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lilansui

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lilansui last won the day on October 13 2013

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  1. lilansui

    Chapter 18

    @Sweetlion It was interesting setting up this story early on. There was a push and pull on what should happen to Midori and Fier, but I"m glad that's been resolved now, (writing this after posting the last chapter, hehehe.) I hope you love the ending. @Geemeedee Me too. They were great to create. @flesco Midori and Yoshi together is goals! I love that they both always know what the other needs, especially since they have to endure so much time apart. I want to kite fly with someone now...hahaha. I worked hard for the last one, it's up, just for you! As for Saki, there is Midori and Lilind to keep him in check if he ever raises his head up again. I really hope you love the ending. A bit of waiting for Yoshi and Midori, some misunderstandings, but in the end, happiness. I'm so grateful for the support for this story. Thank you so much.
  2. lilansui

    Chapter 19

    Amana’s Imperial Household “Your Majesty, Lady Telia has come to visit you this morning.” Almira looked up from the memorials spread out on her desk. Giving Sayuri a nod, she reached for her pen and signed off on more support heading to Fier. Fier was recovering, but it was slow progress. Too slow, that Yoshi believed a network of merchants was keeping aid out of reach for the needy. Almira knew Yoshi wanted to speed up the process, so she asked him to start an investigation. She rolled up the memorial, handing it to Sayuri when she returned followed by Telia. The young Furian woman was now Yoshi’s concubine. She had entered the palace six months ago. Almira studied her as Telia did her curtsy before she sat in the chair before Almira’s desk. The palace seamstresses were hard at work, dressing Telia with clothes that would make the Furian comfortable in a palace and still honor her Furian heritage. The morning dress Telia wore was deep red, the skirts soft and sweeping the floor. Her hair held up with gold pins. She looked happy. “Good morning, Your Majesty. I hope you are in good health.” “Thank you for coming to visit me every morning, Lady Telia.” Almira sat back in her chair. “You shouldn’t be moving around. Your health is more important. What did the royal physician say?” Telia smiled, her hands over her stomach. “I’m well enough to move around, Your Majesty. There is nothing to worry about.” “You are young,” Almira agreed. “Still, be careful. His Imperial Highness will worry if you are not taking care of yourself.” Telia’s smile lingered at the mention of Yoshi, her gaze on her swollen stomach. She was beautiful in her pregnancy. Almira thought it a miracle that the woman would quicken on the first try. A month after Yoshi’s investiture, Telia entered the palace as the Crown Prince’s concubine. It was a marriage of sorts. One that required ceremony. Almira was not proud to admit it, but her son had turned into somewhat of a bastard about the whole thing. Drinking through the ceremony, while the nobles of the Furian Forest praised him for choosing Lady Telia. Almira admired Lady Telia’s sense of duty. The woman kept her smile despite Yoshi’s obvious lack of enthusiasm. Although, Almira’s gaze narrowed, she had seen that Telia drank as much, if not more than Yoshi. Sayuri and Sando conspired behind Almira’s back. Both reaching out to old man Teng Heim for advice. Almira later discovered they had broken out gingko and muiratam tinctures from the royal infirmary. Feeding them to Yoshi for the month he had moved into the Crown Prince’s residence without his knowledge. She couldn’t believe they had fallen back on old housewives tales. Needless to say, the ceremony night had an unexpected turn as both Telia and Yoshi stayed in her chambers for three days straight. Almira lifted her hand to her mouth to hide her amused smile. It was no wonder that Telia was now pregnant with the heir Almira so wanted. All Telia had to do was come to term, and Almira would take on the challenge of keeping her grandchild alive. When Yoshi discovered the reasons he and Telia were caught in a passion storm, he sent Sando to work in Almira’s palace for three months. Unable to forgive what he called a personal betrayal. Almira bit back her laugh. The moment it was discovered that Telia was pregnant, she gifted Sando with a cottage on the outskirts of the capital to call his own. He had worked hard for the Empire’s future. “Your Majesty,” Telia’s quiet tone drew Almira’s gaze to her. “Yes, child.” “May I ask where His Imperial Highness is?” Telia asked. “I stopped by his hall this morning and he is not there. The black guard is also gone.” Almira dropped her hand to her lap and leaned forward to study Telia. “His Imperial Highness is investigating a serious matter outside the capital. His office must have forgotten to let you know. I will make sure they do from now on.” Telia shook her head. “Please, don’t force them to tell me. It will seem as though I’m forcing—,” “There is no forcing, it is the right way. Don’t think on it.” “I’m afraid His Imperial Highness is unhappy,” Telia said in a rare moment of candor. Telia was often smiling and took her time in the palace as a new adventure. For her to mention this—Almira had hoped she was the only one to notice. “His Imperial Highness has not smiled for months. He fills his day from morning to late night with work. If not work, he is terrorizing the royal physician to ensure my diet is right. I almost feel like a project to him. When he sits with me, he listens, and responds but doesn’t laugh, or smile. I don’t know what else I should do. Your Majesty, is it still not possible for the Lord General to enter the palace?” “Lord General is now Lord of Fier. These past six months have not been easy for him, and we are all working hard to make sure Fier stands on its feet.” “Is that why His Imperial Highness is gone today?” Almira nodded, though she did not voice her answer, her gaze on Telia who looked very worried about Yoshi. Lord Midori was right about her from the start. He had said she would have genuine affection for Yoshi. She would focus her attention on Yoshi, especially if she had nothing else to do. Almira knew well enough the perils of worrying over a husband who wouldn’t change. “Lady Telia, do you know what the hardest thing in this palace is?” “No, Your Majesty.” Almira smiled. “Finding out the truth of His Imperial Highness’s thoughts. You can only do what you can for him. He won’t let you do more. Instead of worrying, why don’t you focus on preparing to meet our grandchild?” Almira nodded in approval when Telia smiled at the thought. “If you’re bored, you can also try one of the many other activities that concern the empire. The Princess Naria told me you love training young minds. The Royal Academy is without much information on the Furian Forest. Why don’t you spend a few hours at the Royal Academy and discover what you can do to educate others on your rich culture?” “Would they be interested in learning?” “How will you know if you don’t try?” Almira asked. “Your fellow sisters are now part of the Quad Council. Monthly quad meetings are not enough to allow scholars to understand their decisions. Yet with you, the scholars will have all the time they need to ask questions.” Telia smiled, this time her eyes brightening with a sense of adventure. “It sounds interesting.” “Good,” Almira said. Sayuri entered the office, her expression enough to let Almira know she was needed elsewhere. Telia stood, giving Almira a bow. “Thank you for your time, Your Majesty.” Almira watched Telia leave and once the door to her office was closed, she turned to Sayuri. “His Imperial Highness?” “Sando was in the kitchens late in the night. He packed food enough for two days. I doubt they slept. They were gone before the first morning call.” Yoshi must have received urgent news. “Is something wrong with Lady Telia?” “No, she’s just attentive. She worries about the Crown Prince. Tell the royal physician to pay extra care. Her emotional health is important too. Tell them not to restrict her. Let her do what she wishes.” Almira sighed. “Crown Prince is so busy filling his time, no one can reach him emotionally. To stop her worrying, fill Lady Telia’s day with activity. It will distract her, keep her from thinking too much.” Almira shook her head realizing that the days of worrying about Yoshi were hardly over. He was now caught in a crisis she had helped forge. The Crown Prince whose heart was closed off until his beloved returned. “There is always something,” Almira murmured as she got up. **** On the peak of lush moorland, in the cover of tall bushes and brush, Yoshi sat atop Senbon his gaze on the procession of Fier refugees on the outskirts of Earith heading to Fier. The wide path below lay between the Furian Forest and Earith, leading straight to Fier. Yoshi brought a spyglass to his right eye and turned to focus it on the fast moving horses a distance behind the exhausted procession. Riders with no distinct colors. Swords at their backs. “Bandits?” Sando asked beside him. “Merchant bodyguards,” Yoshi said. “They are after the carriages in the procession. If they get them those people will be at a loss of food and supplies. That’s two days’ worth of supplies. The children and the old won’t make it.” “That’s brutal. Hundreds stranded without food to eat.” “The main problem is the swords the mercenaries carry,” Yoshi frowned. “The refugees resist, the swords come out and the children are left without families.” Yoshi handed his spyglass to Sando. Removing a map from a pocket in his sleeves, he studied it for a minute, before he folded it and turned to face the new General of his imperial army. “General Benal, are your men able to reach that road fast enough?” “Yes, Your Imperial Highness. I am ready for your orders.” “Protect the refugees, and capture the mercenaries. We want them alive.” “Your command,” General Benal gave him a swift bow before he hurried away. “This is a relief,” Sando said with a happy sigh. “The days of Imperial Highness rushing straight into trouble are gone.” “I wonder if I shouldn’t join General Benal in the fight,” Yoshi said, taking the spyglass from Sando to continue watching the men and women with their families heading to Fier. “Don’t even think about it,” Sando warned. “Can you imagine the explanations I would have to give if you returned to the palace with a small cut? The Empress might decide on shaving all the hair on my body with a dull knife. There is now Lady Telia too. Why do you have such fierce women around you?” Sando shuddered on his horse. Yoshi chuckled and shook his head. “It would be entertaining to watch you squirm.” “You’re cruel, Imperial Highness.” Yoshi smiled though it quickly disappeared when he saw one of the carriages in the procession below lurch to the side. Directing the spyglass to the incoming bandits, he cursed under his breath, and took up his reins. Hanging the spyglass on a loop on his belt, he urged Senbon into motion. “Imperial Highness?!” Yoshi kept going, knowing his guard would follow. The carriages needed to keep moving. Yoshi rode Senbon down the moor, emerging into an open plain where Yoshi allowed Senbon the freedom to burst into a fast run. Worried cries came from the people walking along the path to Fier when Yoshi reached the broken down carriage. “We offer help,” Yoshi called out. When the black guard reached him, the worried cries turned into alarmed comments. “Be at ease. They will not harm you. We offer help.” “We had a run in with bandits in dark clothing when we left Dwind. We lost a few of our own.” A man holding on to the broken down carriage stepped forward. “Please understand our wariness.” “You are safe.” Yoshi got off Senbon and moved to examine the carriage. One of the wheels was stuck deep in a crevice on the road. Yoshi frowned. “What’s inside the carriage?” “Food supplies,” the man answered. “Also, my pregnant wife. She’s not able to walk the distances. We can’t lose this carriage.” “Don’t worry.” Yoshi smiled motioning the black guard in to help with the carriage. He took the worried man by his shoulders, moving him to the side so that the black guard could work. “If you’re not related to this carriage, keep moving,” Yoshi announced to those who had stopped to watch. “There are mercenaries right behind you. Keep going until you reach those cliffs.” Yoshi didn’t have to ask twice. The men, women and children took off heading toward the cliffs ahead. “What’s your name?” Yoshi asked the man whose wife was in the carriage. “Jian, My Lord.” Jian looked too nervous with the added knowledge of a team of mercenaries racing toward them. Sando started to correct Jian, but Yoshi gave him a censuring glance. He was finding anonymity allowed him greater freedom. If possible he wanted to keep his real identity hidden. With his hair tied up, and in regular merchant clothes, no one would think him a royal. He winked at Sando, and turned to keep distracting Jian. “Jian, why don’t you introduce me to your family as my guards work?” Jian nodded, and urged his daughter forward, followed by his two sons. Each one saying their names, before quickly stepping back. Yoshi noted that the last of the procession had passed the damaged carriage, moving fast toward the cliffs. Leaving them wide open to the incoming mercenaries. “And, this is my oldest son, Ilan,” Jian said, with pride, his hand on a tall boy in his late teens. “Ilan,” Yoshi smiled at the boy, noting the line of men galloping toward them. “Take your sister and brother, head to the cliffs.” “I don’t want to leave my parents,” Ilan protested. “We shall protect them,” Yoshi said, squeezing the boy’s shoulders. “Be good, and protect your sister and brother.” Ilan turned to his father, and when he got a nod, the boy took his brother and sister’s hands rushing off to follow the others despite the kids protesting. “This is very kind of you, My Lord,” Jian said. “Helping us when you don’t have to. I insist on repaying your kindness when we are settled. How can we find you, My Lord? May I know your name?” Yoshi glanced at Sando at a loss, not having thought of that before, then he grinned. “Lord Midori Taimeng,” he said. Taimeng was also a common name. “I…am a…tea merchant. Traveling from Lexin City. You may find me in the busiest tea house in the capital selling my wares.” Sando turned to hide his laugh. Yoshi focused on Jian, patting the nervous man’s shoulders. The carriage doors opened slightly, and Yoshi caught sight of a worried woman. Yoshi directed Jian to the carriage doors. “Talk to your wife, Jian. She looks nervous. It’s not good for the baby. We’ll handle the mercenaries.” Jian hurried to the carriage when he saw his wife peeking out. Yoshi drew his sword, glancing at the Head of his guard. A second later, the carriage was free and moving forward. Jian climbed in with his wife, as one of the black guard jumped up to drive, heading the carriage toward the cliffs. The guard had finished just in time. Yoshi held his sword tight as the mercenaries got closer, bearing down on them with their fast horses, their blades drawn. The Black Guard blocked Yoshi from engaging the oncoming mercenaries, standing in a tight wall before Yoshi and Sando. Yoshi hissed when the guard engaged the bandits in fierce battle. Pulling the mercenaries from their horses with skilled grace. General Benal’s men soon joined the fight. Yoshi imagined the general had a team watching him too. Within minutes the mercenaries were subdued, with two left alive for interrogation. “The procession continues on to Fier,” General Benal reported when the struggle ended with minimal injuries on their side. “I have ordered men to guide them the rest of the way, and sent word for the many military stations along the road to Fier to be on the lookout.” “Well done, General,” Yoshi sheathed his sword, sparing a short glance on the two men now in General Benal’s custody. “We want to know the merchant behind these men by tonight,” Yoshi ordered. “Once found, he will stand as a lesson to all who think they can rob from allied forces. Is that understood, General?” “As you command, Your Imperial Highness,” General Benal said with swift salute. Yoshi turned, his gaze lingering on the disappearing carriage in the distance. Jian and his wife would be safe now. Yoshi hoped Jian’s wife would bear a healthy child. Thinking of her, brought him thoughts of Telia in the palace. He frowned. He had forgotten to let her know he was leaving this morning. She worried, and the royal physicians was concerned. Yoshi reached for Senbon’s reins. He would visit her first the moment he got back to the palace. For now, Yoshi mounted Senbon, he had somewhere to be. “Won’t you wait for General Benal?” Sando asked. “I trust the General to handle the case,” Yoshi said. “Make sure he reports before the day ends. You know where, Sando. I needed to confirm the attacks first. Now that I saw it with my eyes, let every military officer be aware that it is their job to protect those traveling. Meanwhile, General Benal must bring me the merchant behind these attacks.” “Yes, Imperial Highness,” Sando said, hurrying back to General Benal to relay Yoshi’s message. Yoshi urged Senbon home, sure that the Black Guard would shadow his every move as they always had. Yoshi pushed Senbon hard, a sense of urgency filling him the closer he got to the residence in the middle of nowhere. It had turned into home these last few months. The only solace in this very long waiting vortex. The only time he felt as though he could manage the loneliness in the palace. Heart pounding like a maddening drum, Yoshi felt as though he might soar into the sky when he saw the gates to his haven. The two guards in charge opened the gates for him and he continued his race up to the main house. When he got to the front door, he jumped off Senbon and ran to the front door, opening the doors. “Midori?” he called out. “I’m home.” Yoshi stopped in the living area, breathing hard, his gaze colliding with that of the lady who took care of the house. She stood holding a dusting rug, eyes wide in surprise. “Your Imperial Highness,” she said, recovering into a short bow. “Anyone else here, Nia?” Yoshi asked. “I’m sorry, Your Imperial Highness. There is only me.” “Any messages?” Yoshi asked. “Yes, a man associated with Fier’s Lord Midori dropped by three weeks ago.” “Why didn’t you send word?” Yoshi demanded. “He asked me to place a letter in your chambers. He was very specific, so I thought Imperial Highness would know about it.” Yoshi thanked her and left the living area, hurrying to what he considered his and Midori’s chambers now. Sliding the doors open, Yoshi paused when he saw the large bouquet of red peony flowers on the bed. Nia had to have replaced them every day for they looked as fresh as though picked this morning. Yoshi fought the disappointment flooding him but it was impossible. He walked to the bed, sitting on the edge, his heart heavy. Picking up the bouquet he brought it to his nose for a smell, and that’s when he saw the sealed letter on the bed. Placing the flowers to the side, he picked up the letter, his thumb sweeping over the red wax sealed with Midori’s Fier seal: a burning phoenix. Yoshi broke it fast and opened the letter. His chest tightened when he recognized Midori’s handwriting. Yoshi, Have you been well? I wanted to see your face this last full moon, but could not leave Fier. Instead, I’ve written a letter and asked Naro to deliver it to you. You wait for me. I know it, and it pains me to ask you to wait for me some more. It pains me even more to tell you I won’t be able to make it for the monthly quad meetings. Problems in Fier require my personal attention. I need to handle them first if I’m to return to you. What else do I do, Yoshi? You’re all I have. I can only keep asking you to wait for me. Today…was hard. I spent the day sentencing men who protected many Fier families during the war. However their greed took over when the war ended and they have been slaving those families to work their lands while providing them with minimal food. Children starving, old parents tilling land from dusk until dawn. These men knew the war was over. Knew that the Fier governing council is providing relief as the people return to their daily lives. Yet, they kept up such brutality. It was hard to bear. Anger brewing so deep inside, I could not stop from giving harsh punishment. This is but a small fraction of the many such camps I must dismantle in order to return normalcy to the Quad. I dare not sleep too long, instead I ride the valleys and hills with the men and women sent by the allied council, working to restore what was taken. I want to finish it as fast as possible. Yoshi, seeing what the people of Fier have endured under my father, has left me shaken. I want us to build a better world, a better future for them. Restore hope, and knowing you work for the same thing gives me strength to keep going. I want you to know that at the end of it all, I find myself wishing for you. Wishing I could hold you in my arms. This evening in a small village in the valley, I stood outside, though it be cold, staring at the stars and found some comfort. The stars are beautiful this night. I hope you do look up once, and know that we see the same thing. I miss you. I love you. Yours, Midori. Yoshi reread the letter, again and again. Imagining Midori sitting in a farm house in the valleys of Fier writing this letter. Riding with Naro and Lenoth at his side, and at night staring at the stars. Yoshi wiped tears away only when two drops fell on the letter, staining the parchment. He placed the letter to the side and sat staring at the floor. Would it be improper if he got on Senbon now and rode to Fier? He could work next to Midori until they settled Fier, and then they would both return to the palace when it was done. Wouldn’t that settle this heavy burden on his soul? This waiting that was slowly driving him insane. It would disappear then, wouldn’t it? Yoshi wiped tears from his cheeks and started to lie on the bed only to hear a knock on the door. “Your Imperial Highness,” Sando called. “There is urgent news from the palace.” Yoshi closed his eyes. One minute, he just wanted one minute to himself. “It’s Lady Telia, Imperial Highness.” Telia. He couldn’t leave her. She needed him too. Their child needed him. Yoshi wiped a hand down his face, wiping away the traces of his sorrow. “Enter, Sando.” The door slid open, and Sando came in looking harried. “What is it?” “Lady Telia left the palace to visit the royal academy, setting the royal guards into a panic. The Empress is visiting farm lands in the imperial lands. You are the closest, so the censors sent word here.” Yoshi sighed. “Those old coots. Telia is a Furian. They can’t expect her to start acting demure just because that’s what they want. Where is Telia now?” “Still at the Royal Academy,” Sando said. Yoshi took the letter from Midori and slipped it into his pocket. He would read it later in the privacy of his chambers at the palace. He gave the flowers one last caress and decided to leave them on the bed. He stood, and went out of the bedroom heading to the kitchens where the lady in charge was working at the stove. “Nia.” She turned to face him, her head bowed. “If anyone connected with the Lord of Fier drops by, direct them to the palace.” “Yes, Your Imperial Highness.” “Thank you for keeping everything intact,” Yoshi said, moving to squeeze Nia’s shoulder before he headed outside. The ride back to the capital went fast. Yoshi ignored the path to the palace, heading to the royal academy instead. The institution was sponsored by the imperial house, however the imperial house had no direct power within the academy walls. This was a longstanding rule for three generations. Yoshi dismounted senbon when he got to the academy, adjusting his merchant robes, glad that he was not in his official garments. Visiting the academy was an exercise in restraint. Scholars criticized and inquired about everything. No wonder the censors in the palace were concerned about Telia. An imperial concubine was in a position to influence him. Scholars loved latching on to concubines and consorts. Yoshi sighed, folding his hands behind his back as he strolled through familiar paths. “What will you do?” Sando asked, from behind him. “Nothing.” Yoshi smiled. “Telia is not your typical concubine, Sando. You should know, you spent time with her on our long journey across the Quad. She’s here because she’s bored. Scholars are great fun, she’ll spin them around in circles until they fall on their faces.” “You didn’t think they were fun when they were questioning your decision to choose a Furian over Dwind or Terra when you were choosing a concubine.” Yoshi chuckled as he walked up great steps to the dome hall. “Aren’t they just frustrating?” Yoshi shook his head at the contradiction. Inquisitive minds. The doors at the dome were slid closed with a slight opening left. An invitation to a curious student to enter the dome and listen to discussions. Sando slid the door open for him before he could touch it. Yoshi entered the room, unsurprised when no one turned to look at him. The scholars riveted to their teacher. Sando closed the door behind Yoshi. In the open space below, Telia paced the length of the circle floor space. Her red robes designed to hide the fact that she was pregnant. Her hair falling down her back. She was beautiful. She stood listening to a scholar’s question. Yoshi moved to sit in an empty chair halfway down the stairs, tuning into the discussion. “The Furian people live as though they are in a spiritual sect. How can they start having interest in the political arena now? The Furian Princess has largely stayed out of Quad politics, in the same way Lilind of the Sand has. Why are they joining the Quad council now?” Telia nodded in thought. “How do you know the Furian Princess has stayed out of Quad Politics? She was the first to alert the imperial court to strife in the North. She fought the first rebellion battles, and discovered the plot to assassinate the crown prince. She might not be directly in the Quad council, but she has played a large role in the wellbeing of the Quad. So my question to you is how do you define politics?” The scholar ignored Telia’s question. “So the justification here is that the Furian people have participated in the war, so they are rewarded with a position in the Quad council.” “Your definition of politics is quite simplified,” Telia said with a small smile. “The difference between you and me is this. I fought in the war, though I didn’t have to. I protected His Imperial Highness every step of the way. The only thought in my head through it was the return of peace. Return to my home, to quiet days watching the skies. I’m the average Furian. So you can imagine, the whole horde thinks like me. With some on the extreme, wondering, why the Furian people should keep fighting wars they don’t start.” “We imagine if the Furian Forest decided to stay out of the war, there would be no loss to you.” Telia turned at Yoshi’s voice, smiling hard when she spotted him. “Yes, you are right,” Telia said, giving him a low bow that drew attention. Yoshi sighed as the students redirected their gazes to him. Excitement rising as they recognized him. He stood then, taking the steps down to the open floor space, understanding what his mother was working to do here. Telia needed his support. “It is true that the Furian People have rules governing their way of life. The Furian Forest has lived on for centuries, protecting magical secrets we cannot begin to understand. It is important that you remember that their views on the people living outside the Furian Forest should be considered as those of a parent looking over a child.” “Are you saying they are concerned that the rest of the Empire will implode without their input? Isn’t that thinking too highly of themselves?” One scholar demanded. “We think you’re forgetting that the empire has already exploded, and recovered with great help from the Furian People.” The scholars sat back, the war so clear on their minds, it was hard not to read their thoughts. “The Furians in the council have not been rewarded with a position in the Quad Council. It is prudent to view it as the Furian Forest finally allowing change in their ranks. The concerned parent acknowledging that the children might require more than a swift glance to continue on. We seek guidance from them, not the other way round.” “Why does His Imperial Highness believe this?” Yoshi turned to look at Telia not missing the spark of mischief in her eyes. She loved the debate. She wanted more time here, so he needed to help her get it. “Why you ask?” Yoshi asked, returning his attention to the leaders of the future. “Despite their isolation, when the Empire needed help, they were first to respond. They fought, some died, others maimed and injured. Don’t you think it’s injustice to ignore an entire group of people willing to restore peace to the realm?” “What of their beliefs? Ending their isolation could mean the Furian Forest beliefs will start spreading through the Empire.” A young boy of fourteen stood drawing Yoshi’s attention when he almost shouted. “Furians are born, not converted.” Yoshi nodded, and smiled encouragement at the boy. “How do you know?” “I’m a twin. My sister is a Furian. She was taken in by the Furian sisters when she turned five and her rage turned uncontrollable.” “Doesn’t that mean that if Lady Telia is carrying a Princess, the Princess will end up in the Furian Forest?” Yoshi folded his hands behind his back. “The Princess Naria is of royal blood. She was born in the Imperial House,” he said. “You have clearly not been studying your bloodlines texts. All the information is available in the academy’s library. Scholars of the future should cultivate curiosity.” A young girl got up in the front row, silencing the room. “On behalf of the scholars, may I request one thing of His Imperial Highness?” she asked. Yoshi made a show of thinking, then waved his right hand at her. “Request shall be granted, if it is reasonable.” She bowed her head. “Please allow the Lady Telia to teach at the Royal Academy on a permanent basis. Only His Imperial Highness can grant this request. We would love to know more about the Furian culture.” Yoshi turned to Telia who gave him a wide smile. “Request granted,” Yoshi said. “Now, we must return.” “Your Imperial Highness is kind and generous,” the whole room seemed to say at once. Yoshi smiled, and then held out his right arm to Telia. She slipped her hand into the crook of his arm. “Don’t tire her out though,” Yoshi said, with a small scowl. “She is carrying the future Emperor.” The scholars burst into laughter, and he led Telia up the stairs to the door amid excited commentary from the scholars. Once outside, Yoshi led Telia to her carriage at the front of the academy. “You’re in a good mood today,” Telia noted when they reached the carriage. “I haven’t seen you smile so hard in so long. It’s nice to see.” Yoshi patted her hand and stepped back as Sando opened the carriage doors for her. “The academy reminds me of my days here, learning tax laws. I was carefree then. Empire problems seemed far away.” “They molded you well,” Telia said with a small smile. “About the Princess Naria— “I thought you might ask. She does not speak of it, though if you go searching the history books you will find her.” Yoshi looked at the majestic royal academy buildings. “Your kind ages too slowly. Perhaps it is the fire that is flowing through your bodies. The Princess Naria was twin to Emperor Vulan, my grandfather.” Telia gaped at the realization of how old the Princess Naria was. No wonder Almira sort her out for counsel. “So, the Princess Naria was a twin. I did not know.” “Her age shocks me too,” Yoshi grinned. “I dare not ask you how old you are, Lady Telia.” “A joke, Imperial Highness,” Telia shook her head. “I’m quite young compared to Furian standards. A fledgling they would say. I was born two years before you. It is impolite to ask a lady’s age though, my dear Crown Prince.” “Insolence,” Yoshi said, barely biting back a laugh. Telia shook her head, and reached up to caress his jaw. “It is really good to see you smile. Whatever made you smile this much, I hope you have it every day.” Yoshi nodded, and watched Sando help Telia into the carriage. Once the doors closed, the carriage set off, and Yoshi stood in the academy’s front yard studying the building. “The future does come too fast,” he murmured. *** “Reporting to His Imperial Highness, the merchant behind the assaults and looting on the road to Fier is connected to Epang Manor. He is Prince Saki’s chamberlain, Vold. My soldiers are bringing him in now,” General Benal said in the large imperial court hall. Yoshi touched the gold dragon on the throne chair with a sigh. “Epang Manor,” he murmured, then allowed his gaze to take in the men and women now tasked with helping run the empire. None of them complaining even though he had called them to court in the evening. “Ministers and lords of the quad, will we face censor if we burn Epang Manor down? Why must we suffer these people?” Yoshi frowned when the Minister of Punishment stepped forward. “Imperial Highness, may I suggest emptying Epang Manor and closing the estate until you’re able to gift it to another family.” “Epang Manor is rich with Meng history. How can you leave it to rot?” Scholar Lai Tang asked. “Epang Manor is producing more traitors than we have ever seen in centuries.” Minister of Punishment argued. “Surely, need outweighs history. There are actual people suffering under their misdeeds, Scholar Lai Tang.” “Epang Manor has significance to the Imperial Household. It is bad enough the honors of the house are gone. How can we empty the manor and leave it bare?” “Enough.” Yoshi raised his hand to stop their endless debate. “Scholar Lai Tang, you know the reasons why Epang Manor is without a master. We have already done what we could to preserve the blood. As for Minister, please, it feels as though we might have to endure this argument into the darkest hour of this evening. Let’s concentrate on the problem at hand. General Benal, what is taking so long with the prisoner?” Yoshi had barely finished the sentence when Lord Hong’s officer came in with Vold. The bureau took over the moment criminals entered the palace. The General’s officers would be waiting outside the gates. Yoshi kept his gaze on Vold. “We have only one question. Why?” Lord Hong forced Vold to his knees, a hand on Vold’s shoulder enough to get Vold talking. “I was only trying to look after the servants in Epang Manor. With the Princes gone, we are left with no choice but to work to survive. I thought no one would notice if we took supplies going to refugees. So much is already heading to Fier. They owe us.” Yoshi gripped the dragon head. “They owe you?” Yoshi scoffed. “How interesting. Well, what worries me, Vold, is the army of mercenary you seem to have accumulated. This morning, we had the privilege of facing their swords in person. Do we also owe you?” Vold gaped and lowered his head. “It was not my intention to place Your Imperial Highness in danger,” Vold said, his tone begging. “Please— “Your pleading tone is insulting. The Crown Prince offices are in charge of Epang Manor. We know that enough food and medication is going into the manor for your care. You, Vold, are trying to take advantage of the gap left in Epang Manor.” Silence filled the court and then a soft laugh came from Vold. “What does it matter?” Vold asked, lifting his head to glare at Yoshi. “Royalty is useless to us. We only suffer under them, and in the end gain death for our efforts. Why not take while we can? The support you offered is so little. How are we supposed to restore our reputations with what you give—?” Lord Hong pushed Vold’s head down, stopping his tirade. “Imperial Highness, let it be known that after initial investigation, I have uncovered that Vold has declared himself Lord of Epang Manor. The servants living there are under his cruel governance.” Yoshi lifted his hand to stop Lord Hong already understanding the kind of man Vold was. He could only imagine how the man had escaped investigations. “Vold, you’re charged with gross offense against refugees and the innocent.” Lord Hong’s officers took Vold and dragged him out of the Imperial Court. Yoshi watched the rest of the ministers in the court. “This matter has us unsettled. Reforms must be expected in this court,” Yoshi announced, not missing the glances of uneasiness in his officials. “Refugees struggling to head home have faced uncertainty, and threat of murder while under the clear protection of the Allied Council. No ministry will be left untouched.” “We are under your command, Imperial Highness,” the court chorused. “Lord Hong, the royal bureau shall clean Epang Manor as you did the inner court when Her Majesty requested it. We cannot be sure of the extent of Vold’s allies. Clean it up well. Scholar Lai Tang, you are tasked with the job of turning Epang Manor into a memoriam. Those left by Lord Hong shall work to conserve the details of this war, as well as the history of Meng. Let this serve as a lesson to all who dare try treason.” Both Lord Hong and Lai Tiang accepted their tasks, and Yoshi got up from his seat. “This court’s first main priority is to restore balance in the Empire. We shall not tolerate anyone working to contradict orders to support Fier. Let that be understood.” *** Days went by, the stars gracing the night sky, Yoshi learning the position of each one, until he could draw the night skies during the day. With each dark moon, Yoshi worked harder to ease his longing, reading Midori’s letters turned into his favorite pastime. On a night with bright stars, Sando came rushing into his chambers to tell him of the birth of his child. Yoshi led the way to Telia’s chambers though he could only wait outside, as the doors were closed to him. Almira joined him, her expression full of joy, she watched him pace, while she planned a festival of celebration. Five hours of hard labor for Telia, and their child came into the world with healthy cries that brought tears to Yoshi’s eyes. “Congratulations on the birth of a son, Imperial Highness,” the Royal Physician said, when they were allowed into Telia’s chambers. Telia was propped up on the bed, the new prince wrapped in a soft blanket in her arms. The Royal Physician took the baby from the bed and helped Yoshi hold him. Almira came to stand next to him. “So beautiful,” Yoshi murmured, staring at the impossibly small child in his arms. A possessive wave of love filling him, so frightening, he imagined he would obliterate a nation to protect his son. As Emperor Vulan named him, it was his mother’s turn to name his son. “Mom, please give him a name.” Almira wrapped an arm around Yoshi’s shoulders, studying Yoshi’s son. She took her time, as though Yoshi didn’t know she had spent most of the past month looking for a name for her grandchild. He grinned when she looked at Telia with a nervous glance, then breathed out. “Ayushiridara,” Almira said, her voice firm. The name strong and true. The scribes recorded it right away. “Ayu for short.” Telia nodded her agreement. Yoshi pressed a gentle kiss on his son’s forehead. “Ayu, welcome to the world. I am your father, Yoshi.” *** Three days after Ayu’s birth, a gift from the Lord of Fier was delivered to the palace. Precious healing herbs for Telia’s recovery, a beautiful white jade trinket for Ayu, and a letter in a red envelope for Yoshi. “Your Imperial Highness, you haven’t eaten this morning,” Sando said, as he handed Midori’s letter to Yoshi. “You look unwell. Won’t you take a rest? I will collect all important matters and bring them to you from the office.” Yoshi’s gaze remained on the letter, Midori’s seal so familiar. “Yes, Sando is right. Let’s do that,” he murmured, thinking it would allow him to read Midori’s letter in private. Yoshi thanked Sando, and retreated to his chambers. Yoshi, Congratulations on the birth of a Prince. Prince Ayu is the luckiest boy in the world to have so many who already love him. I write you to offer congratulations, and to tell you of my own good news. Fier is stable once more with a future to look forward to. This would not have been possible without your help, and the allied council’s tireless commitment. I must confess to you stories of before a time I met you. I was carefree for most of my youth, and it has come to my attention this last month that one of my dalliances with a beautiful girl resulted in a child. His name is Roan. Strong and brave, he has lived a happy life with his mother. She is of noble birth and was somehow spared the troubles brought by my father. Her father protected her and allowed the child to grow in a happy environment. They visited the Red Castle last month to pledge support for a better Fier and that was how I discovered Roan’s existence. I hoped to travel to the capital to meet you and the Empress to discuss the future. With the news of Prince Ayu, I have delayed my journey to allow you time to enjoy Prince Ayu’s arrival. I know the Empress plans a banquet in two months to celebrate the birth of Prince Ayu. I will wait until then to visit the capital. I love you, Yoshi. I hope the months apart have not allowed your knowledge of that to fade. Yours, Midori. Yoshi closed his eyes, his heart pounding in panic. Midori had a child in Fier. Did that mean his future included staying in Fier for good? With shaking hands, Yoshi reread the letter, then dropped it on his reading table, staring at the large box in the corner filled with letters from Midori. The last one had hinted at a decision for Fier. Midori’s love for his quad was clear in his words. That love so keen, Midori was unable to meet him once even during the monthly Quad meetings sending Lenoth or Naro instead. Was Midori choosing to stay there for good now? The thought of Midori staying in Fier shook Yoshi to the core. Yoshi pushed back his chair and started to get up only to suffer dizziness. He fell to the floor, weak, and lost consciousness. *** “Quickly, get him comfortable on the bed, call the Royal Physician.” Almira had come looking for Yoshi to ask him whether she could invite Midori to the palace early. It was only right that Midori meet Ayu first before the banquet. She found Yoshi passed out on the red carpet in his bedroom. Her startled cry drew Sayuri and three of Yoshi’s black guard into the room. As they worked to lift Yoshi, Almira moved to Yoshi’s writing desk, taking the open letter Yoshi must have been reading. It was from Midori. She frowned, sliding the letter into her pocket. “Close the inner palace to visitors,” Almira ordered as Sando hurried in. “Sando, tell the crown prince office that he is out of the palace to meet an emissary from Dwind. The Empire is recovering, we cannot have troubled court over his sudden illness. Where is the royal physician? How can this happen?” Sando hurried out of Yoshi’s chambers just as the royal physicians came in. One glance at Almira had them racing to Yoshi’s side who was already comfortable in his bed. His hair free around him. Almira watched them fuss over her son. When she saw no panic on their faces, some of the tension eased. Yoshi had been working too hard lately. Not stopping to breathe, or take a moment to rest. She knew it was because he missed Midori. Missed the Lord of Fier with such acute pain, she dared not discuss it. Shaking her head, she got the letter from Midori from her pocket and read it, the contents unsettling her. “Your Majesty.” Almira looked up staring at the physicians who seemed ready to diagnose Yoshi. “His Imperial Highness sleeps due to fatigue, and is enduring a common infection in his chest. He must have caught the infection during his visit to the capital’s market the day after Prince Ayu was born. He reported feeling tired since then, and not having an appetite last night and this morning. He must have worked through the initial symptoms. He needs uninterrupted rest and treatment.” “No word of this outside the inner palace,” Almira ordered. “His Imperial Highness runs the government and we will not have doubt rise in the people’s minds.” “Yes, Your Majesty.” Almira moved to the windows, followed by Sayuri. She sat on a chair her gaze on Midori’s letter. The contents truly worrying her. If Midori had a son, he might choose Fier over the Palace. “Sayuri,” Almira murmured. “How do you heal a broken heart?” “Your Majesty, there is no medicine for that, only time can ease that pain.” Almira chuckled, shaking her head. “You always have an answer for all my questions, Sayuri.” “It is my duty, Your Majesty.” Almira nodded, her gaze on Yoshi, afraid he might choose to stay sleeping to avoid the possibility of Midori staying in Fier. “Ask Tai and Zia to come. This was my mistake, I must fix it before Yoshi overworks himself into an early grave. Tell them it’s urgent.” “Yes, Your Majesty.” *** The Red Castle, Fier Midori stood on the highest terrace in a castle he had called home since birth. All the warm emotions that should come with that feeling were gone. Apart from his memories with his mother, all the rest, had turned cold. Excited cheers reached him, drawing his gaze to the team of men training in the yard below. Among them, standing next to Lenoth, was his six year old son, Roan. Dark hair, beautiful smile, and a penchant for mischief that matched the Sanori clan. Lenoth lifted the boy up, placing him on his shoulders as he ran around the training grounds. “Your son is handsome.” Midori turned to his left to find Princess Naria standing right beside him. Her silky skirts blew in the wind. He wanted to ask how she had gotten by his side, but he dared not. The secrets of the Furian Forest were too many. “You have reached a decision?” “It has not been easy.” Midori let out a sigh. “The boy has lived years without knowledge of me. The mother is marrying a noble lord. My interference is not needed. It is enough knowing he exists.” “His bloodline is true Sanori.” “Yes.” “Diato’s fate was cruel, but Roan’s fate will be much easier. His parents are peace loving souls. They will nurture him well. Roan will find happiness here. And, His Imperial Highness will take special care to safeguard Roan’s birthright.” Midori frowned, looking at the Princess Naria. He remembered Yoshi telling him once that the princess had sent Telia to him in his time of need. “It is a gift.” Princess Naria answered his unasked question. “One you clearly needed to ease the remaining doubts in your heart. I imagine you were elated to discover that your bloodline would continue, as is Crown Prince. He worried that you might feel…incomplete without a child of your own. Now there are two sons thanks to the birth of Prince Ayu.” “One son a prince, the other to be Lord of Fier. How lucky can I be?” Midori grinned. “You promise to watch over him?” “I will watch over Roan. Lilind of Dwind has also promised to watch over him.” Princess Naria took in a deep breath letting it out as she leaned on the balcony to watch the men train and play with Roan below. “I love the start of peaceful times. There is so much promise in the air. Such life, it is breathtaking.” Midori agreed with her. He couldn’t wait to reach the Palace. He was excited to report the stable status of Fier to the Imperial Court. Maybe then, he could get the Empress to let him stay in the capital. Princess Naria hissed and straightened up from her comfortable pose. She turned around, her gaze burning red. “Come out,” she ordered. Midori frowned, following her gaze to see Tai and Zia emerge from the shadows. Tai’s habits always left him unsettled. “What brings you here?” Princess Naria demanded. “Her Majesty has a message for the Lord of Fier,” Tai said, holding out a red jade carved in the shape of a dragon. “She summons you to the palace.” Princess Naria grabbed the red jade before Midori could touch it, her eyes closed. When she did open them, she shook her head in disappointment. “What took you so long to come?” Princess Naria complained to Tai and Zia as she handed the red jade to Midori. “My Lord, you must head to the Capital. Your time here is over. The Crown Prince needs you.” “Is he well?” Midori asked, turning to Tai for answers, only to have Princess Naria squeeze his elbow. “Only you can heal what ails him. Go, My Lord, I will watch over Fier.” *** Midori rode his horse like a man possessed. A journey made in three days turned into a day and a half. He looked ghastly when he finally arrived at the palace gates. The red jade got the gates open without question. A servant coming to meet him when he dismounted. The young man led him into a guest room, bringing him hot water and clean clothes. The message obvious, he could not enter the inner palace in his muddied state. Midori complied feeling the faster he cleaned up the better. He needed to see Yoshi. The thought of Yoshi ill left him shaking, so he concentrated on washing off mud from what seemed like every inch of his body. When he was ready, he came out of his room to find Sayuri, her Majesty’s most trusted chamberlain, waiting for him. “My Lord. Please follow me,” Sayuri started down a very long corridor. Midori followed, biting his bottom lip to keep from making unreasonable demands. The inner palace was different from the outer palace. Things were more other here, gardens bloomed in riot, halls majestic and with people working hard to keep them that way. Sayuri led him to a separate residence apart from the main palace. The Crown Prince’s residence was ran separate now, he had almost forgotten. Yoshi was no longer living under his mother. “Please go in,” Sayuri urged him toward closed sliding doors. Midori ran up the steps to the door. The sliding doors opened by two guards at the entrance. He entered the main living area expecting to find Yoshi inside, only to find a quiet room. Walking deeper into the residence, he passed a study with high walls filled with books and scrolls. Then an open space with a round table and chairs. Midori imagined it a meeting room of sorts. Walking down the corridor, he found closed sliding doors, with a dragon etched on the surface. Sliding them open, he stopped short when he saw Yoshi sitting on the floor in his bedroom, his back resting against the farthest wall. A heavy blanket over his shoulders, his hair a wild mess around him. “Yoshi?” Midori rushed to his side, only to stop when he saw the letters spread out on the floor around Yoshi. Sweeping hair out of Yoshi’s face, Midori realized Yoshi was asleep. “Oh, Yoshi.” Midori pressed his palm to Yoshi’s forehead, shaking his head when it felt too warm. He crouched down beside Yoshi and carefully lifted him in his arms, carrying him to the large bed. Covering Yoshi with heavy blankets, Midori made sure he was comfortable, before hurrying back to the scattered letters. They were the letters he had sent to Yoshi. He recognized each one. They looked well read like an old book endures consistent turns. Midori took the letters to a writing table in the corner. He returned to the bed and sat watching Yoshi sleep. When he could stand it no longer, he climbed into the bed and pulled Yoshi into his arms, holding him tight as he had wished to do for a year. *** Warmth seeped into his very bones, the incessant chill of his common infection stilled for a moment. Yoshi took in a deep breath, reveling in the comfort for the first time in days. His chest still felt congested, but he felt like he could endure if the warmth persisted. Had Sando started the furnace? He shifted, and arms tightened around him. Yoshi pushed the covers away in surprise, turning to his back to find Midori lying next to him. Dark lashes curled over soft skin, dark hair falling around Midori’s face. Ever the wild man, Yoshi felt tears sting his eyes. He shifted until he lay staring at Midori. What a cruel dream he was having. His heart unable to stop rejoicing at the sight of Midori beside him. How he had missed this face. How he had longed for Midori, even the letters Midori sent him left him emptier with each month gone. Yoshi, thinking he was hallucinating, brought his hand up to caress Midori’s face, if only to feel him even if it was a dream. When his hands touched warm flesh, he bit his lip to keep tears at bay. Then, Midori opened his eyes, and he stared into dark eyes. “Yoshi.” Hearing his name for the first time in months had Yoshi closing his eyes, tears slipping out. Midori shifted closer and pressed his lips to Yoshi’s eyes, kissing away the tears. “My love.” Yoshi moved into Midori’s arms, and held him tight, burying his face into Midori’s shoulder. “You’re real.” “I would hope so,” Midori murmured into his ear with a chuckle. “You had me worried. I rode here faster than a wraith terrified of what I would find.” “I—,” Yoshi broke off, holding Midori’s solid form against him. Snuggling in deeper, unable to comprehend that this was happening. “We’re in the palace, aren’t we?” “In the crown prince’s household,” Midori confirmed. “I’m not dreaming then.” “No.” Yoshi nodded and took in Midori’s clean scent. Then before he could ask another question, Midori shifted back and took his lips in a breathtaking kiss that silenced all his doubts. Yoshi held on to Midori refusing to break their kiss even for a second. They stayed locked in each other’s arms until a call from outside announced the arrival of the Royal Physician. It was time for Yoshi’s medicine. Yoshi wanted to ignore it, but Midori wouldn’t allow it. “You have to take care of your health,” Midori insisted, letting him go. “I don’t want to,” Yoshi grumbled as Midori climbed out of the bed. “This is the only way I can get you to come to the palace. Isn’t it? You’ll only visit me when I’m ill. Otherwise, you’re to stay in Fier looking after Roan. Isn’t that what you couldn’t tell me?” “What?” Midori stopped in the middle of the room staring at him, he looked surprised, but Yoshi could not bear the heartbreak anymore. “Your last letter— “My last letter said I was coming to the capital to seek audience with the Imperial Court. I wanted to report that Fier is stable.” “Yes.” Yoshi scoffed. “So stable, I need not worry about an heir for you anymore. Roan’s mother must be very lucky. No need to tell me your decision. I’ll find a way to endure it.” “Yoshi, whatever are you talking about?” “Imperial Highness, it is time for your medicine.” The call came from outside. “Oh, go away with the bloody medicine,” Yoshi roared, earning gasps from his staff. Midori shook his head, and headed out to door. He slid the doors open and took the tray from the startled physician. The man could not return to the kitchens with a full bowl of medicine. That much Midori knew, so the physician would wait until Yoshi drank his medicine. Midori closed the door and returned to Yoshi’s bed. He sat on the side of the bed, holding the bowl, his gaze on a fuming Yoshi. “So, you’re angry with me.” Midori guessed. “For a decision you think I’ve made.” When Yoshi refused to look at him, Midori hid a smile, realizing Yoshi was jealous. He decided to test his theory. “Roan is a handsome boy. His mother is very lucky to have him, as am I.” Yoshi clutched his covers, tears trailing down his cheeks. Midori couldn’t stand it. “Roan’s mother is married to a man she calls the love of her life. A handsome noble lord who has accepted the mandate to act as proxy leader until Roan reaches majority. The Princess Naria has promised to check on them often. She says Roan will have a happy life.” Yoshi’s fingers gentled on the covers, and Midori smiled. “Their happiness left me wanting to reach out for my own ahead of schedule, Yoshi. If I have to stay in the capital until your mother allows me to enter the palace, then I will.” Yoshi turned to face him at last, with a quick swipe of his fingers over his eyes to wipe away his tears. Midori glanced down at the concoction of herbs to give him a moment to compose himself. “You need to drink this,” Midori said after a minute passed. “I promise to stay even when you’re better, Yoshi.” Yoshi let go of the covers and took the bowl. He swallowed it all in one gulp, grimacing through the experience. Midori took the bowl from him and placed it on the tray. He took the empty bowl to the waiting physician and closed the door after he got a grateful bow from the flustered man. “How is it possible for a crown prince to be jealous?” Midori asked, when he returned to Yoshi’s side. “Yoshi, you really shatter my expectations.” Yoshi sat up straighter, smoothing the covers, color returning to his cheeks. “Midori.” “Hmm?” Yoshi bit his lip for a moment, before he reached out and took Midori’s right hand. “Sometime, in the very close future, may I meet Roan?” Midori brought Yoshi’s hand to his lips, pressing a warm kiss on Yoshi’s right wrist. “Only if I get to meet Ayu first.” Yoshi laughed and the sound of it filled Midori with joy. Yoshi held on to his hand, not willing to let go even when he grew drowsy. Midori helped him settle down when he finally fell asleep, and sat in a comfortable chair waiting for Yoshi to wake up again. **** Almira came to check on Yoshi when it was time for the midday meal. Midori greeted her with a bow when she entered Yoshi’s bedroom. Her elated smile eased his wary heart, the red jade dragon still held tight in his left hand. Almira checked Yoshi’s temperature, pressing her palm to his forehead, then sitting on the side of the bed to watch Yoshi sleep. “Thank you for coming. He has not been happy, and once he fell ill, I worried he might stay in bed too long.” Almira stood and pulled the covers to Yoshi’s chin. “Why don’t we talk in the outer room, Lord Midori? We have much to discuss.” Midori followed her to the living area, waiting until she sat in an arm chair before he chose a long couch facing her. “You look well.” Almira started. “Thanks to your grace,” Midori said. “I’m grateful for your support, because of it, Fier has recovered.” “Fier has recovered.” Almira agreed. “Still, I’m afraid my decision to push you away has left Crown Prince a drift. After he fell ill, I asked Sayuri to bring me his daily records and it seems as though all he has done since you left is work like a tireless tilling horse. Sleeping late, waking up too early, doing all he can to be a strong leader.” “He is strong.” “Yes, there is no denying that.” Almira sighed. “Was it not for your letter, I would never have noticed he was struggling. Lady Telia mentioned it more than once, but I assumed she was overly concerned. Pregnant women are overly sensitive. I should have listened to her. Your letter pushed Crown Prince overboard two days ago.” “I told him I had reached a decision about Fier’s future,” Midori said. “I read the letter you sent him. It suggested you’re staying in Fier. I sent Tai and Zia to you, hoping to find a solution. Yoshi loves you enough to let you go,” Almira said. “I imagine he has endured everyday this year with the promise of your return, but when that promise seemed on the verge of disappearing…” “He over thought the situation. I wanted to seek your permission to name Roan heir to Fier. Roan’s parents are noble and are willing to act as proxy until Roan is of age. With the birth of Prince Ayu, I postponed my request, thinking it better to celebrate the prince’s birth.” “Oh.” Almira smiled in understanding. “That leaves you free to return to the palace, oh, why didn’t you write that in your letter? I would have passed an edict to that effect right away.” Midori gaped at her. “I’m not blind, Lord Midori. Only a fool would imagine you two can live without each other.” “Her Majesty is no fool,” Midori was quick to say. She chuckled, and let out a relieved breath. “I trust in your plans for Fier, Lord Midori. In turn, I ask you to bring back the Crown Prince’s laugh. I miss it very much.” *** Midori stayed in the Crown Prince’s residence as an honored guest after that. The royal physician would not allow Yoshi to visit Ayu and Telia. So, Almira offered to take Midori to visit Telia’s hall, which was a building a walking distance behind the crown prince’s residence. Almira led the way into the smaller residence, smiling at the ladies in waiting tasked with taking care of Telia and Prince Ayu. “Lady Telia, I brought you a visitor,” Almira said, when she entered Telia’s living space. Midori grinned when Telia, who was lounging back on a couch, sat up in shock. Tears filled her eyes. She got up and raced to Midori, pulling him into a tight hug. Almira chuckled, perching on an armchair as the ladies in the room hurried out to give them privacy. “Shh…”Midori soothed, rubbing his hand down Telia’s back. “It’s not good for you to be upset, Telia. Your face will turn all blotchy. Who has seen a Furian cry? You are also showing me a new picture.” “I don’t get blotchy,” Telia denied, punching his shoulder, as she stepped back, wiping her tears away. “What took you so long? Huh? Do you know how hard it has been? Watching him pretend to be happy, watching him take care of me, while he worried about you. I could do nothing for him. What the hell took you so long?” Midori brought his hands up in surrender. “Don’t burn me, Lady Telia. I was wrong. I should have come home earlier.” Telia stared at him in surprise, then as though realizing the Empress was still around, she gasped and turned to face Almira. “Forgive me, Your Majesty.” Telia bowed her head, sliding an accusing glance at Midori. Almira chuckled and sitting back in her chair. “I should have requested Lord Midori’s presence here sooner. Life has gotten so lively. Yoshi jokes, and Lady Telia has shown me another side of her.” Telia blushed and urged Midori to sit. She hurried off to the inner rooms and returned a few minutes later holding Ayu. She brought him to Midori. Midori took the baby, nervous energy coursing through him at the thought of dropping the fragile creature wrapped in a heavy green blanket. Telia chuckled making sure Midori held him right. “Lord Midori, meet Prince Ayu. The calmest baby in the empire,” Telia murmured. Ayu was awake. His eyes the color of honey, like his father. He smiled and dimples appeared in his cheeks, turning Midori into mush. A surge of protective instinct filled him and he held Ayu closer, staring at Ayu’s sweet face. “He is beautiful,” Midori murmured. Telia patted his shoulder and sat down to chat with Almira, leaving him to bond with the youngest member of the family. *** In a bid to keep the Imperial Household happy, Almira insisted on appearing at court on the day Midori was to report Fier’s status. She sat as the head of court, as Yoshi was still confined to his residence. The quad leaders were in attendance, with the exception of Princess Naria who was in Fier, as well as the new ministers and their officers. Midori walked up to the front of the full imperial court. Midori knelt before Almira and presented a gold scroll that Sando took and handed to Almira. “Lord of Fier reporting to Her Imperial Majesty, the Fier Quad is at peace. Commerce has returned to normal, and the quad’s government is running as it should. This servant is grateful for all the assistance granted to Fier by the Imperial Court. Without it, we would not have managed to return to normal so soon.” “Lord of Fier, rise. We commend your efforts in restoring peace,” Almira said, holding the scroll he had presented. “And for your loyalty to the Empire. We wish to award your efforts.” “Her Imperial Majesty is gracious,” Midori said, rising to his feet and bowing his head in respect. “Lord Midori, you are not married yet. I wish to play matchmaker for you,” Almira said. “What do you think of this?” Midori bit back his laugh as murmurs filled the court, and speculation rose. “I would be honored, Your Majesty.” “Good. Crown Prince has also played too long with no partner to call his. He might have a concubine, but I wish he would find someone to share his heavy burdens. Seeing you lead Fier into peace, I naturally think that you’re a good candidate for him,” Almira said, gauging the court’s murmurs. “I brought the matter up with Crown Prince and he has no objection.” When no one protested her intentions, Almira looked at Midori. “The Empire is once again at the dawn of peace. In celebration, the Imperial House shall admit a new member. His Imperial Highness wishes to marry you. Lord Midori, do you accept his proposal?” Midori couldn’t hide his joy, making Lady Tinya and Lady Pipa chuckle with knowing smiles. “I accept, Your Majesty,” Midori said. “Then, we grant this marriage. His Imperial Highness, Crown Prince shall wed Lord Midori in four days.” Midori bowed his head again happy to have his dreams finally come true. After court, it was hard to get away as ministers and officials vied for his audience, wanting to introduce themselves. It was late afternoon when Midori returned to Yoshi’s residence. He found Yoshi in the study, reading at his desk. “I’m very sure the royal physician ordered rest for you.” Midori leaned on the door, folding his arms against his chest. “You took too long,” Yoshi complained. “How was court?” “Exhausting,” Midori answered. “Lots of officials wanting to get a word in. It will take me some time to get their names straight.” Yoshi chuckled. “I’ve been hard on them. They hope you will ease my wrath.” Midori pushed off the door and moved to sit in the chair across Yoshi. “We’re to wed in four days. Your mother does not joke when she makes a decision.” “Are you scared?” Yoshi asked, tilting his head to the side to study Midori’s face. “A bit,” Midori replied. When he saw a cloud of disappointment appear in Yoshi’s gaze, he smiled. “I’m scared of my new position, but happy because it gives me you, all the time.” Yoshi returned his smile. “There is no fear for me. I’m just happy to have you,” Yoshi admitted. Midori stood from his chair, and went around to Yoshi’s side, pulling him up from his chair. He pressed Yoshi to sit on the table, grinning when Yoshi spread his legs making space for him. Midori removed the gold hair pin holding Yoshi’s hair at the top of his head, and sunk his fingers into the soft strands. Using Yoshi’s hair to tilt his head back. “They should know,” Midori murmured into Yoshi’s ear as he pressed hot kisses along sensitive skin on Yoshi’s neck. “What?” Yoshi asked, his hands bunching Midori’s collar. “I only want the right to hold you like this,” Midori said, sucking on Yoshi’s neck hard, bringing up a red mark which he studied with satisfaction. “If I could, I would lock you in here with me, never to let you go.” Yoshi closed his eyes, tilting his head to allow Midori access. “I would let you, Midori.” *** Red flowers, pieces of red paper, and fabric rained down the path to the palace. The golden gates stood open for the first time in decades. Midori watched the festivities from the safety of a carriage waiting outside the capital gates. “Are you nervous?” Lenoth asked him peering out at the crowds who had come to witness a royal wedding. “It feels like the whole Empire is lining the streets.” “I’m not nervous,” Midori answered in a calm tone. He sat dressed in red ceremonial robes. The red cloak on his shoulders embroidered with a golden phoenix. Midori couldn’t help thinking of the phoenix on Yoshi’s back. How striking it was when he first saw it in a bath house in the middle of a village on the outskirts of the Furian forest. Had he known then their meeting would lead him here? He wanted to think so. Yoshi now waited for him in the Palace’s ceremony hall. Midori grinned. In an hour, Yoshi would be his to keep for life. Nerves, ha, one would say he was too eager. So eager, he wondered if the censors would chastise him if he ran the path to Yoshi. “It’s time,” Sando said, opening the carriage doors and looking into the carriage. “I will guide you through all the steps of the ceremony.” “Except the last,” Midori said, as Sando helped him arrange heavy weeping cloak behind him. Sando and Lenoth laughed. “His Imperial Highness said the same thing.” Sando took a step back when he was done, and bowed in respect. “Allow me to be the first to congratulate you, Imperial Consort, Prince Midori. Live a long time in happiness with His Imperial Highness.” Midori smiled and squeezed Sando’s shoulder. “Thank you, Sando.” Midori waved his hand ahead. “Now, why don’t you lead the way?” The procession into the palace took too long. Midori was plagued with impatience, though he fought it down, keeping decorum. The red flowers were endless, the excitement infectious. The moment he entered the palace’s throne room, his gaze stayed riveted on Yoshi who stood waiting at the end of the long aisle waiting for him. When he reached him, Midori took Yoshi’s hand and climbed up the dais facing the Empress. Together they knelt, hands held tight as the head magistrate tied a red string around their hand joined hands. “We are gathered here to witness and celebrate the marriage between Crown Prince Yoshinori Taimeng, and Lord Midori Sanori. In marriage, they promise to love, honor and trust each other as partners who wish to live the rest of their lives walking the same path. They will share their longings, dreams, their joys, desires, sorrows and burdens, and help each other through the long journey ahead.” Midori squeezed Yoshi’s hand, smiling when Yoshi looked at him. “Midori Sanori, will you take Yoshinori Taimeng to be your lawful husband? Will you love, comfort, honor and protect him until death do you part?” “I will.” “Yoshinori Taimeng, will you take Midori Sanori to be your lawful husband? Will you love, comfort, honor and protect him until death do you part?” “I will.” “Until now, Yoshinori and Midori have walked a path as separate and alone. From this day on, and every day after, they days will be shared and spent as one. By the power enthroned in me, by the Empire of Amana, I now pronounce them husband and husband. You may rise as one.” Midori gripped Yoshi’s hand, helping him up, a wave of joy filling him. He pulled Yoshi into his arms and kissed him, much to the delight of their audience who clapped and whistled. Only quieting down when Midori broke the kiss and Almira stood from her throne. Sayuri brought her a tray with a crown made of two gold strands, embedded with precious red jade. Almira came to stand before Midori, taking the crown and holding it up. “On this day, I bestow you the title of Imperial Prince Consort, as you stand beside His Imperial Highness, placing the welfare and wellbeing of the people before yours.” Midori bent the knee before her, allowing her to place the crown on his head. When he stood, Midori was now Imperial Consort, Prince Midori, and it had never felt so good. The following hours were long, enduring a banquet with all the nobles and officials. Toasting, and eating for a prosperous future. Through it, Midori held on to Yoshi’s hand, eager to get him alone. He took his first easy breath when they entered the inner palace in the late evening. Yoshi relaxed and the Empress left them to their own devices. Yoshi stopped him on their way to Telia’s chambers and kissed him hard. “When do we leave for your house?” Midori asked, holding Yoshi against his body, ready to be alone. “After we visit with Telia,” Yoshi said, trailing kisses along Midori’s jaw. “Let’s hurry then,” Midori firmly pushed Yoshi away and took his hand, leading him to Telia’s chambers. Telia stood waiting for them outside. When she saw them, she hugged Midori, then Yoshi, leaning up to press a kiss on his cheek. “I’m so happy for you,” she murmured. “Let’s go inside, Telia,” Yoshi urged. Midori led them into the warm living area, grinning with joy when he saw Ayu sleeping in his cot. Midori let go of Yoshi’s hand, to pick up the little boy. Raining kisses on his forehead as he cuddled him close, enjoying the weight of him. When Yoshi came to his side, wrapping an arm around his waist, Midori smiled and looked at the love of his life. “Thank you, Yoshi,” Midori murmured, “for this extraordinary life you have gifted me. I love you.” “I love you more,” Yoshi said, caressing Ayu’s cheek with a finger. *** Epilogue The Imperial Household returned to peaceful times. The Crown Prince was often found in the Imperial Court, taking the court officials through their paces. He was strict, demanding fair policies for all the people in the Empire of Amana. Trade with Dwind flourished with Lady Pipa’s constant determination, glass from Dwind earned a new respect from the people. Terra opened up to the rest of the Quad, allowing scholars to visit their vast libraries, and young people to train in their military camps. Earith shared their masonry skills, while Fier prospered thanks to the efforts of both The Crown Prince and Prince Consort. The Prince Consort helped the Empire build a formidable military, training them personally when he could. He and Lord Hong Ma developed a true friendship on the merit of protecting the Imperial Household to their fullest potential. His most exciting day recorded was when Roan of Fier visited the palace, and Crown Prince hugged the young boy asking Roan to think of him as a father. Roan was so honored that he bowed to the Crown Prince and pledged his loyalty. In time, the Crown Prince and Roan would turn into great friends. On adventurous days, they would both leave the palace and visit the royal academy to listen to Lady Telia speak to the scholars, never interfering unless she asked for it. On quiet days, Crown Prince and Prince Consort would spend their time with Prince Ayu, and Lady Telia playing and watching the young prince learn his lessons from Scholar Lai Tang and Teng Heim. Joined by Tai, and Zia, other times by the Empress herself. When Prince Ayu was occupied elsewhere, Crown Prince and Prince Consort strolled the vast gardens of the inner palace. They rode their horses on open fields in the Imperial Lands, and sneaked off to a secret place no one knew but the Black Guard and the Empress, of course. The hardest day they faced was Lady Telia’s departure from the palace. Her heavy longing for the Furian Forest and The Princess Naria could not be healed with simple words. Yoshi tried everything to ease Lady Telia’s heart until he could do nothing but let her go. In return for the gift she had given him in Prince Ayu, he forced the palace censors to retain her title. Promising her and the Furian Forest, that Lady Telia would remain part of the imperial family. Prince Ayu was five when he had to face his mother leaving the palace. Prince Consort and Crown Prince showered him with extra love from that day on to ease the wide gap left by his mother. Prince Ayu often visited the Furian Forest to see his mother, and when he was old enough, The Princess Naria gifted him with a black stallion. Eight years after Telia’s departure, the Empress Almira abdicated her throne, naming Yoshi, Emperor and Midori, Emperor’s Consort. Amana grew in peace, bringing in great fortune for those who dared call the Empire home. In time, Emperor Yoshinori Taimeng came to be known as the Sage Emperor. *** The End.
  3. lilansui

    Chapter 18

    Chapter 18 The New Lord of Fier. Three days after the end of the war, the palace buzzed with activity. Noble families making ready to return to their homes. Generals in the allied forces met with imperial scribes who were recording details of the war. Ministers were hard at work to restore a semblance of order in their offices. The busiest man of them was the Minister of Punishment. Trying treason was no easy matter. It included the fate of entire families, evidence to be gathered, vetted and recorded. As for the Empress, her time was spent preparing an Imperial Crown Prince Investiture. Almira smiled, tracing the embroidery done by the palace seamstresses. Her fingers moving over the yellow dragon on rich red silk. Her work was crowning the heir of the Empire. She wanted the best for Yoshi. He had worked hard. Forged strong relationships with Quad Leaders, stronger than Almira expected. Last night, Almira tried to discuss Lord Midori with Lady Tinya, and the Terra Commandant brushed the topic aside. A first for Lady Tinya. Almira stepped back from the investiture ceremony robes with a frown. “The Royal Prince?” she asked. “He has not returned to the Palace since he arrived that first day, Your Majesty,” Sayuri answered. Almira understood the reasons. It would be harder for Yoshi to meet the number of people seeking him out within the palace. Regardless of his position as the Commander, the palace observed very strict rules. It was easier for Yoshi to stay in Lord Hong Ma’s estate outside the palace. At least until the allied forces finished their work in the imperial lands. Yoshi used Sando for any communication between them. “How far along are the preparations for the Crown Prince Household?” “The Imperial Diet has approved the list of staff members. We wait for the Royal Prince’s response.” Almira folded her hands behind her back, her thoughts on Yoshi’s new household. After his investiture, Yoshi would start a family to ensure the Empire’s future. It worried her that Yoshi’s future seemed to include Lord General Midori. Not because he was a man, no, her family was fluid in relationship matters. Her grandfather Reza had an Emperor’s Consort named Hilla from Dwind. Emperor Vulan was born of a concubine and raised under the careful guidance of both Reza and Hilla. No, the problem was not that Lord General was a man, but that he was Namik the Traitor’s son. How could she allow that man into her palace? The people would not find it favorable to have a man whose father had plotted treason next to the Crown Prince. Almira sighed. She left the seamstress hall, her steps slow, her thoughts on Lord General. The Royal Family’s first duty was to the people. Perhaps, she had been in the palace too long. She needed to walk among them to understand Lord General’s position. She paused, and turned to Sayuri. “Bring Tai and Zia to me.” “Yes, Your Majesty.” Sayuri turned to the three new attending ladies following them. Sayuri gave one of them a short nod and the young lady hurried out to relay the order. There was much change in the palace. It would take time for Almira to gain trust again. Meanwhile, a trip outside the palace would help her understand how much change to expect in her palace. *** “This servant pleads for an audience with the Royal Prince. Please hear my plea!” Yoshi rubbed his temple and shifted in his seat. It was early morning, the sun still too young in the skies. Yet the man outside seemed to have woken earlier than the birds. His plea for an audience incessant, Yoshi sighed, and looked to Sando. “Find out what is going on out there. Why does Lord Hong allow the ruckus? Solve it, Sando.” “Yes, Royal Highness.” Sando left the large room quickly, leaving Yoshi to face the allied forces council sitting along the large breakfast table. They had also woken with the birds this morning and descended on Lord Hong’s residence for a meeting. He had expected it, especially since Lady Tinya and the Princess Naria had both met the Empress. Yoshi reached for the cup of hot tea before him and took a sip, took two sips, then forced all his attention on the council’s concerns. “The Minister of Punishment has prepared the treason trial well,” Lady Tinya said. “We are to be present tomorrow, mid-morning. The trial will be held in the Capital Square to allow the people’s presence.” “Security is still an issue,” General Heloth of Earith said. “There are those who still think Lord Namik’s cause was just. Having so many Quad Leaders and the Royal Prince in the Capital Square will require extra attention.” “The Head of the Black Guard will ensure your safety,” Yoshi said, giving the man standing by the wall a quick glance. “As for the trial, we hope it concludes fast, we are more concerned about returning peace and commerce in the Capital.” “Rest assured. Trade has resumed,” Lady Pipa said. “Dwind merchants have started their deliveries, as has Earith and Terra. The schools are working, the healing centers open, and the ministers have reopened offices. However, Fier is struggling, other than the iron mines, which are under imperial control, the rest of Fier is at a standstill.” “Fier is in crisis,” Princess Naria said, slicing an apple into pieces. “Without a clear future, Fier’s displaced people continue on as refugees, and those in Fier who have gained undue power are using it to oppress.” “They need a strong leader,” Lady Tinya said, sipping mild wine from her goblet. She gave Yoshi a short smile. “A leader they can trust, one of their own, as they will have a hard time believing they can survive a treasonous leader.” “The ruling house holds no grudge on the people of Fier,” Yoshi said, his thoughts on the people Midori introduced him to in Earith. They were a constant in his head. He wondered about them, worried for them. “If that is so, perhaps Your Royal Highness might consider that Lord General is the only living heir to Fier’s Red Castle,” Princess Naria stated. “He is strong enough to hold Fier until the crisis is over.” Yoshi felt a painful pang hit his heart hard. He had not stopped to think of what kind of future Fier would have after the war. Fier was part of the Empire. As such, they needed imperial support and understanding, which included having a leader who could guide them into peace. Yoshi placed his cup of tea on the table and folded his arms on his lap. “Lord General is heir to Fier. Now that he has dealt justice on Lord Namik, the people expect to see him in the Red Castle,” General Heloth said. “I believe he would manage to control the rebellious Fier nobles, and quell the remaining rebellious Fier forces. Earith is grateful to Lord General. If he takes over the reins of power in Fier, we shall assist him fully. I don’t think I would trust another in that position.” Yoshi’s fingers curled into tight fists. What had Midori told him that day in the forest? “…If you recognize Fier as part of this Empire, don’t try to talk me out of this decision…” Midori was Fier. General Heloth’s offer was one Midori would not refuse, especially from a Quad so rich in agriculture. The Fier people needed relief. Yoshi bit his inner lip, and wondered if he wasn’t too selfish, thinking Midori should enter the palace with him. Once an Emperor’s Consort, Midori would need to be an impartial leader. Showing favor to Fier would lead to dissonance. A small squeeze on his shoulder had him turning to his left to look at Telia. Telia bowed her head and gave him a small smile. “Lady Pipa asks what your thoughts are on the matter of Fier’s leadership, Royal Highness.” Yoshi straightened his shoulders and met Lady Pipa’s gaze. “A strong leader must take the helm,” Yoshi said, refusing to mention Midori’s name until they spoke. It was difficult to give Midori up. “We are sure this strong leader will appreciate General Heloth’s kind offer for support.” Lady Tinya nodded and met his gaze. “If Lord General is in charge of Fier, Terra will provide transportation to help the displaced return to their homes. We shall also offer support in terms of rebuilding infrastructure.” “Dwind offers manpower,” Lady Pipa said. “We will work with the Fier people to rebuild what was damaged.” “The Furian Forest shall provide much needed supplies and direct support should the Lord General need it,” Princess Naria said. “We shall not limit the type of support, as it shall be assessed as needed.” “In addition,” General Heloth said. “My people are good at building and agriculture. We shall share our knowledge with Fier.” Yoshi sat in silence, unable to protest this....he had no words. The ruler in him glanced at the Head of the Black Guard. The man took a step forward and gave a short bow. “Your people shall not fear for their safety. The Black Guard will ensure their personal security on behalf of the Imperial Palace.” “Thank you,” Lady Pipa said on behalf of the council. Yoshi stood then, surprising Telia who helped pull his chair back. “If that is all, we have matters to attend,” Yoshi started to turn away from the table, only to pause when Princess Naria stood. “I would ask for a moment with Telia, Your Royal Highness,” Princess Naria said. “Please do not worry yourself over the clean up outside the Capital’s wind gates. We are close to restoring the battlegrounds.” Yoshi nodded and waved Telia to stay as he left the large room, his heart hurting. He wanted to see Midori but the man was firmly entrenched outside the capital walls. Midori insisted on burning the fallen Fier soldiers, and giving them honorable burials. Yoshi folded his arms behind his back and sighed. Fier was such a source of all his heartache. Outside in the corridor, Yoshi paused when Sando came hurrying to his side. “Royal Highness,” Sando said when he reached him. “Prince Saki wishes to see you.” “Is he the one calling for a plea?” Yoshi asked, with a frown. “Yes,” Sando nodded. “His father is in custody, ready for trial tomorrow. Prince Saki worries for the souls in his household. As you know, treason is no easy matter. The moment Tailen is branded a traitor; all associated with him shall suffer greatly.” “Haven’t they already,” Yoshi murmured under his breath. Yoshi stood staring at the gardens in Lord Hong’s compound for a moment. His mood already ruined by the allied council’s newest plot to separate him from Midori. That he could not fight it left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. What fate was this, having Prince Saki show up at his door for mercy? “Lead the way, Sando,” Yoshi said, with a small wicked smile. *** Saki Meng knelt on the stones in Lord Hong’s compound, his attendant beside him. His gaze searched the many corridors and houses in Lord Hong’s estate, searching for a glimpse of the Prince Yoshi. His heart dying with every second the man failed to appear. He thought of the servants working in his compound: the cooks, the tailors, the groomsmen, and so many more, all who might be sentenced to death on suspicion of treason. Thanks to their master, his father, Prince Tailen. The weight of them on his shoulders left him sleepless in the night. His heart thumbed hard when the black guard graced the courtyard. He watched them scatter in the open space, and take up position in discrete but strategic spots. His attendant beside him tensed when they caught a glimpse of blue and gold robes coming along the corridor right ahead. Saki lowered his head down, knowing he no longer had the right to gaze on Prince Yoshi. He raised his gaze though when the footsteps approached him, but only saw Sando, the Prince’s chamberlain, before he quickly lowered his gaze. “The Royal Prince will listen to you now. State your concerns,” Sando ordered. Saki pressed his palms to the ground and lowered his head in a deep kowtow. “This lowly servant has no right to ask a favor of the Royal Prince, but please hear my plea. Spare the lives of the staff living in Epang Manor. They are innocent in my father’s schemes. I plead for mercy on their behalf. Please hear my plea.” Saki kept his gaze on the stones on the ground, his palms cold, and his knees numb from kneeling too long. When the Prince said nothing, fear seized him, as he suddenly realized he had no real knowledge of Prince Yoshi. Would he refuse his plea? They had tried to murder him and the Empress. Was Yoshi frightening like the Empress? “Raise your head, Prince.” The gentle voice that spoke reminded him of Almira’s tone, without the hard edge of power. Saki sat up, keeping his head down, his gaze on black leather boots with gold metal caressing the soles in intricate designs. The palace workshops had a lot of time. Blue silk robes embroidered with white phoenix designs touched the cobbled stones, and he blinked when a finger hooked under his chin, raising his head. Yoshi had squatted to his level, the long sleeves of his robes sweeping the ground. Saki took in a deep breath when he met a honeyed gaze. Saki tried to look away, but Yoshi wouldn’t let him, tightening his hold on Saki’s chin. “What fate is between us that a Prince would kneel for mercy? It makes this Royal Prince wonder. In another reality, you might have been the royal prince and, this royal prince, would have walked in your shoes. Do you think you and I would have met in such a way?” Yoshi smiled at his own question, his gaze amused. “I’ll tell you a secret, Prince Saki. This Royal Prince is much too lazy. He would have relished the chance to gallivant through the Empire unhindered. I would have ridden wild horses over the hills and valleys of Earith. Danced on the sand dunes of Dwind, gone swimming in the deep blue waters on the shores of Terra, and learned to forge metal as the Fier people do. I imagine I would have taken the time to discover the deep magical secrets of the Furian Forest, and begged more than the one horse from the Furian Princess.” Yoshi dropped his hand away from Saki’s chin. “When I tired of adventure, I would have slept on the long red grasses in the imperial lands and watched the blue sky to my heart’s content. Free to love, free to live, and free to be. I assure you, Cousin, you and I would have met in the most different of settings. I imagine only to see how you, my blood cousin, were doing in your heavy duties, and to greet my nephews and nieces, if some came along. These are only thoughts, Prince Saki. Thoughts and wishes, I suppose, as that fate is not in this lifetime.” Saki understood what Yoshi painted with his words. Before his father had truly gained momentum on his crusade, Saki had found joy in the simplicity Yoshi described. He had no idea his Prince Cousin also loved to lie on the red grass in the Imperial Lands and stare at the sky. It would have been something they could do together. “Royal Prince— Yoshi pushed up to his feet, and straightened his robes in one sweep of his wrists. He took a step back, his expression closing off, effectively silencing Saki. “The Empress endured a poison storm in the palace. One started by people from the majestic Epang Manor. Your family home, Prince Saki” “There are those who are innocent,” Prince Saki insisted. “You are right,” Yoshi nodded. “And the Minister of Punishment shall make the necessary decisions, tomorrow, mid-morning. We shall discover who is innocent and who is not.” Saki closed his eyes. “Royal Highness.” “We cannot bear to see a Prince on his knees much longer.” Yoshi turned away from Saki. “The plea is heard,” Yoshi declared to all present. “This Royal Prince orders as follows: those with minimal responsibility to the chaos Prince Tailen and Prince Saki created shall find favor under imperial law. Those with fault shall face severe judgment according to the same imperial law. We can promise to look at each case and ensure fitting justice. This is the extent of my mercy, Saki. I truly wish you and I had never met in this way. I would have preferred to play with my nephews and nieces as they came to you. Do find peace, Cousin.” Saki felt a lump of tears lodge in his throat, his gaze on Yoshi who strode away without looking back at him. *** “He is no longer the soft-hearted Prince we knew,” Tai noted, standing next to the Empress as they watched Yoshi walk away from Saki. “It’s not easy to see family on the chopping block,” Almira answered, her grip on the fan she carried tight. “Yoshi has made the right judgment. We can only save those proven innocent. With Yoshi’s words, the bureau will work hard to collect enough information on each case.” Zia shifted to block Almira from a passing carriage filled with curious citizens. Almira smiled when a peddler selling persimmons caught her attention and beckoned her closer. His fruit stand was set up right outside Lord Hong’s residence. Almira imagined he paid a bit of rent to Lord Hong’s property office. Almira ignored Zia’s protests, and walked to the peddler. “Buy persimmons for your house, noble lady. They are fresh, straight from a tree growing in our backyard. My boy and I collected them this morning.” Almira smiled and took one of the bright orange fruits, bringing it to her nose. She loved dried persimmons. Yoshi liked fresh ones. She picked out two, handing one to Tai, and the other to Zia. They both turned away from her to bite into the fruit. She smiled at the peddler as he held out a small basket as she made her choices. “Were you safe during the war?” Almira asked, her tone conversational. “We were caught up in the initial attack,” the peddler said, helping her choose the best fruit. “Our house has shallow fences, and not many places to hide, so we were on the streets running for safety. Lord Hong was kind enough to let us stay in his estate. We were lucky. The bureau kept the streets relatively safe.” “Relatively?” Almira inquired with a small frown. “Chaos breeds opportunists, noble lady,” the peddler smiled at her. “There are those who wish to take advantage. Thieves, hooligans, trouble makers. Lord Hong did his best to protect the Capital.” Almira nodded and cleared her throat. “I’ve heard that Fier’s Lord General helped the Royal Prince defeat the enemy,” she said. “Oh yes, even now, he works hard outside the wind gates to clean the aftermath. Many have praised him for being a hero. Word is he fought off Namik’s Army with a hundred men and breathed fire on the enemy’s camp.” “Did he now?” Almira stared at the Peddler amused. “Kind sir, you don’t mean Lord Midori actually breathes fire?” The Peddler grinned and beckoned her to lean closer. She did, and he said in a loud whisper. “He did it to protect his beloved who was in danger, you see. A love story bloomed out in the battlefield between the Commander and Lord General. What a match. I bet the Empress is going to scream down the palace when she discovers it. She is too strict for her own good.” Almira gaped, dropping a persimmon on the ground. Zia picked it, placing it in the peddler’s cart. She started to reach for the peddler, but Almira pushed her back, smiling at the peddler. “The Empress must have her reasons,” Almira said in answer to the Peddler. “She must,” the Peddler shrugged. “Royal folk have their set of rules I suppose, and can’t be faulted for their own shortsightedness. She has survived treason, and her beloved son whom she thought dead, has saved the Empire. Only the heavens know what she has endured behind the gilded walls of the palace. The best we can hope for is the peace she so loves to foster.” Almira nodded, and urged Zia to pay the man. “Make sure these fruits go into Lord Hong’s residence,” Almira said. “Lord Hong’s residence has many people—,” “Give them to a man named Sando along with this,” Zia said, also handing him a red token. Almira reeling at the idea of her being shortsighted over her son’s chosen love, turned to follow the path heading toward the capital’s busy market. “Tai, do you think I’m shortsighted?” she asked. Tai bit into his persimmon and made a show of chewing his fruit, while Zia hid a chuckle. Almira sighed and kept walking, seeking a different opinion. *** Yoshi entered his quarters still caught up in the issue that was Saki. Saki with his pleading eyes. His one cousin, his blood, offspring of one who had dared try to murder him. Saki had wanted his throne. Yoshi knew it, but it was difficult to wipe out an entire house related to one. “This is why the Empress threw the treason case to the people,” Sando said behind him. “There is nothing you can do for him, or the people in Epang Manor. He is scrambling for a way out.” “Doesn’t make it easy,” Yoshi murmured, suddenly exhausted. How could wielding a sword in battle be easier than politics? “There is a matter that needs your approval,” Sando said, bringing him an official scroll with the Imperial Diet’s seal. Yoshi took the scroll and went to lean on the wall by open windows so that he could stare out into the bustling courtyard behind Lord Hong’s estate. Lord Hong treated the officers in the bureau as he would family. Allowing them to have rooms for use within the estate as needed. The kitchens bustled, the officers trained hard, and Yoshi loved the sense of community within Lord Hong’s walls. Breaking the seal, Yoshi stared at the contents of the scroll from the Imperial Diet and his heart squeezed tight. He was to be Crown Prince in two days, and expected to choose a concubine in order to establish the future ruling household. “They want me to choose a concubine now,” Yoshi frowned. “They say the Imperial Consort can wait, but the concubine is needed for the house’s future. Isn’t this meant to be my choice?” Yoshi dropped the scroll on a table next to him, and closed his eyes. “First the Allied Council, now the Imperial Diet, why does everyone know what’s best for me?” “Royal Highness is to be Crown Prince,” Sando said, his head bowed. “Much will be expected. You must now live for the Empire, Royal Highness. After the trials tomorrow, if the Lord General still hasn’t met you in the Capital Square, you must return to the palace to prepare for investiture. It is the only way to release the allied forces and allow daily court to start. The Capital is still in a state of emergency; official business must continue. The Empress insists that she can only trust you with court matters. The Imperial Diet has no choice either.” Yoshi leaned his forehead on the window frame. The duty he had fought for was calling him. No one close to him now called him by his given name. It was Royal Prince, Royal Highness. At this rate, he was bound to forget his given name. “Where is the Lord General?” “Still cleaning up outside the Capital,” Sando answered. “Royal Highness, you have to consider the possibility that you might need to delay his walking through the Gold Gates. Work on consolidating your power as Crown Prince instead.” Yoshi closed his eyes. The Gold Gates were capital gates opened on the very special occasions of admitting a new member into the royal family. The people would heavily shower the path to the palace with red flowers. If Midori accepted to be Imperial Consort, he would endure this long walk into the palace under a heavy costume to meet Yoshi in the Palace Courtyard. The last time the Gold Gates opened was for Yoshi’s father. Almira had wed in peacetime. There were no councils to stall her choice, no treason plots to mar her love’s name. Yoshi pushed off the window frame and picked up the Imperial Diet’s scroll. He walked to his desk, and reached for the seal that would change the moment he became Crown Prince. Pressing it into red ink, Yoshi sealed the scroll accepting the mandate to start his household. Yoshi handed the scroll to Sando, and watched him leave his quarters. A nagging thought filled Yoshi’s mind: it was time to think of a concubine fit enough to be the mother of his future child. *** Telia stared at her Princess Naria, eyes wide with surprise. She stepped back to drop into a chair across the Princess. “What did you say, Your Highness?” Telia asked. Princess Naria chuckled and got up, coming to hold Telia’s hands. Her warmth seeping into Telia’s cold skin. She leaned in and pressed a soft kiss on Telia’s lips. Telia’s heart fluttered as she stared into the depths of this woman she loved unconditionally. “I’ve not been kind to you, my love,” Princess Naria said, squeezing Telia’s hands. “I’ve sent you on dangerous paths, forcing you to protect the Crown Prince. I know it has been hard for you to see Hinna working hard in the ordinance troops, but she has grown in to her own. You will be proud of her.” “I do not regret following your orders, Princess Naria. The Crown Prince is worthy of my devotion. My work is done now that he is safe and to be crowned. I’m ready to return with you to the Furian Forest.” “Where we shall have to hide our love, my dear,” Princess Naria said, disappointment heavy in her tone. Telia stared down at their clasped hands. Yes, despite her adventure protecting a prince of the realm, she remained without title among her own people. She had no right to remain close to Princess Naria. Princess Naria brought one hand up to stroke gentle fingers on Telia’s jaw, wiping away tears Telia had not known she shed. “Join the Imperial Household,” Princess Naria said. “Give him a son, and you will return to the Furian Forest with a royal title. All that I have is yours, Telia. Help me give it to you.” Telia closed her eyes. She had often wondered why Princess Naria paired her up with Yoshi. So much planning for this moment. Princess Naria and the Empress were really too perfect for each other. “Do you imagine I would leave my son alone without his mother?” Telia asked, thinking their way of life asked too much of her. While she could keep a daughter, a son was left to the world. “What if I enter the palace, and I’m not able to leave?” “You care for Yoshi,” Princess Naria said in realization. Telia opened her eyes and met Princess Naria’s surprised gaze. “I have protected him, watched him struggle through pain, betrayal, and threat of death. One cannot help but love him, but I know he loves the Lord General. I will not get in between them this way. However—” Telia started to push Princess Naria aside, only to have the Princess pull her into her arms. All her fight ended when she breathed in the Princess’s scent of home. She closed her eyes and allowed the Princess to hold her. “I love you, Telia,” Princess Naria said in a soft gentle voice. “Have for a long time now.” Telia brought her hands up to wrap them around Princess Naria, holding her tight. “I love you too.” “Then you know, whether you choose to stay in the Imperial House, or come home, nothing changes between us.” Telia felt her tears soak in to the Princess Naria’s dress. “I would spare you the trials you have faced, and reward you with the best life can offer. The only way to do that is if your status rises higher than it is now. An Imperial Concubine is high enough to break the bonds of doubt in our home, Telia. When Yoshi comes to you, please accept his offer to enter the palace.” “How do you know he’ll turn to me?” Telia asked. “There is the Lady Pipa of Dwind. She is beautiful. We can’t forget Lady Tinya of Terra, who must have a candidate waiting. There is also Earith.” “Yes, but each one of them is as ambitious as Namik was without the thirst for blood. Yoshi will come to the same conclusion I have. Please think on it, my love.” Telia nodded and buried her face into Naria’s shoulder, basking in this rare moment in the Princess’s arms. *** The treason trial drew hundreds of spectators to the Capital Square. The justice department had built a dais in the middle of the square where the magistrate would listen to evidence brought against the accused. The Allied Council sat on one side listening to the magistrate as he read out crimes committed by men and women working in the Chancellor’s office. Midori stood in the crowd, a cloak over his head, and his gaze on Yoshi who sat straight in his official white and red royal robes. His hair held up in a severe tight hold, the gold clip on top of his head hiding every silky strand. Sando and Telia stood behind Yoshi’s chair, their gazes sweeping the crowd, alert. Shouts of approval filled the square when the clerks on trial were judged guilty and sentenced to hard labor in government lands. “We have spent most of the morning sentencing staff members and individuals who assisted in the plot to murder The Royal Prince, leading to a severe rebellion that has left thousands dead.” The Magistrate spoke in a loud and clear voice. “It is now time to read judgment on an investigation ordered and carried out with the support of Her Imperial Majesty with the help of the Royal Bureau’s Lord Hong Ma. The following persons are accused of originating a most foul plot to murder the heir to the throne and take control of the Empire. We have gathered extensive evidence supporting the accusations leaving the court with no choice but to accept that a lengthy trial shall not benefit the Empire.” Midori gave Yoshi a longing glance, then stepped back into the crowd to join his men on the fringes of the crowd gathered. Lenoth and Naro both gave him short nods as he mounted his black stallion, Midnight, and threw off the cloak from his head. Behind him, Lenoth and Naro followed suit, mounting their own horses. Lenoth led a fourth horse that carried Namik’s dead body. Midori gave a low whistle jerking the crowd around them to attention. Soft gasps and murmurs started and the crowds parted giving them way as they rode forward to the dais. The magistrate was reading out the names of the accused. “Former Minister of Defense Sharifa, Former Minister of Rites Zanna, Deceased Chancellor Rokka, Prince Tailen Meng, and his son, Prince Saki Meng and Lord Namik of Fier.” The magistrate paused, to turn to Yoshi with a short bow. “Let the Council know that Chancellor Rokka was killed during the initial arrest. Lord Hong Ma recorded the Chancellor’s involvement extensively. We shall share those details with His Royal Highness after the trial ends.” Yoshi gave a nod of understanding, and the Magistrate’s gaze returned to his audience. “Bring the accused to the dais,” the Magistrate ordered. Accusing shouts filled the morning as officers in blue led the four men named to the dais. They were dressed in white trousers and tunics. Their feet in simple sisal sandals. Their hair disheveled. Prince Saki was the only one in decent boots. The Minister of Justice followed behind them. Minister Won looked exhausted but he walked up the steps fast and with a little bounce in his step. The cases before him were career making. That the Empress had trusted him without interference was enough to show how much she valued his work ethics. The Magistrate stood aside, allowing the Minister to greet Yoshi, then the Council. He turned to the people and folded his arms behind his back. “The four men you see before you worked in harmony. First, they mobilized the Imperial Army, close to three hundred thousand men, sending this army to Fier to join Namik the Traitor in a firm rebellion against the Empire. Second, the four accused created a network of men and women who worked together in an attempt to murder The Royal Prince. Third, they are charged with presenting an impostor who is falsely interred in the Royal Cemetery under the Royal Prince’s name.” “Fourth, they poisoned the Empress’s most loyal chambermaids in an effort to murder her. Last and not least, they started a war designed to take over the Imperial Government, leading to the deaths of thousands of innocent souls across the Empire. The council that governs the Allied Forces fought the rebel army at the capital gates and in different Quads. The biggest proof of their crimes is the presence of the His Royal Highness, Yoshinori Taimeng before us, safe and sound. Lexin City mourned our Royal Prince deeply, and to see him safe and whole is to know that we were deceived.” Minister Won extended his right hand to indicate the men now kneeling on the dais. “On behalf of the people and the power given to me by the Imperial Court, I, Minister Won, charge these four men with treason.” Shouts of approval filled the square, until Midori climbed the dais and stopped before Minister Won. A hush fell over the crowd when Lenoth and Naro dropped a body covered with a white sheet before the Minister. “What is this?” Minister Won asked, his gaze on the body at his feet. “I am Midori Sanori, son of Namik of Fier. I bring you my father’s body as he was the biggest of sinners in this treasonous plot,” Midori said, then dropped to his knee, followed by Lenoth and Naro. “Fier has wronged the people. We are at your mercy.” Midori felt Yoshi’s gaze on him. Minister Won stayed rooted on the spot, still staring at the body at his feet. “Minister Won,” Princess Naria said, getting up from her chair to stand beside Midori. “The Allied Council vouches for Lord General Midori. He risked his life to ensure our campaigns were a success. He has protected innocents. I would stand as his ally.” Minister Won dragged his gaze away from Namik’s dead body and turned to face Yoshi. He bowed his head low as he spoke. “Namik of Fier is guilty of treason. I cannot speak of Midori Sanori, as the reports the justice offices have received indicate he is a protector of the people. As this decides the fate of a Quad, I leave this judgment to Your Royal Highness.” Midori felt Princess Naria’s hand on his shoulder, just as the crowd around them started murmuring, their voices quickly turning into shouts. “Release him, he fought for the Empire.” “Spare his life as he saved countless people.” “He fought his father, and stopped a rebellion.” Yoshi let the crowd scream out their thoughts for a full minute before he got to his feet. The silence that followed this simple move was enough to tell Midori that the Capital recognized and accepted their future ruler. Minister Won and the Magistrate moved aside, giving Yoshi room. Princess Naria also stepped away though she did not take her seat. Yoshi stopped before Midori and held out his right hand. When Midori made no move to take Yoshi’s hand, Yoshi bent down to look into his eyes. “One such as you should never kneel before us,” Yoshi said, loud enough to be heard by those closest to the dais. “You have to know, that you saved more than the Empire. Rise, Lord General. The Empire recognizes your service.” Midori felt happy when shouts of approval filled the morning when he got to his feet. He wasn’t surprised when Yoshi kept holding on to his hand. Yoshi’s gaze skimmed over him for a moment before he turned to face the crowd. “Fier has suffered much,” Yoshi said, when the crowd calmed down. “We have all suffered and survived as one people, despite those who would wield hateful wedges between us. Peace will reign once again in this Empire. Lord Midori Sanori, you are free of your father’s sins.” Midori felt relief flood him when no roars of protests met an imperial pardon. He had managed to acquire the people’s love, and Princess Naria’s support. Now, to convince an Empress. Yoshi dropped his hand and he looked up with a frown when Yoshi returned to his seat without looking at him. Once again, The Royal Prince. Minister Won thanked Yoshi with a bow, and took a scroll from the Magistrate. “In light of the severe crimes listed, and the damage to the Empire’s peace, the men accused of treason shall face death by hanging this afternoon. Their families are stripped of noble status and their assets revert to the Imperial Court. Imperial Law is not without conscience. The innocent of associated crimes in the accused homes shall be acquitted. Those found guilty will face arrest. I, Minister Won, shall ensure this matter is followed to the end.” Yoshi got up from his seat, and started to leave the dais followed by the black guard. “So, that’s how the Imperial Family treats blood,” Prince Tailen spat out, his words directed at Yoshi. “Hanging us like common folk just because we rebelled. Doesn’t that make you a tyrant? And you wonder why I thought you would never make a good leader.” Yoshi stopped his descent from the dais, the black guard giving him room as he turned to face Prince Tailen. Princess Naria gasped beside Midori, and he could see why. Yoshi’s eyes burned red, like he had done that day in Dwind. Midori moved to intercept him, but Princess Naria grabbed his arm stopping him. “He is in control,” Princess Naria murmured in surprise. “He has learned to control it, somehow.” Yoshi walked to Prince Tailen’s side, hiding his eyes from the crowd. “What pleasures have you enjoyed thanks to the Imperial Family you so hate? Epang Manor has existed for centuries. Meng family from Epang Manor has always been at peace with Taimeng, until you. You dared plot murder. Murder against Taimeng, murder across an Empire, murder that killed thousands of people. What rewards did you think you would get for that?” Yoshi hissed, and his hand touched Prince Tailen’s jaw, tilting his head up so that he had no choice but to look into Yoshi’s burning eyes. Tailen gave a startled cry and Midori took a step closer, afraid Yoshi would burn Tailen before so many people. “I think of that boy you murdered in my place at the start,” Yoshi said, his tone pained. “That young man’s name was Ting. He was a serf who believed a prince lived a better life. Only to be stabbed to death mere minutes later. What irony,” Yoshi chuckled, the sound bitter, “that being a serf saved me.” Yoshi leaned closer and stared into Prince Tailen’s gaze who was now quiet, and shivering. “Do not dare ask what the Imperial Family has done here. Hanging is mercy.” Prince Tailen screamed and Midori gritted his teeth when he saw Yoshi’s fingers hot against Tailen’s chin. “If it was up to me, I would burn you to death, resurrect you then tear you to pieces. You would believe me a tyrant then.” Yoshi let go of Prince Tailen and straightened to his full height. He let out a harsh breath and stepped back. “Take him away,” Yoshi hissed, and stalked off the dais, his black guard close behind him. Sando hurried to Midori’s side after Yoshi was gone. “The Prince wishes to see you,” Sando said. “I’m staying in a boarding house next to the most popular tea house, close to the capital market.” “Then, I’ll be by to help you make arrangements,” Sando said, and hurried after his charge. “For someone who has managed to unite a divided Empire, the Royal Prince looks pretty down,” Lenoth said, coming to stand next to Midori. “Why do you think that is?” Midori refused to comment because he suspected it had to do with him, and the fact that he might be heading to Fier. Fier was vindicated, but there was a lot of work left to do. He glanced at the four men being led off the dais by officers from the magistrate’s office to face their end. Midori was not surprised when the magistrate’s officers took Namik’s body with them. Traitors were buried in government cemeteries. Namik would be no exception. Midori was surprised to find no remorse plaguing him on this matter. A hand touched his elbow and he turned to find Telia smiling at him. “Want to confirm the execution with me?” Telia asked. “The Royal Prince’s office has trusted me with this task.” “Let’s go. I don’t think I will find sleep if I don’t confirm the ending.” Midori matched his step to Telia’s as they followed the officers in charge. They walked behind the small procession heading to the magistrate’s office. Crowds parted to give them way. Cabbages leaves, rotten persimmon fruits and reeking onions flew at the four prisoners. Telia and Midori slowed down their pace to avoid showering in rotten vegetables. “How is Yoshi?” Midori asked as they entered the relatively calm magistrate’s compound. “Do you ask because you don’t know?” Telia glanced at him, her hands folded behind her back. Midori winced, and Telia nodded. “I know you haven’t been to see him since you valiantly put down Namik. The Palace has descended on him full force. Dozens of eyes monitor his every move, decision, hell they even record how long he eats his food. Still, I never realized how heavy his burden was until I watched him try on his investiture robes. Through it, Sando stood next to him reading out a very long list of rules to remember through that insane ceremony. I don’t think I could remember any of it, and Yoshi simply nodded without batting his eyelashes.” “Palaces are pure power. That’s why they require rules to manage them,” Midori said. “Living in them whittles away dull edges.” Telia stopped, forcing Midori to turn and face her. “Can I ask you something?” Midori noted her gaze turn serious and nodded. “You love Yoshi. You know he must have an heir for the Empire. How do you feel about that?” “If you’re asking if I’m jealous, then the answer is yes,” Midori said. “I’m human after all, Telia. At the same time, I know Yoshi is mine in every sense and I will love his children, because they are his. I want to live with him until we’re both old and see the next generation take over. I imagine I’m jealous now because it might take longer to start this future.” “And the woman who gives him these heirs?” Telia frowned. “What about her?” “Loving an Emperor requires an open heart, Telia. In a world of thrones and power, I imagine both Yoshi and I will have to do all we can to protect her. She’ll be the first person they target, but we’re strong. It won’t be easy. We’ll keep the family safe.” “You sound so sure,” Telia smiled. “I have to be.” Midori returned her smile. “If I’m not, Yoshi will worry. Life is hard for him when he worries. The next three years won’t be easy for any of us. I’ve spent time reading the palace rules, and once Yoshi is crown prince, they expect him to start his household. Meaning, he needs an Imperial Concubine, who is about the blood. The Imperial Consort can enter the palace later as that position is about power. Yoshi can take his time choosing. The Empress will be expecting Yoshi to consider this much.” “As though we all don’t know he has chosen his consort,” Telia teased. “Who do you think Yoshi will choose as concubine?” “Someone he can trust,” Midori said. “Someone without ambition for more in that very powerful palace.” “Ah, Yoshi is lucky.” Telia grinned. “I’m jealous.” “You call him Yoshi.” “Only with you,” Telia said, flashing him a startling smile. “I wouldn’t dare to his face now.” “He is just a man.” “To you,” Telia said, as they reached the hangman’s scaffold to find Prince Tailen, Minister Sharifa and Minister Zanna lined up on the dais, heavy ropes resting around their necks. “To the rest of us, he remains at the highest point of the Empire, Lord Midori. One word from him will mean the life or death of a soul. To the people he is someone to respect and fear.” Midori crossed his arms against his chest, watching Prince Saki who stood on the sidelines watching his father, eyes filled with tears. He wondered what Yoshi had decided to do with the Meng Prince. It couldn’t be easy, wiping out an entire clan. Yet, leaving one behind meant the possibility of another uprising. “Despite the reverence in your tone, Telia, Yoshi remains just a man. One with a heart that can break, hurt, and at times, fill with immense pity. It’s all heavy to him, so heavy, he loses sleep.” Telia patted his arm. “Lord Midori, your love sure shines bright.” “Yeah, yeah,” Midori nodded to Prince Saki. “Let’s find out what they’ve decided to do with that wiggling culprit.” *** Midori waited with Telia to discover what Prince Saki’s fate was after the executions were over. Midori wondered what Yoshi was thinking keeping Prince Saki alive, but at the same time, he understood Yoshi worried about turning into a tyrant for murdering his own kin. The House of Meng was more trouble than they were worth, but the weight of their ancestors was heavy on Yoshi’s shoulders. Midori waited with Telia, nibbling on nuts as they watched Prince Saki pay his last respects to his father. Once the Prince finished saying goodbye to his father, he turned to the Magistrate awaiting his fate. “Prince Saki,” the Magistrate said. “Your family has brought great dishonor to the Empire. Your father is labeled a traitor, and your family stripped of any standing in the Imperial Court. Despite that, The Royal Prince believes your circumstances did not offer you much choice. He has spared your life, but orders you live in exile, under the Sand Queen’s careful eye, in Lilind’s stronghold. You will not return to the Empire’s Capital, nor have access to Quad Politics by law. The Royal Prince promises to take care of those who matter to you in Epang Manor on your behalf.” Midori nodded when he saw Hinda, the Dwind man who had said he would not enter the Black Guard, appear followed by five others like him. “Good choice,” Midori murmured, thinking of Lilind and how much she frightened him. “The Royal Prince is wise,” Telia said, with a please smile. “Life under Lilind does not leave one open to treasonous thoughts. Saki will grow up well.” “Saki won’t think so,” Midori said, watching Hinda take Saki’s arm and lead him out of the magistrate’s compound. “Life won’t be easy for him out there.” “Exile in Lilind’s territory is much better than death at the hangman’s noose. Besides, Lilind is loyal to House Taimeng. She will turn Prince Saki into something useful.” “If not, then I will make sure to end him,” Midori vowed, getting up. He stretched his arms above his head and gave a sigh. “He will never again trouble Yoshi this way.” “Now what?” Telia asked, still sitting. “Now,” Midori dropped his arms to his side and took in a deep breath. “It’s time to work on getting that future I so wanted. I have someone waiting for me. See you later, Telia.” Midori returned to the boarding house to find Sando waiting for him in the reception area sipping on tea. He was dusty, hungry and tired, but the sight of Sando sent a new wave of energy through him. “Were you waiting long?” Midori asked, when Sando sprung to his feet. “I would have been ready, but—,” “Don’t worry about that,” Sando said, taking his Midori’s left arm. “Come with me.” Midori allowed Sando’s hold because he knew Sando would never do it without cause. Sando led him out of the boarding house and into an alley on the boarding house’s right. Minutes later and Midori was ushered into a black carriage that set off immediately. He was alone in the comfortable carriage. The driver urged the horses into a faster speed, so Midori leaned back and relaxed, only sliding the window open slight to confirm they were heading out of the capital gates. A tickle on his nose woke him, and he opened his eyes to find amused honeyed eyes watching him. Midori smiled and brought his hand up to take the feather Yoshi was using to tickle his nose. “You must have been exhausted,” Yoshi said, still leaning over Midori. “You must love watching me sleep. Why didn’t you wake me?” Yoshi grinned and disappeared. Midori couldn’t help the slight panic. He sat up quickly to realize he was still in the black carriage. Yoshi sat opposite him, dressed down in pale green robes, his hair around his shoulders. “I didn’t want to wake you from your dreams. They looked restful. Hungry? You look like you could be hungry. Come on, Midori.” Yoshi started to get out of the carriage, but Midori reached for him, taking his left arm and pulling him onto his lap. Yoshi chuckled as Midori wrapped his arms around him and pulled him into a tight embrace. Midori closed his eyes, breathing in his handsome prince, feeling his heat against him. “I’ve missed you,” Midori murmured into Yoshi’s ear, holding him tight. Yoshi pressed a kiss on his temple and pulled back. “Come inside, have a bath, change your clothes, and eat something. My turn to take care of you, Lord Midori. You’ve worked too hard of late.” Yoshi didn’t give him a chance to hesitate. Instead, pulling him out of the carriage. Midori paused when he realized they were in a private estate in the Imperial Lands. Peach trees grew around a neat, peaceful residence. “No one will disturb us here,” Yoshi said. “There is only a lady who keeps up the place. Sando, Lenoth and Naro. No one else.” “The Black Guard?” Midori asked, following Yoshi to the front door of the house. “They guard the perimeter of the property. No one will dare approach.” “You’ve thought this out.” Yoshi led him deeper into the house, down two corridors and into a bathhouse with a large tub built in the middle of the room. Hot water already steamed away in its depths. Midori squeezed Yoshi’s hand in excitement. Yoshi chuckled, and turned to help him out of the leathers he wore. Midori laughed when Yoshi wrinkled his nose at how ripe he stank. Midori couldn’t blame him. It had been a while since he had the luxury of a bath. When Midori stepped out of the dark trousers he wore, he straightened to his full height, closing his eyes when Yoshi’s warm hands pressed into his chest. Gentle fingers traced his skin, pausing over healing cuts and bruises. Midori opened his eyes and found Yoshi staring at a deep cut on his left arm. “I tried to keep my promise. It wasn’t easy.” Yoshi stepped closer and pressed a kiss on his chest. “Get into the tub. I’ll help you wash your hair and scrub your back.” Midori watched Yoshi move to the tub, sinking his fingers into the water to test the temperature. Midori didn’t wait for the go ahead, instead climbing into the heavenly water with a moan. The water felt just right, like sinking into comfort. His aching muscles welcomed it. “If you scald your butt, I’ll be cross with you.” “Bet you will be,” Midori said with a grin, as he leaned his head back to meet Yoshi’s gaze. “Very,” Yoshi poked Midori’s left shoulder, laughing when Midori sunk into the hot water. When he came up again, Yoshi was waiting with soap for his hair. Midori closed his eyes in pleasure when Yoshi’s fingers sunk into his hair, massaging his scalp. Yoshi worked in silence, getting a bucket from a set that was left to the side of the tub. He used cool water to rinse the soap out of Midori’s hair, pouring the dirty water into a bucket. “You’re oddly quiet,” Midori said when Yoshi finished and was running a comb through his hair. Yoshi continued the soothing motions, combing Midori’s hair as Midori sat in the hot water, staring at the high rafters. Midori tried to catch a glimpse of Yoshi, but it was hard when his man insisted on working from behind him. “You looked majestic at the trial this morning. You turned the people to my side with a few words. You favor me, Yoshi.” “I was only appreciating the fact that you survived a fight to the death with Namik.” “Did you think I would lose?” “That’s not the point.” Yoshi placed the comb on the holder next to him, and patted Midori’s shoulder. Midori leaned forward, a soft sigh escaping when Yoshi started on his back. Yoshi scrubbed his back thoroughly, then his fingers moved over Midori’s tense shoulders, drawing a soft moan from Midori’s lips. “Yoshi,” Midori said after a while. Yoshi’s nails dug into Midori’s skin making him yelp. “Anything could have happened.” “Alright, I won’t joke about fighting Namik anymore.” Yoshi reached for a small white cloth and used it to wipe his hands as he moved away from the tub. “You’re angry.” Midori reached for soap and a cloth and concentrated on bathing. “Is it because I refused to march into the Capital two days ago?” “I waited.” Midori glanced up to find Yoshi leaning on the wall, his arms folded against his chest. “I’m here now.” Yoshi watched him instead. Midori wished he could see what Yoshi was thinking. It was a tragedy not knowing. Midori bathed with care, scrubbing away grime. When he was done, Yoshi helped him rinse, and brought him a large white bath towel. Midori got out of the tub, grinning when Yoshi got started wiping away the water. Unwilling to hold back, Midori wrapped a strong arm around Yoshi, pulling him into his arms. Before Yoshi could speak, Midori covered Yoshi’s lips with his in a desperate, savage kiss. Yoshi responded with a startled moan, his arms locking around Midori’s neck the towel dropping down to the ground as they both let go, uncaring. Midori took his lips in another kiss. Exploring Yoshi’s mouth with wild need. He was a man starved in the desert for months and only just found water. They kissed until breathing became necessary and even then, Yoshi still clung to him, unwilling to part. “Our chamber?” Midori asked, between kisses. “Turn right, straight down the corridor to the doors at the end.” Yoshi grinned when Midori lifted him up. Midori ran his hands over Yoshi’s back, grunting in satisfaction when Yoshi wrapped his legs around Midori’s hips. Midori held Yoshi’s thighs, smiling when Yoshi broke their kiss and stared at him. “What?” Midori asked when Yoshi traced his face, a frown dancing on his forehead. “How is it possible to love you this much?” “How much?” Midori asked, carrying Yoshi out of the large bath. “I feel as though I might burst into pieces with it all,” Yoshi said. “I’ll hold you together.” Yoshi held his gaze, helping slide the door to their chamber open. Midori stepped into the spacious room, pausing only long enough for Yoshi to slide the door closed. He headed for the wide bed in the east corner, with red silk curtains hanging from great pillars set around the bed. Midori placed Yoshi on the bed, and watched him lie back with a seductive grin. Yoshi untied the sash holding his robes together, and threw his hands up above his head. “This Prince is impatient for Lord General’s touch.” Midori grinned and crawled over Yoshi. “Lord General accepts request,” Midori murmured, pressing his lips to Yoshi’s neck, sucking hard on delicate skin. He smiled when he drew a wanton moan from Yoshi. *** Hours later, thoroughly steeped in passion, Yoshi pulled on a large pillow, resting his head on the soft fabric, eyes closed. Warm kisses trailed a path up his left thigh, drawing soft pleased moans out of him. He chuckled when Midori squeezed his left butt cheek and pressed a kiss on his lower back. Then Midori lay over him. Midori’s weight on his back left him breathless. They were skin to skin, Midori’s fingers trailing soft caresses up his back to his shoulders, the soft caresses turning firm as they went down his arms to his hands. Strong fingers wrapped around his, and he opened his eyes when Midori kissed his left shoulder. He tangled his fingers with Midori’s, biting his lip when Midori licked a path to his left ear. Yoshi sighed when Midori let go of his hands, his weight shifting from Yoshi’s back. He smiled when Midori swept his hair into a ponytail. “Your hair has grown an inch,” Midori said, his fingers playing with the long strands. “Are you measuring it?” “Every time we spend together. Although, there seems to be a small chunk of it that’s shorter.” “Sando’s work,” Yoshi said. He lifted his head slightly, to find Midori watching him. “I thought you said no one could cut your hair.” “We did it to reassure my mother I lived.” Yoshi didn’t miss the little frown that crossed Midori’s forehead. “When we were in Dwind.” “Right,” Midori nodded. “Tai?” Yoshi nodded, shifting so that he lay on his right side facing Midori. Midori took Yoshi’s left hand, opening Yoshi’s palm so that he could massage each finger. “When you touched your uncle with your fingers, you were on fire this morning. How?” Midori studied Yoshi’s hands. “I thought you needed Telia to put you in that state.” “I talked to Princess Naria the night before the last battle. I was curious after the fight in Dwind, and me waking up from it so soon, I wondered what I could do with the energy. Princess Naria said that my body was older, and it had developed the strength to handle the toll of use. With time I can sharpen the skill, use it like Lilind’s children do the sand.” “What triggered it today?” “White hot anger,” Yoshi said, shifting so that he rested his head on Midori’s lap. He smiled when Midori pulled him closer, making sure Yoshi was comfortable. “I couldn’t believe my uncle would dare accuse my mother of being unfair, after we’ve been to war over what he did.” “I guess the fire inside you is tied to your emotions.” Midori tangled their fingers. “So many possibilities.” Yoshi met Midori’s dark gaze and grinned. “I’m sure we can experiment.” “Not yet,” Midori shook his head. “I don’t want to burn into a crisp.” “That would be very unsexy,” Yoshi agreed. “Very, you need to start work on controlling it.” Yoshi’s gaze strayed to their clasped hands. His heart squeezing tight at the simple pleasure. Being here like this made the past weeks seem like a lifetime ago. “Whose house is this?” Midori asked. “Mine.” “Technically anything in the Empire is yours.” Yoshi met Midori’s gaze. “It was my father’s house before me. My father hated palace life. I’ve told you that he was a free spirit. Loved his freedom, hated palace rules, and hoped to live an unencumbered life.” Yoshi waved his free hand to encompass the large room. “This was his sanctuary. Whenever he went missing, Mom always knew to find him here. He’d bring me with him, sometimes. When he died, he left the property to me. The only thing I own that is not attached to my title. If they deposed me, this is where I would live.” “Then your home is a beautiful place,” Midori said. “I understand why your father would choose it, and no one will depose you as long as I live.” “This place…it is yours too, Midori. If you ever wish to escape…” “Are you offering me sanctuary?” “All I have is yours,” Yoshi answered, meaning it. Midori stayed silent and Yoshi looked up to meet an intense dark gaze. “What?” Yoshi asked. “Something’s bothering you. Has been since I saw you at the trial. Are you going to voice what has you so worried?” Yoshi chuckled. “I’m quite sure I’m not worried right now.” “You’re hiding the worry,” Midori said, his fingers pushing dark hair out of Yoshi’s face. “Focusing on the present as though it will keep it all at bay.” “We should keep it that way,” Yoshi murmured. “Talk to me,” Midori insisted. Yoshi closed his eyes, heart racing. There were topics he wanted to avoid. Their time alone was limited to this night, the day tomorrow and the night. It felt like he needed every second in between to get enough of Midori, and even then it wouldn’t be enough. Yoshi took in a short breath, letting it out slow. “Fier.” He opened his eyes to find Midori studying him. Midori’s dark gaze unreadable. “Yes, my home is in crisis,” Midori said with a nod. His tone matter of fact. Midori knew he had to return, Yoshi realized. Yoshi sat up then feeling this was not the best way to discuss the future. He reached for his white silk robe and wore it as he climbed out of bed, tying the belt tight. Yoshi walked to a table near open terrace doors. He poured water into a goblet and brought it to his lips, taking a deep sip. Fortified, he turned to look at Midori who still sat in the middle of their bed. Midori had also reached for his robe too. The dark robe Midori wore a stark contrast to the white sheets in a tangle around him. “You remain Fier’s heir.” Yoshi felt rips in his heart as the words left his lips. “The Allied Council sat me down early this morning. Each one promised you relief should you return to Fier. Their plans were hard to ignore. Fier will recover with their help. I felt compelled to offer security in the form of the Black Guard.” “Are you speaking to me right now as the Royal Prince, or my lover?” Yoshi placed the goblet on the table, angry at that statement. “Is there a difference?” “Yes. A big difference,” Midori frowned. Yoshi turned away from Midori and picked up his goblet again. He took another healthy sip of water, his heart thundered in his chest. “Then I’m both at the moment.” “Yoshi, look at me.” Seductive words coming from Midori’s lips. It was hard to ignore them, so Yoshi turned to face his lover. “The Royal Prince knows your place is in Fier for now. Your lover is more selfish. I wish you would enter the palace with me. I want to keep you by my side, despite Fier’s plight. Do you hate me for that?” “No. I’m fighting the same war.” Midori touched his left temple. “This knows why Fier needs me, but—” Midori’s hand dropped to his heart. “This wishes for you, and all that you are. The wish is acute, almost suffocating. I don’t know how I could live ignoring it.” Yoshi placed the goblet on the table with a small bang. “What do we do?” Yoshi whispered. “I don’t want to live without you, Midori. Who knows how long it will take to stabilize Fier? Who knows what political potholes will appear? I don’t want to take the risk of you being unable to enter the palace later. It might kill me.” Midori got off the bed and hurried to his side. “It’s not like we won’t see each other. You will run the Quad Council every new moon. Fier is obligated to attend. We will see each other, my love.” “Amidst political allies and rivals,” Yoshi said. “Those in the allied council will now be part of the main Quad Council. This situation is impossible. Still…I didn’t want to discuss politics in this place.” “How long can we stay?” “Tonight,” Yoshi sighed. “Tomorrow night. After that, Lord Hong will be here in the early morning. I’ve delayed the crown prince ceremony too long. The court is impatient.” “We’ll make the most of our time then.” “It’s not enough.” Midori placed his hands on Yoshi’s shoulders and gave him a small shake. “Yoshi, one second looking into your eyes is a gift. If it turns into an hour, a day, I feel I’ve struck gold.” Yoshi felt tears sting his eyes and moved to press his forehead into Midori’s chest. Midori stroked his hair, kissing the top of Yoshi’s head. His tears soaked into Midori’s gown at the thought of not having this affection every day. “We’ll make it work,” Midori murmured into his ear. “A few days ago, you won a war and legitimized your right to rule, Yoshi. Don’t tell me you can’t handle a few years without me. I know you can.” Yoshi scowled and punched Midori’s left arm. “I don’t want to have to handle it. You’re an eligible man, and too sexy for your own good. Once you reach Fier, how do I know you won’t be snatched up by—?” “You’re the only one for me,” Midori said, holding him tight. Yoshi shifted back to look at Midori. Midori smiled and swept the pad of his thumb under Yoshi’s left eye, then his right, wiping away Yoshi’s tears. “We’ll be fine,” Midori promised. “I was wrong, let’s not discuss Fier.” “What do you want to discuss?” “Why you think I’m too sexy?” Midori teased. Yoshi pulled away from him. “Then, I was wrong.” “You looked serious to me.” Yoshi shook his head, unable to hide a smile as he hurried to the door. “Yoshi?” “I think we should find food,” Yoshi said, opening the door. “Are you hungry, Lord General? Maybe you can cook for us. Like you did in that hut in the middle of nowhere.” **** They didn’t have to cook. Midori teased Yoshi for asking, when he knew the lady in-charge had the kitchen stocked. Though she had cooked, there was no sign of her in the house. Midori then understood the beauty of this house Yoshi called his. They ate in the kitchen, sitting at table in the middle of the room. Yoshi cutting slices of chicken and placing them on Midori’s rice bowl. When they finished, Yoshi gathered the dishes they used and took them to the sinks. Pushing the sleeves of his robe to his elbows, he got started washing them in the water bowls set in the sinks. Midori had never seen this domesticated side of Yoshi, he was in love with it. He helped wipe the table, then dry the dishes as Yoshi washed them. When they finished, Midori poured out the dirty water and helped Yoshi clean up. “If you weren’t a prince, you’d do well working in a tea house.” “There was a time I admired tea houses. I wanted to own one until I realized I would be too busy to even visit one.” They migrated to the sitting area. Yoshi coerced him into playing a card game. When Midori won five times, Yoshi threw his cards on the table and gave up. Sprawling on a lounging chair under wide open windows. Yoshi arranged pillows under his head and stared at the stars. Midori joined him, pulling Yoshi into his arms, a smile curving his lips when Yoshi settled comfortably on his chest. “So many, I haven’t seen so many in a long time.” “When did you last look up at the sky?” Midori asked, stroking his fingers through Yoshi’s hair. “I don’t remember,” Yoshi chuckled. “The stars are always there, whether you look up or not.” Midori shifted, resting his chin on Yoshi’s head. “On a clear night sky, look up and you will always see the stars. Be it here in the Capital, or in the vast valley filled lands of Fier. Remember that, Yoshi.” Yoshi nodded against his chest, his gaze intent on the sky. Midori held Yoshi, wishing for an easier future than the one they faced. *** The next day, Almira watched the line of black guards protecting a property she both loved and envied. Her late husband’s sanctuary. The place he came to escape the many pressures found in the palace. Now, Yoshi used it to meet his lover. A lover that left Almira nervous. Lord Midori had managed to win two of her most powerful allies. Princess Naria and Lady Tinya. She could not do anything against Lord Midori now. She had read the events at the hearing the day before. The people looked on Midori with favorable eyes. He had fought for the Empire. His political power was assured. She had seen and heard the truth of this while walking among the people. Lord Midori was no easy man. She turned to Sayuri. “I’m intruding. We should go back. Sort the issue of Imperial Consort through the Imperial Diet.” “Her Majesty has wanted to meet Lord General aside for days. There are many eyes in the capital. This is the best place. Tomorrow, both The Royal Prince and Lord General must return to their roles.” Sayuri reached out to squeeze Almira’s left hand. “The Imperial Diet is strict and follows the laws. His Royal Highness will need your support as his mother, in love and in court. It is better if House Taimeng is not at odds, Your Majesty.” Almira nodded. Sayuri lowered her head. “Pardon this servant, but Her Majesty has missed His Royal Highness terribly. It will be good to be in good terms with him now. Better for your heart, Your Majesty.” Almira sighed. “Sayuri sees right. Fine, lets see them here then.” Sayuri rapped on the side of the carriage, it surged forward, and only stopped when they reached the gates guarded by the Black Guard. Almira sat with her hands clenched on her lap as Sayuri pushed back the window to talk to the Head of the Black Guard. “Her Majesty wishes to speak to The Royal Prince,” Sayuri said. When there was no answer, Almira pulled back the window more so that she could look at the man in charge of her son’s safety. “One.” “Your Majesty,” the Head of the Black Guard bowed his head. “We understand the rules of this property. Rest assured, we are not here on official business. Think of this as a mother seeking comfort from her child.” “Sorry to hesitate, Your Majesty,” One said. “Your Guard— “They will follow your advice,” Almira said. “Sayuri will stay with Sando. Do this Empress a favor. Please don’t announce my arrival, allow me to do it.” “Your Majesty.” One waved his hand and the gates swung open admitting her carriage. She and Sayuri watched the Empress’s Guard join Yoshi’s in the buildings around the gate. Halfway to the main house, the carriage stopped. Almira got up and allowed Sayuri to help her change out of the heavy cloak she wore. The sun was out, it was a lovely day. Almira stepped out of the carriage, her simple red and green dress light. “Stay with the carriage,” Almira said. “I will walk ahead.” “What if— “He won’t put me out,” Almira teased. “If he does, I will come sleep in your chambers. Who wants to sleep near lovebirds anyway?” Sayuri hid a smile but Almira caught it as she turned to walk up the rest of the way to the house her husband build. There was magic in the tall trees, blooming gardens and the calling birds living undisturbed in the forest surrounding the house. Almira remembered staying here for days and forgetting she ruled an Empire. Forgetting obligations, forgetting all that she was. This place sucked one in, made one forget the pressures of real life. Here, she could just be. Dangerous for an Empress. Almira picked a red peony flower as she branched off the main path on to green grass. She had watched her husband plant the peony flowers blooming in the green field she crossed. Yoshi was one year old. She would sit on a chair in the middle of this field and watch her husband plant each bush with a happy grin. Claiming his son would come to love this place as much as he did. The sound of Yoshi’s laugh reached her and she paused behind a large peach tree, unable to stop her smile. She peeked around the tree to see Yoshi holding the string of a kite, his head tilted back as he watched his kite move in the air. Midori stood beside him, also holding a kite string, trying his best to tangle his kite with Yoshi’s, who would then step away to avoid it. They were focused on the kite flying, so they did not see her. Every time Yoshi escaped Midori, he would laugh, until Midori finally caught Yoshi’s kite in a tight tangle. Yoshi dropped his string, reaching for Midori’s. Midori lifted his right hand high, keeping the kite out of Yoshi’s reach. Almira laughed as she watched her son try to reach Midori’s height and fail. The sound of her laugh startled them, and Midori let go of his string as they both turned to look at her. Midori started to drop to his knee, and Almira held out a hand to stop him. Yoshi also stopped Midori, urging him up. “Don’t,” she said. “I’m the one intruding. Besides, consider this place neutral ground. Even an Empress is simply a woman within this property's boundaries. Yoshi, have you not told Midori the rules?” “Mom, what are you doing here?” “I’ve missed you longer than he has,” Almira said, bringing the red peony to her nose. “I’m your mother, of course I will seek you out when you hide from me.” “I’m not hiding.” “Be honest, Yoshi. You have not returned to the palace since you arrived. Lord Hong has more luck than I do.” “Don’t say that,” Yoshi said with a sigh. He looked up to find their kites had flown away. Almira did not miss the disappointment on his face. She tucked the flower in her hand into her hair, and folded her hands behind her back. There was a bench set under a peach tree a few feet away, so she walked to it. “Yoshi, Mom is thirsty. Will you get me a glass of water?” Yoshi narrowed his gaze at her, but he did not refuse the request. Instead, he leaned up to kiss Midori’s jaw, before heading in the direction of the house. Midori watched him go. Almira watched him, searching for deception and finding none. She sat on the bench, and patted the empty space beside her, attracting Midori’s gaze. “Will you sit with me?” she asked. Midori hesitated for a second, then did as she asked, perching on the edge, back straight, a military man despite his casual green robes. She smiled, and sat back. “Contrary to belief, Lord Midori, I truly do not bite.” He glanced at her in surprise and she grinned. “I do bark loudly to make sure everyone believes I can bite.” When Midori didn’t smile, she sighed and tried another tactic. “If you don’t relax, I will feel offended.” Midori gave her another short glance, then took in a deep breath and shifted on the bench so that he faced her. His shoulders still tense, though he made a show of relaxing. Almira took the opportunity to study his face. His dark eyes full of wary energy. His nose, lips and high cheek bones spoke of noble blood. The dark shadow on his jaws and chin enough to tell her that he had not bothered shaving this day. His lips would have a nice smile, she wondered if he would offer it to her today. Midori was strong. His shoulders broad, his arms thick and his hands large. He was built for battle. There was not an ounce of fat on him. He was not lazy. He was clean. Most of all, this man who would now rule Fier, dared sit next to her feeling…undeserving. Yes, that was it. He was unsure of his worth, which was different compared to Namik Sanori. Almira found she liked Midori’s humble nature. “My son is in love with you. He refuses to enter the palace these past three days afraid I will interfere. It is unprecedented. It left me uneasy.” Midori kept his gaze lowered as she spoke. “I felt uneasy because you are a son of Namik. For years, your father and I, we did not see a reason to like one another. Fier is a rich source of minerals. The Empire depends on Fier to arm its military. I did not see it coming, but the imperial court has been overrun by men who believe Fier should hold power. They made the war possible in a way I could not have foreseen.” Almira scoffed and folded her arms on her lap. “Still, Fier remains important to the Imperial House. Our founder is from your Quad. Much of the Furian Forest is also indebted to the Fier Quad. Tell me, Lord Midori, is my son’s heart safe with you? You may answer.” “Yoshi’s very soul is safe with me.” Almira heard no ring of deception in Midori’s voice. Her heart skipped and she couldn’t help the short smile. “You do not hesitate in your answer.” “I cannot.” “What of Fier?” she asked. “The Empress cares for all in the Empire, including the Fier Quad. This servant must also learn how to support those in my Quad and everyone in the Empire with an open heart as well.” “Diplomacy,” Almira chuckled. “The palace is no easy place. Your heart will be tested. Your allegiance questioned at every turn. Your soul shot through with many poison darts. There will be many who work to use you to reach an Emperor. An heir will be born, without your help. Will you love him or her?” “Yes.” “Despite the fact that the Imperial Concubine may work to take your position in Yoshi’s heart?” “Yes.” Almira held his gaze at that second yes. She found no doubt in Midori’s eyes. A wave of understanding filled her. Yoshi had probably had this discussion with Midori. She nodded, proud of her son. “Very well. My son intends to name you an Imperial Prince Consort. He wishes you an Emperor Consort in time. A rank that will mean you are his equal partner in all but military power,” Almira said, deciding honesty was best with this son of Fier. “Reading his intentions, I have found that these matters will take me time. My heart…needs time to resolve the tangled mess your father made of it. I will ask that you use that time to set Fier in order.” “You asked the Allied Council to offer me support.” Midori stated in realization. “It was the only way to manage Yoshi's intentions. You have both managed to gain such strong support with the council leaders. I can only make sure there are no misteps. We have suffered much of late. If your intentions are pure, Lord Midori, you will understand why your shared future must go this way.” Midori paused in thought, then nodded. “I understand.” “Yoshi will enter the palace a Crown Prince.” Almira rolled her shoulders, her fingers flexing on her lap. “He will have time to consolidate his power, adjust to his newfound wings. You understand his house requires establishing?” “Yes.” “The Imperial Diet works fast. They already have three candidates. Lady Pipa of Dwind, supported by the Sand Queen. Lady Willo of Terra, brought by Lady Tinya, Commandant of Terra. You are familiar with the last. The Princess Naria conferred a title to the Lady Telia of the Furian Forest yesterday. Earith has opted out as Lord Heloth only has sons. Who do you believe has least ambition?” “Does my opinion matter?” “Do you believe it does not?” Almira asked, raising her brow at Midori. He smiled, charming her once again. Midori was handsome when he smiled. “I believe in harmony and detest intrigues in the inner court. The past few months have exhausted me. I’m ready to give the Empire to Yoshi to run. I want to grow into an old grandmother who smiles without fear. But I cannot do that without strong assurance. So, Lord of Fier, can you help me achieve this dream? Yoshi values your consul, as Tai has told me. Let me hear your opinion, Lord Midori.” Midori studied her for a moment, before he spoke. “Lady Pipa wants progress for Dwind. She wants her Quad recognized and broken out of isolation. She will work to improve commerce between the Capital and Dwind. Lady Tinya has military power. Thanks to your marriage to Yoshi’s father, Terra has prospered. A concubine from Terra will only improve Terra’s political standing. The Furian Forest is on the cusp of change. They would like to join the Quad Council, and this is a first step into the political game. Though, they remain bound to their own rules.” “Hmm…,” Almira narrowed her gaze. “Terra wants to keep an upper hand on future political standing. Dwind hopes to grow their relationship with the capital, and perhaps the rest of the Empire. And, The Furian Forest is finally embracing the Empire. Two out of three will fight you for the right to rule by Yoshi’s side to farther their Quad’s purpose.” “Why not all three?” Midori asked. “You are right about The Furian Forest. Their rules bind them. At the moment, their desire is to be recognized as existing in the Empire. The Princess Naria is not interested in the Imperial Palace. Ruling in the Furian Forest is more than prestigious. She remains a true ally to the Imperial Crown. She cares not for the pomp and circumstance of our capital.” Midori smiled wide, and Almira tilted her head to study him. “I suppose you think the decision made.” “It depends on who makes the final choice,” Midori said. “The Imperial Diet helps but Yoshi will qualify or disqualify.” “Then all is settled,” Midori said. “You will achieve your goal of a quiet inner palace life, Your Majesty.” Almira nodded and returned her gaze to the field of peach trees and peony flowers. “Midori, as you settle your heart in Fier, I hope you can learn to think of me as Mom. I promise to learn how to treasure that heart of yours that treasures my son. When you return from Fier, this Empress will work to make sure your title as Emperor Consort is protected. Do you agree?” Midori got up giving her a formal bow. “Thank you, Your Majesty.” Almira took his right hand, and squeezed it with genuine warmth. “Now, why don’t you sit comfortably so that my son brings me water? He is hovering at the edge of the garden hoping you and I come to an understanding. We should pull him out of his misery.” *** Yoshi watched Midori and his mother talk, pacing along the edge of the garden. He wanted to eavesdrop, but that was not his style. He wished he could interfere, but Midori needed to make a choice. Living in the palace with an Empress meant Midori would need to have a relationship with Almira too. One that worked. One they both accepted without Yoshi’s interference. Yoshi gripped the goblet of water filled with water. He turned to look at Midori and Almira only to find them watching him. Then Midori smiled and a surge of hope swept through him. He stepped onto the grass hurrying to them. Midori looked relaxed sitting next to Almira. Yoshi searched Midori’s gaze, looking for signs of distress. When he found none, he turned to his mother, holding out the goblet of water to her. She took it with a grateful nod and tipped the goblet to her lips, drinking thirstily. When she was done, she wiped her mouth with the back of her right hand and grinned. “Now, Yoshi. Should I show you how to fly a kite?” Yoshi blinked. “Are you done having a talk?” Almira smiled at Midori. “Yoshi doesn’t believe I can fly one.” “Mom.” “What?” Almira got up and hurried in the direction of the small table laden with kite supplies. “Come on, stop worrying and let’s work on losing ourselves in fun. We have until tomorrow morning before Lord Hong shows up to escort you back to the Capital.” “But— Midori stood from the bench, coming to cup his cheeks and kissing him hard, shorting out Yoshi’s ability to think. When Midori stepped back, Yoshi could only watch in surprise as Midori raced after Almira to play with kites. **** The sun shone golden and bright in the late morning. The Capital alive with excitement, crowds scrambling for a spot on the path leading to the palace. Soldiers lined the edges of the path to keep it clear. A mix of colors from the different quads. Blue uniforms from Terra, white from Dwind, green from Earith and red from Lord Midori’s army. The Furian warriors would walk the path up leading the Crown Prince’s carriage procession. The Quad Leaders in the Allied Council would follow the Furian Warriors, while the Crown Prince’s carriage would be last. The musicians were already hard at work playing strings. Setting a festive mood. Red peony flowers filled the path, and when the procession reached the capital square, Yoshi’s carriage came to a stop. Excited screams filled the morning when Yoshi climbed out of the carriage, Sando helping him with the red cloak clipped to his shoulders. When it was spread out behind him, shouts of awe came from the crowd at the golden embroidery of a snarling dragon on the rich robes. Yoshi’s hair was free down his back, with two braids on each side keeping it out of his face. He walked tall, following the Allied Council, accepting the many calls of good will from the people. A moment of panic filled the procession when a little girl escaped the tough line made by the soldiers. She held a red peony flower and raced right to Yoshi, intent on giving it to him. Yoshi held up his hand to stop the Black Guard from interfering. The little girl smiled wide, holding out the red peony. Yoshi took it, careful of his regalia as he leaned down to kiss the little girl’s cheek. Her mother hurried to get her, giving him a bow, as she picked up her daughter. He held the flower in his right hand and continued his journey to the palace gates. In the palace, the noble families sent pieces of red silk on his path. Yoshi walked steadily to the palace ceremonial hall where his mother and Midori waited. Emissaries from the four quads filled the hall, each one looking on with expectation, their hopes to never face a war placed on his shoulders. Nervous energy coursing through his veins, Yoshi walked up the opulent hall to the throne where his mother sat in full Imperial Regalia. To her left, stood Midori majestic in his Fier Red robes, every bit the Lord of Fier. When he was close enough, Yoshi met Midori’s dark gaze and had to bite back his smile when Midori winked at him. Standing at the edge of the dais leading to the throne, Yoshi looked up at his mother who stood up from the throne. She walked down one step to stand right before Yoshi and placed a hand on his head. “Now, the future is here,” Almira said, her voice ringing with authority. “For Amana is not one, but all of us. United and hopeful, we must match on for generations to come. I, Empress of Amana, Almira Taimeng, do hereby name Royal Prince Yoshinori Taimeng as the Crown Prince of Amana. May he lead the future to glory.” Almira took a gold crown, which consisted of three thin strands of the finest gold weaved together and decorated with precious red gems, from a box Sayuri held. She placed it on Yoshi’s head, careful to fit it right. Sayuri then handed Almira a box holding Yoshi’s new seal. Almira opened the box, checking to make sure the seal was the right one before she gave it to Yoshi. Yoshi got to his feet, and turned to face their guests, smiling when the hall filled with wild applause and words of congratulations. Sando took the seal from him, and Yoshi climbed up the steps to stand next to his mother. His heart fluttered endlessly when Almira motioned for Midori to stand beside him. Turning to Midori, Yoshi held out the red peony flower given to him by a little girl. His love for Midori overflowing when the Lord of Fier took the flower and brought it to his lips. It seemed as though his journey around the Empire had brought him to this moment. And somehow, none of it would have been possible without this extraordinary man. “I love you.” Yoshi told Midori amid shouts of congratulations. “I love you more, Yoshi.” *** Later that afternoon, after one last tight embrace and a heated kiss, Yoshi stood at the palace gates watching Midori ride away in the company of his Fier men. Their time together over for now. The palace was alive with cheer, the nobles celebrating his investiture, the Capital buzzed with festivities, order restored. Yet, in Yoshi’s heart, a cold front settled. How long would he have to wait? He wondered. How long until his heart warmed again? ***
  4. lilansui

    Chapter 11

    It's never late for a comment, hehehe. Thank you for this, it's good to read it as I work on editing this story. Thank you for letting me know your thoughts. Kian is someone I truly felt was very brave. So brave, it was heartbreaking...hehehe. You made my day, Cheers.
  5. lilansui

    Chapter 17

    @Elfstone Thank you so much for reading! @Gene63 Thank you so much! Haha, worked very hard to get it into one, it would have been pretty hard to wait for the end. Midori has a bit of a choice to make now. Looking forward to it now. Gosh, I had a laugh over this! I bet that would be fun to write, hehehe. Well, you have hit Almira's argument on the head, though the inner palace has more designs on this problem than I could ever write out. Yoshi will get his heir, problem is, will Midori's people? Or what does he want? hehehe will have to find out. @Onim Thank you so much! @flesco I'll be sad too. Yoshi and Midori are like old friends. We've had an on and off since 2012...hehehe...I guess they want their happy ever after now. Sigh. This writer will miss them too. @bookjunky18 Yoshi's ride at Namik's Army part was a rush, him being so fearless, willing to rush into danger, for the Empire, but mostly I think for Midori, that was a crazy moment. Midori's challenging his dad was sad for me. That he had to make that choice, faceoff with his dad. A huge part of me wanted to spare him this burden, and have Namik face the people's court, Almira and Naria, but--, Midori's choice is also right. He was betrayed most.And you're right, the act of Midori taking down Namik, and bringing him into the Capital will raise his standing with the people. Thank you so much for being on this journey with me! I'll try to get the last chapter out faster. When I was writing that scene, I kept thinking it was about them missing each other. Then you sent this comment, and I'm like that's really true. Thank you for that. Yes, now Yoshi has a job of making the future he wants happen. Let's hope Midori wants it too, and that the Empress will allow it. You're the only one that asked! So, the Peanut Gallery is two crazy guys who read my work before I post it, and put me through a grinder. I decided to call them the peanut gallery, because in one sitting, they can tear my chapters into pieces and leave me annoyed for days. Over peanuts...so I've almost banned peanuts in the house...just kidding. They're great folks.
  6. lilansui

    Chapter 17

    Chapter 17 The Imperial Lands, outside the Capital - Lexin City Midori remembered the last time he laid eyes on his father with crystal clear image. He doubted he could forget. Namik Sanori covered in blood after slaughtering the Fier Nobles who dared voice their protests, hoping to stop him from rebelling against the Empress. That night, his father had looked a mad man. Unable to stop his father, Midori rode out of the Fier Castle in the night. His goal to save as many as he could from Namik’s rebel forces. The families he introduced to Yoshi in Earith, and others who found safe passage into the Furian Forest, thanks to Princess Naria. The ones saved weren’t enough. The losses were bigger. At the time, Midori felt helpless watching his father divide Fier into chaos. The people left without a choice, join Namik’s rebellion against the Empire, or die. It was oppressive. Midori missed the Fier of his childhood, when his mother was alive, and his father could smile, and find joy. After his mother’s death, Namik’s passion for power reared its ugly head and refused to die down. Bringing them to this moment, Midori frowned as he was brought into the main rebel army tent. “Lord Namik, we bring you General Midori.” The two holding his arms, pushed him forward deeper into the tent. Midori almost lost his balance as his hands were still tied behind his back. Straightening up, Midori looked up and met his father’s dark, dark gaze. “So, you’ve returned,” Namik said, a deceiving smile curving his lips. “What plot brings you here, Midori? Or do you now want to play my son because the throne is almost at hand?” Midori kept his silence. Namik nodded to the two men holding Midori’s arms, and the ties behind him fell away, his arms free. Midori flexed his fingers, hoping to ease the ache on his wrists. Rolling his shoulders, he looked up and met Namik’s gaze. “I’m home, Father,” Midori said. “No plot, this is my place.” Namik studied him for a full minute then scoffed. “Whether you speak truth, my dear son,” Namik said with a slow grin. “We will have to see.” *** “Your plan did not work,” Lady Tinya hissed, her gaze on Tai Migi who rode his horse beside hers. “Lord General must mean more to the Prince than you know.” “I underestimated him,” Tai confessed. “Because of your plot, we’ve turned into traitors in a single night,” Lady Tinya hissed. “We do not want Namik to win this war. Terra must offer its support.” “Support the Prince,” Zia Sayu stated from behind Lady Tinya. “It’s not right having us stay out of a battle to save the Empire.” “Your twin’s brilliant ideas have us on the outside. I dare say if we had not listened to your advice, we would be standing next to the Prince right now.” General Benal’s tone was heavy with frustration. “My Lady, what is our plan now?” “We get to the front,” Lady Tinya said. “When he gives us a chance, I will bend the knee before His Royal Highness and pledge Terra’s loyalty.” “What of Lord General?” General Benal asked. “The Prince gave us direction. We do not belong in the Palace inner court,” Lady Tinya said. “Matters of who joins the royal family are left to the Empress and the imperial diet. Royal Prince Yoshi is the heir and that is all I know.” Tai gave a sigh, giving his sister a warning glance when she started to protest. He bowed to Lady Tinya. “Thank you for your wisdom, Lady Tinya,” Tai said. “If we must reach the Prince, we need to ride hard. Princess Naria is to meet the Prince from Earith. They will face Namik together.” “Then Terra plans to join them,” Lady Tinya said, urging her horse into a faster speed. Her urgency mirrored by her generals and the soldiers following behind. **** “Report to his Royal Highness. The Furian Princess approaches from the west, she has crossed through Earith to join the Phoenix Army.” The courier knelt at the entrance of Yoshi’s tent, a yellow cap on his head. Indicating he was part of his army’s communications network. Yoshi watched Telia shift the allied forces marker on the map on the great table. Hands braced on the edge of the large table, Yoshi narrowed his gaze on the red markers that indicated Namik’s forces. “Namik’s main army is stationed outside the main gates into the capital. He has an auxiliary force blocking entrance through the three other minor gates. We must bring him down first to gain access,” Lady Pipa said. “What of those living in the capital?” Telia asked. “The palace will be hosting half the population,” the Head of the Black Guard said, and then with his index finger, he traced a thin circle on the homes around the palace walls. “Protocol is to move the rest into the ceremonial arena, and noble homes here. The Royal Guard, or in this case Lord Hong Ma’s Royal Bureau will patrol and provide security to stop an initial attack.” “Bold move, but a major attack will leave them vulnerable,” Lady Pipa said. “Lord Hong’s men cannot stop thousands of seasoned soldiers.” “With the palace shield up, entrance into the palace is off the table.” Yoshi straightened up. “They now become our only vulnerable point.” “And the capital,” Telia said. “If we are left with no choice, the capital can be rebuilt,” Yoshi stated. “How long until the Princess arrives?” A loud battle horn greeted his question and Telia smiled wide. “She wastes no time.” “Won’t her announcement alert Namik to our presence?” Lady Pipa worried. “Namik has not seen our banners, and will assume we’re part of the Princess’s forces,” Telia said. “Your Royal Highness— “You’re excused,” Yoshi said, his gaze remaining on the map. Telia rushed out of the tent, no doubt to meet The Princess Naria. “What of Terra?” Lady Pipa asked, once Telia left. “Do you think they will make it in time? Lady Tinya looked ready to face Namik.” Yoshi had hoped Lady Tinya would choose to follow him, even with his obvious support of Midori. Yet, night was quickly turning to early morning, and no sign of Terra’s army yet. He would dwell on their response later. “We must focus on the battle ahead. A fast, decisive fight is best; we must not drag on for days. As soon as The Furian Princess arrives, invite the Dwind Generals. We’ll engage Namik before morning ends.” Lady Pipa acknowledged his order and left the tent. *** “Were she not such an Empress’s supporter, I would have her as an ally,” Namik said, his spyglass held to his eye as he watched the allied forces making ready to face him. “Look at that, she has convinced quiet General Heloth Janir of Earith to go to war.” Midori bit his lip. Princess Naria had not convinced General Heloth, Yoshi had. Midori was glad the Princess Naria had arrived. At least with the Furian Princess, he was sure Yoshi would stay safe. “Do you want a look?” Namik handed him the spyglass. “There is a Furian legend that states a Princess of the Furian Forest can breathe fire. Naria’s ancestors knew how to breed fear and create a cloak of danger to keep out intruders. I wonder if she can truly breathe fire now.” Midori searched the barriers hoping to catch a glimpse of Yoshi walking the perimeter. He knew it was impossible. The Black Guard would keep him secure until this battle ended. They would not risk his life by having him traipse along the barrier. Midori still hoped for a glimpse. He took in a deep breath when he caught sight of Sando standing next to two soldiers. A red flag in his hand, holding the spyglass steady, Midori watched Sando turn the red flag to reveal a gold color. Yoshi was ready to face Namik. Midori brought the spyglass down and gave it to his father. “Once we win,” Namik said, still staring at the enemy forces. “Our people will have free reign, Midori. They will not have to hide in Fier. Isn’t that what worries you?” “What of the Empress and those she protects?” Midori asked, curious as to what Namik wanted to do with their revered ruler. “She is too much trouble. Prince Tailen cannot stand her. Her presence, like her son, will cause unrest. When we get the chance, we shall have her dead, if she’s not already. Hold a funeral, just like we did with her son.” “She did nothing to you,” Midori pointed out. “Only ruled the Empire into peaceful time.” “Yes, you’re right. However, the world must change,” Namik said, gripping his horse’s reins. “If I succeed here, it will be obvious to others that one can change their fate. Almira’s family cannot rule forever. The empire must have a new leader.” Midori closed his eyes. “At what cost?” Midori shook his head. “The number of people dead is— “They are collateral damage,” Namik said. “Success does not come without effort. People’s minds do not change without severe action.” Midori held his tongue. His father’s ideas frightened him. There was no changing Namik’s mind at this stage, though he had one more question to ask. “Do you think mother would have wanted this?” Midori asked. Namik turned to look at him then, putting away his spyglass. “Your mother would have wanted to see her son rise to the highest point in the land. I’m making it happen. Stay still until this is over, Midori. I will not have you in battle. Who knows what your heart will tell you to do.” “Father?” Five of Namik’s men came up behind them and pulled Midori from his horse. The chains they put on Midori’s wrist were not easy to break. “You will stay in my tent until this battle is finished. You may join me in the victory, Midori. I would have you ride by my side on the way to the palace.” Namik gave him a sinister smile, and ordered his men. “Keep him guarded. He is not to be free until I give the order.” Midori cursed under his breath, refraining from struggle. He hoped Naro and Lenoth watched. As long as they knew where he was, they could free him as Namik rode out to meet Yoshi. It was important they act as Namik rode to face Yoshi. *** “This is right and wrong,” Naro whispered, as he took a hammer to a box full of arrows. “These men are our people in a roundabout way.” “They are fighting for the enemy,” Lenoth pointed out. “Our Lord General is a captive among them, even as they call him the heir to Namik’s position. They will use these arrows to murder our allies. Our Lord General’s beloved.” “When you put it that way,” Naro put more effort into damaging the thousands of arrows used by the archers. “Leave five boxes,” Lenoth advised. “For what?” “We don’t want to alert them that we have damaged their weapons. The archers take five boxes out first, for the five units. We’ll make sure our men act as couriers.” “Aren’t we defeating the purpose of this if they get to shoot arrows at the allied army?” “We should keep the rebel army oblivious to our plans, Naro. Keep up, will you?” “You’re a confusing one, Lenoth.” Lenoth returned to his task. He was mapping Namik’s camp. Midori was under Namik’s direct care. Held in the center of the camp, surrounded by Namik’s very loyal men. In a perfect world, those loyal men would have been Midori’s guard. Yet now, they were his prison wardens. No matter, Lilind’s two men were perfect for this. All he had to do was unleash them as needed. They would help him release Namik. As for their hundred men mingling within Namik’s camp, Lenoth smiled. “Once we’re done here, pass orders to the leaders of the twenty groups of five. Each of them must finish their task if we are to win this.” Naro stopped destroying arrows and walked to Lenoth’s side to see the symbols Lenoth had drawn on the map. “Food, weapons, armor, the archers, and the rest to take on the army officers,” Naro whispered. “Ambitious, and very well planned, Lenoth. What of you?” “We must get our Lord General,” Lenoth smiled. “No easy task,” Naro shivered. “Namik’s guard is deadly, which is why Namik has set them upon his son.” “Yes, well, I’ll answer to a Royal Prince if anything happens to him. Lilind’s two men will help me.” “I can’t wait for this to end. I miss a real bed, and warm food, a laugh with a beautiful woman.” Lenoth grunted and nodded. “I miss my wife.” Naro sighed. “I miss your wife’s cooking.” “Get back to work before I hit you.” Naro grinned and hurried back to his task. *** Yoshi inspected the men’s equipment with Sando and the Head of the Black Guard. Arrows, bows, cross bows, swords, mullets, armor, boots, and horses. Sando was thorough. Working with army officers to ensure the soldiers had everything they needed. “Coordinate with the Furians and the Earith ordinance team. From this point on, we don’t stop until we’re standing before the Empress. Be it day or night, Sando. We leave you with this heavy burden.” “Yes, Royal Prince.” Sando gave him a short bow and hurried away. Yoshi entered the council tent to make ready for the meeting with Princess Naria, General Heloth of Earith and Lady Pipa. Yoshi frowned when the Head of the Black Guard stopped his progress and blocked his path. Yoshi looked around his diligent guard to see Lady Tinya standing by the round table in the middle of the tent. Yoshi lifted a brow in surprise when she got down on her right knee, even as the Head of the Black Guard walked up to her, sword drawn. Yoshi lifted his hand to stay him, surprised by her presence. She must have ridden hard at their heels. “What brings you here?” Yoshi asked. “You should be halfway to Terra by now.” “I’m sorry for arriving late, Your Royal Highness. Terra is here to serve you and the Empire.” “Is that so?” Yoshi removed his gloves and unclipped his cloak. “We don’t have time to discuss petty issues. The council is about to convene, we face Namik this day.” “Your Royal Highness, I swear allegiance to you. Terra embraces all your allies, and we are here to help win the battle against Namik.” “If that’s the case, get off your knees. Tell us what you think of the map,” Yoshi said, shifting his banners until they were facing Namik’s Army. “What do you see that we cannot?” “Where is the Furian Princess?” Lady Tinya asked, her gaze already roaming the map showing the imperial lands and the capital. “She is securing our line as Namik’s men make ready to face us.” Yoshi studied the map. “We cannot ignore their spies. They have sent close to two dozen in the three hours since we arrived. We are looking for a decisive strategy. One that will keep us going until we reach the palace.” “Divide the soldiers into groups, start with short attacks. As we plan a massive attack on Namik. My men will take on the first attack, while Dwind and Earith follow our tide.” Yoshi looked up and smiled, thinking of Princess Naria. “The Furians refuse to sit out any battle.” Lady Tinya returned the smile. “I would not dare try to advice the Princess Naria on war matters.” “Good decision, my Lady Tinya,” Princess Naria said, entering the tent. She removed her cloak and adjusted her sword at her hips. “Namik is sly and is probably forging a plan to devastate us.” Yoshi sat in his chair and took in a deep breath. “With Lady Tinya here,” he started, not missing the narrowed gaze Princess Naria gave Lady Tinya. “We have the numbers to overwhelm Namik’s Army. Why don’t we meet them with all that we have? We can surround his army on all sides.” “In the past few days, he has excelled in frustrating the allied forces,” Princess Naria said with a sigh. “I was cautious though, wanting to buy time for both, Royal Highness and the Empress. There should be no need for caution now.” Princess Naria sat in the closest bench to the table, giving her servant a nod when a plate of hot food was placed before her. She dug in without ceremony. “We have met every attack, but it is difficult keeping up morale in a state of constant battle.” “Then His Royal Highness has a point. The faster we end this, the better for those in the palace, and us out here,” Lady Tinya stated. “Full on attack, no retreat.” Princess Naria held Lady Tinya’s gaze, then smirked. “I agree with you, but before that, let’s clear the air. Do you know why the Prince wants this battle to end today?” Lady Tinya turned to him, Yoshi held his tongue. Princess Naria’s information network was only second to that of the Empress. Nothing escaped her notice. Lady Tinya met Princess Naria’s gaze. “The Lord General has infiltrated Namik’s camp. He works to sabotage the Fier Army as we attack from the front.” Princess Naria spooned rabbit stew into her mouth and chewed with silent relish. Her gaze never leaving Lady Tinya. It was difficult to ignore Princess Naria’s gaze. “There was a misunderstanding, in the Village Qi. I’m sorry we came late,” Lady Tinya said. “Misunderstandings have bred a war. A Prince used Namik to plot against the Empire, only to be used in return. Namik’s main goal is to take over the throne.” Princess Naria placed her spoon down and folded her hands. “He is so blinded by his goal; he has yet to notice the plan is foiled. He is alone in his quest.” “Lady Tinya, there are truths you have not seen. Lord Midori Sanori has many sides to him. He is a man faced with the most difficult decisions of his life. Make no mistake, having a treasonous father is a very huge burden. He has kept loyalty through it. I’ve met the families he rescued from Fier’s initial unrest. Many of whom have opted to join the allied forces and help with ordinance.” Princess Naria looked down at her plate. “I would not have them join the battle though they are willing. Lord Midori might be the son of a traitor, but he is the most loyal to the House of Taimeng. Life is unexpected. You’ll find allegiance in the oddest of places. And that is the only price I demand in this battle, as should you.” Lady Tinya swallowed, tracing the map with a finger. “Princess Naria is right. My decision was made in haste,” Lady Tinya said. Yoshi shifted in his seat then, drawing Princess Naria’s gaze. “I’m glad to hand over leadership to you, Royal Prince,” Princess Naria said, giving him a small smile. “Once you take over, you realize the first step to investiture is complete. The allied forces now see you as their Commander. Are you ready?” “Yes, of course, Princess Aunt,” Yoshi said with a nod. “I’m glad you’ve found your confidence,” Princess Naria said. “This is excellent stew. Lady Tinya, you should try some. We might not have another chance until we meet the Empress.” Lady Tinya nodded taking the offer of peace, making Yoshi hide a smile. He should have waited for the Princess Naria to handle Lady Tinya. Then he would have arrived here with a full army. Yoshi sighed, drawing both women’s gazes. He lifted his hand at the men of the black guard to order more food. The tent was soon filled with Generals from Dwind, Earith, Terra and the Furians. Yoshi sat at the head of the table a bit in awe. Lively discussion flowed around the table, some ate, others chose not to. Each of them in agreement with battle strategy, they fine-tuned it to perfection until there was no doubt in their minds. *** An hour later, Yoshi sat atop Senbon, clad in full regal armor, a helmet fitted over his head, with a red tail. Midori’s red cloak was safely folded away in his chest. In its place, Yoshi now wore a yellow cloak, a phoenix embroidered on its surface with red and gold. Sword in hand, Yoshi held Senbon’s reins, grateful to Sando. Senbon wore protective armor as well, to protect the horse from wandering blades. It was mid-morning, the dew dry on the grass. In the distance, Yoshi saw the shield over the palace gleaming in the sun. Home calling, his heart responded with a tight squeeze. He wanted to see Almira. See her face; see her smile when she saw him. He had missed her smile. Standing in his way was Namik’s rebel army. Here stood what was once the Imperial Army, thousands of men meant to guard the empire, now standing against it. Mixed in with Namik’s Fier men, all of them determined to put Yoshi in his grave. Namik and his four generals stood at the front, their horses still, ready to face him and take his crown. Yoshi let out a shaky breath. Midori was somewhere inside that mass of negative energy. His beloved. Was he alive? There was no way to tell right now, but he could hope. Yoshi closed his eyes and took in a deep breath to calm his anxiety. He nudged Senbon, turning him to face his allied forces. There was Lady Pipa, a short breeze lifting her white cloak. Her grey horse shifted and she gave him a short nod. His gaze shifted to General Heloth of Earith. His green armor vibrant in the morning. He wore his helmet and gave Yoshi a sharp nod. Senbon shifted to the right and Yoshi’s gaze met and held Lady Tinya’s dark one. She smiled at him, her blue cloak shifting on her horse. She gave him a nod, and brought her right hand to her chest. Yoshi turned then and met a most fiery gaze. The Furian Princess brought her right hand to her chest too and gave him a small bow. In the middle of these great Lord and Ladies, he found Telia, who smiled at him wide. Then Tai Migi and Zia Sayu, the twins who would die for him. Yoshi took in a deep breath and for the first time felt calm fill him. Gripping his reins tight, he urged Senbon into a faster pace to cover the length of the Phoenix’s Army. Lifting his gold sword, Yoshi found his voice and called the army to arms. “Fight today for peace, for choice, and for the generations to come!” Wild roars accompanied his words and as Yoshi rode back to his place, all sense of fear escaped. “Glory to the Empire!” Yoshi roared, urging Senbon into a fierce gallop toward Namik. Yoshi felt his army at his back, their energy, their eager response urging him and Senbon into a faster speed. A barrage of arrows greeted their attack; thin waves of sand met the arrows, slowing down each arrow’s speed. They fell to the ground with no lethal effect. Lilind’s men were a force to reckon with, even this far from the desert. Emboldened by this, the allied forces charged forward, meeting Namik’s men in a fierce collide. The morning filled with the sound of clashing blades, metal skating against metal, connecting against flesh, damaging skin as deep as possible, taking life. The stench in battle unbearable, blood splatters on Senbon’s hooves, green grass turned grown from a gory mix of blood and mud. War in its greatest glory. Cries of men filled the morning, echoed by the battle cries of the Furian women. The Black Guard kept a fierce barrier around Yoshi, allowing no rebel soldiers through. It was frustrating, Yoshi wanted to get in the fight. Yet, his presence on Senbon kept his forces moving. Three of Namik’s soldiers broke through the guard’s line. Yoshi gripped his sword and met their attacks, killing one while the Head of the Guard got two. Yoshi decided to focus on getting to Namik. He wasn’t the only one. *** The Fier armor heavy on his shoulders, Lenoth walked with confidence to the inner circle in the camp. The colors on the armor matched those of Namik’s guard. He hoped they wouldn’t recognize him. Namik was out facing Prince Yoshi in a battle Namik thought was a simple attack. As though he was facing the Furians again, trying to push them back. Lenoth shook his head. Namik was wrong. The Prince had Dwind, Earith, Terra and Furian generals in the lineup. Yoshi was making a decisive attack, which meant Lenoth had no time. It was time to get Midori out of his prison. He made it the center tent without question, but when he started to enter the tent, a hand dropped on his shoulder and he turned to find the guard surrounding him. Taking his sword out, Lenoth sunk it into the closest soldier, determined to end this fast. *** Inside the tent, Midori sat on a mat on the ground, his arms stretched out and chained to pillars sunk deep into the ground. His father’s guards left nothing to chance, to the point of getting a serf to feed him his meals, clean him up after, in fear that he might try to escape. Eyes closed, Midori listened to the rhythm of the day. The camp was bereft of soldiers, save for those guarding him. Orders to meet the allied forces rang as the sun broke the night. It was late morning now. Midori wondered if his men had managed their tasks. Lenoth was late. Midori opened his eyes and tagged on the chain holding his right arm. The chains were heavy, forged with steel from the Fier forges. He could not break them alone, though he might have to discover how tight the chains were wedged into the pillars. Studying the bolts holding the chain in place, Midori adjusted his position, hoping to get closer. The clang of swords and screams outside the tent had him pausing. A sigh of relief flooding him when Lilind’s two men slipped in to the tent from the sides. “I need to name you two,” Midori said in greeting. “Why are you late?” “Lenoth delayed action. Namik just joined his forces. He hoped to mount an assault during the night after exhausting the allied army. However— “Something’s changed his mind,” Midori said, moving his arms to get their attention. “I need to get out there.” “Working on it,” one of the men said, his hand on Midori’s left wrist. “And my name is Hinda.” Midori smiled at the introduction. He looked up at Hinda’s companion. “Apologies, Lord General. I have joined the Black Guard permanently. I have no name or face.” “How does Yoshi address the men in the black guard?” Midori asked as Hinda worked on the chain on his left wrist. “By number or color,” the man said. “You may call me White for our time together.” “Intriguing,” Midori frowned. “I suppose Hinda has not joined the Black Guard.” “I have not, Lord General,” Hinda smiled at him. “I promised myself to the Lady Pipa. I cannot live without a name as I care for her.” “Lady Pipa, hmm…I wonder if she knows,” Midori murmured just as Hinda released his left wrist. He shook it out and watched Hinda move to his right wrist. “What has Namik running to lead his forces?” “The Royal Prince,” White said. “He led Dwind, Earith, Terra and the Furians into battle. It was a sight to see, My Lord. A tide of white, green, blue and red cloaks charging toward Namik’s forces. Namik’s archers attempted a barrage of arrows, but their supply is depleted.” “Or damaged,” Midori said, watching Hinda work, impatient to be free. “The officers are in disarray, they found one of their own dead. The food was contaminated. This has left more than half of the rebel soldiers ill.” “White, it feels a little like you are attempting to seduce me with all this talk,” Midori teased, grinning when Hinda finally set him free. Midori got to his feet and took the sword White gave him. It was his sword, the one confiscated with his items. Stretching his arms above his head, he cracked his neck and dropped his arms. “Let’s go.” Outside, Midori, White and Hinda helped Lenoth bring down the rest of Namik’s guard. They were not easy: Lenoth came out of it with a deep cut on his shoulder. Midori insisted on dragging to the nearest healing tent and spent a few minutes patching him up. “Where is Naro?” Midori asked, as he tied a bandage around Lenoth’s shoulder. “At the camp entrance with fifty men, fighting the Fier Army. The others are at the Capital gates. The allied forces are concerned about civilians outside the palace. Sando sent us a message to make sure no rebel soldiers try to enter the Capital.” Midori finished helping Lenoth wear his armor. He looked up when Hinda entered the healing tent carrying Midori’s armor. “The allied forces are pushing back Namik’s forces. The fight is at its height,” Hinda reported as he helped Midori. “The men on our side have managed to stop supplies to the rebel forces.” Midori adjusted the red cloak tied to his armor on his shoulders and picked up his sword. “Take everything in my father’s tent, place it in chests and send it into the Capital to the palace gates. Make sure the Royal Bureau takes it into custody. Burn the camp down, Lenoth,” Midori said, leaving the healing tent. “Send forty of the men at the Capital gates to me.” “What about the Royal Prince’s worries— “Don’t worry, no rebel soldiers will enter the Capital this day,” Midori said, already heading for the rebel camp entrance. “Our job is to leave no hope for Namik’s forces. Get to work, Lenoth.” *** “Fire ahead,” Telia called, moving closer to the Prince. “Fire ahead, dark smoke in the sky.” Yoshi mounted Senbon again, his gaze on the dark cloud rising in Namik’s camp. “What do you think is happening?” Telia asked, slipping past the black guard so that she stood next to Senbon. “Midori,” Yoshi whispered. “Find Namik,” Yoshi said to Telia. “Get Tai and Zia to help you. He must not escape.” “Yes, Commander,” Telia slipped back into the fierce fight. “Surround the enemy forces. No retreats close the rebel forces within ranks,” Yoshi ordered his allied forces. *** Midori worked his way into the fight, conscious of the Furian sisters closing in on his group of soldiers. Pushing the rebel forces inside a huge circle. Midori missed a Furian blade by an inch, saved by General Helioth calling out his name. “Lord General,” the Furian sister said, giving him a short nod before she went after a pair of rebel soldiers. “Spare those with purple cloaks. They are mine,” Midori called after her. Standing in the middle of a gory battlefield, Midori caught sight of a red cloak with gold trimming. The tongues of fire shining in gold, so easily identified. His father and three of his trusted men moved in deadly rhythm, cutting down soldiers from the allied army. Clearly trying to make an escape. Midori broke into a run heading straight for his father. “Namik,” Midori roared, drawing his father’s shocked gaze. “You traitor,” Namik roared. Midori raised his sword, frowning when the two men standing beside Namik fell dead to the ground, daggers lodged in their chests. He turned in time to see Hinda and White at his back. “Lord General!” Hinda stepped in his path. “This task, leave it to us. Your life is worth more.” “Step away, step away, Hinda!” “I can’t,” Hinda said, as White moved to stand behind Namik. Midori growled, holding his father’s gaze. Dropping his sword to his side, Midori looked around the battlefield. The tied of the battle had changed. “The Prince has ordered him taken in,” Telia said coming to stand on Midori’s right. “Midori,” Namik said his name in a low tone. Before Midori could speak, a Furian screamed out in victory and Midori looked up to find the remaining rebel soldiers standing in a small hurdled group surrounded by Furian soldiers in the distance, their swords held out. Yoshi was riding in their direction on Senbon, his armor stained red, Senbon’s legs muddy with red mud. Midori returned his gaze to his father. “You tried to murder him more than once. Look at him now, a true Prince of the Empire,” Midori said. “He has won.” “You’re a fool,” Namik spat at him. “If he was a genuine royal, he would face me in a duel.” “I won’t let him,” Midori said, lifting his sword up. “You have trampled on Fier’s honor. Placed us on the lowest rank possible. I want the chance to regain it back on behalf of my people. I challenge you, Namik of Fier, to the death.” Namik scoffed. The allied soldiers surrounding them, all stopped cheering; instead, they watched Namik, waiting for his answer. “I accept.” *** Yoshi dismounted Senbon, the stench of blood and smoke heavy in his nostrils. Amid the smoke, an argument filled the afternoon. The Furians against the rest of the council members. “We should leave none standing,” Princess Naria said, her gaze on the last of Namik’s Army. “They have murdered, pillaged, and brought pain to countless people. Their sentence is death.” The fields were scattered with fallen soldiers, both allied and rebels. Victory was theirs, but it also felt like a loss. All the men lying dead this day, Yoshi’s gaze settled on the men now kneeling on the muddy grass. “They have surrendered,” Lady Tinya insisted. “Take them in and have the justice system deal with them.” “Commander, what is your order?” Lady Pipa asked, standing next to the Furian Princess. Her white cloak long stained with mud and blood. Yoshi gripped his sword tight, his gaze on the men who looked at him, hope lost in their eyes. None of them held any weapons, their gazes shifted from the Furian sisters to him. Their fear apparent. “Commander, victory is ours. These men are on their knees. Executing them will turn us into Namik,” Lady Tinya stated. Yoshi narrowed his gaze at this advice. Yoshi turned to General Heloth, and found the Earith leader watching him. “And you, General?” Yoshi prompted. “As much as they are on their knees, I suggest a trial,” General Heloth said. “Let the people decide what to do with them.” Yoshi met Princess Naria’s gaze, her anger clear in her eyes. Her forces had suffered longer than the rest of the Empire. She kept the rebels at bay when no one believed they existed. His gaze slid to General Aruku who stood behind the Princess. General Aruku was the new generation of Furian that wanted into the Quad Council. He held her gaze, hoping she remembered their discussion at the Furian banquet. “Princess Naria, relinquish the rebel soldiers into Lady Tinya’s custody. Lady Tinya will lead them into the Capital.” Princess Naria hissed, making ready to protest, but then General Aruku placed her hand on the Princess’s shoulder. After a whispered discussion, Princess Naria gave in with a short nod. “Commander, we have a situation,” Zia interrupted the scene. “Namik— “Has he escaped?” General Heloth demanded, his grip on his sword tightening. “No, but Lord General has challenged him to the death for Fier’s honor. The fight started before we could interfere. Namik and Midori are locked in a fight now. What do we do?” Yoshi cursed under his breath, following Zia. He had to push his way through hundreds of soldiers hoping to watch the fight. Yoshi stopped short when he came to the open circle. Midori and Namik were in the center of a wide clearing. Their blades clashing, their fight brutal and fast. When they disarmed each other, and swords went flying out of reach, heavy fists took over and Yoshi fought the urge to run out and help Midori. “Your orders, Commander,” Zia said. “The Black Guard can easily overpower Namik.” Yoshi watched Midori fall to the ground, Namik standing over him. Heart trembling, Yoshi willed Midori to get up as he gave the hardest order of his life. “Do not interfere.” Midori scrambled to his feet, blocking his father’s fists when they came at him. He fought dirty to counter his father skilled, and angry blows. Yoshi wanted to look away, unable to see blood dripping from cuts on Midori’s forehead, his nose and his lip. The fight ugly and hard, then Midori’s thick arms wrapped around his father’s neck, dropping them both to the ground in a brutal drop. Yoshi grabbed Zia’s arm tight. Then Midori rolled to his back with a sigh, while Namik stayed still on the muddy ground, his head at an odd angle. The silence that filled the afternoon was heavy. Telia walked into the circle, her steps hurried as she crouched over Namik, her fingers pressed to his neck. It took one moment, and when she shook her head, the allied soldiers shouted in excitement. Telia straightened up and moved to Midori’s side, taking his arm and helping him up. The allied soldiers ran to Midori’s side, shouting his name in joy. Yoshi felt a smile tag on his lips as the allied forces lifted Midori up on their shoulders. “Midori will want to escort Namik’s body into the Capital,” Yoshi said to Zia. “Protect him, and bring him to me in the Palace.” Yoshi gave Midori’s smiling face one last look before he turned away and headed toward the burnt rebel camp. He walked through the debris, not stopping to see the extent of the damage. Tai would see to it. Heart pounding, Yoshi remembered leaving the Capital weeks ago in a state of annoyance. His mother had coerced him into the trip to Fier. Those days the burden of leadership had made him want to throw up. He wondered if he would have been the same, had he known he would have to fight a rebel army to get back home. Life, really, was too full of surprises. The Capital gates opened slowly as he approached. The Head of the Black Guard brought Senbon to him, and Yoshi wasn’t surprised to see Sando riding up with two of the Black Guard and Tai. Yoshi mounted his horse, pausing to look back at the mix of allied forces working to secure the battled grounds, and start clean up. Yoshi met Sando’s concerned gaze, and winked, turning Senbon to the cobbled path that led straight to the palace. “Nervous?” Sando asked, moving up to ride beside him. “You’ve been waiting to get back since we entered the Furian Forest.” “Didn’t think it would take so long to get back,” Yoshi said, gripping Senbon’s reins tight. The capital was quiet, the usual bustle of a working city missing. It saddened Yoshi as he realized the people’s fear had brought commerce to a stand still. The ride to the palace was not long, but it was not short either. Brave citizens emerged from their hiding places within the capital to greet Yoshi along the path. Some with tears in their eyes, most with wide smiles. Yoshi wanted to pause and greet them, but his thoughts were now with those locked in the palace. He hoped the key Tai had given him would work. Men in navy blue uniform emerged from their patrols, and Yoshi recognized them as the Royal Bureau. Reaching the palace, Yoshi stopped Senbon and dismounted, moving to touch the warm metal shielding the palace. “This is work done by Fier forgers,” Sando said beside him, also touching the smooth metal. “It would have taken a long time to create this contraption. Ages. Did you know this existed?” Yoshi trailed fingers over the surface, wondering how to bring down the shield. “The Empress told me stories about a shield that could protect the palace, but I thought them fantasies.” “How do we get it down to get in?” Sando asked, stepping back. Yoshi pressed his palm on the surface with a frown. “We’ll have to discover how.” “It’s good you decided to come first. We wouldn’t want to panic the allied forces when they discover the palace is stuck under a metal dome.” “Way to keep up morale, Sando,” Tai Migi said, reaching them. “Tai.” Yoshi said, reaching for the leather string he had around his neck. He pulled it off and took the key Tai had brought him after visiting his mother. It was flat, like a key, meant to go into a slot of some shape. Tai traced the shield as Yoshi had done. Tai stopped where Yoshi assumed the palace gate pillar stood. Urging Yoshi closer, Yoshi followed Tai’s fingers and sure enough, there was a slot hidden between two overlapping sheets of metal. Yoshi bit his lip, studying the slot. It looked like he had one shot at this, if he slid the key in, it didn’t look as though he could pull it back out for another try. “Trust the Empress,” Tai soothed, touching Yoshi’s shoulder. Yoshi started to put it into the slot, but Sando stopped him. “Wait, if this doesn’t work, can we call the blacksmith to find if we can cut through?” Sando asked. “Cutting through would take days,” Tai said, touching the shield. “The metal is fine steel, stronger than a sword, it’s not easy work.” Yoshi ignored their bickering and pushed the key in to the slot. Silence greeted his actions, and when it persisted, Yoshi took a step back looking up at the shield. Had his mother been wrong? What would happen if he couldn’t get in? His mother— “I’ll get the blacksmith,” Sando said, moving to mount his horse. Yoshi touched the shield, willing it to open. A loud grating sound filled the afternoon, the earth shaking, forcing Yoshi to take a step back. The shield started moving, sinking down into the ground. The noise was loud, harsh, grating against the nerves. The gleaming metal disappeared into the ground, and Yoshi watched heavy slots come up to close the space made by the metal, turning the path into its usual cobbled normal. “When this is over,” Yoshi said, meeting Sando’s gaze. “We should discover what else is under the palace. Don’t you think, Sando?” Sando groaned, while Tai chuckled. Yoshi grinned and watched with nervous energy as the heavy palace gates started to open. He was nervous. Thinking of Namik with his rebel army, Yoshi wondered how his mother had faired under a siege of poisons and Prince Tailen’s deadly politics. He hoped Almira had weathered it unharmed. Not waiting for the palace gates to open fully, Yoshi hurried up the palace path to the outer palace. He breathed out when he caught sight of a flash of red and gold silk. The Empress was running down the long path from the outer palace to meet him. She was alone, so Yoshi turned to make sure he was too. He was glad to find Sando, Tai and the Head of the Black Guard had remained outside the palace gates. Yoshi raced up the path, and when he reached her, he stopped, watching her fingers tighten on her silk skirts as she came to a stop too. He removed his helmet and dropped it on the ground. Almira’s gaze on him widened, her eyes bright with tears. She was as beautiful as Yoshi remembered. Majestic in her regalia. Yoshi smiled, and decided to break all the rules she drummed into him. “Mom.” *** Tears spilled down her cheeks as Almira stared at her son in full regal armor. He was muddy, blood stained his cloak, his face looked haggard, and there was a bruise on his left jaw. He was alive, and smiling at her. He was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her life. “Mom,” he said. The single word enough to tell her his emotional state. She smiled through her tears. Yoshi could never keep to protocol when he was emotional. She was glad for Sando; she could see him at the palace gates, together with Tai Migi and the Head of the Black guard. They held back what looked like a horde of soldiers, generals, and Quad leaders. Many people, all of whom she owed for choosing to ally with her son, and restore the Empire’s peace. That could wait though, she opened her arms wide, and peace flooded her when Yoshi pulled her into a tight hug. The only thing that mattered was the feel of him holding her, his warm breath on her shoulder and the kiss he pressed on her neck. Her fingers touched his hair, and she closed her eyes in joy. “Welcome home, Yoshi.” ***
  7. lilansui

    Chapter 11

    You had me at 'one-reading'. Thank you so much, I love that you loved this story. A rescued life has a special place in my heart. I'm happy you had a good time getting to the end!
  8. lilansui

    Double Birthday

    This last chapter was funny and so entertaining. I think Zak and Marc are the best couple in this story. They love each other just as they are, and that is perfect. Mr. Lee is the best character ever. So full of mystery, I imagine he does much to entertain himself. I love your story, it's unique and refreshing.
  9. lilansui

    David

    Interesting shop! Mr. Lee is so intriguing. I think how he gets his merchandise is pretty clever. Give up something of importance to you, and get what you want...so much tied into that deal. I love the concept. I wonder about Mr. Lee though.
  10. lilansui

    A Little Reunion

    Most favorite line in this this story. It's beautiful!
  11. lilansui

    Chapter 1

    I love this unique story. I loved how the ring waited for the right home, forever hoping, and waiting, and glad it found the perfect place. Great story.
  12. lilansui

    Chapter 16

    Thanks so much for reading NoSkis! Was just going through the edit of this and needed to check a few details on here. I can't believe it's taken so long to get to this, so I'm also so excited. Yoshi is coming into himself, so he is going to be stronger, fighting for what he wants, and protecting those he loves. Empress Almira will be facing a strong force soon. Hehehe. Oooh! This comment is the best! I love it! I was all pins and needles writing this, and it went through a lot of editing. So glad the end result has Almira coming out so strong, and Yoshi very cool defending his love. I'm thrilled. I love that scene in HP-Deathly Hallows, really great scene, now I'm going on Netflix to find it and watch a bit...hehehe. We're just editing the next chapter now, so will post it quickly. Thanks so much Bookjunky for reading! Cheers, Sui.
  13. lilansui

    Chapter 8

    Hehe...Andre is important to Koji. So important in so many ways, I think Koji might have a bit of a shock if he walks away. Thank you Onim! I love to share it, thank you for reading!
  14. lilansui

    Chapter 8

    The World is Surely Small Chapter 8 – Koji’s First Kiss Koji dropped the drawing pen on the table and flexed his arms, to relieve tension from his shoulders. The borrowed office was dark, save for the small lamp on the corner of the desk. It cast a yellow shadow over the hardwood table he was using. Koji studied the drawings spread out on the table. Each one a true render of the scenes from Maki’s memory. Every blade of grass, nails on benches, the swings in motion, kids running, parents talking, the drop of ice cream falling from a little kid’s cone…every detail. A moment stopped and immortalized on the sheets of paper on the table, approached from different angles, as Maki’s gaze swept the park. Before Sakura’s disappearance, then right after the realization of her disappearance. A soft knock on the office door broke into his bubble, then the door swung open without his response. Koji blinked when the lights came on and he looked up to see Tomoyo standing right at the desk. “You need sleep.” “I’m missing something. I’ve refined Maki’s memory, drawn it a few times until it is just right. Something out of the ordinary should have appeared already. I can't see it, I'm too close. ” Koji shifted drawing sheets, seeking matching scenes. He tried to align them on the desk, but he didn’t have enough space. Koji stood and gathered the drawing sheets, heading out of the private office. “Koji?” “Saya’s investigators brought fancy equipment with them, didn’t they?” Koji hurried toward the dining room. “Do you think they have something that can project these sheets on the wall?” “It’s late. We can do this in the morning. You should get some sleep,” Tomoyo said, when they reached the dining room. He couldn’t sleep right now. He felt so close to the breaking point. So close. Hisao sat at the dining table, busy typing at his laptop, uncaring that it was almost two in the morning. Beside him, his partner sat at a chair, head resting on his arms, deep asleep. Koji ignored Hisao’s curious gaze, and headed for the table laden with office equipment. He rarely spent time in offices, so all of it looked complicated. Tomoyo was no better. Her specialty was the kitchen, present her with the most advanced kitchen equipment and she took to it like water. Office equipment, not so much. They both stood staring, stumped. “What do you need?” Hisao asked, coming up behind Koji. Grateful that he had thought to put in his earplugs earlier, so he read nothing from Hisao. Koji handed over the drawings to the amused Inspector. “Place them in order and project them on the wall,” Koji said, moving to lean on the large dining table. Hisao worked fast, the drawings appeared on the wall, and Koji sighed in relief. Koji folded his arms against his chest, moving closer to the lighted wall, pointing at drawings, so that Hisao arranged them as he wanted. The result was a panorama of the park as Maki saw it the day Sakura disappeared. Koji searched the scene, taking in each face, each movement and action. “This is incredible,” Hisao said, coming to stand next to him. “Look, there is Sakura, playing on the jungle gym. How is this possible?” “It’s a memory,” Tomoyo said, standing next to Hisao. “Maki’s memory, as she sat to answer her phone. Look, everyone in the park is dressed down, laid back, enjoying the day." “What about the two men in combat boots and green jackets.” Hisao pointed them out on the screen. They were walking into the park as Maki sat. They carried gym bags, as though they were walking across the park to their destination. The shoes were wrong though for a gym session. Koji had noted the two men, but he had seen them in the memory after Sakura’s disappearance. Never paying them mind because those two— Koji moved around Hisao, finding the two men in combat boots, in the memory where Sakura has disappeared. They were crouched over a manhole in the middle of the park. The duffel bags missing. “Hisao-san,” Koji touched the two men in the drawing. “Yes?” “Where do you think their duffel bags went?” Koji asked, studying the two men. They were crouched on the ground, their heads bent, and their bags missing. Nothing in the vicinity to suggest they had placed them down on the ground. Hisao hissed and hurried back to the dining table. Getting his phone, he dialed the team leader and in minutes, most of the investigating inspectors came into the dining room. Tomoyo’s phone beeped and she hurried off to answer it, after giving Koji’s left shoulder a squeeze. Koji listened as the investigation now focused on the two men in the middle of the park. Their identities, the reasons why they were in the park. The manhole. “We’ll take it from here,” Hisao said to Koji when the team leader finished with assignments and the investigators left the dining room with renewed energy. Tired, Koji sat on the closest armchair, and closed his eyes. Tension drained from his shoulders, and he was asleep in a millisecond. *** Andre and Leon tried to get a room at Hotel Mume, only to discover that the hotel was fully booked. Desperate to stay close to the investigation, Andre talked Tomoyo into finding them space for the night. Leon bunked in with Ogun, while Andre got the couch in Koji’s suite. Andre fell asleep waiting for Koji to come upstairs to rest, and only woke up when the suite door opened with a small bang at around five in the morning. Sitting up, he stretched his arms above his head, and stared at Ogun who looked frantic, his gaze on Koji’s empty bed. “Where is he?” Ogun asked, staring at him. “I—I don’t think he came up.” Andre got to his feet, when Ogun left as fast as he had arrived. Wiping sleep from his eyes, he grabbed his jacket from the armchair and hurried after Ogun. Taking a stick of gum from his jacket pocket, he popped it into his mouth, the taste of mint chasing away his morning breath. Downstairs was chaos. Investigators hurrying in and out of the dining room, excitement heavy in the room. Ogun had stopped in the reception hall, talking to Tomoyo who was still in the clothes from yesterday. They looked deep in conversation, so Andre ignored them and entered the dining room. His gaze found Koji the second he entered the dining room. Sleeping in an armchair set by the wall, undisturbed by the jumble of activity around him. Andre walked to his side, and crouched before him, staring. Dark hair a mess, falling over his forehead. Andre reached up and gently pushed it away from a smooth forehead. Eyes closed, eyelashes forming a half-moon on soft skin. There were dark shadows on the delicate skin there. Koji was not getting enough rest. Andre’s gaze dropped to parted lips, a smile filling him up at the soft breaths Koji took. In and out, his chest moving in gentle motion. Koji shifted, and brought his hand up to rub at his nose before settling in again. Andre frowned when a dark smudge was left on the tip of Koji’s nose. Wiping it off with a finger, Andre took Koji’s left hand and stared at the black charcoal coating Koji’s fingers. “From the drawing,” Tomoyo said, startling Andre. He looked up to find her leaning on the wall a step away from the armchair. Her arms folded against her chest. He had not seen her join him. She nodded to her right, and he followed her gaze to a panoramic drawing of a park on the overhead screen. “He found the culprits,” Tomoyo said. “Did he draw that?” Andre stood, staring at the picture. The details so clear, it felt as though the swings the kids were using would start moving in a minute. Was this--, “When did he do this?” “Through the night,” Tomoyo answered. “He’s obsessed with Sakura and after talking to Maki, he thought putting her memories on paper would help him find a clue.” “Is she found?” Andre asked, hope blooming wide. “She will be.” Tomoyo winced when Koji shifted in the armchair, trying to get comfortable. “We can’t move him. He always wakes up with one touch from Ogun or me. How you’re able to touch him without waking him is a mystery.” “I can take him upstairs,” Andre offered. Tomoyo frowned, her gaze on Koji as he shifted again to get comfortable. She looked indecisive, and then with a sigh, she nodded and walked away as though trying to stop herself from refusing him. Andre’s gaze returned to the drawing on the overhead. The details so clear, almost as though he could step into the scene and listen to the children playing. To have done all this so quickly, and from just talking to Maki, Andre looked at Koji a bit stunned. Andre leaned down and picked up Koji into his arms. Koji’s head resting on his shoulder as he carried him out of the busy dining room. Ogun and Tomoyo followed him, hovering, Andre paid them no attention as he headed to Koji’s room. Upstairs, he laid Koji on the large bed. Glancing at his hands, Andre hurried to the bathroom and returned with a wash cloth wet with warm water. Ogun and Tomoyo sat at the chairs in the small living area. Andre frowned at their over concern. Well, he hoped they would leave him alone with Koji, if only for a moment. Taking Koji’s left hand, he concentrated on wiping away black charcoal from Koji’s hands. Andre took Koji’s right hand, cleaning black charcoal from his palms, then his fingers, smallest to index finger. He passed the damp cloth over a gold ring with blue stones intricately embedded on its surface. Light shimmered over the large blue/green stone set as the centerpiece and Andre frowned, leaning over it, turning Koji’s hand to the light. When the shimmer disappeared, he thought it a play of light. Finishing with the cloth, he placed it on the bedside table, pulling the covers over Koji, he sat on the side of the bed, simply watching Koji sleep. *** Koji woke to silence. A first in his life. Even with every device Saya and Tama had installed into the house to help him cope, there were always distant whispers. Distant, niggling at the back of his head, so very consistent. The silence was a welcome blessing. Opening his eyes, he stared at Andre. The French man was comfortably sitting on his bed, reading an English copy of Norwegian Wood. Koji shifted on the bed, so that he lay facing Andre, openly studying him. Andre was handsome in an enticing, aristocratic way. His features calm as he read away, quite comfortable leaning on the headboard in his tailored slacks and shirt. His hair combed away from his face, Koji wondered what it looked like disheveled. What did Andre look like without his neat, tailored clothes? Koji thought he would love to paint that. Andre in dishabille. Did Andre ever lose his temper? Koji imagined he would love to see that too. Would that be the time when Koji would get to see what Andre was thinking? Andre turned the page, clearly immersed in the book, and Koji closed his eyes, enjoying the silence. It was so effortless, so unexpected, he never wanted it to end. His stomach growled and Koji rubbed it opening his eyes to find Andre watching him. “Hungry?” Andre smiled. “A bit,” Koji answered, not wanting to move. Andre closed the book and placed it on the bedside table. Koji wondered if Tomoyo and Ogun were in the little living area. That he wondered was a marvel, not knowing was new. “Tomoyo and Ogun are downstairs,” Andre said, as though reading his thoughts. Koji smiled. “I’m sure they’ll be up here soon. They rarely leave me alone.” “It’s very inconvenient.” “Is it?” Andre shifted, sliding down on the bed until they both lay facing each other. Andre’s eyes were brown. Koji stared into them, wanting to commit them to canvas. Their color deep, he would have to mix paints to get the right shade. His fingers moved to trace the dark stubble on Andre’s chin before he knew what he was doing. His index finger tracing Andre’s chiseled chin, the stubble rough against his fingers, up to the sides, and right under Andre’s bottom lip. Even with touch, the silence remained, no whispers, no inner thoughts, no images, Koji met amused brown eyes and his fingers stilled. “You are tempting me,” Andre said, taking Koji’s hand. “Don’t fault me for this.” “What?” Andre leaned closer and before Koji realized what he was up to, soft lips brushed his in a soft, gentle kiss. His eyes wide in shock, Koji almost forgot to breathe. Warmth spread through him, and Koji leaned into the kiss, wanting more, his heart racing when Andre sealed their lips into a proper kiss. Koji clutched Andre’s shirt, eyes closed, his body tingling with sparks and heat. Andre’s kiss tasted of mint, and dark chocolate. Koji pressed closer, wanting more, only to have Andre end their kiss, leaving them both breathing hard. Koji hid his face into Andre’s shoulder, and tried to still his heart. His body trembling, he closed his eyes when Andre held him tight, offering comfort. His first kiss left him shaken. *** Andre was unhappy when Ogun and Tomoyo returned to Koji’s room. The door opened and Koji pulled away from him too fast, not giving him time to accept that he could let go. He sat up with a scowl, watching Koji hurry to the bathroom. Clearly running away. Andre sighed and slid out of bed, his socked feet firmly on the floor, yet he felt he needed to hold on to the bed. His heart still racing with the thrill of kissing Koji. How he wanted more, how he wanted to feel Koji shift into his arms, how he wanted to wrap Koji in his arms and not let go. “Andre? Are you alright?” Tomoyo asked. She was busy arranging plates of food on the coffee table. Ogun, already seated, held the day's newspaper, a frown playing on his forehead. “I’m fine.” Andre straightened to his full height, adjusting his shirt. His gaze on the closed bathroom. Koji was hiding. He smiled. He wondered how long his baby would stay in there. “Any news?” he asked, moving to join Tomoyo and Ogun at the table. Koji had slept for five hours since this morning. Glancing at his watch, it was ten-thirty. He nodded in satisfaction. Koji would at least look rested now. “Yes.” Ogun picked up his cup of coffee. “Investigators found the two men in Koji’s drawing. One is dead after trying to put up a fight with police, the other is in custody. He says an unknown man hired him for the afternoon. His job was to get the girl, Sakura, to a storehouse a few blocks away from the park. They’re checking out the storehouse. We think he is lying about knowing who hired him.” “Koji will want to talk to him.” Tomoyo shook her head. “I wish this ends quickly. He’s overworking. We can’t expect Andre to watch over him as he sleeps each time.” “I don’t mind it,” Andre said, taking the cup of coffee Tomoyo placed before him and sipping it without looking at them. When they both stayed silent, Andre glanced up to find Ogun and Tomoyo looking at him. They shared a glance, then Tomoyo sat opposite him, her gaze on her own coffee. Ogun cleared his throat and smiled at Andre. “Once the investigation is over, we’ll leave first, and head back to Koji’s home. You two will not see each other again.” “Who says?” Andre asked, not sure what Ogun was trying to say. He liked Koji. After their kiss on the bed, he imagined Koji liked him too. It was a long time since he felt this kind of attraction. Truthfully, he tended to be very choosy with his partners. Always wanting more from his partners than they dared give, when they did give the more, it felt flat and he was disappointed. So he tended to walk away first. Yet with Koji, he felt caught in a web, unable to cut away. Two days of knowing Koji and he wanted to unravel the mystery of him. Each part he discovered only led him deeper into a bigger puzzle. Koji was intriguing, and enticing…Andre doubted he could walk away now. The bathroom door opened and Koji came out looking refreshed. He had taken a shower, his hair still damp. Dressed in jeans and a grey t-shirt, Koji walked to them, rubbing his head with a towel. Andre placed his coffee mug down, and started to get up to help, only to have Tomoyo beat him to the task. She took the towel from Koji and went to the bathroom. She returned with a hairdryer. Koji stole a glance at Andre, and he shrugged as Tomoyo got to work drying his hair. Andre was surprised by the surge of jealousy that filled his chest. He sipped his coffee watching Koji fit hearing aids into his ears, carefully pressing a tiny button to turn them on. “Koji, I noticed those hearing aids before. Not to sound rude, but can I ask why you are hard of hearing?” Andre asked. “You can,” Koji said with a grin. Andre grinned. “I’m asking,” Andre insisted. “He was too young to remember,” Tomoyo answered for Koji, after turning off the blow dryer. She returned it to the bathroom, and Koji grinned back at Andre. “It’s not something to worry about,” Koji said to Andre. "They are now part of me, so I don't think about why I need to wear them." Andre frowned, wanting to know, but clearly, this was a topic no one wanted to discuss. He would have to wait until later to know the truth. Until Koji trusted him. “Why don’t you tell me more about this man they found, Ogun-san?” Andre asked instead. “Why would he agree to take Sakura?” “Money,” Koji answered before Ogun could, staring into his coffee. “I’ll find Sakura today.” “You sound sure,” Andre said with a frown. “Yes.” Koji looked up then, a small smile on his lips, though it hardly reached his eyes. Tomoyo sighed, and arranged dishes before Koji. She knocked his head with her knuckles, and Koji reached up to rub his hair. “Before you go overworking, have food. Your stomach is probably growling in protest. One of these days, it will jump out and eat you in revenge.” “You’re so frightening,” Koji said in response. Andre couldn’t help the chuckle watching Tomoyo push chopsticks into Koji’s right hand. The bowl before him had chicken and eggs on rice, a bowl of miso soup to the side. Andre was still getting used to the idea of eating full on meals in the morning. Tomoyo was a great cook, and Andre loved her food, so maybe he didn't mind a huge breakfast too much. Although, Tomoyo bulldozing Koji into eating all his food was infinitely more entertaining. An hour later, Andre sat in a waiting room at the police station they had first visited, with Leon keeping him busy authorizing various project payments. Koji was inside talking to the arrested suspect. Andre paused in the middle of authorizing repairs for a warehouse in Manila, his gaze shifting to the door. “He’s only been gone twenty minutes,” Leon said, with a chuckle. “You should be worried about what he’s going to say about you finding Sakura for her mother. Do you think Seiren will keep her promise?” “Even if she doesn’t, I got Koji to promise to help clear Leon’s name,” Andre said, with a sigh. “I’m more concerned with what happens after.” “After?” Leon frowned. Andre looked at Leon. “I want him.” “Who?” Leon asked, confused. “Koji,” Andre said with a small blush. “He— “Lives in Japan, and you live in the French Riviera,” Leon said. “Worlds apart, Andre. Don’t get your heart broken. Now, let’s concentrate on work.” Andre sighed, and returned his attention to his business. *** Koji sat in the interview room with the man named Tonsu. Early thirties, fit, he looked like he worked hard for the look. His hair cut close to his head. His hands in fists on the table. Koji kept his gaze on the tight fists, his thoughts on Andre and their kiss this morning. The pleasure that exploded through him at the simple touch of lips, it was like nothing he had ever experienced. Clinging to that warmth, he reached into his ears and pulled out the hearing aids, turning them off and slipping them into their box. He held it tight and focused on Tonsu. Tonsu’s thoughts were a mass of fear, anger. Refined anger, so profound it made Koji shudder under its onslaught. Bordering on rage, he thought, trying to push it off. Tonsu’s anger was born from a struggle to survive. He was responsible for the care of his mother, and five siblings. Their father unknown. Tonsu was the sole source of income. The number of jobs he had tried since he turned sixteen staggered Koji. Fourteen years of working double time, not ever doing what he wanted, the money earned ending up with the family. Tonsu was exhausted. So, when his friends asked him for a simple favor, and gain a large chunk of money, Tonsu did not hesitate. “Your choices led you here,” Koji noted, meeting Tonsu’s dark gaze. “You could have walked away.” “You look like a rich brat to me. What would you understand about me?” “A lot,” Koji said. “You have spent so much time being angry that you don’t take time to enjoy what’s important. Tonsu-san, your anger will be the end of you.” Koji closed his eyes, focusing on the day Tonsu and his friend stole Sakura from the park. Tonsu was the one to stuff her into his duffel bag and lower it into the manhole where his friends waited to take the bag. They closed the manhole and walked out of the park minutes later. Koji saw Tonsu follow his friend into a black sedan. They drove to a storehouse near Katsura River. The meeting point. There were five others on the team. Their conversation spotty as Tonsu’s nervous nature kept him from paying attention. Koji heard them discuss fourteen children on a list, and realized Tonsu had been assimilated into the team last. The team leader needing a new face, after suspicion arose as the fourteen children went missing in the same area. Koji grabbed a pencil from his pocket and pulled the drawing book Tomoyo placed on the table for him. It took a moment to get a clear picture of the storehouse where Tonsu and his friends took Sakura. Koji leaned closer to Tonsu, and touched Tonsu’s fists with his left hand. Koji’s right hand moved fast over the drawing book, sketching the dozen faces in the storehouse. When he was done, he sat back and Tonsu gave a startled shout at the color of Koji’s brilliant blue eyes. On the drawing book, Koji had drawn Tonsu, talking to his friends after they received their share of money from a man with a scar on his left cheek. The door into the interview room opened, ushering in Tomoyo, Ogun and Hisao. They all stared down at the drawing book. “Daye Chang,” Ogun said in shock, touching the scarred man’s face. “Why is his face damaged?” “Are you sure this is him?” Tomoyo asked, looking at Koji. “I cut him in Kobe.” Koji dropped his pencil on the table, his gaze still on Tonsu. “When I was helping you save the children and diverted to escape on the motorcycle. He attacked me, and I swiped his face with my dagger.” “You didn’t mention this,” Ogun said, in irritation. “It was a small thing,” Koji said. “Tonsu’s buddies were responsible for the other fourteen too. They took them to the storehouse, and Daye took over from there. Now we know who has the children. If we don’t find them first, they’ll end up on the black market.” “How did you know?” Tonsu asked, also staring at the drawing book. “No one knows— “Sakura is eight.” Koji stated. “Her grandmother is worried sick. The girl who took her to the park is breaking apart because of you. You have much to be sorry for, not to mention your family that will now have to do without you. How will you atone for this?” Tonsu looked away, his fists clenching tighter. “They said she would not be harmed. Sakura was a bonus. She was going to be used to keep her mother in line— “Her mother?” Koji frowned, studying Tonsu. “A bonus?” “She was not in the original list,” Tonsu elaborated. Koji blinked and stood. Andre’s presence in this investigation finally making sense. Koji left the interview room and hurried to the waiting room where Andre and Leon worked. Flinging the door open, Koji stared at Andre. “Sakura’s mother,” Koji said, his gaze on Andre, his heart beating too fast. “What is her name?” “Seiren,” Andre answered, handing the tablet he was using to Leon. He stood up, facing Koji full on. “She works at an underground club called the Blue Dragon. She asked us to find Sakura so that she would give us information to clear my brother, Henri.” “Do you know Daye Chang?” Koji asked. “I met him once, when he was looking for investors. I declined his offer, but Henri jumped in and that is how he is now tangled in with Daye Chang’s terrible business. Why?” “Daye Chang has the children,” Koji said, studying him. “If only you had told me Seiren’s identity when we first met. We would have found those children much faster." “It— “Secrets,” Koji sighed in disappointment. “More harmful than actual poison. It is your turn to make a statement, Andre Lacome.” “Koji— “The faster you get it done, and you take us to this club, the faster we can end this,” Koji snapped. Andre sighed as Koji left the waiting room angry. Koji hurried out of the police station, needing to be outside. Needing to breathe unrestricted. He wished for the open grounds of the Sukiyama Estate. What he wouldn’t give for a run right now. Just to clear his head. This wasn’t Andre’s fault. It wasn’t, yet, after their kiss, he felt Andre should have told him the truth. Told him why he was looking into Sakura, and his involvement with Daye Chang. Why was the world so small? What were the odds that the man who could silence his mind, fill his head with peace, also knew Daye Chang, that devil who loved to enslave the innocent? Koji slid down the side of the building and sat on the pavement, his head filling with whispers of Gion city. ***
  15. lilansui

    Chapter 16

    Chapter 16 “Yoshi, you must let me do this, for the sake of my Quad. You cannot argue with me. If you recognize Fier as part of this Empire, don’t try to talk me out of this decision. It’s not easy for me either, knowing I might lose you, to the war, or to your mother, the Empress’s rejection…just trust me.” Midori’s words replayed in his head, never once giving him peace. Yoshi hissed, urging the black into a faster run. His cloak flying behind him, branches and dry sticks catching at his tunic, in his haste to get back to the Village Qi. His heart thundered too fast, every minute passed akin to sands flowing through an hour glass. Yoshi rode through the Village Qi, riding straight for the military camp, confident that Telia and Tai Migi had matters under control. Sliding off the black when he got to the camp, he stalked into his tent and stripped off his cloak. “My Prince,” Sando came hurrying in, his expression filled with concern. “I was starting to worry.” Yoshi paced the length of his tent ignoring him. There was only one way now. He would protect Midori with all he had. No matter the cost to him. He stopped pacing and looked at Sando. “Where is Lady Tinya?” Yoshi demanded. “She is dining with the Generals,” Sando answered. “With the Village Qi under your control, they are taking a few hours to celebrate.” Yoshi narrowed his gaze. Celebrate while their Emperor Consort to-be got himself captured by their sworn enemy for their sake. He scoffed. “Send a message to Telia and Lady Pipa. The Dwind Army heads out tonight. Then make ready, I will join this celebration.” Sando’s brow lifted in surprise, but he quickly moved to obey the order. He hurried out to pass the message to two of the black guard, and then returned to help Yoshi freshen up and change into his official finery. Music filled the night air when he reached the mess tents. Soldiers laughing, eating and drinking, their moods uplifted. They all stood and gave him bows when they saw him enter. Yoshi waved them down, not wanting to spoil their fun. He followed Sando to the enclosed space at the end of the large tent, where the generals ate. Sando held back the flap for him, and he stepped in to a sea of blue generals, no white cloaks for Dwind in here. Too busy helping Telia and Tai Migi finish arrangements in the Village Qi. Lady Tinya sat at the head of the table. When she saw him, she stood and her generals followed suit, turning to face him. “Royal Highness,” Lady Tinya greeted her head lowering a fraction, the Generals mirroring her actions. Yoshi clenched his hands into tight fists. He was careful to have left his armor in his quarters. Dressed in gold and red robes with only a gold knife in the scabbard at his hips. His attire disarming. It seemed to work as Lady Tinya smiled wide and moved out of her seat at the head of the table, her action out of courtesy for his imperial status, instead of respect. She still thought him her simple nephew. Her loyalty was to his mother. Yoshi smiled and moved to take the chair Lady Tinya vacated. She moved to the chair on his immediate right. “Your Royal Highness,” Lady Tinya said, taking a goblet from the table, remaining standing as Yoshi sat with feigned ease, arranging his robes with casual grace. “Allow me to toast to your victory this day. The Village Qi was taken with no bloodshed, and our soldiers remain in high spirits for the main battle. Congratulations, Royal Prince.” “Congratulations, Royal Prince,” the Generals echoed, lifting their goblets toward him. Yoshi nodded, glad that Sando made no effort to offer him a goblet to return the toast. Lady Tinya sat, and the Generals all followed suit. Yoshi smiled, urging them to return to their meal. Sando placed a plate before him, but Yoshi was certain no morsel would pass his lips. His stomach was tight with knots at the thought of Midori’s ordeal this night. There was the possibility that those who captured Midori would torture him. Maybe they would leave him intact for Namik’s torturing pleasure. He was going mad thinking about it. Yoshi clenched his hands into fists on his lap and turned to Lady Tinya. “My Lady,” Yoshi started, holding her gaze, as she chewed on chicken with relish. “We believe that it is important for us to stand on the same ground as we march to face Namik’s Army tomorrow. Do you agree?” “We shall, Your Royal Highness,” Lady Tinya said, nodding. “My army, Dwind’s soldiers, Earith and the Furian Princess, we are all standing behind your House Taimeng.” “Lady Tinya forgets one other,” Yoshi said, feeling a hard, cold pillar settling around his heart One designed to break down any who tried to bring Midori down. He would wear the resistance they had against Midori. If that failed then… He would leave her out of the circle. While he needed Tinya’s help, he needed to make a stand on her attitude toward his trusted people. Otherwise, she would never take him seriously. If this failed, then, he was a Prince of the Realm. This was a battleground, danger lurked in any manner of ways. “My Prince?” Lady Tinya asked, looking at him in surprise. “We have news of Lord General Midori of Fier,” Yoshi said, silencing the room. “He sacrifices much for the sake of the Phoenix Army, and the alliances here. Infiltrating the Fier Army on our behalf…” Yoshi trailed off and pulled out his gold dagger, using it to pick on his left thumbnail. Waiting for the eruption. He didn't wait long. “How can your Royal Highness be sure he is not giving up our position?” General Benal demanded. “Lord Midori has not returned since His Royal Highness sent him off. How can we trust what he says? Who brought this information? Can the messenger be trusted?” The questions of doubt rang through the room, the generals’ faces turning red in their loud arguments. Yoshi studied his thumb with interest, waiting for a break in the mad questioning. When Lady Tinya lifted her hand and silenced the room, he smiled. She had let them voice her views. Let them spout out doubt and anger at his persistence with Midori. She cleared her throat, making ready to speak. Yoshi stood then, surprising her into silence. “I, Yoshinori Taimeng, Prince of Amana, met in person with Lord General Midori in an old hut in the middle of the forest not forty-minutes from here.” The Head of the Black Guard walked into the tent, followed by the two who had followed them at a discrete distance. Yoshi sighed in relief when the two removed their black hoods. They were Lilind’s Children, and therefore had not signed on to hide their faces forever. “They are my witnesses,” Yoshi said. “Those two are from Dwind, and to ease your mind, they have yet to join the Black Guard, officially. Their loyalties lay deep with Lilind of the Sands. As you don’t trust what I, a Prince of this Realm, says will their words do?” “Your Royal Highness!” Lady Tinya got to her feet, her head bowed low, for the first time since he met her. The Generals seeing their mistress distressed, got up too, and dropped to their knees. Their heads bowed. Yoshi took his seat, studying his gold knife again. “We don’t quite understand your actions, Lady Tinya. We’re simply providing evidence to the council— “The Council— “Do you dare interrupt?” Yoshi asked. Lady Tinya stopped talking. “The Council has been divided since the day we arrived. Six on our side to nine loyal to you and your agenda against the Lord General. We remember numerous occasions, you have insisted on an investigation into Lord General’s activities. Claiming his stink must not stain our character, what that means, we are still unable to comprehend. It is clear to us today, that we need to convince the people in this tent how important Lord General has become to this mission. Or does placing one’s life in danger for the sake of the Empire not count as honorable anymore?” Yoshi waited a heartbeat, his gaze sliding to General Benal who knelt right beside Lady Tinya, his fists clenched in tight fists. “Lady Tinya, you may enlighten us,” Yoshi said. Lady Tinya lifted her head to look at him, her gaze unreadable. He wondered if she hated this spectacle, he was making. It was a huge one, designed to make her lose dignity. The great Commandant of Terra, facing an Imperial Princeling. He wasn’t sorry. She had dared brand him naïve and disillusioned. “My men have dishonored you this evening,” Lady Tinya said then, her voice heavy with regret. “Please forgive their forwardness. We do not, nor shall Terra ever, doubt Your Royal Highness’s words.” Yoshi kept his gaze on Lady Tinya. “As for Lord General Midori,” Lady Tinya continued. “Your Royal Highness must understand, Lord General’s father is not an easy force to face. We, here, have seen the pain he has wrought in our people. The Empire is shuddering under Namik’s weight.” “Have you stopped to imagine what life must be like for the innocent people in Fier?” Yoshi asked. “The young children who have lost parents because they refused to follow Namik. Their homes burned, their lives in danger, turning into refugees seeking relief in other Quads where they are met with fear, cold attitudes, and in some cases hate. Who is to fight for those lost Fier people?” Lady Tinya stared at him. Yoshi decided to push further. “What happens after the war is won?” Yoshi asked. “When victory is ours, and we are walking the beloved corridors of our palace, will the Quad Council vote to burn down all of Fier for their leader’s faults?” “That is— Yoshi stood then, angry that they were forcing him into defending the best man he knew in this Empire. Thinking of the dance Midori had once taken him to in the middle of a field, the children who had raced to him, their smiles wide, petting his hair, and running with him. Hope in their eyes, as they looked forward to returning home. “A man might die this night, facing Namik all alone. His only determination to protect those lost Fier men, women and children you dare not think of,” Yoshi said. Stabbing the gold knife into the table with anger, he looked at the kneeling generals. “We dare you to do better before you speak Lord Midori’s name in our presence again.” Sando pulled his chair back, and Yoshi moved away from the table. “Your Royal Highness,” Lady Tinya started. “If any of you feel unable to follow a Prince who dares believe in a General from Fier, we give you permission to return to your Terra. The Empire thanks you for your service this far and wishes you prosperity.” Yoshi ignored the collective gasps and left the tent as fast as he had walked in. Sando kept up with him, once they were outside, and a safe distance away, Sando spoke up. “You realize if they leave, we’re left with only Dwind’s forces on our side?” “Midori has decided to allow his father to capture him,” Yoshi said, determination in his every step. “We’re racing against a clock. I don’t care if I have to face Namik alone. One person who believes in the cause, is better than thousands who don’t. Now, pack up, we’re heading out tonight. Telia and Lady Pipa are waiting.” “What about Lady Tinya?” “We leave her to make a decision, Sando,” Yoshi said, smiling at him. “Midori is Emperor Consort to-be. Anyone who dares oppose him opposes me.” *** Midori groaned, his hands tied tight behind his back. The carriage moved too fast, not caring about bumps, he bounced on the bench and tried to stay comfortable. The windows nailed shut, his captors not taking a chance that he might escape. Closing his eyes, he hoped this plan would work. He had never imagined meeting his father this way, but perhaps this was the only way they would have met again. Midori thought about Yoshi. His handsome prince, with eyes full of worry for him, a smile tagged his lips. Yoshi loved him. Yoshi worried for him. That was a gift he had not expected at the start of this journey. A gift he wanted to savor, hold close and cherish for the rest of his life. His mind filled with their last conversation after Yoshi declared he was nothing without Midori, truth ringing in his voice. Midori gripped Yoshi’s upper arms and shook him. “You’re not nothing, Yoshi. You are everything to me,” Midori said. “Then stop this ridiculous plan.” “I can’t.” Midori smiled his heart squeezing with pain at the worry in Yoshi’s eyes. “I knew you would give me this exact look, and I wouldn’t be able to deny you. So, I sent my men ahead. They are already joining the Fier army as we speak.” Yoshi closed his eyes in defeat. “Who is in the forest?” “Lenoth and the two men you sent me from Dwind. They wouldn’t leave me alone.” “At least someone has sense,” Yoshi sighed. “Now what?” “Now you let me hold you a bit longer,” Midori said, pulling Yoshi into his arms. “Then when our time is up, you let me go finish what I’ve started. And you, my dear Prince, you must meet my father in battle.” “You make it sound so easy, when it is clearly not. Your life will be in danger. I could lose you at anytime. How— “Yoshi, you must let me do this, for the sake of my Quad. You cannot argue with me. If you recognize Fier as part of this Empire, don’t try to talk me out of this decision. It’s not easy for me either, knowing I might lose you to the war, or to your mother, the Empress’s rejection…just trust me.” Yoshi wrapped tight arms around his waist with a sigh. Midori buried his face into Yoshi’s hair, breathing him in. Yoshi trembled, struggling with the need to protest. They stood for a long minute. “I forbid you to die.” Yoshi then ordered into his shoulder. “I forbid you from getting anymore wounds on your body. After the battle, if I don’t find you first, find me at Lexin Square, Midori. I will not enter the palace without you. Do you hear me?” Midori pressed a kiss on Yoshi’s forehead. “I hear you, Yoshi.” “You promised to dance with me in the imperial courtyard.” Midori closed his eyes with a wince. “I will not break my promises,” Midori said, vowing to see Yoshi again. He had never seen Yoshi in his official royal gowns, and that was something he really wanted to see. Yoshi held him tighter. “I’ll clean out my house before we meet again, Midori. No one will dare look down on you and Fier.” “Yoshi.” “It is the least I can do for this insane plan you have devised.” Midori smiled now, amused. Their life together barely started and they already had so many obstacles and disagreements. His fault for loving the heir to the throne. Yoshi was going to fight Midori on anything that put Midori’s life in danger. He knew it. Knew that Yoshi would do it out of fear of being lonely, being left alone with no one to see the man under the crown. Shouts filled the night and Midori tensed, shelving thoughts of Yoshi. They were close to Namik’s army, either that or had already arrived. The shouts kept coming, and the carriage slowed down. Heart hammering, Midori took in a deep breath hoping to keep calm. He hoped Naro and his hundred men were now within Namik’s camp. Supply runs were easy, and with a rebel army, any who men wore Fier’s colors were accepted in hopes of increasing numbers. Namik was occupied with facing the Furian Princess who kept up attacks, no matter the losses she faced. Distracting Namik from focusing on the palace and the idea that Prince Yoshi might have amassed an army large enough to threaten his rear. Midori now hoped he would turn the tide by having his men within the rebel army. The carriage came to a stop and his hammering heart slowed, calm filling him. It was time to face his father, Namik Sanori of Fier. *** Palace, Lexin City The nobles watched Almira, their gazes wary. The palace was packed with ministers, officials and their families. She paced the length of the court, majestic in her red and gold robes, her armor gleaming. Her gold sword gripped tight in her right hand, she paused when she reached the Chancellor. A deadly smile on her lips. “Do you think us cruel?” she asked. “Do you think us a tyrant? Blood thirsty for not getting out of these palace walls to talk to Namik? Do you think us stupid for not naming Prince Saki heir?” “Your Majesty—,” Chancellor Rokka started. “We are not addressing you, Chancellor.” Almira brought her sword to his neck and he fell down on his knees, cries of fear escaping his lips. Prince Tailen, who knelt in the middle of the courtroom, Lord Hong Ma’s Royal Bureau officer standing behind him, chuckled. Almira kept her sword on the Chancellor’s shoulders. “Are you asking me, Your Majesty?” Prince Tailen asked. “We’re asking the men and women in this room loyal to your cause, Tailen.” Almira stared at the Chancellor, a deep sadness settling in her bones. She had trusted this man with her family, her son’s life. Thinking about it now, Chancellor Rokka would have been the only one who knew the route Yoshi was taking when she sent him out to Fier. He would have also known what time Yoshi would reach the Imperial Lands, and the number of royal guards with him. “Chancellor Rokka, lift your head.” The old man straightened up, his gaze downcast though he kept kneeling. “What promise would allow you to break trust with one such as I?” Almira felt pained looking at him. She relied on him heavily, he handled all important matters coming to her office. How long had he known about Prince Tailen? The poisons flowing in her inner palace, the untrustworthy eyes peering at her through the walls. “This servant is unworthy of you,” Rokka said. “He has failed in his duties— “Don’t speak,” Almira hissed. Failed was a stupid word to use, when he had deliberately misled her. She turned away from him and faced the court ministers and many officials now standing in the palace court. She had insisted on waking them to handle this, wanting retribution for the pain her family faced. There were steps she needed to take that required her palace have only trusted officials. Naria’s battle drums and horns filled the night. The Furian Princess was keeping up a steady attack on Namik. It was Almira’s job to secure the palace, removing entry into the great halls from the chessboard. Then, and only then, would Naria be able to fight Namik without apprehension. “I’ve called you here to witness the end of six men who dared attempt treason in our Empire.” Almira moved to the dais and waved her hand to Lord Hong Ma. His bureau officials moved into the mass of court officials and quickly arrested the ministers who had worked with Prince Tailen. “Minister of Defense Sharifa, Minister of Rites Zanna, Chancellor Rokka, Prince Tailen Meng, and his son, Prince Saki Meng,” Almira paused, when murmurs filled the court. The Royal Bureau officers were not gentle as they dragged each one to kneel next to Prince Tailen in the middle of the court. Prince Saki, supported by two men looked weary from his bout with stomach upset. She hoped to save his life, but only if he swore allegiance to her, and gave up his father’s blind ambition. The ministers supporting her house insisted on it, saying it wasn’t right she wipe out a house of royal blood in one night. She sighed as the bureau officials dropped Saki, without care, next to his father. “Lord Namik Sanori of Fier, for bringing a rebel army to our gates and bringing fear and uncertainty to our people.” Almira walked up the dais to the throne and sat, holding the dragon head allowing her gaze to sweep the room. “Your Majesty, what makes you believe these men have committed treason?” the minister of punishment asked. “Minister Won, what is the charge for one who dares try to murder a Prince of the realm?” Almira asked. “Death by a thousand cuts, and his limbs severed and sent to the four corners of the Empire. His family sent to the depths of the Fier mines for the rest of their lives,” Minister Won recited. “Such a cruel punishment,” Almira narrowed her gaze on Prince Tailen. “Sayuri, give me the official scroll Tai Migi brought with him.” “Yes, Your Majesty.” Sayuri hurried out to the private office behind the dais. “What reasons have Tai Migi missing from the palace?” the Minister of Tax asked. “He is always at your side— “You show your hand, Minister Jun.” Almira smiled at him. “Tai and Zia move within and out of this palace as per my will. Do you dare say you know why they would not be in the palace?” “No, Your Majesty,” Minister Jun said. “Then be patient,” Almira said, as Sayuri returned with the scroll signed with Yoshi’s new seal. She nodded to Sayuri, who stepped down closer to the ministers and unrolled the scroll. “To Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Almira Taimeng, the Imperial Court ministers, and officials, Lords and ladies of the Amana noble houses. Worry not as the Empire will not fall to gross injustice. I will settle any grievances Namik of Fier may have against the Empire, and return to the Palace in victory. Signed and sealed by His Royal Highness, Prince Yoshinori Taimeng.” Sayuri finished reading the letter and handed it to the Minister of Punishment, Minister Won. The shock that filled the court was palpable. Almira reached into her robes and pulled out the lock of hair she treasured. “My son, the heir to his Empire, Royal Prince Yoshinori is alive.” Almira held up the lock of hair, though she refused to give it to anyone for show and tell. It was the only connection she had to Yoshi until he appeared before her. “We have mourned an impostor, and buried an impostor in the Royal Tombs.” Almira declared. “This plot devised by the men you see before you and countless others brought to justice by Lord Hong Ma.” “How can this be?” Minister of Personnel Seno demanded. “They checked— “Her Majesty is beside herself with grief,” Prince Tailen shouted. “Can’t you see it? You fools, she will lead you to your deaths if you continue to stand against Namik. He has the Imperial Army with him. Would the Imperial Army stand with Namik if Prince Yoshi were alive?” The murmurs rose in the room, and Almira stood ready to defend her declaration. “This seal is new,” Minister Won declared staring at the scroll. “The ink is only days old, and the words printed in His Highness’s own hand. Have a look Minister Seno. We all learn how to differentiate the Prince and the Empress’s writing the first few months of office. His Highness is alive.” Almira clenched Yoshi’s hair tight her gaze on this Minister Seno. When he took the scroll and read it, he bit his lip and shook his head, his gaze full of anger when he looked at Prince Tailen. “If this is true, then we have all been duped by Prince Tailen,” Minister Seno said in shock. “Any who have been duped by Prince Tailen and committed crimes will be answerable to this court in full. We charge those mentioned with the attempted murder of Crown Prince, Yoshinori Taimeng, heir to the Amana Empire,” Almira declared. “Lord Hong Ma, make sure all traitors are arrested with no chance of escape to stand full trial the moment the Royal Prince returns.” “Yes, Your Majesty.” Almira took her sword then, walked down the steps to Chancellor Rokka. When he looked up at her, she drove the sword into his vital vein and ended his life in one swift cut. Gasps filled the court as Lord Hong Ma led in ten of her attendants. Almira wiped Chancellor Rokka’s blood on his tunic, and turned to the ten women who had tried their best to poison her and Sayuri. Before that, they had tried to poison Yoshi, until she was terrified for his life and forced to send him out of the palace for his safety. Each one responsible for leaking information to Prince Tailen in the hopes of gaining wealth. Gripping the handle of her gold sword, Almira swung her hand out and cut down the closest attendant to her. Hong Ma followed suit, swinging his sword to execute the remaining nine women. Her sword was swift and deadly, and when the last girl fell to the polished floor, Almira looked up and met the gazes of her shocked courtiers. “Namik wants the throne,” she declared. “He hoped to use Prince Tailen to get it. Any who stand with him or asks us to meet Namik for negotiations will meet their end on my sword. We are at war. Hold the line.” Almira met Lord Hong Ma’s gaze and gave him a satisfied nod. Walking through the bloodied floor, Almira left the court, stepping out into the outer courtyard. Lord Hong and Sayuri guarding her back as the royal bureau officers scattered around them. Almira paid no mind to the surprised palace staff and guards as she headed for the main gates. Earlier in the day, she had ordered Lord Hong to take in as many people as the palace could hold. She hoped the war would end fast, but could not be sure. The rest found shelter in the streets close to the palace with Lord Hong’s bureau officers making patrols. Almira paused at the official palace gates, her heart heavy. She wanted to protect every citizen in the Capital, but couldn’t. Not if she wanted to keep the Palace impenetrable. Looking at the three men who opened and closed the gates morning and evening, she gave them a nod. “Your Majesty,” Old Man Teng Heim said, coming up behind her, having emerged from the palace kitchens where he liked it best. “Will this work, even after so many years?” she asked as the heavy gates rolled closed. “The Palace is a well-oiled machine,” Teng Heim grinned. “Your majesty’s officials keep their workers on the move. I would hope those assigned to the great labyrinth below would have kept to their duties. If not, then this old man will have to eat his words.” “One would hope,” Almira said, gripping her sword tighter. She gave the path to the palace one last glance. This siege with Namik was not about the people, it had never been about the people. Namik wanted to rule, Lexin City would remain standing, as it was the crown jewel of the Empire, the capital of the empire. No, what Tailen and Namik wanted was her and her power. She would keep control as long as she kept Namik from entering the palace. Shielding the palace meant she was making a choice to wait for Yoshi. Without him, unlocking the shield she would raise would be very difficult. They could all starve to death in here, depending on how long the war lasted. The alternative, however— The gates locked closed and Almira walked to the old pillar holding the main gates on the right. With her bloody sword held to the side, she stood before the tall pillar, its surface intricately carved with waves of water. Teng Heim had shown her the hidden slot the day before. At the time, she had difficulty finding it, but now, it was all she could see. “Your Majesty,” Teng Heim prompted her. “The mechanism is full proof, but you must make the first step.” “Yes.” Almira took a step back and lifted her sword. With determination, she sunk her sword into the pillar, and was surprised when the tip sunk into the stone with no difficulty. She fed the sword in until it was half-way, then stepped back when the mechanism took over, turning the sword clockwise in rapid motions. The palace grounds shuddered under the onslaught of great tremors. Almira gasped in wonder as smooth metal rose up the outside of the palace walls. The color of silver blades shaped into great leaves of a lotus flower, rising high into the sky then sliding to lock into place each one over the other, until they rested high above the palace walls, enclosing them in. They left a small narrow space at the top for daylight and rain, or fresh air. “That hole can be used against us, with the right archer,” Almira noted. “Perhaps, if they manage to gauge its existence. Only one who is inside can see it, and as the shield has not been used in this era, I doubt there is one who knows.” “What if they dared to climb the shield on the outside?” Almira asked, her hands folded behind her back. “The surface is too smooth to allow climbing, the curve to steep to allow any man to safely crawl without falling.” Almira nodded. She hoped Yoshi would reach them soon. He was the only one with the key now. The only one to set them free of this absolute protection. “Your Majesty,” Lord Hong said. “Yes, Lord Hong.” “We should complete the rest inside court,” he said. “Now that Minister Won is idle, perhaps he might lend a hand with interrogation and punishment of the prisoners?” Almira stared up at the sky. “Yes, you are right. All we have now is time to clean house. Do let’s enjoy the air for a bit, then we can go back to deal with the stench in court. Teng Heim, tell me, what’s good to eat in the kitchen?” Teng Heim chuckled beside her. “Her Majesty is hungry?” “I haven’t eaten much lately. Too afraid of poison.” “Well, that is not good. I can make you rice porridge to ease your stomach first,” Teng Heim started. “We will add some pickled cabbage with red spice to the side, and fruit…. *** "Princess Naria," Lord Heloth, Earith's General, rushed into her tent, his tone urgent. "Something is happening at the palace. We cannot explain it." Panic seized Naria for a second. Had Namik found a way to enter Lexin City and move on the palace? She had worked so hard to occupy his attention. Grabbing her spyglass, Naria hurried out after Lord Heloth. Her Furian sisters and the majority of the Earith army soldiers were staring down below at the capital from the small hill they were using to hide their base. Naria hurrried to the front, and brought the spyglass to her eye, her gaze on the palace. The Imperial Palace was built high in the middle of the capital. Despite the city's main walls, on a beautiful day, the white walls of the palace gleamed in the morning sun, majestic and untouchable. A beacon to all who lived in the empire. The true seat of power. Naria bit her lip watching silver metal slide along the walls of the palace into a dome. The sound of their movement loud and frightening. Naria smiled for the first time in days, as the silver metal clicked into place, creating an impenetrable shield around the palace. "My Lady?" Heloth was studying her, confused. "Nothing to worry about," Naria dropped her hands and stood on the hill, taking a deep breath. "We can finally meet Namik full on with no fear." "Should we worry for the Empress?" Heloth asked, his gaze returning to the palace. "No. The Empress is safe within the shield. She is taking the palace out of the board. No one can gain access unless they know the secrets to that shield. I believe the shield was last used during Emperor Vulan's youth, before Almira was born. None remain outside the palace who know that shield's secrets. We are to focus on Namik." "And Lexin city?" Heloth asked. "For the shield to be up, the Empress has made arrangements for the people, so they will not be in harm's way. No one wants to damage the Capital anyway," Naria said. "Least of all Namik who wants to rule." Heloth nodded in satisfaction. "The Prince should have arrived by now." "Yes, which makes us late," Naria said, excitement racing through her. "It's time to march forward and corner Namik with his own plot." ***
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