Natsuya didn’t remember all that much about being six years old. Recollections of his childhood had funneled—piled in one pocket of time, like dust in the dip of a bowl.
He remembered the house he grew up in, his parents, and his baby brother. Port sounds, cloudy skies, the stink of stale seawater, and the boat his family sailed along the Iwatobi coast when his father closed shop to take a couple days off.
He remembered huddling below the deck of that boat with the door jammed on the night his family died. Stars were shrouded, the ocean restive.
He remembered the cold. A chokehold chill that shuddered down his body, seeped into his skin, and locked his limbs. Shrieks, screeching from the water just outside, the awful sound of scraping, scratching at the wood as something climbed up the hull.
“Stay inside, Natsuya, Stay quiet. Whatever you hear, son, don’t come out.”
His father lifted him into a linen cabinet while his mother held the baby. He was bawling; the screeching outside would not let up. She brought the child to the shelf, Natsuya spread his arms to take him.
“Keep your little brother with you,” his father said.
Ssshh sshhhh, honey you’re too loud
Stop crying, he wouldn’t stop crying.
Please, please, please stop crying.
Natsuya remembered clearer than anything, the look on his mother’s face as she cradled his baby brother close, shook her head, and shut the cabinet.
He heard the snap of the door splintering open, footsteps, gravelly voices, rattling laughter, a thump of heavy things on the ground. In the airless dark, he smothered a scream behind his hand. There was a presence in the room—a being so rank with evil, its aura was a suffocating weight.
His brother was still crying, it was freezing.
Then a splash,
and nothing more.
Nothing save the slow, swaying creak of the boat in the arms of a fickle sea.
Five years later
It must have been near midnight. Natsuya wrung the rough wood of the ship rail, white-knuckled, searching the inky water beneath. There was a broom in his hand, a knife tucked in his sleeve, and determination in the set of his jaw.
“What are you doing, boy?”
One of the soldiers approached, chin raised in cautious concern. “You looking for them?”
“Nah.” Natsuya brandished his broom. “Couldn’t sleep, Sir. Thought I’d get a start on sweeping the hold ‘fore the rest is up.”
“Ah.” The man relaxed. “Best get to it, then. Not the safest up here on deck.”
“Aye, sir.” Natsuya gave a stiff nod, and slipped around the corner.
Guards on duty had all been testy for the last few days at sea. Even a green deckhand could see why. Iwatobi had achieved something no other nation had in the span of history: a truce with sirens. It was a tenuous peace won by three young girls, Natsuya heard. A trio of prodigies from the lowlands was powerful enough to scare the creatures into submission. Impressive as that was, demons knew no honor. Especially not these.
Tonight, on this ship, there was finally one of them within his reach. Natsuya hung his lantern on a hook at the top of the stairwell, and descended into musty gloom.
The cargo hold was dim, and dry. Gentle pitches of the waves groaned in the floorboards, and in the tinny clink of chains. There it was—like a monolith in the center of the floor, chained to the walls and covered by canvas: the monster’s cage. Natsuya slid the knife from his sleeve, and took a breath. Fear and trepidation was bristling through his limbs. There was something inside that cage, and it didn’t deserve to the see the light of another day. He’d waited five years for a chance like this, so hell if it was going to waste.
Only someone had beat him here.
A cloaked, slight-framed figure hovered near the iron door. Natsuya lowered his gait, and crept forward. “Hey, you. What're you doing down here with that?”
The person angled to meet him, unmoving.
It was a young boy’s voice—clear, with the telltale lilt of nobility.
“I could ask you the same.” Bright sage flashed in the low light from under the hood, and dropped to Natsuya’s knife. “But I don’t think I need to.”
“Good.” Natsuya snapped. He hadn’t expected to find anyone down here. This kid was making him nervous. “Then you can get on back to your cabin.” He gulped. “And forget you saw me.”
Grip sweating at the knife hilt, he edged even closer. The other boy stiffened, and backed against the cage, but made no move to flee. A metallic scrape came from inside as the creature scrambled into a corner.
“Stow your blade. You are not going to hurt him.”
“Fucking right m’not,” Natsuya prickled. “I’m gonna kill it.” The world would be better for one less of them. “So move. Before it gets you.”
The cloaked boy held his ground. “He is six years old.”
“My brother was a baby in my mother’s arms when they killed him,” Natsuya snarled. “They don’t deserve anyone’s mercy; I don’t care how young. It’ll grow up to be a murderer like the rest. I’m doing us all a damn favor.”
He was within arm’s reach of the boy now, and he honestly didn’t know what to do next. The plan was to kill a monster, and sneak back to his quarters before anyone noticed it was dead. He’d be a quiet hero, saving the lives of all its future prey.
“This one was born human, you know.”
Natsuya stilled his advance. “You made that shit up.”
“I asked him,” The cloaked boy answered. “He and the other ward are the only two like this.”
“You learn things, if you look for them.” The kid’s gaze fell to the knife again, where it was still glinting unsteady in Natsuya’s fingers. “You could stand to try it.”
Condescending little prick.
“Easy to spit shit at others, when you haven’t lived what they have.”
The boy regarded him coolly. “Isn’t it?” He took Natsuya in curiously, like he couldn’t believe a human so pigheaded could exist. “Your lack of foresight is truly astounding.”
Anger boiled under Natsuya’s skin. “Why would they hold to their word? You’re damn stupid if you they think they will. Probably sent the little leech to kill the royal family anyhow.”
“If that were the case, he could have already done so.”
Stepping into the weak bloom of a lantern, the boy pushed back his hood.
Silver. Hair like spun moonlight spilled forth, framing pale green eyes, and soft features. There was an air of peace about the boy that seemed almost strange on such a young face. A crest fastened his collar at the throat: an “I”—eagle winged, and sapphire blue.
“You’re!” Natsuya sputtered. “You’re the—!” The crown prince of Iwatobi.
“Yes,” the boy sighed. “So stop all of that swearing.” His gazed narrowed, and Natsuya felt its pierce like a snake bite at his throat. “And do not call me stupid.”
Panic struck in white-hot bolts.
“Wait! Please! I’ll put the knife away; you can have it!”
Natsuya was dead. Or worse, doomed to wither into bones beneath the canyon, if he was caught pointing a blade at the prince. He snapped up like a cornered animal, pleading, desperate. Heavy footsteps rumbled down the stairs, and there were firm, gloved hands on his shoulders; it was over.
Unshaken, the prince nodded in Natsuya’s direction. “This boy here would like a chance to fight for Iwatobi, though he clearly does not know how.”
Oh, this fucking—
“It would be a shame to turn away such spirit. When we return home, see that he is given a spot amongst the academy squires.”
Natsuya’s jaw fell agape. “…Huh?”
A chorus of “Yes, Prince Serizawa!” rang out in answer, and Natsuya’s future tumbled down a terrifying new trail.
Eight months later
Natsuya had bidden the coast farewell.
Now a squire in the king’s army, he called the hewn heights of Negura his home. Iwatobi’s booming capital was nested deep in the curves of Tottori Canyon, beautifully carven into sheer cliff faces a quarter mile above the river. The city’s thin air, and dizzying verticality had taken some getting used to.
He’d known nothing, and no one when he’d arrived at the knights’ academy. But he took to combat readily, and before long, his easy humor had won him a wide array of friends. The discipline of military life honed him, gave him a purpose. If he was honest, he owed the little prince a thank-you for affording him this chance, though he doubted he’d ever talk to the kid again.
Then one morning, completely out of the blue, Serizawa appeared at the practice field. When drills were over, he strode up to Natsuya with his polite smile, and asked if he knew his letters.
Lessons became both the worst, and best days of Natsuya’s week. Reading was drudge work—pointless, and frustrating. But Serizawa’s patience was inexhaustible, his serenity shatterproof. On occasion, Natsuya would crack some brazen joke, and earn a subdued laugh. He would narrate a sentence just right, and the courteous mask would split with genuine pride. It was fulfilling in the strangest of ways.
Natsuya figured this was all sprung from Serizawa’s guilt—assuming responsibility for recruiting a rascal like him. Even so, no one after his parents had ever expended so much effort for him, or had half as much faith. He puzzled over it, until he accepted the only explanation: the prince was simply kind.
Weeks molded into months. “Your Highness” became “Serizawa.” And when Natsuya called the prince by his given name, he’d met no protest.
Today, he was back on the ground.
The entire court was invited down to observe Lord Shiina’s unveiling of Tsuguro—the greatest warship Iwatobi had constructed to date. It rested in the water beyond the Shiina’s gates, a goliath of a thing. Any other ship in the fleet would fit comfortably in its hold.
Natsuya squared his shoulders, and stuck close to Prince Nao as they milled about the colorful, carefully landscaped Shiina estate. Festivities wore on inside, cheers dulled by distance.
“Sooo, you just gonna sniff flowers all day?”
Nao bent away from a crane-shaped floral sculpture he’d been admiring. “You’re completely free to do something else, you know. No need to hound my heels.”
“Eh.” Natsuya folded his arms behind his head in a way he was pretty sure looked casual. “I don’t know anyone here.”
Nao sighed, then knelt to the lagoon bank to observe a train of ducklings hopping after their mother.
“Reminds me of you.”
Natsuya was on the cusp of a comeback when a child’s scream tore over the yard. Nao had heard it, too. They shared a look, and broke off at a run. Unsurprisingly, Natsuya was faster. He cut across a garden, charged down two flights of stairs, through a bush, and rounded the hedge.
It took a moment to make sense of the scene before him. Three teenaged girls were crowded around a hickory tree. Finely dressed, golden hair pinned with gems, the tallest of them stood apart with her doll-like face split in a wicked grin.
The Hazukis. Shun, the oldest, Miri the youngest, and Kyo, the sister in the center—in every way. By now, they were famous figures. Renowned for their prodigious talent, and for bringing peace unprecedented to the kingdom. Natsuya had never seen them in person. They were younger than he thought they’d be.
Kyo had her fist locked. On the ground was a mewling black cat, trapped in a cage of stone. He pawed at the the teeth of his prison, smoky fur on end.
Natsuya strode out. “The hell’s going on here?”
“They’re trying to make Ikuya kill Haru!” A boy was crouched in the grass beside the cat. He was a springy thing, with a tangle of bright red hair. Natsuya recognized him instantly: Master Shiina’s bastard boy.
Beside him was another.
The second boy was thinner, paler, tiny in a shirt that didn’t fit him. Scales flushed down his neck, and over his arms in jade crescents. His blue eyes were wide and wet, pupils slitted like a lizard’s. The siren ward. Natsuya wrestled down his enmity for the sake of the human kid, and the damn kitten.
“I’m getting bored!” Hopping on her toes, Miri kicked at the cage. “Just kill it already!”
More scales folded down the siren’s neck, and he curled into himself.
“Shut up, shut up! Ikuya would never!” The Shiina boy shoved his way forward. “Especially not for you!”
The situation was taking a dangerous plummet. “Right,” Natsuya intervened. “Here’s where I tell you girls to cut it the fuck out, and step away.” He was taller than most of the squires, certainly taller than the three sisters. He loomed into their space. “Play nice, will you?”
None of them budged. Kyo rolled her tongue against the inside of her cheek, looking him head to foot twice over, like he was a lame dog begging her for a mercy kill.
“We want him to off the cat, is all,” Miri piped. Her hands were laced angelically behind her back. “With his eyes, like they do. Just to see!”
“Exactly.” Kyo added. “We need to see. Don’t you want to know how they do it? Aren’t you curious?”
Something buried deep startled to life. “No. I’m not,” Natsuya growled. “Nothing’s dying here today. Much less in front of these kids. Why don’t you three go enjoy the party? I hear the lemon tarts are especially good.”
Kyo’s expression was still as carved marble, and infuriatingly undecipherable. Standing eye-to-eye, Natsuya began to understand why the sirens had submitted. There was passion unstable, and unstoppable raging in her. Beneath the pretty dress and glittering jewels, she was a frayed rope held taught by a few thin fibers, ready to snap at a whim.
Natsuya had worked the piers long enough to know that you never left that shit up to chance. If a rope was rotting, you cut it loose. He edged closer with a barbed challenge in his glare.
Wheezing, his robe hem stained with mud, Nao rushed into the clearing. He sized up the moment, and gathered his poise.
“Sorcerers, stand down. I am Serizawa—”
“-Nao. We know. Prince of Iwatobi,” Kyo droned.
Nao’s smile was unrelenting. “Good. We are grateful for your services, ladies. But do keep yourselves in line.”
Kyo’s lips warped into a sneer.
The group’s attention froze midair, and converged at the edge of the grass. A boy was there, shuffling closer, curious. He looked of an age with the other two children—with full cheeks, and a head of golden curls.
“What are you doing to the kitty?” He pouted.
“Get out,” Kyo snapped.
Smoothing down his velvet doublet, the boy stooped beside the stone prison. “Look, he doesn’t want to be in there.” His mouth tugged into a frown. With a jerky wave of his tiny hand, he shattered the enclosure. The Shiina kid cheered as the cat streaked across the lawn, disappearing into a thick hedge.
Boiling over at last, Kyo roared at their brother. He shrank down. There was fear in his eyes, but no remorse.
Quickly, Shun swiped his hand, and led him away. The boy threw a wistful glance over his shoulder, then disappeared with his two sisters. Only Kyo remained, seething.
“Serizawa,” Wrath redirected, she dragged the word across a bed of thorns. “You can’t do anything, can you? Not of much value to Iwatobi, yet we all bow to your every fancy. It’s pathetic, really. All you’ll ever have is your name. “
She edged nearer, too near. “Someday that won’t be enough.”
There was a nettling threat in her voice, and Natsuya's patience ran out.
“Oh, fuck this.” He lunged.
The sorceress curled her fingers at her side, then the ground beneath him shook, and slid out. He fell hard on his back, and the sky went dark to a chorus of echoes.
A minute later, he came to with a splitting headache, and the prince’s reddened, worried face above him. “Are you alright?”
He smelled good. Natsuya had never stood close enough to notice, but Nao smelled like the mint leaves he was always chewing: cool, and sharp—a soothing sting. His head hurt a little bit less.
“Oh. Yes. Yeah.” He heaved himself up with a grunt.
Nao relaxed back onto his heels. “That was rather foolish, what you did. She wasn’t going to attack me.”
Natsuya huffed. “Wow, you’re welcome.”
“No! I mean—thank you, I just…she might have hurt you worse.” The prince shifted with agitation. “I would never ask you to risk yourself for my pride’s sake.”
“Yeah, well. You don’t have to ask friends to do that.”
Nao’s lips parted in surprise, and Natsuya barely had a moment to feel embarrassed before the prince took a breath to say something—
“HEY! Hey, guy!” The Shiina kid scrambled over on all fours like an enthused monkey, and blinked up at him, unguarded. “That was a little uncool just now, huh.”
Natsuya would have been more annoyed if Nao didn’t look so amused. “I don’t remember asking you, peewee.”
The prince had to hide his snicker with a hand.
“MY NAME’S NOT PEEWEE, IT’S ASAHI!!” Throwing an arm out, the ginger fireball gestured to his friend. “And that’s Ikuya!”
“Thank you for your help.”
The siren ward was seated primly on his knees, a safe distance away. Natsuya wondered if the boy remembered his voice from that night on the ship. He didn’t doubt it. Now that he had a good look at him, he could tell Nao was right; the kid was part human. His scales were gone, leaving only peachy skin. Something snapped together in Nao’s memories at the familiar curve of the boy’s eyes, the pinch of his nose, the way that cypress teal hair swept over his forehead.
For the first time, the siren boy lifted his gaze. Where the blazing blue had been, Natsuya saw red. A coppery, earth-wrought red.
Much like his own.
Two years later
Ikuya kicked, and slipped through the water like a seal at play. He and Asahi shinnied up the riverbank, and to the dock. Haru the cat was grooming himself in a patch of shade nearby, unfazed by their shouting.
It was a perfect day. Blue, sunny, the breeze just right. Natsuya had it free, so the four of them had taken a trip down the canyon to the sandy river beach for a swim.
“Natsuya!” Ikuya called out with a wave. “Watch!”
Charged with a running start, the boys launched themselves off the dock. Ikuya dove, slicing through the surface with a kiss of a splash. Asahi followed with his legs hugged to his chest, hitting the water in an ungainly explosion.
Natsuya cheered from the shallows. It had taken a bit of time for him to accept fully, but Ikuya was his brother. The child hadn’t been killed that night; he’d been stolen. And in spite of his dark upbringing, Ikuya was gentle, smart, and sweet. Natsuya was eternally grateful for whichever stroke of fate had brought them together again.
Had Nao not been there on that ship, he might have killed the boy. Shame scorched through him each time he remembered.
Absently, he stole a glance at Nao, who was reclining under a canvas tent out of the sun. Reading, of all things. Which, if you asked Natsuya, was a right waste of a day at the beach. But the prince was happy like this, and so Natsuya guessed he was happy, too. He swam ashore, and made his way up the bank. A cluster of highborn girls had been fluttering close to their group, trading secrets and sliding coy looks at him. He winked, and they giggled all the way to the water. He was fairly sure he’d fooled around with at least two of them already in the storehouse behind the dormitories. Being a royal knight in training did have its perks.
Nao’s weary sigh could carry a ship to sea.
Slicking his hair back, Natsuya dropped down on the blanket beside the prince, and stole a pear from the basket. “More innocent bystanders fallen victim to my reckless charm.”
“Reckless and charming, hm. You’re one of those things for certain.”
“Ha, thanks. Hey, wait—”
Nao tore his eyes away, and cleared his throat into his fist. He cast around for anyone nearby. “I stumbled upon some records last night in the archives. On the Hazuki sisters.”
“Oh?” Natsuya’s focus sharpened. “And…?”
“And I found out that their current father is not their birth one. Their real father was a criminal. A smuggler, and a magic-wielding murderer.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” Natsuya snorted.
“He was imprisoned, and later executed, eight years ago. Publicly.”
Publicly. Only the worst of the worst were sentenced to death in Iwatobi. Veritable dangers to human safety, Natsuya recalled. “So you think they have it in for the royal family, after that, huh?”
Nao exhaled through clenched teeth. “The crown. The law. Maybe everyone else.”
The prince was reclined in a simple bamboo chair. He was the image of serenity, but for the way his mouth tightened and twisted. “The Hazuki sisters are cruel. There is no beating around it. Yet while they serve as our main defense against sirens, the council will continue to nurse their needs, and raise them high. When that is the last place they should be.”
The sorceress’ power was something unheard of. They cared little for those they displaced, leveling land, brushing opposition aside like dead leaves on the road in their quest for improvement. They were irreverent, hungry, and marbled with madness. Nao’s worry compounded with each passing month. Yet the people revered them, and the king rewarded them.
There would come a day, Nao was certain, when they would turn on the capital, and nothing in Iwatobi would be strong enough stop them.
“But we do need ‘em.” Natsuya gritted out. “If the monsters ever go back on their word, and redouble their killing like people think they will.”
“That may be. But when we fight evil with more evil, it doesn’t matter who wins at the end, does it? We all lose.”
Natsuya unscrambled the prince’s thoughts in his head, and the conclusion made his insides pitch. “You think we should kill the sirens ourselves. Without the sisters.”
“If we did, the Hazukis would be rendered unessential. They would fall out of favor with the council, lose their privileges, and we could be rid of both threats.”
Objectively, Natsuya had to marvel at the outrageous boldness of the idea. Nao was nothing if not gutsy. It was an ideal order of events. The only problem being, sirens were impossible to do battle with. Soldiers needed their vision to fight, and one glimpse of the enemy spelled the end. In groups, the creatures’ screams drove armies mad, chasing men to their deaths in terror without even a dent in their own ranks. Natsuya knew intimately how hard it would be to stand up to them.
He turned to see Ikuya, splashing around with Asahi in the river, and his response was quick.
Nao’s eyes lifted, wide. “You’re…in? You don’t even know for what.”
“Don’t care.” Natsuya shrugged, but fixed the prince with a sure look. “They took my little brother once, and I ain’t giving him back.”
The prince’s mouth shaped to an “Oh.” Fondness quirked the corners of his eyes.
Squashing down embarrassment, Natsuya took a bite of pear. “So, what’s the plan?”
Nao chewed his lip. “I’m working on that.”
A couple of fifteen-year-olds against the oldest horrors on earth.
A willow leaf had blown into Nao’s hair, and Natsuya reached over without a second thought to pluck it out. Tossing it into the wind, an idea struck.
“The forest!” Natsuya surged forward. “The Guardians of Aomori could help, right? Get some of them out here!”
“It’s possible they’re powerful enough.” Nao pondered. “But they are beholden to the gods, not us. Aomori’s Guardians live by a purpose which transcends the squabbles of society, and pulling them into this mess could put that in jeopardy. They would not agree to leave the forest.”
Natsuya deflated with a grunt.
Ikuya and Asahi’s bubbling giggles derailed the silence as they raced up the beach. Asahi plopped down on the blanket, shaking river water out of his wild mop, getting it everywhere like a brat.
“Ikuya, may I ask you something?” Nao gave the siren a kindly smile.
“Yes!” Ikuya sat at attention, ever eager to be of help. “Anything!”
“I know you were young when you arrived here. But I’d like to know…aside from the Hazukis…was there anything the sirens were afraid of? Anything they avoided, or…warned you about?”
The boy's whole body stiffened at the mention of his old home, and a wave of protectiveness drew Natsuya’s arm around his little brother.
“Afraid…?” His brow pinched in thought. “Dragons, I guess.”
“I see.” Nao resigned. “I suppose they would be. I apologize for asking.”
Ikuya’s shoulders sagged, and Natsuya ruffled his hair. He shot up. “Wait, Your Highness! There’s something else.”
The group folded in to listen.
With all of the attention on him, the boy shrank shyly, and leaned into his older brother. “I…never saw them myself, but there was one…more thing that the others didn’t like."
One week later
Natsuya tugged open his shirt as he stormed across the bridge to Nao's private study. A lacy waterfall threaded down the steep rock face beside the walkway, and he was infinitely thankful for its mist. Negura was sweltering in late summer, and the ride here from the bottom of Tottori Canyon had been arduous.
The great aspen door to the study was cracked ajar, and Natsuya let himself in. The room was plastered floor to ceiling with shelves of texts, making it feel far smaller than it was. Rounded lancet windows opened the out-facing wall, baring a harrowing view of sheer heights. Nao always forgot about them when he was in here; it was stuffy as hell. Natsuya nudged one open for some needed fresh air. A trail of Nao's work was already laid out. The prince had pushed all of the chairs against the walls to make space for piles of books and scrolls on the rug.
“Took you long enough!” Nao’s head appeared over the stair railing on the second floor, and he hurried down, lifting the hem of his robe.
“It took me long enough!? Do you know far I—”
Nao settled neatly onto a clear spot of the rug, motioning for Natsuya to join him. Rolling the stiffness out of his shoulders, he did. He thought he caught Nao’s gaze catch at his open collar for a brief moment. But he was probably mistaken.
A deep breath, and the prince began. “After speaking to Ikuya, I did some looking around.”
“This—” Nao heaved a stack of weathered leather books onto the floor between them. “—is the collected travel logs of Ryuugazaki Nobu.”
“Ryuugazaki?” Natsuya was sure he’d heard of the guy before. “Oh! The loony!”
Nao’s brow twitched with annoyance. “A tragically misunderstood mind. A few of his more outlandish ideas led to the dismissal of his entire body of work. He was one of the greatest explorers in the history of the known world.” He plucked a stack off the top, cracking it open to a page he’d marked with a feather. “And that’s lucky for us. Look. Look at this place here.”
He tapped a finger to one label on the map.
Natsuya squinted. “…Tokatsu.”
The prince shook his head, tracing lines over a paper sea. “Here is the country of Tokitsu. And here is Moyajima.”
Natsuya blinked, craning up to make sure he was catching it at the right angle. “That can’t be right. Who would live that close, are they fucking nuts?”
Nao pinched him for the swear. “It’s as true as any map might be; I’ve checked other sources.” His hands were jittering with excitement, flitting through fraying pages. “These people built their entire way of life around defending themselves against monsters. They’ve been there for centuries.”
There were drawings in Ryuugazaki’s journal. Houses, and boats, weapons, and people with “dark hair, and eyes in every hue of the sea.”
It was amazing, sure, but Natsuya was still at a loss. “What’ve they got to do with us?”
“I was waiting for you to ask!” Nao turned to another marked spot, breath short because he could barely contain himself. Cute. His long, feathery lashes fluttered as he scanned the journal.
“It says here that they can fight without seeing. So they are completely invulnerable to a siren’s glare.”
Nao affirmed with vigor, and shuffled closer. Bright shadows climbed the walls of the study, as afternoon wore away, and the prince explained everything he’d found. Natsuya could hardly believe it. Saving the world from demons was a child’s storybook fantasy, but here in this sunny study room, Nao was planning it into reality.
“I want them to teach our army.” The prince closed his journal. “If they’ve fought off the sirens as a tiny nation, imagine what we could accomplish with sixty thousand blind Iwatobi soldiers. What we could do if sorcerers could learn it.”
Natsuya flared with eagerness. “We could be rid of the creatures forever!”
There was a problem, though. Examining the map again, Natsuya found one enormous, blaring, dream-dashing problem.
“They’re part of Samezuka.”
Nao had a response ready. “They live on the empire’s claim, technically. But they’re an isolated autarky. Not even on the imperial roster of managed territories.”
Natsuya’s brow furrowed. He’d heard things in lessons about the massive realm across the sea. Firespitting beasts, wild oceans, and a ruthless ruler.
“Emperor Matsuoka will not start a war for this. I am certain of it,” Nao insisted. “He’s busy in the south, and Tokitsu’s land is not by any stretch, valuable. Gauging his past decisions, he won’t risk his men, and especially not his dragons over a hold so small and remote.”
“Besides,” Nao elaborated, “we’re not stealing his territory; we are offering protection, and borrowing his subjects. This is worth a try, Natsuya.”
“Well sure, but—”
“The monsters will be gone. We’ll be free of the Hazukis. You won’t have to give up Ikuya. What happened to your family would never happen to another anywhere, again.”
An eagle called out over the canyon from somewhere outside. Light bounced up from the floor, and illuminated Nao’s face amidst glowing specks of dust. His hair was disheveled, body fragile and frazzled—but every inch of him radiated hope. Natsuya found himself oddly breathless.
“…Yeah. Th-that’s…” Natsuya stuttered. “I like…the way that sounds.”
Somewhere in that warm calm, Natsuya felt a swell of something he wasn’t quite sure what to do with.
Their ships docked in Whale Bay on a shivery winter morning.
“You sure you’re gonna be ok?”
Nao steadied himself on the cabin latch. “Yes. Thank you.” He gave an unconvincing smile. “How do I look?”
“Pretty, like always.”
“I meant do I look presentable, you rake.” The prince flicked Natsuya’s arm with a finger. “We need to make a good impression here. Much depends on it.”
“Alright.” Natsuya resigned. “Then you look like a land-loving royal who’s just spent a month on the water, never quite got his sea legs, and probably hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in days.”
“But you made the trip out here. You’re walking on your own two legs to meet these people, in the hopes that we can all win ourselves a brighter future together. If they’re anything like they’ve been in their letters, they’ll get that. And they probably won’t care if you’ve got a few hairs out of place.”
Nao blinked. His drawn face relaxed, and curled into a grateful smile that made Natsuya want to lock the cabin door, and steal a few more moments for themselves.
“Your Highness!” The ship captain shouted from outside.
“Thanks, Natsuya.” Nao nodded, threw open the door, and ducked through it.
There was little fanfare. None, actually. Only a small company of soldiers was waiting at the dock for them, standing at attention in full armor. The broadest of them approached with a stiff bow.
“Welcome, Prince Serizawa. Please follow me.”
Natsuya trailed close behind Nao at the head of their entourage as they walked, taking in the bay. A smooth beach was rolled out from the harbor, sand clawing at the base of an enormous, sloped stone seawall. Its bricks were dark like the cliffs around it, the battlement stained white by gulls. Menacing, fanged warden gods were carved into the surface, snarling outward at the ocean. At the far end of the stripe of sand, raised out of tide's reach, was an enclosed pit. Natsuya couldn’t see the bottom, but the sides were charred black.
"That's for getting rid of them." One of the warriors supplied. "The dead ones."
“Oh.” Natsuya coughed. “How uh…nice.”
Waves crashed behind them, restless. Natsuya prickled with the urge to be on the other side of that wall.
Their escorts ushered them through a portcullis and up the long, uphill road to the lord's council hall. It was, understandably, rather far from the beach. Streets were lined with simple, sturdy wooden buildings on stone frames, topped with thatch. Smoke from the smith shops, and the earthy scent of pinewood swirled in the briny air. Citizens gathered along the roadside, or leaned out of their windows to catch a glimpse of the foreign visitors. Ryuugazaki had been right about their looks, at least. Striking, Natsuya thought.
He cracked a grin, and waved at some of them to stir the atmosphere; the pressured silence was making him anxious.
Blue-green banners swung from heavy painted arches, emblazoned with a swimming whale shark. It was a peaceful beast. Gentle, and steady.
Sentries greeted them at the lord’s hall, and showed Nao inside. They drifted under thick pine beams that lofted the sloping roof over a low table. Fire in the hearth burned rich and warm behind the elderly man seated there, flanked by stern officers and advisors.
"Prince of Iwatobi," the lord rumbled. "Do sit."
Nao sank into a cushion on the floor, and Natsuya dropped down beside him. There were no pleasantries to fuss over. The lord launched straight into discussion. Natsuya did his best to follow along, but the conversation barreled ahead of him, and he found himself lost in the painted murals.
Weapons were mounted against the wall, sharpened and dangerous in the firelight. Spears, swords, naginata, longaxes, all waiting at the ready, should a need arise. Natsuya swallowed thickly.
Deliberations had dropped to a drone. It might have been an hour, maybe two.
Suddenly, Natsuya felt his prince’s hand under the table, groping for his. He snapped to attention, and took it firmly.
“Not once has any great nation offered to stand with us.” The lord’s face was sunken and shadowed, but flickering with interest. “So I ask, Prince of Iwatobi: Why so suddenly, have you?”
Every pair of ocean eyes was turned on Nao, and Natsuya felt sweat bead at his temple under the constricting scrutiny. Nao didn’t miss a beat.
“Cruelty paired with power is the enemy of all sovereign people. It is the easy thing to cower before it, or to slip behind it to allay suffering and death. But, my good lord…” Nao’s hand squeezed. “I would rather not.”
The crackle of firewood was deafening.
Natsuya was certain he could hear bones creak as the lord unlaced his fingers. All present watched his gnarled hands curl around a letter blade, and score a shallow cut into his calloused palm. He opened a lacquered box, and removed a small block of wood. One press to his red palm, then the paper. And the alliance between Iwatobi and Tokitsu was sealed in blood.
Nao’s pulse jumped in Natsuya’s grip.
At length, the elder reclined. “You should have a look around, guests, if you are not too tired from the journey.”
“Not at all,” Nao lied.
“Good.” The lord motioned across the table. “Yamazaki, if you would. Both of you.”
One of the younger officers rose from his seat and bowed. A tall man, with a bear pelt draped over broad shoulders.
General Yamazaki was a mountainous presence—tanned rough-hewn angles, with a dark beard, and arms that could crack skulls. Beside him, his wife and lieutenant was no less intimidating. She was strong and elegant like sculpted ice, with a single silken lily pinned in her hair. She hadn’t said a word since entering the longhouse, glassing in pale blue over every one of the Iwatobi soldiers. She framed the doorway, and ushered Nao’s retinue outside. Natsuya rejoiced to feel the salt breeze again.
“So. You want to know about the sirens?” General Yamazaki took the lead with a leisurely stride, making for a lookout above the city. His voice was rich with command. “They attack when it is dark. The light of their eyes can be seen best.”
“They are fast in the water, slower ashore.” He dipped to make sure the boys were listening. “Slower, but not slow. Don’t forget it.”
The air was still dense, after their arduous talk. It wasn’t mistrust, Natsuya thought, but distance.
Picking up where the general left off, his lieutenant continued. “You will sense their lust for humans like a chill in your bones. The more there are, the colder it bites.”
“And no cold delves deeper than that of their leader,” the general supplied. “Some call him Lord of Demons, though he goes by other names. He is smarter, more powerful, older. He seldom risks a trip here. Maybe once in seven years, you will see him. But when he appears…the night will be long.”
Yamazaki pushed up the sleeve of his robe to bare a swarthy scar that ran from wrist to elbow. “I’ve fought with him only once. And he would have been my end, if not for her.” He tossed a quick look of endearment at his wife. “So prince, know that we will have to fell that devil, in one way or another.”
The group passed a fenced-off lot where a class of youngsters was running practice in the sand. They were lined up in staggered rows, each one poised with a wooden sword in one hand, and a blindfold over their eyes, at the center of a drawn circle.
“When we train your men, it will be as you see here,” the lieutenant explained. “Without our sight, we stay in the middle of our circle. Anything that steps inside, is killed.”
Natsuya watched the kids in their lesson. They looked a few years his junior, dressed all in blue. With each barely audible ring of an instructor’s bell, they swung their weapons around, following the chime, from whichever direction. None of them could see where their teachers stood, but they were getting it right, every time.
“Look at that one there.” The general bent over Nao, sweeping an arm out to one of the students: a lanky boy at the far end of the yard. “He’s very good. Fast, form is strong. No hesitation.”
Yamazaki paused, and cleared his throat.
“…That’s my son.”
“Ah.” Nao pursed his lip in amusement. “Is that so?”
One of the other soldiers cut in with a snicker. “Careful, prince. You shouldn’t ask Yamazaki about his boy. He will never stop bragging.”
Roaring laughter shook the group of officers. A smile split the general’s face—wide, and warm. The storm clouds dispersed.
“It’s true, it’s true.” He scratched the scruff on his cheek, embarrassed. “Come. There’s more to show you.”
Mirth lingered for the rest of the morning. At dusk, Nao and Natsuya were invited back to the longhouse for a celebratory dinner. Tokitsu’s warriors were far more sociable over food (Natsuya had no idea there were so many ways to prepare mackerel), and a sort of clear rice wine poured from cedar barrels. Even the kids were allowed alcohol, which took Nao by surprise.
Yamazaki rumbled with laughter at his appall. “Do they not let young ones drink liquor in Iwatobi?”
“They certainly do not.” Nao took a polite sip, fighting a wince.
“I gave my son his first steel knife for his eighth birthday.” The general raised his cup in a friendly toast before draining it one gulp. “So I trust him with a little wine.”
The lieutenant followed her husband into the crowd. “I trust Sousuke with his drink more than I do you.”
Night deepened. The light was fuzzy, and everything was far funnier than it probably should’ve been. Natsuya floated his gaze around the longhouse until he landed on a pair of girls, and a boy about his age, and wow those eyes were gorgeous…
Nao blocked the view with his tired frown. “Whatever you are about go do, don’t.”
Natsuya grumbled, and threw his palms up in surrender. Peripherally, he admitted that he might’ve had a cup of rice wine too many.
Courage waxing, he leaned in close. The exasperation on Nao’s face fell away with the distance between them. “Can I flirt with you?”
Nao’s complexion flooded with color, and Natsuya was not expecting that. The blush looked good on his soft cheeks. Inviting, even. His best friend, with his silver hair down, and a coat wrapped around his shoulders, was the most alluring person he’d ever seen. Natsuya had been waiting to get shoved, or scolded, or chided—not…this. His breath faltered, and his mind blanked. He didn’t get flustered; that was for other people, what the hell—
They blinked at each other, two birds caught together on the same perch. Natsuya was never one to overthink, but suddenly he was immobilized beneath an unwelcome barrage of doubts. He could kiss the prince. He was so close, Nao seemed willing—had he always been willing?
But if he was wrong… there was everything to lose.
Nao was royalty, and he was just a dumb kid from the docks.
Drum beats shook the walls, and the pair jerked apart. Thankfully, the song was loud enough to drown out the hammer of Natsuya’s heart against his ribs.
Natsuya and Nao spent the week in Tokitsu. They saw no more of the Yamazakis, but other arrangements had been made. Each morning, the Iwatobi boys rose before dawn, ambling their way down to the beach to observe the soldiers’ daily routines. As a future knight, Natsuya was invited to get a head start. He was handed a staff and a strip of cloth for his eyes, and ushered, stumbling, into a circle of his own.
Fending off sacks of straw without looking was a great deal harder than the warriors made it seem. By midday, his arms and shoulders ached terribly. He supposed there was nothing but more of this to come. Even so, when he lifted the blindfold, the thrill he saw in Nao’s face was worth the bruises ten times over.
“How is it so far?” The prince handed him a towel.
“It’s good!” Natsuya swiped it over his damp forehead. “Nothing pumps your pride quite like knowing a bunch of ten-year-olds could kick your ass with their eyes closed.”
Nao laughed. Doubled over, and really laughed, and it seemed to Natsuya like the rest of the world silenced itself to listen.
Tokitsu’s warriors were grown from their very foundations with a spiritual focus that was difficult to grasp from the outside. It was an awareness of the body, the earth, wind, and water that ran far deeper than a blindfold and a few lucky swings. A week under their tutelage had barely grazed the surface of their arts, and Natsuya was sure that only one who understood these things completely could teach them. There were less than seven years left to learn, and he hoped it would be enough time.
Still, Natsuya had to pinch himself. This was all happening. Nao had woven the future in the hole of his study up on the cliffs, and now they had a real alliance. Freedom was waiting for them on the horizon.
On the final night of their stay, the Yamazakis returned with a small company. Both of them were among the soldiers, instructors, and ambassadors selected to depart for Iwatobi.
“General. Lieutenant.” Nao bowed. “It appears we will be seeing a bit more of each other in the months to come.”
Yamazaki boomed with laughter. “We only just found out ourselves!”
Nao and the general bubbled in pleasant conversation. Soundlessly, the lieutenant stepped aside to let them talk, standing watchful beside Natsuya. He saw his chance to ask the question that had been nagging at him since he first saw that map. Subtle, he cleared his throat to draw her attention.
She raised an eyebrow to let him know he had it.
“Why do you stay here, so close to them? You could live anywhere.”
He honestly had no idea what kind of reaction that would yield, but of all the people he’d met here, the lieutenant seemed most likely to give him an answer he could understand. She searched his face with thoughtful intensity.
“The demons attack your ships, do they not? And your shores?”
“And yet you live far away.”
She folded her arms—amused, of all things. “They don’t care for land, knight. Or riches, or anything else. They come to take from you something far more valuable. I think you know.”
He really did.
“So you can run forever,” she explained, “or you can dig your heels into the sand, and fight for your home.”
Natsuya felt a bud of understanding flower in his chest. His hand was perched at the grip of his sword before he realized it was there. The lieutenant noticed his reflex with the hint of a smirk.
Nao and the general chuckled at something, and roped the pair back.
“Our ship departs in a few hours.” Nao offered. “If you would like to leave a bit early, General, we would be honored to host your family aboard.”
Yamazaki paused to consider. His piercing green gaze wandered up the hillside, smoothing over the sheer scape of his homeland.
“I…would like another few days to say our goodbye to Tokitsu,” He answered, threading his fingers between his wife’s. “We will go with the rest, on the second ship.”
“I understand.” Nao proffered his hand as a show of conviction, and the general engulfed it in his own. “Next time we meet, Natsuya and I shall be happy to show you our shore.”
The Yamazakis bowed low. “We look forward to it.”
There was that mile-wide grin once more.
“May the sea sing kindly to you on your voyage home.”
The second ship did not leave Whale Bay.
Maps and parchment littered the cabin floor in brittle leaves. Ryuugazaki’s journal was left open, its timeworn pages the last record of a city swallowed by hell.
Natsuya slouched on the rug beside his prince, against the foot of his bed.
“Do not tell Ikuya,” Nao’s voice was pulled thread-thin. “He doesn’t need to know.”
Natsuya thought the same.
Outside, the sun was sinking beneath the waves. Silence settled, leaden and cold as a graveyard.
“The Emperor killed his own subjects.” Nao said, more to the book in his hands than to Natsuya. Wetness was welling in his vacant eyes. “I didn’t think—We could not have predicted he would do that.”
Natsuya wished he could come up with something to lift Nao’s broken spirit, but his own was drowned at the bottom of the well.
“It couldn’t have been our fault,” Nao choked. His voice cracked as tears spilled over. “Gods, Natsuya tell me it wasn’t our fault.”
Natsuya opened his mouth, but just couldn’t find the words. With nothing else to offer, Natsuya heaved his arms around his best friend, and pulled him close. Nao crumbled, and wailed into his shirt.
They hunched over the sprawling nest of paper as shadow crawled up the walls.
Years trickled by in the shade of Tottori Canyon.
Natsuya watched as King Serizawa withered, pouring his faith into the three sorceress sisters. If given the time and the means, there was seemingly nothing they could not do. Kyo led her two siblings, testing the very limits of magic, as the trio was fashioned into Iwatobi’s most fearsome instruments of defense.
Tokitsu’s destruction had left Nao hollow. His plan had failed, their efforts dashed, the greatest warriors in the world were gone forever. They were no closer than they’d ever been to freedom from the sirens, or the encroaching hand of Hazuki Kyo. Quietly, Nao had retreated from the court, and his role as crown prince. The farther he sank, the higher they rose.
Nineteen years old, and freshly appointed captain of a young squadron, Natsuya crashed through the castle greenhouse door. It was evening, and insects hummed in the thick of trees beneath slabs of sheer crystal. Nao tended to a bed of wilting jasmine.
“He’s lost it!” Natsuya shouted. “The king’s lost it.”
Refusing the distraction, Nao pulled on his gloves. “Not as sharp as he was, no. Is that all—”
“Your grandfather lost the warship. Tsuguro is missing. Just gone from the harbor like it was never even there, and he doesn’t care!”
It was muggy inside the covered garden. Flowers were closed, and the verdure formed dusky walls all around them. Nao stretched, and grasped the base of a withering shrub, but didn’t pull.
“He gave it to them. I can’t prove anything, but your grandfather gave the Hazukis that ship. Now they’re hiding it, doing who knows what with it.”
“Not only that.” Natsuya pushed further into the greenhouse—deeper into Nao’s space. “Asahi saw orders his family filled a few months ago for steel plating on the inside of its hold. Why the fuck would you put steel plating on the inside? What are they doing, Nao?”
The prince made no move.
“Take the crown,” Natsuya pleaded. “Iwatobi needs you to.”
“We’ve been over this, Natsuya. Even if I wanted the crown, I would not deserve it.” He pulled his sleeves back over his wrists, and resigned to the rear door.
Natsuya slammed himself in front of it. “Bullshit. The you I used to know wouldn’t just sit back and let this happen.”
Nao’s expression pinched with bitterness.
“The ‘me’ you knew was a stupid little boy with his face wedged in a book, who thought he knew the world in scraps of paper. He didn’t. And thousands lost their lives for it.”
Heartbreak hung on every word. It was a weight they bore together.
Crickets warbled from the brush, ticking by the seconds.
The moment was evaporating, and Natsuya despaired.
“Yeah. Yeah, they’re gone,” he conceded. “But those people stood for something, Nao.” Now that he’d started, he couldn’t stop. “Maybe evil was greater—maybe it’s always had the upper hand, but that didn’t stop them from fighting back. And they believed in you. If we give up, then what the hell did they die for?”
Shock and remorse flooded Nao’s face. He smoothed it over; it was frightening how quickly he could do that now—and retreated into the shade. “Leave me.”
“I need to be alone.”
Natsuya reeled from the sting of the dismissal. He slipped back into the easy role of Captain with a stiff bow.
“Hey, Nao. Don’t….” Halting at the door, he stole a last look at the prince. “Don’t call yourself stupid.”
Ten days later saw Natsuya in his office, penning a report by the glow of a lantern. Haru was curled up in the chair beside him next to the window. He hadn’t spoken to Nao since their dispute in the greenhouse. Guilt was gnawing at his thoughts. He’d sworn to himself that he wouldn’t dredge up Tokitsu in his plea to the prince. But Nao had brought it to the table first, and Natsuya was getting desperate. He rested his quill, and sat back. Gods, he was tired.
Footsteps thundered in the corridor outside, and Natsuya recognized the distinct sound of ceramic shattering. A muffled, rushed apology later, and Asahi was at his doorway, ecstatic.
“Hey, peewee.” Natsuya gave him a weak smile.
“NATSUYA!!” Asahi bulled inside. “Nao did it! He accepted the crown!”
Nao was in the center of a small crowd, answering his advisors when Natsuya skidded to a stop at the base of the throne room stairs. The new king caught sight of him, and the shift in his expression was subtle, but immediate. Natsuya could read “Please excuse me a moment.” on his lips, and then he was moving downward.
“Might I see you alone, Captain?”
Nao shut the waiting room doors, snapping the brass lock, and turning around. Slowly, like the break of dawn over the canyon heights, his face warmed into a blinding grin. Not the pleasant mask he always wore, but a real, barefaced smile.
There was no hesitation in the embrace Natsuya wrapped around Nao’s narrow shoulders. They laughed into each other’s ears and squeezed the other tighter.
“I knew it.” Natsuya was pretty sure he was crying. “I knew you would do it. You’re too brave not to.”
The king loosened his arms, and shifted back. “You always did have a strange way with words.” They searched each other, finding something they had known about for entirely too long.
“And…” Nao framed Natsuya’s cheeks with steady hands. “In the spirit of being brave—” He pulled his captain down for a kiss.
Nao tasted of tea, and mint leaves. Natsuya couldn’t say when it happened, or how, or why it took him all this damn time—but he loved this man. It was such a profoundly simple thing to admit. Nao’s lips gave easily, and his hands were divinely gentle, just like Natsuya imagined they might be.
He pushed into his king for more.
Natsuya placed the moonstone crown on Nao’s head, to the cheers of all Iwatobi. The crown was a thing of unworldly beauty—a twisting branch of blessed wood from Aomori, wound with silver, and glittering with blue gems. It fit perfectly, like the ancient spirits had made it solely for him.
Their fight from there was not an easy one. Nao’s grandfather had set the odds staunchly against them.
Soon after Nao ascended, the Hazukis appointed themselves royal sorcerers, floating around the castle like ghosts, lovely as they were treacherous. Outwardly, the trio was a model of loyalty. But inside the corridors of Iwatobi Castle, Nao knew they were tracing his every step, waiting for the right moment to strike.
Nao fought his battles with them in whispers, bloodied secrets, bribes, and letters—all passed behind satiny smiles. It was a dance Natsuya could not hope to keep pace with. So he stayed close to his lover with an eye over one shoulder, and hand closed over his weapon.
Time whittled to a sliver, then ran out.
Natsuya bade his little brother goodbye at dawn on the last morning of summer. He had never known a harder day. Through the blur of tears, he watched a ship carry Ikuya out of Tottori Harbor. Back to a den of monsters, and a life in the murk. From the deck they could see three shapes with honey-colored hair. Hazuki Kyo was elegant in indigo, her smirk like venom spiked with victory.
Nao’s heart was breaking with Natsuya’s, and they held themselves together by the desperate grip of the other’s hand.
His father’s last wish was torture echoing in his ears.
I was supposed to keep him with me.
In a heaven-sent blessing, Natsuya’s little brother came bounding back to him in the castle courtyard one afternoon with open arms, overjoyed. The sirens had released him, he could stay. And all for the bravery of his old friend, Haru. The other shoreborn had run back to Aomori—to his human lover. A holy guardian and a sea demon; it was hard to imagine a more unlikely pair. Natsuya owed that man everything. He had never wanted to meet someone more.
Though he’d only been away half a year, Ikuya was changed. Watching his friend face down the Lord of Demons had ignited something in him Natsuya could see burning, and spreading like brushfire. He and Asahi prepared to set sail, and find the missing warship, when all prior missions had failed. Letting him go was gutting to the core. But Ikuya was nearly a man now, and the fight was as much his as anyone’s. The siren and the shipwright left Negura like heroes beneath a gloomy veil.
The pair was gone nearly a year. One evening, shivering wet with river water, the boys staggered up from the waterways of Iwatobi Castle to tell Nao and Natsuya everything. They’d found the warship, and the hideout of the Hazukis.
And they knew now that for all of their efforts, the trio could in no way be contained.
“They are going to kill me one day, love.” Nao’s eyes were empty, searching Natsuya from across the pillow in bed. “When they’ve had their fun with me.”
He ran his fingertips along Natsuya’s collarbone with a sad kind of relish. “It might be next week. It might be next year. But they will tire of this game, and they will kill me.”
Natsuya hissed, and took his lover’s hand firmly in his own. “I’ll never let that happen.”
Nao shook his head. “It will. And when it does, I want you to stand aside.”
“Oh like hell I—”
“Please,” Nao whispered. “When I’m gone, there needs to be someone left, Natsuya.”
In their most desperate hours, news arrived from across the sea. The rightful ruler of Samezuka had come of age. From the rumors that floated into port, he was an odd one—beloved by the common people, an outspoken opponent of slavery and reckless conquest, sympathetic to suffering in a way his uncle was unequivocally not. Nao brightened with each new piece they gathered about him. The Matsuokas had dragons; they answered to no one. The Emperor of Samezuka did not need to care to be obeyed. Yet this boy did. His voice had fallen on deaf ears in his uncle’s court, but it reached Iwatobi on springtime sails anyway—a spark of hope that Nao fanned into a fire.
“I should like to meet him,” Nao decided. “this…Matsuoka Rin.”
The view was majestic from Nao’s guest bedroom in Samezuka Palace.
All the world shared the same sky, yet it was clear that the sun loved this land best. It was built up from the ashes of enemies—raw, untamed, and on fire. From their window, Natsuya could see the red mountains, and glimpse the valley beyond them: an unknowable wild with which all had been won.
Occasionally a roar or brick-rattling screech would tear out over the wall. Dragons swooped low, passing over the sun like the deadliest vultures. It was an odd thing to witness. Citizens here did not so much as glance upward, so accustomed were they to living in the shade of beasts. Their manners were coarse, they watched battles to the death for mere entertainment, and bared their skin without a drop of shame.
Their new ruler had flung himself from a cliff, scorched a kraken, torn off his shirt, and claimed the throne for himself. A stunt like that would have had him branded a lunatic in Iwatobi. Here, the people loved him all the more for it. There was a brutal confidence in the blood of this place that came with its undisputed dominance.
A late morning breeze whispered over Natsuya’s naked back where he was stretched out on the bed like a housecat. He had risen early to see to his men, borrowing the palace’s training facilities to keep them on their toes, even abroad. After, he returned to his king and lay himself out to steal a nap. Sleep still clouded over his consciousness, and he rolled over with a groan.
Nao was there beside him—dressed and reading. He must have gone about his errands, and sneaked back into bed, just to sit like this, fingers carding through Natsuya’s tawny curls.
Half his face still stuffed into his pillow, Natsuya curled a grin. “Morning,” he said for the second time.
“You weren’t calling me lazy last night.”
Nao slipped gracefully off the bed. “Why do you think I let you nap so long?”
He was in a sky-blue robe Emperor Rin had given him, and doing his best to wrap it tighter. At length he resigned, and let the front fall open with a sigh.
“The Matsuokas are suspicious of us, Natsuya. I was afraid this would happen.”
“Rin seems to like you enough.” Natsuya heaved himself up and stretched, smug at the way Nao traced him with his eyes unreservedly.
“No. Not him.” The king pulled his fine hair back, reaching for a tie to keep it in place. “His sister. The princess does not dole out trust and friendship as her older brother does. They knew this. It’s why they made a target of her betrothed the very night we arrived.”
A trip here had been a gamble. Far from the kingdom, they were willing prey walking into the dragon’s maw. This was not how their courtship with Samezuka was supposed to play out.
And, most troubling of all, the Hazukis were missing.
A festering unease subsided in Natsuya’s gut. “What should we do?”
“We’re going to use this opportunity to do what we came here for,” the king concluded. “While there is still time.”
Natsuya dragged an anxious hand over his mouth. Nao was at the window, suddenly stiff with shock.
“What is it?”
“Come here. Look.”
Sidling up the king, he traced the man’s gaze down to a raised bailey, where the Imperial Guard was holding their training. One of the men was fending off two others, alone in the center of a wide ring of grass. He would dart out, forward, behind, twirling his bamboo staff in a perfect circle to keep his space clear of attackers.
Natsuya seized the sill in disbelief.
The crack of blades clashing, whether wooden or steel, was a tune that sang like home to Sousuke.
His second opponent crashed to his knees with a practice sword steady at his chin. Sousuke backed off to let him stand. He’d missed this far too much.
Truthfully, he hadn’t come across muscle this tough in a long while. His back and arms stung with fresh bruises. The famed “Black Pearls of Samezuka” were the best soldiers in the entire realm, and it seemed he would have to earn his reputation here, too. That was fine. He was always game for a challenge.
Seijuuro walked Sousuke to the practice yard that morning with a familial arm slung over his shoulders.
“They’re a good bunch of boys!” the Captain barked. “Most of ‘em. If the rotten seeds give you grief when I’m not around, come to me, and I’ll set ‘em straight.”
“I appreciate it.” Sousuke paused. “Thanks again…Sir.”
Seijuuro cackled, and thumped him on the back hard enough to knock the air out of him. “They’ll know better than to bully the Captain’s little brother.”
He searched around for Momo before recognition set in, warm like a hearth in winter.
Sousuke stalked around his ring as the remaining rival lumbered forth.
“When did the Guard become a damned orphanage for foreign ringnecks from the pits?” the man gibed, just loud enough for him alone to hear.
Sousuke supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that a few resented him. The Imperial Guard was a gilded group of people hailing from Samezuka’s oldest elite families. Most were younger sons, and a few daughters—seeking esteem where they lacked inheritance. They’d undergone years of training before donning their black robes. Yet Sousuke was given a place among them upon his arrival.
He decidedly left out that he’d already impersonated them for the sake of Kisumi’s contraband.
“We may be the cream of the crop, but mainly what we’re for is looking tough, and keeping our mouths shut.”
Seijuuro said that with a laugh, but it made complete sense. The Captain had been only eighteen when Akira sent him to kill Sousuke. It was assassin work, however you sliced it. The Black Pearls were, above all, the Emperor’s men.
Though for his part, Sousuke thought with a jump of his heartbeat—he was also the Emperor’s man.
There was a rumbling from somewhere in the clouds, vibrating through the stone of the enclosure—a flex of mighty bones, and full wings. Shadow glided across the yard, and Sousuke shot upright. Tora was coasting over the wall with Rin on her back.
Exhilaration shocking up to the tips of his ears, Sousuke whirled around to face his captain. Seijuuro tossed him a dismissive wave.
“Get outta here!”
Sousuke nearly toppled the rack of bamboo staffs in his hurry to leave. Rin was flying in hawk circles above before swerving out of sight. Following, Sousuke dashed up the long flight of stairs, taking them two in a stride. A gust blew his bangs back at the top of the rampart. Tora wove as close to the wall as she dared, and Sousuke ran alongside. Rin was riding without the saddle, the madman. Firming one arm at the juncture of Tora’s wing, he pushed up onto his feet to stand.
Sousuke had to remind himself that Rin knew what he was doing, or he would worry himself into a knot.
“Hey, handsome!” Rin waved with his free hand in a theatric arch.
Showoff. Sousuke huffed a laugh, and picked up speed. For a few perfect seconds, they were exactly in sync.
Then the dragon pulled ahead, and reared back to land on the platform beside a guardhouse. She bent low so Rin could slide off, and then he was sprinting over the walkway.
This was probably going to hurt a little. Sousuke’s pure joy swept away his capacity to care.
Rin leaped into his open arms, knocking his breath out in a rush. Sousuke used their momentum to spin him around before setting him on his feet, and lunging down to meet his lips, hard. They pulled apart when their lungs burned for air, and spots crept behind their eyelids.
“How’s your morning been?” Sousuke panted.
“Good.” Rin cupped his his cheeks, his palms an icy blessing on Sousuke’s hot face. “About to be better.” Giggling, he arched up on his toes again to drag Sousuke down for another kiss—less urgent this time; a playful ‘I missed you.’
Sousuke bent an elbow around him, and dipped him backward. Rin’s laugh fluttered into his mouth. He didn’t think he’d ever been happier.
Snowflakes powdered Rin’s shoulders, and matted his hair—souvenirs from a joyride through the clouds. His skin was cool and goose-bumped. Sousuke hugged him closer, making the most of his battle-won heat, rubbing life into Rin’s arms.
Purring with approval, Rin snuggled into him, and let Sousuke warm his cheeks with wet kisses. He was wearing his riding pants this morning, and Sousuke made a mental note to thank the gods for it later. The smooth leather clung to Rin’s legs, leaving little to the imagination. He nuzzled into Rin’s neck, and dared to let his hand drift down and appreciate the firmness of his thigh. Rin hummed, and hugged him tighter.
Sousuke could live forever like this— kissing Rin good night, and waking up in love. Watching his emperor take to the air with a smile and a wave. And when Rin touched back down to earth, Sousuke would be here for him, always.
“Sou—mmph—Sousuke. Close your eyes a second!”
Sousuke did, at once. He waited for the plush press of Rin’s lips on his, only to have something else pushed into his mouth.
Rin held a hot steamed bun between them, grinning wide. “Early lunch?”
Plucking the bun out of his mouth, Sousuke turned it over. It was round, shaped with pink dough, the top branded with “ 凛 ” inside of the imperial crest.
“I went into the market.” Rin was adorably giddy. “The lady at that stand I like made these in my honor. Isn’t that cute?” he effused. “It’s pork! With a little cherry in the bread. Eat it before it gets cold!”
“Amazing,” Sousuke crowed. “You’ve got a pork bun named after you, Rin. I think you’re starting your reign off completely right.”
“Tsss.” Rin nudged Sousuke with a knee. “I’m gonna ask them to make one named after you. One of those long rolls.”
“You couldn’t flatter me more.”
Sousuke knew that little things like this made Rin profoundly happy. Gestures as small as sakura steamed buns were reminders that people thought of him. When he floundered for his own faith, he would remember that somewhere, they were glad he was their ruler.
“So, what do you think?” Snug against Sousuke’s shoulder, Rin accepted a bite. They walked over the battlement with their arms wrapped comfortably around each other’s waists.
“It’s really good.” Sousuke swallowed. “I like the cherry. You sort of don’t expect it to be sweet.” He brushed a crumb from Rin’s chin. “But it is.”
Sousuke could never tell if saying things like that would earn him a sock on the arm, or an affectionate smile—but for the latter, it was worth the risk. Rin blushed prettily, and pushed in close again.
Servants and guests passed them in the palace halls, stealing looks at the Emperor and his mysterious new suitor. Sousuke had assumed Rin would want to keep their relationship a secret, but from the very start, Rin had no such intentions. He was open, uncaring, and, if Sousuke could afford a lapse in humility, showing him off.
Six days had passed since the sorceress trio had broken into Rin’s chamber. They had not been seen since. Sousuke couldn’t decide if their absence was a relief, or a warning. The needling fear kept him on edge.
Sousuke noticed that Tora flew low for a while after Rin dismounted, as though guarding him until he’d made it inside. When her partner wasn’t looking, she would meet Sousuke’s gaze until he answered her with a nod.
“I’ll take it from here.”
She whistled and streaked away, headed for the valley.
“There she goes,” Rin drawled.
A few of the younger dragons around the city grouped together to follow her home under her wings.
“We should go back there together soon.” Balmy wind ruffled Rin’s hair, his smile like summer. “Make a day out of it.”
Sousuke took another thoughtful bite of the bun. “Sure. Maybe that asshole black dragon can chomp my head off for real this time.”
Rin’s brow lifted with humor. “Tamo?!” He giggled. “That happened once! He was fucking with you. He’d never have eaten you in front of me.”
Sousuke snorted, and rolled his eyes. “Good to know.”
Laughter drained into a sigh. Rin turned outward, his shoulders tensed.
“Actually, he…” The grip on Sousuke’s waist tightened. “He’s gone. Tamo had a fight a few years back, with one of the others. He was always getting into fights. It was with this big, aggressive older one trying to hassle Tora over a kill.”
“Oh…” Sousuke slowed, and observed his lover closely. He knew how Rin must have felt. The dragons were like another family to him. They were his subjects, friends, siblings—losing even one of them was painful.
“Yeah. But it cost him,” Rin spilled. “Dragons are like cats when they get hurt. They run and hide so the others can’t see them weak. He flew out somewhere, and we never found him.”
Rin paused in thought as they neared the foot of the stairwell. “Tora wanted him as a mate. It was really…kind of a tough time for us. For a bunch of reasons.”
Sousuke tugged Rin closer at his hip. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Maybe he’ll come back someday.”
Relenting, Rin leaned gratefully into Sousuke’s shoulder.
Conversation lulled as they finished the food, and Rin led them between the tall, sunny colonnades of the eastern wing. It had been a good while since Rin thought about Tora’s lost mate. Her quiet grief had wrung his heart dry. Both of them had all but given up on happiness then. But clinging to hope was not a vain endeavor in the end. He relished the sturdy warmth of Sousuke at his side. The privacy of their bedroom was suddenly a carnal pull.
Out on a platform across the bailey, Rin caught sight of Sango, returning from a morning flight. She barely made a sound, touching down atop the wall. Her rider dismounted.
Matsuoka Akira was now a stony specter in the halls of Samezuka Palace. He attended every council meeting, said little, and left the chamber before Rin could so much as look his way to request a moment with him. Not that Rin was eager to have that exchange. The longer he stalled, the darker it loomed. He knew the reasons his uncle would give—why he’d done those horrible things, what he thought of Rin’s claim. And Rin simply didn’t want to hear them.
Smoothly, Rin skirted around, and led Sousuke away from the edge before he could catch a glimpse of the former emperor. He knew he was putting it off, building a bank, stymying the flood. Soon, he would have to find his answers—for his own future, and now for Sousuke’s.
Just not right now.
Sousuke was peering sideways at him with worry knitting his features.
“Rin, is something wrong, you seem—aaghh!”
Rin tickled his fingers behind the shell of Sousuke’s ear, making him twitch, and shiver. It was quickly becoming a favorite spot to tease.
Thankfully distracted, Sousuke dropped the questioning, and fell back into step.
They hadn’t gone two paces before Rin felt the answering trace of a finger up his spine. He arched with a tiny cry, drawing curious stares from several passing maids. Sousuke just kept eating, eyes ahead. It was on.
Clicking his tongue, Rin reached around Sousuke’s wide shoulders, leaning into it—and squeezed his chest once before dropping back.
Sousuke stuttered. He turned, brow raised, and lips parted.
“Hee hee~” Rin sang through a toothy smirk.
A pair of guardsmen sauntered by, then another chamber maid. Every pair of eyes was another boost of anticipation. Rin’s body was charged with it, and ready.
But not ready enough for the quick smack on his ass. He squeaked, and scowled at Sousuke laughing through the last of his lunch.
Snarling, he cast around for any passers-by. They were nearing the royal apartments, and the corridor was mostly empty. It was an easy track to the bedroom, and Rin played to win.
Rin snapped down, and cupped his lover’s crotch. He had half a second to see Sousuke gasp, and jolt, before tearing down the hall for the stairwell.
That absolute devil.
Sousuke sprinted after Rin’s echoing laughter.
They stumbled backward through the nearest door, and Sousuke barely managed to flip the latch over before he was hauled inside by the front of his shirt, and claimed with a fierce kiss.
Rin had pulled him into one of the empty bedrooms. It was somewhat like Rin’s in style, though smaller, and sparsely furnished. In lieu of a balcony, the chamber was rimmed with opulent windows, some of them stained in reds and orange. Light filtered through them, gleaming on ornaments and mounted swords in a flaming kaleidoscope. The chamber was well-kept through years of disuse. Its dusty stillness seemed to make the muffled sound of their voices and impatient shift of cotton ring even more urgent.
Training had left Sousuke a tired, sweaty wreck—clothes damp, muscles still twitching.
“Rin—We should…I should bathe first—”
“No need.” Rin touched his lips down Sousuke’s jaw to his collarbone, then licked up the tightening tendons of his throat. Falling back on his heels, he ran his tongue over slack lips, then trailed with half-lidded eyes down the expanse of skin at Sousuke’s chest. “I like the way you taste.”
Grinning, Rin switched sides, kissing and licking anywhere he could reach. When he found his mouth again, Sousuke caught the salt of his own sweat on Rin’s tongue. Sousuke unhooked the clasps and pulled Rin’s leather jerkin loose as they crossed the room, sliding it off his arms to the floor. He nipped at the man’s lower lip. Rin grunted, and bodily shoved Sousuke against the wall.
Rin had never taken a lover before. Sousuke had tickled that much out of him a few nights ago in bed. He had the bite bruise on his arm to show for it. Something about not wanting to be with anyone who didn’t hold his heart first. That truth made Sousuke want to give Rin even more—be his first, and last, and leave him wanting for absolutely nothing. He could wait. He was truly willing to wait until the right time to make that leap, so that it was utterly perfect. Even if Rin sometimes made patience a challenge.
The Emperor eagerly unthreaded the sash at Sousuke’s waist, eyes lit with intent as they sought assurance. Which he easily received. The shirt fell open, and he plunged into that dangerous, heated space between skin and the fabric of Sousuke’s pants. The prick of cold was invigorating.
Teasing, Rin hooked a finger under the tie of Sousuke’s underwear. The tightness of the fabric gave away Sousuke’s already sizable arousal. How far were they going today?
Unsure of how quickly Rin wanted their romance to progress, Sousuke had kept to kissing, and feeling one another through thin nightclothes under the sheets. Rin was so wonderfully responsive to his every touch. Whatever he gave, Rin took, and returned with ardor. He traced down the sensitive V between Sousuke’s hips, sending tremors down his legs. His hand rested there, at the dip. There was a moment’s pause as Rin realized what he was about to do. Sousuke leaned away to tell him he didn’t have to; they could stop anytime—
Sucking in a breath, Rin slid his hand down, pushed the cotton aside, and curled his hand around Sousuke’s length in one motion.
A hoarse gasp tore out of Sousuke’s lungs, his skull knocking painfully against stone. The room swam. Rin was still watching him closely, and wrapped his other hand around to rub the back of his head in sympathy.
“You okay?” He was stifling a snicker.
“No.” Sousuke’s breathing pulled heavier with each passing second. “Bastard.”
Rin laughed, but he was having just as tough a time clinging to composure, nervous with Sousuke’s shaft held like glasswork in his palm. Excitement swelled over, and a smile broke across his bitten lips. He brought them together for another deep kiss, and firmed his grip.
Then he moved his hand. Slowly, a tentative testing of waters.
Sousuke groaned in satisfaction, and Rin seemed to take that well. The pace of his strokes built up steadily.
He wanted to shed Rin’s clothes and reciprocate, but the laces of those damn amazing leather pants were a menace. When he’d fumbled too long, Rin snatched his wrist away, placing the hand on his hip, where Sousuke held on tight.
“Just let me.” Rin whispered low behind his ear. “Let me do this.”
Sousuke was panting hard as Rin kissed and nibbled his way over his neck and shoulder. Of course Rin was a biter, and Sousuke cursed himself for loving it. Rin would bite, and suck, then lick the soreness away, tenderly nuzzling the spot when he was finished. A lifetime of combat instincts screamed at Sousuke to protect his throat. One cut under the chin was a sure death, the veins there a constant target; he had the knife scar on his jaw to prove it—
His eyes fluttered shut as he slid down the wall, and sighed into the scrape of Rin’s teeth over his pulse.
Rin captured Sousuke’s mouth again, his deep moan driving Sousuke’s hand down to the curve of his ass. He kneaded the muscle there roughly, and Rin’s hand stuttered.
The roll of Rin’s body against his leg, slip of his damp skin, and the breathy wet sounds he was making were driving Sousuke mad. Rin's scent mixed with salt from seaborne clouds, and flowery perfume. He burned like an inferno, hungry and flawless. Eyes unfocused, jaw fallen slack, Sousuke knew he probably looked an unbecoming mess. Still, Rin saw something there he liked. He stared enthralled, as he stroked his lover closer to release.
A quick inhale was the only warning Sousuke got before Rin lunged. The Emperor laid his claim, sinking his teeth into the thick of Sousuke’s neck and shoulder—growling, possessive. The sting was deliriously sharp— a reminder that he was Rin’s. He loved him, Rin was his. It sent him over the edge, and he came shuddering, painting the inside of his training pants.
Sousuke fell against the tapestry to catch his breath. Rin licked his lips. He was still watching, hugged close to steady him. Sousuke could feel a hardness through the leather pants against his thigh, and was jerked back through the haze. Gods, did he want to return the favor.
Rin wasn’t prepared for Sousuke’s shove off the wall, and let himself be pushed down into the sturdy desk chair. The man was on him in a second, sucking on his lips. Buried in sensation, Rin didn't notice the tug on his pants laces until Sousuke tried again, more insistent. He stilled.
“Oh,” Rin rasped. “Yes. Please.”
A fond smirk played across Sousuke’s face. He made quick work of the laces along the side. Hooking his hands over the waist, he peeled Rin’s riding pants and thin underwear down, then off completely. Rin felt a shiver of shyness to be stripped bare. His erection was weeping, and borderline painful. He’d never been so hard in his life.
Sousuke flicked his eyes upward. “Let me know if it’s…if you want me to stop.”
Rin wished he had some witty jab ready to go, but all he could do was gape, and nod his head yes. He’d just asked for Sousuke’s trust, and was happy to repay it with his own.
Sousuke pushed Rin’s thighs apart, and settled between them, appreciative blue gaze resting where Rin needed him to do more than just look.
“Why?” Sousuke purred, voice rich. “It’s beautiful.”
Rin tried to kick out, but Sousuke saw it coming, holding his ankles down until he relented. Rin’s arousal spiked in response. Legs spread wide to cradle Sousuke’s bulk, he followed the man’s every movement through a cloud of lust. Sousuke craned up to press a few languid kisses to Rin’s stomach, following the chiseled lines downward. Tiny puffs of laughter ghosted over the trail of saliva he left, making Rin jolt and quake. Then he was there, at the base of Rin’s cock, gorgeous and in charge, and Rin’s nerves caught fire.
Delicately, Sousuke gripped the shaft between rough fingers, wetting his lips with precum leaking from the tip. Rin watched him with bated breath as he took the head into his mouth. Sousuke let out an approving grunt, and Rin realized he’d clamped his legs closed on his lover’s head.
Sousuke eased his mouth off. “It’s fine. Relax.”
Rin obeyed, and let the tension seep from his muscles.
Sousuke returned to his task, and began to slide up and down, tonguing the head inside his hot mouth. He was rhythmically teasing a strip of skin above Rin’s entrance. Applying pressure there with his fingertips sent pleasure pulsing up from a place Rin had never known before. His toes curled, and he writhed, hands flying out to tangle in Sousuke’s thick, dark hair. Without any conscious consent, his hips bucked up to seek more. Then his lover was giving it to him, swallowing him deeper. Sousuke’s name was leaving his lips in mindless whispers, as he let all the feeling in his body pool where his man was adoring him between his thighs.
Close. Fuck, he was getting so close—
He glanced down. Sousuke’s gaze was heavy with want. Raw desire in those sea-green eyes dragged Rin down like an undertow, sweeping a shudder through his spine.
The man hummed around Rin’s cock, dragging up from the base. He rubbed his fingers in a tight circle, pressed up-
-and Rin spilled into his mouth, thrusting up with a gritted sob. Sousuke held Rin’s legs there, cheeks hollowed until he was spent. Too late he realized that he’d given no warning, and shit, “Gods, I’m so sorry I should have—”
Gently, Sousuke slid off of him, tipped his chin up, and swallowed. He wiped his mouth with the inside of his wrist, and Rin whined at the sight, collapsing against the backrest. If the aftershocks of this climax killed him right here, it would be a fine way to go.
Rin hung boneless on the chair, his lungs raking in air. He let his head roll back, and mumbled nonsense to the ceiling.
“What was that?” Sousuke’s chuckle was hoarse, but smug.
Rin snagged him by the shirt, hauling him in for a clumsy kiss.
“Wish you’d saved that for tonight, Sou,” Rin cooed, licking away the odd taste of himself. “Now I’ll have to get through my day somehow, when it’s all I can think about.”
Heat flushed Sousuke’s face, and Rin savored the small victory. Sousuke lifted him off the chair, laying him out on the bed. Then he stretched out beside, and kneaded his jaw. Rin felt light-headed and weightless, like he was floating on his back in still water. There was a spot of white at the corner of Sousuke’s mouth he’d missed, and Rin reached out with a thumb to wipe it away.
For a spell they simply sprawled there, winded, damp, staring wonderstruck at one another. Then silence split open, and they laughed—airy, and full. They were doing this.
Rin wasn’t close enough. He wormed over, and flopped himself onto Sousuke, who welcomed his weight with a heavy embrace. Heartbeats settled and synced, and Sousuke’s knuckles soothed down the muscles of Rin’s back as he followed luminous shapes of colored glass up the walls.
“Let’s sleep together.”
“Mmkay…” The request sank in, and Sousuke blinked alert. “What, you mean—?! Already? You don’t want to…wait a bit?”
“Why would I?” Rin clipped.
“I dunno, I just thought you might…” Sousuke trailed.
Rin paused as a thought snared him. “Do you? I mean, do you not want to…do that with me?”
Sousuke had experience with other partners, though he wouldn’t say from where. Rin could guess, though, and it chipped at his confidence. Those partners had made sex their profession—they were skilled, likely amazing in bed, and he was…not. Some part of him was terrified that he wouldn't measure up. After all these years of longing, he was going to make a mess of things; it was inevitable.
“If you don’t, it’s fine, Sou,” Rin assured quietly. “I just thought I would ask.”
“Rin.” Souskue coaxed his chin up with a hand. There was nothing but utter devotion and reverence in the look he returned. “I want you so badly, I could die of it.”
A furious blush was creeping its way up to Rin’s hairline. He buried his burning face in Sousuke’s shoulder. “Soon, then,” he murmured against the scar.
Sousuke cradled his head with a tenderness that made butter of Rin’s ragged nerves. Rin let his eyes slip shut. He wished so earnestly that they could stay like this for the entire day. It was an unused chamber, the door was locked. No one would find them here.
Too quickly, Sousuke’s voice rumbled into his hair. “We should wash up. Stuff to do today, right?”
“Yeah,” Rin yawned. “Just a little while more.”
Sousuke scraped his shaving knife over a last patch of his cheek, and rinsed away lingering soap in the basin. His mirror in the dormitory at Sano was cracked and rust-stained. He hadn’t much need for a better one. Rin’s was a crystalline sheet of silver, and Sousuke stared back at himself in startling clarity.
The new uniform sat squarely on his shoulders, plunging low, baring his map of thin scars on sun-browned skin. A Imperial Guard. Once, the men wearing this shirt were his enemies—the protectors of everything he hated most. Now crimson, black, and gold were his colors. Scattered between slashes were bruising love-bitten crescents in the shape of Rin’s mouth.
“Oi, Sou.” Rin appeared soundlessly beside him, fresh from the bath, lips pulled into an appraising grin. “Lemme feel?”
Earlier, Rin had been kind enough to nearly crush his soul from his body between silky thighs, so this was the least he could do. Sousuke bent down with a smirk, and Rin delighted in the freshly-shaven skin of his face with warm hands. His touch both calmed, and electrified.
Smoothing downward, Rin frowned at the angry markings he’d left.
“Aahh, these looks bad.”
Hissing, Rin dipped his fingers into one of the jars on the table, and massaged a pearl of aloe gel onto the reddened skin. Relief was instantaneous, cool like a mountain stream over the stinging throb.
Sousuke expelled a sigh, and relaxed into the careful caress. “Here, I can do that myself—”
Rin clicked his tongue, and swatted Sousuke’s hand away. Gentle and determined, he rubbed the gel onto every bite he’d left.
“Sorry.” The Emperor met his eyes in the mirror, expression soft with apology. “Kind of lost it earlier. I’ll be more careful.”
“Don’t be sorry.” Sousuke tugged the uniform open to give Rin better access. “I…liked it.” He craned closer to hide the pink on his cheeks, and drop his voice in Rin’s ear. “I like that you lost yourself a bit.”
He didn’t miss the tiny intake of breath he got in response, and flitter of lashes. A smile beamed up at him.
Rin teased the points of his teeth playfully with the tip of his tongue. “Maybe sometimes, then.”
When he was done, Rin pulled the robe back up, and ironed it over. His palm stopped there on the white emblem over Sousuke’s heart, like he just couldn’t find it in him to pull away. Sousuke felt like he could shout his love from the highest peak in this moment, but instead treasured the quiet, and rested his hand over Rin’s.
There was a flurry of polite raps at the door.
Reluctant, Rin retracted his arm, and cleared his throat. “Come in, Ai.”
The Emperor’s assistant hovered near the doorframe, bound record book cradled in one elbow. “You’ve a meeting with your sister soon, about planning for the ceremony.”
“Oh, right.” Rin raked a comb through his hair. “Thanks, Ai. Almost ready.”
The boy made to leave, then swiveled back inside. “Shall I have lunch brought up, Your Grace?”
Rin shook his head. “We ate already.”
“Yeah.” Sousuke waved. “I had Rin for lunch.”
Ai’s smile flickered, as Rin choked on a breath. Sousuke held up a partially-eaten pork bun, name facing out.
“O-ooohh! That’s…wonderful! Very pretty!” He didn’t miss the boy’s relief. “C-congratulations, Your Grace.”
“Thanks, Ai! We’ll be out in a minute,” Rin chirped.
“Right, then I’ll be…in the hallway.” Ai bowed, and scuttled out in an awkward rush.
The door banged shut, and Sousuke took a slow bite of cold bread. “…Should I run?”
“Don’t even bother.”
Aichirou deflated, resting against the wall as hollering and laughter erupted behind Rin’s door. He was happy for Rin. Truly. Not having known the Emperor before he’d come to work at court, he marveled at a side of his liege that he’d only ever heard about from Princess Gou. Rin was not one for subtlety, but Aichirou had never seen someone glow quite like he did of late. He'd never witnessed two people so loudly, deeply in love.
The boy whipped around, and down into a bow. “Princess! What can I—”
His words stuck like dry cotton in his mouth.
Gou made her way past the stairwell, beautiful and severe in sharp tooth-rimmed gold, and a dress red as fresh blood. At her side was Miss Hanamura, and an armed, grim-faced Captain Mikoshiba. And behind them—
“Ah…oh.” Aichirou bowed a second time. “High Commander Matsuoka…”
The former Emperor was as eerily austere as ever. His thin mouth pulled tight, arms folded over his chest. His features were so similar to Rin and Gou’s—but twisted, hollowed with anguish, and carved with loathing.
“I shall, ah…” Aichirou backed away. He was inexplicably drawn toward the safety of Rin’s chamber. “I’ll retrieve the Emperor immediately, he is—”
“Right here.” Rin strode forward through his door with Master Sousuke barely a step behind him. “What is this? What’s going on?”
Footsteps were like hammer falls on the tiles as the pair approached. Aichirou traced the High Commander’s simmering stare to Master Sousuke, where it was returned twice as murderous. The space crackled with a flammable tension.
“The Silver King has requested an urgent audience with us.” Gou answered. “All of us.”
“He says….” she clacked her fingernails on her thigh, where Aichirou knew she hid a dagger beneath her skirts, “that he wants to warn us.”