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"Lord Lieutenant Kiri du von Lucianos has returned!"

 

The herald's voice cut through the murmuring of the court's morning assembly, interrupting the next words of the trade ambassador from Theta. As one, eyes swivelled to where the great doors swung open, revealing Lieutenant Kiri and his honour guard, still stained with the blood and dust from battle.

 

"Your Majesties."

 

Without pause in his stride, Kiri glided in with the sure feet of the master swordsman, sinking to one knee before the throne. His men followed with somewhat less grace, some grimacing with still open wounds and/or bruises. Their commander's voice was steady, showing no signs of discomfort despite the clear splashes of blood across a collar and a slightly frayed epaulette. His pride seemed to inspire a similar reaction from his men, who held their heads up and showed no further sign of their own pain, wounded or not.

 

"Kiri, it is good that you have returned. What news?"

 

Queen Iota greeted her greatest field commander warmly, pointedly shelving the discussion with the ambassador in favour of her son-in-law. Kiri inclined his head in deference to the queen.

 

"We have tracked the Volga bandits to the third moon of Colchis. I led the assault on their base with our best troops. The bandits are no longer an issue."

 

As Kiri concluded his report, his eyes rose and rested coolly yet pointedly on the suddenly sweating Thetan ambassador, who coughed once, his reedy voice joining in nervously on the congratulatory outburst that overwhelmed the court.

 

"V-very, ah, impressive, my lord Lieutenant. Alpha is blessed with such an invincible champion and ah, we are grateful to hear that such a threat to free commerce has been eliminated..."

 

Kiri cut him off with barely a nod in his direction, clasping one hand to his chest in salute to the queen. Iota coolly picked up on the cue without delay, praising the Lieutenant's skill and bravery to the court. Kiri nodded briefly in acknowledgement, but did not neglect to highlight the contributions of his men. The pleasantries lasted a good half hour as everyone with any kind of standing fought to say a few words, until finally the Princess herself spoke up, her voice a new appearance in court. She had been sitting in on the morning's proceedings, quietly paying attention to the affairs of state as requested by her mother the queen.

 

Kiri had nodded to her the moment he had entered the room, picking her out unerringly despite her position off to one side. The courtiers who paid attention to such things whispered knowingly behind their hands, already adding to the court grapevine on how the Lieutenant adored his young wife, despite appearances to the contrary. They were not a couple given to open displays of affection, and some murmured that Princess Sakura was a chip off the old block, keeping her husband at a cool distance in public at times.

 

"I am grateful to see you return safely, my lord. If I may, Mother, may we retire early from the assembly? I have not seen my lord husband in 2 weeks."

 

More excited whispers raced through the crowd as Iota acceded gracefully, allowing her daughter and her consort leave from her presence. Kiri offered an arm to Sakura, who took it with all expression of calm on the outside. Kiri shot her a quick look as her fingers wrapped around his, sensing the sharp agitation flowing in from the skin to skin contact.

 

The small party said nothing within earshot of prying parties, and for a short time they walked in silence towards the royal apartments.

 

Halfway there, Sakura suddenly spoke up, but not to Kiri.

 

"Klarus."

 

"Yes Princess Sakura?"

 

Kiri's right hand responded immediately, popping up at Kiri's other elbow. The young officer looked nervous. Kiri couldn't quite find it in himself to blame the kid.

 

"Just how badly is my lord husband injured?" Sakura ground out almost inaudibly through gritted teeth, though her face was still the very picture of calm.

 

"Do I look injured?" Kiri asked mildly. Indeed, he walked and acted as if he were in the pink of health. Klarus paled, nervous sweat sprouting all over.

 

"Uh, that is, well..."

 

"You might pretend to be fine, my lord Kiri, but Klarus is an open book. There is no hiding the worry on that face, worry for you, I might add."

 

Kiri smiled ironically, raising an eyebrow at his subordinate. Klarus cringed at the disapproval there, until Sakura pinched Kiri on the arm to make him stop.

 

"None of that. Klarus cares for you, my lord. You will not be nasty on that account."

 

"It was my fault, your Highness! The Lieutenant took a blow meant for me. I was careless and allowed him to come to harm." Klarus looked close to tears. Kiri sighed, obviously repeating an old chestnut.

 

"It is nothing. Do not worry on my account, I have suffered worse."

 

Klarus did not look particularly consoled, but was saved from further mortification as the royal couple reached their apartments. Kiri nodded at his right hand.

 

"See to the wounded and make a tally. I will come along later."

 

"Yessir!" The honour guard saluted and marched off with perfect discipline, aware that the eyes of their Lieutenant was still on them. Kiri let out a small sigh as he allowed himself to be led into their rooms, the annoyance of his wife clearly communicated in her stance, even without the skin contact that conveyed the range of her emotions at this point.

 

“Sit.” Yup, his wife was definitely annoyed at him. His wife. Kiri shook his head almost disbelievingly at the thought. Even now, he could not believe that she had acceded to marry him. He had expected her to choose the boy, and he would not have begrudged the choice. He was older and sullied with blood and death. What young maiden would choose a husband such as him, if not for the oracle’s prophecy?

 

Shrugging off his outer coat, Kiri allowed himself a small grimace as he peeled off his shirt, grunting where the threads clung to the burnt and still tender skin of his shoulder. Sakura was in the next room, speaking to a maid for a first aid kit. It was not the first time she had had to see him come back injured, and she knew the drill by now. Kiri felt vaguely guilty for inflicting such a routine on her at all. Always before, he had tended to his own injuries in the privacy of his own room, never resorting to the medics unless it was beyond his own skill. It was unseemly for a commander to show weakness, of course. His seeming invincibility was good for morale.

 

Then he had gotten married, and privacy pretty much went out of the window. Sakura had been determined to make their marriage work, not just as a sham of a political marriage as he had initially suggested for her own sake. The grizzled soldier was unused to someone else that was not another soldier within his immediate sphere, and Sakura would not be held at arm’s length. Kiri had managed to hold out for several weeks at first, but eventually caved and let her in, bit by bit, into his private life, such as it was.

 

Sakura stepped back into the room and promptly blushed at the sight of him topless on the edge of their bed. Had Kiri not been busy dabbing at the gaping wound on his shoulder, he would have noticed and smirked at her discomfort. Though they were wedded in name, they were still yet to be wedded in truth, since Sakura was still shy in the months since their marriage, and Kiri was too polite to push the issue. The only reason they even shared the same bed was to allay any suspicion from the servants who entered to clean up, but with the bed as wide as it was, it was easy to create enough space for them to remain at a comfortable distance.

 

Sakura said nothing at first, allowing herself the somewhat guilty pleasure of checking out her husband. Years of continuous training told in every plane of muscle sculpted across his lean frame, and Kiri, though slender of form, had the wide shoulders and narrow hips of a swordsman. There was some scarring here and there on his body, but it did nothing to detract from his masculine beauty. His long hair was tied back in a rough ponytail, and the wound on his shoulder was rubbed raw and bloody. Which reminded Sakura that yes, she was still mad at him for pushing past his limits just to look cool.

 

Wordlessly, she handed the basin to him, helping him to rinse off the bloody towel that soon turned the water a pinkish hue. Kiri never made a sound despite the obvious pain -- heavens, it hurt her to see it -- but managed to clean and disinfect it in record time with the kit she handed him. He was obviously used to battlefield medicine, and Sakura wondered, not for the first time, how often he had tended to his own wounds without help.

 

“You should have stopped to tend that wound sooner.” Sakura finally said, after helping him patch on a fresh bandage. “What if it had gotten worse?”

 

“Tis but a flesh wound, milady.” Kiri flashed a cocky grin at her, only to wince when she deliberately prodded at the bandage. He raised a hand in rueful surrender.

 

“Couldn’t afford to miss the morning audience with that ambassador still around. The Queen could use every advantage in the negotiations, and the news I brought would give us an edge. This trade deal is valid for the next three cycles, and the Queen was counting on me.”

 

“Oh.” There were times when Sakura felt her age and inexperience acutely, and this was one of them. Kiri was so much older and more aware of the politics involved, despite his claims of being ‘a mere soldier’. Her uncertainty must have shown in her face, for Kiri’s face softened (a rare occurrence in itself!) and he lowered himself to gaze into her downturned eyes.

 

“I should have taken better care of myself. I apologize.”

 

He was still careful not to touch her. Always so careful, her lord husband. Impulsively, she reached for his hand, covering it with her own deliberately. Kiri’s eyes widened fractionally, and then took on a vaguely guilty cast as he felt her worry for himself. He was a good man, Sakura thought, better than he allowed himself to believe. Stubborn, muleheaded, impossibly attractive man.

 

Kiri must have picked up on that final bit, because he raised his eyebrows at her just as she yanked her hand away, blushing furiously. 8 months into their marriage, and they had never done more than just hug and occasionally hold hands. Having a mind reader for a husband had its pros and cons, Sakura found. At least hers was ridiculously patient and a complete gentleman despite being a terror on the battlefield. She would be lying if she said that he didn’t make her nervous though, and in more than one way.

 

“I should go. I must attend to my men.”

 

Kiri, perhaps sensing that he was causing his wife discomfort, resorted to the time honoured tactic: retreat. Or tactical repositioning, if he were in the right frame of mind to be snarky about it. Sakura would have none of it though.

 

“Oh no you’re not running away. Eat something first. Klarus can handle it.”

 

And so the great and terrible Lieutenant Kiri was cowed by the glare from his young wife. If only his enemies could see him now...he thought mournfully, chewing obediently under the princess’s stern supervision. No one would ever believe it.

 

He had never been so happy in his entire life.