram cringed and looked to the head of the table. “She pampers him. It makes him appear weaker than he already is.”
“But he’s smiling.”
He poked at his food and pushed it away. “I don’t care. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
“Hey, kiddo! Sorry I missed the party.”
Everyone turned their attention to the late arrival as he marched into the room with a carefree air about him. His orange hair seemed to glow in the morning sun while his drag clothing clashed with the ornate decorations still hung in the room.
“Yozak!” Yuri’s cheerful voice carried across the room. “It’s been too long! Where have you been?”
Yozak shrugged, throwing up his muscular arms. “Here and there. I can’t stay, though.” He plucked an apple from the table and took a bite from it. “I just came by to pick something up and wish you a happy late birthday.”
“What do you need?”
Yozak’s free hand came to rest firmly on Wolfram’s shoulder, jostling him in his seat. “Him.”
Wolfram blinked then glared at his brothers, both of whom neglected to meet his stare.
“Come on, no time to waste.” The older man swiftly pulled Wolfram’s chair back and pulled him from his seat. “Sorry to run, your majesty, but it’s rather urgent we go.”
Yuri got out of his chair as well and crossed over to them quickly. “You have to go right this instant?”
Wolfram looked back at his king, understanding the unspoken words that hung between them. He couldn’t say he was sorry to let this drag on, though. In that, he still had some hope. “Sorry, Yuri. We’ll have to talk later. I have to go.”
“Come back safely.” Yuri looked up at their orange haired friend with a forced smile. “You too, Yozak.”
Yozak nodded and pulled Wolfram from the room, closing the doors behind them. There was a very final sound to its echo and an almost foreboding feeling in the weight it carried. They hurried down the halls towards the courtyard to make their expedited departure.
“Sorry about that. I tried to get here sooner but I suppose I managed to arrive before the carnage began,” Yozak said as soon as they were outside earshot. “That’s all that counts.”
“You what?” Wolfram walked beside him, looking up at his face as they spoke. “You mean that was all staged?”
“Conrad thought it might be best to give you an excuse to leave, what with her Ladyship there and all.”
“He knew? You mean all this stuff about me having a new assignment was a lie?”
Yozak smirked. “Not at all. We’re leaving right now for one of the border kingdoms within human territory.”
Wolfram gawked. “Human territory? I’m a full blooded mazoku. I’m too weak in those parts to be of much use. You’re better off taking another half blood.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve taken it all into consideration when choosing your disguise.”
“My disguise?” Wolfram froze. “What do you mean my disguise? What exactly are we doing?”
Yozak’s smile grew and he winked in the younger soldier’s direction. “Just a little subterfuge.”
Wolfram paused, watching as Yozak walked on in front of him. He had a very, very bad feeling about this.
The plan was simple and quite nearly fool proof, but that didn't mean that Wolfram wasn't one hundred percent against it. It was as though the world enjoyed taking away every ounce of pride he had left and he wasn't about to let it get away with it. Not without a fight.
"But why do I have to wear this?" he shouted inside the carriage as it bumped along the road. They were driving further into human territory; he could feel it. It made his weak stomach even worse than normal as they jostled to a fro.
Yozak was already dressed in his disguise, looking out of place and yet somehow just as he should at the same time. It was amazing how someone as broad and muscular as he could pull off ribbons and lace as though they were leather armaments. Yozak sighed, knowing the argument was not going to come to an end any time soon. "Because people trust strange women more than they trust strange men. I explained all this seven hours ago. After we abandon the carriage, we walk up to the main house and pretend to be sisters who are down on our luck and in need of temporary employment. Soon as we're accepted, we can get down to finding out everything we need to know about these people."
Wolfram glared at him, his face red with outrage. "I understood all of that perfectly well the first time you told me," he spat out irritably. "What I don't understand is why I have to wear this!"
Wolfram held out a half full sack of flour that had been fitted with straps to tie about the shoulders and waist. It was heavy, it was ridiculous, and he utterly refused to wear the bulky contraption under the disgustingly feminine frills Yozak had provided him as well.
Yozak smirked at him, closing his eyes as though the whole matter was obvious and the younger man was making the conversation rather redundant. "You're not fit for house work, you've the most sensitive stomach of any man I've ever met and with the large amounts of Houryoku in the area you're physically weakened to the point where it might make them suspicious since you're supposed to be a human girl." He peeked his eyes opened and gave Wolfram a small wink. "But no one'd think twice if they thought you were pregnant."
Wolfram threw the flour sack at the orange hair man. "I'm sick of your insults! I'm not going anywhere dressed like that!"
"Yes you are." Yozak threw it back at him. "This is a delicate operation of enormous consequence. I thought you wanted to help Yuri and Shin Makoku."
"That does not mean that I will allow myself to be paraded in front of strangers as a human whore!"
Wolfram watched as Yozak took a deep breath, as though he were trying to calm himself. "Look, you want to go in there as Miss Drop Dead Beautiful Servant Girl, be my guest. When someone decides to rape you and finds more than they were expecting under that skirt though, you're going to blow the whole damn thing. And not only are you going to look like a fool but it'll all get back to Yuri and he'll look like a pretty sorry king having men going undercover into enemy territory like this." Yozak sat up. "There's not too many people in these parts with the balls to rape a pregnant girl, though, no matter how pretty she may be. So to protect your hide and our mission, wear the damn sack."
Wolfram stared at Yozak for a long time, not trusting himself to move. "Yuri doesn't know where we're going, does he?"
"No idea. He'd never agree to it."
The blonde nodded. Their king believed in trusting everyone, even his enemies. Even if it was a necessity to their survival, even if he knew it was not something they could stop doing without compromising the security of their kingdom, Yuri wouldn't want people spying on their neighbors. It was one of the many necessary evils that Gwendel orchestrated rather than allowing their king to deal with it.
Yozak sighed again, adjusting his fake bosom. "Make up whatever story you want about being pregnant, whatever makes you more comfortable in the disguise. But if we're lucky, the people of the household will pity you and the closer you can get to them and the more you can talk to them, the better chances we have of finding out if they have plans against Shin Makoku or Yuri. That's what you want to do, isn't it?"
Wolfram nodded, his fists clenching around the fabric of the sack. "You promise you won't tell anyone about this?"
"As far as Shin Makoku is concerned, this will never have even happened."
Swallowing his pride, Wolfram began to strip off his jacket and shirt. He eyed Yozak, making the older man avert his eyes as he undressed. The flour sack was heavy in his arms but seemed lighter with most of his body supporting it. The straps were rough against his skin though. He'd have to fix them later to make them more comfortable.
He pulled on the layers of frilly pale pink cloth with an expression of disgust. With it tied and laced, the dress hardly touched his knees, the lumpy protrusion from his abdomen only serving to reduce the length in front. Yozak frowned at him for a minute before breaking out in a fit of laughter.
"That's it. I'm not wearing this."
Yozak wiped a tear from his face. "No, it's not that you look bad. It's just you look exactly like your mother. Actually, you look better than her." He took out his handbag and pulled out a small box. "It's a good thing Conrad thought for me to bring these."
Curious, Wolfram stopped untying the sash under his non-existent breasts and peered over at the box in his hands. "What did Conrad give you?"
"Yuri's contacts. Come 'ere."
Wolfram backed away. "I'm not letting you put anything in my eyes! You'll just want to put makeup on me next!"
"Oh, when I'm through with you, no one'll ever recognize you. Now sit still." Yozak leapt as Wolfram opened the door to the moving carriage and tackled him to the seat.
"No!" The blonde struggled fruitlessly, easily overpowered by the taller, stronger man. "I'm not doing this! Let me out!"
With his left arm holding the prince pinned to the seat, Yozak pinched a contact from the box and held it up to his face. "I'm not here to baby-sit you. You either come quietly and do your job or you can leave this carriage and Shin Makoku too while you're at it."
"Stop goading me!"
"You know, there were a couple times I thought maybe you'd grown up a little but now that I've got you like this, it's easy to see that you're still just a selfish little brat."
Wolfram cast him a dangerous glare. "At least I'm honest enough with myself that I can explain my feelings to the one I love. Unlike some people."
Yozak raised an eyebrow at him then smirked at him with a sadistic gleam. "Oh yeah. We're going to get along just great."
Wolfram didn't bother fighting with him after that. Contacts in place, rouge and lipstick on his face, he sat on his side of the carriage looking somber. He didn't dare look at the other passenger; he was too furious at him to do much more than glare at the walls around them as though it was their fault that he had been sentenced to his own personal hell.
"You know, I didn't think you'd have such a problem with this. I mean, you wear that girly nighty."
"For Yuri," he explained simply, defending himself automatically. "I only wore it because Yuri said he'd prefer to marry a woman. I thought if I were more feminine in private...." He bit off the end of his sentence, hands clasped over his stomach to try and steady himself internally. Besides, it wasn't any of Yozak's business.
"You're both messed up, if you ask me."
"Well no one did!" Wolfram found himself fuming again. How was it the other man knew exactly what to say to put him on edge?
Yozak, though, seemed completely unfazed, as though the whole ordeal was rather boring and the company he was keeping was no more entertaining than the trees that passed by their view. Even that was infuriating to the blonde. How could his brother's childhood friend not be the least concerned about the current affairs surrounding the Maou and their engagement? His words were like a whip, each lash ripping his flesh from his bones.
"Look, kid, outside your little world, no one cares. Whether or not you're going to marry the Maou doesn't make life better or worse for anyone else but you. You've got to get over yourself if you want to do any good in the big world."
Wolfram looked at him hard, not sure how to respond.
"Only idiots let themselves be destroyed by love. Are you an idiot?"
He shook his head.
"You're not the only one who's in love with someone they can't have. So stop acting like it."
Wolfram hung his head. "Conrad--"
"Has too much on his hands as it is. He's got his Majesty and that's enough for him for now." Yozak took his powder from his handbag and touched up his chin and nose. "All I'm saying though is that you're not going to get any pity from me. So don't expect any. We've got a job to do. Are you going to be able to pull it together and do this? I could use use help but I'm not about to risk everything if you can't."
Wolfram thought about it for a minute, then nodded slightly. "I can do this."
"Alright. This is where we get out, then."
The blonde blinked and looked outside the carriage as it came to a stop. There was a town not too far from the road they were on and just outside it, he could see a large manor that hung the colors of Shin Makoku from their poles alongside their own flag. He found it hard to hide his surprise at that. "Are humans so far from our borders now aligned with us?"
Yozak stood outside, getting together their few necessities. "Strange, huh? Sure looks like it. Makes one wonder though."
That's what made Gwendel send us here, Wolfram guessed.
He stepped out of the carriage, thankful for solid ground again. The sack of flour shifted awkwardly in front of him, feeling more uncomfortable now that it was no longer supported by his lap. He felt ridiculous standing there, looking out at the countryside in his knee high stockings and layers or white and pink frills.
Yozak's purple dress nearly matched his own, though the length was much more respectable. It caught the wind as he stood there, sending the driver back to the capital with instructions and details that Gwendel would require.
It was harder than Wolfram had thought it would be to watch their ride return without them. Now, no matter what, he was stuck with the choice he'd made.
"Well now, we'd better get walking if we want to be there before sunset. Also, don't call me Yozak. So long as we're here, call me Betty."
"And how long are we going to be here?" the blonde asked.
"Couple months? Shouldn't be much longer than that." Yozak winked at him with a playful smirk. "Don't worry, I won't forget to add a couple pounds to that sack of yours before we go."
Wolfram put his hands on the small of his back for leverage and grimaced at him. He was enjoying this entirely too much.
"You're going to need a name too. I can't be calling you Wolfram. That's the worst girl's name I've ever heard."
"Right." Wolfram gave it a moment's thought, then smiled a bit to himself. "I'll be Jennifer."
"Alright, Jennifer. Just follow your big sis's lead and everything'll go smoothly."
Wolfram nodded and did his best to keep up with Yozak's pace as they ambled down the gently sloping hill towards the sleepy town before them.
It was the first and last time he would do so.
The guest room was quiet and warm, bird song filtering in from the balcony through doors that were open wide to let in the cool breeze. Summer was hitting them hard, still, making the wind smell of flowers and wood chips. Wolfram sat in a chair close to the open doors, looking out at the town below, feeling rather tired, though in truth he’d done nothing all day. Yozak was busy cleaning and cooking no doubt. It made the blonde smile a bit, as though the world were taking revenge on the larger man for him.
True to the plan, and to Wolfram’s great astonishment, they had been welcomed into the Ackart household. The oldest son and lord of the manor, Lord Frederick Ackart, had been touched by the story of the young widow and her older sister and had put “Betty” to work in the household immediately while “Jennifer” was permitted to stay as a guest, perceived, of course, as being quite pregnant. Wolfram thought the humans to be very dull witted indeed to be fooled by something as simple as a sack of flour hidden under his skirts. He was glad for it, though, all the same. He’d never scrubbed a kitchen clean in his life and the prospect of doing so did little for him.
The days seemed longer somehow, which became a rather large annoyance as Wolfram found he waddled through the hallways with the unaccustomed weight tied to his front. He longed for the nights when he could untie the sack from his body and curl up in some semblance of comfort in his bed. Since he was under no orders from Lord Ackart, Wolfram took to sitting around whenever possible. From his room he could hear whatever was going on in the gardens. Most of the time it was only the gardener’s voice he heard, humming to himself while his sheers snipped buds from the bushels. Sometimes, though, he could hear Lord Ackart as he strolled along the pebbled paths. He seemed to be quite fond of his gardens and Wolfram was pleased that he could do this bit of spying from the comforts of his own quarters.
Looking down past the balcony, Wolfram could see their gentle host making another round through his rose patch. He couldn’t have been more than one hundred and twenty years old, though seeing as he was human, Wolfram guessed he was probably much closer to his mid twenties. He had dark brown hair, reminding him a great deal of his brother Conrad from the back, but his eyes were a pale blue with a crooked nose placed between them that was more charming than otherwise. He had a certain frailty to him that most human noblemen seemed to possess. It made Wolfram uneasy somehow. He was many times older than Lord Ackart, but the human had more to show for his years all around him.
Through several nights of dinners at his table, Wolfram had learned a certain amount of information from the human. Nothing pertinent and nothing that Gwendel’s resources couldn’t have told them before sending them in, but it was a fair show of trust on Lord Ackart’s part nonetheless. He had never married and was the eldest of four children. He had three sisters, most of which lived on their own estates along their family's land or with their husbands in other kingdoms close by. In the manor, there was only he and his servants; because of this, he professed a bit of loneliness. It was fairly evident that Wolfram’s presence was a great comfort to him and although inconvenienced by his disguise, Wolfram was in some ways pleased to be so welcomed.
Another late summer breeze rolled through the open doors and Wolfram closed his eyes to enjoy it, seeing himself riding along dirt roads in his home lands as his hair danced across his face.
Wolfram flinched a bit and opened his eyes, turning his head to the door and the pretty maid that stood there. It was a reaction Yozak had told him to be careful of, but being mistaken for a woman had never been something Wolfram had been pleased with. “Yes?” he asked her, trying to sound more pleasant than he felt.
“Lord Ackart was hoping you would join him for tea on the terrace. I’m to take you there now, if you will consent.” She was a very sweet, meek young girl, Wolfram noted. Of course, in just these first five days, he’d managed to frighten half the staff with what they had lovingly termed to be mood swings. He couldn’t remember if he’d snapped at the young girl at the doorway yet, though. Perhaps he ought to go easy on her, just in case.
“I shall,” he answered without much pause to consider. Such opportunities were golden for both he and Yozak. While he had the master entertained, it was much easier for the expert spy to go through the many rooms for hidden documents or other clues. Besides, it really was a lovely day, even if it was a shame he wasn’t allowed on horseback.
He rose from his chair slowly, swatting away the maid’s hand when she offered to help him rise. “I’m not completely helpless. I assure you, I can stand and walk just fine on my own. Just show me to the terrace.”
She cowered slightly and nodded her head, waiting for him to join her before walking slowly to their destination.
The hallways were very cheerful, Wolfram noted as they walked. The sunny yellow paint on the wooden walls made the whole place shine like sunlight. Pictures of family members were hung with pride, some as large as the portraits of Shinou back home, while others were much smaller and more quaint. All the eyes of the Ackart family tree seemed to watch him pass by and none seemed poised to tell his secrets, which suited Wolfram just fine.
As they stepped out onto the terrace, Wolfram shielded his eyes and peered out at the garden that wrapped around them now. It paled in comparison to the ones Gunter managed in Shin Makoku, but it was a pleasant sight all the same.
“Miss Jennifer,” said a warm, masculine voice. “Please have a seat. You look tired.”
Wolfram turned his brown coated eyes to the table set up under the shade of an umbrella and at Lord Ackart who extended a hand to him.
“I’m not tired. I’ve been sitting in my room all day. It’s just hot.”
“I imagine in your condition, the heat is only made worse.”
Wolfram frowned a bit at that, though it was partly true. Having a sack of flour strapped close to his stomach did make him quite a bit warmer than he would be normally. All the same, he hated when it was referred to as his "condition". He ignored the hand extended for him and took his seat at the table.
Lord Ackart laughed. “You’re very spirited. I find it refreshing.” He took his seat across from Wolfram and smiled at him. “I’m glad you don’t feel the need to bother with pleasantries and the like. I’d much rather you be blunt and honest.”
“I’m not being rude am I?” Wolfram asked, not wanting to be a bad guest even if he was there merely to spy and deceive.
“Not at all. As I said, I find you very refreshingly feminine in that roguish country sort of way.”
Wolfram gawked. He had half a mind to strike the human for the insult but it was his better judgment that made him swallow his pride for the cause.
The cause seemed to take more of his pride than he was comfortable parting with.
Lord Ackart poured their drinks and pressed a tray of sweet confections towards him. “I’m very pleased that you’ve accepted my invitation. I hope you don’t feel inclined to spend time with me purely out of respect as my guest. I want you to feel at home here, and that means you don’t have to spend time with an old man like me if you’d rather not.”
Wolfram shook his head and bit into a small tart. He had to hand it to the humans on some things; their deserts were quite delicious. “Not at all. As you pointed out, I’m not in the habit of being entertained against my will.”
“You make me a very happy man to hear that, Miss Jennifer.”
Wolfram felt uneasy looking into the Lord’s smiling face. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the man, but it made him nervous all the same.
“I was hoping I might get to hear more about you. I feel as though I’ve talked entirely too much about myself the last few times we’ve sat together. I’m quite embarrassed to say it. You’ve certainly a much more interesting life than I,” Lord Ackart said as he stirred his tea.
Wolfram paled slightly, stuffing the rest of his tart in his mouth. “Oh...there’s really nothing much to tell that you don’t already know, Lord Ackart.”
“Please, call me Frederick.” He gave a charming smile. “We are friends, aren’t we?”
“...Of course we are.” Wolfram busied himself with his tea, trying to think quickly of what to do or say. “And friends tell each other things. Things about themselves and...politics and the like.”
“Let’s not talk about politics on a lovely day like today. Let’s start on more intimate subjects. For starters, where are you from?”
“Caloria,” Wolfram answered, it being the only human nation he could think of that he had anything close to an extensive knowledge of. “Lady Flurin is a close friend of my family.”
Frederick nodded slightly. “I’ve visited only once, I’m afraid. I have heard told that it is a very charming place, though.”
Wolfram nodded. “Since reconstruction, it’s been even nicer. Shin Makoku’s help really made everything go much faster and smoother than otherwise.”
“They are a strong and supportive nation. I’m proud to share such a close border with them.”
“I noticed when we arrived that you hang their colors from your poles. I take it you align with Shin Makoku rather than stand with the human nations or alone?” Wolfram asked.
Frederick sighed. “It’s a rather delicate subject that is hard to explain. But we got off topic. You were telling me about your home.”
Wolfram felt the rise of excitement fall to disappointment in his gut. He’d been so close to finding out something pertinent for once. “Right. Caloria. Well...there’s not much else to tell.”
“Is it hard to talk about your late husband?”
Wolfram shook his head. “No. It’s alright...do you remember when the shadow passed over everywhere and an army of dolls attacked?”
Frederick nodded his head, such a day still fresh in his memory.
Wolfram thought back to the day himself, to the day he truly remembered. It was when he’d thought he’d lost Yuri forever. That was close enough to the truth. “He died that day.”
“Did he know about the child?”
Wolfram nodded, thinking of Greta. It made his heart ache for home again. He wasn’t used to being away from her like this. “He knew. I didn’t feel upset about that, though. I can take care of our child on my own. I just didn’t want to be without him.”
“You’re a very strong woman,” Frederick told him, reaching across to clasp his hand. “I’m sure your late husband would be proud of you, if he could see you now.”
Wolfram was sure that if Yuri could see him now, he would laugh till it hurt and then fall down in the dirt to laugh some more. There would be no pride, there would be humiliation and then he’d be forced to kill the wimp in order to wipe the memory from his mind and never have it spoken of again.
Such thoughts actually brought a smile to his face, though. He missed bickering with his king, taunting and chasing each other around the castle as though they truly cared for each other.
Frederick kept his hand over Wolfram’s in a soothing sort of touch. “What was his name?”
“...Shoma.” It only made sense, if he was to be Jennifer.
“What a strange name.”
“He was a strange guy,” Wolfram explained. He took his hand from under Frederick’s and put it in his lap. “Sort of compulsive, not very bright, always looking at women even when I was in the room. But he was mine.”
“Not to speak ill of the dead, but how could anyone not appreciate the beauty you possess?”
He’s flirting with me, Wolfram noticed with a start, blinking wildly at the human’s smiling face. He was also sincere, though. It as a frightening combination.
“I think we’d better talk about something else,” Wolfram said, drinking the last of his tea. “On second thought, I’d probably better go back to my room. I’m sorry.”
Frederick stood and pulled back Wolfram’s chair for him. “No need to apologize. I’ve been too curious. I promise, I’ll be better behaved at dinner tonight. You will join me, I hope.”
Wolfram gave him a nod and hurried to rise and leave the scene. His dress caught on the delicately carved spirals of the chair though and as his momentum continued, he found himself falling forward towards the ground.
Arms wrapped securely around him and caught him before he fell, pulling his body to the other man’s chest. “Miss Jennifer, are you alright?”
Wolfram tried to push away but found the other man was stronger than he looked. “I’m fine. This stupid dress caught on the chair, that’s all.”
Frederick seemed to hear none of it, though, and quickly swooped Wolfram into his arms, cradling him to his chest. “No, it’s my fault. I should have known the heat would be too much for you. I would never have been able to live with myself had you fallen in your condition.”
Wolfram fumed. ”My condition has nothing to do with anything. Put me down this instant.”
Lord Ackart shook his head and carried him inside, ignoring Wolfram as he kicked his legs in an attempt to get down. “I understand you must be furious with me, but please settle down. I’ll have you in your room soon.”
Wolfram continued his futile struggle a while longer before admitting defeat and brooding in Frederick’s arms as he was carried up the stairs, down the yellow hallways with the large portraits and into his room where Yozak stood with a dust mop in hand.
“What happened?” he asked as soon as he caught sight of them.
Wolfram threw him an icy glare. “Nothing.”
“It’s my fault, I’m afraid. I asked Miss Jennifer for tea on the terrace and she nearly fell as she was parting. I take it I can leave her in your care for now, Betty?”
Yozak nodded, keeping his smirk tucked away in the private corners of his mouth. Wolfram was sure he could see if, though.
Frederick laid him down on the bed and Wolfram quickly adjusted his skirt for modesty’s sake if not for the sake of their mission. He watched the human take his left hand and gently kiss his bare knuckles. “I hope you will forgive me,” he said, looking as worried and devastated as he had sounded.
“There’s nothing to forgive. I told you, the dress got snagged. You didn’t have to carry me up here. In the future, I would prefer it if you never did such a thing again.”
Frederick laughed as a smile came back to his face. “I’m glad the lady still has enough energy to be so spirited and proud.” He stood up, bowing to Wolfram on the bed, then nodding his head to Yozak. “She is to be your primary concern. If housework falls behind, so be it. I wish only that Miss Jennifer have everything she requires.”
“Certainly, Lord Ackart,” Yozak said with a curtsy.
Frederick smiled, pleased, then left them alone.
Wolfram sat up and threw his pillow at the door behind him. “How dare he treat me like this!”
With a knowing smirk now worn proudly on his face, Yozak collected the pillow and threw it back at him. “Right. How dare he wait on you hand and foot and shower you with respect.”
“You’re not funny, ‘Betty’.” Wolfram glared at him for a moment then placed his pillow back behind him and flopped back against it irritably. “Just forget it. Anyway, I was so close to getting him to talk to me about his true feelings about Shin Makoku.”
“Good. I’m coming up empty so far as what the other servants have heard. None of the papers I’ve found while cleaning his offices have helped either. If we find out anything, it may just have to be from his own mouth.”
Wolfram nodded, wiping the back of his knuckles against the bed to try and get the strange tingling sensation to leave them. “I’ve got dinner with him again tonight. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Don’t rush it,” Yozak instructed, standing beside the bed. “You act too interested in Shin Makoku and it might make him nervous or suspicious. Let it come up naturally. I’m sure there’s plenty of other things you could talk about.” He gave a mischievous wink.
The furious blush that covered Wolfram’s face was hard to conceal. “He’s flirting with me! I am not going to condone his advances!”
Yozak shrugged his large shoulders, the ruffles on his apron’s sleeves brushing up against his cheeks. “That’s not my concern. You deal with that on your own. Just get the information.” He smacked him with the dust mop over his stuffed stomach and waltzed back to the door. “If you don’t require anything more, I’ve got work to do.”
“I hope a horse kicks you in your face!” Wolfram shouted at him.
Yozak laughed to himself as he left, closing the door behind him.
Left alone, Wolfram lay in bed pondering his next move. How was what Yozak wanted him to do any different from what Yuri had done to him? He felt himself petting the hand that had been kissed, wondering absently at how soft Frederick’s lips had felt against his skin.
So this is what it was like to be the one being pursued, rather than being the pursuer.
Wolfram spent the next few weeks at Lord Frederick Ackart’s side, entertaining his requests for dinner, walks along the grounds, and evenings in his parlor where they would discuss such things as music and art. It seemed almost impossible to slide in references of Shin Makoku, a place that Wolfram had to pretend he’d never been. Frederick spoke a great deal about his love for his lands, but never chose to elaborate when asked where he felt his alliance fell. It was curious enough that he did not automatically respond with Shin Makoku, whose colors he flew. It was obvious something was amiss, but without details, there was nothing to send home about. Having spent nearly a month under cover, it was an embarrassing lack of information. Lord Ackart hid his secrets well, and Wolfram was beginning to wonder if they’d ever come to an understanding.
It was another night in the parlor and Wolfram cautiously petted the ruffles of his skirt down to keep his own secrets safe. He had to wonder at Yozak’s lack of proper attire. Then again, that he possessed spare dresses in Wolfram’s size also was a bit odd. He took a cream puff from the tray on the table beside where he sat on the love seat and nibbled at the side as Frederick sipped his liquor in the chair across from him. It had been a quieter evening than Wolfram was accustomed to. Something was weighing heavily on the Lord’s mind and it made him wary to sit in his presence.
“Would you think less of me, Miss Jennifer, if I were to speak frankly with you?”
Wolfram shook his head, watching Frederick bring his glass to his lips, pull it away, then bring it back as though unsure whether he needed more of the liquid courage.
“I have been thinking of late...my life has been so much more enjoyable since you arrived. I’d forgotten what it was like to be in the company of such a lovely woman as yourself. I am flattered beyond all sense that you humor me and sit with me like this.” He looked up and smiled, setting the glass to the side. “I understand if it’s too soon for you to consider marriage but...it is my desire that you remain here. You can give birth to your child in this home and raise it with all the comforts of nobility.”
Wolfram didn’t know whether to feel sick or embarrassed. It wasn’t all that surprising in truth, but suspicion and a blunt acknowledgement were two different things entirely. On their walks, Frederick would often hold his hand for as long as Wolfram would allow, and with recent talks on cradles and patterns for a child’s room, his interest in the future was quite understood. “Frederick, that’s a very considerate offer, but I’m afraid I must decline,” he said quickly. He had become much better at his role, he felt. Though it was not his intention to be the most convincing pregnant human girl ever attempted by an eighty two year old mazoku male, he was confident he’d managed to slip some more feminine qualities he knew from his mother into his personality while in costume.
Frederick smiled gently at him, moving from his chair to sit next to him on the love seat, taking one of Wolfram’s hands and holding it to his heart. “I understand if you’re worried about reputation and propriety, but I would rather you be here in safety and security than living somewhere else and me not knowing how you are faring.”
Wolfram wanted to rip his hand back but allowed him to keep it pressed to his chest. He could feel his heart beat even through the layers of clothing he wore. “Lord Ackart, I assure you I will be more than alright. I...plan to continue north to Shin Makoku and see about taking up residence in one of their towns.”
“Shin Makoku?” Frederick’s face turned slightly sour. “Why so far from your home and people?”
“They impressed me with their help in Caloria. I want to live within their borders. I want to raise my child inside their strong kingdom.”
Frederick’s frown grew as he brought the hand to his lips and kissed it gently. “Why must you be so brave? I wish there was something you wanted from me.”
Wolfram took a deep breath, feeling himself shudder slightly under the intense stare of the other man. “It’s not that I don’t want anything from you...you’ve done a lot for me and my sister...but it wouldn’t be right.”
“If you’re referring to the deception you and Betty have played out, be assured that I’m not offended. I know. I’ve known for a long time.”
“What deception?” Wolfram asked sharply, feeling very much on edge. The Lord’s close presence did little to calm him.
“I know that you’re not who you say you are.”
Wolfram stared at him, terrified. There simply wasn’t any way he could know that. He’d done everything Yozak told him to, even gone so far as to wear the ruffled panties he’d packed in case an updraft caught his skirts. They had both been too careful for Lord Ackart to know.
Frederick scooted closer to him, their knees touching on the burgundy-upholstered seat. “You don’t have to be afraid. I’m not angry. I understand why you felt you needed to lie to me.” His hand came to his face and caressed Wolfram’s flushed cheek. “Betty is not your sister. She’s your personal servant. You are of noble birth, I could tell so from the moment I saw you. You hold yourself with regal bearing. There is no motion you make that does not speak volumes of your breeding. You’re in hiding because of the child, aren’t you? Gone into hiding to save your family’s name from dishonor.” He held Wolfram’s face in his hands, tilting it just slightly to the side. “It doesn’t matter to me that you are having another man’s child. From what you’ve told me, he cares nothing for you to cast you aside. I will keep you here as my radiant flower and shower you with all the praise and love you deserve.”
Wolfram knew he should pull away, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t Frederick’s hands on his face that kept him from reacting but rather the twinge in his heart and the flutter in his stomach at the human’s words. Their lips met, softly at first, testing the willingness to continue. Wolfram leaned into the kiss, tasting the liquor on his breath. It was unlike Yuri’s kisses in more than just that respect. It wasn’t necessarily better or worse, but it was not Yuri’s kiss.
Frederick’s hands moved to his arms, leaning him back against the arm of the seat before beginning to explore his body over the pink layers of clothing he wore. His hands felt down his back and sides, drifting down to Wolfram’s bare thighs and up through the ruffles of his skirt.
Wolfram sat up quickly, pushing Frederick away at an arms length. “I can’t!”
The Lord turned his head, looking ashamed of himself and displeased by the advances he’d made. He pulled back to the far end of the love seat and nearly curled in on himself in guilt. “Of course you can’t. I apologize for my rude behavior. I must profess, in the moment I felt your lips consent, I lost my better judgment. It shall not happen again.”
Wolfram nodded, standing up on shaking knees. “You’re very good with words, I’ll give you that. You made me forget myself.”
“Then it’s true? You are a runaway noble woman?”
Wolfram paused. It couldn’t hurt anything to tell him he was right. He already had some suspicions it seemed and it would be best to allow them to be settled in the easiest of fashions. “Yes. I am a runaway noble. Everything you’ve said is true. Please don’t ask me to explain it in any more detail.”
“Never, my Lady. I shall help you keep your secret.” Frederick stood, bowing deeply before him. “You shall be my Princess all the same, for your pride reminds me of royalty. Will that be alright to call you by?”
“Lord Ackart.” The pair turned their attention to the door, both surprised to be interrupted. Yozak’s cheerful smile made Wolfram hide his face quickly, hoping against hope that he had not been standing there long. “Your sister has just arrived, sir. Shall I have her join you?”
Frederick's demeanor picked up again, becoming the energetic and powerfully charismatic person Wolfram was becoming very accustomed to. “Immediately! This is wonderful news. I’ve been longing to introduce Miss Jennifer to my family.”
Yozak nodded and stepped aside to fetch her. Wolfram felt Frederick take his hands again and turned his attention back to him. “Don’t let my sister frighten you, my dear. She is a painfully sweet and thoughtful girl, but I’m afraid our parents may have spoiled her too much.“
The excitement was becoming more than Wolfram could handle and he was coming very close to telling Frederick as much. His knees still hadn’t stopped shaking since he’d pushed away from the kissing and petting moments before. Before that he’d nearly thought their cover had been blown and their mission ruined and now he was to meet Lord Ackart’s spoiled little sister?
Wolfram turned in time to see the young woman fly past him and into her brother’s arms. Frederick spun her around, holding her tightly as they both laughed together at their reunion. He put her down with a large smile on his face and beamed at Wolfram in turn.
“Emma, I’d like you to meet my very special guest this summer. She’s been staying here with me since last month: Miss Jennifer.”
Their eyes met and Wolfram felt sure his heart had stopped.
Lady Emily Ackart. Her family name had been Ackart.
Her eyes darkened for a moment as she looked hard into his face and then down his body. Wolfram waited for her to shout at him and expose him for the lie he’d woven, remembering the way she had looked at him when they’d first met at Blood Pledge Castle. Her intelligent eyes seemed to bore right through him.
“Brother, are you to have me believe that I am to be the aunt to your bastard?”
Wolfram flinched before she had finished her sentence and now that her words hung in the air, he stood very still, eyes wide. She didn’t recognize him. By all that was wonderful in the world, she hadn’t recognized him!
“Emma! That is very rude and quite untrue. Miss Jennifer is a widow who arrived with her sister in need of work. She is a very respectable young woman and I would like for you to apologize to her for your harsh words.”
Emily looked a lot like her brother when she frowned, Wolfram noted. She bowed her head in respect. “Forgive me. It’s been a long ride home and I was surprised. My brother doesn’t get many strange visitors.”
Wolfram watched her eyes grow dark again as he spoke. Yozak had told him to not bother disguising his voice, as it would be the first thing he’d forget to do in public, but he wished he had now that her eyes were on him again.
Frederick seemed immune to the tension in the air. “My sister has been at Blood Pledge Castle for a time. As you might have heard, their king has recently come of age. I feel sorry for the poor man. Every woman in the world now has their eyes on the mazoku king.”
“I see.” Wolfram forced a smile. “You must be very fortunate to get an audience with the king, Lady Emily.”
“He’s absolutely wonderful. A little short but I’m told he’ll grow,” the Lady said with a dreamy look. “Oh, Frederick, the castle is simply amazing. We went riding and took picnics and his daughter Greta is adorable. She let me read to her every day and even started to teach me to knit. She’s absolutely beautiful. Yuri keeps telling us how good we look together.”
Frederick looked very happy for his sister. “I take it by your arrival that we are to make ready the preparations to entertain royalty?”
Emily nodded, hardly able to contain her excitement. “I told him to give me three days to get everything ready. He wants to meet my family and, well, that means you, big brother.”
The Lord’s smile grew until his attention turned to Wolfram.
“My dear, you’re crying. Is everything alright?”
Wolfram touched his cheeks, only mildly surprised to find them wet. “Oh.... Sorry. I was thinking of...my late husband.... I’m sorry, I’m going to turn in for the night. It was a pleasure to meet you, Lady Emily.”
With that, Wolfram ran from the room. It didn’t matter if Emily’s suspicions grew, all that mattered was getting out of that room. As he ran he heard heavy footsteps behind him but he didn’t dare stop to let them catch him. He didn’t want to take comfort in Frederick; he’d taken advantage of him enough for one evening. He burst into his room and made to slam the door but an outstretched hand halted its movement.
“Boy, what do you think you’re doing?”
Wolfram fell back, watching Yozak enter the room and closed the door behind him. “They could be discussing what we need to know in the room right now and instead of staying put and doing you job, you run away? What kind of sense does that make?”
“Has he proposed?” was all Wolfram could think to say.
“What, his majesty?”
“Has he proposed to her?” His voice was tight and desperate sounding, even to him.
Yozak sighed and placed a hand on his shoulder. “No, he hasn’t proposed to anyone. Word from Gwendel is that he prefers Lady Ackart to all the others, though. That’s why we were sent. Could be, as they had been part of a larger human nation; that this is all a plot against Shin Makoku and Yuri is walking into a trap. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
Wolfram wiped away the tears on his face, shaking his head. “Frederick’s not like that. He wouldn’t do anything to hurt Yuri.” “Which one are you trying to protect?” Yozak gave his shoulder a squeeze then let it go. “I’m going back to see what I can overhear. You may as well go to bed, you made a big enough scene about it.”
“She has my life, Yozak.”
“You’re living your life right now, kid. She’s living your fantasy. Learn to tell the difference.”
“This is not my life!” Wolfram began to rip his dress from his body, taking handfuls of lace and throwing them to the floor.
Yozak grabbed him again and threw him to the bed, pinning him onto the mattress. Wolfram struggled, wanting to rip the other man’s arms from his torso and watch him flail around as helplessly as Wolfram felt. The sting on his right cheek came as a surprise. Wolfram ceased his struggles, staring, instead, up at the other man’s furious face.
“I am going to write to Gwendel and recommend you never be assigned to another risky operation again. You obviously can’t handle the stress and are too wound up in your own life to give a damn about those around you.”
“You never told me this was her home. No one said anything about spying on Yuri’s prospective bride.”
“Makes it more fun though, huh?” Yozak pointed out. “Now it’s your job to dig up dirt on her and let other advisors tell Yuri not to marry her.”
Wolfram hadn’t thought of it like that. It didn’t so much make it better, though, as it made it seem less bad. “Tell my brother whatever you want. After this, I’m not doing any more military work.”
“No.” Wolfram pushed himself up now that Yozak wasn’t forcing him down. He felt calmer now, though for the slap he wished to strike Yozak right back. “I’ll ask Yuri if I can take Greta for a cruise and see about traveling with my mother.”
Yozak laughed at him. “You really are home sick to want to spend any amount of time on a seafaring vessel. Glad to hear you aren’t planning to stay here and marry Lord Frederick though.”
“I can’t, can I? He’s in love with someone who doesn’t exist.”
“That’s the only reason? Kid, you’re so wound up, I’m amazed you can buckle your own shoes.” Wolfram glared as Yozak flaunted his supposed superior intellect. “You’re not any more in love with him than I am.”
“I never said I was in love with him anyway!” he spat at him like venom.
“You didn’t have to, kid--I saw that sly little scene in the parlor earlier. How far up your skirt did you let him get before you pushed him away?”
Wolfram’s color became flame red. “If you dare insult me like that again, I will see you outside with swords drawn.”
Yozak flippantly ignored the threat. “I know your type. There’s plenty of them in the village I grew up in. Half mazoku, half human children can lose their parents for several reasons, mostly due to prejudice. They spend their whole lives looking for someone to hold them and validate their existence with affection. You’re much better off running home to mommy than into Lord Ackart’s bed, kid.”
“Shut up.” Wolfram felt himself shaking with rage. “Leave. Now.”
Yozak shrugged and left without another word.
Not more than several moments later, there was a knock at the door. Flying from the bed, face still red with fury, Wolfram grabbed his dressing gown and threw it on over his torn dress. The door creaked open slowly and from the hallway Frederick peered inside.
“My Princess, is everything alright?”
Wolfram grasped the robe shut and turned his back to the door. “Everything’s fine,” he lied, trying to dismiss the words Yozak had spoken though his own came out angry and hurt. “I’m sorry for disrupting you and Lady Emily. Please go back and enjoy your visit with your sister. I’m sure she has a lot to talk to you about.”
“I’m sure she does.” The door opened wider for entry, then closed quietly as footsteps came nearer. “But it can wait.”
Wolfram searched the room for some place to hide, then hurried to the curtained divider in the corner. “I’m changing for bed! A little privacy, please!”
Frederick halted in his step. “Of course, my princess. If I may, though...I would like to speak with you. I think I understand better now what is going on.”
Wolfram peered around the corner of the dressing screen, wary. “Fine. Sit there, but don’t peek.”
“On my word as a gentleman.”
He would take that for what it was worth, which was quite a bit so far as Wolfram had seen. Risky as it was, he began to undress, once sure there would be no silhouette to be cast for viewing pleasure. It felt very good to get out of the stuffy dress, and even better to slip the straps from his shoulders that supported the sack of flour likewise strapped around his waist.
“Your lover, was he a mazoku man?”
“Why do you ask?” Wolfram let the dress pool at his feet and set about the quick removal of the rest of his burden.
“You seem so interested in raising your child in Shin Makoku, but you yourself are human. I thought perhaps the reason was that you were afraid to raise a half-blooded child within human territory.” Frederick’s voice was calming and gentle. “Believe me when I say I am no stranger to this world’s prejudice.”
Wolfram paused, eyeing the place he presumed Frederick occupied through the screen. “You? What do you mean?”
“I mean my sister is half mazoku herself. We’re half siblings. She is very much my older sister from our late mother’s previous marriage. It is not something we commonly admit, though. Our neighbors, even some of our own people, wouldn’t be very pleased to know one among us was part of the enemy.”
“The mazoku aren’t your enemy,” Wolfram scolded him. “If anything, they are the only people taking great pains to rectify the prejudices of our world.”
“I know that. But still.... You asked me once why I flew the colors of Shin Makoku, do you remember?”
Wolfram held his breath, setting the flour sack on the stool. “Yes. I remember.”
Frederick paused, the rustle of his clothing showing signs of unease that his voice did not carry. “As long as our small township does not align itself with either side, we go relatively unnoticed. We have no great resources, no army to speak of; we simply exist on the borders of great nations. My sister is very much taken in by his majesty the Maou, though. His heroic deeds and compassion have given her and many like her hope for a better world. If she marries the Maou, we will become part of Shin Makoku. But it is my belief that if we are willing to marry into a country, we are willing to join them without marriage as well.”
That was it. Wolfram leaned against the wall, not sure what to think. A month in disguise in the company of Lord Ackart only to discover his intentions were true and noble in every aspect of his life. He’d succeeded in his task but with little jubilation. “That is...you are a thoughtful and wise leader.”
“I’m pleased you think so. I wish I could be more certain, though. The Maou is very young and inexperienced. If he makes any large mistakes, my home could be easily attacked and destroyed in retaliation. This is something we don’t have to worry about when we are not allied with them or anyone.”
Wolfram frowned for a moment as he rolled down his stockings. “Frederick, whether you are with Shin Makoku or not, they will protect you from all threats. Even though the Maou is inexperienced and young, that also means he is very optimistic and hopeful. I believe in what he says, even if it does sound like childish fantasies sometimes. One day we will all forget that there is a difference between us and live united as Yuri wants.”
There was light laughter. “You really believe in him that much?”
“I have had the pleasure to see him do great things.” Wolfram smiled sadly to himself and moved the flour so he could sit on the stool himself, wishing to bask in a state of undress for a bit before pulling on another girly garment. “I believe in him because has never let his people down.... He loves everyone equally and helps them without pause. If you speak to him about your concerns when he arrives, I’m sure he will find a way to put them to rest. Yuri doesn’t know greed and he’s not all that impressed with power. Integrity and honesty mean the most to him and you’ve plenty of both. Yuri will see that. He almost never overlooks the people he’s around.”
“This Majesty the Maou is a lucky man to have someone like you vouching for him.” Frederick’s voice came nearer the screen. “The way you speak of him, it’s as though you love him.”
Wolfram gathered his dressing gown closer. “I admire him a great deal. Please stay where you are.”
“Of course. I hope you realize, though, that you do not have to flee to Shin Makoku to find peace. I can still offer you and your child everything you need here. I don’t care if it’s half mazoku. It makes no difference to me or my family.”
Wolfram nodded though he knew he could not be seen. “I have considered that. But I still think it is best I leave. Sooner than later, in fact. Perhaps even tomorrow.”
“Have I...done something to offend you? Was it tonight in the parlor? I confess, I was a fool, but please do not judge me on the actions of a lonely man on one evening.”
Biting his lip and closing his eyes, Wolfram’s heart went out to the human noble. “I’m sorry. It wouldn’t work, no matter what you did. Because it’s my fault, not yours. I don’t want you to hold me in high respect, either; I’ve done nothing to earn it. Thank you for being such a generous host.”
He heard the dressing screen scuttle about the floor and glared up where the light had cast Frederick’s shadow. He hadn’t opened the screen, but his hand was laid against it, causing it to move slightly. His voice was choked and Wolfram realized with horror that the other man was crying. “Please...don’t leave me.... I love you.”
Wolfram listened to the sobs, his body trembling with guilt and shame. He wished Lord Ackart had turned out to be an evil man with poor intentions. Then the ruse could be justified at least, instead of his hiding behind the dressing screen while he broke another man’s heart. He’d made those sounds before not long ago, clutching to a one-sided love as though it would spread to the other’s heart if he only held on to it tighter. There was no solace to give him, no words that could be spoken to ease the pain. Wolfram had wished for them in his own time and none had ever come. At least in that, he understood. There was no pity for the human lord in Wolfram’s heart, only empathy. “I’m so sorry...I’m still in love with him, though.”
“Even though he abandoned you? Took you for granted and left you all alone?” Frederick choked out in disbelief.
“In his own way...he was being merciful.” Wolfram tried to explain it, to put into words what he felt was so hard to express. “If the child in him was not done being awed by the light of others’ beauty, he couldn’t be ready to settle down with me. Not with anyone I suppose.... I should stop taking it so personally in that respect. He’s too young and not done seeing what all the world has to offer. He used to look while I was there and it tore my heart to pieces every time. Whether he noticed or not, at least he had the decency to leave me before continuing to do so. I guess...it’s not so bad...I just miss knowing that no matter what, I was the one he was coming back to.” Wolfram gave a private, self-deprecating smile. “I guess there’s still a bit of a child in me too. I don’t like having to share, but when it comes to him, I always have to.”
Wolfram stood and placed his hand over the shadow of Frederick’s. “There’s a lot of reasons why I can’t stay here with you. And even if it seems like the smallest excuse, it’s the most important one. I’m still in love with someone else. And it’s not fair to you to drag this on any longer.”
“I don’t care if you don’t love me. So long as you’re near, I can be satisfied.”
“It doesn’t work that way. Believe me. I’ve tried.” Wolfram removed his hand and turned his back to the screen. “I’m ready for bed now. Please leave the room.”
Another desperate sob filled the air between them, but the shadow of Lord Frederick Ackart soon passed from sight. “Sweet dreams, my princess. May your prince wait for you there.” There was no hint of sarcasm or ill intent present in his sorrowful voice as he made his way out of the room.
The door opened and closed again, and Wolfram waited to be sure he was alone before wrapping the dressing gown around him and locking the door. If Emily had promised to kill him for making Yuri cry, he’d rather not deal with her after making her brother weep so openly.
Sitting on his bed, Wolfram ran his fingers through his hair and removed his contacts, blinking away the irritation they left. In the mirror he saw himself again, not the poor human girl he’d pretended to be for so long. It was sort of scary how accustomed he had become to the reflective image being someone very unlike himself. He was vain, he wasn’t afraid to admit it, and he enjoyed his appearance a great deal. He missed being perceived for his true gender and having the energy to enjoy the fine summer weather, preferably along side his daughter and king.
Looking to the bedside table, Wolfram picked up the letter that had arrived from Gwendel by pigeon earlier in the day. He had read it once already but opened the rolled parchment to read it to himself again, trying to find a reason to smile. It neglected to inform him of the impending visit of the Maou but with keen insight on his brother’s part, included many sweet moments from home that both warmed and caused pain to his heart. Most of the letter spoke of the pony Wolfram had bought for Greta and how Yuri had run madly after her as she first decided to show off for him, afraid she’d fall and hurt herself. Wolfram thought it would have been a wonderful thing to have been there to see, getting to stand there and scold Yuri for not having more faith in their daughter. She was probably doing quite well with her horsemanship. She’d be better than her other father in no time.
There were other points in the letter about Conrad and the others, how they were all so busy it seemed time passed them by in an instant, but that his family still found time to miss him and how he hoped Yozak was not making him suffer. Wolfram was pleased no response was expected back because to inform him of the disgraceful circumstances he found himself in would take much more than a single parchment, and there was no pigeon alive who could bear the weight of it.
No, he decided. Not only for his pride but in honor of Frederick’s emotions, no one would ever know about this. He had felt the man a fool himself for falling for such simple tricks, but no one else would be allowed to think of him as anything but a kind and considerate man who had nothing but love to give. It wasn’t right to mock him in any sense.
Wolfram put the letter down, unable to lose himself in the scratched out memories of his home. Perhaps he didn’t deserve to feel better in light of what he’d done. For once, he thought about how Yuri must have felt, watching him fall apart in the bed beside him. It was a gut wrenching feeling to hurt someone you had no ill will towards, to know you were doing the right thing even when it caused so much obvious pain. Conrad was right; he had been making things more difficult on their king. He was the reason things lingered between them and wounds would not close.
“Yuri....” Wolfram whispered his name, letting the sound surround him in the warmth of fond memories. He wanted to see him again, apologize for making a delicate situation more complicated. Yes, he was still a wimp and a cheater and terrible friend. But it wasn’t all his fault. For Greta’s sake at least, they needed to try and be able to be around each other without wincing. Wolfram felt ready to try. As soon as he and Yozak arrived back at Blood Pledge Castle they would await the end of Yuri’s visit and the endless conversation could be picked up again.
That was, at least, he hoped they would reunite at Blood Pledge Castle and not a great deal sooner. As far as Wolfram was concerned, Yuri and Miss Jennifer were never to meet. As soon as he saw Yozak again, he would tell him everything and they would pack and be ready to leave immediately.
At least, it made sense to Wolfram that it should be so easy.
It shouldn’t have come as any great surprise to Wolfram that things would be much more difficult in practice then they should need to be. Having sent their carriage back to Blood Pledge Castle at the beginning of their mission, they were more or less stranded in the Ackart manor until it was sent back for them, unless they decided to go on foot. It was not a welcome idea. To send a message for their ride and to then wait for the carriage to arrive would take several days though and Yuri and the others were due in only two. The quickest alternative of course was to wait for the royal entourage and return home with them at that time.
The long walk, in that case, seemed more and more appealing.
Yozak took it upon himself to reach the final verdict and to Wolfram’s great displeasure, he went with the quickest course. There would be plenty of room within the caravan for two women heading to Shin Makoku and it couldn’t hurt the king’s image to agree to share his carriages with them.
The entourage was easy enough to assume. Conrad of course would be there, along with several of his guards. If Greta showed enough interest, it was easy to imagine her dressed nicely to meet the prospective additions to her family alongside her father. Gunter would come too, Wolfram figured. Gunter was a bride’s toughest critic and he would feel it his duty to accompany Yuri and be sure everything met with his high expectations of what their King deserved and what the kingdom needed in their Queen.
That was to be his audience.
In the days leading up to the mazoku king’s arrival, Frederick kept himself busy with the readying of stables and hiring of additional cooks to serve a welcoming feast to his guests. His smile never faltered, though it became much more sorrowful when aimed at Wolfram’s disguised form. His pale blue eyes seemed to deepen in color and his brow would shift to give him an almost pitiful look of grieved acceptance. If love had a color, Wolfram imagined it would be the color of those eyes, which never blamed him for their sadness.
Emily, of course, had noticed the change in her brother’s state immediately. The looks she cast him were full of contempt when Wolfram entered a room. Rather than call him on it, though, she would tend to her brother’s happiness, averting Frederick attention to something charming she had thought of or ask him how the gardens were faring. Though it killed him to think it, Wolfram admired her for that. Her instincts were not to go for revenge, but to protect and comfort. She hated him for making her brother unhappy, that much was made abundantly clear. But she never gave Frederick a reason to defend “Jennifer” and in so doing make him belittle his heartbreak.
Why couldn’t they have all been terrible people? It would have been so much easier to hate her because she was greedy and power hungry. Yes, she coddled Yuri and treated him like her own child, but maybe that’s what Yuri liked. It was disgusting to watch, but his mother had been right: it seemed to make him happy. And in that way, what was wrong with Emily Ackart? If she loved Yuri the way she showed love to her family, Yuri would never be sad for long. She would protect his heart and be strong in his times of weakness, and heaven knew Yuri was no stranger to weakness.
Wolfram hung his head, standing in the pale yellow hallway before the gallery of portraits that led the way from one wing to the other. When he reported to Gwendel on his return, he would offer no reservations to the match. If Yuri wanted Lady Emily, so be it. It was, and always had been, his choice to make.
Turning towards the central staircase, Wolfram made his way down to the parlor, from which most of the signs of civilized life seemed to emanate these days. With the staff running madly to make the place immaculate in time for royalty, all bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms and living areas were a crowded mess that were more noisy than most people had the patience to stand if given the option to leave. The parlor was left alone, though, once the piano was tuned and the liquor restocked. It was in there that Wolfram was sure he’d find Frederick sitting patiently with his glass half empty and his sister playfully describing her good times in the castle.
Upon entry though, Wolfram saw only Emily, sitting at the piano bench while she thumbed through pages of music to find just the right spot to practice. She turned when he entered and scowled slightly, but motioned him inside.
This wasn’t good, he decided, but went over to stand beside her, anyway.
“I suppose I should thank you,” she began.
Wolfram blinked at her in confusion then sat back against the back couch. “Thank me?”
“I don’t mean to sound rude, but my brother deserves better than you.”
That was perhaps the most honest thing he had heard all day. “You’re right about that. I’m very sorry to have hurt him, though, all the same.”
Emily gave a curt nod. “He’s very special to me. I was there when he was born and, well.... One day Frederick will make a lucky human woman very happy. He shouldn’t be second to anyone. It’s...disappointing to know you haven’t always been first in someone’s heart.”
“Does it have to be a human woman?”
“Human either way.” Emily began to play a soft melody. “I think it works best when two people are of the same race. Not to say there is anything wrong with mixed marriages, but there’s such a gap there in life expectancies.” She gave a private smile and continued. “My parents were mixed. I’ve seen what it’s like to watch someone you love grow old so much faster than you. No matter how strong the love is, someone is left behind.”
Wolfram nodded his head slightly. These were not new words to him. He’d sat down once when he was younger and tried to figure out how long his brother would live. At only one hundred and thirteen years old, Conrad had already lived almost a third of his life, whereas Wolfram was only thirty years younger and hadn’t even lived a fifth of his own. If they both lived to be gray old men, Wolfram would outlive Conrad by almost two hundred years. It was a frightening reality and Wolfram didn’t dare waste another sleepless night to see how long he’d be without Yuri.
“That’s one of the reasons I love his majesty so much I think.” Emily played on, a bit louder now and with more confidence. “Since we’re both half-bloods, when we bury our children, we won’t have such a long time to grieve before it’s our turn. It’s easier to be in the middle than one extreme or the other.”
“Maybe. Is that one of the only reasons you love him?”
“Of course not. He’s so gentle and kind. He reminds me of my brother, actually. A little more energetic and less polished, but they have the same heart.”
Wolfram nodded again, finding no reason to disagree with her.
“You look like him, you know. Like Wolfram von Bielefeld.”
“Oh....” He paused, thinking of something to say. “I met him, once. In Caloria. Before that, no one had ever told me I look like anyone. Since then though, and now that I’m so close to Shin Makoku, I hear it more and more. Is that a bad thing?”
Emily shrugged. “Not really. It’s sort of weird, though. I’d been meaning to ask you, actually, if you’d not show yourself while our guests are here.”
Wolfram clasped his hands under the bulge of his skirt. “Because they might take my presence as evidence of your brother’s character?”
“No. Because you look like his Majesties ex-fiancé. Only you’re a woman, which makes you a threat.”
He found himself stunned again and leaned forward. “His Majesty called off that engagement, though. Why should I be a threat because I look like someone he didn’t want?”
“Whether he admits it or not, he was very taken with him.” Emily stopped playing for a moment and nervously thumbed through the pages of music again. “Every time he opens his mouth it’s ‘Wolfram this’ and ‘Wolfram that.’ They were so close, it seems he can’t tell a single story without finding some reason to mention him. And the fact that they even slept together and adopted a child together...sometimes I wonder if it’s really over between them. I don’t want to think that his Majesty is just playing games with me.”
Wolfram felt his heart rate quicken and tried hard to swallow his hope. “Oh. He wouldn’t be intentionally cruel to anyone, though.”
“No, not intentionally. But he was engaged to Lord von Bielefeld for a long time. The maids told me there weren’t any signs between them that things weren’t going well. One day, they were together and the next they weren’t.” Emily turned to him. “What if he’s just fickle and intends to do that to everyone he courts? Drag them along like he loves them and just drops them when he’s had his fun?”
“You don’t know him like I do,” Emily rebutted.
He wanted to argue that point with her, but found he couldn’t. Not as Jennifer and certainly not as Wolfram, either. He wouldn’t want to. Even if he had no factual reason to hate her, he’d love for Yuri to cast her aside. It was shallow and petty of him but he didn’t care one bit. “You’re just nervous for him to come, that’s all. I’ll be sure to stay out of the way, though, if it makes you happy.” It certainly made Wolfram happy to have an excuse to not show himself to his friends and family.
“Thank you. I knew you’d understand, as one woman to another.”
Wolfram forced a smile. “I understand you feel insecure. I don’t want to add to that.”
Emily cast him a dark look, then rose from the piano bench with renewed enthusiasm. “Freddy, dear, come on in. We were just having a chat. It’s alright.”
Wolfram turned to see Frederick lurking in the doorway. He was blushing slightly at having been caught and kept his head bowed as he came towards them. “I’m sorry if I’ve interrupted. I was hoping to find a quiet place to read.”
“Not at all.” Emily smiled at her brother with all the charm her faced possessed. “Have a seat. If it’s too distracting, I don’t have to play.”
“I’ll just read aloud to keep my place.” He looked at Wolfram. “If you’d be so inclined, I could read this to you, Miss Jennifer. That is, if you’ve nothing else to see to or if you like stories or if you’d mind the company.”
Wolfram nodded slightly, feeling more remorse than any great desire to sit and be read to. “That’s fine. I’d love to.”
Frederick’s face lit up instantly and he offered his hand to guide Wolfram to the love seat. Normally, Wolfram’s response was to ignore it or snap at him for treating him like a blind horse. This time, he took his arm and followed him to the suggested seat, though, making Frederick’s mood all the more reminiscent of what it had been.
They sat as friends in the parlor that day, with music and fantasy filling the air. The days, which had seemed so long, now passed so quickly that they were barely remembered at all, only seen as flashes of cheer and sadness. When the busy day arrived, the whole world seemed to stop again and stretch itself out to fill in every corner of every second with hustle and bustle.
The royal entourage had arrived.
“Will we be there soon, Conrad?” Yuri asked, chin resting on his open palm as he stared out the window at the fading townships on the horizon.
This was perhaps the worst and longest journey he’d made since his coronation.
With Gunter insisting that all the fineries and glittery spectacles of the court be present in their caravan, what seemed to Yuri to require only a few men on horseback had become an out of control, parade-like escort through Shin Makoku. Everyone and their grandchildren now knew of his visit to the Ackart lands outside their borders. It unsettled Yuri to bring so much attention to himself; in all this other travels, being discrete had been the main objective. With banners streaming from every corner of every carriage and every horseman in dress attire unsuited for the long ride, it was an amazingly embarrassing demonstration of power, money and stature that made Yuri blush with discomfort.
“Don’t frown, Yuri. We’ll be there shortly.” Conrad’s smile was genuine and warm, as though he was unaware of how long they had been sitting alongside Gunter in their stately coach. It seemed to Yuri that, though Wolfram had inherited Cecilie’s good looks, Conrad had been blessed with her cheerful disposition and optimistic outlook on life.
He smiled a little, thinking of his friend. “Say, Wolfram’s still stationed along the border, isn’t he? Will we be anywhere near where he is?”
“Ah...Wolfram is most likely too busy to be bothered, Your Majesty,” Gunter answered. “I doubt you will have much free time, either. There are many things to talk about with Lady Emily’s family, as well as formal rites to perform--”
Yuri drowned out the rest of his speech, though he felt badly for doing so. He’d studied the parchments on proper greetings when meeting the family of a prospective bride; how to make a toast, which foot to enter the home with first, what to say upon entering a room, which eye he should wink with before praising their draperies--it was extensive and exhausting and Yuri had no stomach for it. He was nervous enough as it was. He’d never dated anyone before and he’d certainly never gone to their home to meet their parents. To be expected to follow so many ridiculous traditions was only making him more anxious. He’d asked Emily to explain to her brother that he wasn’t accustomed to the ways of nobility yet and he hoped not to offend anyone when they arrived. She understood how different their cultures were; he trusted her to make sure her family was aware, as well.
At least, as far as family was concerned, he only had one member to meet. Her younger brother and head of the family, Lord Frederick Ackart. From what he had heard, the man was very gentle-hearted and merry. Yuri could not erase the imagined image, though, of a man chasing him away from his precious sister with a pitchfork from his mind. What if Lord Ackart didn’t like him? Could he keep his sister from having anything to do with him after that? What if she stopped liking him because her family disapproved?
Yuri let out a long-suffering sigh. Things were never as easy as he wanted them to be. Whatever happened to boy meets girl? Now it was boy meets girl, boy takes ridiculously extravagant road trip to see girl’s family, and then what? Boy is hung from a tree because of a misunderstanding?
The king blinked his eyes, snapping back to reality, and looked at his companion’s still smiling face. “We’re here.”
“What?” Yuri leaned forward and out the window of the carriage. Sure enough, the front door to the manor was right across from the door of their coach and the coachmen were already laying out a fine carpet path between them. “I’m not ready yet!” He took hold of Conrad’s arm in panic. “Can we circle the block a couple times?”
Conrad laughed slightly and shook his head. “You’ll be alright. Don’t worry so much. Just be yourself.”
“That’s alright for you to say: you’re not here to be judged.”
Conrad laughed again and left the carriage first as the coachmen held the door open for them, followed by a fretful looking Gunter. Taking a deep breath, Yuri stood and exited as well, blinded shortly by the light of the sun peeking over the rooftop.
He heard his name shouted at the top her lungs before he felt her arms wrap tightly around him. The smell of her perfume made him smile and he hugged her back as his nervousness faded away. “Emily. It’s very good to see you again.”
“Oh, Yuri, I missed you. Did you miss me?”
Yuri nodded and took her hand in his as they walked the carpet to her front door. “I wish Greta could have come. She says hello, though, and hopes you’re doing well.”
“Very well. I can’t wait for you to meet my brother.” Emily’s face was as bright and cheerful as the sun and she held his hand tightly as they came to stop in front of a small group of people gathered to greet them.
Yuri looked at the most nicely dressed of the lineup and felt more and more relaxed with every detail he took in. Frederick was indeed as handsome a young man as Emily had described and his face bore none of the wrinkles Gwendel displayed from frowning all day long. He offered his hand to shake the Maou’s and Yuri grasped it firmly.
“You must be Lord Frederick.”
“I am. Please, titles are not required here. You may call me Frederick, if I am to call you Yuri, as Emma has requested.”
Yuri nodded, pleased at the lack of formality, though he believed he could hear Gunter’s resolve cracking behind him.
The inside of their home was spacious and warm. Yuri thought it looked like something out of a movie with its fresh-cut flowers adorning every surface and filling the rooms with their fresh scents. He was glad the tour of the home included a walk through the garden. Back on Earth, most gardens he’d seen were small planter boxes arranged along a small concrete porch. The ones he found in his home away from home were larger than a baseball diamond and full of flowers he’d never seen before. He was sure the novelty of such things would wear off in time, but he was also aware of Emily’s brother’s fondness of horticulture and wanted to find some grounds on which to speak to him.
“Oh, you have Secret Gwendel,” he exclaimed, kneeling before a patch of pale green-grey flowers with long, soft petals that hung delicately from their stem. “I didn’t think Cecilie’s flowers were grown anywhere else.”
Frederick smiled at his enthusiasm. “I’m sure you are aware that many half-blooded mazoku live in this township. I was lucky enough to have immigrants come here with seeds with which to grow them. Even if it is a small detail, having flowers native to one's home around you does make a new place feel more like home itself.”
“I can see how that’s true. We have roses here and where I’m from. Things are so different on both worlds, but being able to point to something and recognize it for what it is makes me feel less awkward.” Yuri stood and looked around for more things he could recognize. “You even have Cheri’s Red Sigh and Conrad Stands Upon the Earth.”
It was hard not to smile wistfully at the pale blue flower. It held such memories for him of a painful era that he was glad he hadn’t had to live through. It stood for triumph, though, and perseverance. No sadness could hide such qualities.
“My guest is also very fond of those.”
Yuri turned his head quizzically. “I didn’t know we were intruding on you and another guest.”
Frederick shook his head. “Don’t think of it as an intrusion. A Miss Jennifer and Miss Betty have been staying with me here as they pass through to Shin Makoku. Perhaps you will remember them. They have come from Caloria.” He looked away, back out at his flowers. “Miss Jennifer speaks very highly of Your Majesty. I admit I was a bit unsure of how I felt about you, because the rumors I’ve heard. She helped me feel much more at ease with you as a leader.”
“And what of me as a person?” Yuri asked, fearing whatever answer he might be given.
“I haven’t decided yet.” Frederick smiled at him again. “But I see how happy my sister is when you’re around and for me, that is enough.”
Relief rained down on Yuri like water on a desert, soaking into every pore of his body and taking the place of the fear he’d felt. He looked to the terrace were Emily stood speaking to Conrad, though, and couldn’t help but frown.
“What?” Yuri’s attention was Frederick’s again. “What did you say?”
Frederick smiled and picked a blossom off the nearest patch of golden yellow flowers whose long petals splayed out like welcoming arms. “You didn’t notice the Beautiful Wolfram.”
Yuri took the offered blossom by the stem and frowned thoughtfully. “Who could miss it? It’s the only flower that opens this big.”
“Sometimes the hardest things to see are the ones right in front of our faces.”
That was certainly true. Yuri could remember many occasions when looking through the refrigerator at home that the milk he had searched for long and hard on every shelf was always the most elusive when it was sitting not four inches from his nose in plain sight. His mother often teased him for being blind to the obvious, but at least she attributed the same trait to his father and brother. Men, as she put it, made mountains out of mole hills because they were easier to find.
“Cecilie is working on a new flower strand right now. God Save the King. I’ll be sure to send you seeds once she’s settled on the one she likes. The black isn’t black enough, she keeps saying”
“I would gladly welcome such a flower here.” Frederick motioned him back to the terrace, where the rest of their party waited.
It was by chance that Yuri looked up at the second story as they walked along the path. The flutter of the curtains from an opened balcony door caught the corner of his eye and drew his full attention.
He didn’t even know he was running until he felt Conrad’s strong grip on his arm, pulling him to a halt. He didn’t want to stop, though. What if he disappeared again because he hesitated?
“Yuri, what’s wrong?”
“I saw him.”
Yuri looked up at the balcony but nothing but the curtains dancing in the soft breeze remained there. The jubilation he felt slowly faded, not there long enough to even notice until it was gone. “No one I guess.... I’m sorry to worry you.”
Gunter followed his gaze and turned to their host. “Which room connects to that balcony?”
“The guest suite Miss Jennifer is occupying presently.” Frederick’s voice seemed less cheerful. “She often sits beside the door, especially on days like these. It’s much too hot for her to be about, though.”
“Is she sick?” Yuri asked.
“No, Miss Jennifer is pregnant. For her comfort and safety, she mostly stays indoors. It is for that reason she has stayed so long in my company. I admit to having no qualms about it, though. Her sister is an excellent housemaid and Miss Jennifer is the most engaging and brave woman I have ever been blessed to meet.”
Emily cleared her throat nosily and wrapped an arm around her brother. “I think your guest’s ears must be ringing terribly right now. Why don’t we give her some peace and speak on something else.”
Frederick nodded, though his face still looked sullen. Yuri couldn’t help but think there was something more going on than what they spoke of. It piqued his interest and made it hard to tear his eyes from the balcony as they filed back inside to complete their tour.
At dinner the table was set to fill the stomachs of thirty men. With only the five of them seated in the formal dining area and nearly fifty people taking their meal in the kitchen, it seemed a rather odd ruling in favor of propriety that the largest amount of food be set before the smallest assembly of hungry people.
Yuri sat at the head of the table, flanked by Conrad and Emily, while Frederick sat at the other end with Gunter and an empty chair to his right. Yuri noted the chair with some interest as they began their meal.
“Shouldn’t we wait for your other guest to join us before we start eating?” he asked, watching Emily as she filled his plate with food.
“Nonsense. I haven’t seen her all day. Could be your presence here has made her nervous,” Emily explained, drizzling gravy over his poultry.
“I should check on her.” Frederick scooted his chair back.
Yuri had his chair pushed back and was on his feet before him, though. “No, you go ahead and enjoy your food. If I’m the reason she’s decided not to join us, it should be me who goes.”
“Your Majesty,” Gunter began, but Yuri cut him off.
“Meeting new people can be scary, especially if it's a king. I want to show her I’m just your average person. I’ll be back down as soon as I’ve spoken to her and hopefully she’ll come down with me.”
Grudgingly, Gunter conceded. Conrad just nodded slightly, a sign that he approved but would keep an ear open should he need to be called upon.
Excusing himself, Yuri followed the hallway to the central staircase and up through a pale yellow hall. He wasn’t sure which door it was and knocked on several before he got an answer. The voice that called through the door was familiar though muffled, but still gave rise to the same rush of excitement he had felt on the terrace.
With a slight creak of resistance, the door opened, and Yuri’s jaw dropped.
Yuri stared wide-eyed at the face he’d seen every morning of every day for what seemed like an eternity. The eyes were all wrong, he noted, but it was hardly distracting. The shape of his face, the way his hair fell across his brow, the annoyed turn at the corner of his lips when he made that face that came before every long lecture on his fiancé’s wicked ways--everything was just as he remembered it.
“I’m sorry, you have me mistaken for someone else,” the familiar voice replied to no avail.
Yuri shook his head and came inside, closing the door behind him. “Wolfram, why are you wearing contacts?”
The two of them looked at each other for a moment in silence before Wolfram’s fist came down on top of Yuri’s head.
“Contacts? Is that all you can ask? Why am I wearing contacts?”
Yuri shielded himself from attack with his arms. “What do you mean, is that all? Your eyes are brown. It’s kind of hard not to notice something like that.”
Wolfram flung his fist at the king again, but Yuri grabbed it and held his arms apart to save himself from further bludgeoning. The blonde’s face was scarlet, complimenting the soft pink color of his ruffled collar.
Yuri shifted his gaze down the other man’s body.
It was a short, pink gown with enough ruffles and bows to make any European-style porcelain doll turn green with envy. Its empire waist was trimmed in a slightly darker pink bow and made no attempts to disguise a severe lack of breasts. Under the flat chest a rather prominent bulge was present. The many layered skirt ended close to the knees where white stockings continued the rest of the way to pairs of shiny, black buckled dress shoes. For a moment, Yuri stood completely and in all ways utterly confused. He’d seen Wolfram in his rather attractive nightgown, but this was above and beyond anything he expected.
Finally, realization hit him harder than Wolfram had.
“You’re Miss Jennifer?” he asked, still taking in the curious sight before him.
Wolfram pulled his wrists free from Yuri’s grasp and turned his back to him, the ruffles of his petticoats creeping out from under the pink satin. “Don’t go thinking anything funny. This is my disguise, is all. I didn’t choose to dress like this!”
Yuri shook his head in disbelief. “But Frederick said she’d been here for over a month. How could...you mean you’ve been here all this time? Why?”
Yuri watched the muscles in Wolfram’s shoulders tense and his hands begin to fidget with the cloth of his skirts. “It was the mission Conrad spoke of. Gwendel asked for Yozak and I to go on ahead of you and make sure it was safe.”
“You mean to spy on them.” The king shook his head. “That wasn’t necessary. What if someone found out? You’re not exactly keeping a low profile.”
“This wasn’t my idea, Yuri! My job is to follow orders.”
“Yeah but....” Yuri shook his head again, unable to care much at the moment. “Never mind. It’s not important right now.” He grabbed Wolfram’s arm and forced him to turn around so he could see his face again. “So, how have you been?”
Wolfram’s expression changed too many times in that instant to label any of them for sure. He seemed to settle finally on disbelief, though, and pulled away from the king’s grasp again. “You’re not going to laugh at me?”
“Why would I laugh at you? You look very nice.“ At that point, he did laugh, but only to lighten the atmosphere in the room. “You certainly look better than me in a dress. What is it you’ve got stuffed up there anyway?”
Wolfram blushed again and lifted his skirts bitterly to reveal what looked to be a simple half empty sack of flour like the ones he’d seen in the kitchens back at Blood Pledge Castle. The corners were folded back to give it a more rounded look but it hung without much else in the way of alterations. Considering the amount of science Yuri’s home world had put into making pregnancy suits for movies and the like, it was almost comical. “How much does that weigh?”
“At least five kilograms.” Wolfram informed him with a grimace, flattening his garments down again. “Why, you wanting to try it on?”
Yuri was certain he did not. “No, you can keep it. How much longer do you have to be disguised like that?”
“Yozak and I will leave with you and the others. Just tell Frederick you’re dropping us off in a nice town. After that, we should be beyond suspicion.”
Yuri nodded, then gave a large smile. “So you’re coming home again?” It was hard to keep the excitement from his voice.
“Until I’ve decided on where to go next.”
It was the response he'd expected but not the one he wanted. Yuri sighed and sat on the bed. So he’d been staying in a nice room with nice people the whole time. Gwendel had again refused to tell him where he’d gone. Many nights he’d wondered if Wolfram was being made to sleep on the cold ground, if he was eating alright and feeling okay. The stubborn mazoku had a taste for the finer things in life and it was not unheard of for him to turn his nose at anything less. Rather than think less of Wolfram for it, Yuri would prefer he just be given the things he wanted such as a large, soft bed and warm, cooked meals he could recognize. It wasn’t so much to ask for silk sheets when one had the money to acquire them.
“Has the last month been awful for you?”
Wolfram shook his head, sitting in the chair by the balcony door. “Not awful. Stressful. I’ll be glad to leave this place.”
“I’m sure you will.” Yuri bounced a bit on the soft mattress. “Greta asks about you a lot. She’ll be very excited to see you.”
“I’ve missed her a great deal.” Wolfram ‘s voice was soft and wistful as he gazed out at the sky rather than at his king.
“Did you miss me?” The words were out before he had the time to stop them. It was odd, he guessed, to feel ashamed to ask. He knew the answer was yes. It had to be yes.
But what if it was no?
“I missed you very much, Yuri.” Wolfram sank down further in his chair, his legs propped up on a small step stool. “How are things with Emily?”
A change of topic. Yuri didn’t mind so much, but that he would choose to ask about Emily seemed out of place. This was the man who used to refused to let him leave the castle alone lest he so much as walk past an attractive young woman by chance.
“Well, I’m meeting her family. So...good. I guess.”
“And you love her?”
Yuri couldn’t answer him. It wasn’t so much that it was awkward to talk about it with him, though it most certainly was; whatever answer he offered would be transparent and flawed, neither being able to get past his dear friend.
The mazoku sighed, turning a smile in Yuri’s direction. “You’re such a wimp.”
“Don’t call me a wimp.”
The king stood, taking that as his cue to leave, feeling tired now in a way the long trip hadn’t left him. It was the peaceful sort of sleepy feel one got after accomplishing something-- that desire to do nothing more than bask and perhaps sleep in its glow. “You’ll be coming downstairs to eat with us, right?”
Wolfram shook his head. “I don’t want Conrad to see me like this.”
Yuri could understand that. “Alright. I’ll tell them you were tired. You want me to bring you anything?”
Wolfram shook his head again, remaining reclined in his armchair, his attention wavering again.
Putting his hand on the doorknob, Yuri paused and turned back to his friend, finding it hard to keep the smile from his face. “You know...don’t take this the wrong way but...I think you’re prettier when you look like a guy. You do look very nice, don’t get me wrong. But...I prefer you the regular way.”
He left quickly incase Wolfram chose hit him again or, as he was seated, found something nearby that would be convenient to throw at him. When the door was shut though and no sound of a rebounding object could be heard, he felt a small twinge at the reminder that things were not as they had once been. Still, it had been wonderful to see him again and find him well.
On the way back down the stairs, it was hard not to skip a few steps and bounce slightly on each one. He couldn’t explain the rush of happiness he felt from such simple interactions, but he wasn’t about to worry it away with thought. There was still the dinner party to attend and he was certain he was overdue in his return.
“Sorry for taking such a long time,” he announced as he bashfully reentered the dining hall.
“Yuri, really, did you get lost?” Emily asked, her expression cross. Gunter and Conrad both looked at him similarly, though the latter seemed more inclined to question the way he bounced into the room.
“Was Miss Jennifer feeling alright?” Frederick inquired with concern. He laid his napkin beside his plate, ready to rush up the stairs if the news was negative.
Yuri smiled at him. “She’s fine. She’s tired, though, so she won’t be coming down.” He felt a pang of guilt for going along with the deception, but for Wolfram’s sake, he’d let the two identities stay separate. To call him out on it would only make him angry, and he trusted Gwendel to have a good reason to order the young noble to do something like this. There would be words later, of that he was certain, but this was neither the time nor the place.
“What have you been doing this whole time?” Emily tugged at his sleeve and he took her lead to sit back down at the table.
“So you remember her? From Caloria?”
Yuri smiled. “I remember her very well.”
Rather than seem pleased, Frederick’s face seemed to cloud over even further. He bowed his head and ate in silence while his sister scolded Yuri for letting his food get cold. It was hardly unsettling, though. Yuri took it in stride and apologized as many times as she would let him.
After dinner it was drinks in the parlor, Emily and Conrad sitting at the piano to play a duet while Gunter stood to the side to appraise her musical aptitude. Frederick seemed less than interested in engaging Yuri in conversation now, though, something weighing heavy on his mind.
“Your sister’s very talented, Frederick,” Yuri commented, hoping he hadn’t forgotten to wiggle a finger or something to accent the praise.
Lord Ackart nodded slightly, sipping from his glass of liquor.
The room felt stuffy and crowded suddenly, despite how much room there was around them and how the night air filtered in through open windows. The king felt inclined to converse with the man but there was a wall between them, plain as day. Had he offended him somehow? Yuri decided not to give up and try again to begin a conversation. “Thank you very much for taking such good care of Miss Jennifer. She’s an important friend of mine. It’s good to see she’s okay so far from home.”
“She’s going to Shin Makoku, you know. I hear the child’s father is from there.”
Yuri nodded, finding it hard to keep a straight face. “So she said. We’ll be happy to take her to wherever she’s going. It’s on the way, after all.” How had Wolfram managed to pull off something so ridiculous without throwing a fit either in violence or in laughter?
“She is very precious to me.”
Something in his tone of voice made Yuri uneasy. Frederick had spoken very well of Wolfram earlier in the day, too. After a month, of course they had become friends. That only made sense.
Frederick finished his glass then stood, bowing to the king. “I’m afraid I must retire. Please make yourself at home. The servants will show you to your rooms tonight when you are ready.”
Without another word, he left, seeming quite unlike the man Yuri had walked with earlier.
Something had gone very wrong somehow.
It was eleven o’clock when Yuri decided to follow the footman to his assigned quarters. By twelve, he was changed and lying in bed, staring at the ceiling while thoughts ran across his mind. At two, he stood in front of the door to Wolfram’s bedroom and knocked quietly on the polished woodgrain.
He stood there and waited, quite sure he’d probably woken his friend. There was a slight rustle of cloth on the other side and a long silent pause as lamplights were lit before Yuri knocked again, as though confirming to the other than it had not been his imagination.
“It’s me,” he whispered hoarsely, afraid someone might here.
It seemed Wolfram had flown to the door at that. It opened so fast the hinges hardly had time to creak before the blonde’s face peeked out with fire in his eyes. “You rotten cheater, what do you think you’re doing? Do you have any idea what time it is? What if someone sees you?”
Yuri smiled. “If you let me in, there’s less chance of someone seeing.”
Wolfram’s green eyes pierced into him for a moment. Before Yuri could react, the blonde took a handful of his blue pajamas and pulled him inside the room, quickly closing the door behind him.
“Only you would be so stupid as to visit a strange woman’s room at this hour.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Yuri began to explain.
“So you decide to wake me up to tell me this?” Annoyance dripped from his words as Wolfram marched back to his bed to sit. He crossed his legs under him and continued to glair, the end of his nightgown pushed up past his knees.
It was a little distracting. “Uh...well, I hoped you were still awake. I need your advice.”
“My advice? Why not Gunter’s or Conrad’s?”
Yuri shook his head. “It’s about Frederick. I think I offended him somehow.” He plopped down on the bed beside Wolfram and leaned back on his elbows. “You know him pretty well, don’t you?”
Wolfram nodded, not bothering to turn so they could face each other. “You must have been a real blockhead to have offended him. He’s not easily antagonized.”
“That’s the thing, though. We were getting along great at first and then suddenly it was like he hated me. You know me better than anyone, Wolfram. If I make someone mad at me, usually I’ve got some idea as to why. Gunter didn’t say anything about my etiquette, so I don’t think I messed up with the formalities.” The king sighed. “Is Frederick the kind of guy who overreacts and broods over nothing or did I screw up somewhere?”
“You screwed up.”
Yuri winced. “How can you say that and sound so sure?”
“Because Frederick is the most forgiving, understanding and compassionate man I have ever met and he wouldn’t fault you unless you had made a grave error.”
There it was again. A quickening of his pulse, a sort of sick feeling in his gut like he’d eaten too much or run too hard.
“Oh. Well...that does sound more like the person Emily described to me.” Yuri swallowed hard, trying to push down the sick feeling. “You know, the way the two of you talk about each other, you’d think you were in love.”
He waited for the growl of anger that would remind him that he was the only one in the mazoku’s heart. Maybe this time he’d get hit with the pillow or Wolfram would simply turn his head to the side to dismiss such a silly thing as below him to answer. The silence, however, that grew in the space of their pause seemed to beg to answer in his stead. It teased Yuri’s senses, played on his fears.
The king sat up, his hand coming to rest on his nearest shoulder. “Wolfram?”
“It’s none of your business, Yuri.”
Yuri sat bewildered. “Oh...alright.”
“I’ve already talked to him about you once. I’ll do it again, though.” Wolfram gave the faintest of smiles as he looked down at his lap. “It’s beyond your control if you’re kind of slow to catch on, easily flustered and not all that bright when it comes to dealing with nobility. Maybe he’s forgotten I warned him about your shortcomings.”
Yuri wrapped both arms around the blonde and pulled him down to the mattress with him.
“What are you doing?” Wolfram snapped, kicking his legs wildly to try and propel himself back up into a sitting position. “Absolutely not!”
“It’s not what it looks like, I swear.” Yuri loosened his grip slightly, still holding on enough to keep his friend beside him.
Wolfram glared at him again, not at all amused.
He really was cute when he was pissed. Yuri almost felt bad for enjoying making him squirm. “I just wanted you to look at me when we’re talking.”
“I can look at you quite easily sitting up.”
“But you weren’t.”
Wolfram made a face but did not respond.
His body now resigned, if not relaxed, Yuri slid his arms away from him, letting his hand drag across his lean body before propping his head up on his palm and looking down at the blonde prince. “Do you really mean that, though? You wouldn’t? Last time I spoke to you, you made it sound like that was the only thing you wanted from me anymore.”
Wolfram turned his face away, but Yuri forced it back with a gentle touch to his cheek. He had a very vulnerable looking face, the king thought. The large, green eyes never lied, no matter how much the tongue did.
“I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I may have accepted the engagement was off, but I wasn’t ready to let you go yet.” Wolfram was obviously trying to look angry at him still. It seemed to be his safe emotion. It was safe to be mad; there was no shame in being angered by something. “You’re wrong if you thought that was all I wanted from you, though. It was just the least I could imagine accepting.”
“Friendship wasn’t enough?”
“You have enough friends.”
That was certainly true. Yuri hadn’t ever been very popular in school. He was average in every way you looked at in. Intelligence, looks, height, strength--he didn’t stand out from the crowd at all. In Shin Makoku, though, he was a king. Even the people who hated him showed him respect in light of past events. Almost everyone wanted to meet him, those that had wanted to be close to him, and those already close seemed very content to stay near to his side.
“I have a lot of friends who tell me what I want to hear and a few friends who tell me what I need to hear.” Yuri stroked the soft skin of the mazoku’s cheek with his thumb. “I only have one Wolfram. You’re the only person who feels compelled to tease me constantly and drive me up the walls and go places with me just for fun, not as my guardian.”
Wolfram smacked his hand away. “You hated going places with me! You always complained or acted like you were burdened by my presence!”
“Well, you always had to hang on me and scare people away.”
“Because you were never faithful!”
“I never cheated on you.”
“I said you were never faithful!” Wolfram’s face was pinched with fury again. “There’s a difference. Whether you were off kissing girls behind my back or not, you wanted to. Given the opportunity, you would have. I knew that. You knew that. So why do you bother arguing the point?”
“I’m not going to. It’s over now.”
Wolfram gave another nod and Yuri’s heart went out to him. There was still pain in the memories. Maybe there always would be.
“You did the right thing. I’m sorry I made it more difficult for all of us. Now you have what you want and at least you’re not sleeping in my bed while you’re kissing her.”
“You really mean that?” Yuri looked at his friend in surprise, not sure he’d heard him correctly.
“I’m not a gracious loser, Yuri. I have many poor qualities and they include that, as well as stubbornness, selfishness and greed. So do not expect me to say this more than once.” Wolfram sat up but continued to look back at Yuri’s face. “You were right. Things as they were were never going to work. Apparently it is a great misfortune I was born a man, but I can hardly regret that. I’m proud to be a man. You had no love for me and what trust I had in you only extended as far as I could see you, so I am very happy that you are getting to experience love and wanting from the women you desire and that you had the guts to say to my face for once, flat out, that I could never be what you wanted. That I couldn’t see what was best for myself or care enough about myself to think about anything but what I was losing--that’s my own fault. I had sex with you so that I could take a piece of you with me the way you took a chunk out of me. That was wrong of me. I took your virginity out of spite, and gave you mine out of desperation so we could add pettiness to my list of flaws, as well. And it hurts, Yuri. I want to be a better man but I lose the ground I gain when I corner myself, and there’s no one I can blame but me. But I’m not just hurting myself when I do these things, I’m hurting you, too. So I am sorry. I’m very sorry for blaming you for breaking my heart. You didn’t ask for me to love you and you certainly didn’t give me many reasons too. So I can’t explain it and the pain doesn’t go away, it just sort of stops following so close. Because even if I invented the whole romance in my mind, even if I thought you were just pretending like I was, that it was sort of our duty whether we liked it or not to be married, even if.... Yuri, no one else had ever made me feel so good about being myself.”
Yuri sat through the confession with a growing unease. His body felt cold and numb. How could he, having been guilty of so many wrongs against him, have made Wolfram feel anything but sadness? “I...did?”
Wolfram nodded and turned his face away, for which Yuri was thankful. There was enough honesty in the room without his intense, watery stare. “No one dared discipline me or tell me I was childish before you came. No one ever even had time for me. Conrad and my brother are both very busy people. Mother was the Maou and was either busy too or gone, looking for someone to love her. I’m always the one left behind. The faster I try to grow up, the more they stay away, but the longer it takes me, the more they write me off. But you proposed to me the day you met me. You yelled at me and insulted me and you made me fight you in some ridiculous match that landed me flat on my backside and you could have cared less if my honor demanded I lay dying before I lay down arms.”
Wolfram turned to him with a smile on his face that was untouched by sadness. “I guess maybe I do know why I love you.”
Love? Not loved?
“Because you’re a wimp.” Yuri scowled a bit but it only made Wolfram’s smile grow. “You’re a wimp and that makes me stronger. I can be brave when you’re not because someone has to be and I want it to be me. I can become everything you’re not every time you need it, but when I’m just me, by myself, the only good I know how to be is beautiful.”
Yuri pulled on Wolfram’s arm and the blonde lay back on the bed beside him. He wrapped his arms around him, pulling their bodies close enough that their heartbeats roared in their ears and their breath warmed the other's cheeks. It was comfortable and warm, familiar even in a bed that was not their own.
“Did you hear me? Because I’m never saying it again.”
Yuri nodded, hiding his silent tears by cradling his friend’s head under his chin.
“And if you ever tell anyone, I will be forced to kill you.”
The king laughed, perhaps inappropriately. It made him so happy, though, to find normality in such hard times. “I heard you, Wolfram. I won’t tell a soul.”
“Do you forgive me?”
“It’s in the past, Wolfram. No more apologies. I think...we both understand now. That’s the part that lasts. That’s the part that matters in the end. And I don’t hold anything against you.” Yuri felt the other man nuzzle against his neck and sighed contently, running his fingers through the wavy blonde hair. “Everything’ll be okay now. We’re friends now. Friends talk together and take care of each other and that’s what we’re doing. I’m always going to be a wimp, it’s just who I am. So I’m always going to need you.”
“I’m sure Emily will love to hear that.”
Yuri chuckled a bit and pushed Wolfram away enough so his head lay on his shoulder rather than suffocated against his collar. “You were here first. If she doesn’t like it, then she can just...find some other guy to date.”
“She’s not the type to share, Yuri,” Wolfram pointed out.
Yuri rolled his eyes. “Well, she’s quite the hypocrite then.”
Wolfram sat up, leaning over him. “What do you mean by that?”
It sounded silly now that Yuri thought about it. “That is...she always hang out with Conrad or Dorcas or Giesela or Gunter or Greta and...well, when I want to hang out with her, I always have to go and find her. She’s never waiting for me and I guess I should be thankful, since I never know how long it’ll be until I’m done with my work, and at least I know she’s not bored. I’m not used to having to look for someone to spend time with, I guess. I’m more used to trying to find someplace to be alone and I’d gotten really good at it too.”
“You were not. You just hid in your private bath every time.”
“Well...it worked,” Yuri said in his own defense. “That’s not the point, though. I mean...am I being silly to get so annoyed at something like that?”
“You are an exasperating man, Yuri.” Wolfram flicked him between the eyes. “You’ve got a woman who loves you and all the free space and time to enjoy it you ever complained about wanting. and you’re still finding something to moan about. She’s not sharing your bed is she?”
“Of course she’s not. I’m a gentleman. despite what you may think.” Yuri pouted, thinking about what he had said all the same.
“Have you kissed her?”
“A few times,” he admitted. “I haven’t really tried to get past first base.”
Wolfram looked utterly confused. “Does everything in your life conform to baseball?”
He hadn’t thought about it, but having said it, Yuri had to laugh. “Not everything. It’s Earth slang.”
“So first base is kissing,” Wolfram clarified. “Then is home plate talking?”
“No, it starts with first base. Home plate is...well...you and me, we’d say we hit a couple home runs.”
“Oh.” Wolfram still looked confused but seemed to grasp the gist of it. “So...have you run bases with anyone else?”
Yuri shook his head. “You?”
“Just first base.”
For a moment, Yuri felt he might actually be sick. “Who?” He sat up quickly. “Frederick?”
“And if it was?”
“Well....” It shouldn’t matter, he told himself. It was good that Wolfram was trying to move on. He should be happy. “I just...didn’t really think he was your type.”
“He’s a lot like you, actually, only extremely keen. Which is why you should probably get back to your room now.”
Yuri looked at the clock. It was nearly three thirty in the morning. “Right. Will I see you tomorrow?” He smiled mischievously and bowed slightly. “I mean, will Miss Jennifer be joining the royal party for games and leisurely activities in the morning?”
Wolfram rolled his eyes and kicked Yuri out of the bed. He made a louder thump when he hit the floor than either anticipated. The king rubbed his backside in a cursory way as he stood and showed himself to the door. “I’ll take that as a no.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to get Frederick alone for a while and talk to him on your behalf.”
Yuri smiled, though something about that still made him queasy. “Thank you, Wolfram.
Wolfram turned his head to the side with a humph of superiority. “Just try not to screw it up anymore than you have. I can’t always be here to bail you out.”
“But I hope you always will be.”
Yuri waved goodnight and left the room, carefully holding the handle down on the door till it aligned with the wall so as not to make too loud a sound. He tiptoed further to his room and did the same with his own door, making hardly a sound as he went.
It wasn’t waking the people who were asleep he should have been worried about though, so much as being seen by those who were awake.
Yuri stood anxiously in Frederick’s office, looking at the books stacked on the shelves along the walls. It probably served as the library as well, judging by the comfortable looking armchair tucked in the corner by the window where plenty of sunlight could illuminate the passages on the page. Most of the spines read various subject on plants, which didn’t surprised Yuri in the slightest, as their host had already professed to a green thumb. Like most rooms in the manor, the walls were painted with a nice warm color. Here the walls had a delightful orange glow while the bookshelves were untouched and retained their sturdy wood shades from ebony to beige. It was like standing next to a fire and watching the flames dance as they consumed the logs. Despite the comfortable look of the room, though, the atmosphere was anxious and grim.
Judging by the tension the human noble held in his shoulders, this was not to be a gentlemanly chat about the weather or foreign policy. Yuri hoped Wolfram had had a chance to sit him down and explain certain things, but the hour was far earlier than probably allowed for that. The king could scarcely claim more than two hours sleep himself and, knowing his friend, Wolfram was probably still dead asleep in his bed with his mouth wide open and his blankets thrown across the room. In fact, the only other person Yuri could recall seeing awake, other than the servants, had been Conrad who was engaged in a rather cheerful conversation with an orange haired maid.
“I want you and your companions to leave here.”
Yuri’s attention focused back on the present, a little taken back by the forcefulness in the other man’s tone. “Already?”
Frederick leveled an icy stare at Yuri from behind his desk. “Immediately.”
Something was wrong. Something was very wrong and Yuri only wished he could put his finger on it. “Sir, I think there has been some sort of misunderstanding. I’ll gladly sit and discuss whatever is bothering you. It’s not my intention to be rude and it...means a lot to me that you like me. For Emily’s sake at least.”
Frederick shook his head. “For Emily’s sake? Did you have Emily in mind when you went to visit your ex-lover in her room last night?”
“My...?” he left a hard blush stain his cheeks. “That...that’s not exactly what it may seem to be. If you’ll let me explain I can--”
“You entered Miss Jennifer’s suite at two, unchaperoned, and did not leave till half past three.” Frederick took up his quill and began to scribe quickly as he spoke. “Miss Jennifer is obviously an alias. The Lady, however, is a noble and the child she carries is that of a mazoku. That she would arrive here, at the home of one of your female suitors, and that you should arrive to take her the rest of the way speaks of conspiracy. This is Shin Makoku’s ploy at covering up the trail of bastard children their king leaves in his wake.”
Yuri’s jaw hung open.
“My sister’s attendant saw you last night and through unfortunate misguidance informed my sister of your infidelity at that hour. I have spent my time since comforting her in the wake and she will not suffer the sight of you. She desires no further contact with you in the future and I will not allow you to leave here with the Lady just so you can keep quiet your lecherous acts.” Frederick stopped his quill and held out the parchment to the mazoku king. “This is an agreement urging you to leave at once. It guarantees my silence so long as you do so and make no further attempts to collect the Lady from my home. This time only am I willing to hold my tongue, though for her honor, not yours. I can only imagine what empty promises you whispered in her ears to her to trick her into your bed.”
“Frederick!” Yuri’s tongue finally obeyed him again, having been stunned to silence. “No, you’ve got everything wrong. There’s nothing like that going on. I’ve never slept with a woman!”
“I see the way your face burns red at them mention of your immoral actions against Miss Jennifer.”
“That’s because...Miss Jennifer is...she isn’t a girl. Or a woman or whatever you think I’m trying to get around. She’s not female.” Yuri swelled hard and hoped Wolfram would forgive him for this. “She’s a he. A guy. His name’s Wolfram Von Bielefeld. He’s my...ex-fiancé. Last night I wanted to talk to him because I thought you were mad at me about something.”
Frederick’s face looked shocked. It was now his turn to be silenced as pieces of the puzzle came together.
“I’m really sorry. I don’t know why he’s here like this. I mean...he said it was to make sure that everything here was safe for when we came, but...I don’t like spying on people and when I get back to my home, I’ll be sure to have a very long talk with my advisors about this.” He looked at the human with a pleading expression. “Please forgive them for being distrustful and me for going along with the charade after learning of it. I should have put an end to it last night at dinner. I have only the most honest intentions with your sister and will spend as long as it takes to prove that to you.”
Yuri waited for a response, but even as he spoke, Frederick had risen from his chair and began crossing to the exit. Halfway across the room he was at a jog and as soon as he passed through the doorway he was at a full run out and to the stairway leading to the yellow hall.
Where was he going in such a hurry? Yuri watched him run, walking slowly behind him in case he was only to return with a sword and the mad dash would be away from him rather than towards. But no, he was simply running away. Did it upset him to know he was wrong? The king shook his head and leaned against the wall, feeling drained already. What did Wolfram really see in the guy?
Yuri took off up the stairs as well, two at a time to hasten his way. Oh god, what if Frederick was pissed off at him? Would he challenge Wolfram to a duel? Maybe he’d just strangle him in his sleep for pretending to be a woman and letting him kiss him. Wolfram was in danger, he could feel it. In the hallway, the door to Wolfram’s bedroom was open. Yuri grabbed hold of the doorframe to catch his breath but found it lost again for a different reason.
Wolfram still lay in the bed, his nightgown ridding up to his thighs with the blankets kicked down to the end of the mattress. Frederick loomed over him with his arms wrapped around his chest. They were...kissing.
“Frederick?” Wolfram’s voice was surprised but hushed.
“I know. It doesn’t matter to me. I love the strength of your heart and your fiery personality. It makes no difference to me if you’re a man or a woman. I love you.”
They kissed again.
Yuri felt himself being pulled away from the door but hesitated to avert his eyes and see who it was that had grabbed him. Conrad stood behind him alongside the orange haired maid.
“We should give them some privacy, Yuri.”
“Why, what are they going to do?” Yuri looked back into the room but the maid was already closing the door between them. “No, wait!”
“Shouldn’t you be more worried about your girlfriend, your majesty?” the maid asked. “I hear she’s been crying since early this morning.”
“Yozak!” Yuri growled. ”Open that door!”
Yozak shrugged his shoulders. “I really don’t think it’s your place to interfere. Like I said, the girl’s been crying. Wolfram isn’t.”
“Yuri.” Conrad pulled him closer, though the king hated every inch he lost from the white door. “It is perhaps time we tell Gunter to have our people reassemble. I don’t think we are welcome here any more. This is a good time to prepare for departure before anyone acts on rash emotions rather than reason.”
“I won’t leave without Wolfram,” he stated firmly.
Conrad closed his eyes for a moment then looked sadly at his king. “If you order him to return, he must. However, if even then he decided not to, he will be considered a traitor to the crown and exiled from Shin Makoku. These lands are still outside our borders. He could stay here even against your will and there would be nothing you could do. He would not be allowed to go home or see Greta ever again, though, as catering to his will on the matter would be against our laws.” He pulled him away from the door more, beginning to escort him to his quarters to pack. “If you force him to leave with us, we may lose him forever. So I ask that you think hard on that before you make any more quick decisions.
Yuri looked over his shoulder at the closed door to Wolfram’s room and nodded solemnly, feeling dead inside.
Wolfram was still clinging to the last remnants of sleep when firm lips met his in an urgent and passionate kiss. For a moment, he didn’t dare open his eyes. Senses still numb, he could pretend he didn’t taste the liquor on his breath and let his dream of Yuri linger for a few moments into reality. The kiss ended, though, and his eyes fluttered open. Of course it was Frederick who leaned over him on his bed, not some drunkard who had climbed in from the balcony. No one else would have dared to kiss him like that and with that familiar flavor. But in his bedroom? Perhaps boldness was a trait most Ackarts possessed.
A thought nagged in the corner of his mind for a minute, something telling him this was bad, a survival instinct that couldn’t get past the need for more sleep. This was Frederick’s home, though. Kissing him awake in the early morning seemed odd but nothing detrimental.
Except to the mission.
Wolfram gawked, feeling the morning air on his thighs that said there was no blanket there to hide behind. “Frederick?” There were a few things he was bound to notice and at this point it seemed nothing was there to help hide them.
“I know.” Lord Ackart said, his arms pulling him up to lean against his chest. “It doesn’t matter to me. I love the strength of your heart and your fiery personality. It makes no difference to me if you’re a man or a woman. I love you.”
Wolfram opened his mouth to respond but found Frederick’s tongue had taken the place of his words. It ran along his mouth, enticing shivers down his spine. Wolfram thought he heard voices bickering in the distance, but it ceased with the sounded of a door being closed. Servants, he thought. He pushed at Frederick’s chest and pulled his face away, needing to breath quite deeply while his mind still processed the mornings events.
“What’s going on?” he asked. It was the simplest of the many questions he had.
Frederick let him go and sat down on the bed beside him. “I’m very sorry, I’ve been rude. I was just so relieved to hear the news.”
“Yes. This is what was holding you back, was it not? Having to keep up all these lies? Darling, none of that matters to me. Your happiness is everything.”
This was all too much for a mind still clouded with sleep to comprehend.
Frederick took his hands and held them to his face, nuzzling them and kissing the backs of them. “I’ve told them to go back. Hopefully they will depart before noon. That is the last you need ever see of the Maou. Even if you still love him, I promise you, I will wait until such feelings subside before asking for your hand. I can help you move past him and we can start a new life together.”
Wolfram pulled his hands from him and sat up, adjusting his nightgown for modesty’s sake. “Frederick, you don’t even know me. How can you love me? I’ve been deceiving you this whole time, so you can’t trust me very much. There’s nothing to base any relationship on.” He turned his head a bit, ashamed of his next words. “Besides which, you’re human.”
“I know more about you than you may think, Wolfram.”
It was the first time he’d been addressed by his name in that rich, mellow voice. Wolfram continued to look away. He was too old to allow himself to get caught up in silly sentimental things like that.
“I know you love the Maou, even though he broke your heart and spirit. You either have a great deal of love to give or a great emptiness inside to fill.”
“I will not speak on this with you, Frederick.” Wolfram spoke with a warning tone, his green eyes darkening in anger.
Lord Ackart hung his head, fists clutching at the sheets. “What can he offer you that I can’t? Is it power you really want? A position of great stature?”
“Will it make it easier for you to hate me if I say that it is?”
Frederick shook his head. “I could never hate you.”
“You should.” Wolfram got up from the bed and crossed to the dressing screen. In a bag behind it he knew the clothing he had worn on the carriage ride was inside. He pulled the nightgown off over his head and began dressing. Wearing pants again felt wonderful, as did getting to leave the flour sack on the floor for once when putting on a shirt. He tucked the ends of his pants down into the boots as he pulled them on and grabbed his jacket last. It was wrinkled worse than the other pieces folded up together and he hated the idea of wearing it before having it pressed. With it tossed over his shoulder he walked back around the screen and stood for Frederick as the man he was. “I’m going to help them ready the horses if you want us gone by noon.”
“You really are going to leave with them?” He stood, his voice sounding somewhat desperate. “There’s nothing there for you anymore. Here you would have a purpose.”
Wolfram looked down at his feet, fighting off the sting of his words. “Frederick, you are a simple, pleasant man in a quiet little world all your own. But I cannot be satisfied with standing here on the outskirts of everything, watching things change all around me. Yuri is making a new, better world. I must be a part of that change.”
“It won’t make him love you.”
“No. It won’t. Sometimes you do things so you can love yourself, though.” Wolfram walked over to his host and kissed his cheek softly. “Please hate me. It’s better if you do.”
The hand that came down on his left cheek hit him so hard he nearly fell to the floor; the sound of it reverberating in the space between them while the sting of it burned his face. Wolfram was glad he had arrived with nothing but the bags of clothing he would never need again. He turned his back and left the room, closing the door behind him to drown out the sobs in his wake.
Yozak seemed to be waiting for him, though he was still in his purple maid’s uniform. He smiled at him and poked at the large red mark on his left side. “Everything going alright?”
Wolfram smacked his hand away. “Just fine. You should change out of that get up. We’re leaving in less than six hours.”
“Much sooner than that I would imagine. Gunter wants His Majesty to leave first before anything happens, which means Gunter and myself are sticking behind to make sure the rest of the entourage heads out while Conrad escorts you and Yuri home.” Yozak winked and poked his face again. “That is, if you can tear yourself away.”
Wolfram glared at him and smacked his hand away once more.
Another door opened and shut and Wolfram turned to be sure it was not Lord Ackart. If he had it his way, he would never look upon him again. Instead, it was Yuri, alongside Conrad, ready with their necessities packed for the long trip home.
Yuri looked positively dreadful. His face was pale and his eyes were droopy and dull. He looked only at the floor as he walked and nearly passed Wolfram altogether without showing any signs of recognition. When he did stop and look at him, his eyes became larger, frightened. He placed his hand upon the red sting mark of the slap, his bottom lip suddenly quivering.
Wolfram took Yuri’s hand from his face and dropped it to his side. “Let’s go home, Yuri.”
The king paused for a moment. “You too?”
“What about your bags?”
“Let’s just go.”
Yuri offered no argument. With Conrad walking behind them, the three marched down to the front of the manor. The carriage was waiting, thankfully stripped of all the finery it had born on the way down. Gunter stood beside it, addressing the driver who held the door open for them.
“I’m very sorry to rush you out of here, Your Majesty,” he explained. “I do not believe there is any potential for violent actions, but I believe acting with caution is best, given the delicate nature of the situation.”
“No, it’s alright, Gunter. Please....” Yuri’s voice cracked a bit but he cleared his throat and tried again. “Please tell Emily that...I’m sorry.”
Gunter bowed, accepting the honor. “Of course I will, Your Majesty.” He helped him into the carriage then turned to Wolfram to assist him as well. He paused. though as he looked at his face, recognizing as everyone else had the mark of proposal on his cheek. “Wolfram, have you--”
“I’m going home, Gunter,” was all he was willing to say. He turned down the assistance and entered the carriage on his own, sitting down on the bench seat next to Yuri.
The driver closed the door once Conrad had taken his seat, then mounted the front, cracking the reins and shouting at the horses to begin.
As they pulled away, Wolfram felt as though someone were watching them. Even though he told himself he did not want to, he found himself looking up to the second story windows. There he saw them both standing and staring; the Lady Emily and Lord Frederick Ackart. With his arms around her and her face half hidden in his chest, they stood like dolls pressed against the glass viewing the carriage as it took those they had come to feel for away.
The blonde looked to his king, who sat beside him and smiled slightly at his worried look. “I’m alright. You?”
Yuri nodded his head, though they both remained melancholy.
Wolfram sighed. He was very tired, in more ways than one. It was over though, at least in that he should have been able to find some solace. Sitting in the bumpy carriage, back on the road home, there should have been some ray of light to lift his spirits and take him out of the dark place he felt he’d fallen. But there was nothing, just an emptiness in the pit of his stomach that grew with very step the horse pulled them along.
He felt Yuri take his hand and hold it and squeezed his hand in return.
They sat in silence for the duration of the trip, sometimes napping against each other on the bumpy roads. Conrad let them be, offering neither council nor comfort as they waited out the journey. All the while, the two held hands, both trying to sooth away a pain that was unlike any other.
This was what it felt like to be the bad guys.
There had never been a more beautiful sight then the long winding path leading to Blood Pledge Castle. The streets were full of people hustling about their daily routines, but most stood still to wave to the carriage as it rode past them, despite their busy schedules. Their king was returning.
God save the king!
As they entered through the wide-swung doors of the castle barrier, it was clear their return had been noticed. Every necessary attendant stood waiting on the steps, including Gwendel with his face impassive and stern, and the excited Greta who clutched his hand in glee, hardly able to stand still.
The coachman stopped the carriage, the rolling motion as it halted its forward momentum making Wolfram’s stomach lurch just slightly. The attendants stepped forward, some disappearing to take the bags from the back while one came to hold open the door, through which they exited.
In one quick motion, Greta ran from Gwendel’s side and tackled her absent father, face buried in his stomach. Wolfram wrapped his arms around her and sank down to his knees to hold her better, petting her soft hair as it pressed against his face.
“Wolfram!” She gave a cheerful laugh to let escape the overwhelming happiness of the moment. “You’re home!”
Wolfram nodded, not sure he trusted himself to speak. He kissed her head and gave her a hard squeeze then got back to his feet
“Is everything okay?” She asked, looking between her two fathers. They both had the same sadness in their eyes and it worried her.
Yuri shook his head though and smiled with reassurance. “Everything is fine. Wolfram and I are just tired.”
“Do you want to watch me ride my pony?” Greta was practically bouncing with excitement.
Wolfram smiled wistfully. He’d have loved to. Yuri spoke for the both of them, though. “Can it wait a while? I’d like to nap for a bit and you know what bumpy trips do to your dad’s stomach.” He put his hand on her head. “I promise we’ll come watch you once we’ve had a minute to get adjusted.”
Whatever disappointment Greta felt was washed away by her father’s promise. “Alright. I, Greta, will practice until you’re ready and amaze you both!”
“Be careful,” Yuri called out as his daughter dashed away to prepare. He looked over his shoulder at Conrad with all the worry of a parent. “Watch over her, will you?”
Conrad nodded, smiling, and followed his princess to the stables.
With barely a nod to everyone else, Yuri took Wolfram’s hand and led him away. There were some whispers and knowing looks but neither cared. Without a word spoken, silently understanding the needs between then, they entered the king’s bed chamber and fell to the bed fully clothed, arms wrapped around each other, staving off the guilt of responsibility and satiating the need to simply be in the other's embrace, away from prying eyes.
They lay like that for hours, neither wanting to be the first to pull away from the comforting embrace. It was a more intimate expression than any sex had even been and it filled them with more desire and satisfaction than that act as well. This was what it felt like when everything in the world could be simplified into one moment in time, but could still contain all the sorrow and joy a million years could hold.
The nap was short-lived however; responsibilities weighing on them as their minds began to wander from the peace the bedroom offered. It had been enough, at least. The heartache seemed less prominent. Still, not having uttered a word to each other since their return, they rose from their bed and walked back down to the courtyard so as to not make their daughter wait any longer on their behalf.
She pranced along on her pony with Conrad’s ever-watchful eyes on her. Even before they had gotten within sight of them, they could hear the soldier’s kind words of praise and criticism as Greta tried to improve her handling of the animal. She did not disappoint him in her adherence to his words and there were no prouder parents than the king and his Wolfram as they leaned over the stone railing as they watched.
Yuri tensed and gasped as Greta’s pony reeled back on its hind legs and kicked wildly, which earned him a warm chuckle from his companion. He cast him a scowl but Wolfram simply shook his head at him in disapproval.
“You have good instincts, Yuri, but if you show such little faith in her safety when she has Conrad there to help her if she needs it, she will grow up weak and scared,” Wolfram pointed out haughtily. “There’s nothing I can do about you being a wimp, but I’d prefer it if my daughter was not one.”
“I can’t help it. It makes me nervous to see her riding on her own. I only started riding when I was fifteen.” Yuri rubbed his backside at the memory.
Wolfram smiled. “I was younger than her when I had my first pony. Conrad taught me how to ride her.”
“Conrad taught you, then me, and now Greta.” Yuri felt warmed by that in some way as he leaned back over the stone rail. “Greta! Do your best!”
The little girl waved an arm to them then grabbed the reins tighter, wanting nothing more than to make her fathers proud of her.
Wolfram's smile was content as he watched her run circles and keep excellent form all the while. With her back straight and her head held high, she was the perfect image of a princess, or would be once Conrad got around to teaching her side saddle.
Wolfram turned to look over his shoulder at Yuri as he addressed his beloved older brother. Gwendel looked more worn that normal, his eyes narrow and face stern as though the light bothered him.
“I need to talk to you about spying on our allies,” Yuri demanded. “The trip was a complete disaster.”
“I have already been well informed about what happened. It is for that reason I have come to speak. Not to you, though.”
Yuri balked slightly at being dismissed as Wolfram stepped away from the rail and towards Gwendel. “Out here, brother?
Gwendel shook his head. “My office, if you prefer.”
He did. Wolfram turned back to Yuri. “Tell her she looked wonderful and then tell Conrad that a princess should ride side saddle, not with her legs splayed over the horse. I expect to see her riding with nobility next time, not like some common girl with no sense of propriety.”
“You can tell them both yourself later. Right?” Yuri looked worried, hands fidgeting at his side.
Wolfram nodded slightly then accompanied his brother to his study. It was not until the large doors were shut that the dark haired man began talking, perhaps out of the sensitive nature of his inquiry.
“Yozak and Gunter have written that whatever disaster they expected was already avoided. Lord Ackart still wishes to be known as an ally of Shin Makoku and sends an apology for causing his majesty and you to leave in duress.” Gwendel did not seem pleased with the good news, however. He took his seat and stared at his brother with interest. “I also have read that there was the matter of a proposal extended to you from Lord Ackart. Am I to assume by your presence here that you have refused or by Ackart’s request for a signed treaty that you have accepted?”
“I did not consent.”
“I am glad. I would have torn this treaty in an instant were that the case.” Gwendel laid the paper down on the stack of work left for Yuri to look through. “There is only the matter of your next assignment, then. Yozak has no qualms about working with you again, though I am not fond of the idea myself. Perhaps you would be of more use up north where there have been several bandit attacks along the main highway.”
Wolfram hesitated a moment, then laid his hand on his brother’s desk, earning his attention. “I’d like to be given work near the castle, if there is any available. Even if it’s just to patrol the city limits. It doesn’t matter. I’d just like to be able to spend more time at home.”
Gwendel eyed him in concern. “Did something else happen while you were away?”
Wolfram shook his head. “No. It’s nothing like that. I’m quite alright. I’d just...I’ve missed Greta and Yuri.”
Gwendel looked at his desk, still looking very uneasy. “You are aware that his majesty will still be entertaining marriage prospects?” He busied himself tidying his desk, though it was organized already. “Despite the inappropriate display the two of you showed upon your return, I take it his intentions remain the same.”
“He has not expressed a desire to marry me, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t think it was inappropriate at all, however, for me to accompany him to his room. Whether he was in love with Lady Emily or not, that he was turned away by her and her family hurts him. I was there for him as a friend, not a lover, and I intend to remain at his side as such.”
Gwendel stopped sorting his pens and rubbed at his brow. “I thought you said it would be too painful to be here while he courted other prospects.”
“It will be.” Wolfram hung his head but smiled to himself just a little. “If I stay, I still get to watch Greta grow up and see my brothers and be there for Yuri, though. But if I leave, I lose everything. I’d rather suffer through the pain of losing Yuri to someone else right before my eyes than be alone and not be able to make any more precious memories with him as a friend. That is what is most important to me.”
The older brother sat in his chair, looking across at Wolfram with an unreadable expression. “If that is what you want. I will contact you, then, when something arises.”
Wolfram nodded and bowed slightly before turning to leave.
“I am very proud to be related to a man such as you.”
His feet stopped moving forward and Wolfram found his heart in his throat. He looked back over his shoulder at his brother, but the man was already pretending to be very busy with something else. He was not a man who found it comfortable to put words to something he felt that could not be shown and found it less comfortable to show through actions what could not be expressed otherwise.
Wolfram had spent his whole life in the presence of the secretive man and there were only a handful of times he could think of when he had said anything to the affect that he was loved by him other than through the devotion and care he gave him. Seldom did he feel his own actions made the older mazoku proud and never had he heard him say so.
Wolfram stood a little taller and puffed out his chest a little further before exiting the room and leaving his brother to rest comfortably in his absence. There was no further reason to speak of it. Its significance was well understood.
As the large doors fell shut behind him, he felt a small hand grab onto his and looked down at his daughter’s large, worried eyes. “What are you doing over here?” he asked. “I thought you would still be riding.”
Greta shook her head. “Greta heard Wolfram was going to leave again,” she explained, holding his hand tighter.
Wolfram knelt down and placed a hand on her head. “I’m not going away, I promise.”
The little girl gave a triumphant shout and wrapped her arms around his neck in a quick hug.
Wolfram kissed her forehead then stood. “I’m sorry about Emily. I know how much you were looking forward to getting a mother and I heard you liked her.”
Greta shook her head again. “I would like a mother, but I want to have Wolfram too.”
“Then I suppose you’re very lucky, because that’s what you’ll get.”
She jumped around in excitement, barely able to contain herself at the prospect of being together again with her parents. “Does this mean I can sleep in your room tonight?”
It was clear that she meant his and Yuri’s shared room. He’d have to explain to her later that they were to have separate rooms from now on but for now the prospect of ending an already wonderful day with his daughter and king slumbering alongside him was too much to pass up. Perhaps that same warm, wonderful feeling he’d experienced with Yuri earlier could be shared with her as well.
He gave a curt nod and her smile grew till her whole face was lit up. He was sure Yuri would have no complaints once he saw Greta’s happiness at the fact.
“Yuri, Yuri, he said yes!” she shouted, still jumping for joy.
Wolfram blinked then looked around the hallway.
Peeking his head out from around a corner, Yuri gave an embarrassed laugh. “Greta, you were supposed to wait till he was gone to say anything.”
“What is this?” Wolfram asked.
“Yuri said Wolfram might leave again and that Greta should ask you to stay!” the little girl explained.
Yuri came out from hiding and rubbed the back of his neck nervously as he came closer. “I thought maybe coming from her, you’d listen.”
Wolfram shook his head and turned his nose up at them both. “Only a wimp like you would send a little girl to do your dirty work.”
“I know, I’m sorry.” Yuri bowed apologetically. “You’re not backing out though, right? You’ll still spend the night with us?”
“Perhaps I should demonstrate a man’s integrity to Greta instead and not sleep in another man’s bed while unwed.”
“Wolfram.” Yuri frowned. “If anyone in this castle thinks I’d do anything with you while our daughter was in the room, there is more wrong with them than can be dealt with.”
Wolfram shrugged. It was all for show anyway. He couldn’t let Yuri think he’d won with his dirty ploy too quickly. “Fine. But we keep the door open. I’ve had enough people impugn my honor for one day.”
Yuri’s frown deepened. “Who?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does. I won’t allow it.” Yuri’s frown was more a scowl now. “Did Gwendel say something to you?”
Wolfram looked at Yuri in surprise then shook his head. “I’ve already spoken with him. It really wasn’t that big an issue.”
“What’s going on?” Greta asked, not sure what it was they were talking about.
Yuri gave her head a gentle pat. “We’re not fighting, Greta. You do me a favor though, alright? You hear anyone saying anything bad about Wolfram or me, you leave the room and don’t listen, okay? Just come tell me who was talking and I’ll make sure it stops.”
Greta gave a nod and Wolfram stared at Yuri in light of his concern. The king gave him half a smile. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s mostly my fault, anyway. You were right; people talk. And it’s up to me to make sure what they say isn’t wrong or unjustly said.”
Wolfram turned his face away from him. “About time you start taking responsibility.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Yuri touched his shoulder gently, making Wolfram look back at him. The king’s eyes said he was sincere and his smile said he was optimistic. Things would get much better.
“After dinner then,” Wolfram said. “I’ll meet you and Greta in your room after I’ve changed.”
Yuri’s smile grew and, though they were not related, it was easy to tell Greta belonged to him. “Great. I’m sure Gwendel’s got a whole cart full of documents for me to sign, but I’ll see you both at dinner.”
Wolfram nodded and Greta waved as her father stepped inside the room behind the large doors.
“What do you want to do until dinner, Wolfram?”
Wolfram thought about it for a moment then smiled at Greta, taking her hand in his. “How about we go down into the town and I buy you the first thing you want to make it up to you for being gone so much the past few months?”
Greta’s eyes grew wide with excitement. “You mean like a kite?”
The mazoku laughed. “If that’s what you want. It doesn’t have to be anything so cheap as a kite though.”
“Greta wants a kite so she can fly it with Wolfram!”
Wolfram smiled at her and nodded. “Alright. Let’s hurry then.”
She grasped his hand in hers and pulled him along, humming to herself merrily. As far as either was concerned, this truly was a candidate for the best day ever.
Yuri coiled the thin leather string around his hand as he unspun it from its spool. It was hard to gage how much was needed and already he’d cut several too short. The lacing on the baseball gloves had to be perfect, though. Around the weltings, web and the spaces between the fingers, there needed to be very little resistance or else their players might lose the ball right through their mitt and lose the game because of shoddy craftsmanship, rather than game play.
Conrad looked up from the glove he was currently stitching and shook his head with a large smile. “Yuri, you don’t have to assist me. There’s plenty of time between now and next season to finish these.”
“I don’t doubt you. But this team is my responsibility and I must do everything I can to help them.” Yuri stopped winding the leather out then held his hands out for Conrad to snip the space between. “However little it may be.”
The two of them sat near the stables where the oils they needed to soften the leather would not offend too many people. It was the end of summer now and the sky’s often brilliant blue was a lazy gray above them, as though rain was on its way. Just in case it did, they made sure to sit under an awning, making for a very relaxing and comfortable environment to just sit and fiddle with their lazy task.
Conrad obediently leaned over with his strong sheers and snipped through the leather lacing. “You’re sure there’s no other reason?”
Yuri pouted, feeling a bit guilty at that. “Conrad, couldn’t you have played along and brought it up more subtly?”
“I’m sorry, Yuri. I will try harder next time.” Conrad’s smile was unwavering and he went back to carefully lacing the glove in his lap. “So, what about Wolfram did you want to discuss?”
“I don’t know if it even is about Wolfram,” the king said truthfully, wrapping the leather around his wrist again. “I’m sure you’ve noticed, though, that he hasn’t been sleeping in his own room.”
“The first night with Greta, we said it would be the last night we’d share that bed. But then the next night we stayed up talking and we ended up sleeping in there together again. And then the fifth time he fell asleep in the study and I brought him up to my room out of habit and didn’t feel like carrying him back to his.” Yuri sighed, continuing to spin the lacing out. “It’s been over a week now, Conrad. Every time we say that it’s the last time and the next night we’re always back again.”
“And this is a problem?”
Yuri shook his head. “It’s not like we’re doing anything we shouldn’t be but I’ve learned that doesn’t mean too much to people when they feel the need to gossip. And I know it was sort of taboo on Wolfram’s part last time to sleep with me when we were only engaged. It’s probably ten times worse now that we’re not and he’s still there.”
Conrad nodded again, still working carefully as he listened.
“I don’t want anyone to think badly of Wolfram ever. If this were Earth, no one would really think anything of us sleeping in that huge bed together. But it’s because we were engaged that it’s a mess in everyone’s mind.”
“So it’s not that he’s sleeping in your bed that’s bothering you. It’s what people might say.”
Yuri nodded slightly though somehow the words just seemed wrong. It was true Wolfram’s reputation mattered to him, but that wasn’t the problem he was trying to convey. He held out his hands and had Conrad cut the next string. As he held it up, it became clear that it was much, much too long. The soldier chuckled a bit and snipped off the extra and handed it back to Yuri.
“Almost enough for two with that one. Careful not to waste too much more.”
Yuri nodded and pocketed the remainder as he had several others. He would give them to Greta to use for a necklace or something if he could find any nice gems or rocks to hang from it. He didn’t much feel like looking for any, though. “Say, Conrad...why is it so hard?”
“Why is what so hard?”
“Thinking that I could be....” Yuri sighed again, raking his hands through his hair. He couldn’t even say it.
“That you could be gay or that you might love Wolfram?”
Yuri fell backwards off his bench in shock. “How can you say that so calmly?” he exclaimed, standing up to wipe the dirt from his pants while trying to hide the furious blush across his face.
Conrad just smiled, titling his head just slightly. “Well, which is it?”
“There’s a difference?”
“As you understand it, perhaps not.” Conrad put the glove down and gave Yuri his full attention. “On Earth, if you love one man, then it is understood you may love any man. Your sexuality is viewed in black and white. Here, things are not like that. If you love one man, then it is perceived only that he acted in a way to deserve your affection. There is no reason to speculate you may not at some time love a woman the same way you did a man. We are more focused on the individual than on labels when it comes to gender. It is in our views of race that we mirror your world’s objections.”
Yuri blinked at him as though most of it had gone over his head.
“In other words,”--Conrad stood and clasped his shoulders, looking gently into the king’s black eyes--“you don’t have to love all men to be in love with one man.”
Yuri stood there, staring back into Conrad’s eyes as the wheels began to turn.
“I have to go. Sorry. I’ll see you later.” Yuri dropped the spool of leather lacing and took off running towards the main building. To see their king running in such a hurry caught the attention of the maids and guards who looked at each other for some kind of clue as to what was going on.
Yuri checked all the rooms in the castle he could think to search in, popping his head inside every study, much to the confusion of Gwendel and Gunter who had each been busy with one thing or another and lost track after the sudden interruption. He spared no time to explain, though, and continued to dash about the halls.
He was on the second story balcony when he saw him passing through the courtyard and he leaned over the rail to shout out to him. “Wolfram! Stay right there!”
Wolfram turned and glared at him. “What do you think you’re doing shouting at me like that from there!”
Yuri didn’t pause to hear him complain as he raced down to the nearest staircase and back round to the courtyard where Wolfram stood, tapping his foot in agitation.
He was out of breath and knelt down, hands on his knees as he panted and tried to get his breath back.
“You haven’t seriously been running around the castle have you? I’d expect even you to act with a little more dignity than that.” Wolfram turned on his heal and began to walk away.
“Hey, I said to wait here,” Yuri whined, still heaving in deep breaths.
Wolfram turned back to him and crossed his arms over his chest, tapping his foot again. “For what? I’m in the middle of something.”
Yuri stood up, opening his left hand to make a swinging arch towards the other’s left cheek.
He looked up at Wolfram’s face.
He felt his hand fall to his side and clench into a fist in frustration.
No. He couldn’t do it.
“I...I’ll walk with you,” he said finally, feeling his heart sink.
Wolfram gave him a questioning look but shrugged. “You can if you like. I thought you were helping Conrad, though.”
“I was. I will later. I guess I just really wanted to see you.” It was a lame excuse but the best he could think of.
Wolfram smiled a little and took his hand in his. “Alright, I’ll walk with you.”
It hadn’t been what Yuri meant but it was certainly more like what he had wanted. He held his hand back, holding it tightly as they went.
In the middle of the courtyard, though, he stopped and let go. Wolfram turned around a bit to see why he had done so, only to see Yuri’s hanging head.
For a minute, he looked like he was crying, shoulders shaking as strained noises came from his throat. After several seconds, though, it was clear he was laughing. He threw his head back and let the last of it out, then smiled at Wolfram in an almost alarmingly toothy grin. “I get it now.”
Wolfram leaned away from him just a bit. ”Get what?”
“Why you nobles slap each other in the face when you propose.” It was all rather funny how things aligned themselves and the grin on Yuri’s face was full of pride. “All your customs and things are symbolic. The whole knife thing symbolizing a duel and the fork and its prongs being about a love triangle. I never thought to think about what the slapping really stood for.”
Wolfram shook his head. “Old traditions like that lost their meaning a long time ago. It’s just the way things are done now. What are you thinking about proposals for anyway?”
“I just never really have, I guess. Even where I come from, we have proposal traditions. The man kneels and offers the woman a ring. If she accepts the ring, they get married. I guess you could say it’s full of lost symbolism too. The guy...he knows he’s not worthy to marry the girl he loves. He bows to her to humble himself. At the time, the ring stands for everything he wants to offer her, but really it’s just there so she can show it to everyone and have proof that they made a promise together.” Yuri smiled at Wolfram, trying to find a way for it to make sense to him. “Here though, no one kneels. You come to each other as equals and one of you hauls off and smacks the other person in the face and if they’re lucky, the other person will turn the other cheek. I think the person doing the slapping, what they’re trying to say is that even though they love you, there are going to be times ahead when they hurt you. And when the other person offers their other cheek, it’s to say that that’s okay. They’ll stick around even if it does hurt.”
Yuri knelt to the dirty ground at Wolfram’s feet, his face staring back up into the bewildered green eyes.
“I won’t slap you because I’ve hurt you enough, which is why I kneel; because I know I don’t deserve you.” He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out one of the long pieces of leather lacing and held it out. “It’s not much but I offer you this so you can wear it on your arm and let everyone know without you needing to shout at them that you’ve got me.” He felt his hands trembling as he forced a smile. He was scared to death. “That is, if you can find it in your heart to turn the other cheek.”
Wolfram looked down at him for a moment, simply staring at him. Slowly he knelt down in front of him and took the leather lace from his hands. Rather than accept it, though, he took Yuri’s left arm and wrapped it around his bicep, tying the ends together in a bow.
Yuri watched him, unsure what it meant. “...Wolfram?”
“It’s better if you wear it, since you’re the cheater,” he replied, smiling with wetness in his eyes.
“I’ve got more.” Yuri pulled out a handful from his pocket and took Wolfram’s arm, tying it the same on his left arm as it was on his own. His hands were shaking, his body was shaking; he didn’t know what to think or feel or do. It seemed like an impossible task to make a bow, but finally it was there, messy and knotted awkwardly but still present against the light blue cloth.
“You’re trembling,” Wolfram pointed out softly.
Wolfram shook his head and tackled Yuri to the ground with his arms wrapped tightly around his neck. Yuri wrapped his own around his waist and rolled on the ground with him, laughing like he hadn’t laughed since he was a child.
“I love you, Yuri.”
Yuri breathed in his scent and clutched his fiancé tightly.
“I love you, too. Wolfram.”