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Weddings, Sakura decided, were a complicated business. Particularly royal weddings, such as her own was proving to be.

 

Ever since the formal engagement on her birthday, Sakura felt like she was swept up by events, leaving her too busy -- and too exhausted -- to contemplate what became of her first love. It was good, in a way. Letting go hadn’t been easy, and in some ways she had still been amazed at herself for going through with it.

 

What would it be like to be preparing to get married to Asada? She wonders this at times, but dismisses it as quickly. She has made her choice, and she would not dishonour Lord Kiri even in her thoughts -- he’d probably read it off her anyway, and she would not hurt him that way.

 

She saw her fiance every day now. Not because she sought him out specifically, but he would always find time to at least have a meal with her, and spend some time with her. The first few times had been extremely awkward, since Sakura hadn’t known what to say to the taciturn soldier she was to marry.

 

Asada had been older too, but he was patient and kind, and would always listen to her prattle about anything and everything under the sun. With Kiri, the lieutenant often came off as cold and aloof, though in her presence he seemed to soften just a little. It hadn’t been immediately obvious to her, but in the few weeks after the engagement, she had begun to notice the subtle shifts of Lord Kiri’s moods. He was quiet and withdrawn where Asada had been open and warm, and though Sakura felt bad about comparing the two men in her life, she couldn’t quite help herself. Asada would always be her first love, and Lord Kiri knew that. She might have made her choice, but there would always be a place for Asada in her heart.

 

It was different with Lord Kiri, Sakura decided. He was not unattractive, she would be the first to admit that. When they danced for the first time, he had been intense and passionate, the sheer masculinity of his presence demanding her full attention. The memory of it made her heart flutter a little, even if he had chosen not to take her hand in that dance. She could guess why he didn’t now, but the rejection then had stung a little. Granted, he was being considerate to her feelings, but still.

 

In the weeks since her birthday and the engagement, Lord Kiri had been nothing but kind and attentive. Sakura had to speak more to cover up the frequent silences their conversations lapsed into, and a part of her was a bit shy about prattling like a little girl in front of him. She hadn’t felt that self consciousness with Asada, but with Kiri, she didn’t want him to see her as a child. Perhaps it was a childish pride, but his words back then still stung.

 

She had asked him once, about a week after her birthday, whether he was really alright with the marriage. Her choice and the prophecy notwithstanding, Sakura had honestly wanted to know. Was what he said previously about being forced to keep a little girl like her company his true feelings? If so, his actions at her birthday ball had told a different tale.

 

She had heard what happened from Rivet later. Of Lord Kiri’s speech while she was away, the truth of his presence on Alpha, of the circumstances which led to him pledging loyalty to their planet and turning his back on his homeworld. She did not know the full consequences of that action, of what it cost him. Actually, Sakura felt like she hadn’t really known Kiri at all.

 

So, she had asked him directly. As he had taught her, especially for someone like her who couldn’t read someone’s thoughts, the only way was to ask directly and be answered. How did he feel about the marriage? Did he like her? Hate her? Or just merely tolerated her and was following orders to marry her?

 

Kiri had hesitated. Without really thinking about it, Sakura had reached over to take his hand, partly to reassure him, and unconsciously, so that he could hear how her thoughts matched her words. She had chosen him, and just a little selfishly, wanted him to choose her back. She got more than she had ever expected to though.

 

“There is nothing more than I want, to be able to stay by your side.”

 

He hadn’t just been saying it to placate her. Even if Sakura didn’t have mindreading powers, there was no mistaking the quiet sincerity in his words. She had been so surprised that she had let go of his hand, and he just smiled at her -- a quiet, sad little smile, as if he understood her reaction. When he excused himself immediately after, she had let him go before she thought to react, and realized, belatedly, that she was blushing madly at the revelation.

 

There was a rock solid certainty to Kiri, Sakura felt. She had wavered over how Asada felt about her, but with Kiri… his words hit like an anvil when he did say them, and when he meant something, there was no mistaking it for anything else. It had caught her off guard, the way he calmly admitted his devotion to her. He might not have said outright that he loved her, but it was almost as good as a declaration.

 

It had been at that moment that Sakura felt that she could perhaps begin to trust her happiness to Kiri. She had been nervous and worried about it, but those words had reassured her more than she had ever imagined. It also helped her to make up her mind: she would try to make their marriage real, and not just a sham of a political union. And to do that, she had to get to know Kiri better.

 

His daily visits became slightly less awkward after that, at least for her that is. She pestered him with questions about himself, and he would always apologize for boring her with some small anecdote that would usually make her widen her eyes in either wonder or shock. Lord Kiri had been a soldier before coming to Alpha, and had been to many places and seen many things, some of which she hadn’t even heard about, or had only seen in books. He was always apologetic about his stories, as if they weren’t good enough to be heard, and sometimes she got the distinct impression that he was censoring some of the accounts he retold to her. When she asked him about it, all he had to say was that he had seen and done things he wasn’t proud of, and didn’t want to frighten her with them. He would not budge from that no matter how hard she tried, and that was the first time since the engagement that they had nearly started arguing again. At least, they would have, had Kiri not burst out with:

 

“Let my past be past! I do not wish to discuss it!”

 

It was less what he said and more the genuine flash of anger and pain that he gave off in that moment that made Sakura stop her questioning. It was more emotion than the lieutenant usually allowed himself to show, and even Sakura could tell that maybe she had pushed him a little too far. Kiri had immediately apologized to her for raising his voice, but she apologized as well, for her presumption. He had shaken his head then, his face softening.

 

“Perhaps one day I will tell you, when you are ready to hear it. And when I’m ready to tell it.”

 

That was all he would say on the matter, but Kiri’s word was his honour, and Sakura didn’t doubt that they would revisit this topic someday. She made a mental note to herself to do so, at least.

 

As if her thoughts had summoned the person in question, a series of neat raps at the entrance announced the presence of someone at her door. Sakura sprang up, unconsciously smoothing her clothes out before heading to the door. Lord Kiri was always as punctual as clockwork, and he had occasionally joked about military life leaving him rather regimented in his habits. There were only so many open slots on her schedule, and he had plenty of claims on his time as well, so there were only so few timings where he could make it.

 

“Lord Kiri I---” Sakura paused in confusion at the apologetic figure in uniform standing at her door.

 

“Princess Sakura.” Klarus saluted sharply out of habit, then seemed to recall herself and switched to a deep bow instead. Sakura inclined her head politely, waving at the soldier to dismiss with the formalities.

 

“Where is Lord Kiri?” Sakura couldn’t help but feel anxious suddenly. Did something happen to him?

 

“Lieutenant Kiri has been unavoidably detained in a strategy meeting and sends his apologies.” Klarus reported, straightening as if delivering a report to a superior. Sakura had been amused at her mannerisms at first, but Kiri had always treated Klarus very seriously, and it was obvious that the young officer had a serious case of hero worship for her Lieutenant.

 

“I see…” Sakura’s face fell at the revelation. She had unexpectedly found herself looking forward to spending time with Kiri, learning about him and telling him stories from her own childhood in exchange. And whenever he listened, she felt like he was listening with all his might, as if each word was a precious treasure to be hoarded. The attention was intense and intimate, and while it had made her uncomfortable at first, Sakura realized that it felt...nice...to have someone hang on her every word. Lord Kiri listened quietly; Asada engaged her in banter. It was an entirely different dynamic, but they were two very different men, so it was to be expected.

 

“And also…” Klarus hesitated, as if torn between wanting to reassure the princess and wanting to maintain military discipline.

 

“Also?” Sakura asked, curiosity peaked. Klarus shifted her weight from one foot to another.

 

“I think we might have to go off-planet for a while. I can’t be sure since the Lieutenant only shared the basics of the report he got earlier before sending me to you, but there have been raids on the shipping route from the Epsilon gate and we just got a beacon from one of our vessels...the Lieutenant will have to plan a mission, but I do not know if he will go himself or send others.”

 

Klarus said it all very rapidly, as if trying to get the information out before she regretted it. The young soldier, only a few years older than her, looked apologetic.

 

“I can only guess at what the Lieutenant plans, but I cannot confirm anything right now.”

 

“I understand.” Sakura felt a strange conflict within herself. She was reluctant to see Lord Kiri leave, for one thing. For another, the thought of him going into possible danger worried her. She was concerned for him, even though he was an experienced soldier and no stranger to battle.

 

“I trust your judgement, Klarus, as Lord Kiri does. Thank you for coming to let me know, I appreciate it. Please tell Lord Kiri to be careful, and take care of him.”

 

Klarus snapped a salute reflexively, pride shining in her face at the compliment.

 

“On my life, Princess! I will not let the Lieutenant come to harm while I still stand!”

 

Sakura smiled and dismissed the soldier, who jogged off at a rapid clip and disappeared round the corner. Her smile faded just as quickly, a sudden restlessness filling her. Her lessons with her tutors did not start until later in the afternoon, and she had been looking forward to spending the hour with her fiance. If this had been in the past, she could have gone off to look for either Rosewood or Asada to keep her company, but for obvious reasons she was keeping her distance at the moment. Her parents were both busy, and Rivet had departed to study on Sigma the week before.That left her with passing few options with which to spend her time, and before she knew it, she found her feet already moving down the same corridor Klarus had headed towards.

 

If Lord Kiri was too busy to come to her, she would go to him instead.

 

It was an entirely selfish desire, but Sakura was the princess, and Mother had been suggesting that she take more interest in the affairs of state. The Queen was both High Priestess and ruler of Alpha, and Sakura’s daily lessons gave equal weight to both theology and statecraft. It was one thing to listen to dry theory and study the ancient forms of their language in order to interpret the voice of the oracle, but Sakura had always found politics boring. Duty kept her focused, but she never really liked it very much.

 

It was one of the things Lord Kiri made somewhat interesting for her. Despite his reticence, Kiri was surprisingly astute and told good stories, weaving together direct action with the political realities that drove those actions. Sakura had never really seen the link between certain matters, but Kiri always made it look so easy as he drew seemingly disparate causes to a single underlying motive. He occasionally dramatized it like a bard of old, but that was part of the charm: real stories shaped and given meaning and purpose.

 

He would be a good King someday, Sakura thought, then flushed. When Mother retreated into the Inner Sanctum to hear the divine voice of the oracle, Father was the one who handled day to day matters. Sakura supposed she too, would follow that route someday. It still felt strange to think of Kiri as her husband-to-be, given how she used to fear and avoid him until recently. His reputation as a soldier of Beta, that warmongering world, had definitely preceded him, but Sakura’s nervousness had boiled down to the mindreading aspect and stuck there. It felt small and petty on hindsight, but didn't everyone have secrets they wanted to hide?

 

Halfway down the corridor, Sakura realized she hadn't asked Klarus exactly where Lord Kiri was, so she had no idea where he actually was. However, hadn't the soldier mentioned that he was in a meeting? Sakura squared her shoulders and headed towards the Council Chambers. She rarely went there except when summoned, but as Princess, she had every right to go almost anywhere in the palace.

 

She knew she had gotten the right place when she heard the raised voices from outside the door. The guards flanking the entrance glanced at her, but did not bar her way. Not that Sakura would barge straight in, of course. Holding a finger to her lips as a gesture for them to not announce her, Sakura stood quietly by the door, edging it open by a crack to peek in on the meeting.

 

“...jumped up, upstart of a Vita butcher!”

 

Sakura jumped at the invective slur hurled at her fiance. As chance would have it, her sliver of view allowed her perfect vantage of Lord Kiri, who stood ramrod straight with cold eyes at the rest of the council.

 

Officially, Lord Kiri’s rank of Lieutenant was earned during his service to his homeworld, and so was not formally recognized as part of the Alpha hierarchy. However, there was no mistaking the fact that he was the most militarily capable mind on the planet, and possibly the only man in the room who had seen live combat and led squads into the field. He was young to have earned the rank of Lieutenant, having been only 23 when he first arrived on Alpha, but as the rumours went, military service on Beta began early. Sakura had asked him once when he had joined the army, and got the cryptic answer “from the womb”. His military career had practically been decided for him by the time he was born, as the third son of an unlanded knight. That was all Sakura had been able to prod out of him before he clammed up, clearly unwilling to discuss his family.

 

Nevertheless, ever since Kiri pledged service to Alpha, his position had always been somewhat...nebulous. Alpha did not have a standing army the way Vita had, relying instead on an all-volunteer militia. The closest thing they had to a standing force was the Orbital Patrol, which also doubled as a sort of border control and customs inspection for incoming vessels.

 

Sakura recalled with amusement the story Rosewood had told her once, of what Lord Kiri had apparently said after a month of being on Alpha.

 

“I could take this entire planet with a single regiment.”

 

That statement had not made him any friends then, and in the years since, the council had resented his recommendations as military advisor, though they grudgingly acceded to his reforms where it did not impinge on their pacifist stance. To their chagrin, the Queen often sided with the upstart foreigner, and his recent betrothal to the princess only served to stoke simmering dislikes. Those whispers had reached even Sakura, who normally paid little attention to such things.

 

“My lords,” Kiri’s voice was deep and powerful, commanding attention without raising his volume. “I do not urge aggression as my Lord Teak has so unkindly implied. A fact finding mission has gone missing; I merely seek permission to send an armed patrol vessel to investigate the region.”

 

“A mission that you sent without consulting us!”

 

“With all due respect, in my current position I am fully within my rights to send unmanned scouts to investigate spatial anomalies…”

 

“Within reasonable distance of Alpha space!”

 

Kiri’s eyes glittered dangerously for a moment, but his usual impassive mask reasserted itself.

 

“I consider all space between Alpha and Epsilon gate sensitive territory, my lords. My reports have been very clear, and your own records should reflect this, but merchant convoys have either gone missing or been raided on their way from the gate…”

 

“Mere bandits!” The tone was dismissive. “There’s always pirates in deep space, one of the hazards of commerce.”

 

“To be tolerated to within a certain margin of loss, I’m sure you agree. However, I find myself unable to ignore anomalies on top of the increased raids. The first step to invasion is always to cut off supply routes…”

 

A loud thwack of a fist hitting the table.

 

“Enough with your warmongering paranoia, Kiri! You have held us by the throat for years with this supposed invasion of yours, but nothing has come of it! We will not be held hostage to your delusions of war! Alpha is a peaceful planet, we have nothing of value here, why would anyone bother to invade?”

 

A dark shadow seemed to cross Kiri’s face, making Sakura shiver from where she watched. It was as if the temperature in the area dropped a few degrees instantly, with the deathly chill that came off the Lieutenant’s rigid stance.

 

“You take your peace for granted, my lord.” Kiri all but growled. “I know my people, and they would burn all this down simply for the joy of it. To put the sword to your defenceless people, pillage your lands, stamp the boot down over your gods-damned throats, simply because they can.”

 

“Y-you threaten us!” One of the councillors blubbered. Kiri swung his gaze over to the plump man with his back to the door.

 

“You know nothing of threats. None of you,” his eyes roamed the entire council,”none of you have seen the evils of war. Not in your lifetimes, nor the lifetimes of your parents and grandparents. You have been fortunate, to be located distant from conflict. Fortunate, to be blessed only with small fortunes, beneath the notice of greater powers. I would gladly spare you the horrors of war, but only if you let me do my job.”

 

“You would bring war to us.” One of the other councillors whispered, his voice trembling in the face of Kiri’s cold fury. “Calamity follows in your wake, butcher.”

 

“I am a soldier.” Kiri corrected coolly. “In case you have forgotten, I was sent here as a forward scout for an invasion…”

 

“We should have had you killed the moment we found out what you were.” One of the younger councillors spat. Kiri smirked coldly.

 

“You are most welcome to try, my lord. I won’t even draw a weapon, to be sporting.” His lips twitched. “So much for pacifism, eh?”

 

“You dare insult me!?”

 

“Only if it isn’t true.” Kiri cocked his head. “Or do you mean you could outfight me in a fair duel?”

 

“Barbaric customs!”

 

Kiri inclined his head. “Barbaric perhaps, but effective. Power speaks its own language, and I have been taking measures to ensure the invasion does not ever come to pass.”

 

“On whose authority!?”

 

“Mine.”

 

Sakura nearly jumped right out of her skin as the voice of her mother rang out clearly from behind her. The doors sprang open, and Sakura only just managed to not stumble and maintain a somewhat dignified pose at the Queen’s side, as if she had intended to be there all the time. For her part, the Queen swept in with all majesty, radiating confident authority with ease.

 

Kiri was the first to bend the knee, his responses faultless as ever. After a moment’s hesitation, the rest of the councillors followed suit, paying obeisance to their Priestess-Queen.

 

“My Queen, I greet you.”

 

“Kiri, I hear you. Rise.”

 

The lieutenant rose smoothly to his feet, one hand crossed over his chest in a gesture of respect. His eyes flicked over to Sakura, and a troubled flicker flashed in his eyes before he redirected his attention back to the queen.

 

“What seems to be the trouble here?”

 

The Queen’s voice was light, but there was no mistaking the implied authority she wielded. Kiri bowed.

 

“A minor conflict of opinions, my Queen. A disagreement over the appropriate countermeasures to be taken for the bandit raids along our trade route.”

 

One of the councillors spluttered. “Here, now, that’s not what…”

 

Kiri turned to him. “Is it not? There were raids, the loss of an unmanned scout during an informal investigation, and your response to my report was to ignore it? I think that unwise, my lord.”

 

“I am inclined to agree.” The Queen interrupted, raising a hand to quell the impending protests of the council. “I have read the same reports, and they do indeed merit further investigation. You will have what you need, Kiri.”

 

“Your will, my Queen.” Kiri bowed again, more deeply this time.

 

Any grumbles from the council were silenced with a single glance from the Queen, and the councillors began to disperse, quietly filing out until only the Queen, Kiri and Sakura remained. Klarus appeared from outside the doors and took her usual spot by Kiri’s side, earning a nod of acknowledgement from the lieutenant.

 

“Very devious, Kiri.” Iota said after a moment, her eyes sparkling with hidden mirth. Sakura blinked and looked first at her mother, then at her fiance. Kiri inclined his head.

 

“You flatter me, my Queen.”

 

Something clicked in Sakura’s head. “Oh! Did you send Klarus to fetch Mother?”

 

A faint smile played on Kiri’s lips. “I merely sent a copy of the report along to the appropriate authorities, as is proper procedure.”

 

“You would have managed somehow even without my intervention, I suspect.” Iota eyed her future son-in-law speculatively. Kiri shrugged.

 

“A commander remains flexible in a fluid situation. I do what I can.”

 

“As you should.” Iota paused. “Though I expect you to not lead this mission you are clearly plotting.”

 

Kiri blinked. It was the closest thing to surprise he would show. Iota’s smile was oddly predatory as she laid a hand on her daughter’s shoulder.

 

“You do remember that you have a wedding to be part of, yes?”

 

Sakura blushed at the reminder. Kiri swallowed.

 

“I...understand. I will take this into account.”

 

“Excellent. I will be borrowing your most competent officer in the meantime. Take the afternoon off, Kiri. You have ruffled enough feathers for the day.”

 

“But…” A sharp look from the Queen. Kiri sighed.

 

“Your will, my Queen.”

 

Iota left the room, trailed somewhat reluctantly by Klarus, who threw an apologetic glance over her shoulder at her lieutenant. This left Sakura alone with her husband-to-be, and she was suddenly at a loss for what to say.

 

“I am sorry you had to see that.”

 

Kiri said suddenly. His back was turned to her. Sakura frowned.

 

“Why?”

 

“Your distaste for politics is well founded, my lady. It is a dirty business with dirty tactics. I would have preferred if you had not seen me at work.”

 

Sakura shook her head, then realized that Kiri would not see it, so she stepped forward and around, to face the tall soldier.

 

“I will be Queen someday, Lord Kiri. You cannot shield me forever from reality.”

 

Kiri looked into her eyes, his own sad and haunted.

 

“Perhaps not, but I much prefer you as you are now, my princess.”

 

A nagging feeling wormed its way into Sakura’s heart, a strange mixture of irritation and concern.

 

“Please don’t treat me like a child!” She found herself saying almost reflexively, looking indignantly at Kiri. To her surprise, he suddenly chuckled.

 

“Have you been speaking with Klarus? She said much the same to me. And I apologize, my lady. I did not mean to demean you in any way.”

 

“I just want to be able to help…” Sakura muttered, her head drooping a little. She felt Kiri step closer to her, and as expected, he did not lay a hand on her (again), instead dropping to one knee to be able to look her in the face.

 

“Your presence alone is comfort enough, my princess. Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up yet, there is time enough for that.”

 

Sakura resisted the urge to pout. Really, she did. It was hard to shake the feeling that Kiri was talking down to her, but yet, why wouldn’t he? He was older, more experienced, and a capable soldier - he clearly didn’t need her at all. The last bit almost brought her to tears, and she had the distinct privilege of watching Kiri exhibit signs of panic at the sight.

 

“Ah! Please don’t cry...I...uh…” The confident soldier was at a loss for what to do. He hesitated to come into contact with her, hovering in an awkward half-crouch as if wondering whether a hug would be appropriate or appreciated.

 

Sakura solved that problem for him by stepping into his half outstretched arms, hesitating only for a fraction of a second before leaning into his shoulder, her arms wrapping around his torso for comfort. After a pause, she felt his arms close around her smaller frame carefully, as if handling precious porcelain.

 

A tiny sniff escaped her, and she felt him cautiously stroke her hair in a comforting gesture, gathering her just a little closer to him. It was the first time they had ever been this close to each other, and she was close enough to hear his heartbeat.

 

“But of course I do need you.” Kiri mumbled under his breath, as he continued to stroke her hair. Sakura blinked, and she felt Kiri tense. Oh right, he could read her thoughts when they were this close to each other.

 

“It’s alright.” She assured him, placing a hand on his chest. “And, um, really?”

 

An embarrassed silence. “...yes.”

 

Sakura snuck a glance up at Kiri. He seemed to be avoiding looking at her directly. Was he actually blushing? How...adorable.

 

“I most certainly am not.” Kiri said grumpily. Sakura giggled. This was definitely a side of Lord Kiri she had never seen before!

 

“It’ll be our secret, my lord.”