Once upon a time, there was a kingdom that existed in the perpetual grasp of winter. Even during the height of midsummer, snow could be found upon the ground, heavy enough to leave clear footprints. And yet, despite this fact of nature, the kingdom did not suffer, for there were plants unique to the countryside that flourished in the snow, and wizards and hedge-witches plied a busy trade, charming greenhouses and other patches of land to make them suitable for farming. This kingdom was called Valeria and was the oldest of the five kingdoms: the one said to be handcrafted by the gods themselves, carved out of diamond and pearl as an example for mankind to emulate.
It is said that, when the world was first created and Valeria was formed out of the primordial ice, the gods who created the world then handed stewardship off to a pair of twins: Luhi, the day and the destroyer, whose bright eyes could see all that needed clearing away and attended to that; and Asi, the night and nurturer, who allowed those injured to rest and recover under his wings, so that they could be strong and tall in his brother’s eyes. And so did these twins rule, bringing a long golden age to the world, as humans worked diligently under the eyes of their gods, so as to please their leaders.
Even the gods reach an end to their time, however. The legend states that a jealous Winter, cheated of command of what he saw as his own kingdom, created a woman whom he called Ghala and sent her to beguile the twins. He made her beautiful and tall and graceful, with long pale hair done up in elaborate braids and deep violet-blue eyes in a heart-shaped face. And when Luhi and Asi saw her, they were both entranced, so that for the first time in their lives, they began to compete against each other for her attention; caught up in their struggle, they did not notice Winter creeping in until after he had claimed permanent foothold in the world of humans. Ghala returned to her master’s side upon his triumph, leaving the twins to awaken to their shattered kingdom.
And the humans that Luhi and Asi had been guiding and protected set up a great outcry, their terror of the fickleness of their gods reaching the original creators within the cloud-coffins where they slept. Once more they rose, this time to mete out punishment for their carelessness: they were stripped of their true-names, so Luhi was only Day, and Asi was only night; then of their power, so they could only observe as they cleared the skies; then of their stewardship, and the rule of the world was given over solely to humans. To those of Valeria, oldest and wisest in the world, who were well-used to the cruelties of Winter and had guided their fellows through the decline of the reign of Day and Night, a special blessing was given.
So long as Valeria flourishes, the old legends say, so too will the entire world.
Celebrate! Celebrate! ring the church-bells, clear and bright in the early winter morning. The noise startles a flock of snow-birds to life, taking off in a breathless flutter of wings against the blue sky; undisturbed, the bells peal on. Celebrate, for the Queen has given birth! Celebrate the birth of our prince! Rejoice!
In the shadow of an arched hallway, sheltered from the cries of the bells, a minister bends his head together with the midwife, who holds a small bundle on each arm. The minister’s lips are pinched together in worry, and the midwife’s eyes are downcast upon the infants she bears in her arms. He is a long thin young man with tousled dark hair and half-moon spectacles riding low on his nose, dressed in the heavy blue robes of state, which pool at his feet. She is smaller than him by a head and a half, with a long heavy cascade of dark hair, tied back from her heart-shaped face by ribbons. Despite the cold, beneath her cloak she wears only a thin frock, spattered with blood and worse from the long birth, and sweat beads her clear brow.
“This isn’t good,” the minister says. Though he doesn’t lift his head, he glances around as he speaks–but everything is silent: the King will only come when sent for, once his wife is allowed the time to recover herself and her composure, and the maidservant attending has been sent off for food without being allowed to see the truth of the matter. The queen herself sleeps deeply, having been hazy with pain for the last three hours of the process. “If anyone finds out about this, it’ll be bad. The people will riot and we can’t afford that right now, not right after the last border-war. If anyone knew–”
“They’re so small,” the midwife murmurs; her pretty dark eyes are sad. “They can’t even see for themselves right now. How could they …”
The minister starts to raise his hand, as if to touch the fine bones of her cheek, then stops himself. For a moment it hovers, and then he lets it fall. He looks away, his thin shoulders bending up uneasily. “I don’t like it,” he says. But: twins are a sign of misfortune, he doesn’t add, though he knows she can hear those words clearly. It is an old saying for Valeria, stretching beyond any one memory, sustained by a history of disasters and country superstition, that living twins symbolize a test for the family that bears them–a long cold winter of hardship by decree of the gods. There are a hundred different charms to ward off the birth of twins practiced by hedge-witches and registered wizards alike throughout the kingdom, ranging from the benign to the stomach-turning.
The midwife closes her eyes. Her lips press together for a moment. “Their despair will be the glory of the people,” she says, and there is an old tired bitterness in her voice. It is an old scar for her, kept alive by an older memory. The minister hesitates again, his hands coming to curl into fists by his side. In her arms, one infant stirs awake but does not cry out, looking curiously at them both with its huge blue eyes.
“Himawari,” the minister says; his tone is helpless and afraid. “If you don’t–”
She shifts the weight of her burdens, turning to present the bundle tucked into the crook of her right arm. She steps forward and leans until he has no choice but to steady her arm, and then she steps away, forcing him to keep hold of the child. She lifts her chin and meets his gaze steadily. “That one is the elder, by an hour,” she says. The wakeful twin is still in her arms, turning its head slowly towards its sleeping twin. “Take him back to Her Majesty’s side.”
“And what about the other one?” the minister asks softly. He clutches his burden awkwardly, shifting to try and mimic her own careful hold. “What are you–”
“I’ll take care of it,” she says softly, casting her eyes down again. She hears him draw in a breath as if to protest and quickly speaks to override him, “No, I won’t tell you what, or how. I don’t want you to know. All right?” She glances up at him through her fallen bangs, then reaches up to brush her fingers lightly over the line of his jaw. He starts a little, his eyes flying wide open, and he looks both very young and very afraid. Somehow, it drags a smile out of her, lingering and sadly fond.
“Take him to see his mother,” she murmurs. “Leave the rest to me.”
She waits until he goes, unflinching even at the heavy echoing boom of the door to the queen’s chamber slamming shut. She looks down at the child she carries, whose blue eyes are not terribly unlike those of the man who has just left her. It’s so very small and new, this child’s life; if she merely flung it away from her, the hard marble floors could do more than enough damage to the fragile bones and soft organs inside.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers to it. She draws the cloak more tightly around her shoulders, tugging the hood up and over her face. She draws the child close to her and makes her silent way down the stairs and out of the palace; the two guards at the gate are far too distracted to notice her leaving. As the bells peal joyfully overhead, she flees the city, and never once does she look back.
On the first day of the Midwinter Festival, a boy arrives at the palace. He is greeted at the gate by a tall man in dark blue, who ushers him quickly inside. The boy is first bathed, then fed, then groomed before he is led to wait outside a set of tall white doors. The man goes inside.
“Your Highness,” he says. He is a man aged more by years than by care, for though his back is still ramrod straight and his small eyes clear, lines cut their way through his square face, and the white at his temples spreads about the space of two fingers. Though he has served the royal family for years, he once hailed from the kingdom furthest south from Valeria–the desert kingdom of Clow–and he dresses appropriately, more heavily than any other man in the king’s high court. His name, as presented in the record-keeper’s book, is Honorable Right Minister, Fei Wang Reed.
“Your Highness,” he says again, his voice still even. “Your new manservant has been appointed.”
The prince of Valeria is a young man–barely more than a boy at this point in his life–with long lean limbs and the careless grace that comes from years of training. He lounges, now, in an ornate chair–not quite on par with the white-crystal splendor of the royal throne, but an impressive one nevertheless, carved from a single block of white jade with deep blue cushions stitched with silver thread–his legs dangling carelessly off one arm. He does not look up at Fei Wang’s words, preoccupied with cleaning his nails with a small pearl-handled knife. “Very well,” he says. “He won’t be boring like the last one, right? Ahh, he was so stiff! No fun at all!” Now he looks up, peeking coyly through his lowered lashes. “You found someone better, right?”
Fei Wang’s expression does not change, clear and neutral as glass. “This one is about your age, Highness,” he says. “Both the steward and I think he will be well-suited to you.”
“Wonderful!” Easily as a cat, the prince sits up. He flips the blade and tucks it back into his long layered sleeve–blue and white and deep violet, the colors of Valerian royalty. He steeples his long fingers and leans forward. “Bring him in at once, then! I want to see him.”
The minister bows and goes to the door. He speaks quietly for a few moments, then opens it wide enough for the boy to step through. Like the prince, he is also tall and lean, though there is a thinness to him that is more about hunger and hard work instead of training; like the prince, he has eyes that are large and bright blue, and his hair is a pale cream-blond; like the prince, he is light-footed and thin-lipped and point-nosed, and it is not unlike looking into a mirror.
“Your Highness,” Fei Wang says, as the boy bows low with the impeccable manners of the lifelong servant, “may I present to you my own sister’s son, Fay Flourite. He is a magician by trade.”
“And your servant by choice,” Fay says, smoothly as if the line had been rehearsed. He keeps his head low, one hand over his heart, just short of dropping to his knees. “As long as you’ll have me, Your Highness, I will be yours to command.”
Prince Yuui of Valeria sits up straighter in his chair; his posture is more tense than it has been in the long months since his mother’s death. He stares at Fay’s bowed head for long minutes, his fingers now laced together and trembling with the force of his grip. Finally, though, he gets up out of the chair, nearly tripping over his robes as he throws himself forward; Fay gives a startled sound as the prince bowls into him, fingers pinching at his cheeks, smoothing through his hair, tugging at the poor rough cut of his clothes.
“Eh, how wonderful!” Yuui says, bright-eyed and grinning. He frames Fay’s face with both of his hands, looking into the other boy’s eyes for a moment, then nods. “You look just like me, that’s really amazing!”
“Amazing?” Fay falters, leaning back a little; he looks a little like a snowshoe rabbit, ready to bolt. Even Fei Wang seems startled by the proclamation. The prince’s hands continue to wander, feeling out the bony shape of shoulders, the sweep of long thin arms. “Your Highness, we look–”
“It’s all right,” Yuui says. He loops his arms around Fay’s thin shoulders and leans until their cheeks are pressed together, nuzzling like some great oversized cat. “It’s all right, I’ll make it be all right. It has to be, look at you!” He thrusts himself backwards, both hands on Fay’s shoulders, looking him over. “It’s like looking into a mirror. Look, here and here …” He reaches up and touches his fingertips to Fay’s cheekbone, thoughtful. “Ah, are you even real?”
“Your Highness?” Fay blinks. He glances at Fei Wang, whose expression has smoothed out again into careful neutrality. “It’s fine if you’d rather not have me, with how we look …”
“If I say it’s fine, it’s fine,” Yuui says, with careless confidence. It is not such an arrogant thing: it is a lifetime of privilege distilled into a phrase; this is the confidence of the First Prince of Valeria. “Ah, look, you’re taller than me, how unfair, Fay-puff~”
“Fay-puff?” Fay repeats weakly, but he merely staggers as the prince leans on him, hesitatingly settling his own hands on the other boy’s narrow hips to help keep them both balanced. Yuui laughs aloud, bright and clear, and waves to Fei Wang merrily, never letting go of his new servant.
“I like this one,” he says. “I like him, I’ll keep him. Sometimes, even you have good taste!”
Fei Wang bows low, the movement graceful and seamless. “I live to serve the Valeria family,” he says. A smile touches his lips. “I hope you will continue to find him and his work satisfactory, in the years to come.”
The Midwinter Festival is a lavish spectacle in Valeria, and in recent years it has become an even greater ceremony, with how the day proper corresponds to the birth of the First Prince. The entire city is decked out in streamers of blue and violet, stitched with the crest of the royal family: two spread wings crowning a wide-mouthed goblet. All business beyond performance and and food grinds to a halt as people are obliged to take the time for the holy days as well as the prince’s birth-day. The more fantastic a display, the better, and the best are invited to perform in the royal palace itself, for the delight of Prince Yuui.
Fay finds the whole thing rather overwhelming, really; his own birthday–a few weeks past Midwinter Day–has always been a quiet affair his entire life, between him and his mother and an afternoon free of chores. In good years, she would scrape together enough to buy a small orange-creme cake, but those instances slowly became fewer and fewer still, until there had been nothing–not even enough on days that weren’t a special occasion. If one were to ask, Fay would say that he had come to the capitol to seek employment so that he would have money to send back to his mother in the country. This is not entirely untrue, but he is also terribly curious about the prince who demands such high taxes on top of his other tributes when he lives in such a fantastic palace, dressed so warmly and finely that if not for the heavier snow on the ground, he would never know it was winter.
On his second day as the prince’s manservant–his first night sleeping at the foot of his master’s bed–Fay is awoken by a puppy-like weight that burrows against his back, and hands on his shoulders, shaking. “Fay, Fay, wake up! This is an order from your prince, Fayfay, you’re absolutely forbidden from making me upset! Wake up, there’s something I want to show you.”
Fay rolls over, muttering and heavy-eyed, and finds himself nose-to-nose with Prince Yuui. “–Your Highness?”
“Aha! You listened after all!” Yuui sits back, eyes sparkling. He is dressed in simple off-white silk today: flowing sleeves and pants that seem better-suited for the hot sands of Clow, though the palace’s temperature always remains pleasantly warm. Tucked in the crook of one arm is a bundle of cloth, which the prince thrusts forward, expectant. “Put this on, and let’s go.”
Startled, Fay fumbles the bundle for a moment; in his hands, it unfurls outwards and unveils itself as a matching outfit to the prince’s, in smoke-gray as opposed to pale cream. “Your Highness!”
“It should fit you,” the prince says, cocking his head to one side. “It’s a little too big for me.”
He can’t help but gape a little. The cloth slides against his fingers like water, and he thinks, dazed, that he has never held anything so expensive in his life, let alone been presented with it. “That’s not it,” he says slowly. “Your Highness, as your servant, I can’t–”
“Of course you can,” the prince cuts him off. “You’re my servant, right? Therefore, you should be dressed to match! If you don’t like the color, Fay-chu, we’ll get you something better. Later, though. Come on! Get dressed, let’s go!”
“Your Highness, you don’t understand–”
Prince Yuui tsks and holds up a hand, waggling it under Fay’s nose. “I understand that I have given you an order,” he says solemnly, though there is a glint in his blue eyes. “You had better listen. I am your prince, after all.”
Fay almost finds it within himself to protest again, then stops himself and turns, presenting the prince with his back. The tips of his ears feel hot and uncomfortable as he struggles out of his rough nightshirt and replaces it with the silk top. It feels cool and alien and weightless; if not for the brush of material against his skin, he would have guessed himself naked. As it is, he knows he’s blushing terribly, hands fumbling and catching on his loose sleeves. The prince, on the other hand, seems terribly pleased, crossing his arms and giving Fay a slow once-over before nodding.
“Perfect,” he says. “Ah, this is wonderful, you have no idea! Come on!” And he catches Fay’s wrist with one hand, his grip firm and sure, and he tugs Fay into a half-trot behind him. “I’ve always wanted someone else to see this.”
Together they slip through the long echoing halls of the royal palace, which are nearly empty; judging by the horizon beyond the windows, which are still mostly dark blue just barely beginning to shade towards pink, it is still terribly early, and beyond a few sentries at various doors, they encounter no one. The prince seems to think the entire thing is a game, pressing himself up against the walls and dragging Fay with him whenever a guard passes; the smile on his face never wavers. A few times, he admonishes for silence with a finger against his own lips, though neither of them say a word as they weave and feint their way through the castle.
Eventually, they reach a single heavy door, fashioned out of ebony wood and carved with flowering vines and flying birds; the latch is made of polished brass. The prince lets go of Fay’s hand to unhook the mechanism, then leans his thin shoulder against it, pushing until the door gives with a low, rumbling groan.
“This way,” he whispers, when there is enough room for them to slip through. He holds out his hand instead of grabbing, this time, and Fay accepts it.
On the other side of the door is a long, winding series of narrow steps, carved from stone and softened by a thin, dark blue carpet. It seems to stretch up into forever, but just as Fay’s lungs began to hitch with the effort, they reach another door–the exact twin to the one at the bottom of the stairs–which gives with a softer creak at the touch of Prince Yuui’s hand.
The door opens to the outside, and Fay flinches automatically at the sudden burst of cold, his hand almost pulling free of the prince’s as he does. His teeth chatter protest as he is dragged further out, cringing up onto his toes at the icy stone beneath his feet.
“Look,” the prince says, his voice breathless. “Fay, Fay-chin, Fay-roo, Fayfay, look up.”
It takes a moment to force himself to uncurl from his instinctive huddle against the cold, but Fay does as he is told.
He sees the stars.
There are thousands of them, in different formations than he remembers from his childhood, and they seem so close that he could reach his hand up and brush against the glittering masses. His breath catches in his throat, and he can only turn slowly, entranced by the view.
“Your Highness,” he says finally, his voice also soft, nearly overwhelmed. “This …”
“This is my spot,” the prince says. He lets go of Fay’s hand and spins away, all his long limbs thrown out wide, as if he could embrace the stars overhead. “This is where my mother used to take me. I’m showing you, because you are my mirror, and a mirror keeps all secrets. All right?” He stops abruptly, arms still outstretched. He looks young and bright-eyed, like Fay’s own reflection had, once upon a time. Other than the lines care has etched around Fay’s mouth and eyes, they could be twins. In that moment, he feels less like an interloper stumbling upon something private and more like he is being shown something he has always known and merely forgotten for a time.
“All right,” he says. He looks back up to the stars, sprinkled like a handful of casually tossed diamonds, and he says, “I will never betray your secrets, my lord, no matter what.”
“Haha, of course you wouldn’t,” Prince Yuui says. “I told you, I have no secrets from myself.” He walks back, making shooing gestures with his hands to usher Fay back inside; he casts one last fond glance over his shoulder before closing the door again. “So, if you ever can’t find me–or if I ever can’t find you, this will be the place to look. All right?”
They head down the stairs, Fay preceding the prince. “All right,” he says. It takes little effort to get the door open again, and the prince is careful to lock it behind them before they return to his chambers. By the time they do, the horizon-line is beginning to shade into rose-pink and warm lavender, and the prince tells Fay that he wants his finest robes prepared for the day; they are receiving special guests later in the day, and he must (he says, with a cheerful wink and a toss of his hair) look his absolute best.
The wardrobe is full of even more expensive things than the thin silk Fay wears; his fingers feel almost numbed from all that softness. When he slips into his own uniform–plain and practical homespun, barely touched up by a mage-weaver’s skills–it is with a definite sense of relief. He can get used to this, he thinks; he will get used to it, and he thinks that perhaps serving the whims of the Spoiled Prince will not be quite as terrible as he fears.
“Your Highness,” says Fei Wang, “these papers require your immediate attention.”
Prince Yuui only shrugs, occupied with his hands and the small glowing cat of light that he has spun between his fingers. “Everything requires my immediate attention,” he sighs. “Everyone is utterly convinced that their petition is the most dire, the most terrible, ahhhh, it’s terrible! Please, prince, listen to what we have to say!” He kicks his legs a few times, spreading his fingers so that his creation can bat at his fingers. “It’s terrible! It’s my birthday, can’t they give me some peace?”
“It’s about the celebrations,” Fei Wang says. His tone is mild. “We’re over budget; we can’t afford the parade for your actual birthday.”
“Ehh?” The prince sits up at that; the light-cat disappears. His jaw sets and his mouth twists into the beginnings of a pout. “That can’t be right–there has to be a parade! There must be money somewhere!”
“This year has been a poor one for harvests,” says Fei Wang. “We’ve exhausted our coffers for the time being.”
The prince sighs loudly and throws himself back in his chair, kicking his legs again, petulant. “Well, I don’t see how it’s a problem,” he says. “If it’s money we need, we can just add it to taxes.”
“If there isn’t enough money, tax it from the people,” the prince repeats. “It’s for a good cause! Everyone likes parades, don’t they? They make everyone happy–it’s money well-spent!” He flaps an arm, frowning earnestly as he does. “Who can begrudge something like that? Do it, Fei Wang.”
The Honorable Right Minister bows his head. He puts a hand over his heart. “As my prince wishes,” he says. His expression is one of pleasant neutrality, the beginnings of a smile sitting on the corners of his mouth. Prince Yuui sinks lower in his seat at the sight, lacing his fingers together and scowling. “Then, Your Highness, if there is nothing else?”
“Tell Fay to bring me a snack,” the prince says. He sinks so low in his fine chair that his shoulders nearly touch the seat; his chin rests on his chest and his laced fingers rest on his belly. “I’m hungry.”
“As you wish,” says Fei Wang, then, “I take it you have found him … satisfactory, so far?”
The prince sighs, hard enough to puff out his cheeks. He says, “He’s funny. He’s interesting. But it hasn’t even been a week and I haven’t made up my mind yet. So go tell him to bring me something to eat, and I will think about it!”
Fei Wang bows again, low enough that his sleeves brush the floor, and he sweeps out of the audience chamber. He walks with slow purpose, pausing only briefly to say to a small alcove: “The prince wishes to take his tea early today. See to it,” before continuing on his way. Behind him, he can hear the boy-servant scrambling to move as ordered, and he allows himself the luxury of a smirk, here where he cannot be seen. Even when he is followed, it does not quite remove the spring from his step.
“He will not listen,” he says, pleased by the sound of that phrase. “You lost his ear long ago. Give it up and accept that fact.”
“I will not,” says his younger shadow. “Not as long as you’re here.”
“You’re a foolish child,” Fei Wang says. He does not speed up, nor does he slow down, and the smirk on his face never tempers itself. “Just like him. You cannot stop the revolution.”
“Nothing is set in stone,” the younger man says. “You can break up an entire army with a single well-placed action.”
Fei Wang stops at that and turns. His heavy brows draw together, and though he does not frown, his smile becomes strained. “You sound like her, now.”
His opponent meets his gaze, now utterly serene. He is a man aged by circumstance, myopic mismatched eyes behind steel-framed glasses (for necessity rather than vanity, unlike so many of Valeria’s mage-spoiled elite), face and body thin and careworn. He dresses all in black, rather than the dark blue of years before, with a butterfly embroidered on each shoulder. He does not smile or blink. “Do I? I wonder if there isn’t a reason for that.”
“It hardly matters. She has no influence here, and neither do you. If the prince finds you’ve snuck back into the palace, he’ll be quite upset. You do remember what happened last time, don’t you?”
“Even if you shouted for the guards right now,” the young man says, “they wouldn’t find me in time.”
“Only licensed wizards may practice cloaking spells, and all such things are forbidden within the royal palace,” Fei Wang purrs. “Will you add high treason to your list of crimes?”
“The stones have already been set into motion,” the young man says, as shadows unfurl and spread into a pool around his feet. They curl around his legs, pulling him slowly down, and he raises his chin so as to keep eye-contact with Fei Wang. “You, of all people, should know better than to believe that you know without doubt where they’ll fall.”
Fei Wang lifts a hand just as the other man drops completely out of sight. For a moment he remains poised, staring hard before he pivots in a whirl of dark blue robes and strides off, and he does not look back as the echo of his own footsteps recedes.
The preparations for Midwinter Night are the grandest Fay has ever seen in his life: the already-impressive ballroom of the palace transforms as he watches, draped with banners of silver and varying shades of blue, the ends emblazoned with the Valeria crest. The kitchen brings out delicate ice statues that reach up to Fay’s hip and taller–dragons with their serpentine bodies coiled and powerful, unicorns caught in mid-step with delicate hooves raised, and fierce snowhawks, stretched in exact balance with their wings spread wide–and Fay cannot stop himself from gawking at each. Food comes next, tables and tables of dainty finger-snacks in all colors of the rainbow and of more variety and quantity than he has ever seen in his entire life. None of the other servants share his awe; one snaps at him to actually do work rather than simply stand and gawk uselessly. Ostensibly Fay is there to oversee that things are to the prince’s liking, but he feels more than a little overwhelmed by the entire spectacle. Any questions he asks are tersely ignored, and eventually he drifts to the side of the room, tugging at the sleeves of his too-new outfit: dark blue embroidered with silver at the hems and the royal crest stitched over his heart.
“It marks you as the prince’s own,” his uncle had told him, at the fitting. “It shows you have more power than any other servant in the palace. There will be those who resent your influence, but they are merely yapping dogs. Ignore them or crush them, as you see fit.”
He does not feel powerful nor influential right now: he feels lost and more than a little afraid. The servants come together like some sort of magical machine, honed to absolute efficiency from years of practice, and he is the one piece that does not quite fit anywhere. He drifts towards a wall, careful to avoid getting in anyone’s way, then tucks himself onto the edge of a windowsill, wedged into the corner so he can just watch. Five servants, tall grown men each, come staggering out under the weight of a fountain that looks like it’s been carved from solid gold: a stylized sun embraced by a crescent moon set by a scattered cascade of thumbnail-sized diamonds. This is set in the center of the room, and then a sixth–a small tawny-haired girl–stretches up onto her toes to affix a glowing silver ball into the air above the fountain. None of the other servants even seem to notice, but Fay leans forward, sliding from his perch, fascinated in spite of himself.
An old hedge-witch had lived in his old village, a wizened elderly creature whose tangled white hair had dragged on the ground behind her, who had always smelled of lavender and burnt grass. Fay had seen the witch perform magic only once–a small parlor-trick with firefly sparks to prove that she could–and the image has never left him, in all the years since. Now he can’t look away from the little silver ball, and his fingertips itch with the desire to touch.
“It’s pretty, don’t you think?” a girl says, and he starts to realize that it’s the one who placed the spelled globe in place. She stands next to him, the top of her head scarcely coming to his shoulder, wrapped snugly in so many layers of furs that she looks almost round. A clip set with a pearl wing pins her hair back from her eyes, and a sapphire like a single teardrop hangs around her throat, resting outside of her clothes. Her eyes are huge and clear green, and they light up with her smile. “You like it?”
He blinks at her for a moment, surprised at being addressed, then flushes. “It’s, yes,” he mumbles. “It’s very pretty.”
“Ah, I’m glad!” She beams, and her smile is more brilliant than her spell. “I worked very hard on that one. The prince himself praised it!”
Fay licks dry lips. “He did?”
“Mmm.” The girl smiles again, more gently this time. She lays a hand on her chest, covering the sapphire she wears. “My mother used to serve the old king. When my parents died–the prince sent for me. He said if I could impress him, he’d employ me, and he’d make sure I’d never want for anything.” She lifts her head and looks at the silver ball. “I showed him what light could do to his fountains, and he was so happy. So here I am! –Ah, and I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. I’m Sakura.” She holds out a hand, and it is small and slim and white, more delicate than any woman’s he’s ever known.
He ducks his head, blushing harder. “… Fay,” he mumbles, and takes her hand. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to do–should he kneel, should he kiss it? if she’s Prince Yuui’s employed magician and he’s his manservant, does he outrank her or not, and either way, isn’t that the polite thing to do?–but Sakura squeezes his hand warmly and turns their clasp into a handshake. She is the brightest thing in the entire room, he thinks, even brighter than the silver globe of light that is powered by her magic, and Fay can’t look away from her smile.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Fay,” she says. Her eyes drift to the symbol on his breast. “Oh, you’re also–”
“I’m new,” he blurts. He can feel the tips of his ears going red. “I mean, it’s only been a week, I don’t, I’m not–”
Sakura’s expression softens. She reaches for his other hand and folds them both gently between hers and squeezes again. “It’s all right,” she says. “It’s all very strange when you’re new, isn’t it? I know what it’s like. But it’ll be all right. You’ll get used to it, and you’ll get more comfortable with it. I promise.”
Her expression is gentle and earnest, and she is so utterly genuine that Fay can’t help but smile a little in response. “I’ll try my best,” he says softly, and that makes her smile grow even more. “I want to do my best.”
“Of course you do,” she says. “And I’ll help you. If there’s anything you need–ah, my rooms are in the west tower–here,” she reaches into her hair and undoes a small jeweled butterfly clip, hidden near the shell-curve of her ear. This she presses into his hand, curling her fingers over his to close them. “If you ever have to find me, hold this in your hand and think of me. It will lead you to where I am.”
Fay gapes for a moment. “Are–you’re sure? This is expensive, I can’t, you–”
“It’s a very easy spell,” Sakura assures him. “It was one of the first that Mama taught me.” Her expression goes sweetly wistful for a moment, seeing through the busy bustling room and into something long past. “And when I was new, all I wanted was for someone to help me out. So now that I can, I’m going to.” For a moment she hesitates, then peeks up at him through her lashes. “Is that selfish?”
“No! No, not at all,” he says, waving his free hand nervously. “It’s very generous of you, Miss Sakura. I’m grateful.” He takes the clip, and under her wide-eyed gaze, he clips it to his lapel, nearly hidden by folds of cloth, and gives her a tentative smile.
She laughs, clapping her hands. “Very pretty,” she says. “It suits your eyes, Fay-san! Please don’t be afraid to call on me any time.”
“Oi!” someone shouts from the other side of the room. There is a cluster of white-robed people from the kitchen gathered around a particularly elaborate ice statue–the twins Day and Night, their hands outstretched and not quite touching; even from a distance, their mournful expressions can be clearly seen. “Magician! Some support here!”
“Ah, yes! Right away!” Sakura smiles at Fay, squeezing his hand one last time, and then she goes, light-footed and quick as a little bird: even the hem of her cloak flies out behind her, like the impression of spread wings. He watches her go, his fingers tingling and face warm, and in spite of himself, his fingers drift up to touch the butterfly pinned near his throat.
Yuui wears the pearls with the silver settings and the silver circlet of Valerian royalty, settled with artful care in order to not crush or distort his pale hair. Along with the dark blue of his robes, he knows he makes an eminently dashing figure, and he is proud of himself, glad with the way all eyes turn towards him, admiring and enchanted; he is the center of attention not just for being the beloved prince, but for his looks and his style. He allows himself to preen just a little, smiling broadly whenever a nobleman approaches him for a murmured conversation or a lady brushes her fingers against his sleeve to ask him to dance. Yuui owns the entire ballroom, and he is glad for it.
As the night wears on, though, he allows himself to drift more freely, holding his own small court of true admirers as his other guests begin to mingle amongst themselves, separating off into their own small groups. Fay is his faithful shadow the entire time, never so close as to be irritating, but near enough that by the time Yuui starts to think he might be hungry, or thirsty, his servant is bringing him something to satisfy himself with. And if he is entirely honest, he thinks this party is more fun than those from previous years because Fay is there, wide-eyed and amazed at everything going on around him. The grandeur of the royal palace is such a simple familiar thing to Yuui, but he looks at Fay’s shining face and lets himself pretend everything is new for him, as well. Whenever he can, he gives back bites and sips for Fay to try, and grins at how startled and pleased the other boy is.
If anyone notices how similar their faces are–and, Yuui thinks, there is no way anyone couldn’t–no one comments on it. Fay keeps silent and his face turned downward whenever someone approaches to speak to Yuui, as is entirely proper, but Yuui finds it vexing, oddly; he wants to show off his mirror-self and say look, here is a pair of twins that will cause no trouble for the people of Valeria! but every time the impulse wells up in his throat, he glances and sees the statues of Day and Night, and finds his voice curbed.
“Your Highness,” says Fei Wang, and Yuui turns to him with a frown that is halfway a pout–there are still papers he needs to sign, he knows, but it’s his birthday and he doesn’t particularly want to think about them right now. Before he can complain, though, he sees the other boy that is standing at Fei Wang’s elbow, sandy-haired and bright-eyed, and entirely dashing, slightly shorter than Yuui is. He is dressed in fine green silks that compliment his sun-darkened skin and tousled hair, and though there are gems shining at his throat and on his fingers, those hands are rough with calluses and have dirt under the nails. There is a polite smile on his face–the “company” smile of nobility, always distinctly aware of the eyes following one’s movements everywhere. He is poised and graceful and looks somehow completely out of place in the cold glittering beauty of Valeria’s court on Midwinter’s Night. Yuui looks him over thoughtfully, then turns to Fei Wang, who smiles and sweeps into a bow.
“If I may,” he says, “I would like to introduce you to His Grace, Li Xiao Lang, the second heir to the Middle Kingdom’s throne. I know Your Highness wished to visit there at some point in this coming summer season; I thought that perhaps the two of you would like to speak, before that time. His Grace is a great scholar of ancient history, and has expressed a desire to talk.”
Xiao Lang smiles again now that he has been introduced. It’s warmer than before and reaches his eyes, and Yuui smiles back before he can stop himself. “I have heard many stories about your kingdom, Your Highness,” he says, his words rounded and soft with the accent of the Middle Kingdom. “I have wanted to come see your kingdom myself for a long time.” He holds out a hand that is warm and broad, and Yuui takes it immediately, knowing he is grinning foolishly the entire time. Xiao Lang has a solid comfortable grip, and they shake like friends under Fei Wang’s approving eye.
“Oh, me too,” Yuui says. It’s only halfway a lie: his tutors have been over the histories of each of the five kingdoms of the world very thoroughly–if he is to be king, and to be High King of Valeria, they have told him, he needs to “understand the lessons of the past.” He does want to visit the Middle Kingdom, but it’s more for the lovely pictures he’s seen in books, and in the stories of the exciting marketplaces and the idea of being constantly warm, even during the long months of winter. “I’d love to hear anything you have to say.”
Xiao Lang ducks his head a little, as if shy. The movement causes hair to fall into his eyes. It’s absurdly charming, more than it has any right to be. Yuui hears Fei Wang talking in the background, briefly, and from the corner of one eye he sees Fay bow and scurry off, dismissed for the night. He thinks he will have to summon the boy later, to possibly talk about everything he is about to hear, because there is something shivery and excited moving under his skin, and he thinks that he will have to talk about it before he simply explodes with the force of his own nerves.
“There are many places I can start,” Xiao Lang says. “I tell you a story, and you tell me one, does that sound right?”
“Please,” Yuui says, and thinks that he has never been so eager to ask for something in his entire life. “You’re interested in history? There’s so much here, you’re welcome to make use of the libraries while you’re here in Valeria. I can give you access to the records–”
“Ah,” says Xiao Lang, holding up both hands. “Not quite like that. I am interested, yes,” he adds, when Yuui pouts at him, “but I am also interested in seeing things for myself. I like to work with my hands.” He holds them out, palms up, as if for inspection. Yuui can see that there are rough patches on his palms to match the calluses on his fingers, and fine white scars long the curve of his palms: not so much the sign of old attacks as the everyday wear and tear on working hands. They would look like a peasant’s hands, if not for the three heavy gold wrings that sit on the middle fingers of his right hand, and the ruby-set silver band on his left thumb. “I know that this is the wrong time of the year, when there is so much snow, but I have received permission from my Empress to remain for a while, and study.”
“Oh!” says Yuui, and resists the urge to bounce on the balls of his feet like a child. “Well! If that’s what you want, certainly we can see those. I’ll show you all those places, and then, afterwards–” He ducks his head a little, glancing up through his lashes at Xiao Lang’s good-natured face, “I’d like to go back with you to your kingdom, and see what you have to offer.”
This time, when the other boy smiles, it’s like the sun coming up for the first time after the months of midnight; he reaches out and clasps one of Yuui’s hands again between both of his own, shaking it warmly. “I promise,” he says. “In the spring, we will look at the things that are here. In the summer, we will look at the things in the Middle Kingdom, and it will be fair between the two of us.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Yuui says, with a sincerity he cannot fake. The pit of his stomach coils with happy anticipation; his skin feels charged nearly electric. The dangerous desire to just whoop like a child tickles his throat and colors each word. “You have no idea.”
Xiao Lang nods. His own expression is eager, and Yuui hopes that it matches his own. He points to the two ice statues, and says, “Tell me that story. One man said it was important to this kingdom, but he would not say why.”
Yuui purses his lips. “It’s not a very happy story,” he says critically. “It’s a fable about not giving up on your responsibility, and how twins are the misfortune that nearly doomed humans.”
“Doomed?” Xiao Lang echoes; there is polite disbelief in his eyes. It is not a terribly unique response: Yuui has seen others, non-native to Valeria, react similarly to the legend and its warning. “How?”
“Come on, let’s not talk about it now,” Yuui protests. He gives into impulse then, and latches himself onto Xiao Lang’s arm, which is solid and strong under the thin silk of his sleeve. The other boy looks startled, but just blinks at him then, as if bemused. “It’s my birthday,” Yuui adds, at that look. “I don’t want to talk about boring unhappy things. I’ll tell you later, okay? Right now, I want to hear more about Xiao Lang. What does he like to do? Other than looking at ruins, what does he like to do with his free time?”
“I study,” Xiao Lang says, and his voice is just as bemused as his expression. “I am not the first heir, so I have more freedom. I sometimes sit in on court, and study with Elder Sister, but mostly I am a scholar. Sometimes, there are expeditions to ruins. If my Empress can spare me, then I go.”
“Hmmm,” says Yuui. He squeezes Xiao Lang’s bicep, as if considering. “But he also is very strong, isn’t he?”
“I am well-versed in the art of the sword,” the other boy agrees. “It would be shameful, for any member of the Imperial Family to not be able to fight.”
“But there are guards, aren’t there?” Yuui starts tugging a little, guiding his companion away from the center of the ballroom floor, away from the curious looks of Valeria’s gathered nobility. “Even if someone is silly enough to try hurting Xiao Lang or his family, that’s what bodyguards are for!”
Xiao Lang shakes his head. “There are guards, of course,” he says, “but it is disgraceful to not know how to defend oneself. If one only relies on others, then there is no way one can be truly happy.”
Yuui frowns. His mouth twists as he considers this and he never lets go of Xiao Lang’s arm as he does. “I don’t get it,” he decides finally. “That is what servants are there for. We have the responsibility of keeping order, and that’s why they work for us. I don’t like swords,” he adds. “They’re heavy and not very graceful.”
Something changes in Xiao Lang’s expression–subtly, but Yuui is looking straight at him, and so notices. “There is art in using the sword,” he says softly. “And no one who has seen my sister at practice could ever call her ungraceful. We must be able to fend for ourselves, or else there’s no way we can hold our heads up with pride.”
“Of course there is,” Yuui argues. He doesn’t know what he’s lost, but he can feel it slipping away. “My kingdom is prosperous, my people are happy, and it’s because of me! Why shouldn’t I be proud about that? I think it’s a very good thing, any ruler should be envious!”
“As Your Highness says,” Xiao Lang murmurs. “Perhaps this is a difference of customs.”
“Oh, I see,” Yuui says, grateful for that thought. “Well, our kingdoms are very far apart. Even if everyone else thinks you’re silly, as long as you believe, that’s all right! Right?”
“I think I would like something to drink,” Xiao Lang says. He gently detaches his arm from Yuui’s grasp. “I’ll go fetch myself something.”
“No, no, don’t worry,” Yuui says. “Fay can–” he looks around, then stops, chagrined; he can’t see his lookalike-servant anywhere, and wonders if the party was simply too much excitement for a simple country boy to handle after his duties were finished for the night. “Ah–”
“I’ll return shortly,” says Xiao Lang. He strides off towards the tables groaning with food, and even his walk is purposeful: his back is straight and his head held high; he does not look down at his feet or falter, and even the people who aren’t faced towards him part before his approach, leaving him a clear path to the table. Yuui watches him wistfully as he serves himself and frowns when a small slip of a girl–vaguely familiar, though he cannot quite place her face at the moment–drifts up and wins Xiao Lang’s attention for a moment, as well as one of those bright warm smiles. It makes that shivery hopeful feeling in Yuui’s chest shrivel, as though shrinking back from the cold–but then Xiao Lang is returning, and Yuui summons up his brightest smile, watching. He likes the easy confidence in Xiao Lang’s stride and how real he seems, in the glittering ethereal beauty of the Midwinter’s Night Festival.
He thinks: I’d like it very much if you stayed longer than a season, I’d like it if I could convince you to come back with me after the summer’s over.
The week after the festivities are finally over, Fay finally gathers enough courage to take the butterfly clip in one hand and thinks of Sakura’s smiling face. At first nothing happens, and just as he’s starting to feel horribly foolish, the clip in his hand gives a sudden, obvious lurch. He yelps and drops it–or rather, he jerks his hand away, and watches as the clip remains hovering in place, stiffly beating its little jeweled wings. It seems to rest on a cushion of white sparks, and Fay bends forward a little to get a closer look. It smells, very faintly, of flowers.
“Uh,” he says, still feeling silly, “I was wondering, if you could–Miss Sakura?”
He half-expects it to answer him. Instead, it begins to move down the hall, slow and steady in its pace. Fay watches it go for a moment, fascinated, then starts to trail it. Most of the palace is silent and still again–he passes no servants, and he has to marvel at the change from just a week previous. The banners have been rolled up and put away, the crowds of people everywhere have trickled back into the city shadowed by the royal palace, and Prince Yuui spends most of his days courting the second prince from Clow, and, while Fay accompanies him at times, more often than not he is left to his own devices.
The clip leads him out into the gardens–the pride of the royal family, his uncle has told him repeatedly: one to represent each of the five kingdoms, maintained by a combination of magics and sciences both. The largest was for Valeria itself, of course, and the smallest was for the Witch’s Wasteland, which was barely more than a tangled hedge between Valeria’s own and Clow’s rock and sand. The clip hesitates at the division for a moment, then continues its trek forward into Nihon’s garden. The paths are lined by tall broad-trunked trees, each heavy with cascades of tiny pink and white flowers, and the air is soft with their delicate perfume. Fay breathes deeply as he possibly can, smiling in spite of himself. The jewels set in the clip’s tiny wings sparkle and flash ahead of him, darting towards the largest tree in the garden, the one at the far end of all the paths. It stops, and when Fay catches up, it drops out of the air, inanimate again; he has to scramble to catch it, then hesitates, looking down at it. He wonders if maybe the spell wasn’t exact, and then is startled by the sound of voices. The first thing he does is scramble behind a blooming tree, peeking out.
What he sees is Sakura, a large bunch of the tiny flowers tucked behind one ear; her dress is a simple white frock, embroidered with pink flowers. She is smiling, radiant in her joy, and something tightens in Fay’s chest at the sight of it. Her small hand is tucked into the crook of the visiting prince’s arm, and Xiao Lang’s own expression is soft with wonder as he looks at the girl beside him. They walk with their heads close together, and Sakura is talking, excited, in a language that Fay doesn’t recognize, but which is fast and musical and obviously more comfortable for her than Valeria’s tongue.
Fay shrinks further behind the tree as they pass. His throat feels tight and his chest aches with each breath he tries to take. His fingers close so tightly around the jeweled clip that his palms hurt where the metal edges dig into his skin. He watches as they come to stand beneath the tallest tree, with barely more than a handsbreadth between their bodies; he watches as Xiao Lang places his palm against Sakura’s cheek and how she leans into it, her green eyes soft and warm. He says something, too soft for the words to be heard, but the tone is clear, and she blushes sweetly, all the more lovely for that faint color. The visiting prince is red-faced as well, but there is a radiance in him that is unmistakable as he leans in.
I don’t want to see this, Fay thinks, chewing a little on the inside of his cheek. I don’t want to, I don’t.
He doesn’t move, and so he sees when Xiao Lang presses his lips to Sakura’s cheek, how she throws her arms around his neck and presses herself close to them, how his hands settle carefully on her thin hips and cradle her like she is more precious than any of the thousand artifacts on display in the palace. He watches at how they part, and the prince pulls one of the rings from his finger and presses it onto Sakura’s thumb–the only finger where it seems to fit–then kisses that finger as well, and Fay finally makes himself duck fully behind the trunk, pressing his back against it. He presses his fist over his heart, dimly aware at how his fingers hurt, and closes his eyes. He counts out long seconds until his shoulders finally relax and he can mostly breathe again.
When he ducks back out again, Sakura is still there, but Xiao Lang is gone. She is staring at the ring on her with a soft expression on her face, and Fay thinks that he’ll never see her happier than this. The thought is oddly calming. He walks towards her, tucking the butterfly clip back into his pocket, and deliberately scuffs his feet against the ground to catch her attention. She jumps, but when she catches sight of him, she breaks into another smile–nothing of her joy dims at seeing him, and that helps to ease some of the ache in his chest.
“Fay!” she says. She comes towards him to meet him halfway. “Ah, I’m sorry, did someone need me?”
He smiles himself, shy. “No,” he says. “No, I just wanted to see you.”
“Oh!” she says, and claps her hands. “Oh, good–you’re doing all right, aren’t you? No one’s bullying you or anything, right? If they are, you have to tell me, I–”
As she speaks, he reaches out and gently catches her wrist in his hands. Sakura falls silent, wide-eyed, as he pulls her hand forward and turns it so he can see the ring: it’s heavy and gold, set with a bright, tawny topaz. He touches the edges of it with his thumbs, aware of the weight of her gaze.
“… It’s very nice,” he says finally. “It suits you.”
Her expression melts immediately into one of relief. “You think so?” she says, shy. “It was a gift from someone.”
“Someone who must like you very much,” says Fay.
“That’s what he says.” Sakura turns her hand herself, smiling softly at the ring. “It’s so strange. I feel like I’ve known him forever, not just a couple of weeks. We talk about ourselves and our families, but it’s like I already know everything about him–and he knows everything about me. Isn’t that funny?”
“I don’t think so, Miss Sakura,” Fay tells her. “My mother used to say that if you were really compatible with someone, then it would feel like that. So, if you really … care about him, and he really cares about you, it would feel like that. And I think that’s good.”
Sakura touches the ring with the fingers of her other hand. She stretches up onto her toes and presses her cool lips to Fay’s cheek, soft and smelling like the flowers all around them. Her smile is luminous and delicate; Fay wants to catch it in his hands and shelter it from the world. Instead, he watches her, and he waits.
“Thank you,” she says finally. She looks up at him, pressing her lips to the ring. “You’re very kind, aren’t you?”
“Only sometimes,” he says. He is the first to look away.
It takes over a month before Fay realizes that something is wrong. His prince, capriciously kind, slowly turns sullen and quiet: the steady babble of confessions and secrets and idle thoughts dries up. He drapes moodily rather than stand on his own, and if he is not clinging to Fay, he is trailing after Xiao Lang, whose pleasant expression has turned strained over the course of his visit. There is a peculiar tension in the air, and Fay does his best to keep out of its way, sneaking extra sweets to his prince just to see his face light up with that fleeting wistful happiness that sits so well on his pale face.
(“Do you like me best, Fay-puff?” Prince Yuui asks, chasing crumbs around his plate with a fork, crushing each under the tines when he catches them. “More than anyone?”
“Of course,” Fay says, startled by the question. “You know I serve you above anyone else.”
The prince sighs, but asks nothing else.)
When he can, he snatches time to spend with Sakura, and though he doesn’t know everything about her, or her about him, she tells him stories about growing up in Valeria, and of the family she has in the Clow kingdom, and how very different the two countries are, and how she has studied the spells that sustain both kingdoms under her mother’s tutelage–and he tells her about growing up in a tiny village that borders the Witch’s Wasteland and Valeria, of his own mother’s determination and how hard she worked, day after day, and the letters she sometimes sends him, thanking him for the money he sends back home.
(“She tells me I shouldn’t send as much, but she gave everything for me when I was growing up–and I don’t really need that much money,” he says, resting his chin on his knees. “You know?”
“I think that’s wonderful of you,” Sakura tells him. “It’s good that you take such care of her; no mother could ask for more.”)
And then, one moonlit evening, on his way back to his own rooms, he sees movement through the tall palace windows that overlook Nihon’s garden. He pauses and watches as Sakura drifts, pale and lovely as drifting flower petals, to the one still-flowering tree of the garden. There is no mistaking the lightness of her step, nor the man who meets her there, tall and confident and reaching for her with his arms wide open. And in spite of himself, Fay stops to watch, wistful at how they draw close and press together.
“Oh,” says the prince from behind him.
Fay whirls, startled, his heart lurching into his throat. “Your Highness–”
Prince Yuui moves past without looking, pressing both hands to the window as he stares down at the lovers. “You knew, didn’t you?”
“I,” Fay says, then looks down, his shoulders slumping. “I did, Your Highness. I’m sorry, I–”
“It’s always like this,” the prince murmurs. “Every time I think there’s someone who might–every time there’s a person who might be different, something happens. No one ever chooses me, Fay. When you’re royalty, you have to be lonely. That’s what Father liked to say.”
“I know they don’t like me,” he goes on. “They haven’t since my mother died, maybe before that. I thought that since he was from somewhere else, maybe I would have a chance–he said that he liked me, you know? And I believed him. I believed him, and …” He leans until his forehead is also pressed to the window, his breath fogging the glass. For a moment he says nothing, turned to cold silver and pearl by the moonlight. Fay looks at him and thinks of the legend of Day and Night, and of the woman who had enticed them both, and he doesn’t know if the rolling ache in his belly is love or pity or both.
“Your Highness,” he says.
“I’m going to bed,” Prince Yuui says. He pulls away from the window and scrubs the back of his hand across his eyes for a moment. He turns and smiles at Fay, gentle and distant. “Good night, Fay.”
He leaves before Fay can protest. The entire scene lingers in his memory until a day one week later, when he comes to the kitchens to fetch the prince’s breakfast and finds them in an uproar.
People are rushing back and forth, and everything is a confused babble of voices; Fay hovers in the doorway because he’s afraid of simply being trampled, if he tries to enter. Everyone is shouting at once, back and forth, and their voices come together into a cacophony that he can’t unravel. He hears the prince’s name, and Xiao Lang’s, but the details are lost in the din. He hovers, watching, and finally, he catches the arm of one of the maids, pulling her out of the stream of people. She turns an annoyed frown on him, so he draws himself up as tall as possible, trying to look as commanding as he can.
“What happened?” he says. “What’s going on?”
“You really haven’t heard yet?” she asks, incredulous. “The entire Clow party is leaving today–right now! They’re not waiting–there was a terrible fight between Prince Yuui and Prince Xiao Lang, it turned into an actual fistfight! Imagine! Our prince, in a fistfight!” She shakes her head. “Who would have believed it? But you’re the prince’s servant, aren’t you?” She tugs her arm free and frowns at him. “Ask him yourself! You’d probably actually get an answer!”
Before he can catch her again, she disappears back into the chaos, leaving him with his hand outstretched, terribly confused.
Fei Wang knocks once before he enters the prince’s bedroom, not bothering to wait for the answer. The room is dark except for the faint gray light of early morning, but it’s clear that the room has been devastated–most of the fine furniture has been overturned, and the large mirror facing the door sports a large spiderweb of cracks. The sheets of the bed have been ripped off and are scattered. The prince himself is curled in the single thing still standing: a high-backed, ebony-wood chair, turned to face the window. His pale hair is barely visible, leaning to one side.
“My prince,” he says, and bows, though the boy doesn’t turn. “The Clow delegation has left. I heard there was quite the commotion–should I send for a doctor?”
The prince doesn’t answer.
“I will be drafting a letter immediately, of course,” he says. “It will be weeks before His Grace arrives home. With our network, we will be able to speak to the King before they arrive. He’s a reasonable sort of man, it shouldn’t take much effort to convince him. You are the First Prince of Valeria, after all. Whatever you wish–”
Fei Wang waits five long beats before answering. “Excuse me, my prince,” he says. “Forgive my presumption, but–would you repeat that?”
“Destroy them,” Yuui repeats. His voice is faint, wavering. He moves a little, and the faintest reflection of him appears in the window: there is a dark visible shadow against his pale skin and pale hair. As he speaks, his voice firms, and it becomes as cold as the north wind. “I want the entire place razed to the ground. I want there to be nothing left. Not a building, not a person, not a single stupid cherry tree–” He pauses to take a deep breath. “And arrest the girl. She’s a sympathizer for certain. If she resists, or tries to escape–”
Fei Wang bows low, so far that the floor is only a hand’s breadth from his nose. “As my prince commands,” he says.
Fay wakes to the sound of his door softly closing.
It had bee a long and difficult week, one where Fay has hardly seen his prince at all. There are mornings where he goes in to wake him and finds the bed cold and empty; if he tries to urge his liege to sleep, he finds himself more often than not summarily dismissed. When he brings afternoon tea and then returns for the dishes, he often finds everything untouched and long gone cold. Ministers in dark blue robes crowd around the prince, until he’s simply a pale spot in the dark, and their voices are low and anxious as they argue strategy and tactics. Clow is a kingdom that is also skilled with magic, and it will not submit without a fight. The hallways are full of noise and activity again, but the mood is grimly resigned rather than celebratory. Valeria is preparing for war, and there is no softening or disguising that fact.
The anxious atmosphere extends even to the servant’s quarters–even Fay, who has his own small room, separate from the others, can hear their whispering and gossiping late into the night, all those voices following him into his dreams. Nervous, he presses his hand under his pillow for the small knife he keeps there, and then Sakura whispers, “Fay?”
“Sakura?” He reaches for the light instead, flicking it on and hardly flinching at the sudden glare. “Where–what are you doing here?”
She hovers with her back against the door; she looks tired and worn, and there are dark half-circles under her large green eyes. The hem of her green cloak is torn and stained. She looks terrible, and yet she still dredges up a small smile for him. “I don’t have anywhere else go to,” she says. “I’ve been trying to–oh, it doesn’t matter. They’ve sealed the borders for everyone who isn’t a messenger of the prince or his army.” The girl ducks her head, wrapping her skinny arms around herself; he can see that her knuckles are red and raw as well. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here–if they find me …”
Fay stares at her. She looks tiny and fragile and so tired; he wonders when she slept last. He thinks about his prince, stone-faced and so angry.
“They won’t find you,” he says. He gets up. “I won’t tell.”
Sakura’s head snaps up. She looks startled, even if she must have gambled on his agreement, coming here. “Fay,” she says, “no, I’m sorry, you don’t–”
“I’ll get you something to eat,” he says gently. “I promise. You try to get some sleep.”
She wavers again, looking torn. “If they find me here, you’ll at least be arrested,” she murmurs. “You might actually be killed.”
He shakes his head. “You helped me, when I first got here,” he says. “I’ll help you find your way out.”
Sakura bites her lip. Then, on quick light feet, she crosses the room, and she stretches up to kiss Fay’s cheek briefly, with chapped dry lips. She smells like fear and sour hunger, but he sees a brief flicker of hope rekindle in her eyes, and that feels good. “Thank you,” she whispers. “You really are very kind.”
Fay wants to protest, but he steps aside instead, watching as she collapses onto his bed, unmoving; after a moment, he covers her with his blanket and slips out. He has to tiptoe past the communal bedrooms of the other servants, past the empty places where guards once stood–all soldiers have been pulled in for active duty, and the ozone smell of magic is heavy in the air, replacing them. He makes it down to the kitchens without incident and is grateful that rationing for the castle has not yet begun; he finds half a loaf discarded in the dust, and rubs it with his sleeve before tucking it into his coat and making his slow way back.
Halfway there, he sees a figure in the hallway and stops.
His uncle smiles at him, and the moonlight through the windows is so bright that they turn his glasses opaque. There is something unkind and unfriendly about his expression–something that is mean and hungry with the promise of war. Fay has never loved his uncle, but he has always at least believed in the man’s benign interests; now, he finds himself suddenly unsure. The lump of bread in his pocket weighs as heavily as a stone.
“Fay,” the man says. “What are you doing?”
“I,” he says. He licks dry lips. “I was hungry, Uncle, so I thought I would go–”
“Fay,” his uncle says. His tone is nearly gentle, but he moves forward, and his eyes are hard and cold and ice. “Don’t lie to me.”
“Don’t forget, I’ve known you all your life,” his uncle continues on, his voice lowering to nearly a purr. “I know exactly how to tell when you’re lying. When you’re hiding something from me.” He continues to advance, and Fay steps back automatically, again and again until he hits the wall. “You’re not telling me something, Fay, and it’s very important that you do. The security of the kingdom could depend on it. Your prince’s life could depend on it. You know how hard he’s been working, Fay. How much he needs someone he can trust right now.” Fei Wang reaches out a hand, and Fay flinches back from it before he can quite stop himself. His uncle is undeterred: a moment later, long hard fingers grasp his chin and tilt it up. “Hasn’t he trusted you?”
Fay blinks hard. His eyes sting. “Uncle,” he says, “please–”
“No, Fay,” his uncle says gently. “I should be telling you please.” He takes Fay’s wrist in his free hand and presses their palms together for a moment, pressing something into it. “You know what the command is, right now. She was supposed to be arrested, and if she tried to flee …” He steps back, and Fay can only stare down at the knife in his hand: it has a long, slim, wickedly sharp blade, and the lines of it are clean and spare. He looks up at his uncle, despairing, and Fei Wang only smiles.
“Uncle, I can’t,” he whispers. “I’m a servant. I’m not–I’ve never been a soldier, I’ve never–I can’t, I–”
“It is for your kingdom,” Fei Wang says, and though his tone is indulgent, his eyes are not. “The girl is dangerous–she will rouse the people to rebellion, if she’s allowed to continue as she has. Her very existence is an act of defiance against the prince, now. If they’re allowed to think that a single girl can get away with defying the prince …”
Fay swallows. He looks away.
“Prince Yuui is young,” Fei Wang goes on, nearly gentle. “He is impetuous, but he has a kind heart. He will be a good king, you know that.”
In spite of himself, he nods.
“And yet, there are those who are impatient with his childishness–they don’t give him the credit of his youth, or how hard he has had to work, just to get where he is now. He was orphaned so young, and there was no father to lead him by example, no mother to care for him until he was strong enough to stand without her.” Fei Wang’s fingers touch his hair, as gently paternal as they’d been in his childhood. “He’s already proven himself to be an impressive ruler, with how he is handling this war. But because that girl still lives–because she defies him with every breath she takes–she becomes a threat to him. Do you understand?”
Fay bites the inside of his cheek hard enough to taste blood. He thinks about the soft open look on his prince’s face, that day on the tower, looking up at the stars; he thinks about the thousand small kindnesses he has been shown, despite having a face that mirrors his liege’s so closely that they could be called twins–and the despair that would represent, if it was acknowledged. He thinks about the prince’s pale face and toneless words: No one ever chooses me. When you’re royalty, you have to be lonely.
He lets out a sobbing breath, and Fei Wang kisses his forehead.
“Good boy,” he says. “Now go.”
Fay goes. His vision is blurred and his entire body feels hot; his fingers are clamped so tightly around the hilt of the dagger that he isn’t sure he could release it if he tried. Like a ghost he drifts through the hallways, past the closed rooms of the other servants, and back to his own chamber.
Sakura is still asleep. She lies curled on her side, knees tucked towards her chest. Her brown hair is limp and dirty on his pillow. She breathes slowly, gently, and does not wake when he closes the door behind himself. He goes to stand by her bedside, staring at her face for long moments before he lifts the knife up, high over his head.
“Think of your prince,” his uncle’s voice whispers in his ear again, so utterly sincere. “Think of all he will lose, if this girl escapes him.”
He takes a breath, and then he is crying–quietly, undramatically, the tears welling up each time he tries to blink them away. Sakura, though, is still painfully clear in his vision: she rolls onto her back, and her slim chest is laid flat and exposed. He is frozen, too terrified to move just yet. If he moves, the moment will become irrevocably real.
Sakura opens her eyes.
She looks at him steadily, and she doesn’t look surprised. Fay can only stare back in mute horror. His hands are shaking. There is no way to mistake his posture for anything but the obvious, but the apologies that crowd on his tongue refuse to come. The lack of surprise–or condemnation–in Sakura’s expression only makes it worse.
“It’s all right,” she whispers to him. “I forgive you. I did a long time ago.”
She closes her eyes. Fay lets out a single choked sob and brings the knife down.
In a bedroom three kingdoms away, a picture frame falls from its place of honor on a bedside table. The glass of the frame cracks into spiderweb patterns.
A young woman picks up the frame, careful of the glass shards, and holds it for a long, long time.
Yuui wakes to the sound of Fay’s voice, soft and gentle: “It’s time for breakfast, Your Highness. I’ve brought your meal.”
He pushes himself up with a groan, dimly surprised to find himself on the bed. He remembers poring over maps the night before, but not moving–he’s still dressed as he was the day before, he notes with distant distaste, plucking at his shirt. He sits up and blinks his sight into focus.
“Fay?” he asks. “Why are you crying?”
Fay shakes his head. Though his smile is fixed and gentle as always, his eyes are red, and every time he blinks, there are fresh tears on his cheeks.
“It’s funny,” he says softly. “I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t stop. I’m sorry.”
Yuui reaches out and takes the tray from his servant, his other-self, and puts it aside. And then, before Fay can pull back or protest, Yuui reach out and pulls him into an embrace.
“When all of this is over,” he whispers, “let’s go to the beach. It’s really nice–it’s all that moving water, going on forever.”
Fay reaches and grasps his sleeve for a moment, silent. “That would be nice,” he says, finally. “My mother always said if you told the ocean your wishes, they’d come true.”
“Really?” Yuui almost smiles. “We’ll go together, then, and we’ll both make wishes. And then we’ll be happy.”
“Happy,” Fay echoes, and is silent.
In the way of all things that must be hushed up, rumors begin as soon as the smoke of the makeshift pyre begins to curl and rise in the morning sky. The prince’s pet mage is dead by his own order–he killed her out of jealousy for the attention that the Clow prince showed her, when it was obvious he’d had his eye on the young man himself–he did it with a smile on his face, even laughing as she sobbed for mercy–the madness of his mother was finally manifesting in him, and he would drag Valeria down into the fire with him.
There had been something wrong with him from the beginning–wasn’t the appearance of a doppelganger indication enough of his insanity? Even if he was not a twin by birth, to have one suddenly appear could only come to mean disaster–his parents had both died when he was so young, how could he have any true idea of the proper way to rule a kingdom as old and revered as Valeria?–he was so selfish, always carelessly taxing the poor just to have his silly parades and fancy displays; who cared about such things?–he had started this war over selfish reasons; what made his broken heart worth the lives of his people, and those of that other kingdom?
Up in the tower, immersed in his maps and the advice of his ministers, Prince Yuui heard nothing of this at all.
War goes from Valeria; war comes to Clow.
Prince Yuui does not set out with his army: his adviser catches his arm and pulls him aside and says to him: My prince, you must not risk yourself. You are the only living member left of the noble bloodline which founded this kingdom and you have no heir. Should you fall, who will guide your people? Who will protect them? You must stay.
And so he stays. And when the army of Valeria marches, it is met by the army of Clow, headed by the kingdom’s second prince, who rides beside a young woman in red armor. For the first clash, she wears no helm, and the long dark banner of her hair ripples behind her, her gray eyes as hard as steel. Yuui watches the battle from a spelled mirror in his chambers, and hardly eats even when Fay brings him meals, rebelling against being coaxed to his food.
The rumors continue to spread; they travel with the servants and down into the lower city, and from there to all of the capitol. Their prince is a coward and a fool; he is a spoiled child that will ruin the kingdom with his selfishness. They are losing a war that should never have been engaged: Clow’s wizards are skilled and numerous, and they are fighting to defend their home from a spoiled tyrant–they are fighting for the memory of an innocent girl wrongly murdered through his whim.
These are the things Fay hears, though his prince does not, and they weigh like stones around his neck. No one in the palace or the lower city looks him in the eye any more, and he has learned to walk quickly and quietly, keeping his head down. And as the prince retreats to spend more time in his rooms, watching as his army is slowly pushed back, Fei Wang steps up to fill the power void. He is smiling and confident and conspicuous, and Fay watches him with something that is nearly like resentment uncoiling in his chest.
“It’s terrible,” he hears his uncle say one day to the head chamberlain, “if they proceed much further, we will have to evacuate the palace.”
The other man snorts. “That will be chaotic enough,” he says. “The lower city’s already nearly empty. Why does the prince insist that we stay? It’s useless.”
“It will be fine,” Fei Wang says. “In fact, I give you the authority now, to begin moving everyone out. There’s no sense in staying in some suicidal display, is there?”
“There’s not,” the chamberlain says, and there’s no mistaking the relief in his voice. “Bless you, sir, we’d be lost without your common sense.”
“No, no,” says Fei Wang. “I’m simply glad to serve my kingdom. I am, as always, her humble and devoted servant.”
“If only you could do more,” the chamberlain says. “Better a servant of the kingdom than a tyrant who doesn’t care for his people–begging your pardon, sir, I–”
“You’re kind,” Fei Wang says, low and pleased. He pats the chamberlain’s shoulder gently, conspiratorially. “But hush now. To say such things in these halls is treason. Not that I think you’re incorrect, of course, but there are safer places to say it.”
Fay can see the smile on his uncle’s face as clearly as he hears it in the man’s voice, and it makes him ill. He ducks his head and he flees to the end of the hallway, then slumps with his back against the wall. He wants to weep with what he’s done, how that’s added to the troubles of his kingdom. He wants to hide himself away in a corner, he wants to close his eyes and stop–
“Ah, there you are,” his uncle says.
He opens his eyes and looks up. His uncle, Fei Wang, stands before him, hands tucked into his long sleeves, a knifeslash of a smile spread across his craggy face. It’s very nearly a smirk. Satisfaction radiates from him in waves. “Heard that, did you?”
Fay hunches his shoulders, folding his arms behind his back.
“Will you run and tell him?” Fei Wang asks, smirking. “I never expected you to take to being his loyal dog as eagerly as you did. Perhaps I should’ve been paying more attention to you, but …” He shrugs, gracefully. “I had more important things on my mind.”
“Important,” Fay whispers, his voice hoarse, “like taking over? Like committing treason?”
“In a few weeks, it will hardly be that,” says Fei Wang. “The king is the one who decides what constitutes as treason.”
“And that’s Prince Y–” Fay’s protest cuts itself off as his uncle’s hand lashes out, long broad fingers closing around his throat and slamming him back harder against the wall. Fei Wang looms over him, his smirk now outright unkind.
“Go cry to him, if you’d like,” he purrs. “He won’t believe you. He’s been mine since the day his mother died. You think that a servant who’s been in the palace for six months is enough to turn him against me? I’d like to see you try.” He lets go of Fay’s throat then and steps back, smoothing his robes. He looks down at Fay with obvious smug pride. “This kingdom will be mine, and you’ve helped to give it to me.”
“Everything happens as it was meant to,” he says, slowly, as if tasting each word. “Ever since you met that girl, her fate was sealed.”
“From the moment you met her, she was doomed,” Fei Wang says. “Your presence in this castle is what ruined her, and the prince.” He laughs, maybe at the look on Fay’s face, maybe at pleasure at his own success. He reaches out and puts his forefinger under Fay’s chin, tipping it up further. “Because of you, everything has gone the way I wanted it to. For that, I thank you.”
He whips away then, the long sleeves of his robe fluttering as he does. Fay stares at him, unblinking; his hands are still folded behind his back. His fingers brush the hilt of the knife he has kept in his belt for the past long three months.
“Uncle,” he says softly. “Uncle, you know … I loved her. Sakura.”
“You did not,” Fei Wang scoffs. He turns his back, drawn up stern and imposing. “You’re at the wrong age for love, boy, and you’d know nothing of it.”
“No,” Fay says. “That’s not true–I do know what it’s like. I loved her. She was kind to me, and she believed in me, even after what I did.”
“Then she was a fool,” Fei Wang says. “And you are too, for believing her.”
“Sakura’s dead because of me,” Fay murmurs. “All I have left now is my prince.”
Fei Wang snorts. “If that’s all that concerns you, put your mind at ease,” he says. “I won’t kill him. Why waste a perfectly good tower? It suited his mother, it’ll suit him.”
Fay lifts his head. “Prince Yuui is all I have left,” he says, and his voice is almost gentle now. His uncle half-turns, frowning at him. “And if that’s what it takes to protect him, I don’t care what I have to do.”
“What are you–”
“Everyone in the world sees him as the enemy, now,” Fay continues, “but it’s all right. Because I’ll protect him. No matter what.”
Fei Wang’s gaze flickers down. His eyes go wide; he draws back, raising a hand that begins to glow. “Fay! You fool, stop–”
Fay lunges. His knife goes in smoothly, as if the heavy robes and the body underneath are thin as tissue; he aims up and shoves as hard as he can and feels something stutter and give way around the blade. Fei Wang makes a strangled noise, the glow around his hand flickering out like a match in a breeze. He coughs once and blood splatters dark and wet against his lower lip, dribbling across his chin. He stares down at Fay like one might a stranger, brow knitting together in confusion.
“I,” he wheezes, his voice already reedy and thin, “no …”
“It’s all right, Uncle,” Fay murmurs, still gentle. “I’m just doing what you told me to do: I’m looking out for my prince’s safety.”
He twists the knife then, hard, and this time, when his uncle coughs blood, some of it spatters against his face. The knife comes out as easily as it went in, and he waits until Fei Wang crumples to the floor in an awkward pile of limbs before he approaches and crouches down. Using the edge of one long sleeve, he cleans off the knife, then resheathes it in his belt. He uses a different clean section to wipe off his face, then gets to his feet.
It is nearly tea-time, after all; it wouldn’t do to keep his prince waiting.
“You are a fool,” the man says.
He is younger than he was years ago, still all in black, his robes lined in red. His sash is patterned in black and gold, like the designs of a butterfly’s wing.
Fei Wang stares up at him, eyes dimmed and fading fast. His breath whistles and wheezes ominously in his chest. When the other man crouches down beside him, his gaze follows slowly, upwards to the other man’s mismatched eyes. His companion reaches out; he does not quite touch the dying man’s waxy skin, but lets his fingers hover, a hairsbreadth away.
“I’m here as witness,” he says softly. “Be at peace.”
Fei Wang’s lip curls up silently, a sneer or a scowl or both. A groan escapes him, the soft unformed beginning of words. Sprawled against the ground, one of his hands twitches weakly.
“There is no such thing as coincidence,” the young man murmurs. “You set the stones into motion, and you could have seen how they would fall, but you chose to fight it. That’s why you’re a fool.”
Fei Wang lets out another rough breath, which spatters dark red against his lips.
“She warned you too,” the young man says, his voice low and sad. “I know she did. If I could see it happening, there was no way she didn’t, and she would have said something to you. In the end, you brought it all upon yourself.”
A long rattle finds its way from Fei Wang’s chest. The curl of his mouth relaxes and the last of the light in his eyes snuffs itself out. There is nothing left but the echo of possibilities vanishing, leaving only the inevitable conclusion. The young man closes Fei Wang’s staring eyes with his outstretched hand, then closes his own.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Sleep well.”
War goes from Clow; war comes to Valeria.
Fay sees it in the mirror that hangs in his prince’s room: the slow steady march of the army that winds its way through Valeria–it does not attack any of the small villages that lie in its path, and its only destination is the capital and the splendid castle that stands on a hill overlooking its attending city. He hears it in the echo of his footsteps in the empty halls. Everyone else has fled the city at this point: the palace has been practically empty for nearly a week. Fei Wang’s body still lies in the hallway where it fell; Fay takes to walking the long way around when he can, to avoid seeing it.
There are more important things to focus on.
He knocks once, for courtesy, then opens the door and enters the royal chambers. “Your Highness,” he says softly.
Prince Yuui is curled in his chair, staring at the mirror. The army is at the gates, winding their way through the empty city. There are familiar faces in the mob–servants of the palace, leading the way. The second prince of Clow rides with the woman in red armor at the head, but Yuui doesn’t seem to notice him, more focused on the buildings and houses of the lower city.
“Look, Fay,” he says softly. “They’re here. I used to think I never wanted him to come back–now I’m glad.” He turns his head a little and smiles. His eyes are red and bracketed by dark circles; if Sakura had looked tired when she’d come to Fay all those months before, his prince looked beyond exhausted. “That means this’ll be over. I’m glad. But I’m a little scared, too.” He hugs his knees to his chest. “I don’t know what to do.”
“You can get dressed, Your Highness,” Fay says softly. He holds out the clothes bundled in his arms. “Here.”
Yuui reaches out slowly to take them, then frowns as they unfurl out in his hands. “Fay?” he asks slowly. “What–”
“They’re mine,” Fay says softly. He steps fully into the light, and Yuui’s eyes go wide at the sight of Fay’s outfit: he is dressed in dark royal blue, embroidered with sweeping silver patterns, with the emblem of the Valeria family embroidered along each sleeve. A silver circlet crowns his pale hair, and in his ears are the pearl earrings from Yuui’s birthday, so long ago. He smiles gently at his prince.
“Fay?!” Yuui sits up, his eyes wide and frightened. “Why–”
“I’m giving them to you,” Fay says. “Please put them on and escape.”
“What? No! No, I won’t!” Yuui lurches to his feet and crosses to his servant, grabbing the other boy’s sleeves. “I’m not–I won’t! I won’t run away! What do you think you’re trying to do? They’ll see you, and they’ll think–they’ll think–”
“That’s the idea,” Fay says. He reaches out and first cups Yuui’s face in both hands, then sweeps them back, gathering the prince’s hair into a small servant’s tail. He ties it with the same black twine he has used every day of his working life in the palace. “It’s all right, Your Highness. You’ve always said yourself, we’re mirrors, right? No one will notice.”
Yuui stares at him mutely. There are fresh tears in his eyes now, and only when Fay picks up the discarded shirt and tries to pull it onto the prince’s thin arms does he react, shoving Fay back.
“I won’t,” he says. “No, not without you! If they find you, they’ll kill you–I’m not going to leave you–”
“They’re almost here,” Fay says, low and urgent. “You have to do this. My duty is to keep you safe, no matter what. Do you think I’d let them have you?”
“Then you have to come too,” Yuui says. “Fay! This is an order from your prince!”
“I know,” Fay says softly. “And for once, I won’t listen.” He takes Yuui’s face in his hands again and kisses the prince’s forehead.
“I love you, my prince,” he whispers. “And I would have followed you anywhere–to Clow, to the ocean, wherever you wanted to go. I’m glad I met you. If I’m ever reborn–” He takes a deep breath and he pulls away, looking at the mirror; the army has entered the palace. They do not rush: they don’t need to. “If I’m ever reborn, I’d gladly be your servant again. I hope you’ll forgive me, someday.”
This time, Fay is the one who shoves Yuui: he does it with all his strength, knocking the other boy back and down, then turns, his back straight, shoulders squared, head high, and he leaves the bedroom at a confident stride. His reflection in the mirror is as noble as a true prince from a fairytale. Yuui stares mutely as the doors of his bedroom swing shut, then looks up at the mirror. He watches Fay walk, as he descends the stairs and is spotted by the party that has entered the palace–distracting them from the inspection of Fei Wang’s corpse. Xiao Lang has his blade out in a heartbeat, but the woman in red armor puts a hand on his arm to stay him, and strides up; her eyes are hard as she says something to Fay–obviously a question.
And Fay, Fay, he looks at the whole crowd of them with the arrogance that had taken Yuui a lifetime to cultivate, and sneers. Yuui watches his lips move, and can guess at what he says.
“You insolent fools!”
Yuui buries his face in his hands and weeps.
“They will be satisfied with nothing less than your head,” Xiao Lang says. “Do you understand?”
The deposed prince says nothing, his expression stony. Even stripped of his robes and his circlet, even in the plain white robes of a prisoner, the arrogance of him is enough to set Xiao Lang’s teeth on edge. He slams his hands down onto the table, hard enough to make it rattle. “Just tell me why! Why did you–what did Sakura ever do–”
“Xiao Ling,” Tomoyo says quietly. She has removed her red armor and replaced them with a scarlet cloak and gloves, though the shirt and trousers beneath are the black of mourning. Her sweet face is equally hard, and he bites his tongue before he lets himself snap at her. “Let me talk to him.”
“That poor man in the hallway deserves a proper burial,” she says. “And given your history, it may be better if you let me handle this.”
He wants to protest–it’s clearly obvious from his expression–but finally he gets up and leaves the makeshift interrogation room, casting a single hard glance over his shoulder as he goes. Tomoyo waits until she hears his footsteps receding, then goes to sit in front of Valeria’s toppled prince.
“Do you know who I am?” she asks softly.
He doesn’t answer.
“My name is Tomoyo,” she says. “I serve the second prince of Clow, Xiao Lang. You know what that means. We’ve seen the mirror in the royal chambers–you must have seen us in battle together.”
There is no reaction in those icy blue eyes. Tomoyo folds her hands in her lap. “When I was a child, I had a friend–a very beautiful girl, more lovely than anyone I’ve ever known. She was always kind, always gentle, and always willing to help people in need.” She leans forward then, staring at the prince’s face. “Her name was Sakura. I was her mother’s student for many years. I’m very good.”
Slowly, slowly, the prince turns his head and meets her eyes. Tomoyo smiles grimly.
“While Prince Xiao Lang was in Valeria, Sakura-chan wrote me a letter,” she says. “She said that there was a boy in the castle, a very nice one, that she’d made friends with. And wasn’t it strange, he looked just like the prince. He was very shy, but very sweet–he tried very hard all the time to make people happy.”
Finally, there is a flicker of life–just a flash, and nothing more. His thin lips whiten from pressure. Tomoyo gets to her feet and crosses around the table, coming to stand next to the prisoner. She leans down until her lips are a hairsbreadth from his ear.
“I don’t know why you’re protecting him,” she whispers. “They will kill you, you know.”
The boy who called himself a prince blinks once–twice–and says nothing. Tomoyo waits long, long moments, then pulls back.
“I won’t tell,” she says, “if this is really what you choose.”
And then, unexpectedly, the boy smiles: sweet and tremulous enough to make her catch her breath. She blinks, and the expression is wiped from his face. She shakes her head, and goes to the door to call Xiao Lang back.
The next day dawns bright and clear and cold–colder than normal for a Valerian summer–and already there is a crowd in the central square of the lower city. The crowd is restless and anxious, and when the time finally comes, and the prisoner in the dirty white robes is led out onto the platform, they raise up a loud excited roar. Tomoyo walks before the prisoner; Xiao Lang walks behind. The boy–the young man–who walks between them only has eyes for the arching sky overhead.
The black-robed executioner guides him the last few steps to the guillotine itself. He kneels without prompting, settling his head into the lunette. He never looks away from the cloudless sky, unflinching as Xiao Lang reads the list of his crimes.
For abuse of your power, for abuse of your people, for the murder of a mage of Clow, for the murder of your own household staff, for crimes against all the five kingdoms of the world–
“Ah,” he says, vague, “it’s tea-time.”
–you shall be sentenced to death.
After the body is carted away, people begin to trickle out of the square–all in groups, in pairs or more, some boisterous, some subdued, but there is a general sense of relief in the air, as if some terrible weight has been lifted from its shoulders. The lady Tomoyo descends from the platform to walk among the people, and they flock to her and her calm serenity, though they simply crowd around her, rather than speak directly to her. Prince Xiao Lang lingers beside the guillotine for a while longer, staring at the bloodstain left behind, then slowly makes his way down the wooden steps and heads away from the square, back up to the castle. No one follows him.
Tomoyo sees the figure through a gap in the crowd that surrounds her: wrapped in a hooded gray robe, curled in a crouch near the ground, shoulders hunched as if in grief. She sees a flash of pale hair tumble free of the hood, and she sees the profile of a face drawn and tight with horror and grief both. It would be an easy thing to point to him, she knows; there is the man who truly killed her beloved and brought disaster to his kingdom and hers.
She draws in a breath.
The boy on the other side of the square bows his head. She watches him wrap his skinny arms around himself and thinks that he hardly looks well-fed or elegant enough to be a prince: he looks as worn as she feels, and from the way he stares at the guillotine, she is certain that she is not the only one who has lost someone best-beloved. He looks nothing like Xiao Lang described him, or powerful, or anything but a sad lost little boy.
Tomoyo turns her face away and pretends not to notice as the boy staggers to his feet and stumbles off, out of the square and away.
For days Yuui walks.
He would call it exaggeration, but the sun rises and sets many times, so he knows it must be days. He rests when he can, fitfully and unhappily, haunted by images of an empty bloodstained guillotine and the distant smile of the condemned man. He chews on handfuls of snow for water and ignores the weakness in his limbs and the hollow feeling in his belly. He thinks it’s been a very long time since he has eaten, but he can no longer remember.
One night, he curls up in the roots of an old dead tree, listening to the howling of an oncoming summer snowstorm as he wraps his cloak tightly around himself. The land has been growing sparse and rocky as he has walked; there is less snow, but it is more bitterly cold, as if the land itself is attempting to reject his passage. He closes his eyes.
When he opens them again, it takes him a moment to realize that he is in a proper bed–a good and soft one as well, with pillows beneath his cheek and a heavy blanket pulled up to his chin. He blinks at the wall across from him: a screen painted with a long twining dragon escorted by a flock of black-and-gold butterflies. Yuui blinks again, and realizes there is the silhouette of a person on the other side.
The screen is pushed aside, and a young man is there, standing across from him. He looks young and somehow familiar, with mismatched eyes of blue and brown shielded by steel-rimmed glasses. In his arms, he has a tray with a bowl and a cup, both gently steaming.
“Ah, good, you’re awake,” he says. He crosses over the room as Yuui sits up, then puts the tray in his lap. “I’ve brought you soup and tea. Drink them both, but do it slowly.”
Yuui looks down, then winces as his stomach gives a rattling growl. He wets his lips as best he can with a nearly-dry tongue, and whispers, “Where?”
“You’re in my shop,” the young man says. “And right now, you’re my guest. Please, drink.”
Yuui reaches for the tea, holding the cup in both hands. There is an odd reluctance in him; he doesn’t quite want to drink. His host continues to stare at him, though, and finally Yuui sets his cracked lip to the rim, tilting it enough for the hot liquid to brush it. His gaze wanders: the table has a statue of Valeria’s snow-birds beside a rock-carving from Nihon; there are tapestries from Clow on the walls, bracketing a plain oval mirror. He looks back at the young man by his bed and squints through the haze of memory.
“… you,” he says finally. “You used to be … Watanuki?”
The young man bows low from the waist, one hand over his heart. “I’m honored you still remember me, Your Highness,” he says. “It’s been a long time.”
Yuui flinches. “No,” he says softly. “I’m not–I don’t–why did you help me?”
Watanuki smiles gently. “Because you needed it,” he says. “I don’t blame you for what happened, Your Highness. The banishment was no punishment to me.”
Again Yuui flinches; he has to set the cup down before he ends up spilling it. “But I said all those things,” he whispers. “I said if you ever came back–that you’d–”
“It couldn’t be helped,” Watanuki says. “You did your best; I’ve always known that.”
Yuui lets his head fall forward, hunching his shoulders. He wants to cry again, absurdly, but the tears won’t come.
“You have a wish, don’t you?” Watanuki asks. There is a snick, and when Yuui glances up from the corner of one eye, he sees that Watanuki has lit a long slim-stemmed pipe, and the resulting smoke drapes around him like a veil. “I wouldn’t have been able to help you if you didn’t.”
He swallows hard. “Fay–”
“No,” Watanuki cuts him off–gently, but with an air of absolute finality. “Some lines cannot be crossed, even by the Witch of the Wasteland.”
Yuui bunches his hands into fists, clutching at the coverlet. “Fay … wanted me to be happy,” he whispers.
“He wanted me–to live somewhere peacefully. To live. But everyone knows my–I don’t know where to–I don’t have anywhere to go!” The last comes out of him in a burst; his chest is heaving and he feels lightheaded from the effort. “Fay wanted that for me, and I don’t have any way of doing that for him–I can’t–”
Watanuki exhales a long, thin plume of smoke. “There’s a price,” he says.
“I don’t have anything to give,” Yuui replies.
“You do, actually.” Watanuki leans forward, and with the long white fingers of his free hand, he takes the signet ring from Yuui’s finger–something he’d had for so long he’d long forgotten about its presence–and holds it up. “This ring is a symbol of the power you wield, and your identity as Yuui of Valeria. Even now, the prince of Clow and his servant are searching for this; without it, Valeria will have no other king. The spells of the land are tied to this one symbol alone.”
Yuui gapes at him, and Watanuki goes on, “With this, you are the First Prince of Valeria, to become King when you reach your majority next year. Without it, you have no ties to this world, and no family that would make you stay. Do you understand? You will not be Prince Yuui Valeria–you will just be Yuui.”
“Fay,” Yuui says softly.
Watanuki raises an eyebrow.
“I’ll be Fay,” he says. “Yuui–the prince died. Fay should have lived. I want to do that much.”
It isn’t quite a smile that softens Watanuki’s mouth, but almost. “Fay, then,” he says gently. “If you trade this, I will send you to a place where you can live peacefully, away from the turmoil that still plagues this world. In return, you renounce all your ties; this is no longer your world. It will be a stranger to you, and you to it. Understand?”
Yuui nods, turning over the sound of his new name in his head: Fay. Fay. Fay. It will take getting used to. “I do.”
“Then finish your soup, and your tea,” Watanuki says, and now he does smile, his expression suddenly affectionate. “You’ll need your strength, and a meal will do you good. I made it myself.”
Fay blinks, then nods again and bows over the soup, picking the bowl up and sipping slowly. It warms him from the belly out, soft on his tongue and down his throat. “It’s good,” he says, and is surprised to find it true.
Watanuki smiles and turns his pipe, tapping out a few ashes onto the ground; they vanish before they actually land on the dark floor. “Finish that, then,” he says. “I have preparations for your journey to make.”
He sweeps out of the room, pulling the screen shut behind him. Fay remains curled half-forward, over the tray in his lap. His hand feels light, but some of the emptiness in his chest eases. He lifts his head and looks at his reflection in the mirror: pale and afraid, and tries to sit up a little straighter, to find the confidence that had bloomed in Fay during the last weeks of his life. He tilts his head just so and tries a smile that isn’t quite right and thinks: I will have to practice; I’ll practice and practice and someday, I’ll look, and I’ll find you right there, with me.
“Follow the path,” Watanuki tells him. The morning is gray and grim around them, and the trees surrounding the shop toss their green heads and bend to the raging storm. Watanuki himself is the one still point of the entire scene: the long sleeves and train of his robe don’t move, even as Fay has to lift an arm to shield his face from the wind. “Don’t stray, and don’t look back.”
Fay nods slowly. He squints into the wind, looking down at the spell-circle at his feet, then up at the still dark figure before him. “Thank you,” he says. “Even after everything I did, for everything you’ve done–”
“Live well,” Watanuki says, and smiles. Fay takes a deep breath and nods, then steps into the circle.
Light explodes all around him, so bright that he has to shield his face again, and the shrieking of the wind is drowned out by a great atonal hum. With effort, he cracks an eye open and sees a path, slightly darker than his surroundings, stretching out before him. He wants to turn and see if Watanuki is still there, somewhere behind him, but forces himself to remain facing forward.
One step after the other, he advances. If he keeps his eyes focused downward, at his feet, the light is not quite so painful. Unlike before, there is no sun to measure his progress, so he counts his footsteps instead. One thousand. Two thousand. Three …
Step five thousand comes down on empty air. Fay is too surprised to cry out at first, pitching headfirst into freefall, and before he can gather himself to react, he hits the ground. It is gritty and hard under his cheek and flattened palms. The strange bell-tone humming in his ears is gone, replaced by a rhythmic crash and hush, like waves against the shore; gradually, other sounds filter in: the clop-clop-clop of horse-hooves on pavement, the creak of wood and carts, and when he breathes in, he smells salt.
“–Oi! Oi, you, are you all right?”
His entire body feels too bruised and delicate to properly move, but he forces his eyes open. He sees the dark outline of someone’s knees before him, and when he glances up, there is a stern frowning face hovering above him. He wants to say that he is fine, that he’ll be able to move in a moment, but the most he manages is a pathetic sort of croak before he has to close his eyes again.
He hears muttering, and then his body is hefted up. It hurts, but he just whimpers as he’s slung over a broad shoulder, and then mercifully blacks out.
This time, when he wakes, he is in a bed again, though nowhere near as luxurious as the one in the witch’s shop: it’s barely more than a straw pallet with a hard pillow and a thin blanket. The ceiling above him is plain and white. He moves a little and hisses at a flare of pain; his body feels like one enormous bruise.
“Finally,” says a man’s voice to his right. Fay starts, hissing again, then turns his head to look.
It’s the same man who found him, he thinks. He has short-cropped spiky black hair and a long lean face and blood-red eyes. He is dressed simply in black and is in the process of peeling an apple in a single long strip of skin. The fruit and small paring knife look awkward in his large long fingers. He scowls a little, though whether at his immediate task or the look on Fay’s face, it’s difficult to say. “Well? You going to tell me your name?”
Fay blinks again. “Ah,” he says softly. “I’m … Fay. My name’s Fay.”
“Kurogane,” the man says. He makes a quick little twist of his wrist and slices off the last of the apple-skin, which he begins to wind around the base of the paring knife’s blade. “I found you on the road. The hell sorta traveler are you, not bringing anything to eat or drink with you? Were you robbed?” There is a certain eager light that sparks in his eyes at the last, and his fingers quirk on the knife, as if imagining it as a much-larger weapon before he catches himself.
“… No,” Fay says softly. “Where … ?”
“The ocean temple of the Goddess of Mercy,” Kurogane says. His body relaxes again. “We take care of idiots like you, if you ask for it. So before you do any damnfool thing like setting off without any supplies, the head priest’ll make sure you’re cared for.”
“Mercy?” Fay echoes softly. He closes his eyes. “… it sounds nice.”
“It’s not bad.” Kurogane sighs, and then there is a wet slicing nose: Fay peeks and sees that he is cutting the apple into quarters. “For people who’ve got nowhere else to go, this is a good final place.”
Something in his tone makes Fay open his eyes completely again. Kurogane doesn’t look upset or regretful, but he is thoughtful as he cuts away the seeds and core of his apple slices. “Does the temple take anyone who needs a place?” Fay asks softly, timidly.
Kurogane’s red eyes cut towards him sharply. “You’d have to ask Ashura,” he says finally, evenly. “We’ve had a lot of refugees lately. Seems like there was quite the war, on the other side of the five kingdoms. Lots of people have been trying to get away from it.”
Fay draws in a sharp breath, but before he can say anything, Kurogane puts the plate of cut and cleaned apple pieces on his chest and gets up. “I’ll go tell Ashura you’re awake,” he says, then points the knife at Fay like a warning. “You eat.”
“Ah–thank y–” he begins, then cuts himself off as Kurogane stalks from the room. The man walks with an obvious aggressive grace, and Fay thinks of the soldiers on the battlefield: deliberate and precise and still flowing like water (like blood) through the tides and turns of battle. He sits up slowly, carefully, and picks up one of the apple quarters, nibbling at the edge. It is tart enough to make his throat close a little, but he continues, and by the time Kurogane returns with another man behind him, he has nearly finished the one slice.
Fay looks up mutely as the newcomer–Ashura, he thinks, it must be–comes to his bedside and lifts a hand to press against his forehead. Like Kurogane, his clothes are simple and black, though he wears a heavy symbol in bronze around his neck, and his bearing is noble and kind. His long black hair is secured loosely back from his face, and his palms are smooth and cool. There is a sense of such such serenity radiating from him that Fay can’t help but lean into his touch, and in spite of himself, he finds his eyes prickling and stinging.
“Kurogane tells me you wish to stay,” Ashura says. His voice is low and deep and, like his face, so very kind. “Do you truly have nowhere else to go?”
Mute, sniffling a little, Fay shakes his head.
“If you stay,” Ashura says, “you will have to work. We all do our part, here at the temple. Do you understand?” His hand strokes back, smoothing Fay’s hair from his face. “You’ve suffered a great deal, haven’t you? Even though you’re so young.”
Fay doesn’t trust himself to answer. Behind Ashura, Kurogane is staring at him, and something about that gaze makes him more nervous than before. He nods again, eyes downcast, and is rewarded by Ashura’s gentle hand petting his hair. It feels good, and he leans into it tentatively.
“Then, Fay the traveler,” Ashura says gravely, “on behalf of our mistress, the Goddess of Mercy, we welcome you into her temple.”
“Are you entirely useless?” Kurogane snaps. “Where did you work, before this?”
Fay scowls a little at the ruined loaves of bread. They are sad and misshapen little lumps, barely darker than their original flour state except for where they’re peppered with black burned bits. “I did everything you told me to!” he protests. “I don’t know what happened–”
“Obviously you didn’t,” Kurogane growls. “Or else they wouldn’t look like this!” He picks up one loaf and brandishes it like a sword. “Listen next time, you fluffheaded moron!”
“You’re so mean,” Fay shoots back. “I’m trying! That should count!”
“Trying means you get somewhere!” Kurogane drops the loaf back onto the baking tray and takes it to the bin for the kitchen-scraps, sliding the whole lot in. “How many times have you tried this? Listen, I’m only going to tell you how to do it once more, and after that–”
“That’s what you said last time,” Fay mutters under his breath. He huffs out, puffing pale hair from his eyes. He’ll have to get it cut soon, he thinks, or start pulling it back again. “And the time before that, and the time before that. Kurogane the slave-driver.”
“What was that?”
This is what his life has become: working in the kitchens with Kurogane to make bread, which the temple gives to the poor and to travelers–but also sells for its livelihood. He wakes with the sunrise and sleeps hours after it sets, and his while dreams are still restless with blood and cracked mirrors, he thinks that the sound of the ocean outside his window every night is what allows him to catch even what he can.
Every week, there is a large gathering before the altar of the Goddess–people who come with hunched shoulders and haunted gazes to kneel before the lovely-faced statue and pray for forgiveness for any number of sins. Fay recognizes the dress of people from Clow and even Valeria; he hides in his own tiny room or the kitchen during these masses, too afraid of being seen and identified.
“Can anyone ask for mercy?” he asks Ashura once, as he follows the head priest around the altar-room, lighting the sticks of incense spaced along the entire area. “No matter what they’ve done?”
Ashura glances at him and smiles. “Anyone and everyone,” he says. “She does not judge people by their past actions, but by their hearts. If someone comes to her and truly regrets their sins, she will not turn them away from her grace.”
It is almost enough to make him hope, but he still hides himself when travelers come to the temple. Once, he sees a young woman with long dark hair come to the temple, dressed in the long white robes of the Clow High Priestess over a red frock-shift, and though he recognizes her face, he lurks in the darkest shadows of the altar room as she comes to pray. He cannot hear what she says to the Goddess, but he watches as she remains kneeling for the better part of two hours, and the words she exchanges with Kurogane before she goes. They stand almost as close as lovers, but there is a divide between them that is nearly physical. She reaches for his face and he steps back, turning his head away; she leaves and Kurogane is surly for weeks, snapping and growling until Fay forgets his fear and loses his temper and yells back.
After that, Kurogane is still critical, still the most demanding taskmaster that Fay has ever known, even compared to his past life of stern tutors and drill instructors, but he almost smiles, now and then, and when Ashura smiles benignly at them both and calls them friends, Kurogane doesn’t even protest.
Almost without his realizing, a year slips away.
Then, one morning in early summer, Fay starts awake with a scream strangled in his throat, his heart pounding so hard that he wonders, vaguely, how it hasn’t torn itself from his chest. He lifts his hands and stares at them in the moonlight–so bright it nearly matches the sun–and is surprised to see that they are clean. Even as he struggles to focus, the memories of his dream are fading into a bloody mist: Fay’s head in the basket, that sweet vague smile on his face, and the blood that had pooled on the scaffold, enough to drip through the boards and to the ground beneath–“Oh, it’s tea-time”–
Fay throws aside his thin blanket and gets out of bed. The first thing he does is steal a scrap of paper from the record-book and a small glass vial from the kitchen; then he finds himself a pen and he goes to the altar-room.
Most of the lights have gone out: the room for the goddess is open at all hours of day and night, even when no priest is there to officiate. The room is hazy with incense smoke, but the goddess’s face rises above that fog, serene and smiling, her long graceful arms held open, as if to embrace the world. Fay walks with slow determination to her altar and kneels, looking up.
“I’m sorry,” he says. Though his voice is a whisper, it is loud in the otherwise-silent room. “I almost let myself forget, and if I did, that wouldn’t mean anything, would it? I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He pauses long enough to scrub a hand over his eyes, wiping away tears. “I know Father Ashura says that you’ll forgive anyone who really really repents, but I don’t know if I deserve that. Not now, not yet.
“But I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I’m–” He swallows against a lump in his throat. “I know you asked me to forgive you, Fay, but I don’t think that’s right. I was no good as a prince, you know. I was selfish. Everything I thought I was doing for the good of my people, I was doing because I wanted it for myself. I don’t know why you thought I was worth saving.
“I wish you were here. You should be here. You’d like this place–it’s quiet and it’s peaceful and everyone’s kind. You’d fit right in.” Fay takes another deep breath and lets it out slowly.
“I want you to know that I won’t forget you. Not ever. I wish I’d called you brother before you left. I wish I had been strong enough to come for you, like you did for me. I hope you’re happy, wherever you are.”
Fay bows his head and forces himself to breathe long and slow, until tears and the prickling in his eyes fades to just a dull pressure when he blinks. When he can focus, he smooths the scrap of paper and puts the pen to it, shaping each word slowly and carefully; when he is finished, he looks up at the statue of the goddess again.
“I love you,” he says, and he gets to his feet.
Still clutching his supplies, Fay walks from the altar-room and out of the church entirely, down the long winding path to the sea itself. In the moonlight, it is dark and glimmering, and the waves are low and gentle. He wades out until he is ankle-deep in the water, then rolls the scrap of paper up and slips it into the glass vial before stoppering it. He stares towards the distant horizon and the long, long stretch of moving water in between. He shifts his posture and braces himself, then flings the vial as hard as he can into the darkness, towards the horizon. He hears a distant splash, and though he cannot see where it landed, he waits for long, long minutes, straining to find some sign of it in the waves.
“My mother always said if you told the ocean your wishes, they’d come true.” He hears the words as if they are being whispered directly into his ear; the breeze shifts, tugging at his hair gently. A superstitious man would have said it was playful; Fay knows better.
He turns and freezes at the sight of Kurogane on the beach, watching him.
Unlike Fay, he is fully dressed in the black robes of the temple’s servants, and there is something unreadable in his red eyes, the color leeched nearly to black in the moonlight. Fay is surprised to find he is not afraid, though, and he walks forward, through the shallow waters without faltering. He wonders if this is where the other Fay had found the courage to meet the mob, a year ago, unfaltering for once in the face of certain death.
“It’s really late, Kuro-rin,” he says. “Why aren’t you asleep?”
Kurogane eyes him again, then just shrugs. “I could ask you the same,” he says. His tone, for once, is absolutely neutral. “You really are an idiot, aren’t you? Running around like that without anything more than your shirt on.”
“There was something I had to do,” Fay says softly. He raises his chin. “I absolutely had to, no matter what.”
I saw you with the woman in red armor, he doesn’t say; she knew you and you knew her, so there’s no way you don’t know me.
“Next time,” Kurogane says, “put on a coat before you go off on these ‘absolutely necessary’ things.” He shrugs off his overshirt and drops it around Fay’s shoulders, fussing over the drape for a moment like a mother might, bundling up her child. “Got that?”
Fay blinks and moves slowly, slipping his arms into the sleeves of the overshirt. It is still very warm from Kurogane’s body and close enough that he can smell something dry and musky in the folds, and it is certainly not unpleasant. He realizes, with a distant surprise, that he is nearly the same height as Kurogane, even if much skinnier. He rubs the hem of one sleeve between his fingers and looks at Kurogane. He can see himself in the other man’s eyes, and the long, eternal expanse of the ocean behind him.
“Kuro-pon,” he says.
“C’mon,” Kurogane says, and jerks a thumb over his shoulder, towards the temple. “Let’s go home.”
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom in which it was always winter. Even during the height of midsummer there was snow on the ground and icicles hung from the eaves of houses and the spread branches of trees. It was called Valeria, and it was the first kingdom of the world, created by the twins Day and Night, who had once been properly named and had that privilege stripped from them by the other gods.
Then, one day, the Goddess of Mercy was traveling with her companion and came to icy Valeria. The twins received their guests with the best honors and graces they could manage, for they had been reduced to living in a quiet little hut, away from the castle and villages of the humans who had inherited their kingdom after their folly. In their place others were rebuilding, but they had their small home and their fire, and they sang together for the amusement of their guests. Day took up the empty branches of ice-trees instead of fans and danced, and Night clapped his hands to set a beat. And when the fire was finally banked, the companion of the Goddess said to their hosts, You sing so merrily, and yet you bear no names. Tell us, how did this come to be?
And so Day and Night spoke, and so the Goddess of Mercy listened to their story, which was told humbly and quietly, and she smoked until all the tobacco in her long pipe was turned into fine powdery ash. This she took and pressed her thumb into, then pressed it to the foreheads of Day and Night in turn. And then she said, You truly regret your actions, but you have found a strength that does not require the trappings of power that you had grown so comfortable with, before.
In this I hear you, and I forgive you. And I name you: Soel the Day, and Larg the Night. You may never return to the greatest heights of the kingdom of the gods, but no longer will you languish nameless, for you have accomplished what few ever do: you have learned happiness in that which is yours alone, and do not covet anything more.
With this, the twins were so pleased that they began to sing again, and it is said that even after the Goddess of Mercy and her companion left their little home, they continued to celebrate; if you know where to find them, you will see that they are at peace and joy still.