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Playing Favorites: 

Chapter 29: 

The Consort’s Punishment

“What have you done to Hanzo?” 

“Why the sudden concern?” the Emperor asked. “After all, you’ve been putting him at risk for a good few months now. Did you really think you’d be able to get away with this?”

He had gotten away with it. 

“You’ve been going to visit Paladiknight.”

“Our encounters were completely innocent.” 

“I never implied that they weren’t,” the Emperor said. His thumb traced over Kurapika’s bottom lip. “Though you’re making me consider it.” He placed his head in the curve of Kurapika’s neck, forcing him to arch back. “His scent has been all over you since he’d arrived.”

“I spend time with him. That doesn’t mean I’m unfaithful.” Kurapika pushed the Emperor off of him. “He’s one of my closest friends, and he’s going through a stressful time right now. I wanted to be there for him. Besides, I haven’t just been gallivanting around with Leorio. I’ve been gauging the public’s opinion of me. I’m sure you’ve realized that the Palace is little more than an echo chamber.” 

He smiled widely. “Oh, have you now? Then why, in your infinite wisdom, have you decided to give more weight to their accusations by stealing away to the Outer Palace for days on end.” 

“I’ve never stayed out for more than a few hours,” Kurapika replied, moving to stand but the Emperor’s hand was tight on his wrist as he forced him back down. Really? “I’m being careful. I’ve been doing this for months. If they’d noticed they would’ve said something.”

“I should’ve shackled you here from the beginning.” The Emperor sighed, running a hand through his slicked back hair. “It only takes one person to realize you’re going out unattended for an assassination attempt to be carried out successfully. Once they track your movements back to the doctor, you’re in danger. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve already started plotting.”

Kurapika arched a brow. “You sound like you have a few suspects already.” 

“The Lotus Clan. They want you gone, either by death or by disgrace. Preferably both. Especially now.” He wasn’t looking at him anymore, his eyes distracted. Such concern. Kurapika had underestimated how valuable capturing Mother must be for him.

“Especially now?” 

The Emperor’s smile was bitter. “They thought I’d forsake you with their little report. It was rather eye-opening to hear the full story, since you’re so tight-lipped. I can’t say it was pleasant to deal with the fallout.”

“They think you’ve gone mad,” Kurapika said, wondering if this would sting as much as he wanted it to. “Like your father. How he forced the Queen to run away.”

Quiet settled between them, and the Emperor’s body was taut, aggression hiding somewhere in his muscles. A little more, then?

Kurapika smiled, moving closer to him, mocking as he leaned forward. Their eyes met. Kurapika wanted to see him break. He wanted it to hurt. “What did he do, your Majesty? Did he murder innocents the way you do? Come now, don’t be so tongue-tied. Did he hurt her terribly? She must’ve hated you, seeing that you look just like him –”

Oh, it hurt alright. His body ached where it hit the wooden floor. The bruising would be unfortunate, but right now all he could do was let a giddy laughter bubble up in his throat. The Emperor had him pinned down, hands tight on Kurapika’s shoulders as he straddled his hips. It wasn’t wholly unpleasant, but his nails dug into Kurapika’s skin hard enough to form bloody scratches. Kurapika covered his eyes with his arm, his lungs throbbing from the fit of laughter. 

Checkmate. He should’ve done this sooner. Learning more about the Emperor certainly presented a potential psychological barrier in killing him off eventually, but by the Gods, it was worth it to see the pain in his eyes. 

“So, are the rumors true?” Kurapika continued, stroking the hand on his shoulder. The other arm was splayed above his head. Had the situation been different, it would’ve been quite erotic: The Emperor restraining him, on top of him, and Kurapika could feel him. He always wanted too much when it came to the Emperor. “Did you kill your own father? Your little Oedipal complex. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you feel nothing when killing others. You really are just a simple beast in human’s clothing.”

One hand reached up to press against his throat, and Kurapika choked out another laugh. The Emperor clearly had good self-control. Who knew what he wanted to do to him right now? ‘I’ve finally made you lose your cool.’ How much further could he take him?

“You’re walking a fine line, Kurapika,” he told him. It was a warning and a fear. Could it be? His Majesty was worried what he might do to him?

Kurapika touched the hand on his throat. It relaxed. “And what will you do when I cross it. You’ve already proven you can’t hurt me in any way. You can’t hurt Leorio, because I would off myself. You want me on your side, don’t you? You want me, in the same way those men did. I’m yours.” Kurapika smiled at the shift in Kuroro’s expression, suddenly ravenous. That. That Kurapika knew how to deal with. “That’s the only thing that would satisfy you, isn’t it, Kuroro .”  

Let’s go all out then.

“Me, your obedient servant. A professor at the Academy, though I’d bet you’d love to have me stay as your Consort. Yours , in every sense.” If he didn’t know better, he would’ve sworn lust had shown its face in the Emperor’s visage. “But I already belong to somebody. I make love to him, I let him hold me, I’d place my life in his hands, my loyalties lie with him. I’m his, entirely.”

“And yet.” The Emperor raked one hand over Kurapika’s torso. Kurapika kept back a shiver. “It’s not enough for you. I suppose certain things never change.”

He’s calling me a whore. Kurapika knew all the different ameliorations too well.

“Yes,” Kurapika said. “I sold myself as the Golden Chrysanthemum, and now I regularly make love to someone who isn’t you, my darling husband. I’m unfaithful through and through. But at least I’m not a murderer.”

The Emperor’s expression turned fond suddenly, away from the clear-cut envy he’d worn previously. “Not yet.” His hand caressed Kurapika’s cheek, a loving, gentle touch. No, I don’t want this. This warmth, it was unbearable. “My little Prince. You’ve belonged to me since the moment you decided to go on your vendetta. How long has it been now? Five years? Five years, and all the rest of them too. You’ll belong to me for that long, whether I’m alive or dead. You will never forget me. Your dreams have been haunted with visions of my death, even as you’ve slept by his side. And now, they’ll be filled with visions of our love, and I will drive you mad, my dear Prince.” 

There was a hand at the back of his head, fingers tightening around his hair. Kurapika opened his mouth to let out a yelp, and then he felt lips on his and it was all too much again. The scent of sandalwood incense, clingy hands on his hips, angered customers after seeing him with other men, the pain and soreness, the fucking humiliation of it all. Kurapika gasped, as they parted, his mouth dirty with the sweet flavor of the Emperor’s tongue inside of it. He couldn’t breathe suddenly, his body aching with panic as he took short, shallow breaths. The Emperor kissed him again, invasive and forceful as he pulled at his hair, going deeper and deeper, and Kurapika let out a small whimper. Weak. Pathetic. 

“Kurapika.” The Emperor’s voice reached him, free of that jeering tone, his arms around him. “Just listen to my voice. Do you want me to let go?” 

Kurapika shook his head, because the scent of cloves and parchment was too comforting. His hands clutched the front of the Emperor’s clothes, wrinkling the flawless black cloth. He couldn’t fill up his lungs with enough air, feeling dazed and oversensitive all at once. There were birds outside, their voices ringing in his ears. 

“I’m sorry,” the Emperor murmured, still holding him close as he started to return to his senses. “I’ve hurt you again.” 

As his panic settled, his exhaustion returned, and he sank into the Emperor’s body, sitting between his legs, his face buried in the dark fabric over the Emperor’s shoulder. The scratches on his own shoulders were starting to burn a little, his back aching all over, the place where his head hit the floor tender now as the Emperor ran his fingers over it. 

Kurapika pulled away, rather suddenly, and the Emperor did nothing but watch. When Kurapika stood, he stood with him, reaching for him, and Kurapika backed away. 

“Let me see,” the Emperor said, reaching for his shoulders. Kurapika forced himself to stay still, as the Emperor first peeled off his light blue outer garment, and then his white undershirt. Warm hands grazed over the sensitive points of his back. Kurapika glanced down at his shoulders, bruised and an ugly red where they’d been scratched, but he hadn’t broken the skin. “Tell me if there’s anything that hurts.”

“It’s just sore, that’s all,” Kurapika said, shivering now that his skin was exposed to the cold air in his suite. He took a few steps forward, dragging his undershirt up his arms and over his shoulders, tying the knot, and proceeding to do the same thing with his outer garment. He turned back to the Emperor, who watched him too closely, worry creasing his handsome face. ‘Careful,’ Kurapika wanted to say, ‘or you’ll lose your only redeeming quality.’ “Don’t look so concerned. I’m your enemy, after all. We’re supposed to hurt one another.” 

The Emperor tilted his head to the side, lips pouting as if the confusion bothered him immensely. “I am your enemy, my Prince. But you are my husband.”

Kurapika tied the ribbon of his outer garment into a neat knot. “I’m your consort. That’s no loving marriage, nor a partnership. It’s a way for you to get as many heirs as possible. Although, I suppose you can’t get that from me. So, I suppose I’m what I was before: A prostitute. I even get a title. Though I suppose Royal Noble Consort Sowon doesn’t flow off the tongue as well as the Golden Chrysanthemum.”

“A partnership,” the Emperor repeated, seemingly ignoring all his other valuable feedback. “Indeed, I suppose I have kept you out of the spotlight for a long time. It must’ve become dull.” The Emperor walked closer to him, prowling toward him. “Have you gotten bored here, my Prince?” 

A coil of dread unraveled inside of his chest, expanding inside of him. Oh dear. This side of the Emperor, he couldn’t deal with very well. 

“My love.” My, my, my. His persistent use of possessives was getting on Kurapika’s nerves. “If it’s a partnership you want.” The Emperor took Kurapika’s hand in his own, pressing his lips to his knuckles. It was warm, slightly ticklish, and wholly unnecessary, but Kurapika’s cheeks felt hot all of a sudden. “Then a partnership is what you will get.”

“Elaborate.” 

And the Emperor would have responded had the thundering footfalls outdoors not interrupted them. A moment later and the doors were shoved aside to reveal the Emperor’s largest advisor, Uvogin. 

“Uvo,” the Emperor said, cheerfully. “I’m glad you could make it on such a short notice. Kurapika has just been lamenting some of his recent concerns pertaining to our relationship.” He intertwined their hands, drawing Kurapika closer to him. “So, I’ve decided we should spend some time building our partnership as royals. He’ll be joining us for our mission to Chasjib.” 

Uvo narrowed his eyes. “You two get into a fight or something?”

There was nothing to be done at that point. Kurapika couldn’t turn into his consort persona and play along, nor could he unleash the fury inside of him, and so all that managed to leave his mouth was a quiet, “what?” 

“There’s been an unexplained outbreak of illness all over the country. We suspect foul play, so we’re going back to the source. And, of course, you’ll be coming with us.”

“For how long?” Kurapika asked. 

“As long as it takes,” The Emperor replied, smiling wider. He placed a kiss on Kurapika’s temple, squeezing his shoulder as he pulled him into an embrace, making Kurapika wince as he pressed against a particularly tender place. Whether it was intentional or not, Kurapika chose to believe it was. “We leave tomorrow.” 

He released him, and Kurapika moved to put distance between them. The Emperor walked to his advisor, a man much taller than he. Uvogin stared down at him. 

“I’ll leave him to you for now,” the Emperor said. “Oh.” He looked to Kurapika. “I suppose now that you’re being watched by Uvo, you won’t be able to see your doctor anymore. I’ll let him know what the situation is, so he doesn’t get any wrong ideas.”

Kurapika would’ve followed him out the door if not for Uvo, who stopped him with one giant arm latched around his waist. If he had resisted, Kurapika was certain Uvo would’ve lifted him off the ground just as easily. 

“Calm down, kid,” he said. “He’s just messing with you.” 

“Just because he’s messing with me, doesn’t mean he’s not about to hurt my … friend.”

“The boss is too busy to deal with the fallout of something like that,” Uvo said, releasing him. 

“Fallout?” 

“You, being even more pissed at him than you usually are.” 

Kurapika frowned, stepping away from him. He hardly interacted with Uvogin before now. “How do you know that?”

“We’re not just his advisors, y’know,” Uvo said. “We were his friends before we even got to the Palace. He talks about you a lot. Well, a lot for him.”

Kurapika looked him up and down. He certainly didn’t act like he knew who Kurapika was, what he planned to do to his ‘boss’. “I see. What else has he told you?” 

“Eh, curious, aren’t you? Why don’t you ask him yourself? You’ll probably be in close quarters for the next few weeks.” 

He didn’t like asking the Emperor things. Especially not when he was in such a precarious situation. Now he didn’t even have his anchor to hold him down, and the Emperor has sworn to make him fall, probably sometime during their journey outside of the Palace. Kurapika glanced up at Uvo. There was no way of getting past him. Even if he did return to the Palace soon, meeting Leorio would be out of the question. 

“I’m not that curious,” Kurapika said, no longer facing Uvo as he walked to his bedroom, hidden behind a screen. “I do believe it’s proper etiquette for guards to stay out of the quarters of the people they’re guarding.” 

Uvo laughed. “I can take a hint, kid. Scream if you’re attacked.”

“Will do.” Kurapika pushed the screen back into place and walked to lay in his bed, eyes tracing the watercolor patterns on the ceiling. What happened to Hanzo? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know, or maybe he did, just to remind himself who the Emperor is.

“I am your enemy, my Prince. But you are my husband.”

Kurapika turned onto his side. Husband. Please. He must think of him as an enemy. He must since he knew what Kurapika wanted from him. 

Not that the Emperor actually loving him would be terribly inconvenient. He’d planned for the Emperor to fall in love with him from the beginning. Yes, Kurapika had planned for a lot of things. The first night, the Emperor was supposed to come to his chambers, and for completely different reasons than those that he had come with. The control should’ve been with Kurapika the entire time, as he slowly seduced the Emperor. If his personality hadn’t won him over, his passion and sexual prowess would’ve closed the gaps. And then, just a sprig of poison in the Emperor’s drink. It wouldn’t be real love anyways. The Emperor’s love was meant to be twisted and lustful. 

Instead, he’d gotten this son of a bitch, proclaiming that Kurapika would fall in love with him. Kurapika should’ve killed him earlier. He had hidden tiny vials all over his body and his bedroom. He could’ve used one and damned the consequences.

Circles. He was just going around in circles. He’d think more clearly after a bath. 

...

The Outer Palace was lively this morning, the sun hot on the stone paths and the paneled roofs. Kuroro walked amongst his subjects, alone for once. No one spared him a glance. Most of them knew what the Emperor looked like, but no one expected to see him here, solitary, dressed as a statesman. Usually, Kuroro preferred to take one of his advisors along with him. It was safer and he liked the company, but today, he had some private matters to attend to. 

There. Kurapika’s lover sat on the porch of an abandoned hanok, cross-legged and pouring over medical texts. His glasses had slid down the bridge of his nose, and he fixed them, still ignorant to Kuroro’s arrival. A brown paper bag sat next to him, and he mindlessly reached for it, eyes transfixed on the texts. 

“Expecting someone?” Kuroro said, keeping his tone light as he leaned against the wall of the hanok. Leorio gaped at him, and then scrambled to his feet, the text falling from his lap. “No need to be so startled.”

Leorio bowed. “Your Majesty.” 

Kuroro placed a hand on his shoulder. The hand slipped away as he passed him. “Come, Leorio. Let’s talk inside. The weather has grown too hot for my liking.” 

“What, are you gonna melt in the sun or something?” Leorio murmured. He followed Kuroro inside and Kuroro made himself at home, surveying the interior. It was partially furnished, with a small desk in the middle of the room, and expensive-looking screens near the walls. Tsk, the original owners should’ve donated those before leaving. Two cushions were situated around the desk. Nearby, a crate of old periodicals lay abandoned. 

“You had a guest, I see.” 

“Uh, yeah, just a buddy of mine. We were studying.” 

Kuroro met his eyes and smiled. “You’re a terrible liar.” 

“Huh?”

“My Consort went missing early yesterday morning,” Kuroro said, flipping through one of the periodicals. “We questioned his guard. Just some light interrogation. He had some interesting insights. From there, it wasn’t difficult to put the pieces together.” Kuroro found two portraits of Kurapika, close together, the colors dulled now. One depicted him as he was now, Kuroro’s Consort, his favorite. The other had him draped in the silks of the brothel he’d worked at, a chrysanthemum crawling out from the space between his ear and his scalp, his face painted in vibrant colors. Absentmindedly, Kuroro brushed his thumb over the portraits. He should’ve followed Yuka’s advice and taken Kurapika out of that place. How different their situations would be now. Perhaps he would’ve already found Kurapika’s Mother. Kurapika would be his loyal scholar, his anger funneled toward a more suitable target. 

“We’re just friends,” Leorio said. 

Kuroro continued to flip through the pages. The glee in the author’s words as they described Kurapika’s past was just a tad disconcerting. As if they couldn’t wait for Kuroro to force him out of the Palace. They’d have to try harder than that to force Kuroro’s hand, though. His little Prince was far more valuable than they could’ve ever imagined.

“That’s not what he said this morning,” Kuroro said, tossing the periodical back in the crate. 

“What?” 

“Don’t take it too hard.” Kuroro wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword. “You know how he gets when he’s angry. So reckless.” Kuroro shrugged. “Besides, I knew about your … interests in one another from the start. I just didn’t expect you to parade it around so obviously.” He turned away again, opening one of the doors that led to the main bedrooms. “That you’d do it in someone else’s bed. I suppose I can’t assume anything more from such an affair.” 

“We haven’t.”

“Hmm?”

“We haven’t had sex yet.”

So … you lied to me, my dear Prince?’ Just to anger him, too. 

“Even so.” Kuroro shut the door with hardly a sound. “I’m sure you understand the dangers that such an affair would bring to my Consort, especially considering his past. It wouldn’t take much for people to put the pieces together. Even I won’t be able to protect him if you’re discovered.” Kuroro sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger. “I’m not opposed to Kurapika having people he can rely on outside of the Inner Palace. Your friendship is clearly important to him. But that’s all it can venture to be.” 

“His past?” Leorio repeated. 

It took Kuroro a moment to understand the implication. Oh my. He wanted to laugh. He hasn’t told you?

“You don’t know?” Kuroro said, carefully lacing concern into his words. “I apologize. I had expected you two to be closer.” 

Leorio’s fists clenched. This would be easier than Kuroro had ever hoped. 

“Well.” Kuroro knelt down next to the crate and tossed one of the periodicals to Leorio. “You should read more. Some of it is quite accurate.” He stood up with a sigh. “Though, of course, it’s up to you.” 

The newspaper shook in Leorio’s hands, and then he sent it hurling back at Kuroro, who caught it easily. 

“Piss off, bastard.” 

Kuroro pouted. He found he quite enjoyed making Kurapika’s little lover upset. “I know where I’m not wanted. Even after all the advice I gave, tsk, tsk. I could just chop your head off, you know.” Kuroro put his hand on the side of his neck, thumb stroking the place where bones jutted out when you pressed. “Truly, I’m too considerate.” For a brief second, he indulged himself, imagining the satisfying crunch beneath his hands as the bone shattered, some pieces of white, curved bone poking out of their fleshy prison. And then he imagined Kurapika’s face when he found his lover laid out before him with a bloody neck and no pulse. Kurapika would collapse into Kuroro, so shell-shocked he’d forget who he was holding onto. 

‘I’d end myself before you could.’

Kurapika, cold and corpse-like in Kuroro’s arms, finally out of his reach. Leorio choked underneath his tightening grip.

Kuroro let him go, forcing the newspaper back into his hands. He began to walk away. “Don’t put him in this sort of danger again. Contrary to what you might think, I’m actually quite fond of you, Leorio.”

Leorio cleared his throat and when he spoke, his voice came out creaky. “Try telling that to him.”

You think I haven’t tried?

...

Kurapika awoke early the next morning before the sun even dared to come up. His sleep had not been a restful one and he got up sore with fatigue, or maybe those were just the bruises. He’d gone to talk to Hanzo the night before, finding Uvogin strangely accommodating in that regard. Hanzo had been kept in one of those drafty, dank prison cells Pairo had spent an hour or two in. They hadn’t bothered giving him a change of clothes either, letting the blood dry on him. For a second, Kurapika worried he might be dead in there, lying on his side with long gashes down his back, but then he saw the heavy breathing of a man in much pain but under no threat of death. The wind grew colder, as it made its way into the crevices of Kurapika’s robes, so pristine amongst the dirt and the blood of the prison cells. He wondered what they’d done to Hanzo, to render such a gregarious man silent. In the dim light, he could see only the criss-cross lines of a whip hitting his skin. 

Kurapika tightened his grip on the box of medical supplies in his hands. He’d never liked Hanzo all that much, and after the way he’d tortured Gon, he might’ve enjoyed punishing him a bit. Not like this, though. “Sit up. If you still can.” 

The breathing slowed, suddenly, and then Hanzo let out a snort. “Yes. Your Highness.” 

It took a little under half an hour for Kurapika to clean out all the stinging cuts on his body. As he had suspected, the man’s legs had been crushed. It was such an excessive reaction to such a small crime, befitting the Emperor in Kurapika’s mind. His enemy, so impossibly cruel.

He wouldn’t visit Hanzo again. Just hold tight to the memories of how the Emperor brutally tortured a young man (though, of course, he didn’t know if it had been the Emperor doing the torturing). Never mind who that young man was. He let the memories keep him up at night, and let the knowledge of his rage soothe him.

. . .

“Rise and shine, sleeping beauty!” Uvogin’s booming voice shook him from his reverie, as it had shaken from his few hours of sleep a few minutes prior. “We’re not gonna be late on my watch!” 

Maybe Hanzo wasn’t such a bad guy, after all. 

Kurapika clutched his blanket to his chest, watching Uvo with what he hoped was a look of disgust. Someone needed to teach this man the concept of privacy.

“When the Emperor said we’d be leaving in the morning, I don’t think this is what he had in mind.” 

Uvo threw a small scroll at him. Upon unraveling it, Kurapika found his entire schedule for the next week or so already planned out. 

“When did you …”

“I need to kill time somehow while I’m stuck outside your bedroom, Highness.” 

His eyes skimmed the characters scrawled across the page. ‘ 4:30 AM, Get ready to leave. 5:30 AM, get to the Boss. 5:45 AM leave the Palace. 12:00 PM get attacked by bandits, probably. 3:00 PM, eat lunch. 4:00 PM, get back on the horse. 7:00 PM, eat dinner. 9:00 PM, spend quality time with the Boss.’ There were smaller notes, further detailing the ways in which he should spend his time. Even his attendant, Linssen, wasn’t this fussy about time. 

Kurapika put down the scroll with a sigh, eyes falling shut. “Very well.” His bare feet pressed against the cool floor. He stood, slightly off-balance and wobbly on his legs. “I’m going to bathe. Call the servants in.” 

“Heh? You’re just as bossy as the Boss.”

For a brief moment, Kurapika fixed him with a sharp glare. He couldn’t say anything though, in case his vitriol came off too strong. Instead, he walked into the bathroom, certain that it would provide an escape from the boorish man. As he waited for the bath to fill, he slipped his shirt off of his shoulders. They were still sore from his previous encounter with the Emperor, but the redness had made way for patches of bruises instead. At least they wouldn’t leave a mark. Kurapika had put too much care into the wellbeing of his skin to have it be marred by something like this. He couldn’t afford to be anything less than flawless in the eyes of these people. 

...

The air was cool and fresh and filled with birdsong. A blurred streak of pink and gold rose into the fading darkness behind the buildings and treetops. The morning spilled out, beautiful in its pastels, but Kurapika could hardly garner the energy to be awed by it. He’d seen dawns before and he’d see them again. 

Uvo led him to the gates of the Inner Palace, their shadows long underneath them, marrying the stone paths and grassy lawns of the courtyards. At the gate, there were already several people gathered. Among them was the Emperor, sparring with one of his advisors, though the advisor’s name escaped him. He stood taller than the Emperor, and wore his long, black hair in a strange-looking topknot. Nothing adorned his feet, leaving them bare as he lunged from stone to grass. 

For a moment, the metal scraping of the sword rang solitary, and then Uvo shouted, “Who said you could get the party started without me?” 

Both men turned to them, pausing in their sparring. They straightened, their swords hanging at their sides. It didn’t take long for the Emperor to fix his gaze on Kurapika, and when their eyes met, the Emperor grinned more widely than was necessary. 

“Ah, Uvo,” Shalnark said, peering over the saddle of one of the horses they were preparing. There were 6 in total, one for each member, apart from Uvogin and Franklin. Servants scrambled around the horses, packing luggage for the road. Shalnark approached them and Uvo’s expression changed, not by much, just the softening of the eyes and the loosening of that monstrous grin into something fonder. Shalnark’s smile was as bright as ever. “You’re late. For once.”

“You can blame the boss for that,” Uvogin said, putting one massive arm around Shalnark. He really was a giant of a man, towering over everyone at the Palace gates and even over a few trees as well. The power in his bare hands alone must be frightening. Kurapika wouldn’t want to be on the other side of that man’s blows. 

A cool hand presses against his bruised shoulder, bringing him closer to a figure in black. The scent of cloves and old parchment fill his body. The Emperor had somehow sneaked up behind him, and now his lips were near his ear, breath warm and moist. 

“Good morning, my Prince,” the Emperor whispered. ‘He hadn’t even broken a sweat from the sparring.’ Kurapika supposed he shouldn’t even be surprised at this point. 

Kurapika saw the servants glancing at them, and so he let his muscles loosen and his body weave into the Emperor’s, ignoring the soreness in his body as he did so. The Emperor’s heart drummed against him. A peek over his shoulder confirmed that the servants had turned away, embarrassed to have seen such an intimate moment. 

“You overdressed,” the Emperor said, still holding him close, one hand pulling at the back of his jacket. 

“Would you like me to take it off?” Kurapika asked, tone a bit irate. “How far is this village, that you need me to awaken at such an hour?”

“It’s three days away. On horseback,” the Emperor replied. “You do know how to ride a horse, don’t you?”

Everything became still for a moment, as Kurapika realized that he, in fact, did not know how to ride a horse. His whole life he’d gotten by on foot for the most part. Horse-back riding had never made it into his repertoire. He certainly wasn’t going to admit it, however. Instead, he fixed his eyes on the Emperor, not sure if the strange feeling in his chest was from embarrassment or annoyance.

There was a derisive edge to his smile then, Kurapika was certain. He was laughing at him. “I see. Well then …” The Emperor leaned in for good measure, smiling all the way, gleeful in the misery he would inevitably cause Kurapika. “It seems we’ll be in even closer quarters than I’d expected. My little Prince. Front or back?”

“What?” 

“Taeyang-Dal can carry both of us, easily,” the Emperor said. A tall black stallion nudged the Emperor’s shoulder, asking for attention. He responded by rubbing the stallion’s neck, his eyes never straying from Kurapika. “So, would you like to ride in the front or the back?”

‘I’d like to not have to ride with you at all.’

Kurapika refused to respond, crossing his arms. He would not be subjected to such humiliation. The Emperor would be in complete control then. He would decide how long Kurapika would be beside him, what proximity he would be forced to endure, what sorts of things he’d have to listen to. No, he had to figure out some way to remove himself from the situation.

Time was not a luxury he could afford, however. The Emperor closed the gap between them in an instance, tugging him to his chest with one arm around Kurapika’s shoulders. Now he was certain the Emperor’s grip was turning painful purposefully, his hands finding the most sensitive of spots, one of them weaving back into his hair as they had done yesterday. His lips grazed his ear. “You either do what I ask, or I knock you out now and you wake up in whatever position you find yourself in.”

The thought of being unconscious for any amount of time was unpleasant. More so when it was his enemy doing so. He’d rather have his wits about him. 

The Emperor tugged lightly on his hair. Answer. 

“Front.” He was certain if he had to ride in the back he would simply fall off. Having the Emperor behind him, as much as he hated to believe it, would put him at ease. 

The Emperor seemed pleased with his answer, his grip loosening. “Alright. I’ll help you up.”

It didn’t take long for Kurapika to get on the horse, but it was enough time to realize that the Emperor was being annoyingly touchy today. He couldn’t seem to keep his hands off Kurapika. Judging from the way he smiled every time Kurapika cast a glare at him, it was intentional. Now, he stared down at him from on top of the horse, feeling unsteady and inexperienced and just wishing the Emperor would get on with it and settle in his spot behind him already since he’d wanted Kurapika so close in the first place.

Then he hauled himself onto the horse much more gracefully than Kurapika had. The Emperor pulled him closer, so his back was against his torso. He lightly tapped the stallion’s sides, clicking his tongue. The horse began to move, obedient. 

“Let’s move out.” The Emperor’s announcement alerted the rest of his advisors. Machi, Nobu, and Shalnark all mounted their horses. At a steady pace, the Emperor led his party out of the Inner Palace. This would be Kurapika’s first trip outside of the Palace since he’d arrived, and he’d be lying if he said it didn’t come as a bit of a relief. 

He leaned into the Emperor’s chest. He had some questions for him, most of them concerning Leorio. Those could wait until they weren’t confined to such close proximity. 

. End of Chapter .