Kishi Oscura had left the Imperial capital a total of three times with this journey being the third. A neighboring Kingdom was surrendering to the Empire today and he had been selected to witness the surrender and negotiations. It might have been a better trip if his older brother, the noble Prince Ansem Oscura hadn’t also gone along. They weren’t exactly buddies.
Even so, the opportunity to leave the white walls of the city was enough to make it all worthwhile and the Imperial Regent, Xigbar, wouldn’t let Ansem get too out of control. Hopefully.
The ride had been spectacular, the city was rustic, and the castle was classic and dramatically different than the bright pinnacle of developed society that Kishi was used to. His first thought was wonder when they rode into the courtyard and then maybe a little disgust when he realized how primitive the kingdom was.
“Remember to keep your mouth shut,” Ansem snapped at him when they dismounted, “it was foolish enough for father to send you. If your inexperience causes any problems…”
“I’m smart enough to know when to speak and when not to,” Kishi snapped back.
“As long as we are here, I am in charge, so mind your tongue.”
“Xigbar is in charge.”
“Is he?” Ansem hissed with a grin and Kishi felt a chill run up and down his spine to settle in his belly. It was obnoxious as shit and not true but Kishi knew that it wouldn’t stop Ansem from enforcing his own superiority and if things turned sour, the younger Prince wasn’t likely to be allowed out of the city again.
Ansem was proven. He had military experience, a kill count, surrenders, and wives. Kishi was eighteen, a student, and had thrown up the first time he killed a man as a pre-teen and while Ansem didn’t scare him, their father did. He needed to show his father that he was ready to be trusted as a Prince and a man, and not the weak fourth son that they saw. Submission was the better play in the long game.
“I understand, brother,” Kishi said through clenched teeth while he glared through the slits in his helmet. Anger was still hard to suppress.
Ansem pet Kishi and then walked after Xigbar who was waiting at the door. Kishi followed.
Their boots and armor clinked as they walked. Each of them was dressed grandly. Ansem was wearing his summer colors of gold, bronze, and red while Kishi was wearing the silver, blue, and white of winter. Kishi’s aesthetic better matched their shared white hair color but Ansem’s better matched the olive of his skin and the bright amber of his eyes. Ahead of them, Xigbar wore black and gold under long salt and pepper hair. Despite being the regent, Xigbar didn’t wear a crown. He just felt like he was always wearing one.
The three of them sauntered into the throne room with Kishi at the end of the line. He was careful to measure his steps behind his brother but kept his back straight and his shoulders down. Truthfully, he was grateful for the helmet. Kishi was a little nervous and his eyes darted around with curiosity until they settled on the royal family.
The Kingdom of Terminus was led by an old King with a grand white beard and flowing robes. Yen Sid sat on a throne that was elevated by a wide dais, alone at the highest point in the room. Respectfully, to the side on the King’s right were two others. The first was a tall man, wearing light armor and a military rank that Kishi couldn’t identify. He had long blue hair that was slicked back and resting on his shoulders and his face was marred by a scar in an ‘x’ shape over the bridge of his nose.
The second was where Kishi’s eyes stopped. She had to be the Princess that he knew this Kingdom had but she was also dressed in some sort of armor. It was tight on her, but she was armed and too wore a military rank. She had short black hair at chin length and short bangs that covered most of her forehead but stayed out of her sapphire eyes.
He was somewhat stunned to see her. A woman was standing beside the Prince as an equal with her eyes forward and her hand resting on her sword. It was both revolting and confusing. Something inside Kishi was horribly offended that a woman could stand there and look at them without any semblance of submission but another, much larger part of him was impressed and very, very interested. She wasn’t particularly pretty, maybe a girl next door kind of girl, but her confidence and fire were immensely attractive.
Which means Ansem is going to say something, Kishi huffed to himself.
“Let’s get started, shall we?” Xigbar said up ahead of him and Kishi could hear the smirk in the regent’s voice.
“How many negotiators does one Empire need?” asked the King.
Negotiators seemed more polite than just calling them conquerors. Kishi knew they had brought enough troops to cause problems if things didn’t go their way. This hardly felt like a fair negotiation and even Kishi could tell as much. This ragtag Kingdom didn’t stand a chance if they chose to fight.
“Oh, only enough to get a point across,” Xigbar answered, “so, should we have a table brought up?”
The King stroked his beard and then waved his hand, summoning a servant out of thin air. Kishi had to resist the urge to jump when a shorter brown-haired boy and a very tall man with fire red hair brought a table to the edge of the dais and then disappeared into the walls. It was disconcerting and Kishi didn’t like it. But damnit if he didn’t also want to know how they did that. He admittedly zoned out a bit to really focus on the wall behind the King, looking for a nook or cranny that might be bigger than immediately perceived.
“Regent,” Ansem said from behind Xigbar and snapping Kishi out of his curiosity, “allow me this chance to negotiate on behalf of my father. Your wisdom in these dealings is unparalleled, I would benefit greatly from your oversight should I be allowed to lead.”
Xigbar tapped his chin in thought and Kishi recognized the gesture. That was Xigbar’s ‘I already made up my mind, but I want you on edge’ gesture. No way it would work on Ansem but it set a tone for the Kingdom royalty.
“Highness, if you think this is a good educational opportunity, I think your brother needs it more. Make sure to be a good example,” Xigbar said.
Kishi felt his cheeks heat up and he tried really hard not to visibly be angry or embarrassed aside from lowering his gaze. There was no reason for Xigbar to call him out like that in front of strangers than to shame him for his lack of experience. It was a mean jab at something outside of Kishi’s control and he was admittedly incredibly angry at Xigbar for pouring fuel onto a fire between the two brothers. Reacting to such a jab would be so much worse so Kishi focused on holding very, very still while Ansem stepped past Xigbar to take over negotiations.
Kishi was too focused on calming down to even hear what his brother was saying. No doubt it was needlessly greedy. It was an Imperial strategy to ask for an unreasonable amount and then lower it to create the illusion of mercy.
“How generous to offer that 80% on top of the 70% of the ore we will be collecting,” Ansem was saying when Kishi finally started paying attention again, “as to transportation, I am sure your people will find a way to deliver all four shipments on time.”
The Terminus King stood up and his pressure was felt in the room. Not only was he tall but Kishi felt a weight in the room almost like a humidity that filled his lungs. Magic. Kishi had been training in magic his whole life, so it wasn’t hard to feel it in this man here who wasn’t trying to hide it. This King was overflowing with it.
“You misunderstand. The pass that would allow carts through becomes impassable, even for our gryphons,” the King was telling Ansem, “Ores are too heavy for flight and will not make it through twenty feet of snow covering the road. You must have travelled through it; you know how narrow the pass is. It is the only safe route between our Kingdom and your Empire. This is to be negotiation, not demands. Perhaps your country would benefit from aerial modes of transportation. I can offer some of our beasts yearly in the place of industrial ores.”
“I am certain you will find a way,” Ansem mused, “such leniency that you seek is offered only to those allies with familial ties.”
Oh. So Ansem had noticed the Princess. Of course he did. Kishi’s older brother thought more with his dick than he ever did with his actual brain. What a waste. He had probably planned this from the start. Now the unreasonable demands made a lot more sense.
“You speak of my granddaughter?” the King asked.
“I do,” Ansem said as he made a show of looking her over, “I would have no qualms speaking to my father about a much, much smaller tither from the family of my wife.”
“Our rules are strict about the King or Queen only having one spouse. Xion is second in line for the throne. If you were to ask for her hand, it would have to be quite the offer.”
Xion. She had a pretty name too. Kishi caught himself studying her himself too. What a bizarre Kingdom to value a Queen the same as a King. The Daybreak Empire didn’t have queens. Kishi knew his father had taken two wives, but neither were alive today and they were never more than broods to produce heirs. It was a shame, that was all Ansem wanted this girl for and Kishi knew him well enough to know he’d probably burn the country down to make sure he got her.
“Then keep your traditions,” Ansem mused. He waved his hand. “90% of your ores and precious metals will be expected every season. Failure to meet his quota will result in a change of management. Xigbar, we’re done here.”
“You think you’re done?” Xigbar asked in a scolding tone.
The Prince stepped in close to the Regent but Kishi overheard him say, “I have seen you do this many times. Give them time to contemplate the hopelessness of their situation and they will be more willing to cave to our demands.” Ansem straightened himself to tell the King, “Decide for yourself if your tradition is worth the lives of your people. Poverty and a military occupation does not bode well for a country’s population.”
“Nor do ogre hordes,” Xigbar continued to scold. Ansem’s attempt to maintain authority meant nothing to the Regent who had no qualms publicly humiliating those who deserved it. “Perhaps you should do more cultural studies before you try negotiations again, Highness.”
Ansem took a step back to fume while Kishi resisted the urge to chuckle. It was rare to see his asshole brother get put in his place when he was already sitting on a high horse. This alone was worth it and Kishi raised a hand to his mouth to help hold back the laugh that was waiting on the tip of his tongue. Ansem’s eyes locked on Kishi and he quickly snapped back to attention but that laugh was still there.
"If you intended to mock us perhaps you should have sent someone whose station befitted it. Ninety percent leaves us unable to defend our western border, you come with impossible demands, and ask for one of my remaining heirs to give up her dignity for scraps. We have more pride than that," King Yen Sid said as he sat back down.
“Grandfather, may I speak for myself?” the Princess asked and the laugh on his tongue melted away. Her voice wasn’t particularly special. There was a softness to it but her words were unwavering and confident and the King’s nod was respectful. He happily gave her the attention of the room.
“If Daybreak is willing to take our offer from earlier, and observe some of our other marriage customs, I would be willing to go,” she said.
Ansem’s seething anger melted beside Kishi into something worse and Kishi felt his own heart sink. Well, that was unfortunate. This confident young woman, who couldn’t have been older than he, was dancing into the mouth of the dragon.
“It would depend on your customs,” Ansem said but Kishi knew he wouldn’t be listening to her answer. He would ignore them the second he had her in his home.
“Both parties present a handmade gift. Until the actual wedding, I would live separately and keep my own schedule. I know not everywhere considers men and women equal in marriage, but if you don't have need of me, I would like to be able to make use of my time for myself," she offered. Kishi admired her courage. Her voice never wavered once and it was confusing his brother. Kishi could count on one hand the number of women that would talk to Ansem like that with strong eye contact and firm voices.
The Prince kept looking back and forth between the Princess, Xion, and the King but the King had politely given his granddaughter the ability to negotiate for herself.
“So long as that time is spent on the estate, then those terms are agreeable,” Ansem finally said.
A servant brought a roll of parchment and ink and the King personally penned the agreement. With Ansem satisfied, the King and Regent determined that the deliveries of goods would be biannual and the tithe itself was lowered to 70% prior to the wedding and 50% after the wedding. King Yen Sid and his line would remain in power so long as the quota was met, and they stayed in line. An advisor from the Emperor would be appointed and a small military unit would be stationed in the city. It was to “help provide security and safety” but that was bullshit and every knew it. Otherwise, Terminus would be left to govern themselves as an extension of the Empire.
Once signed, King Yen Sid pressed his signet ring into the parchment, leaving behind the image of his seal with a red glow and a flash of magic. It made Kishi jump in alarm and start reaching for a weapon but his brother scolded him and smacked the back of head. He growled a bit but restrained himself. Let Ansem have his fun, Kishi reasoned, things would be different back home.
“You are welcome to stay for dinner, though I doubt it will be to the same standards as you would receive in the Empire,” the King offered as Ansem stepped forward to remove his glove and apply his own seal in wax from the ring on his finger. For now, the contract was binding.
A scribe took the contract and Ansem put the glove back on.
“It would be fitting to see what my future in-laws are like,” he said with a cruel grin, “a place to stay the night as well.”
This was just pleasantries. Even if Kishi hadn’t personally witnessed such interactions, he had practiced them in class and studied them. The King hosting them knew they would be staying. The offer was polite. The acceptance of the offer was also just meant to be polite.
“It is too bad Lauriam will be unable to join us then. There are, of course, guest rooms prepared,” the King added. He waved his hand and the room was suddenly full of servants going about their work and Kishi had to again resist the urge to reach for a weapon.
The Princess and Prince left the room quickly and Kishi found himself caught up in the hassle of being guided along by a servant.
While they had been talking, their things had been moved to guest rooms. Kishi was relieved to find he had his own. The castle had seemed so small that he thought for sure he’d have had to share with his brother.
He checked around the small room. There was a small bed, a big rug, a couple smaller windows that opened with a struggling creak, and sparse décor. Kishi looked for a magical light source but found none. There were a few candelabras strategically placed around the room but unlit while there was still daylight.
“No concubines for the night,” he mumbled to himself, maybe a little disappointed but mostly relieved. He wasn’t sure he was interested in the girls here. Although… that Xion seemed unique.
Kishi waited a few minutes before realizing that servants weren’t going to come help him undress and got started on that himself. He had a few trunks of things brought along including another armor set that was formal but not ‘show off’ formal like what he was currently trying to wiggle out of.
He was barely out of his clothes to get into the new outfit when his door opened and Ansem let himself in.
Kishi went from surprised to annoyed to angry in about three seconds.
“You have your own room,” he snapped.
Ansem’s hand snapped out to grab Kishi by the front of his shirt and he hissed in his little brother’s face, “I know you were looking at her.”
“So what if I was!”
“I forbid you from engaging with her. Don’t look at her, don’t speak to her. She’s mine.”
Kishi huffed and went to pull away, but Ansem’s fingers dug into his chest and he growled to keep from yelping.
“Father isn’t here,” Ansem cautioned, “as long as we are away from Scala you are also mine to do with as I please. If you ever want the opportunity to leave the estate again, you will avoid her like your life depends on it.”
“Relax, brother,” Kishi wheezed, “my actions aren’t controlled by my dick so I think I’m safe.”
Ansem smacked Kishi and he saw stars for a second.
“Alright! I’ll leave her be,” he corrected, more submissive this time. Anything was better than being confined to Scala again and Ansem could hold some solid sway with their father. Keeping him happy was priority.
The older Prince let go and left and Kishi angrily finished getting ready for dinner.
Kishi and Ansem were ready for dinner well before it was time but made a point to meet Xigbar outside the dining hall a little late. That was also a strategic play. The Daybreak royalty wanted to make it clear that they were in charge and things started for them and not at any time chosen by the hosts.
They were seated on the King’s right with the King at the head of the table and Xigbar beside him. Then Ansem, then Kishi were seated in a line. The Crown Prince of Terminus, whom Kishi had been told was named Isa, was sitting across from Xigbar and the Princess was sitting across from Ansem. Once again, Kishi was in his own isolated bubble on the awkward end. There were supposed to be three Terminus heirs he thought but the third was absent.
The air was more casual so Kishi was more willing to take it in. The room itself was big but cozy. The ceilings weren’t as high as they were in Scala. The Kingdom’s royalty were wearing fancy clothes with so much beadwork they were hard to look at. It was flashy art draped over each one of them and taking up all the budget. The plateware and silverware were missing a couple forks and cups for a fancy meal and were quality but not rich by his standards. It was the kind of thing that Kishi might’ve expected Ansem to take a jab at if the older brother wasn’t so busy ogling Xion.
Retainers and servants ghosted through the walls as maids served a meal. The primary piece was a roasted leg from some kind of animal, a few loaves of bread, a salad, and an egg aspic dish with a funny texture. Kishi wasn’t really interested in the egg thing. Food that jiggled wasn’t appealing unless it was sweet but it was rude to decline and there wasn’t much of it.
There was a prayer that he shuffled uncomfortably through and then Kishi followed the Princess’s example. She was dishing up food for her higher ranking family members and it looked like he was expected to do so too. Kishi felt awkward doing a servant’s job but it did give him a chance to short Ansem some food and earn a warning glare in response.
"If you are not due back to the Imperial Capitol in the foreseeable future," Isa began, "you should consider staying here a few nights more. I would be honored to show our new lords the city, our forges, and workshops."
"We are expected back after reasonable negotiations, I think we can spare a week," Xigbar said in his usual cavalier attitude. "Though fiscal reports interest me more than forges. Their Highnesses might enjoy the tour more."
"Perhaps I should go on the tour with them, I know the forges almost as well as the master smiths," the Princess said and both Kishi and Ansem paused a moment when she spoke.
"I would be most comfortable knowing my bride-to-be was safe here in the castle," Ansem said with a little smirk dancing at the corner of his mouth. There was some accusation there that didn't go unnoticed by Isa, whose own mouth curled in the slightest shape of a frown.
"My sister is as safe in the city as she is in the castle and as wild and free here as she would be there," he retorted coldly. Ansem's eyes jerked over to her brother.
"You think I would doubt a magically binding contract?" he accused.
"Only so far as you would imply she try to flee," Saix bit back.
"Trust need not even be an issue, one of the forges is connected to the castle itself, if you'd rather have a demonstration of the process," Xion cheerfully added.
"We will have to teach you manners prior to presenting you before the Empire," Ansem muttered but Kishi was impressed. He had to force himself to look away from her. Fire like that was Ansem’s favorite and Kishi was a little sad that she had so much of it.
"I'll not have you speak to the Princess in such a way," Isa growled. The Prince seemed to have just as much of a temper as Ansem did. Honestly, it was kind of scary how similar they seemed.
"I will speak to my fiance as I see fit!"
"I would not be opposed to a demonstration," Kishi finally said to derail the escalating argument. He shoved a piece of bread into his mouth as he did to keep himself from smirking at his brother when both the older Princes turned to look at him with surprise and irritation.
"Very well," the older brother conceded through clenched teeth, "then we will begin there on the morrow."
The King looked rather displeased, though that may have been his default expression, while Xigbar was grinning. Free entertainment was the best.
“…what are your other wives like?” Xion asked. Her voice was little softer this time.
“Obedient and beautiful,” Ansem crooned, “though perhaps lacking in fire.” His mood mellowed out as he studied her, Isa already forgotten. Kishi rolled his eyes and focused on his meal. Watching Ansem play with his food was already getting old.
“I don’t doubt that I have enough fire for a lifetime,” she responded firmly and again Kishi was impressed.
“We will see.”
“Do you have any children?” the King asked.
Kishi saw Ansem twitched and jumped on the opportunity to embarrass his brother, “No. None of them do. No grandbabies for the Emperor.”
He shoved a forkful of food into his mouth to suppress another smirk as Ansem turned on him but a little bit of a smile still slipped out as Xigbar added, “Poor guy doesn’t get anyone to spoil.”
The comment put Ansem at ease a bit. That was Xigbar all right; still playing both sides and both brothers.
“Perhaps you will be a better fit to my home in that regard,” Ansem told Xion.
“My family tends to have many children.”
“I certainly hope so.”
Kishi cringed a bit to himself. This poor girl was playing all the right notes and had no idea.
“What kind of hobbies do you enjoy?” she asked.
"Hobbies? Our time is spent serving the crown, whether that be studying or fighting the front lines, or... tending to the needs of our personal households."
"You must have an impressive library, to be studying so often."
"Scala ad Caelum houses the world's largest libraries and leads the world in magical studies."
Kishi was starting to tune them out again. He was admittedly getting bored. This didn’t concern him at all and he wanted to go explore.
"You will need not trouble yourself with such matters. Your role in our hierarchy is simple, as are expectations of you," Ansem was saying. He swirled his glass a bit before sipping it delicately and Kishi almost rolled his eyes again.
"But my role here will remain. I will spend my free time studying or training, as I may have need to return," she reminded him and Kishi grimaced inwardly. This poor Princess seemed to think she had any control here. The second they got back to Scala ad Caelum, she was probably going to be confined to Ansem’s bedroom for the rest of her life. There was no chance of her returning here.
Ansem knew as much. Kishi could see it in his smirk as he undressed her with his eyes.
"Do as you will, so long as my orders and expectations are met."
"Only once the wedding is done," she insisted.
That’s when Ansem stopped entertaining her. She and Kishi just stopped existing to him which was fine with the young Prince. Kishi entertained himself fiddling with his silverware under the table and studying the walls for any explanation for the disappearing servants. Terminus wasn’t supposed to be a magical powerhouse.
Eventually dessert came around and Kishi enjoyed it. Iced cream was hard to get in Scala so he took his time with it until the boredom finally had him nodding off.
"I'll meet you both in the entrance hall at eight in the morning,” Xion told them, snapping Kishi out of his napping trance. He got up when he was pulled up and bowed politely but immediately regretted it when he felt a pop to the back of his head and realized his brother was punishing him for not being more dominant. He huffed and rubbed the spot as he followed Xigbar and Ansem out into the hallway.
It took all of two seconds for Ansem to zoom off, presumably to his room, leaving Xigbar and Kishi alone, which was a terrifying thing in itself.
“Did I do well today?” Kishi asked.
“Do you really want to engage in small talk?”
“Then you might as well scurry off,” Xigbar offered. He wasn’t rude or mean about it at all. The guy was as cavalier and unreadable as always.
Kishi huffed but headed back to his room to change into something more comfortable. He slipped on a long-necked, long-sleeved shirt and pants and then a silk robe over those since it was a tad chilly then he flopped on the stiff bed and lay there for a minute to just soak it in.
They were in another country!! And he felt homesick. Going on a trip with the two scariest people in his family without any of his servants was a drag and he didn’t like the judging feeling he was getting from them. This had to be a test. His father had personally ordered Kishi go which meant there was an angle here and Kishi couldn’t see it but then again, trying to see it was the mistake. The Emperor was just a tick shy of being a god himself. There was no way his immortal father could be outsmarted. No doubt Xigbar was in the shadows watching him and at any given moment could be spying for either his father or his brother. The hypervigilance was stressing him out.
Kishi grabbed his slippers from one of the bags and put them on. Screw it. He was going to make the most of this trip. He headed out to explore.
It took him all of a minute to get lost which wasn’t a bad thing. There was an excitement in being in a strange land even if it was just another castle. He had found an open courtyard that felt like a training area. There were dummies off to one side, a shed in a corner, and plenty of space. The stars were different here too and he took a second to count them while they were easy to see when he heard footsteps and jumped.
The Princess was barely a few yards away and trying to move around him. He scrambled a bit to bow politely and started to greet her when he remembered what Ansem had said and the feeling of being watched reined him in. Any wonder and excitement in exploring was gone so instead he addressed her retainer. The brown-haired one was on the far side of her but there was a near identical man close to him. This guy had yellow eyes, black hair, and a scowl plastered on his face but there weren’t a lot of options. Ugh, and if he got caught being informal…
"Pardon, but I have become turned around and need directions back to my chambers," he said with a strained, unpracticed voice.
“Your room was next to your brother’s, correct?” the Princess asked instead. Great. She wasn’t really giving him a choice here.
“Unless you can find me one that’s not,” Kishi grumbled. He didn’t really care that much anymore about being polite as long as he could get out of there fast. He kept his gaze away from her.
“We have plenty of guest rooms, though the ones you occupy now are the best furnished. Is there something wrong with my appearance?”
She was more astute than he gave her credit for. Was it appropriate to respond? She was a she. He didn’t have any obligation to answer her.
“Ah, no Princess, it's just, my brother has forbidden me from speaking to you, or looking at you, or really being in the same room..." he mumbled. It felt like word vomit and he felt like an idiot.
"Well at the moment, I don't find myself in a place where I want to honor his wishes. If you won't tell, I know the way through the servant's quarters so we won't be seen together," Xion offered and Kishi was a little dumbfounded. She just openly admitted to being cool with disobeying. How the hell could she be so relaxed about that?
He jumped a bit and held his hands up.
"Oh nonono, Ansem will definitely find out and he will absolutely take it out on me. P-Please, just a direction to my room, good Princess," he managed when he finally found his wits.
"...up the main stairs, to the left. Yours should be the third door on the right. I don't believe I caught your name earlier?"
Well, shoot. What was worse? Pissing off Ansem or pissing off Xigbar?
"Forgive my rudeness. Prince Kishi Oscura, fourth son of his Imperial Highness."
"You're forgiven. I am Lieutenant Colonel Xion Terminus, third child of the Throne." She bowed after she said it and Kishi had to take a second to process that she had included her title.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize we were supposed to include our ranks..." He stood there awkwardly and became increasingly aware of how badly he had butchered that. Things felt so different outside of his comfort zone and he was expecting Xigbar to appear at any moment, so he walked away. He didn’t want to deal with it, so he walked away from the problem for now.
Her instructions proved true and he found his room. Kishi awkwardly waved off the angry looking servant and locked the door behind him to collapse on the bed facedown. He screamed in his pillow for a second, kicked off his shoes, and then tried to fall asleep.