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  1. Chapter 11

    Hyun bunched Raphael’s hair in his fingers, loving how the soft strands sifted through his fingers. A soft moan escaped, his hips arching off the bed, needing to push his cock deeper into Raphael’s mouth. God, the feel of Raphael’s mouth on him sent him flying, so hot, so deliciously hot—, he tripped, his fingers bunching Raphael’s hair tight as he came into Raphael’s mouth with a soft cry. When he could think again, he opened his eyes to find Raphael leaning over him, a small smile curving his lips. “I’m worried you’re going to turn me into a bald man.” Hyun chuckled, when he realized that his fingers were still tangled in Raphael’s long hair. “It will be your fault.” Raphael pressed a hot kiss on his lips, and Hyun moaned when he tasted himself. He turned into Raphael who pulled him into his arms. He rested his head on Raphael’s chest closing his eyes when Raphael held him tight. Hyun’s fingers tangled in Raphael’s hair, intricate emotions racing through him. How was it possible that in his life, having not fallen for anyone, his heart would then choose this complicated man? Everything about Raphael was difficult, from his business, his love life, to his family. Hyun worried there was no room for him, for his insignificant love. Still, his heart wanted, dared to wish to keep Raphael. Hyun breathed in Raphael, holding him in. “I’m sorry about tonight,” Raphael murmured into the silence. “I—I don’t want danger to touch you, Hyun.” Hyun sighed. “Raphael—” “Call me, Rafa.” Hyun shifted to find green eyes studying him, caught in the same storm he was. “Rafa, I was already in danger the first day we met,” Hyun said. “We are in this together.” Raphael traced his index finger down the bridge of Hyun’s nose. “Are we?” Raphael murmured, kissing Hyun, ending the kiss with a soft sigh. “I’m the devil, Hyun. You’re the innocent rabbit fallen down a deep hole into my world. I’m worried you’ll not make it back to Mina.” Hyun chuckled, holding Raphael’s green gaze. “Have you ever read Alice in Wonderland? Alice fell down the rabbit hole, you crazy man. The rabbit knew where he was going.” “Are you saying you know where you are going, Little Rabbit?” “I better know, getting involved with you, Rafa.” Hyun smiled slightly. “Otherwise, I might get burned alive in your world.” Raphael kissed him then, a punishing kiss that left them both breathless. Hyun then decided that getting lost in desire was preferable to discussing their infinite differences. So, he trailed kisses down Raphael’s chest, biting sensitive nipples, his fingers exploring every inch of Raphael, sinking them both into raging lust, until there was no room for thought. *** ‘He’s in love with you.’ Raphael looked at his twin brother with a frown. A sense of panic filling him at the thought of Hyun in love with him. He had seen what love could do. Watching Talin and Gabriel, seeing Talin lose Gabriel, then now Talin with Dimitri. He knew what love could do. Raphael knew he wasn’t living a life conducive to happy endings. If something happened to him— ‘This is the first time I’ve seen you so panicked,’ Gabriel teased. ‘Relax, love’s a very contagious disease, the good kind, one you wanna catch, Rafa. You should be happy. Love is very hard to find.’ ‘I’m afraid I’ll only hurt him.’ ‘I was afraid too,’ Gabriel murmured, perching on the edge of the bed, his fingers trailing over Hyun’s hair. ‘Everyday I loved Talin, I was afraid of losing him. I ended up leaving him first, and hurt him instead, but I don’t regret what we had. Talin made me happy. The pain that came with the happiness…well, I imagine it is our family’s curse, Rafa. We have to pay a price for any happiness that comes to us.’ Raphael stared at Gabriel. How real he looked, sitting on the edge of the bed watching Hyun sleep. Raphael clearly understood this wasn’t possible, but still, Gabriel had always perched on his bed just like that. His hair flowing free around him. So real and vital. Gabriel’s gaze shifted to the bag on the edge of the bed. The bag Hyun had carried with him. ‘Dad has secrets, Rafa. Don’t be hard on him when you find them. He loves Mum and you, so he does what he can to protect you.’ ‘What do you mean?’ Raphael asked, only to have Gabriel lean over, press a soft kiss on Hyun’s forehead, and stand up. ‘I’m glad you have someone to love you,’ Gabriel murmured. Raphael sat up then, intent on stopping Gabriel from disappearing, but he only managed to dislodge a sleeping Hyun. The dream dissipating into nothingness. Hyun murmured in his sleep, and Raphael pulled the covers over him, not moving until Hyun settled. Raphael shifted out of bed in careful moves, making sure not to wake Hyun. Naked, he stood and moved to take the bag Hyun had carried with him. Going to sit on the couch by the opposite wall, he set about discovering what Petrov was hiding at the Black Orchid. The intricate box he retrieved from Hyun’s bag was curious. The top surface of it reminded him of a Chinese puzzle box. The picture on the small movable tiles a mismatched depiction of a green dragon. Raphael frowned, looked at the ring on his small finger. The green dragon etched on the tiles was similar. Moving Hyun’s bag aside, Raphael got to work on the puzzle, sliding the tiles to make the picture right. He had played with dozens of similar puzzles growing up. His mother liked sending the puzzles as gifts, so he had plenty of practice. A smile tagged his lips when the picture locked into place, and the top slid off the box like a well-oiled machine. Nicolae Petrov was very interesting, Raphael thought, staring at the open box. Velvet blue fabric covered the contents. Raphael moved the soft fabric out of the way, and frowned at the gold key resting on the bottom. “What does it open?” Hyun asked, making Raphael look up. Hyun, who was in his boxers, moved to sit beside him. “When did you wake up?” “You were so focused on opening the box, you didn’t notice,” Hyun said. “Why would N. Petrov protect a key so hard?” Raphael took the key, and held it up to the light. “I don’t know,” Raphael said. Even more curious, why would Lucian ask him not to give back a key to Nicolae. “All the other vaults had money, why does this one have a key?” Hyun wondered. Hyun took the box from him, and removed the fabric. Raphael turned over the key on his palm, studying it. It was gold, very plain, but large indicating a big lock. “Look,” Hyun’s excited tone had Raphael turning to him to see Hyun holding a small note. Raphael placed the key on the small coffee table before them and took the note. “‘Deep sea diving in Jeju.’” Raphael read the note. “Guess we have our next location.” “Jeju Island?” Hyun sighed. “Does that mean we’re heading to another destination?” “Looks like it,” Raphael murmured. Raphael’s gaze returned to the key, his thoughts on Gabriel’s comment in the dream. He couldn’t figure out whether it was insight into his father’s truths, or his imagination. After all, Gabriel was dead. “When was the last time you were in South Korea?” Hyun asked, pulling him out of his thoughts. “Two years ago, maybe more? It was a short business visit. These past years, my time was tied up in Colston.” A shadow crossed Hyun’s gaze and those brown eyes slid away from him. “Did you stay with Talin in Colston?” Hyun asked. Raphael smiled at the thought of Talin. “I wouldn’t say we stayed together, though I wanted to. I watched over him,” Raphael said. “Oh.” Hyun touched the box on the table, and then stood up, heading to the bathroom. Raphael narrowed his gaze as the bathroom door closed. What had he said? *** Talin sneezed, lifting his laptop when his knee knocked the stool with a glass of orange juice. He sneezed again, and shifted back in the armchair to avoid knocking the juice to the floor. “Someone is talking about you,” Mina said, her tone teasing. She looked relaxed, lying on the couch, a book on Greek gods resting on her chest to hold her place. She smiled at him and he marveled at sight. She had come to them her gaze haunted. She had nightmares some nights. Talin woke her when they got very bad, and sat with her as she worried about Hyun. “Well, I hope they are saying good things.” Talin closed his laptop and stood to place it on the coffee table. “Are you hungry? I can make you a sandwich?” Mina sat up too and placed her book on the coffee table. “My turn today,” Mina said, giving him a beautiful smile. She stood and stretched her arms above her head. She let out a soft sigh and reached up to hold her hair in a messy ponytail. “You get to taste my cooking.” Talin followed her to the kitchen, and perched on a stool at the island table, watching Mina rummage in the fridge. She pulled out chicken breasts, white onions, and a homemade tomato sauce Katerina had dropped off. Mina closed the fridge and flashed him a smile. “I’ve always cooked for Hyun. He has the tendency to rely on ramen when he’s busy, which was all the time.” Mina grinned. “I’d have to show up at his apartment to make sure he doesn’t drown in instant noodle cups.” Talin smiled, watching her move in his kitchen. He listened to her talk about Hyun, how Hyun took care of her alone after their parents died. How Hyun made sure she went to college and got to do what she wanted. “Your brother loves you,” Talin said, frowning when she handed him a knife and two onions to peel. “Did Dimitri put you up to this? He also makes me peel onions.” Mina laughed and started prepping the chicken breasts. Once again, Talin appreciated her laugh and picked up the knife to peel onions. “Do you think Raphael will help Hyun?” Mina asked, pausing to look at him, her gaze suddenly so serious. “He will protect him from this Lucian? Do you trust Raphael?” There was a time that question would have left him filled with doubt. A time when he had thought Raphael had gotten Gabriel killed. Even now, Raphael was a man he dared not define in black and white, but— “Yes, I trust him. Raphael keeps his promises,” Talin said. “Your brother will be safe. Hyun will come back to you.” Mina held his gaze, and then she nodded and gave him a small smile. The front door opened and Talin smiled when Dimitri called out. “Talin?” “In the kitchen,” Talin said, slicing onions on the chopping board. Dimitri walked in a few minutes later, looking delicious and disheveled in a sleeveless white t-shirt and jeans. His hair windblown. “How is the marina?” Talin asked. “Doing fine,” Dimitri came to Talin’s side, sinking his fingers into Talin’s hair. He tilted Talin’s head up for a short needy kiss. “I got caught up helping Lukas fix Katerina’s car. She needs a new one. I see Mina has you working.” Talin scowled at him. “You have her giving me onions to peel.” Dimitri winked at Mina and rubbed Talin’s back with a soft chuckle. “What are we having for dinner…?” *** Christina placed a plate full of creamy chicken parmesan and broccoli bowties before Hyun. The scent mouthwatering, Hyun picked up his fork and grinned at Christina. “No wonder he keeps you a secret,” Hyun said. “This looks amazing.” “You look happier than the last time we spent time together.” Christina perched on the chair across him. “Is your sister well?” “She’s fine, safe.” Hyun took a bite of the pasta dish and moaned at the perfect mix of cheese, black pepper, pasta and chicken. “I might eat three plates of this,” Hyun said, swallowing, his fork already heaped for another bite. “Christina, come live with me.” Christina laughed and stood up. “I’ll get you some merlot. It goes well with the chicken.” Hyun took another bite of his food. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten a full meal. When was it? Closing his eyes, he swallowed the juicy food and sighed. He truly should appreciate the simple things. He ate in silence, his gaze on the closed bedroom door. Raphael was in the shower. Hyun had refused to take one with him, opting to come out here on the pretext of starvation. Truth was he hurt. His heart ached because after tasting Raphael, he found he wanted more. Wanted him, all of him, but thinking of Raphael’s expression as he talked of Talin, Hyun sighed. He took another huge bite, and chewed with purpose. He was the idiot. The idiot that dared love a man like Raphael Yun. What did he expect? Hyun thanked Christina when she brought him a glass of light merlot. He took a healthy sip, nodding his head when it hit the spot. He sat back in his chair fifteen minutes later, feeling fortified. Rubbing his stomach, he sipped wine from his glass, and watched Himura working on a laptop at a desk by the windows. The blinds were pulled down on the windows. Hyun had no idea where they were, or what time it was. He made no effort to discover it. “Are you staring at me because you want to make a decision?” Himura broke into his thoughts. Hyun frowned. “A decision about what?” “Taking a step away from this mess,” Himura said, glancing at him. “Do you remember our talk back at the house in New York? I warned you about stepping deeper into this life. Back at the Black Orchid, we barely needed your expertise. If you share your program with our staff, we can manage the rest. I’ll help you return to your sister.” Hyun stared at Himura. “What are you saying?” Hyun asked. “I know you made a deal with Master Raphael, but I can help you walk away. Hand over the security program you made, and return to Mina in Colston. We’ll take care of Lucian in our own way, and make sure that you’re both safe.” Himura shifted in his seat to face him. “I’m giving you a way out,” Himura said, then glanced at his watch. “We’ll be landing on Jeju Island in three hours. You can catch a flight to Incheon from Jeju, and then head back to the States. Will you do that?” Hyun’s grip on the glass tightened and he placed it on the table with care. His heart sped up, his gaze going to the closed bedroom door. Leave Raphael? Not see him again? He let out a soft breath, and turned to Himura. “I can’t,” Hyun said, shaking his head. “I mean—,” “End it here,” Himura said, his dark gaze unyielding. “Any further, and you won’t have any choices left. I’ll get you a ticket from Jeju to Incheon, and from there to Colston. You have until we land to think about it.” Himura’s attention returned to his laptop, and Hyun stared at the wine remaining in his glass. The bedroom door opened and Hyun looked at Raphael, drinking him in like a starved man. Raphael dressed in a tailored white shirt and grey slacks. His hair free around his shoulders, as Hyun loved it. Raphael leaned on the doorframe, his gaze on Hyun. Minutes passed, then the plane shook, a slight tremor, enough to break the spell. Hyun shifted in his chair and Raphael moved away from the door. He was holding the puzzle box and the key. “Hyun.” “Hmm…” “I was told there would be two accounts at the Black Orchid. Did you check them both?” Raphael asked, coming to sit in the chair across Hyun. Raphael took Hyun’s glass from the table and finished the wine. “I searched through their system. Petrov N., N502, was the only account in the Black Orchid.” Raphael frowned, studying the key he held. “Then the key makes sense. Open this account and you get access to the second account with this key,” Raphael mused. “Two accounts.” “Did you find anything else?” Raphael asked, looking at Hyun with a frown. Hyun held up the small black leather bound book he’d found at the bottom of his bag. He had tried to read it but it was full of names and numbers that didn’t quite make sense yet. He would need context. Raphael took the book and sat back. He cracked it open, though his gaze remained on Hyun. “Are you hungry?” Hyun asked. “You never quite ate your steak back at that creepy hotel. Christina has made the best chicken pasta ever.” “Hyun,” Raphael said, closing the book. “Do you still remember the rules I gave you?” “There was the first one when we met. Don’t promise anything without a guarantee. Then your insane tirade on the plane. One: Don’t tell anyone where I’m staying. Two: Do what you tell me, no matter how crazy without question. Three: Follow rule one and two.” “So you do remember,” Raphael said. “Who can forget?” Hyun got up. “I’ll get you food.” “Hyun,” Raphael said, watching him. “If you have anything to ask me, don’t hesitate. I’ll tell you.” “Is that another rule to add to the list?” Raphael shrugged and opened the little book. “I just wanted you to know that.” ***
  2. Merry Christmas!

    Merry Christmas Everyone!
  3. Chapter 6

    Chapter 6 The man offering silence and relief “Koji Sukiyama. What is his role in all this?” Andre paced his hotel room. “And the way he ran off, as though he couldn’t stand me. How maddening, n'est-ce pas?” “What’s maddening is watching you wear a hole on the carpet,” Leon replied. “Please forget him, and focus on the problem at hand, Andre. We’re in a clusterfuck.” “What else is new?” Andre moved to the coffee table where Leon sat, gadgets of all kinds cluttered before him. They had finally made it back to their hotel. Leon insisted on a few hours of sleep before they could talk about the briefing at Hotel Mume. Too tired, Andre agreed. Leon woke him eight hours later, with a knock on his bedroom door, and the scent of coffee from a cart laden with food. Andre sat now across Leon. It was almost one o’clock during the day. Leon was sliding his finger over the tablet screen. “Sakura’s case is bigger than we thought. We can’t meddle from the outside; it will make us look suspicious. We have to help the investigators at Hotel Mume,” Leon said, when Andre had a few sips of his coffee. “I know you wanted quiet, but that’s not going to be possible.” Andre met Leon’s gaze. “Henri’s case is progressing too fast.” Leon sighed. “They’re going to start a search for him, soon. The amount of money poured into the shipping business allows for it. The children found in Kobe were to be shipped out of the country, probably to Europe. The case is career-making for any investigator.” “You never have good news for me,” Andre complained. Leon lifted the tablet with a slight smile. “I got information from one of the investigators last night,” Leon said. “It seems that once Koji Sukiyama is involved in a case, resolution comes in very fast.” “Why?” Andre asked, curious about the man with eyes so blue they haunted him. “Don’t know, great intuition?” Leon asked. “Anyway, we have a date in an hour with an Ogun Sato. They are all very curious as to why we are interest in Sakura. I think we should tell them a bit of the truth.” Andre nodded. “Not all of it though, it will be hard to explain why a suspect’s brother is involved in the search.” Leon took his own cup of coffee and sipped. “We can say Sakura’s mother asked us to help find her daughter.” “That is true.” Leon grinned. “We can include an incentive. Are you willing to go all in?” Andre narrowed his gaze at Leon. This whole trip to Japan was costing him money. Each day spent searching for a solution for Henri kept him away from the family business. “I suppose pouring funds into such a vital investigation is essential,” Andre said. Andre stared into his coffee. Well, at least it would buy him time with the mysterious Koji. Leon studied him. “Still thinking about Koji?” Leon asked. Andre couldn’t help it. The sight of Koji hurrying out as though Andre had done something bothered him. He wanted to know why. Wanted to look into those blue eyes again. There was something so ethereal about them. Ethereal…was that the right word? “He makes me wonder,” Andre mused. *** Gion was busy during the day. Tourists browsing the many shops and museums, Koji followed an English couple into a wood block museum. He paused to admire the pieces on display, using the tranquil setting to anchor himself. His gift was getting stronger, and though he hadn’t told Saya, the effects were getting harder to hide. Pausing by a set of wood block prints depicting stars in the sky over a turbulent sea, Koji allowed in all the noise in Gion. Conversations filled his head, people doing business, tourists asking for directions, their excitement and anxiety on equal level. Whispered words, a sense of fear in them, Koji closed his eyes, concentrating on the fear. “Did you see what they looked like?” “They were dressed in black, hoods over their heads. It seemed like army, but who can tell? Children are going missing. I don’t let mine out carelessly.” Koji opened his eyes and wasn’t surprised when Tomoyo shoved a pair of dark glasses at him. Putting them on, Koji looked around the shop hoping no one had noticed. Nodding to Tomoyo that it was time to leave, she smiled at the owner of the shop and nodded to the woodblock print he’d touched. Koji left her purchasing the print, and stepped out into the warm day. Taking in a deep breath, a throb already developing in his head. He wondered how long he could keep this up. “What did you hear?” Tomoyo asked, when she came out of the shop. “Someone saw a kidnapping, but they couldn’t see the faces. Let’s go to the Akino home.” “They run a sushi shop,” Tomoyo said, as they started down the street. “Your eyes might startle them, Koji.” “You do the talking then, pretend I’m blind,” Koji joked with a small grin. Tomoyo adjusted the bag she now carried from the little museum shop. “Koji, this is exhaustive for you. Do you see why Tama worries?” Koji sighed. “I know he worries, but it’s also tiring for me when he treats me like his little prisoner.” “I’ve known you two for ten years now,” Tomoyo said. “Ever since Saya brought me to the estate and gave me a home. You’re my family and the last thing I want is you unhappy, Koji. You’re a brother to me, you know that.” “I know.” Koji gave her a sideways glance. He valued Tomoyo’s constant support. She made life with Tama easier to handle. So, he owed her a bit of truth. “When I was younger, Nii-san’s protectiveness was endearing. It meant a great deal to me, and still does, but now—,” Koji broke off as they approached the sushi shop belonging to the Akino family. “I have a lot of questions about our past; our parents and how they died. I need information. The only way to get it is out here. Tama does his best to stop it, he won’t tell me the truth but his attempts to stop me won’t make me give up my search.” “But you know how your parents died,” Tomoyo said, puzzled. “Yuki Takino murdered them, with the help of his black-market organizations. For money, Tama and Saya have both explained. You have read the police reports.” Koji stopped in the middle of the street, turning to Tomoyo. “Why would he need to murder our parents for money when he has tons of it? What about the barrier over the estate? Why would mother make it? Why can’t I remember her? I know her from pictures, but I don’t remember her, when I should—,” “Koji,” Tomoyo frowned. “I can’t remember her. She is a blank space in my head and it frustrates me. I—I sometimes feel like she is alive.” Koji swept fingers through his hair, gripping soft strands tight for a minute, feeling insane. He breathed out then glad to have his thoughts out in the open. Tomoyo gaped and the expression on her face was enough for Koji to guess she thought him certifiable. Koji regretted his confession instantly. “Don’t look at me that way. I shouldn’t have told you. Look, forget I said it.” “Why would you think that, Koji?” “I said forget it,” Koji said, dropping his hands to his side. Pedestrians walked around them, their gazes curious. Koji sighed and shook his head. “Don’t go telling Tama what I just said. He might really lock me up in my room. Let’s just concentrate on the task at hand.” Koji started toward the sushi shop, shaking his head. He couldn’t imagine why he had blurted that out. It was a thought that had filled him of late, and it bothered him more than he could define. After all, he knew where his parents were buried. He visited their graves everyday he was home. Coming to a stop at the sushi shop entrance, Koji allowed Tomoyo to go in first. The place was busy with customers. Tomoyo recruited help from one of the shop’s assistants. The young man smiled and led them through the back to the Akino main house. Most shops in the Gion area were family owned. Koji loved the set-up, and imagined he would have loved growing up in such an open setting, instead of the gilded cage that was home. Kaede Akino came hurrying out of her house to the courtyard when the assistant called her. She looked eager, no doubt thinking they were here to bring her good news. The assistant hurried back to the shop and Tomoyo took Koji’s right hand. The gesture surprised him. He hadn’t thought she would take his joke seriously. He was to play the part of a blind man. Kaede reacted accordingly. She helped Tomoyo lead him into the Akino house, and helped settle him on a comfortable cushion at the low table in the middle of the living room. Kaede rushed off to get refreshments while Tomoyo sat beside Koji. When Kaede came back with a tray laden with sweet cakes and green tea, Koji allowed Tomoyo to do all the talking. “Kaede-san,” Tomoyo started, lifting the bag of woodprints. “Please accept this.” Kaede took the bag, placing it aside, without looking inside. “Thank you. Please, have some tea.” Kaede urged. “Thank you.” Tomoyo pressed a cup into Koji’s right hand, and he brought it up to his lips for a sip. “We’re here about the investigation into your granddaughter’s disappearance,” Tomoyo said, keeping her tone gentle. “The police thought we might be able to help find her. I hope you don’t mind our intrusion.” “But who are you?” Kaede asked, her gaze turning wary. “We’re from a private organization that specializes on investigating difficult cases,” Koji said. “We are here to help.” Kaede looked at them conflicted, but her worry for Sakura won. She didn’t care who found her granddaughter, as long as Sakura was found. Kaede nodded her acceptance, and Tomoyo prompted her into talking about Sakura. Koji used the easy flow of conversation to explore Kaede’s memories. His eyes safely hidden behind dark glasses, he had no fear that their changing color would surprise Kaede. Worry weighed on Kaede, a heavy rock on her soul; she found it hard to breathe. She blamed herself, and thought there was something she could have done to stop her granddaughter’s kidnapping. Koji frowned, following the thread of guilt to the day Sakura disappeared. Kaede woke up, made breakfast as usual for Sakura. Sakura’s tutor came to help her with homework. Kaede left them working and went to the shop to help. After the tutor left, Kaede asked one of the girls at the shop to take Sakura on a walk because the day was lovely. Sakura disappeared in the park. Kaede regretted the decision to let Sakura go out that day. Koji touched Tomoyo’s right arm. Tomoyo paused in her easy questions to allow Koji to talk. “Kaede-san,” Koji said. “Tell me about the girl who was with Sakura when she disappeared in the park.” “Oh,” Kaede’s tone faltered. “She won’t come to work anymore. I’m unable to comfort her until we find Sakura.” Koji understood her regret. “What is her name? Can we talk to her?” Kaede got up and moved to a small desk in the corner. She wrote out the girl’s name and her address and brought back the card. She handed it to Tomoyo. “Don’t be hard on her,” Kaede said, wringing her hands on her lap. “I have tried not to be, but—, it’s difficult to keep my wits about. I worry about my Sakura. It’s too hard to look at Maki and not blame her.” Koji frowned when a wave of anger flooded Kaede. Anger was always too strong, so defeating, he breathed out and closed his eyes. “Where is Sakura’s mother?” Koji asked. Kaede’s eyes filled with alarm that was then carefully hidden. “She’s always working,” Kaede answered, her tone careful. “Her job does not allow her to come home often.” “Would she take Sakura without telling you?” Koji asked, curious about this absentee mother. Kaede hesitated, and then shook her head. “No. She would tell me.” Koji felt doubt fill her and he wondered even more about the mother who wasn’t here worrying about her missing child. “Is she still at work?” Tomoyo asked. Kaede sighed. “Yes. I have asked her to come home, but she says it’s easier for her to keep busy.” “Understandable,” Tomoyo said, though Koji doubted she thought so. “Well, Kaede-san, thank you for your time. I promise that we will do the best we can to find your granddaughter.” “But—,” Kaede started to protest, and then stopped. “Will you keep me informed?” Kaede asked. “The police keep saying they are looking. There is no news on Sakura and it’s very frustrating.” Tomoyo stood, taking Koji’s arm to help him to his feet. “We will do the best we can to keep you informed,” Tomoyo assured Kaede. After a quick goodbye, Tomoyo led Koji out of the shop and to the street. “An unavailable mother,” Koji frowned. “Does that strike you as weird?” “Maybe her company is strict, it happens,” Tomoyo said, reading the address on the card Kaede handed her. “Life is hard on career women, Koji. Too much time off and they may lose the job. I hope you get more from Maki Kiyamoto.” Koji watched Tomoyo search for the address on her phone. She found it in less half a second. Koji smiled and followed her into a busy street, filled with tourists. His thoughts on a woman who still worked despite her missing daughter. *** Maki Kiyamoto lived in a small apartment tucked into a hostel unit. She was attending Kyoto University, training to be a teacher. She worked at the Akino sushi shop, but all that mattered to Andre, Leon, Hisao and Ogun was that Sakura disappeared while under her care. “Have the police questioned her?” Andre asked. “Why do we need to do it again?” “We’re not here to question her,” Ogun replied, his answer too cryptic even for Andre. Andre met Leon’s gaze, shaking his head. Ogun was trying his patience, since the moment they had met him. “Why are you looking for Sakura?” That was Ogun’s first question when they met him and Hisao at a small jewelry shop in an alley. Leon answered Ogun, telling him Sakura’s mother had asked them to find Sakura. One single piercing gaze leveled at Leon, and then Andre and Ogun had shrugged and urged them to follow him. That was the extent of their talk. “Then what are we doing here?” Andre felt compelled to ask, as they climbed short stairs to Maki’s front door. Ogun opened the door without knocking, leading the way into a messy tiny house. Dishes piled on counters and in the sink. Clothes on the single couch, and the floor. The bed was unmade. Maki had obviously not cared about chores in a while. “To get this,” Hisao said, taking a framed photograph with two smiling women. “Is this it, Ogun-san?” “Yes.” Ogun took the photo frame and led the way out the back kitchen door into the back of the building. Andre stopped short when he looked up and saw a woman standing on the ledge of the five-floor hostel building. She looked ready to jump. The fall would be fatal. Surprised, Andre felt fear fill him when he saw Koji perched on the ledge beside Maki. “Shit,” Andre said, already running, following Ogun and Hisao up the fire escape to the top of the building. They found a woman in black jeans and a green t-shirt connected with pins standing at the entrance. She held out a hand when Ogun started to head toward the two on the ledge. “Stop,” she said. “You will spoil it.” “We need to help— “You will complicate the situation,” the woman said. “Tomoyo?” Ogun asked. “Koji’s almost talked her off the edge.” Tomoyo took the photo frame from Ogun and handed it to Andre. “He said you should take it to him.” “Why?” Andre asked, taking the photo frame. “I don’t know,” Tomoyo said. “Go.” Andre gave Leon who had come up behind him a skeptical glance. Gripping the photo frame in his right hand, he walked up to the slender man seated on the ledge of the building, and the girl who looked ready to jump. *** Koji pushed through Maki’s dark resolution, willing her to stop. Not to choose the fall, but to think of her mother. Finding that spark of hope was hard when all Maki felt was that she had failed everyone. Failed herself. “Maki, remember your mum. Her smile when you go home to visit her,” Koji said, keeping his tone conversational. “You don’t have to worry about what she will say. I will make sure you have nothing to be ashamed of, Maki.” Koji felt a small tinge of hope start but it was faint. His head hurt from trying to take on some of Maki’s pain. So heavy was the burden on her heart, he could barely breathe at the weight of it. Maki’s emotions were chocking. Her despair hard to take. Then silence enveloped him, pulling him out of the dark, bringing him relief. Andre. “Koji,” Andre said, in a soft voice, as though afraid if he spoke louder, they might jump. Koji hid a laugh and held out his hand to Andre. “Give me the photograph,” he said in English. Andre pressed it into his hands, and didn’t leave. Koji was grateful for it. He needed reprieve from Maki’s dark pain. Turning to Maki, Koji showed her the picture of her and her mother smiling into the camera. “Do you remember this day, Maki?” Koji asked. “Tell me about this picture. Isn’t it beautiful?” Maki sighed, her gaze on the picture. Tears spilling down her cheeks. “It was the day I entered university,” Maki said. “She was so happy, so proud…” “She still is,” Koji soothed. “I think that we should get off this ledge, so that you can help us find Sakura. Don’t you think so?” “We’ve tried everything,” Maki said, her voice ringing with frustration. “Everyone thinks it’s my fault— “It’s not,” Koji said. “And I will help find Sakura, Maki. Please trust me, can you do that?” She held his gaze for a full minute, judging his sincerity. Koji smiled at her then reached out with care and wrapped his fingers around her left ankle. Koji closed his eyes, testing the silence still enveloping him. He pushed through it, wanting to read Maki’s memory of the day at the park. The silence opened like a veil, taking him specifically into Maki’s memory. Keeping the noise out. For a moment, a clear picture filled his head of Maki and Sakura playing in the Gion Park. Sakura had gone to slide with the other kids when Maki got a message on her phone. Maki sat on a bench to read her message, and when she looked up from her phone, Sakura was gone. The silence slid back pulling him away from Maki’s memory. Koji let go of Maki’s leg feeling drained. “Andre, help Maki off the ledge?” Andre wrapped a strong arm around her waist, lifting Maki off the ledge to place her on solid ground. Ogun and Tomoyo hurried forward to take Maki, and Andre turned to Koji. “What about you?” Andre asked, moving to stand right behind Koji. ‘Do you like the view?” “I need a minute,” Koji said. Liquid slid down his left nostril and he reached up to wipe it off. His fingers came away with blood and he sighed. “I might have overdone it.” “Overdone what?” Andre asked, leaning over his shoulder to peer at Koji’s face. Koji turned his head away to hide the blood. “Do you have a handkerchief?” Andre reached into his pocket and held out a blue one, with an L embroidered on the corner. Koji took it fast, and pressed it to his nose. He pressed hard, hoping the nosebleed would stop. When it felt under control, he turned to Andre, only to have Andre wrap a strong arm around his shoulders. One moment he was sitting on the ledge, the next, he was lifted up and standing, looking up at Andre Lacome. Andre tilted Koji’s face up, a frown appearing when he saw the blood on Koji’s left nostril. “What did you overdo?” Andre asked, his eyes stormy. Koji pushed Andre’s hand away from his chin and shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand,” Koji said, taking a step away from Andre. He was starting to like the silence in his head. The relief of not having other people’s thoughts in his head was so tantalizing. “What are you?” Andre asked, his gaze intent on Koji. What a question, Koji thought. “Even I don’t know sometimes,” Koji answered, with a slight smile. “Thank you for coming here.” He started to turn away, but Andre held on to his left arm. “Are you running again?” Koji glanced at the spot where Andre held his arm. Heat sipped into his skin, Andre’s heat. “I still need to talk to Maki,” Koji said. “Right,” Andre let go of his arm. “I— “You may come along if you want.” Koji headed for the fire escape, a part of him hoping that Andre would follow. ***
  4. Happy Birthday Lisa!

    Lisa!!! Like Six days later, Still Happy Birthday!!! I can't believe I missed it. A huge hug to you, and I hope you had a fantastic day, sending you a bunch of confetti!

    Happy Birthday Aditus! I hope it was a really good day for you!
  6. Chapter 14

    The Empress is so complex to write, quite a strong woman. Her secrets are deep...hehehe. Yoshi is like a cocoon about to hatch...hopefully my dear Phoenix transforms into a graceful Dragon...oh boy, so much pressure.. Sui's unseen side is currently obsessed with war stories from ancient china...hahaha...Thank you @spread_love I love Almira too, she's so diabolical, I'd take her to meet all my enemies. Almira gets this chapter, because all of it up to now has been her plan, her vision, her great job to protect what belongs to the Empire. At the same time, make it clear how hard a fight Yoshi is going to need to put up to keep Midori at his side. Talk about tough 'mother in-law' for Midori...he's going to need more than 'I love Yoshi' to convice this dragon queen. I'm excited to unfold that part of the story, I feel like I've been waiting for it so much.... Midori needs to find his place, which is by Yoshi, but on his own terms. So, some soul-searching and authentic palace intrigues on the way. I hope you love it....don't worry, the ride to the end will see you smile a bit...maybe cry...but definitely more smiles. Hehehe. Thanks @bookjunky18
  7. Chapter 14

    Chapter 14 Amana Palace, Lexin City The Amana Empire was more than any one individual. This was her house’s first rule in building a great nation. Not even, she, Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Almira Taimeng, holding the supreme power to rule over this great empire, stood before Amana. She was at best a tool, one used for the survival and the good of the Empire. Prince Tailen had never understood this part about power. Or, perhaps he did understand, as he dared try to use her as a chess piece in his quest. Daring to blackmail her with her son. Almira gripped Yoshi’s lock of hair, the only proof she had that he was alive. After checking the impostor’s body, she was going to need to look into Yoshi’s brown eyes to believe he breathed. Her greatest weakness had always been her love for Yoshi. So terribly deep, and profound, she felt capable of moving boundaries, waging war, and demolishing entire nations for him. Tailen was insane to think she would sit by as he tried to steal her son’s future. A thundering battle horn filled the afternoon, and Almira’s grip on the lock of hair tightened. Naria’s warning to the rebel army. She was clearly ready to meet Namik. Almira’s heart squeezed as her plans started to lock into place. She paced her private courtyard thinking of her father, the Emperor Vulan’s lessons on war. War was a matter of vital importance to all in the empire, he often said. A matter regarding the life and death of the people. War could mean the survival or the complete ruin of sovereignty. War matters demanded serious commitment; critical thought process could not be neglected. Critical thought, she mused, thinking her life seemed filled with critical thought. It certainly had taken all she had to get them where they were now. She had prepared carefully, but still needed to work harder. She was now the key to this war. Namik’s main goal would be to drive a wedge between her and the people. Create distrust with the people: leaving them thinking there was no hope but Namik and Prince Tailen. What with a state funeral already completed and the crown prince buried. Damn the sands, but the thought irked her. She needed to prove that Yoshi was alive, without a doubt. Leave no one wondering where the sovereign power of this great empire belonged. Her strategy of pretending to be a pig in order to eat the tiger was ending. She was happy for it, because acting the disadvantaged Empress exhausted her. She longed for a good long shout, letting out a satisfying sigh, or simply lazing back in her favorite lounge chair in Yoshi’s courtyard watching him practice with his sword or bicker with Sando. She missed Yoshi’s laugh, his sulks, and he could sulk long, his thoughtful face—, what she’d do to see all those sides of him again. Bringing the lock of hair she held to her lips, she pressed a kiss on the soft strands. Yoshi would no longer be her young son when he returned to this palace. No, she sighed. Yoshi would be a Commander, a Leader, a Crown Prince, ready to take on her crown when he returned. She glanced down at the white robes she wore in supposed mourning. Perhaps there was something to mourn; still she looked forward to discovering the new face her son would wear. “Your Majesty.” Almira looked up to see Sayuri standing a few feet away. “Are the invitations received?” Almira asked, a thrill racing through her at the stage she had set. “Yes. We must get you ready for the banquet.” Almira smiled and gave a happy nod. “And the Apothecary?” “He is well-prepared,” Sayuri answered. “And the Lord Hong Ma?” Sayuri bowed her head. “Ready as ordered, Your Majesty.” Almira took in a deep breath. She stared up at the sky and hoped the next few days would bring her the peace she sorely missed. Her palace was too long in the darkness, it was time to let in the light. “We are ready too,” Almira murmured. “Glory to the Empire.” *** The inner palace was built in the shape of an octagon. High walls separated the inner palace from the outer palace. Built to provide complete privacy for the Imperial Family. There was only one public entrance into the inner palace. A set of great red double doors that intimidated all invited into this opulent and secretive world. Prince Saki was no exception. He was part of the royal family, but had no privileges to visit the Empress’s home. He had hoped for that right, but not like this. Not with his favorite cousin dead. It would have been nice to gloat a bit to Prince Yoshi's face. Four officers from the Royal Investigative Bureau currently guarded the gates. A rare occurrence, as Royal Guards had the special job of guarding the inner palace. Saki knew his father also noticed the difference as they stepped into the Inner Palace. Saki couldn’t help the intake of breath. He had always thought the outer palace beautiful and majestic thanks to carefully manicured gardens, art on the walls, and carvings on great pillars by Amana's greatest artist. Yet, the Inner Palace was another world altogether. The red doors closed behind them with a loud rumble. Saki jumped in surprise, his gaze sweeping the vast white stone wide paths leading to the Inner Palace courtyard. The paths lined with more officers from the bureau. Their vibrant deep blue uniform matched the extravagant riots of flowers blooming in the imperial gardens behind them. There was no calculated order to these gardens. Instead, they grew in wild rebellion. A clean spring ran through them, with short bridges built through the gardens. Saki loved the wildness of it, how utterly otherworldly it made the inner palace. Unlike the outer palace, the gardens here were not forced into order, but allowed to grow at will. The pristine wide path to the inner palace was a huge contrast to the great disorder. Saki and his father, Prince Tailen, walked up four steps to a short landing with paths leading to their right and left. Tailen pointed to the right. “The royal guard offices, and to the left are the Chancellor’s offices.” “Chancellor Rokka’s offices are grander than those of the ministers,” Saki commented. “The Chancellor controls all information that passes to the Empress. He has helped us much with his position,” Tailen said, as they moved to take the stairs down to the inner palace courtyard. The wide paths veered into a great round circle, in the middle of the courtyard. “On good days, you will find the royal guards practicing, or the palace court ladies dancing here,” Tailen said. “You might also like to sit on a sunny day and enjoy the breeze, watching the flowers in full bloom.” “Or I can have entertainers amuse me,” Saki said with a grin, already imagining a great play unfolding on the beautiful courtyard. Tailen smiled as they went up a second set of steps to the entrance of the Inner Palace. Saki paused to turn back and look at the path they had walked. No wonder Yoshi was always so overconfident when they met. Having grown up in such grandeur, such greatness, how could Yoshi see anything below? Taking in a small breath, Saki smirked. Now this was going to be his. Too bad cousin that you didn’t live to see this moment. Two palace maids met them at the entrance into the Inner Palace and led the way to a large banquet hall to their right. Saki paused at the entrance, grinning at the grand tables set for the banquet. The palace maids were dressed in gold and white. Colors in the room down to a minimum. The Empress was clearly still in mourning. Decorations were simple, and the mood in the palace felt subdued. There were seven tables set in the banquet hall. Saki assumed the tables were always well prepared in case of guests. “You must purge this ambiance,” Tailen suggested as they were ushered to the table at the front of the banquet hall, set closest to the Empress’s table. “The Empress will be gloomy as she mourns her son. With you moving in, we should work on getting rid of this mood. The palace should be festive.” “She can leave the palace,” Saki mused, smiling at a pretty palace maid who placed a goblet of wine before him, then hurried away. “Retire to the country side to reminisce on the good old days taking care of my cousin.” Tailen nodded in approval. “Yes, your thinking is right.” Saki reached for his goblet and sipped his wine, his gaze shifting to the ministers who walked into the banquet; clearly, about to join what he had assumed was a private party. “What is she up to?” Tailen wondered, his gaze on the six old men who took seats at the remaining six tables. “Minister of Defense Sharifa, Minister of Rites Zanna, Chancellor Rokka,” Saki mused. “She has all our friends gathered. Father, we must bring the other three into our camp. I had no idea they were so close to the Empress.” “Chief Scholar Lia Tang is a quiet head at the Royal Academy. He educated Prince Yoshi and the Empress values his opinion. He is a loyalist, and reveres the Empress's house. The second man is Jiang, the Empress’s Grand Steward. She allows him, a servant, such freedoms as to sit in such an important banquet,” Tailen scoffed. “And the last man there?” Saki asked, nodding to the old man with pristine white hair, long down his back. “He looks too old, yet young. How strange.” Tailen frowned. “Never seen him before.” “Quite a feat,” Saki mused. “You know everyone in Empress Aunt's palace.” Tailen’s frown deepened at the mystery of the old man. He had watched Almira’s every move for decades. It could not be possible to have someone close to her he didn’t know. Judging by the man's age, Tailen assumed he must be a retainer. A servant like the grand steward. Almira had an incurable sentimental nature. He would make sure all these useless fools were kicked out of this grand palace. Shrugging, he decided it didn’t matter. The people in the banquet made up half the Imperial Diet. The matters of succession were underway; no one would dare push them back now. Almira had no choice but to choose Saki as heir. A smile graced his lips. Once Saki was named Crown Prince, Namik would have the power he needed to enter the palace. Then Namik's forces would find Yoshi and exterminate him for good. Tailen’s smile widened. Namik would enjoy that task immensely. “Her Imperial Majesty, The Empress, arrives.” Saki and Tailen stood and turned to watch Almira walk into the banquet hall. She looked beautiful in white robes, the crown on her head gleaming gold as she walked to her table. Her silk gown decorated with gold leaf patterns on the edges, the only jewelry on her fingers was a jade ring on her right hand. As she sat in her chair, Saki thought he caught sight of red in the lining of her gown, but she settled and he thought it was his imagination. The palace followed the rules too rigorously to ignore the colors on an Empress’s clothing. White was for mourning, so everyone in the palace made sure to match the Empress's sorrow. Red was auspicious, celebratory, and lucky, mixed in with yellow, it meant joy for the Empress. Red at a time like this, what with the Empress mourning, was a show of imperial strength. Ignorance of these small changes could mean death. Saki mused at the fact that he would soon have such significance on people’s lives. “Welcome to a quiet evening,” Almira greeted with a short wave of her right hand, allowing them to sit. The palace maids waiting on the sidelines moved to pour wine into empty goblets. Almira lifted the goblet on her table and everyone followed suit. “We drink to the future and the prosperity of our great Empire.” Saki lifted his goblet to her toast, and then sipped his wine. “Be at ease,” Almira said, placing her goblet on the table as she stood up indicating that they all remain seated. She moved down the highly polished steps to the main floor. Her silk gown whispered as it swept the floor. She made her way to Saki's table. He had never faced her; always seeing her from a distance in court, or in procession. Almira remained this great figure to revere in his mind. Now that she stood so close to him, he found his tongue could not formulate any words. Saki held his breath. “You’re a handsome one,” Almira said, looking at him, her brown eyes piercing. She reached out with her right hand and gripped his chin, tilting his face up. Saki sat still, meeting her probing gaze. He feared she would see deep into his heart, and discover how much he wanted to be part of her inner court. Unlike with his father, his Empress Aunt truly fascinated him. He read nothing in her eyes. No pleasure at seeing him, or meeting him. No joy, no anger, no sadness, just a blank slate. Frustrating. “You look like your mother.” Almira noted, her tone conversational. Saki found his voice then as Almira let go of his chin. She started to move away, so he asked. “Did Her Majesty know her?” Almira continued walking to the next table. “Not really,” Almira answered. “She was a beautiful soul, quiet…and small.” Saki winced at the Empress’s description. She wasn’t wrong. His mother’s quiet nature made her fragile. She had withered trying to endure life married to a man like Prince Tailen. A man obsessed with obtaining the power his Empress Aunt held. “Chancellor Rokka, how is your family?” Almira asked, as she paused at his table. “Her Majesty honors me by asking after my family,” Rokka said. “They are well.” “Happy?” Almira continued. “Yes.” “Safe?” Almira asked, as she moved on down toward the next table. “Yes, Your Majesty,” Rokka answered with a wide smile. “How lucky they are to have you, Chancellor,” Almira said. “We have a boy living in the palace. He lost his parents in the initial scramble for safety the day Namik arrived at the city’s gates. All efforts to find his parents have turned frustrating. We fear others have much worse stories and therefore worry for the people.” Saki made sure to note how Almira used the royal ‘we’ in her speech. The Imperial Family used it in formal occasions, speaking for the empire. He would have to learn how to add it into his speech. His father had not stopped to teach him these little intricacies of royal life. Too busy plotting to get here, get him inside the Inner Palace. He wanted to be considered as great a ruler as Almira was, so he would need to learn all she knew. “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Chancellor Rokka said, getting to his feet to bow in the Empress’s direction. “Your lowly servant was inconsiderate.” Almira ignored him, instead stopping at Minister Sharifa’s table. She didn’t speak, only stood watching him. Her gaze enough to make the sturdy man lower his head and sit still, his fingers clenched around his goblet. Saki wondered how she managed to induce such a reaction from a man who commanded armies. Even his father could barely manage such a feat. When she moved away from Sharifa’s table, the defense minister let out a breath, and brought his goblet to his lips, drinking deep. Almira smiled at the Minister of Rites, Zanna. She managed to assert the right amount of joy, enough to fool Zanna of her sincerity. Saki, however, could see the smile did not reach Almira’s eyes. She was playing with the man. “Our Prince Yoshinori has much to thank you for, Minister Zanna.” Almira’s voice sounded pleased, though it was hard to miss the underlying steel in her voice. Her words prompted Zanna to his feet, his head bowed low as he faced the Empress. “Your Majesty, this lowly servant dares not wish for thanks from His Highness. May he find happiness in the afterlife.” “Your words are heartfelt, but we fear our Prince is alone on his journey,” Almira said. “Nary a soul standing by his side in this banquet. Forsaken and forced to face it all alone. The afterlife will not be easy for any of us, Minister Zanna.” “I dare not try to understand Her Majesty’s grief,” Zanna said, his tone contrite. “I only pray for His Highness’s eternal peace.” “Eternal peace,” Almira said, and then burst into a laugh that startled everyone in the room. She laughed long and hard, her right hand pressed to her stomach. It was telling that no one joined in the laughter. Zanna lowered his head, while Chancellor Rokka remained standing. Almira turned, her laughter ending as she met Prince Tailen’s gaze. Saki took in a deep breath at the cold expression on her face. Had she really just laughed? “We are ready to listen to your bid,” Almira said. “Prince Tailen of House Meng. You believe your blood is worthy of the Phoenix Throne?” “Our blood is as pure as yours,” Prince Tailen said, his tone firm. “Our families are related, Your Majesty. We share the same great ancestor, Diato, founder of the Empire. With the Prince Yoshinori gone, Your Majesty must look to Prince Saki as a son and heir. We are family.” “Family,” Almira said, her gaze shifting to Chancellor Rokka. She blinked as though realizing he still stood. “Chancellor Rokka, are you going somewhere?” “Not at all, Your Majesty,” Chancellor Rokka said, moving to take his seat. “In the time we have relied on Chancellor Rokka’s service, have you sent us a progress report on Prince Saki? How are his studies? Does he understand the intricacies of court life?” “Your Majesty, the Prince studied in the Royal Academy,” Rokka answered, his tone full of conviction. “He is a good student. Forward thinking, and a leader, he has the qualities of a Crown Prince.” “If he was to take on the position, he would move into the Inner Palace and learn under Chief Scholar Lia Tang. The Empire is too important to leave the education of the next Emperor to just anyone.” “Your Majesty,” Rokka said, with a satisfied nod. “Does this mean you have accepted the bid?” “We are considering circumstances,” Almira said, her tone low. She moved into the center of the room, her gaze on the yellow dragon seal painted on the floor. Saki watched her, caught between excitement and anxiety. Almira wasn’t one to delay decision. She clearly had no other option. Yoshi was dead. Saki the only one of the blood to inherit. Despite her grief, her decision was straightforward. Why hesitate? “Quite a moment in our life,” Almira said, her gaze still on the yellow dragon seal. “Our house Taimeng may linger on small personal issues, but once decisions are made, we jump right in, and get it done. In our many years as sovereign to this great Empire, this moment is the first time we find such profound sadness and joy in a decision.” “Your Majesty,” Tailen said, his voice soothing. “I’m sure Prince Yoshinori will understand. Your house protects the Empire. He would want you to name Prince Saki heir, to cement the empire’s strength.” Almira chuckled, and Saki felt a dark cloud fall over him at the sound. “Prince Tailen,” Almira said, her voice turning cold again. “Your care moves us. We have not forgotten that you offered support from the very beginning. Your son will now be under our wing.” “Your Majesty,” Prince Tailen responded, his voice filled with elation. He started to stand to give his thanks, but then Saki felt a wave of nausea sweep through him. He grabbed on to his father’s robes, his gaze on the goblet. Nausea rose fiercely, and he found himself in a unique position of trying not to disgrace his father before the Empress with vomit. “Oh…Prince Saki seems unwell,” Almira said, her tone teasing. “He must find the idea of becoming Crown Prince absolutely absurd. What do you think, Prince Tailen? Why does your son look upon us this way?” Saki groaned when his father turned to him, eyes blazing with irritation and anger. “Stand and apologize,” Tailen insisted, gripping Saki’s right arm and pulling him up to his feet. Saki closed his eyes and almost bit his tongue trying to fight back nausea. But it was useless and he turned away fast. Giving in to the nausea, Saki gave up the contents of his stomach to the polished floor. “Not good,” Almira commented, as Tailen gripped Saki's shoulder in horror. “Prince Saki is not at fault, the wine we serve must be remiss. Assist the Prince to the inner chamber, let him rest a bit.” Two officers hurried forward and took Saki’s arms. Their grips surprising firm, they led him out of the banquet hall. Stomach pain increasing, Saki gasped when they entered the corridors outside the banquet hall and he saw the number of Royal Investigative Bureau officers waiting outside. A hand clamped over his mouth before he could speak. A strong scent filled his nostrils in the next moment and then darkness overwhelmed him. *** Almira smiled as Prince Saki was led out. She watched palace maids work at cleaning up the vomit on Prince Saki’s chair and the floor. “How unpleasant,” she said, her gaze on Tailen. “It’s not easy to see a child in pain, is it, dear cousin?” Tailen sat in his chair, a frown playing across his forehead. Clearly, wondering what plot she was weaving. Almira clasped her arms behind her back and paced the space between the tables. “Recent turmoil, unrest and state funerals have us thinking of the past. It is inevitable. So many lessons to learn from the past, it is sometimes overwhelming. Do you know who commissioned this palace?” Almira asked. Minister of Defense Sharifa cleared his throat to answer. She had known he would. A Fier official would know the origins of the empire. “Her Imperial Majesty’s great-grandfather, Diato. He commissioned the Amana Palace as it was his vision to unite the Quads into an Empire,” Sharifa answered. “He was a Fier Heir, a man denied of his birthright by a Proxy ruler in the Fier Quad.” Almira nodded. “Greed played a cruel hand on Diato,” Almira continued the story for Sharifa. Amana was not always an Empire; each quad having lived in autonomous freedom for centuries. However, autonomy also meant that neighbors often turned into enemy states, constantly fighting for monopoly on commerce, military secrets and more real estate. The wars led to constant immigration, refugees running for safety, locals fighting to keep their cultures alive in the process mistreating refugees. The quads were in a constant state of dissent and strife. A young Diato dreamed of a nation united, where the people loved each other despite their different cultures or the strength of their military. Not to be mistaken for a redeemer, Diato’s dream was also self-serving. He was the son of a Furian Princess and the leader of Fier. The Fier Clan leader was young, and of ill health. He and the princess fell in love, but couldn’t marry as the Furian Princess could not give up her place in the Furian Forest. Heartbroken, the young Fier leader fell ill and died, leaving the Fier Clan to a proxy leader thirsty for power. When the Furian Princess gave birth to a son a month later, she had no choice but to expel him out of the Furian forest as the Furian sisters kept no sons in their midst. She brought Diato to the proxy clan leader, hoping the man would look after her son, and see him grow into a great Fier leader. Seeing an opportunity to make his claim legitimate, the proxy leader handed the infant Diato to a peasant Earith woman working in his great house, and sent her away. No doubt hoping Diato would die of starvation or worse, and Fier would remain his. Fate was kinder. The Earith woman loved Diato as her own child, and worked hard to nurture Diato. Since she had no land of her own, she constantly moved between the quads in search of odd jobs from great houses, weaving baskets in her spare time to supplement their income. Diato loved her dearly and often promised the world to her. She would often laugh at his promise, and tell him that she only wished that he lived a good life. Then one day, Diato’s mother fell down the stairs where she worked in a rich Terra household; her back gave out as she carried a heavy laundry load, making her trip and fall. She broke her leg, and Diato worried so much she might die, because they didn’t have enough money for proper treatment, that he broke into heart wrenching sobs. His cries called the master of the house, who stopped short when he saw Diato kneeling over his mother, tears streaming out of red eyes. Realizing there was more to Diato than met the eye, the rich master took them into his household on a permanent basis. He called his healers to take care of Diato’s mother, and then started a quiet search into Diato’s true origin. As only sons of a Furian would have red eyes in their moments of great sorrow, or highest fury. The rich master had Diato train as a warrior, and urged him to join the Terra Army when he was old enough. Diato, grateful for his master’s kindness, worked hard and climbed the ranks to the status of General at the age of twenty-three. He was fierce in battle, and the soldiers under him called him the Great Demon. Diato paid it no mind, and in fact rather enjoyed the name, as it brought him wealth and power and the ability to offer his mother a house of her own, and servants to take care of her needs. He was happy. That is, until the rich old man who had delivered him into this great fortune brought him proof of his birthright. “Diato discovered he was the ruler to the Fier Quad,” Almira said, moving to perch on her table. She stared down at the men in her banquet hall. “Anger at the proxy Fier leader was natural, and for a time Diato plotted revenge, in a bid to take back what was his right. He used the power he gained in Terra to plan war against Fier. Pushed for the defeat of Fier, a quad that was stronger than most quads. However, no matter how sound his plans were, none of it pleased his Earith mother.” “She was a peasant woman,” Sharifa countered, disdain in his voice. “She was,” Almira agreed. “She was also the woman who raised Diato. She raised a child of Amana. A child who had called all the Quads of Amana home. Her greatest hope was that Diato would lead a happy life. And, a happy life cannot be found in war, Minister Sharifa.” “Wishful thinking for the time,” Tailen said then. “Indeed,” Almira nodded. “Diato was ambitious, and a true leader. He looked beyond the time. Beyond his anger. He approached the wealthy master who saved his life and pitched the craziest idea of the time. He asked the master to help him build his mother a great house. One that would help him bring peace to the war-ridden quads. Diato asked the rich master to build a palace.” Sharifa smiled then. “Then proceeded to conquer the quads one by one until he united the Quads into the Empire Amana,” Sharifa said with pride. “Yes.” Almira nodded. Though, Diato had not conquered the Quads, more like coaxed them into an agreement to form the Empire. “Diato’s great dream came to be. Do you know why we speak of him now?” “Because of Namik of Fier?” the Minister of Rites Zanna asked. “He marches against your house.” “He does,” Almira said. “We are filled with unimaginable anger at this betrayal. The urge to slaughter all those who have led us to this point is great. Our anger so deep, it has left us shaking for days. There is nothing more humbling than watching an empire mourn our son and know we were powerless to stop it. Diato has been a great source of comfort.” “Your Majesty,” Chancellor Rokka said in surprise. “Do you mean to slaughter Namik and his clan as Diato did with the Proxy Fier leader?” Almira’s smile was quick. “Diato’s history might be bloody, it was necessary to paint him a great master of war. Empires are sustained on legend. Only those who seek the truth know Diato's real actions,” Scholar Lai Tang spoke for the first time. Almira gave him an approving nod as Lai Tang stood to give her a respectful bow. “Diato could not bring himself to slaughter the Proxy Fier Leader’s family for his misdeeds,” Lai Tang said. “Instead, once he had control of Fier, he imprisoned the proxy Fier leader. Then took a son from a Furian sister and gave him the clan name Sanori. This was how the Sanori Clan came into power.” “All sons from the Furian Sisters find safe haven in Fier because of this action,” Almira said. “And the proxy Fier leader died alone in a dungeon in the depths of this palace for his crimes against Diato’s family. Diato found peace in his decisions, as must we.” Sharifa stilled in his seat. “The Empire comes first,” Almira said then. “No matter how angry we are, the Empire is greater and must exist for the sake of all who seek happiness within our borders.” “Namik plots treason,” Scholar Lai Tang said then. “He didn’t do it alone.” Almira took in a deep breath then and let it out slowly. She had needed the stroll down history. Diato’s heavy heart reminded her of her own. The Fier people were still part of the Empire, and she needed to find a way to forgive them for their faults. Forgive them for having a bad leader. Forgive them for falling into Tailen’s devious plots. “Treason,” Almira breathed. Still, this ugly business needed to be handled. Almira touched the white gown she wore, her fingers skating over the two edges held together by gold pins down her chest. Sayuri’s handiwork. One easily undone by a simple touch on the little clips protruding above the fabric. She touched them now. They broke away with ease and she slipped out of the white gown with a shrug, leaving it draped on the table she leaned on. Tailen stood first in surprise at the sight of the blood red gown she wore. His expression perfect. She had wanted him stunned with shock. The red silk fabric rich, embroidered with dramatic yellow dragons. Gold armor covered her torso, a matching sword on a belt resting on her hip. She reached for the handle now, pulling it out in one deliberate move. She straightened to her full height, and Lord Hong Ma walked into the banquet hall with dozens of his officials. “What is this?” Tailen demanded as she walked down the steps to his table. “Where is Saki?” “Prince Saki is now under our care,” Almira said, her gaze on the gleaming sword she held. She stopped when she reached Tailen, and thrust the sword out, resting it on that vital vein on his neck. “Tailen, Tailen, you have such a greedy eye,” Almira sighed. “Petty, entitled, ambitious, stupid…the urge to cut you down grows the longer we name your faults. You dared try to touch the sun.” “Yoshi is dead,” Tailen said. Almira smiled then. “Death. Do you think we fear that word? You forced us to touch an impostor’s body. Death is no longer the worst fear.” “You will never meet him again,” Tailen said, with a smirk. “Namik will make sure of it.” “Treason suits you,” Almira hissed. “It also allows us to finally get rid of you with just cause. Let’s see which one of us will come out on top of this game you set in motion.” *** Dwind/Terra Border “Namik’s army surrounds Lexin City, the city gates are locked but we cannot be sure how long it will last,” General Aruku reported to Yoshi and his council, in the very early hours of morning. Lady Pipa’s mission had ended in a day. Not because she and her team had ridden across Dwind to Earith on their fastest horses, but because of The Furian Princess's foresight. She had sent General Aruku, with a company of five thousand to keep watch at the Earith/Dwind borders. Lady Pipa had returned in the middle of the night with General Aruku just as fast. “The Princess was making ready to face Namik,” General Aruku continued. “Our spies within the city walls warn that the Royal Guard has been purged by Lord Hong Ma. The Royal Investigative Bureau is now in charge of palace security. The city is rife with tension.” “Understandable,” Telia said. “The bureau is not an easy organ of Her Majesty’s court. They are too secretive and dangerous.” “The nobles are under the influence of the Ministers of Rites and Defense,” General Aruku said. “They believe the Empress is using excessive force when she should take matters more cautiously. They insist on dialogue with the rebel Namik.” “Any news of Her Majesty?” Telia asked, her gaze on Yoshi, who remained pensive. “None,” General Aruku said, her tone low and apologetic. “All attempts to gain entry into the palace have turned futile. Lord Hong Ma has the palace locked down too tight.” “With the Princess Naria engaging Namik, we can attack from the rear,” Lady Tinya, Commandant of the Terra army, said. “The Princess will offer enough distraction, allowing us to advance into the Imperial Lands, and free the villages as we go.” Yoshi gripped the key Tai gave him tight and stood. “The Phoenix Army shall now advance toward Namik’s position,” Yoshi ordered. “We forbid pillaging, excessive force, and intimidation of the innocent. The people’s lives are precious. Protect them at all costs. Any reports of disobedience shall incur the highest level of punishment. Is that understood?” “Yes, Your Royal Highness.” Yoshi nodded at the decisive answer from all. “Not one rebel shall survive to take news of our advance to Namik. We leave at the start of the next hour,” Yoshi ordered, and left the council meeting heading to his tent. He found the Head of the Black Guard waiting inside. “Any news?” “No.” The answer sent a twinge of despair running through him. Midori’s progress was hard to track in the Fier quad. Yoshi was in constant worry. He couldn’t tell whether it was too early to worry, or too late. Anything could happen to Midori in Fier. Gripping his sword tight, Yoshi nodded. “We have captured three spies,” Head of the Black Guard reported. “Zia Sayu maintains all three followed her into Terra when she was to deliver the summons from Her Majesty to Lady Tinya.” “What have you discovered?” Yoshi asked, sure that the Black Guard had interrogated the assassins. “Namik hopes to occupy Lexin City before Lady Tinya arrives in the Capital. He believes as long as he has control of the Capital and the Empress, Terra will have no choice but to fold.” Yoshi had guessed as much. “Keep one,” Yoshi said. “Namik expects a report. He should get one. Make sure it is to our advantage.” “Yes, Royal Highness.” “As for the Dark Rider,” Yoshi turned away from the man he trusted with his life. “His news, when you have it, must reach me first and no other.” “As you will it,” the answer came, followed by a soft whisper as the man left Yoshi’s tent. Yoshi looked around the tent, his gaze falling on the chest he had retrieved from Midori’s tent. Walking to it, he opened the lid, and stared at the red cloak Midori left behind. Seeing it made Yoshi uneasy, he had hoped Midori would take it with him. A token to remind Midori that Yoshi cared, that Yoshi waited… Straightening up, Yoshi took the cloak and slammed the chest closed. Shaking out the heavy fabric, he brought it around his shoulders and clasped it over his own. Adjusting the heavy weight of it around him, he gripped his sword tight and left his tent. *** Evening came amid sounds of battle; Yoshi swiped the tip of sword intent on cutting Senbon’s leg. Swinging off his saddle to the ground, he rammed his sword into the rebel soldier just as the Head of the Black Guard defended his back. Muscles burning, he breathed a sigh of relief when a Terran horn blew into the rising twilight. Victory against the rebels in the Village of Ryun. The people would sleep free tonight, five villages freed, thirteen more to go, Yoshi counted off, already climbing on Senbon. His black guard mirrored him, followed by the cavalry; they rode out of the village, leaving infantry to clean up after the fallen soldiers. *** “Prince Yoshi’s army’s advance is remarkable. He has freed over fifteen villages in the Imperial Lands. He could face Namik in a day.” Naro studied the map on his lap, a slice of carrot stuck on the corner of his mouth. “Why won’t you tell him we are amassing troops in Fier?” Naro asked, sneaking Midori a glance. “I’m sure he would be happy to know you are safe.” “His focus is getting to the Capital,” Midori answered. “I dare not break it. He has the Lady Tinya and the Furian with him.” “Whatever you say, My Lord,” Naro said, biting into his carrot. He folded the map and stood. “We have a few hours to ride, and then we will intercept the supplies to Namik’s army. Once we hit this one, we won’t be able to hide our presence any longer.” “I’m tired of hiding anyway,” Midori answered, wincing a bit when Lenoth tied a knot on the bandage on his left arm. “Be gentle,” Naro chastised Lenoth. “I’m not a soft avocado,” Midori said with a short glare. He thanked Lenoth with a nod, and reached for the leather skin at his feet. Uncapping it, he took a healthy gulp of the bitter wine inside, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Hushed laughs reached his ears, and Midori turned to see the men he had found in the Fier Valley, loyal to him, huddled together in the dark night. Nary a light in sight as they chewed on soft bread, cheese and vegetables. No one dared light a fire for warmth, or a hot meal, not wanting to draw unwanted attention, but their spirits were high. Their faith in their home restored. Midori took another sip of the bitter wine, and capped it. One hundred men were not enough to face his father’s rebel army, but they were enough to wreck havoc. In the past two days, following Yoshi’s progress, he had decided to cause as much damage as he could to the rebel army’s ordinance route. Morale would fall if Namik couldn’t afford his army. So, every route they found, they pillaged, and took from the rebel forces, giving back to villagers where they could. Midori had thought about returning to Yoshi, but then decided not to when the Phoenix Army started its advance into the Imperial Lands. This was better, he thought. He would work to support Yoshi’s army into a victory. Implode the rebel army from within, while Yoshi attacked from the outside. It gave honor to the men with him, the men who trusted him with Fier now. Midori sighed, and closed his eyes, picturing Yoshi with his prince mask. He ached for him, yearned to hold his Prince, just once— “My Lord?” Midori opened his eyes and glanced up to find one of Lilind’s children standing a few feet away. “Yes.” “Your message is delivered.” “You handed it to the Chamberlain?” “Yes, My Lord, as instructed.” The man dressed head to toe in black held out a short rolled message. “This is the answer he wrote.” Midori took the short note and thanked him. He tried not to think about how the man seemed to merge into the dark and disappear. The two men Yoshi had sent him were invaluable, but they still made him uneasy. “Can they wear another color?” Lenoth asked, settling beside him. “Always in black, don’t they get tired of it?” “Why are you always in red?” Naro asked with a laugh. “Don’t you get tired of it?” “Don’t be an ass,” Lenoth scowled, reaching for a slice of cheese. Midori ignored their bickering and brought the cloak around his shoulders over his head. Taking a thin reed from his boot, he swept it against a rock and it lit into flames. The light well hidden under his cloak, he unrolled the message from Sando. ‘The Phoenix rides day and night, barely stops for necessities, his goal the Capital. The Furian Princess has engaged Namik. We are hoping to join forces with her when we reach the capital. I cannot tell his thoughts anymore, only that he has turned into the ruler his mother dreamed. As you requested, he doesn’t know you write me. This is difficult to keep from him because the Council pushes him daily for a decision on your disappearance. I understand your reasons to make a stand for your Quad. But My Prince misses and worries for you. It is difficult to watch. I only heed to your wishes, because he willed me to. We are three villages away from meeting Namik’s main army. I have passed on your plans to interrupt the Rebel army’s ordinance to the Furian, Telia. I hope you can reach us in time. I look forward to seeing you again, My Lord General. Please be of good health, as The Phoenix will worry if you are not. It is important to know, there are those working to make sure you don’t enter the Palace. Good tidings, Sando.’ Midori set the note aflame and dropped it to the ground, watching it turn to ashes. Grinding his boot into the dark ash, he turned off the reed, and pushed his cloak away. “What news?” Lenoth asked. “Three villages left then they meet my father’s army,” Midori said. “The Prince is moving like a demon possessed. His pace gives us until tomorrow afternoon to interrupt my father’s supplies.” “We’ll be cutting it close,” Naro noted. “Not if we are on the move in three hours,” Midori said, thinking of Yoshi who was not stopping to rest. Lenoth gripped his left shoulder in assurance, and moved away to pass the message to the rest of their men. *** “There is news that Your Royal Highness is attempting to track Midori, the Rebel Leader’s son, in Fier,” Lady Tinya said, during a council meeting to liberate the last village on the map. Yoshi spared her a short glance, then returned his gaze to the plan Benal was formulating to reclaim the last village before they met Namik’s Army. The council was divided: Lady Tinya, General Benal, Tai Migi, Zia Sayu, and five Generals in the Terra army opposed anything to do with Midori. Telia, Lady Pipa and the four Generals from Dwind supported Midori. Nine against six. Nine powerful, six loyal to him, Yoshi sighed. It was taking all he had to keep them from an all out fight for Midori. “Your Royal Highness, why do you protect Lord Midori?” Lady Tinya persisted. “We are at war,” Yoshi said, his tone mild. “Midori’s whereabouts are important to us.” “He is the enemy,” Lady Tinya insisted. “His people have oppressed villages, committed crimes, you have seen it yourself. Their crimes are unforgivable. Unless you are tracking him to make sure, he meets justice. We should arrest him and use him as a hostage against his father.” Yoshi gave her his full attention then. “What is the Lady Tinya saying? What justice is that?” “Your Royal Highness,” Lady Tinya leaned forward in her chair, her blue armor limiting the motion. “You cannot appear to have a weakness. You cannot have any form of favoritism. The battle we are waging here doesn’t allow for easy pardon. The Sanori Clan has betrayed the Empire.” “Lady Tinya is right,” General Benal chimed in. “General Midori has not returned to your side since his assignment to infiltrate Fier. He has not contributed to the fight to free the people. How can we trust him?” “Trust seems so fragile,” Yoshi said, deciding to ignore this topic until he had no choice but to deal with it. “The Village Qi is small, and its people are mostly farmers, they are on our side. Minimal effort is best here; a battle will only frighten them. General Benal, isn’t it better to use stealth? Slip in, take control of all three rebel village officials, and subdue the enemy forces.” “We will need a day to get our assets in place,” General Benal said. “With the help of the Black Guard, we can manage.” “Our army is well hidden in this forest, all generals will control movement to minimize discovery,” Yoshi said. “Let the soldiers rest as we prepare to meet Namik’s actual army. Telia, you are skilled at infiltration; work with Tai Migi and General Benal. Recapture this village by tomorrow midnight.” “Yes, Your Royal Highness,” Tai Migi and Telia answered. “We still have the matter of General Midori,” Lady Tinya persisted. “This council has a right to discuss his clear absence, Your Royal Highness. A man who has not reported after an official task— “Perhaps he was captured,” Lady Pipa said. “Maybe he is finding his way to the Phoenix Army. We can’t forget that he is in enemy territory. Why must we judge him before we know his circumstances?” “He is the son of a traitor,” Lady Tinya replied, giving Pipa a withering glance. “Your Royal Highness, I demand that you give this council the mandate to investigate Lord General Midori Sanori.” “On what grounds?” Telia asked. “He is a loyal General who saw the Prince through many troubles to get here.” “He is also the son of one who dares want the throne,” Lady Tinya replied, meeting Telia’s fiery gaze, not at all intimidated. “The Phoenix is our future Emperor. We cannot allow any trace of stink on his character. If the General is loyal, then there should be no issue with an investigation.” Yoshi narrowed his gaze on Tai Migi. This sounded like Inner Palace agenda. Politics designed to discredit Midori now that he was away from the inner circle. Evidence would be found to discredit Midori, whether he wanted it or not. The goal here was for Midori not to make it into the palace. “We have much to do.” Yoshi stood, ignoring Lady Tinya’s surprised glance at the dismissal of her idea. He could not have this discussion with her. He needed Princess Naria’s input in this council, because Naria was impartial to Quad Politics. She had also spent time with Midori and spent time with him. All he had to do was hold off until they joined their armies the day after tomorrow. “We are not at court. We shall talk more on General Midori when we meet the Princess Naria on open ground against Namik. No one shall discuss this matter with the officers; I will not have the army’s morale dampened. All Generals focus on taking back the Village Qi.” Yoshi left the council tent with his head held high and his shoulders straight. Outside, he stopped to greet officers and footmen offering encouraging words. He made a point to visit the healer’s tents where the injured rested. Pausing at each bed to talk with soldiers, and give them what comfort he could. The severely injured would be left in the Village Qi, he stopped by the officer in charge to make sure arrangements were in place for their care. The sun was long disappeared by the time he made it back to his own tent. Inside, he let out a soft sigh when the Black Guard left him alone. Taking in a deep breath, Yoshi moved to the nearest table and clung to the edge when the trembling started. Sando found him in the middle of it; there was no way to hide. He was glad when Sando simply hurried to his side and wrapped an arm around him as though to hold him together. Yoshi pressed his forehead into Sando’s shoulder and closed his eyes. “Sando. I don’t think I can hold off Lady Tinya longer. She wants to push Midori to the dogs. I fear Tai Migi and Zia Sayu will get their way. They work for the Empress even here and the Empress does not think Midori is fit to enter the palace. What am I to do? Why won’t he come back to me? Why won’t he give me a reason to help defend him? If he was here, I would have one.” Sando held on to him tight. “My Prince, Lord General must have his reasons. The Terra Army is strict in their ways. Lady Tinya lives for the Empress and the Empire.” “They seek to discredit my love,” Yoshi sighed. “Midori’s silence after my orders to infiltrate Fier is not helping. Why does Midori think he must carry this burden alone? Why won’t he remember I have power to help? I told him to remember, and he won’t.” Sando kept his silence. “Tell me he is fine,” Yoshi begged. “Tell me he has a reason for not reaching out, or coming back to me. Please, Sando. Tell me he has reached out to you. Give me something.” “There is nothing, My Prince,” Sando said. “But believe Lord General is well, otherwise you would have heard news.” Yoshi took a step back from Sando, studying him for a moment, seeking hope…a small spark…but Sando was as skilled as he at keeping a blank face. Sando smiled then. “Are you hungry, My Prince? We managed to catch rabbits in the forest. You must eat,” Sando said, already reaching for the clasp on Yoshi’s red cloak. “Why don’t I help you get settled for the night? You need sleep and rest, My Prince. Tomorrow will be better. I promise.” Yoshi sighed and allowed Sando to fuss. His thoughts remained on Midori and the mystery of his silence. How long would he keep away, Yoshi wondered. How much longer would Midori keep up this distance? It was eating Yoshi alive, and he feared that soon he would have no choice but to give in to Lady Tinya. The ruler in him saw Lady Tinya’s logic. It was hard not to, especially after all the misery they had encountered as they freed the villages. Namik Sanori was a sadist. A clan was blood, which meant, Midori was facing a charge, unless he managed a great deed in favor of the Empire. Yoshi had thought Midori could achieve this mighty deed by his side, fighting for the people. Midori had other ideas, clearly. How frustrating it was to love such a strong man, Yoshi thought with a heavy sigh. ***
  8. Happy Birthday to you x2

    Happy birthday dear Ninecila, Happy Birthday to you! Insert music and hugs.

    1. ninecila


      Thank you, lilansui :)

  9. Happy Birthday K.C!  I hope you have an incredible day!

  10. Chapter 17

    Thank you so much! Obican!
  11. Chapter Scheduling System

    Hi @Lacuna , @Cia Will help you out with the system. So sorry for your experience with it.
  12. Happy Birthday to you!

  13. Chapter 1

    So glad you love it! Thank you. It was interesting moving from one emotion to the next. Thanks, Onim! Lisa, thank you so much. Reed's thought process at the start was utterly tragic, like being out in the woods lost. I freak out sometimes on issues, and his thought process can be mine too, so I love that you get that! Kristos is goals! So sad about your friend. I get it, love can also turn to poison. It would be interesting to explore Reed meeting Kristos's family. What a day that would be. Thanks for reading.
  14. Reed and Kristos have a fight, and Reed is worried that they might lose their perfect life. A snapshot glance into an ordinary relationship, with extraordinary moments.
  15. There was nothing spectacular about their first meeting. Nothing earth-shattering, in fact it was all so very ordinary, it made Reed feel unremarkable. Who wanted to admit they met the love of their life reaching for the same box of cereal? One box of bran flakes with raisins led to him falling head over heels for a man with smiling eyes and the sexiest mouth ever created. He had stared too long…he always stared too long at Kristos. It was impossible not to, so fucking impossible. A man like Kristos was hard to ignore, harder to resist when he smiled back and proceeded to take the darned cereal box hostage. Reed had clung to it too, as though there weren’t a whole row of the same brand. Why that particular box had seemed so relevant, Reed didn’t know. Well, to be honest, he had wanted a reason to continue staring at Kristos. To keep talking to him, to see his eyes brighten in amusement. That deliciously sexy mouth curved just so, into a smile that made Reed’s heart dance and his blood pressure rise in all the most delicious of ways. Kristos Stephanos. Reed pressed his hand to his chest to calm his fluttering heart now. There wasn’t a part of him that man didn’t own. It was unfair. How thoroughly Kristos mattered. Utterly devastating. Because, after three years of merging their lives into one big wonderful entity: molding routines around each other, carving their loft in Brooklyn into a gorgeous space, getting grocery shopping down to an art, and finally getting Kristos to stop dropping towels on the bathroom floor…their world crumbled into pieces. They had fought three days ago. Loud, mean, and damaging. Enough for Kristos to walk out of their shared loft. He wasn’t sure whether Kristos had left to save them, or end them. Reed closed his eyes at the memory of their war of words. Make no mistake. Their fight felt like a WAR. Yes, the word war fit. There just was no other way to describe it. Reed rather imagined bombs dropping, like in the 1920s, like in the WWI and WWII documentaries Kristos liked to watch on NatGeo. A bit dramatic to describe their fight, but shit, that was what it felt like. Walls crumbling around them, debris in the air, making it hard to breathe. The man he loved walking out the door after calmly saying they needed space from each other. As though their life had a stop button to push and say, enough, let’s stop for a minute. Oh hey, that’s blown over, push the start button again, let’s keep moving forward. Reed scoffed still rubbing his chest. It was necessary. The ache in his chest wasn’t something he could stop. Not with medicine, not with sleep, not with oblivion from drinking bottles of wine. He’d tried each one, and still, the ache stayed. Reed was terribly afraid the feel of Kristos in their bed was the only thing that would cure this pain, his arms thrown over Reed in possessive abandon. Or the simple pleasure gained watching Kristos working at his desk in the corner of their living room on Monday evenings. Having Kristos sit at the kitchen table helping him cut green beans for Thursday dinner. Or folding laundry while Kristos ironed on busy Saturday mornings. His personal favorite was late Sunday afternoons, cuddled together on the great couch in the living room at their loft. Reed reading a book, while Kristos dozed and read whatever page Reed was reading. This ache inside him would only be cured if he got that back. Get back to those beautiful ordinary experiences that turned their life extraordinary. The ache grew wider, deeper somehow, when Reed imagined that Kristos might not want to come back home. He had thought that he was over this terror of losing Kristos, but it seemed like it existed, still. Reed bunched his t-shirt, and for a full minute, feared he might not make it to the next breath. A bit juvenile, but there was no other way to describe it. Heartbreak was not easy. It wasn’t, and he hated every minute of it. Hated the idea of Kristos breaking his heart and leaving him. “Reed?” A gentle voice cut through his tortured thoughts, bringing him back to the present. The sun was in his eyes, blinking, Reed reached up and brought down the sunglasses from their perch in his hair. He focused his gaze on the brunette sitting across him, and gave her a small smile. “I’m sorry.” “Thinking about Kris?” Reed ignored her question, and instead picked up his stylus, scribbling notes on his tablet under the coffee cup designs. “Serena, let’s finish outlining your ideas,” Reed said, hoping he sounded like a man in control. He wasn’t, far from it, so it was important to sound like he was. Otherwise, he was likely to fall apart, and that just couldn’t happen. Not to him. “It’s alright to take a break, Reed.” Reed leaned his elbows on the table, watching Serena, half his face hidden behind his sunglasses. Thankfully, they sat outside on a sunny day, so he wasn’t totally crazy looking. Serena sat back in her chair studying him. Her lips a vibrant shade of salacious red. Her brown eyes highlighted by mink black eye color. Serena fit the descriptions in books when writers attempted to define sultry, sexy, and sophisticated. Well, when he read those kinds of descriptions, Serena always popped into his head. She was a petite woman, who fit into her clothes to perfection, comfortable in her own skin, confident in business. She owned the coffee shop they were now about to spend half the day in with no real progress into what had brought him here. “If you want a whole new set of menus and coffee cup covers, we’re going to need focus.” Reed felt compelled to point out. He hated non-productive days, and this was turning into one. “I trust your creativity,” Serena said. “Why don’t you design it all? I always love it anyway. Why don’t we focus on what’s important?” “And what’s that?” Reed asked, clipping his stylus onto his tablet knowing Serena was not going to change her mind. Which suited him actually, then he’d have free reign to design her stuff without extensive meetings. He loved that about Serena. The constant trust. “Have you talked to Kris?” Serena asked, already moved on from her business. “Nope.” Reed reached for his coffee mug and took a healthy sip. The coffee was perfect at the Riddle Me coffee shop. Serena’s secret blending tricks brought in hordes of people, keeping the coffee shop running in the black. Serena’s only goal in life, it seemed. “Is he calling at all?” Serena asked, her tone gentle, as though she were dealing with a feral animal. It annoyed him. “I don’t want to talk to him,” Reed answered. “We said all we could to each other. He left. I’m coping.” “So, he’s calling, and you’re not answering,” Serena deduced. “Reed.” “I’m not some mangy cat about to scratch your eyes out,” Reed snapped when she kept up that gentle tone. “Let’s drop the subject. If you’re not going to talk about your ideas, I’m heading back to my office. I have a ton of work— Reed started to stand, but Serena was faster. She shifted into the chair beside him in record time. Her arms going around his shoulders, stopping him from leaving. “Come stay over my house for the weekend. It’s Friday night. We can go out.” For a crazy moment, he contemplated it, wanting nothing more than to forget the absolute emptiness inside him. But—, It wasn’t fair to subject anyone to his mood right now. Actually, that wasn’t right. He did not want to see other people having a good time when he felt so down. So utterly wrecked. It would only make him feel worse. Reed sighed and turned to face Serena. Her brown eyes were full of worry, for him. She always worried for him, and he appreciated it more than anything in the world, because she was his big sister. They had seen each other through a lifetime. Being only twenty-six years old, lifetime was a bit of an understatement, but whatever. He had the right to that statement because lives could be classified into a thousand different lifetimes. Pulling her into a tight hug, Reed buried his nose into her shoulder and breathed in the scent of roses. Serena always smelled like roses. “Reed.” Serena rubbed his back, offering comfort. “This is enough right now,” he murmured, holding her tight. “I need time.” “Kris loves you.” Serena stated, there was no doubt in her voice. “He loves you, Reed.” Reed closed his eyes. He loved Kristos too. More than himself, but that still didn’t stop the hurt, or fix their shouting match the other day. Love could be so inadequate. “Answer his calls,” Serena advised. “You know you need to.” Reed squeezed his eyes shut, let out a soft sigh, and then moved to let go of Serena. He pressed a kiss on her smooth cheek and touched the sparkly earring on her earlobe. “Thanks, Serena.” He got up and picked up his tablet and his phone. “Answer Kris’s calls,” Serena repeated, as though willing him into submission. Reed gave her a small wave, and walked away, headed out of the courtyard and into her charming coffee shop. Once outside, Reed went to his car and decided to head home. No work would get done today. His brain wasn’t in it. His heart too damaged, which was bad for business. Creativity deserved full dedication, and he didn’t have it in him today. Stopping at a junction, waiting to turn left, Reed looked out the window, and stilled when he saw the Pratt Institute buildings. He passed by them daily, especially after visiting Serena’s coffee shop. Kristos was probably inside, teaching students the great art of architecture. Kristos was respected for his skill, his firm having been commissioned for numerous private and public work projects. He lectured at the Pratt Institute, his class sought after as students wanted to learn from him. Reed, sometimes, stopped by on a free day like today and they would go out for lunch, or coffee. Today though, Reed kept driving, turning left headed back to their loft, his heart aching even deeper. Home was a renovated warehouse loft in Clinton Hill. Their unit was in the top floor: a penthouse graced with double-height ceilings, oversized windows that flooded them with light, and a private balcony where Reed loved to work. Opening the door, Reed paused to drop his keys on a table right by the entrance. He stopped when the scent of freshly-brewed coffee filled his senses. His gaze flew to the open space to his right where the kitchen was and froze when he saw Kristos leaning on the kitchen counter. Closing the front door, Reed stood staring at his lover. Every cell in his body demanded he run to Kristos. Reed leaned on the door, until he had control over the urge. “Reed.” Kristos’s voice filled him up inside, his slight accent sending thrills running through him as it always had for as long as he could remember. “You’re not at the institute.” Reed noted, knowing it was a stupid observation, but unable to help it. He pushed off the door and forced himself to walk into the living area. Placing his tablet and phone on a short table, he took in a short breath. He touched the couch arm, wanting to sit and ignore Kristos in the kitchen, but he couldn’t. Instead, he leaned on the back of the couch, his gaze on Kristos who still stood in the kitchen. A mug of coffee sat steaming on the counter table. Kristos left it untouched, instead his gaze on Reed. “Can we talk?” Kristos asked. Reed crossed his arms against his chest, his gaze on the red carpet in the living area. “The last time we talked, we tore each other apart.” When silence filled the room, Reed looked up to find Kristos standing a few feet away from him. Kristos looked too good, even with his clothes wrinkled, and dark circles under his eyes. Reed was a little ashamed at the happy jolt that Kristos was not getting enough sleep away from him. Still, Reed felt relieved that he wasn’t the only one unhappy. “I love you.” Kristos opened, shattering Reed, turning him weak at the knees. It was a good thing he was leaning on the couch. “That will never change, Reed. I need you to know that.” It took Reed a moment to find his voice. “Kristos.” “I never want to fight with you the way we did on Tuesday. I haven’t been able to think since. You wouldn’t answer my calls, and coming home after I left— “Why are you here now?” “I needed to see you.” Kristos took a step closer, then stopped, hands at his side. He looked nervous. “I—I was worried about you.” Reed looked away then because he suddenly wanted to run into Kristos’s arms and hope that all would be fine. But their fight on Tuesday didn’t allow for it. Thinking about their fight, Reed bit his bottom lip. It started simple. A heated discussion about visiting Kristos’s family. Reed wanted to meet Kristos’s family. Yet, Kristos refused to tell him anything about where he had come from. He hadn’t thought it mattered, until Kristos told him that he wasn’t in a relationship with the Stephanos family. Reed had felt insulted by that statement. Kristos knew every part of his life, had met every single person he knew, from Serena, to his mother and his crazy big brother who was married and living in Virginia. Kristos had seen Reed through his father’s funeral, and helped Reed’s mother move houses when she couldn’t stand living in their childhood home. So many memories made with Reed’s family, yet, Reed had none with Kristos’s family. Kristos’s need to keep his family away from Reed felt like a rejection, a slap on the face. “Are you ashamed of me?” Reed asked on Tuesday, left with no other explanation. “Am I someone to hide away from your family? Is that it, Kristos?” “Don’t be over dramatic.” “No, I think I have to be,” Reed argued, hurt and confused. “That’s why you won’t tell me anything about your family, or how we’re able to afford living in this loft, because I certainly can’t pay for it.” “Don’t start— “What? Comment on how I’m a kept toy living in your loft for your convenience, your pleasure, not good enough to be your partner. To introduce to those who are important to you. Your blood family.” Reed rubbed his forehead now, unable to dwell on the rest of their argument. It had gotten too dirty, they had scraped the barrel on insults, thrown them at each other until Kristos walked out. How they had gotten there, Reed didn’t know. But that they had, meant they needed to talk, and be honest with each other. Looking at Kristos now, Reed started to bring up the topic only to have Kristos close the distance between them. He started to protest but then Kristos wrapped strong arms around him, filling his nostrils with the scent of sandalwood. Kristos lips took his in a breathless kiss and Reed melted into him. He clung to Kristos’s broad shoulders, hunger filling him as it always did when they kissed. He wanted everything Kristos had, everything…and this kiss wasn’t enough. Bunching Kristos’s shirt, he broke the kiss and buried his face into Kristos’s chest. “Baby— “This isn’t fair,” Reed complained, his voice muffled against Kristos’s chest. Familiar hands rubbed over his back, righting his world. “You can’t walk in here, tell me you love me, kiss me, then— “I’ve kissed you because I didn’t think I could stand another minute not being able to touch you, Reed,” Kristos whispered into his ear. “I know, I know what the fight on Tuesday cost us. I’ve had a lot of time to think sleeping on the couch in my office.” Reed closed his eyes at the thought of Kristos spending his nights on the couch in his office. It wasn’t long enough to fit his large frame. What about meals? Had Kristos even had a decent meal since that Tuesday? The man tended to rely on fast food when he was too busy. Reed wrapped his arms around Kristos and held on. “My father is Estevan Stephanos,” Kristos said, his tone low. “Lives in Athens with the woman he married after he left my mother. It wasn’t a neat separation. He cheated and treated my mother and me terribly doing it. We don’t talk about family, just business, through his staff. I never want him to hurt you as he does me, Reed. So, I didn’t want you to meet him because he is not a pleasant man.” Reed opened his eyes, staring at Kristos’s blue shirt. “My mother is Adara Stephanos,” Kristos said, his arms tightening around Reed, pain in his voice. “The divorce changed her. You would have loved her before it. She was vibrant and her laugh as beautiful as the sunshine breaking over the Aegean. Her laugh made you happy just hearing it. After the divorce, she turned bitter, and unhappy.” “She left home, and me. She spends my father’s money travelling and never stops long enough for me to reach her. Most days, I feel that’s better because it hurts talking to her. When I hear her voice, I remember the woman she used to be, and want her back, but can’t. When I moved here to the States for work, I took it as a clean slate, a clean start. Then I met you, and it really turned into a new life. I don’t like discussing my family because they have issues, and sometimes I feel that I might carry what they have inside.” “Kristos,” Reed murmured, now holding Kristos tighter too. “I love your family, because they include me, Reed. Serena, your brother, your Mom,” Kristos said, his voice tight. “You, Reed. You’ve become my family, baby. The family I choose, and I should have told you that on Tuesday instead of letting us fight the way we did.” Reed felt tears sting the back of his eyes. All the reasons he loved Kristos welling over in one big wave. This, right here, the way Kristos undid him with a few words. “As for the reasons we’re able to live here,” Kristos sighed. “I— “Stop,” Reed said, clearing his throat when his voice sounded rough around the edges. “I wasn’t being fair. We’re not—, I was being an ass.” “You’re important to me, Reed.” Kristos pulled back so that he could look into his eyes. “The only person I care about, more than my life. Do you understand? I can’t—, I can’t be without you.” Reed pressed his palm to Kristos’s jaw. “Me too, it’s been insanely hard to get through a day,” Reed confessed. “When you walked out Tuesday, I got scared, and have been thinking the worst. You have no idea how relieved I was to see you standing in the kitchen today.” Kristos smiled for the first time, and Reed felt his wayward heart skip as it always did in the presence of this man. “I have something for you,” Kristos said, brushing a soft kiss on his jaw. Reed allowed Kristos to take his hand and lead him to the kitchen table. Kristos pushed him to sit on a chair. Pushing a tablet toward him, the screen already turned on, Reed stared at what looked like numbers. “Kristos?” Reed frowned. “I’m not a drug dealer,” Kristos stated, making Reed chuckle. “I know you didn’t mean it when you said it, but it stuck in my head. I get money from my father, and use it for the business because it’s good sense. We’re able to afford living here because of the firm.” “You’ve never let me help you pay rent,” Reed complained, wanting to air that out. “Because the property is owned under the firm’s name,” Kristos said gently. “Anyway, how can I take rent from my husband?” Reed was busy studying the accounts Kristos was showing him, that for a second Kristos’s words didn’t register. When they did, he lifted his head up in surprise and stared at Kristos. “What did you just say?” “Marry me,” Kristos said. Reed gaped when Kristos reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring. A gorgeous black and blue cobaltium mokume band, handsome and wearable. Reed loved it at first sight. “Why are you this unfair?” Reed asked, pushing the tablet away. “You leave me no reasons to stay mad at you, Kristos.” Kristos smiled then, that smile that set Reed to staring, to thinking that he didn’t know how he had gotten this lucky. “I want to keep you for good. The only way to make sure that happens is if I marry you, that way no matter how much we fight, you won’t get away from me.” Reed chuckled and pushed his chair back. He moved the kitchen table aside and straddled Kristos’s lap in his chair. Taking the ring, he sank his fingers into Kristos dark hair, tracing a soft kiss on Kristos’s lips. “Kristos,” Reed murmured. “Yes, my love.” “When I marry you, it’s for life,” Reed said, looking into beloved eyes. Kristos chuckled and held his gaze, his expression filled with hope. “It’s become increasingly obvious that without you, I might not survive. So, I hope you marry me soon, Reed, and let’s never fight like this again. My heart can’t take it.” Reed wore the ring on his left ring finger, and smiled when Kristos captured his hand and pressed a soft kiss on his knuckles. “First,” Reed said, pressing a kiss on Kristos’s forehead. “I’m sorry about going off about money. We’ve been running the house jointly, let’s continue doing that, Kristos. Your accounts are yours.” “But— “If we ever need to change it up in the future we will, but I’m content with our setup now,” Reed cut in gently. “Okay?” Kristos studied him for a moment, then nodded. “Okay.” “Two,” Reed wrapped has his arms around Kristos, holding his gaze. “I love you too. I’ll one day have to meet your parents, Kristos.” When Kristos started to shake his head, Reed sunk his fingers into Kristos hair to sooth him. “They might be messed up, love, but they did one thing right,” Reed said. “They gave me you.” Kristos stilled then, closing his eyes when Reed pressed a soft kiss on his nose. “Three,” Reed said with a quick smile. “You, Kristos Stephanos, are my family too. My most important person in the world. I don’t ever want to be without you, so yes, I will marry you.” Kristos let out a soft breath and held him tight. The heavy weight that had filled Reed’s heart lifted, disappearing in the scent of sandalwood and kisses that healed and aroused. The past three days disappeared, and when Kristos stood, lifting him along, Reed couldn’t help the happy laugh, grateful for this love that was his to keep. ****

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