(Pay attention. Breathe.)
“The rules are simple,” says the smiling man. He holds up the collar and turns it, showing them where it fastens shut and where the chain hooks in. “The master gives commands. Strength of will determines whether the move can be made.” He pretends to consider, pursing his lips briefly before smiling again. Under that friendly veneer lies something akin to a threat. “Both the will of the master and the piece must be resolute, and in absolute sync.”
(In. Out. There is a feather in this world, and they have to find it. Otherwise, Sakura will–)
“The first side whose pieces cannot continue fighting loses,” says the smiling man. He gazes upon each of them in turn: interloper, magician, warrior, princess. “Understood?”
And the princess says, in a quiet voice, “Yes.”
(Out. In. She’s always been pale but now she is white as bone. So much of her has been stripped away. He wants–)
“Well, then! It’s been decided!” The man holds out the collar in his hands so that the princess is forced to take it from him. It looks ugly and bulky and out of place in her slim hands. Her expression never changes, though long minutes pass; they stare at each other, neither flinching from the eye contact. She could be a goddess carved of marble, too-pale and lovely.
(Breathe. Breathe. There is a feather in this world. For her sake, he has to–)
“Traditionally,” the man says, holding up a finger, “the master is the one who places the collar for the first time. It symbolizes the agreement to work together, and for the piece to bind their wills to that of the master.” He looks again at all of them, and his eyes are knowing. They see secrets and do not forgive. “Is that all right?”
Are you ready to accept the consequences of saying no? his smile asks.
For just a moment she falters. She drops her eyes for a moment and bites a flush of color to her lip. He wants to reach out and touch her, to anchor the two of them together and tell her that things will be fine, but cannot make himself move. The magician moves towards her instead, but before his fingers can touch her bare shoulder, she rallies and looks up again.
“Very well,” she says. “If this is necessary …”
(There is a feather waiting in this world. One of her feathers is here. Breathe.)
And now he finds he can move, so he does: he steps forward and goes to one knee before her, like a knight to his lady. He bows his head and offers his neck, closing his eyes against the flash of surprise in her eyes.
“Princess Sakura,” he says. “It is an honor to serve you.”
(She is his princess. She has always been his princess; she will always be his princess. Even if–)
“Syaoran-kun,” she says gravely. “Thank you.”
The collar fastens snugly around his neck, the weight of the chain dragging for a moment before he adjusts to the extra burden. He lifts his head and looks her in the eye, and he thinks: all this and more for you, till the end of this journey and beyond.