It is nearly like a cliche out of a romance novel: Wakaba sees the boy from across a crowded room, already full of women in glittering dresses and men in crisp black uniforms, and he shines more brightly than any of them in his plain white robes, trimmed simply in dark bronze. He trails off in conversation with some Baroness-or-other, one of the many who lurk anxiously in the line of succession, waiting for the slightest hint of weakness from the heir to leave an opening wide enough for them to claw their way higher on the hierarchy.
It is–to further the horribly trite comparisons–a great deal like looking at a ghost of the past. The boy has the same noble carriage and sharp eyes that identify him unmistakably as an Oak, with hair that is still so blonde it is nearly white, pulled in a tail over his shoulder; he has the high cheekbones and the thin mouth, and he has his mother’s grace. It has been nearly six years, but Wakaba Oak knows his sister’s child when he sees him, and so he gracefully untangles himself from his conversation, making lighthearted promises he has every intention of forgetting, and makes his way across the room, neatly sidestepping the clusters and pairs of people who chatter together. Their voices all blend together for him: these are the noises of the pathetic rabble: those who aspire to be something great, but have lost themselves in their own desires and disgusting habits. They have forgotten the meaning of nobility, unlike those of the Oak family, who have safeguarded their honor for generations.
Looking at him, it seems that even the riffraff of this party of the gentry has recognized that he is something other to them, something higher and more pure: they keep their distance from him, and most don’t even look in his direction, as if ignoring him will erase his existence; perhaps they are afraid of the tantrums of Senator Oak if he hears that his black sheep of a son has been acknowledged at all, in spite of all the strings he pulled to bring the boy back home. The utter ridiculousness of that thought makes a laugh catch in Wakaba’s throat; it will take more than their fear and their jealousy to ruin an Oak, even one that has fled from the protection of his family.
“Hakuren, right?” he says, projecting as much warmth as possible into his voice; he keeps it deliberately soft, as if he doesn’t mean for anyone to overhear. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
He opens his eyes, and ah, those are the eyes Wakaba remembers–not from him, but from his mother, before she married and lost her fire, bowing her head to that ridiculous husband; it is like looking into the past all over again.
“… Uncle,” he says, his tone exquisitely neutral; there is no matching warmth in his voice, and Wakaba cannot blame the boy–his brother-in-law is an idiot, no better than the rabble that mills around them and wallows in the trappings of being a noble family. “It’s been a while.”
“That it has!” Wakaba says, and claps a hand to the boy’s shoulder, thin and sharp under the white robes. The Church might be good for a man’s soul (not, of course, that an Oak’s soul needed any sort of purification: it was already the pinnacle of what humanity could achieve), but it was not always so kind for his body–a diet of nothing but vegetables, with no meat to speak of, can only lead to a man wasting away. The boy is better off now that he’s away from that coddling and again in the company of his peers (such as they exist, in this rotten corrupted court). “You’ve grown since I’ve last seen you.”
Violet eyes slant at him again, narrow and considering, then move away again, tracking across the busy room, to where the Princess is standing, flanked by her maidservant, trapped by a pair of royal cousins, her pretty face schooled to polite blankness. He watches her carefully and closely, but it is not with a man’s gaze–there is something of the solemn-faced little boy that Wakaba once knew, standing still under his mother’s delicate hand. That is a relief; it would have been–troublesome–if Hakuren had any actual interest in the Princess. Wakaba chuckles and with genuine amusement, keeping his hand where it is on the boy’s shoulder. He squeezes a little and feels it dip in a small reflexive shrug, though nothing is reflected on Hakuren’s face.
Wakaba leans down, until his mouth is right beside the pale shell of the boy’s ear. Keeping his voice low, he says, “I hoped you’d be here. Your mother asked me to keep an eye out for you.”
That, at last, has impact: the boy’s eyes go wide and a brief flush crosses his face, stark against his pale skin. He goes very still, fine tremors running through him, and he glances to the side, at Wakaba. His lips part without sound. Wakaba squeezes his shoulder again and he turns into that, and his face is that of a young child’s, hungry for information. His throat works several times, soundless, and then he says, “… Is she well?”
“She’s as fine as she can be expected,” Wakaba says. He keeps his voice low, intimate, and he knows the picture they make is a striking one: the decorated and honored General Oak, head of the main branch of the prestigious Oak family, still handsome despite his age, bent into intimate conversation with the prodigal son of the same family, dragged back to serve as the Imperial Princess’s attendent and in the first early flush of his beauty. There are over a dozen pairs of eyes focused on them, and the trick is to make it appear as if he doesn’t notice. As a feint, he reaches and straightens Hakuren’s collar slightly, then leaves his fingertips pressed to the boy’s collarbones, sharp even through the layers of his clothing. “She misses you terribly, of course, and she’s cherished every one of the letters you’ve sent her over the years.”
“She got them?” Hakuren sags just a little–not enough that anyone who wasn’t pressed directly into his personal space would notice, but such a gesture all the same. His lips thin for a moment, then relax again. “I’m grateful. I didn’t know if my father would allow them to pass into her hands.”
So he still acknowledged a relationship with that idiot parent of his; Wakaba lets his amusement fuel his next open smile. “It took some convincing,” he said. “But I did manage to talk him into it, eventually.”
Another flush darkens Hakuren’s cheeks just a little–it’s quite fetching, really, and endearing how his sister’s sharp-edged child is so weak to just a hint of news about her. “You did, Uncle–?”
“Of course I did,” Wakaba says, his voice kind and his eyes gentle. “She’s my only sister, and you are her only child. I have to look out for you any way that I can, right? It’s what family does.” He adds a slight emphasis to the world and sees the boy tense a little, unconsciously–perhaps, then, there is more of his sister’s old fire in him, instead of just his father’s blind devotion. That is a little more troublesome, but Wakaba is old and experienced, and he is used to dealing with the young and idealistic. He tugs a little at Hakuren’s collar again, enough that his gloved fingers can brush against the bare skin of the boy’s throat, and doesn’t quite smile at the startled sudden intake of breath. “If you’d like, I know for a fact that your father is going on a day-trip in a week’s time, and your mother will be having lunch with me. If you’d like …”
He can see the hope in the boy’s face; it glows like an actual light in his eyes and the softened lines of his mouth. He keeps his fingers where they are, in the shallow dip of the boy’s collarbone, feeling the minute shifts of a living body under his touch. “I wouldn’t have to see my father at all?”
“Not at all,” Wakaba promises. “In fact, I think we’d all prefer that, wouldn’t we? You, me, her–if he weren’t there …” He meets Hakuren’s eyes again, insinuating; he knows that the boy is just within his grasp, caught helplessly by his desire for his mother. If he can win Hakuren Oak, then all of his idiotic brother-in-law’s own plans will come apart–this boy is the key to them, unreliable as he is to his family’s cause. Senator Oak has called in too many of his tenuous favors in binding his son to the palace, and he has done nothing to soften the boy’s heart. And Wakaba has some sentimentality to him: he would rather not destroy the boy unless absolutely necessary. He <i>is</I> the only child of Wakaba’s dearest sister, after all.
Even so: there is only one Imperial Princess, and she could only have one consort. Hakuren is too much of a wild card after his years at the church, and he’d never been (according to his brother-in-law’s rantings about the boy) entirely tractable to the idea of the Oak family’s superiority over all the others within the kingdom. Shuri, on the other hand, is easy to please and desperate to please in turn, and he believes in nothing as much as he believes in the greatness of their bloodline–and of his father’s benevolent love.
“Would you like to come to lunch with us, Hakuren?” Wakaba asks. His fingers trail up Hakuren’s neck, nearly to the boy’s chin. “I know she’d be happy to see you, and your father will never have to know. I can make it happen, if you just ask.”
And then he loses it–that tenuously building connection snaps abruptly, and he sees the exact second Hakuren’s eyes harden again; he feels the subtle shift as the boy leans away.
“Thank you, Uncle,” he says, with a smoothness that comes utterly unexpected–where he expected a boy nearly six years out of court and only several months back in practice, the son of an idiot and a woman whose heart is softer than goosedown–there is a man whose eyes are diamond-hard and whose posture is respectful but only just so, who has a smile like a knife wrapped in silk. “It’s very kind of you to offer–but I can make my own arrangements. If Father will be out of town next week, then perhaps I will call on Mother myself. Thank you for telling me, Uncle.”
He steps back and bows, a hand to his heart, and then he turns and walks away–to the Princess, who is watching his approach curiously, one of her slim hands resting upon the neck of her pet fyulong; Hakuren speaks to her briefly, too low to be heard in a room gone suddenly silent, and she smiles and nods. “Of course,” she says, and her voice does carry, clear and sweet. “Have a good night, Hakuren.”
Hakuren Oak bows to his princess and he leaves the room with his back straight and his head high, as if he doesn’t realize everyone is staring–Wakaba chief amongst them. His hand is still half-lifted, from where it had been resting upon the boy’s shoulder. After a moment he curls his fingers into a fist and he smirks as he hooks a thumb into his own collar and adjusts it. The desire to laugh wells up and is firmly repressed–it wouldn’t do to allow the boy an obvious victory, because of the stories of what he does now will filter back as rumors without fail. It isn’t war precisely that has been declared, but it <i>is</I> a line clearly drawn, and Hakuren, at least, might prove to be a better opponent than his grasping idiot of a father.
Very well, he thinks. If that is what the boy has chosen, then perhaps he isn’t as foolish as he first appeared–but still a fool.
Wakaba Oak takes his own leave, elegant and poised as his nephew before him, and he must admit: he is looking forward to seeing the boy crumble under his heel, but more than that, he is eager to see where the next play falls.