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Playing Favorites:

The Consort's Exam

His brush swept across the paper, the wooden fibers smooth against his skin. The black ink, carrying the color of stag beetles, dried quicker than any he'd seen before, probably due to the sheer money that went into making it. Glossy, elegant characters, slightly rounded, a small embellishment of Kurapika's own hands. Nothing but the best of Ryusei for the Emperor's potential consorts. How sweet. It sent his heart fluttering. His final answer was left glistening on the page for a second more, before drying down to a matte finish. 

"What led you to pursue the esteemed position of the Emperor's Royal Noble Consort,"  the question read.

"I feel the utmost respect for his Majesty, a sentiment that had been cemented within me through my parent's influence. I wish to serve him to the best of my abilities."  Mother had truly taught him well. The lie had rolled onto the paper without even a second thought. The malice he so proudly boasted was a mere whisper now, brewing in the depths of his heart, a sleeping serpent awaiting its time of retribution.

He stood from his spot near the exit, leaving the bottle of ink on the small square table they'd had him take the exam on. The room was rectangular, with octagonal windows and floors made of white tiles veined in grey. The examiners sat towards the back of the room, furthest from him, wearing long robes of light green and blue. He handed the thick scroll to the younger woman, who bound it with a red stamp. The two women directed him to a sunlit corner with red cushions and a tea table carved out of pine. They continued to toss him suspicious glances as he sat down, the sole applicant of that morning. He readjusted the jeogori of his light blue hanbok and let his spotless black sandals take him to the red cushions. He leaned against the cool cream wall. A young maid wearing a bright pink floral hanbok approached him, pouring green tea from a grey kettle. She handed him a jade teacup.

"Such a beautiful young man," one of the women at the desk murmured, "but I was not aware men could attempt to become the Emperor's Consort. It sounds like a recipe for dissension."

The other replied, brown eyes focused on a large blue book in her hands, "I believe the Emperor feels most contrary to the idea of limiting himself to just the fairer sex."

"So, it is allowed?"

"He got in, didn't he?"

The other woman answered, confused, "yes, but is it not unseemly?"

"Oh, hush, Rina," she scolded. "If the Emperor wishes to be in the company of men, then he can be. He's the most powerful man in the country. Who's going to stop him?"

Kurapika brought the scalding brim of the teacup to his lips, masking a growing smile. How noisy. Not quite as noisy as Leorio, but they were certain contenders. The tea burned as it slid down. Leorio was probably still seething from their encounter yesterday. Kurapika had never seen him so upset. The doctor had a temper, certainly, but he'd never screamed at him with such raw fury. That was more up Kurapika's alley. He was the angry one. Leorio was always the one to calm him down with a warm hand on his shoulder.

"So, you're just going to sell yourself out? You have no idea what kind of guy the Emperor is! You can't just . . ."

Kurapika stiffened in his position at the old birch study table, his hands tightened around the book in his hands, as Leorio's own tightened around Kurapika's application to the Consort Examinations. Their hanok was warm tonight, trapped in summer heat. Kurapika's candle burned low. Leorio stood in the doorway, fists furled. Kurapika grit his teeth,  "It's not up to you -"

"What if he figures out what you really want? What if he finds out you want to kill him?"

Kurapika shot out of his position on the floor and covered the physician's mouth with his hand, eyeing their surroundings warily: The sliding doors, the pine trees outside their two windows. "Keep your voice down, idiot! These walls are thinner than they appear." 

Slowly, he took the crumpled paper from Leorio's hands and set it down on the table. Leorio gave the paper a glare as if it had been a letter from the Devil himself, asking for Kurapika's soul

"Why can't you just . . ." Leorio trailed off, thinking his statement far too cruel for Kurapika to handle. This sent him over the edge, face burning.

"What?" Kurapika prodded. He pulled Leorio's chin down and forced the poor medic's eyes to lock with his dark brown, fury-filled. Leorio's face contorted as if Kurapika had just stomped on his heart, squeezing until it popped. He should've stopped there. He shouldn't have pushed him. But he was too far gone. He was always too far gone.

Leorio backed away, but Kurapika followed him until he hit the wall with a soft thud. Quietly, the man replied, "nothing. It's nothing, don't bother about it."

"Tell me," he pushed on, so close that his lips nearly grazed his neck. Kurapika's chin tilted up, hating that he only barely reached the other man's shoulder. Some small part urged him to stand on his toes to gain those few centimeters of height but he refused to stoop to such childish tricks.

Leorio broke off the stare, pink flooding his cheeks as Kurapika's sweet breath warmed his neck. Was it cruel of him to use Leorio's attraction as an interrogation method? Probably, but it was the tactic he'd grown most used to over the last few years.

"Let it go," Leorio muttered, gaze lowered to the ground. "They're dead. Going after him won't solve anything."

Kurapika stepped away, leaving him to the cold clutches of whatever monsters clawed at him. He turned his back away from his best friend, even as Leorio tried to reach for him.

"Oh, it will help plenty," he whispered.

Kurapika returned to his study table and sat back down as if nothing ever happened. The lantern's candle flickered and illuminated his countenance. Pale, milky skin, set aglow in the warm light. His hair had captured the sun's rays, weaving it into strands of striking gold. No one else in town had that sort of hair, everyone stared as he walked by. It was a gift from his dearly departed mother. He couldn't be more grateful for it. The blond hair, the rich brown eyes, his pretty face, they were all going to bring him one step closer to the Emperor. After all, his Majesty had a love for rare treasures.

Leorio said nothing for the remainder of the night, and eventually curled up in his bed for an early sleep. The next day, he hadn't gone to see him off. He'd stayed in his bed until he left, brooding like a child. Kurapika didn't bother trying to make up with him.

One of the examiners called his name, and he withdrew from his thoughts. The skills portion of the exam consisted of a short conversation with a palace official, probably that old lady that had been eyeing him earlier. Of all the exams and all the questions that he'd put himself through, this was the most anxiety-inducing. He wasn't exactly the submissive, even-tempered character they were looking for. It'd be quite the miracle if he managed to get out of it without breaking character. Mother might've taught him how to intrigue a man's lust, but even she couldn't reign in his rage once unleashed.

He entered a small, cool room with wooden beams and unblemished walls. A woman sat at a lacquered low table; a scene of a wedding ceremony had been engraved in the wood. The woman announced herself as the proctor for the exam. Her head was large and her body stout, and she wore those same robes of green and blue. A pattern of pink flowers sprang up from the hem of her skirt to her collar. A gold phoenix hairpin held a thick coil of gray hair secure to the side of her scalp. Clearly an aristocratic woman, probably from the Gamgi clan if the glass brooch over her heart was of any indication.

"In this exam portion," the proctor started, "you will be asked to complete a series of tasks that you will be required to do on a regular basis as consort to the Emperor."

The old, scowling woman gave him another look, probably wondering what her country had come to. A man trying to be a consort? How shameful.

A green maid served tea for the two of them, as the proctor glanced through her scroll for the most difficult question to offer him. Kurapika enacted his most graceful tea-sipping as he awaited her first assignment.

"First, explain to me, in great detail, what the duties of a consort are," she prompted, bringing the teacup to her lips, the scroll still gripped in her veined, skeletal fingers.

Kurapika placed his own teacup down without the slightest click.

"It is to comfort his Majesty." Usually, Kurapika would've spat out the title. But not now. They wouldn't allow someone with such malice to be near their precious Emperor. "No matter how inconvenient it may be to us. It is to put his Majesty before ourselves. To love and cherish and support him, and to act as an exemplar for the citizens of Ryusei Empire. It is to practice the fine arts, to be able to engage in music, to recite poetry and write it, and to entertain the Emperor's guests whoever they might be."

But in his case, things were a bit different.

"That is correct," she replied, sounding almost impressed. "Of course, another duty would be to bear him an heir, but seeing as you would never be able to do that -"

"Do not worry yourself," he reassured. "I will be sure to make up for my lack of proper reproductive organs."

The woman's eyes widened to a laughable degree, lips parted and face colored an embarrassed shade of red. "Kwon-ssi, that is highly inappropriate. The palace has no room for someone with such a vulgar tongue. Furthermore, as a consort, you are not allowed to speak out of turn."

How rude. Assuming that she was of a higher social status than him. Most of the ladies here were noblewomen. For all she knew, he could be a highly esteemed young nobleman. But then, what nobleman dreamed of becoming a consort; A companion to the Emperor? Not one. They were too busy making their fortunes. Kurapika's only legacy would be as the Emperor's male consort, the first of his kind in the great history of the Ryusei Empire. What an honor. He wondered if someday a historian would come across the truth, and trace the gilded dagger in the Emperor's heart back to him.

"What do you expect to give in your time as a consort?"

"Whatever is expected of me," he replied. "If he wishes for me to jump off a bridge, I will gladly do it."

But only if he so kindly joins me.

"An interesting response," said the woman, still disgruntled over his earlier comment. "Tell me, child. You did not put your birth family's name and status on your application. Why?"

"They're dead," he replied, and the examiner nearly dropped her brush. "All of them. They got caught up in some of the riots. Bystanders, of course! They loved his Majesty. They wanted me to dedicate my every waking moment to him. It was their dying wish." Kurapika turned solemn at that moment. The proctor's face dissolved into a putty of sympathy, and he knew he'd won, despite his earlier backtalk. A few more minutes of vomit-inducing sweet talk and he'd be walking into the arms of his sworn enemy in no time.

"Oh, you poor child. No wonder you wish to be by his side," the woman said, bowing her head in respect. "I'm sure you'll be picked. It's your destiny."

You better believe it.

"Thank you," he sighed, despondent, before forcing a smile on his face. "I-" he cleared his throat of the pain. "I'm so glad they allowed me to do this. I was worried at first. I thought they wouldn't let me in. But now I see, his Majesty is truly virtuous."

"Oh, my child. You have such devotion to his Majesty. You'd make a wonderful partner for him. You've got one admirer in your corner already." The woman dabbed at her eyes with a silk handkerchief, before blowing her nose in it loud enough to gain the attention of the guards on the other side of the room.

Ah, the power of a tragic background. It took you places.

"Hey, Quizzy!" The cheerful shout echoed through the room. Kurapika turned around to see the off-white screen door he'd previously waved off as a closet. He hadn't suspected someone might be on the other side, listening in. An oversight on his part.

"My name is Kaname, you bastard!" she screamed back, slamming her fist on the lacquer table. The taupe porcelain tea set shook in surprise at the motion.

The person on the other side was silenced for a few seconds, before replying, "can you send in the next contestant, Quizzy? Machi and I are dying of boredom! Throw us another bone already!"

Bone?

The woman's scowl deepened. She regarded Kurapika with yet another sympathetic look, clasping his hands in her clammy, spotted ones. "They're in the room over yonder. Don't let them intimidate you. They're no match for your devotion to the Emperor!"

"You really think so?" Kurapika asked, excited, squeezing back. He truly believed that if he hadn't decided to become a play-toy for the Emperor, then he would've taken to a career in acting. He had the looks, the brains, the charm. Perhaps, when this was all over, he could hop on a boat to the West and start a new life there. But for now, he stood and walked across the bamboo flooring, wishing he'd accounted for a surprise exam. He'd been too focused on the tasks given to him.

"Hiya, Kurapika!"

He found himself in a dark, candlelit room with no windows and two individuals who could only be described as polar opposites. A young baby-faced man with a permanent grin and strangely cut blond hair lounged on one side of the table, lying on his stomach and waving his feet in the air, his elbows resting on a black cushion. Beside him, a young woman in a purple kimono sat, quiet and stiff. She glared at Kurapika as if she wouldn't hesitate to cut him down at the slightest misstep.

"Hello," he said, politely, mind still reeling as it tried to limit the possibilities of what this new test may bring. Heck, they might've even brought the Emperor himself. "I'm Kurapika Kwon. I'm an aspiring con-"

"We know who you are," the woman cut in, smoothly. She gestured to herself. "Machi. Third advisor to the Emperor." She pointed to her companion. "Shalnark. Useless advisor to the Emperor."

Shalnark seemed on the verge of tears. "Machi! That's so mean!" He turned to Kurapika. "Isn't she mean? You don't have to hold back! Just let the contents of your heart spill free!"

Were they trying to intimidate him by being overly friendly? Well, it wouldn't work. He knew plenty of overly-friendly people already. This was nothing new to him.

"So, how good of a kisser are you?" Shalnark suddenly asked.

"Kisser?"

Shalnark clasped his hands together and started to speak in a strange voice, as if he was living his wildest dreams. "The Emperor needs comfort in more ways than one." A slight blush tinged Shalnark's cheeks. "He's a lonely young man with needs that have to be fulfilled. As a consort, you are ow!"

"Stop spouting nonsense," Machi scolded, her fist still hanging over the poor man's head. "The Emperor isn't interested in things like that. He's an intellectual. He wants someone who can take the burden of ruling the Empire off him."

Shalnark's face turned devilish. He snickered out, "yeah, that's why he's picking out five of them."

Machi hit him again. "That's due to the tradition. Five consorts for each of the five clans ruling the five regions of the United Ryusei Empire. You know as well as I do that he wouldn't even be doing this if it wasn't for that ridiculous law."

Thank the gods for tradition.

"My question still stands. If he marries this guy, they're going to have to consummate their marriage. Which reminds me, how good are you in bed?"

This time he let out just a light whimper when Machi hit him.

"Don't feel like you have to answer that," Machi sighed, massaging her forehead. "He's just a rambling idiot."

"Hey!"

Kurapika didn't see why he shouldn't answer their questions. "I'll be as good as his Majesty wishes me to be. Whatever he wants, I will offer."

"Seriously?" Shalnark asked, moved by his faux dedication. He shook Machi's arm. "Let's hire him! Please! I like him!"

"Then, by all means, take him for yourself."

Shalnark crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. Kurapika was starting to think this really was a closet. "Not my type. Too willful."

"That's what worries me," Machi sighed, playing with a pincushion on the back of her hand. "I don't know if the Emperor would want someone so willing to follow his every command. He's not one of us. He will be his potential life-long companion. The Emperor would prefer someone who can challenge him."

Goodness, these requirements kept changing. Did they want docility or fierceness? He could play both roles perfectly, but which one would the Emperor be most enamored with?

"Are you on the side of the Lotus or the Kuyan?"

Political clans? Oh, they wanted to see how well-versed he was in the ins and outs of the government. He could do that.

"The Kuyan. I find their advocacy of women's rights and foreign trade policies admirable. The Lotus are terribly old-fashioned. Some traditions are worth keeping, but so many have become outdated. There's no more room for them. Having them stick around will only lead the country to an eventual standstill."

"And you don't think The Kuyan a little too optimistic?" Machi questioned, blue eyes taking on an icy glaze in the flame of the candles.

"Of course," Kurapika replied, "but I prefer their optimism to the Lotus' fear of the unknown. Progress didn't come to the nations in the West because they hid under their blankets and avoided everyone."

For a split second, he thought he saw Machi smile. Shalnark just gave him a proud little curve of the lips, quiet for once. Mother was right. Politics has the ability to either unite or divide everyone.

"Thank you, Kurapika," Machi said, an inkling of familiarity surrounding his name. "You'll be notified of his Majesty's consensus in three days time. I believe you'll have good news to look forward to."

"You might as well start telling everyone you're married ow! Machi! Stop hitting me! You're the reason I'm gonna die young from brain damage, you know that?"

What a lively bunch. Did they really work for the Emperor? They seemed far too normal, what with their vulgar jokes and tics. It must be an act. Every monster needed a human disguise, after all. He wondered what disguise the Emperor wore, and how long it would take for that mask to fall. Oh. How would he break the news to Leorio?

. . .

"And you say the sole male applicant seems the most promising?"

Shalnark nodded. Not a care in the world plagued him as his Emperor appraised the drawing. Machi's handiwork wasn't hard to spot. She'd captured his likeness perfectly, right down to the cold, calculating look in his eyes. Something felt familiar in that face, something that pulled at his mind, as if the drawing was trying to surgically extract a memory. A strange, prodding sensation that wouldn't leave him.

"The fact he's applied as a man is an anomaly in and of itself. I better see for myself what the fuss is about. Put him on the list. Give him the best carriage to the palace. Make him feel welcome. I want his guard down when I meet him."

Shalnark grinned, despite the ominous words. The darkness didn't scare him. His Emperor's darkness was different. It was quiet and peaceful and reminded him of rainy nights spent in rickety, old cabins.

Still, for someone with too much good, too much faith in justice, the darkness could become suffocating. He just hoped that kid wasn't one of them. No, he felt confident that man wasn't one of them. There was something in him that seemed just as twisted.

. End of Chapter .