The north tower's observation deck was deserted. It was always deserted. That was what Kyoko liked most about it. She had found it years ago, after a particularly bad scolding from her mother. And now it was the place Kyoko went to be alone. The princess sat with her feet on the bench, arms wrapped protectively around her legs and her chin resting on her knees, staring down and out past the harbor. Kyoko was so lost in thought that she did not notice her guard standing almost right beside her until he spoke.
"What did I say about going places unaccompanied?" Ren scolded gently, a smile playing around his lips.
The princess almost jumped, giving a tiny shriek. "Oh! Yo-you're back!" She looked around and realized the sun was beginning to set. "Did you just finish? You didn't have to come, you could have left for the evening."
"I know. I came because I wanted to." Ren sat down next to her on the bench. "And to make sure you didn't get into trouble while I was away." Ren teased, leaning forward a little. But instead of laughing or responding, Kyoko twitched back. Then the princess seemed to realize her mistake. She gave an awkward, unconvincing laugh.
"Is something the matter?" Ren turned so that he could face her, but Kyoko refused to meet his gaze. "What happened?"
"Nothing. Everything is fine," Kyoko said immediately. Ren's eyes narrowed.
"You're shivering." He shrugged off his jacket, reaching out to place it over her shoulders, but Kyoko flinched. Ren studied her shoulders.
Not shivering. Shaking. What did I do?
"I apologize if I have made you uncomfortable," Ren said stiffly. " I only meant to lend you this." He scooted back to give her space, but his arm easily spanned the distance between them, the jacket hanging from his fingers.
Kyoko hesitated. Then she took the jacket, mumbling her thanks as she shifted, sitting up property so she could drape it over her shoulders. Kyoko inhaled, and the scent of soap and leather and Ren seemed to surround her like a warm blanket.
"Will you tell me what I did?" Ren winced, "to make you so uncomfortable?"
"It's nothing," Kyoko said, brushing a hand absently against her neck and suppressing a shiver.
"It's clearly not nothing." Ren countered, his keen eyes following her hand and frowning. He leaned closer. "You won't even look at me. Something happened."
"I— no! No! I'm sorry!" Kyoko said immediately, bowing her head. "I— please, it's… I'm so—"
"You don't have to apologize." Ren's hands clenched, his fists shaking with effort as he fought to keep his voice calm. He watched as Kyoko kept a hand on her neck. "Why do you keep doing that?"
"It's nothing!" Kyoko insisted frantically, leaning back. She shook her head furiously. "He didn't even—" Kyoko squeaked and her eyes went wide, realizing her mistake. She tried to backtrack. "I mean, it wasn't— nothing ha—" She cut off, trembling. She didn't need to look at Ren to feel the dark aura emanating from her guard. "Please, please don't be angry with me… I—"
"I'm upset that something happened and you won't tell me," Ren clarified. "I'm hurt that you don't trust me. But I'm not angry with you." He held out his hand as a peace offering, but made no move to touch her. Kyoko bit her lip, glancing between his hand and his face.
"You… you promise you won't get mad?" She asked in a small voice.
Kyoko's lip trembled as she reached up, pushing Ren's jacket off her shoulder and pulling her hair away from her neck. She looked small and ashamed as she turned her head away, so Ren could plainly see what she had been hiding. At first, Ren thought they were smudges of dirt. Then he realized — the marks weren't dirt, they were bruises. Arranged in the shape of a large hand. A few had thin, red scratches near them, almost as if she had been clawed.
Ren felt sick. For a moment he couldn't breathe. She's a princess. Who would dare to lay a hand on her?
"Who did this to you?" Ren's voice was deadly calm, despite his blood boiling in his veins. It wasn't really a question. Ren knew there was only one man it could be. "I'll kill him."
"No, Ren, you can't—" Kyoko grabbed his arm with both of hers, worried he was about to take off.
"Give me a reason," He said flatly. "Give me any possible reason, that I shouldn't go beat him within an inch of his life right this instant."
"My mother has given Lord Reino permission to court me," Kyoko said, her eyes on the ground. "He has agreed to pay h—"
"Grabbing someone by the throat is not courting," Ren spat out. But as soon as he looked at her, Ren's fury left him. Kyoko was trembling again. "I'm so sorry," Ren said, his soft voice full of remorse. One of his hands found hers, and he laced their fingers together.
"It isn't your fault, it's—"
"It is." Ren's throat ached. "It is my fault. No one should ever lay a hand on you like that. No one should touch you, if you don't want them to." He squeezed her hand. "I'm sorry I wasn't there today. I should have been."
"No," Kyoko shook her head, "You were needed elsewhere."
"I won't leave you alone again." Ren's voice was hard. Then he swallowed. "You don't have to be afraid. As long as I'm around, you don't have to worry. I'm here to protect you."
Kyoko gave him a watery smile. She couldn't help the fluttering feeling of hope in her chest. I'm here to protect you. Not it's my job to guard you or your safety is my responsibility. Ren had said he was here, to protect her. As if that's all he wanted to do. She let herself lean against his shoulder, and then Ren shifted, so his arm was around her, pulling her closer against his side. For a moment, Kyoko let herself pretend. That Ren wasn't just a palace guard. That he was someone who could protect her. But as strong as he was, Ren couldn't protect her from the laws that disinherited her from the crown or her own mother's callous indifference to Kyoko's future happiness. And if she married Reino, Ren wouldn't be able to protect her from her own husband. Kyoko had thought the Demon Lord was messing with her. There was no way Reino would actually want her. She had thought it was an empty threat. Something a cruel man would say to scare her, just because he could. Kyoko had not expected that he would actually ask for her hand. Or that Saena would allow it. But Lord Reino was wealthy enough, and that was all that mattered to the Queen.
"Kyo— Princess, you can't," Ren said. You can't marry him."
Kyoko gave a choked laugh. "What choice do I have?"
"Someone else. Anyone else. Or nobody. But not—"
"Nobody is not an option." Kyoko shook her head. As frightening as Reino was, he was not more terrifying than her mother. Kyoko shrank at the prospect of the Queen's wrath, if the princess did not find a single suitor. Kyoko took a deep, shuddering breath. Maybe if she pretended she was fine, it would be alright. She forced herself to sound calm. "My mother says I should be grateful that anyone has expressed interest in me at all."
"It's the truth." The princess's voice was cutting. "Of course the only man who wants me is a demon from hell." Kyoko shuddered. "I know I'm not what men want. I'm plain. I'm strange." Kyoko's eyes were faraway. "I know I'm not anyone's first choice, but—'
"You'd be my first choice." Ren had spoken so softly she wasn't sure she'd heard him correctly. But the way he was looking at her left no doubt.
"That's not true." Kyoko shook her head.
"It is," Ren insisted. "You're beautiful." Ren reached out gently, bringing Kyoko's chin up with one finger. She pushed his hand away, and Ren let it drop. But he did not take back his words. He doubled down. "You're beautiful, and kind. You are the hardest working person I've ever met. I've never seen a noble lady so determined to act like a scullery maid. Everyone who has met you adores you."
"Not everyone," Kyoko said, her eyes cast down.
"Anyone who cannot see your worth is not worthy of the privilege of knowing you." Ren replied. He smiled. "You're the most wonderful princess I've ever had the honor of guarding."
"Exactly how many princesses have you guarded?" Kyoko grumbled, decidedly un-princesslike.
"One." Ren's eyes twinkled. "But one is enough for me."
"Enough trouble?" Kyoko offered with a self-deprecating smile.
"Enough to know that I am very lucky to be here by your side," Ren said softly, grasping her hand.
Kyoko flushed. "You shouldn't say such things."
"I shouldn't speak the truth?" Ren asked. But the princess only shook her head. Ren knelt in front of her, taking both her hands in his. She refused to meet his gaze; he would have to settle for staring at her adorably blushing face. "If you weren't a princess," Ren asked softly, "if you were just you, and I was just me— would… would you let me say such things?"
Kyoko felt the heat rising in her face. Even her ears and neck must be bright red at this point. She glanced at Ren and was almost blinded by the dazzling, hopeful, nervous smile on his face. It was too much. Kyoko had to look away, blinking and trying to swallow the lump in her throat. He was kneeling before her so their eyes were almost level, stroking the back of her hands with that earnest gaze on his face.
"Please don't," Kyoko whispered, looking away. She couldn't let herself contemplate such a thing. Because if Kyoko allowed herself to believe that Ren cared for her, even a fraction as much as he proclaimed to, she wasn't sure she would be able to stop herself from throwing herself into his arms, burying her face in the crook of his neck and begging him to run away with her. To leave Nilbon and her mother and Sho and Reno far behind, to somewhere they could be together. She shook her head again, so fiercely that Ren looked worried, and then crushed.
"Do you… Do you feel…" Ren stammered, embarrassed. "It's fine, if you don't— you don't feel the—"
"It's not about how I feel," Kyoko said quietly. "I am princess of Nilbon. I have a duty to my people, and to my queen."
"What about your duty to yourself?" Ren asked softly. "You are a princess, but it is your life. Are you not allowed to find happiness? Fulfillment?" His eyes were warm. "Love?"
Kyoko faltered. She couldn't help it. Her lip began to tremble, and a tear spilled down her cheek. He was so kind, and so gentle, and looking at her with his stupidly handsome face. Of course she wanted to be happy. Of course she wanted the things Ren was offering.
"Princesses do not marry for love."
"But what if you could?" Ren asked softly, pleading. As if sensing her indecision, Ren leaned forward. Kyoko was suddenly aware of how close their faces were, so close she could count his eyelashes. Her eyes wandered down his long, thin nose to Ren's mouth, then back up to his soft, molten gaze. Kyoko sucked in a breath as Ren leaned forward, closing the distance between them. His eyes closed, his lashes almost fluttering against her cheek. But instead of warm lips, Ren felt his mouth press against her fingers. Kyoko was holding her hands up, her face tomato red.
"I can't," Kyoko whispered, not meeting his eyes. "It would be wrong." Kyoko withdrew her hands. She stood from the bench, legs protesting after sitting for so long, her hands feeling suddenly cold without Ren's fingers wrapped around them. She shrugged the guard's jacket off her shoulders and held it out. Ren made no move to take it from her.
"Please," Kyoko's chin trembled, but her voice held steady. "Do not speak of any of this again." Ren said nothing. She could see the refusal in his gaze. "Ren."
"As you wish, Princess," Ren said stiffly. "You have my word." He reluctantly took the jacket from her. Kyoko abruptly turned, practically fleeing all the way back to her chambers. The princess could not look him in the eye as she whispered goodnight and closed the door.
Ren had promised Kyoko that he wouldn't mention speak of it. And he wouldn't. After all, he was a man of his word. But he grinned. Kyoko may have bound him to silence, but she had not forbidden him from doing anything about it. And Prince Kuon would be damned before the princess married Reino. Because it was now glaringly obvious to Kuon that Kyoko must marry no one else but him.
But how was he supposed to make that happen? What was Ren supposed to do? Could he abandon his post, steal a boat, sail to Yuwessa, and make it back as Prince Kuon to claim Kyoko's hand before she was promised away to someone else? That would never work. And besides, he couldn't leave Kyoko alone, with Reino still in the castle. Kuon squared his shoulders. Clearly, the man would have to be dealt with first.
The next morning, Ren stood in his usual position outside of Kyoko's door. Or rather, almost his usual position. Ren had decided, after last night, that he needed a change of strategy. His back was to the hall as he faced the princess, standing squarely in front of the door.
"Let me pass!" Kyoko said, her voice rising.
"I'm sorry, Princess, I cannot let you do that, for your own safety."
"I'm going to be late!" the princess practically shrieked. "Lord Takenori will be expecting me any moment!"
"Lord Takenori, along with the rest of your appointments, have been rescheduled. Your lady-in-waiting agreed that you needed a break," Ren said gently. Seeing Kyoko's protest, he added, "If they need your help with something, they can send it here."
"You can't go out today," Ren said softly. "You still have bruises on your throat." Ren's eyes drifted down her neck meaningfully. Kyoko immediately slapped a hand to the side of her neck, then winced. She rushed back into her room for a mirror. Against the pale, delicate skin of her neck, Reino's marks stood out an ugly purple-green. Kyoko grimaced. She stared at Ren. Then she sighed.
"Fine. But just for today," she warned. But it was a very lukewarm scolding. If Kyoko was being honest with herself, a day alone was exactly what she wanted. Still, she pointed a finger at Ren. He smiled easily, not at all chastised. Kyoko wanted to wipe the smug look off her guard's face. She smiled wickedly. "Seeing as you have conspired to confine me to my room all day, I think it's only fair that you don't get to go anywhere either." The princess said, with haughty triumph.
"You say that as though spending time alone with you is a punishment." Ren grinned. "To be very clear, it's not."
"I'm serious," Kyoko warned. "All day."
"So am I," Ren replied, without missing a beat. His smile widened, and Kyoko had to press a hand to her chest. That smile was dangerous. Suddenly, her suite of rooms felt too small. Perhaps this had been a terrible idea. But Ren was already bolting the door, settling down in his favorite chair and putting his booted feet up on the ottoman. He raised his eyebrows at her, daring her to say something. Kyoko sniffed, turning to the mountain of books piled on her desk.
The problem was that while Kyoko still had work, she had nowhere near as much work as she would normally. And Ren had nothing at all to do but distract her. She gave him a book to read, but it was not as engrossing as watching (and interrupting) the princess. Kyoko would have been irritated, except that sometimes he would look over at what she was doing, and make a comment or suggestion that was so insightful it was almost annoying. She had been stuck for almost twenty minutes on trying to resolve the problem of assigning dock spaces at the port when Ren had suggested a lottery and token-trading system. Kyoko ground her teeth. Then she smiled.
"Why don't we switch jobs?" She said, eyebrow twitching. "Any other problems of the realm you think you can solve today?" Ren grinned at her.
"Let me help. The sooner you finish, the sooner we can be done with this."
"And move on to what?" Kyoko said archly. "May I remind you that you decreed that I had to stay put in these chambers all day?"
Ren looked at her. He paused. "That's a good point."
"I think," Ren said, pushing the papers around on her desk, "that the north tower is close enough that it should be considered your rooms."
Kyoko glanced out the window. "The weather does look particularly fine today…" She glanced at Ren, who smiled.
"Shall I send a servant for lunch?"
"Ask for a basket," Kyoko said, quickly abandoning her work to find something she could use as a picnic blanket. As soon as their food arrived, Ren and Kyoko made their way up the tiny staircase and outside. The tower was, as always, completely empty. Instead of their usual bench, Kyoko spread the blanket on the warm flagstones on a large part of the walkway with a perfect view of the harbor.
Kyoko laid back on the blanket, sighing with contentment. She closed her eyes, letting the spring sun warm her face.
"This is the most perfect, beautiful, wonderful day," she said dreamily.
"Not as wonderful as you," Ren said. It had just slipped out of his mouth. He froze. The princess stared at him. "What?"
"You're mocking me," She said, eyes narrowed.
"I'm not!" Ren protested. "Is it so hard to believe that someone would pay you a compliment?"
Kyoko gestured to herself, as if that explained it. Ren continued to stare at her blankly. The princess sighed. "I know that I'm plain. No one would ever write an ode to my beauty, or whatever nonsense, or—"
"There is a sweet princess of Nilbon, to whom my eyes cannot but be drawn," Ren thought for a second. "Her spirit is bold, her eyes shine like gold…" he paused, "but her heart I fear never could be won." He finished with a flourish, flashing a cheeky grin.
"That was a slant rhyme," Kyoko said. "And your meter is terrible."
"I'm a guard, not a poet," Ren replied, unperturbed by the criticism. "I'd like to see you do better."
"Nice try." Kyoko rolled her eyes. "You just want to hear a poem about your own looks."
"Perhaps I just want to know if you like what you see," Ren muttered, looking away. He wanted to smack himself. He had never cared much that people found him handsome, until now, when Kyoko seemed perfectly indifferent.
"Nothing." Ren coughed. He changed the subject. "We should have lunch up here every day."
"I can't." Kyoko frowned, propping herself up onto her elbows, squinting a little in the sun. Ren helpfully held out a hand to shade her eyes. "The Queen has given Lord Reino permission to court me. I cannot avoid him forever."
"I don't see why not," Kuon muttered darkly.
"Perhaps if I ignore him long enough, he'll go away." Kyoko tried to sound nonchalant. "But then I would still be stuck."
"Maybe someone else will come along," Ren offered.
"I don't know. You tell me." Ren's eyes slid off toward the sea. "Who would you want?"
"What do you mean?" Kyoko gave him a puzzled frown.
"If you could marry anyone, what would you want them to be like?" The guard clarified, not meeting Kyoko's eyes.
The princess bit her lip while she thought. Kyoko struggled, then shook her head. "I don't know. I don't even know where to start. It's always been… there's never been any point to…" to hoping, Kyoko finished in her head.
"I believe most women would say tall, handsome, and rich," the guard said. "Titled, if possible," he added, smiling.
"I suppose that would be nice," she said.
"What about hair color?" Ren asked. Kyoko thought for a moment. Her eyes flicked towards her guard, where his brown hair fell forward into his eyes.
"Dark is nice," Kyoko said. She could feel a blush crawling up her cheeks.
"Really?" Kuon said, unable to keep his voice entirely neutral.
"I don't know," she said at last. Kyoko realized she had been staring, and turned away, flushed. "It might look alright," she mumbled. She couldn't shake the image from her head. Ren with blond hair. He would look like a fairytale Prince Charming.
"Enough about looks. What are they like?"
"Why are we doing this?" Kyoko said, a touch of exasperation in her voice. "I told you, I don't know." She sat up properly, her arms folded across her chest. Ren gave in.
"Alright, I'll help you brainstorm." He pretended to scrutinize her thoroughly, stroking his chin. "Someone kind."
Kyoko played along, nodding wisely. "Go on."
"You work hard. So you need someone who works as hard as you do. So they can keep up."
Kyoko nodded again. She hadn't thought of that, but it made sense.
"And someone who also knows when to make you take a break." Ren smiled.
"How are they supposed to know what?" Kyoko asked. But Ren shrugged.
"They should just know."
"It seems like a lot to ask," Kyoko said dubiously.
"That they know when I'm supposed to take a break. Are they supposed to read my mind?"
"No," the guard said, "They are supposed to pay attention. They are supposed to notice when you've taken on too much, and when you need help."
"It still seems like a lot to ask of someone," Kyoko murmured.
"It's not." Ren said. "It's easy, when you care about someone."
Kyoko did not know what to say in response. She fiddled with her fingers in her lap. Ren was silent too, for long enough that she had to look at him. "Well? What else?"
The guard was silent for a minute longer.
"Someone thoughtful. And dedicated. And principled. Someone serious." Ren thought for a moment, then smiled. "Or perhaps you need the opposite. Someone completely frivolous, who will make you laugh."
"No. That's no good." Kyoko tried to keep a stern face, but it faltered and she broke into a smile. "Not someone frivolous."
"Are you sure?" Ren teased. "Maybe it's just what you need. And there are plenty of frivolous handsome young men with wealth and titles. You could find one easily."
Kyoko shook her head, suddenly feeling shy. She knew that Ren was just trying to cheer her up, amuse her. But it made her quiet. If it was a few years ago, Kyoko would have been able to answer right away. After all, she had been in love with Sho. She remembered it so clearly. And yet, Kyoko struggled to think of why. Sho certainly wasn't hardworking. He only cared about making his own life better. And he wasn't particularly kind, unless he needed a favor. It wasn't as though Kyoko could think of anything that Sho had done, to make her fall in love with him, besides just be there. At the time, she supposed, it had seemed like enough.
"It would be nice," Kyoko began in a small voice, startling Ren, "if… if there was someone who was kind. And caring. And thoughtful. Someone I could speak to easily, who understood what it is like," Kyoko gestured to the palace around her. "But also, maybe… just someone I could talk to. About anything."
"You mean, like we're doing now?" Ren prompted.
Kyoko smiled. "Yes. Like now. I could do this forever." Kyoko laid back down on the blanket, closing her eyes. She felt a warm breeze pass across the deck.
"Me too," Ren whispered, his eyes flicking over to where Kyoko looked almost asleep.
The next day, the princess insisted on going about her usual business. Ren did everything he could to persuade her not to, short of pinning her against a wall. He had considered it, but disregarded the option as it was more likely that the princess would slap him than kiss him. But still, the thought went through his mind.
"If he dares to approach you, I will kill him," Ren growled as Kyoko adjusted the high collar on her gown. The marks on her neck were almost completely faded, but she did not want to give Reino a second chance. Or give anyone in the court any reason to look sideways at her.
"If he tries to touch me, I know you'll stop him," Kyoko said, resting her hand lightly on Ren's arm. She hoped the touch would soothe both of them. But instead, she felt a spark run through her at the contact and immediately withdrew. She turned away, busying herself by fixing her hair in the mirror. "He has my mother's explicit permission, you cannot keep him from speaking to me."
Ren growled in response.
It did not take Reino long to find them. He seemed to appear out of nowhere, sliding out of an alcove and falling into step beside Kyoko. Reino looked over his shoulder where Ren openly glowered.
"What's this?" Reino said, "you found yourself a guard dog?"
Kyoko did not respond. She kept walking straight ahead, trying to pretend as if he wasn't there. But Reino would not be ignored.
"It's a pity you've covered your neck," His voice was low, almost purring in her ear. "I was looking forward to seeing it." He clucked his tongue in disappointment. "How is everyone supposed to know you are mine?"
Kyoko stopped. Reino leaned closer, to see her face. When her eyes met his, they were full of a simmering hate that looked almost elegant. If Queen Saena had seen it, she might have thought it was the most regal her daughter had ever looked. Even Reino was struck by the beautifully swirling aura of her anger.
"I am not yours," Kyoko said, her voice clipped. "I am not your property. The Queen may have given you permission to pay your addresses to me, but I do not belong to you."
Ren was stuck between his protective instinct and awe. His hands flexed, ready to react should Reino reach out. But the strange man was looking at the princess almost reverently.
"You remind me of someone." Reino pointedly raked his eyes down the princess's form.
"I doubt it." Kyoko's eyes narrowed. "You would have to know someone, for me to remind you of them. And demons from hell do not have acquaintances."
"Oh, she's much more than an… acquaintance, as you say." Reino's predatory smile was back. "Do you believe in ghosts, princess?"
"Ghosts do not exist."
"Are you so sure?" Reino asked, leaning forward. He reached out with two fingers, as if to stroke her face. Kyoko felt herself flinch. But before his cold hand touched her cheek, Ren was there between them. He gripped Reino's hand, bending it back at the wrist so that the smaller man had to contort his arm strangely to keep it from snapping. A mask of pain made his purple eyes into slits. Even so, he smiled.
"What a lovely set you will make," Reino panted through the pain, his eyes never leaving Kyoko even as he twisted, trying to relieve the pressure on his hand. "My two vengeful spirits."
"I am not a spirit," Kyoko said firmly. It was easier to face Reino like this, when Ren had him pinned. But he still unnerved her.
"Not yet." Reino gave her a look that went right through her. When his gaze made her shiver, he smiled.
"You will leave the Princess alone," Ren's voice was strangely even, almost toneless. His face was impassive as he continued to bend Reino's arm back, until the man had to kneel on the floor to keep his shoulder in place. "When I release you, you will not speak. You will leave immediately. Nod so that I know you understand."
When Reino did not immediately nod, Ren twisted the wrist in his hand. Reino barked in pain. The silver head nodded.
Reino straightened, clutching one arm to his chest as he fled down the hallway, not even stopping to look back. Ren continued to glower until he was out of sight. Then he turned to Kyoko, who looked pale.
"Are you alright?" Ren ducked, peering into her face. "I'm sorry I didn't interfere sooner."
Kyoko blushed furiously at his closeness, backing up. "It's fine," She whispered. "We have a bigger problem."
"That man over there is staring at you," Kyoko said quietly. Ren fought the urge to turn his head over to where Kyoko had flicked her eyes. He straightened, still keeping his gaze on the princess.
"Do you know who he is?"
Kyoko pursed her lips. "We haven't been introduced, but…" she paused, gazing across the room at an older man who was blatantly staring at her guard. "I am fairly certain that's the ambassador from Yuwessa."
Ren couldn't help it. He turned his head, and staring back at him, was Duke Takarada.
It was late in the evening, and Ren stood nervously in the shadows across from a suite of guest rooms. He double-checked that no one was coming down the hall, then slid out of his hiding spot and knocked sharply, twice. The door swung open, and Ren walked into the room.
Lory dismissed the servant who had opened the door. Then for several minutes, the room was silent. Kuon stood silently as the Duke's keen eyes evaluated him from over the older man's steepled fingers. Once again, the Prince felt as though Duke Takarada could read his every thought. Kuon wished he could do the same. He had no idea what was going through the older gentleman's head. Several times, the duke opened his mouth as if to speak, then froze, his eyebrows twitching and his mouth closing again. Finally, the Duke spoke.
"What happened to your hair?"
"It's a long story." Ren blinked. "That's your first question?"
"Practical as ever, I see." The duke replied with a shrug. "Fine, we'll do it your way. How did you end up at the castle?"
"That's… also a long story," Ren hedged. "Listen, actually, I—"
"Do you realize that your parents have been practically tearing the kingdom apart?!" Lory interrupted. "Your father is convinced that you capsized and are living in some tiny fishing village! He's persuaded the reason you haven't come home is that you're suffering from amnesia and you've fallen in love with some local girl and that he'll never get to meet his grandchildren."
"I didn't—" Kuon didn't get to finish his sentence.
"How long have you been at the palace?" Lory paused. "Did you have amnesia?"
Ren stared blankly at the duke for two beats. Then guilt crept onto his face.
"Please, for the love of god don't tell me," Lory spoke through gritted teeth, massaging his temples, "Don't tell me that you have been here, safe and sound and un-amnesia-ed, practically the whole time?!"
The guilty look intensified.
"YOU DIDN'T THINK TO SEND A LETTER?!" The duke exploded. "DO YOU KNOW HOW ANNOYING YOUR PARENTS ARE?! How much sleep I lost?! The first month after you were gone—" Lory cut off, fanning himself dramatically at the recollection. "Prince Kuon, you are without a doubt the BIGGEST idiot that I have EVER—"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, alright!?" Ren ran an agitated hand through his hair. "I've been— I got distracted—"
The change in the duke was instantaneous. Gone was the overblown show of exasperation. The duke gave Ren a knowing grin, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively and smoothing his mustache.
"Ah! So you have fallen in love with some local girl?" When Kuon's mouth turned into a firm line, the Duke's eyes sparkled. Lory didn't need to ask who it was — it was obvious to the older man after seeing the Prince with Kyoko earlier that day. "Does the lucky lady in question return your feelings?"
Did she love him? Ren was not sure. Kyoko had not said the actual words. He hadn't really, either. Ren considered himself smart enough, and a quick learner. But when it came to matters of the heart, and Kyoko, Kuon was not sure of anything beyond his own feelings.
She trusted him, at least. Kuon was fairly certain of that. And he thought she cared about him, at the very least, as a friend.
Perhaps she didn't love him. But even if she didn't love him yet, or not as much as he loved her, Kuon thought they could get there. He would do anything to make her happy. Anything that she would let him do, and probably several more things that she would heartily disapprove of. But was that enough? To capture her heart?
"I think… it's not completely irrational, to hope that she feels the same." Ren said at last.
"Amazing," Lory quipped. "What inspiring confidence. If you ever have to lead the army, remind me that I should make the rallying speech before the charge."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"No problem." Lory waved his hands. "The mystery of her feelings is easily solved. Go ask her and find out!"
Ren gave the duke a flat stare. Then gestured down to his uniform vaguely.
"Ahhh, yes…I do see the problem." Lory nodded sagely. Then he squinted at Ren. "If you're going to propose, you should probably change. Don't tell your father I said this, but purple isn't really your color."
"Very funny," Kuon grumbled.
"Now, now, don't pout," Lory teased. "I didn't say you looked bad in it, just less strikingly handsome than usual." When Kuon's face remained stony, it was the Duke's turn to pout. "You're no fun. I don't see what all the fuss is about. Queen Saena is asking for quite a bride price, but it's nothing Yuwessa cannot pay."
"That's… not the problem." Kuon said, pacing back and forth. Truthfully, he had forgotten all about the money. "How will I get her to accept?"
"Leave the Queen to me," The Duke replied, packing tobacco into an elaborate pipe and lighting it. He puffed thoughtfully. "Is the princess betrothed to this… other suitor?"
Lory waved a hand dismissively. "Then it is easily solved." The duke knew that King Kuu and Queen Julienna would sell their entire kingdom, if it would give Kuon what he wanted.
"No, I meant," Kuon cleared his throat. "Not the Queen. How do I get Kyoko to accept, when she doesn't know that I'm—" Kuon gestured to himself again, helplessly.
"I see your predicament," The duke replied, tapping his pipe thoughtfully. "Well, it's a good thing I haven't yet announced the purpose for my visit yet." He shuffled the papers on his desk. "Perhaps tomorrow," the Duke remarked, "you might suggest a time and place where I could find the princess? I wish to inform her that my liege Prince Kuon has heard the tale of her beauty and wit, and wishes nothing more than to make her his bride." Kuon winced, but Lory was too busy planning to notice. "Something more decadent is necessary, no? For a royal bride. Perhaps I should send for a hundred roses. Or maybe some troubadours? I'm sure they could come up with something quickly enough."
"No!" Kuon said emphatically. "No troubadours! No bards!"
"But you're in love!" The Duke pouted, then relented. "Fine. You know her best, I suppose." He heaved another sigh, then brightened as an idea occurred to him. "Perhaps Queen Saena would like the bards, when I go to negotiate for the princess's hand."
"No. Bards." Kuon smiled. "Especially not for Queen Saena. Unless you're trying to empty Yuwessa's treasury."
"Very well. Have it your way, your highness," Lory's tone was mocking, but his eyes were kind.
"Come by her rooms, tomorrow one bell before noon," Ren said.
"Yes, yes." Lory yawned.
"Without my minstrels, yes, I remember." Lory rolled his eyes. Kuon bowed, wisely keeping his mouth shut. Then he was out the door.
The next morning, the Duke arrived outside Kyoko's chambers promptly at the appointed time, and — thankfully — without a train of entertainers behind him. Even without an entourage, Lory Takarada made quite an impression. His suit was a shocking color of pink. It was hideous and mesmerizing. Kyoko could not look away. Even more impressive, the older gentleman looked completely at ease in the color, as he swept into a low bow and kissed Kyoko's hand.
The princess had never met anyone as grandiose as Duke Takarada of Yuwessa, who managed to exude respectability and wisdom while practically reclining in one of her chairs as she served him tea. And if a little bit of her awe showed on Kyoko's face in the presence of such a force of personality, it was only to be expected.
Lory removed his enormous, matching pink hat and placed it on the seat next to him, stroking the hot-pink ostrich plumes as if he were petting a cat.
"It is a delight to make your acquaintance, Princess Kyoko," The Duke said easily. Kyoko gave him a nervous smile, her eyes glancing to Ren for reassurance.
"Your Grace honors me with a visit," Kyoko said demurely, giving her most formal curtsey.
"Yes, yes, very polite," Lory waved off her niceties. "I know, I know. My presence is quite something," Lory chuckled, "although many would not say an honor. Perhaps a curse. But here I am. For you."
Kyoko paused. "How can I be of service, your Grace?"
"Perhaps I should clarify. I am not here for you myself, but rather on behalf of someone else. None other than my future sovereign, His Highness Kuon Hizuri, Crown Prince of Yuwessa." Lory's eyes sparkled.
"Oh?" Kyoko's eyebrow quirked. "And what is it that the Prince of Yuwessa would want with me?"
"For you to be his bride, of course!" Lory said with a flourish.
Kyoko frowned. "Is… has the Prince come with you?"
"Er, no." Lory glanced at Kuon, who swiftly turned away his gaze. "The Crown Prince is… er… busy, at the moment. But…"
"He wishes for me to be his bride, but he could not be bothered to come meet me himself?" Kyoko's tone was polite, but her smile was frozen. Lory wanted to laugh. He had seen that smile a hundred times, on Kuon's own face. The ambassador grinned.
"You seem rather skeptical," The duke rejoined, "And I understand completely." He smoothed his mustache, ignoring Kuon's pointed stare. "Let me speak plainly — it is a rather idiotic move, is it not?"
Kyoko didn't know what to say. The Yuwessan ambassador was grinning at her with what she would have said was glee. And yet he had just insulted the very Prince whose case the Duke was supposed to be pleading.
"Let me tell you about Prince Kuon," Lory leaned forward, as if to whisper conspiratorially. "I have known the Prince his entire life, and I can say with certainty, that he can be one of th—"
Ren coughed so loudly that both Lory and Kyoko turned the guard.
"Are you alright?" Kyoko asked, concerned.
"I'm fine," Ren replied, his gaze softening as he looked down at the Princess. Then he stared daggers at his old friend. Behind Kyoko's back, Lory merely shrugged, looking not at all apologetic. In fact the old duke looked downright mirthful.
"Your Highness, forgive me for questioning your methods, but this is a rather private conversation," The Duke said slowly. "Perhaps your guard should wait outside?"
Kyoko glanced between the Duke and Ren, aware that something was passing between them but not quite sure what exactly it was. Whatever the exchange, the Duke apparently won as Ren bowed briefly, then exited the chamber.
Kuon did not want to stand outside, straining to listen as Lory was sure to tell Kyoko any number of embarrassing childhood memories or Kuon's miserable past attempts at courtship. Instead, Kuon left his station outside the princess's chambers. While Kyoko was safely tucked away with Lory, Kuon had some business to take care of.
Kuon spotted Reino from behind. The man's silver hair was like a beacon. Kuon's walk was silent and graceful like a panther. He stuck his foot underneath the wooden chair where Reino sat and kicked it out from under him. Reino fell forward, scrabbling to catch himself on the floor, and Ren lifted him up by the scruff of his jacket and dragged the man to his feet, ignoring his gasp of pain.
Reino stared at the guard with a cruel smile. "Well, if it isn't the princess's loyal guard dog. Unfortunately, you have no authority over me. You're nothing bu—"
Ren threw him to the floor again, pinning Reino with one knee on his chest and a foot on his arm. The lord grunted as Kuon pressed down.
"Do you know why you're alive right now?" Kuon leaned down until his face was inches from Reino's, a perfect dagger grin of his own to match. Reino stared hatefully, but grimaced as Kuon's boot ground into the flesh of his forearm. "You're still breathing because I am allowing it. For now. But if you ever touch her again, if you even come within my sight, I will kill you."
Reino swallowed. The look on Kuon's face was enough to see that the Prince meant every word he said. And if Reino disobeyed, it would not be a quick death.
"If you can walk, get up; otherwise, I will carry you to the nearest window and throw you out of it." Kuon's eyes bore into Reino's violet ones, and eventually the lord broke his gaze and nodded. When Kuon stepped back, Reino struggled to his feet. Then he turned and ran. Kuon dusted off his hands, satisfied. He allowed himself one feral grin before slipping Ren's perfect guard expression back onto his face, his pace and hopes quickening as he made his way back to the princess's chambers.
By the time he arrived back, Lory was already gone. Ren peered around the doorframe, trying to keep his face from slipping into a hopeful smile. But apparently, the meeting with the Duke had not gone well. Ren's face dropped. What did he tell her?
Kyoko barely noticed that Ren had returned. The princess was angrily folding gowns, a half-filled trunk already at her feet.
"Is… something wrong?" Ren asked, trying not to panic.
"Of course something's wrong!" Kyoko continued to fold her gowns neatly, despite the heat in her voice. She glanced up at her guard. "It's too suspicious, isn't it?"
Ren swallowed nervously. "What do you mean?"
Kyoko threw her hands up. "My mother sent that invitation ages ago. If Prince Kuon wanted to marry me, why wait almost a year to respond?" Kyoko sniffed indignantly.
"Maybe the prince has just...been busy?" Even to his own ears, it was a flimsy excuse. Ren winced when Kyoko rolled her eyes.
"Busy chasing around other women, I'm sure," Kyoko muttered. "Or avoiding his duties."
"That's not true," Ren countered immediately. "Why are you so ready to assume the worst about him?"
"Why are you so eager to plead his case?" Kyoko cried.
"Because I want you to be happy!" Ren said, floundering.
"How can I be happy with someone else?!" Kyoko turned to face him, hurt and confusion warring across her face. "Why are you so insistent to defend the man who is the reason we have to be separated?" Her voice broke as she turned away, hastily brushing tears with the back of her hand. But then Kyoko felt Ren's arms wrap around her from behind, his familiar scent warm and comforting. As much as she wanted to push him away, she couldn't.
"Princess Kyoko, I am deepy, madly, in love with you," Ren tried to pour his whole heart into those words. "It's because I love you, that…" He trailed off uncertainly.
"That what?" Kyoko asked in a tiny voice. She was glad they were not facing each other. She wasn't sure she would be able to bear to see his expression. "Why are you so insistent that I will be happy with someone else?"
"Because I know that you'll love Prince Kuon, the way you love me," Ren said simply.
Kyoko's face fell. "Do you really think that I'm so fickle?" She accused, "That my feelings are so easy, they'll simply change?"
"No! No, I— I just—"
"You think my love is so shallow?"
"That's not it!"
"Then how can you say that?!" Kyoko whirled, breaking out of his arms. The tears once again spilled over, but Kyoko ignored them.
"Just, please, you have to believe me," Ren said. "Because Prince Kuon is—" Ren cut himself off, realizing his mistake. He quickly tried to change the subject. "I mean, what I meant was, Yuwessa is probably—"
"Prince Kuon is what?" Kyoko asked, eyes narrowed. Ren winced. Of course she had caught it. Her eyes searched his face. "What could you possibly know about Prince Kuon?"
"Well, it's—" Ren swallowed. "Please, hear me out…" The words died on his lips as he watched the gears turning in her mind.
"How could you possibly know the Prince?" Kyoko said under her breath, almost to herself. Kyoko trailed off. She hoped it wasn't true. She looked at Ren, waiting for him to deny, to provide any kind of excuse that she could grasp.
"Princess, please, I can explain—" He said desperately.
"Are you… a spy?" Kyoko's voice was pained.
"What?" Ren was bewildered. "No. It's— why would I?" Ren tried to form a coherent sentence, but the words wouldn't come. "Kyoko, it's— it's me." Ren stuttered. He gave up on eloquence. It was too complicated. "I'm me!"
From the bewildered look on the princess's face, Kuon gathered that was not an adequate explanation. He tried again. "It's me. I'm Prince Kuon."
The room was silent.
"That's… that's not funny," Kyoko said, when she finally managed to find her voice.
"It's not a joke," he replied.
"I don't know about where you're from," Kyoko said, "But in Nilbon, impersonating royalty is a capital offense."
"It's not an impersonation." He grinned.
"Then why are you smiling?"
Kuon laughed, then tried to conceal it as a cough. His amusement only seemed to aggravate the princess more. "What am I supposed to do? First you think I am a spy, and now an imposter?" Kuon smiled at her. "Who do you want me to be, Kyoko?"
Kyoko shivered when he said her name. But then she shook her head. "Impossible! You can't be— why would— it doesn't make any sense!"
"It's a long story," Kuon said easily.
"It's preposterous," Kyoko accused. But Kuon just laughed.
"Believe me, I know."
"It...it isn't true..." Kyoko said, still doubting. But Kuon saw a spark of hope in her eye.
"What? Am I not as dashing as you hoped?" Kuon pretended to pout. Kyoko went pink from head to toe.
"That's— that's not—" The princess stuttered, tripping over her own dress as she tried to back away. Kuon reached out and easily caught her, one arm around her waist, his other hand wrapped around her wrist. They both felt a spark of electricity pass through them as they touched. Kyoko turned bright red. But Kuon, instead of letting go, pulled her closer until she was flush against his chest. She had to tilt her head back to look at him, which was when she suddenly realized that Kuon had bent down so his face was inches from her own.
"Marry me, Princess Kyoko." His eyes danced, watching her throat move as she swallowed nervously. Hope and fear and worry and confusion all ran across her face. He gave a delighted laugh. "I am desperately in love with you. Please say you'll marry me, and we'll live happily ever after."
"Liar," Kyoko said, but it came out as little more than a breath. Kuon swooped down, capturing her lips with his before she could voice another complaint. Kyoko gave a muffled squeak of surprise. Kuon used it to slip his tongue into her mouth. He briefly touched her tongue with his own before Kyoko threw herself back.
"You're not a Prince!" She cried shrilly, steam practically coming from her ears. "That is not princely behavior!" Kyoko clutched one hand over her chest, feeling her heart hammering through her dress. Was he trying to kill her?! Kuon gave her a devilish grin. He took her hand, leading a stunned Kyoko out of the door and down the halls, towards the guest suites.
"Where are we going?!" Kyoko cried.
"To share the good news," Kuon replied cheerily, tucking Kyoko's hand into the crook of his arm.
The Duke had not laughed so hard in such a long time. Calling it a laugh was not even close. It had started at an amused smile, which grew to a chuckle that he tried to disguise as Kyoko and Kuon sat in his chamber, Kyoko pointing an accusing finger at Kuon and informing Lory of the royal imposter. Then Lory could hold it in no longer. He laughed so hard and long that his stomach hurt, and he worried he would split the sides of his velvet jacket. He laughed until tears poured out of his eyes, pounding his fist on his leg so much that he was sure to wake with a bruise the next day. But he could not help it.
Lory dabbed at his eyes again, one last chuckle escaping. Finally the Duke looked up at them both.
"Well, Prince Kuon," the older man said easily, watching the princess's jaw drop practically to the floor. "What did I tell you?"
Kuon gave the Duke a blank look.
"I told you months ago, the Princess of Nilbon must be quite a lady." His eyes still sparkled with laughter.
"You are insufferable when you're correct. You know that, right?" Kuon replied flatly.
"Oh, hush," The Duke said cheerfully with a dismissive wave of his hand. "What have you got to complain about?"
Kuon looked at his hand, his fingers intertwined with Kyoko's. He couldn't remember when they had started holding hands, or who reached for the other first. All that mattered was that Kyoko's hand was in his. It felt natural. It felt right. He looked at her golden eyes, and smiled. There was everything in her face he could have wished for: hope, delight, love, and pride. Once again, the Duke was right.
"I have nothing to complain about," Kuon replied, not taking his eyes from Kyoko. He watched her flush prettily under his gaze, her eyes glancing away and then back at him from under her lashes. He could watch it forever. "Everything is perfect."
Dealing with Queen Saena was one of the most unpleasant experiences of Duke Takarada's life. As a noble who lived at court and a seasoned diplomat, Lory was only too well acquainted with making polite conversation with people he did not like. He was very good at it. But even five minutes with the Queen of Nilbon made Lory reconsider if his dukedom was worth the price of having to endure conversation with Saena.
Lory had heard that the Queen of Nilbon was cold. But the rumors had not prepared him for the Queen's total indifference to the happiness of her only daughter. If Queen Saena thought there was anything suspicious or improper about the speed at which she and Duke Takarada came to an agreement, she said nothing. The Duke did not negotiate at all on the sum for Princess Kyoko's hand. His only request was that the marriage take place in Yuwessa.
"I am aware it is an unusual request," Lory began politely, "and of course I will escort your daughter to their Royal Majesties myself. With an appropriate chaperone. And every possible comfort and accommodation—"
"As long as you have paid her bride price ahead of her departure, I do not care where you escort the princess to." Saena waved a hand dismissively. "Marry her to a stable hand, for all I care."
The Duke was silent. He refused to acknowledge such a sentiment with any sort of reply, beyond the smallest possible nod. The negotiations wrapped up with all possible haste. Lory was eager to get the Prince home and the princess away from the Queen as quickly as possibly. Saena was satisfied: thanks to her daughter's marriage, the royal treasury had been substantially increased. She did not even have to pay for a wedding feast. It was perhaps the most satisfied the Queen had ever been when it came to her daughter, and Saena was almost civil to Kyoko for a full day after the papers was signed and the gold was delivered.
The princess was ready to go within a week, and once the weather was fair for sailing, they departed the castle. When she reached the main gate, Kyoko turned around. She waved goodbye one last time, scanning the assembled crowd. The Queen was not in attendance. Kyoko felt a familiar twinge in her chest. She had known her mother would not come to see her off — Saena was not the sentimental type.
Kyoko turned back, and there was Ren. Kuon. Her Prince. He was waiting, his hand outstretched. She took it, the familiar warmth spreading from her hand through her whole body. Kyoko felt lighter. She smiled up at Kuon. He smiled back down at her with such brilliance that Kyoko's eyes burned. Her heart skipped a beat, and she had to look away. It was like looking into the sun. Kyoko blinked to try and clear her vision.
"Come along, love birds," the Duke said from the front of the carriage, where he sat easily next to a plainly unnerved coachman.
Kuon helped Kyoko into the carriage, then climbed in after her, taking her hand once more. He brought it to his lips, kissing the back of it. Kyoko scooched towards him and Kuon put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her up against him. He was eager to get back to Yuwessa. He was tired of being Ren, the royal guard. He was ready to be Crown Prince Kuon again, and to have Kyoko as his Crown Princess.
"Are you ready?"
To his surprise, Kyoko stretched up and kissed him on the cheek. Kuon felt his face going pink and Kyoko laughed.
"Yes, I'm ready," Kyoko said, clearly pleased with herself for making Kuon flustered. It only felt fair, after all he did to her, she decided. She kissed his cheek again, before sitting back again as the carriage began to move.
"Let's go home."
A/N: Apologies if this chapter is a little rough. I did proofread, but it's gone through a lot of stages and so I'm not positive I caught it all. If you made it to the end, thank you very much for reading! Hopefully you still enjoyed it!