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lilansui last won the day on October 13 2013

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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. A Little Reunion

    Most favorite line in this this story. It's beautiful!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!
  7. 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. ***
  8. 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." ***
  9. Chapter 7

    Chapter 7 The Truth about Koji Sukiyama Koji insisted on taking Maki back to Hotel Mume. He didn’t trust her alone, and frankly, Andre didn’t either. Maki needed an appointment with a psychiatrist, and her mother around her. Andre’s gaze shifted to Koji. Koji looked tired, exhausted. When they entered the dining room, Tomoyo ordered a cup of hot tea for her, and settled Maki at the dining table. The place was quiet, investigators already out chasing leads. Koji sat at the head of the table and rested his head on his folded arms. Andre frowned when Tomoyo patted Koji’s shoulders. “I’m going to the kitchen,” Tomoyo said. “Koji, you need food, to restore your energy. Rest for now before you talk to Maki.” Koji nodded his head but didn’t raise his head. Andre frowned; Koji really did look too tired. Andre thought of the traces of blood on Koji’s nose earlier and wondered if they shouldn’t take him to a doctor. Leon touched his elbow, and Andre turned to him. “There’s a call from Lacome Villa. Confusion with a supplier, I’ll deal with it.” Andre nodded, watching Leon hurry out of the dining room to find a private place. He hoped it was nothing too serious. Ogun followed Tomoyo to what Andre assumed was the kitchen. Andre watched Maki sipping her tea; she looked drained too, tear tracks staining her cheeks. Left in a room with a young man with a mysterious identity and a woman who clearly wasn’t sure about living, Andre could only sigh. Fantastic turn of events. Koji lifted his head from the table, his attention on Maki. “Maki,” Koji started. “Koji, I thought Tomoyo said to rest?” Andre asked. “Are you sure you shouldn’t take a nap?” “There are children missing. Who has time?” Koji asked, his gaze still on Maki. “But—,” Andre started. “Andre, help out and get Maki a sandwich from the kitchen. It is way past lunchtime, and I’m sure she’s starving. Tomoyo only knows to worry about me.” Andre knew Koji was sending him away, and wanted to protest, but then Koji turned his blue eyes on him. Oh, what did he know? He decided to find Tomoyo and bring her back to deal with her strong-willed charge. “Maki, why don’t you tell me your version of the day Sakura disappeared?” Andre heard Koji prompt Maki as he headed to the kitchen. Maki spoke in a low tone, so Andre was unable to hear her answer. He hurried to the kitchen wanting to get Maki’s sandwich fast and stopped short when he found Ogun and Tomoyo arguing in the kitchen. “Don’t include the suicidal witness in your report to Tama,” Tomoyo said, her tone severe. “One word and you’ll have him coming here to take Koji back home. Ogun— “I don’t need you to tell me what to keep out of my reports,” Ogun snapped. “I’ve looked out for Koji a long time. I know what to say and what not to.” “Yeah, then how come he ended up in a shootout that day?” “That’s a low shot,” Ogun said with a scowl, he leaned on the counter, watching Tomoyo slice egg sandwiches. “Anyway, why is Koji so tired today? I thought I saw a nosebleed. Is something wrong with him?” Tomoyo kept silent, and Andre leaned on the wall outside the kitchen doors, curiosity turning him into an eavesdropper. “This Seiryu jobs drain him too fast. Anyway, I think his abilities are growing stronger. Or have grown stronger, and he has hidden it from Saya and Tama. We were in a small shop today, and he stood there for a few minutes. I could tell he was doing his mind-reading thing. His eye color changed too fast, and I had to shove dark glasses at him to hide them.” “The eyes are always a surprise,” Ogun agreed. Andre bit back a laugh at the conversation in the kitchen. Mind-reading thing? Did they know he was eavesdropping? It seemed like a thing to makeup if you thought someone was eavesdropping on you. Yet, he couldn’t stop eavesdropping, watching the two through a gap on the door. “How does it work?” Ogun asked, taking a small slice of egg sandwich and taking a bite. Ogun started to sit on to the counter but Tomoyo smacked his arm, stopping him. He sighed and concentrated on eating the sandwich. “I mean, I know what he is capable of doing, but not how or why. Tomoyo, is he really possessed by some sort of dragon? Does it come out when he’s sleeping and haunt the house? I wouldn’t be surprised you know. Weird things happen in that house, you know. And who can ignore Saya, she’s creepier than everything else.” Tomoyo burst out laughing. “She better not hear you say that,” Tomoyo said, shaking her head. “No, Koji doesn’t have a dragon that comes out when he’s sleeping. That’s absurd.” “Everyone in the Seiryu Academy sure thinks so. It’s the freaky blue eyes,” Ogun said, finishing his sandwich. He leaned closer to Tomoyo and in a dramatic whisper, begged. “Please…tell me. I don’t want to freak out every time his eyes turn. It hurts him, but I can’t help it. It’s weird thinking that a dragon is looking back at me.” Tomoyo finished with the sandwiches, and placed them on two large plates. She took the kettle and went to the sink to fill it with water. When she placed it on its pad and turned it on, she stared at the red button. “Let’s just say that Koji is blessed with great genes. His mother’s bloodline guards what they call the Seiryu spirit. A guardian spirit, or will, a serious large force of good karma. If you have Koji on your side, you will always have good fortune. This is why the Sukiyama clan is so prosperous no matter the era. One like Koji is born as a second child in each generation.” Tomoyo turned to face Ogun, her dark gaze seeing through him, and resting on the kitchen door. For a second, Andre imagined she had seen him, when she didn’t speak, but then she shrugged and continued. “But the gift of sight comes from his father’s bloodline,” Tomoyo said, with a bit of reverence. “Coupled with the Seiryu spirit, it turned Koji into a very powerful telepath. With a touch, Koji will tell you your past, what you’ve been up to today, or might do tomorrow. That’s why he is perfect for these types of cases, though they tend to wipe him out. Koji overextends himself in an urgency to solve the case. I imagine using your brain to invade thousands of minds for too long, will take a toll.” Andre stepped back, remembering Koji sitting on the ledge, his hand on Maki’s leg, blood running down his nose, Koji turning away from to hide it. “That makes sense,” Andre heard Ogun say, as though it was perfectly normal to discuss a man who can read thoughts. “No wonder Tama-san is always worried. This case, I wish it ends fast.” “We just need to find Sakura,” Tomoyo stated as the water kettle stopped. Andre stepped back from the door, thinking them crazy. Koji, a telepath? An unbelievable explanation, what was crazy was that he believed it. Or wanted to, somehow, wouldn’t it make clearing Henri’s name easy? Deciding Tomoyo would bring out the food when she was ready, Andre returned to the dining room to find Maki alone with Leon. “Where is Koji?” Andre asked, wanting to talk to Koji alone. “He went upstairs, something about washing up,” Leon said. How perfect. “I’ll be right back,” Andre said, heading out of the dining room. “The flower room is on the third floor,” Leon called after him, and Andre gave him a thankful grin. Andre took the stairs one at a time. It wasn’t until he reached outside the flower room that he wondered how he was to get in to Koji’s room. The door was closed, and for a moment, he hesitated. Then he tried the lock, and the door opened easily. Entering Koji’s room, he paused taking in the subtle elegance. Papers scattered on the glass coffee table at the small living area. The bed was neat, and beyond that was a small balcony with a view of the river below. No Koji…Andre started to turn, thinking he had missed him on the way up, then he heard water running in the bathroom. Andre let a soft sigh of relief escape and moved to the balcony to wait for Koji. *** Koji washed off blood from his nose. When it was clean, he cupped his hands under the water and splashed cold water on his face, hoping to clear his head. Shutting the water, he stared into the mirror. His eyes were back to normal, the dry blood gone. His headache was still present, though manageable. Maybe a nap was in order, and a pair of painkillers. He thought about Maki waiting downstairs, and the missing Sakura, and sighed. Maybe just the painkillers he thought opening the cabinet above the sink. He found the bottle he had brought with him and swallowed two with water directly from the tap. Wiping his face with a small face towel, he closed the cabinet, meeting his gaze in the mirror. He wanted this case to end fast. Wanted to head back to Tokyo and talk to the woman who knew his mother. The woman who might give him some small insight into his mother. He spent so much time doing what other people wanted: what Saya wanted, what Tama wanted…what about what he wanted? “Okaasan,” Koji murmured. “I only want to know who you were, and where I fit.” Such a simple want. Why was it so hard to achieve? Koji dropped the face towel into the laundry basket in the corner and paused when he heard movement in his suite. He couldn’t seem to get a minute to himself on this trip. If it wasn’t Ogun, it was Tomoyo, or one of the academy staff bringing him information. He needed to finish with this case. Opening the bathroom door, Koji paused when he saw Andre sitting in the chairs by the balcony windows. “Feeling better?” Andre asked, looking him up and down. Koji slipped his hands into his trouser pockets and stared at Andre Lacome. While he couldn’t read anything from Andre, Leon Baptiste was easy prey. Leon had returned while Andre was in the kitchen looking for Tomoyo. All it had taken was a handshake, and Koji discovered all there was about Andre Lacome and his dear small brother, Henri. Looking at Andre now, he wondered what he should do about a suspect’s brother meddling in a missing person’s case. “Koji?” “Much better,” Koji answered Andre’s question, looking around his suite. They were quite alone. “Ogun and Tomoyo are still in the kitchen. I snuck up here.” Andre confessed with a playful grin. “You also forgot to lock your door,” Andre provided. There was no point locking his door with all the traffic that passed through it. Koji shrugged and went to sit in the chair on Andre’s left. The silence in his head was welcome, it was blissful to sit and simply watch the river flow, no stray thoughts intruding in his head. Andre was both a treasure and a torture. Andre cleared his throat when Koji settled and broke the silence. “I think we should get to know each other. I have many questions about you, and this case— “Andre Lacome.” Koji stated, his gaze still on the flowing river below. Thinking it was better to set boundaries with this one. Koji did not want to rely on Andre and the comfort he clearly represented. “Your younger brother is Henri Lacome, owner of HL Capital, an investment firm involved with the child trafficking mess in Kobe. The warehouse where the children were found is said to be owned by your brother.” Andre stilled, shifting to face Koji. “Why are you in Kyoto?” Koji asked. Koji lifted his hand to stop Andre when he started to talk. “Henri is framed by Daye Chang,” Koji said. “Daye Chang is using HL Capital as a shield. You should be worried. The people behind Daye Chang are quite capable. You want to clear your brother’s name, and the Lacome name, and then return to your Lacome Villa in the French Riviera and tend to your many family businesses.” Koji smiled. “Your friend downstairs, Leon Baptiste, is your business manager/cum lawyer. He is quite capable and very loyal to you and your family. I’m inclined to like you, as your favorite investment preference is art. You own a painting named A Woman’s Heart, auctioned at a private function in New York. It didn’t come cheap, but you love art so you bought it.” “For someone I met last night, you know an awful lot about me,” Andre said, chilled by Koji’s speech. Thinking about Tomoyo’s explanation downstairs, Andre found he didn’t like not having any defenses against Koji. The absolute lack of privacy unsettled him. “You walked into a high profile investigation, asking questions about a victim. If we can’t figure you out, we have no business finding missing children.” Andre folded his arms against his chest unable to argue with that logic. "What is intriguing is why you are so curious about Sakura Akino. Why is a man here to prove his brother innocent, interested in a local girl's disappearance?" Koji continued. "I should pursue it, but not yet." "Why?" Andre asked. "Because, you're a piece that doesn't fit the puzzle, yet. So, I will let you stay close." “Hmm..," Andre frowned. "What about you, Koji Sukiyama?” “What about me?” Koji asked, finally looking at him. “You seem to know everything about me,” Andre said, unable to keep accusation out of his voice. “Won’t you tell me about you? What do you gain from being here?” “I gain nothing here. I'm helping find lost children,” Koji answered, his voice thoughtful. “Sometimes, I find people and things.” Andre narrowed his gaze. “Do you like it?” “Like what?” “Finding people and things?” “I— Koji broke off, thinking. Then he stood up from his chair and gave Andre a small smile. “I’ll tell you when I find little Sakura,” Koji said, moving to take a green sweater over a suitcase in the corner. He seemed to favor the color green. As Koji wore the sweater, Andre stood too. “Will you help me clear my brother’s name?” Andre asked, knowing this was the request he had meant to ask. The request that had brought him up here to find Koji. “Henri,” Koji said, testing out the name. “Is he innocent?” “Henri is many things, but he is no child trafficker.” “You love him.” “He’s my brother.” Koji smiled. “You remind me of someone.” “So…” Andre prompted when Koji remained standing without answering his question. “Will you help me?” “Depends,” Koji said, stretching his arms above his head. “On what?” Andre asked, frowning again. “On where this case takes us,” Koji said, dropping his arms and heading to the door. “I’ve made a gamble focusing on Sakura, while there are fourteen other children missing. It could be the wrong choice. I might be on the wrong track, and have to start again. I won’t know until I talk to Maki. If I’m wrong, then this will take longer—,” “You think following Sakura’s last day will lead you to the rest of the children.” Koji flashed him a smile as he stepped out of his suite. “You catch on fast.” “You still haven’t told me about you,” Andre noted, watching Koji lock his door this time, and then they headed to the stairs. “Only that you find people.” “What more is there?” Koji asked, taking the lead down the stairs. Is it true you can read people’s thoughts? Andre wanted to ask. For a second the words were at the tip of his tongue. He swallowed the question though. It seemed too crazy, even for this situation. Tomoyo and Ogun must have been putting him on for eavesdropping on them. “Where are you from?” Andre asked instead. “Japan.” “Ok, I deserve that.” Andre chuckled. “You seem too young to be involved in a police investigation.” “I’m a child genius.” “Really?” Andre stopped. Koji was clearly playing with him. “That’s not an answer.” “Isn’t it?” Koji asked, looking at him, as he continued down the stairs. “I’m twenty. Of course, only elites are allowed into Special Investigations. I’m helping seasoned police officers solve a case. Don’t you think that makes me a genius?” “Way to be modest,” Andre scoffed, and followed the child prodigy down the stairs. “All the twenty year olds I know are neck deep in college, and getting hammered in underground clubs.” “Depends on which twenty year olds you know,” Koji answered. “You’re frustrating,” Andre decided. “I’m told that often.” They got to the ground floor and Koji reached for the stairs door. “Hey, there is a thing to know about me since you’re so curious. I’m a frustrating child genius.” Andre grabbed Koji’s left wrist, stopping him from opening the door. Koji’s gaze fell on the spot where Andre held his hand. His gaze shining brilliant blue for a moment, but then it could have been a play of light, Andre couldn’t tell. “Koji.” “Don’t,” Koji said, meeting Andre’s gaze then. “Don’t try to jump into the deep end. The deep end is full of sharks. Where you are now is safe. Stay in the shallow waters, Andre. I’ll do what I can for your Henri; get you out as fast as I can. Then you can go back to Lacome Villa. It feels like a happy, warm place.” With that speech, Koji pulled his arm out of Andre’s hold, opened the door and headed to the dining room. Andre followed him at a much slower pace, his heart uneasy at the clear rejection in Koji’s eyes. So intriguing and frustrating at the same time. Andre sighed, then stopped in the middle of the hallway. If he were to believe Tomoyo about Koji reading people’s thoughts with a touch— Andre gaped, his hand covering his mouth. What had Koji read in that moment Andre grabbed his hand just now? For a millisecond, his heartbeat sped up, but then a laugh bubbled out of him in the next minute at the ridiculous thought. Tomoyo had gotten him good. ***
  10. Chapter 11

    Hehehe...goals, will keep working hard.
  11. Chapter 15

    The Village Qi Tai Migi loved the shadows. He found comfort in the dark where others found fear. Growing up in the palace was a fate unexpected. Tai and Zia were born on a farm, in a village not unlike the Village Qi. Located on the outskirts of the Imperial Lands. Their parents were farmers. When they were eight years old, a gang of raiders invaded their village, pillaging and murdering. Tai and Zia were out playing in the forest when the raiders reached their home. Their mother’s screams called them back. Tai remembered running home, heart in his throat, Zia close behind him. They both gasped when they saw the horde of men riding out of their compound. He remembered Zia’s heart-wrenching scream when she found their parents in the kitchen. Murdered in cold blood. He remembered her tears and the deep cold that settled over his heart. Hate had grown in his heart that afternoon. Letting go of Zia, Tai remembered taking their father’s only weapon, an axe used for chopping wood. He had left the house determined to follow those murdering bastards and exert his revenge. He stopped short at the gate when he turned to find Zia right behind him, holding their mother’s kitchen knife. ‘Go back,’ he told her. “To what?” Zia asked, her cheeks stained with tear tracks. Tai had no answer to that and as he stood there wondering what to tell her, imperial soldiers arrived on great black horses, liveried in rich blues and reds. They were chasing after the raiders on official orders. Tai grabbed Zia’s shoulders and pulled her to him to give way to the soldiers. Then one of those horses stopped, right in front of them. Tall and mighty, the rider dressed in red and yellow, different from the others, but still a soldier. It wasn’t until the rider jumped off the horse, that Tai realized the rider was a woman dressed in a man's clothes. “What do you plan to do with the axe?” the woman asked, her gaze shifting from Tai and then to Zia, “And a blunt kitchen knife?” Tai tightened his hold on the axe, but before he could speak, Zia stepped forward. “Cut down those who killed our parents,” she said. A soft chuckle, then the woman crouched before them, placing her hands on their shoulders. She studied them for a minute, and then gave a quick nod. “It is decided. We will help you get your justice.” The woman rose, and lifted them both, placing them on her horse. Tai remembered feeling dizzy at the height. Then she set the horse into a fast race, following the soldiers. The imperial soldiers caught up with the raiders right at nightfall. The ensuing battle turned into a fright, neither Tai nor Zia had ever seen war. The woman on the horse kept a distance away, letting the soldiers round the raiders up. When the surviving raiders were subdued, she moved her horse closer then, and declared. “You vagrants dare terrorize the Imperial Lands; cause the people to suffer injustices, and grief. We cannot stand for that.” “What’s wrong with making a living?” one of the men kneeling asked. “Who are you to judge our way to survive?” “Must your way to survive bring pain to others?” she asked. “We always ask before we take,” the man said with a soft chuckle. “Those who give without a fight face no trouble. Those who don’t— “Why did you kill our parents?” Tai felt compelled to ask. “They never hurt anyone. Why?” “You’re the little ones from the rice farm. Your father kept asking us if we had taken you. He wouldn’t calm down, so we shut him up. Your mother tried to stop us— “Enough,” The woman behind Tai ordered, her grip on the horse’s reins tight. The word heavy with such authority, that no one dared breathe too loud. She jumped off her horse with elegance, making sure Tai and Zia remained perched safely. She gave Tai a simple smile, and patted Zia’s trembling hands. Tai remembered watching her get her golden sword from its sheath around her waist. She walked with purpose to the men kneeling on the grass, surrounded by soldiers. She stopped right before the man who had spoken, her sword held at her side. “You have taken lives, caused untold pain to hundreds of people in the surrounding villages. You show no remorse for your actions. What comes to you is a result of your own efforts. Do you understand this?” “Who are you to judge us?” the man asked, looking up at her. “I am tasked to protect peace and justice in the Empire,” she said, then looked at the soldiers standing around the men. “Hear this order; these raiders are to work in the Fier Iron Mines for no less than ten years. Deliver them to the Empire’s Minister of Labor.” “Yes, Your Majesty,” the soldiers answered. Tai remembered the shock on the raiders faces. The shame that ran over the man who had dared talk about killing their parents. “Your Majesty,” the man said, when one of the soldiers pulled him up. “Please kill us, please, don’t send us to the Fier Mines, please.” His protests went unheard, and the woman turned to look at Tai and Zia. Tai remembered being struck with awe, but not fear. “Was that good enough?” she asked, when she reached them. “I know nothing will bring back your parents, but their killers are brought to justice.” “You should have killed them,” Zia said, anger in her voice. “What if they escape the mines? They might, you know. Then what’s the use. How is that justice?” “You will not speak to Her Majesty this way,” One of the soldiers nearby chastised. She gave the soldier a hard look, and he stepped back quickly. “Girl, you are a blood thirsty one.” “Why do they call you, Her Majesty?” Tai asked. The woman gave a delighted laugh and removed the leather gloves she wore. “Oh, how rare this is. I forget the villages often forget the doings of the Imperial class,” she said. “It is not often I get asked this question, young boy. I have neglected to introduce myself. My name is Almira Taimeng, tasked with the heavy but interesting task of guarding the Empire as Empress.” Almira held out her hand to Tai. “Very nice to meet you. What about you?” Tai took her hand and smiled. “Tai and this is Zia, my twin sister.” “Twins,” Almira smiled. “Do you have other family, Tai and Zia?” “No.” Tai answered, squeezing Zia’s shoulders. Almira held his hand tight for a moment then turned to Zia. “The Fier Iron Mines are deep in the valleys of Fier. Forged by molten fire, and burning rock. It is hot and tiring. Those who work the mines work long hard days. No one willingly subjects themselves to that kind of hard labor. Taking the raider’s lives would be swift justice: it would be merciful. Having them work the mines, even for a year, will have them regretting their past. Do you understand my reasoning, young girl?” Zia held Almira’s gaze for a moment, and then slowly nodded her head. “If they escape, I will know. Then, I will mete out fast death with my imperial sword,” Almira said, touching Zia’s cheek. “If we are agreed, then what do you say if I take responsibility for you?” Zia looked at Tai for confirmation. Since they had nowhere else to go, they both nodded agreeing that Almira, Empress of Amana, seemed a viable option. Almira laughed then and swung up behind Tai. “You’re going to love it in the palace. You will meet my son, Yoshi. He is even more stubborn than you, Zia. I think you’ll get along very well.” Now, on a very early morning, even before the birds woke, here they were, in a village that reminded Tai of home. Tai adjusted the hood he wore over his head, his gaze sliding to the young man walking ahead of him in deep green merchant robes. Stubborn was a simple word to define Yoshi’s wild nature. Yoshi would have done well living in the middle of a forest, communing with the untamed. Unfair description of a royal, but it was hard to change Yoshi’s mind once he was on a set path. Tai imagined the stubbornness came from the royal blood running through Yoshi’s veins. A legacy bestowed by the ancient great warriors of the Taimeng house. One would think growing up in the most cultured environment in the empire would curb it, but that had only refined it. Refined stubbornness…Tai sighed. What a pain. In the end, Yoshi did what he wanted, when he wanted, how he wanted, making the job of keeping him safe during a war the hardest in the world...annoying Prince. Tai sighed. Still, it was very interesting that no matter how much Tai loved the dark, the light that was Prince Yoshi continued to burn bright and call to him like a moth to a flame. He loved Prince Yoshi, as much as Almira loved Yoshi. He couldn’t help it. He had grown up in the palace, cared for by Yoshi’s mother, lacking for nothing. A brother to Yoshi in every sense, except for the royal blood. This love pained him now, as he knew that the Prince had found someone he wanted to keep. Why it had to be Lord Midori, Tai couldn’t understand. Why did it have to be someone the Empress refused to accept into the palace? Someone who might have to meet his end on Tai’s sword. Tai sighed again. “You don’t have to show your displeasure so loudly, Tai. I know you’re not happy about me being in the village.” “My Lord,” Tai said, pained by these words too. They could not name the Prince as he was now traipsing in the middle of the Village Qi, with only Telia and Tai for guards, pretending to be a merchant’s son. “The tortures on me she would device for these grievances you face.” “Join hands with Sando, I fear you would have much to discuss.” “A joke?” Tai asked, stealing a glance at Yoshi. “Is this funny to you, My Lord?” “I’m simply taking a stroll in the very early morning, in a quiet friendly village.” Yoshi met his gaze. “You’re the one sighing like an old woman. Perhaps we should send you back to your bed.” Tai sighed again, and watched Yoshi clasp his hands behind his back with a grin. The Prince looked too excited playing this role. Then again, the Furian walking beside Yoshi was enough to give Yoshi confidence. She was glorious in her red skirts, and the two swords on her back. She never made any effort to hide what she was. Furians rarely did. Not even to keep polite company. Telia would be perfect in the palace. Tai smiled at this thought. “The village elders are wary of the Fier officials,” Telia said, bringing back focus to their purpose in the village. “It took a lot of effort to convince them to make a stand. They insisted on meeting you first. Please bear with us, My Lord.” Yoshi shook his head. “The Village Qi is one of many to have no heavy dealings with the imperial class. My mother prefers it this way. It breeds peace. These people live quietly; having the Fier rebels here must have frightened them. Talk of a Prince from the capital coming to save them, is almost like a folk tale. Their only goal is to protect their families. I don't mind this simple walk into the village.” “Very well, when we reach an agreement with the elders, you are to return to camp, My Lord,” Telia said, her tone enough to make Tai envious as Yoshi started no argument with her. “Yes. Then what do you plan?” Yoshi asked. “I have three men following each of the officials,” Tai said. “Ready to act as soon as we have an agreement with the village elders. Once the officials are subdued, we will take control and the Village Qi will be back under imperial protection.” Yoshi nodded, and followed Telia into a tea house using the back door. Tai stopped at the entrance, his gaze on the surrounding buildings. His job was to make sure no one knew this meeting was taking place. Closing the door after Telia and Yoshi, he pulled out an old axe from a belt on his waist and started a patrol. *** The tea house was warm, thanks to a vibrant fire burning in a large pit in the middle of the main room. Yoshi was grateful for it, walking straight to the tables closest to the pit. His body was still acclimating from moving from the heat of Dwind to the cool days in the Imperial Lands. Taking a seat at a small round table, Yoshi rubbed his hands together, to keep warm. Telia stood at his back, and she touched his left shoulder when footsteps shuffled in from the kitchens. Yoshi sat still as fifteen men and women moved to sit on benches closest to his round table. His gaze settled on an old man who went to stoke the fire, poking it with a long stick resting on the side of the large pit. Yoshi turned right when Telia shifted, to see a young man standing a few feet away. “Would you like a cup of tea?” the young man asked. Yoshi smiled, knowing refusing would be a bad start to this meeting. He nodded and Telia sighed. Sando had warned her to make sure he does not eat or drink. Yoshi hid another smile and faced the curious weathered faces watching him. Yoshi rubbed his hands together. “Nothing like tea to warm the bones. A thick mists falls over the Village Qi and it is cold.” The young man who had offered tea hurried back to his table with a tray with two cups and a steaming teapot. Telia took the cups from the young man and poured the tea herself. Yoshi’s gaze rested on the old man still by the fire. He watched Telia discretely taste the tea, before she pushed the cup to Yoshi. “The Furian promised us a Prince,” a woman in the group stated. “We risk a great deal allowing a plot to overthrow the rebels in our midst. We cannot survive without the Imperial Prince’s protection. Why do you now bring us a merchant?” Murmurs filled the room; Yoshi listened without protest, sipping his tea with relish. It was hot, and sent the chill of the morning away. “What can a merchant do for us without an army?” one of the men grumbled. “We’re better off pandering to the Rebel officials.” Telia stepped forward ready to defend him, but Yoshi stopped her with a single glance. “Would you have preferred an army storming into the quiet of your village in the early morn?” Yoshi asked, sipping tea with casual grace. “How else is a prince supposed to help us?” The question came from the old man standing by the pit. Yoshi chuckled. “Have you ever met a Prince?” Yoshi asked. “No.” The old man grinned. “But I have heard that the Imperial Prince is weak and coddled by his Empress Mother. We wonder how he could protect us.” Telia’s grip tightened on her sword, and Yoshi gave her a warning glance. “What is your name?” Yoshi asked the old man. “Wu,” the old man answered. “You’re the Village Qi’s Grand Elder.” Yoshi guessed. The man answered with a single nod. “Elder Wu, do you run the Village Qi on gossip, or truth?” Yoshi asked. “Truth,” Wu answered. “Fair enough,” Yoshi nodded, sipping his tea. He placed the empty cup on the table and pushed it away. He didn’t want Telia tasting for him. Yoshi stood then and moved around the table until there was nothing blocking him and the elders of the village. “Truth is important,” Yoshi said. “The Rebel Officials in your village are taking supplies from you, and sending them deeper into the Imperial Lands to support Namik of Fier. Your village cannot sustain this bleed in resources. Your stores empty faster than you can fill them. Am I right?” The elders stared at him with blank looks for a moment, and then gave reluctant nods. “Any young men able to hunt and till the land are gathered and sent out of the village.” Yoshi leaned on the table behind him. “How many have returned in the weeks since the rebels entered your village?” “None,” one of the women said. “My grandson was responsible for harvesting our land and that task has now fallen to my daughter and her younger child. We are worried for him.” “And what of taxes to the Empire?” Yoshi straightened up and folded his arms against his chest. “They have tripled,” Elder Wu said. “The villagers are not able to keep up, we manage to hide those who cannot pay, but it is getting harder.” “These are the facts,” Yoshi said then. “Your village needs relief. An Imperial Prince, even a weakling, will mean your taxes returning to normal. Your stores remain yours and your sons might be saved.” “Might be?” the women asked, horror in their eyes. “Why might?” “An Imperial Prince can only promise to do everything he can to protect those he can. We must also remember that there is a war beyond the Village Qi and that the tides of war are unforgiving.” “Will the Village Qi survive an Imperial Prince’s war?” Elder Wu asked then. “Can he promise to bring peace back to us?” Yoshi dropped his hands to his side, fingers curling into tight fists, he held Elder Wu’s gaze. “The Imperial Prince will make that promise on his life and that of the Empress’s life. Peace will reign once again in the Empire.” Elder Wu studied him for a long time, before he nodded and gave Yoshi a slight smile. “Why does a Prince pose as a merchant?” Elder Wu asked. Yoshi met the curious gazes on the other elders and grinned, startling them. “Isn’t a Prince a merchant too?” Yoshi asked. “A merchant of villages and Quads, negotiating the way to peace. Don’t you agree?” “Are you saying he is the prince?" One of the men asked. “Are you really the Prince?” “Haven’t you noticed,” Elder Wu said, pointing to Telia. “She won’t let him drink tea without sipping first. She shadows every move he makes, and almost stabbed me for calling him a weakling.” “I just thought she really liked him,” one of the women said, making Yoshi burst into a laugh. He laughed so hard, turning to Telia, her gaze caught between irritation and amusement. When he kept laughing, she reached for his cup and poured tea. She sat down and tossed the tea back in one gulp. “You’re strange for a prince,” Elder Wu said, finally moving away from the pit. “Not at all what I expected.” Yoshi wiped tears from his eyes and moved to sit next to Telia. Now that the ice was broken, Elder Wu joined them at the table and the rest of the elders relaxed. Discussions into the agreement started and Yoshi drank the pot of tea with Telia’s help without pause. Two hours to midday, the Head of the Black Guards entered the tea house alone. Telia and Tai Migi were moving on their plan to subdue the rebel officers. Yoshi had opted to remain at the secure tea house so as not to delay their schedule. Elder Wu moved away to give him privacy when the Head of the Black Guards came to Yoshi. “The Army?” Yoshi asked, meeting dark eyes. “All is well. You asked that news of the Dark Rider come to you first.” Yoshi placed the cup of tea he held on the table. Everything inside him still, bracing himself. “A request to meet you away from prying eyes arrived from one of Lilind’s sons. The location is an abandoned hut an hour’s ride from here. I advise you to decline the request, with the army so close to moving, such a meeting would raise suspicion.” Yoshi stood, pushing the chair back too fast. He glanced at the clothes he wore and cursed. The merchant robes were sufficient for an easy stroll through a village but a hard ride required— His concerns disappeared when the Head of the Black Guard held up a black bundle. Yoshi took the bundle and met the man’s gaze. “I figured you would need them despite my sage advice,” the Head of the Black Guard said. Yoshi patted his shoulder and hurried away to the first empty room he could find to change. It took him a few minutes to get the dark tunic on, pulling on the overcoat with shaking hands. Grabbing the heavy black cloak, he pulled it over his shoulders, covering his head with the hood. He left the merchant robes on the bench in the empty room, and hurried out. Elder Wu and his fellow elders paused when they saw him start to head for the doors. Yoshi forced the urge to run out under control and faced the elders. Head of the Black Guard handed him his gold sword, and he clasped it tight. “We must attend to the army,” Yoshi said to Elder Wu. “Your Village Qi will remain safe, Elder Wu.” “Thank you for your promise, Your Highness,” Elder Wu said, and then dropped to his knee. “The Village Qi is one with the reigning Imperial House.” Yoshi bowed his head in respect when the other elders moved to mirror Elder Wu. “Please rise,” Yoshi said, sliding his fingers into black leather gloves. “The Phoenix Army Generals will provide guidance as the army moves through your village. Assist them with what you can. Glory to the Empire.” “Glory to the Empire,” the elders replied getting to their feet. Yoshi left them with one last glance and allowed the Head of the Black Guard to lead the way out of the tea house. A black stallion waited for him. Yoshi did not hesitate to mount the warhorse. Senbon was too recognizable for a covert ride. The Head of the Black Guard led him out of the Village Qi using back roads, quickly stealing into the forest surrounding the village. Once they were away from the village, Yoshi turned to look at the man he trusted with his life. “One,” Yoshi said, slowing his horse for a moment. “Did the messenger bring you a letter?” “No letter, Highness.” Yoshi nodded, leaning low over the black to avoid a series of branches. He urged the stallion into a faster pace. The horse responded without hesitation, it moved with elegant and strong powerful strides. Yoshi held on, eager to get to Midori, anxiety and excitement racing through his veins. *** Midori stoked fire in the kitchen in the back of the hut he had found two days ago. Chicken boiled away in the pot Lenoth had found on the shelves. The rice was ready and already in a bowl on the table. This would be his first hot meal in days. He sipped tea from a small cup, his stomach growling in anticipation. A low whistle broke the silence of the forest. Lenoth alerting him they had company approaching. Midori dropped the fan he was using to stoke the fire on the table. He hoped it was Yoshi, but caution was important. He now had enemies on both sides of the war. Midori opened the front door and hid behind it, watching the newcomers ride into the small compound. Two men with dark hoods over their heads, riding on dark horses. Hard to tell whom they were. Disappointment filled Midori, as he missed Yoshi’s Senbon. The gorgeous horse that carried his heart. He had dreams of watching Yoshi riding to him on Senbon. One of the men jumped off his horse, and stood in the middle of the compound taking in the thick forest around the abandoned hut. A small shift, subtle, but enough for Midori to glimpse a gold sword handle. Yoshi. Midori couldn’t help the smile that curved his lips. Yoshi removed his gloves and walked up the old steps to the open front door. He paused, turning to look at the Black Guard still on his horse, now holding the reins of Yoshi’s black stallion. “I’m safe here,” Yoshi said in a low tone. “We must return to camp by evening,” the Black Guard reminded Yoshi. “Otherwise, and your absence will rouse suspicion.” Yoshi nodded once, and then stepped over the threshold and into the hut. Midori pushed the door closed and grabbed Yoshi by his cloak, pulling him into his arms. He wrapped Yoshi tight in his arms, burying his face into Yoshi’s shoulder, breathing him in. He closed his eyes when Yoshi wrapped his arms around him too. “Midori,” Yoshi murmured, his voice naked with emotion. Midori smiled, happy to hear Yoshi’s voice, and not that of the Prince calling him Lord General. Nightmares filled him at the thought of Yoshi keeping up that unbreakable wall between them. They stood in place for a long moment, not moving, simply holding each other. Yoshi trembled slightly and Midori pressed a soft kiss on his temple. “I’m well,” Midori soothed, his lips against Yoshi’s ear. “You must be hungry. Come, I’m cooking.” “You’re cooking?” “I do cook.” Midori let go of Yoshi and took Yoshi’s hand in his, tangling their fingers. “You’re the one I’m sure doesn’t know how to boil water.” Yoshi followed him without hesitation, his dark cloak sweeping the floor. Midori paused to unclasp it, carefully lifting the heavy fabric to place it on a rickety chair. Yoshi was in a simple dark tunic and overcoat. His hair held tight on top of his head with a simple silver clip. The urge to dig his fingers into the soft silky strands was strong. Strong enough for him to consider keeping lunch until later…then Yoshi’s stomach growled and he met mortified brown eyes. Yoshi touched his stomach, blushing slightly. “I came running when I received your message. All I’ve had today was tea…there was no time— Midori kissed him then. A hungry kiss full of promise, it had Yoshi breathing hard when they broke apart. Midori stroked a finger over Yoshi’s jaw, and then led him into the kitchen where the stew boiled away. Yoshi helped Midori arrange bowls on a very old but clean table. The chairs on each side of the table looked repaired. Yoshi refused a cup of tea when Midori offered, and instead sat on one of the chairs watching Midori carve the cooked chicken into pieces. “I spent the morning catering to village elders who have no idea their precious peaceful existence is created by the imperial government.” Yoshi sighed and leaned his elbows on the table. “They called me a weak prince and reminded me of you when we first met.” “Are you trying to insult me, Your Royal Highness?” Midori teased. Yoshi frowned, and Midori brought the food to the table. He braced his hands on the edge of the table and met Yoshi’s troubled gaze. “Yoshi,” he said deliberately. “I’m only teasing you with your title.” “It’s been ages since anyone called my name,” Yoshi shook his head, staring at the simple bowl of rice in front of him. His gaze filled with shadows. Midori took his chair, placing it right beside Yoshi. He sat and reached for Yoshi’s chopsticks. Taking a small piece of chicken, he brought it to Yoshi’s lips and smiled when Yoshi met his gaze. “If you don’t taste it, how will I know how good my food is?” Midori asked. Yoshi stared at him, and then leaned in to take the chicken into his mouth. He chewed the chicken and swallowed, holding Midori’s gaze. “How is it?” Midori asked. Yoshi took the chopsticks from him, and blessed him with a smile. “The best chicken I’ve tasted.” Midori grinned. “Great, I’m starving.” He pushed the platter with the chicken pieces closer and picked up his own chopsticks. “Eat up, don’t be shy. I cooked enough because I wanted to have a meal with you, Yoshi.” The tension drained away from Yoshi’s shoulders, and he relaxed, picking up his rice bowl. He shifted to Midori, talking about the elders he had met in the morning in the Village Qi. Midori watched Yoshi, more than he listened. His heart heavy at the thought of not returning with Yoshi on this great quest to the Capital. He had wanted to be by Yoshi’s side so much, that it hurt to breathe without him. “Midori?” Yoshi leaned closer, his brown eyes peering at him. “What’s wrong? You’re far away from me.” “I’m right here.” Midori reached for his cup of tea and took a sip. “How is Sando? Why did you not bring him with you?” Yoshi studied him for a moment, and then placed his half-empty bowl of rice on the table. “Sando is in charge of ordinance. I might have a great army, but there are factions within. Everyone has an agenda. I needed an impartial man in charge of supplies. Otherwise, there is no telling what Lady Tinya of Terra would be up to.” Yoshi gave a heavy sigh, and turned to look at him. “Midori— Midori closed the distance between them, his lips covering Yoshi’s in a needy kiss. He dropped his chopsticks on the table, and shifted so that he had room to pull Yoshi from his chair on to his lap. He didn’t want to think about the reasons there were factions in Yoshi’s army. Or why they had to meet in this hut in the middle of an untamed forest. No, he preferred to rediscover the taste of Yoshi’s lips, the heat of his mouth, and memorize the soft moan that escaped Yoshi’s lips when Midori bit the sensitive skin on Yoshi’s neck. Yoshi wrapped his arms around his shoulders, when Midori stood, lifting him up. Midori carried Yoshi to the small room where he had slept the night. The blankets on the simple bed he had used still rumpled. He dropped Yoshi on the bed, following him, and taking his lips in a maddening kiss. Their time apart felt like months, instead of days. Like a man possessed, he drank from Yoshi’s lips, taking, wanting more…yet not getting enough. Fevered need took control, hands ripping away clothes until their naked bodies came together. Yoshi’s lust-filled moans filled his senses, Midori held him tight, taking him possessively. Filling him deep, fiercely, hard, until all he read in Yoshi’s eyes was hot-blooded need for him. He reached between them to stroke Yoshi’s weeping cock, pushing Yoshi to the brink and tripping him over into a hard orgasm. The first in the wave of madness that took hold soon after. *** Two hours later, feeling like an addict, Yoshi pressed closer into Midori’s warmth, drawing circles on Midori’s chest, trailing the tips of his fingers on Midori’s skin. Sunrays spilling through cracks in the wood painted contours on Midori’s body. Yoshi traced them, content and happy, as he hadn’t been in days. It felt like all he had ever wanted in his life was here on this bed. He smiled when his fingers trailed down to Midori’s stomach, and Midori captured his fingers in a strong grip. Yoshi tangled their fingers, his head resting on Midori’s shoulder. He stared at their linked fingers, noting a small cut on Midori’s thumb. There were two red scars on Midori’s arm too. He wondered how Midori had gotten them, but hated to ask in this moment. “I miss you,” Yoshi murmured. Midori kissed his fingers, and shifted on the bed so that he lay watching Yoshi with speculative dark eyes. “Yoshi.” His tone sounded heavy with meaning. A deep chasm yawned open inside Yoshi and he caught his breath. “You have something to tell me that I won’t like.” Yoshi pushed panic aside with a soft sigh. “I have known it since the moment I walked into this hut. I wonder if I can ignore it, and simply make a royal decree to bring you back with me. I need you by my side, Midori.” “Would that please you?” Midori asked. “Having me submit to your will, is that what you want?” “I know I want you with me. I want you beside me where I can see you everyday, and know you are safe. If we’re to die, then we die together.” Midori hissed, cupping Yoshi’s jaw. “Don’t talk about your dying so easily, Yoshi. That is the last thing I want to hear.” “Then what about you? Getting hurt at will, what were you doing getting cut up like this?” Yoshi touched the scars on Midori’s arms. He closed his eyes in exasperation. Why couldn’t he have fallen in love with a scholar, or a rich merchant’s son? Fated to love such a stubborn warrior— “Tell me.” Midori sighed, and then shifted away from him to lie on his back. “I got the scars disrupting my father's supplies routes. Last night we finally took control of the largest supply route. My men will disguise themselves as ordinance soldiers and infiltrate the Fier Military Camp in the Capital.” Midori sat up on the bed, and swung his feet to the ground. “At the same time tonight, I will allow Namik’s men to capture me. As your Phoenix army heads to meet Namik of Fier, my men and I will attack from within. ” “No.” Yoshi sat up, staring at Midori’s back, fear sinking deep into his heart. “This is the only way to get close to Namik.” Midori continued as though Yoshi had not spoken. “I have loyal men. They are willing to fight to restore Fier’s honor, even though they are only just over a hundred. If we’re lucky, we shall have Namik subdued by the time your army reaches the Capital. If not, we will do the most damage we can...paving the way for you.” Yoshi got off the bed, grabbing Midori’s outer robe, he pulled it on and paced the floor on bare feet, heart racing. Turning away from Midori, he frowned. He was an idiot to have agreed for Midori to leave him that first day. Why had he thought this would be easy? “What if Namik decides to kill you on sight?” “He won’t,” Midori said, still sitting on the edge of the bed. He watched Yoshi pace the little room not moving to stop him. “No matter the circumstances, Yoshi, Namik remains my father. His blood.” “Blood or not, you have not hidden the fact that you support my house. Power changes people, Midori. Turns them. Blood is secondary in matters pertaining to the throne. Do you think my uncle is any less blood to me? Do you?” “Don’t get upset—” “Upset?” Yoshi stopped then, turning to face Midori. “I get upset when the bath water is not warm enough, or when I can’t find my favorite pen. I get upset then…but when my lover, my chosen partner, decides to walk into a death trap, I’m beyond upset.” Yoshi pushed hair out of his face, digging his fingers into the thick mass, feeling as though despair would eat him alive, his gaze never leaving Midori. “What do you think will happen if you die?” Yoshi asked. “Huh? Tell me, what do you think I will do if you meet your death at Namik’s hand?” Midori got up then and placed his hands on Yoshi’s shoulders. “You will defeat Namik’s army, take the throne, and heal this empire.” “I will burn it down.” “Yoshi, don’t say that. The Empire needs you, and you love Amana too. You will do all that is necessary to make sure the Empire is safe.” Yoshi dropped his hands from his hair, defeated. “What will the Empire be without you then, Midori? You ask me not to talk of my dying in battle, but you—,” Yoshi stepped away from Midori. “Have you stopped for one second to imagine that this Empire will be empty without you? Simply a vessel to—to—rule until the next generation takes over. I’m nothing without you.” Yoshi shook his head. “Nothing, Midori.” ***
  12. Chapter 11

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

    Merry Christmas Everyone!
  14. Chapter 6

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

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

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