Precipice of Darkness

*******

chapter six

*******

politics and sides taken

*******

Fed up with trying to argue some sense into Rufus and Schu, Yohji followed the ‘pull’ to Aya and was a bit surprised when it appeared that his mate had retreated to their bedroom instead of remaining downstairs in the library. He would have thought that Aya would prefer spending some time with Reno while he could, but perhaps the dubhach had slipped into the main room to join Rude, Masato and the few Shadow Guard that had come to the Koneko that evening; Reno sometimes enjoyed having a bit of fun while Rufus was distracted.

For himself, Yohji couldn’t really complain too much about his mate deciding to slip away to their room for the night, not when he was fed up from dealing with stubborn fools for the evening and just wanted to curl up with the man he loved for the time being. They’d already had dinner and the only pressing matter on their agenda had been him getting Schu and Rufus to work together, which he’d mostly managed; he’d left the attic library with the two of them cooperating for the most part, but they were too well matched in strengths to ever work well together, even if they had an important mission. All he’d really done was push aside the animosity they felt for each other because of their demon souls so they could figure out how to manage together well enough to come up with some sort of coercion tactic while forced to carry out the Elders’ wishes.

He pushed open the door to his bedroom and groaned in a piteous manner. "Reiichi is an evil, *evil* man."

Aya looked up from the book he was reading and set it aside before leaving the padded window seat, a slight smile on his face that reflected the amusement and sympathy that flowed over the link they shared. "You’re just becoming aware of that fact now?"

Yohji growled in annoyance as he pulled his mate against him, reveling in the fact that Aya yielded into the embrace. "Why the hell do you think I went along with him, hmm?" He nuzzled the left side of Aya’s pale neck and frowned when he smelled snow and fresh air. "Did you go outside?" His frown intensified when he felt the way his lover’s body tensed against his.

Aya ducked his head, his thick crimson hair hiding his beautiful face. For a moment, Yohji thought that he wasn’t going to answer, and then Aya spoke, his deep voice mumbling out the words. "Reno and I went out in the garden for a little bit."

Judging from the way that the scent of snow clung to his mate, Yohji had a feeling that the idiot hadn’t bothered with any cloak; he worried over the way that cold and snow had no effect on Aya anymore, as if the physical world was losing its hold on him. His arms tightened around Aya’s waist as he rested his forehead against his mate’s. "So what, you decided to do a bit of moon-viewing?" he asked, forcing back the fear and concern he felt since yelling wouldn’t do any good.

The flippant question made Aya look up at him, the tremulous smile on his lover’s face such a beautiful sight that his chest ached to see it. "Well, it was a lovely night out with the snow falling," Aya admitted. He reached up to run his fingers through Yohji’s hair, tucking back the long bangs that framed his face. "We like being able to talk freely, especially since Rufus doesn’t always let Reno out of his sight." He stared intently at Yohji, his emotions a pulse of… of something that resembled concern/warning/gratitude.

It took him a minute, but Yohji got the impression that Aya was trying to avoid saying something outright and was thankful that Yohji wasn’t the idiot that Rufus could be at times. He smiled as he leaned in for a quick kiss, doing his best not to give in to his hunger just yet when it seemed that Aya was attempting to tell him something important. "Well, I rather appreciate having you in my sights, but I know better than to make it an order." He chuckled as he reached up to rub his left shoulder. "I don’t need any more scars."

Aya’s smile just then was so blatantly pleased and a bit smug that Yohji almost took to purring if it wasn’t clear that Aya had enjoyed inflicting a few of those scars. "They do serve their purpose," Aya remarked in a rather content tone as he leaned up for another quick kiss. The sunlight flooding into Yohji from the fleet contact made him moan with desire, and he clutched at his lover’s hips to keep him close as hunger/need flared through him. "Let’s hope you don’t earn any more anytime soon."

"Huh?" Yohji blinked at the inherent threat behind the words. "How would I do that, Cat?" He forced himself to lean back a little while he waited for an explanation. "I think I’ve been pretty damn good, lately."

"You have." Aya licked his lips, which didn’t do Yohji’s hunger a damn bit of good, especially with the way his eyes were dark with passion. "The shinigami were here tonight."

It was funny how so few words could dampen Yohji’s desire so quickly. His hands remained on Aya’s hips, yet he no longer felt the burning need to crush his mate’s body against his own. "Eh? What did the hissing bastards want now?"

He felt the flash of anger over their link at the old taunt, yet Aya kept his outward expression mostly calm even if his eyes now contained sparks of silver. "They were pretty insistent that Reno and I be there at… well, that we be there whenever… *it* happens." Even now, it was clear that Aya was reluctant to talk about whatever it was that would cause the deaths that he had foretold.

For several second, all Yohji could do was stare at his lover; there were Esset agents in town, countless wizards and the fucking *shinigami* wanted their precious ‘young ones’ to go out into the city? He spoke the first thing that came into his head. "Do they want you to be free of your bodies that badly?" Then he yelped when Aya whapped in his ribs as a results. "Dammit!"

Aya bared his teeth at him in anger. "We’d be cloaked in shadows, and *no*, it’s not a trick." He paused in what seemed an effort to rein in his temper. "They want us there to feed with them, and I think they’ll be upset if we refuse." He stared at Yohji, his eyes now a mix of silver and violet. "I’m not sure what they’ll do if we refuse, which is why I want us to go."

Until then – until Aya had said ‘us’ – Yohji had been ready to argue and enlist Jo’s help in sitting on the stubborn bastard to keep him at the Koneko if need be, to keep him safe. Funny how one little word could change things, could prove how Aya was taking to heart the talk they’d had on how it needed to be the two of them facing things together. Yohji still wasn’t crazy about the idea – hell, he never was when either the shinigami or wizards were involved, and now it was a mix of both, but he had to admit that the shinigami wanted Aya alive. He just worried about what their definition of ‘alive’ was – if it contained a physical body or not. Ah well, he supposed him being there meant that he’d ensure that Aya kept his promise of remaining ‘solid’. "Okay, so if you and I are there, what about Reno and Rufus?"

The way that Aya ducked his head again was *so* not promising. "Reno will be there…."

"Which means that Rufus most likely won’t," Yohji finished with an aggrieved sigh. He’d be sure to put up a nice mental block that day to keep Rufus from pestering him, but he had to feel sorry for the arrogant bastard; if Aya went missing under similar circumstances, he’d be in one hell of a panic. "Cat… let me just say how much I appreciate you."

That earned him another breath-taking smile when Aya looked back up at him. "So you don’t have a problem with us going?" Hope/love/astonishment flowed over their link while Aya toyed with the strands of hair falling against the nape of Yohji’s neck.

Yohji shivered from the touch as well as the emotions that only stoked the hunger flaring to life inside of him. "Well, I’d be lying if I said ‘no’, but I’m not gonna be all pissy about it." He smiled as he hugged his mate against him. "You’ll use your shadows the entire time and I’ll damn near decapitate anyone who even *seems* to have an idea we’re there, okay?" The words came out in a low growl, his demon nature rushing to the fore at the thought of how he’d protect his lover, how he’d keep him safe and bring him back home.

For someone who was pretty fucking lethal on his own, all Aya did was continue to smile up at him, his eyes almost pure silver by now, and bridge the last bit of space between them for a kiss. Between that, the lack of biting and the love/desire that Yohji felt, he’d take that as a sign that Aya was fine with the plan; Yohji used his hold around his mate’s waist to pick him up enough to carry him over to their bed.

Tumbling them both onto the soft mattress, he laughed as the kiss broke apart and Aya hissed in annoyance at being jostled about. "Yotan!"

"Aya," Yohji murmured back as he tugged on the grey sweater that covered too much pale skin just then. "Is something wrong?" he asked while schooling his face into as innocent an expression as he could manage.

Aya gave him a baleful glare in return, which was quite impressive considering that he was only mildly irate at the time, then batted Yohji’s hands aside in favor of removing his sweater. Yohji grinned and began to remove his own clothes, tossing first the green sweater and then his boots and brown leather pants aside without a care for where they landed. He turned to see that the shadows were helping Aya with the last of his clothes, darkness sliding along pale skin until all of it was exposed. The hunger raged full-force at the sight of his mate naked on the dark green sheets before him, and Yohji reached for him without any hesitation.

"You smell like winter," he said before he nuzzled Aya’s neck, breathing in deep the scent that clung to his mate’s skin and hair.

Cool, strong fingers slid over his arms and pulled him closer, until he rested half on top of Aya. "Whereas you reek of Schuldig." Aya’s nails dug into Yohji’s left arm for a few seconds before trailing along his back with a hint of too much pressure.

"Ah yeah, he was being particularly stubborn this evening." Yohji grimaced as he settled between his lover’s thighs, the expression turning into a smile at the way the long legs wrapped around his hips. "I was about to try coercing him to cooperate with Rufus when he finally gave in just so he could go home at some point tonight." Damn stubborn fool – Yohji understood how it could be difficult, working with another bound of a similar nature and strength since he had to learn from Masato, but he’d pushed aside his pride and he’d done it. He swore that Schu lived to be a prickly bastard who enjoyed being a pain in the ass to those around him.

The flash of jealousy that he sensed from his mate was replaced with exasperation. "I thought he came here to work with Rufus."

"Yeah, well." Yohji stroked his hands along Aya’s chest, a slight smile on his lips at the pleasure/sunlight flowing into him from the caress despite the fact that he felt some exasperation of his own over how Aya couldn’t quite grasp the animosity and competition that a lot of bounds felt amongst themselves. Nope, it just *had* to figure that shinigami bounds were special in that regard and got along fine, being ‘pack’ and all. "He knows in theory that he needs Rufus’ help, it’s just that he has trouble accepting it when the man is in the same room with him."

Aya’s response was a rather inelegant snort, and then he arched his body into Yohji’s touch. Figuring that they were talking too much about other people, Yohji leaned down to kiss his lover, savoring the delicious sunlight that raced into him and the passion with which he was kissed back. Aya tasted sweet, like the cake they’d had for dessert, and along with the potent sunlight it was enough to make him feel light-headed.

The hunger spurred him on, drove him to take in as much of his mate as he could, between the pale skin bared beneath him and the emotions open on their link. He broke off the kiss to trail his mouth along the sharp point of Aya’s chin and beneath it, pausing for a moment against the beating pulse of his mate’s heartbeat before pulling away to lick the palm of his right hand. A low growl escaped him when he returned back to that pulse point, the same time his hand wrapped around both of their cocks, a firm grip around hard flesh.

Both his demon nature and the hunger were pleased to feel Aya’s skin against his teeth, the sense of friction/pleasure as his hand stroked along sensitive flesh. One of Aya’s hands wrapped around his own as it slid along their cocks, aided by pre-come as pleasure/desire built between them. Possessive nails raked along his back, causing him to hiss as he shifted away from Aya’s neck, pushing up onto his left arm a little more as his right hand continued to move, to stroke back and forth.

The sight of Aya sprawled beneath him, eyes fractured pools of violet and silver, crimson hair fanned out around his gorgeous face and pale skin glowing in the room’s dim light…. Yohji bowed down to kiss those parted lips, to steal another sweet taste while the ecstasy coiled even tighter inside of him, the sunlight so warm that he felt as if it were midsummer and not winter just then. His hips jerked in time with his hand’s frantic strokes, Aya moving in pace with him while tossing back his head. Unable to resist such a blatant invitation, Yohji leaned down once more to mark his mate’s slender neck, to prove to everyone that Aya was his. Even without the hunger spurring him on, he couldn’t fight the possessive urge, and the answering dig of nails along the right side of his spine made him growl in delight and the pleasure to flare so strongly inside of him that his body began to tremble with its impending release. He opened his mouth to stutter out Aya’s name as his climax hit, the delirious wash of emotions heightened moments later by a flood of sunlight as Aya came as well.

"Oh…now that was worth putting up with a bunch of idiots," Yohji joked as he rocked back onto his knees, sparing just a quick lick to his right hand before he wiped it clean with his discarded sweater. Figuring that it was already dirty, he used it to finish cleaning himself and a dazed Aya before tossing the garment aside, then stroked his fingers along Aya’s exposed abdomen to send back a little energy.

Aya batted his hand aside, the motion languid and without much force, and snatched at Yohji’s wrist to use it to help pull himself upright. "If I have to feed you after each time you deal with idiots, I’m never going to be able to leave this bed."

Yohji laughed as he tugged Aya onto his lap. "Hmm, you may have a good point there." He nuzzled past a long eartail to his lover’s bruised neck and smiled, content to breathe in Aya’s scent overlaid with his own. "I mean, I’d be happy with that arrangement- " he managed just in time to block the blow to his ribs but laughed when his shoulder was nipped, "but yeah, can’t see us getting much done." He placed a gentle kiss against the spot below Aya’s left ear and pulled back. "So, can you tell me *why* the shinigami want us around other than so you can feed?"

"No." Aya shook his head and frowned; there was no hint of hesitancy or falsehood in his actions or emotions. "People are going to die so the pack wants Reno and me there to join in on the feeding." He didn’t seem too bothered about the upcoming deaths, but Yohji supposed that was to be expected since it most likely didn’t involve anyone he knew. Maybe if Aya wasn’t a shinigami bound he’d be bothered by indifference, but he supposed that if one lived off of death, it didn’t make much sense to be to be affected by it.

Then a hint of concern did creep over their link. "However, Reno and I did notice that the wizards have arrived at the palace." Sibilance shaded Aya’s voice and the silver was back in his eyes, and Yohji swore he heard some hissing in the darker shadows of the room.

"Great." Yohji’s hold around Aya’s hips tightened. "We’ll go into the city if it’ll keep the hissing bastards from doing something stupid, but *please* don’t tell me you’ve got any plans to visit the king any time soon." Being in the city left them a wide range of options to escape and to blame any weird phenomena on should something bad happen, whereas the palace would be packed with protective spells, Guards and Army personnel, not to mention a ton of gokenin from various highborn. They wouldn’t have to worry about the spells… but being able to elude them would just point out ‘shinigami bound/blood’ all the more to anyone with half a brain.

Some of the tension he felt lessened when Aya promised him that there were no plans at the moment. "It’s never a dull moment with you." Yohji smiled at his mate and felt something warm and as invigorating as the sunlight burst into his chest when Aya smiled back at him. Ah gods, but he had it bad for this man, he thought to himself as he moved in for another kiss, his hunger stirring despite the recent feeding. Some time soon they’d have to talk to Jo and Reiichi about a few things, but for now…. Now they were going to have an evening for themselves, he thought as he pulled a purring Aya closer.

*******

Birman entered her office to find Trowa already busy sorting through some paperwork, with a large carafe of coffee and a tray covered with pastries resting on the table. She smiled as she removed her heavy cloak and hung it by the door. "I wasn’t sure if you’d be in today."

He looked up from the table and gave her a slight smile. "I won’t say that it was an easy thing, leaving home this morning." She noticed that there were several small bruises scattered on his neck and that the outfit he wore today, a loose dark brown sweater and black wool pants, were the type to mask his figure rather than show it off. If she were to be asked, she’d say that someone was being a very possessive mate and doing his best to ensure that no one looked twice at her assistant in a romantic manner. Trowa even had most of his long auburn hair pulled back into a neat braid, save for the thick bangs that hid half of his handsome face.

"Did he let you get any sleep last night?"

It was a telling sign of how well they got along with each other that all Trowa did was give her a small, pleased smile while handing over a mug of coffee. Birman laughed as she accepted it. "Well, I thank you for seeing to it that he didn’t burn down the palace or any of the city. Your sacrifice is greatly appreciated." She raised her mug in a salute before taking a sip of the hot beverage.

Trowa huffed in amusement while he picked through the pastries for an apple tart. "Don’t thank me just yet, since Duo’s ready to come charging here at the slightest provocation to burn any and all wizards to ash if need be." A slight frown tugged at his brows while he stared down at his uneaten snack. "I had to promise to stick close to the offices for the next few days," he announced, his tone clearly apologetic.

"If you think I’m going to make you and Natsumi attend any more teas, even with the illusion spells and the rings while this place is crawling with wizards, then clearly it’s not coffee you’re drinking," she assured him. They’d done their duty in alerting her and the Shadow Guard that the wizards were here, as well as giving her enough information on which highborn the wizards were using; a Spymaster should know when it was worthwhile to risk her people and when it wasn’t. "I’ve plenty of trained agents who *aren’t* at danger of being bled dry by those assholes who can continue watching over things at Court for now." Besides, with all of those wizards here, they must be about to force the king to make a decision soon.

"I suppose it’ll give some time for some very creative rumors to spread about Shen and Benten." Trowa seemed to recover his good mood as he made quick work of the tart. "As well as let us set up a few more persona to use."

"And there’s always reports to go through." Birman set her mug aside to pick up one of the pieces of paper. "Oh, speaking of Shen, I’ve decided to take him to the Koneko sometime soon."

It was rare to startle a clear look of shock out of the water elemental, but that bit of news had obviously done it. Trowa stared at her for several seconds before speaking. "Did he annoy you *that* much yesterday?"

She scowled as she recalled the *hour* that she has suffered through with the pest. "You would *not* believe some of the questions he had the audacity to ask!" She was almost tempted to repeat them, but the last thing she needed was a furious Trowa storming through Court looking for the idiot, and then an upset Duo racing to the palace to see what had upset his mate. "So I’ve decided that if he’s so curious about bounds, and mated bounds in particular, that he can go to the Koneko where several bounds live and work." A very pleased and somewhat evil grin spread across her face at the thought of how well *that* visit should turn out.

Trowa was silent again for at least a minute and then cleared his throat. "Uhm, you do know we need him alive," he reminded her while he fidgeted with another apple tart.

"Yes, and if Crawford wants him to remain in that state, he can come to the Koneko and deal with him for once," she snapped while pouring them both some more coffee. "I see no reason why I should suffer alone."

It looked as if Trowa was going to say something, perhaps argue with her plan, and then he just shook his head and took a bite of the tart. That was one of the reasons why she enjoyed working with him – he may disagree with something, may think it the height of idiocy, but he usually would reserve judgment and let things play out if he trusted you.

After a few sips of her coffee, she set it aside and picked up the papers again. "So, where is Natsumi today?"

"She’s doing some background checks into Lord Harataki’s financial dealings. There are still one or two of Eto’s supporters that we never identified, and for him to come forth now, after retreating from attention for so long…"

He didn’t have to finish that thought. "I’m sure any of the king’s adversaries would love to see him lose on whatever front they can." Birman knew that she was loyal to Shuuichi and that may blind her to certain things, but when she tried to be as objective as she could, she saw a king who was inherently a good king. Shuuichi might not be the best man or the strongest king Kritiker ever had on the throne, but he was far from the worst, and he was doing the best that he was able to do for the country. "Speaking of financial documents, I want you to go through all of them of any of the highborn associated with the wizards arguing for an anti-bound stance. If we can prove that they have any ties to the Army or goods that will be vital in a time of war, we can use that against them."

Trowa looked at her for several seconds before he nodded and began sorting through the documents stacked on the table. "Of course. Esset will take the use of bound blood as an offense and rally the country against Kritiker, refusing any chance of a peaceful negotiation. We can argue that it’s a tactic to prolong the war and increase profits for those who have invested in martial items."

"It’ll be one of several arguments Botan and I plan to use against them, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned here at Court, it’s to have several contingencies in place when you go into battle." She looked at the list of names in her hand and shook her head. "The wizards seem to have done a good job of persuading some influential highborn to their cause, so we’ll need to be prepared."

"We should be able to count on Relena Peacecraft to argue on our side as well," Trowa pointed out as he made quick work of the documents. "Some of the younger highborn do look up to her."

"I would love to be there if one of the wizards approach her to try to win her over." Birman smiled at the mental picture that thought produced, especially since she was one of the very few who knew that there was bound blood in the Peacecraft line. "All right, Botan will have his arguments, we’ll do our best to prove that there is an element of greed behind the highborn supporting the wizards," whether it was true or not, "and Peacecraft will most likely be the voice of conscience to remind everyone that we should be acting like rational, moral human beings." As if such a thing had a place in any Court, but one could hope.

The two of them got to work, with Trowa going back and forth to the many Court archives to fetch necessary information while Birman dealt with various messages and visits from agents who stopped by for new orders or to leave important updates. The day was shaping up to be one of those where she barely left her office, which she didn’t mind from time to time as it gave her a chance to catch up on what was going on with her people – and them her – as well as some necessary paperwork.

Trowa had just returned back from another trip to the archives, this time with an armful of dusty books, when there was a hesitant knock on her door. Since Trowa was busy depositing account books on the table, she went to let whomever it was in, and was surprised to see Omi, Nagi and Takashi. The three young men hurried inside as if they were afraid someone would see them.

"Not that I’m unhappy to have so many young men pay me a visit, but is there a reason you’re here?" she asked as they huddled around her now very cluttered table, prompting Trowa to shift his chair closer to hers.

Omi and Takashi shared a look with each other while Nagi helped himself to the sandwiches that had been ordered as an early lunch snack. After Birman cleared her throat as a hint to move things along, Omi gave her a nervous smile and began to speak. "Well, I was wondering how things were coming along with the plan to deal with the wizards who are here to… uhm…." He glanced at Nagi and shook his head.

"Who are here to overturn Botan’s ruling on bound blood," Birman finished for him. "You should know Botan’s plan as well as I do." She found it a bit odd that none of the young men – well, that Takashi, really – were dressed to join Botan in visiting the various tea parties and luncheons today held about Court, but instead were clothed little better than servants as if they were trying not to attract attention to themselves. "As for us, we’re putting together an argument or two that should make it seem that the wizards’ highborn backers aren’t as altruistic as they could be."

Omi nodded and leaned against a quietly munching Nagi, while Takashi toyed with the hem of his light blue tunic. "Do you think that’ll be enough to sway the Court?" He stared directly at her as he spoke, his demeanor serious.

She’d always found it difficult to lie to the boy, now a young man; there’d been the realization that he would be her king one day, as well as the fact that he was highly intelligent and worthy of the truth. There didn’t seem to be a point in lying to him now, especially since he had some very good reasons to be concerned about the outcome of the ruling. "I feel that we have some very strong arguments, but the Court doesn’t always think rationally. Your father knows that Botan’s decision is the right one, I just fear that he may be forced to override it in order to keep his Court together." As much as she hated to admit it, she could see Shuuichi doing that, and with Manx’s support, in order to have a unified Court behind him when going into a war. She just wondered if he knew that he would have to appoint a new Spymaster and possibly a new Royal Wizard.

Nagi stopped eating and she thought there was a faint tremble in the table before Omi reached over to give his left hand a quick squeeze. "Thank you." The smile Omi bestowed upon her was fleeting and a touch sad, as if he could read her thoughts. "So I take it that you wouldn’t mind a bit of help?"

It was her turn to exchange looks, a puzzled one with Trowa, before she faced Omi once more. "I always welcome assistance, especially from trusted friends." The last bit strengthened the smile on the boy’s face. "Just what do you think you can do, and please don’t tell me it involves bespelling the whole Court."

Takashi laughed as he gave up on twisting the hem of his tunic and rested his hands on top of the table. "Please, don’t encourage him." He grinned at Omi and shook his head. "I can just picture us spending the next few nights trying to figure out what spells and charms to use."

Well, if that wasn’t a little frightening to know, that Takashi didn’t think it was impossible for Omi to cast a spell over the entire Court….

"Then what do you plan to do?" Trowa asked with a rare open display of curiosity.

Omi shrugged as he stared at his fingers intertwined with those of Nagi’s. "Well, Takashi and I have been talking to some witches." He was quiet for a few seconds before he looked up at Birman. "We thought that maybe it’s time to get them involved."

Birman thought she had an idea of where this was going. "What, you want to make this into wizards versus witches or something?"

Trowa spoke before Omi or Takashi could argue their case. "It might work." He summoned a glob of coffee from his mug and spun the sphere of dark liquid in the air. "Even though they’re both magic users, to most people’s mind, bounds included, they’re effectively… separate." The sphere split into two parts and twirled around each other. "Wizards have done a very good job of belittling their female counterparts over the centuries, of denying them formal training and patronage."

"If you think a witch doesn’t know how to use magic, you should try taking on my great-aunt," Takashi informed Trowa with a wry tone. Then he seemed to realize what he just said and became flushed. "I mean, not like *that*," he stuttered out. "It’s just, she taught me a lot."

"It’s all right, I know what you meant." Trowa graced the poor kid with a rare smile, which made him blush anew and Birman grateful that Duo wasn’t anywhere near her office at the moment. "I didn’t say that they weren’t unskilled, just blocked from formal training." Trowa turned his attention back to the spheres of coffee and did something with his talent to strip the color from one of them. "So while people might not think of witches as being so ‘powerful’, they do see them as very capable and approachable – bounds included. I’ve never heard of a witch who used bound blood in her spells."

Now that was a curious fact. "Is there any particular reason why?"

Trowa looked at Takashi, who still appeared a bit bashful at the water elemental’s regard. "I never flat out asked my great aunt-about it, but she always taught me to respect life and never to take short cuts with my spells. I think that’s a pretty basic tenet for all witches."

"Perhaps they decided early on to set themselves apart from their male colleagues." Trowa let the two spheres drift apart. "Regardless, witches are well respected by the common people, especially after last summer." He let the dark sphere fall back into the mug while the clear sphere still floated in the air. "And if a bound has to trust a magic user, present company excluded, it’ll be a witch." The sphere burst into a fine mist and dissipated into the air.

Omi nodded as he watched the sparkling drops of water disappear. "Yes, that’s what I was thinking. If we can bring forth some of the witches to Court and prove that there is an alternative to the wizards, it’ll weaken their position, no?"

She had to admit that it was a pretty good plan. "It’ll definitely take some strength out of their argument that they’re so valuable for the war effort." She picked up her mug of coffee and gave Trowa an amused glance in warning for him not to use it as any props for future discussions. "However, while they’ll have the people’s backing, that won’t matter as much to the Court. It would help if we could find them some proper patronage, no offense meant," she said to Takashi, who inclined his head in acceptance of the apology.

Omi frowned as he pulled Nagi’s hand closer toward him. "Uhm, yeah, I sorta… took that part into consideration as well." The hesitant manner with which he spoke and the protective lean of Nagi toward his boyfriend set off warning signals in Birman’s head, and she noticed that Trowa’s attention was also focused on the couple. "In fact, that’s why I’m here."

Birman took a look at the trusting expression on the young man’s face and seriously began to wonder if her king was going to be appointing a new Spymaster before the next full moons.

*******

Duo fought the urge to snarl when he caught sight of a fancy carriage headed in the direction of the palace, no doubt carrying some highborn intent on a social gathering. Another damn highborn who thought the world revolved around them, who thought they could do whatever they wanted and touch whatever they saw, including another person’s lover despite the fact that the person might not-

<Uhm, as much as I appreciate a bit of warmth right now, people might start to get suspicious if they come too near.> Annan’s thoughts were nervous and the air was scented with a hint of fear.

Cursing himself for all kinds of a fool, Duo rubbed his gloved hands over his face and wrestled with his demon nature until he gained control of his temper and his talent. <Yeah, sorry about that.> Dammit, he needed to pay attention to things before he set something on fire, but it was so difficult when most of his mind was screaming at him to go to the palace, find Trowa and drag his mate back home where he’d be safe. Only the fact that Trowa would drain just about every drop of blood from his body for doing such a possessive, thoughtless thing kept him from running to the palace. "Look… just stay single, okay?" he warned his partner.

Annan laughed, the sound bright and amused even though the look he gave Duo was filled with sympathy; the people around them were attracted by the sound and smiled in reaction, probably because the soul gaki bound was a good looking guy – especially in uniform. "I’m doing my best." He patted Duo on the back in a comradely manner before shoving his gloved hands into the pockets of his dark blue wool coat. "I must admit, seeing what you go through with Trowa is enough to scare me away from a serious relationship, even if I’m jealous from time to time." His smile faded as he looked straight ahead, down the busy street they were patrolling. <I don’t think I’d want to start something until the war is over, should I be lucky enough to survive.>

<Yeah, no sense in tempting the gods,> Duo agreed with the man. "I mean, I count my blessings every day." Just the thought of how lucky he was to have someone like Trowa in his life made Duo’s chest swell with pride and a huge grin spread over his face. "But dammit, I wish he’d find another job or something." Something like working in the archives of the Royal Library, where he maybe saw two or three other people every day, and those people were too book-obsessed to be attracted to him at all – and *none* of them were wizards.

<Birman doesn’t seem the type to put her people in harm’s way if she can help it,> Annan sent in what was probably an effort to reassure him. <Yuushi’s looking out for him and any other bound in the palace as well.>

Yeah, but *Duo* should be there to watch Trowa’s back, to keep some blood-hungry wizard from even touching his mate, not their friends and colleagues. All the fucking hells, he wished that he could be at the palace right now and not out patrolling, even if he knew the reasons why he wasn’t. The last thing any of them needed was him torching the place, which he had almost done last night when he’d reached Trowa and found some stranger’s scent clinging to him, had felt how upset his lover had been and desperate to hide that fact. "Botan better kick them out, soon," he muttered. Preferably before he tracked down the asshole whom had shown so much interest in Trowa and did something that would get him into trouble.

Feeling a pulse of concern over his link with Trowa, he shook his head to try to rid it of these circular thoughts before he got into trouble *now*. The last thing he wanted was to distract either of them while they were working, or give his lover a reason to stifle the link to better concentrate. So Duo forced a cheerful grin on his face, used his talent just enough to take off the brunt of the cold wind that was blowing straight at him and paid attention to what was going on during his shift. The tension in Annan’s shoulders slowly relaxed after a few minutes of the return of his work ethic.

The central Glass district was a rather prosperous area to patrol, with the main streets lined with fancy shops and the side streets leading to small homes and apartment buildings. While most areas of the city appreciated having Guards around, the shop owners already knew Duo and Annan’s names and made a point of greeting them if they were outside, and the locals often waved to them as they passed by. Duo noticed that many of the young women were a bit more enthusiastic in their greetings toward Annan, but that was to be expected since word had gotten out about him having a boyfriend within the first day or two. He grinned as he nudged his partner in the side as a particularly pretty young woman called out Annan’s name. "Are you *sure* you’re gonna wait at least another year or two?"

Annan blushed and pushed him forward. "Shut up. I put up with enough relationship troubles from you that I don’t want to add my own to it!" Yet he was smiling while he complained, and Duo noticed that he couldn’t help but glance back over his shoulder at the young woman who worked in the porcelain shop.

They were teasing each other about various things, mostly about how Annan had to fear for his life whenever Duo did something to upset Trowa and Duo’s tastes in boyfriends, when Duo had the nagging suspicion that he was being followed. <Hey, are you picking up any familiar thought patterns?>

Annan paused for a moment to fuss with his boots, pretending to clean out a piece of stone that was stuck to the bottom of one. <Hmm, I think… there seems to be a shielded mind about half a block back. Probably a bound.>

<Okay, then don’t pry any more.> Duo didn’t want to risk his partner being ‘discovered’ as a soul gaki bound if the other bound was from Esset. He turned to wish Uri, who worked at a stand selling warm sweet bread, a good day and managed to take a few surreptitious glances down the street. During the discussion, he noticed a young woman with brunette hair mostly hidden by her dark cloak strolling along, pausing here and there to look into windows. While she was very pretty, the most remarkable thing was the amount of attention she drew from the men and women who walked past.

Shit. <Annan, go into the store and get us some tea, okay? Don’t come back out until I say so,> he ordered his partner.

Maybe it was the fact that he wasn’t the biggest fan of tea unless Trowa made it, or that Annan picked up something from his thoughts, but his partner merely announced that he needed something warm to help with the cold and went inside. Duo nodded as he paid for some buns from Uri, then went over to a small bench that was out of the way to sit.

It didn’t take too long for Jacqueline to come over to him, now that Annan wasn’t around him. He was surprised that she was risking her mission to visit him openly like this, to draw a possible connection between them, but he supposed that to most people, it would just seem that he had run into a friend while working. "How are you doing?" he asked as she sat down and offered her a bun.

"Pretty good. I didn’t think I’d see you here today." She smiled as she accepted the bread. "Thank you." As he had thought, she acted as if they were friends and not fellow bounds who had last seen each other almost two years ago in Berin. "Now I see how you can put up with working outside every day!"

He shrugged and popped a piece of the warm bread into his mouth. "Eh, can’t eat too much or I’ll be too big to fit into my uniform," he said after swallowing the snack. They both ate the treat in silence for a couple of minutes, while he made sure that no one seemed to be paying them any attention. "So, how’s work?" He’d heard about the agents sent into the city, but he hadn’t known that Jacqueline was one of them. It must be pretty serious if they’d sent a water elemental like her when they were otherwise rounding up as many of them as they could find.

She raised her gloved right hand and waved it about. "Eh, so so." She looked about to say something else and then shook her head and huddled beneath her thick brown cloak. "It’s nice to get away for a bit, even if the job is demanding and… well, here." From the way that she tracked the people walking along the street, he thought he had an idea of what she disliked about ‘here’. Nice to see that the Esset brainwashing was still going strong, he thought with some bitterness.

Feeling a headache coming on and wanting to set something on fire, Duo bit into the last piece of bread with a harsh snap of his teeth. "So, do you need anything from me?" he asked once he was done with the bread, his stomach unsettled as dread filled him with the thought of having to partake in a mission like the one that had cost Toshi his life.

Jacqueline glanced aside at him and shook her head fast enough to cause her hood to slide down to her shoulders. "No! I wouldn’t…." She paused to tug back up her hood over her dark brown hair. "Your work is important." At least she recognized that. "It’s just… I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind me staying with you." She spoke the words in a rush as a blush spread over her cheeks. "After I’m finished, I mean."

It took him a minute to figure out what that blush had to do with her request; he’d fooled around with Jacqueline a little back in Berin, when he’d thought that maybe what had drove him so crazy about Trowa had been the fact that the quiet man was a water elemental. When he’d felt more frustrated than anything, he’d put an end to the attempt. "Uhm, you mean like…?"

"It wouldn’t have to be permanent!" She bent forward, her gaze fixed to the ground as if she was too shy or embarrassed to look at him. "I know I’m not the most powerful… not the strongest, but it would please… if the attempt’s made, people would be happy. We could just try until… well, things settle down."

He could well imagine that any water elemental would want to avoid Esset until the war was over, and probably afterward if the Elders were in charge. If it was just him, he probably would feel sorry enough for her to try to help, to do something to keep her here where it was safe. However, he could feel a sense of concern and curiosity in the back of his mind and knew why that wasn’t possible.

"Look, I wish I could say yes." He reached out to set his right hand on where he thought her arm was, wrapped around her waist beneath the cloak. "But… I’m living with Trowa. We’re together for… you know." He tapped her arm and let her infer from that. "It’s easier that way for him at work."

She turned to look at him and frowned for a few seconds, and then her eyes went wide. "Oh. Oh! Because he’s-" A rueful laugh slipped free as she closed her eyes. "Yeah, I can see why you’d do that." She sniffed a little as if she were trying not to cry. "Oh well, I figured I could at least try, no? And it’s not like I’d be that happy here. I just thought that with you…."

Perhaps it was the fact that he was mated to a water elemental or that he believed that he had used Jacqueline in some way, but Duo felt a bit… obligated to the woman just then. He rose to his feet in a hurry, aware that he had a partner waiting and that people might be watching them, that she must have a partner of her own somewhere near by. "Look, I can’t help you like you’d hope, but… maybe I can figure out something before you leave, okay?" He could talk to Yuushi and Yohji, see if they had any ideas, if there was something that could be done that wouldn’t put… what they were doing in jeopardy.

Hope flared in Jacqueline’s pretty brown eyes. "If you could, that would be wonderful." Then she ducked her head. "I’m not, I mean, I’m still loyal. I just…."

"Things aren’t so great back home, I know. I live with… Trowa." He offered her a friendly smile before waving goodbye. "I gotta get back to work. Maybe you should do the same." He hated to think that he was sending her off to mayhem and destruction, but he had an act to uphold.

She rose from the bench and straightened out her cloak before waving goodbye. "It was nice seeing you. Take care." Then she headed down the street the way she had come, her head held high and seemingly unconcerned about the attention she attracted. He watched her leave for a few seconds before he turned and went over by the tea shop.

<It should be okay now,> he sent to his partner.

Annan joined him after a minute, a smile on his face and a waxed paper cup of tea in his hand. "Here, this is for you."

Duo accepted it, and grimaced when he sipped the honeyed green mint tea blend. "Really?"

"It’s what Kiyoko recommended." Annan grinned as if he knew how much Duo hated it.

"At least it’s hot," Duo grumbled as he continued to sip it.

<So, anything of interest,> Annan asked as they continued on their patrol.

<We may need to provide sanctuary to a bound or two when all is said and done.>

To his credit, Annan took the new in stride. <I see. And are they willing to turn their backs on Esset?> When Duo continued to sip his awful tea, Annan sighed and tugged on a strand of his brown hair in frustration. <Yuushi is going to be just thrilled to learn this, you know. *You* can tell him.>

"Hey, life should be interesting," Duo informed his partner. <Maybe they aren’t all pro-Kritiker just yet, but isn’t that the point? Won’t it make it more worthwhile if we can sway them over to our side, and help to convert others?>

"I think all that ‘interesting’ sex you’ve been having has rotted your brain," Annan grumbled as he flipped up the collar of his coat. "Maybe it’s time I got a new partner."

"Hey, don’t hate on the sex just because you don’t have such a flexible lover." Duo grinned before he took another sip of the lousy tea. <Seriously, isn’t this in part why we’re fighting the war?>

Annan looked as if he wanted to smack Duo for a moment before he shook his head. "Always gotta remind me just how flexible Trowa is, don’t you? Bastard." <Maybe I’d be a little more inclined to help if I wasn’t thinking of how much damage your friend is about to cause in the next few days.>

"Yeah, you got a point." If there was any hope of talking Jacqueline out of her mission, Duo would give it a try, but just like with Heero, he knew that some things had to be learned the hard way. Talking to her now would just send her running to the nearest Esset agent and have him branded a traitor, which wouldn’t do anyone any good. Having Birman take her in wouldn’t, either, as the Elders would just have someone else finish the mission or send someone new to do something just as bad if not worse as well as risk his and Trowa’s cover. The thing about wars was that they rarely left you with any pleasant options – and that people died. A hell of a lot of them. The only ones who were pleased about that fact were the gods and shinigami.

<And since we’re neither, we just have to muddle along with the rest of the poor mortals.>

Duo tossed his cup of tea into the nearest trash can and bumped his shoulder against Annan’s. "Here’s to mudding along, then."

*******

Botan took a quick glance at his robe to make sure that his appearance was acceptable, and felt a flash of gratitude for Cassandra’s sewing skills and generosity; the garment’s gold embroidery and fine blue velvet was more than suitable enough for the an informal tea with the queen and a far cry from most of his garments in the last several years. He could almost hear Birman’s voice in his mind teasing him about the benefits of having a seamstress for a lover and smiled before schooling his expression into one better fitting the somber occasion.

"Remember, follow my lead and don’t let them antagonize you," he warned Haruto as they made their way to the gold ballroom. "The king should be holding the formal hearing tomorrow, and that’s when we’ll make our official case."

Haruto nodded, appearing so serious just then as if he was about to face battle. "Yes, sir, I understand." He squared his shoulders, his right hand clutching at a charm that hung around his neck on a gold chain. Like Botan, he was dressed in the king’s colors, a reminder of whom they served.

While Botan still didn’t trust the boy with knowledge of bounds, he had to admit that Haruto was proving himself an able assistant, especially when dealing with the Court – Botan just wished that Takashi was with him as well today. However, for some reason his other assistant was busy with Omi on some project and hadn’t been in his office to be invited along today. Ah well, perhaps it was for the best, as he was certain that Kido and his associates weren’t going to take it easy on them today.

They reached the ballroom and were allowed entrance by two Guards, though Botan was curious at the presence of Army personnel once inside the room. He supposed that was how Manx managed a compromise between the two organizations and wondered if he was spending too much time casting charms to have missed the discussion between Birman and Yuushi over the change.

The tea appeared to be very popular today, judging from its attendance, with Manx presiding near the center of the room with two Guards nearby and Kikyou himself standing beside her. Botan recognized several important Judges and Ministers scattered about the lushly decorated room, busy talking and enjoying the snacks, as well as representatives from most of the major highborn families. For a moment he allowed himself to imagine Aya present, representing the Fujimiya family, busy scowling at anyone who dared to approach and bother him while he enjoyed his sweets. The mental image brought a smile to his face, until he thought about what some of the ‘guests’ here today would do to a… person like Aya.

He motioned for Haruto to follow him over to one of the tables set up with various trays of tea sandwiches and pastries amid vases of cut flowers, and had just assembled a plate of snacks while talking to Lord Konno about the spells cast on the room’s copious amount of windows to keep the winter chill out when he noticed that there was a hush in the space around them. Turning from the highborn, he found Kido standing a few feet away, with two other men, supposedly wizards, next to him.

"Good day," Kido wished Botan as he browsed the table. "I’d make a comment on the weather, but I’m certain that everyone is absolutely tired of the snow and cold by now." He gave Botan, Konno and Haruto a charming smile, all but exuding confidence.

"It is what one expects during this time of year." Botan summoned a smile of his own before motioning to his assistant as he set the plate of food aside. "I believe you’ve met one of my assistants, yes? Haruto Kaneko." Haruto managed a slight nod at the introduction. "And of course Lord Niito Mayurama should need no introduction." He watched closely to see if there was any familiarity between the wizards and the highborn; as far as Birman and her people could tell, Mayurama didn’t support Kido’s agenda, but they had been unpleasantly surprised in recent times.

Kido’s eyes narrowed a little as his attention focused on Haruto. "Yes, I had the… pleasure of meeting your assistant the other day. I must say, you do inspire such loyalty, Botan." Somehow, the man managed to make the compliment sound lacking. He summoned up an appropriate amount of warmth when he turned toward Mayurama. "I believe everyone has heard of the Mayurama family and their enchanted ballroom – it’s almost as famous as Konno’s camellia trees. That is a bit of magic that I would love to see for myself some day."

Mayurama accepted that bit of ingratiating flattery with a bland smile. "Yes, we do seem to attract a bit of attention for it, especially during our parties." He in no way extended an invitation or made any conversation other than polite commentary, which gave Botan hope that here was a highborn who was a firm supporter.

One thing that could be said about Kido was that he made a smooth recovery. "I’m sure you do, Lord Mayurama. Please let me introduce you to my colleagues, You Abe and Emil Hauswurz." The wizards stepped forward when they were introduced; Abe was dark haired and dark complexioned and Hauswurz in stark contrast with pale blond hair and blue eyes. Both men appeared young and handsome, which was probably helpful in swaying opinion to their side, and Abe seemed to be searching the room for someone or something.

"It’s a pleasure to meet you," Botan told the two men. "Though I fear I may have to resort to writing down names, as there are so many new faces around the palace lately."

"Hmm, well, we are just here to make sure our voices are being heard," Kido remarked in an offhand manner as he surveyed the table. "Since our representative hasn’t done a proper job of looking after our best interests."

Botan’s eyes narrowed at that particular jab, but before he could speak, Haruto stepped forward. "I thought our representative," he said while motioning toward Botan, "was supposed to keep *Kritiker* in mind for all of our best interests." He smoothed his hands down the front of his finely made blue and gold tunic as if to provide an impact to his words. "And the thing about voices is, if too many speak at the same time, none of them are truly heard."

Kido and Hauswurz stared at Haruto as if they could will him away – and with animosity at that – while Abe appeared amused at the young wizard’s audacity. Meanwhile, Mayurama chuckled and patted Botan on the shoulder. "Ah yes, I told my wife that Orie’s boy would do well here at Court, and I was right!" He grinned at Botan while gesturing to a now blushing Haruto. "He made some valid points, no?"

"Be that as it may, I will be certain that *our* voices are heard before the king. Good day," Kido wished Botan through gritted teeth before leaving the table with his colleagues in tow. Botan would feel better about the victory if he didn’t notice that the wizards were headed in Manx’s direction.

"Botan, sir-"

He cut off Haruto before the poor boy could stumble through what was probably an apology. "No, you were perfect just then." He smiled with encouragement at the young man and gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "Though you should probably make sure you don’t run into Kido alone any time soon."

Lord Mayurama made a disapproving sound as he set his empty plate aside on the table. "It’s a terrible thing when we have to watch our backs among our own people." He also was keeping an eye on the wizards’ progress through the room. "But that’s what comes from making too many compromises as well as being willing to make too many… sacrifices." For a moment, his gaze lingered on the queen before he looked at Haruto. "You did your family proud today, young man. I’ll be sure to tell that to your father." As Haruto stammered out his thanks, the highborn turned to face Botan. "I look forward to seeing you before the king tomorrow." There was a crispness to his words, a sternness to his expression that made Botan forget that this was a highborn who seemed frivolous enough to waste spells to make lights twinkle and dance about for guests but earned the respect of Lady Meara, Birman and several other people he admired.

"Thank you, my lord." Botan didn’t think it was out of place to bow his head slightly, even if Lord Mayurama wasn’t one of the highest ranked highborn in the room. He watched the man, appearing only a few years younger than himself and in trim shape, walk away with a fast pace and noticed that Mayurama avoided the group congregated around Manx. That, and the carefully worded reproach to Manx’s actions the last couple of years, made him wonder if this dissention from the wizards wasn’t the only internal trouble that they faced.

*******

Jo scooped some more oatmeal into Emmie’s dish. "Did you finish your essay last night?"

"Yes, ma’am." Emmie nodded before she poured some honey onto her breakfast, and then it was Neely’s turn to for another helping. "Ken and Miko helped me with it."

Jo gave the two Guards a raised eyebrow as she scooped the last of the oatmeal into Ken’s bowl. "On Queen Takiko?"

There was a slight hint of red to Ken’s cheeks as he grinned at her. "What? We learn more than laws and the city layout, especially if we’re working the palace," he explained.

Miko giggled while she reached for a cinnamon roll. "I think it has to do with walking around all of those old portraits and statues or something. We just sorta soak it in after a year or two."

"Just as long as you help Emmie get a good grade," Jo chided them as she returned to the stove to fetch some more oatmeal for Miko; with the cold weather, she wanted to make sure that everyone was well-fed before they went outside.

"They did seem very knowledgeable. I learn a lot sitting in on Emmie’s homework sessions." Judging from the wistful tone to Neely’s voice, she was still rather envious of the fact that Emmie got to go to school, but there was no way that Marta would allow her daughter to leave the Koneko to attend classes right now. The closer it got to the war, the more paranoid Marta became about letting Neely go very far from the inn unless she had a suitable ‘guard’ with her, and Jo couldn’t really blame the woman; they’d heard too many stories of how Esset was in dire need of water elementals because of the worsening drought.

Once she finished refilling Miko’s bowl, Jo gave the girl a reassuring smile as she tucked back a strand of long blonde hair that was falling onto Neely’s cheek. "You’re a very bright young lady, so I’m certain that you’ll learn whatever you want to over time. Just look at Ed and Al – I don’t think either of them spent much time in school."

It was Neely’s turn to blush at mention of younger of the two earth elemental brothers. "Yes, you’re right." She ducked her head and seemed to devote her attention to finishing her breakfast.

Ah, young love – and unrequited at that. Jo shook her head and headed back to the stove, where she fussed with a few pots and made sure that there was some hot water on for tea. Across the room, Maddox was busy making another batch of cinnamon rolls while Ani strolled out of the room with a tray full of food for the main room. Bethwynn should be back soon to take care of the dishes, and Mickey had told Jo that he and Kira would take care of the shopping that day. The rest of the staff would be waking up later after tending to a busy night, other than Ichiro and Jason who were already out in the barn, and Marta and Sebastian who were tending to the grounds and front door respectively.

"Do you think Yohji and Aya will be down for breakfast?"

Ken’s question interrupted Jo’s thoughts, and she looked up from the tea kettle to see that he had approached the stove to fetch a pot of coffee.

"I was just wondering that myself." She handed him a towel so he could grab the pot without burning himself. "Yohji had to put up with Shinra and Schuldig again last night, but other than those two acting like children, he and Aya appeared to be in a good mood." Aya had no doubt been pleased to spend two evenings in a row with Reno, and *Jo* had been pleased that the dubhach had spent two visits here without causing any trouble – that she knew of, at the least.

Ken appeared ready to say something, his lips twisting into a sardonic smile, then he caught sight of Emmie paying attention to him and coughed twice. "Yeah, Schu and Shinra. Got ya. I’m glad we stuck around helping Birman with some things last night." He went back to the table and poured more coffee into his and Miko’s mugs.

His partner made a disbelieving sound as she picked up her mug. "That’s not what you said last night while we sorted through a bunch of dusty tax records, but I have to admit that I agree with you now."

"I thought you liked Schuldig." Emmie frowned as she tapped the rim of her empty bowl with her spoon.

"I do, kiddo, I just don’t like him when he’s-" a stern look from Jo made Miko rethink whatever she was about to say and provoked a muffled laugh from Maddox, "uhm, being all competitive with Shinra."

Most likely the term that Miko and Ken were thinking was ‘engaged in a senseless pissing match’, and Jo had to admit that she’d been tempted to take an iron skillet up into the attic at some point these past two evenings and beat some cooperation into the two idiots. While she might chastise Yohji and imply that he could be lazy at times, she gave him credit for dealing with the two stubborn fools without resorting to bloodshed. "Back to your question, Ken, I think there’s a chance they might come down." Aya had been a bit more ‘normal’ the last couple of days. "Is there a reason you asked?"

"Ah, I was just wondering if maybe one of them knew what’s going on with Omi and Nagi." Ken shrugged before having some coffee. "Did either of them say something to you before they left this morning?"

"No, other than to wish me a good day." Jo looked over to Maddox, who paused in slicing up the dough.

He shook his head. "They didn’t say much more to me, either, besides to ask for some food to take with them instead of sticking around for breakfast."

"Maybe Botan gave them some sort of task?" Emmie offered as she went to put her and Neely’s bowls in the sink.

"Maybe." Ken didn’t look as if he accepted the explanation; Jo supposed that it must be difficult to stop seeing Omi as his responsibility after so many years. "If it has anything to do with the wizards petitioning the king, we should find out today."

That announcement seemed to sober up everyone in the room. Miko poked Ken in the ribs, but it was without her usual enthusiasm at provoking him. "We should get ready to head to the palace."

Everyone thanked Jo and Maddox for their breakfast as Ken, Miko and Emmie went to finish preparing themselves for the day, and Neely to start her shift. Jo stood by the stove for another minute, lost in thought, before helping Ani put together another tray and then greeting Bethwynn and Reiichi when they came into the kitchen. She had just settled Reiichi at the table with something to eat when Yohji and Aya made their entrance.

"Ken was looking for you," Jo told Yohji as he kissed her on the cheek by way of ‘good morning’.

"I know, he caught me right before he left. I told him that I can only hope that Omi’s come to his senses and is ready to leave Nagi for some sexy- ow!" Yohji glared at Aya, who was sitting at the table next to Reiichi. "Really? Now you have to act like the little demon, too?"

Aya narrowed his eyes and the air around him seemed to darken. "Do you want it to happen again?"

"Yotan, go sit down and stop acting like a fool this early in the day." Jo shoved the muttering idiot toward his mate and spared a moment to mentally say a prayer to the gods about patience. "The tea should be ready now – is oatmeal fine or would you like something else?" She smiled as she glanced over her shoulder at the men. "And yes, there’s bacon."

Yohji and Aya seemed to silently debate their breakfast menu. "No need to make anything else," Yohji told her as he draped his left arm around Aya’s shoulders. "Though some coffee for me would be appreciated, please."

She set the large teapot that she’d set to brewing for Reiichi on the table, along with two cups; somehow she’d suspected that Aya and Yohji wouldn’t be too far behind the Shadow Guard and when Reiichi winked at her, knew that she hadn’t been alone to think that way. The next time she returned to the table, it was with two large bowls of oatmeal, a large plate of bacon and two mugs of coffee – one for her and one for Yohji. "So you’ve no idea what Omi and Nagi are up to, either."

Yohji casted a nervous glance at Aya, who was busy munching on a piece of bacon, before shaking his head. "Not a clue, but since we’re not involved it can’t be anything bad or else Cass would be here raising the alarm. There’s no way she’d let anything happen to Omi, and I get the impression that Crawford wants him alive, too."

"One can’t fault that logic." Reiichi rested his chin on the palm of his left hand and smiled while he stirred some sugar into his tea. "Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t off getting into trouble."

All Yohji did was shrug before fixing his oatmeal. "Last I saw, both of ‘em were old enough to think for themselves." He sighed when Reiichi and Jo stared at him for his remark. "Okay, I won’t say that I’m not concerned, but it’s true – they are old enough and smart enough to make decisions on their own." A hint of a challenge crept into his voice, although Aya ate on in a calm manner beside him.

Jo nodded and looked into the mug held between her hands. "You’re right, I suppose we’re just used to being a bit protective of the boys." It was difficult to remember that there would come a time when Omi – when *Mamoru* - would become Kritiker’s next king, when he spent his days learning magic and doing his best to be a *normal* young man.

That earned an amused snort from Yohji and a chuckle from Reiichi. "Please, you’re protective of *everyone*," Yohji teased as he gave her a wink. Even Aya smiled a little over the rim of his mug.

"I wouldn’t have to go to so much effort if you all just used your heads and behaved." It was automatic to lean over and smack Yohji on the side of said head as soon as he looked ready to say something. "And don’t even *think* to make an obscene comment," she warned him.

He pouted first at her and then at his lover, who had ignored ‘the abuse’ to fetch another piece of bacon. "Do you see how I suffer?" he asked Reiichi.

"I’ll make certain that it’s recorded for future generations." Somehow, Reiichi managed that bit of nonsense with a perfectly serious manner.

"Hmph." Yohji appeared ready to continue on with his foolishness, until a slight jab from Aya’s right elbow put him in his place. "I know, I know," he sighed while reaching to give a quick tug to one of Aya’s long eartails. He smiled at the faint hiss his action earned him before finally taking on a properly serious demeanor for once. "To be honest, considering what’s going on, Omi and Nagi are probably trying to do something about either the blood-thirsty wizards or the Esset agents." He pushed the bowl of oatmeal aside in favor of picking up a piece of bacon. "I’d be willing to bet an uninterrupted day alone with Aya in our bedroom that it’s probably the wizards since they went running out so early this morning, on the day the king is holding an audience with those assholes."

"Not to mention the fact that I doubt that Omi would want to risk the agents realizing that Nagi is a double-agent by trying to interfere with their mission, and Nagi to chance that Omi might be hurt or captured by them," Aya pointed out. "There’s less risk involved with the wizards."

Jo was pleased to see him involving himself in the discussion like this and smiled, even if the topic was a bit grim. "You’re right in that they won’t put each other in harm’s way like that."

Yohji licked his fingers clean and nodded. "Even if it does have something to do with the wizards, Omi will be careful about Nagi. So like I said, while I’m not getting the warm and fuzzies about whatever they’re doing, I’m not going to panic unless Cass shows up telling us to, well, panic." He grinned and reached for another piece of bacon.

Reiichi also was smiling while he poured some more tea for him and Aya. "Not the most elegant argument I’ve ever heard, but I’ll accept it." His smile faded as his attention focused on the ‘tarnished’ gauntlet on his left wrist. "I just hope that the king makes a wise decision today."

"Uhm, yeah, that might be when Cass shows up and does her panic speech, I’d imagine." Yohji frowned and hugged Aya closer to his side. "Not that I’d think that Botan and Birman will let things get that bad."

The shadows around Aya darkened while he shook his head. "Not unless the wizards have gained that much influence over the Court."

"The Court won’t be the ones fighting the war for the king," Jo snapped, displeased that there was still so much doubt over this issue. "It would be wise for the king to remember that."

Reiichi raised his mug to her as if in honor. "Indeed it would."

They were quiet for a few minutes after that, the kitchen filled with the sounds of dishes being washed and the oven doors opening and closing, until Yohji cleared his throat and shifted on the wooden bench. Jo had put a lot of effort into helping raise the young man so she knew the signs of an uncomfortable confession when she saw them.

"What is it, Yotan?"

"Ah, breakfast was delicious?" He gave her a brilliant yet fake smile, followed by a nervous laugh when all she did was shake her head in response. "Okay, so either for or against, the king will decide on if Botan’s anti-bound blood decree stands past today."

"Which doesn’t mean much if he decides against it." Reiichi tapped his left wrist against the table a couple of times. "Our jobs will be a lot more difficult if he does."

"Yes, but we’ll be able to take it into account, to alter our plans for the war," Aya argued. "It’ll be a known quantity." Reiichi seemed to consider that for a moment and then nodded.

Yohji waited to see if the Guard or Jo had anything to add before continuing. "So that leaves us with the other major unknown thing happening right now – the Esset agents in town."

Reiichi took to frowning again and glanced at Aya before looking at Yohji. "We know that they’ll do something to a building, thanks to… Jei and Crawford, something in the southern Fabric district. We’ve as much Shadow Guard scattered about as we dare, and Crawford told me he’s taken appropriate steps."

For a moment, Aya’s eyes flashed silver as he shifted about, until his thick bangs hid them from view. "There’s still going to be a lot of deaths. I don’t… it’s as if the gods are determined that blood will be shed."

Jo couldn’t help but shiver at the sibilant tone of his voice and wondered if there was one god – or goddess – in particular behind the deaths. Before she could say anything, Yohji sighed and nuzzled Aya’s temple. "We can only hope that there’s a point to what’s gonna happen, and we’re gonna be there." When Reiichi glared at Yohji, he shook his head. "Don’t think we have much of a choice in this."

Jo wanted to smack some sense into the idiots, but when all Reiichi did was press his lips together in a disapproving frown and appear to concentrate on something, she turned her attention back to Yohji and noticed the way that his left arm clutched at Aya’s shoulders. If Reiichi, whose main job it was to keep the two seemingly suicidal fools out of danger wasn’t yelling at them to stay home, and Yohji, who refused to let Aya come to any harm if he could help it, were willing to go along with this insanity….

She rubbed at her eyes with her right hand and thought back to when her most pressing decision of the day was what to make for dinner. "So what, you’re going there to stop things?" She thought that Aya couldn’t interfere too much or risk… well, she didn’t want to dwell on what he risked.

Yohji shook his head. "As much of a pain in the ass he can be most of the times, I trust Crawford to handle what’s going to happen." He summoned a weak grin and tugged on Aya’s left eartail, earning a faint hiss from his boyfriend. "What, we’re there for a shinigami party? You guys play games and tell stories?"

The scathing look that Aya bestowed on him just then would have terrified saner people. "Idiot," Aya hissed as he rescued his abused hair. When all Yohji did was chuckle and lean in for a quick kiss, he sighed in what sounded like exasperation before giving Yohji a light smack against his ribs. "They want us to feed together," he explained, his head tilted to the side as if he was a little confused. "Reno and I think it’s for the best that we join them this time."

Reiichi didn’t appear pleased with that explanation, though it may be the fact that Reno would be there as well, but he merely nodded. "Please keep me aware of where you’ll be. I assume that you’ll remain hidden the entire time?" Some of the tension in his shoulders lessened when Yohji and Aya nodded. "Good." A hint of a smile teased at his lips when he rubbed at the gauntlet on his left wrist. "Oh, it’ll be fun letting Yuushi know the good news."

Yohji laughed and snatched up a few pieces of bacon for Aya and himself. "Always gotta find the silver lining in everything, don’t you?"

While Reiichi and Yohji took to teasing each other, Jo rolled her eyes and went to fetch some more hot water for the teapot and another plate of bacon. She wasn’t pleased that Aya and Yohji would be going out and possibly getting involved with something to do with Esset agents, and had to remind herself that they were grown men who could look out for themselves. As much as she wished otherwise, she couldn’t keep those she loved safe and sound at home forever, and could only pray to the gods that they would emerge mostly whole through these troubling times. She’d be here to look after them to the best of her ability, to keep them well-fed and give them a home, and smack some sense into them when needed. Heading back to the table with more bacon and noticing how Yohji’s left hand was creeping beneath the hem of Aya’s black sweater, her eyes narrowed when she realized how some of her boys needed that more than others.

*******

Botan took his position in the formal ballroom with Takashi on his right side, Haruko on his left, all of them dressed in formal garb of blue and gold. The room was at full capacity today, filled with highborn, Ministers, Judges, Army and Guard personnel, and various other Court staff as well as many wizards who could gain attendance. It was almost amusing, how so many people had turned out to witness Shuichi settle a dispute, if it wouldn’t have such implications for the upcoming war.

Birman slipped through the crowd to join him near the dais where Shuichi’s throne was stationed, with a limping figure at her side, and it took Botan a moment to realize that the ‘young’ man was Reiichi wearing an illusion spell. The Shadow Guard gave him a wink before assuming a more serious air; it made sense that Trowa and Natsumi wouldn’t be in their usual, *obvious* spots at Birman’s side when several anti-bound wizards would be nearby, yet Botan was still a bit surprised to see Reiichi taking their place. Was Yuushi fine with one of his own acting as a spy?

The Shadow Guard Captain was in attendance as well, standing just behind and to the right of Kikyou, who was already up on the dais. The dark-haired highborn had an inscrutable expression on his face as he surveyed the crowd, and after a slight nod, the door behind him opened to admit first Manx and then Shuuichi, escorted by a mix of Guards and Army officers – including Ken and Miko, to Botan’s surprise. He noticed that Ken did stay toward the back of the dais.

The room fell into a hush as the Queen and the King entered the ballroom, Manx dressed in a fine gown of blue silk embroidered heavily with gold thread that showed off her pale shoulders and curves, her bright red hair caught up in a net of thin gold and white pearls, and Shuuichi in a gold silk tunic embroidered with his family’s crest and blue velvet pants. He looked… he appeared as if the last few months had aged him, his black hair shot with silver, his beard nearly all grey, and Botan swore that he had gained more wrinkles since the last time they had met, just a few days ago. Yet he carried himself with pride and strength, his back straight and his head held high, his gaze bright and searching as he looked over the ballroom.

No one spoke until he sat down, Manx following a moment later, and then a quiet murmuring filled the room. Shuuichi motioned at Botan to step forward. "I understand that you, my Royal Wizard, have brought a matter before my Court to be discussed."

The quiet murmur rose in volume as it became clear that Shuuichi was dispensing with much of the formalities and cutting to the heart of the matter. Botan stepped forward and bowed, his body folding almost in half automatically after so many years of Court politics. "Yes, Your Highness. There is a matter of a decree that I have made, as is my right as the Royal Wizard, in regards to the use of bound blood in spells." There were a few gasps and angry curses as he spoke. "I feel that the policy of our country to use bound blood – to use any blood or part of a living creature, in fact – should be outlawed and that any magic practitioner who is caught doing so should be turned over to me to be punished. In fact, I propose that no bound should be captured just for the sake of blood alone."

Shuuichi motioned for silence to put an end to the voices raised throughout the room at Botan’s proclamation and leaned forward in his throne, his hands resting on its carved wooden armrests. He frowned as he gave the matter some thought, the expression deepening the lines around his dark brown eyes. "Ever since the great Binding War was ended, your kind has put to use the bounds that the Guard and the Army have captured. Why would you want to end that practice, especially when we are facing another war? Won’t it leave our country vulnerable?"

"It won’t do that because spells created with blood and… other body parts are cheats, Your Highness." Botan knew that he only had this chance to sway the Court, to take the opening that his king had given him and try to negate the arguments that Kido would soon make. "A spell crafted without shortcuts, with honest effort, are stronger and more potent than those built on pain and suffering." He held up his hands and called a spell that he had prepared, one that would send spheres of light floating around his hands before zipping away to the various points of wards scattered about the room. "Part of what made us so… vulnerable during your wedding feast was that the wards were renewed with bound blood."

As people gasped at that bit of information being revealed, he let his hands drop before continuing on. "If those spells had been created with honest effort, they wouldn’t have fallen so easily to an enemy. Anything created with true effort will last longer, as well. Do you want your soldiers to face an enemy with a spell that might fail them during a battle?" He played on the people’s fears just then, hinting at the Jens Arnold fiasco and more. "Do you want your army to face bounds with charms created with the blood of other bounds? Bounds who for the most part have done nothing to cause us any harm? When was the last time anyone hear has heard of a bound attack that wasn’t related to Esset? Yet we hunt down our own citizens and bleed them dry for spells. Imagine how Esset will use that fact to enrage their army, to whip them into a frenzy where no quarter will be given."

The murmuring around him grew louder, but it was difficult to tell what exactly the mood was around him because there were so many people. However, all it took from Shuuichi was a slight raising of his right hand again and they fell silent. "Those are some valid arguments." He kept his voice neutral, willing to remain an impartial judge until both sides had their chance to voice their arguments.

Taking that as his chance to speak, Kido stepped forward, flanked by the two men who were at the party the previous day. Botan noticed that several highborn were hovering around him as well, namely Lord Harataki and Lady Sasaki. The two older highborn were respected for their rank and age and would ensure that the wizard would have an audience. Kido knew that and flashed Botan a pleased grin before his face settled in a more suitable expression for the somber moment.

He cut an impressive figure with his finely tailored silks and linen dyed in dark blues and russet colors, showing restraint while hinting at wealth and taste – and more importantly, no outright ties to the king. "The Royal Wizard is, as always, concerned about protecting king and country. He has… rather cleverly, perhaps, foreseen a war with Esset and striven to minimize the damage to our troops from their fearful army. He is as he’s always been, a loyal servant to the king."

Botan made a slight motion with his left hand to keep Haruto from interrupting Kido, having suspected that the man would phrase his ‘attack’ in such a manner. Oh, it was very ‘clever’ to play on his backing of Shuuichi, whom he’d supported ever since the king had been a teenager – when Reiji had been the crown prince. There was also the insinuation that he’d somehow been involved in the coming about of the war. As carefully crafted innuendo went to drive most of the Court to Kido’s side, it was a brilliant ploy, and Botan would have to let the man continue to play out his hand before it was his and Birman’s chance to strike him down.

"Still, what Botan is forgetting in his fervent attempt to appease Esset for the king’s sake is that war is not won by playing things safe," Kido continued. This time, his attempt to belittle Botan’s argument against bound blood drew some protesting murmurs, causing the slight smile on his face to vanish. "No, what he’s forgotten is that the last war was won when the Kritiker’s own revered Wizard took magic a step further than anyone else and created something new, something that couldn’t be defeated. We can only win this war through innovations, and the use of bound blood *allows* us that innovation."

"Kritiker’s Wizard created the kage," Botan reminded everyone in the large room, causing it to fall quiet save for a few disgruntled voices. Haruto appeared quite pleased at the jab, while Takashi’s brow was furrowed and he glanced in the direction of the room’s main door. For her part, Birman gave him a very slight bow as if impressed.

Anger flared across Kido’s face at the simple statement, which he struggled to suppress. "Yes, he did, and such an action ended the war."

"And do you think you’re on par with the greatest wizard that Kritiker has so far produced?" Somehow, Botan kept the sarcasm out of his voice when he asked that question; there was no doubt that the wizard back then had been very talented and very powerful, yet the damage he’d wrought was still being felt to this day.

Kido gestured to the various wizards who faced him, each with an influential highborn standing by his side. "Perhaps on our own we would pale before him, but together, I feel that we will rise to the challenge and keep Kritiker safe in its time of need – as long as we are able to truly use our magic to its full ability."

Birman appeared to take that as her cue to step forward. "And as long as there’s a profit to be made for your sponsors, no?" For once she was without an illusion spell and was dressed in formal clothes that befit her rank, the fine fabrics cut more in a uniform style that would be more proper for an Army officer than a lady of the Court and with her dark hair pulled back in a simple bun. The smile on her lovely face just then was anything but polite, was one of condescending sharpness that cut through Kido’s confusion to quickly put him on edge.

"I’m sorry, Spymaster, but I’m afraid that I don’t know what you’re referring to just now."

Across the room, Botan swore he saw the Xanian ambassador, Shen, hide a knowing grin behind the sleeve of his dark red tunic as if he was in on a secret.

"I would be very surprised by that, Tsuneo Kido, considering that you and your colleagues have taken great efforts to engage several upstanding members of this Court." Birman motioned to the highborn who were standing beside Kido and his fellow wizards. "Take Lord Harataki for example, who owns several horse breeding farms." Her smile widened when the elderly highborn’s back stiffened with surprise. "Would it surprise anyone here to find out that those farms have contracts with the Army, *should* they have a need to supply their cavalry?" As the soft murmuring in the room began to increase in loudness, she stepped to the left and motioned to another highborn, a young lady who was dressed in a tight gown of white and pale yellow material. "And here we have Lady Tottori, who was recently promised to Lord Shimane. Until now, there’s been much gossip about how her father is… marrying her down, but should Kritiker win a war with Esset and expand its territory westward, surely Shimane will be among those blessed with new land."

"How *dare* you, you half-breed bastard-" Lady Tottori hissed before Lady Misaka pulled on her left arm to make her shut up.

If the insult upset Birman, Botan’s friend refused to show it with the way she continued to smile; unfortunately, she had spent her childhood hearing such hateful things. "Should I continue? I have several more examples," she said to Kido, as if utterly oblivious to Tottori’s baleful existence.

Considering Lady Tottori’s… ‘unfortunate’ loss of composure and the Court’s reaction to it and the revelations, Kido seemed to realize that enough damage had been done. "No." He shook his head as he took a step forward, as if to distance himself from the highborn who had once been a sign of patronage. The two wizards, Hauswurz and Abe, moved with him in an obvious show of support. "I will be honest with you, Your Highness," he address to the king, "that while we had hoped to show that we had some of your Court behind us, that we were not aware of any other motives they might possess beyond what was best for your country." His cheeks above his neatly trimmed beard became flushed and his voice grew louder. "There have been arguments made for and against the use of bound blood today, but know this, me and my fellow wizards, along with your Army and your Guard, will be what stands before Esset’s own army. Would you send either the Army or the Guard out unarmed?"

As an argument, it was a passionate one, something that took careful aim not only at Shuuichi’s heart but that of the entire Court. Botan was about to do his best to counter it when he felt a pulse against his left wrist, a single command to ‘stop’ that had been sent by Birman. Puzzled by the order, he gave her a slight frown and tried to figure what she was up to when a young woman dressed in a pink and pale blue gown stepped through the crowd and curtsied before the king, her long, light brown hair nearly reaching the floor. Haruto stared at her with obvious awe and even Takashi stopped frowning.

"Your Highness." When she straightened up, he recognized the girl as Relena Peacecraft and hoped that there was a reason behind Birman’s madness; Lady Peacecraft had been arguing for peace these past several months to little effect. "I’m sure it will come to no surprise that I am in support of the Royal Wizard’s rescinding of the collection and use of bound blood from this point onward." There was sound of people chuckling in response, a feel of ‘there goes Relena’ throughout the room – at least it seemed to be lessening the impact of Kido’s dramatic statement.

Shuuichi smiled at Relena and nodded. "It would suit your family’s pacifistic nature, yes."

Beside her, Kido shifted about as if growing impatient. "I fail to see what relevance this has, when we are discussing fighting." There was an edge to his voice, putting him just shy of mocking the young woman.

Relena was a beautiful young woman, one given to pretty dresses and solving troubles through tea parties and much talking things through, but their pacifistic nature aside, no one who knew their history could claim that the Peacecrafts were pushovers. She lifted her chin and squared her shoulders in a manner that Botan knew from experience meant that someone was in for trouble. "Will you, sir, be out on the front lines?"

Kido frowned at the question. "I don’t see-"

"Will you be out at the front lines?" she repeated, a hint of rare censure in her tone. "You mention the Guard and the Army, and talk of using magic that will antagonize the very people whom our brave soldiers will be fighting, so I ask you again, will you and yours be out on the front lines with them?" The line of questioning had the entire room paying attention to her now, and Botan noticed that one of the Army personnel in particular, a young man with striking blue eyes, appeared as infatuated with her as Haruto.

Kido shared a look with Abe and Hauswurz before answering. "It’s not policy for wizards to be amongst the battle-lines like that. We need adequate-"

Relena cut him off before he could continue with the excuses. "In other words, no. You will be safely enough away while casting your spells, using the blood of innocents who have come to this country seeking sanctuary or who have lived their entire lives here as citizens, while those craving vengeance for their own slaughter our soldiers." She turned to face the Court, which had fallen silent. "How many of *you* will be on the front lines?" she demanded to know, her right hand rising to clutch at a gold locket that hung around her neck. When no one answered, she once again turned to the king. "Your Highness, I mean you no disrespect, but how can you make this decision when you won’t be the one fighting?" A tear slipped down her face. "If a decision must be made, ask your Guard, ask your Army, but don’t let the *Court* of all places choose if innocents live or die."

Even Botan had nothing to say after that – Shuuichi stared at her for several long seconds as if truly seeing the young woman for the first time, while Manx appeared torn between wanting to take her to task for talking to the king like that and for giving appropriate credit to the Guard and Army. As for Kido, he looked as if he wanted more than anything to cast a spell on Relena that would make her disappear – or worse.

In the quiet of the room, Abe began clapping his hands. "I commend your devotion to the Army and the Guard, Lady Peacecraft." He stopped clapping to give Relena a curt bow. "You are right in that wizards will be spared from the actual fighting, but we still put our lives at risk for the country. We will be targets for Esset wizards and their spells, and any of their agents who can slip behind the front line."

"Yes, along with a number of other important people," Birman added in a sarcastic tone. "It’s a war, after all."

Abe smiled and held out his arms. "Yes, but how many of those targets are able to cast spells?" Beside him, Kido didn’t appear happy to have lost the focus of attention. "You need wizards for that, and we are telling you that we need bound blood for our spells to be successful. A war cannot be won with swords and arrows alone – especially when the other side is capable of magic."

So it had come down to threats in the end. Fury raced through Botan and made him want to lash out with magic, to show these fools what he *could* do without bound blood, but once again the band around his left wrist pulsed with the command to do nothing. Gritting his teeth, he motioned for Haruko to stop cursing under his breath and fall back, as his assistant obviously had been overcome with much the same idea as he’d just had, and was a bit surprised to find that Takashi was merely standing there with that angry glower on his face. He would have thought that boy would be more upset than that.

Birman gave Abe a cool smile while the Court took up a low, hostile seething and even Shuuichi appeared upset. "Are you really our only choice?"

Abe stared at her as if she was simple or insane, possibly both. "Of course." Behind him, Kido and Hauswurz exchanged confused looks that were similar to those on the faces of the rest of their colleagues.

The smile on Birman’s face grew wider, and Botan just then realized that at some point, Reiichi must have slipped away from the room. He looked about for the man, and after a moment caught sight of him heading toward Birman leading…..

Loud gasps were heard through the room as Reiichi led Omi, for once without his illusion charm and dressed in his family’s colors with Nagi at his side. Behind the two young men were Keiko and about a dozen other women, a few of them witches whom Botan had met over the years. They had done their best to dress for Court, in various gowns and dresses that were finer than the every day outfits that they wore when selling their charms and spells in markets.

Botan didn’t know what shocked the Court more – that Omi, that *Mamoru* was here on an unscheduled visit or that he was here with what appeared to be a harem of women at his back. Wait until they found out what they were women.

Reiichi led Omi to the front of the dais and gave the king a slight bow before limping back to Birman’s side. For his part, Shuuichi appeared split between pleasure at seeing his son and confused over Omi’s presence, but the joy soon won out. "Mamoru, it’s wonderful to see you." He struggled to contain his smile and to settle on a mostly stern expression. "I hope your lessons are going well."

"They are, thank you. It’s always a joy to see you, too, Father." Omi smiled at Shuuichi and at Manx. "I hope to spend some time with you, Manx and Ouka before I leave, if possible."

"That can be arranged." At a brief cough on Manx’s part, Shuuichi seemed to remember that there must be a reason for ‘Mamoru’s visit. "Is there a reason why you and your… guests are here?"

Omi turned to Birman, who gave one of her ‘flesh gaki’ grins while she motioned toward Abe. "It may be of interest to you, Prince Mamoru, to learn that this gentleman here was explaining to us how Kritiker is dependent on wizards to protect us from our enemies."

"I see." Omi smiled at Abe, Kido and Hauswurz in a manner very similar to Birman’s before once more facing his father. "Your Highness, I would like to introduce you to Keiko Yoshimura." He motioned to Keiko, who stepped forward and curtsied before the king, the skirts of her wine-colored gown held in her hands. "She is representing the witches of Eto and is under my patronage."

Various gasps and declarations of shock and exaggerated outrage spread through the ballroom, and Kido and his colleagues acted as if they were faced with the presence of something disreputable as they eyed Keiko and the witches in an insulting manner. For their part, the witches stood there with their chins held high and shoulders thrust back, as if refusing to appear unaffected by the disdain and reproach that greeted them.

Keiko placed her left hand on the arm that Omi held out for her and nodded in appreciation to him before she faced the king. "Your Highness, may I speak?"

"I see no reason-"

A gesture from Shuuichi made Kido fall silent, his face flushed and jaw clenched in apparent anger. "I believe it’s… Keiko, yes?" When Keiko nodded, Shuiichi smiled. "It’s Keiko Yoshimura’s turn to speak. You’ve already had the chance to say plenty." He motioned for her to continue.

She bowed her head in appreciation before she began. "As your son, the crown prince, said, I represent the witches of the city." She paused to gesture to the women gathered behind her. "With me today are my friends and associates who were able to come here to represent other parts of the country, and we feel that we are unified in our thoughts and our beliefs to speak for our… kind. The message that we bring is that while you may have wizards in your Court and the homes of your highborns, in your busiest of cities or at the schools training new wizards, *we* are everywhere, in the markets, in the villages, in the plains and in the mountains. We are the ones *your* people turn to for the charms they trust, to keep their families safe, and *we* do it without bound blood. We will continue to do so, even in the face of war."

Shuuichi studied Keiko for several seconds before he looked away from her and at Botan. "Is that true?"

"Yes, Your Highness. Most people are unable to afford the services of wizards more than once or twice, if at all, and witches have never been included in the rationing of bound blood." Botan held out his hands and shook his head. "I’ve never heard anything about them hunting down bounds to collect it on their own, though I’m sure the Spymaster can correct me if I’m wrong."

Birman also shook her head. "There has been no record of witches killing any bounds that I’ve found. Quite a bit in regards to their tax records, but nothing to do with any killings."

Kido huffed in derision, causing a few of the witches to send some displeased looks in his direction. "So they pay taxes like good citizens and they work magic the hard way. What good does it do if their spells are weak?" Several of the wizards behind him echoed the sentiment and jeered the witches.

A grim smile twisted Keiko’s lips as she stepped away from Omi to approach the wizard. "Would you care to test your magic against mine if you feel I’m so ‘weak’?" She stood there in her fine gown, her silver-streaked hair twisted into a pretty bun, and Botan could feel the magic building around her. Kido must have felt it, too, and sensed how powerful she was, because he was quick to shake his head.

"We’re at Court!"

"Then name the time and place, and I will fight you in a duel there," Keiko countered, her voice calm yet carrying throughout the room.

Another witch, this one appearing younger and in a simple dress of grey with her long black hair unbound, strode forward to stand beside Keiko. "And I will be there, too." Her hair began to lift slightly, as if she was caught in a wind, and she felt just as powerful as Keiko. A third witch stepped forward, clearing enjoying a chance to dress up with the way she swished the full skirts of her red dress, her blond hair caught in matching ribbons, and winked at the shocked wizards.

"Why should you two have all of the fun? Let’s make this a proper party." She held up her left hand, which began to glow red from magic.

As if the blond witch’s words were a signal, the other witches joined ranks behind the three. The sense of magic in the room was almost unbearable just then, so much that even those without the ability to cast magic had to feel *something*. Botan noticed that Haruko’s eyes were wide with astonishment while Takashi was beaming with pride, and the other wizards appeared as if they had just discovered that the gods had played a very cruel joke on them.

He took a moment to glance over at Omi and found the boy smiling, obviously pleased with how things were turning out with the witches, though Nagi appeared as bored as ever. Well, this explained what Omi and Nagi had been up to the past week or so, Botan thought to himself as he gave Omi a quick wink in approval before he spun around to Shuuichi.

"Your Highness – while we wait to see if the ladies’ challenge is accepted, please let me say one more thing. It has been insinuated that your Army and Guard would face the enemy without any magical support unless you continue with the abhorrent practice of capturing and blooding bounds." He gestured to the wall of women standing behind him. "Your son has proven that there are powerful magic users willing to fight who don’t use blood, and I can do the same." With a nod to Kikyou, he approached the dais as he reached into the leather pouch at his waist and handed the folded piece of parchment to Yuushi. "What I have there is a list of Kritiker wizards who have personally notified me of their sworn intention to *not* use *any* blood in their spellwork." The list had almost a hundred names on it, a much more impressive showing than the relatively small contingency that Kido had brought with him. "If I have to gather them all here to prove to you that you have more than just these very capable ladies ready to help defend your country, I will." What was left unsaid was that the wizards had much better things to do with their time than petition the king, such as work on their spell-casting.

Behind him, he heard Kido’s muffled remarks on how there was no need for any duels while Shuuichi read through the list that Yuushi had handed to him. Manx looked out over the room, her eyes narrowed as she glanced at Omi, no doubt displeased that he had involved himself without giving her or his father any advanced warning, the expression darkening a moment later. Botan turned to look and found that Birman was standing at Omi’s right with Reiichi nearby, and Nagi was at the boy’s left. It took Botan’s mind a few seconds to register the importance of it, and by then the king was clearing his throat.

Everyone’s attention was returned to the dais, even Botan’s, and he knew when Shuuichi noticed it too, when the king glanced over at his son and found his Spymaster standing there, obviously declaring her allegiance to the Crown Prince. He wasn’t sure how many people in the Court would pick up on it, if they had the right line of sight for it or even knew how much Birman respected Omi, but Shuuichi and Manx could see. Part of Botan wanted to go over there and ask her what she was doing – part of him wanted to stand beside her, beside *Omi*, but he needed to convince Shuuichi to do the right thing now and do it without antagonizing him.

To his surprise, Shuuichi stared at Birman for a few seconds and then looked at Omi, the small, sad smile on his face turning into one of pride before he nodded once and then lifted his head to stare out at the room which had grown quiet. "Today I have heard from my Royal Wizard, my Spymaster, by two dissenting parties and by a member of my own Court. I will take all of this information under consideration while I make the best decision for our country." He bowed his head for a moment, leaving Botan to wonder if he would announce it right then. "Miss Yoshimura?"

"Yes?" Keiko appeared surprised to be called out to by the king and hastened forward until she was next to Botan. She curtseyed again, her hands trembling where they gripped her skirts. "Yes, Your Highness?"

Shuuichi gave her a gentle smile as if aware of his affect on her. "I look forward to seeing you here at Court in the future." That was all he said before he rose from his throne and left the dais, with Manx quick to follow as if she was eager to have a word with him. Everyone else in the room showed obeisance during his departure, and the noise level rose as if everyone had to talk at once about what had just happened.

"Uhm, should I be happy about that?" Keiko asked as she grabbed at Botan’s left arm.

"I think it’s a good sign." He waited until Birman, Omi, Nagi, Takashi and Haruto joined him. "Isn’t that right, Prince Mamoru?" It was difficult to remember that he had to treat Omi as Mamoru right now.

Omi nodded and gave Keiko’s right hand a reassuring squeeze. "I am your patron, after all, so it’s only to be expected that if I’m at Court, you would be, too." His brows drew together when he looked over at Birman. "And maybe it’s a hopeful sign?"

Birman rubbed at her temples as if she had a headache. "If he’s recognizing witches, yes, but don’t put the cart before the horse just yet. Let’s wait until there’s an official declaration." Her lips parted as if she was going to say something else, only for them to be pressed together tightly as if she thought better of it.

"I thought you, Hannalore and Amaya were wonderful back there!" Takashi proclaimed as he reached over to give his great-aunt a hug. "I wish those assholes would have taken up the offer for a duel!"

Keiko gave him a weak smack on the shoulder, but her heart didn’t seem into it. "Mind your manners, boy." She motioned over at where Kido and his colleagues had been standing, but the wizards were gone. "Should we be worried that they didn’t stick around?" While she spoke, the rest of the witches began to join them.

Birman and Reiichi seemed to have some sort of silent conversation, as if they were telepathic, before Birman shrugged. "I doubt that this afternoon went half as well as they had planned, so I’m not surprised that they left. I think it’s probably best that we do the same." She glanced out over the huddled groups of highborn. "I’m sure the king is probably waiting to speak with you, Prince, and it might be a good idea that you ladies leave in case Kido and his friends plan any surprises for you."

A few of the witches looked ready to argue with Birman, but Keiko and the blonde, Hannalore, quickly had them grouped together. "Yes, you’re probably right." Keiko paused to whisper something to Omi and then to give Takashi a hug before she allowed Reiichi to lead her and the others out of the ballroom, with Takashi tagging along.

Botan wanted to say something to Omi, but Haruto was right next to him and there were too many other people around; just a few feet away were several young highborn clustered around Relena, fawning over her. He gave the young man a smile that he hoped conveyed just how proud and thankful he was before Birman whisked Omi and Nagi away, the bound almost as silent as a shadow as he watched over his lover. Botan hoped that no one tried to take advantage of ‘Mamoru’ before Omi left to return to the Koneko, or Kido might have his best argument for bound blood handed to him.

Feeling very tired and wishing nothing more than for a chance to go to Cassandra’s for a nice meal and to spend a quiet evening with his lover, Botan ran his fingers through his hair and gestured to Haruko. "Come on, let’s leave as well. I think there’s a drink waiting for both of us back in my office."

"Is it always as bad as this?" Haruto asked as he fell into step beside Botan. "I mean, I’ve seen a bit of politics before, but…."

"Well, not to be snide but this is a matter of life and death for bounds, and I suppose for those involved in the fighting if we can’t provide enough magical support." Botan rubbed his right hand over his face as a wave of exhaustion pulsed through him. "Unfortunately, I must admit that it often feels like this whenever I have to go before the king over something. Anytime you have to defend a matter against someone else, if they feel strongly against it, it turns out like this." He didn’t know if it was a matter of pride or stubbornness or greed, but there were some days that he was ready to hand over his duty as Royal Wizard to the first capable candidate to avoid the damn politics. Then Birman would guilt some sense into him and he would carry on.

Haruto was quiet for a minute or two, until they were almost at his office. "I thought I’d enjoy being at Court, and part of me does like it here, but I think I just want to practice magic." His face was covered with a furious blush and his head was held low, as if he was ashamed. "Is that wrong of me?"

"No, I think that’s eminently sensible of you." Botan gave the young man a quick hug before opening the door. "It’s what a wizard is supposed to do, after all, and we’ve more than enough magic to cast" Just the thought of how much work there was left to be done made him want to throttle Kido and the others for distracting him with this nonsense.

He closed the door and went over to the desk to fetch the bottle of whiskey stashed there, determined to share a drink with Haruto before losing himself in some of that necessary spellwork for a couple of hours. With luck, Shuuichi would come to a decision before he left the palace for the night, and if not… well, perhaps Cassandra would be able to ‘see’ something by then. Botan could only hope that they were celebrating tonight, because if Shuuichi decided in Kido’s favor, then the war was going to need a lot more charms to protect its soldiers, and Shuuichi probably was going to need a new Royal Wizard.

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter