Tangled Threads

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chapter 4

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conversations and departures

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Alexis watched while Lisa and Charles bustled back and forth as they packed all of Helena’s bags. As for the girl herself, she sat in one of the chairs with her arms wrapped around her chest and a slight frown on her face as she observed the activity.

"Make sure that the newer gowns are packed toward the bottom. Helena can wear her older outfits until we get to the border," Alexis instructed Lisa.

"Ah, that makes sense. There’s no use in risking any wear or damage to them until necessary." She flashed an understanding smile to her charge, who was nervous about traveling. The earth elemental must have exchanged a thought with her partner, because the tall man paused in sorting through books to rest his right hand on Helena’s shoulder, and soon the tension seemed to melt from her body.

"Thank you, Charles," Helena whispered, a tired yet warm smile spreading across her face as she looked up at him. He smiled back, for a moment all formality vanishing from his demeanor as he nodded. Then he stepped away and resumed his task, appearing once more like a well-groomed butler approaching early middle-aged. From what Alexis could tell, the dark-haired soul gaki bound had served Helena’s family for the past three centuries.

"I’ll pack a few gloves and a heavy cloak, just in case," Lisa added as she continued to fill the bags, a flurry of dark green skirts and light blond hair that almost reached her waist. "I know the visit shouldn’t be that long, but it hasn’t been that warm of a summer and the last autumn was rather cold." She was clearly worried about Helena, and Alexis wished that she could take the woman with them.

"Martha will be coming with us," Alexis commented, doing her best to keep any animosity out of her voice. "So we should be sufficiently warm, I would hope." Tan Xi had won that round, probably to ensure that Alexis was under adequate supervision, but once they were out of Esset…. She kept her lips over her fangs and refused to dwell on the thought of how she would enjoy establishing who was the stronger bound while sitting in Helena’s bedroom.

Lisa and Charles exchanged looks again yet kept their opinions to themselves, something that they had plenty of experience with over the decades. Charles had served the royal line much longer than Lisa, yet it was clear that she was just as devoted and loyal, and both were determined that Helena would become Esset’s queen in truth. They had done everything in their power to raise her well, to see her through a sickly childhood and protect her from the Elders’ machinations. It must be difficult to allow her out of their grasp like this, but it was also very necessary.

"I’ve packed some journals that may help you at Court," Charles told Helena as he set a brown leather satchel on the floor. "It’ll be dry reading, I’m afraid, but it can’t be any worse than what you’ve dealt with over the last few months."

Helena shook herself out of whatever daze she had been in the last half an hour or so and gave him a grateful smile as she let her arms drop to her sides. "I appreciate that. I’ve heard so much about the Courts that it’s going to be a challenge not making a fool out of myself in Kritiker’s."

Alexis stepped in before the girl could lose herself in doubt. "You’ve been trained by some of the best minds alive so bank those fears before they destroy all of our hard work," she ordered with a hint of a growl. "You’re going to walk into Kritiker’s Court appearing as a young girl just out of the nursery, and that is to your advantage. You’ll smile, show off your pretty manners, and all the while the brain that General Wufei and Lord Quatre have sharpened will be working, and they’ll never suspect a thing."

Helena blinked at her a few times, her dark brown eyes widening as she began to laugh. When she was happy like that, the emotion transformed her into a lovely young woman. "My apologies, even if I should have any doubts about myself, I will never have any about those two gentlemen."

"Then please remember that they have found you a worthy student, tossed books and rants aside," Alexis added in consideration of Wufei’s rather unique teaching style.

Helena bobbed her head in acceptance of the slight rebuke, a dimple in each blushed cheek. Yes, she would do very well in Court, would charm it with her seeming innocence and fool it into thinking she was nothing more than a sheltered highborn young lady, and only a few would see through to the intelligence that had been coaxed into full activity lurking behind the mask. "The books are a strong incentive to learn…."

It was Alexis’ turn to laugh. "I’ll give the grumpy bastard that." She rubbed the pearl bracelet on her left wrist as she thought about Wufei. "Just never forget that you have learned well, or else live in fear of what he’ll throw next." She laughed again when the child as well as Lisa shuddered at the thought. "Now, since it appears that the packing is in hand, I will leave you for the night. Be sure to be ready by seven tomorrow morning." She rose from her chair to give Helena a brief hug. "I’ll see you then."

Everyone wished her well as she left the room, and she was certain that they would be busy for the rest of the evening, packing and repacking and doing small tasks so they could stay near each other in the little time they had left. She remembered how it had been before she had left home, her mother refusing to acknowledge what she was but still loving her all the same.

She was on her way to Quatre’s quarters when she came across Tan Xi, the succubae bound surrounded by several of her followers. When the older bound noticed her, she motioned with her left hand and the others fell back in an instant.

"Alexis," Tan Xi called out with a slight hiss to her husky voice. Judging from the fine silk of her form fitting blue tunic and skirt, she had probably just come from seeing the Elders.

"Hello, Tan Xi." Alexis bowed her head only slightly, a small sign of acknowledgement and respect that one would pay to a peer. "How are you this evening?" She could do civil with the bitch if she had to, considering that she would mostly be free of her and her kind for the next couple of months.

"Busy, considering how much work there is to do before the princess leaves tomorrow." Tan Xi’s dark brown eyes narrowed as she stared at Alexis. "I assume you’ve seen her?" She motioned in the direction from where Alexis just came.

"Yes, and she’s well on her way to be all packed for the trip. I’ve no doubt she’ll be ready for the morning." Alexis barred a hint of her teeth. "I was hoping to spend my remaining time with Quatre before we left." She deliberately left off the man’s title as a sign of their ‘intimacy’.

That made the succubae bound’s eyes narrow even more. "You’re doing a wonderful job of looking after the child. It must be so wearisome, to look after a young human, and a dull one at that." The description was a loaded one that she made sure not to react to, considering how little respect Helena had here.

"She does well with the tea lessons she’s been given," was all Alexis felt willing to say just then. "And following orders."

"Hmm, yes, that’s very important." Tan Xi sidled closer, her hands clenched around the silk of her skirts. "To follow orders."

Alexis offered her rival a warm smile. "Are you ensuring that I haven’t forgotten mine? I will see the child safely to Eto and back again, that I swear before all the gods." She felt no threat in making such a promise, as she had every intention of seeing it through. Since she had done the same to the Elders, it was easy to repeat it to their most fervent follower as well.

Tan Xi could sense emotions, and Alexis’ shields allowed enough of them and surface thoughts through to be considered ‘polite’ and unsuspicious here at the palace. That her emotions would only prove her words genuine clearly took the succubae bound by surprise; Tan Xi had probably hoped that she would use this trip as an opportunity to join Yuda.

"Well, then, we can only be so blessed to have such a loyal servant," was Tan Xi’s halting reply a moment later.

"I have always been very loyal," Alexis murmured with a slight bow, her tone lacking any irony or sarcasm. "Now, I believe I’ve a busy night ahead of me and your friends are waiting for you." She gave Tan Xi one more nod before continuing on her way.

She smelt frustration and hatred behind her as she walked away, but Tan Xi didn’t try to stop her or call her back. There wasn’t much more that could be said between them – at least, not in public and not without causing a scene. There was no love lost between them and still a ton of animosity, and she was certain that Martha would be keeping a close watch on her during the trip. That was fine – she would be careful on the way to and from Eto, but once in the city, she would have plenty of allies who would be able to distract the fire elemental for her.

The simple truth was that she would devote her time and effort to keeping Helena safe. That was the main part of her goal. And she had told the absolute truth when she said that she had always been very loyal. It was just that she was loyal to *Esset*, not the Elders. She would do everything in her power to make certain that the country was safe, that the bounds *and* humans who lived in it would have a future ahead of them, that Helena would be able to lead them well.

However, those were not thoughts that she should be focusing on right now. No doubt the truth of her words, her emotions, and the vow she had spoken had shaken Tan Xi, as certain as the woman had been to her being a traitor. That she had been able to speak the truth would probably buy her a little time, as would her completing a mission for the Elders. Alexis made a warding motion with her right hand, claws extended, and hoped that she was able to bring Helena back safe and sound.

If only Tan Xi could be made to see reason…. Alexis would push past all the hate and grudges if she thought that the older woman could be swayed to their cause, considering the power and allies she could bring. Yet she didn’t need to be a precog to know that it wouldn’t happen; Tan Xi was too loyal, too much of a believer of the Elders’ power to ever see that an alternative path was available. While it would make things easier, Alexis had to admit that a part of her was happy that things wouldn’t be any different. She owed the other bound too much pain and loss for it to be otherwise.

That was still a year or two in the coming, though, and she had a trying couple of months ahead of her. One step at a time, she told herself as she navigated the crowded halls of the Elders’ palace. First she would spend a few hours with Quatre and Wufei, no doubt putting up with their fussing and a long list of what she must and mustn’t do while in Eto. Then she would double-check her own packed bags to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything. Next would be to see if she could manage any sleep tonight before leaving for a country that had always frightened her in the past.

Tomorrow…. Tomorrow would be enough of an adventure to last her until the war started, she was afraid. Not only the weight of protecting Helena on her shoulders, but dealing with Kritiker’s Court, meeting their allies in Eto and doing her best to deflect whatever the Elders had sent within her own party. Yes, it would undoubtedly be a very stressful few weeks. She hoped that Quatre had a very nice dinner planned for this evening and plenty of wine on hand as well. It would be very much appreciated, as would some fresh blood. The thought that there would probably be quite a few delicious meals awaiting her in Eto made her want to growl and flex her claws.

Oh yes, it was going to be a very interesting next few weeks, she knew. Now to hope that she survived them. If she did… they should be a prelude to an even more interesting time when the war started, and she could feast to her heart’s content.

*******

Aya stood in the shadows of the small shrine’s doorway and watched the people gathered among the flowers and trees of the Koneko’s garden. Off to the side, amongst the many herbs that had been planted over the years, was Sebastian busy pulling weeds, but the rest of the people were the inn’s guests. There were several children running around, enjoying the rain-free day. Their parents or other adults were out as well, watching the children’s antics as they walked among the blooming flowers, a few of them paying more attention to each other than the silly games of tag and hide-and-seek. No one approached the shrine, either out of respect for the inn or because of the shadows that Aya had gathered around himself and the shinigami that coiled among them.

<That one will be a meal soon, will you join us for it?> one of the pack asked him as it rested against his left shoulder, a hissing voice in his ear.

Aya glanced over at the middle-aged man who seemed too busy reading some document to enjoy the beauty around him and shrugged, careful not to dislodge the shinigami. "I… don’t think he’ll die around here." He still had much to learn about his new power, but it had advanced beyond seeing the dark halos around people that warned about encroaching death to a ‘feeling’ if that death would be nearby or not. Most likely the man would have a heart attack from working too much or step in front of a moving carriage while distracted by something, and so die away from the Koneko.

The shinigami hissed their displeasure, but only for a few seconds. <Feed more you should, but feed you do,> one of them crooned from over by the altar.

"I get enough from providing my own meals." He never went hungry anymore, from dealing with the Esset spies, too curious wizards and whoever else Birman felt was a threat to the country. Sometimes he thought he would burst free from his body with all of the energy he took in, but Yohji was always there to siphon the worst of it off.

Another shinigami coiled around his shoulders and neck, a caressing presence that was growing more comforting with each passing month. <Powerful you are growing,> it said, pride evident in its tone. <Young but strong. You we will not lose.>

He wanted to ask them about that, about *who* they had lost, but if there was anything that he had learned over the last few months it was that he wouldn’t get much in the way of answers to his questions. They had rebuffed him when he asked about Aidan and the other kage as if the topic was a sore one, leaving him to wonder if they were protecting the other shinigami-bound. Some, like Aidan, may be considered ‘failures’ or ‘weaklings’, but some had gone down fighting. Some, like Katsumi, should be considered strong.

Yet that was a topic he would try again some other day, maybe when they were in a better mood and he had a hope of finding something out from them. For right now, he just wanted to enjoy a mostly peaceful day spent out in the garden he loved, even if he was technically hiding. Yohji was off running some errands, and while Aya usually enjoyed doing that, lately things seemed a little… off when he went out on his own or accompanied his mate. Perhaps he was a little too sensitive anymore, but he swore he picked up on odd looks and hesitant manners from some of the shopkeepers. That Yohji’s mood grew dark when they were out together made him doubt that it was only in his head, so he decided to complain about the sun and the crowds and let his lover run the errands without him.

It seemed that no matter what he did, he was losing the little grasp on humanity that he had managed to carve out for himself upon settling into his new life at the Koneko. Sebastian had taken over his duties in the garden, Maddox most of his chores in the kitchen, and Yohji and Emmie a lot of his errands to the market. That Birman kept him busy using his talent and Crawford searching for whatever knowledge he could find about the Elders and tactics that might be used against Kritiker in this new war was a balm to his pride, but he was doing little more than what he had done for the Takatori at this point. The main difference was that it was of his own free will this time, and that he was free to move about, not restricted to two rooms and subjected to abuse.

Oh, wouldn’t Yohji love to hear that thought? He shook his head and snorted in dark amusement as the shinigami crowded around him and asked what it was that made him smile so, but accepted being waved silent. No, his mate wouldn’t like that comparison at all, even if there was a good bit of truth to it and Aya didn’t mind in the least. He was a born weapon after all, and at least he had Yohji now.

The shinigami took to hissing before retreating, caressing Aya on the face and shoulders as they vanished, causing Aya to look around to see what had bothered them. He noticed that Crawford was striding through the garden with a defined air to him, his dark pants and white shirt crisp as if he was going to an important meeting. The precog headed straight to the shrine, leaving Aya with the impression that he wasn’t coming here to honor a departed ancestor or pray to any gods.

Even though he was cloaked in shadows, Aya realized that the man knew he was here and wasn't headed over for one of his 'chats'. Tempted to remain hidden for a few seconds, he sighed and decided that it was more worth his while to find out what the precog wanted. He waited until Crawford entered the shrine before withdrawing the shadows enough to reveal himself to just the man, unwilling to give up his peace and quiet entirely. "Good day, Crawford."

"Good day, Aya." Crawford nodded a little in greeting.

"I thought you couldn’t *see* me," Aya remarked with a hint of annoyance as he leaned against one of the shrine’s cedar planked walls, his arms crossed over his chest.

Crawford smiled as he adjusted his glasses. "I can’t, but I stopped inside and asked Reiichi where he thought you might be since you weren’t in either of the libraries. If you weren’t here, I was prepared to return to the kitchen and wait for you to return."

Aya sighed as he thought about his friend; he should have suspected that Reiichi had noticed him vanishing out to the garden and people avoiding the shrine. "You made the shinigami leave."

Crawford actually looked pleased by that. "I did?" He glanced around the small shrine for a few seconds. "Do they usually do that around me?" His tone was curious, a rare display of emotion from the man.

"It’s not often that you’re around when they are," Aya admitted, "at least, not just you." The shinigami preferred to be around Aya when he was by himself or just with Yohji or Reno, though they would come to him if he called to them or hover around the shadows if there were just a few people or other bounds about.

"Hmm, something to consider for another time." Crawford actually sounded excited about the prospect, when everyone else was nervous or afraid of Aya’s ‘packmates’. "For right now, I was hoping to talk to you about the entourage that Esset is sending to the palace for Princess Ouka’s birthday. They should be arriving soon."

For Crawford to be here now, talking to Aya alone about the matter, meant that he was hoping to bring up something that he didn’t want discussed in front of the others – most likely Yohji. "I’m well aware of that fact, as we’ve discussed little else for the last few weeks," Aya pointed out in a serious manner. "What I wasn’t aware of is what we could do until they arrive and make their move. Unless you’ve seen something, that is."

Crawford adjusted his glasses, the dim light from inside the shrine reflecting off of the lenses as he moved them higher. "I’ve shared with you everything I’ve seen about the visit." There was a hint of defensiveness in his voice, and Aya almost called him out just then before deciding to let it go for the moment.

"Then I don’t know what you expect from me," Aya remarked instead, with a sinking feeling that he was about to find out.

That statement earned him a steady look that lasted several seconds, until Crawford let out a slow breath and shook his head. "I believe you have a good idea what it is that I expect from you."

"My talent lies in death, not foreseeing the future," Aya snapped, and regretted giving in to his temper as soon as the words were said.

"It seems to me that it’s a bit of both," Crawford responded with a chilling smile. "And you’ve already indicated that death is coming for some of our own. All I want is more details."

Aya shook his head. "It doesn’t work that way. All I’m able to see so far is the approaching death and get a feel for when it’ll happen, maybe even the rough location. I don’t ‘see’ with anywhere near your level of skill." Whatever this new ‘talent’ was, it was bad enough at its current level.

Crawford made a motion as if to reach out to Aya and stopped, as if he thought better of it. "Aya… the more information I have, the more helpful it will be to our cause." He paused for a moment before continuing in a quieter voice, his demeanor more serious. "It may mean enough for me to change things, to save lives."

"*No*." Aya shook his head, the longer strands framing his face whipping back and forth from the force of his movements. "No!" Panic built up in him, and it took several frantic heartbeats before he thought to stifle the link between him and Yohji before he worried his mate. "That’s the one thing you can’t do," he told Crawford, and something in his tone, in his expression, made the older bound step back until he pressed against the altar. "You can’t cheat death."

"Aya-"

"NO!" Aya hissed, the shadows writhing around him. "Don’t you think I asked?" His hands clenched into fists, the shadows forming around them waiting to be called into weapons. "They told me it’s impossible, that once the mark is there and dark enough that Kisei will have her due and *nothing* will save them." He had asked the shinigami if there was a way to save the person, if they could change things, could protect the person. Never before had he seen the shinigami so upset, not over anything that Yohji or Rufus had done, not over anything else he had asked or brought up about the past. The impression he got from their frenzied hissing and mutterings was that other kage had asked the question in the past… and no one knew what had happened to Alroy other than he had went off to save his lover…. "To even try is to damn you and whoever you want to save." The shinigami had never lied to him about anything, and somehow he knew they were telling the truth about this as well.

The shrine was quiet for several minutes after that, while Crawford stared at him and Aya attempted to control the shadows and calm the emotions he felt flow over the mostly blocked link. He was willing to bet that Yohji would be rushing home soon, and while he wanted his mate’s comforting presence he didn’t look forward to talking about what had caused his upset mood. "You can’t change everything," he finally said to break the silence. "I thought you understood that."

"I know there are times when changing things will only make it worse, but I must admit that there’s a part of me that hates to give in without some sort of fight." Crawford sounded frustrated, his brow furrowed and his shoulders tense. "Still, I suppose we can do something with only a bit of foreknowledge to discredit Esset."

It was Aya’s turn to do the staring; he knew that Crawford could be rather ruthless in his desire to take down Esset, but that last statement still came as a bit of a shock. "I suppose them killing a Guard or two should be enough cause to break off diplomatic ties and lead us to war." He meant the words to come out sarcastic but had the impression that they were taken at face value.

"Only if we ensure that they are blamed for the deaths." Crawford looked at him directly, something that few people did anymore. "Which is why I need as much information from you as possible *before* those deaths occur. If we can’t prevent them, then we need to be certain those people don’t die in vain. All we know right now is that there will be deaths, not the ‘who’."

Aya sighed as he ran his right hand through his hair, wishing for a moment that he was still in that tower back in Timbergrey; for all of the abuse and hopelessness, he had been left *alone*. "I’ll do what I can. I’m still figuring a few things out and I thought it was agreed that I wouldn’t be anywhere near the palace during the festivities." If Crawford had plans to change that, then he could take it up with Yohji and Aya could enjoy a nice meal.

To give him credit, the precog actually flinched at the implied threat and quickly shook his head. "No, you won’t be within a thousand meters of any of the Elders’ lackeys if I can help it." He sighed as well and tugged at the sleeves of his impeccable white shirt. "Well, I’ve said all I’ve come here to say. Your help will be invaluable in the upcoming weeks, please keep that in mind." He bowed a little before Aya and left the shrine, walking away as if he had another important meeting on his agenda. Knowing the man, it was highly possible that was the case, and Aya wished that person much luck in getting through it unscathed.

He had just lit a few sticks of incense when Yohji dashed into the shrine, having probably scared a few of the children with his mad run through the garden. "Aya!" Yohji yelled as he gathered Aya into his arms. "What in all the hells just went on in here?" He glared around the darkened enclosed space as if he could cow the shadows with a dirty look.

It was turning into an afternoon for sighing, Aya thought as he combed his fingers through his mate’s wavy blond hair. "Save your temper for Crawford," he muttered as he did his best to not squirm out of the crushing embrace.

"Eh?" Yohji’s confusion quickly gave way to anger. "What in all the hells did he want?" he growled, clearly unhappy over whatever it was that had upset Aya so much.

Knowing that there was no way out of telling the truth when Yohji had caught his emotions back then, Aya snapped his teeth and shook his head. "I assume that he’s still having a bit of trouble seeing much about the upcoming festivities and wanted me to help him out a bit with… my new talent." He braced himself for another crushing squeeze and hissed when he was hugged much too tightly. "Yotan!"

"Sorry, Cat." Yohji growled out the apology, but his emotions were sincere and he loosened his arms around Aya. "The manipulative bastard can go to hell."

Someone wasn’t handling Aya’s ability to foretell death very well, but then again, it was mostly Yohji’s friends and former colleagues who would be the ones dying. Aya rested his head against his lover’s left shoulder and slid his arms around his waist. "I told him I’d pass on what I could, for whatever good it would do him." He’d already had the discussion with Yohji about what could and couldn’t be changed, and felt his lover’s body tense against his for a moment. Yohji wanted to believe that they could save lives, yet he wasn’t willing to risk Aya incurring the gods’ wrath by pushing things too far.

He felt a gentle grip on the back of his neck that urged him to look up, at Yohji’s earnest expression. There was a hint of silver in his mate’s lovely green eyes and a spark of concern amongst the love over their link. "If you do say something, make sure it’s only to me, Cassandra and Crawford, okay? I don’t…." Yohji swallowed and his hand tightened on Aya’s nape. "I don’t want people saying that you’re handing out death sentences, okay? Those two know how to keep secrets, especially if it’s about something that can’t be changed." He sounded a little hopeless just then, so Aya rocked up on his toes to kiss him before anything else could be said.

He didn’t care if people saw him as some sort of avatar of death – it wasn’t that far from the truth or much different from how some people thought of him now, those who knew what he was. But it bothered Yohji, who grew upset when people became afraid of Aya. "I won’t talk about it," he promised as he drew back the slightest bit, then pressed forward again to deepen the kiss. Yohji’s arms tightened around him once more and held him closer as his tongue delved into Aya’s mouth.

For a few minutes it was just the two of them, tasting each other and letting their emotions speak, to reassure. They held on tight as if afraid the other would slip away, seeking comfort in the other’s presence. As if mindful of where they were, they didn’t take it further than kissing, content with just the embrace and being alone. Aya felt his energy slowly trickle away and didn’t mind, not when he also sensed Yohji’s anger and concern fade.

Yohji broke off the kiss with an aggrieved sigh. "One day, when this is all over, we’re going to find someplace far away and hide there, just the two of us," he whispered, as if afraid to let even the gods in on the plan.

Aya smiled, warmth flooding into him at the pleasure Yohji felt at the expression. "That sounds wonderful." He would have to ask Omi or Birman about what all estates his father had owned; with everything that he and Yohji were doing for the king, surely they were owed something more substantial than some gold coins for their hard work.

Yohji grinned and waggled his eyebrows. "Yep, just you, me, a huge bed and a kitchen stocked with enough ingredients to make an endless supply of buttercream frosting." He laughed when Aya snapped his teeth in the direction of his left shoulder. "We’ll see if we can’t fatten you up a little." He patted Aya on the ass a couple of times and then caught Aya’s hands before he could be smacked. "And speaking of frosting, let’s see if Jo has any cakes made, hmm?"

Aya hmphed beneath his breath but allowed himself to be led away. They paused so Yohji could pick up the bags he had left near the shrine’s door and then stepped out into the garden, Aya wincing a little from the weak daylight. The weather was overcast and cool, the sky full of clouds but it was enough to make him yank the hood of his black jerkin over his head and wish that he had worn gloves. Thankfully, it was a short walk to the kitchen door, with Yohji only waving to Jason along the way.

Once inside, Yohji set the groceries aside and then rubbed his hands up and down Aya’s arm, sending a trickle of energy back through the contact. "Thank you," Aya whispered.

"Anything for you, Cat." Yohji smiled as he leaned in for a quick kiss.

"I hope you remembered to pick up some cloves for me," Jo said as she approached them and began to rummage through the bags. "And some salt as well."

Yohji looked as if he was swallowing a snarl as he shifted away from Aya, his right hand snaking out to grasp Aya’s right him and pull him close to his side. "Now would I do such a thing when you just told me you needed those items about ten times this morning?" When Jo gave him a doubtful look in return, he growled a little for a few seconds and then laughed. "One of these days I’ll get some respect."

Jo snorted as she hefted a wrapped brick of salt. "I’m sure we’ll bless the gods for the good behavior that’ll lead up to it," she shot back in a waspish tone, but she smiled as she did so.

"Nah, you’ll be running to the nearest temple to see if I’ve been possessed by some sort of demon," Yohji teased back, prompting laughter from her and Ani, who was busy helping Maddox with what looked to be a new type of batter.

"He got you there, Jo," Ani remarked as she held out her hand for what appeared to be the box of cloves. Aya’s attention was diverted for a moment, until his mate gave his hip a squeeze. "What I want to know is if it’s possible for a bound to be possessed by another demon."

"Eh, who knows?" Yohji scratched at the back of his neck and grimaced. "Maybe the weaker ones?" He looked at Aya, who shrugged. "Not that I’m in any hurry to find out, the fates avert. We have enough weird stuff happening around here as it is."

"So don’t go inviting any more trouble," Aya grumbled as he knocked his left elbow into his lover’s side. Yohji cursed a little over the ‘abuse’ yet couldn’t really argue too much.

That started Ani and Maddox telling them about some of the odd customers who had visited the inn during the last few days, as the city became more crowded with people arriving for Princess Ouka’s birthday celebration. Aya felt an urge to go up to his bedroom despite the wonderful scents of ground cloves and baking chicken, especially when Neely and Emmie entered the kitchen. However, Yohji kept hold of his hip and seemed unwilling to let go, determined to remain here for the time being. Aya turned to look at his mate and was given a tender smile and a kiss to his left temple.

He realized that Yohji was keeping him here, centering him amongst friends and humanity. As much as he wanted to retreat, to be alone in darkness and with just his mate, he was here surrounded by light and laughter and life. A part of him was discomforted by that fact, a part he did his best to ignore as he settled closer to his lover’s side as he listened to Emmie go on about their latest customer from Thracia.

*******

Birman accepted the documents from Shuiichi with a respectful bow. "I’ll make sure the guest list is properly appraised, Sir."

Shuiichi acknowledged the slight bit of formality that he allowed between them in private and smiled. "I’ve the utmost faith in you." He played with a gold button on his dark blue overcoat for a moment before clearing his throat. "When will Mamoru be returning to the palace?" He strived to keep the question light, but she didn’t need to be a soul gaki bound to sense the eagerness behind it.

"In two more days, before the party from Esset arrives." She frowned a little, hoping that what she said next didn’t offend her king. "He’s busy crafting the illusion charms for Nagi."

There was no way in any of the hells, as Yohji and Jei would put it, that Omi would return to the palace without Nagi by his side, and she sincerely hoped that Shuiichi and Manx accepted that fact without too much offense and grief. Shuiichi frowned for a moment and then shook his head. "I suppose I won’t have to worry about him being swept off his feet by some pretty highborn or visiting dignitary, will I?" There was a hint of regret to his tone and in his dark brown eyes.

"No, my lord." She offered him a conciliatory smile. "I’m afraid your son is the devoted kind." It was best to dispel with any delusions now, before a very possessive young man who could mentally throw people through solid stone walls arrived – or a very possessive young man who could cast spells that gave a Royal Wizard pause, for that matter.

Shuiichi sighed as he risked his valet’s wrath by running the fingers of his right hand through his carefully combed hair. "I had hoped that this was just a case of infatuation…." Then he shook his head. "He’s like his mother," he said with obvious pride. "I guess I should take comfort in the fact that his lover can’t bear half-bound children to contest the throne."

Birman was uncertain just then what to say, something that rarely happened in her life. She hadn’t expected Shuiichi to give such a roundabout approval to Omi’s love life, especially considering that he was involved with a bound. That he had a younger sister now probably helped, as did the fact that Manx was nowhere around to overhear this conversation… but in the end, Shuiichi did love his son. She supposed that all he cared about was Omi’s happiness and managed to put aside her shock to smile. "If by some chance Nagi does present you with a grandchild, you’ll have to accept it as a blessing from the gods."

Shuiichi granted her a not-too-pleased look for several seconds before laughing. "That I would! The Court would have to accept it as well!" He laughed a little more before attempting to restore order to his hair, which she noticed bore a few more grey strands than it had during winter. "Ah, it would be worth it just to see their faces." He smiled as she bowed once more. "Thank you for that amusing image, it’ll make the next few hours a bit more bearable."

"You’re welcome, Sir." She waited until he turned to leave to straighten up, the folded document safely tucked into the full sleeve of her grey gown as she crossed the informal sitting room where Shuiichi preferred to have his late morning tea. Manx was busy with several Army generals and Kikyou, doing her best to wrangle their cooperation before Esset’s delegation arrived, so that meant Princess Ouka was ‘unattended’ just now.

She crossed through several rooms and hallways to reach the princess’ quarters, nodding to the Guards stationed to protect the royal family. When she reached the nursery, she smiled to hear the sound of laughter. Ouka was a happy baby, spending much of her waking hours exploring the world around her and finding infinite pleasure in it.

As soon as Birman entered the room, the slender young woman busy picking up toys straightened up and gave her a curt nod. Ayumi had a bit of an aloof air to her, one that had almost made her a difficult hire to get past Manx, except for the fact that she handled Ouka very well and always ‘seemed’ to know what the baby needed. She was a powerful enough soul gaki bound to be able to sense thoughts and emotions within several rooms of the child and cause substantial damage to the mind of anyone who attempted to harm the princess.

"Good morning, Birman," Ayumi greeted in a quiet tone as she resumed her task, moving gracefully until all of the toys were once more in their place.

"Good morning, Ayumi." Birman turned toward the other bound in the room and smiled. "How is the princess this morning, Owen?"

If Ayumi, with her impassive expression, neatly braided black hair and quiet voice was to be considered ‘aloof’, then Ouka’s other caretaker was ‘exuberant’. Owen laughed, the sound echoed by Ouka as she was lifted high into the air by the earth elemental – thankfully by physical means since there was a chance of a regular Guard or a highborn walking in – before answering her.

"She’s doing very well. She ate all of her breakfast and there’s no sign of the summer cold that some of her playmates have caught. Is there, Pumpkin?" It was clear the bound doted on his charge, and Ouka on him as well. She strived to latch on to his shoulder length brown hair, the color of rich chocolate, when he lowered her down to hold against his chest.

"I’m happy to hear that she’s doing so well." Both Cassandra and Marta had sworn that Owen was a very talented healer, despite his youthful appearance. He certainly got along very well with children and had some of the Court ladies threatening to ‘take him home’, considering that he could pass himself off as Yohji’s cousin with darker hair and eyes. Taking into account that Masato was a succubae bound, it just might be possible that the two men were related, but Birman wasn’t about to bring it up anywhere near Schuldig.

The main thing was that the princess had two full-time guardians who could tear an attacker to shreds, mentally and physically. Owen and Ayumi had been perfectly willing to demonstrate the more offensive side of their talents on a couple of human spies sent to ferret out water elementals, and Birman had been duly convinced that they were more than capable of protecting Ouka.

"The delegation from Esset should be arriving by the end of the week," she warned them as she reached out to tuck back a lock of Ouka’s dark hair, smiling a little when the girl babbled happily in response. "We’re keeping as close a watch as is polite on them, and I’ll be certain to inform you as soon as they’ve reached the city limits."

Owen’s smile was replaced by a more serious demeanor as he nodded. "Thank you." Ayumi left off straightening up the room to come stand by his side, her body tilted protectively toward the princess. "We never were in Esset, so hopefully there won’t be any problems with whoever they sent."

"I’ll have Eri update you with details of the party, including if they’re wearing any illusion charms." She motioned to the jewelry the two bounds wore, the black ‘jewel’ on Owen’s bracelet and the similar one on Ayumi’s choker. "Just be certain to never remove those while they’re around, and if you do recognize anyone in their party we’ll improvise some illusion charms for you." The stones would prevent any of the Elders’ agents from breaching their mental shields and finding out that they were bounds, as well as casting spells or using talent against them to harm the princess. It was a bit of a gamble to use the rare stones charmed with Aya’s blood like that, but it was better to leave the Elders pondering over what bit of magic Botan had unearthed than to let the old bastards discover how much cooperation existed between bounds and humans in Kritiker or give them an opening to use against the royal family.

"The more knowledge we have, the safer we’ll be," Ayumi remarked with a hint of a growl, leaving Birman with the impression that anyone who sought to take on the woman or harm the princess would be in for the fight of their lives.

"You won’t hear any arguments from me, as I’ve basically lived my life by that principle." Birman grinned a little as she stroked the back of her fingers along Ouka’s plump cheek before stepping away. "Oh, one more thing," she said as a thought occurred to her. "Ouka’s brother will be at the palace in two days time. I’m sure he’ll want to see his sister." She looked at the bounds as she tapped the black ring on her left hand. "It’ll be fine for him and his companion to be here."

Owen nodded in understanding. "I’ve heard about him from Cassandra. They’re both welcome here."

"Good." Birman hoped there wasn’t any friction between Owen and Nagi; while Nagi was very strong, he seemed to get along well with other powerful earth elementals whose talents lay more along the lines of healing. She glanced at Ayumi, who unsurprisingly was quiet. "The prince’s companion will be wearing an illusion spell and should be under an alias."

"I understand," Ayumi responded with a slight bow of her head. "I met both of them during my stay at the Koneko."

Birman hadn’t known that Ayumi had spent any time at the inn, though she wasn’t that surprised since many bounds managed to find their way there at some point or another. "Then it should be all right. I suspect that they’ll be eager to avoid Court as much as possible, whenever they’re not hiding in Botan’s quarters." She smiled a little at the thought.

Owen lifted up Ouka, who crowed at the attention and patted him on the face. "I’m sure the princess will be very happy to spend time with her big brother."

Judging from the way the two bounds paid attention to the infant, Birman was willing to bet that Ouka would soon charm her ‘big brother’ as well, and wondered what the future would hold for a princess with a powerful wizard and countless bounds wrapped around her little finger. She shook her head as she bade the two a good day and left the nursery, certain that things would only become more ‘interesting’ from there on out.

*******

Botan looked over the lists before him, the black characters blurring for a moment as his eyes grew tired. He sighed as he set the sheaves of paper aside and reached for his cup of coffee, frowning when he realized that the little bit of coffee left in it was cold. "Uyokyokusetsu take it!"

Over from the corner of his office, Takashi burst into laughter and rose from the table where he’d been working on sorting materials for new charms. "Ah, something must be wrong for you to call upon *him*," he said with a cheerful smile, as always. "And to get his full name out in one try."

There was something about the young man that put Botan in mind of water elementals; Takashi could easily charm a person into a better mood with his sunny disposition. Well, could charm *most* people, as Nagi and Haruto were still a bit standoffish to him. Nagi was clearly on guard against anyone who might turn into a threat against Omi and Aya, while Haruto… Botan was willing to bet his latest assistant saw Takashi as a rival, and with just cause.

"I believe the god of complications deliberately made his name so complicated so it’s not taken in vain all the time," he replied with a rueful tone as he held up his empty coffee mug.

Takashi nodded in understanding. "I’ll be back." He hurried from the office, no doubt to track down one of the pages to request more coffee and probably something to eat, and Botan shook his head over the fact that he hadn’t been so well looked after in years. Having several young men around meant a near constant stream of food, even if they were human – casting magic meant using up energy, a similar principle to that of bounds and their almost incessant need for food. He wasn’t surprised when it only took Takashi a minute or two to return, as the pages seemed to be hovering around his office lately. That those young men happened to also be good looking hadn’t escaped several of the young ladies’ notices, Botan thought with a smile.

"There should be some fresh coffee and sandwiches soon," Takashi said as he approached Botan’s desk. "Also, I’m almost done sorting the stones you gave me. As far as I can tell, there’s enough for ten healing, eight warding, thirteen strength and six stealth charms." He appeared excited about the prospect of working on all of the charms, his brown eyes bright and lips curved in a pleased grin.

"We’ll need most of the strength and warding charms for the Army, and the healing charms will be split between them, the Guard and Birman’s people." Botan frowned as he consulted the lists he had just set aside. "We really need more healing charms." They could be distributed among the three divisions and help save lives until either temple or bound healers could reach the wounded. Of course, finding usable stones was difficult, even with Nagi’s help to ‘clarify’ their supply.

"We’ll be able to find more stones," Takashi assured him. Aunt Keiko’s having her friends search for them, so they’ll find something." He laughed as he leaned against Botan’s desk. "Then Omi and I will never get any breaks as we try to make all of those charms!"

Botan smiled as he hoped that the young man was right. "As it is, you’re going to be very busy the next couple of weeks." His frown returned as he thought about the time ‘wasted’ because of Princess Ouka’s birthday celebration.

Takashi tilted his head to the side, his brow furrowed as if he was worried about something. "Is everything okay? I know you said that Omi’s going to be busy with family obligations for a while, but it’s nothing bad, right? I mean, you told me that he’s learning magic for his family."

"I told you he’s learning magic to protect something very important to him," Botan hedged, trying to recall exactly how he had phrased things several months ago. "But no, everything’s all right. He just has some duties that he’s required to meet."

"Oh, okay." Tension left Takashi’s shoulders and he smiled. "He didn’t seem too happy to have to miss out on work, and neither did Nagi." Then he grimaced. "I mean, not that Nagi ever seems to be happy about anything, other than Omi and his one friend." His shoulders slumped forward. "I still don’t think he likes me."

Botan resisted the impulse to get out of his chair and go over to give the boy a hug – Takashi just prompted such paternal feelings from time to time. "I keep telling you, don’t take it personally. I believe that if Nagi warms up to you, then you’d have to worry about Omi not liking you!"

The warning, even spoken half in jest, caused Takashi’s eyes to widen. "Ah, yeah, I sorta wondered that myself," Takashi responded as he rubbed the back of his head. Then he let out a slow breath. "Things were a lot simpler back in Chiken," he muttered.

"Part of growing up is dealing with more complex relationships," Botan pointed out. He figured if Takashi could deal with navigating the relationships that came with bounds, then he had decent training for putting up with the Court.

"Yeah, well, some people should come with books." Takashi looked ready to say something else, but there was a knock on the door so he got up to answer it. He thanked the page who handed over a tray heavy with a carafe of coffee and two plates covered with sandwiches.

Botan waited until he set the tray down on the desk and sat in a chair on the other side to ask the question. "Any people in particular?"

It took a moment for Takashi to make the connection. "Eh? Oh, well…" He reached for a sandwich as if to stall for time. Botan allowed him it and poured himself some coffee. "There’s a few people here at Court I’m trying to figure out, and some of Omi’s friends."

"That’s understandable." Takashi’s personality was much more open and straightforward than most of the courtiers and highborns here at the palace. As for Omi’s ‘friends’, he’d been blessed with a happy childhood and loving family, something that many of the bounds hadn’t been able to enjoy because of their natures. That led to completely different natures and outlooks and the inherent conflict that arose from them. "I think you’re doing a good job so far. I’ve heard good things about you."

A slight blush spread across the young man’s cheeks. "Thank you," Takashi said as he bowed his head. "I know I’m not as good as handling some of the people here at Court as Haruto."

Ah, so that was part of the problem, as he’d suspected. "I wouldn’t worry about that. I haven’t heard anything negative about you, in fact everyone says you’re very polite and hardworking and your charms work well. As for Haruto, he’s been raised in a similar environment to the Court so it’s expected of him to have a bit more… polish." He shrugged to lessen the impact of his words.

"That’s one way of putting it," Takashi said, but he seemed in a better mood. "Ah well, I did come here to learn magic, so that’s my first priority."

At least the young man had the sense to not say something like ‘that’s all that matters’. The truth was that a wizard did have to learn to navigate Court politics at some point if he wished for a wealthy enough patron or to reach a high enough of a status to be able to spend his years teaching other wizards. There was only one Royal Wizard, but not everyone wanted to spend their enhanced lifetime wandering around selling spells and charms and so sought out a comfortable position somewhere or to establish their name.

"You’ll do fine," he reassured the youth. "As long as you survive making all of the charms we need!"

That earned him another laugh. "I have to wonder if Omi’s not inventing this emergency with his family!"

"Sadly, no." Botan added the numbers that Takashi had given him to the last page of the list and then folded the papers. He pulled out his seal and a bar of dark blue wax, and chanted a short spell to melt some of the wax onto the paper to hold it close. "Do me a favor and give this to Birman?" he asked as he pressed the seal onto the wax.

"Yes, sir." Takashi snatched up two more sandwiches in his free hand as he accepted the note, and left the room whistling one of Koyu’s latest songs. Botan shook his head as he watched his assistant leave.

So far, he hadn’t regretted his choice of Keiko’s grand-nephew – the boy was a hard worker, intelligent and was indeed thought of well by almost everyone. If it weren’t for Manx’s meddling, he would have told Takashi about bounds by now, and who Omi truly was. However, he wanted to make sure that Takashi wouldn’t let anything slip to the other assistant, and as of yet he wasn’t seeing any close bonds between them. They got along well enough, but Haruto clearly thought of Takashi as ‘common’ and Takashi’s friendly nature seemed to go only so far when it was being met with a condescending attitude.

Right now, Botan’s two assistants were the least of his problem. He sipped his coffee and resisted the urge to pull out the flask in one of his desk’s drawers. No, the drinking would have to wait until he visited Cassandra tonight and Haru was in bed, when he could curl up with his lover and vent about his frustrations and fears.

What he pulled out of the warded drawer instead was several of the reports that Birman had given him yesterday and that he hadn’t much time to look at between Takashi and Haruto’s lessons. Upon reading them, he realized that it was much as he’d feared; several wizards were voicing their concerns about the lack of bound blood to be found on the black markets here in Eto and several of the country’s larger cities. He was certain that, despite his known stance against the use of bound blood in spells, it wouldn’t be too much longer before someone confronted him about it, to ask him if he was behind the clamp down on the ‘resource’.

For wizards to start becoming so vocal about it meant that they would want to know why the source behind the potency and ease of their spell casting was vanishing. With all of the hard work that Birman and the Shadow Guard put into keeping the Shadow Guard a secret from the Elders, here was a danger that none of them had foreseen two years ago - the chance that someone might make the connection between the bounds who should be drained of blood and killed now working for the king. It was a danger that none of them were willing to face, with the war possibly just a year away, with bounds finally realizing that Kritiker may be a safe haven for them after all, with all the hard work he and the other had done in the past two years and with Aya living within the city walls….

If the wizards hungry for bound blood realized that so many bounds now inhabited Kritiker, inhabited its cities and more…. Botan thumped his empty coffee mug onto his desk. There would be a war all right, but not with Esset. He couldn’t imagine Cassandra, Jei and Nagi letting themselves be drained, and there certainly wouldn’t be much of a country left once Omi and Aya unleashed their powers to protect their loved ones. May darkness take them all, even Yohji would do considerable damage if he used that gift of his on a crowd.

Yet he couldn’t just let Birman round up every wizard who dared to complain about the lack of bound blood, or stand back and do nothing as Crawford set Jei upon the more murderous fools among them. The ones who truly were guilty of crimes, yes, but he recognized a few names on that list as being more ‘neutral’ when it came to using bound blood, those who had agreed that while it did have a powerful effect on magic and might have a use under the right circumstances had not been known to use it themselves. Hiroko Fukuda and Brendan Shanley were known scholars among the wizard community and seemed more interested in finding out if and why the Army and Guard had stopped bound executions than how to get their hands on bound blood.

Something would have to be done about them, as the problem continued to persist. Botan rubbed his temples and hoped that a solution would come to him soon, before things escalated into a confrontation between wizards and bounds. At least Birman had her people keeping an eye on things, because he wouldn’t be able to do anything until after the celebration for Princess Ouka was over. Then he would have to sit down with Cassandra, Birman, Crawford and anyone else who could contribute a good idea and figure out this mess. All while keeping it a secret from Takashi and Haruto.

Gods, he could use a drink right about now.

Then it occurred to him that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to include Yohji and Aya on the discussion, especially considering how… ‘tense’ Yohji was lately because of Aya’s resent new abilities. For the over-protective succubae bound to find out that a bunch of wizards were pressing Botan for answers on the availability of bound blood and possibly close to discovering the creation of the Shadow Guard….

He decided that despite the earliness of the day and that Haruto would be arriving soon for his lesson, that he deserved some whiskey in his coffee, dammit. Now to keep his hands from shaking too much as he attempted to pour it into his mug.

*******

Shen wandered the halls of Kritiker’s palace, his hands clasped behind his back and his eyes intent on everything that occurred around him. Everything looked so different here, the floors slabs of marble covered with rugs instead of carefully laid tile mosaic or wood, the walls solid colors with hanging paintings and portraits instead of endless murals or sliding panels with hanging scrolls, colored panes of glass hiding the splendor of gardens just outside. Yet the bustle of people inside the hallways – highborns, Guards, Army, servants and Court officials – was much the same as back in Yanjing. He supposed that few things changed in palace life, no matter where you were. It would be the same in Thracia, Cretia and Esset – well, there would be bounds in Berin….

One difference here was how he could walk down the hallways and be largely ignored, other than fleeting glances at his appearance. No one paid him much more than a second or two of respect, usually from the more minor Court officials and servants who cared to garner the good will of a visiting diplomat. Most of the highborns and higher ranked Court officials would only nod in passing, if at all, and go about their way. The Guard and Army personnel were not exactly rude, they were more focused on their tasks and only paid him mind if they had cause to notice him, and then were distantly polite; it was clear that they couldn’t acknowledge everyone of rank or else they’d never get anything done so he didn’t take it personally as he noticed they treated everyone else the same.

Still, he was a little homesick; he missed seeing friends and similar faces, on having his rank acknowledged and being given more respect. Ah, now that thought would have earned him a smack from Master Goh. Shen shook his head as he thought about his superior, and smiled at an imagined meeting between the elderly man and Birman. Master Goh would probably be scandalized that his counterpart was so young, and then relish a chance to match wits. That he would be so evenly matched would bring him joy, and serve the old crow right after all the hard tasks he had put Shen through over the years. Ah, what Shen wouldn’t give to be able to serve tea during that meeting….

However, he was here, obeying his master’s orders, and wouldn’t be able to return home any time soon. For a moment, homesickness weighed heavily on him, until he was able to shake it off. Such a foolish thought, he chided himself as he slid his hands into the sleeves of his golden tunic. This was a rare opportunity for him, a chance to prove his worth and improve his skill. He had already learned much during his stay here, and things were becoming more interesting each day. That he got to twist Kritiker’s Spymaster’s tail so much was an added bonus.

He looked about for the woman, yet was unable to find her. There was a chance that she was wearing an altered appearance, which truly spoiled the game in his opinion, but had to be accepted. She did have a job other than to amuse him, he supposed. For one so young, she did take her work seriously, and her skill was very advanced. Suspiciously so, in fact, considering all that she had been able to do in the past couple of years. Despite his best efforts, he still hadn’t been able to confirm for his superiors just how she had been able to manage a few of those feats. It was almost as if she had some magical talent… or blessed with some amazing charms that Shen would dearly love to have in his possession.

Ah well, he had little on his agenda for the day beside a tea party with the Queen after lunch and a dinner party with Ambassador Nadav that evening. People were used to seeing him wandering around by now, so he could spend some time looking for answers until he had to get ready for the tea this way, hoping to stumble across something of interest.

He had just made one circuit through the palace when that ‘something of interest’ finally crossed his path. "Trowa!" he called out when he spotted the young man leaving Judge Okihara’s office. Since Trowa was dressed in dark brown pants with a white shirt, Shen figured it was all right to call out to him like that.

Trowa’s shoulders hunched for a moment, but he turned toward Shen and nodded. "Good day, Ambassador. How are you?"

"*Shen*. I told you to call me Shen, no?" he chided the young man as he approached. He would have slid his hand through the crook of Trowa’s right arm, but he had realized early on that the youth did *not* like physical contact. From what he could tell after much careful observation, the only ones who could touch Trowa was his lover, a member of the Guard, and Birman on a few rare occasions. So Shen settled for grinning as he stepped as closely as possible. "How are you today?"

Trowa hesitated for a moment and then sighed. "I’m fine, and you?" he asked in lightly accented Xanian.

"I’m *bored*," Shen admitted in a dramatic fashion that earned him a slight smile from the handsome young man. Ah, what was it about him that made him so appealing? Just being near him made something in Shen relax, made him forget about his longing for home and the tension of being surrounded by so many strangers. He almost teased ‘want to play’, but it was clear that one had to be very careful what one said to this man. "Have you some time to kill?"

That earned him a frown, half-hidden from the thick hair that covered part of Trowa’s face, and Trowa looked back at the office from which he had just left. "I need to come back here in an hour," he answered in a quiet voice.

"An hour is fine!" Shen almost grabbed his arm to drag him along before remembering why that was a bad idea. "You can keep me company until then!" He made a face for a moment. "Your superior is hiding, I think."

When Trowa smiled, it was a very lovely sight to behold; Shen understood why Trowa’s Guard lover had made a few threats against anyone who might get a bit impertinent with the young spy. It made him long for Mei Fen, who waited for him back home.

"I believe it’s more that she has some important errands to run for the king than anything that has to do with you. But if it makes you feel better, you can go on thinking that she’s hiding from you." A hint of humor crept into Trowa’s voice as he kept pace alongside of Shen.

"See, there are reasons why I prefer talking with you." Shen smiled as they made their way through the palace with no exact destination in mind. "For starters, you have a much better sense of humor."

"I think it helps that you don’t seem to try to antagonize me as much as you do her," Trowa pointed out.

Shen clutched at his chest. "You wound me, sir!" When Trowa arched his exposed eyebrow at that remark, Shen laughed and waved the implied criticism aside. "Okay, so she is a little bit fun to bedevil. My day isn’t complete until she threatens to send me home in some uncomfortable manner or another."

"You know, one day she may very well follow through with those threats."

Shen waved that aside as well. "I think she likes me too much." He smiled at the incredulous expression on Trowa’s face. "Oh, all right, I think she’s afraid the next delegate from Xan will be even worse than me."

That earned him another laugh. "I believe we can agree on that." Trowa shook his head, seemingly oblivious to the stares that followed them as they walked through the crowded hallway. Shen knew that many of the highborn followed their passage and it most likely was his presence that kept them from approaching; Trowa was dressed as a minor Court official today, a faint illusion charm shading his hair and eyes darker but doing little to hide his beauty. Those looks, the lack of any status combined with… whatever it was that the young man exuded, he certainly would attract the unwelcome attention of people used to power if it wasn’t for his lover’s protection. Ah, if it wasn’t for the fact that he worked for the Spymaster and was happy with his Guard lover, Shen would do his best to sway the young man to go to the Imperial palace, where he was certain that Trowa would find a very pleased patron or two. Perhaps even someone from the Imperial family, with his looks and intelligence. Whoever had taught him the language had been highly learned, considering that accent….

But they were here and Shen was who had been sent and he would make certain that no one else would need to replace him any time soon. No matter what Birman’s wishes, he told himself with a mischievous smile. "I don’t know what I’ve done to make her so displeased with me." He made sure to say the words in the most innocent tone that he could muster.

Trowa gave him an incredulous look. "You’re a more dangerous man than I suspected," was all he said for over a minute.

And Trowa was much more skilled than someone who was so newly arrived to the palace could be credited with, according to Shen’s sources. No wonder Birman kept him close and gave Shen grief for spending so much time with him, yet it was a joy to be able to speak his native tongue with someone who knew it so well and who was so polite. "I thank you for the compliment."

"You’re welcome." Trowa bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement.

"So, I hear we shall soon be joined by my peers from Eto," Shen commented as a change in the topic. "I’m quite excited. Will they be eating raw meat as the rumors suggest?"

Trowa smiled at the ridiculous story, the expression more polite than amused. "I doubt Esset would send anyone so vulgar and barbaric, anymore than the Emperor of Xan would send a perverted dwarf to the court."

Shen hissed in delight and drew himself up to his full height, which was still a full head short of Trowa’s lean build. "To be fair, my predecessor had a thing for bondage."

There was a slight hitch in Trowa’s visible eyebrow. "That makes him a pervert?"

"Oooh, I *must* talk to your lover." Shen laughed when a blush appeared on the young man’s face. He bowed a little in apology. "Now, that was a bit much of me, wasn’t it? I see the point you were trying to make. We all have preconceived notions of others, often for the worse. It’s just that Esset has been rather… shy of late, no?"

"My understanding is that their ambassadors haven’t always been welcome in other countries." Trowa’s tone was carefully neutral.

Hmm, now wasn’t that interesting? Shen would expect someone from Kritiker to be negative about their rival country, but Birman and now Trowa had been very circumspect in what they said about Esset. At least… mostly circumspect. There was a fascinating dichotomy on how they treated the country, its people and its government. "And now their ambassadors are welcome here, along with its princess," he said, eager to see what the next reaction was.

Trowa nodded, his expression the careful mask it usual was most of the time. "It’s a time for celebration, so Kritiker is hoping to share in its goodwill and happiness."

"Even with its enemies?"

"If there’s to be peace, we can’t keep thinking of each other as enemies. Perhaps by bringing the two princesses together, a bond can be forged," Trowa explained in that quiet, serious voice of his. When he said the trite words, it almost sounded possible.

"And do you believe it’s actually doable to bring such a thing about?" Shen asked, feeling that he might actually get a truthful answer out of the man.

Trowa was quiet for a while as they walked, to the point that Shen was ready to bring up a new topic. However, before he could, the young spy finally answered his question. "There’s an inevitability about certain things, but it’s… human to hope that the future can change, that some small event will make it better. Perhaps it’s futile to think that people gathering to wish a small child the best will bring peace, but if it brings together people and gives them a chance to see new things, to change their minds… it’s no more foolish than thinking that one prayer to the gods will make things better. At least we’re trying something. If it fails…." Trowa shrugged, the motion elegant and his expression nonchalant despite the bleak turn his words had taken. "What does it cost us? We know who our enemies are then. And what we have to do."

Shen stared at him as they walked, stricken of words for a couple of minutes. All he could think of was the truth of what Trowa said, and the fact that this young man worked for Birman. If she could command the loyalty of someone like him, she was even more of a worthy opponent than Shen and his superiors had ever suspected. Perhaps Shen should be a bit more leery of annoying her so much….

*******

Omi sat at the end of the bed and watched his lover pack the clothes that Cassandra had made for Nagi. There were new clothes for him as well, but Birman and Lady Meara had ordered them through the regular clothiers for the ‘crown prince’ and they waited for him at the palace. Since Nagi was going to pass himself off as a companion and steward of sort, a distant relative of Lady Meara’s with just enough highborn blood to not be an insult to the Court but too little to be worth their notice, he could get by with Cassandra’s much more ‘simpler’ and comfortable outfits.

"I wish we were the same size," Omi complained as he thought about what awaited him at the palace. Unfortunately, he had grown a good two inches taller than Nagi in the past year and outweighed his lover by at least ten pounds, despite all of the sweet ices and desserts he bought for him.

Nagi looked up from the thin velvet tunic he was folding, his hands smoothing over the pale yellow fabric. "It’ll only be for a couple of weeks."

"I know." Omi did his best to smile. "And you’ll be there the entire time."

That earned him a derisive snort that usually was reserved for Yohji as Nagi placed the tunic in the leather satchel and moved to stand in front of him. "As if I’d let you go without me," he said as he caressed Omi’s face with his right hand.

"I’m not as helpless as some people I could name, but I appreciate it none the less," he admitted, his smile much stronger now. Part of him worried about having Nagi at the palace, at allowing his bound lover in front of the Court… but he knew he was stronger with Nagi by his side. Nothing the Court said or whispered about him could do any harm, none of its disapproving looks would matter and he would never allow it to harm Nagi.

The illusion charms he had created for his boyfriend were among his best work and would keep everyone from recognizing him as the young man who worked at the Koneko, just as the diversion charm he would wear would keep his ‘Omi’ identity safe. "It’s odd, how I never think of myself as ‘Mamoru’ anymore," he commented as he grasped Nagi’s hand and tugged it to his lips for a brief kiss.

Nagi gave him another snort before sitting beside him on the bed. "Because you’re not. If you were him, you’d be stuck in the palace for the rest of your life, which we’re not going to let happen." He sounded convinced of that as he twisted his hand about so he could entwine his fingers with Omi’s. "We’re going back not just so you can be there to celebrate your sister’s birthday but to make sure that nothing happens, that she’s all right and that she grows up strong and safe and can take over the damn throne." A growl crept into his voice toward the end.

Omi laughed and tilted over to give him a kiss. "I think one of the many things I love about you is almost anyone else would be after me to be king so they could have all that power and wealth through me, but not you." He knew that Nagi didn’t care about anything that went along with his Takatori name or him being the crown prince, that if they had to work at the Koneko for the rest of their lives – or however long they had together – that he would be fine. However, they wanted more than that, they wanted to be able to see the rest of the world around them so it probably meant they’d be working at a lot of inns over the years.

"Hmph, if it’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that money doesn’t make you happy." Nagi leaned against him and rested his head on Omi’s left shoulder. "And I think we have all of the power we need." As if to illustrate his point, the clothes began to move about on their own, to be folded and put away without the aid of hands.

"That’s a very good argument you make." Omi chuckled a few times as he watched the show before him, for a moment wondering if he could create a spell to do much the same. Then his good mood vanished as he thought about how he probably wouldn’t have too much time to practice his magic while at the palace, and definitely wouldn’t be able to do his ‘special’ spells that needed Aya’s wards to keep from causing any damage.

"It’ll be nice to see Ouka and my father, but I wish we didn’t have to leave the Koneko for the entire time," he admitted as he tightened his hold on Nagi’s hand.

Beside him, he felt his boyfriend’s body tense and knew that despite his resolve to accompany him, Nagi wasn’t entirely pleased about going to the palace, either. "Reiichi and Jo better do a good job of watching out for Aya," Nagi muttered. "I don’t trust Kudoh to restrain himself with us gone."

Omi shook his head a little, unsurprised that Nagi was insulting Yohji already. "I’m sure he’ll manage to contain himself, especially since there’s agents from Esset in the city." The last thing Yohji would do was weaken Aya when enemies were nearby. "Not to mention I think Aya would be a little upset if he didn’t."

Nagi tensed again. "But… Aya hasn’t exactly… been himself lately."

The bit of good humor Omi felt vanished at that softly spoken statement. "No, he hasn’t." Or worse yet, he *was* feeling like himself, for the first time ever, and that wasn’t anything remotely human. That time in the kitchen a few months ago had been rather scary to witness, and Aya’s behavior hadn’t gotten any better since then. It was clear he tried his best to not be so obvious about things since that night, but he tended to avoid crowds of people even more than he had in the past, and sometimes when he was talking to someone he would just fall quiet and walk away. With Ouka’s birthday approaching, he had taken to spending a lot of time either alone or just with Yohji, and definitely avoided anyone who wasn’t a close friend or the Koneko’s staff.

"But maybe he’ll feel better once things get quiet again," Omi offered as he gave Nagi’s hand a squeeze.

"Maybe," Nagi answered back, and Omi knew his boyfriend was just being kind then. The truth of it was, things probably weren’t going to be ‘quiet’ again for very long after Ouka’s birthday, not if what Cassandra and Crawford were hinting at came about, and especially not if whatever had Aya hiding from everyone and refusing to look at certain people happened.

It was so easy to sit in the room that he shared with his lover, the small space that was filled with the various trinkets they’d been gifted by the friends they cared about and that they’d bought with the money they’d earned themselves, and not think about what was only a year or two away. War was approaching ever faster, and there was nothing that could be done to stop it. The gods themselves seemed to be pushing for it, stacking so much against Esset and Kritiker until the two countries had no choice but to fight.

"Well, we’ll just have to make sure that Ouka’s not the only one who stays safe, won’t we?" he whispered to Nagi as he rested their heads together.

That earned him a pleased chuckle. "As I always suspected, if something has to be done right, it’s up to us." Nagi curled his legs up onto the bed and snuggled closer. "Especially when people put their hope in an avaricious pervert, meddling precogs, a lazy soul gaki bound and gluttonous earth elementals too busy reading to fight." Disdain practically dripped from his voice during the litany.

Omi had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. "Yes, it’s a very good thing that we’re here to help save the world and protect Aya’s… uhm, well, protect Aya." He realized that Aya’s virtue was a long-lost cause, consider what the poor man was mated to the past two years.

Something smacked into the other side of his head, which turned out to be a pair of socks on their way to being packed. "Be quiet, or I’ll make a comment about wizards," Nagi threatened, but since he remained curled up next to Omi and on their bed while packing to go with him to spend time with his ‘family’, Omi figured it was a rather empty threat. He smiled and figured it was time to put into practice some of the skills he had learned from Yohji.

******* 

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