The angry tapping of Gou’s beaded sandals on polished tile echoed in the hall as she made her way toward the nearest balcony.
Rin was late, again. If he was even planning to show up to the council meeting at all.
“Gou, your skirt is dragging…” Chigusa, her handmaiden and best friend, flitted behind her.
“Ugh, if it tears, it’s my brother’s fault.” The princess clutched the fabric and jogged out the doorway.
She was in luck. Rin’s slight, silver-haired assistant was already outside, anxiously holding his leather schedule book close and leaning out over the balustrade.
“Ai, where on earth is my brother?”
“He’s…he’s um…” The boy shied away from her intensity, scooting up against the railing like a scolded puppy. “I told him about the meeting today. He said, he’ll be back…”
Gou opened her mouth to press the boy for more details, but the words vanished on her tongue as a huge shadow passed over the balcony, blotting out the sun, and ruffling her skirt with the beat of massive red wings.
“Never mind,” she fumed.
Rin soared over the palace, heading toward the valley on Tora’s back. He wasn’t getting away that easy. Gou pushed herself up onto the rail and let out two long whistles.
“Gou!” Chigusa ran up behind her. “The council meeting is at noon! Leave him, you’re going to be late!”
One of the winged dragons circling the palace swooped downwards, landing on the balcony gracefully and tucking in his wings so Gou could climb onto his back. She slung her leg over, letting her beautiful skirts bunch up messily around her thighs.
“I’ll be back in time!” Gou said with a sweet smile. She slapped the dragon’s flank thrice, and they were in the air with the quick pump of his blue wings.
“Gou-!” Chigusa cried, but the princess was already well out of earshot. “I spent almost an hour doing that hair…” she sighed. She and Nitori exchanged a tired glance as the dragons took off over the city.
Gou disliked flying. The feeling of weightlessness wasn’t one she enjoyed, and being this high without a saddle had her nerves in a ball at the bottom of her stomach. She much preferred the thundering, grounded mass of her Yuudai, but this dragon was kind enough to do her this favor, so she swallowed her fear and stroked his neck appreciatively. She pulled up beside her brother. Tora was twice the size of this dragon, and keeping up with her was proving to be increasingly difficult.
“You can’t just fly off on Tora whenever there’s important things to do! We’re hosting the king of Iwatobi in less than a week! They’re going to want to discuss the southern border, and lately things with them have honestly been—”
“Uncle can handle it.” Rin said over his shoulder.
“Well maybe, but you should still be there! You could help!”
“Don’t need to.”
“You do! If you don’t talk, at least watch! You’ll be doing all of that someday!”
Kicking Tora’s side lightly, Rin sped up and left Gou in his dragon’s wake. Once, Rin would have jumped at the chance to climb another step closer to his dream of becoming the greatest emperor Samezuka had ever seen. He had told her countless times how he couldn’t wait for the day he’d show everyone what he could do. But her brother had slowly changed, and not in a way she liked.
The prince’s eighteenth birthday had come and gone with winter’s chill, and his birthright remained untouched. Another year passed, and then another, but he made no move. The throne sat waiting for him, yet with each passing season, it seemed he flew farther away from it.
Rin and Tora were fast in the air, and there was no way Gou would catch him if he didn’t want to be caught. He spent most of his time riding, these days. But Gou had a fair guess where he was headed, and urged the dragon below her slowly, steadily in the right direction.
She had been right.
Her escort landed a little ways away from where Rin was leaned up against a rock, facing outward at the valley below. He would come here occasionally, when he wanted to be alone. Gou wasn’t sure why exactly, but he’d said it had been a spot he would sit sometimes with…
Gou halted, her ire extinguished and crushed into coal embers as she thought back to her schedule and remembered the date.
“Brother…” she started.
He made no move to acknowledge her.
“He’d be twenty-two today, if he was still alive.” Rin said listlessly.
“Under my protection.” His face twisted into a snarl. “What a load of shit. He died alone in some ditch. I couldn’t protect him from anything.”
“That wasn’t your fault,” Gou pleaded.
“I know that!” he snapped. “It’s just…sometimes I think if I had—if things had turned out differently that night, he wouldn’t have run off by himself.”
“Look, why don’t you come back with me?” Gou inched closer, cautiously. “You should do something else, distract yourself. I’m begging you to stop this.”
“You couldn’t understand,” He scowled and stepped away from the cliff.
“Then talk to me.” Gou put her hand tentatively on her brother’s shoulder, even as she felt his doors slamming in her face. “You can tell me things, let me help you. I know I nag, but don’t shut me out, Rin. Please.”
She was treading thin ice. If there was one thing her brother hated, it was being pitied. Still, she needed to remind him that she was on his side.
“Rin, it’s been six years. I know how much you loved him, but you need to let him go,” she said desperately. “I can’t watch you do this anymore. I can’t watch you become like—”
Gou cut herself off, but not soon enough.
“Say it, Gou.”
Her brother met her eyes, and Gou had never seen so much hurt and anger. He shoved past her without a second glance, climbing onto Tora’s back once again. He sat there, hair hanging over his face, and Gou felt the rift between them tear wider.
“You’d better get to that meeting,” Rin said, taking the reigns roughly. “Wouldn’t want you to be late.”
“Where are you going?!” Gou called out.
“To distract myself.” Rin shifted in the saddle, slapped Tora’s flank, and she heaved herself off the cliff into the wind. Gou dropped to her knees in defeat as she watched them leave.
Rin hated that he was running from his duties. Hated that he made his little sister worry for him. Hated that he was going to a fight on Sousuke’s birthday.
Gou was right—of course she was. Six years was far too long a time to leave his heart empty, but Rin simply couldn’t bring himself to move on. When his had father died, there was a grand funeral, and a month of mourning in the capital. A cenotaph was raised for him in the valley. Matsuoka Toraichi survived in him and Gou, and their mother—wherever she was. The people would hold him in their hearts, and his legacy would live on.
But Sousuke would have none of that. He’d had no home, no family, and left nothing behind. Rin’s vivid recollections of their time together was all that there was, and if he let that slip into obscurity, it would be as if the boy had never existed. So as painful as it was, Rin would cling to his memory for as long as he lived.
They arrived in Sano, gliding over a line of slaves busy at work on a gigantic bridge over the canals. Rin had railed against their enslavement for years after Sousuke died. But each time he spoke out, he had been ignored, laughed at, brushed aside like an errant fly in his own court. What were the pleas of a boy in the face of centuries of tradition? All the more reason to skip today’s meeting, he supposed.
Sano’s bustling entertainment district beneath them was swarming with people entering the stadium. They stopped to stare as he soared over the rooftops, landing on the upper platform. Kisumi was already there waiting for him, his stark white robes shimmering and billowing like clouds in the midday sky.
“Rin!” he chirped. “I knew you wouldn’t miss today.”
“Hmph,” Rin made an irritated sound and slid off the saddle. He stretched his back and strolled around to Tora’s head. “Go eat something, yeah? I’ll see you in a bit.”
She snorted in affirmation and pushed off the platform.
“You know, I never get tired of watching her,” Kisumi said as the dragon flew toward the ocean. The young noble was Sano’s wealthiest businessman, an avid patron of recreational pursuits, and Rin’s closest friend. As soon as Rin was near enough, Kisumi grabbed his shoulder and pecked him on the cheek.
Kisumi fell into stride beside him as they headed down the stairwell to the emperor’s box. “You’re wearing them today!” he sang, tapping the hilts of Rin’s dual knives at his belt. “Aah, that makes me happy!”
The weapons had been a gift to Rin on his eighteenth birthday. They were incomparably sharp blades with polished wooden hilts decorated with gorgeous carvings of dragons and Rin’s favorite flowers. Kisumi had ordered them from someplace overseas. He insisted the wood had some kind of special magic, but Rin didn’t know how much of what Kisumi said he could believe.
The stadium air was already sweltering, abuzz with palpable excitement as thousands of people filtered in and found their seats. A band played at the center of the pit while preparations were made, and cream-colored awnings were pulled taught on corbels high over the lively spectators. Rin took his seat to the right of the emperor’s empty chair, Kisumi next to him.
“One of his last fights today.” Kisumi said, leaning over on the armrest. “He’s got one more after this, and that’ll be it.”
Rin glanced sideways at his friend.
“I hope you’ll still come visit me after he leaves.”
“He’s not…the only reason I come. It’s just something to do.” Rin felt like he needed to reassure himself of that as much as he did Kisumi.
Kisumi giggled and faced forward. “If you say so.”
A horn blew, signaling the start of the games, and Rin was thankful to be spared any more teasing. Across the field from them, the announcer took his stand, and began animatedly pumping up the audience. The prince shifted in his seat impatiently. After a deafening introduction, the show began.
A beast tamer walked out with her three tigers, ordering them through hoops, then a troupe of flame dancers, and finally a singing duo from the northern region.
“Loooords and Ladies!” The announcer’s buoyant voice rang out over the audience. “That was all spectacular.” A wave of applause. “But I know what most of you came for, you scoundrels! You came to see a FIGHT!” The crowd erupted into cacophonous cheers and yelling. Drummers started up again, and Rin could feel each beat rattle his bones.
He kept his eyes trained on the iron portcullis at the edge of the field as it clattered open.
“We’ve got an especially good one for you today! First out, Team Gold!” The announcer began listing off names, introducing the fighters one by one as they trotted out into the arena, each wearing bright yellow sashes around their waists. Some of them Rin recognized from previous games.
“—and finally, Team Gold’s heaviest contender, MANBOU!”
The crowd roared as a giant of a man slogged out of the gate. He was more than a head taller than the next largest in the group. Wide, with enormous arms and a thick middle, he raised his battle axe, urging the spectators to applaud even louder. Manbou had been in the arena nearly a year now, and he’d overcome challenger after challenger with sheer bulk and surprising speed. He’d earned a reputation for being exceedingly savage, killing nearly all of his opponents, even in blood matches.* A hint of unsettlement passed over Kisumi’s face.
“He’s on the other team, then,” Rin said, clenching his jaw.
“And now, the challengers, TEAM BLUE!” The announcer proceeded to introduce the members of the other team, each walking out with an indigo sash and a confident wave. None of them looked even close to being a match for Manbou.
“At the tail of end of this roster,” the announcer boomed, “is a guy we might not be seeing much of soon…” The audience cheered in anticipation. “One of the only men I’ve had the privilege to see make it this far. Not that we intend to make it easy on him here at the end—”
“The unstoppable, unforgettable, JINBEI!!”
Rin craned forward, ignoring Kisumi’s smug sniggering. Jinbei walked out of the gate like the audience wasn’t filling the stadium to the upper level to see him. He didn’t wave, or bow, or even acknowledge the crowd, though that didn’t seem to hamper his earsplitting reception.
A masked helmet always covered Jinbei’s head, and spaulders armed his right shoulder. An array of laceration scars streaked across his tan skin, from his chest to the edge of the sash at his waist. Dressed in a pieced-together replication of traditional Tokitsu armor, he was a novelty in the stadium—one of the last remnants of a lost people. Word of his heritage had been what caught Rin’s attention initially. He came to the first fight with the forthright intent to ask Jinbei if he’d ever known a boy back home named Yamazaki Sousuke.
But Rin’s will failed him that time, and every time after. Occasionally Jinbei would do things, small things—a brush of his arm, or a casual stretch—that reminded Rin so much of Sousuke, it hurt. If he thought too deeply about it, Rin was ashamed of himself, projecting the shadow of his first love onto a man who doubtlessly had his own tragedies. But it was a secret no one had to know.
Fight after grueling fight, he found himself watching Jinbei in earnest.
The fighters in the pit were a mixed bag of apples, and most of them were rotten. Criminals, murderers, and bloodthirsty prisoners from the ranks of Samezuka’s enemies made up the bulk of them. But Jinbei had been a common slave. A man who wanted his freedom badly enough to die reaching for it. Rin had never been one for pit fights before, and even though he’d never met him, Rin wanted Jinbei to win.
As his sponsor, Kisumi stood and clapped for him, naturally. Rin struggled to stop himself from doing the same.
With a steady, even stride, Jinbei made his way to the end of the blue team’s lineup, and the audience dissolved into chaos as bets were placed. After a stretch of deliberation, the announcer took the stage again.
“Wagers are in! Aaaand now we come to the most important question: RED or BLACK?!” A woman was chosen from the audience and brought into the box with him. The announcer presented her with a bag, and the woman reached an eager hand inside.
Red. Red, please.
Rin grit his teeth as the woman extracted and unfurled a pitch black flag from the bag. The crowd screamed their approval. Kisumi hissed quietly beside him.
“Fate has SPOKEN! And a battle to the death it will be! ARE YOU ALL READY!?” The audience could probably be heard from the palace, Rin thought.
Fighters shuffled into place in the arena below. The drums beat faster.
A second horn was blown, and its blare vibrated in the wood of his chair, shaking ripples in the cups of wine on the table. The match began.
Metal met metal as the warriors fanned out and locked blades with one another. Manbou barreled forward, effortlessly taking down two blue men. Jinbei moved to the back of the group, skirting around the edge like a watchful hawk.
“What’s he doing?” Rin asked.
“He knows this is going to end with him and the big guy.” Kisumi took a nervous sip from his water cup. “So he’s gonna let the giant tire himself out cutting through the others to get to him.”
Rin sat back and watched carefully. Jinbei was no hero, he learned from years of observation. None of them were; he supposed they couldn’t be. A teammate one day would be an enemy the next. The brutality of it all hit him hard sometimes.
“He’s not the biggest, strongest man out here,” Kisumi had said once. “He’s survived because he’s the smartest.”
A member of the gold team approached from behind, blade aimed for the back of Jinbei’s neck. Without turning to look, the fighter slid out of the way, taking advantage of the other man’s open stance to jab him between the ribs with his sword. Jinbei fought with concise, calculated strength. He was aware of every body on the field, wasting no actions as he dominated the space in a wide radius around him. Rin was mesmerized by the way he moved.
The others caught on as Manbou bowled through two more blue team members, making a bold break for Jinbei at the other end of the fray. They cleared a path to let him through. Jinbei stopped moving and lowered his stance.
Rin grasped the armrest of his seat.
Sousuke’s senses zeroed in on the only things that mattered in this moment: the sure grip of the sword in his right hand, the sight and sound of the man charging at him through the chaos, and the electrifying rush of Rin’s eyes on him.
Manbou came forward with an exalted yell, axe poised to take his head. The others moved their brawl out of the way, leaving a wide area open for the two of them. Sousuke took two deep breaths, washing out the loud babble of the crowd.
One landed attack from Manbou would mean the end. Rin was in the box above, his presence a calm reminder of why Sousuke still strove for victory—the reason he couldn’t afford to make mistakes. Watching the giant clobber through the others had given Sousuke a good idea of the length of his reach, and he slid around of the edge of it.
Manbou swung at him when he stepped deceptively closer, missing each time as he jumped nimbly back out of reach. The man was getting angry, his attacks more manic as Sousuke wore him down. The audience wanted to see a duel, but he wasn’t going to chance a move inward unless it would yield a success.
Sousuke knew his athleticism gave him the upper hand in stamina where he lacked it in size, and finally he saw the other man slow. Quick as an eel, he darted inside, scoring a deep cut into Manbou’s right arm. The warrior cursed, taking another wide swing. His strikes were weaker now, and Sousuke ran around, slashing the back of the giant’s knee. His thick legs buckled, bringing him to the ground.
Sousuke finished the fight.
Rin could see the blood from Manbou’s throat cascade down the man’s wide chest as he landed face-down in the dirt. The prince let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
The fall of the giant shook the gold team to its foundation, and with Jinbei joining the melee at last, Team Blue seized a quick, deadly victory. The remaining five men stood in the center of the field on the red-soaked ground and raised their fists in triumph, to the thunderous cries and applause of the stadium.
Beside him, Kisumi was bouncing excitedly and clapping. As royalty, Rin was forced to school his face into neutrality, but he kept his eyes on one man. Jinbei was in the center of the other fighters as they slapped him on the back and cuffed him on the arms. He turned his head up toward the stands, and Rin swore he was looking at him through the metal mask of his helmet. Rin doubted Jinbei could see it from where he was, but he sent down a small, relieved smile.
The announcer was saying some words to wrap up, but they were wholly drowned out by the din.
“That boy’s really something,” said Kisumi, falling back into his seat and popping a fig tart into his mouth.
“He is,” Rin replied. “He’s amazing.”
Sousuke removed his helmet and wiped a spot of blood from his cheek where it had splattered through the grating.
The image of Rin’s smile from a few moments ago lingered in his mind like the sweet aftertaste of honeycomb. Time had only made Rin even more impossibly beautiful. That smile had become a painfully rare sight, and Sousuke treasured every one.
Raucous laughter burst out from the chamber behind him. The other victors were celebrating with rum and women, but all Sousuke wanted right now was a hot bath and the peace of his own room. He wanted it almost badly enough to pretend he couldn’t hear the bubbly shouts assaulting him from down the hall.
“JIIIINBEI!!” Kisumi bounded toward him, comely face brimming with joy. “Incredible, as always! Not even a scratch on you. Give your biggest fan a hug!” He giggled, spreading his arms wide.
Sousuke raised his eyebrows and stared blankly at his sponsor’s immaculate white robe. Kisumi’s gaze landed on Sousuke’s gore-spattered torso, and his smile slipped.
“Ah…imagine my arms encircling your body…” Kisumi made a dramatic hugging motion as Sousuke strode past him.
Sousuke’s sponsor was a pink ball of cotton, rolled in flowers and dipped in sin. They had met as teenagers when Sousuke was in combat school. He still has no idea where Kisumi obtained the information, but the wealthy trader’s son had known Sousuke’s real name, and everything about him he’d worked so hard to hide. When Kisumi asked to personally sponsor him and vowed to keep his secret, Sousuke agreed. They’d been odd partners ever since.
Kisumi whirled around and sidled up to him, leaning in to speak quietly. “He was happy, too. You should see how worried he gets.”
Sousuke scoffed dismissively.
“He comes just see you, you know,” Kisumi prodded.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you tell me that; I’m not going to believe it,” Sousuke said.
“Oh I know.” Kisumi grinned. “But I’m still going to tell you. Have you decided what you’ll do once the collar’s cut?”
“No. Not sure. I’ll…go home, probably. To whatever’s left.”
This wasn’t true. But not even Kisumi could know what he planned to do with his freedom—the flame at the end of the tunnel that had fueled him through years of bloody battle.
Distracted, Sousuke hadn’t noticed as Kisumi ushered him into a private chamber.
“Well then, while you’re still my champion, I have a favor to ask.” Kisumi cleared his throat. “In a week, the king of Iwatobi and his court will be hosted at the capital. Predictably, the royal family has a huge reception banquet planned.”
Sousuke didn’t like where this was going.
“I’ve been invited, of course, as a prominent, upstanding citizen of the empire,” Kisumi continued, twirling his rosy curls in his fingers. “And while I do love a good party, I’d feel much better if I had some…extra security with me.”
“You’re asking me for a favor on my birthday?”
“I promise I’ll make it up to you!” Kisumi whined.
“It’s at the palace,” Sousuke said. “There’ll be more guards there than guests.”
Kisumi just waited, smiling innocently. Sousuke let the answer find him. Charming and generous as he was, the nobleman had his own secrets. There were probably more of them than Sousuke ever dared to count. His wealth was achieved through prosperous trade with the kingdom of Iwatobi, and while most of it was legal, some of the goods he dealt with were decidedly undisclosed.
“You’re up to something shady and you need security of the unlisted variety,” Sousuke stated flatly.
“I tell everyone you’re smart for a reason, Sousuke.” Kisumi made to sling a friendly arm around him, but stopped himself again and settled for patting Sousuke gingerly on a clean patch of his shoulder.
“Anyway, I’ve already had a bath sent up to your room with rose petals, your favorite!”
“You dumping them in my bath every time doesn’t make them my favorite.”
Kisumi ignored him as usual, planting a quick kiss on his cheek and leaving in a flurry of pink and white. “I’ll see you in a few days!”
“Oh and Jinbei!” Kisumi peeked his head around the doorway. “Just remember there’s always a place for you at my house, if you decide to stick around.”
“Yeah.” Sousuke nodded. “Thanks.”
The arrival of Iwatobi’s royalty was the talk of the moment on every street corner from the capital gardens to the underground markets of Sano. Young King Serizawa had come with his court and a hundred men, his proud captain Kirishima at the head. They rode through the main gate in magnificent gleaming armor, flying their rich blue and silver banners.
It was the night of the banquet, eve of their first joint summit, and Rin was a frazzled mess.
Iwatobi had come under friendly terms, but if things played out as Samezuka planned, they might not be leaving in the same fashion. The southern border had been a point of contention for the last two seasons—Samezuka creeping downward, and Iwatobi unyielding. Rin knew his uncle wanted to fly in and claim the rest of the bountiful province, regardless of whatever terms King Serizawa put forth.
It spelled almost certain conflict, and Rin had spoken stubbornly against it. He had been summarily dismissed.
Uncle Akira was a better leader, could command fealty from people in a way Rin hadn’t been able to. An empty-headed idealist wasn’t fit to rule Samezuka, Rin reminded himself. Though at the same time, the fear of what might come of this Iwatobi visit loomed on the horizon.
Pacing around his room, Rin halted in front of his mirror. He hadn’t slept at all the night before, and the dark circles under his eyes gave his pale complexion a haunted look. Rin was exhausted—worn down and pulled taught like a frayed thread at the end of its spool.
“Prince Rin. The wine you requested.” Nitori was at the doorway shuffling timidly, holding a tray with a flagon and two bronze cups.
“Set it on the bed table.”
“Of course.” Nitori did so, then drew his arms in, making no move to leave. He coughed into his fist, wide periwinkle eyes meeting Rin’s in the mirror.
“Yes, Ai?” Rin tried to mask his irritation.
“It’s just…you rarely drink, and it’s nearly time for the banquet. So I was wondering if it’s wise to…do so at this time.”
Rin whipped around with a guttural growl. “I asked for wine, not a flimsy lecture from the boy who does nothing but badger me all fucking day.”
Nitori flinched as Rin slammed his hand on the dresser, rattling the bottles of oils and perfumes.
“Apologies, Your Grace.” The assistant bowed deeply, and skittered out of the prince’s chamber.
Regret snaked its way into the quiet that followed. Rin poured himself a cup of wine with shaky hands, and drained it in seconds flat, desperate to calm his fried nerves. Years’ worth of frustration and loneliness was layering on top of him, and he was drowning. He had watched helplessly as the people he loved disappeared, and his dreams slipped through frozen fingers.
Everyone would be looking at him, and Rin knew somehow he would find a way to be a failure. He snatched the flagon again and refilled the empty cup. He had kept his walls up for years, and he could hold them together tonight.
A concerned grunt drew him to the door. Tora was curled up on the balcony outside the bedroom, lining her eye up with the doorway to see Rin inside.
“I know. I know. I have to stop pushing them all away.” He reached a hand up to scratch her under the chin. She tilted her head to the side contentedly. “At least you’ll have my back, right?” Rin leaned his forehead into Tora’s rough scales, sharing in her pleasant warmth for a few precious, peaceful minutes. He steeled himself for the evening ahead.
Sousuke’s breath hitched at the sight of the palace as he rode up to the entry. The last time he’d seen it this closely, he’d been running away from the love of his life. He had no business coming back here.
The palanquin came to a stop, and Kisumi stepped out gracefully. The bright crystals on his bracelets jingled with his every movement. His favorite iridescent green feather earrings hung from his ears.
“My contact and I won’t be meeting until a bit later tonight. You don’t have to stay with me the whole time,” Kisumi whispered through a smile as he waved at some of the other guests. “It’s a party; enjoy yourself.”
“I’m in an imperial guard uniform, in case you forgot.” Sousuke glanced around anxiously. If he was caught off the compound, it would mean trouble for both of them.
“True. But still. It should be an easy exchange. If all goes well, I might not even need you.” He lifted the hem of his robe to begin the stairs up to the entrance. “Just pay a little attention to the orb is all I ask, okay?”
Sousuke’s hand slipped into his pocket, fingers curling around the glassy sphere. The apricot-sized orb was one of Kisumi’s odd magic-infused items he’d acquired from his trips to Iwatobi. They had used it a few times before. Sousuke couldn’t begin to guess how the things worked. Kisumi kept its mate, and they were charmed to glow and draw together like magnets when one of them was rubbed.
The muffled sound of calm crowds and soft music greeted them at the top of the low stairs. Samezuka Palace’s mammoth gilded doors were held open, illuminating the threshold in the glow from inside. Sousuke followed his sponsor dutifully, nodding once at the stationed guards. He had never entered through the front before—he and Rin had always taken their mischief through other passages. The fearsome grandeur of the main hall from this angle was breathtaking.
On the ceiling high above was a mosaic mural of two winged dragons encircling each other around a ring of flames. The dragons’ scales were brilliant tiles of lapis, jade, topaz, and gold flecks, glittering in the light from tiered chandeliers. Sousuke nearly lost sight of his sponsor as he craned his neck upward to admire it.
Guests from Iwatobi and Samezuka alike were milling around the ornate marble floor, dressed in a rainbow of lavish ensembles. Sousuke fidgeted with his shirt behind Kisumi, feeling wildly out of place and grateful that he could hide within his helmet. His sponsor’s easy magnetism was already on full display as he engaged in some lively conversation with two amused Iwatobi women. He caught Kisumi winking at one of them, and rolled his eyes.
Sousuke spotted the imperial family and their royal guests on a platform across the hall. He scowled behind the visor as his eyes landed on Emperor Akira at the center. Beside him was the king of Iwatobi, a wise-looking young man with green eyes and neatly braided argentate hair. Gou was there, radiant and chatting animatedly with the king’s charismatic captain. To the emperor’s left, sunken dejectedly into his chair, was Rin. Down as he seemed, Rin was still the most beautiful thing in this entire palace.
The night inched on, Kisumi was off somewhere, and Sousuke had long since had enough of the party. He strode out the tall doors to the balcony, welcoming the open air. There was no moon tonight.
Balconies in Samezuka Palace were wide and sturdy, built to serve as perches and landing spots for gargantuan winged beasts. Standing at the far edge of one, Sousuke felt comfortably removed from the noise in the main hall. The courtyard garden lay beneath him.
He’d spent countless afternoons down there in lively battles with Rin, chasing each other and locking wooden swords until sundown. The old gingko at the edge of the clearing used to be their favorite spot to stretch out afterward, lying close together on their backs in the grass and piles of fanned leaves.
Commotion erupted to Sousuke’s side. People murmured in hushed shock, and cleared aside as a red-haired figure stormed onto the balcony.
The man headed straight for the balustrade in a bullish rampage, kicking over a potted plant, spilling soil and vines over the ground.
Guests left the area in a hurry, whispering to one another. Sousuke stayed where he was, hand all but chained to the stone as he watched the prince stomp his way to the rail beside him.
“I’M DONE!” Rin roared. “FUCK ALL OF IT!” He let out a despairing cry and gripped the thin golden crown on his head, hurling it off the balcony into the trees.
The prince was leaning heavily on the railing, hair disheveled, black and crimson robe slipping off one shoulder. He looked up at Sousuke with miserable, defeated eyes and Sousuke felt his heart stutter and splinter into tiny, useless pieces.
“Pathetic, right? That what you’re thinking?” Rin’s voice was low, dark and laden with emotion.
Sousuke shook his head. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Rin. He hadn’t been this close to him since they parted at the Fire Festival. The exuberant boy he had left that night was nowhere to be seen in this man.
When Sousuke made no move, Rin took a drink from the tall cup in his hand, wincing slightly at the strong taste.
Music from the main hall reached them, lively notes wafting out from the bright, open doors. Sousuke knew he should go; he wasn’t a part of Rin’s life anymore—but he couldn’t seem to move his feet. He was grateful for the band inside, staving off the weight of complete silence.
“Don’t like dancing?” Rin said at last.
Sousuke jumped. “I…I uh. I’ve never been…that good.”
“Yeah. Not my thing either.”
“Yes it is.” Inwardly kicking himself, Sousuke coughed. “I mean, it…you look like you’d be good at it. I’m sure the people would love to see you.”
Rin huffed a spiteful laugh. “People don’t care. If I stayed out here all night, I doubt anyone would notice I’m gone until morning tomorrow.”
The prince’s handsome face was flushed cherry red, and Sousuke caught the scent of alcohol on his breath from where he stood.
“I’m sure that’s not true. You’re their prince.”
“And you’re Jinbei.”
Caught, Sousuke bristled.
“You came in with Kisumi, and palace guards don’t slouch.”
Sousuke instinctively straightened his back, and Rin’s thin mouth pulled up at the corners.
“Also…I recognized the way you walk.” The flush on Rin’s cheeks deepened, and he busied himself with the intricacies of his cup. “Don’t worry; I won’t fucking tell anyone you’re off the compound. I know Kisumi brought you out here.”
Another taught silence fell over them, and Sousuke thought he should say something, but couldn’t make any perceivable sense of his jumbled thoughts. It was all too much, too close. In the six years they had been apart, he had daydreamed a hundred different impossible ways he might meet Rin again, and this wasn’t even close to being one of them. Rin sighed and looked out over the courtyard.
“Tonight was supposed to be a casual greeting with Iwatobi, but I still managed to fuck it up.”
“Serizawa asks me what the future looks like, how long I plan to sit on my birthright. And I didn’t have an answer for him.” Rin took another sip of wine. “So I got mad and yelled, and left. Uncle and Gou are in there trying to salvage the whole thing. It’s what I always do—let people down.”
Sousuke stilled, listening as Rin raised his head and continued.
“Thing is, I used to know what I wanted. We’re dragon lords, and people obey us because they’ve seen what we can do, and they’re afraid of us. I had all of these big ideas about how I would change that. I was so sure I could give Samezuka a better future. But when I tried, no one would listen. No one cared, and nothing changed.”
He fixed his gaze somewhere over the wall, toward the valley.
“Somehow I thought people would want to follow me because they loved me, but Uncle was right. Fear is always stronger than love. There was never a place in the real world for a stupid kid with a head full of hollow dreams.”
“You’re not wrong to want that.” Sousuke said as Rin took another despondent drink. “You can’t give up on your dreams.”
“That’s easy to say.” Rin scowled into his cup. “But it’s tiring, beating against the waves. You just want to stop swimming, and let yourself sink, because the tide keeps rolling no matter what you fucking do.”
“Rin, I think you’ve already helped people—saved them in ways you aren’t even aware of.” The words were out of his mouth before Sousuke could bite them down.
Curious, Rin scooted down the railing and shortened the distance between them. His eyes were unfocused and he swayed slightly. Sousuke knew the prince couldn’t possibly see his face in the helmet, but his jaw still tightened nervously under the scrutiny.
“You’re a weird guy, Jinbei.” Rin tilted the drink back and took a long draught to finish the rest of his wine in one go, as Sousuke watched worriedly. When he’d emptied the cup completely, Rin let it drop off the balcony into the bushes below. He sagged over the rail, breathing hard.
“Not sure why I told you all that shit. I’ve never said it to anyone before. M’sorry. Gonna head back in.”
“Are you sure you’re alright to go back?”
“M’fine,” Rin slurred. He let go of the balustrade, but didn’t make it far. The hem of his long robe caught under his slipper, and he stumbled headlong into the spilled planter. Rin landed gracelessly in a hunched-over heap of black and red.
“Rin!” Sousuke forgot himself completely, rushing down to help the prince.
“I’m fine!” Rin sat up lightning-fast, and spat out a blade of grass. “Get away! Don’t look at me! I’m fucking fine! Just…leave!”
He rolled over and pushed himself halfway to his feet, only to step on his robe again and collapse. This time, he stayed down.
“I said leave…”
Sousuke stood motionless, aching to help him, but afraid to overstep his already sorely tested boundary. He watched, arms hovering outstretched in the air, waiting on a word. The soft sound of sniffling reached him, followed by a muffled sob. Rin’s shoulders started to shake, and Sousuke swooped down without another second thought.
Looping Rin’s arm over his neck, Sousuke hugged Rin’s waist and rose, pulling the prince up with him. Rin found his unsteady footing as Sousuke brushed the dirt and leaves from his front. His sobs were coming in earnest now, tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Humiliating…” he croaked.
“Not at all,” Sousuke said. “Let’s get you to bed.”
Once the crying had begun, Rin couldn’t seem to stop. He crumbled and wept into Sousuke’s sleeve, ripping the clasps of Sousuke’s shirt as he grasped the fabric.
“I’m so tired.”
“So fucking tired.”
With his shirt torn wide open, Sousuke’s collar was exposed, and sweat beaded on his temple at the prospect of being seen. Dragging Rin through the main hall would be disastrous for both of them, so Sousuke pulled him the long way through the garden, around to the servants’ entrance. Grateful that the smaller hallway was not in use during the party, they made a stop at a washroom, and stumbled onward toward the royal chambers.
After a few more failed attempts to keep Rin upright at the top of the second staircase, Sousuke resigned. He bent to sweep the prince’s feet out from under him, hoisting Rin high on his chest. Rin was too drunk and drained to put up much of a struggle for pride’s sake. He let his body go slack, head lolling onto Sousuke’s shoulder. As they made their way down the long corridor, Sousuke could feel Rin’s quiet sobs on his neck and a growing wetness on the hem of his shirt. He flexed his arms and held Rin tighter.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
He had let his friend go to live a long, glorious life as royalty without him. Rin had been a star over the open ocean, burning with passion enough to set all the rest of them aflame. The world had dragged him out of the sky, and Sousuke hadn’t been there to catch him.
The prince’s room was the same one it had always been—the high-roofed chamber at the end of the hall. Sousuke pushed the double doors open, and brought Rin inside, shutting them with a kick. Making his way to the bed, he pulled back the covers and gently lay Rin down on the mattress.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
Rin groaned and hissed through his teeth.
Sousuke slid down to remove Rin’s shoes, and made deft work of the sash at his waist, unclasping golden anklets and arm bands as he moved up. Rin lay still, watching with teary, half-lidded eyes as Sousuke undid his necklace and set it on the bed table. He shivered at the touch of Sousuke’s calloused fingers at the back of his neck.
There was a partially-filled flagon of wine on a tray there, and Rin made a clumsy grab for it.
“I think you’ve had enough of that.” Sousuke moved the wine out of Rin’s reach and poured water into the cup for him instead.
Rin drank it as Sousuke held the cup steady, and dropped back onto the pillow with an airy whumpf. Sousuke drew the cover up over him. This was far too dangerous, and he knew he shouldn’t be here. But every tiny sound from Rin was keeping Sousuke helplessly anchored to the bedside.
“Can’t…see you…” Rin whispered.
Blinking away the moisture in his eyes, the prince was peering into the slits of Sousuke’s helmet. He was searching for a human face inside the iron shell— looking for a pair of eyes to draw assurance from, and Sousuke couldn’t give that to him. It seemed cruel to leave him like this.
Rin needed to know he wasn’t alone.
I’m getting swept away. I should go.
What the hell am I doing?
Sousuke extinguished the sconces on the wall, acutely aware of Rin’s gaze following his every movement. Taking a deep breath, he put out the last flame, plunging the room into darkness.
There’s no moon tonight.
Sousuke was accustomed to moving in the dark, but he had never used the shadows for something like this. Faint starlight filtered through the windows onto Rin, washing his beauty in mellow silver. With his back to them, Sousuke seated himself on the bed. Against the night sky, he was nothing but a shape in the gloom.
Sousuke unhooked the chinstrap, and slid the helmet off of his head.
They sat unmoving, breathing softly in the dark. Rin brought a cautious, trembling hand up to run his knuckles across Sousuke’s cheek. The prince smoothed his fingers through Sousuke’s short, coarse hair. Warm palms slid around to cup his jaw, grazing the scar on the right side, a thumb running curiously over his lips. Sousuke let Rin explore, almost sick with affection for the man beneath him on the bed.
“You’ve…always reminded me of someone I knew.” Rin murmured through the fog. “My best friend.” His fingernails stroked the shell of Sousuke’s ear. “I let him go…and I lost him.”
Rin’s whispers were a sharpened spear through the gut. Guilt curdled in Sousuke’s veins.
It took Rin’s soft touch at his collar for Sousuke to come back to himself. He took the prince’s wrist and brought it down to the bed. Rin’s hand instantly curled around his.
“I won’t go anywhere,” He lied. Another promise he would have to break.
Sousuke waited, bowed over his friend’s bed, until Rin settled into sleep.
Sitting there, Rin’s hand in his, Sousuke felt something inside him stir and flicker. He had spent four torturous years furiously carving out a space for himself amongst the living. In the midst of savagery, it had been easy to let his darkness overtake him. But beneath his wrath and simmering lust for revenge, there had always been love. There had always been Rin.
With a shaky exhale, Sousuke sat up. A veil of peacefulness lay over Rin’s delicate features while he slept, his long eyelashes still sparkling with tears. A stray lock of hair had caught in his sharp teeth, and Sousuke reached over to brush it back. The phantom warmth of Rin’s skin lingered on his fingertips.
Minutes ticked by, and Sousuke couldn’t tear himself away.
At the bottom of his field of vision, he caught something moving. Blinking.
Sousuke scrambled to extract Kisumi’s orb from his pocket. It glowed a faint violet in his palm. He had to go, now. Carefully, regretfully, he slipped his hand out of Rin’s grasp. After refilling the cup with water, he traversed the dark bedroom, halting at the doorway to drink in the sight of Rin one last time.
“I’m so sorry,” he said again, and darted out into the empty hallway, shutting the door behind him.
The sphere was glowing brighter.
Shit shit shit shit
He hadn’t been minding the orb, too captivated by Rin to notice much of anything else. Speeding down the corridors, he remembered he had left his helmet on the floor beside the prince’s bed. It was too late to go back for it now, and panic moved his legs faster.
Following the orb’s pull down a narrow staircase, he blew past a petite silver-haired boy who yelped and flattened himself against the wall to stay out of his way.
Don’t be dead, Kisumi, I fucking swear—
Night air cooled the sweat on Sousuke’s skin as he sprinted over the palace rampart, heart still beating wildly. He rounded a corner, and— was face-to-face with his extremely distressed sponsor.
Kisumi had never looked so relieved to see him. “And here he is! My secret weapon!” He leaped around Sousuke to hide behind his wide back, urging his champion forward. “Save me,” he hissed in Sousuke’s ear.
In front of him were three Iwatobi mercenaries with longswords drawn, and a cloaked, hooded figure behind them.
Sousuke drew his own blade as he sized the men up and flipped through his options. “What happened to ‘easy exchange?”
“Well I did get what I came for,” Kisumi said, lifting a leather case in his hand. “And my business contact left earlier. So if we both live, I’m still calling tonight a success.”
One of the men came at him first, swinging high. Sousuke blocked, ducked in to knock him off-balance, and kicked him over the parapet. Occasionally, rarely, Kisumi’s secret meetups were interrupted by thieves, which necessitated Sousuke’s presence, he supposed. He could only assume that was the case tonight, though something about these mercenaries seemed off.
“Oooh Sousuke!” Kisumi cooed as Sousuke engaged the other two men at once. “Where’s your helmet? And what happened to your shirt!? Do I owe you an apology?”
“Not now, Kisumi.” Sousuke growled, running his blade through the back of the second attacker.
Rounding on the one left alive, Sousuke charged forward. The rampart was wide, giving the man plenty of room to run if he chose. He didn’t. And after a cut to his hand, Sousuke was at his throat to end the duel.
“Well that’ll about do it!” Kisumi called out to the hooded onlooker. “I think we’ll be off! Enjoy what’s left of the evening!” Waving, he started down the walkway, beckoning Sousuke after him. Warily, they began jogging back the way he’d come.
Shrill laughter pierced the air over the palace grounds. They chanced a look back as the mysterious figure threw back their hood. Pale blonde hair shone in the starlight, framing the complexion of an alluring young woman. More confused than ever, Sousuke turned to his sponsor to demand an explanation, but Kisumi was staring across the wall at her, skin blanched.
“I think I will enjoy the rest of my evening, Shigino, thank you!” The woman waved her hand in an elegant arc, and a stream of stone and sand swirled up over the parapet onto the walkway in front of her. The bodies of the two men Sousuke had just felled dissolved into sand before her and joined the rest of the twisting, clumping mass.
All Sousuke could do was stare in horror as the mass began to take shape. A thick pair of legs, brutish arms, a hunched back, and finally the hideous face of an ogre materialized on the walkway. In full flesh and towering over the woman at twice her height, the creature snarled and forced air from its flat nostrils, beady eyes fixed on Sousuke and Kisumi.
Sousuke’s knowledge about Iwatobi and its workings was limited, to say the least. It was a land with magical rocks, and a few magical people, and that was the extent of his awareness. It was enough to recognize the woman for what she was: a sorcerer.
“Who is that, and why is she trying to kill you?!” Sousuke barked as the two of them sprinted down the rampart. He could hear the rumble of the monster thundering after them, feeling each pound of its massive feet in the vibrations of the stone.
“Hazuki Kyo,” Kisumi panted. “And she doesn’t want to kill me. She wants to catch me.”
The ogre let out a gurgling growl. The distance between them was shrinking too quickly. Sousuke seized Kisumi’s sleeve to urge him faster. The doorway leading to the staircase was ahead, and once they were through, the size of the creature would strand it outside.
Just a few more meters, and they would be safe within the wall.
With a harsh crack, one of the stones on the walkway was upturned to cover the doorway completely. They were trapped.
That high-pitched cackle carried over the air again. “If you come with me, birdbrain, I’ll let your friend live! It would be a true shame to ruin a gorgeous face like his!”
The ogre snorted as it approached, the rumbling in the ground increasing with every step. It would be on them in seconds, and Sousuke adjusted his grip, preparing to make a desperate stand.
Kisumi spun around and pulled Sousuke to a gap in the parapet. He was grinning through obvious terror as a gust from below blew his bangs up.
“Sousuke, do you trust me?”
Kisumi snickered and jumped off the wall, bodily hauling Sousuke over with him.
He opened his mouth to curse, but Sousuke had left his voice at the top of the rampart. Somewhere above, the ogre let out an anguished cry. The ground was screaming up to meet them, and he knew he should close his eyes for this last part, but morbid fascination compelled him to keep looking.
As he fell, he let himself think of Rin, happy that he’d been able to see the prince one last time.
And then his world was white and gold.
Feathers encased him, glowing and shimmering, almost ghostly in their appearance. They opened back up in a split second, and the streets of the capital were gone. He was floating, no—flying, downward into Sano Stadium.
“Watch your feet!” came Kisumi’s songlike voice from above. His arms were still locked beneath Sousuke’s shoulders, holding him high over the ground of the empty arena.
Sousuke tipped his head back to look up. The feathers belonged to a pair of white wings, and those wings belonged to Kisumi. He allowed himself a few seconds to question if he was dead after all.
Circling once around the dark stadium, Sousuke touched down in the sand with a brief stumble. Kisumi landed daintily a short distance away, stretching his wings once and folding them behind his back. Embers floated down around him like tiny fireflies.
Speechless, chest heaving, blood still pounding in his ears, Sousuke watched Kisumi dust himself off, waiting for anything. The man turned around unhurriedly.
“It’s later! So, are you gonna tell me who ripped open your shirt, or can I guess?”
Sousuke was really, truly not in the mood for this. He fisted his hand in the fabric of Kisumi’s robe. “What the fuck was that?” He waved a frantic arm at the man’s wings, which still emitted a faint light. “Why do you have wings, Kisumi? What the hell is going on?”
Kisumi let himself be manhandled, unperturbed. “Rude! If you don’t answer my questions, why should I answer yours?” He ducked out of Sousuke’s grip and put a few meters between them.
“Do you remember the ten-year treaty Iwatobi made with the sirens of Moyajima?” Kisumi’s irises flashed a deep, otherworldly purple.
“Of course,” Sousuke breathed.
“The Hazuki sisters made that deal. Just the three of them alone, not even fifteen years old, scared the sirens enough to sign a truce. That was thirteen years ago, and they haven’t been idle. All three serve King Serizawa.”
“If they’re so powerful, why have a treaty?” Sousuke frowned. “Why haven’t they just killed the creatures?”
“You’re asking the right questions,” Kisumi said with an impish wink. “Unfortunately, I don’t have time to answer any of them before I go! I have to see to something, immediately.” He whirled away, facing the sky again.
“What?! Hold on, you can’t just—”
“Oh, I nearly forgot!” Kisumi spun around, and Sousuke felt the warmed air from his wings. “Happy Late Birthday, Sousuke!” He pushed the leather case into Sousuke’s arms.
“Thank…you.” Sousuke blinked.
“It’s a sample of potions from Iwatobi,” Kisumi said. “I’m having a shipment of them delivered in a few months. Tonight was just smoothing over some details.”
Reaching into Sousuke’s space, he clicked open the latch. An assortment of colored glass vials filled with liquid were delicately cushioned in velvet inside.
“Green ones are antidotes and healing, blue ones are for good luck, yellow are for energy. Oh, and the pink ones are my favorites! They make that feeling right before you orgasm last three times as long!”
Sousuke choked. “Kisumi! Are you telling me you risk your life for magical sex potions?”
“See, you say that because you haven’t tried them.” He skipped away, spreading his wings again. “And I sincerely hope you do!”
“You’re leaving?! Now?” Sousuke closed the case and rushed forward. “What about the sorcerer sisters? Where are you going?”
“I’m sorry, Sousuke. Something is very, very wrong, and I need to talk to the Cat as soon as possible. Been a while since I’ve paid the forest a visit.”
Desperate to have at least the most important of his burning questions answered, Sousuke shouted after his friend. “Is Rin safe?!” He knew he sounded pathetic, but he didn’t care. “Those sisters are at the palace, aren’t they? Will he be in danger?”
Kisumi paused, thoughtfully considering a response. “I can’t say for certain.”
Sorcerers and monsters didn’t scare Sousuke half as much as hearing those words.
“But don’t go trying to warn him.” Kisumi eyed him gravely. “I know how the Hazukis are, and if he tries to do something about them, which he will, he’ll put himself in danger for sure.”
Sousuke hated that Kisumi had made so much sense.
“Be careful, Jinbei.” Kisumi darted in to peck him on the cheek. “I’ll be back before you can miss me!”
His luminous wings wrapped around him again, and when they drew back, an elegant white bird hovered over the ground where Kisumi had been. With a teasing glint in its violet eye, the bird took off over Sousuke’s head, and disappeared in a flash of gold.
Sano Stadium was deathly quiet, and Sousuke stayed rooted to the middle of the field as the last of the embers twinkled out around him. Making sense of everything he had just seen would take some serious thought and time. But he was sure of one thing: Rin needed him. His freedom could not come soon enough.
“It’s quite late, Your Grace. I really think you should wake now.”
Rin groaned and rolled over into the pillow. His entire body felt heavy, and pain throbbed in his head like he was clamped in a dragon’s jaws. Even Nitori’s considerate whispering was too loud.
“Mmnggghh later, Ai,” he mumbled.
A sigh and the sound of quiet steps fading in the direction of the door told Rin that Nitori had left. He let his mind float lazily back into the downy lull of sleep.
“RIN, GET THE FUCK UP!”
Morning light exploded into Rin’s bedroom as the curtains were thrown back. He might as well have been tossed into the sun.
“Gooouu,” he whined, heaving an arm up to block out the blinding white.
“I can’t believe you! Get out of bed!” The princess unlatched the lock and opened his balcony doors to let in the crisp outside air. Tora was gone, likely out catching breakfast with Sango. “I’m not even going to start with how angry I am at you for getting so drunk at the banquet.”
“Nnngh I know.” Rin flopped onto his back. “I’ll sort it out later,” he said, still not deigning to open his eyes. “Least I made it to bed, though.”
“That’s not what I heard.” Gou was in his closet, fishing around for something clean. “Nitori said one of the guards carried you to your room.”
Rin lurched up onto his elbows. “Huh?!” Rubbing away the sleepy blurriness, he glanced over at his bedside table. All of his jewelry was laid out flat and orderly, his sash folded neatly and hung over the chair. Something metallic caught his eye.
A helmet sat forgotten on the floor next to his bed. Rin’s eyes widened.
The previous night came flooding back to him. The conversation on the balcony, staggering up to his room, gentle hands and a deep, clear voice. After endless months of walling himself in, Rin had laid himself bare, and broken down into the arms of a man he’d never even spoken to before. A man he’d spent the last few years admiring. His cheeks burned hotter the longer he thought about it, and he collapsed back onto the pillow, utterly mortified.
Yet guilty as he was, he felt like a leaden weight had been lifted from his chest.
“I need to find him. I have to apologize.”
Gou hurled a tunic at Rin from the wardrobe, and he sat up just in time to catch it with his face.
“Yes, you do. But lucky for us, King Serizawa was incredibly understanding,” she said.
“Er, I was actually talking about…”
“Rin, something happened last night after you left.” Smoothing out her skirt, Gou lowered herself to the bed. She took a deep, calm breath. “Seijuurou tried to murder Uncle.”
“He—out of nowhere—he took a carving knife from the table and just, lunged. He looked crazy, I’ve never seen him like that before. I could tell he was really going to kill him.”
“Captain Kirishima got there in time and wrestled him down. Sei bolted, and we couldn’t catch him. We found him asleep in the garden a few minutes later. But when we talked to him, he couldn’t remember any of it.”
Gou had started anxiously scratching at her nails, and Rin reached over to pry her hands apart and weave his fingers between hers. She squeezed gratefully.
“He says he didn’t do it,” she said, voice small and unsteady. “And he wouldn’t. I know he disagrees with Uncle often, but he would never do something like that. I was right there. I saw it happen with my own eyes, and gods save me, I still believe him.”
Seijuurou Mikoshiba had been in their lives for as long as they could remember. Rin had watched as the older boy had gone from teacher to friend, to captain, and his little sister’s devoted lover. He was strong and loyal, straightforward to a fault. Hard as it had been to accept him as Gou’s suitor, he admitted he couldn’t name a more honest man.
“I know Sei loves you too much to make you suffer.”
Gou nodded tearfully.
Rin slid out of the covers and stood, pulling his sister up by the hands. He framed her narrow shoulders surely and locked eyes with her. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, Gou. Together, we’ll figure it out.”
His sister sniffled once and crashed into him. Her arms went around his middle, and he wrapped his over her back. Cool air from the balcony swirled around the room, tickling their red hair. At length, Gou pushed herself away, wiping her eyes and firming her expression.
“It’ll be ok,” she said. “It’ll all be ok.”
Cracking a fond smile, Gou shoved Rin off and made for the door. “Now take a bath already and get dressed, you bum. We’ve got a lot to take care of today.”
Rin watched his baby sister leave, struck suddenly dumb by how much she’d grown. Mired in his own woes, he had been absent from her life for too long. He decided he was done letting her down.
“Ah, Prince Rin…?” Nitori edged into the room, gaze downcast. “Shall I have a bath drawn? I apologize for telling your sister everything, but I thought it best.”
“No,” Rin said. “I apologize. Ai, I’m sorry for yesterday.”
Nitori’s head snapped up, instantly alight with joy. Head still pounding as it was, the sight warmed Rin’s heart. He took the filled cup of water on the bed table and quenched his parched throat. The helmet still sat there like the token of a promise.
“Last night, did you happen to see anyone enter or leave this room?”
“Oh, yes.” Nitori said pensively. “I saw a guard coming down the stairs on his way out. Though he was missing a helmet…”
Rin spun around, crossing the room to his assistant. “You did?! What did he look like?”
“I…He had dark hair, and was…tall?” Shocked by Rin’s sudden fervor, Nitori craned back, scratching his chin. “I’m sorry, he was in a hurry and I didn’t really notice much else. Did you know him?”
“No,” Rin said. A vaguely familiar jittery sensation was blooming in his chest, spreading to his fingers and down to his toes. “But I think I’d like to change that.”
Nitori raised an eyebrow.
“Anyway, I’ll have that bath now. Busy day ahead.”
“Yes, Your Grace!” Nitori gave an enthusiastic bow and scurried out.
Rin’s attention was drawn right back to the empty helmet at the foot of the table.
“Do we have any roses? Or rose petals? I’d like them added to the water….please.”
Nitori’s puzzlement lasted all of half a second. “I’m sure some can be found. It will be arranged, Prince Rin!”
“Thank you, Ai.”
The shaft of Sousuke’s bamboo sword came down hard on the back of his opponent with a blunt crack. He could hear the man crumple and swear at him through gritted teeth. Practice was the only way he could think of to quell his boiling vexation. Dangerous sorcerers were at the palace, Rin was at their mercy, and the only person who seemed to know anything about it all—the friend he thought he’d known— had fucking turned into a bird and flown off to another continent.
He mulled over Rin’s anguished words again and again in his head. It had taken only one meeting with his lost friend to push the anger he had harbored so fiercely to the sideline again. Six years had passed, and he still couldn’t help but surrender every inch of himself to Rin.
One more battle, and he could leave the compound. That battle was scheduled for one month from now.
Another peer stepped onto the sand behind him, feet shufffling loudly in the dirt. Sousuke struck low and tripped him at his ankles, frustration spiking the blow. A month might as well be another year. Those sisters were at large, and he had to be there to protect Rin now.
Distantly, Sousuke knew the prince of Samezuka was a skilled warrior himself, and had a fire-breathing dragon at his call to boot, but Tora couldn’t be with him inside the palace. She had been the size of a young horse when Sousuke had seen her last, so he doubted she was small enough to enter now. His inability to do anything from here was burning him alive. Rin could be dead, and the Iwatobi company gone by the time he was free.
The other fighters were beginning to tire of defeat, most leaving Sousuke’s sparring ring to take lunch. Nearby, he heard what sounded like a scuffle. Fights often broke out around midday, as the men picked bouts over pieces of food and other trifles. This one sounded particularly one-sided. Sousuke tore off his blindfold.
“You think I’d sign on under a twiggy little monkey like you?” One of the brawnier fighters was pinning some kid to the wall by his neck near the kitchen. “Like I’d give half a damn about your kiddie fight?”
“Y-you don’t have to,” the kid choked out. “I was just…askingghhk—”
Sousuke could make out the boy’s bright ginger hair from behind the larger man. Normally, he couldn’t be bothered with petty quarrels outside the arena, but this…
Planting a firm hand on the fighter, he fixed the brute with an icy scowl. The man was only slightly taller, and seemed to be weighing the pros and cons of a clash with Jinbei.
“Have ‘im,” the man said with a grunt. He released the boy, who fell to his knees coughing.
“Everyone knows Jinbei always chooses the redheads!” one of the others chimed in. “He’s all yours!”
Sousuke turned his glare on the rest of them, and they quieted in an instant, busying themselves with their food.
“Be more careful about who you piss off next time, kid.” Sousuke hauled the boy up by the arm, and started walking back toward the training ground.
“Hey! Hey, wait up!” Jogging to catch up to him, the kid hovered around his side. “You’re Jinbei?!”
“Wow, so this is what you look like without the helmet! Even scarier! And you’re young! I’ve watched you before; you’re the best! The way you’re like shaaa— from behind,” The boy made some vague swiping motion, “and then, wraaaahh!”
“That’s nice of you. Why don’t you go eat lunch?”
“I’m Momo! Do I call you Jinbei? Or do you have like a cool nickname just for people who know you, or—”
The kid reminded Sousuke one of those chipmunks that would follow him around the yard all morning after he’d given it a piece of bread crust. As the boy chattered, Sousuke glanced down to get a good look at him. Youthful countenance, catlike amber eyes, skin with no scars or bruises, and no collar .
From time to time, outside citizens would join the ranks of Sano’s pit fighters. They sought fame, money, excitement. Some lasted longer than others, but at the end of the day, they could go home. Sousuke envied them bitterly.
Momo was still sticking to Sousuke’s arm, trotting to keep up with his long strides. “Thanks for helping me out back there, by the way! I was thinking…do you…would you—?”
An unconditional ‘No’ was waiting on Sousuke’s tongue, but he supposed he could let the kid finish.
“Would you fight with me in my match? I get to pick my own team of whoever will sign up, and it’d be super great if you could do it. Especially since we’re friends now.”
“We’re not friends,” Sousuke said.
Momo looked hurt. “Yes we are! You bailed me out just now! And I think we’d fight really well together. We’d definitely win! JINBEI and…CRAZY OTTER!”
“Have you ever even been in a real fight before, kid?”
“Of course I have! There was this mean guy in my brother’s class, and one time when Sei wasn’t around he goes, ‘Momo, I’m gonna feed your beetles to my father’s hounds if you don’t shut up.’ Can you believe that?!”
“Me neither!! Then I told him, ‘I can’t let you get away with threatening my beetles!’ And I shoved him into the fish pond! So hah!”
Part of Sousuke wanted to laugh, and the rest of him wanted to drink an entire barrel of rum. This kid was almost certainly going to die if he stayed. And with one fight left, Sousuke was not willing to remain here any longer than he needed to to prevent it.
“Momo, was it? You need to drop whatever this is, and go home. If you’re after a thrill, get it somewhere else, because the arena is not a game, and you will get yourself killed fooling around.”
At this, Momo’s expression hardened. “I’m not just fooling around.”
“Then why are you here?”
The boy went suddenly mute, and Sousuke was done entertaining him. He continued on in the direction of the training yard.
Momo stood his ground, determined. “There’s no way I’m backing out! If you won’t do it, can’t you at least suggest someone? The match is in four days, and I’m gonna be screwed!”
The realization jolted Sousuke’s spine, and he spun back around. “Say that last part again.”
“I’m gonna be screwed…?”
“The part before that.”
“M-my match is in four days.”
Looming close enough to cast a shadow over Momo’s alarmed face, Sousuke scanned him for any trace of deceit. The kid seemed well-meaning, if not the most sensible.
“I’ll do it,” Sousuke said. “Sign me on to your team.”
“Wait, you’ll fight with me? For real?” Momo’s whole body lit up with energy again at the promise. “Just like that?”
“JINBEEEIII!!” The boy flew forward to wrap his arms around Sousuke, but wasn’t quite fast enough.
“You can hug me after the match,” Sousuke said, flicking Momo’s unruly hair. “Now go eat. You’ve got a rough few days ahead of you if you want to stand any kind of chance.”
“Yes, sir! You won’t regret this!” Momo skipped backward once and took off toward the mess hall.
Shaking his head and heaving a weary sigh, Sousuke turned back toward the yard.
Four days, Rin.
“Oi, Whale Shark!”
One of the compound’s guards was leaning out the watch house window, beckoning him over with a stiff wave. Annoyed at being interrupted again, Sousuke trudged across the lawn with a scowl. “Someone important here to see you at the shrine!” The guard dropped his voice as Sousuke approached. “It’s the Dragon Prince.”
Rin wandered around the temple garden while he waited.
The shrine was small and well-used, intimate where Samezuka Temple was imposing and opulent. Paint on the beams and carved figures was worn and chipped, stone statues blanketed with soft moss. A sacred flame burned low and leisurely in a modest enclosure at the back.
Rin had flown here without telling Gou, and there was a colossal mess waiting for him back home, but he felt he had to talk to this man. Currents of nervous anticipation buzzed through him as he remembered the events from the night before.
Rin knelt beside the fire. On the table nearby was a box of paper slips and chalk for people to write their wishes and submit them to the flames. It used to be his favorite part of visiting the temple as a kid. There had been one wish he would write over and over, though he knew it could never come true. So eventually he stopped making them altogether.
The crunch of maple leaves under heavy feet alerted Rin to a person’s approach. He rose slowly and turned around.
Jinbei was standing there, panting as if he’d just been running. He was bare-chested, the hard planes and contours of his muscles rolling with every breath under a thin sheen of sweat. The low-slung linen pants he wore exposed more of him than his armor did, and the sight of him up close in the daylight left the roof of Rin’s mouth suddenly dry.
He still sported his helmet, and black spaulders on his right shoulder, and Rin’s hands tingled as he tried to recall the shape of the man’s face in the dark. He wanted so badly to see Jinbei’s face, but he would wait patiently until that privilege was offered.
Jinbei seemed to notice him staring. “Uh, s-sorry, I should go put something on…”
“No it’s fine!” Rin said a little too quickly. “You’re…you don’t have to.”
They shifted in the dense spell of silence. Finally, Rin gathered his initiative.
“So I…the other night, I was a mess. I’m sorry you had to see that. And you were so.…” Rin was sure his entire face was on fire. He could sense Jinbei watching him intently, and clung on to his courage. “Ah, I just…wanted to say thank you.”
“Oh,” Jinbei said. He still kept himself a safe distance away, like he wasn’t sure he was allowed any closer. “I didn’t think you’d remember. Are you feeling better?”
Rin laughed dryly. “Still got a killer headache, but I’ll live.”
“That’s good.” Jinbei nodded. “But I also meant are you feeling…uh, better?”
That took Rin by surprise. “Yeah. Yes. Much better.”
“Good. I’m glad.”
Jinbei seemed to relax a little, walking forward into a sunny gap in the tree’s dappled shadow. The light warmed his skin and shone on his helmet as he joined Rin beside the fire pit. Rin moved aside to give him room, his pulse quickening.
“Don’t be sorry about last night. There’s no shame in needing someone to help you up once in a while.”
Rin dropped his gaze, biting his lip over a smile. “Well ah…thanks…for being that someone.”
Jinbei cleared his throat, embarrassed, hand snapping up to fidget with his leather collar. “Y-yeah.”
Rin knew he should be the one embarrassed, but he found the gesture both incredibly endearing and
“You know, what you said yesterday about wanting to rule with love instead of fear….” Jinbei turned to watch the flames dancing inside of the enclosure. A flush was creeping up his throat, peeking out below the mask. “You shouldn’t give up. Even though you may lose sight of it sometimes, if there’s one thing in the world that’s always worth fighting for, it’s love.”
Rin was dimly aware that his mouth was hanging open as he gazed in wonder at Jinbei. His gratitude was overwhelming.
“Thank you.” Rin managed. “I think I needed to hear that.”
It was getting late, and Rin’s duties at the palace were waiting. For the first time in a long while, he was ready to meet the challenge. Though he didn’t want to take a single step away from where he was.
“Jinbei, can I…” Rin pressed his lips together shyly, his wits scattered in fluttery fragments. “Can I see you again?”
Jinbei froze. This clearly wasn’t something he’d expected to hear. Rin had gone too far. That had been too forward—
“You’re the Dragon Prince, and I’m just a guy.” Jinbei said. “Pretty sure you can see me if you want to.”
Rin could hear his breathy chuckle coming from inside the metal mask.
“A gentleman and a smartass.” He flashed Jinbei a playful smirk. “Fine. I meant would you like to see me again?”
Jinbei turned to look at Rin dead-on. A long moment passed, and Rin felt the man’s purposeful stare through the shadow of the grating as he considered an answer.
Exhilaration lifted Rin like a wing-full of wind.
A drawn-out bellow coming from the stadium shattered the tranquility of the temple garden. They looked up to see a tall burst of flame erupt into the sky. Tora was getting impatient.
“That’s my call to get home,” Rin noted ruefully. It took all of his willpower to pry himself away from his spot by the fire.
“Wait! Rin, have you…at the palace, ah…” Jinbei struggled. “Nevermind. Just, be careful, ok?”
“Huh?” Amused, Rin sauntered over to the nearby table. “If anyone needs to be careful, it’s you. When’s your last fight?”
“I’ll be there.”
With the corners of his mouth fixed in an upward curve, Rin wet his fingers and drew one of the paper slips from the box. He scrawled something and folded it squarely in half.
“What are you wishing for?” Jinbei laughed.
Rin sealed the slip of paper with a kiss and tossed it into the flame. “Secret.”
He flashed his sharp teeth in a shameless grin that lit up his entire face. It had been too long since he’d been so unabashedly hopeful.
Light from narrow openings in the stone leaked into the dungeon hallway, bouncing off the walls and catching on flecks of dust in the airless chamber. It was uncomfortably warm down here, and Gou fanned herself with the front of her shirt as she slipped down the broken stairs, gripping the ring of keys in her sleeve so they wouldn’t make a sound.
She had borrowed a plain cloak from Chigusa, pulling the hood up to hide her bright carmine braids. Keeping as close to the opposite wall as she could, Gou passed by half a dozen bleak cells—most of them empty.
A pair of confused golden eyes met hers from the other side of the next cell. She almost sobbed with relief, and crossed the floor to her lover.
“Sei!” Gou wound her arms through the gaps on either side of Seijuurou, gently pulling his face close enough to touch their foreheads together.
“You shouldn’t be here.” Seijuurou extended a hand through the bars to tuck her hair behind her ear, flicking his finger to jingle her earring. She pouted.
“Stoppit! I’ve always hated it when you do that.”
“I know. But not as much as I hate you risking yourself for me.”
Ignoring him, Gou extracted the keys and began searching for the one that would fit.
“My brother and I are going to figure out what happened.” She said. “So in the meantime, you’re leaving, and hiding. And don’t you even think about coming back until I say.”
“Your uncle thinks I made an attempt on his life. I’m not getting out of this alive.”
“The hell you aren’t!” Gou cried indignantly. She went back to the lock. Sei’s easy resignation was maddening. He seemed already convinced he was going to die.
“Gou…I might not get another chance to tell someone this. And I’m sorry it has to be you.” There was a sadness in his voice that sent chills over Gou’s skin.
“…Do you remember Rin’s friend from Tokitsu? The slave boy with the burn on his shoulder?”
“Sousuke? Of course, how could I forget—”
Gou’s hands slowed. “Sei, what are you saying? Sousuke died six years ago.”
Seijuurou shook his head, swallowing hard. “That was a lie. Your uncle wanted him dead. And if not him, he— He would have killed Rin for threatening to upset your family’s rule.”
“How dare you!” Coiling back, Gou would have slapped him if not for the bars in her way. “How dare you drag this out of the farthest depths of my brother’s grief, and accuse Uncle of something so ridiculous!”
“I heard it out of the emperor’s own mouth when he sent me to murder the poor kid!” Seijuurou snarled. “Your uncle loves you both, I don’t doubt that—but his priorities aren’t what you think they are.”
Gou was stopped at a fork in the road. Caught between her lover and her own blood, the indecision tore at her seams.
“I let the boy go and stuck him on a cart to Sano.” Seijuurou continued. “He might still be there, who knows.”
“That’s impossible. We burned his body, Rin scattered his ashes over the valley.”
“Wasn’t him.” Seijuurou leaned in. “I cut his collar, took a corpse from the waste trenches near the quarry. Burned the shoulder with a lantern…messed up the face. No one took more than a quick look at it before wrapping it up again.”
Gou edged away in stiff disbelief.
“Gou, I’m sorry. I just…I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill that boy. And I didn’t want anyone to know, for the kid’s safety, and for Rin’s. You can’t tell your brother, but someone needs to know this before I go.”
There was a screech as the dungeon door opened, followed by footsteps descending the stairs.
Hide, Seijuurou said with pleading eyes.
Gou skirted around his cell and ducked behind a stack of two crates of straw. She pulled up her hood and straightened her back against the wall, ears prickling.
“Enjoying the accommodations, Mikoshiba?”
Gou instantly recognized the smooth, even voice of her uncle. He had never spoken to her with such uncloaked malice, and she shivered to hear it.
“Very much, Your Majesty, thank you,” Seijuurou said with a dark hint of spite.
“Good. Though not for much longer, I’m afraid.”
“I didn’t try to take your life. I know it’s difficult to believe, but I swear it.”
Emperor Akira let out a derisive hiss. “Do you take me for an idiot? I’ve granted you and your family my utmost trust, was ready to give my niece to you, and you repay me by attempting to kill me in front of our enemies.”
He approached the cell. “I come with good news for you. When it’s time for my dragon to burn the flesh from your treacherous bones and your soul rises to the heavens, at the very least, you’ll have company.”
Peering through a slit between the crate and the wall, Gou watched her uncle curl his long fingers around the iron bars.
“Your little brother has enacted your right to a trial by combat, as a member of close kin.” The emperor relished the words. “He’s battling for your life in three days.”
Seijuurouu’s brave front vanished in an instant. Gou heard the metal clang of his chain as he forced himself as close to the emperor as he could get. “How could you?! How could you let him do that?!”
“It was his own idea. He knew you wouldn’t plead guilty, and he also knew you couldn’t lie your way out of your due punishment.”
“Stop him, please! I’ll do it! I’ll fight for myself; Momo has nothing to do with this!”
“It’s already been decided, Mikoshiba. He signed the contract. Of course, there’s the small chance that he wins, and you both walk free. But that’s highly improbable, given what he’ll be up against.” The emperor drew in close to Seijuurouu, almost whispering into his ear. Hard as she listened, Gou couldn’t make out what was said. Then her uncle pulled away, and Seijuurou sank to his knees in tears.
“He is allowed to have help, if he can find any in the scum of the pits. But it won’t make a difference. Your brother is going to die, and so will you. Samezuka does not tolerate disloyalty.”
Pulling away from Seijuuro’s cell, the emperor glanced down the hall. “Oh, and Gou. Perhaps next time you steal keys from the gaoler, you should have the nerve to kill him.”
Gou’s heart skipped several beats. The stairs crowded with armed soldiers.
“Seize my niece. We can allow her some time with her lover before his execution. Lock her down here with him. No one is to hear of it.”
“Uncle, please…” Gou thrashed in the men’s grip as she was shoved into Seijuurou’s cell.
“You’ll be released, Gou. When you’ve thought long and hard about the responsibility you carry as a member of this family.”
“But Momo will—!”
“Momotarou will fight for his brother as he promised. And he won’t win.”