Tangled Threads

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chapter nine

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first blood

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The pounding in Crawford’s head made prying his eyelids apart a trial, but the sound of the bedroom door opening gave him the strength to manage such a feat. When he saw Jei enter the room with Cassandra carrying a tray in her hands at his heels, he somehow pushed up on his elbows and produced a low rumble of a growl.

"Hmph, so he still lives. Hoped I did, that Kisei had come calling when he failed to pay me a visit the other day." Cassandra attempted a light tone with her teasing, yet her concern battered at Crawford’s exhausted mind.

Allowing himself to fall back onto the stack of pillows, Crawford bared his teeth in response at the poor joke over his death and closed his eyes. "You just have to kick a man when he’s down, don’t you," he muttered to his bastard of a partner.

Jei chuckled as he opened a window. "What can I say, I need a witness to verify that you’re dead before I can start gnawing on your bones." There was the sound of things being shuffled about on the nightstand, and Crawford could smell Cassandra’s particular blend of tea and lots of honey. Hmm, a bit of whiskey as well, just what he needed to combat the energy drain from his talent. He forced his eyes open again to see Cassandra hand him a large mug filled with the steaming concoction, which he accepted with a curt nod of his head.

"You should have contacted me," she chided as she held onto the mug until she was certain that his hands were steady. Despite the sharp bite of the words, her expression and emotions remained concerned.

He waited until the tea was half gone before answering, despite the slight burn to his tongue. "I’ve been a bit too distracted with visions and fatigue to visit you," he replied, for once forgoing any sarcasm or reproach. "When I had the energy to spare any thought to the matter, it was to ask Jei to run errands that couldn’t wait." He gave her a look that made it clear what the impact of those errands meant.

Cassandra bowed her head in acknowledgement after a moment’s hesitation. "What have you seen?"

Funny, how even just a few months ago they would have traded barbs for much longer, until one of them snapped in anger. The situation had grown too desperate to give in to their egos any longer, and any insults now were more along the lines of following a ritual for comfort’s sake. He closed his eyes for a moment as he finished the tea, allowing a few more seconds for the brew to work its herbal magic on his headache before looking at the younger precog. "Unfortunately, because of the shinigami-bounds much of the immediate future is clouded, but I saw enough to know that the Elders’ agents will be moving into play within the next day or two."

Tears welled in Cassandra’s grey eyes, making them shimmer as if crystals. "Blood will flow that soon?" she asked in a quiet voice.

"Yes." Crawford held out the empty mug to be refilled. "Speaking of blood, one vision in particular had me sending Jei to inform Yuushi about how best to assign some of his Shadow Guards to hopefully avoid any unnecessary shedding." He let out a hiss of frustration as Cassandra poured more tea. "That was one of the few clear visions I’ve had." For all of the years that he’d had his talent, he had become used to the accompanying pain and viewed it as a necessary price in return for useful knowledge. Yet he’d never experienced so much effort for so little results as he’d had within the past day or two, and it frustrated him more than the lack of energy or the headaches.

"Was it little more than the darkness that is associated with Aya and Reno?"

"There were a few glimpses of what they might be involved in, which only confuses things even more." Crawford shifted into a better sitting position before he accepted the full mug of tea, feeling some of his strength finally return. "One of them will be at the palace, I saw that much."

Over by the window, Jei snapped his attention back into the room from whatever he had been looking at outside. "Eh? You didn’t mention that yesterday!" he snarled.

Taking his time to sip more tea, Crawford waited until the mug was empty enough to safely shrug while holding it. "It wasn’t important at the time." He stared at his furious partner. "It didn’t ‘feel’ as immediate as the other events and, to be perfectly honest, I don’t see how we’re to stop either Aya or Reno if they take it into their fool heads that they want to go to the palace when they’re perfectly aware of the danger awaiting them there," he pointed out in a perfectly dry tone.

"You fucking tell their mates!"

That answer made Crawford laugh, despite how the action made his head ache. "And? Suppose I do inform Rufus that his mate is in danger of showing up at the palace and there being the risk of bloodshed? What do you think happens next?"

Jei continued to glare at him for a few seconds and then had the grace to look sheepish. "The snobbish bastard freaks out, orders Reno to stay put and then Reno does the opposite just out of spite." He laughed after a moment’s pause. "Talk about your self-fulfilling prophecy, there."

"Exactly." Crawford had a bit more tea. "Do we even want to contemplate the Aya scenario?"

This time Jei swore as he scratched the back of his head. "Fuck, you’d find a way to get *me* to tell Yohji, wouldn’t you?" At Crawford’s pleased smile, Jei resumed glaring. "Fuck you."

"No thank you," Crawford quickly countered, while Cassandra giggled. "To be perfectly honest, while Rufus and Reno’s actions are rather easy to predict, the problem with Yohji and Aya is that they’re entirely *unpredictable*. While I’m certain that Yohji will do anything to keep Aya safe, it could very well be that he decides that the best course of action would be to handle whatever’s at the palace himself. In a manner that wouldn’t be half as unobtrusive as a kage, if that’s at all possible." He grimaced at the mere thought of a rampaging succubae bound armed with a magical weapon and shadows, immune to magic at that.

"And as a kage’s mate, it may be that the shadows on the future that we’re seeing are in regards to him," Cassandra was ever so helpful to add.

"Yes, exactly." Crawford stared at his mostly empty mug and wished for some more whiskey in it. "Of course, once Yohji is involved, so usually is Aya and it’s no wonder my head hurts." He fell silent as he considered something. "All I do know for certain is that at some point in the middle of the night, I had another flash of the future that was completely encompassed in darkness. I felt something shift, I just couldn’t see what." He stared intently at Cassandra. "Whatever it was, it had been very powerful."

She shivered as she nodded, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest. "Yes, I felt something as well, and came to you despite being furious at what I felt was your slight." She shivered again and leaned forward as if in search of comfort. "For one moment, so much death and darkness reigned."

He had felt something similar, had sensed amidst all that darkness just how many lives were hanging in the balance of the upcoming war, how many lives would be made to pay; as various futures flashed through his mind with his talent, all he could clearly *know* was that balance, and the possibility of so much blood spilt appalled him if the wrong choices were made. For a moment he had hated Aya and Reno, had hated anything with a shinigami soul that could stymie his power in a way that would prevent him from seeing what he needed to know in order to pick the right future… and then he remembered that the future he wanted would not be possible without them.

"Only for a moment, and only if we falter." He spoke the words with conviction, unwilling to accept any other outcome. There was a reason that he and Cassandra, two such powerful precogs, were born around the same time; they would see whatever was necessary and make the right decisions to ensure that the proper future for their kind came about. They wouldn’t let bounds remain enslaved and persecuted forever, nor would they allow the Elders’ twisted version of ‘utopia’ happen. As trite as it sounded, the best path for everyone would be the middle one, striving for some sort of balance for humans and bounds. If they had to fight the gods for that… well, it was just one more battle at this point.

"Nice to see that the ego never takes a hit," Jei teased as he got up from the windowsill. "If you’re holding down the tea now, then I’ll go make us something to eat."

"Remember to *cook* the damn meat this time!" Crawford called out to his roommate as the bastard left the room. "I refuse to eat anything raw!" He felt a throbbing under his left eye as he contemplated the literally bloody horror that Jei would probably return with soon enough.

Sitting on the edge of the bed beside him, Cassandra attempted to stifle a giggle with her small hands. When he turned to glare at her, she smiled and began to gather up the tray of tea she had brought with her. "Perhaps I’ll go help him with that meal, and then we shall talk some more." All signs of amusement left her as she stood up. "Compare visions we should, and about Aya’s recent behavior."

He resisted the urge to sigh as he nodded in agreement; for all of Cassandra’s youth, she was a mother through and through and could not resist the urge to look after people. That thought reminded him of something. "Where is the girl?" Anymore, Haru was always in Cassandra’s company.

"Bah, I left her with Jo in case you were being foolish," Cassandra explained with a wave of her hand as she walked out of the room. "She doesn’t like fighting or violence."

So she had left the child with a woman who could cow a rampaging flesh gaki bound and wielded her power over everyone and anyone? Crawford felt his headache returning and did his best to bite back on any retort before he broke the fragile truce between them. "Maybe I should go see if there’s any alcohol left," he grumbled as he began to rise out of bed.

*******

Aya woke up to find Yohji’s arms wrapped tightly around him. For a moment the memory from the night before returned, of being in the dark, echoing temple with Kisei’s overwhelming presence attempting to burrow into him. He shivered and pushed back against Yohji’s chest, wanting nothing more than to feel his mate, to be assured that he was *here* and safe. Yohji made a huffing noise and nuzzled Aya’s hair, his arms tightening around Aya’s chest to an almost unbearable degree for several seconds before loosening enough for him to take a deep breath of air.

"Hmm, you smell of flowers and rosemary, of all things. What were you up to last night?"

Aya stilled at the question, then slowly turned around to face his lover. Something, either his expression or his emotions, must have given him away because Yohji’s smile faded into a concern frown as he was hugged onto his mate’s chest. "What in all the hells? I was only kidding." There was a sharp edge to the words that made it clear that Yohji expected some sort of explanation, even as his touch was gentle as he combed his fingers through Aya’s hair.

Allowing himself a moment to enjoy the caress, Aya closed his eyes and struggled not to purr. When he felt his mate’s growing concern and impatience, he sighed and rested his chin on Yohji’s chest. "I… well, the shinigami aren’t the best for answers, so I decided to go to Kisei’s temple."

Yohji’s lovely green eyes narrowed as he thought about what had been said, as little as that had been. "In the middle of the night, while *I* was sleeping." Anger began to creep over their link.

Squirming a little, Aya offered a silent apology by stroking Yohji’s left side. "They tend to be more talkative when you’re not around, and I wanted to be quick. I figured if I went while everyone was sleeping…." He sighed again at the rather dubious expression on Yohji’s face. "I wasn’t certain it would work, and if it did, I didn’t want you to attract… *her* attention," he finally admitted in a hushed voice.

The room was quiet for about a minute, and then Yohji gave Aya’s left eartail a hard yank, startling a hiss from him. Still, it was worth the annoyance to feel some of that anger lessen. "So you thought it was a brilliant idea to go by yourself? Only *you*, Cat." Yohji rolled his eyes as if beseeching the gods for something, which made Aya hiss again. "Did it ever occur to you that I might not be too happy with the idea of you attracting Kisei’s attention, hmm?" He gave Aya’s eartail another yank, this time not as hard.

Aya rescued his poor hair and glared at his mate. "Yes, but…." He tried to order his thoughts in a manner that would make sense. "You belong to Jouyoku with your nature, whereas shinigami and shinigami bounds are clearly Kisei’s. I didn’t think she would harm me." No, if anything, she had made her ‘claim’ to Aya very clear, as what she had expected from him. He shivered again and breathed in deep Yohji’s scent.

"Why do I get the impression that it’s not a good thing, being Kisei’s?," Yohji asked, the concern back in his voice and emotions as he cupped the left side of Aya’s face.

For a moment, Aya wondered what it was like to go through life not being expected to kill, to know that you could look forward to a future of living without blood on your hands. Even if he thought it was possible to deny Kisei, he still had his nature to contend with, the fact that he needed the life-force of other people to sustain his own. That life-force could only be obtained by killing them.

"It’s better than belonging to the Takatori," he admitted with a whisper. All Kisei wanted from him was what he had to do anyway if he wanted to survive. He would give her those thousands of deaths in a day alone if need be to keep Yohji safe, so why did he still feel cold and a bit removed from the world, as if Yohji was the only thing anchoring him to reality?

"Love…." Yohji growled as he tugged Aya closer to him. "You belong only to yourself." He spoke the words with enough heat and force that Aya stared at him in shock. "Even I don’t have a true claim to you, only that I love you and that we have a bond between us." He smiled as he spoke and once more caressed Aya’s face, love and desire flowing over their link as if to assure that he wasn’t trying to downplay their mating bond. "You’re your own person, free and independent as… hell, as that damn nickname I gave you. Don’t let some uppity goddess push you around."

Aya blinked in shock a few times and attempted to process what he had just heard. "You’re insulting the goddess of death? Maybe Jo really has hit you one too many times on the head," he mumbled as he tried to pry himself away from his mate before he got grouped in with whatever divine retribution the idiot called down upon himself. It was a good thing that the shinigami weren’t here to overhear this particular conversation….

Yohji growled again and latched on to him, refusing to let him slip away. "Ha, ha, very funny." It was his turn to do some glaring. "You’re supposed to be in awe of my forcefulness and supporting nature, not mock me. Just for that, I think you should make it up to me." His glare turned into a leer as he hauled Aya in closer for what turned out to be a breath-stealing kiss. Only putting up resistance for the first few seconds, Aya allowed himself to settle more fully on top of his lover and lose himself in the emotions that were pouring into him, making him feel loved and ‘solid’ once more, a part of the world around him. Yohji centered him, made him feel as human as he would ever be, and he would never let him go.

Just as he began to grind his groin against Yohji’s right hip, his mate broke off the kiss with a quiet gasp. "So… what did… Kisei have to say?" Yohji asked, sounding a bit breathless.

Aya stared at him with furrowed brows, his poor brain needing a few seconds to understand what had just been said. Then he felt like smacking the idiot for ending things to resume their conversation. He muttered under his breath about idiots for a couple of seconds as he made himself more comfortable, half curled up on his lover with the covers pulled up around him.

"Aya~."

"Idiot," Aya proclaimed as he gave Yohji’s chest a light scratch in warning, glaring at the gold-toned hand that was inching its way toward his left eartail. "She basically confirmed that it’s okay if I save someone even if she’s marked them for death." He pressed his cheek against Yohji’s chest, unwilling to think about the goddess anymore. The sun was shining through the bedroom’s window and Yohji was here with him, he didn’t want to dwell anymore on death and darkness.

Warmth ran down his back as Yohji trailed his fingers along his spine. "And? Was that all she said about the matter?" For all that he accepted being called an ‘idiot’ on a daily basis, Yohji was a very intelligent man.

Aya sighed and rubbed his cheek against Yohji’s smooth skin. "She warned me that I couldn’t do it very often and that someone would still have to die in that person’s place." Even though he kept his tone even, Yohji must have picked up on his grim emotions judging from the rush of sympathy and love over their link.

"Hmm." Yohji’s hand took to massaging the back of his neck. "Gods love to throw little strings on everything, you can’t ever expect them to give anything for free." He snarled before bending forward to kiss Aya’s forehead. "That’s why I usually just stay the hell away from the Temple district other than the main holidays."

There was a definite wisdom in that, but Aya didn’t see any other choice right now. So much was happening, so much was at stake, and any wrong decisions not only impacted him but Yohji as well. He couldn’t help but think that kage had these abilities for a reason, yet his kind were so rare that his options of whom to ask was very limited. If he made the wrong choice….

"Just thinking about this makes my head hurt," he admitted as he closed his eyes. "Why does everything have to be so complicated?"

Yohji hummed a little as he played with Aya’s hair. "Personally? I think the gods are trying to drive us crazy for their own twisted amusement. It’s a good thing you have me."

"Yes, so you can drive me insane instead." Aya smiled despite having his eartail tugged on and lifted his head to look at his mate. "Are you going to try to deny it?"

"… no," Yohji pouted. Then he grinned as he lifted Aya’s chin to deliver a quick kiss. "But you won’t mind it too much in the end."

"Because I’ll be insane by then," Aya pointed out with a hint of weariness.

"Insane and deliriously happy," Yohji said with an even bigger grin.

Deciding that it wasn’t an argument that he could win, Aya merely shook his head instead.

"See, you’re admitting it’s true. Such a smart kitty." Yohji smiled in the face of being hissed at. Then his emotions took a serious turn as he brushed the back of his fingers along Aya’s cheek. "What are we going to do, now that you know you won’t get into any trouble with Kisei?"

Tilting his face into the caress, Aya allowed himself to just feel for a moment, to savor his mate’s attention and emotions. For right now, right here, he was Yohji’s. "We’ll have to go to the palace," he finally said, revealing something about what he had seen the other night.

To give his mate credit, all that Yohji did was widen his eyes as fear, concern and surprise flashed over their link. His left arm tightened around Aya’s waist, then his eyes narrowed as his fingers rubbed around Aya’s hip. "We’ll be using shadows, right?" That was the only way he gave in to the fear he felt about them heading in to what was currently ‘enemy’ territory.

"Of course," Aya replied as he shifted forward to brush their lips together. "The only evidence we’ll leave behind is a dead body."

"I’ll hold you to that, love." Yohji’s voice was roughened by a growl, his protective nature rushing to the fore; Aya didn’t mind as he wasn’t being asked questions or being told ‘no’, a true show of trust between them. "Anything else we have to do?"

"Not right now," Aya murmured before he pressed their lips together. He didn’t want to talk about gods, death or anything else for a while, he just wanted to feel all the wonderful things that Yohji could bring out in him. Combing his fingers through his mate’s loose hair, he gave in to savoring the love and passion between them.

*******

Alexis stood near Helena, most of her attention devoted to keeping watch over the girl and everyone who came near her, mindful of any possible threats while projecting an image of calm boredom. Helena smiled and managed to carry on polite conversations with those who approached, doing Wufei and Quatre proud with the skills that had been drilled into her over the last several months and showing off the promise of the queen that she would eventually become if given a chance. Every now and then she would blush and duck her head when overwhelmed by all the people or over forgetting some small fact, yet all that behavior did was endear her to those around her; it was clear that she was both innocent and human, a young woman who was doing her best to make friends and who bore no grudges or ulterior motives against her hosts. If the Elders had hoped to make Kritiker’s Court feel that Esset was in the hands of an inexperienced child and so was best left to her ‘regents’, then they had failed miserably as it was clear that the Court had formed a favorable impression of the princess – just as Quatre had plotted. There would be no objections here when the time came for Helena to truly assume the throne.

Then the girl would reveal her core of strength and alliances with bounds, and oh, the fun would truly begin, Alexis thought as she sipped some tea. For a moment her demon soul flared in frustration; for too long it had been tea and wine aplenty and too little blood and flesh, but there was little recourse for her demon nature while ‘trapped’ here in Eto. The little bit of blood that she had been able to indulge in at the Celadon Leaf hadn’t been able to fully sate her appetite, but at least it had been something. She swallowed a growl and focused back on her surroundings, promising herself a good hunt the moment they left the city to return home.

At least Kendra was able to feast while here, the succubae bound’s golden skin all but glowing against the dark bronze material of her tightly fitted dress. Alexis shoved aside the pang of envy she felt over that fact and handed off the empty tea cup when a servant hovered nearby, declining another with a quick shake of her head. She gathered the full skirts of her dove grey dress in her hands and stepped closer to Helena, who was in the middle of a conversation with Lady Meara and another highborn, a pale-looking older woman named Kotone, if she remembered correctly.

"-perhaps you can come for another visit later in the year, when things are a little less hectic. I think it would be nice if you could spend some more time to get to know our… Court a bit better," Lady Kotone said, her right hand busy twisting the biggest diamond that Alexis had ever seen on her left ring finger.

Alexis shared a knowing look with Lady Meara; she was certain that the other highborn was playing matchmaker, and just as certain that it was a fruitless endeavor, considering Prince Mamoru and his ‘devoted’ servant. If there was one thing a bound was good at recognizing, it was a possessive relationship, and there was no way that either of those two young men were letting go of the other without one hell of a fight.

Helena bowed her head slightly. "I thank you for the kind offer, but I would have to see if my tutors think it would be prudent for me to abandon my studies at such a time." The child was wise to phrase it in such a manner, instead of speak of the truth. There was little chance that the Elders would allow her out of their reach anytime soon, especially when they were planning a war.

Lady Kotone gave Helena an understanding smile. "Of course. I’m certain there is much still for you to learn, though you’re doing an admirable job so far." She reached out to pat Helena’s gloved left forearm.

Martha chose that moment to join their little group, having wandered over from whatever bit of mischief that Anthony had assigned her for the day, no doubt. As she insinuated herself near Helena, Alexis noticed a familiar pair of blue-garbed gentlemen slowly make their way toward an open spot not far away and felt her heart speed up a little.

She had recognized Yonekuni’s scent as soon as she had entered the rose garden for the tea party and had done her best to not seek out the Guard, determined to do her duty of watching over Helena. For the last two hours, she had been tormented by teases of his scent and flashes of dark blue, as if he hovered around her but stayed just out of sight. Now he was finally in range, a slight frown on his face as his attention drifted over the small crowd she stood within. She was tempted to send out a mental greeting to him, but something kept her from doing so while he was obviously working; with the Queen and several important Court officials here, he might be upset with her distracting him.

Martha laughed, the sound grating on Alexis’ nerves and making her want to bare her teeth at the weaker bound. "Yes, our little princess has always been a source of pride to us," she said, the blatant lie putting Alexis on edge and dredging a nervous smile from Helena. Why was the fire elemental putting on such ‘charm’ when she could barely stand the girl any other time? "She takes her studying very seriously."

"Thank you," Helena murmured as she shifted closer to Alexis, clearly not trusting whatever Martha was working up to just then.

"Oh yes, if anything, she studies too hard. The child really does need to set aside her lessons and get outside more often. That’s why it’s so nice to see her enjoying herself at teas like these." Martha laughed again and motioned with her arms – and did not seem to realize that she was standing a bit too close to one of the blooming rose bushes. As she brushed her bare left arm against the branches, the sharp thorns bit into her skin and scratched deep enough to draw blood.

She cried out in pain and jerked her arm free, causing a few drops of blood to fly through the air. As the scent of blood hit her senses, Alexis felt her demon nature rush to the fore, unleashed by her hunger and the need to feed. She wanted to drink, to tear into already bleeding flesh, to draw forth more blood, to drain it dry and-

<Stop. Calm yourself.>

The words, spoken with authority and reinforced with a sense of calm, cut through the building madness. Yonekuni was a powerful soul gaki bound, not too strong to be a challenge but strong enough to stand up to her own demon soul. Alexis latched on to the calmness he radiated and used it to force back the hunger before- <Did I?> she asked in a panic, worried that she had bared her fangs and claws in the moments that the madness had taken over.

Reassurance flooded into her. <I cast a quick illusion.> She looked over to find Yonekuni smiling at her, just a slight curve of the lips, and then glanced away to find his partner fussing over Martha and her injured arm. <John served as a distraction as well,> he informed her.

"Are you all right?" Helena whispered as she clutched at Alexis’ right arm, familiar enough with flesh gaki bounds to know what a sudden scenting of blood like that could do to one of them. Yet the foolish child put herself in close proximity, earning Alexis’ respect as she gave Helena’s hand a squeeze.

"I’m fine," she whispered back. As she turned her attention over to Martha, she caught a whiff of frustration and confusion, and the sight of Kendra running over to join them, panic on her face until she realized that Alexis was all right and in control. Then the succubae bound schooled her expression and began to tease Martha about forgetting about being in a rose garden.

Martha pouted as everyone fussed over her scratched arm. "I didn’t realize that the roses had such nasty thorns," she complained.

Lady Meara motioned for a servant to fetch some wet, clean napkins. "The Royal Gardner believes that it’s a shame to strip the roses of their thorns, as they are a natural part of the flowers," she explained. "I would have thought that you had been warned about them by now."

Yes, Alexis could clearly recall having been told that fact several times, as a reminder to keep her fingers and clothes from being harmed while in the gardens. She spared a quick glance beneath lowered lashes at Yonekuni.

<I could pick up that her thoughts were centered on you and that there was a lot of animosity in her emotions. From what I gather from her surface thoughts, she knew about the thorns and is upset that you didn’t go berserk in front of witnesses just now.> He continued to play the role of an aloof Guard while disgust and shock colored his thoughts. <Isn’t she supposed to be your ally? How could she risk betraying a fellow bound like that?>

Alexis took a few seconds to control her demon nature before she answered, very tempted just then to give in to the urge to rip out an enemy’s throat. <Because in Berin, status is more important than loyalty, I’m afraid,> she gave as an explanation, well aware just how poor of an excuse it was. <Tell me… is there any indication that she was acting on orders?> She wasn’t aware of how powerful Yonekuni was and knew that she was asking a lot, but if anyone had put the little bitch up to this….

She watched while everyone fussed over Martha’s injured arm, well aware of how the fire elemental was deliberately avoiding looking at her and the way that Kendra seemed reluctant to have anything to do with Martha; Tan Xi or Anthony may have ordered this act of betrayal, but she was willing to bet her next meal that the succubae bound had nothing to do with it.

<I don’t think the fool was acting on orders. While I can’t risk scanning too deeply, what I can pick up is that she’s terrified of everyone figuring out what she did now that it failed,> Yonekuni assured Alexis. <She was certain it would work and that she’d make someone very happy. Now she realizes that she could be in a great deal of trouble.>

Oh yes, ‘trouble’ didn’t begin to describe the situation that Martha now found herself in. At least Alexis was reassured that the others weren’t traitors; she had some doubts about Anthony, but had always felt that if Tan Xi wanted her dead, it would be at the woman’s own hands, not set up to be killed by the Guards or Army at Kritiker’s Court. No, for all of Tan Xi’s other flaws, she wouldn’t betray another bound quite like this. Even with the hate between them, she would be livid when she out what Martha had just done. <Thank you for your help,> Alexis sent to the Guard. <Even with… your kind now in existence, I would dread to see what would have happened if I’d have given in to the hunger.> At the least, it would have meant leaving Helena unprotected while she was spirited out of the palace, she imagined.

Warmth flooded through her. <You’re more than welcome. It’s not often that I get to come to the aid of such a lovely woman.> Yonekuni sketched a very shallow bow in her direction before turning away, pretending to pay attention to something else. She was certain that no one else had noticed his behavior and couldn’t help but smile before turning towards Helena.

‘Lovely woman’, hmm? Oh, she would *have* to find the time before leaving to properly thank the man for his assistance today. That would be just as enjoyable as when she managed to get Martha alone.

"You look very pleased all of a sudden," Helena whispered as they approached the gaggle of women hovering around a pained-looking Martha.

"Hmm, I’m finding myself quite fond of the color blue all of a sudden," she murmured in reply, earning a pleased giggle from her charge when Helena figured out what she implied.

"There is that trip to the Temple district that I’ve been wanting to make," Helena offered with a knowing grin. Alexis nodded in approval, certain that a handsome Guard with a talent of picking up thoughts would be included in the escort.

*******

Hans-Achim motioned for the three bounds to join him in the small room that he had made careful note of in the past week was often left empty and had warded for a more private use tonight; his eyes narrowed at the way that Lukas and Martha shuffled inside with obvious reluctance. The fire elemental had been in a very subdued mood ever since the tea earlier today, and the earth elemental on edge since Anthony had informed him of the mission tonight. For a moment, Hans-Achim wished that his talent for magic included the ability to read minds, as something clearly was going on to strip the bounds of their focus on what was important just then.

"Is there someplace else you would rather be?" he asked, his tone sharp as he glared at the two as they suddenly found staring at everything else in the room to be of great interest. Beside him, Isaac shifted as if impatient.

Martha made a sound as if to clear her throat. "No, I- I’m pleased to have been chosen to assist you tonight." She finally stopped staring at the carpet and smiled at him, careful not to expose any of her teeth even though he wasn’t a bound.

Lukas continued to fidget a moment longer and then sighed. "I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m here." He gave Hans-Achim’s face a quick glance and looked aside. "I’ve never done anything like this before," he mumbled, a faint blush spreading across his cheeks.

The gods give him the strength, Hans-Achim mentally beseeched as he reached into an inner pocket of his black vest. "Because you were picked for your talent and your seeming innocence, as well as the fact you’re supposed to have *some* intelligence," he answered, his tone even sharper than before. "Here, take these, they’re illusion charms that will help you pass as servants," he told the two fools as he handed over the items. Martha and Lukas would need them to blend in while he and Isaac were dressed much the same as the various servants running around in the palace’s halls.

Once the charms had been accepted, he felt it was time to let the two bounds know what was in store for them. "When I tell you to, you’re to make your way near the princess’ quarters." He was quick to raise his hand to forestall any objections, one withering glare on his part forcing Martha’s jaw to snap shut. "Yes, I’m well aware of the fact that there are plenty of Guards around the area, that’s something we’re about to deal with in a few minutes. Once you’re adequately equipped, you’re to get as close as you can and use your talents to cause a fire in her quarters and render aid unreachable. Am I clear?"

Lukas took a shuddering breath as he shared a look with Martha. "But… won’t it be obvious what caused the fire or the damage if we’re involved?"

"I trust you to not be too heavy-handed, but all that matters is that there is no proof that magic is involved and you’re not caught." Hans-Achim smiled as he held out his empty hands. "Anything I do will leave traces, but your talents have no such drawbacks."

Martha managed a smile as she nodded. "Very true. If we can get close enough to look inside a window, as soon as I spot a candle, lamp or a fireplace, I can use that as a source for the fire."

For his part, Lukas still appeared a bit queasy at the thought of killing people. "I… I suppose I can cause the doors to swell or something," he offered, his voice faint.

Hans-Achim took a step forward and grasped the earth elemental’s chin. "You will do whatever is necessary, is that understood? Or else you will have to explain to our lords and lady back home, *if* you are lucky enough to be able to return, why you failed," he hissed in warning.

Lukas paled at the implied threat and nodded as much as he was able with the firm hold on his chin. "Yes."

"Good." Hans-Achim released the bound and stepped back. "Be quiet while on your way, as we have our own jobs to complete." He looked over at Isaac, who as always was quiet and unobtrusive. "Come with us while we get the final part that you need."

The dark-haired earth elemental motioned at the door. "We should be able to find some in the hallway by the Notary’s office," he replied to the unspoken question, seeking to please however he could. At least here was a bound who wouldn’t cause any problems.

"Good." Hans-Achim motioned for everyone to leave the room, well aware of the curious look on Isaac’s face and how the young man kept any questions to himself. That was very wise of him, as now was the time to obey orders. Hans-Achim was careful to retrieve the charm that he had used to ward the room from others as he left, and to note that Isaac and Martha were using the illusion charms as ordered.

There might be a bit of curiosity over four servants wandering around together, but most people were in the other part of the palace attending yet another senseless party, all in preparation for the ‘big day’ tomorrow – Princess Ouka’s first birthday. Those who weren’t at the party were preparing for the important day, so the halls were even more deserted than usual this time of night.

The few people who did see them probably assumed that they had been sent on some sort of task or another, and allowed them to go unchallenged. As Hans-Achim had noticed during his stay in Eto, attitude and appearing as if you belonged went a long way in fitting in here, and he led his little group with a determined air. There was *nothing* that was getting in the way of him completing his mission for the Elders.

When they neared the Notary’s office, around the border of the warded area, he slowed down and motioned for Martha and Lukas to stop. The two bounds had the sense to do what they were told, and once positioned out of the way, he and Isaac continued onward.

They only were about halfway down the hall when two forms stepped out of the shadows of a doorway, both wearing long, dark blue coats. "It’s a bit late to be running errands, isn’t it?" the shorter of the two Guards called out, a man with short blond hair shot with grey strands.

Hans-Achim summoned a pleasant smile and tapped his vest, causing a crinkle of paper from an inner pocket. "My apologies, but my lady insisted that I drop off something for the Notary. She hopes that if it’s in his office, he’ll deal with it first thing in the morning."

The Guard laughed as he shook his head. "I’m afraid that there’s not going to be any paperwork done for the next day or two. All offices are closed for the princess’ birthday." He sounded a bit apologetic for that fact.

Hans-Achim held up his hands to show that he was helpless over the matter. "I tried to explain that to my lady, but she insisted that I deliver the note. Please, let me just drop it off and we’ll be on our way." As he spoke, he and Isaac steadily kept approaching the Guards.

The taller of the two Guards, who had kept quiet during the exchange, stepped away from the wall and stood beside his partner. He seemed to take a deep breath and stared behind Hans-Achim. "Is it just the two of you? Who is your lady?" he asked, a hint of gruffness to his deep voice.

Dammit, somehow the Guard must have spotted Martha or Lukas. All that mattered was that the Guards were just over the edge of the ward, from what Hans-Achim could tell, so he sent a hand signal to Isaac to take out the Guards. The earth elemental let out a snarl as he complied, and the older Guard made a choking sound as he shuddered and slumped to the floor.

However, the younger Guard only fell to his knees and managed to land his trembling right hand onto his left arm. Cursing to the gods, Hans-Achim let loose with a spell that caused the man’s body to seize before he could use the copper gauntlet to send out a warning, closing the distance between them to kick at the Guard’s head while waiting for Isaac to finish using his talent to render the men unconscious. He bent down to snatch at the gauntlets, pleased to see there was no spell to charm them to a certain individual, as suspected, and inspected the copper bands while the earth elemental disposed of the Guards into the Notary’s office.

A quick test revealed that he could breach the ward while wearing one of the bands, which meant that they had what they needed to complete their missions for the night. As there wasn’t a cadre of Guard and Army honing in on them at the moment, it was definitely safe to say that they could use the bands with impunity.

Isaac emerged after a few minutes, smelling of blood and sweat. Hans-Achim paid him enough attention to ensure that he was presentable enough to wander around the palace without attracting any unwanted attention.

"I thought you were supposed to be strong enough to handle two humans," he asked as the bound approached.

Isaac’s face flushed at the implied criticism, and he quickly frowned. "I can! There was something odd about that guy." His frown deepened and he shook his head. "Maybe he had some charm or something on him. I’ll put more effort into the next two," he offered, as eager to please as ever.

Hans-Achim held his gaze for several seconds before relenting. "Be certain that you do." As it stood, a powerful wizard would be able to tell that a spell had been cast on the one Guard – so he would have to make certain that it was difficult for Kritiker’s king to easily find a powerful wizard.

They returned to Martha and Lukas, who were waiting huddled together. "Here, these will let you gain access to the princess’ quarters. I’m certain they have some sort of inner guard around the brat, so don’t approach too directly," he warned the bounds.

Martha accepted the gauntlet with a curt nod, while Lukas hesitated. "You… this came from a Guard?" His eyes widened with shock. "Is that blood I smell?"

"Why do you care?" Isaac demanded to know, for once speaking up. "They kill our kind all of the time, now we got some of our own back," he snarled.

Lukas stared at the man for several seconds before looking back at the gauntlet, which he accepted with a trembling hand. "What about you?" he asked as he fumbled to put on the copper band.

"There’s an abundance of Guards to be found," Hans-Achim remarked. "Worry about your own mission," he reminded the young man.

Lukas nodded as he tapped Martha on the shoulder, then motioned down the hallway. She hissed a little, obviously feeling that she should be in charge, and he let her take the lead as they went to do what they had been ordered.

Hans-Achim watched them for a minute before turning to face Isaac. "Be certain to take these next two out without any problems this time," he chided the earth elemental as he turned about to go back into the warded area. There would be more Guards to be found in there, and less of a chance of anyone stumbling across them as they harvested two more gauntlets.

Isaac murmured in agreement and hurried along, showing the most animation that he had yet during their stay here in Eto. Someone was clearly relishing the chance to spill Kritiker blood.

By the time the night was over, quite a bit of blood would be spilled – commoner, royal and magic-born. It would only be a taste of what was to come for the country, a gift Hans-Achim would give to the gods to ensure victory.

*******

Feeling a strain in his back and shoulders from sitting for so long, Takashi groaned as he leaned back in the wooden chair and stretched his arms over his head. It felt as if he had been working on charms all day.

Across the room, Botan looked up from a spell book that he had been reading and chuckled. "Should I call a page for more food?" he asked, sounding a little tired and rather amused.

"Oh, would you? I think the only thing that I am more than sore right now is hungry!" Takashi admitted with a laugh. He pointedly ignored the sour look that Haruto was giving him for that declaration and smiled at Botan.

The Royal Wizard smiled back and placed a marker in the page that he had been reading. "It’s probably a good idea to take a break." He consulted a watch on his desk and his smile turned into a frown. "My apologies, I didn’t realize that it had grown so late."

"It’s all right, sir," Haruto was quick to state as he set aside a finished charm. "We understand how important it is to finish everything in time for tomorrow’s ceremonies." There was a faint hint of reproach in his voice that Takashi knew was directed his way. He struggled with the urge to stick his tongue out at the other boy, something that he knew was very childish, and wished that Omi was here. Even better, that *Nagi* was here and could teach the grumpy fop what a real glare or show of disproval looked like.

Botan’s eyes narrowed the slightest bit, a sign that Takashi was familiar with after working with the wizard these last few months, and he wondered if Haruto realized that he was slowly getting on the man’s nerves. Hiding a grin by resting his chin on his hand, Takashi decided the answer was ‘no’ and that he wouldn’t inform his fellow student. "There’s little sense in pushing yourself so far that you make careless mistakes," Botan chided with a touch of heat.

Haruto’s pale face flushed and he bowed his head. "Yes, sir. I’m sorry, I just don’t want to disappoint you or the king," he replied in a subdued manner.

"You will only do that by not living up to your potential and failing to think things through." Botan seemed to take pity on the boy and smiled. "The king expects loyalty, not blind devotion. Just do your best and *give* your best, and you’ll do fine. Takashi is a good example to follow." His eyes sparkled as he glanced at Takashi, as if he was well aware of how a highborn would take that last piece of advice.

Looking as if he wanted to argue but unwilling to do so, Haruto managed a shaky smile and nodded. "Thank you, sir." Then his stomach rumbled loudly enough to be heard across the room, and his blush returned in force. "Uhm…."

"Ha! I think you’re going to get a reputation of starving your assistants, sir!" Takashi teased the wizard. "Just wait until Jo and Cassandra find out about this!"

Botan looked pained as he closed the spell book. "I swear, you two eat just as much as, as flesh gaki," he declared as he rose from his desk. "How am I supposed to keep up with your two stomachs?"

"You could try not to work us so hard," Takashi offered with a cheeky grin while Haruto stared on in shock.

"Nice try," Botan chided as he walked over to Takashi’s desk to cuff him on the back of his head. "Why am I always plagued with such lazy assistants?" he asked while looking up to the heavens.

"Hey!" Haruto complained, for once sounding like a normal teenager and not some stuffy highborn. "Don’t lump us all together with the walking stomach over there. Not even Omi eats as much as him," he added with an offended sniff. "We’d get more work done if we didn’t have to stop to feed him all the time."

Takashi just smiled at his fellow assistant. "Yeah, but you and Omi always eat with me, don’t you?" He laughed when Haruto just made a displeased noise and looked away.

Botan laughed as well and headed toward the door. "I’ll see if the page can scrounge up some food from the party." He gave Takashi a knowing wink as he reached for the door knob. "It pays to have such nice young men around when it comes to requesting food all the time."

"Aha! The real reason you want us here comes out!" Takashi was chuckling as Botan opened the door, happy at the break and the teasing going on, and so didn’t think it was real when the wizard suddenly was sent flying back into the room to land in a crumpled heap by his desk. Both he and Haruto stared in shock for a moment at the sight of a strange man with dark hair who strolled into the room as if he belonged there. Seeing him raise his hands as if to cast a spell kicked off a warning in Takashi’s brain and he called forth a ward, ingrained after the last few months of practicing with Botan and Omi.

He felt something powerful hit into the hastily erected ward, and a distant part of his mind reflected on the fact that whoever this man was, he had nothing on Omi. Then he realized that he had heard a cry of pain from Haruto and turned to see the other boy crumple to the ground, a flicker of magic sparking around him as if wards collapsing. The stranger smiled, the expression almost hungry, and looked over at Takashi.

"You’re not much of a challenge, but at least you’re *something*," he taunted as he held up his hands again. He cast another spell, only to have it be deflected by Takashi’s wards.

"Who are you?" Takashi demanded, his voice raspy from shock even as he did his best to shift aside enough so he and his wards offered some protection to Botan, who was somewhere behind him. While this wizard might not be as powerful as Omi, he was still strong and too fast with the spells; Takashi would have to lower his wards to attack and was struggling to ready something powerful enough to take the bastard down.

The wizard’s grin took on a cruel edge. "It doesn’t matter as you’ll soon be dead." His hand grew bright with an orange glow, and Takashi swore under his breath as he put all the effort he could into his wards, hoping that they would be enough to protect him and Botan, wishing that he could extend them enough for Haruto as well.

Just as the wizard was raising his hands, the book on Botan’s desk lifted and flew through the air with blinding speed, hitting the man in the chest. As he cried out in shock, Takashi could only stare as Omi and Nagi slipped into the room, both dressed in fine clothes.

"Om-" Takashi tried to warn his friend but found himself silenced as if an invisible hand was held over his mouth. As he watched, the wizard recovered from the odd assault and once more readied for another attack, this one aimed at Omi and Nagi, who merely stood there in front of him.

The man cast the ball of pure orange flame, and Takashi felt a stabbing pain in his chest as it flew toward his friends. Yet as it came in contact with the two young men it… disappeared in a wave of sparks, leaving them unharmed.

"How… impossible!" the wizard cried out, his green eyes wide with surprise and his hands falling down to his side for a moment before he began to lift them again.

"Not really," Omi remarked in a cold tone as he raised his hands as well. He called forth magic, faster and brighter than the other mage, and released it without any seeming effort at all. The ball of white energy turned into writhing tendrils that sunk into the older wizard and had him screaming in pain before he fell onto the floor.

As Takashi watched, Nagi approached the unconscious wizard, staring with such a cold, hateful expression as an old cloak of Botan’s floated across the room to him and then began to be ripped to pieces by invisible hands. Once in dozens of strips, the material tied itself around the wizard, who moved about on the floor as the strips wrapped around his arms, legs and lower face.

"You’re leavin’… ‘im alive, right?"

Takashi looked away from the amazing sight to find Botan leaning heavily against his desk, clutching something in his left hand. He was bleeding from a wound to his left temple and had bruises on the side of his face.

"Botan!" Omi cried out at the sight of his teacher and raced over to his side, with Nagi soon following. "Are you all right?"

"More or less," Botan sighed as he winced at being hugged. He released Omi to look around the room, seeming to relax a little at seeing Takashi. "Where’s Haruto?"

"He’s still breathing," Nagi muttered with a scowl on his face.

Forcing himself to move, Takashi went over to the other boy, finding him lying near his desk. Whatever the wizard had done to him had knocked him out, but like Nagi had said, he was still alive. "I think he needs a healer."

"They should be arriving soon," Omi said.

Takashi shook his head, trying to make sense of everything that was going on. "No, let me go fetch one now." He had only taken a few steps away from Haruto when that invisible force was back, keeping him in place. Feeling panic build in him, he stared over at Omi. "What-"

His friend gave him a weary smile and slid an arm around Nagi’s waist as the quiet teenager stared at him. "I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave the room just yet." His smile vanished as he looked over at Botan. "There’s a dead page just outside the door, and several Guards have been killed and injured tonight." He motioned toward the bound wizard. "That’s a Guard’s gauntlet he’s wearing."

Dead? Guards had been killed? A page? Who would want to kill a young girl? "How do you know this stuff?" Takashi demanded, his voice growing brittle with hysteria. "And why did that guy come here to kill us?" Five minutes ago he had been sitting here joking and laughing, and now Haruto was injured and there was a wizard who had tried to kill them all tied up on the floor and dead people outside the room.

"Want me to…." Nagi motioned to the bookshelf, where several books began to vibrate on their shelves.

"No!" Omi twisted about to glare at his boyfriend. Then he let out a slow breath and glanced over his shoulder at Botan, who moved with shaky steps to rest against the front of his desk. "That’s a wizard from Esset. From what we can tell, he was sent here to kill you."

"How do you know that?" Takashi stared at his friend, desperate to have any of this make any sense.

Omi’s shoulders drooped as he stared at the floor for a moment. "One of my friends, a precog, had a vision and had another friend, a soul gaki bound, sent me a warning a short while ago. So Nagi and I raced here to help save you." He looked up at Takashi with a defiant expression on his face.

Precogs? Soul gaki bounds? Takashi began to laugh and stopped when neither Botan nor Omi joined in. "You… you’re not kidding, are you?"

Nagi’s glare went up a notch. "How do you think I took care of that asshole?" he growled as another book floated through the air to gently smack into Takashi’s chest.

As he stared at the younger teen in shock, Botan cleared his throat, diverting Takashi’s attention. The wizard winced as he gently touched his bleeding head. "There’s been something I’ve wanted to tell you for a while, and that’s the fact that we associate with several bounds. This extends to here at the palace." His hand dropped to his side as he regarded Takashi with calm intent. "I hope that this isn’t a problem for you."

Takashi stared at his teacher for a minute or two, his mouth opening and closing several times before he could speak. For a while now, he suspected that something was being kept from him, but bounds? In the palace? He wanted to say that it was ridiculous, utterly impossible… and then found himself looking over to Omi and Nagi.

He suddenly felt very weary and his head hurt. He just wanted to find his room and curl up in bed for a long time, to talk to his mother and be told that everything was all right. "No, it’s not a problem," he admitted. How could it be, when Nagi was a friend? No wonder Omi was so protective of his boyfriend.

"Good." Botan appeared ready to fall off of his feet at any moment. "You said that you were warned?" he asked Omi.

The boy started at the question, as most of his attention had been on Takashi. "Yes! Schuldig passed on the warning from Crawford," he exclaimed as he hurried back to the man’s side. "I let Birman know, but I get the impression that she and Trowa are a bit busy right now, plus I’m sure that they’re giving us time to deal with a wizard." He bit his lip as he looked back at the door. "They’re trying to keep things quiet from the rest of the palace, but it looks like the agents finally decided to attack tonight. I don’t know what else they’re doing, but we saw them dealing with some of the causualties on the way here."

Botan closed his eyes as he accepted the piece of cloth that Nagi handed to him. "Birman and Yuushi aren’t going to take the losses very well." Then he opened his eyes and managed a slight smile for the two boys. "At least we’re alive, so thank you for that."

Omi nodded in acknowledgement. "You’re welcome." Then his eyes narrowed. "But really, you should have been prepared!" He motioned to whatever it was that Botan still held clutched in his right hand. "You should have kept that on you!"

Botan appeared chagrinned at being chastised by an assistant, and only shook his head, the slight motion quickly arrested as a pained expression took over at the motion. Watching the two, something occurred to Takashi, causing him to leave Haruto’s side. "Hey, how did you get here so quickly? Weren’t you staying with your family?"

A bright flush crept over Omi’s face as he shifted away from Botan. "Uhm, yeah, about that." He began to toy with the hem of his very elaborate tunic, which Takashi belatedly realized was in the royal colors of light blue and white. "I… was."

"Huh?" But hadn’t Omi said he had raced here when he had received the warning? How had he gotten here so quickly? And why was he dressed so fancily?

Botan chuckled as he tucked whatever he had been holding back into a small box on his desk. "It seems that tonight is a night for secrets to come out." He was saved from explaining any further when there was a knock on the door frame before a Guard and a Healer stepped into the room.

Takashi stared intently at Omi, who mouthed ‘later’ while Botan insisted that the healer deal with Haruto first. As more Guards rushed into the room, Takashi went over to Omi’s side, determined not to let the teenager out of his sight until he got those answers.

*******

Shen stifled a yawn as he walked back to his quarters, just wanting to curl up in his bed after spending the last several hours in the Cretian emissary’s presence. Khryses wasn’t nearly as entertaining as Emir and much more stingy with the wine; all the man wanted to do was talk about possible trade alliances while drinking coffee that was so thick it could be served as a soup, Shen thought with a shiver of disgust. *Coffee*. The boxes of civilized green tea that he had given the man as gifts had disappeared the gods only knew where, as they never had been offered again in his presence, only some black blend tainted with licorice flavor that was barely more tolerable than the coffee. He mostly made do with water while visiting the man, hoping for the conversation to take *some* turn towards the approaching war to make his evening worthwhile. Either Khryses had the patience of a stone or wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter, a deplorable thought considering why else would the man be spending so much time in Eto.

Whatever the reason for the man’s silence, it meant wasted time on Shen’s part when he could have been at a party celebrating the princess’ birthday, watching the emissaries from Esset and overhearing so many wonderful conversations. He frowned as he tucked his hands into the full sleeves of his white and red tunic. All that wine and food, all those lowered inhibitions because of said wine and food, so much to see and hear, gone while he reminded Khryses yet again that he wasn’t authorized to agree on anything to do with grain shipments. Somehow, he suspected that Birman was behind tonight’s torment; he would have to think of something suitable to strike back in return.

His thoughts devoted to various ways to gain revenge on the Spymaster, he only half-heartedly acknowledge the few servants that he passed on the way to his quarters. The hour was late and most of the people were concentrated in the main halls and ballrooms where the entertainment took place, not in the quieter living quarters.

Reaching his rooms, he unlocked the door and entered the front room, finally giving in to the urge to yawn since no one else was around. He was half-tempted to track down a page and request some hot water and snacks before going to bed, before deciding that he could do without the tea and a light meal after all. All he wanted was to soak in the bath and then to curl up in bed before facing another day at Court. He would write some letters after breakfast and begin another day of teas, meals and parties, all filled with double-meaning conversations and spying. If the gods were kind, there would be a possibility or two of twisting Birman’s tail, as well.

Busy undoing the fastenings of his tunic, he headed to the bathing room and noticed a slight breeze as he neared his bedroom. Knowing that he had closed all of the windows and balcony doors before he had left, he continued on his way, his right hand dropping from his chest to fall into his left sleeve, where he hid a small, thin knife. He had just grasped the blade when something knocked into him with blinding speed.

He let out a grunt as he hit the ground, doing his best to twist around and stab whoever it was who held on to him. He felt some resistance against the blade and then a fist smashed into the left side of his head, hitting with so much force that he was stunned and left short of breath for a moment. While he struggled to orient himself from both the fall and the blow, the weapon was snatched from his hand.

As he lay on the floor, the Xanian half-breed from Esset glared down at him, his knife held in the man’s hand. There was so much hate on the man’s face that part of Shen wanted to recoil from him, even as he told himself that he had to remain calm and try to talk himself out of this situation. "Most of my visitors knock first before-" He broke off in a gasp of pain as it felt as if his chest was suddenly full of glass.

"Shut up," the man hissed as he stepped back and let the knife fall to the floor, almost as if taunting Shen with the weapon. "I’m sick of hearing your voice, going on and on as if you belong here. You’re a weak people, pretending to fit in with your betters."

It sounded as if someone had a grudge against his Xanian heritage. Shen would laugh if he could force the sound out past a throat gone tight with pain. He tried to move his right hand toward the knife but the limb began to spasm before it moved more than an inch. Something wasn’t right, he stared at Isaac looking for signs of charms or other magicked items.

The man bared his teeth at him and folded his arms over his chest. "I’ve been waiting for this, been wanting to do this ever since I saw your filthy face. You’re going to suffer so much, and when they find you they’re not even going to know it *is* you at first. It’s going to be so much fun to turn your insides into-"

"See, *this* is a clear sign of sending an amateur to do a professional’s job. Too much talk when a quick kill is required." Birman’s voice, laden with disgust, cut across Isaac’s insane rant and made the man spin around to face her and another woman, both of them clothed in gowns that would have allowed them to blend in out in Court, albeit on the plain side. They appeared to have come in from the front door, and Birman held a pair of silver knives in her hands while the other woman merely stood beside her.

Isaac made a growling sound and motioned with his right hand at the two women, while Shen felt the pain in his chest and right arm lessen. He stared at his would-be rescuers and waited for them to fall to the floor in agony, and was stunned to see Birman smile while her companion appeared to concentrate on something.

"Why- you should, that’s imposs-" Isaac made a choking sound and suddenly was the one collapsing, his eyes rolling back before closing and blood leaking from his mouth.

"Natsumi?" Birman inquired, supposedly to the other woman, who pushed up the wire-rimmed glasses she was wearing and approached the unconscious man.

After staring down at Isaac for a moment, Natsumi nodded twice. "He bit his tongue when I knocked him out, and shouldn’t wake up until I let him. As suspected, he really isn’t that powerful and we’ll have no problems keeping him under control." Her tone was calm and slightly distant, as if she was in situations like this one every day.

Meanwhile, Birman came near Shen and looked down at him, a slight smile on her face as she nudged his leg with the toe of her right foot. "And what about you, hmm?" As he looked on, the knives in her hand melted away and reformed into two thin silver bracelets, a bit of magic that stunned him as he thought that it had been lost centuries ago. For a moment he was unable to speak, rendered silent by too much happening in too short a time. Then the years of training that Master Goh had put him through forced his brain to start working again.

He somehow summoned a smile and struggled to his feet, thankful to find that the awful pain was fading away and that his body was working. "Well, I suffered through an interminably boring evening with the Cretian emissary, which perhaps is something you know about?" When all Birman did was give him an entirely too innocent look in return, he made a noncommittal grunt and tried to restore some order to his tunic. "Then I returned here and found myself attacked by this deranged person," he said while motioning to the unconscious man. "Is it some Esset custom, do you think?"

"More like part of your ‘wonderful’ charm," Birman replied with a heavy dose of sarcasm. When Shen drew up to his full height and hissed in displeasure – as well as a hint of pain – she shook her head and held up her weapon-free hands. "Actually, I believe the plan was to create a rift between Kritiker and Xan with your death."

"Not to mention a good bit of a personal vendetta," Natsumi added from her position by the unconscious Isaac.

Birman nodded in acknowledgement. "I’m sure that played a part in why they sent him on the mission." For a moment her amusement slipped, revealing exhaustion and anger. "It’s best to cover all the angles when sending an assassin, even an amateur like him."

Shen shivered a little at the thought of how someone had put so much thought into his death. "As for myself, I am grateful that he was so inexperienced at how to kill a person." Then he thought of how the man had started to go about his death and Birman’s companion. "Ah… he’s not a wizard, is he?"

Birman’s smile returned, only now to contain a sharp edge. "What do you think?" she asked, her tone deceptively mild.

"I think…." Shen paused and considered his next words with great care. "Esset is known for its sanctuary of bounds, even at its Court."

"Yes, it is. I believe you spoke to Trowa about the possibility of bounds being sent here as emissaries." Birman looked from him to Isaac, allowing her actions to finish that line of thought.

So he had almost been killed by a bound. Shen rubbed his hands over his arms, suddenly feeling a bit cold. "I wasn’t aware of any spells that would allow someone to knock a bound unconscious so quickly, or seem to read their thoughts," he mentioned in as offhand a manner as possible.

Natsumi gave him a smile that seemed to possess some very sharp teeth, and her nails of her right hand made a loud clicking sound as she tapped them against the frames of her glasses. "As far as we know, there aren’t any. So it’s a good thing for you that *I* don’t need any such spells, no?"

Forcing a swallow past a too tight throat, Shen focused his attention back to Birman, who was still giving him that disconcerting smile. "I thought… Kritiker *isn’t* known to be a sanctuary for bounds, especially at Court," was all he could say.

"And I told you that things were changing," she answered in a soft voice. "Not openly, at least not now, but at levels that would stun you. Some of us know the true value of bounds, know that they are *not* monsters but people who deserve the right to live, work and have families like the rest of us and are seeing that they can contribute just as much to this country as they can." She paused to smile over at Natsumi, her expression softening. "I must admit, they do contribute in the most helpful of ways."

"Such as being able to wipe out inconvenient memories," Natsumi supplied in a rather eager tone.

Shen once more felt his back stiffen. "I do not think *that* will be necessary," he replied with as much dignity that he could muster. "My mind is extremely unique and is not to be trifled with." Oh, how dare these two, they were staring at him with too much amusement just then. He would… remember that one of them could read minds, apparently. His eyes narrowed as he gave Birman a very displeased look as he considered just how much she might know if she had people like this Natsumi working for her. "You are even more evil than I suspected, and a true opponent."

She seemed to understand what he was implying and gave him a respectful bow in return. "Thank you." As she straightened up, her weariness returned. "We will need to talk, but now is not the time. I will trust that you can remain silent about tonight and let my people handle this situation in exchange for answering more questions later." She knew him well enough that she could buy his silence on the promise for a later discussion.

Still, he had to live up to his master’s faith in him. "Promise me you will and I won’t say a word." The flash of anger he received soothed his pride a little, as was the curt way she spat out the words.

"I swear on eternal darkness if I break my word. Now, we really don’t have the time for this." She turned from Shen and motioned toward Isaac. "If you feel at all unwell from what he did to you, ask for Masa in the Healing quarters, all right? He’ll know how to handle any damage that was done."

Shen hurried forward to touch Birman’s arm as Natsumi lifted Isaac onto her left shoulder with frightening ease. "Is everything all right?" He suddenly realized that Birman was being too curt, that she was leaving without teasing him about needing to be saved and that Trowa was nowhere to be seen. If there was something that required being taken care of, where was the Spymaster’s trusted assistant?

She gave him a cold look, for a moment revealing the inner steel that had allowed her to be Kritiker’s Spymaster at such a young age. "No, I’m afraid that you were just one target of many tonight. Listen to me for once, Shen, and stay in your quarters until morning. By then we should have everything taken care of, and in a day or two we’ll have our conversation." Sadness replaced the steel, only for a second or two, and then was replaced by a calm mask. "By then, I’m sure you’ll have much to report to your supervisors, including Esset’s clear attempt to instigate Kritiker into war." With those stark words said, she and Natsumi left the room by the front door, taking Isaac with them.

Shen watched them leave, and it was a minute or two later that he realized that he was trembling. He forced himself to go to the bathing room in the hopes that a hot bath would help him recover from the night’s shocking events. So Esset was doing its best to push Kritiker to war, that was not much of a surprise. If he thought about it from that country’s perspective, he supposed that he would have planned this trip with the intent of framing Kritiker in some way to make it seem as if *they* were the instigators. He supposed that his death would be one such ploy, a way to anger Xan and break off ties between his home country and Kritiker. Really, there was nothing to be shocked about, as part of the reason he was here was because of the upcoming war.

But bounds… bounds in *Kritiker*. Everyone knew that bounds were in Esset and secretly ran the country, that Princess Helena was only a figurehead. To have bounds in Kritiker, working for the Spymaster of all people…. Natsumi hadn’t come across as forced in any way, she had smiled at Birman and willingly obeyed orders, there had been signs of trust between the two women.

As Shen filled the soaking tub with hot water and shed his robes so he could clean himself, he reflected back on all that had been said in his conversations with the Spymaster over the last several months. Whenever he had brought up bounds, there had been hints on her part about what must have been going on in this country, in her own organization. How many times had he passed bounds in these very hallways? He almost dropped the porcelain basin as he rinsed himself off at the thought.

He had been sent here in part to find out if Kritiker would continue to persecute bounds, as his superiors felt that there was no way this country could win a war if the magical creatures turned against its abusers. However, how would Kritiker fare in a war if they weren’t hunting down bounds but employing them? That would make the battle between the countries that much more even – at least on that one front.

There was still so much he needed to know, and those answers would have to wait until he could speak to Birman again. Yet one thing was certain, his role here was much more important than it had been a mere hour ago. And, unfortunately, he would probably have to spend less time finding ways to torment Birman.

*******

Heero crept along the street toward the target’s apartment, mindful of any noises that might indicate any witnesses. He kept a billow of air beneath his charmed dark blue cloak, enough to distort his shape to confuse anyone who might see him and mislead the Guard into thinking that their suspect possessed a large build, as well as throw any suspicion far from himself. Another one of Hans-Achim’s charms had put all of Heero’s squad into a deep sleep that should last long enough for him to complete this mission and return back to his bed with no one the wiser.

He reached his destination and pressed against the brick wall of the four story building, senses attuned for the sound of anyone passing by. Between the late hour and the threat of rain, everyone was either in their beds or settled someplace dry for the night, probably waiting for the new day of festivities to begin. Even with his enhanced senses, Heero didn’t pick up the sounds of too many people who were active inside of the building. He made sure to stay outside for several minutes and then continued to the back alley, where it would be the least likely where anyone would see him. As he crept along, he pulled up a scarf of black material to hide the lower part of his face.

Once in the alley, he pulled a thin wire and a small hook from beneath his cloak and used his talent to help toss it up onto the roof’s ledge. As it latched on to the stonework, he tested the wire twice to be certain of its grip and then began to climb, again using his talent to muffle any sounds of his feet scraping against brick that might wake the sleeping humans. It didn’t take him very long to reach the proper window, as he had years of experience gaining entrance like this into various dwellings; at least this mission was made easier by the fact that it was summer and that the windows were open to let in the cool night’s breeze after a warm day, even if it meant that he had to be careful about making any noise.

He moved slowly in sliding the window open further until it was wide enough for him to slip through. As soon as he was inside of the apartment, he crouched on the floor and remained still to give his eyes enough time to adjust to the dim light inside the dwelling.

The apartment was a bit larger than usual, probably because one of its renters owned a prosperous business. A place like this, with its spacious living room, comfortable looking furniture and various precious knick-knacks scattered about was something that most bounds back in Esset could only dream about having one day. They certainly couldn’t hope for such luxury here in Kritiker, when they would be too busy hiding what they were and moving on every few years. No, Heero would make sure that his kind could have a home like this, could have the same rights as humans.

Over to the left was the door leading out of the apartment, which meant that the doorways across from him and to the right had to be for the bedrooms and kitchen. In one of the rooms should be the Guard and his girlfriend, and in another their child. Heero tried not to think about the young human, tried to only remember all the complaints that Duo had about the ‘crying brat’ and put the thoughts of how he had to leave the whole family dead to complete this mission. Once he was certain which room belonged to the child, he could withdraw all of the air from it and give the sleeping gir- the human a relatively painless death. However, the two adults had to be made an example for everyone to see.

He had begun to move toward the room where he sensed the most air disturbances when there was the sound of a young child crying. Freezing instantly, he remained hidden in the room’s shadows as he heard the Guard mumble the child’s name and the sound of floorboards creaking. A moment later, the Guard, short hair disheveled and clad only in a pair of loose sleeping pants but with a gleam of copper around his left wrist, entered the living room intent on reaching the child’s bedroom.

Unsheathing one of his knives, Heero flowed into motion, unwilling to take the risk that the human might see him and alert the other Guards somehow. He used his talent to still the air around the human, preventing any sound from carrying, and lashed out with his blade to slash across the man’s back. The blow caught the man by surprise and made him spin around, his left arm rising as if to fend off another bow. Heero caught it with his left hand and used the human’s momentum to follow through onto the sharp blade of his knife, right across the throat. Dark eyes stared at him in shock as it cut deep, severing the necessary veins with ease.

Heero grimaced at the splash of blood on his cloak and used his strength to break the Guard’s left arm, twisting it in a way to ensure that even as he died, he wouldn’t be able to send out any warning messages. As the body dropped to the floor, he lashed out with the knife again, finding the action distasteful but under orders to make the killing as ‘messy’ as possible. He much preferred a simple kill even if the target was human, a clean strike with his talent or a sharp blade and then to leave, and only the thought of how badly tonight’s actions would hurt Kritiker enabled him to slash again and again at the dead Guard.

It took him a moment to realize that there was someone else in the room, distracted as he was with the grim task and with how faint the new footfalls had been. It wasn’t until the child gasped that he realized that she was there, staring at him as he cut into her father’s dead and bloody body.

The child wavered on her feet, either in shock or because she was small enough to have just learned to walk recently, Heero was uncertain. She was dressed in a flowing gown that gleamed white in the night’s dimness, adorned with what looked to be little flowers. Her eyes were huge and dark, probably from shock, and her shoulder length hair was brown, almost the same shade as Relena’s. As she stood there staring at him, covered in her father’s blood, all he could think about was that she never should have been awake, that he had never wanted to kill a child, let alone one that was awake and looking at him, and how much she reminded him of Relena.

All he had to do was still the air around her, to thicken what was in her lungs and she would be dead. He didn’t even have to touch her, just use his talent in such a slight way and she would quickly pass out, would stop staring at him with those eyes that made him feel… feel… what did she make him feel? Why couldn’t he look away? Why did a human make his chest hurt this badly? They stood there like that, the room utterly silent and neither moving as if statues. All the while, Heero mentally screamed at himself to finish his mission, to kill the woman and get away from the child and her awful blank stare.

He had just forced himself to take a step back from the dead Guard and away from the child, to attempt to salvage what he could of the mission when there was a noise from outside of the apartment. The rush of footsteps was all the warning he had, and he surprised himself to reach out with his talent to build a wall of air around the still-shocked child as the front door of the apartment almost exploded inward from an impact.

It was difficult to tell from the noise of wood clattering against the floor and furniture, but he thought that he heard the sound of growling along with the Guard’s name being called out. Unwilling to risk the mission failing anymore than it already had, Heero spared one last glance at the child to make sure that she was all right before he dropped the knife and then raced back to the open window from which he had entered the apartment. Grabbing the wire, he used it and his talent to control his fall to the ground. As he raced from the apartment, he heard shouting and the sounds of running behind him.

He put his talent to hard use, obscuring his trail and blinding any pursuers. Once he was somewhere safe and certain he had lost them, he would burn the cloak covered with the Guard’s blood, destroying evidence and proof of the wizard’s magic, and creep back to his barrack.

He could report back tomorrow that he had at least killed the Guard, and the knife should lead the rest of the Guard back to the Army, as desired. The cloak and gloves supplied by the wizard would mask his scent and identity, so he was safe in that regard, but would anyone believe that the person who had escaped tonight was human? Heero felt a new pain grow inside of him, in tandem with that which had been there since seeing the little girl, and knew that he had let down the Elders. Yet the other, stranger pain was stronger. Confused and upset, all he wanted was to go home. What he needed just then was to return to the barracks, and in the morning find Relena and see if she could help him figure out these odd new emotions.

 

******* 

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