Sousuke shook off the autumn morning chill, stretching his arms over his head as he and Momo made their way down the dirt path to the armory. He could hear the boy behind him imitating the movement.
It had been mere hours since Sousuke had seen Rin in the temple garden, and he could scarcely think of anything else. Rin wanted to meet with him again. A part of him knew it was stupid to agree—to risk exposing everything he’d kept safely buried these past six years— but the prince needed a person to talk to, and Sousuke could do at least that for him.
Moreover, if he was to protect Rin from the Hazuki sisters, he would have to find a way to be close. It was nothing he couldn’t do with a helmet on, he reasoned. He ached to feel Rin’s hands on his skin again, but there was a cold piece of metal between him and the prince, and there would always have to be.
“Jinbei, Jinbei!” Momo jogged up to shorten the gap between them, stealing Sousuke’s attention back. “If you were a stag beetle, what color would you be?”
“Do you ever talk about things that aren’t bugs?”
“I think black. You seem like a black beetle type of guy.” The boy hopped up to bat at a low-hanging leaf as they passed beneath it. “Oh! Are you gonna teach me how to fight with your eyes closed, like you?”
“What! Why not!?”
“Because that took me years to learn, and you have three days.” Fishing around in his pocket, Sousuke closed his hand over the key to the longhouse. “Also, it requires you to be observant, and a good listener, which you aren’t.”
To his credit, Momo had sprung out of bed at sunrise when Sousuke had come to rouse him. They’d already stretched, and run several laps around the compound, and the kid hadn’t loosed a single complaint. Whatever his reason for doing this was, at least he was taking it seriously.
Sousuke turned the key, pushed, and the door creaked open, scraping over the ground with a sandy rasp. Most of the other fighters spent their evenings drinking and reveling when they could, rising late and wasting the early hours. It had always baffled Sousuke that people still thought his skill and success in the arena were owed to some unknowable secret. There was no secret—it was simply hard work.
Shoving both doors wide open, Sousuke flooded the building with sunlight and walked in, the boy quick at his heels. Pikes, whips, swords, morningstars, and a score of other weapons were mounted between thick wooden beams, or leaning up against the rusty racks. Their blades flashed greetings as the pair passed by.
“Alright, Momo,” Sousuke huffed. “We don’t have much time, so I’m just gonna show you a few things, have you practice them, and we’ll hope that’s enough.”
“So. Since you’re a little guy,—”
“I’m not that small!” Pouting, Momo flexed his bicep.
“Down here, you're a fucking stick bug. Don’t interrupt.”
“Sorry!” Momo seemed to grasp the situation much better in those terms.
“Anyway,” Sousuke continued, “since you’re small, you’ll want to maintain as much distance as possible between you and the other guys. If a big opponent gets in close with you, things'll go south quickly. So today, I want you to get familiar with something that'll keep them at bay until I can come help you." He flicked back to check the boy was still listening.
Wordless, Momo gave a soldier's nod.
Sousuke combed the armory racks with an assessing eye, halting before a long row of tube-shafted weapons tipped with blades like eels' teeth.
"Here." He plucked a spear off the mount, testing its weight and spinning it once. "You ever used polearms before?”
“Huh?” Momo shot him an empty frown. “No, I usually bend my arms.”
Gods grant me patience.
Sousuke set the spear aside; the kid should probably start out lighter. Moving down the walls, he glassed them over for something short and easy to handle.
Momo hadn’t said anything in a while. Sousuke turned. The boy’s eyes were glued to the blade of his weapon, irises round as gold plates. He had seen this look before: the exact moment when someone understood the consequences of the choice to be here. That blade could slice your flesh like a ripe pear, and it might. In a few painful minutes, your life could bleed out of you into dirt that had drunk the futures of so many others before you. The cost of failure was high.
The kid shrank, wilting in on himself. He looked even younger than he had before.
“I’m gonna die.” The admission was small, and defeated. “I’m gonna die. I can’t afford to die.”
Sousuke was not good at this. He’d learned to deal with his own fear alone, and hadn’t the first idea about how to help another. But this was his last time in that arena, Rin needed him, and damn it all, he would try. Striding up, he grasped the boy’s shoulder.
“Look, Momo. I can’t afford to die either. So we won’t.” He dipped his head to hold the kid’s gaze. “If you listen to me, and stay close, I promise you’ll live. Got it?”
Momo nodded, and the unbridled trust in his expression felt heavy on Sousuke’s shoulders.
“Good.” Reaching behind him, Sousuke snatched one of the spears and tossed it to Momo. “Now go stand outside, and let’s get started.”
The palace library was blissfully empty this early in the day. Rin and Nitori entered the main chamber, breezing by gilded statues of ancient scholars, poets, and monks along the walls. The figures were carved with scripts in their arms, smiling, welcoming visitors in to explore their lives’ work.
Rosy blooms of sunlight yawned into the atrium, catching on eddies of dust that floated in and out of them. Shelves reached out through the three wings of the library, stacked two floors high and filled with books and rolls of parchment. The comforting, musty scent of old paper stuck in the air.
Rin’s father had adored this place. Bittersweet memories of running his tiny fingers over book spines to choose one for story time were woven in the spaces between the shelves.
“Texts on magic are on the top floor, right?” Rin was already headed up the wide staircase, taking them two at once, past the cases of scrolls on the ground floor that were older than the palace itself.
“I believe so, Prince Rin.” Nitori followed close behind with quick, timid steps.
“Where the hell is Gou?” Rin reached the top of the stairs and made for the back of the shelf. “It’s not like her to skip out on this.”
“The princess is on a trip, the Emperor told me this morning. She and Momo left before dawn.” Nitori paused. “Momo is having me care for his beetles while he’s away.”
“Really? Hm.” It was strange for Gou to leave without telling him after the talk they’d had, but Uncle didn’t seem worried. He supposed it made sense that she and Momo would want to search for answers together. Rin didn’t want his future brother-in-law sentenced to a life in the dungeons either.
Tora was curled up just outside, peering though the windows, tapping the tip of her tail on the limestone tiles. She was usually sluggish in the morning, but she’d probably get bored soon and go search for something to eat.
Rin scaled the step ladder up against the shelf with surefooted agility, skimming over written labels. Samezuka’s collection of texts about magical arts was pitifully small. Most magic was outlawed in Samezuka, on account of it being a threat to the dragons, so sorcerers were few and quiet. Most of the books and scrolls filed away in this place were at least a century old.
He’d been loath to start here. Blaming Seijuuro’s behavior on magic seemed like a cheap option, but he was shamefully short of other ideas. Rin plucked out a thinly-bound text.
Nitori took the book from his hand, to rest it in the crook of his arm. The prince’s assistant would normally be tasked with things like this, but Rin knew Ai was a basket of jitters at any height above the top of his own bed.
He chose another title from the row, humming loudly.
“Prince Rin?” Nitori perked up cheerily.
“Hm?” Rin kept up the tune while he leafed through the pages.
“If you don’t mind me asking, did…something good happen? You seem to be in higher spirits today.”
Rin nearly tripped, and Tora breathed a rumbling laugh in the yard, her breath fogging the window with heat.
“It’s just a nice day, Ai.”
Another jet of hot air left Tora’s snout.
“O-of course!” Ai chirped.
Since he was here, Rin thought he might borrow some of his favorite books to reread later as well, when he had a moment to relax. He pushed them aside, carefully turning the titles away from Nitori.
The morning wore on, and the two of them had garnered a small stack of texts.
Rin glanced over one named, The Classification of Iwatobi Rock. Nothing inside seemed to be of use. Though, he remembered—if there was anyone who was bound to have a more extensive collection of information on magic, it was Kisumi. He could make a trip out to Sano later.
“N-not presently…” Nitori pored over another about love potions, cheeks glowing steadily redder.
There was no way Rin was missing the chance to tease the boy about it. He snickered and scooted in, but Nitori was staring in shock at something over Rin’s shoulder.
A cold hand was at his neck before he could turn, long fingers lightly sliding up to his chin. The sharp drag of nails trailed over his throat. He spun around in his seat lightning fast, backing up against the table, hand flying to his belt for his knife. Nitori scrambled to his feet, stumbling over his shoes and landing on the floor with a squeak.
“Ahahaha! Sorry, sorry. You just looked way too easy to tease.” A tall woman loomed behind Rin’s chair, pressing her weight onto the backrest, leaning in close enough to breathe his air. “This one’s a cutie too.”
Bewitching magenta eyes twinkled with devilish amusement, framed by cascading waves of cool blonde. Emeralds the size of walnuts adorned her neck, and the smell of lavender perfume wafted around her. Two other young women were there, giggling, over her back. Rin hadn’t heard so much as a footstep when they entered.
All three were beautiful in a way that smelled like danger. Like fruits so perfect, they had to be poisoned.
“Do you remember us?” The tall woman retreated with a coy wink.
Regathering his dignity, Rin recalled the three of them from the banquet. They were Serizawa’s personal sorcerers. “You’re…Hazuki, right?
“Oooh!” They giggled in unison. “I didn’t think you’d remember anything from the other night.”
As if he needed the reminder. Rin’s arm twitched in annoyance. “Right. Well it’s good to see you three again. Please, enjoy the library and the rest of your time in Samezuka.” He nudged back into his seat, hoping the Hazukis would take the hint.
The shortest of the sisters sat herself prettily on the table and lifted a book from Nitori’s pile, turning it over delicately. “Illusory Spells? An interesting choice of reading material for a dragon prince. What’s got magic on your mind?”
Rin realized too late that he was wedged into a tough corner. Given the events from two nights ago, the answer seemed obvious. To lie would be insulting, but to tell the truth was all but accusing Iwatobi of the crime. He backed away from the woman, combing his mind for anything to say to keep this situation from tumbling downhill.
“His reasons are his own, I’m sure.”
The five of them traced the voice to the door, where King Serizawa strode into the center of the atrium. Serizawa’s calm, regal presence seemed to change the mood of the entire library.
His Guard Captain, Kirishima Natsuya, loomed close behind him—a well-built man with curly chestnut hair and a barely-hidden store of untapped ferocity beneath his polished gait. Wary amber eyes landed on the sisters and narrowed.
“What are the three of you doing here?” His voice was rough, and commanding.
“We’re here to protect His Majesty, of course. What else?” The smallest skipped up to him, batting her long lashes.
The captain jerked his arm away, stiff with venomous disdain. “That’s why I’m here, yeah.”
They fluttered down from Rin’s table, circling Kirishima like three sparrows taunting a hawk.
“Natsuya.” Serizawa rested his hand on his captain’s back. His touch was light, and lingering. Kirishima dropped his arms instantly, leaning into the king’s hand just enough that Rin noticed.
“Ladies, please leave us. I’d like to speak with Prince Matsuoka alone.”
The tall woman curtsied. “Anything for you, Your Highness.” She snuck another wink at Rin before exiting the library, her two sisters in tow.
Captain Kirishima shot a spiteful glare after them.
“Shall we?” The king made his way toward the rear of the library, out the double doors to the garden.
Rin followed, nearly forgetting that he was the host here. Kirishima moved ahead to hold the door open for them, and they stepped out into the sun. Whatever wild intensity burned inside the captain seemed to be tempered by Serizawa’s poised serenity. Proffering his elbow, Kirishima waited, and the king casually linked their arms as they walked. Rin felt a twinge of jealousy as he watched them. He imagined what it might be like to do that with—
Ashamed, he stubbornly snuffed the thought out. “You…said you wanted to talk to me alone?”
“Ah, yes. Well. I hope you don’t mind if I bring Natsuya along, as you have trusted company of your own, no?” Serizawa nodded kindly upward at Rin’s dragon. She was busy chewing on the veins of yellow ivy growing up the library wall. Which she wasn’t supposed to be eating.
“Right! Of course.” Rin said, subtly glaring at her from across the lawn. “And, Serizawa, I…I really can’t apologize enough for—”
“Ah, ah.” The silver king raised a finger to silence him. “Say no more. It is already in the past. Though I do hope the situation with that man is sorted soon.”
The king was only four years Rin’s senior, but as he listened, that gap felt more like two decades. Where Rin was rough and foul-mouthed, Serizawa spoke with perfect manners and a harmonious lilt that was smooth with practiced grace. It was almost hypnotizing.
“I couldn’t help but notice your book pile on the way out,” Serizawa quipped. “Fond of Lady Matsui’s Summer Love Poems, are you?”
“I like them as well. Some of the only examples in her work of happy endings.” He flashed Rin a genuine smile.
“Y-yeah.” Rin relaxed, arms going loose at his sides. “Good endings are…nice.”
The three of them ambled down to the fountain. A finely-carved river dragon wound around the center of it, water streaming from its mouth into the blue marble pool. Serizawa stopped.
“May I speak honestly with you, Prince Matsuoka?”
Iwatobi manners were tiresome as hell. “Of course. And just ‘Rin’ is fine.”
“Very well, Prince Rin.” Smoothing his robe, the king perched himself on the lip of the fountain, his captain dutifully quiet at his side. He motioned for Rin to join him. “It is true I made the voyage here to discuss border disputes…but the other reason I came was to meet you.”
“Me?” Rin had to stop himself from outwardly wincing as he remembered how badly that had gone the first time.
“Yes! One young royal to another, I’d like to tell you something.” The king rested a long-boned hand on Kirishima’s knee like that was where it belonged. Without missing a beat, the captain covered it with his larger one.
“I was nineteen when the crown fell into my lap,” Serizawa began. “Grandfather was too old. He was a good man, but he was…well, his mind was not as sharp as it had been. He made mistakes.”
The king’s gentle eyes flicked to the library door, then back to Rin.
“I was offered the kingdom, and I refused. I was selfish and rebellious, and I wanted my freedom. Though in the end, I took it.” Serizawa pinned Rin in place with an eerily calm, simmering stare. “Because even if it didn’t seem like I’d be ready, it was what my people needed me to do.”
In one fluid movement, Serizawa rose, pulling Kirishima up with him. Rin felt like he should say something, or at least stand up—but he stayed where he was, feeling like he’d been slapped in the face by a war fan coated with feathers.
“I do hope we can be friends, Matsuoka Rin. We may well have need of one another soon.”
The sky was dark when Rin left Kisumi’s house, frustrated and disappointed.
His lively friend hadn’t been home. Not that Rin was surprised; Kisumi often went on trips to set his overseas affairs in order. The servants had let Rin use the library, as usual. Kisumi did have an impressive collection of texts on magic. Rin had spent the entire afternoon reading through them, and found the same dead-end answers. Sorcerers could move rock, and boil water, heal wounds, and make stunning illusions. Curiosity had even lead him to peek at a book titled The Art of Magic and Carnal Pleasure. He immediately regretted it. But there had been nothing applicable to the captain’s outburst, and Rin was beginning to worry. With any luck, Kisumi would return soon so he could ask the man himself.
If Rin was honest, the better part of the day had been spent struggling to stay focused—to keep his thoughts from floating back to the man he’d left in that sunny temple garden. It was vexing and thrilling, and it didn’t show any signs of letting up. After waving good-night to the gardener, Rin stopped at the stairs in front to take in the sight of the city. Sano always made ample use of its nights, and Kisumi’s mansion had a magnificent view. Firelights glittered from streets and windows, the city flickering to life in the darkness. Scanning the sprawling expanse, Rin’s eyes landed on Sano Stadium. It was lit at the top floor even when not in use, shining like the massive crown of a god.
It wasn’t that far away.
Sousuke had sent Momo to bed after dinner, using the remnants of the day to sneak in some practice alone.
He swung a naginata around in a circle, jabbing the mounted straw dummies, letting his muscles move the weapon while he tried to imagine he was face-to-face with the Hazuki woman’s ogre from two nights ago. He’d taken down men much larger than himself, but something that size would be a different match entirely. Still, humans had felled the monsters before, and if it could be done, he could do it for Rin.
Two more days, and Momo’s fortuitous match would grant him that freedom. All things considered, the kid was doing unexpectedly well for a sheltered sixteen-year-old. In the duration of his career as a fighter, Sousuke had never been one to tie himself to another. The nature of the sport wasn’t very conducive to honest friendships, and his own survival had always been paramount. But Momo’s pure, guileless determination was tugging at something inside him he was grateful was still there. Something in the way Momo paled in fear when the boy thought he wasn’t looking told Sousuke that Momo wasn’t here for himself. If he could help this kid make it home, he would. Talking to Rin had this effect on him, he guessed.
Sousuke snatched the towel off the bench nearby, swiping it messily across his sweaty face. He fastened the helmet over his head for the walk across the compound to the dormitory. When he wore it, the others usually left him alone. The south yard was wonderfully vacant, and Sousuke inhaled a deep, peaceful breath of evening. He wondered if he would miss any part of this place.
A soft voice and the rustle of grass underfoot snapped his attention to a spot off the path, near the low inner wall. He moved like a shadow into the cover of the nearest overhang to watch the figure pass. He should be ashamed at such a reaction, but the incident with Kisumi on the palace ramparts had his senses honed to the slightest sound out of place.
He heard… Singing?
A man appeared on the path in front of him, stopping to peer around, like he was searching for something. He stepped into the cold starlight, and Sousuke’s heart jumped into his throat.
He stepped out of the dark. “Back so soon?”
“AAAGHH!” Rin’s singing cut and he spun around, teeth bared. It was unbearably cute.
Sousuke stifled a snicker. “Are you looking for something, Your Highness?”
“Someone.” Eyes moving up Sousuke’s body, Rin’s lips curled into a smirk. “I found him.”
“Oh?” The playful swing in Rin’s voice made Sousuke want to test the limits of propriety.
“To what do I owe the honor of this visit? Just couldn’t wait to see me again?”
Rin’s smile went soft. “Something like that.”
Every cheeky remark Sousuke had stored up evaporated like water on hot brick. This was utterly unfair. His fingers crept up to tug at his collar.
“Hmm.” Peering up thoughtfully, Rin started down the path again. “Since I was in the area, I thought I’d drop by. Hope I wasn’t interrupting anything.”
“No! Nothing. I wasn’t…doing much of anything.”
“Wanna give me a tour, then?” Mischief dancing in his eyes, Rin brushed past Sousuke without waiting for a response.
Conversation flowed effortlessly, as it always had with Rin. They talked about past matches, and Rin’s combat practice regime at the palace, joking and teasing like there weren’t thick city walls, and a crown between them. There wasn’t much to show him. The yard, training grounds, recreation house, the work area. Strolling past the armory, Sousuke felt Rin slip an arm around his elbow.
Rin had never been shy about physical contact. Hanging off Sousuke’s shoulder, draping himself over his back, grasping his wrist to drag him around—it had always been his way. It seemed that part of him hadn’t changed, and it was driving Sousuke a little crazy.
Neither of them mentioned it, and they circled around the compound, the prince steadily leaning further into Sousuke’s side as they walked. Nearly all of Sousuke’s willpower was working to keep him from sneaking glances at Rin’s defined chest down the deep cut of his robe. He couldn’t for the life of him make sense of what was happening, but it was comfortable, and exciting, and all of the things he knew he shouldn’t be feeling.
When it was time for Rin to head home, they started in the direction of the old tree near the gate, arms still wound together. Walking faster. Jogging. Rin met Sousuke’s eyes with the hot spark of a challenge, and they broke away into a full-out sprint.
Their hands slammed into the tree at the same time, and they erupted into a fit of giggling. It had been too long since laughter had come this easily. Rin leaned up against the trunk, throwing his head back and panting as he laughed, the skin of his neck exposed, and fine hair tangling in the bark. Sousuke forgot what he was doing and why he’d just raced across the yard. His desire was making a mess of him.
Rin must have sensed the weight of his gaze, and returned it with one of his own.
He swallowed thickly, still slightly out of breath. “What’s your name? Your…your real name.”
Sousuke flinched. He hadn’t said his own name aloud in six years. If not for Kisumi, he might’ve forgotten what it sounded like. The one he’d given people was “Sho,” after a classmate he’d known back home, but feeding Rin that lie felt wrong in every way. He was taking too long, he had to—
“Never mind. I’m sorry.” Shaking his head, the prince ran a nervous hand through his hair. “You can tell me another time.”
The air between them was humming with energy. “Can I ask you something else?”
Rin peeled himself away from the tree. “You…of all people, have every right to hate me. You could’ve just left me in that pile of dirt the other night, and let me take the fall. Gods know I’d have deserved it. So why didn’t you?”
“I don’t know.” Sousuke said quietly. “I guess I believe in that dream of yours. Even if you don’t.”
The breeze whispering through silky reeds was the only sound in the empty yard for a long moment.
That answer had been the truth, even if only a part of it. All of the tension fell from Rin’s face, his jaw gone slack. Something bright and vulnerable flashed over his eyes, and then he was moving closer.
His hand flattened at Sousuke’s collarbone. Sousuke hoped the prince couldn’t feel his heartbeat skyrocketing from there. Eyes falling shut, Rin raised himself up on his toes to press his mouth to the front of the helmet.
Sousuke felt Rin’s soft breath on his lips, just inches away. The mask had never felt more like a cage.
“Thanks.” With a shy smile, Rin dropped back onto his heels. “Good night.” He retreated, and jogged off through the gate, leaving Sousuke paralyzed and speechless.
Sousuke stumbled back to the dormitory, stunned, blood rushing in his head like he’d spent an hour hanging by his feet.
Bolting the door to his room, Sousuke untied the helmet and set it on the table. He didn’t dare ask himself where the hell that had come from, dragging his fingers over his mouth and sinking into his chair. As well as he thought he knew Rin, the prince was still unpredictable as a summer storm.
I can’t fucking believe I just did that.
Rin sighed to the heavens and hugged his cloak tighter, riding home over the darkened road with fireflies in his chest, and the tang of iron still on his lips.
The sun crept over the horizon on the fourth day, dim and smothered in gloom.
Sousuke didn’t bother asking Momo if he was ready.
They stood outside the mess hall with the group of fifteen men who had signed on after learning that a victory in this match would mean instant freedom, no matter the person’s term. Momo should have opened with that, but enough people had showed up anyway, Sousuke supposed.
Even the burly fighter who had given Momo a hard time in the yard earlier had joined the roster. Tsuchi was his name, and he strutted in front of them, stretching and leering at Sousuke.
The night before, Sousuke had finally sorted through his birthday present as he packed his things. Most of the smuggled potions were aphrodisiacs and sex enhancers of one kind or another. He’s not sure why he’d expected any different. But one auspicious vial of bright green liquid was good for immediate use on open wounds. If things went as planned, Momo would come out of this ordeal in one clean piece, but it couldn’t hurt to have it in case. He emptied the stuff into his metal flask, and tucked it deep inside his boot. The container dug into his shin uncomfortably.
Sousuke could just about hear Kisumi whining about this final fight happening without him, but gods only knew when his sponsor would be back.
He hadn’t seen Rin since that night in the yard, and he’d long since lost count of how many times he’d replayed those fleeting few seconds in his head. Even if it didn’t mean anything more than friendly affection to Rin, it had been more than he’d ever dared hope for. The prince had promised to be there today, watching. Suddenly Sousuke was thirteen again, waiting for the end-of-day bell.
He’d be sure to give Rin a show.
A small company of imperial guards came to escort them to the stadium. Compound security was usually enough, but maybe today was special. In any case, Rin had been right—none of them slouched.
Instead of making for the chambers beneath the stadium, the guards lead the men off the compound completely, heading for the docks near the main canal.
“Hey, where are we going?” Momo prodded one of them, pulling at the guard’s thick crimson cloak. “Arena’s that way, right?”
The man made no reply.
With a low chime, the iron gate of Sousuke’s home of six years closed behind him, and his apprehension grew with each step they took away from it.
Seijuuro sat on the rickety cot, facing the opposite cell wall, Gou snugly nestled behind him. He was hunched over so she could use his broad back as a surface to write on, but he felt he probably would be sitting this way even if she wasn’t.
Gou tapped the quill on the edge of the ink cup before bringing it back to the paper. She had requested ink and parchment earlier so that she could write her uncle a heartfelt apology letter. Her uncle, the emperor, who was sending Momo to his death. Seijuuro felt betrayed, and he wanted so badly to be angry with her—but in this barred box, she was the only joy he had.
He sat, stewing in silence while she wrote.
Seijuuro’s shoulders were getting stiff, but he’d wait until Gou finished her line. “Are you gonna tell Rin about that boy?”
Her writing stopped. “No.” Refilling the quill, she went on. “I’m going to search for him first, and if I find him alive, I’ll decide on what to do then. There’s no need to break my brother’s heart twice.”
“You’re not worried about what your uncle will do? If the kid’s found again?”
“Rin’s twenty-one. The throne is his, if he’ll take it. And if it means he can have Sousuke back, I can promise you he will.”
That didn’t quite answer his question, but Seijuuro had only a short while left with Gou, and he’d rather not spend it like this. She’d been writing for far longer than he thought necessary, penning kind words the emperor didn’t deserve to read. He stayed dutifully unmoving, glowering at the guard outside their cell.
Finally, Gou set down the quill and blew the ink once to dry it. “Done.” She handed Seijuuro the cup and quill to place on the floor, turning him around on the bed. “Mmmm come here.”
Gou pulled Seijuuro in, hiding herself from the guard’s view behind his girth. He felt the temperature of the small cell rise. In the gap between them, she flicked him with a folded piece of paper, pressing her face to his cheek. “To save Momo.”
Seijuuro stole a glance at the parchment. Gou had neatly torn the bottom off the larger piece and filled it with a different message in her tiny, precise handwriting. Fascinated, Seijuuro immediately jumped onboard. He moaned, loud and licentious.
The guard outside grumbled something, and turned away.
“Nnnnnnggg, Gou—” Seijuuro dropped his voice to a whisper: “How?”
“My brother.” Tearing at the thread in her robe’s ornate hem, she worked the creased message inside, making her own wanton noises. Even under the pretense, her voice was doing a number on him. She smelled so good, it was almost maddening. He helped her out of the garment, eagerness warring with his awareness of the situation.
Before they could go any further, Gou pushed away, folded her robe, and slid off the bed.
The man in armor stood at attention. “Yes, Princess!”
“My letter to Uncle.” She handed the rolled parchment to him. “And I won’t be needing my fine clothes in here.” The robe was placed delicately in the guard’s hands. “Deliver this to my handmaiden. Tell her to put it in the closet drawer for me.”
The guard left with a curt bow, his hurried footsteps fading up the stairs.
Seijuuro exhaled, praying with all he had that this plan would work, and loving the woman in front of him even more than he thought was possible. Gou walked on light feet back to the bed, pushing him down and curling up beside him.
Nitori spared a look upward. The sky was a somber, lightless grey. Today would likely be filled with more reading and helping Rin find an explanation for Captain Mikoshiba. The prince had been tireless in his search, and Nitori was prepared to do anything he could.
But first, beetles.
The Mikoshibas were an exceedingly wealthy family, their white brick estate primly nestled in upper Samezuka near a small orchard. All of the family members save the two brothers were currently abroad, but they had a fair amount of servants who were perfectly up to the task of placing fruit slices in a beetle cage. However, Momo had been adamant about Nitori holding the honored title of caretaker. It was out of his way, but the fact that Momo valued his friendship so much had meant a great deal.
Sometimes Nitori felt like he was a difficult person to befriend. His stubborn courtesy kept most people he met at the surface—pleasant acquaintances and nothing more. The youngest Mikoshiba rammed straight through Nitori’s courtliness like a hammer through a sheet of rice paper. And for all of the trouble Momo caused, Nitori appreciated his boisterous candor more than he’d ever be able to say to the other boy’s face.
He sighed fondly and started up the shallow stairs to the front door.
Nitori started, looking back down the road to see Hanamura Chigusa running toward him. Her hair was pulled back in an unusually messy bun, dress wrinkled where she held it clear of her feet. She was cutting straight across the orchard. Strange, given the girl’s aversion to most things involving the outdoors…
“Miss Hanamura! What’s—”
Out of breath, bangs stuck to her sweat-shined face, she halted in front of Nitori and thrust a piece of paper into his nervous hands. She glanced around in all directions as if waiting for someone to jump out at them. “Read it!”
He had recognized the princess’ impeccable handwriting instantly. With each line he read, his panic grew thicker. Halfway down the note, he stopped. “Momo’s fighting in a trial!? He’s at Sano Stadium?! He told me he was on a trip!”
“Ssshhh!! No, he isn’t. Read the rest of it!”
Ai flipped the paper, and when he reached the next part, his fingers stilled.
“I have to get this to Prince Rin.”
Chigusa nodded vehemently.
The prince had left for Sano already. The only way to get the letter to him was to ride there, hard. Firming his resolve, Ai refolded the note, slipped it into his pouch, and made for the stables. “Miss Hanamura! If you would be so kind, please feed Momo’s stag beetles! Instructions are on the table! Thank you very much!”
Chigusa watched him leave from the top step of the staircase. “His what?!”
Years ago, Rin’s mother told him that true love was a wind that blew only once in your lifetime. You either caught the current and rode it into the stars, or you let it pass you by to wander the world without. If it stopped blowing, and you fell back to the earth, there would never be another like it.
He had believed her. Sousuke had been his wind, and when the boy died, Rin had fallen so hard, he was sure his one chance was spent.
Yet today, as he landed on the upper platform of Sano Stadium, breeze fluttering around his face, hope glimmered in his heart again in a way he never thought was possible for him.
He waved Tora off, but she refused to move. Whatever was about to happen, she wanted to see. Kisumi usually met him here, but the man was still off on his business excursion. It was unfortunate that he would miss his own champion’s last battle in the arena, but Rin would be sure to tell him everything.
The stadium would be filled to capacity, Rin was certain. Jinbei was popular. His origins and success was inspiring to people in a way that few fighters were, and the day the slave finally went free would not be one to miss. Rin was so happy for him, he could hardly keep from bounding down the staircase to the Emperor’s box.
He knew what he was going to say to the man, after the match was over. A dozen practice runs in front of the mirror this morning told him he was ready. Body alight with anticipation, Rin pushed open the wooden doors to his seat.
Sano Stadium was completely empty.
With a hurried thank-you, Nitori shoved the reigns of his horse into the stableboy’s hands, and dashed toward the arena’s entrance, wheezing as dust from the quarry clouded over the street. It was a long way to the top of the stadium, and the ride here had been taxing— but he’d come this far, and his friend’s life was hanging in the balance.
On top of that, Nitori was no fool. Prince Rin had a deeper reason for coming to the match today. He hadn’t missed the way the prince walked about the palace with his head in the rafters, or how he kept that guard’s helmet sitting on the table beside his pillow. The guard he’d seen racing down the stairs that night with a leather collar around his neck.
He could make out the prince’s red dragon perched on the upper platform from where he was. Rolling up his sleeves, Nitori charged up the stairs.
“TELL ME WHERE HE IS!” Rin roared, and the guards backed up against the opposite wall. “You all know, don’t you?!”
Desperate, temper kindling, Rin had searched the yard, and the lower chambers, but Jinbei was gone. Something was definitely wrong, yet everyone he talked to remained hushed and strained. They knew.
“I’m s-sorry, Prince Matsuoka!” One of them fell to his knees. “We were expressly w-warned not to tell you. We can’t tell you, we can’t…”
“Not to tell me what? And by whom?”
The man only buried his face in his hands.
Sun burst into the room as the door was flung open, and Ai was there, coughing and rasping, his robe stained with sweat. He crossed the floor, and pressed a folded piece of parchment to Rin’s chest.
Rin exploded out of the guardhouse, hearing the door bang against the wall behind him as he shot along the walkway of the stadium. Clutching Gou’s letter, he sprinted with fire under his feet.
Tora straightened when he leaped onto the platform, immediately sensing something amiss. Rin slammed himself into the saddle, told her where to go, and they took off in a flurry of heated air.
Rin stowed the reigns, throwing his body forward to duck his head behind the wind shield on the saddle and take hold of the leather straps in front. Chest flush against the seat, he gave three hard tugs on the handles.
Fly as fast as you can.
They sped over Sano like a red comet.
Sousuke kept alert, leaning out of the dinghy as the mellow tide pulled them through a shadowy passageway.
He and Momo had been led onto a ship, taken out into the harbor, and sailed a ways down the lush Samezuka coastline. The ship had let them off at an abandoned dock, where all fifteen fighters were loaded into rowboats and shuttled into this winding maze of sea caves beneath the rocky cliffs.
A grizzled man and his six sons rowed the boats, with a group of imperial archers bringing up the rear, should any of the men attempt some half-baked escape.
Water illuminated the low channels from beneath, rippling over the ceiling and dewy walls. Smaller caves split off along the way and tunneled into complete darkness. Sousuke shut his eyes out of habit. This was the kind of place you went if you had a death wish.
Momo had been oddly quiet since they’d stepped into the boat, and Sousuke felt the kid squirm anxiously beside him, clearing his throat.
“Jinbei, I need to tell you something.”
Ah. Here it is at last.
“I know.” Sousuke drew in to listen.
“I…this…” Momo started, checking to see if the others were listening. “I’m here because my older brother tried to murder the Emperor.”
“What?!” Sousuke spun around to face boy.
“He didn’t do it though! I can’t explain it. He can’t explain it!” Momo waved his hands manically in front of him and barreled on. “It would usually be a life imprisonment for someone like him, and everyone thinks he has all the time in the world to prove he’s innocent, but he did it in front of the king of Iwatobi, and he said he’d be burned for it!”
Sousuke sat back with his jaw agape, looking every bit the part of his namesake. It all made sense.
“So you’re here, as his trial.” He finished.
The boy nodded, and twisted the sash at his belt, winding and unwinding it around his fingers. “I’ve been able to do what I like, and say whatever because he’s had my back, no matter what. He’s Guard Captain! So he’s always looked out for me, my whole life. When he was in trouble, I…thought it was time I looked out for him.”
Sousuke knew it had to be something, but he never guessed the kid would be carrying a crime so unbelievably dangerous. Trials were sometimes held in Sano Stadium, where the brave could battle for acquittal. They were never much out of the ordinary, for a match. But an offense like this…
“I’m sorry.” Momo looked miserable. “Sorry for dragging you into it.”
“Don’t be,” Sousuke said. “I’d have signed on with you even if you’d told me that from the start. You’re not the only one here because you love someone.”
Interest catching in the kid’s eyes, Momo was about to ask for details, but Sousuke stopped him short.
“Hold on, how is it your brother is Guard Captain, and you’d never held a sword before?”
Sighing heavily, the boy hung his arms over the side of the boat. “I know. I had every opportunity. Sei’s strong, and I mean—I’ve watched fights before, I just…” He blew the air from his cheeks. “I don’t like to hurt things.”
The boatman laughed at that as he rowed. Sousuke didn’t find it the least bit funny.
Voices trickled into the tunnel from an opening ahead.
“Nearly there, boys.” The boatman bared the gaps in his teeth with a mild mix of delight and pity.
Their passage emptied out into a much larger cave. An enthusiastic crowd was already seated in stands hewn from stone beneath its lofty roof, where faint light leaked in through openings in the rock. Echoes from the spectators above bounced off the damp walls, ringing out inside the hollow like a ghostly temple choir. Royal courts of both Samezuka and Iwatobi were seated at a balcony overlooking the dusky grotto. Peering upwards through the shadow, Sousuke searched for Rin, but the prince wasn’t in the stands.
Sousuke deflated, shamefully aware of how much he’d looked forward to seeing him. The prince had said he’d be here, and worry gnawed at his disappointment.
Waves rolled in lazily through the wide cavern mouth from the ocean beyond. It was here that the boat stopped, beside a large, flat arena—an island carved from a stone jutting out of the water. The battered wreck of a ship leaned up against the structure.
At the far end of the cavern, a staircase broke out of the pool, leading up to a statue of the goddess Forgiveness, her arms held out— a mother welcoming her children home.
A murky stretch of dark water about a hundred meters across swirled between the arena and the staircase, quiet and calm.
“There she is!” The boatman tipped his chin to the statue. “Lady Mercy, waiting for you! Swim across the water to her, and you’re free men!”
Sousuke turned to him as the dinghy pulled up beside the platform. “That’s it? No combat? Just…swimming?”
“That’s it!” The man stroked his wiry beard, looking both of them up and down. “Well here’s where I let ya off. Best of luck to ya both.” With a quick bow, the boatman and his sons pushed off and began rowing back toward the passage.
Their eagerness to leave was unsettling.
“THIS IS THE BEST! Jinbei, I won’t have to fight! It’s swimming, I’m a really good swimmer!” Momo was practically bouncing onto the stone field. “I bet I’m even faster than all these guys here!”
It should be a relief. A proper match might not have gone well for Momo, and if they could both swim, this would be an easy victory. Too easy. Sousuke stared over the side at the tenebrous length of water, and a chill crept up his neck.
They waited on the edge as the other men stretched and began shedding their weapons, removing their armor to make the swim. The kid had already lost his helmet. In the heights above, the announcer was charging up the crowd, listing their names.
The drum beats swelled, filling every corner of the hollow.
“Hey!” Momo struck a cocky pose, hollering across the platform to Tsuchi. “I’ll race ya, jerkwad!”
Tsuchi guffawed, dropping his heavy brass helm. “You’re on, kid. The lady’s mine!” Grimacing, the man made an obscene gesture.
With the deafening blow of the horn, the match began.
Tsuchi and four of the men jumped into the water, having stripped their armor the quickest. Momo waved at the crowd. Throwing a last excited grin at Sousuke, he rolled his shoulders and squared up to follow.
“No.” Sousuke grabbed the boy by the belt and pulled him back roughly into place. He raised his eyes to the stands again, to Emperor Akira and the rest of them. “Wait.”
“Wha-?!” Momo squawked.
“Wait. What the hell did I tell you about charging in first?”
The kid paused in contemplation. “…Not to?”
Keeping his hand firmly on Momo’s belt, Sousuke watched the five men splash their way toward the staircase. The boy was griping about “losing the race,” but it wasn’t a race, after all. Tsuchi was ahead of the other four, strong arms slapping the surface with graceless, brutish strength.
They were halfway across when the water around the men whirled stronger, only slightly.
Sousuke squinted into the gloom.
Quickly, silently, a grey-green shape slithered out of the wet murk and curled over Tsuchi before his stroke finished. With a strangled cry, he was engulfed by the water. Bubbles rose up in the spot where he’d been, followed by an expanding bloom of red.
The other four swimmers realized, but too late. One at a time, they were pulled under the roiling waves as they tried to swim back, until their drowned yells died out, and the pool was empty. Even the spectators had fallen mute in horror, and a weighted quiet hovered in the darkness.
The sea swelled around the island, like something massive was just under the surface, and it was moving.
Out of the waves behind them, a towering form raised over the arena. Slick with grime that glistened in the low light, thick as the mast of a galley, the long, ghastly fin of a creature hung in the air above. At the flat end of the limb was an array of barbed teeth as long as Sousuke’s forearm. One of the men darted out to fetch his spear, and the fin slammed down with a sickening crunch. The man was dragged screaming across the platform and under the sea, leaving a trail of blood streaked over the rock.
“Jinbei…” Momo had gone stone-still.
Two more fins burst forth, and hell broke loose. Jerking Momo away from the edge, Sousuke forced his sword into the boy’s frozen hands, and picked a long glaive off the ground where one of the others had tossed it aside.
“Stay close, and do what I say.” Without thinking, he stole a glance up at the balcony. Rin was nowhere to be seen, and his heart dropped. He hadn’t realized what a difference it had made, having his best friend watching above him. Sousuke took a long, steadying breath and dipped into the chaos.
Where are you?
Clouds slipped in and out of Rin’s line of sight at a dizzying pace. The muscles of his arms burned from holding fast against the force of Tora’s speed.
His uncle had never meant to give Seijuuro a fair trial. He had Gou in the dungeon. The betrayal was a shaft between his ribs. It forced Rin to wonder what else the man had hidden from him. King Serizawa’s conversation in the library flew to the forefront of his mind.
The emperor had sent Momo to Mercy Grotto to be killed by whatever ancient abomination was lurking in the depth, all to prove the strength of his rule to Iwatobi. And somehow, for some reason, Jinbei was there, too. Dread welled up white-hot in Rin’s chest, and he tightened his grip on the leather handles.
The thing snared its prey by sensing motion. The more you moved, the quicker it found you.
After several more fighters had been skewered and hauled over the edge, Sousuke picked up at least that much. Crouching huddled together with Momo at the center of the platform, he raked his brain for a course of action. All around them, men scrambled over the stone, now slippery with blood.
“This is my fault. It’s all my fault.” Repeating it again and again, Momo pulled at his hair. “Sh-should’ve gone by myself. It’s all my fault.”
“Momo! We’re still alive.” The kid was unresponsive. Desperate, Sousuke shook him hard by the shoulder with his free arm. “What would your brother do?”
The question was a whip to the boy’s back, and Momo snapped up.
Sousuke grabbed a fistful of the kid’s messy tangerine mop and tugged his head to the left. Another fighter was racing over the stone, hurtling toward the edge; he was veritable bait. “When the thing comes down…” he nudged the sword gripped in Momo’s hand. “Don’t wait for it to hit the ground.”
The water bubbled beneath the rock. “Ready?”
Momo chewed his lip and nodded.
The fin snaked out, raising above its victim, then fell with deceptive speed. Sousuke and Momo skirted in as it slammed down, Momo scoring a deep cut into its flesh with astonishing fervor. Aiming as close to the boy’s slash as he could, Sousuke dug in the blade of his glaive. The creature's blood sprayed out from the gash, tar-black and rancid.
The creature nearly wrenched the weapon out of Sousuke’s hand as the fin retreated, lopsided and almost completely severed at its barbed tip. He grinned through the rush of success.
All was silent for several beats. Only six men were left, of the fifteen that had docked. They waited, heavy pants echoing in the dark hollow. Faint murmurs from the crowd sank downward.
“Maybe that was it?” Momo inched closer, wiping the monster’s grime from his mouth. “You think we got it, and it gave up?”
The creature answered the question before Sousuke could respond. Two of its arms erupted from the the water at once, swinging down onto the platform, scattering the remaining fighters. Sousuke stumbled and tripped on the wet floor, pushed back to the the opposite end of the rock.
The kid was on the other side, cornered at the edge of the arena as the monster raged. Noise from the crowd above was ringing painfully in Sousuke’s ears. He couldn’t tell if they were screaming in terror, or cheering. Momo kept his feet firmly on the ground.
With terrible speed, the last three men were crushed and hauled into the sea, leaving Sousuke and Momo alone on the platform. The creature was enjoying its prey below, and the calm wouldn’t last. Precious seconds were slipping by. They were the only two left, and the next attack would be the final one—it had to be.
There was no way to make it to shore from here alive.
“I…I didn’t think I’d actually last this long.” Momo laughed sadly. His arms were shaking, and he was soaked, dripping with blood both red and black. “At least my beetles will be happy with Nitori. He knows apricots are their favorite.”
Sousuke huffed. “Thinking about your fucking beetles at a time like this.”
He looked sideways at the boy a moment, and thought that if there was something the world needed more of, it was people like Momo. Kindhearted, sincere people, who wanted nothing more than to care for things, and watch them grow.
An idea struck as he threw a last glance over the water to the statue, then to the shipwreck leaning up against the far side of the arena.
“I’ll draw it around the other end of the rock, and the water will be open. You can make it to the stairs.”
“NO!” The boy’s brow furrowed—angry, pleading. “You come too! We have to go together!”
“We can’t.” Sousuke appreciated the sentiment, but brutal honesty was all he had time for. “We can’t go together. And I can give you a much better chance than you can give me.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll catch up.”
Momo shook his head violently. “I don’t believe you!”
“You don’t need to. You’ve got family to save.”
The kid’s face twisted in anguish. “What about you? What about that person you love?”
Through the thick darkness and the din of the crowd, Sousuke’s eyes trailed upward. Rin’s seat was still empty. He swallowed his answer.
“Go when I tell you.”
Below them, the waves churned and lurched. Sousuke scooped up pieces of armor laying strewn about the rock, knocking them together and tossing them across the floor. He sprinted toward the shipwreck as the massive shadow beneath the water crawled, following the commotion. The wreck looked close enough for him jump aboard. With a running start, he launched himself onto the deck.
Curling around the ship, pushing the current up the rocks, the creature finally breached the water.
Rin heard the cries of the audience, carried on the wind that wailed and whipped over his back. The dark crest of Mercy Grotto was just ahead, and he pleaded to any god who would listen that he wasn’t too late.
Echoes rung louder, floating upward as they soared over the roof of the cavern. Openings in the rock were too narrow for Tora to fit through, and she growled impatiently.
“You’re not going in there!” Rin scolded her.
There wasn’t enough room for her to fly inside the hollow, and it would be too dangerous to let her climb.
Suddenly, the noise from inside dropped from an earsplitting clamor to a low murmur. The sound was almost sad. Panic coursing through his aching muscles, he made Tora let him off at the nearest entrance to the stands, and tore inside. His skin tingled from the race through the sky, his chest tightening.
From where he was at the top of the walkway, he could see the far end of the cavern. Momo was clambering up the stairs to the dais, trailing seawater down the broken steps. He reached the statue of the Lady and backed around, sinking in her embrace and burying his face in his hands.
Rin hurried around the corner, and his eyes finally landed on the horror below.
Sousuke rolled out of the way as another spiked fin came down on the deck of the ship, dragging across the port side, barbs leaving splintery trenches in the wood on its trip back into the sea. From below, the monster pulled the boat deeper. He’d lost the glaive, after several more deep slashes to the creature’s limbs. It hadn’t been enough. Somewhere at the fringe of his mind, he heard the chants of the crowd cheering for him, yelling his name.
Rin hadn’t come. And perhaps it was better this way. Better that Rin didn’t see him meet a desperate, bloody end in a godforsaken cave.
The stiff crack of planks shot through vibrations in the wood, and Sousuke felt the hull split in half. In seconds, the water would devour the bow.
Blinding pain seared through Sousuke’s left leg. Long teeth sank into his flesh, pulling him over the deck and into the depth. White water rushed all around, filling his helmet as the strap dug into his neck, choking the air out of him. With a last surge of strength, he twisted out of the creature’s grasp.
The surface was shimmering overhead—brilliant, and promising. He kicked, but his leg was going numb, and the energy was seeping out of him in deep crimson clouds. There was nowhere to go but down.
He wished there was some way to apologize to Rin for leaving him, and failing him. Sousuke could almost see him now, wild red hair catching the light from above. He reached an arm out to run his fingers through it,
—and a hand tightened around his wrist.
Rin snapped his powerful legs, gripping the other man’s arm like a shark’s bite until they broke the surface. His head was still reeling, the back of his throat burning with salt water after the highest, most reckless dive he’d ever made. Jinbei coughed and gasped beside him, spitting water through the grating of his mask, and the sound was a sweet relief. He had to smile in spite of everything.
The water pitched angrily, and Rin was reminded that they were still easy prey floating in the jaws of the cave.
“Can you swim?!”
“Rin?!” Jinbei tread in place. “You shouldn’t be here!”
Rin rolled his eyes, taking hold of the belt around the man’s chest and hauling him toward the mouth of the cave. He seemed to catch on, and matched Rin’s stroke.
“This is the wrong way!” The man’s voice rang from inside the helmet. “It’ll follow us!”
“I know!” Rin shouted between breaths. “Counting on it!”
Jinbei either trusted him, or didn’t have strength enough left to argue. He hoped it was the former. They swam hard, side by side, toward the open ocean. At any second, Rin expected to feel the deadly scrape of teeth rip him open from below. He glanced to the side.
The fighter was slowing. Red was trailing out from his left leg, and Rin yelped. Hanging back, he took hold of the man’s belt at his waist, kicking forcefully to pull him forward. The current was on their side.
Just a bit farther.
They reached the mouth of the cave as the monster reared out of the water, waves pushing outward from its enormous body. Rin grinned, and stopped swimming.
A high, resonant roar pierced the air, and the sea was set ablaze.
They were a safe distance away, and close enough to feel the heat on their faces. Rin tread with Jinbei, watching Tora pour fire on the creature from above. The thing loosed a nightmarish shriek, as his dragon buried it alive under a crackling stream of flames. It was a marvelous sight.
Rin couldn’t help but laugh, he was so proud of her. He turned to brag a little, because how could he not—
Jinbei had nearly sunk beneath the surface. Frantic, Rin reached around the fighter’s chest to hold his head above water.
“No!” he cried. “Hey! Hey, stay with me.”
At Rin’s call, Tora raced to him, skimming in triumph over the monster’s scorched, sinking remains. She lowered her body into the waves so he could slide easily onto her back. He hauled Jinbei on behind him, draping the man over the saddle.
Tora beat her wings, and lifted out of the water. He could hear the audience exploding with sound in the stands inside the grotto as he directed his dragon to the beach nearby.
“No no no no…”
Jinbei was going to stand victorious in the middle of Sano Stadium, and Rin would meet him, beaming, on the field. His knife would have cut the slave’s collar, while the people cheered, and Rin could share in his joy at finally being free.
And after all of that, Rin would have asked him to stay.
If he would. If he wanted to.
“Hang on!” Rin barked over his shoulder, raw fear clawing at his core. “Don’t you dare die on me!”
They touched down on the shore, and Rin moved Jinbei off Tora’s back and onto the sand as carefully as he could manage. He dropped to his knees beside the man’s injured leg. Two long, jagged gashes had rent his flesh from thigh to shin, deep enough that Rin could see the bone in spots beneath pools of blood. His stomach churned, and he fought to keep the nausea out of his voice.
Rin swallowed his sickness, pulling off his wet shirt to tie around the wound.
“Wait.” Breaths coming in shallow, labored pants, Jinbei threw a weak wave toward his good leg. “F-flask…”
Rin tore the boot open with animalistic urgency, and reached inside to pull out a metal container. He twisted the top open and inhaled. The scent stung his nose like hot peppers. It smelled like hope.
“Kaki leaf?! Oh thank the gods.” He’d read about the serum in lessons before. It was banned in Samezuka as a poison, and he had no idea how Jinbei had come by it, but Rin could not have been more thankful he had.
Bolting to the saddle, Rin ripped his waterskin from the leather harness, returning to Jinbei to pour the sieved water over the wound to clean it. Diluted blood seeped onto the sand. He threw the empty pouch to the side and snatched up the flask.
“Ready?” It would be painful. Kaki leaf could work miracles, but from what he’d read, it felt like molten metal on the skin. Rin grasped Jinbei’s hand, clammy and cold in his palm. “Try not to move.”
Rin emptied the contents of the flask down the length Jinbei’s torn leg.
Jinbei’s whole body lurched in agony, and he bit back a scream, squeezing Rin’s hand so hard, the prince felt his knuckles crack. Rin let him, holding tight, steadying the man’s leg while the serum filled the wound. It bubbled, hissing and fizzing as it closed the injury and began to firm.
After a few moments, the liquid hardened into a rubbery seal over the gashes, a sickly green color. Jinbei collapsed back onto the sand, spent, wheezing in choppy gasps. Rin set his hand down and hurried to unbuckle the belt across the man’s heaving chest.
“Breathe.” Rin worked open the clasp and pulled the strap loose. “Tora, come closer! Keep him warm.”
Minding her tail, Tora curled herself around the two of them, stretching a wing protectively over her partner, and cocooning them in the heat rolling off of her body.
Smile strained with concern, Rin rubbed the man’s left shoulder a few times before leaning in to remove his armor. With as much gentleness as haste would allow, Rin slid off the spaulders.
The black sleeve underneath had shifted askew, and his eye caught something.
A dark patch of skin peeked out from under the fabric. Thick and sinewy—a burn scar. Rin pulled the sleeve all the way down.
The air hooked in his lungs.
Rin knew every twist of this scar—every rootlike ridge of flesh, even after six years, he knew.
It can’t be.
It couldn’t possibly be.
He had to be sure. Hands trembling, he bent to untie the chinstrap of Jinbei’s helmet.
Sousuke caught the sounds of seagulls, and waves, and Rin’s voice swirling together in some far-off chamber. His left leg felt like he’d dipped the whole thing in a vat of acid. There were quick hands on his arm, coaxing his armor off, and the breeze felt amazing on his shoulder. Fingers were at his chin next, slipping under the tie.
Then the metal shifted around his head, and Sousuke’s eyes snapped open. He jolted up onto his elbows.
Everything was red.
Rin was in front of him, wet hair plastered to his cheeks, bathed in the crimson glow of a dragon’s wing, eyes wide, face frozen in shock.
Time slowed to a halt, and hung suspended. The roar of the ocean, and the wind across the cliffs went quiet while the world around them dimmed and crumbled.
All Sousuke could do was sit there, exposed, terrified, spellbound under Rin’s gaze.
The sound was a fragile whisper, but it carried clearly in the tented space beneath Tora’s wing. Hearing his real name from Rin’s mouth sent a shudder down his back.
“You’re alive. It’s…it’s you…”
Sousuke watched as awe, then hurt, and then understanding passed over his friend’s features.
Cautiously, Rin reached his arm out to brush his fingers from Sousuke’s temple to his chin, like he was making sure he was real. Sousuke’s jaw locked, neck going rigid as Rin’s hand lingered. He could almost hear the man’s mind racing and slotting pieces together.
Trapped in Rin’s eyes, Sousuke saw the light flicker, and something in them steeled. The prince drew back.
Suddenly aware of the clamor outside, Sousuke heard the crowd pouring onto the beach as voices began circling down from the rocks. With a husky growl, Tora peeked her head inside, asking. Rin nodded yes, and she lifted her wing.
Hard sun had scattered the gloom, beating mercilessly down on the sand. Sousuke squinted to see the citizens and royalty of Samezuka and Iwatobi gathered there watching them, waiting. Rin drew a knife from his belt. Taking the soaked leather of Sousuke’s collar between his fingers, he brought the blade up and deftly cut the threads of the fastener.
Cool air tickled Sousuke’s neck as the prince pulled the collar off.
Rin stood and faced the people, the king of Iwatobi, and the Emperor. The lean muscles of his back flexed and glistened as he raised his arm high, clutching the worn scrap of leather like it was a token of victory.
Voice booming loud and sure, Rin shouted up to the cliffs.
“I, Matsuoka Rin, hereby lay claim to my birthright! I am the Emperor.”
Sousuke counted the crashes of two waves on the shore. There was one cry, followed by another. And then the cheers were deafening.
The sea’s rhythmic swaying was a kind comfort.
Sousuke realized he’d almost forgotten the sensation, sitting in the cabin on the way back to the capital. It reminded him of home.
Iwatobi ships had windows, and he could watch the birds from here as they dipped and bowed over low crests. Cleaned, leg dressed in linen, bound to a wooden splint, Sousuke sat halfway down the bed. Bruises were beginning to flower on his back and arms, and he was so tired, he could probably fall asleep like this, leaning up against the windowsill. His limbs were weak, leaden with fatigue and the enormity of his failure.
Momo had made it to the statue, and was headed home to his brother, Sousuke was infinitely relieved to hear. But Rin. Rin had plunged off a cliff into the clutches of a monster to pull him from the deep, and he didn’t think he could ever forgive himself for that.
He was Yamazaki Sousuke again, and Rin was now the Emperor of Samezuka. The threats these things entailed were undoubtably ahead.
The corridor creaked, and the narrow door to his cabin opened and shut.
Rin walked up beside the small table, leaning himself against the wall across from the bed. He was in dry clothes—a plain white linen tunic, the same as Sousuke’s. It made his rich hair stand out all the more, like a dahlia in a bed of lilies. The tiny cabin felt even smaller with Rin inside, their closeness sending glowing prickles over Sousuke’s skin.
Rin’s eyes flicked to the bed. “Is your leg ok?”
Crossing one foot over the other, Rin pinned his focus on the pine floorboards. Sousuke sat up as best he could. He deserved whatever was coming.
“Why.” Rin kept his tone perfectly taught and even. “Why did you hide from me?”
“Rin, I—” Sousuke started. “If I tell you, you’ll be angry.”
“Oh I’m already plenty angry.” Scowling, Rin pulled his arms into his body.
Sousuke winced, coiling away from the flare. He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t dreamed about explaining it all to Rin. He’d imagined apologizing for running away—saying how sorry he was for never telling Rin what he wanted for his fifteenth birthday. And the Rin in his daydreams had jumped into his arms, overjoyed. Those had been fools’ fantasies, and now that he was here, it felt like trying to talk underwater.
“Your…uncle saw us. Saw you take me to the valley one time.”
Rin was still turned away, but Sousuke knew he was listening. “He sent someone to kill me the night of the festival. And if not me, then you, for keeping an enemy around.”
“You would have been murdered to protect your family’s legacy.” He finished, bracing for a tempest.
But Rin only shifted calmly against the wall. “Who told you this?”
Golden irises in the dark of night flashed in Sousuke’s memory. “Someone who would know.”
Sun from the window didn’t quite reach Rin’s side of the cabin, and Sousuke wished he would come nearer. In the shallow shadow, Rin tensed, then let his body sag with a sad sort of resignation. “I wouldn’t believe it. But after today, I…figured it must’ve been something like that.”
Letting quiet sink between them for a minute, Sousuke watched Rin pull up the desk chair and drop into it heavily.
“So then what?” Rin kept his eyes trained on the wood grains, folding his arms over the backrest.
“I hid in Sano.”
“Great job hiding. You sure know how to keep a low profile, Jinbei,” Rin seethed. “Wait a second, did Kisumi know this whole time? What am I saying, of course he fucking knew.”
There was a stinging bite to Rin’s words, but he had reason to be bitter. Sousuke owed Rin as much of the truth as he could give. “The plan was to go free and—protect you…in secret.”
Leaning forward sent hot stabs of pain up Sousuke’s leg, but he just needed Rin to see him. “I never wanted to leave you.”
Finally, Rin raised his head to look, and Sousuke had never felt so bare. There was nothing to hide the open adoration on his face—the same expression that had been there waiting for Rin under the helmet all this time. Scar exposed where his shirt was slipping down, hands unsteady in his lap, heart collapsing, Sousuke hoped his best friend would understand.
Whatever Rin saw there made him blink hard, his eyes watering. “You….you should’ve come back. I would have done something about my uncle.”
“I couldn’t put you in danger.”
Hissing through his teeth, Rin slammed his palm on the cabin wall. “Put me in danger?” You let me think you were dead! For six years! Do you have any idea what that did to me?! Sousuke, I lo—” His mouth snapped shut. “I was devastated.”
“I’m so sorry, Rin. I thought about you all the time. Not a day went by when I didn’t miss you. I did…what I had to.” He knew how flimsy that sounded. How much more Rin deserved.
“I should be mad at you right now. And you are going to tell me everything.” Rin rose from the chair, stepping into the light flooding from the window. His voice gave. “But I’m just so fucking happy you’re alive.”
The storm broke, and Rin’s defense fell to pieces. Sousuke scooted closer to the wall to give him room as he settled onto the mattress on his knees, taking Sousuke’s face in both his hands. Moving his fingers delicately over his friend’s cheeks, under his tired eyes, Rin sighed. His teary smile was a burst of dawn through the clouds.
“Look at you,” he whispered, his expression dusted with disbelief, but impossibly bright. Rin slid a hand down around the back of Sousuke’s neck. “You’re alive. I can’t believe I found you.”
Sousuke brought his arm around to press Rin closer, and they eased sideways onto the bed. Inhaling a lungful of Rin’s familiar scent was almost overwhelming, as the memories came rushing back: Stretching out in the grass of the palace courtyard with Rin’s head on his stomach, leaning into each other on a sun-warmed rock, watching the sky. He was here in Sousuke’s arms, as amazing and breathtakingly beautiful as he’d been the night they’d danced together under the flame of a lone lantern.
“Rin, I missed you so much.”
Tears were leaking from the corners of Rin’s eyes, and Sousuke was about to tease him for it, until he felt the wetness on the pillow and realized he was crying, too.
“Sou” Rin clung to him, and fisted his fingers around the fabric of his shirt like he never wanted to let go. “Gods, you almost…when that thing pulled you under…I’d have lost you again and never even known.”
“You didn’t know it was me.” Sousuke frowned, puzzled. “And you still…Why?”
Rin stilled, a peach-pink flush warming his cheeks in answer. He buried his face into Sousuke’s shoulder. With a soft sob, he slipped his hand between them to rest on Sousuke’s heart, closing his eyes in gratitude for every pulsing beat.
Stroking Rin’s back, Sousuke let his own happiness leave wet trails over his cheeks. “Rin.” Sousuke reached down and hooked his finger tenderly under Rin’s chin, tilting his head up. He smiled slowly, and honestly. “Thank you for saving my life.”
Rin took a sharp breath and squeezed him almost tight enough that it hurt. Sousuke wouldn’t have cared if it did.
He lost track of how long they lay there, silent, faces close, taking each other in from across the pillow. His eyes traced Rin’s sharp mouth, and fine jaw, resting on the ruby of his irises, thin around the growing dark of his pupils. There was so much to say, but all of it could wait.
In a couple of hours, they would be docked at the capital harbor, and Rin would be ruler of the largest empire in the known world. Yet here in the stillness of a small cabin awash in afternoon sun, rocking in the cradle of the sea, he was just Rin: a starry-eyed boy in plain white, who cried too often, and loved too much, who was looking at Sousuke like he was a dream come true.
Sousuke had no idea what he’d done to be worthy of this.
Exhaustion was bearing down on him, and his eyelids grew heavier each time he forced them open, but he struggled to keep awake. If he slept now, this might all be over, and Rin would be gone. The man seemed to notice, cracking a tiny, sweet grin. He released Sousuke’s shirt to glide one hand up his spine and gently scratch the crown of his head. Melting under Rin’s touch, he gave up the fight. As he drifted off, he thought he felt the mattress dip, and a faint pressure on his cheek.