without, the thorns

“Oh, no,” Gyokuran says.

“Absolutely not,” Gyokuran says.

“Surely, you must be joking,” Gyokuran says.

The princess blinks at her in the mirror, wide-eyed and innocent as always. She is in the middle of plaiting one of the long tails of her hair for the evening, leaving the other to be brushed out by Gyokuran, first. “But it is quite so,” she says. “Father informed me of this just the other night, at dinner. We’ll be hosting him and his family next weekend. Do try to be nice to him, Gyokuran, I know how upset you get–”

“This is unacceptable!” Gyokuran wails. “Princess! How can you allow something like that? He’s not even royalty, he’s just–he’s just–!”

“He is an Oak, Gyokuran,” the princess says, unconcerned even when Gyokuran yanks a bit at her hair in distress. There is unusual steel in her voice–but something that is still quiet and gentle for that. And while sometimes she can be flighty and distracted, there are moments where she is every inch who she was born to be. Gyokuran looks in the mirror and sees a queen looking back. As always, the sight makes her breath catch and her heart flutter in her chest; she is a loyal servant of the Empire, of course, but before that, she is her princess’ devoted attendant. “That means he is more than suitable. Besides,” she goes on, and the illusion breaks: she’s just a young girl again, Gyokuran’s friend and mistress for so many years, “his cousin is very nice and clever, after all. Surely the whole family can’t be that bad.”

Gyokuran, in deference to her lady, waits until she is back in her own room before she starts throwing things and shrieking her response to that.

+++

It wouldn’t bother her as much, she knows, if Hakuren Oak wasn’t so damn smug about the whole thing. Oh, he acts innocent enough–he’s always unfailingly polite to the princess (which is perhaps the only reason why no one else seems to get it–even Kururu, faithful Kururu, is fooled by this man!)–and properly respectful of the Emperor, the few times they’ve interacted, but he’s a smug bastard, through and through. He’s an Oak. Gyokuran comes from a family born to serve the imperial line, and she knows Oaks very well, from both her own experiences and those that she hears from cousins who are in their employ. They are smug sly creatures, too obsessed with their own power to be truly kind. It galls her that she has to leave the princess alone with him for any reason–Kururu stays, of course, but Kururu is also seduced by the man’s damnable good looks; she’d probably just pretend to ignore anything that might be happening, if the princess just asked nicely–! She would bet anything that he is laughing about his triumph right now, behind his insipidly polite smile–maybe he won’t marry into the imperial line, borderline disgrace that he is, but he will still have power and influence that comes from having a close family member on the throne.

She can’t stand it! After all, if the Oaks are only good for the military and for politics–and if Hakuren Oak is the best that the political side of the famous Oak family can produce–what sort of bumbling oaf will a general’s son be like? And not only that, but an idiot who would have the princess and sit by her side and eventually succeed her father as Emperor–to think of her beloved princess, bowing her head to an idiot like that–!

Something must be done, she decides. Right away, before the idiot can arrive and ruin everything.

+++

The first thing that must be done, however, is the hardest. After all, she knows nothing of her coming enemy, and the best thing to do is research. No one else in the palace knows him very well, either; a handful know his father, whom is mentioned to be a doting jolly man, but that tells her nothing of the son he’s produced. There is no one who would know–no one except…

Ah, she consoles herself, as she stalks through the garden. Be strong, Gyokuran! Have faith, Gyokuran! You’re doing it for the princess, and that will be its own reward!

She finds him sitting under a tree and reading. Even though he’s left the church behind (and how ridiculous is that, really, an Oak in the church? she’s amazed it took over a year for them to throw him out again), he still studies their texts diligently. When he’s not with the princess (which to Gyokuran’s relief is still not even most of the time), he usually reads–though once or twice she has seen him go down into the lower city and speak with the people there. Sometimes he drops coins into the hats of beggars.

(“You know, maybe he’s not sooooo bad,” Ohruri had said once, in the middle of examining her drying nails. “He passed the exams, after all. Technically he’s a Bishop–they don’t let you get that far if you’re not a good person, right?”

“Ohruri!” Gyokuran had shouted. “Don’t be fooled by him! He’s just lulling you into a false sense of security–you’ll see!” Though months later Ohruri still didn’t see, and really, Gyokuran just despaired of ever really making her point known.)

But most of the time he can be found in the gardens, usually in the shade of the largest trees, reading. And that is exactly where Gyokuran finds him on this morning: with his silly little glasses perched so low on his nose she has to wonder if they do any good, and some heavy dusty book open in his lap. She takes a few deep breaths before she can make herself go up to him.

“You,” she says.

He looks up and adjusts his glasses. She wonders if he thinks they make him look adult, but they really just make him seem pretentious. “Ah, Miss Gyokuran,” he says. His tone is blandly polite, and that rubs up against the open sore of her irritation; she has to bite her cheek to keep the automatic retort from rising up. “May I help you?”

She clenches her fists, then forces them to relax. “I have some questions for you,” she says.

“About?”

Oh, she wants to throttle him so much! Through gritted teeth, she says, “Surely you’ve heard that Her Highness is betrothed?”

He raises an eyebrow and adjusts his glasses again. Really, he’s paid enough, couldn’t he afford any that fit him better? “Of course I have,” he said. “The Lady Ouka told me so herself.”

The title comes so casually to his lips. Gyokuran fantasies about throttling him again. “Well, of course,” she says. “Because the princess is a good and kind girl, she would want us to be prepared for this change that’s coming up in her life–”

“But?” His tone is dry.

But,” she goes on, glaring at him for good measure, “it does not help the fact that those of us in court have very little to go on about her fiance, other than his reputation.”

“Miss Gyokuran,” Hakuren Oak says slowly, “please realize that I have spent the last five years studying in the Seventh District to become a Bishop–I assure you, I am as much in the dark about any gossip surrounding the Lady Ouka’s suitor–”

“And his name,” Gyokuran goes on, raising her voice over his. She pauses for dramatic effect–she has been told before that she’s quite good at it–and she points an accusing finger at him. “Shuri Oak!”

What happens next is nothing short of amazing: Hakuren Oak’s eyes go wide and his mouth drops open. It is the first genuinely human reaction she has seen in him since he arrived, and really, if he could just do this more often, maybe she wouldn’t find him such an insufferable man! “What,” he says, and then, “You must be joking,” and then, “What were they even thinking–?”

“So you do know something,” Gyokuran says, basking in her triumph. “And you’ll tell me everything you know. Right here. Right now. At once.”

+++

She is grimly pleased when all her worst fears are confirmed. Hakuren Oak does, in fact, know his cousin–first cousin through their fathers, he tells her automatically, absently, when she deliberately makes a wrong wild guess–and everything he knows paints a terrible picture. The boy–no, the child–that is coming to marry her princess is spoiled and selfish, raised as the precious firstborn and only son of his rich and doting parents. Hakuren Oak’s face goes through a whole myriad of expressions that Gyokuran has only dreamed of seeing, all of them various levels of discomfort and defeat, as he answers her questions. In the end, she doesn’t know if she’s learned anything new–not that she thinks that that man would have anything really worth telling!–but she has confirmation at least, and now she’s forearmed with the knowledge.

Of course, a servant can’t just simply go barging into a royal meeting and demand an audience–and a servant most definitely cannot criticize the decision of the Emperor and his advisers. What she can do, though, is spread rumors–and so she tries, starting with Ohruri and Kikune.

“Hmmm, so he’s a lazy boy,” Kikune says. “Ah, but that’s all right, because the princess will not have to worry about him doing too much, then.”

“Ahhh, maybe Hakuren-kun’s jealous,” Ohruri says happily, clapping her hands. “Maybe he secretly likes the princess too! Wouldn’t that be so romantic?”

Ohruri!” Gyokuran yells, and Kikune yells with her, so that’s acceptable. She tries the cooks next, but they’re more curious about what sort of things the coming guest would prefer to eat. The footmen just laugh like it’s no big deal (she’ll make sure they regret that later). Some of the maids are sympathetic, but they are also far too accepting of the princess’ fate–Gyokuran decides it is because they don’t interact with her very often: of course they like her, because to know the princess is to like her, but they don’t know her know her, not like she does, or Ohruri or Kikune or Haku–

No, no, no! There’s a line she refuses to cross, and that’s it! Obviously this tactic is failing, but she refuses to give up! She’ll never give in! She–

“Gyokuran,” Ohruri trills, “isn’t he cute?”

Gyokuran blinks a few times. She looks at where Ohruri is and sniffs, resisting the urge to toss her head. “We must talk about your taste in men, later,” she says out of the corner of her mouth. The smile on her face makes it ache, it feels so stiff and unnatural; she’s surprised no one has called her on this yet. He doesn’t look like much–too much like that damnable cousin of his, with too-fine features and bright empty blue eyes–but he smiles like he already owns the entire place and struts like his head’s too heavy for his skinny body. He’s been nicely dressed for the occasion, the lines of his uniform pressed crisp and his boots polished to a glossy shine, and his hair is smoothly slicked back. He looks like a good match, but Gyokuran knows better.

Dinner is a strained awkward sort of thing: only Gyokuran is allowed to tend to her lady, as the senior maidservant, and she knows the princess well enough to see the faint signs of strain around her soft smiling mouth. That in and of itself is unusual–it’s so difficult to get the princess upset, and Gyokuran stares at that tightness and plots the newcomers slow punishment. He talks too loudly and enthusiastically about himself, and the princess just has to smile and nod and make occasional noises of agreement. Gyokuran simmers in her anger because her princess will not allow herself that, and it’s like physical pain to watch even that small hint of suffering. To the credit of his stupidity, the boy doesn’t even notice, and by the end of the evening, Gyokuran is almost–almost!–convinced that she should perhaps revise her opinion on Hakuren Oak, because even he isn’t insufferable as his cousin.

After the meal ends, and the princess says goodnight to her fiance (who just beams and babbles even more idiotic inanity at her, and Gyokuran has to restrain herself from slapping his smug mouth), and they’re heading back, Gyokuran says, “Princess–”

“I’m tired,” the princess says quietly. She stares at the ground, at the hem of her fine dress and the toes of her new elegant shoes (which Gyokuran had been sure to compliment her on) and she smiles. It’s strange and it’s distant and makes something in Gyokuran’s stomach twist. Someone less practical would call it longing; Gyokuran merely calls it foolish. “I think I will retire early tonight.” She lifts her head and there is the queen she will be one day again, ethereal as moonlight. This is someone very sad that lives inside of her princess, and Gyokuran thinks she would do just about anything to help.

Instead, helpless, she says, “Your highness–”

“Thank you for being with me, Gyokuran,” she says. “As always, you are a blessing.”

She continues on, and Gyokuran stares after her, her belly twisting again. She’s not sure how long she waits–long after the princess has disappeared–before she turns and she finds herself face to face with the princess’ fiance, Hakuren Oak’s cousin, the idiot Shuri Oak. His expression is a familiar one of haughty arrogance, well-suited to his delicate Oak features. He already sees himself as master, she knows, and all she can do is bite her cheek at that. It’s not too far from the truth.

“You,” he says. “You’re one of the princess’ attendants, right? Tell me, where is her room?”

Gyokuran narrows her eyes. “Why would you ask?”

“I wish to see her, of course!” he exclaims. His face twists for a moment, and he says, “It is a good idea for us to become more acquainted before our wedding, and we will have only a short time before I leave again.”

The words sound so coached that Gyokuran almost laughs in his silly face. She wonders who put him up to saying that–the general? one of the equally empty-headed servants that accompanied the retinue?–and puts her hands on her hips.

“She’s sleeping,” she says. “And no one is to bother her until tomorrow, by her express orders.”

It’s a lie, but only a small one; Gyokuran thinks she might well hate herself if she allows anything to disturb the princess at rest.

The boy looks surprised for a moment, and very young. She wonders how old he really is–if anyone’s ever told him no in his entire charmed life. She rather doubts it. “But,” he flounders, “I, I’m her–”

“And a good husband must be respectful of his wife’s needs!” Gyokuran jabs a finger into his chest with enough force to drive him back several steps. “You have to listen, but you can’t do just that, you have to pay attention! The princess is a good girl, she would never outright complain, so it’s your job to make sure she never needs to! Do you understand!”

Shuri Oak’s hands half-lift, fluttering uselessly. His blue eyes are huge and stunned. “I–but–don’t you know who I–”

“I’m a very good guesser!” Gyokuran draws herself up to her fullest height and notes with some satisfaction that she stands bit taller than him. “So you had better listen! I will not tolerate any disrespect for the princess, not from you, not from anyone! Do we understand each other!”

He squeaks, mouth open in a fishlike gape. Gyokuran decides she likes him better when he’s not blathering on about himself; the silence nearly makes him tolerable. Just in case he gets any ideas, though, she goes on: “I’m watching you, Shuri Oak, and you get just one chance. Are we clear!”

Eventually, very slowly, never once blinking, he nods. Gyokuran smiles, still standing as tall as possible. “Good,” she says, and pivots sharply on her heel to stalk towards her own rooms. As much as she wants to look back and see what sort of foolish look is on his face, she knows the value of a dramatic exit while she has one. She comforts herself with thinking that it must be quite funny indeed, with that sort of malleable stupid face he must have. As much as she hates to admit anything about that intruder Hakuren Oak, she will give him the dubious benefit of being more clever than his cousin.

Gyokuran sleeps well that night, better than she expected with a man like that under the same roof. In the morning, she goes about her daily ritual, eventually going to knock on the princess’ door before she lets herself inside. To her surprise, her lady is already awake, slowly brushing her hair and looking at a vaseful of roses on her vanity. It’s the wrong season for flowers, with the snow lying heavily outside, but each bloom is fresh and lovely. Hothouse flowers, Gyokuran thinks with some disdain, forced out of their natural rhythm and cut without second thought. Probably another coached move. Still, it’s better than she expected, so she swallows the disdain back and says, “Princess?”

The princess turns to her and smiles a little, her mouth twisting into a bemused moue. “Gyokuran,” she says. “These were delivered by Master Shuri himself this morning. One wonders why the sudden display. He seemed a little frightened.”

“Maybe he’s smarter than he first seemed,” Gyokuran volunteers. She heads to her lady’s side and takes the brush in one hand and half of the princess’ long hair in the other, beginning to brush out the plaits from the night before.

“Or perhaps someone put fear into his heart,” the princess says. She meets Gyokuran’s eyes in the mirror and her smile is less knowing than her eyes. “You had no need to put yourself through so much trouble for my sake.”

“I’m only doing my duty,” Gyokuran protests, because there’s no point in lying to her lady. “As your aid and your humble and most loyal servant, I have to do what I can to make you happy–”

“You only need make certain that I am cared for,” the princess says. She turns and catches Gyokuran’s wrists in her slim cool hands. Her smile is sweeter than the flowers on her vanity. “Happiness is not ever part of it.”

Gyokuran does not blush, though she can feel fluttering in the pit of her stomach. Ah, she thinks, this is something she will let no man take away, whether interloper or husband or anyone. This is a girl who will be a woman and the Empress, and the most important person of Gyokuran’s life. “Princess …”

“You have my gratitude,” the princess says, and lets go. “As always, Gyokuran, I am glad you are here.”

Gyokuran waits long seconds for the tingle in her wrists to fade, then begins to run the brush through the princess’ hair again, long and fine as silk. It whispers through her fingers as she lifts her hand up and up and watches its graceful slide.

“Wherever you go, my lady,” she says, “I, Gyokuran, will follow.”

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Birthday Mathoms — 2009

“You will be beautiful,” her new handmaiden says. Cool hands card through the ratty mass of her hair, easing a comb through it. “You already are beautiful, ma petite, though you may complain now.”

Himiko lifts her chin, staring at the reflection in the mirror. She sees a stick-limbed spot-faced twig of a little girl couched before someone smooth-skinned and pale even without paint; it’s like a bug bowing before a cherry tree in full bloom. With a sigh, she drops her head again.

“No, no, ma petite,” her handmaiden says. She slides two fingers under Himiko’s chin and tips it up, then leans their cheeks together. “I have *seen* this, and I see it now. You have a smile that will rival the light of the sun.” For a moment, that lovely face falters, something quietly grieving in her eyes–but then it’s gone, and her smile is brilliant as before. Her long hands rise up, fingertips pressing gently at the corners of Himiko’s eyes. “And I will teach you how to see that for yourself, along with everything else.”

+++++

He doesn’t want to feel sympathy for the Knight–pathetic thing that he is, lurking jealously behind the prince everywhere–but in the end, he’s not sure he’s any different. The prince’s attention should be for a princess, since this is a fairytale, but he hordes it anyway, jealously. He wonders if how it would be if he’d been a daughter instead–Odile to Tutu’s Odette. Would there be more light in the prince’s eyes, looking upon him? If he could properly dance the part of the maiden in the pas de deux, would he be able to fly–?

The girls of their class cluster and giggle nervously whenever his gaze happens to wander in their direction, but they all fall silent when they catch sight of him. Even the Knight doesn’t intimidate them half as much. Some of them like it better, actually, to watch him wind his arms around the prince’s neck and whisper in his ear. He can see the romances forming behind their starry eyes, clearly as if they were written across the pages of a book.

It makes him a little sick. In the end, there’ll be no room for him but as the instigator of tragedy: the Knight will be killed, the Princess will disappear with her love on her lips, and the Prince …

Rue tightens his arms around Mytho’s neck and kisses his cheek; the taste on his tongue is bitter as his own name.

+++++

It isn’t traditional, of course, but with her brother following in their father’s footsteps and her little sister too young to even begin considering options yet, she makes up her mind.

“It won’t be easy,” her father says, his face lined from years of work and smiling; his expression is solemn, but there is a twinkle in his eyes. “Are you sure?”

With a flourish, she draws herself up to ramrod attention, saluting him smartly, as she’s seen soldiers do in parades. Then she can’t maintain it any more and flings herself into the chair opposite of him, resting her chin on her hands. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t sure,” she says. “I really want to do this–I’ll be able to protect all of you, this way.”

Her father laughs. The sound is just a bit rueful. He reaches out and ruffles her hair; she leans into it happily. “Your mother will probably have other things to say,” he says. “But you’re a good girl, and your heart has never led you wrongly. You’re smart enough to match any man in the army, don’t let them convince you otherwise.”

“Even an Oak?” she asks, peeking at him from under her lashes. She’s grinning, a little–she’s only met the son of the Oak family a couple of times, but she’s heard enough of the rumors to know. Her father snorts and gives her head a gentle shove before he sits back.

Especially an Oak,” he says, and winks. “Not that you heard me say that.”

Mikage winks back. “Of course not,” she says. Excitement bubbles in her skin like a physical thing, and a moment later she’s out of the chair and bounding off to find her mother. In her heart, she’s already flying.

+++++

“Ara ara,” she says, fan fluttering just under her laughing eyes. “How improper, Hiromasa-sama! And when you have a princess to court!”

Hiromasa’s mouth remains half-open, his greeting strangled in his throat on the first syllable of Seimei’s name. She snaps the fan shut and points at him dramatically, and the smirk on her face is unmistakable. Somewhere in the gardens, hidden by the half-closed doors, Mitsumushi giggles.

“Broad daylight may be explained by one thing or the other, but this is this and that is that,” says Seimei. “What if your princess finds out?”

He continues to gape for a moment; his mouth moves several times before he can make sound come out. “S-S-Seimei! Wh, what are you talking about, this isn’t, this is–!”

“Business?” Seimei’s fox-eyes go wide and innocent. She could almost pass for a young girl. “Ara ara, what sort of business could that be! And at this time of night!”

Seimei!”

She laughs aloud and sits up; her long hair trails over her shoulder, unraveling from its customary blade. The unwelcome thought, as before, comes up: that Seimei is a very beautiful woman, and that if she simply tried, she could rival any woman of the court. He’s tired, though; it has been a long day, and every poem he has tried to compose has been little more than trash. He cannot imagine reciting it, especially in front of Fuji-hime.

“Quiet is sometimes the most precious thing, isn’t it,” she says, and there is something like sympathy in her voice. She pats the space beside her. “I have good sake and good company. Will you?”

Hiromasa hesitates. His fingers twist in their sleeves. He crosses the short distance and sits beside her, and watches as she pours sake for them both. “I have actual business,” he protests, before he drinks; it is cool and sweet against his lips.

“Of course,” Seimei says, and lets silence take over.

+++++

“HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW,” Horohoro wails, only it sounds more like HW WSS SPSD TNO with his face swollen as it is. He flinches when Manta slaps a final bandaid over his nose.

“We all knew,” Yoh drawls lazily. He’s lying on the floor, arms folded under his head. “I mean, it’s not like it wasn’t obvious. You should learn to knock before you barge into the bath.”

“But–but!!” Horohoro’s hands make cupping motions. “Her sister’s such a babe, and–she had–you know!!” His hands flex again. “And her mom, too! Chinese women aren’t really supposed to–you know! But they did, and their LEGS, and–!”

Lazy as a cat, Yoh rolls onto his side, facing away from Horohoro. “Ahhh,” he says, “good luck.”

“Eh? Ehh??” He looks around for a moment, confused–Manta has gathered up the first-aid kit and is scurrying away, faster than his little legs should, by all rights, move. “Ehh, what, what–”

Behind him, the door slides open. A killing aura fills the air.

“… She’s behind me, isn’t she,” Horohoro says, with some despair.

“Groveling works, sometimes,” says Yoh, before he turns up the volume of his headphones, the traitor. “But only after you’ve bled, first.”

+++++

They don’t pair her with Mytho, to her frustration. She’s too tall, too imposing–she needs a matching partner, one that suits her better than delicate, slender Mytho. In fact, the instructor says, clapping his paws, if they bind her small breasts down, she could easily play the role of knight instead of princess. Most of the other girls begin whispering behind their cupped hands at this; in their eyes she can see their imaginations at work. Like a flock of drab little birds they twitter and flutter. She ignores them and looks over the crowd.

Rue smirks at her, poisonously sweet and deceptively encouraging. Her eyes glitter like the edge of swords. Her lips move in words that Fakir doesn’t bother trying to read.

Mytho tilts his face up to look at her, so quiet and still. He says, when the instructor prompts, “You will be a good knight, I think,” and his tone is hollow as always. His eyes move dispassionately over her, then slide away like water. As always, he is courteous and distant, and she wonders if he even realizes what sort of defeat this is for her, to give up her place at his side–his protector and his guide and his guardian–to anyone else.

Fakir bites the inside of her cheek until she tastes blood, and just nods, accepting her assignment.

+++++

“Well, isn’t that peculiar,” the fox says. His green eyes glitter as he looks her up and down. The look in them irritates her: the instinctive lust of the young and male coupled with the exacting consideration of his kind. “You use fire, but you smell like ice. What’s that in your blood, anyway?”

She fixes him with her most withering glare. It only makes him grin back at her, showing all his teeth. “I’m just asking,” he adds. “Since it seems we’ll be working together, we might as well get to know each other, hm?”

“No,” she says, flat. “I don’t care to be friends with idiots.”

“Ah, I’m hurt,” he says sweetly, and she wonders how idiotic the humans in his life must be, to not see through that facade to the cold-eyed fox under the warm thin skin. “I’m wounded to the heart.”

“Assuming you have one,” she says, and leaves before he can reply–but she can feel his eyes tracking her the whole way, long after she knows she’s out of sight.

+++++

She made no sound, but he knew she was there long before she settled herself against his back, arms hooking around his throat. She smelled of dust and torn vegetation. She must have been out in the roses again. He tried not to respond to her presence, but his back stiffened regardless; if she noticed, she gave no physical indication.

“Brother,” she sighed into his ear. “You didn’t come home last night.” Her nose pressed into his hair, the point sharp against his scalp. “Ah, and you’ve been smoking again. It’s an unpleasant habit.”

Gil didn’t look at her. The inside of his mouth tasted like ash and blood from where he’d bitten the inside of his cheek raw. “I had a job,” he said. “Some of us have to work.”

“We don’t have to,” she corrected. Her lips pressed briefly against his temple as she spoke; her fingers carded through his hair. “There are others who can do that sort of thing.”

He shrugged abruptly, shaking her off, and took a few steps to put space between them before turning. She met his gaze evenly, her head listing to one side; she was dressed in frothy black silk today, the sleeves and skirt layered and flared out. Dark green ribbons had been braided into the long pale tumble of her hair, framing her pale lovely face. She looked like a doll plucked freshly down from a store shelf, in spite of the green stains on the fingers of her white silk gloves. She was lovely and so entirely viciously, jaggedly broken that even he could see the fractures.

Victoria’s lips curled into a smile. “Brother,” she said, and opened her arms. “Come kiss your sister hello.”

+++++

she can’t
breathe

it hurtsithurts it hurts it

(The man’s fingers are cold on her fevered skin and it almost feels good, but then they curl and her body twists at the sudden starburst of pain and rips through her. Her throat is too raw to scream, so she can only gasp for air, so cold that it tears at her lungs. The moon over his shoulder is red–or maybe there’s blood in her eyes, she can no longer tell–and then the knife-edge of his smile fills her vision entirely.

“Not exactly my type,” the man says, and she can feel characters erupt in burning lines on her skin, draining the strength away from her, “but it’s really remarkable, the resemblance–“)

hurts it

“–soka? Hisoka?”

She doesn’t scream when she comes awake, but it’s a near thing. Her eyes fly open and her hand lashes out, striking against something solid. A moment later, her wrist is enfolded in a careful warm grip, and then she actually looks, and it’s Tsuzuki’s worried face hovering just above hers. There’s a mark reddening on his cheek, but he just smiles at the shock on her face, something gently relieved in his eyes.

“Ah, good,” he says. “You were dreaming.” He lets go of her wrist and sits back so she can sit up. “Better now?”

Hisoka puts a hand to her throat. Each breath tastes raw and metallic as blood. But he’s looking at her with those big stupid puppy eyes, and something in her gut lurches. It feels nothing like those stupid novels that Wakaba reads on her breaks and daydreams about–it feels real, and raw, and too uncomfortable to look back. If she let him, if she showed any sort of sign at all, she knows he’d call this whole thing off, and it makes her angry–she doesn’t want to be seen as weaker, or in need of his coddling, no matter how recently Kyoto is behind them. She ducks her head.

“Yeah,” she mutters. For a moment she tightens her fingers at her throat, trying to breathe through it. “Better now.”

+++++

“Did you know, that thing in the brig thinks I’m doing all sorts of horrible things to you right now.” Elegant as a cat, the Master hitches one hip up onto the edge of the table, leaning forward until his forehead presses against the bars of the gilt cage. “Thousands of years old, and he’s still got this outdated notion of chivalry, of all things! He thinks I’m angry because you rejected me once, or something, like I’m one of your silly flings–I guess he’d know about that, wouldn’t he? You were quite pretty this time.”

The creature in the cage blinks slowly: once, twice, and says nothing. The Master laughs, his voice dropping to a more intimate tone, and he curls his fingers around the cage’s thin bars.

“You and I know better, though,” he said softly. “You remember, don’t you? You can’t hide it from me, Doctor.”

Within the cage, the creature sighs. “We were very young,” comes the final, breathy reply. “And very stupid.”

“Ran away and never stopped running,” the Master whispered. “Until you became mother and destroyer both. Tell me, Doctor, was your precious Earth thinking of you when they came up with that concept?”

There is no reply. He starts to hum, quietly, swinging the cage.

“Maybe it’s not wrong,” he says. “What that little pet freak of yours thinks. Maybe I am just jilted. What do you think of that?” He gives the cage a good hard shake, sending the fragile little thing inside stumbling. “Where were you, Doctor? Tell me? Where were you?”

His voice rises until it echoes off the walls; he snaps his mouth shut with a click of teeth and shoves the cage, so that it continues to swing wildly on its own momentum for long seconds. In the dark, he sees wide dark eyes staring back at him. Even shrunken and reduced down, there are traces of the classmate he’d once known–those eyes are still entirely the same. He meets them for a moment, unblinking as a cat.

“I was there,” he says quietly. “I saw everything that happened when you were gone.”

The Doctor says nothing at first. Then, very softly: “I’m sorry.”

A laugh breaks before he can quite stop it. “Sorry!” he gasps, tears of mirth in his eyes. “Sorry! No, Doctor–” he shoves at the cage again, sending it spinning wildly, “you’ll be sorry. I’ll show you–this time, you’ll see everything.”

+++++

On a certain Sunday, when Gilbert Nightlay was eighteen years old, he came to an epiphany about breasts: namely that one, he rather liked them, and two, he was apparently not horribly discriminatory about whose he liked, seeing as the open vee of skin exposed at Break’s throat, like an arrow pointing to the generous outward swell of her chest, had clearly and utterly captured his attention. At some point during the warm day she had tugged out the collar of her shirt without any real care about how public the park was. Gil sat with his knees pressed resolutely together and his fingers interlaced tightly, and tried not to look.

A lucky man could have gotten away with that–a few helpless sidelong glances, and that would have been the end of it.

Gil was not–and had never been–a lucky man.

“Ah! You’re peeking, you’re peeking!” a voice shrilled, and suddenly that damnable doll Emily was in his face, its stitched grin wide enough to fill his vision. “Gil’s a per~vert!”

He let out an undignified yelp, flailing backwards to get some space, but then Xera Break was looming before him, and that little triangle of skin he’d caught out of the corner of his eye before now mere inches from his nose. Another button had come undone at some point, and now he could see the shadowed curve where her breasts pressed together. She smelled a little like dust and lilac.

“Well, well,” she said. She caught his chin with one finger and pushed until he was forced to look up, straight into her one glittering eye. “Has Gilbert finally hit puberty?”

“We worried!” Emily squawked from her shoulder. “You’re such a worthless guy, Raven!”

“No, no,” Break tsked. “Just slow. Sometimes people take longer to develop than others!”

“Worthless! Totally worthless!”

“Now, now.” Break waved a finger, her expression sincere. “We don’t call valuable resources ‘worthless,’ Emily! For shame.”

Gil sank down low in his seat, covering his face with his hands. A moment later, he felt long thin fingers curl in his hair, pulling until he was forced to look up. Break smiled at him almost gently, though there was a glint in her eye that made his throat close up and his feet cold.

“However,” she purred, “should milady ever be troubled by your wandering eyes …”

She didn’t finish the threat; he rather thought she didn’t have to. She leaned closer, and now he could smell something metallic under the lilac perfume–something a little too much like blood to be anything else. Somehow the one finger under his chin had turned into several, nails pinched into his flesh. “Do we understand each other?”

He swallowed and nodded.

She leaned in as he remained frozen and slightly terrified and touched her lips to his eyelid. He flinched and felt her lips spread into a smile. “Good,” she said. “I’m glad we understand each other.”

+++++

“It’s not that I don’t understand,” Kagura said. “I do, really. A woman’s heart is a terrible thing to toy with.

“But,” she went on, folding her fingers together into position, “I’m a woman too, after all. And I share even less than you.”

The ghost wailed as it was exorcised, clawing viciously at the air, twisting in on itself until it vanished. Kagura watched until there was nothing but a faint twinge in her chest to indicate anything had ever been there. She rubbed a thumb between her breasts, counting heartbeats, then went outside. The barrier had shattered, and on the ground all around her, men were beginning to wake up–most of them, anyway; a few were too still and cold to ever move again. She went straight to Haruka’s side and crouched beside him.

“You know,” she said, “Haruka is veeery good about doing what Youko-chan teaches, but maybe–juuuust maybe–he should tone down the gigolo act, hm?” She leaned her chin on her hands and stared down at him.

He opened one eye and glared at her. “I only did it because you told me to,” he said. “I don’t know why I bother to listen.” He sat up and looked around. “Where did it go?”

“We had a little chat,” Kagura said. She smiled. “It won’t be bothering anyone else, any more.”

+++++

“I, uh,” said Eres. “Do we have any rags?”

Lucille looked blank. “Rags?”

“I. Well.” Eres rubbed the back of his head. “I sort of–need one.”

“The piano’s clean, though,” he said, still blank. “I mean, maybe Gwin has something?”

Eres stared. “Those’ll have varnish all over them, right?”

“Probably?” Lucille set his chin on his hands, blinking. “He probably has polish, too, though I don’t know why the piano would need anything like th–ow!”

Kohaku removed his fist from the back of Lucille’s head. “That ain’t what the brat’s askin’ for,” he said, then jerked his head to the side. “I got a few. You’ll have to get your own eventually, got that?”

Eres stared. “You know what I–”

Kohaku snorted. “Of course,” he said. “It’s that problem, isn’t it? That problem.”

“…” said Eres.

“That problem? There’s a problem?” Lucille looked from one to the other, a bit wide-eyed. “What problem, no one told me there was a problem, come on–”

“N-no,” Eres said, staring at Kohaku’s indifferent face long and hard. “There’s no problem at all.”

+++++

Shuri is eleven years old when she decides she wants to go into the military; she decides this while watching her mother adjust her father’s coat before a party, and he looks quite dashing, in her opinion. There is no man more handsome than her father in that moment–he looks respectable and wise and wonderful, all things an Oak should be. She wants that too, she decides, so her decision is made. She tells him that very night, and his eyes crinkle up with the force of his smile, so she knows she’s made a good decision.

“I was afraid,” he said. “Oaks are always politics or military, but Papa didn’t want to force you into anything you didn’t want, especially if you’d rather go Mama’s path into politics. But it’s in your blood, isn’t it? That love of order and your destiny for greatness.”

Shuri beams, proud of herself. Of course she wants to be lovely and gracious as Mama as well, always splendid in her fine dresses–but the uniform calls to her, with its shiny buttons and crisp lines. “Yes, Papa,” she agrees. “I’ll do anything I have to for our family! And for you!”

He laughs aloud, his voice deep and echoing; Shuri can hear the cheers of the people in the sound. “That’s my girl,” he says. “I’ll talk to Miroku. We’ll get you signed up, and you’ll show this generation just what it is an Oak can do.”

+++++

Two weeks after returning from Inaba, there is a letter without a return address. You open it late at night, after your parents have gone to bed: you recognize the handwriting, and it’s oddly similar to your own. (You wonder if that’s why your uncle suspected you, and for as long as he had.) You have to wonder where he got the materials to write this letter, or the time or ability to send it, but here it is, in your hands.

All it says is: “So you did find out the truth. I wonder what she thought of you. I still do.”

You wonder if he ever went to Izanami’s lair himself and what he might have seen there. A sudden impulse strikes, to write him back and ask him directly. It passes after a moment, and instead, you go to bed.

Exactly two weeks after that, another letter comes: this one has a dried rose pressed between the pages.

“Maybe if we’d met first, things would be different.”

You want to write him back and tell him no, you don’t think so: you can remember how he looked at Yukiko, how he’d watched Rise, how he’d been unable to look away from you the whole time you’d stood in Magatsu-Inaba, his eyes tracing along your throat, over the shallow rise of your breasts. Maybe if that stupid Konishi bitch hadn’t been so frigid, maybe if that Yamano whore had actually been compassionate, none of this would have happened.

You throw away the letter, but keep the rose.

Two weeks after that, you happen to be up late enough, and the TV is one. At precisely midnight, the TV screen fritzes into static. You look up, and there’s a human figure in the midst of all that white noise, waving slowly. The minute changes, and the shape is gone.

The day after that, Yousuke calls, excited and nervous, and tells you Adachi killed himself last night. Or that’s what Dojima-san says, guess he couldn’t handle being in prison; he used his sheets to make a noose and hang himself, serves the bastard right, don’t you think?

You think of the previous midnight, and say nothing.

+++++

Now I lay me down to sleep, he whispers, hands clasped. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

He’s so tired these days, so tired that even breathing takes a heroic effort. He counts himself lucky that Yuri is so unobservant: he still thinks they’re just good friends and nothing else–it’s easy enough to laugh off the double-vision and the trembling of his hands as just regular travel fatigue. The others are beginning to suspect, but only Zhuzhen knows the whole truth. Alex prefers it that way: the less who realize, the better. If anyone knew–if anyone told Yuri–

Guard me Jesus through the night …

“I’m glad you’re here,” Yuri tells him, jostling him a bit with one elbow. His smile is the dearest thing Alex thinks he’s ever seen. “You gotta take me to meet this uncle of yours when things are over, okay? We’ve earned this vacation.”

He smiles a little, and in his heart of hearts, he hopes that he’ll see the rest of this quest through to that day. “All right,” he says. “But you will have to learn your manners. Domremy is a small town, you needn’t shock them.”

“I’m always a gentleman,” Yuri argues. “Have a little faith in me, okay?”

“I will when I see it,” Alex says, innocently, and doesn’t fall over when Yuri smacks him heartily on the back, though the blow feels like it rattles his heart in his ribcage.

And wake me with the morning light.

+++++

“You’re nesting,” said Connor. Surprise thickened his accent considerably. “Look at you! How many of those do you even have?”

Dana crossed her arms over her chest, meeting his gaze evenly. “There’s only the one,” she said. “I named him after you.”

It was almost worth the aghast look on his face, and the uncomfortable way he shifted his weight back towards the door. “Good lord, woman,” he said, “the Gathering’s near-upon us, and here you are, traipsing around you’ve got all the time in the world–”

“It’s been ‘upon us’ for nearly a century now,” Dana said. She raked a hand through her hair, leaving half of it vaguely on-end. “What’s wrong with wanting to be a little happy, before then?”

“What happens if someone comes for your head?” he snapped. Angry again (he’d been angry for years now, angry as he’d been the last time she’d seen him), he pushed off the wall, advancing. “What happens if you make a damnfool mistake and lose it? A family’s not ours to have, Dana; if it was, we would’ve died like normal people like the good lord meant for us to–”

Before he could get close enough to finish his point (she wasn’t sure he even knew, exactly, what he wanted to do), she had her sword out, the point resting against his throat. He stopped at once. They stared at each other for long quiet moments; she spared a moment to be glad that his namesake was such a heavy sleeper.

“He’ll be provided for,” she said quietly. “All my assets go to him, if I die.”

Connor’s eyes narrowed. “It’s still a stupid thing,” he said softly. “You haven’t changed your name in all these four centuries, Dana, and there’s hunters coming out of sewers like rats. I hope to God you know what you’re doing.”

She didn’t move, but he did, and the point of her blade nicked his neck. She watched the bead of blood well up and trickle down his throat, the injury healed by the time it reached his collar. “I do,” she said quietly. “God help me, I do.”

+++++

“Ehhhh, isn’t it difficult?” Kayo asks, her melting brown eyes wide and guileless. “Being a woman, traveling like that? Isn’t it scary?”

The medicine-seller only smiles. She doesn’t move from her perfect seiza position, long elegant hands folded in her lap. She’s a little like a doll, Kayo thinks, like the ones she’s seen in very fancy stores, and servant-girls can only peek inside. “It is what it is,” she says. “No more than that. No less.”

“So it’s difficult, then?” In spite of herself, Kayo inches closer. There are dreams crystallizing in her mind every time she blinks her eyes. “It’s really really difficult, but you persevere no matter what? Every day, every night, one lone woman against the world–!”

“Ah,” says the medicine-seller. Her voice is very quiet, but it feels almost like a physical shock, cutting through Kayo’s words and leaving her dumb with surprise. Under the pale fringe of her bangs, her eyes are beautiful and flat–really very much like a doll’s. Kayo looks into them and feels cold. The medicine-seller is talking now, and it takes her a moment to tune in: “… an ordinary humble medicine-seller. That’s all.”

“Hmmmmmm.” Kayo leans back a little. She feels oddly disappointed. “It’s not exciting at all?”

“No,” the medicine-seller says. She smiles again, and this time Kayo thinks she sees fangs in it. “Not at all.”

+++++

When she first realizes it’s jealousy she feels, part of her is horrified. Kairi is her friend–one of her best, and so much more understanding and sensitive than Sora. It’s still the crux of it, though: Kairi is one of her best friends, but Sora is the best, the only boy on the entire island who looks at how freakishly tall she is and isn’t afraid or stupid about it. Sometimes she despairs of his actually understanding anything, but he treats her like a person and like a friend, and she can’t help but be stupidly, desperately grateful for it.

And yet: they’re getting older, and instead of looking at her, Sora’s attention keeps wandering. He watches Kairi with a hopeful bright smile and brief shy glances, and hardly seems to notice when Riku is there until she’s in his face, impossible to ignore. Everything in him is focused on Kairi, Kairi, Kairi, and Riku feels the separation as keenly as a physical loss. She feels restless in her own skin, trapped within the limited possibilities within Destiny Island.

When the witch comes, whispering promises and prophecies, it’s the easiest thing in the world to take her hand.

+++++

The first time she meets her new boss, she has to admit, she does not think very much of him: he is small and nervous, with an unkempt mustache and nervous fluttering hands. She worries what sort of leader he will actually be, when he cannot even look her directly in the eye and mumbles his words until they slur together. His handshake has clammy palms, and he mumbles fatherland, fatherland over and over. He is not the first who made such a mistake about her, and he likely won’t be the last. All she can do is try to meet his eyes when he’ll let her and prove herself to be exactly as she says: his pride, his fatherland, all that he plans and hopes and dreams for.

And if there is madness in his eyes, the few times he can make himself look at her, then perhaps it’s only her imagination. She will choose to believe in him, and hopes in her heart that it will be enough.

+++++

She’s never been a good cook, despite the efforts of her mother and grandmother to teach her. She waits for too long, so things get crisped black, dried out, or both–food doesn’t speak to her the same way arrows do. The rhythms of archery and the practice range are entirely different from those of the kitchen, which is a mystery that continues to elude her. Her grandfather always just laughed at these failures: Shizuka is suited for other things. She’ll find her own place without forcing anything.

Years later, she unwraps the bento that Watanuki has packed for her: karaage chicken, kinpira gobo, gomae, everything deftly laid out for the perfect balance of colors, ignoring the ranting that comes from his mouth and instead paying attention to what’s hidden in the food. There is care and respect here, for the food as much as anything else.

She doesn’t smile, but she eats all of it: she thinks someday, he’ll realize what it means.

+++++

The most unfair thing is that, for all that it skulks in the shadows of society and operates outside of the rules set by the other Great Houses, the Nightlay family still has its own rules, and these will be never be broken. The family will always be led by a man–the Duke is the one who will attend meetings with the heads of the other Houses, who makes the assignments and decisions for the rest of the family, and there can be no exception. Ever.

So it means that the single trueborn child of the Nightlay family–the one who has direct blood connection to the ancestors–is stuck sent going to school to learn ridiculous unnecessary things (if there was any hobby more useless than embroidery, she didn’t want to know of it) while her birthright is handed off to an interloper, a fake, whose only asset is that he was born a man. And never mind the elder of that pair–the family doesn’t care that she wears trousers and carries a gun and is how Pandora keeps a leash on the family: she’s neither blood nor male, brought in and kept only to make sure the heir is satisfied.

And that’s what builds into the total unfair situation: that they brought in two when they needed one. Elena could train until her hands are worn and tough as leather from fencing, study until she knew the rules of society better than her father himself, and it would all come to nothing.

She slams her fingers down hard on the keys of the piano, and doesn’t move until long after the discordant echoes fade away.

+++++

“I think the best part will be when puberty comes,” Etna gloats.

“Eh? Why’s that?” Flonne blinks, cocking her head.

“‘Cause the Queen was, you know–” Etna makes a cupping motion at her chest. “She had a nice body. So in a few more centuries …”

Flonne’s eyes go wide. She covers her mouth. “Oh,” she squeaks. “Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes,” Etna beams. “I can’t wait.”

+++++

One winter day, the princess saddles her horse and goes riding. She leaves behind a note and takes only enough provisions to last the day. Down to the field she goes, her pace slow and easy. Under the steel gray of the winter sky, she dismounts and spreads out a blanket, sitting cross-legged atop the dry dead grass. She pours wine into two glasses; one of these she holds up and tips, until the liquid spills out into the cracked earth.

“I think this is enough of a happily ever after,” she says. In the chill, her breath steams faintly. “Till I die, anyway, and I’m not doing that for a while. Not even for you.”

A breeze cuts through the field, sliding tiny icy fingers through her hair, rustling through the corpses of grass. You’d be surprised at how patient the dead can be. Don’t be so arrogant, no one else would be willing to wait.

“I’ll be satisfied with that, then,” she says, and drinks her share.

+++++

“It will be a wonder,” she growls, “if my partner survives this exam.”

Razette trills, reaching up to pat her cheek with one small damp hand. She leans into it with a muttered sigh.

“The idiot can’t even be bothered to pay attention in lecture, let alone actually do any work,” she goes on. “I asked if he’d done any sort of studying lately, and he started rattling off the three sizes for the female acolytes–including mine!” For a moment she clenches her hand into a fist, and contemplates the memory of her partner’s smirking face. “I swear, if he tries anything more–”

“He will be spoken to,” a deep voice says behind her. She spins around in surprise, blinking up into Bishop Bastien’s serene face.

“Ah,” she says, not quite embarrassed. “Sir, I didn’t mean–”

“He’s still very young,” Bastien murmurs. “And very … fond of the idea of ‘sowing his wild oats,’ so to speak, before this exam.” He puts a hand over his heart, meeting her eyes directly. “I’m sorry, Trainee Castor. He’ll be dealt with.” He cracked his knuckles abruptly and turned his back. “I promise you that.”

“See,” she tells Razette, watching him go. “That is a true gentleman of the church. If Frau could be more like him, then …”

Razette folds her arms on the stone edge of the fountain and leans her chin against them. She flips her tail idly through the water, and makes no reply.

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upon the bed, a girl

They say that the original valkyrie were birds who chose to become women, discontent to remain in the air when the battle raged below them. From the heavens they descended, ice-pale hair and flashing eyes, to take up sword and spear. And the men of the cold north found them fair, and so took them to wife: by force or sorcery or seduction, and from these unions came the people of Ragnival: the giant broad-shouldered men and the sleek fine-boned women, the deadliest and most dangerous of people.

Even Odin’s Witch, at her core, is no different: Oswald can put his hands around her wrists and touch thumb to ring finger without straining. He marvels each time at the delicate way she’s put together — he’s seen her cut through entire battlefields of soldiers without breaking a sweat, and even in exhaustion her spear never trembles in her grasp, and yet he just needs to squeeze a little to feel every single bone in her wrist. He can lift her with one arm and pin her with the other, and she puts her small slim hands on his throat, her thumbs stroking his jaw in sweeping lines.

Oswald’s new wife is a solemn creature, with her dark eyes and serious mouth, but she smiles for him when he leans over her, careful with his weight on her bones. She accepts his kisses with gravity and returns them in kind, always with the pressure of her fingers on his throat.

“Would you kill me on my marriage bed, then?” he asks her. “Do it swiftly, then, and I’ll close my eyes.”

Her brows draw together. For a moment she tightens her grip on him, and then she relaxes, but she doesn’t let go.

“My lord husband,” she says quietly. “Forgive me, I did not intend to cause you insult.”

“It was no insult.” He takes her wrist again, and pulls the one hand away, so he can press it flat to his chest instead. “It would be a greater insult if you didn’t speak honestly here, of all places.”

Her lips quirk. “Your veranda window is open, my lord. It does seem a place where nothing can hide.”

It’s not quite a smile, but Oswald feels himself relax a little at that, like some tiny seed has taken root in a withered landscape. If she can look like this, proud valkyrie under a man’s weight, then perhaps even without spell or artifice, he might someday …

“My lord,” Gwendolyn says. “I may be a virgin, but I am no frightened girl. I grew up among the warriors of my father’s court. You needn’t worry so about courtesy.”

“I do,” he says. “It would be disrespectful of a warrior of your status to do otherwise.”

Her eyes darken. “I am no longer a warrior,” she says. She turns her head away. “I am yours to do with as you wish.”

Oswald releases her wrist, and pulls the laces of her bodice open. Her skin is pale and battle-scarred; even the best of armor cannot turn away everything. One in particular reaches from her navel to curl around the swell of her left breast; he traces this with a finger and feels her shiver.

“What I wish for, I will only accept if freely given,” he says. “Tell me, how did you get this?”

Gwendolyn licks her lips. “A Unicorn Knight,” she says. “I had landed, and he came down from above. My sister killed it as I lay stunned.”

“Stunned,” he repeats, and traces the scar again. “Just that?”

She regards him with unblinking eyes. “No Halja came for me that day,” she says. “And none on any day since, until I am here before you now.”

“Would I could say the same,” he murmurs, and bows his head. He can feel her indrawn breath, but her question strangles on a small noise when he kisses the top curl of the scar, just alongside the nipple. Under him she goes rigid — less out of terror and more out of calculation, as she sorts out the feeling and apparently decides she likes it: her hand curls in his hair and pulls him down.

Oswald remembers that he intended to be gentle — because his wife still is a virgin, though a warrior well-blooded and seasoned. He remembers Blom admonishing him to go slowly, for disgraced or not, Gwendolyn was still the daughter of Odin, and any small insult might be enough to draw the king’s ire.

But Gwendolyn makes an impatient noise and surges up against him; in a moment Oswald finds himself turn on his back and she weighs nothing as she sits aside his hips. She leans forward, and her hair slips over her shoulder onto his chest, coarse and perfumed for the night, but still with the smell of blood and smoke in its fall. Her eyes are nothing like that day on the battlefield: she glares down at him with fire snapping in her eyes, and she’s magnificent.

“My lord,” she says, and he makes a strangled noise as she reaches to unfasten his trousers; her hands are nimble and callused. She is nothing like the giggling fairies of his youth, with their soft perfumed fingers and petal-sweet skin; his wife is a hard creature, a sharp creature, and he will not insult her by speaking of the fear that makes her fumble, nor the plain unfamiliarity that makes her fumble and her nails catch against him. The sting is fleeting and he hisses, and Gwendolyn looks down at him with the same wild eyes.

“Gwendolyn,” he says; she starts at the sound of her name, then bites the corner her mouth hard. He sets his hands on her waist, under her ribcage. Her skin is warm to the touch. I am not your enemy, he wants to tell her, knowing she would not believe, and so closes his eyes. “The first time will be unpleasant. After that, it will be easier.”

Under his hands, Gwendolyn draws in a quick sharp breath. She shifts, spreading her skirts wider around them, and presses her knees to his hips. Oswald is not shamed to realize he holds his breath when she presses her hands to his chest and rises — no matter that she is prisoner of his estate, he has always been her captive.

When she sinks over him, she gasps once — a thin, sharp noise — and is silent. Oswald keeps his eyes closed as he reaches for her hands, and she clutches him so hard he knows he is bleeding. It might be, he thinks, the first time he has done so for a reason other than death.

He whispers her name like a talisman and she begins to move.

At some point he opens his eyes to watch her and sees her watching him in turn. There is blood on her mouth and blood on his hands, and she presses a biting kiss to his knuckles like it’s a challenge. Up he surges, his arm thrown hard around her thin waist, so close that her breath is quick upon his cheek and her second startled noise is pressed to the corner of his mouth.

Once more he says her name and once more she flinches, all whipcord muscle tightening in his arms. He kisses her and she bites him back in return, and her blood tastes no different from his, sharp and metallic and hot with life.

“My lord,” she whispers in his hair, her voice grown soft, almost gentle. She slides her hands around his throat again, her thumbs pressed to his pulse. “… Owswald.”

Ahh, he thinks, his cheek to hers, her heartbeat thundering against his own: perhaps this is all he’s wanted in life.

Later, as she sleeps, he turns the ring Titrel over in his fingers. It’s another thread in the gilded jesses he’s braiding for her, and he cannot quite bring himself to give up hope. A valkyrie may be taken by force, sorcery, or seduction; he is no wizard, and she is his match in battle, so he can only kiss her ring and hope if he keeps her close long enough, she will relent beyond the duties of the marriage-bed.

Silent, he waits for morning.

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the things he dreams

His first roommate in the Academy is also nobility: not an Oak, of course, but the son of a magistrate based in the Third District, so not anything too shameful. He’s taller than Shuri by a good half-head, with long elegant hands and wispy-fine pale blond hair. His eyes are slanted and sharp and there’s always a smile that sits at the corner of his mouth, twisting it into a constant smirk.

He introduces himself on the first day, first to Papa, then to Shuri himself. Shuri forgets his name within half an hour. Continue reading

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For Pride And Honor (these things i grew up with)

Actually, when he’d been a child, Shuri saw his extended family quite a bit.

Those were the days before Papa had become a general, when Mama would throw grand parties at least once a week. There would be all sorts of people, including every member of the family within easy traveling distance, and from them there was always a gaggle of cousins that were lumped together, under the supervision of several sour-faced nursemaids. Those came as part of some other branch of the family, of course; Shuri’s own nurse was a comfortable round pixie of a woman, whose only real purpose was to fuss with the line of his collar and tell him where his parents were at any given time. At parties, though, he always knew exactly where Papa and Mama were at all times–and how could he not, when they were clearly the most dashing and wonderful adults at the whole thing?–so he ignored her, letting her sink to insignificance in his world view until he needed her again. She was a servant, after all; that was the way things were. Continue reading

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the names are symbolic

Odette was lost. It was beginning to become embarrassing.

There was a clear path in these woods–she knew, because she’d helped her parents clear it away herself, tending to Sigfried when he began to fuss. There were thin white scars on her fingers from a particularly stubborn mulberry bush, whose roots had sunk deep and whose thorns were sharper than her mother’s dagger. She’d even been following it–but then a butterfly had drifted past, ethereal and delicate as her father’s stories, so she’d looked–just for a moment!–and now Odette found herself lost. Enough sunlight cut through the branches overhead to give her something to see by, but the undergrowth was thick and nearly unyielding against her small weight and smaller knife. Continue reading

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Thirteen Drabbles (multi remix)

#1 – Forgetfulness
GHOST STORY [Vincent and Avery]

The first thing he remembers (the first solid real thing, not the flashes and fragments of imagination tangled up with memory) are gentle hands against his forehead, brushing the hair from his eyes as he shivered and tried to shape a name whose shape and weight escape him, even as he reaches. He’d been so cold except where those hands settled, lulled by a voice repeating nonsense endlessly. In the months that follow, there are bits and pieces that come grudgingly back to him, but none of it is as strong as that one memory, seared unforgettable in his thoughts.

+++ Continue reading

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without touch

Like a cat, Shirogane never blinked. Once Akira had realized, it became something he couldn’t help noticing all the time. There were those moments when Shirogane would tug the brim of his hat down, over his eyes, and just smile (and those irritated Akira more than nearly anything else)–but he never *blinked*. Not unless it was “cute” or pretending confusion, and those times didn’t count. Continue reading

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homecoming

The birds are first to notice: they build their nests high and see her approach. By the time the ship lands and she finally sets foot on the soil of her homeland, they have gathered to wait for her. She studies each in turn, beast and Celestial alike–tired, ragged, worn from long years of waiting–and between one heartbeat and the next she has hands to extend, as if she could gather every one to her breast. On her back, her mirror reflects the emerging sun.

Again the birds burst into song: the great god Amaterasu has come home.

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Gone Home Again

The thing that no one ever tells anyone else–the thing every person has to learn on his or her own, by the process of growing up–is that eventually, even the story’s heroes must make way for others and fade to nothing. That is one of the truths you learned years ago: no story exists on its own. One life connects to a thousand others, and each of those connect to a thousand more; your story is the same one that is unfolding for people you have never directly met, and never will.

Your part is almost over. Continue reading

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the seed of the devil lives on in men

The so-called holy land of humanity is a desert that stretches listlessly beneath a blistering-hot sun; the horizon shimmers with the heat. People here don’t really look anyone in the eye, suspicious and uneasy of their neighbors, let alone the tiny handful of strangers that trickle in and out throughout the year. Money is money, though, and the Earl’s pockets are as deep as they need to be: it takes some searching, but they manage to find a tiny inn that lets them have a single room for twice the going rate.

Devit peers out the window as dusk comes and turns the sky dusty violet, and then deep black. He watches people hurrying to their own homes, and his arms prick into goosebumps as the day’s heat leeches out of the sand. Under the rising yellow-white eye of the moon, the entire world looks like it’s been carved out of rotten muscle and old bone.

“Gross,” he says. Continue reading

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Believe

The thing is: not everything a Nation remembers is of its own history. There are the whisperings of its people, the superstitions and the beliefs and the gods that live and spread and die from border to border, changing until they’re hardly the same as they once were. Heroes pursue monsters that flee with maidens in their jaws, larger than life in deed and gesture, yet utterly contained by it.

Go back far enough in any one memory and there is the truth, but there are things that have never happened that are just as real. Continue reading

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empty cradle

It is coincidence, really, the timing of this evening, where her work and her traditions intersected. She only visits the graveyard twice a year, after all: once upon the anniversary of her husband’s death and once upon the anniversary of her heart’s death. Normally she makes sure it’s a quiet affair: she tells no one, slipping out after her office has closed and before she returns to her house. She doesn’t bother to dress in black for these events: after all, she knows quite well who’s looking, and she knows exactly how little he cares. Continue reading

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yours the only face

“Congratulations,” Bastien tells him, when he emerges from the final hallway. “You did well.” He is smiling as he says this — that same serene look that has always been his, and will always be his first. Frau looks at him and resists the urge to scuff his toes against the ground like a kid.

“Yeah,” he says. “Guess I did.” Continue reading

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hopefall

This is all for you, my love, says the man who is to be her husband. His broad arm is hot and heavy around her thin shoulders. All that is mine, I will share with you.

She looks at the house, the fields, the healthy strong slaves who wait patiently for their orders. She looks at the tall heavy shape of him, blotting out even the sun. Coquettishly she lowers her lashes and murmurs gratitude, and wonders how he cannot hear the blood-red tone of her voice: she has chewed the inside of her cheek raw, and runs her tongue across it as she speaks.

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“What’s in this?” Tim asks. He sits back on his haunches and holds up his find: it’s a small jar of black stone, its designs faded and rubbed away from age and covered in a thin film of pale dust. He blows on the lid for a moment, wrinkling his nose at the kick up of dust, then rubs his thumb across the spiderscript design carved on the top. The jar has a simple metal lid sunk to settle partway into its round mouth, tarnished and faded from age. He slides his thumbnail under the edge of the lid and holds it there. Continue reading

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