Disclaimer: Skip Beat! belongs to Nakamura Yoshiki. This is fan-fiction for entertainment purposes only.


Her Royal Majesty Saena Mogami, Queen of Nilbon, did not love her daughter. She never had. Saena had never understood the appeal of children — they were loud, messy, and constantly required attention. But it was the duty of a queen to provide an heir, and Saena did her duty.

The entire little kingdom had rejoiced when it was announced that a new royal family member was expected. But the good cheer did not last. The King passed away from an illness before he could meet his child. It had been a double blow when the grieving Queen had given birth to a baby girl instead of the crown prince and heir to the throne that everyone had expected. Seana did not conceal her bitterness. Not only was she left to lead the kingdom and raise this child alone, but it was not even a son. A prince would have continued the line of succession. But instead Saena had a daughter. What use was a princess? The queen would peer into the bassinet, wondering what the nursery maids doted on. Saena saw nothing to wonder at, except how such a frail, tiny creature had managed to cause her body so much discomfort and pain. What a waste. As if she could sense her mother's displeasure, the infant princess would begin to cry. Saena would scowl, snapping at one of the servants before sweeping out of the room, leaving her daughter behind.

It did not matter that Princess Kyoko grew up to be strong, honest, hardworking, and kind. Her mother's approval was a lost cause. Still, she tried. She read every history of the realm, memorized all the edicts and laws, tried to wrap her head around convoluted trade agreements. When Saena made a disparaging comment about Kyoko's lack of poise, the princess spent a month learning to curtsey with a book balanced on her head. Once, the Queen complained that Kyoko had no practical skills and so the princess bullied the royal tailor into teaching her to sew. Kyoko spent hours bent over fabric, stabbing her fingers repeatedly as she tried to make perfect, tiny stitches.

But her best efforts were only ever met with disappointment and contempt. Or, when her mother was in a particularly bad mood, a slap. Even then, the pain of rejection was always worse than the stinging in her cheek as Kyoko tried to hold back the tears prickling in her eyes. The princess would speed back to her own rooms, to muffle her sobs with a pillow until she cried herself out. Kyoko would convince herself that she understood she would never be enough, that she was at peace with it. Then the princess would wake the next morning with red, puffy eyes and a kernel of hope still rooted in her chest. And Kyoko would throw herself into her lessons, praying that one day, it would be enough.

Nothing Kyoko could do would make a speck of difference. Queen Saena had no interest in her daughter, except as a pawn to be exchanged for peace with a powerful nation or whatever price the princess might fetch as a royal bride to anyone willing to pay a hefty sum. According to the rules of Nilbon, a princess could not inherit the throne. And so instead of Kyoko, a third-cousin-once-removed from a distant branch of the royal family was proclaimed the heir apparent. The young earl, Shotaro Fuwa, arrived with his mother some time after Kyoko's twelfth birthday. The queen's advisors suggested that Sho be educated alongside the princess. Sho was lazy, and not at all interested in the unending mountain of reading and lessons that were required to prepare him for one day being king.

It was the first time the princess had had someone her own age to talk to (ven if Sho did most of the talking). For once, she wasn't alone. Kyoko did everything she could to make Sho's life easier at the palace. She patiently tutored Sho, showed him around the castle, did her best to keep him out of trouble, and on more than one occasion did his lessons for him. And in the princess, Sho found an eager audience for his favorite hobbies: playing music and being adored. Sho's mother, Countess Yayoi Fuwa, watched as the hardworking young princess helped Sho with almost all of his work and let him take all the credit. As the countess watched Kyoko soothe away Sho's sour moods with sympathy and praise, an idea formed in her mind. Yayoi loved her son, but she was only too aware of his shortcomings as a ruler. Unless he had the right queen to support him. But five years later, when his mother suggested the princess of Nilbon as a good match, Sho balked. At seventeen, Sho was young and handsome, and he was going to be king one day. He could have anything and everything he ever wanted. There was no way he was going to marry some plain girl with the body and personality of a doormat.

It was an unfortunate coincidence that both the Queen and Kyoko had been nearby enough to overhear. Kyoko froze. She had known that Sho didn't return her feelings, but Kyoko had thought that one day he would see her. All that she had done to help him, to make him successful in the court, all the times she had covered for him when he had slept in and not come to lessons or forgotten to attend a council meeting. She felt something inside of her break.

"Do not disgrace me by making a scene," Saena had hissed in her daughter's ear, squeezing Kyoko's arm and shaking her daughter until Kyoko nodded. Only then did the queen release her arm. Kyoko did not recall how she made it back down the corridors to her own rooms. She managed to close the heavy oak door before her legs gave underneath her. Kyoko let herself crumple onto the floor. Her body shook with the force of her sobs, her fists clenched so tightly her nails dug bloody imprints into her own palm.

Of course he doesn't love you. Why would he? Why would anyone? Kyoko curled up even tighter. She had emptied out all of her tears, and now she simply felt weary. The princess was done trying to chase after something she could never have. Love was for other people. She would give up.

The queen had not been surprised by Sho's public spurning. Anyone at court with eyes could see that the young Fuwa had a preference for mature beauties with... large natural endowments, to put it delicately. And Saena, being the mother that she was, did not think that Kyoko's personality at all made up for what she lacked in appearance. But it did not make the situation any less of a problem for the queen. If the future King of Nilbon would not have Kyoko as his bride, then Saena needed to find someone else to take her daughter away. Perhaps a foreign nation with an older king, who needed a young wife to warm his bones and provide an heir. Or some wealthy young lordling, willing to pay for the connections and prestige of owning a royal bride. Letters were penned, invitations issued. The queen did not see it necessary to inform the princess of her future. After all, princesses did not marry for love.

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Across a narrow sea from the island country of Nilbon was a large and prosperous nation called Yuwessa. The King of Yuwessa, His Royal Highness Kuu Hizuri, was everything a good king could be: strong, wise, just, and compassionate. He had led the country into a time of unrivaled peace and prosperity, and was universally adored for it. It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of King Kuu's marriage and ascension to the throne, and the entire nation was celebrating.

Prince Kuon, heir to the throne of Yuwessa, sat alone on a white stone bench feeling sorry for himself. Earlier that morning, Lady Erika had ended their courtship. It was the fourth time this year. Kuon felt sad, but mostly he felt empty. Even from his corner of the garden, he could hear the soft swell of music from the palace and the occasional crackle and boom of the fireworks. The sounds of the party taunted him. Kuon stared down at the small blue stone in his hands, turning it absently. He sighed.

"Shouldn't you be celebrating?"

The prince slipped the stone into his pocket as he stood up, a polite smile on his face as he turned around.

"Duke Takarada," Kuon bowed in greeting. "Excellent speech earlier."

"Don't change the subject," the Duke replied testily, prodding Kuon in the stomach with his cane. The Prince sat back down.

"Well?" Lory prompted. "Why are you out here moping?"

"I'm not moping."

"Hmph." The Duke replied. "Could have fooled me. There's a whole courtful of lovely ladies hoping for a dance, and you're out here sulking in the woods."

"Perhaps you should go dance with them, then," Kuon said politely. Lory harrumphed.

"If I was thirty years younger, perhaps I would." Lory sighed dramatically. "Youth truly is wasted on the young."

Prince Kuon had no reply. Instead he stared out across the garden to where a small fountain babbled, studiously avoiding the older man's gaze. Sometimes it felt like the Duke could read his thoughts. Lory studied Kuon, before standing and once again prodding him with his cane.

"Come on, young princeling. You can't avoid the celebrations all night. There will plenty of time for you to be gloomy in the morning."

Kuon acquiesced. While he was decidedly not in the mood for a party, it was a celebration for the king, and Kuon didn't want to spoil his father's night. Kuon was proud to be his father's son. He hoped, one day, that he would be as good a king as Kuu. But the older Kuon grew, the less likely it seemed he would ever be able to fill his father's shoes.

As a child, prince Kuon had the best tutors in the land, who were all impressed with the young prince's intellect and kindness. He inherited his mother's blonde hair and bright green eyes and his father's tall frame. He was devastatingly attractive, and people flocked to him. But if Kuon did something well, it was because he was King Kuu's son. If he made a mistake, he was assured that Kuu had made mistakes at his age too. On his eighteenth birthday, his father had given Prince Kuon all of the land, titles, and responsibilities of a crown prince and heir, and had included his son in the running of his realm. Kuon had been humbled by his father's faith in his ability, and had done his best to live up to everyone's expectations.

It had not gone as planned. When Kuon tried to do things his own way, everyone was quick to point out that King Kuu did it another way. The first few times, it seemed like a polite observation. But then it became clear to the young prince that what people really meant was that his father did things the right way, and Prince Kuon did not. It was one thing to make a mistake, as a beginner. Prince Kuon was human, after all. He did not expect to excel at everything on his first attempt. But it was a very different thing to make multiple mistakes, in front of the entire court, at the one thing you have been raised your whole life to do. And when he tried to pinpoint his mistake, Kuon kept having to go further and further back, until his thoughts were a tangled mess that inevitably only had one conclusion — there wasn't any one thing that Kuon did wrong. There weren't even several key mistakes he could find that led him down this path. It was simply that he, Kuon, was wrong.

"It's not so uncommon for others to have more faith in someone than they have in themselves," Kuu would say kindly, patting his son's shoulder. "You don't believe right now, but one day you'll see, you'll be a better king than I could ever dream of being."

Kuon had a hard time believing those words. The monarchs adored their son beyond anything that could be considered reasonable parental affection. They were not exactly known for having an accurate view of their own son's talents. But they saw Kuon's self doubt and sadness and worried — although the King and Queen were at a loss on how to help their son. Unfortunately, while they could buy Kuon horses and suits of new clothes and feasts and troubadours, they could not buy him happiness.

Perhaps if he had a girl he loved, his parents thought. Kuu recalled how falling in love with Queen Julienna had changed his life for the better. The word quickly got out that the Prince was looking for a bride, and soon every eligible maiden in Yuwessa was thrown into Kuon's path.

"Court ladies are only concerned with the latest fashions and their hair and having the best jewelry. How can I possibly share anything with any of them?" Kuon asked.

"You've never really been close to a lady," Lory countered. "How would you know?"

Kuon had to admit (begrudingly) that the Duke had a point. For whatever reason, Kuon couldn't seem to keep any courtship going for longer than three months. All of the women were beautiful; many were kind. But it always ended. And left Kuon feeling more hopeless than before.

"Is there no eligible maiden in all of Yuwessa who suits your fancy?" The duke teased. "Perhaps you need to search farther abroad. I hear the Princess of Nilbon is old enough to marry."

King Kuu had spent most of the last week pondering how to diplomatically refuse the Queen of Nilbon's proposal. Saena was demanding a ridiculous sum for her daughter's hand in marriage. It was practically extortion. Nilbon was not even a tenth of the size of Yuwessa. Kuon's parents wanted him to find love, not just a suitable partner of rank. And Kuon was not going to marry a stranger. Especially not the princess of some tiny island backwater nation that he had never even met. The idea was preposterous. The royal family had bristled at the letter. But Lory had cackled.

"A ransom for the princess's hand." The Duke's eyes twinkled mischievously as he glanced at Kuon. "She must be quite the special lady. Perhaps we should arrange for a diplomatic visit?"

"Enough. No more talk of Nilbon," Kuon snapped at the Duke. "I'm going out for a sail." He bowed to his parents before almost storming out of the room.

"Be careful, love!" Queen Julienna called after him. "It looks like rain!"

«×»«×»«×»«×»«×»«×»

It did, in fact, rain. It more than rained. Although it was the end of the spring storm season, Kuon had terrible luck. A fast-moving storm had swept in, turning the calm seas into raging waves that pounded the side of his small sailboat. The wind and water tossed him in every direction, until Kuon could neither see nor guess which way was land. All around him was churning water. It was a miracle he did not capsize. Eventually, Kuon saw what looked like the rocky outline of a cliff on the horizon and steered towards it, gritting his teeth and hoping for safe harbor.

The next thing Kuon felt was rough sand against his cheek. He coughed, a wave of nausea running through him as he coughed up sand and salt water and who knows what else onto the beach. But none of that mattered. He was alive.

His gratitude at being alive quickly subsided as the realities of his situation set it. Prince Kuon had no idea where on the continent he was. He could have washed up five miles from the palace, or five hundred. It was most likely towards the latter, since Kuon had sailed around the waters within a hundred miles of the palace, and the landscape around him was not at all familiar. The prince groaned. Getting back to the palace was going to be a pain. How long was I out? Kuon wondered if more than a day had passed. His parents were probably going hysteric.

The prince had no money on him. A merchant offered Kuon a ride on the back of his wagon, in exchange for the prince's handsome belt knife. It was a terrible bargain, but Kuon was in no place to be choosy. He had no idea how far back it was to the palace. Kuon sat on the back of the wagon as it bounced down the unfamiliar road, his bad mood turning worse with every passing mile. During his brief journey up the coast, Kuon encountered closed roads, a poorly marked detour, an attempted robbery, and an unfortunate incident with some dye that turned his hair almost black — although not quite in that order.

When he saw the smudged outline of a city appear on the horizon, Kuon squinted. It was certainly a large city, and it was on the coast. He could just make out some tall towers that probably belonged to a castle. But the city coming into view was not his home, the capital of Yuwessa. As he got closer, Kuon spied a dark crimson flag on the city's closest gate. A gust of wind blew the flag almost straight out, and Nilbon's golden moon plainly visible, almost glowing in the sunlight.

The prince swallowed.

He frantically tried to recall everything he had ever been taught about the small island. Kuon was fairly certain he had visited Nilbon Capital briefly as a child, accompanying his father on some diplomatic mission. The city was tiny, not even half as large as Yuwessa's capital, although both were bustling port towns. The sailors down at the docks informed Kuon that with a good tide, Yuwessa was barely a three day sail on one of the large merchant vessels that regularly crossed the narrow sea.

Except Prince Kuon had no money, or anything of value to trade. Without funds to book a passage home, Yuwessa was as unreachable as the moon. And walking up to a ship and demanding passage because he was the crown prince of a foreign nation seemed like an easy way to get laughed off, thrown overboard, or possibly held for ransom. And none of those were outcomes that Kuon particularly desired.

So for the time being, he was stuck. The prince had nothing but the clothes on his back. And while Kuon was relatively indifferent to food, that didn't mean he wanted to starve.

Which meant he needed a job. Something that would feed him, keep a roof over his head. Just until he saved enough money to pay his fare home. And then he would get back home to Yuwessa, and never set foot on this stupid island again. Or anywhere near a sailing vessel when the skies were anything but a perfect cloudless blue. Kuon tried to estimate how long he would be stranded, but quickly realized he had no clue what his labor was worth. What could he even do? Where could he work?

Prince Kuon did not believe in the gods or fate or destiny or some cosmic system of retributive justice. But he did believe that the universe had a keen sense of irony. So when he was turned away from another job inquiry and managed to overhear that the palace was hiring, Kuon gave in. He made his way uphill towards the castle; sensing more than hearing a faint, ringing laughter on the wind as he went. Kuon trudged on. So what if some deity was amused? The prince scowled.

Kuon picked a new name. Not that anyone asked for it. The prince was tall, broad-shouldered, and he knew how to wield a weapon. He was excellent palace guard material. He was hired with worrying speed. Kuon wondered if his parents were also this lax with their security. What if he was an assassin? Kuon made a mental note to himself to investigate Yuwessa's palace guard hiring practice when he got back. In the meantime, he was instructed that her Majesty Queen Saena liked the palace guard to be big, silent, and unobtrusive. Which suited Kuon —now Ren— just fine.

It suited him a little too well. 'Ren' was so good at his job that he was promoted in less than a week. His captain informed Ren that he had been reassigned to the residential wing. While Ren did not consider this a step up, his fellow guards clearly did. Some of them grumbled, while others jostled his elbow in a friendly manner and jokingly told him to say hello to the princess for them.

Ren recalled the absurd sum that Queen Saena had practically demanded in her letter, should Prince Kuon have the honor of marrying Princess Kyoko. What would make a mother demand such an amount? Perhaps the princess was unusually beautiful. Or maybe she was incredibly clever. Not that it mattered. Other than the desire to sate his curiosity, Ren had no interest in the Princess of Nilbon.

The look of resentment on her face suggested to Ren that Princess Kyoko shared his feelings on the matter. She did not look at all enthused about her new guard. For years, Kyoko's three guards had been the Ishibashi brothers. But Captain Hikaru was as intimidating as a puppy, and about as effective. And to make it worse, his crush on the princess was obvious to everyone but the princess herself. And now that Kyoko was of marriageable age, for the first time in her life, the princess was worth something to her mother. Only in the abstract, for what a good marriage could offer the Queen of Nilbon. Kyoko felt more like a prize brood mare than a beloved daughter. She was valuable, but not valued. But still, the Queen needed to protect her investment. Then one day Saena spotted Ren one day in the halls, a stoic but decidedly unfriendly expression plastered on his face like an unwelcoming mask. She had liked the look of him immediately. And given his stature, the Queen could cut Kyoko's guard from three down to one, and save the royal treasury two salaries.

Ren's first impression of Kyoko was that of someone who was completely unremarkable. If it hadn't been for the fine clothes and golden circlet on her head, Ren would never have guessed she was royalty. The princess did not have her mother's statuesque figure and striking dark hair. Kyoko's light brown hair and tawny eyes were cute, Ren thought, but nothing special. The Princess was exceptionally average, except perhaps for her below-average height.

When Kyoko was informed by her mother's chief of household that her guards had been dismissed, she was not informed that the fun and caring boys she had thought of almost like brothers had been fired. Had she known, the princess might have been less inclined to try and befriend their replacement. But Kyoko didn't blame the new guard for her favorites being replaced. Her new guard was all stiff silence. She wondered if he was nervous, and tried to be friendly. But when Kyoko asked a few questions — where was he from? Did he have siblings? — the guard immediately tensed. Ren didn't want to have to make up lies he would have to remember later. He answered gruffly, with the barest possible reply. Kyoko eventually gave up on making conversation, which suited Ren just fine.

On his second morning as her guard, Ren arrived one hour after dawn to relieve the night watchman who had been dozing on his feet. Two hours later, the Princess had still not emerged from her rooms. Ren was dying of boredom when a small figure came scurrying down the hall. At first he thought it was just a maidservant, but then they came closer and he recognized the copper bangs peeking out from under a kerchief. Ren blinked. It was definitely Kyoko, standing in front of him, wearing a large apron covered in dust and grease and tapping her foot impatiently as she waited for him to open the door to her rooms. But that wasn't possible. Ren had been standing here all morning, and he hadn't seen her leave. He opened his mouth, unable to contain his question, but the princess had already given up waiting and hurried past him into her chambers, the heavy oak door already closing behind her.

Kyoko re-emerged a few minutes later, this time looking more like royalty in a gown the color of perfect spring skies. She had hastily braided her hair back, a slim golden circlet on her head. She gave him a nod.

"Good morning," Kyoko said politely, as if she hadn't just scurried past him into her rooms five minutes ago. Ren said nothing in response, or barely any indication that he had heard her. The princess stood awkwardly for a moment. Kyoko missed captain Hikaru and his easygoing, friendly manner. It was hard not to resent the silent, expressionless man in front of her, whose bored stare gave her the distinct impression that he was looking down on her. Kyoko tried to ignore it, gliding down the hall, Ren following behind her like a shadow.

Kuon had prided himself on his work ethic. While his official duties as the Crown Prince were not many, Kuon had taken an active role in understanding the role he would one day inherit. He sat in on his father's council meetings, attended court assembly, and heard petitions, on top of his social obligations of leading entertainment for the nobles at court. But his days as Crown Prince of Yuwessa seemed leisurely in comparison to the Princess of Nilbon's schedule. He followed Kyoko as she zigzagged back and forth across the entire castle all morning. The rainy season was over, and most of the court would be arriving in a few weeks, now that the roads were dry enough for travel. There was a backlog of incoming reports from the provinces that had to be sorted and dealt with, on top of preparing the palace for the onslaught of noble guests. Queen Saena did not deem her daughter competent enough to be involved with the affairs of state, but the palace staff and cabinet bureaucrats were of a different mind. But no one wanted to publicly go against the Queen, which meant that the princess was constantly summoned and interrupted by people of all ranks needing help with a task or looking for advice. Kyoko was happy to be useful, but by the end of the morning she was exhausted. And then there were the extra etiquette and decorum and dance instructors that Queen Saena insisted on Kyoko taking, because the princess, according to her mother, lacked the 'grace and charm that royalty should naturally exude'.

It continued day after day, from morning until well after the evening meal. Just when Ren would think the princess was finally resting in her room, he would see Kyoko coming down the hall towards him, carrying a stack of papers or an armful of scrolls. The princess would bid him goodnight, and he would watch her enter her rooms for the evening, only to find her somehow outside them the next day. One morning, Kyoko turned up covered in soot and gingerly holding one wrist. Ren's brow twitched as she approached.

"I was instructed to not let you go anywhere unaccompanied," Ren said. He smiled at the Princess. "You're making my job very difficult."

Kyoko blinked. It was the most her terse guard had ever spoken to her in the week since had started. And while his mouth was smiling, there was no warmth in his eyes or voice. In fact, Kyoko got the distinct impression that she was being scolded.

"Are you worried about my safety? How kind," Kyoko said archly, trying her best to copy her guard's strange dagger smile. "I'll be fine. Unlike some people, I know my way around." She winked, shutting the door to her chambers in his face.

No one had ever shut a door in Kuon's face before. Especially not a lady. While winking. Prince Kuon received plenty of winks — but only ever from women as they were opening their chamber doors to him, not shutting them. And she was clearly making fun of him. Earlier in the week Kuon had turned down the wrong hallway twice while trying to follow Kyoko around on her various tasks.

For a moment, he stood staring blankly at the door, just processing. Ren had to admit, perhaps the Princess wasn't quite so average. She seemed to have an excessive amount of spunk, for such a small person.

He liked it.

No. Wait. No he didn't. Ren shook his head, then remembered guards weren't supposed to be having internal dialogues and forced himself to stare straight ahead impassively down the empty corridor. But his mind couldn't seem to leave the issue of the princess alone. Ren decided that he must be incredibly bored, if the comings and goings of one girl were so intriguing to him. The best way to put it all out of his head was simply to find out what Kyoko was up to. Then the mystery would be solved, and Ren's brain could go back to normal.

«×»«×»«×»«×»«×»«×»

The next morning, before dawn, Ren watched as the princess slipped out of her rooms and past the sleeping guard. He slid out from the alcove where he had been hiding, careful to keep to the shadows as he followed her. Kyoko turned down a narrow stairway and across an inner courtyard. It occurred to Ren that the princess was sneaking out — probably to meet someone. The thought made him hesitate. The last thing Ren wanted to do was awkwardly stumble into a lover's tryst.

But the princess was not heading towards the noble guest quarters, or the gardens, or anywhere else Ren thought of as an appropriate venue for a secret rendezvous. Kuon swallowed his surprise when he arrived at what appeared to be some storage record room for the royal library. A few other people were already there as well, and Ren watched as Kyoko approached an older gentleman, nodding as he pointed towards a shelf and then curtseying politely. Ren watched the Princess spend the next almost three hours methodically sorting through a heap of books and folios almost as large as she was. The morning bell struck half past eight before Kyoko stood to leave.

"Princess!" The older gentleman called, waving her over apologetically and motioning to a wooden crate of tomes at his feet. "Do you think you could take a look at these? I know you have to return to your lessons, but I can't give them to anyone else. No one else here is fluent in Old Nilbonic, and I would do it myself but—"

"Of course, Lord Sawara. I'm sure I can take care of it." Kyoko curtseyed again.

"No need for that, you're helping me. You can take them with you. Do you need help getting back to your room?"

"I'll be fine," Kyoko replied. "Besides, I know you can't spare anyone right now."

The man grumbled his agreement, thanking the princess but already turning away as someone else called him over. Kyoko looked down at the crate, biting down a sigh internally. It was a long way back to her rooms, and her wrist was still throbbing from yesterday. Nevertheless, she bent down, biting her lip to keep from wincing as her left wrist protested when she grasped the handles. But before Kyoko could stand, Ren was crouching beside her.

"What are you doing here?!" She whisper-shrieked. In her surprise at his sudden appearance, Kyoko had let go of the crate handles and was awkwardly crouching. The princess decided to sit back on the floor before her poor balance made the decision for her. Ren said nothing. He frowned, remembering how the morning before she had been cradling one wrist. He turned her left arm over gently in his hands, dropping it when she let out a tiny hiss of pain.

"What happened?"

"Sorry!" Kyoko said quickly. "Yesterday, I, er, twisted it, I suppose. It aches a little bit. It's fine." Kyoko brushed it off, using her good arm to push herself back onto her feet before Ren could offer to help her up. He looked at the box of books, then back at her dubiously.

"I'll take this," he murmured, picking up the heavy crate.

"Oh, no, it's okay, I—" Kyoko began to protest. But Ren fixed her with a look.

"Even with two good arms, there's no way you could lift this." Even Ren needed two hands.

"I'm stronger than I look!" Kyoko protested.

"I. will. take. this." Ren said, his steely tone completely at odds with the polite smile on his face.

They made their way back to Kyoko's rooms mostly in silence. Kyoko kept offering to help carry, to Ren's increasing annoyance. Not that he was annoyed at Kyoko. But he was frustrated. What if he hadn't been there to help her? What would the princess have done? Why had she agreed to help that man? What was Kyoko doing there in the first place, at a time when almost everyone was asleep? And when did the princess think she was going to have time to look through all of these?

Ren's frustrations continued to grow. The next morning, Kyoko left her rooms early as usual, and Ren followed her down to the kitchens where the princess donned her familiar apron and joined the scullery maids in reorganizing the royal pantry under the stalwart gaze of the castle's head chef. Then another morning, it was back to the library. The morning after that, it was off to the stables to muck out the stalls. Ren tried to dissuade her, but Kyoko ignored him. So then he tried to help, but the princess staunchly refused. She insisted it wasn't his job as her guard, and he shouldn't have to do unpaid labor. He disagreed. As her guard, he argued, he was responsible for her personal safety. He couldn't stand by and watch while Kyoko struggled to haul buckets of water practically half her size. But the princess didn't give in.

"Then don't watch! You aren't on duty this early in the morning, go back to bed!" Kyoko had retorted, almost spilling half the bucket's contents on her dress as she dodged away from Ren before he could take the handle from her. Ren practically bit off his own tongue. I'll go back to bed when you do!

Kyoko's determination was admirable as it was frustrating. Ren grit his teeth and resigned himself to watching the princess like a hawk, always hovering nearby, ready to catch her at the first stumble or sign of fatigue. And as he watched her, Ren couldn't help but notice the graceful way she moved and her slender form. Or how the early morning sun made her copper hair glow and the physical effort made her cheeks flush and her eyes gleam. And it struck Ren that he had been both incredibly stupid and incredibly wrong when he had dismissed the princess as nothing exceptional to look at. Even with her hair disheveled and her apron covered in dirt, she was one of the most beautiful women he had ever laid eyes on.

Like winter melting into spring, it would be hard to pinpoint exactly when Ren and Kyoko's standoffish manners began to soften. Kuon had arrived at the castle wanting nothing more than to collect his salary and leave for Yuwessa as quickly as possible. After he received his first weekly pay, Ren calculated how long it would take him to book his passage home. He'd be lucky to make it home by the end of the season. Kuon didn't think he could survive as Ren for months in the castle. At least the days passed by quickly, busy as they were following the Princess around as she completed her mountain of tasks. A week slipped by, and then two. Then one day Ren realized a whole month had passed since he had been shipwrecked, and something twinged in his chest. Suddenly, a month felt like no time at all. He glanced sidelong across the room, where Kyoko sat, totally engrossed in a pile of old books, absently tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. It made Kuon wish he was a painter, so that he could capture the image of Kyoko in that moment and look at it forever. And Ren realized that he was going to miss her. Somehow, the ache in his chest felt like he already missed her. But that didn't make any sense. Ren frowned.

Across the room, Kyoko sensed, rather than saw, the look on Ren's face. She gaze flicked away from the page briefly, enough to take in her guard's puzzled look. Kyoko smiled to herself. The confused frown on his face was strangely adorable.

Kyoko wasn't blind. It was impossible for Kyoko not to be struck by how handsome her new personal guard was when she had first met Ren. But the princess knew better than to trust a man with a pretty face. Sho had taught her that handsome men were arrogant; and her guard's cold demeanor and stone face only seemed to confirm the princess's bias. But then Ren had been unexpectedly kind. He had helped her. And more and more frequently, he dropped his guarded look and Kyoko caught glimpses of the man underneath. It turned out, her guard was smart, kind, and principled — but he could be unexpectedly childish and stubborn, and had no problem expressing his frustration to Kyoko when he caught her sneaking off to help the laundry maids or to cart mulch in the gardens.

"Most people wouldn't lecture a princess in her own castle," Kyoko had teased him. "Who are you?"

"I'm a palace guard," he said.

"All right," she said, "then who were you? Before you were a guard?"

But the question seemed to make Ren tense up. He blinked slowly, and when he turned back towards Kyoko, his face was a carefully blank mask.

"It doesn't matter," Ren said slowly, as if convincing himself. Kyoko waited. For a moment, it looked like he might say more. But then he bowed, making some excuse, and left the room.

«×»«×»«×»«×»«×»«×»

A week before the opening ceremony for court, Kyoko was summoned to the Queen's chambers. When Kyoko thanked the palace runner for delivering the message, there was a tightness in her voice that Ren had never heard before. As he followed the princess to the Queen's office, he saw the tension in Kyoko's shoulders. It seemed as though she had to fight from hunching over, as if Kyoko was a small mouse about to be presented to an owl.

Ren stood outside the Queen's study, focusing on keeping his face impassive while he strained to hear through the thick wooden door. The words were beyond him, but Ren did not need to hear what was being said to understand the meaning behind Kyoko's soft placating murmurs being cut off by an icy voice of clipped disappointment.

The Princess stepped out of the Queen's chambers with as much grace as she had entered them, but her face was pale and her eyes were wide, brimming with unshed tears. Ren hesitantly reached out an arm, but she seemed barely aware of his presence. She walked straight past him. Twice, Kyoko simply stopped walking, staring blankly ahead at something Ren couldn't see. Then Kyoko veered off course, climbing a small staircase instead of taking the long passageway back to her own chambers. After a moment, Ren followed. He had no comfort to offer the princess. But he would not leave her alone.

They climbed several flights of stairs before emerging on one of the observation decks. From the tower, Ren could easily see the boats bobbing down in the harbor. The princess seemed to be looking farther out to sea. Ren eyed Kyoko nervously as she leaned out, her elbows resting on a weathered guardrail that barely reached her waist. Ren inched forward cautiously, not wanting to startle her.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Kyoko glanced back over her shoulder, a sad smile playing about her lips. "Not particularly."

"Fair enough."

The moon slipped out from behind the clouds, casting the castle and everything below in a silvery glow. Kyoko stared out across the sea. where the reflection of the moon rippled gently on the water.

"You know, I've never been off this island?" Kyoko said softly. Ren strained forward to hear as she continued. "Nilbon is all I have ever known, my whole life. And yet, I've heard the the continent is so vast you could walk for a lifetime and not reach the other side."

"It's not quite that big." The words escaped his mouth before he thought to stop them. Ren stumbled. "But, I've, er— heard it's very large."

"If I could get there…" As she looked out over the water, the princess' voice was not quite wistful enough. More like what if. A panicked thought crossed Ren's mind. Surely she wasn't thinking of running away.

"Have you ever been sailing?" Ren asked, trying to cover for his nerves. Kuon had more than a decade of sailing experience, and he had barely crossed the channel alive. There was no way Kyoko could make it. The thought of her being caught in a storm, or capsized, or swept away by the currents made him ill. His thoughts must have shown on his face, because she gave him a rueful smile.

"Don't worry, I'm not planning on slipping away," Kyoko said. "I wouldn't want to get my guard in trouble."

Ren's throat closed. Idiot girl. Apparently, Kyoko was incapable of realizing that Ren might genuinely care for her or her safety, beyond his role as her guard.

"The thought of you trying to sail across the ocean worries me," Ren admitted. "But what worries me more is how you're feeling right now."

Kyoko sighed. As the air left her lungs, it seemed whatever despair she had been holding onto since leaving the Queen left with it. The princess straightened, moving away from the railing and settling on a stone bench a little ways down the deck. Ren hesitated. But then Kyoko patted the stone beside her, and after a moment, Ren sat down too.

"The queen wished to make sure I fully understand my 'tenuous position in the castle' and 'the importance of the upcoming social season'." Kyoko almost perfectly mimicked her mother's scathing tone. "As if I could forget."

Ren was unsure how to respond. There was no reason to auction a princess of royal blood off to a foreign land, unless there was a law that prevented Princess Kyoko from inheriting the throne. He wondered what it must have been like for the princess to be raised with the responsibilities of a crown that — because she was born a woman — the outdated rules of her country deemed Kyoko unfit to wear. How she could still toil from sunup to sundown every day, serving her people and her country even though Kyoko knew she would be denied her rightful place, married off and sent away from her own home and the life she had always known.

"Pardon me for overstepping," Ren began, the words feeling heavy in his chest. But he pushed them out. "But… if the future king of Nilbon is not already married, it seems like rather an obvious match…"

"Sho is not interested in me," Kyoko said flatly.

"Then he is a fool."

Kyoko bit out a laugh. "He is," she agreed, "But so was I." Kyoko couldn't help the bitter despair in her voice, as she looked down at both hands in her lap. "I should have seen it. In this world, even parents can hate their own children. Why should the betrayal of a friend be any more surprising?" She told herself it didn't hurt anymore. I don't care that Sho doesn't want me. It was partly true, at least. Sho's betrayal had left Kyoko too full of anger to harbor any shred of her previous tender feelings towards the future king. But Saena's cutting reminder that Sho had found Kyoko inadequate still stung.

"You loved him," Ren said quietly. Kyoko stayed silent, but her silence was enough of an answer. "You trusted him."

"I used to."

"And you haven't trusted another person since."

Kyoko blinked. She had never vocalized it to herself, but as she turned the thought over in her mind, she realized it rang true. "How do you know that?"

"You just told me."

"I didn't tell you that."

"But you did."

In the darkness, Ren smiled. But Kyoko could not see it. She frowned.

"You have to tell me something," she said. "I want to see if I can learn as much from so little. Ren did not reply. "Come on, it's only fair," she urged.

Ren began to speak, slowly. "I've been luckier than you," he said very quietly. "I have a mother who loves me very much, and a father who always made time to talk to me and teach me, even though he had more important things to do."

"And yet?" Kyoko prompted, when Ren trailed off into silence. Ren shrugged.

"I don't know, Princess. You tell me."

"Something is missing." Kyoko tapped her lips thoughtfully. "Have you ever been in love?"

"What does that have to do with it?"

"Just answer the question!"

"I don't know," Ren said honestly. Kyoko gaped at him.

"WHAT?!"

"What?"

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU DON'T KNOW!" Kyoko shrieked. "How is that possible!? I mean, look at your face—" Kyoko instantly cut off. She could feel her cheeks turning red. Ren couldn't see it in the dark, but he could practically feel the embarrassment radiating off her.

"What about my face?" Ren's voice was deep and husky, in a way that Kyoko had never heard him speak before. It made the back of her neck tingle in a way that was shocking and ticklish and confusing all at once.

"Nothing!" Kyoko waved her hands frantically in front of her. "Nothing at all!" She stumbled her way back to their earlier conversation. "Ma-maybe you're lonely." Kyoko fidgeted with her skirts, as if smoothing them over her legs could also smooth out the erratic pounding of her heart. "Perhaps you should spend more time with people, get to know them better."

Ren's voice was so low that Kyoko had to lean closer to hear his reply. "There is one person I'd like to know better."

He reached out and grasped Kyoko's hand. Ren felt a shiver run through her muscles in response to his touch, and he felt his own hand tremble. Hastily, he pulled away, as if he had grasped fire.

"It's cold out," Ren coughed. "We should get back inside." He stood up quickly, needing to put a few steps between himself and the princess on the bench. Ren was too agitated to offer her his hand and help her up. He was afraid of what he would feel, if he touched her again. Kyoko seemed equally unsure of what had just passed between them. A familiar spark, a heat in her chest that made Kyoko think that maybe it was too soon for her to abandon hope. Maybe, if she opened up to him, Kyoko could learn to trust again. She spent the walk back to her rooms silently wondering what she had felt, and if — her eyes flicking toward her guard — he had felt it too.

Ren had felt something. But because he was an idiot, Kuon didn't know the name for the strange feeling stirring in his chest. It was painful, but also somehow pleasant, like coming inside from the snow and being too close to a fire. Somehow, nothing had changed, but everyday now felt different. Brighter. The daily drudgery was the same, and yet it felt more manageable, because Ren had something to look forward to at the end of the day. At first, it was just a few minutes of conversation while he leaned against the doorframe. But then it turned into Kyoko inviting him to sit down, or have some tea. And that turned into longer talks, first about daily affairs or tomorrow's schedule. Then they branched out to other topics. It turned out, Ren knew lots of fairytales and other stories that Kyoko had never heard before: faraway castles, daring sword fights, magic spells, princes in disguise! It was her favorite thing to close her eyes, letting her imagination run wild as she listened to Ren's smooth, low voice.

Sometimes Kyoko was too tired to talk, and they would read together, or just sit quietly. No matter what they did, their time alone together was the best part of Ren's day. Once, Kyoko was so exhausted she fell asleep in her chair while they were talking. Ren knew the proper thing to do would be to try and wake her. He gave it a very half-hearted attempt.

"Princess," Ren whispered. "Kyoko."

The princess did not stir. So Ren gingerly scooped Kyoko up, trying to ignore how perfect she felt in his arms and how the warm weight of her against his chest made him feel like a fire was burning inside of him. The guard stood before the princess' bed for a full eight minutes, telling himself every second that he was going to put her down, and yet finding himself unable to let go. Eventually the princess did stir, and Ren, panicking that she would wake in his arms, gently laid her down, pulling a blanket over her. Then, because he could not stop himself, Ren bent down and kissed her hair before practically fleeing the room.

«×»«×»«×»«×»«×»«×»

All too soon the royal court was officially in session, and Nilbon Castle was suddenly full of guests. Ren had mixed feelings about it. On the positive side, the princess could no longer sneak out of her rooms before dawn to help with chores around the palace, and Ren was happy to see her looking more well-rested. But there were many downsides in the form of the long list of suitors that had arrived at the palace, hoping to win the hand of the princess. Apparently, Queen Saena had entertained serious doubts that anyone would want her daughter's hand, and so had cast a wide net. Men came from every corner of Nilbon and from the island principalities nearby. Even some countries from the continent had sent delegations. Ren was finally really earning his keep as the princess's guard, as he turned away hopeful suitors at all hours of the day. Some tried to talk or bluster their way past him, others outright tried to bribe him. But they all quickly learned that Princess Kyoko's personal guard could not be persuaded.

But Kyoko could not avoid them as she moved through the castle every day. Some tried to talk with her, or flirt with her, but many simply watched, arguing among themselves if she was worth the royal bride price, and how much Queen Saena would be willing to bargain. It was humiliating. Kyoko felt like a cow on auction at the market. Except at least cows were left alone before the slaughter. Animals did not have to curtsey and smile and make polite conversation, pretending not to notice the wandering eyes and occasional attempts to perform a manual inspection of the goods for sale. When Ren caught one suitor sliding a hand down Kyoko's back, he almost dislocated the man's shoulder as he yanked him away. Kyoko's embarrassed flush and thankful smile made Ren want to draw the sword that hung at his waist and slice off the hands of anyone who came within a foot of the princess. Thankfully, word of Ren's strength spread, and coupled with the guard's dangerous gaze, the suitors quickly learned to give the princess a very respectful distance.

It did not stop Ren from wanting to resort to violence when he caught a man older than his father ogling the Princess as she passed through the hall. But as disgusting the old lord was, there were other visitors at the palace that were worse.

Lord Reino was to inherit the throne of Sei Goh'Rul, though rumors suggested he had acquired the title of heir under dubious circumstances. Something about the man made Kyoko shudder. She had first noticed his outlandish appearance. Reino's silver hair looked unearthly and strange on someone so young, and despite the warm season he wore long black robes with sleeves that hung down to his strangely claw-shaped fingernails. But what was most unnerving was his almost violet eyes. They would have been enchanting, if Kyoko hadn't been so afraid of the pale, dead stare that emanated from them. It made her shudder. And even when she avoided his gaze, she could feel Reino's eyes on her.

At least the strange lord never approached her to dance. But Kyoko could feel Reino's gaze as she spun across the ballroom floor. His presence made her skin crawl, and Kyoko felt the beginning of goosebumps on her bare arms, despite the heat of the crowded room. But there was nothing Kyoko could do, in such a crowd. The princess' feet ached, and she wished she was alone in her own room, or that the young earl or count or whomever she was dancing with was not a stranger but someone else instead. Her eyes swept over the crowd, searching for the familiar frame of Ren among the onlookers.

"Princess?" Her dance partner asked, a tinge of annoyance in their voice. Kyoko forced her gaze back to her dance partner, a politely-interested smile on her face as she nodded, pretending to listen.

Ren hated these balls. He would have preferred to spend the evening in the Princess's rooms, pretending to read whatever book she lent him and stealing glances at Kyoko as she read or embroidered or sent letters. Instead, Ren was stuffed into the royal hall with the rest of the court, forced to watch as Kyoko danced for hours with men that weren't Ren. He watched as they took Kyoko's hand, placed their own on the small of her back. Behind his blank expression, Ren felt bitter feelings creeping up. If he was Kuon, it could be him on the dance floor with Kyoko, her hand on his shoulder, his hand brushing against her waist as he guided her across the floor. Ren was so preoccupied with his envious brooding that he did not notice Reino had sidled up to him until the shorter man spoke.

"That's one bitter aura you have swirling about." Reino gave Ren a sly, sidelong appraisal.

"I don't know what you mean," Ren replied, keeping his tone as flat and boring and possible. Most of the men at the palace did not speak to Ren, and he preferred it that way.

"There's something special about her, isn't there?" Reino said casually, jerking his head in the direction of Kyoko. Not that Ren had need any clarification about whom Reino was speaking. "Her aura is full of bitterness, too. But less angry than yours, more sad." Reino paused, picking underneath his long fingernails. "And yet she hides it well. It makes you wonder, doesn't it?"

Ren's eyes narrowed. "Wonder what?"

"How much it would take to really break her." The stranger's violet eyes were back to tracking Kyoko across the floor. Reino licked his teeth.

"I suggest you leave," Ren said quietly. "Before I break both your knees, and you're forced to crawl away." It was not an empty threat. He meant every word.

Reino sized up the guard, then held up both hands in surrender as he took a step back. "I believe you." He smirked. "You win this round. But you won't always be around to protect her. And I'll be waiting." With that, Reino turned, his black cloak flowing behind him. Ren watched uneasily as he disappeared through the crowd.

Reino had left the ball that night, but he was still at Nilbon Castle. The silver-haired man continued to haunt Kyok's steps. As long as Ren was by Kyoko's side, Reino kept his distance. But when a whole barracks of palace guards came down with food poisoning due to an accident in the kitchen, Kyoko insisted that Ren, who was not sick, help fill in while the guards recovered. Ren tried to convince the princess to let him stay by her side, but Kyoko refused, saying that Ren was needed elsewhere, and she was perfectly safe in her own castle.

It was during that time, when Ren was absent, that Reino saw the opportunity and made his move. He cornered Kyoko late one afternoon. As he approached, Kyoko immediately felt a shiver go up her spine. Something about the man gave her the creeps. And when he spoke to her, and leaned into her personal space, and dragged one finger with its strange claw-like fingernail down her cheek and across her throat, Kyoko froze. Her mind was screaming to run, to call for help, to get away. But her body couldn't move.

"Normally I wouldn't give an average-looking girl like you a second glance," Reino purred, enjoying Kyoko's obvious discomfort. "But the simmering anger you feel for Fuwa is almost palpable." Reino breathed in through his mouth, smacking his lips as though tasting something. "What did he do to you?"

Kyoko bristled. If they were alone, she would slap this man. If she could get her body to move. But they were in public, and she never knew who was lurking around the corners or what servants reported to her mother, and would inform the queen of Kyoko's unseemly behavior. She forced herself to be polite. "I have no idea what you mean. There is nothing between Sho and myself." She glanced at him cooly, thinking of Ren's terrifying, polite-dark smile and did her best impression. Kyoko would not be afraid. "You are wasting your time, lord Reino."

"No, I don't think I am." Reino grinned, then grabbed Kyoko by the jaw, yanking her face towards him. Kyoko wanted to spit in his face.

"Get your demon hands off me!" She cried, trying to twist away. "You disgust me!"

"Good." Reino only smiled more, his grin turning savage. His sharp fingernails dug into the delicate skin of her neck and cheeks. He smiled when she winced. "Rumor is, princess, that you're on sale to the highest bidder." Reino flexed his hand, squeezing Kyoko's throat. He leaned down to her ear and whispered, "I don't need you to like me to make you my wife."

Then he let go, cackling, and sauntered off down the hall to go find Queen Saena and inquire about the price of her daughter's hand.