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A Warrior's Heart

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Sousuke was alone on the hillside when alarm bells rang out from the watchtowers. Their resounding clang could reach you anywhere in the mountains' cradle—and you never quite knew if it was the sound itself you felt in your bones, or the fear of what followed.

Death already gathered heavy in the salt air—blown up from tarry waves, sinking into the streets of Tokitsu. Sousuke tore down the path from the empty practice yard with his father’s wakizashi gripped tight in one hand, the sweat on his back still warm. All around, people were scuttling inside, fastening their door latches, pulling covers over their windows. He wove through them, carving against the tide with purpose.

“Yamazaki!”

The jewelry maker flung open his door when Sousuke raced past the storefront. “Sousuke, over here! Get inside!

“I’m going to the beach to help. My parents are already down there.”

“The beach?! You’re twelve, you little rascal, and I doubt the general wants his boy out there in the surf with sirens. Now hurry in here!”

“I can handle them.” Sousuke spun his weapon, and dipped into a confident bow. Then he sped off grinning and hollered over his shoulder, “Thank you anyway, Mister Nanase!”

The jewelry maker was trying to shout sense at him still, but there was no time to waste; none at all.

Sightless warriors were gathering below beside the Iwatobi ship, raising the whale shark on indigo banners, their blades and spears glinting in torchlight like serpents’ fangs. Sousuke might not be allowed to join them yet, but he was tall for his age, and as long as no one saw him slip in amongst the company, he was certain they'd appreciate his help. He could hardly be expected to hole up in his house while his parents defended the bay. If Iwatobi made good on their contract, this could be one of the last times the sirens attacked. He was ready for this; he could prove it. The excitement of an approaching fight surged through him, lightning hot.

Though tonight something felt different.

Sousuke halted, holding his breath to listen for the wretched screeching that sirens made as they breached the water. Their cries were like icicles under your skin, and his spine shivered in anticipation of them. But there were no screams. Only misty stillness, and the rolling, distant assault of waves against the cliffs.

Then a low thrumming.

It was a full sound like sails catching the wind—only rhythmic, staggered, repeating, getting louder.

The noise did not hail from the sea, though it was filling the bay, drumming off the mountains—everywhere, but nowhere. Sousuke squinted into the gloom to search the water again, and trace up the black rocky peaks. All of Tokitsu was suspended in waiting, murmurs swirling into the street from behind every window.

And then he saw it: A shape soared over the star field through a silvery gap in the clouds. Then a rumbling, vibrating, blood-curdling roar split the air, and it was like no cry of any creature he knew.

“DRAGONS!”

“The Emperor attacks!”

Watchmen pummeled the warning bells.

The sheer improbability of the idea stalled Sousuke’s awareness. He had time to take one more step before a flying mass dipped overhead, and the street was engulfed by fire. The force of it tore the avenue apart, stone and wood warping, snapping, crumbling. A sweltering blast of pure heat bowled him over.

Two more shadowy shapes swooped low, and the sound of their inferno bellowed from all around. Smoldering streets illuminated the monsters as they swerved overhead: winged horrors with coats of gleaming scales. Sousuke was rooted in place, his body refusing to move until a cry nearby wrenched his focus back. He shook himself and kept running.

Whale Bay was devoured. Smoke smothered the foothills, billowing up in thick black columns, suffocating and blinding. Sousuke shielded his eyes from the embers as he stumbled through the murk. Stone was melting, the air itself burning away, and every short breath came out a raw cough. His parents were at the harbor. If he could find the seawall, he could slide down the shallow side, and the ocean would keep them safe. But finding his bearings in the chaos was near impossible. Citizens panicked into the streets, but there was no cover from this assault. Tokitsu was built to defend itself from the water, and it buckled beneath blazing breath and the merciless fan of leathery wings. Wails of the dying fused with throaty roars in the hellish dark.

Smoke thinned for a moment, and Sousuke saw his parents with a small company of soldiers on the beach below. They were hurrying up the shore, toward the city. He recognized his father's silhouette towering at the frontline, and a flash of happiness sang through the madness. There was no fight to be won here. The glory he'd chased down the slope was long forgotten. He was terrified, desperate, and the sight of his parents choked him with a sob.

A roar sounded from above, and the largest of the dragons soared over the harbor. Sousuke blinked once and nearly missed it, but this one had a rider. There was a saddle on its back, and in it, a human. With a dip of its horned head, it laid a scalding stripe of flames across the length of the beach, leaving nothing in its path unburnt. Sousuke couldn’t scrape together enough of himself to scream.

Fighting a daze, even though he knew what awaited there, he sprinted for the waterfront. Stinging embers burned his feet over his sandals as he ran. One of the watchtowers cracked and pitched forward, blocking his path. Splinters floated up in a deadly cloud, and Sousuke's sleeve caught. It took a few seconds for him to notice before the pain scorched over his right shoulder. The fire was hungry, inescapable, and he reeled with panic. Hot. So hot, it was eating him alive. The heat stabbed through his tunic and melted the skin beneath; he could hear it, smell it. He stripped and dropped to the sand to staunch the blaze, knocking his heel and tumbling backward over the seawall.

Home blurred into an angry flicker of red and yellow— and then darkness.

 

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Sousuke lurched awake in the back of a drawn cart. Iron chains clinked at his wrists, and a collar was sewn closed around his neck. The stiff leather had chafed his skin, and his back stung where a tattoo had been inked just below his hairline. Groaning, he hooked his surroundings on hazy memories of the night before. His shoulder was bandaged—hardened blood staining the gauze, and midwinter chill clawed under his clothes. The stink of burned hair and flesh coated the air inside the wagon. From the looks of this trail, they were somewhere along the mountain pass. Home was miles behind.

Sousuke cast around. Other survivors from the city shared his confines—slumped against the sides, strewn about the floor, and he saw how lucky he had been. One man was dabbing cloth over the scorched back of another, though the skin was swollen beyond hope with infection. Sousuke blinked away thick sleep in his vision to search for anyone familiar. There, in the corner, he thought he saw the village errand man doubled over, rocking into himself. The man raised his head to reveal a face half melted like candle wax, and Sousuke could not place him either way.

Dragons glided over the caravan, stark against a murky midday sky. They were no less fearsome revealed in full light than they had been swimming in shadow. The largest of the three flew at the head of them: a rich red, horned creature with ravenous ruby eyes, and power radiating from a smoldering core. Silent, it dipped low, nearly skimming the treetops with its clawed feet. The stink of smoke curled in its wake. Atop its back sat the Emperor of Samezuka, surveying the prisoners with calculating indifference. He snarled, revealing a mouth full of lizardlike razor-sharp teeth. Red and black banners of Samezuka and the Matsuoka family swayed high on the breeze. Generations of honed soldiers amounted to nothing more than sticks of dry tinder in the face of one man, one family.

Sousuke’s reality converged on the chains shifting, clinking with every bump in the road. Whale Bay was likely little more than a basin of ash behind them. Breathing hurt. Cold air scraped down his raw windpipe, and he couldn’t seem to pull enough of it. He could almost see his mother behind his eyes, seated at the porch, tending to her orchids in the morning. His father's thunderous laugh echoed between his ears. He'd never hear it again. They're gone. They're gone.

Grief condensed in the pit of him, boiling into the purest hatred.

The Matsuokas should die for what they did.

 

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Sousuke's shoulder healed into an ugly, ropy scar. And again, he counted himself lucky. The sea voyage to the capital through winter's gut had whittled Tokitsu's survivors down to barely fifty. The rest had perished on the ship, succumbing to festering wounds, and ash-choked airways. The shadows of a proud state stumbled onto foreign soil, barely more than ghosts.

 

There was little the Emperor could do with a bitter gaggle of prisoners—traitors, no less. Except put them to use.

Slaves in Samezuka were not sold. They were war-won spoils, and their lives belonged to the nation’s ruler alone. Sousuke was given a blanket, three sets of plain linen clothes, and a bunk in a room with seven other boys in one of the concrete barracks clustered in the northeast sector of the city.

He hunched at the edge of his cot on his first night, elbows on his knees, eyes fixed at the moon-rimmed windowsill. His leather collar was wearing softer around the edges already, but it still felt alien, and he couldn't go ten minutes without itching to tear it off. The thing was a permanent reminder that whoever he’d wanted to be once, his future would never amount to more than this.

 

Peak summer baked the capital in thick heat, and hauling supplies from the quarry to the new bathhouse foundation was onerous work. Though in moving between sites, Sousuke caught carved-out glimpses of the empire’s capital. Even this much of it was more than enough to demand an utter overhaul of his perception of scale. Buildings were stacked three floors up, a few even higher. Their walls were bright with coral hues, roofs tiled in different styles, depending on which sector you were walking in. Flags and symbols were hung up along the busier roads to help travelers orient themselves in the sprawl, though Sousuke always managed to jumble them up regardless. He lost his way almost every time he tried to venture out after work, and begrudgingly decided it was not worth the trouble.

Most of his peers were young men and teenage boys several years his senior. None of them paid him much heed. And if any did, it was to leer at his snobbish attitude. Whether due to circumstances, or his own aloofness, Sousuke made few friends. Workers were rotated, distributed to other territories as needs arose, so any connections he might forge with other boys during the day were short-lived and shallow.

Sousuke took poorly to his new station. He was cocky, with an insolent spark in his glare, and section overseers punished him routinely for it. They were cruel men, drunk on the scrap of power they wielded, determined stamp out any traces of rebellion like weeds in their crop fields. Still, Sousuke refused to break for them. They did not deserve the satisfaction.

One dusty afternoon found Sousuke on his knees, a stiff leather whip clawing at his back. He’d taken a wrong turn or three, towing granite to the building site, and wound up along some road he’d never seen before. One of the supervisors found him wandering around outside the unoccupied tanning house.

“Clever weasel, thought he could slip out, did he?” The man sneered, angry with a sick swell of joy. He had gangly limbs, a sloppy beard, and a smile like jagged eggshells. “There’s no escaping from this hawk's eyes.”

To which Sousuke’s answered, naturally, “What kind of idiot would try to run with a wagon of bricks?”

Seven lashes had been promised, though he'd lost count at eleven. The bite of each blow grew progressively duller, bleeding into one needling mass of pain across his back. It wasn’t the first time this had happened to him, and he was certain it would not be the last. He tensed, and greyed out his mind for another strike.

Stop! That’s enough!”

Air stilled, hot and clouded. The supervisor's gravelly growl became a squeal when he snapped around. He dropped the whip and fell to his knees, where Sousuke heard his forehead scrape the dirt.

“Stand.” The high voice belonged to a child, though it was clear and unwavering—searing with authority. "Leave him."

Sputtering, the overseer scrambled to do as he was told. “Y-yes, your Highness!"

Those last two words caught in Sousuke's ear, and he tilted a glance backward.

Behind him, stance wide and commanding, stood a slight, pale-skinned boy with a heart-shaped face, a fierce frown, and neat red hair. When he opened his mouth to speak, Sousuke saw tiny sharp teeth. That aside, he was disappointingly unremarkable. Yet there could be no mistake; this kid was the Matsuoka scion—heir to all of Samezuka.

Curling around his hip as though it were shy to be seen, was a young dragon. The creature was no larger than a foal, with carmine scales snaring the sunlight like a shirt of topaz mail.

"Are you okay?" The boy leaned in, bright eyes wide with concern. "You're bleeding!"

Sousuke closed off, and coiled in. He needed the dragon prince’s pity like he needed a pin in his sandal. His back stung, and he felt the trickling of blood cooling on his shoulder blades, but he could deal with that after the end-of-day bell. Hauling granite blocks was infinitely preferable to spending another second in the company of a Matsuoka.

"We need to clean you up," the prince decided on his own. "Come with us."

"I don't need your help." Hefting the rope over his back, he resumed work. But the prince’s aid wasn’t so easily thwarted. The boy let that dismissal glance right off of him, and followed on light feet.

"MY NAME’S RIN!” He flashed a dazzling grin.

The name pricked like poison needles under Sousuke’s nerves. There was only so far one could go to tell off a member of the royal family, and he didn't feel like risking his neck on their tolerance at the moment. So he nodded with every scrap of respect he could gather, squared his shoulders, and heaved his stride in the other direction. The prince trotted to match paces, undeterred, his golden bracelets jingling with each airy step.

He’s so loud.

"It's a girly name, but I'm definitely a boy."

Everyone knows who you are.

"And this is Tora! She turned four last month." The prince smoothed a palm over the young dragon’s head, as it made happy-sounding clicks in the back of its throat. “How ‘bout you? What’s your name?"

Sousuke peered sideways into the creature’s marble-like, curious purple eyes. The way it timed its strange blinks, and the tiny swerving movements of its head were oddly deliberate—expressive, even. Regardless, it would grow into one of the ruthless, destructive beasts that had annihilated Whale Bay, and Sousuke couldn't shake the memory of them.

Rin was still waiting, and Sousuke realized with a lurch that he’d been asked a question.

“I-I'm Sousuke.”

Sooousuke…” the boy drew it out, as though testing the tune on his tongue. He cracked a soft grin.

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Rin led Sousuke toward the Grand Temple, pulling him through the streets by an iron grip on his wrist, as though he thought Sousuke might try to make a break for it. And to be honest, the idea was tempting. Alarms were firing in Sousuke’s head at the utter unlikeliness of this entire situation. He wondered if the prince was dragging him off somewhere dark to be killed and eaten by his dragon. Maybe he picked slaves out at random and did it for fun; maybe—

“Hey!” Rin’s face was right up close, pinched with worry. “Hang in there.”

Not waiting for a response, the boy slung Sousuke’s arm over his shoulders, and took his weight.

“Let me go,” Sousuke blurted automatically. “I can walk fine.”

“No! You keep spacing out,” Rin huffed. “It’s okay, we’re almost there.”

The temple pooled with a steady tide of worshippers paying their evening respects. It reached for the gods in brazen spires, surpassed in height by the palace alone. Up close, it was an ominous vertical presence.

Entering through the main portals would be troublesome, Rin reasoned. So they scurried around the back through the overgrown monastery herb garden. City noise was walled out in this sanctuary, and the careful quiet was soothing. Monks ushered the prince into the infirmary, and Sousuke stumbled beside him, following through tidy arched corridors that smelled of burnt vinegar and incense. He was eased down onto his stomach on a cot in one of the empty rooms.

Sousuke’s back was in worse condition than he'd thought. He bit into the pillow as the dirt was wiped away, and sour wine was poured over the cuts between his shoulder blades, pooling at the dip of his spine. The prince had stripped off his silken finery to don a plain, undyed robe and clean most of the wound himself under the monks’ careful instruction. His delicate hands massaged across Sousuke's raw skin, rubbing honey into a paste over the lattice of lacerations. Outside, his dragon guarded the doorway, and peeked her head inside every few minutes. She fixed her penetrating gaze on Sousuke each time, unflinching when he returned it.

The treatment left him exhausted. Wounds finally cleaned and dressed, Sousuke nodded along absently as the monks instructed him to keep dirt out as well as he could, and to return for new wrappings. Rin agreed too, as if any of it was his problem. The prince was a baffling piece of work.

Sousuke was happy to let this be the end of it, but Rin wheedled the stairwell keys out of one of the keepers, and Sousuke was being tugged somewhere else before he could think to ask why.

The temple had a garden on the roof that was nested between its towers—meticulously kept for meditation and soulful contemplation. Rin used it for picnics. He had a stash of candied cherries he kept in one of the hallowed vaults, and the jar sat uncapped and half-empty between the two of them. Sousuke had never been keen on confections, but the cherries had a unique flavor that wasn’t half bad. They spat the pits into a handkerchief, and faced out at the city drenched in liquid amber and glittering golds.

“Your tongue’s all red,” Rin jabbed.

“So’s yours.”

The prince stuck his all the way out, and popped another cherry into his mouth with gusto.

A pleasant, glowing calm had settled over them, and Sousuke found it easier than usual to tamp down his pride.

“Thanks for earlier…Rin.”

The prince didn’t respond, and Sousuke thought perhaps he hadn’t heard. Just as he was about to try again, Rin flashed a wide, candy-colored grin in his direction. “You’re welcome.”

“It’s not that big a deal. All in what we do.” The prince sat back in pensive silence, admiring the view. His casual attitude nearly made Sousuke crack into giggles, remembering how frantic the boy had been to get him help. “Tora and I are gonna be the fastest, strongest pair ever, and we’ll protect anyone who needs us. They’ll write stories about us, and cheer for us when we fly over the city."

Sousuke wondered if there was any filter at all between the prince's free-flying thoughts and what left his mouth. Something about him was just unusual, in a way that made Sousuke think the boy didn’t have a firm handle on human interaction. Not that Sousuke was any expert himself. Still, Rin's embarrassed flush was amusing, and it felt good to really laugh for the first time since last winter.

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Samezuka was steeped in twilight when they left the temple. Rin insisted he accompany Sousuke to the slave barracks to make sure he found his way. He chattered animatedly as they passed by hollowed stone lanterns lining the street. Tora followed with her wings tucked, and tail swishing over the ground in a continuous “S.”

This boy was so different from the hateful, vicious image of the royal family that Sousuke clung to. And Tora was friendlier than most dogs he’d met in his life. Sousuke hated to be wrong. Rin was still an enemy. He would always be an enemy, and he was ready to be through with this strange evening.

“You don’t have to walk me back.” Sousuke lengthened his stride, leaving Rin and his dragon behind.

The prince made a hurt noise, and ran to catch up. “I want to, though! After…you know…today. I guess.” Rin’s eyes rested on the bandages peeking out of Sousuke’s shirt.

“I can get there on my own.” Irked, Sousuke shot Rin a scowl and kept walking. He didn’t know what to make of this boy, and the confusion was souring his mood.

“I’m taking you back,” Rin said with authority. “It’s my family’s duty to look out for people, and that’s what I’m gonna do.”

“I said I don’t need it.”

“Too bad!”

Tendrils of ice crawled up Sousuke’s chest. He knew Rin meant nothing by it—the prince was just a guileless dreamer. But his hatred had been festering for too long.

“You didn’t protect us.”

Sousuke paused just outside the nearest lantern’s bloom of firelight. “Monsters attacked our beaches over and over, and where were you? Your family and your dragons did nothing. When Iwatobi came to offer us help, we were ready to take it. And only then, did you think us worth an effort. Because you’d rather have us dead than belonging to someone else.”

This was beyond bold; it was downright insolent. Just because the prince seemed like a nice boy didn't mean he wouldn't snap and have Sousuke killed for speaking like this. Rin hadn't been there, hadn't done anything. His dragon could barely carry his weight.  But he was a Matsuoka, and he deserved to hear it.

“You can say you’ll protect me or whatever, but I wouldn’t be here in the first place if it wasn’t for you.” Jerking his shirt open, Sousuke bared the darkened skin on his scarred shoulder. “I wouldn’t have this.” He swallowed hard, not daring to face the prince behind him. “I could be home."

Rin audibly shrank backward.

“Your family's done enough.” Sousuke squared up to sever this tie for good. “So thanks again, Rin. Please leave me alone.”

After a moment of no answer, he glanced backward.

Rin had stopped walking beside the stone lantern. Light was dripping down his hair, and his eyes were glistening, brimming with tears. The boy’s face was tight, and trembling on the edge of a sob. Sousuke’s ire was replaced with a biting, twisting bolt of regret that shot clean through his gut.

Rin rubbed at his eye with the heel of his palm. “Sousuke, I didn't know you were from, I—”

The prince hiccuped, then broke down. His dragon clicked, and curled around him, pressing her face into his thigh.

Sousuke wished he could ram his head through a wall, dig a hole, and bury himself with the earthworms. He was in the right; he had to be. If anyone had reason to be angry, it was him. Yet here he was, inwardly wringing himself in the middle of the empty street as tears puddled in Rin's hands.

”Hey," he clipped. " What are you crying for?"

”M’m not!" Rin forced a sob back down his throat. “M’m not crying!”

Sousuke coiled into his guilt. Rin’s tears were honest, compassionate, and all his fault. He was spurred into doing something, anything, to make the boy stop. Fumbling with the tie around his waist and already hating himself for it, Sousuke shrugged off his shirt, and pushed it out at arm’s length.

Rin’s wet eyes spun wide.

Stupid. So stupid. What the hell is he supposed to do with a whole shirt? But it was too late to retract it, and Sousuke didn’t have a towel. He didn’t have anything to give Rin but this, and an apology.

Rin took the shirt, and buried his face in the folds. If he wiped his eyes while it covered him, Sousuke pretended not to notice. They walked the rest of the way together in silence.

Stars were peeking through dusky curls of cloud by the time they reached the slave quarters. A young sakura tree marked the end of the road offshoot, nested in a patch of short grass. Its limbs hung down like a willow’s. The ground was a mess of cherries fallen from its branches, dried in the summer heat. This was where they parted, likely never to see each other again in this life. Sousuke would return to the drudge of work, and the prince to his towering palace. He turned to say goodbye, but Rin was too quick.

“Want to meet up again?”

“…Huh?”

Sousuke edged against the tree, but Rin pushed in, refusing to surrender any of Sousuke’s personal space.

“The candied cherries were good, right? You want to try garlic beef tomorrow? It’s my favorite. I’ll tell the cooks to make it.”

“Uh—”

“We can meet here, under this tree. Come after the end-of-day bell; I’ll run over right after my lessons.”

“Um—”

“See you tomorrow, Sousuke!” The prince spun on his heel and skipped down the street with his dragon.

“….Bye.” Sousuke slumped backward, oddly winded.

 

Rin had seemed excited at the promise to meet again, but Sousuke knew better than to expect a royal to go through with it. Whatever. If he happened to walk by the weeping sakura tree on an afternoon stroll, he supposed he could spare a look.

The next day, Rin was waiting exactly where he said he’d be, by himself this time, and cradling an ornate lacquered lunchbox full of sizzling beef. Bouncing on his toes, the prince told Sousuke to sit—which he did, awkwardly—and they ate it together.

Rin was easy to talk with. He told Sousuke about his sister, and his lessons, and wanted to know about Sousuke’s day. There wasn’t much to tell him on that subject, and Sousuke tried to keep the conversation in Rin’s hands as much as possible. If Rin had something to say, it could never wait until he was done chewing, and Sousuke had never known anyone to laugh so often. They sat back to let their food settle, lazily tracing branches that hung like droopy trails of pink raindrops. It was a young tree still—but Rin said it would grow taller than the buildings, and reach over the road one day. Something about it just relaxed them both.

Bouncing to life again, Rin changed Sousuke's bandages—commanding him to turn like this, lift your arms. He was efficient, and aggressively gentle. Sousuke had to remind himself to breathe when honeyed fingers slicked over the exposed wound for the second time. Satisfied with his own dressing work, Rin extracted a set of carving tools from his satchel and sat himself at Sousuke’s back. Humming quietly, he took Sousuke's collar between two fingers, and began to etch into the dark leather.

“What are you writing, Rin?”

“Something.”

“Better not be stupid. I can’t take this off.”

“It’s not!” Rin snapped. His responses were louder than they needed to be. “It’s…a thing to make sure yesterday doesn't happen again.”

The prince’s hand slipped for a second after he said that, but his grip recovered. “With your big mouth, you’re bound to need it.”

Sousuke didn’t know what to say to that. So he chewed on his confusion, and tugged the grass between his fingers.

Rin refused to tell him what was written, but he found out eventually. Overseers along his routes left him alone thereafter.

 

Rin was boisterous, bubbly, and refused to let Sousuke resent him in peace. Apparently two days of companionship meant Sousuke had signed his afternoons away for the foreseeable future. The prince would come as soon as Sousuke finished work, bursting with things to say. Such open presumption grated on Sousuke’s tolerance a little, but the boy was a prince, so what could he expect? He considered turning his back on the whole ordeal—not showing up at the sakura tree. The prince had never commanded him to be there. Would Rin wait for him? Search for him? Be angry that he left?

Sousuke was loath to admit that he actually cared a bit what Rin would do. Though there was no reason to believe this was anything more than a passing distraction for a bored royal.

Every day, the prince brought a new dish from the palace that he was eager to share. He liked beef and pork more than fish, though he’d eat that too if it was spicy enough for him. Rin taught Sousuke to finish all of the meat before the vegetables; it mattered most that you ate quick before it cooled. Samezuka cuisine was oft coated in spicy sauces, sharp herbs, ginger, and chili powders. Sousuke supposed it shouldn’t come as a shock that a nation ruled by fire ate the stuff, too. A lifetime of salted seafood and rice hadn’t prepared him for such heat, but if Rin could take this food, so would he.

They had footraces, jumping contests, and competitions to see who could throw Tora’s leather-skinned cork ball the farthest. She exalted in chasing after the toys and flying them back like a prize, though it didn’t take her long to reduce them to shreds. They stopped to watch glazed bread rolls bake at a street stand Rin liked, just so they could be there first to eat the rolls fresh from the oven (Rin was right; they really did smell like heaven). Then they ran to the park to feed ducks and black swans with the baker's stale leftovers—though the birds scattered when Tora crept too close.

A few days in, Sousuke began to join Rin and Tora on their “patrols” of the city, breaking up scuffles outside the taverns, and guarding shops from thieves. The young dragon possessed a particularly keen nose for the scent of blood, and could lead them to conflicts anywhere nearby. She had been the one to find Sousuke on that first day. Rin’s grand words on the temple rooftop were not without substance.

One week edged into another. Sousuke’s wounds had healed over, and Rin stopped treating his back like finespun lace. Sousuke teased, and Rin returned it as good as he got; they were oddly similar in little ways.

The prince loved to watch sunsets, and had made it a goal to see every single one. Especially on days when the clouds were just so—arranged to catch the last murmurs of light, swimming in hot orange, violet, their edges dipped in gold. They shared candied cherries, when they could get them. Rin stretched an arm out while they lounged in the boughs of a park tree one evening, cupping his hand so it seemed the sun was resting in his open palm.

Each night when they parted, Sousuke’s guilt settled in his stomach like silt in deep water. His family was dead, his home lay in ruins, and here he was, making friends with the enemy. It felt like betrayal strung with disrespect. But Rin was a beam of joy in a lightless place—his energy infectious, electric. Sousuke’s reservations were no match for him. When the sun tipped west in the afternoon, and the bell tolled, he knew where he’d be headed.

 

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A barrage of rain ushered in the first breath of autumn, and drenched Samezuka for a week straight. Work had been a trudge through mud and hellish torrents, but Sousuke appreciated the relief from a recent heat spell. When clouds had wrung themselves dry and retreated over the ocean at last, sunlight found the city painted green. Black star-shaped wildflowers sprung up beside street markets, and lush moss colored the spaces between bricks, and along the gutters. Winds had stripped most of the remaining berries from the sakura tree near Sousuke’s barracks, and the grass around it was littered with freshly sodden leaves when he arrived.

Rin was already there, waiting, as he had been each day for the last five weeks. He was a stain of dazzling red that never quite seemed to belong in earthly palettes. Wherever he stood, whatever he did, or said, was louder, larger—demanding Sousuke’s attention. The prince spotted him approaching, and flared with a grin. He obviously had something planned.

“Sousuke!!” He waved. “Hurry up, you’re late!”

“Late for what?”

Rin poked out his tongue between sharp teeth. “For me. Tora’s got hatchling duty today, but I brought the carriage, and I know this spot along the river we can go.”

“Exciting.” Sousuke tried not to look too interested as he ducked out from under the cascading sakura branches. “What are we doing at the river?”

“I’ve got a boat there, and it’s fun to row it down. There’s this one rock you can see from the water that’s covered in turtles! Also, I bet I can catch more fish than you.”

Sousuke answered with a smirk. If he was honest, he hated fishing. But he was in no mood to lose.

Rin skipped all the way to a drawn carriage down the street. The driver was soft-spoken and courteous, doing her best to fold her presence smaller. She bowed, then pried open the door for the boys to climb through. Sousuke marveled at the luxurious compartment. It was spacious, strewn with wool-stuffed pillows to sit on, and velveteen sheets. There were curtained windows on either side, and ample room to spread out, but Rin was crowded up against him, looking out his window instead. Sousuke wondered if carriages tipped over when all the weight was lumped on one side.

A sharp but indistinct floral scent wafted about Rin’s hair, shimmering at his nape. It was nice, and Sousuke almost leaned in to chase it. Rin was so close—always touching, and present. The intensity of his engagement had been off-putting at first, but Sousuke was getting used to it.

The carriage rolled to a halt, and they were out the door before the driver could dismount. They raced up the footpath, following the bubbling sigh of running water for a while. Trees gave way to a sloped clearing with a sturdy arched limestone bridge over the river. Rin’s surprisingly modest fishing boat was stowed beneath the trees a ways up the bank.

“Aaahh, damn!” Rin moaned.

One glance at the water, and it was clear that they would not be rowing the boat in it. The river surged, flooding the channel, twisting dangerously against a bed of rocks.

“Usually it’s calm this time of year.” Rin mumbled, and shuffled the toe of his shoe in the dirt.

“Oh,” Sousuke acknowledged. “Maybe not after a storm, huh.”

They settled onto the bridge, swinging their legs over the rail as they ate an early dinner. The stone was porous, and still cool with absorbed rain. It wasn’t the most comfortable seat, but they could see both sides of the river, and watch it snake around rock ledges until it warped into a green gorge a ways off. The spot was just exciting enough to quell Rin’s dismay at the boating that wasn’t going to happen.

A passing question hooked in the net of Sousuke’s mind, not for the first time.

“What are you doing with me, Rin?”

“Mm?” Rin chewed through a mouthful. “Eating, moron.”

“I mean why are you doing all of this with me,” Sousuke pushed. “You’re the prince. Aren’t you kind of…wasting your time?”

Rin stung Sousuke with a scowl. “I’m not wasting my time. What are you asking this for?”

Sousuke could sense Rin’s glare needling the side of his face, but he kept his gaze ahead. “It’s just…. if you take me around because you still feel sorry for me or something, you don’t have to.”

“Is that what you think?” Rin’s tone prickled with hurt. His grip twisted the bridge beam when he crowded in. He wasn’t going to let Sousuke look away from him. “I do what I want in the afternoon. It’s my free time.” Warm pink dusted over his cheeks. His fair skin made it show so well. “And I think you’re fun.”

“I’m fun.” Sousuke frowned.

“I helped you when I met you because it was my duty,” Rin conceded. “But I’m here right now because it’s where I wanna be. Okay?”

The admission hovered in the air a moment—heavy, but weightless.

Sousuke let it sink in. “S-so the second I get boring, you’re gone, huh.”

“No!” Rin snapped. “I just like you, alright? That’s all.”

A few loose rocks were piled up against the post between them. Rin took one and tossed it in a halfhearted attempt to make it skip, but it fell short and was lost to the stream. “You hate me, though.”

“I do not!” Sousuke surprised himself with how urgently he wanted Rin to know that.

“I think you do.” Rin reclined against the post, tracing the rapids with strained dispassion. “I can tell sometimes when I look at you. You don’t have to say why. I get it.”

Sousuke’s lips firmed into a hard line.

The silence stretched too long. He thought he should say something to nudge it closed, and perk the smile back on Rin’s sullen face, but every option he came up with sounded flat, and not-quite-enough. Light was fading from Rin with each second he let through his grasp.

“Do you want me to stop coming to the tree?” The prince had been swinging his feet as they dangled over the edge, but they were still now, as he waited for an answer.

“N-no,” Sousuke stammered. “I guess not.”

A pause.

“You guess not?”

Rin slithered down the bridge handrail on the outside with a brittle hiss. He clung to the edge of it, wedging his feet into the gap between bricks. It was a precarious perch, but Rin had been here often; he had to know what he was doing.

“What are you mad for?” Sousuke kneaded the inside of his cheek.

“That answer was crap!”

“I told you no; isn’t that what you wanted to hear?!”

“Ugh!” Grumbling, Rin slumped his weight over the rail, glowering into damp stone. “You just don’t get it.”

Sousuke kept his attention pinned warily on Rin’s foothold. He couldn’t help it. “What don’t I get?”

“Anything! Everything! I’m trying to…I just—!”

Rin lost his thought, and deflated. He looked disappointed, and Sousuke hadn’t expected that to leave him so hollow. Sousuke had stamped on the boy’s feelings. Again. He liked Rin, too; why was this so hard?

Backing away with a heavy sigh, Rin moved a leg out to arch over the rail—

—and slipped. There was a moment of shared wild-eyed terror as the prince’s weight leaned into empty air.

Lunging over the rail, Sousuke made a desperate reach for him, but too late. Water swallowed the prince in a surging gulp.

“RIN!!”

The river was a churning hell below. Sousuke’s gaze raked over it. Water rushed on, cruelly uncaring. Five long seconds he watched, rooted to the rail. He spurred himself down the bridge. “Rin!”

Too long. Rin had been under too long.

Sousuke sprinted along the bank, scanning desperately for a trace of him. Any of several swirls of undertow, and savage jutting rocks could have easily claimed the boy for their own. A sick, wrenching fear was taking a grindstone to Sousuke’s heart.

Then the prince surfaced at last, coughing, flailing. He was trying to right himself to swim, but the current wouldn’t have it, and jerked him below again before he could pull a full breath.

“Rin, wait!” Sousuke darted ahead, tearing his shirt off as he ran. He found a neck where the river narrowed, steeled himself, and leaped.

Water funneled hard through the channel, and Sousuke thought for a manic beat that he might have overestimated his own swimming prowess. When ocean rip tides snared his feet, he knew to let them have their way, and carry him calmly out to sea. But this river was a vengeful serpent that would afford no such mercy, and he could hear the roar of steeper rapids up ahead. Rin exploded to the surface again, gasping, then choking.

With one hand firmed tight on the rock, Sousuke reached out to steal Rin back from the water. Though he’d been prepared, he still struggled from the impact as it knocked him backwards. Rin latched onto him instantly. Sousuke had who he came for, and would not let go.

They could die like this, Sousuke thought, as he stole half a breath. He aimed for the shore just ahead, but with less air and more weight, the current was winning. He shoved off the rock, hauling Rin with him. Water splashed into his eyes, and smothered his face. By now, he’d swallowed half a pool’s worth of it, he was sure. Shore was slipping away. Rin clung on hard, kicking against the force trying to bury them. And Sousuke resolved to do the same. His brain blanked, every sense and drop of focus converging into a singular goal. They fought forward.

 

Sousuke slogged up the shallows onto the muddy riverbank. He had Rin around the waist, hanging limply off his shoulders. Sousuke fell to his knees and lowered him to the grass, craning over him to check his breathing. He stirred, and Sousuke pushed him onto his side. The prince’s body jerked as he emptied his lungs of river water. Sousuke retched, his nose and throat burning. His limbs felt like loose rope after the hard swim to shore.

“Rin…” he croaked. “Rin, are you…”

The prince lay curled in a soaked heap, eyes closed, still raking in breaths as deep as he could take them. One hand opened and closed on the ground in front of his face, relishing the soft soil. Sousuke crouched to watch the boy’s shivering breaths even. A flood of relief warmed him all the way through. Unsteady, he reached out to offer comfort, but hovered his hand just short of Rin’s shoulder, stalled by the realization that his touch might not be welcome. Instead, he wobbled to his feet to retrieve his clothes.

Rin drew a small gasp when the dry shirt was spread over him. For a sickening pitch, Sousuke thought the gesture might have been too much. Then the prince rolled onto his back. Dark maroon bangs clung to his forehead and cheeks, and he wore the strangest expression: gratitude laid bare by wonder, and wet around the edges.

Water still dripped from Sousuke’s jaw, and the tips of his hair. Something unsaid passed between them in that silent maelstrom of emotion, and Rin closed a hand over the shirt to hug it tighter. Sousuke settled cross-legged onto the grass beside the dragon prince, too spent to think of anything to say. He’d rescued an enemy, though the knowledge didn’t bother him as much as he thought it would have. Or at all. Truthfully, he couldn’t imagine a universe in which he didn’t jump in after Rin.

Then Rin laughed.

The sound was jarring; Sousuke didn’t know if he should be relieved, or worried that the prince had hit his head, or swallowed too much water, or—

“What the hell?” Sousuke croaked. “Something funny?”

Rin pushed himself up. “You gave me your shirt again.”

“Oh.” Sousuke was grateful that the river water still chilled him enough to keep his cheeks from heating. “Whatever, you don’t have to use it.”

Rin huffed another hoarse chuckle.

“What else am I supposed to give you?” Sousuke wished that didn’t sound so pathetic as he said it. “You could’ve drowned.”

The prince went quiet. He edged in, until they were shoulder-to-shoulder. Sousuke turned outward, afraid that too much would be bared if Rin looked at him so close.

“Thank you, Sousuke.” Rin whispered. “Thank you.”

The water’s roar was distant in defeat.

“Sure.” Sousuke relaxed in the grass next to Rin, blocking the misting breeze. He felt some fated part of himself slot into place.

 

They met at the sakura tree the following day, like always. They ate, like always. Petals still dotted the ground, sticky with seeds and smears of cherry skin. It might’ve been any other day in the last month. Only it wasn’t. Rin was stealing glances when he thought they’d go unnoticed, and his searching stare had Sousuke hooking a shy finger under his collar. The mindless fidgeting was becoming a habit. Rin looked alright, and he didn’t bring up their trip to the river. But there had been a sure shift in their tectonics since.

Sousuke thought it might be a welcome change. He relaxed against the tree base. “I’ll meet you here. Every day, until you don’t want me to anymore.”

The prince snickered, but looked Sousuke straight in the eyes. “What if I want you to forever?”

Figures he would say something bratty like that.

“Nobody lives forever, stupid.” Grinning through a sigh, Sousuke wondered how long this would last.

 

_____________________________

 

Samezuka palace was its own ancient, cavernous world. Vast halls were plated with marble tiles from every reach of the empire, the larger chambers illustrated with rich mosaics, frescoes, and dripping in ornamentation. Everything in it screamed beautiful, wild, dangerous, like the Matsuoka dynasty it was raised for. Lower corridors saw a constant flow of servants, soldiers, craftsmen, and officials that stopped to move aside for the prince as he passed, though Sousuke wished they would keep their prying glances to themselves.

Rin showed him a hall filled with tusks, fangs, and the hulking skulls of giants that his ancestors had felled in one battle or another—all mounted as macabre trophies. Most of them were marred with scorch marks. Giggling, he sped them through other arched passages, swerving around servants with baskets of laundry and bushels of grain for the storehouse. It was an overwhelming vortex of unfamiliar sights, and Sousuke gripped the prince's hand to anchor himself to something safe.

The courtyard garden was like a messily orchestrated painting, loudly saturated with brushed blooms of color. A fresh lawn sprawled over most of it, rimmed by ginkgoes, smoketree bushes, maples, bamboo, and mountain sakura. Shaded walking trails wove between the trees, and stitched over the mellow stream. Part of the grounds were left unaltered where the floor rose up with the red rock beneath.

Rin skipped them out onto the sunny grass. One of the imperial armorers materialized beside them with two bokken, as Rin had ordered. Sousuke turned his over a couple of times, trying not to appear as eager as he felt. White oak wood—light, flexible, well-made.

“You liked this, right?” Rin beamed.

Sousuke lifted with a smile, and hardened his grip on the handle. “I live for it.”

The prince bit over a grin of his own, then squared up. His stance was springier than Sousuke’s, and more narrow.

“Showdown, then! Ten hits, nothing below the hips.”

“You’re on.”

They fenced back and forth, their movements heating up with each round. Sousuke had to claw for his languishing flexibility back, while Rin, annoyingly, seemed to have it in spades. The boy was unusually coordinated, with reflexes like a reptile's. He was aggressive, too; better at lunging than blocking. Samezuka's elites learned a style of combat completely unlike the one Sousuke had brought with him. Fighting Rin was invigorating, like that first full breath of the outside in the morning. Sousuke lost track of how many matches they had; there was always just one more.

Clack, clack, swish, the prince was laughing between hard breaths, and Sousuke was, too. Thwack, click.

And Rin was putting on a show for him: jumping, twirling, thrusting the blade, his whole body wrapped up in motion. He struck out like a snake between jabs. Bruises purpled Sousuke’s knuckles, and up his arm—a soreness that made him feel exalted, alive.

He could show off, too. Sousuke faced away, leaving his back unguarded. As expected, Rin took the easy bait and rushed forward with most of his weight. The rustle of his steps in the grass painted an image of him, arm outstretched, mid-attack.

Step. Spin. Pull. Rin was flush against Sousuke’s front, with Sousuke’s oak sword at the back of his neck.

“Got you,” Sousuke crowed.

The prince rose and shook himself off, excitement mounting. “Shit! You really can do it, that blind thing!”

Sousuke twirled the sword and caught it, smug that he could still pull it off with ease. “Did you think I was lying?”

“No!” Rin snapped. “It’s just hard to believe until you see it, I guess.”

He could tell Rin barely believed him as it was. Sirens killed with their eyes. All they needed was one look, and they could hook their prey—steal the life from you in terrible blue. So future soldiers simply learned to fight them without looking.

Kids in the capital had no need for such skills. Sirens had not dared venture south along this coast for centuries. The monsters might as well have been a storybook fantasy to Rin, barely clinging to the fringe of his reality. Rin might live his whole life without ever sparing a worry about them.

“How can you tell where I am?”

Sousuke couldn’t vocalize this in any way that made sense. “You’re noisy as hell. Anyone could find you.”

“I’m not!” Rin leaned in too close, and Sousuke tripped backward over his own heels. The prince snapped forward to steady him, and curled a wry smirk. “Is that why your ears stick out? Because your hearing is so good?”

“My—!?” Sousuke clapped a hand over one automatically. “They don’t stick out that much.”

Rin’s laughter sparkled as he took off running. “Teach me!!” he called over his shoulder. “So cool, Sousuke, teach me how to do it!”

“Sure…if you’ll actually listen.” Sousuke doubted Rin had the patience for it. He huffed a sigh and sprinted to catch up, snickering as he chased the boy across the lawn.

 

_____________________________

 

Sousuke found that he often thought about the prince now, when he was alone. Rin’s voice colored the grey where he spent all day buried in his own head. He replayed their conversations, smiled when he remembered Rin had thought something funny. It was so easy to make the boy laugh. He took over mindlessly laying out fresh mortar, visions drifting to Rin in his lessons. What was he reading about today? Did Rin ever think about him?

Not likely.

 

_____________________________

 

The capital’s holidays meant nothing much to Sousuke. These gods were not his, and the hymns people sang for them were little more than lulls of sweet-sounding noise, bleeding into the din of busy avenues. Holidays did, however, grant him a few blessed days of freedom. Sleeping in after sunrise sounded nothing short of blissful, but Sousuke had promised his time off to the prince. Rin was taking him into Samezuka Valley today—ancestral nesting grounds of the dragons—and Sousuke still wasn’t sure if he was ready for it.

The yard was empty, and the sakura tree bare. Sky and city were one heathery purple before the first light cracked over the mountains. Sousuke scuffled his heel, feeling cold and cast adrift.

“Soooouusukeee!!!”

Rin was barreling down the street, hanging out of his carriage with a flourish—so far sideways Sousuke feared he might fall. He shone like daybreak on wheels, and the yard brightened with a bit more color. “Get in, get in!”

Sousuke walked, then jogged, and wasn’t even ashamed to be running through the door Rin held open for him.

The prince gave the driver his signal, and settled in next to Sousuke. “You excited?”

“Eh.”

Rin kicked him in the shin.

The ride to the palace wall was smooth, but Rin was vibrating in his seat like hummingbird wingbeats. The driver let them off just beneath the north entrance. She’d been asked to leave them here, where they were usually dropped off for climbing. Though today’s true destination was a secret. They waved to her, and skirted under the portcullis.

The Valley lay ahead.

A looming wooden gateway guarded the trail. It stood at least five meters tall, legs stubbornly wide, marking the line between this world and the wild. Crimson paint was sun-bleached and shelling off, the strong bases dipped in felty moss, bright lichens, and black lilies. Vegetation was carefully pruned where the boys stood, but exploded unkempt just beyond the gate. Sousuke sensed a savage energy bristling about this place.

Bringing Sousuke into the Valley was forbidden. Rin had been upfront about that, at least. Humans without Matsuoka blood were not to pass through this entrance unless they were bound into the family (which Sousuke absolutely was not). To tread this sacred ground without Rin would be deadly. Despite that, the prince had danced around tradition to bring him, because he wanted to.

The dragons knew Sousuke was coming today; there should be no surprises—but his pulse still hammered hard enough to hear in his ears.

“Sousuke?”

Slipping back into himself, Sousuke noticed he’d frozen beneath the gate. Rin was craning in, inquiring with gentle silence if he wanted to continue. He’d taken Sousuke’s hand at some point, though his was trembling a little, and clammy. The excitement on Rin’s face was suspended, like the quiet note of a song before a building crescendo. This trip was special to him, but if Sousuke wanted, the prince would drop it all at a word.

Dousing that light wasn’t something Sousuke thought he’d ever want to do again. He bulled through the gate with a low growl. The prince followed, laughing, and that sound was like an early reward to Sousuke somehow.

“Wait!” Suddenly frantic, Rin swooped in front of him.

Sousuke’s swell of confidence met a wall. “What for?”

“No, it’s nothing. Just, you gotta let me go first.” The prince grinned again. “I have to be the one to lead you. If the dragons see you pulling me, they might get the wrong idea.”

What would they do with a wrong idea?

He couldn’t decide if he wanted to hear the answer. Sousuke stiffened again, but Rin edged closer with an enveloping assurance. “It’s fine! Just stay close to me.”

“I…”

“You’re my guest,” Rin motioned to their locked hands, and his features softened. “Nothing here will hurt you. I promise.”

Those words alone felt like a blanket of comfort and an iron shield at once.

“Unless you do something really stupid,” the prince teased.

“Shut up.”

Rin bit over his smile, igniting, and swept Sousuke into his world.

They advanced for the better part of an hour, dashing over grass patches, and pushing aside curtains of leafy vines. The downhill path was thin, and the loam mossy underfoot, as it saw so little traffic. Vitality was humming in the atmosphere, and Sousuke let himself embrace it. Canna grew in black-fronded clusters along the way, shooting for the treetops like shrine candles. Plants here were enormous. Flowers and ferns grew as tall as small trees, fanning out in colorful eruptions. Some of them had rows of thorny teeth on hinged jaws that snapped shut when insects happened upon them. One fanged shrub had a mouth large enough to swallow Sousuke’s whole arm. “Keep away from those,” went without saying.

As usual, Rin knew where to go. Sousuke placed every ounce of his trust in the prince, certain that he’d be lost in the off-trail tangle forever if Rin wasn’t leading him. The boys skirted beneath a meadow of giant taro, giggling in the green glow of sunlight filtered through the sturdy leaves. It was almost its own forest—bright and musical as they drummed hollow tunes against the thick stems.

Rin moved through this place much the same way that he skipped around the city streets, going where he pleased like all of it was a playground laid out for him to explore. When there was a rock to mount, he climbed it. Any tree with low branches was an irresistible invitation. Rin liked high places, Sousuke confirmed. He thrived on the challenge of ascent, and the breathless rush of standing at the summit, drinking in an expanse that he’d conquered. Sousuke hadn’t been one to chase heights for the sake of it, but sharing the experience with Rin felt profoundly right.

Every so often, he could sense the flutter of Rin’s gaze on the side of his face, or on his back as they moved. He paid it little mind at first, but the prince had been at it for weeks, and Sousuke was starting to wonder if something was amiss. There was no question that the river incident had brought them closer, but perhaps it had made things uncomfortable on Rin’s end. Sousuke caught him again, and the prince snapped away.

He could get his answer later.

 

Jungle had cleared away into overgrown underbrush, more stalks of taro, and then lush grass sloping into the low riverbank. The water flowed tame and shallow here so the hatchlings could safely catch salmon, catfish, and eel. The “grove” Rin spoke of before was actually only a single tree: a fig, with tall, knotting trunks whose branches spilled from the sturdy upper limbs like ossified waterfalls. Or cooked noodles. Sousuke was getting hungry. The tree’s exposed roots pooled at the base, and crawled across the ground, forming perfect tangles for napping in, or climbing over. Twisting, vinelike branches made a netted canopy, shading the place, and layering the ground with leaves.

Tora met them here at the mouth of the trail, radiant and with a whole lot to say. Though today, she wasn’t alone. Rin had warned the other dragons he’d be bringing a human friend with him, and they had flocked to the clearing to see the visitor for themselves.

“Oooh!” Rin cooed, and he skipped into the sunlight as they swarmed around his legs. They made little clicks, and croaks, and excited puffs, asking him for permission to investigate. Sousuke straightened his back and held his breath as half a dozen baby dragons crowded in to gather his scent. If he clung to Rin’s shirt, it was purely to keep his balance.

He marveled at these comparatively tiny creatures, having known only the colossal beasts that he saw gliding above the city sometimes. Even dragons had to start small, it seemed. Some of these had wings, some did not—instead moving along the ground like giant salamanders. Others had fins dividing down their backs, spotted patterns, or extra rows of teeth. There had to be a dozen different breeds. Sousuke laughed when one of them leaned off a branch, and tickled warm air beneath his chin.

The grove was a sort of day care for the dragons of Samezuka Valley. It was guarded by the adults, and kept clear of any danger. This early kinship of species was important, Rin said. So that as they grew, bonds kept clans from warring with one another. They helped each other, worked together in their dominion. To illustrate, Rin pointed out a small dragon that perched on a branch close by. Even full-grown, these were barely the size of hawks. They baited giant boars by imitating bird calls. The diminutive tricksters led hungry boars out of the forest into open areas, where winged giants waited to make the kills for everyone.

“That’s….” Sousuke trailed, “that’s pretty smart.”

Rin grinned wide, baring most of his sharp teeth, and a few of the baby dragons bared their own in admiring imitation. Sousuke chuckled at a thought he chose not to voice.

 

There was another important stop to make. Further up the river, Rin scurried along an offshoot that elevated slightly, leading to a stream-fed pool. The water was dark and deep in the center, tapering off to saturated blue shallows and a small bank of fine grey sand. Two shapes sped through the water. Sousuke thought they must have been fish, but at Tora’s call, they both surfaced. Only their eyes and nose bobbed above water, fixing on Sousuke for a full ten seconds before they resumed their play.

He gaped. “Those are…”

“Baby Toras! Haha!” Rin shouted, a nudge too close to his ear. “Her kind start out in the water.”

Sousuke moved nearer to them, attempting to make himself less imposing. The hatchlings swam up to the side like giant carp. One of them was white with vibrant green eyes, the other a deep purple with black stripes down her back.

Something moved in the rocky shadows nearby. At first glance, Sousuke saw only a dark mass—folds of muscle uncoiling and converging into the form of a dragon that was half again the size of Tora. It must have been the same breed—all sleek lines, and a powerful build. Its scales shone like polished obsidian with a greenish iridescent sheen, slashed by gill-shaped silver patterns down its sides. An aura of untamable intensity pulsed in the space around it. For the first time since he’d come here, Sousuke was afraid. He stilled where he was.

“Tamo~!” Rin sang, unaffected. He bounded up to the creature and tickled the thick of its tail. “Get up, lazy, I have someone I want you meet. This is Sousuke!”

The dragon set its gaze on Sousuke, locking on like a snake to its prey. Sousuke got the feeling he was being tested by the beast; it was daring him to shrink away. A racing pulse was throttling his composure. He stamped out his own survival instinct in favor of trusting the prince, and edged forward, arms at his sides. It was just barely satisfactory. A low growl rumbled from the black dragon’s core, not so much aggressive as it was defiant—a vocal eye-roll at having to put up with a new guy.

“Aw Tamotsu, be nice,” Rin scolded. He hopped up to stand beside Sousuke, and the tension dispersed. “He’s acting tough because he’s baby-sitting.”

The two energetic hatchlings swam in circles, scrambled onto a wet rock, then slipped back into the pond. They did it again, and again in amphibious loops. Their limbs were tiny, clumsy, and wings barely visible as they propelled through the water with their tails flicking side-to-side.

Fuck. So cute…

Rin giggled as if Sousuke had said that aloud.

They spent what remained of the day swimming in the pond. The babies zipped around, nudging at Sousuke’s legs underwater, and doing laps around the pond. He had gone rigid anticipating a bite from below, but the babies only wanted to play, and their skin was smooth as it slipped over his shins. From snout to tip they were barely longer than river otters, and every bit as energetic. He tried to imagine Rin coming here, eight years old, finding the nervy little red one that would follow him for the rest of his life.

Sousuke traced the sandbank back to the louring black dragon, who had accepted his inescapable fate as Tora’s sunning mat. Wings tucked, he curled around her like an ebony moon. Sousuke felt an odd spark of connection with him for a moment, but the beast snarled, and growled again, just to make sure he knew where they stood. It was less fearsome this time, though. Sousuke looked pointedly at the hatchlings, then back to the black dragon, and raised an eyebrow, projecting, “You were an overgrown tadpole, too.”

Success. The dragon glowered, and grumbled. Angry steam issued from its slitted nostrils, and Sousuke thought of a pissed-off tomcat.

“That guy sucks.” Sousuke couldn’t help but laugh as he said it.

“Mmm. He’s kind of a loner, that’s all.” Rin was treading water close enough that Sousuke could feel his choppy breaths ghosting over the surface of the pond. “He has a good heart.”

“…What?” Rin curved a smug smile to have caught Sousuke staring at him.

Sousuke splashed water in his direction, and popped under so the prince couldn’t get him back.

 

Rin had a house a little ways uphill from the river. It was a cozy outpost cottage that sat snug in a rock bed overlooking the grove and the green sea beyond. Downy moss splashed the outside, thick where rainwater collected in the drain, and along the gutter. A crisp stream trickled down from the verdant slope above, and Sousuke refilled their water skins when they crossed over it. He drank deeply, welcoming the rush of cold that washed through him, and filled his own again.

The inside of the cottage was surprisingly simple for housing royalty, until Sousuke remembered that royalty had to have built it for it to exist here. A stove in the corner, some woven chairs, and two large beds. It looked tidy, but lived-in, with a few personal touches.

“My parents fixed it up before I was born,” Rin supplied. “They’d live out here for days, when they wanted some time for themselves.” He dropped his bag beside the bed nearest the door, and flopped backward onto it. “Mom still comes here every now and then, and she keeps it up.”

Sousuke gently set his own borrowed pack against the footboard. He joined Rin on the bed, staring up at the rafters with his legs hanging off the same side. “You don’t help her, huh?”

“She’d rather come alone.”

The prince rarely spoke of his mother. ‘She stayed in her chamber,’ was all Sousuke had heard him say of her, and he didn’t feel like darkening the atmosphere to delve any deeper. If Rin wanted to tell him about it someday, he’d listen.

“Her loss, then.” Sousuke folded his arms, and shut his eyes.

 

Tora caught them dinner, and started the cook fire outside. Catfish with beets, and fresh bread with honey that Rin had brought from home. When the fire was ready, they stuffed the fish with herbs, and roasted them over the spit. They played three hands of morra for who got the larger of the two steaks, and Rin won it with a triumphant cheer. Though he ended up giving Sousuke what he couldn’t finish, anyway.

Sousuke explored the area while Rin put things away inside. He swore not to go far, but caught a thin beaten trail that wound out of sight around one side of the rock shelf. Curious, he followed it. After the turn, a short way down the ledge, was a small, polished stone slab half tucked away beneath a hollow overhang. It stood proudly surveying the pond where the babies played, and part of the grove. Grass rimmed the foot of it, with bursts of orange fire lilies and tiny white flowers.

Sousuke instantly got the feeling that he’d stumbled upon something he shouldn’t have seen, but a beckoning sensation kept him from turning back. There was a plaque carved into the front—the lettering new and exceptionally sharp. He crouched down to read, but paused. Rin’s footsteps were coming up the path.

“That’s my dad’s grave.” The prince approached slowly.

Sousuke froze. “Ah. I…Sorry, I’ll just—”

“No, it’s ok.” A fond expression lifted Rin’s lips, and he ushered Sousuke down to the plaque. They crouched there together. “Well, I mean his ashes aren’t even here. This is just a thing we made.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know he died.” Sousuke swallowed thickly. “I thought your father was…you know…”

“My Uncle Akira is the Emperor.” Rin brushed some loose dirt from the stone words with care. “He’s our mom’s younger brother.”

“Oh…”

In the calm spell of respectful silence, Sousuke finally glanced at the plaque.

 

Matsuoka Toraichi

Wait for me, my love. Our story is only beginning.

 

He snapped away. The rest of the message was not for him to read. Though Sousuke caught the date of the man’s death before shying back. Almost five years ago.

A few impatient clicks sounded from behind them, where Tora peered down the trail to look for them. Satisfied, she blinked wide, huffed, then disappeared the way she’d come.

“We should get back. Gonna be dark soon.” Rin helped Sousuke to his feet. The glow in his face, and skip in his step told Sousuke that his grief was something to be left here, in this hollow. The two of them shuffled back to the cabin.

 

Night settled upon the Valley first. The Sun bathed the wilderness in a shrinking wall of fiery hues before sinking below a jagged horizon. Samezuka Palace was the only visible beacon of civilization—tall and proud as a giant shark fin out of water. It was built into the rock, exposed on both sides—a link between two worlds. From the city side, Sousuke had always found the overshadowing silhouette of it threatening. But from the wild, it looked something like reassurance.

Light and warmth from the fire had drawn a cloud of insects, which in turn attracted a camp of bats. Colossal moths fluttered over from somewhere in the trees, their pale wings spanning as wide as a petrel’s. No bug had any business being that big.

A creature streaked across the sky like the shadow of a loosed arrow. It landed on the rock outcrop just above the boys’ spot. Drawn up with wings folded, it was a dragon about the size of a bobcat. A pair of glowing, owlish eyes blinked down at Sousuke like golden moons. He was locked in their spell for a moment, until Rin leaned in close.

“These ones like to eat bugs and rats. Little stuff. They’re pretty shy, and only come out at night.”

Rin made a clipped chirping sound at the dragon, and it answered with a throaty warble. Its attention returned to the crumpled moth, crunching the wings like feathery dried seaweed. The tiny dragon’s mate joined him, and together they cleared the air of the remaining pests.

A light drizzle drove Rin and Sousuke giggling inside the cabin, the droplets barely dense enough to make a sound on the porch. The boys washed up and changed. Rin smoothed out his blankets, and faceplanted onto them, exhausted. Sousuke climbed in with a satisfying yawn.

The prince looked scandalized. “What…what are you doing?”

“Uuh. Going to bed?” Sousuke leveled Rin a puzzled frown.

“This is my bed.”

“It’s for more than one person.”

“Well yeah, but…”

Sousuke raked his brain. He’d always thought that if a bed was large enough, it was obvious you shared it. Body heat in the cold seasons was precious, and parents kept their children close at night for their safety. It hadn’t occurred to him that Rin might have had a different childhood experience. The prince’s private chamber was nearly as big as Sousuke’s whole house had been, his bed massive and luxurious. Tactile as he was during the day, perhaps he was just used to having a mattress to himself.

“Oh. Sorry.” Sousuke retreated, and pulled back the sheets on the opposite bed. “I didn’t realize…I mean, I’ll be over here.”

“Wait.” Rin scooted over to leave space, a little shy. “We can share if you want to.”

“No, it’s fine.” Sousuke didn’t want to make Rin any more uncomfortable than he already was. He’d have to learn Samezuka customs one at a time.

 

They left the sliding door to the porch open so Tora could come and go as she pleased. She was curled up on the mat next to Rin’s bed—awake, but content to be there, watching the misty curtain of rain outside. Rin was restless under his blankets, rustling the straw in his mattress. After a spell of wired, motionless silence, he threw them back, and stormed across the floormats. Sousuke thought he might be stepping outside to use the bushes next to the house. Until he stopped short, and snapped back Sousuke’s covers.

“Rin, what—!”

“Go to sleep.” Rin climbed in with a huff, and made himself comfortable.

“I told you it’s fine.” Sousuke said, toneless. “It’s not like I can’t sleep alone; if it’s weird to you—”

“It’s not weird.” Rin shifted over to stare at him in the dark. The bed was easily large enough for two adults, and a fair distance sprawled between them. Still, the boy was squirmy.

“It obviously is. Go back.”

“No. I’m not moving,” Rin pouted. “You can’t make me.”

“I can’t believe you’re being like this.”

“I’m sleeping in your bed. You wanted to share, so we’re sharing!”

“Fine!”

“Fine!”

They rolled over, backs to the other. Quiet pulled tight as harp strings. It was a fight, Sousuke supposed—though it didn’t feel like one with any real teeth.

Rin kicked his legs under the covers, tenting them annoyingly. Once. Twice.

“Oi! Stop that! Rin!”

Blankets churned with giddy motion, and they were both laughing when Rin stopped thrashing, legs pinned together by Sousuke’s longer ones. Undefinable happiness was warmly encased under the sheets. Tora got up, walked three steps, and balled herself back up at the foot of Rin’s new chosen sleeping place.

The prince went still, like he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, but had committed to saying something. When he spoke, his voice was feathery. “G…Goodnight.”

“‘Night,” Sousuke breathed.

 

It might have been ten minutes or a whole hour, Sousuke could not say. He floated in that pleasant cloud halfway between sleep and wakefulness, aware that he could end his night any second he pleased.

“Sousuke,” Rin whispered. “Are you sleeping?”

He wasn’t. But the energy to talk was already sinking too deep to dredge up. Rin paused.

Crickets and lively frogs chorused in the shrubs outside.

Sousuke was sure Rin had given up and dropped off.

The mattress rustled, and he felt a touch on his cheek. It was the prince’s knuckle, trailing a tiny, shaky spiral over Sousuke's jaw. The contact was so soft—barely grazing his skin; it tickled. Rin’s face was close to his now. He could hear the boy breathing nervously through his nose. Rin traced Sousuke’s cheekbone, under his chin, and stopped there. Then a fingertip ghosted over his bottom lip, gentle as a butterfly kiss. He twitched.

The prince snapped away. Sousuke could feel eyes locked on him, making sure he was still asleep. Relieved, Rin curled up and expelled a hard breath into his pillow.

Sousuke rolled onto his side, intensely awake, and scrambling for what to make of that.

 

It took Sousuke a few stuttering seconds in the black behind his eyelids to remember that he was not in his bunk. No morning bell chimed to rouse him, no frantic rattling of the boy above him heaving out of bed. The air he breathed was clear and cool. There was a sheen of dew on his skin. And warm, breathy snores in his face.

Rin filled his vision. The prince must have moved his way during the remainder of the night, and stilled here, with his nose just inches from Sousuke’s, one leg over Sousuke’s knees, and arms trapped in the sheet. Sousuke swallowed a laugh, if only to let the boy sleep a little longer. Rin’s mouth hung open, with a dried trail of drool streaking down his chin. He was close enough for Sousuke to see every twitch of his eyes as he dreamed. There was a tiny birth mark near his ear that was usually hidden by wine-red bangs. Sousuke warmed with the realization that Rin was handsome—devastating in a delicate way. He couldn’t fathom how he’d missed it before.

The sky outside brightened with a honey-hued dawn, though it hadn’t reached the cabin just yet. Tora’s spot on the floor was empty; she was probably hunting. Unfamiliar morning bird songs echoed back and forth across the still valley—musical trills, then throaty caws. It shouldn’t have been so calming, but Sousuke found that he was completely at peace just to lay here with Rin for as long as time let him.

 

The hike back up was much slower than their dash down had been the day before. Sousuke enjoyed the easy pace—or he simply enjoyed spending longer with Rin.

“I’m glad you came with me, Sou.” The prince was in an unbound, airy mood.

“Oh, I’m just ‘Sou’ to you now?”

“Mm. When I feel like it.”

Rin said that in a way that invited some kind of retaliation, but Sousuke didn’t really mind, if he was honest. No friend had ever been close enough to him to shorten his name, and the sound of it now curled a strange, but welcome, sensation in his chest.

Rin dropped his pack, and scrambled up a tall slab of sandstone. Sousuke followed, making sure to keep a hard enough grip on the rock to catch the prince if he slipped. But he made it, heaving one leg over the ledge, and the other, then reaching backward to help Sousuke up. Rin closed his eyes to the sweeping view, and laughed loud. He lived for that full breath at the top. Sousuke saw now why Rin seemed too big for this world—too explosively passionate. He thought it could be enough just to exist in Rin’s afterglow.

It could be a whole life.

 

 

 

_____________________________

 

Two years unfurled in a blur of sweat, sun, and Rin. They played less, and sparred more. Sousuke’s voice cracked, and deepened. They were both shooting up in height, Sousuke more than Rin—to the prince’s biting annoyance. Though Tora was growing faster than both of them.

Eventually, Rin’s little sister had caught on to his outings, and followed him one afternoon. Gou Matsuoka was a firecracker wrapped in carnations, tied neatly with silk ribbon. She had a round face, a smart tongue, and far more questions than Sousuke wanted to answer. The princess pried his life open, but seemed to like what she found, and closed her introduction with a girlish giggle, and a wink.

Her dragon was Yuudai, one of the flightless breeds Sousuke had seen in the Grove. Though a year younger than Tora, he was already the size of a small whale, golden scales glittering with each shift of his thick-bellied bulk. He was easily big enough for Gou to ride, which Rin noted with a hint of envy and a beam of obvious pride.

Gou followed them around some days, and it was never any trouble to include her, even if Rin was slightly put-off at having to share attention. Sousuke’s heart was destined to be forever torn in two by the Matsuokas.

Each day, Sousuke’s fury-forged vows of revenge were edged further to his periphery, crowded out by an irrepressible fondness for the dragon prince. He never told Rin. Despite their closeness, Sousuke knew his place; he was a slave, and Rin the future Emperor. Someday Rin would be crowned, and ruling Samezuka would keep him from the sakura tree every afternoon. Sousuke was a fleeting piece of Rin’s childhood in the long, illustrious tale of his life to come. So he made the most of their every moment together. What they had was too precious to risk with a brash confession.

Sousuke won this match. Rin masked his tiredness in theatrics, and sprawled out on the lawn to pout about it. Their contests may have escalated in strength and technique, but the spirit of their play remained a warm constant.

Uuugghh.” The prince moaned into his sleeve. “You keep getting lucky today.”

“‘Luck’ my ass. You’re always twisting around doing fancy stuff,” Sousuke tossed the bokken aside, and joined Rin on the ground. “No need for it. There’s nobody here to impress.”

The prince puffed out his rosy cheeks. Cicadas were chirring in the treetops across the yard. Autumn whispered through the courtyard—a quiet, chilly bliss after the rigor of practice.

“Glad you’re not letting me win ‘cause it’s my birthday, though,” Sousuke teased.

Rin rolled his eyes, huffing a strand of hair out of his teeth. “As if you’re not the one who goes easy on me all the fucking time.”

“That’s very true.”

The swift knee to the ass Sousuke got for that was uniquely satisfying. It wasn’t that the prince was an unskilled opponent; much the opposite. It’s was only that—

“You never hit me hard enough, asshole.” Rin clipped. “I won’t break.”

“Mmm but you might. Just a bit.” Sousuke rolled over and flopped on top of the prince. Pinned beneath his weight, Rin wheezed and sputtered. Sousuke got comfortable. He slid down to rest his head on Rin’s stomach, and gaze up at him from there. “Wouldn’t want to make you cry.”

Rin’s brow tightened in a shallow scowl. “Off.”

“Too tired to move,” Sousuke groaned.

“I’m the prince, not your pillow!”

“Expensive pillow.”

Rin lay back and let the moment simmer. Sousuke could feel the steady rise of each breath, and the flex of Rin’s muscles under his ear. The prince reached down to ruffle the top of Sousuke’s hair, jokingly reeling his hand back as if it had been burned. Sousuke snickered. Rin was always amused by the heat of his dark hair in the sun.

Then Rin let his arm fall over Sousuke’s chest. The gesture was familiar, protective—almost possessive, sending a pleasant bloom of affection through Sousuke’s core. He wondered what Rin would do if he placed his own hand on top. His fingers twitched with an urge to do so, that he forced underground.

“What do you want?” Rin’s question sounded softer than he’d probably intended. “I said I’d do anything if you got best of fifteen today.”

Anything.

There was nothing more dangerous than ’anything.’ A request had been sitting on Sousuke’s tongue for a long time—like a sweet rock candy that just wouldn’t melt.

He loved Rin.

“I dunno,” Sousuke lied with a lazy drawl.

“Seriously?! You’re fifteen now! Ask me for something!” Rin paused, and kneaded his tongue against his cheek. His gaze melted over Sousuke’s face, trailing down to rest at his smirking mouth. “And ask for something good. If you waste this, I’ll be pissed.”

Just being with you is more than enough.

“You already brought me breaded pork. Give me some time to think about it.”

“Aaahhh! Whatever. Just don’t take too long.” Rin suddenly ignited with intent. “Promise you’ll think of something, Sou.”

“Sure. I promise.”

He knew Rin would hold him to that.

 

They made more trips to the grove, careful that no one followed them or saw them leave. The looming fear of “forbidden” figured less and less into their lives the nearer Rin drew to his birthright. Each time Sousuke visited, the hatchlings were a little bigger. The two babies in the pond were scurrying around on land now, chasing each other on longer, quicker legs. Tamo had miraculously warmed up to Sousuke—or at least tolerated him for Rin’s sake. It was a step in the right direction.

 

The two boys sat comfortably close together on a sun-baked rock one evening, reclining against Tora’s side, and watching early stars from between towers of stone. They weren’t far from the cabin, and Rin liked this spot more than most others. The whole valley had been underwater many ages ago, he said. All dragons were once kings of the sea. As it receded, they took to land, and then some to the sky. The water-sculpted green limestone formations in the distance remained nesting pillars for many of the winged giants. Sousuke could see some of them now, circling the area before settling in with their mates for the night.

Rin’s head fell onto Sousuke’s shoulder, and rested there. “See that big rock out in the middle?”

“There are a lot of big rocks.”

Rin scooted in and lined his arm up with Sousuke’s field of vision. His face was so near, their cheeks brushed, and Sousuke’s breath stuttered.

“There. The tallest one across the water, under the red star.”

“Hm. Looks like an enormous grass cake.”

Rin scoffed. “You have no imagination.”

“You’ve got more than enough for both of us.” Sousuke curled a half-smile. “What about it?”

“When we’re older, and Tora can fly us together, let’s go there. It’s the center of the Valley, and we can watch the sunset from the top. It’ll be nice.” Rin relaxed completely and closed his eyes, letting his hand drop into Sousuke’s lap.

“….Yeah. Yeah, okay.”

Sousuke thought he heard something then—the muted beat of enormous wings behind them. But with Rin dozing peacefully, his head heavy on Sousuke’s shoulder, nothing short of the earth collapsing could have forced him to move.

 

_____________________________

 

It was high summer again. And this year, Rin had persuaded Sousuke to join him in the Fire Festival celebrations. Sousuke had only heard the Festival in distant cracks and booms from the barracks, and he was more excited about seeing it up close than he was willing to admit.

The workday ended early, since Samezuka’s streets needed to be cleared for the celebration, and Sousuke found himself alone while Rin was busy with preparations. He’d already bathed, and rubbed scented oil on his skin. There wasn’t much to be done with his hair, though he suddenly felt a stab of inadequacy. Rin would be dressed in brilliant finery, and Sousuke was…well…this. He brushed his fringe to the side, but it was stubborn and coarse, and refused to stay where he put it. Blowing out his cheeks, he collapsed onto his back to wait.

He didn’t remember falling asleep, but he woke slowly to the touch of Rin’s fingers on his cheeks, cool on his heated skin. The prince was sitting beside him in the grass, smiling down with a pretty mix of affection and humor. His chest tightened with longing.

“Get up, Sou.”

It was dark out, and had been for a while, by the look of it.

“Did you just get here?” Sousuke stretched the stiffness out of his back, frowning at the imprints of leaves on his arms.

“Nope.” Rin grinned. “I thought I’d let you sleep.” He reached up to brush stray blades of grass from Sousuke’s cheek. “You looked tired, and we’ll be up late.”

Sousuke batted the prince’s hand away, and dusted himself off.

“No more napping.” Rin slapped a folded robe into his lap. “Put this on. And hurry up; I have to be in the parade, remember?”

 

The Fire Festival pulled Samezuka’s capital into the streets for an uproarious celebration of the empire’s birth. Floats in the parade were wheeled down the road from the palace, each one magnificently lit with colored lanterns, and themed with anything from historical events, to bountiful harvests, and beloved landmarks. Rin and Gou rode with their uncle at the head of the procession, waving and throwing glittering dust at an adoring crowd. Tora and Yuudai rolled up behind them on wide, wheeled platforms. Citizens sang, and waved streaming flags in shimmering oranges and reds. Food stalls lined a few busy avenues, and there was lively music everywhere you walked.

Sousuke milled about near the palace garden, sipping a cup of dark wine. He knew virtually no one, though he’d seen one or two of the finely-dressed officials around the halls before. If they didn’t talk to him first, he wasn’t going to bother.

The robe Rin had lent him was a striking shade of teal, the hem sewn with intricate embroidered waves in silver thread. It was probably the nicest garment Sousuke had ever put on, and he held the wine forward a little, out of caution. For now, he was content to simply enjoy the festivities as a comfortable spectator. After an hour or so, the parade began pulling through the palace gate.

At the top of the first float loomed Rin’s uncle. The Emperor looked severe as ever, all sharp angles in his gilded armor. Sousuke’s good mood took an abrupt nosedive. Akira’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed the concourse, attention catching on the boy’s exacted stare. He held his gaze there, and Sousuke felt the blood in his veins boiling hotter with every strangled second.

Then the Emperor swept away, as if the exchange had not happened.

Rin bounded down from the float before it had even come to a full stop.

“Sousuke!!” The prince was up in his face, ablaze with excitement from the streets, and endearingly winded. “Have you tried the food yet?!”

“Didn’t want to start without you.” Sousuke smirked, indescribably happy to see him.

“So…what, you’ve just been drinking here by yourself?! You are coming with me, and we’re trying all of the meat skewers.” The prince headed in the direction of the grill carts, pulling Sousuke along by the sleeve.

Even the mixed liver sticks.”

“I’m not putting liver sticks in my mouth, Rin.”

“You are if I beat you at ring toss!”

Rin was like a god flown to earth, radiant in red and violet, trimmed with gold that shimmered in the firelight when he moved. There was a warm sheen to his skin, and Sousuke could not tear his eyes away. As the prince, Rin was obligated to greet a few of the more prominent nobles, but he spent most of the night with Sousuke, watching the light shows, playing games, and sampling the hot food.

Sousuke rested with Rin on a covered bench, swirling the wine at the bottom of his third cup, and nursing a glass of water on the tray beside him. People were staring at the pair with raised brows, and their barefaced judgement scraped at the back of Sousuke’s neck. Of course they were staring. The crown prince of Samezuka was lavishing all of his time on a rough, foreign-looking collared boy with big, clumsy ears. Sousuke felt like an impostor—a child playing with silly clothes everyone knew he didn’t belong in.

Rin stiffened, sensing his friend’s discomfort on the calm current between them. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Sousuke forced a smile. “I dunno…maybe it’d be better for you if you weren’t seen with me. P-people are—”

“They’re jealous.” Rin tipped sideways into him. “You look good tonight,” he mumbled. “Really good.”

The prince was a warm weight that radiated contentment, and confidence. No matter where they went, Sousuke thought that as long as he had this, everything would be alright.

“You too.” Sousuke hated how that sounded like a reaction—as if his attraction hadn’t consumed him completely since the start of the evening. An urge pulled at him to say more, but he didn’t quite trust himself enough to do so. He took a sip of water instead, spilling a little when Rin nudged him too rough.

“Are you having fun?”

“Of course,” Sousuke scoffed. “Are you?”

“Nope. Zero. No fun at all.” Rin turned his flushed face in to giggle into Sousuke’s shoulder. “Y’know, one of these years I’ll make you sit on the Matsuoka family float with us.”

The prince didn’t take his drink quite as gracefully as Sousuke did, already sluggish and smiling lazily after barely two cups.

Sousuke bit back a laugh, and threw an arm over him. “Never gonna happen.”

“We’ll see about that.”

He winced as Rin flicked him hard on the thigh. “No, no you’re right. Maybe I will join you on the float. I could be one of those guys in the spirit costumes. With the big masks and wings. I’ll drop feathers on you the whole time.”

Maybe if he joked enough, Rin wouldn’t be able to tell how much Sousuke wanted to be a part of his life—how sad he was that Rin would inevitably drift away from him.

“A spirit costume.” The prince gave him a droopy snarl. “You could be…” The boy’s shoulders tensed for a moment, and he swallowed. “You could be something else.”

Low drum beats tore through the calm before “like what?” left Sousuke’s lips, and they both jumped. The band had started playing.

There was a circular setup near the main gate, strung up with lanterns, where couples danced to the music that wafted from a low stage in the center. They moved as one: outward, then in again, like a flower blooming and closing. Every pair was wrapped up in their own two-person universes.

Heartbeats are the music of all life’, is what the dance is about,” Rin noted, his tone even. “It’s from a famous story.” He was faced away, trying to look distracted, but Sousuke had found enough romance books in the prince’s room to know Rin lived for that kind of thing.

“Anyway, Sou, you should try it. Go ask someone.”

Sousuke expelled a slow sigh. “I know you’re the one who actually wants to dance. See if Gou’s up for it.”

Rin wormed in his seat a little, frowning and fidgeting with the hem of his sleeve. “Gou’s busy.” He cleared his throat, eyes wandering over the lanterns. “I just —ugh—when else are you gonna do it, you know? The atmosphere is….really romantic.”

“That’s because it’s the Fire Festival and everyone’s having sex tonight.”

Rin coughed, and kicked at Sousuke’s shins.

“I’m only saying, Rin; this city’s got an awful lot of spring birthdays.”

“Just fucking dance with me, Sou!”

Sousuke laughed and stood, holding his hand out for Rin to snatch with attitude. “Since you asked me so nicely.”

Even with a mellow buzz, Sousuke felt uneasy about doing something so intimate in front of a crowd. Rin seemed to understand before he even brought it up, and led them around the corner of a hedge. They were completely hidden, bathed in soft illumination from a single orange lantern.

Sousuke sensed the mood closing in, now that they were alone. Rin’s eyes were the only ones on him now. The boy was burning, vulnerable with intent to touch him, to be touched by him, and suddenly meeting that gaze felt like a lungful of lightning.

“We can still hear the music from here,” Rin murmured.

Drum beats and koto notes pulsed from behind the hedge. If he put his mind to it, Sousuke could probably pinpoint exactly where, but his brain was occupied—every sense arrested by the person standing just in front of him. Rin quietly stretched his arm out, placing his open palm over his best friend’s chest. Sousuke did the same. Rin’s hand was quivering just a little—nervous to be touching him, and that awareness sent a shock of chills up to Sousuke’s shoulders.

The song swirled and jumped, and the two of them had spent enough time watching the others to pick up the steps. They spun outwards, then in, palms pressing back to their places on each other’s hearts. Their hands switched, they skirted sideways around each other, always out-in, out-in. Sousuke missed a step, but Rin didn’t care. Each time they pushed away, he fought the urge to reel Rin back in and keep him there. Dancing like this, twirling in perfect balance, made Sousuke almost believe that they stood on equal ground—that they could make a future together.

As the music wound down, they drew inward. Sousuke’s heart was hammering out of control; he was sure Rin could find it easily through his robe. He could feel Rin’s, beating like war drums beneath his open palm. Rin was fixed on him with his eyes piercing and brilliant like pools of red diamonds, chest rising, falling as he caught his breath. Sousuke didn’t think he could ever catch his breath again. The song had stopped, but neither of them registered the silence, stilled under the dim lantern.

“Three years, Sousuke,” Rin whispered.

“Until…?”

“Until I can claim my birthright.” He trailed his hand up Sousuke’s chest and up to the worn leather of the other boy’s collar. “When I’m Emperor of Samezuka, the first thing I’ll do is cut this off you.”

Rin ran his finger around the strap, resting it tentatively at the back. “And then I’m going to cut the rest of them from everyone else. No one will suffer like you did. No one will go unprotected, or feel…like they’re alone out there.”

Unsteady fingers stilled at the nape of Sousuke’s neck, tickling his hairline and sending shivers down his spine. “I want to see you happy.”

Sousuke met Rin’s wet red eyes, screaming with his own, I love you, I love you so much.

His gaze dropped to Rin’s his lips, which were parted sweetly, barely showing the points of his teeth. Restraint seemed a distant whisper, Sousuke’s defenses reduced to rubble at the softness in Rin’s voice. He tipped his head, leaned down, and kissed the boy he cherished with every ounce of his being. It lasted a few seconds, Sousuke moving his lips over Rin’s nervously, adoringly. I’m always happy when I’m with you. The captivating taste of Rin’s mouth lingered as Sousuke pulled away.

The prince’s irises shone back at him, wide as full moons, his reaction a shocked blank.
Sousuke’s gut dropped out.

Rin blinked as if trying to wake himself from a trance. He leaned in to say something, but in that instant, a loud crack detonated over the concourse. They both jumped. One burst was followed by more pops and whistles as the sky lit up with exploding color.

“Ah. Fireworks,” Sousuke said tonelessly. The image of Rin’s petrified face was branded into his brain. There was no pit deep enough in which to bury his shame. He couldn’t bear to be here another moment. “I’m going home.”

“Sousuke—!”

He was already running. He didn’t look back.

Sousuke’s sleep was restless, and teary. It had been so stupid to think Rin could ever love him back.

If the boy would be at their sakura tree the next day, Sousuke would apologize to him and mean every word. Rin was the most treasured part of Sousuke’s whole life, and he hoped to every god that he hadn’t destroyed their friendship.

Gradually, Sousuke felt the wine haze weigh over him like a woolen blanket, and relented.

The barrack door creaked, and Sousuke felt someone enter the shared dormitory room. He could tell by the weight of the person’s steps that this wasn’t one of his bunkmates. The clink of a belt and muffled squeak of leather boots.

This wasn’t a slave at all.

Sousuke swung out of bed and stalked to the other side of the small chamber. Instincts fired to life, not a second too late.

In a rush of movement, the intruder lunged for him. He expected to see a knife drawn from the man’s dark cloak, but the man grappled, trying to wrestle Sousuke to the ground instead. Even at fifteen, Sousuke was taller and stronger than most of the men, but size was not on his side in this fight.

All three of the other boys remained asleep in their bunks. Not that it mattered; they'd be of no help.

Wrenching out of the man’s grip again, Sousuke shoved him backwards and snatched the water pitcher on the table. He splashed its contents into his attacker's face, hurled the pitcher at the man’s head, and swerved out the doorway. The intruder staggered back, swears issuing from his mouth in sharp hisses. Sousuke didn’t stay behind to hear, tearing down the dirt path. Night air was muggy and stifling as he ran, weaving between barracks in no direction, like a broken compass, just getting away. Those three cups of Samezuka wine sank in, as the dull spin of intoxication crept up the sides of his skull. His brain reeled to catch up with every hard step that his body took, like a boat out of sync with the waves.

Wait.

He didn’t need to run. There was only one man. Sousuke dug his heels in, and turned around to search down the alleyway he’d come. Whoever it was, he could take them.

No one, and no footsteps followed.

Crackling broke out a few blocks away; someone was setting off fireworks in the street. Sousuke winced, straining his ears to block out the sound as it bounced off the buildings.

Then there was an arm around his neck, a black-sleeved elbow beneath his chin. He writhed violently, clawing at the stranger's arm, but a bracer stopped his fingers. The chokehold only tightened. The fight was drained from his limbs as his vision blurred fuzzy and black around the edges. He buckled, and sank to the ground in a daze. This was it. He was going to be killed in a shadowed barrack alley. Even through his murk-minded haze, he found the capacity to regret it.

“Goddamned scrappy little bastard, aren’t ya? Sorry about that.”

Pressure eased off all at once, and Sousuke gasped for his breath back. The stranger swung around to face him, trusting him to return the show of faith and not bolt for the road. He dropped to his knees with a clank that bespoke sheathed steel beneath the cloak, and lifted the hem of his hood. Irises like molten gold flashed in the shadow. The stranger crackled with ferocity.

“I’m not gonna kill you, so park it for a minute. I’m supposed to kill you, but I’m not going to.”

A backswept shock of red hair peeked out when Sousuke searched upward. Red was a noble feature here. The man was likely from a distinguished family—one close to the throne…

Sousuke spun back into himself at that. “The Emperor sent you. He saw me. He knows.”

“Bingo.” The man clicked his tongue. “And I’m loyal to His Majesty and all that, but I’m not slinking out here to slit a kid’s throat just ‘cause the Emperor asks me to. Especially since the one who’s up next loves you so much. Know what I mean?” With a half-grimaced apologetic smile, he reached into his belt and drew a knife.

Sousuke tensed.

“Relax. I only need this.” The man swiped Sousuke by the collar, and cut the seam loose with one motion. The strap fell away. It was oddly insubstantial and pathetic-looking, curled up on the ground. Sousuke’s throat felt naked without it, and he brought a hand up to smooth over the spot where it had been.

“Sorry. Can’t let you get too used to that. Be bad news if city guard caught you without.” The golden-eyed man extracted a new collar, circling it around Sousuke’s neck and closing the fastener. “You can have someone stitch it proper for you later.”

Sousuke felt a stab of possessiveness as he watched the man pocket his old one with Rin’s drawing on it, but said nothing to stop him.

“There’s a caravan of around two hundred new workers being transported to Sano at sunrise. They’re rebuilding part of the stadium, and adding a few floors while they’re at it,” the man explained. “It should buy you two years’ worth of time to hide, at least. You should have no problem slipping in with them and getting the hell out of here. Sano gives less of a shit about keeping track of you.” He tossed a roll of linen in Sousuke’s lap. “And don’t let anyone see that damned scar.”

Sousuke pushed the bandage back. “I’m not going anywhere. Rin will need me.”

”Rin’s not going to know. He’s not the Emperor, and as it is, he can’t stop his uncle. Neither should he try to, for his own safety.” The gold-eyed man stole a glance behind him, and leaned in close enough for Sousuke to catch his woody scent. “His Majesty puts his dynasty before all else.”

“Then why?”

“Rin brought an outsider into the valley,” the man hushed. “The Matsuoka’s rule has been exclusive and undisputed for ages, kid. And here you come into the prince’s life, a slave from some enemy territory with no love for the royal family.”

“I would never hurt him. Ever.” Sousuke rasped it with every drop of honesty. “And I was only in the Valley as his guest.”

“I don’t doubt you,” the man agreed. “But you’re changing him. Whether you’re aware of it or not, that means changing everything.”

“I don’t think I—”

“What I’m saying is, at the bottom of it, His Majesty places the Matsuoka legacy before his own nephew’s life. Things have stayed as they are here for two thousand years, and I doubt there’s anything he wouldn’t do to preserve this kind of stability.”

The cold bones of that truth sank in. He would kill Rin to maintain his family’s order. If the prince knew Sousuke was alive, he’d stop at nothing to find him; that much was certain. “I can never see Rin again.”

“Not if you want him to be safe.” The man’s drawn face softened. “I’m sorry. I know he’s fond of you. Gou’s told me all about you, and how much she and her brother love you. You should hear the way Rin talks at the palace—”

“It’d be easier if you just killed me,” Sousuke blurted. “You should.”

“Shouldn’t I?” The man chuckled through a spiteful grin. “Maybe! But I’m not going to.” His smile flattened. “No matter who’s standing over you, sometimes you just gotta do what you know’s right. And this is right.”

The stranger was making an enormous sacrifice. It was likely that his own life lay in the balance as well; if Sousuke was caught, his assigned assassin would be held responsible for the betrayal. His bewildered, whispered ’Thanks’ felt grievously insufficient.

The man gave him a water flask, a new set of clothes, and sent him on his way.

“Wait!” Sousuke wheeled back. “Since I won’t be able to see him, will you…I mean for both of them, can you make sure—”

“Yeah.” The man grinned, gold flashing one last time before he tugged his hood down. “I’ll look after ‘em for us.”

“Thank you.” With a final glance at the palace, its aggressive spires dripping in moonlight, Sousuke turned and fled into the night.

 

 

_____________________________

 

 

Rin paced circles around the trunk of the sakura tree, eagerness fluttering to and fro between his ribs. Tora trailed his movements until they made her dizzy, and then gave up. He checked the length of shadows on the ground, clicking his tongue, because Sousuke was late. He usually left at the bell toll, bathed in the river, and would come here as soon as he was done, at the same time every day. Though Rin might’ve had a guess as to why the boy was stalling.

Sousuke had kissed him the night before. Warmth tingled over Rin’s skin at the lingering memory of it, and he touched his fingers to his lips to recreate the tender press. It wasn’t even close to the same. Tora laughed in tufts of steam at the state of him.

“Shut it, you!” Rin barked.

He sighed back into glowing replays of his first kiss, and everything leading up to it. Rin remembered how handsome Sousuke had been in that robe he chose—how handsome Sousuke looked, always. Three years had filled the boy out nicely. Sousuke was strong for his age, and Rin realized long ago that he liked it. He felt a strange, trembling thrill whenever Sousuke lifted him into a tree, or pinned him on his back as they wrestled. The light in those bright blue eyes surged in shock waves through Rin’s veins when he stared too long.

And there was another part of his attraction—deeper, though harder to define. Rin could be unreservedly himself when they were together. Sousuke steadied Rin if he stumbled, and believed in him no matter how crazy he knew he must sound. Even when he had every reason not to, Sousuke cared for, risked his life for Rin. Being around the boy was grounding, and uplifting in the most extraordinary way. Rin was head-over-heels in love with him.

He had been for a long time.

All that he’d he said before their lips touched, he’d meant. When Rin hit eighteen, he was going to make some changes in Samezuka that he thought were long overdue. With a crown on his head, and the world beneath red wings, he would cut Sousuke free, and then ask him to stay. For now, and then the rest of their lives.

Impatient, Rin leaned hard against the tree trunk, and slid down to its roots, ignoring the way it made his shirt bunch up. He’d thought of taking the reigns himself to kiss Sousuke first. He’d thought of that often, actually. But each time he spied Sousuke’s scar peeking out from under his shirt, guilt kept him tethered at bay. His family had put the boy through enough. Sousuke didn’t need Rin’s unreciprocated adoration poisoning their friendship. Rin had been waiting, and wanting for so long, when it actually happened, he had choked up and ruined the whole thing.

Today was a new day, he had himself together, and he absolutely wasn’t going to botch it this time.

“What should I do when he gets here?”

Tora looked thoughtful as she considered that. Her love solutions had never been particularly useful. The dragon’s advice was comprised of tips like, “Show him your throat, and see if he licks.” But Rin needed to air out his anxieties, and she didn’t mind listening. The dragon settled down next to him, meeting his eyes pointedly with one of hers.

“Should I ask him if he was sure?” Rin mused, “Or just go for it?”

He played that out in his head. “Yeah, I’m gonna go for it,” he decided. “Sousuke better be ready for me.” When Sousuke got here, Rin was going to give it to him. No words—he would just take that pretty face in his hands, and kiss his best friend until he passed out. The spark in Rin crackled and roared. Finally. Finally.

It was a good thought, and he clenched it in the hem of his shirt while he sat.

Rin wilted as the evening waned, and Sousuke did not come. The boy’s barrack was empty, and no one had seen him all day. Rin traversed the entire grounds, traced his recent work routes, but saw no sign of him.

Sooouuusukeee!” He shouted. “If this is about yesterday, quit hiding, you giant baby! I want to talk!”

No answer, save a few subtle stares from passersby. The sunless sky was darkening fast, and a sinking unease blackened Rin’s spirits. Sousuke wouldn’t go this far for a prank, wouldn’t do something he knew would worry Rin in earnest. Tora landed beside him after another fruitless search from the air.

“Nothing?” Rin gritted. “We have to find him.”

“You won’t find him, nephew.”

Rin startled backward into the towering form of his uncle.

The Emperor gave Rin a compulsory nod. He had a way about him that extinguished Rin’s energy, buried it, and froze it over with his own. While they had never been close, Rin knew that an uncrossable chasm existed between them—one that had only expanded as his love for Sousuke grew stronger. Akira’s unbending indifference made Rin miss his father sometimes.

He hadn’t even heard the man approach, but his uncle’s massive dragon, Sango, was seated in the grass a short distance away. Her wings had always been eerily quiet.

“What did you say…?” Rin breathed.

Fear crawled out of the air, and thickened.

“The Tokitsu boy is dead.” Every word and spot of light dropped several pitches in Rin’s periphery, as if he were alone with his uncle in a dimension apart. The Emperor’s mouth moved, but his words were echoed, distant, circling around the edge of reality, dripping down from the vaults of an empty underworld. “Your sister informed me that this is where you two meet. You won’t find him here, so come. We’d best return home.”

Rage eclipsed shock, and Rin bared his teeth in a snarl.

Akira was unfazed. “He was involved in a fight last night,” he continued, tone flat. “I understand that strong drinks, and festival revelry often render young men…unpredictable.”

Rin’s fingers twitched.

“A few of the boys reported a quarrel in his room before he ran outside. They found his body this morning near the quarry. I’ll spare you the details, but I thought I should tell you, lest you wait any longer.”

The casual delivery of this grated like wheels on coarse gravel, and Rin seethed.

“How dare you fucking lie to me!” he spat. “Sousuke’s not dead! He was just here yesterday, he—! It’s not him; the body could’ve been anyone’s—”

Akira’s countenance tightened. He was already nearing the extent of his patience, and reached into his sleeve to extract something small.

Rin had no choice but to take it, and his uncle placed a beaten leather collar face-down in his palms. All he had to do was turn it over, show him that this one was blank; it couldn’t possibly be Sousuke’s—but still he wavered. Unwilling to waste time, The Emperor gingerly flipped the collar to reveal its face.

 

UNDER RIN’S PROTECTION!!

 

Rin’s own worn etching shouted back at him. His throat constricted when he tried to swallow, the letters he’d carved into Sousuke’s collar under this tree three years ago paralyzing every muscle.

“It was still on the boy’s neck.” Akira’s eyes softened. “I am sorry, Rin. I know that you enjoyed his company.”

Rin searched every thin line on his uncle’s severe face, desperate for some trace of a lie. All he found there was a thready twinge of pity.

“We can hold a funeral for him at the palace, if you wish,” Akira said curtly. “You may do with the ashes as you please.”

Rin hadn’t heard him. Voices and white noise spun in a cyclone around him, the piece of leather in his hands motionless at the center of it. At some point, the Emperor had given up on trying to talk to him, and left. Tora nudged her partner’s back, beckoning him out of the fog.

They should get home. It was dark. Cold crept up from the ground as light drained out of the sky. Tora whimpered deep in her throat, crouching so Rin could slump onto her back and wrap his arms around her shoulders. Receiving the warmth of her body, he hugged her tighter and the dam burst. Tears blurred his vision, and streamed down his cheeks onto her scales. The city floated by beneath them as she flew him back to the palace, farther than they’d ever gone together before.

Rin drowned himself in memories of summer days spent swimming in the river, racing down grassy slopes in the palace park, the clack of oak swords and ring of laughter melting together in a melody that was evaporating out of his reach. Not one day ago, he’d been dancing with Sousuke’s heartbeat under his hand at the Fire Festival. Sousuke wouldn’t be at the tree tomorrow afternoon. Rin could wait forever, and his ocean-eyed boy would never meet him there again.

He collapsed onto his bed, and cried until he was too exhausted to heave another sob.

 

_____________________________

 

Sano was a newer state than Samezuka, hedged off to serve as an oasis for lucrative recreational pursuits. Avenues were wide, living quarters well-kept, and a stream of regular visitors from the capital, as well as travelers headed north from the green stretch usually stopped here to rest and indulge. Buildings along the main road were tinted rose pink, and hung with handsome window gardens that spilled over in carefully pruned tangles—an exquisite front for a city whose origins had shallow roots in the black market. Nearly every one of Sano’s elite families had ancient ties to smugglers, magic-brewers, or some organized illicit business that they swore had long since been severed. It was the sort of place that might’ve bred dangerous underground oligarchies, had it not been in the Matsuokas’ backyard.

The entertainment district was landmarked by a massive oval stadium sitting dead in the center, holding every other building in its wide orbit. Here Sousuke’s group was stationed, stacking the stadium’s impressive framework even higher. He heaved a long slat of wood into place, and dropped back down the scaffolding to fetch more.

“Careful, Sho! You’ll hurt yourself at that pace.” Old Man Koji passed Sousuke a cup of water, which he threw back gratefully. “The job’ll get done; it’s not a race.”

“Sure,” Sousuke conceded.

Koji was an even-tempered man with skin gnarled as nutmeg shells. He hobbled on broken-down bones, after decades of this work. His upbeat demeanor had weathered what his body could not, and he made rounds up and down the groups of younger slaves to bring them water and food during the day. He was nearing eighty-three, and had never known one day of freedom. What was worse, he didn’t seem to mind. The thought of being tethered to this life for the better part of a century made Sousuke’s stomach twist with a desperate sort of hopelessness.

He felt empty these days, staring down the dusty, barren road of his own future. He asked himself occasionally if it might’ve been kinder of the golden-eyed man to kill him that night. When he indulged in daydreams, Sousuke wondered if Rin ever missed him. The prince would likely be bored in the afternoons now, but that gap would be filled. If Rin could make friends with Sousuke, he could probably make friends with anyone.

Just don’t forget me.

It was nice to remember Rin—to dwell with his ghost as Sousuke lay awake on the top bunk at night. Sousuke knew that he was grasping into the past, and the clearer he imagined Rin’s blinding sharp smile, and the heat of Rin’s hand, the more painful it ached when he opened his eyes to a block of blank ceiling. The brutal silence that engulfed the present sometimes made him cry. Following in the wake of Rin’s firestorm was where he had belonged, and now he was lost at sea.

Sousuke was miserably in love with Rin, and knew that he always would be. But as long as Emperor Akira lived, his existence was dangerous. Being with Rin had buried his anger for a time, but now it surfaced with redoubled focus, his resolve crystallizing in the bitter empty space.

 

With a dry groan, Sousuke took his half of the beam as he handed it off to another peer. He was right back where he’d started, at those first months in the capital. Only now, with the added torment of a broken heart.

The tinny clnk clnk of metal on metal pulled Sousuke’s attention to the bottom of the stadium. Three men were sparring in the dirt basin—swinging, and spitting curses. Sousuke scowled downward. Their form was pitiful.

“Does the military train here?” He asked Koji.

The old man wheezed a laugh. “The military? Oh no, no. Those men are prisoners. Prisoners, rapers, murderers with their names spelled on the executioner’s ledger—the most desperate men.”

Sousuke backed away from the edge of the platform, and faced the old man with a question on his brow.

“They’re pit fighters,” Koji said. “They volunteer for it. Sign their lives away to be slaughtered down there to the cheers of thousands.”

“Why would anyone choose to die for the entertainment of Samezuka?” Sousuke’s mouth twisted in disgust.

“Because it’s a chance to cut your collar, of course! To get out!” Koji curled a reedy smile, baring teeth that were crooked, and ground flat. “Might be the only chance. Anyone who survives four years of combat in this stadium is a free man! It’s enough to get just enough volunteers, though I daresay I can count the number who’ve made it that long on my fingers,” Koji offered, waving his left hand. He was missing a pinky. “Ah, Sho!? Where are you going?!”

“To give them my name.” Sousuke had made his mind up in a flash of clarity. He swept toward the stairs leading downward into the stadium. Four years was a long time to spend staving off death, but ending at the point of a spear was infinitely better than shrinking into invisible chains. Fighting was something he could do—the only thing he was truly good at.

“Wh—! Wait! Don’t, kid. You’ve so much time left to you!” Koji pleaded. “This life isn’t all that bad after a while. Things could be so much worse.”

“I can’t stay here.” Sousuke stopped so the old man could hear him. “There’s someone I need to reach.”

He took a breath, and descended.