When Tetsurou is seven, they move to the city of Talade so they can get a doctor for Satoshi, who has just turned four. Three years of that coughing, with only temporary reprieves. The past winter had been the worst, and some part of Tetsurou knows that something had to happen. He and his mother had spent too many sleepless nights fearing for one little cough to be his last.
The journey is stressful, but Tetsurou enjoys the change of pace. He feels guilty when he thinks of being happy, though, but even Satoshi enjoys the different sights and sounds.
Talade is large, larger than anywhere Tetsurou could have ever dreamed of. He’d often listen to sailors and fishermen talk of far-off places, with sprawling capitals and gleaming sands stretching from horizon to horizon, but no imagination could prepare him for the largest southern port. (He knows this because he’s clever, and he knows how to separate out gossip from the smart things.)
After a week since getting to the city, since begging for work in exchange for a place to stay in a small inn near the fringes of the over-large fish market, their mother goes missing.
It takes Tetsurou four days to find out she’s been killed.
The city guard sounds apologetic as she explains that they’d found the body near the docks two nights ago, but they hadn’t known who she was, much less that she had a little boy.
Tetsurou pushes the woman and runs for it.
That night, Satoshi’s coughing is the worst Tetsurou has heard in months. He stays up, terrified but ineffectual.
Tetsurou is clever. He’d gotten it from his mother, the people of his old home used to say, and Tetsurou would always swell with pride when he’d hear that. Resourceful, clever, and unafraid.
He feels like none of those things now, but he relies upon them. He does not know what kind of doctor his mother had sought, or if she had ever contacted anyone, but he is left with no answers and no options. They are given two more days at the inn before the innkeeper takes their things and kicks them out, despite the way Tetsurou screams and kicks.
They’re left with what Tetsurou had shoved in their pockets and the clothes on their backs.
Talade is a hot city, just as their old home had been, but the nights are too chill for a sick child.
Tetsurou used to nick fish from the markets occasionally, or stray near the rich caravan master’s orchard and happen upon enough ‘fallen’ apples to fill his bag, but he finds that this had all been easier in hindsight. Here, in the awful city, guards are sharp-eyed and the citizens are even sharper. Tetsurou fears that people used to pity him and allow his past thievery.
He fears even more that people will not pity him here.
They resort to begging, quickly. Satoshi is usually shy, but he understands urgency, and need, and desperation. Both of them are what adults call cute, and Tetsurou is able to shamelessly exploit this. They get by.
But they have no doctor, and no roof over their heads.
Satoshi’s coughing worsens.
The tavern at the corner of the church district is run by an unusually kindhearted couple. More importantly, they are a couple who do not fear Satoshi’s coughing fits. More than once, Tetsurou has charmed his way into shelter, only for them to get thrown on their asses at the first sign of sickness.
No one understands you can’t catch every sickness.
But at least these people are kind. Tetsurou remains alert around them, prepared for any future betrayal, but they genuinely seem to like them.
Days become weeks, and weeks become months, and still both Kuroo siblings are allowed to stay in a little room that has been eventually repurposed from housing grains to housing boys. The rats don’t come by so often anymore, without food nearby. Tetsurou has been able to gather enough blankets to create a fairly decent bed.
Tetsurou comes back one day from a poor day of pickpocketing to find an old, musty, straw-filled mattress atop their pile of blankets.
“Look, look!” Satoshi exclaims while doing his best to sprawl his limbs to take up as much space as possible. Tetsurou cannot recall the last time he had seen him this happy. “Ahh, itchy, but it’s so nice, Tetsu!”
“Where did this come from, Toshi?” Tetsurou asks, still rooted in place by the door.
The nice tavern keeper bustles by, and Tetsurou jumps at the hand he places on his shoulder. “With the winter coming, I thought it would be best for you two to have something a little warmer than that stone floor.”
Tetsurou turns to him, too bewildered to maintain his suspicions. “But why?”
The old man smiles warmly and squeezes Tetsurou’s shoulder. “You two help out just enough around here, and neither of you deserve anything less than a proper bed. Sorry it took so long, Tetsu.”
Only his family is allowed to call him that.
The kindly old man continues past, leaving Tetsurou feeling more worried than before.
He has been in this city for too long to trust this type of kindness.
He still pickpockets. He’s better at it, now. He knows which city guards to avoid, which merchants to avoid. He knows what to target. Fish will never get him hit or chased, but trying to take fresh fruit in the cold months means the threat of losing a hand.
Taking coin from rich travelers is the easiest. Even with their own guards and attendants, it’s clear they’re in unfamiliar territory, and Tetsurou is not the only one to prey on wanderers. He doesn’t get into fights with other street rats and thieves, but he’s getting to be old enough and angry enough that they don’t pick fights with him, either.
Tetsurou is eight when he first sees the well-dressed woman and her entourage of guards in gleaming armor.
He watches, for a time, as she coos and marvels over the different markets. She’s from far away, then. She has never seen someone wear such nice clothes for walking around the city, and even more baffling is the fact that no one else tries to target her. Tetsurou doesn’t understand why, and he’ll be careful, but he’s not letting this go to waste. He has seen how fat her coin purse is.
The next day, she’s back again, dressed in deep purples and wearing a pretty metal circle on her pretty black hair. She has to be nobility, he reasons. He’s heard talk of the family in charge of the province, but they’re housed in Alcaledo, not Talade.
Two of her attendants are the same as yesterday, but the other two are new.
Most startling of all is the little boy she tugs along by the hand.
He’s older than Satoshi, but Tetsurou can’t tell how much; his face is round with a childhood spent well-fed and well cared for, so it makes him seem young. He, too, wears nice clothes and has nice jewelry in his hair.
He’s too old to be held as much as his mother seems to prefer, but it becomes apparent why soon enough. The moment she releases his hand, and turns her back, the little boy is off like a shot, shouting all the while. He races past Tetsurou, not noticing him at all, and Tetsurou presses his back to the wall, holding his breath. The market seems to freeze around them, until the dumb, loud little boy makes it to his goal: a guard dog sitting beside a fishmonger’s stall.
Tetsurou knows for a fact that dog will bite even children.
He starts forward, intending on saving the dumb brat from his own excitement, but with a whirl of movement, one of the familiar guards of the woman appears. Tetsurou hadn’t seen him move.
He scoops up the boy in one arm, despite his grumping, and laughs instead of scolds. “You’ll lose a hand, and you’ll make your mother cry! Do you want that?”
“I want a dog,” the little boy demands.
The guard laughs again, and walks back toward the frazzled, rich mother. “First a horse, then a dog, what’s next. You want a gryphon?”
Despite their happy chatter, the guard turns to look down at Tetsurou as they pass.
Tetsurou doesn’t know why; he’s certain he hadn’t been caught trying to grab the child, either. He’s been careful not to be noticed. The man’s eyes seem cold, despite his grinning, and as soon as he passes Tetsurou, he laughs like he’s just heard the funniest joke.
Tetsurou sees them in the market again the day after.
He still does not understand why no one else seems to target these people. They’re not quiet, or unobtrusive. The woman only has three attendants today, and her little boy, and Tetsurou does not see the strange man with the booming laugh today.
He times it for when they’re about to turn a corner down another street, and the little boy is furthest from his mother’s grasp.
Tetsurou sprints past him and easily snatches the pretty circlet from the little boy’s head.
The boy’s head snaps around, eyes wide, but he does not cry out. Tetsurou is around another corner and gone before he hears anyone shouting after him.
Tetsurou turns the weird jewelry over in his hands, as soon as he’s safe, half a district over and with no one chasing him. It looks like it’s made of gold, something he’d suspected but is happy to find is true. There are a few little stones lining the front of it, and it certainly looks expensive.
When he slaps it down on the desk of the man he always sees to sell his ill-begotten goods, already trying to calculate how much money he’ll demand for it, the man behind the desk balks for the first time.
“Where did you get that?” he asks, quietly, like he’s afraid of the jewelry.
“I want fifty gold pieces for this,” Tetsurou demands in the same sort of voice the little boy had used when asking for a dog.
The man swears, then laughs. “You’re the one who stole it, huh, Tetsu? Ya got the entire city watch on guard today because of Her Majesty’s fretting, so thanks for that.” He swipes up the little circle of gold, and gladly slides over a small pouch of coins. Tetsurou’s eyes sparkle, but before he can grab it, the man slaps his hand away.
He then sets another pouch on the desk.
Tetsurou looks up at him, astonished, and suspicious. He’s used to a lack of pity in this city. The kindness of the old tavern owners is something he’s still warming to, but the man who buys and sells stolen goods doesn’t have a kind bone in his body.
“This thing’s worth more’n twice this,” he says with a leer, then shoves both pouches over the desk at him. “Thanks for doin’ business, Tetsu. Don’t rile the entire city next time, and learn the value of things before ya bring ‘em here.”
Tetsurou is too busy marveling at all of the money to be too angry, at least then. He can get a doctor to check over Satoshi, and he can buy them nice food, and if he talks to one of the kinder inn owners he could get more blankets, and… The list continues on and on. He isn’t great with numbers, but the tavern owners are, and if today is the day they decide to be cruel to him, then so be it.
Tetsurou does not see the finely dressed woman and her son again for many months. The city guard calms, Tetsurou learns about what a Queen is, and Satoshi’s cough worsens. It always worsens in the winter months, but when the spring comes again, it does not get better, this time.
He spends most nights up with his coughing, fearful and exhausted. His brother can hardly stomach most foods now, throat so raw and stomach so tender, and each breath rattles as it leaves him. They’ve been able to afford a doctor, from time to time.
They always say the same thing.
“This kind of cough, you can’t do nothin’ for it, boy.”
Tetsurou learns how to soothe coughs on his own. Mint water helps, and if you cut things finely enough, any stew becomes thin. He learns, by necessity, how to rely on others’ kindness. The tavern owners still care for them, still allow them to stay. Tetsurou helps out when he can. Satoshi helps out less and less.
When the summer is hottest, Tetsurou sees the Queen again.
She’s still pretty and she’s still finely dressed. She’s still flanked by many attendants, and that man with streaked hair and too much laughter is still there, too.
Tetsurou does not see her son until the second day, however.
He’s grown, losing some of the roundness to his face, but he’s still healthy and well-fed and everything Tetsurou has lost in his brother. He has another expensive circlet on his hair, gold standing out bright against the blackness. Tetsurou knows how much that’s worth, now.
Again, the kid makes a break for it as soon as his mother’s back is turned.
It seems the past year has made him a little more clever, however, since he does not go for the nearest guard dog, but darts for the nearest alleyway. There are two turns to that one, but it leads to a dead end, unless you backtrack past one of the corners and hop a fence.
Tetsurou ambles in the direction of the alleyway while the Queen shrieks about her missing son. She rounds on her own guard first. “Koutarou, you’re supposed to be watching him!”
“Sorry, but he’s got more royal blood than you, and he’s learned he can order me around,” he admits, trying not to seem like he’s laughing.
“Don’t listen to the orders of a boy!”
Tetsurou slides into the alleyway before anyone else ducks down this way.
He makes it past the second corner, just to find the little boy standing there, arms crossed, head held high.
Tetsurou stops before him, confused.
“I trapped you,” the boy proudly declares. “I knew you’d come for me again, you ne’er-do-well. But this time, I win.”
The exit to the alleyway is behind Tetsurou. He’s bigger than this boy. He sincerely doubts this boy has ever been in a fight in his life.
“Uh. No.” Tetsurou does not have the patience to point all this out, because he feels it should be completely obvious. He can’t remember what a Queen’s son is called, but he knows it means that this is spoiled nobility. Royalty? Something like that. “Why d’you even remember me?”
“Mother was very upset I lost that coronet,” he seriously replies.
Tetsurou shrugs. He hasn’t had a mother to get upset over his misdeeds for awhile now. “Shouldn’t be runnin’ off after dogs, then. Who knows what kinda ne’er-do-wells might come after ya.”
To Tetsurou’s surprise, his evil grin does nothing to faze the boy. To his even greater surprise, the boy whips the circlet off his head, and holds it out to him. “I’ll trade you this,” he tells him, “if you can get me a dog.”
Tetsurou knows a couple of wild dogs in the church district, but they’ll never approach anyone, much less a naive little boy. He’s seen dogs kept like pets in the richer districts, or carried by passing nobility. He knows what a hunting dog is, and how much it costs to buy one.
He doesn’t know how to obtain any of these dogs.
“Daichi, your mother’s going to rouse the entire guard if you don’t stop runnin’ off.”
Tetsurou jumps at the sound of a voice behind him. The boy, Daichi apparently, frowns with surprising surliness.
The laughing man strides up, ignoring Tetsurou completely. Daichi quickly hides his circlet behind his back. “I was going to come back straight away,” Daichi replies, trying hard to seem innocent, but he still looks too angry to manage it. “I had a business deal to take care of,” he adds, a child repeating the importance of things adults say.
“Did you now,” the guard says, glancing down at Tetsurou.
“It isn’t anything foul, and I’m not misbehaving!”
“Alright, but I still gotta take you back. We can do it easy-like, or we can do it hard-like.”
Daichi sighs, long-suffering and world-weary. Tetsurou tries not to laugh. “Fine, I’ll come back with you.” When he passes Tetsurou, however, he hisses at him, “Meet me here tomorrow, at noon.”
“I can hear ya,” the guard announces, making Tetsurou jump again.
“Yes, but you’re with Father tomorrow,” Daichi says with a sunny smile. He takes the guard’s hand, and waves at Tetsurou behind him.
“Your mother has other guards, y’know,” the guard says, amused and exasperated. “Might be wise to steer clear of some. Not everyone’s as nice as me.”
“If you’re so nice, help me get a dog!”
“It’ll have fleas and mites, livin’ in a town like this. You need a fluffy little spoiled one, just like you are.”
“I need a big one with big teeth and something that can hunt bears for me!”
“You don’t even know what a bear is.”
“Father hunts them! I want to, too!”
Their voices carry through the little alleyway long after they’re gone. Tetsurou hums to himself, and tries not to dwell on the glimpse of another life.
So, he has to find a big dog before tomorrow.
Tetsurou does not find a dog. But he does know where kennels are, and they sell dogs, even if they don’t trust a boy hanging around there. Tetsurou will just have to bring Daichi here, barter with the owner, and use some of the money from the weird noble jewelry. He’ll have plenty leftover, he thinks. Enough for a better doctor, or maybe even a healer, one that doesn’t give up at the first cough.
Tetsurou waits in the little alley, all the way at the end, and it’s early when Daichi shows up. He’s breathless, flushed, and has already taken the jewelry out of his hair.
He stops short when he sees Tetsurou reclining there, sans dog.
“What about our deal?” Daichi asks, frowning severely.
“Oh, don’t worry. I figured it aaaaall out. But it means we gotta go for a little walk, you an’ me,” Tetsurou says, getting back to his feet.
Daichi glances back the way he came. “Mother is going to be looking for me…”
“Your sneaky guard ain’t here today, is he?” Tetsurou asks, and Daichi shakes his head. “Then we’ll be fine. This way.”
He brings Daichi to the fence, and boosts him over. Daichi fumbles and drops heavily onto the other side. Tetsurou climbs up after him, and can’t resist laughing at the sight of the pristine boy covered in dirt and laying in a heap.
Daichi follows along at Tetsurou’s side, fearless, but clearly unused to the hidden parts of the city. They avoid main streets—the city guard is already rushing unnaturally, so Tetsurou knows it’s just a matter of time before there’s a search in earnest—and stick to alleyways and buildings.
Soon, Daichi reaches out to take Tetsurou’s hand. He doesn’t even appear to be aware of it, eyes still on the bustling marketplace all around them. Tetsurou lets him. Satoshi used to do the same thing, when they’d go out together.
Daichi doesn’t speak much, but his eyes remain large as he takes in everything. Tetsurou doesn’t try to make conversation. He just wishes the kennels weren’t so far away. All of the guards are making him nervous.
They’re just a few streets from the kennels when Daichi is suddenly ripped out of his hand. Daichi shouts as he’s picked up by someone not in a uniform, not city guard or the fancy guards the Queen has with her, and Tetsurou leaps after him on reflex.
He’s plucked out of the air and held under someone’s arm. “I didn’t do nothing!” he cries on reflex. He still doesn’t know this uniform. It’s not even a uniform; these people don’t match each other.
“Hurry, hurry, before they start squawking!” the woman holding Daichi says, and on cue, Daichi starts shrieking like a baby having a tantrum. She claps her hand over his mouth at once, then, after a bit of fumbling, shoves a rag into his mouth.
Tetsurou does not have the stupidity nor the bravery to try the same thing. He keeps his mouth clamped shut and watches. The two boys are hauled down a side street, into a bigger, more open part of the western markets. They’re in a specific part, where foreigners gather and strange goods are sold.
Tetsurou realizes they’re getting kidnapped as soon as Daichi is passed up to a man waiting on a horse.
Tetsurou shouts and kicks and gets dropped on his ass as soon as the same thing is tried with him. “Stop, what’re you doing?! You gotta let us go, he’s important!” Tetsurou yells, searching around for someone to help them.
Talade doesn’t help strangers. Foreign merchants send them confused, suspicious looks, but a shouting boy is no cause for alarm. Hell, some of them might recognize him as a thief. There is no kindness to be found here, and Tetsurou is hauled up onto the saddle of another horse, held firm by the man behind him.
As soon as they start moving, Tetsurou’s only thought is to hold on for dear life.
He’s only been on a horse once before, years ago, when one of the farmers had tried to teach him how to ride. He’d fallen off and nearly got stepped on. Tetsurou squeezes his eyes shut and remains frozen in place. He doesn’t know these people, and he doesn’t know what they want with Daichi, but he knows what happens to important people, and he knows what happens to thieving boys.
No one’s going to help them.
Tetsurou’s wrists are tied together and he’s dumped in a small, dusty room with Daichi in his lap. The door is slammed shut in his face.
Wherever they are, it has thin walls. “Why are there two of them?!”
“I dunno, they were together, weren’t they?”
“Who the hell is the other kid, then?”
“Dunno! His brother?”
“Ya idiot, there’s only one Prince!”
Tetsurou ignores most of it. Their noises out there can cover anything they do in here. There is a single window in the room, but it’s small, and high up. There are empty shelves lining one wall, and a desk without a chair in the corner. Daichi sits, curled into a ball, trembling.
Tetsurou had been picked up once before; someone had tried to sell him. He’d managed to get out after breaking the man’s nose and getting lucky enough to run straight into a city guard watch. He doubts they’ll be lucky this time, if they’ve gone far enough to have needed horses.
“This is your fault, y’know,” Tetsurou complains. Even if he stands on the desk, he’s not sure he could see out the little window. He thinks they’re still in the city, but it sounds a little quieter out here. Maybe near the edge?
Daichi whimpers and curls up even tighter.
Tetsurou sighs, and guilt eats at him, more pressing than the window for the moment. “Sorry. It’s easy to get mad when you’re upset, you know?”
Daichi nods, but still won’t raise his head.
“Sometimes—a lot of the time—I speak without thinkin’. My mouth runs faster than my thoughts. There’re worse things about a man, but it’s alright if ya ignore me a little, is what I’m sayin’.”
“It is my fault,” Daichi quietly replies. “I’m the Prince they want. Now Kou can’t come for me.”
“Is that the guy with the scary laugh?”
“People think he’s scary,” Daichi halfheartedly agrees.
Tetsurou gives up on the window, and sits down next to Daichi. Daichi leans against him at once, shaking all over, and when he glances up at Tetsurou, Tetsurou finds him with tears already streaming down his face.
“Aw, you’re actually really scared, huh?” Tetsurou mutters. Daichi scowls, but nods. “Look, I got a little brother I gotta get back to, so I’m gonna get us out of here. And you gotta get back to your mama, right? It’ll be fine.”
“How can you say that?”
“They’re just gonna try to sell us,” Tetsurou replies with a shrug of his free shoulder. Daichi freezes against him. “You’re gonna be worth a lot, but that kinda thing, they still need somewhere public, right? And the city guard’ll be everywhere lookin’ for ya. There’s no way these idiots will ever manage to get away with this.”
“What about you?” Daichi whispers.
Tetsurou grins. “Well, I’m older ‘n you, so that means I’m more clever and far stronger. I’ll figure something out.”
He doesn’t feel like he can figure something out. But he knows that half of bravery is faking it, and he’s had years of practice faking it in front of scared little boys. Tetsurou waits until Daichi has stopped crying, sniffling but wiping at drying eyes, before standing again.
“Here, help me move this desk over. Let’s try an’ drag it when they’re still yellin’ out there.”
Tetsurou doesn’t know how successful they are with the latter, but they manage to drag the heavy desk beneath the window. He pulls at the rags tied around his wrists, but there’s no give to them. He awkwardly hops onto the desk, stands on the tips of his toes, and looks outside.
He can see the sea, which is more reassuring than he’d ever hoped. He doesn’t see many buildings, but more than a few, and it looks like the edge of a road leading away from the building. That’s probably their way back to Talade, and to where Daichi’s annoying entourage of guards can pick them up.
“Must be nice, to have people lookin’ for ya, huh?” Tetsurou comments.
“Sometimes,” Daichi mumbles. Tetsurou wonders if he’s still scared, or if this is some sort of humbling experience for a boy who seems to be perpetually dodging his guard detail. Likely both.
“Who’s this Kou guy, and why ain’t he out there lookin’ for ya, too? He seems important.”
“He’s with Father today.”
Father means King, which is something Tetsurou has a vague understanding of. He knows it means rich, and he knows it means important. He wonders how much these people are going to try to sell a Prince for.
“Alright, so then, who’re we lookin’ to return to? You’re gonna have to drop some pretty important names for the guard to put you back with.”
“Um… Mother?” Daichi guesses. “I don’t know many of the knights, so…”
Well, it can’t be that hard to return a kidnapped Prince to his mother, right?
“Alright, so here’s the plan,” Tetsurou declares.
Daichi looks up at him with hopeful, big eyes, hands clasped together in tentative excitement.
Tetsurou stares at his freed hands.
“What the hell?! How’d you untie yourself?”
Daichi looks down at himself, as if surprised. “Mother taught me how to free myself if I get caught anywhere. She says it’s a useful skill for a Prince to know.”
Tetsurou thrusts out his bound wrists with a scowl. Daichi frowns back at him, and he fumbles with the knots more than Tetsurou thinks he ought to with his supposed education on the subject, but soon, he has both his hands, too. “Alright. …Thanks,” he mutters.
Daichi brightens anyway. “You’re welcome! What’s the plan you’ve made?”
“I’m tossin’ ya out that window,” Tetsurou says, pointing at it, “and hopefully crawlin’ out after you. It shouldn’t be too far of a drop, since we didn’t come up any stairs, and once we’re outside, we run for it!”
Daichi’s cute excitement melts away, leaving him with skepticism belying his age. “That’s it?”
“Yeah, and what’s your plan, huh?!”
“Fight our way out!”
“With what weapons?”
That gives Daichi pause, long enough for Tetsurou to haul him up onto the desk. There isn’t too much shouting outside their room anymore, but he figures they still have a little time before anyone checks on them. No one wants to deal with crying children, after all, not even kidnappers. Especially not kidnappers.
Tetsurou boosts Daichi up, and Daichi climbs through the window with all the grace of a newborn fawn. Tetsurou hears the thump he makes outside—and his pathetic little cry of pain.
Tetsurou jumps, and catches the window, but he can’t get much traction on the wall with his boots. It takes him a few tries before he can haul himself over the edge.
Daichi stares up at him from below, watery-eyed, and shows Tetsurou a scrape on his hand like it’s personally his fault. “You baby,” Tetsurou hisses as he wriggles his way through the tiny window. He falls gracelessly, landing painfully on his hands, but at least he doesn’t whine about it.
When Tetsurou sits back up, shaking out his hands, he finds a man in a hooded cloak standing over them. Judging by the way Daichi is cowering, this is no friend of theirs, so he grabs his hand and drags him into a run.
They get as far as rounding the corner of the building before Daichi is caught.
Tetsurou flops backward with him and Daichi screeches like a caught cat. Tetsurou wastes no time; before he can lose his balance, he shoves all his weight backward, and ends up throwing both the man and Daichi to the ground.
“C’mon!” He grabs Daichi again, and again they run for it.
Again, the man is faster than them.
He viciously pulls the boys apart, shoving Tetsurou away this time, but otherwise uncaring of his presence. His mistake.
Tetsurou lunges for Daichi, but the man lifts him out of the way, with one hand, as if the squirming boy is lighter than a feather. That leaves him wide open, however, and Tetsurou punches him square in the face.
The man falls back on his ass, dropping Daichi, and Tetsurou clutches his hand with a hiss. It’d felt like punching a brick wall.
His hood has fallen down, and Tetsurou is surprised to see that he’s young, maybe a teenager, but he knows better than anyone that age doesn’t mean anything when it comes to actions. Nose gushing blood, the man narrows his bright, gold eyes—that glare means murder. Tetsurou has certainly caught his attention now.
“There ya are, Daichi!”
The Kou man appears out of nothing and scoops Daichi up with a beam. Daichi quiets at once, then breaks into his own smile. “Kou! You were supposed to be with Father—?”
“Not even the King can ignore it if his family’s in trouble, now can he?” Kou asks. He sets Daichi on one hip—Daichi seems very content with the proximity, despite his age—and looks down his nose at Tetsurou. “And then there’s you, little stray. Looks like you two have been up to some trouble.”
“Next time, tell the Queen not to bother me, if you’re still available,” the man with the bloodied nose snaps.
“Can’t you handle a little babysitting on your own?” Kou replies, and Tetsurou realizes with a sinking feeling that he probably should not have punched one of Daichi’s apparent guards. “Are two brats too much for ya?”
“I’m done. You’re playing bodyguard from now on.” The man swipes his dark hair out of his face, wipes his nose on his sleeve, and stands.
Tetsurou loses sight of him when Kou tries to pick him up, too. Tetsurou balks, but Kou is inhumanly strong. He gets an arm around him, and next thing he knows, he’s dizzy and standing in the middle of the fish markets.
Mother and son reunion is touching, and pokes at sore spots Tetsurou doesn’t like. His hands still ache, and he’s wasted most of the afternoon with this, with no jewelry to show for it. Hell, he’s probably made some enemies today, too, if anyone ever recognizes him.
Before he can slink off, however, Kou puts a hand on his shoulder, planting him there. “Nope,” he says, popping the p, and smiles down at him. “You’re gonna wanna stick around, little stray.”
“Koutarou, who’s this?” the Queen finally asks, Daichi still firmly in her embrace.
“He’s the one who rescued Daichi.”
“But I sent… Why are you here?” With fresh alarm, the Queen checks over every inch of her son.
“Just a scrape, Your Majesty. He’s fine,” Kou replies. “I ought to be getting back to your husband now, though. I’m sure he’ll have opinions about my presence here.”
“Oh, he always does. Tell him Daichi is fine.”
Kou vanishes into nothingness again, making Tetsurou jump. He looks around wildly. No matter how fast a person is, they can’t move that fast. But his attention is then grabbed by the Queen, again, who crouches down next to her son, extending her hand to Tetsurou with a warm smile.
“Hello there. So you helped rescue my son. I’m very thankful.”
Tetsurou eyes her extended hand like it might bite him. He understands gratitude, but it’s a lot like kindness, and he doesn’t trust rich folk with either. “Um. Alright.”
“It looks like you already know Daichi, but did you know he’s the Prince?” she continues in the same, calming voice.
“I kinda guessed. Dunno what that is, but I know he’s important. You don’t gotta explain it to me.”
“I’m more than important!” Daichi exclaims, chest puffed out.
“I’m the Queen, too,” she adds, searching Tetsurou’s face for some kind of recognition. He shrugs. He has nothing to offer her. He’s not going to cater to the already-swollen egos of nobility, even if she does seem nice. “I’m very grateful, young one. May I know the name of the one who rescued my son?”
“Tetsurou,” he mutters, glancing away.
“Is there any way I can begin to show my gratitude? Some way I can repay you?”
Tetsurou’s attention snaps back to her at once. He understands payment, at least.
The money from the Queen is enough to make the tavern owners weep.
Tetsurou suddenly feels alright about staying with them for so long.
Tetsurou recounts his tale—with many, many embellishments—first to them, then to Satoshi, then, eventually, to any visitor the tavern gets. His story is passed around with amusement, but sincere respect, too. Princes are apparently pretty damn important. Tetsurou glows with pride, so long after the fact, but he will still take this little bubble of happiness. He feels he’s earned it.
They get a better healer to look at Satoshi, but her answer is the same as any other’s.
“This sickness is in his lungs. It’s not something that gets better over time. I’m sorry, but the best thing you can do is try to ease the pain.”
“Isn’t there something? Some magics, or some foreign elixir?” the kind old lady asks in a whisper Tetsurou still hears. He knows the healer is shaking her head.
“Please, we can pay you. Surely there’s somethin’ to be done for the boy,” the kind old man adds.
Coin can’t do everything, Tetsurou learns.
His brother lasts a few more months. It’s always the winters that are the worst, and that proves to be fatal, this year. Tetsurou had just turned ten.
He hardly notices the hot weather anymore. Talade is always hot, it feels, but it doesn’t work to tell the time of year by it.
Apparently, it’s the time of year that the Queen and Prince return for.
This time, Tetsurou does not find them in the markets; Daichi finds Tetsurou.
“Do you know how hard you are to find when you’re not playing at being a thief?!”
Tetsurou looks up, startling at the voice, and it takes him a long moment to recognize him. Daichi has grown, face losing more roundness, finally getting a little taller. He grins down at Tetsurou from his spot on the bridge.
Tetsurou checks his line—still no fish. He’s set to ignore Daichi, since he brings trouble, but worse than that, he reminds him of Satoshi, but apparently, Prince means unable to ignore.
Daichi throws something at Tetsurou, and it hits him squarely in the head. “Ow! Hey!” he snaps, and grabs the object. It’s another circlet. Gold, again, and with little dark stones set into the top. Tetsurou turns it over in his hands.
Without needing doctors frequently, and with one less mouth to feed, and with the tavern owners being wise with the coin Tetsurou gave them, money hasn’t been so tight. It’s almost normal, or what he thinks is normal. He doesn’t feel the same burning urge as before to grab up every piece of wealth he can muster just to stay afloat.
Tetsurou sets it on his wild hair and resumes his fishing. “What’s this for?” he calls up.
“Payment! Mother gave me a dog for my birthday.”
“Then give it to her. I don’t need your pity.”
“Well, you liked all the coin Mother gave you last time. I thought you’d like this, too.”
“You just wanted ta throw something at me.”
Daichi huffs, loudly enough for him to hear, and Tetsurou smirks to himself. “I’ve had to go all over this city to find you!”
“Why did you want to?”
“Aren’t we friends?” Daichi asks, hesitant.
Tetsurou looks up at him, crouched on the bridge. Daichi appears confused, and preemptively hurt. He’s flanked by two guards this time, but it’s clear he’s allowed out on his own, away from his mother.
“Why’d you wanna be friends with someone like me? Ain’t you important?”
“I have important friends, but they’re all nobility. They want to be friends with the Prince. You didn’t even know what a Prince was, and you wanted to spend time with me. And, we got away from those kidnappers together…”
Tetsurou wonders if Daichi had embellished the story as much as he had. It could be funny to compare. “I wanted to spend time with you so I could get that circle thing. It was a business deal, remember?”
“Now you have it.”
“And you have your dog.”
“I can pay you,” Daichi calls, stubborn and frustrated. “I need a guide for the city. I don’t know where anything is, and I need someone who knows that.”
“What if I don’t want your money?”
“Because we’re friends?”
“Because I don’t wanna spend time with a spoilt Prince.” The fish aren’t biting. Tetsurou gives up, and pulls in his line again. He keeps the circlet atop his hair, and gives Daichi a bow with as much sarcasm as he can muster.
“Why are you being so mean?!” Daichi cries.
“Because I can’t do anything for you!”
“You don’t have to! That’s what I’m saying!”
But Tetsurou is already walking away, down the bank of the river, away from Daichi.
“Tetsurou,” the kind old lady says, gently shaking him awake. She’s looking older than ever lately, but this is the happiest he has seen her in months. “Tetsurou, you have a visitor.”
Tetsurou does not realize what she means until he comes out into the tavern and finds both the Prince and the Queen seated at a dirty little table in the corner. Kou stands at the door, and he gives Tetsurou a wink when he sees him.
The Queen stands at once with a gasp of delight. “Oh, Tetsurou! Look at how much you’ve grown!”
Tetsurou tries to turn around and go back to his room, but the kind old lady is neither kind nor old enough for him to get past. Despite how he digs in his heels, she escorts him over, and the Queen pulls him into a hug.
Tetsurou may have spotty knowledge of what a Queen is for, but he’s fairly certain she’s important enough she shouldn’t be hugging random boys. He tries to remember when the last time he bathed was. He’d gone swimming yesterday, did that count?
“How have you been?” the Queen asks and smooths his hair back from his eyes, just like his own mother used to do.
“Alright,” Tetsurou croaks. A blatant lie.
“No one has given you any trouble, have they? You haven’t seen or heard anything else from the people who took you two, have you?”
“I’m so glad,” she says, like she’s honestly relieved. Tetsurou shoots a wildly confused look over his shoulder, but the tavern owners both pretend to ignore him. They’re likely pleased as punch to have such dignified guests. Tetsurou finds it horrendously awkward.
“Mother,” Daichi says, impatiently.
“Love, patience,” she replies.
“Why’re you both here? Daichi seems like he’s got somethin’ to say.” Tetsurou realizes that’s rude, and hastily backtracks. “I-I mean—you only visit during the summers, and I’m surprised you remember me at all. Thought you woulda rather forgotten about everything.”
“We stay in the summer palace then, yes. I’ve always enjoyed Talade. It’s quite pretty.”
Tetsurou tries, very hard, to think of anything pretty about this city. He can’t come up with anything. The sea, perhaps, but anywhere along the coast has the sea. “Right.” He sounds dubious to his own ears, but the Queen doesn’t falter.
“And I would never forget about someone who has helped our family so much. Daichi may be young, but he is the Crown Prince, and our country needs him. It would be the basest tragedy should something befall him. You helped us avoid that, so thank you.”
His cheeks feel hot from getting thanked for something that happened a year ago. He still doesn’t feel like he did much, anyway, and while it’d been nice to avoid punishment for slightly kidnapping the Prince in the first place and attacking one of his guards, he doesn’t need the reminder of how he could help one person and still fail his brother so terribly.
“How old are you, Tetsurou?” the Queen asks.
“Do you have any family here?”
Tetsurou hesitates. He knows that’s telling enough, and out of the corner of his eye, he sees the kind old man shake his head. “Not anymore,” Tetsurou mumbles, because he won’t back away from his own battles.
“Would you like to come stay with us, at the palace, for the summer? We’re here for another month and a half, and I know Daichi would love to have you as our guest,” the Queen gently asks. Daichi nods, a lot, on the other side of the table.
Tetsurou balks at the offer, but curiosity and his own guilt eventually force him to respond, “Alright.”
Tetsurou doesn’t know why he had been so apprehensive. Apparently, palaces are amazing places, larger than he could ever imagine a building being. The ceilings are high, the windows full of color and fantastic designs, the carpets so plush he sinks, and everywhere there are sights and smells he can hardly comprehend.
Daichi races down the hall like none of this fazes him.
Tetsurou had only gotten as far as the first vase near the open glass door; the flowers are huge, purple and unfurling delicately. “These are as big as my head!” he shouts down the hall at Daichi.
“You’re so slow! They’re just flowers!” Daichi calls back with a stubborn stomp of his foot. He runs back to Tetsurou and tries, in vain, to pull him along. “Come on, I absolutely must show you Wags!”
“What’s that?” Tetsurou indulgently allows Daichi to lead him away from the flowers he doesn’t care about. (Tetsurou recalls more than one healer trying to feed Satoshi various plants; maybe something as grand as that purple one could have helped?)
Wags, as it turns out, is Daichi’s dog. Little more than a puppy, really, and Tetsurou stifles a laugh in his fist because even if it’s young, it is in no way a large dog.
The hound is also apparently named for the excited wagging of its stumpy tail, which sets off Tetsurou laughing all over again.
“Isn’t he amazing?” Daichi boasts, proud and covered in slobber. Wags wiggles his entire rump with how hard he wags his tail. “He’s going to be my hunting hound, for when I accompany Father on his fox hunts. And he climbs trees almost as well as I do!”
“You are too young to hunt,” Tetsurou wheezes, “and dogs ain’t climbing trees. Those’re cats. Does this big house make you go addled?”
“I’m already learning how to handle a rifle!” Daichi retorts. His chest is so puffed up he’s liable to topple over at any moment.
As it turns out, Daichi’s dog can climb trees. Also, more bizarrely, the palace has kennels of its own—already full of dogs. Some of them are larger than any guard dogs Tetsurou had seen in the markets, and some are smaller than he would have ever thought possible.
“But they’re not mine,” Daichi sighs, rolling his eyes, Wags still wriggling in his arms, “they’re the crown’s. They stay at this palace, and Mother only uses them for hunting parties or when she and Father go on walks together in the gardens.”
“But they’re dogs. They live here, yeah? That means they’re yours!”
“No, they’re not!”
“Tell one of ‘em to sit,” Tetsurou orders. “I bet it’d listen to ya!”
Daichi’s mouth pinches shut.
“You can’t understand owning things in the same way royalty does.” The guard Kou, as before, appears from nowhere and uses Tetsurou’s head as a rest for his elbow. Tetsurou squawks and ducks away, but Kou only grins down at him, eyes nearly slitted. “You haven’t owned many things, have you, little stray? Royal blood is different than yours or mine. One thing isn’t enough if it isn’t theirs.”
“I only wanted a dog of my own,” Daichi mutters, hugging Wags closer, not at all unnerved by his guard’s abrupt appearance or tone. “One I could play with during the day…”
“It’s very lonely, having all this stuff with no one to share it with,” Kou adds.
Tetsurou thinks he understands what the man is getting at. Daichi had struck him as lonely before, too. But Daichi does not understand in the same way, willingly or not, and instead marches his dog past the full kennels and toward what appears to be very fancy gardens.
“Why’re you mean to him? He’s just a little kid,” Tetsurou says, unable to help himself.
“And you aren’t?”
“I ain’t mean to him, at least.”
“I’m sure he’ll return the favor, one day,” the guard allows.
Daichi’s bed is so large that Wags needs help jumping up onto it. It is so large Daichi needs help getting onto it. Tetsurou thinks it may be larger than his entire room at the inn, and the plush blanket atop it looks so soft he could sink into it easier than the sea.
“What?” Daichi asks, perched in the middle, blankets pillowed delicately around him.
“Nothing,” Tetsurou quickly replies. He is suddenly ashamed of how happy he had been to receive that straw mattress. He doesn’t understand this life of Daichi’s, how he could throw gold at Tetsurou and only ask for a dog and a tour of the city. He cannot bring himself to touch such a lavish bed, and he isn’t entirely certain why.
Both boys jump guiltily to attention, Tetsurou whirling around as the Queen bustles in the door, flanked by two maids.
Tetsurou had expected the angry tirade of a mother angered, but she has no frown, and she cups her son’s face and coos. “Daichi, you’re filthy. You haven’t bathed yet, why are you in bed?” The Queen turns toward Tetsurou with a warm smile. “You two are quite the pair. More dirt than boy.”
Wags pops up with a signature wiggle and the Queen sighs.
“The dog, too, Daichi? You’re making a mess. Come, let’s get all three of you cleaned up before bed.”
Tetsurou takes a surreptitious whiff of his underarm. The kindly old woman at the inn had made sure to scrub him with water and soap before sending him off to Daichi and his palace.
But evidently, bathing so frequently is just what royalty does.
It makes sense that a building this large has its own baths. Tetsurou never could afford to go into any of the bathhouses in Talade, except a single time after he had given the money to the innkeepers last year, but this must be of similar size. The floor is made of colored jewel-like glass, and the mirrors lining one of the walls is already foggy with heat from the water.
Tetsurou is too busy staring at one of the pretty stained glass panels to notice one of the maids approach him. He jumps like a startled cat as soon as she tugs on his shirt.
“Sorry,” she murmurs, apologetic but hardly audible, and resumes tugging it up over his head anyway.
“I can—hey, I ain’t no child!” He swats her away with more force than intended, but instead of being scolded, the Queen just chuckles.
“This must be new to you, Tetsurou,” she says, and helps her son out of his shirt. He poses as politely and silently as any doll. “Come here, please.”
Tetsurou knows she’s a nice woman, and he knows better than to misbehave in front of a Queen. But he also senses old, misplaced pity for a boy without a mother of his own, so he cannot help but bristle. He pulls off his trousers by himself and stomps into the bathwater, chin held high, but, technically, approaching her. Vaguely in her direction.
“Isn’t it hot?” Daichi asks, head cocked.
“No,” Tetsurou lies. It is the hottest bath he has ever had. It is comparable to the time he burned himself helping in the kitchen when Satoshi had been a baby.
The Queen smooths Daichi’s short hair back, then scoots him toward the water, too. She begins untying her loose shirt while Daichi delicately dips a single toe into the water.
He pulls it out again with a mulish huff, and Tetsurou rolls his eyes. “Baby,” he whispers at him.
Daichi splashes into the water with a growl and, belatedly, a shriek. Tetsurou laughs at his victory, only halfheartedly helping Daichi try to keep his head out of the too-hot water.
“‘m not a baby,” Daichi hisses at him as soon as he can stand without flinching. His skin is red and his scowl is fierce.
“Of course you aren’t,” comes a voice above them. Both boys tilt back to see Kou again.
“Koutarou,” the Queen sighs. “You’re being capricious. This isn’t a burn.”
“It’s distress enough,” Kou—Koutarou—replies easily.
Tetsurou wades around Daichi, under the guise of checking his red skin, but mostly to keep a bit of distance between himself and the bright-eyed man. He doesn’t trust his sudden appearances any more than he trusts his flippant laughter. “How does he do that?” he whispers in Daichi’s ear.
“He has to come when one of us gets hurt. He’s bound to.”
“Yeah, all guards are. You ain’t hurt, it’s just some hot water.”
“Tetsurou, Koutarou is a witch, bound to serve royal blood,” the Queen explains. She steps out of her last layer of underclothes, then carefully steps into the bath with them. “This water is a tad warm. Koutarou, if you please?”
To Tetsurou’s amazement, after a flick of Koutarou’s fingers, the water cools. It is still hot, but comfortably so, and less like the middle of summer on the hot wood of the docks. “What’s a witch? Is this like magic?”
Koutarou crows a laugh. “Oh, I like him! Your Majesty, you really intend on keeping him? He doesn’t know a thing about anything.”
“I know I saved the Prince and you didn’t,” Tetsurou shoots back.
Koutarou’s humor is gone in an instant. His eyes narrow, thinner than a knife. “His mouth moves faster than his brain.”
Tetsurou has, in fact, been told that before. He doesn’t think present company needs to know this.
“I’m glad you were there for Daichi,” the Queen breaks in, and places a water-warm hand on Tetsurou’s damp hair. She brushes it back out of his face, and he blinks through the water she drips. “Thank you, again, Tetsurou.”
“Thank you,” Daichi dutifully repeats.
“Witches aren’t good enough playmates for your son, now?” Koutarou asks, still crouched over them.
Tetsurou isn’t certain if he imagines it, but he thinks the Queen’s fingers tighten in his hair, just for a moment.
“I’d prefer him to have someone closer in age. And it is a breath of fresh air, to hear a boy so unafraid to speak his mind. Daichi could learn a thing or two from him—I don’t wish for him to get cowed by his father or all of those bullheaded advisors of his.”
“I’m older than him,” Tetsurou points out, just in case it weren’t obvious. He doesn’t want to lie to the Queen, even by omission.
“Close enough. If that’s what you wish, Majesty. I’ll take my leave now, so you can finish your pet project here. No more burning yourself, Daichi,” Koutarou fondly tells him, then vanishes without a trace. Tetsurou can’t help but look for him, anyway.
“Witches are magic. Lots of magic. You get used to him appearing and disappearing,” Daichi sagely advises him.
“That’s certainly true,” the Queen chuckles. She pets through Tetsurou’s wild hair once more, then settles in on the low stone bench beneath the water. Her hair fans out on the surface like the finest of oils.
As if prompted, one of the maids pours something sweet-smelling from a tall jug. Tetsurou sneezes at the smell, and the Queen waves the man off before any more is added. They switch to something pink and milder that Daichi heads straight toward with a determination Tetsurou had only seen from him before in dog-related tasks.
He splashes it and creates a mound of bubbles in no time.
Tetsurou, despite his advanced age, absolutely cannot ignore the fact that this water makes bubbles, and hastens to join Daichi.
“Having fun?” the Queen asks as soon as their bubbly creation has grown to reach her.
Daichi pops up from the white mass, covered in it. Tetsurou smears more on him while he nods. “You usually don’t let me do this,” Daichi says, pausing suspiciously, squinting at her through the bubbles.
“Tetsurou may be allergic to the lavender oils. We will test them later.”
Tetsurou is unused to such attention to detail—or such caring for his wellbeing. Not that the innkeepers are cruel, but he hadn’t paid much attention to things like sneezes except in the spring, when the markets have more flowers. That is just how life was in the spring.
“Why?” he finally asks.
“Why what, dear?”
“Why—why does it matter? Why do you care what I sneeze at, or how clean I am, or if I get along with Daichi or what foods I like or if I had family or what I do or—just, why?”
The Queen exhales. Not a sigh, not like she is losing her temper with a child, but of an adult bracing themselves for an important talk. She smooths her hair over her shoulder, combing it idly through her fingers, and Tetsurou notices it’s about the same shade his own mother’s had been.
“Tetsurou, you’d like to stay the summer here, with us, in the palace, yes?”
Tetsurou cannot imagine a single reason why he would not want to stay in a palace. He may have only just learned what they were, but he loves it, odd as it is.
“We only stay here in the summers. Our real home is further north, in the capital. At the end of the summer, we’ll be returning there.”
He nods again; he had known as much. He had only seen Daichi yearly prior to this, after all.
“Would you like to come with us?”
“Why?” he asks again.
“Do you know how to read?” the Queen asks instead.
Blood rushes to his face, and he sinks lower in the bubbles to cover his hot cheeks. He knows nobles can learn anything they please, and the Queen and Prince could probably read anything in the world if they’d like to. “No. Ain’t ever had the time,” he says, like that’s the only reason.
“You can take lessons with Daichi. Maybe then he will pay more attention to his tutors.”
“History is boring,” Daichi complains at once. “But I could help you read. I’m learning Continental, now.”
“You would want for nothing. Education, food, clothing. Safety. I’d like to offer you a better life, with Daichi and I. I ask for nothing from you but unbiased companionship for my son.”
The summer passes in a haze of heat, play, and laughter. While the guards had stuck to the Queen and Prince in the markets, here, in the palace grounds, they are more lenient. Tetsurou and Daichi have their run of more land than either truly know what to do with.
Tetsurou takes horse riding lessons with Daichi. Daichi is some sort of natural; Tetsurou is rubbish. Book lessons are easier. Just as frustrating, but at least they won’t step on him should he complain.
Tetsurou teaches Daichi how to throw stones with enough force and accuracy to piss off rude guards and knock hornet nests out of trees. (Koutarou saves them from the latter, the singular time Daichi had been successful. Tetsurou had thought it an easy target, and had not expected Daichi to catch on so quickly.)
Tetsurou does not understand the difference between palace guards and the knights—they all yell at errant boys the same—but he does realize who the serving staff and cooks are, and understands Daichi’s love for them wholeheartedly. Daichi speaks fondly of far-off professors and tutors at an equally far-off Academy, which Tetsurou learns is a type of large, fancy school.
He’s learning that most things to do with Daichi are large and fancy.
He has tasted foods he never could have dreamed of, still gets lost with how sprawling the palace is, and by the time the summer comes to a close, he has stopped jumping at Koutarou’s sudden entrances.
“Will you come with us? We’ve much to pack,” the Queen asks, offhand, over dinner one late evening. “And one young boy’s things are just as much as two, all things considered.”
Daichi turns shining eyes and stuffed cheeks on Tetsurou. (He knows better than to speak with his mouth full. For some reason, sophisticated people think this rude. Manners are not something Tetsurou is happy to learn about.)
Tetsurou had grown fond of the old innkeepers, but they aren’t his family. Neither are these people, however. The palace is, undoubtedly, the better place to live, and he is learning to trust the Queen’s generosity. He trusts Daichi far easier.
And he does remind him a little of his brother.
“Can I come? An’ decide later, maybe?”
Tetsurou had barely thought of the inn has home; he doesn’t think of Daichi and his big bed and his bigger palace as home, either. At least here, he has enough to eat, and he isn’t another mouth to feed for the innkeepers. “I wanna write them a letter. An’ send them something.”
Daichi helps him scrawl out a letter the next day. He knows it is shorter than he means, than he wants, and he can only surmise his handwriting is atrocious, but Daichi assures him it’s legible. He rolls it up, and ties it to the coronet Daichi had given him at the start of the summer.
“You sure you don’t want this thing?” Tetsurou asks for the last time.
Daichi only shrugs. “I have more. Mother prefers me to wear them in public, but I don’t like them much. Father doesn’t care.”
Tetsurou has little frame of reference for how much it costs to have housed him for the last several years, and how much the previous coronet he stole covered. Surely this could come close. He has come to learn a fair bit of generosity and sympathy he can trust, but most of all, he understands gratitude and payment. He can return those without guilt or questioning himself.
Thank yu for taking care of me for sew many years. I have en closed this becauz I like yu. Thank yu again.
When the old, kindly shopkeepers receive the poorly spelt letter and the Prince’s coronet, they weep. With joy at Tetsurou finding a miracle in the streets, with the sorrow of missing him, and with disbelief at how much the boy had given them in the form of love, support, and warmth in their little inn.
The coronet he had entrusted the strange man with the streaked hair to give to them is worth four times the reward he had brought home for rescuing the Prince.
Tetsurou rarely deals with the King.
He gleans bits and pieces from eavesdropping and gossip; there are tensions with a northern country, and the King has stronger feelings about it than the Queen. When they reach the main palace—somehow even larger than the one outside of Talade—gone is the doting mother, too. They are stuck in meeting after meeting, gone entirely for trips to places Tetsurou has not heard of, trying to stave off what the palace staff whispers about: war.
Daichi is left behind.
The first time his father and mother are gone, leaving the boys in the care of attendants, palace staff, and Koutarou, Daichi is morose. Tetsurou only then realizes why the Queen had been so welcoming to Tetsurou; he cannot imagine Daichi alone in this palace, surrounded only by adults and a witch, with that little puppy in his arms and not a soul to actually be with.
Tetsurou spends his days struggling to cheer Daichi. He shows Daichi the litter of kittens he found in the storehouse, makes sure to throw their sparring match so Daichi wins, and demands every exciting adventure book from the Academy’s vast library to try to read through with him. But still, every night, Daichi clings to him in bed.
“Fix him,” Tetsurou demands of the healer that lives in the palace. (He could only imagine having one so close when he’d needed one in the past.)
“There is nothing to do for a child’s mood,” the healer dismissively replies. “Go outside and get some fresh air. Play in the mud, or whatever you boys do.”
“It ain’t right for parents to leave their kid and let him mope around! Broken hearts hurt just as much as broken ribs,” Tetsurou declares.
The healer levels a flat look at him. “You have clearly never broken a rib. If you worry for my lord so badly, then go be with him instead of pestering me.”
When the King and Queen return, Daichi livens up once more. Tetsurou is relieved for his friend, but less relieved at the new palace gossip. Something has the King and Queen worried, and Koutarou sticks more closely to them than ever.
It does work for good distraction, however. Jumping off of the palace roof with a witch to catch you is far more exhilarating than jumping off the docks.
“What happens if I drop ya one of these times?” Koutarou asks after another round of effortlessly catching them. Daichi can hardly breathe for laughing so hard, fingers clenched so tightly in Tetsurou’s that he’s liable to break something.
“Why d’ya think we won’t let go of each other?” Tetsurou asks back with his own wild cackle. “Daichi will protect me!”
“This street stray is givin’ you some pretty wild ideas, Daichi.”
“I know! Aren’t they fun?!”
“Again! Let’s go again!”
Koutarou sighs only for show as he tosses them off a roof again.
The mood around the palace worsens, despite Daichi’s bolstered cheer. Koutarou won’t leave his side, even though Daichi swears he used to have rotating shifts with his parents. (Not that Koutarou prevents them from getting into trouble.) Couriers seem to arrive daily with fresh news, and there are more and more uniforms that Tetsurou recognizes as military.
“Generals and commandants,” Daichi tells him as they peer around a door into the Academy’s main hall. They’re too far to hear any of the meeting, but Tetsurou can easily count a dozen of the generals’ uniforms alone.
“That Lady from the southern province visited earlier, too,” Tetsurou recalls. It had been startling, to hear an accent similar to his, but the daughter the Lady had brought with her had been around their age and almost fun to play with, until she had been reprimanded for getting her skirts dirty. Mika hadn’t been allowed to accompany them outside after that.
“You two are too young to be fussin’ as much as the Majesties,” Koutarou says from above them. Tetsurou isn’t certain how long he has been literally hovering over them—he may be used to his disappearing act now, but the floating will never not unnerve him—but he is not surprised to find them attempting to spy.
“What’s going on, Kou?”
“Just a bunch of scared humans, what else is new?”
“What is everyone so scared of?”
“Blood and death. Also not new. What is new is whose it might be, but you two are still too young to be worrying about this. Give it another decade, then it’ll be all you can think of.”
Something about Koutarou’s cavalier attitude doesn’t mix with his protective streak toward Daichi, but Tetsurou doesn’t voice his concern. He isn’t even certain what his concern may be. Koutarou has always been strange, and Daichi has always been nosy, and Tetsurou has always been comfortably between them. He thinks he could be happy here, like this, despite the adults’ fretting.
Tetsurou is woken by someone tearing the covers from their bed. He doesn’t see anything in the darkness, and with a whirl of movement and another tug of the duvet, everything is abruptly still.
The bed begins to cool.
“Daichi?” Tetsurou whispers, though he can already feel he is alone in the bed. He pats around anyway. His eyes slowly adjust to the dark—Daichi usually demands a lantern be lit throughout the night—and he registers no further movement. The bed is definitely empty. “Daichi?!”
He hadn’t heard the door and there had been little struggle, so the only answer is that Koutarou had grabbed him. Why, he doesn’t know, but it stops Tetsurou from outright panic for the moment.
He slides out of bed and tugs on his boots, uncaring of his sleep clothes. The hallway is dark and empty, too, but Tetsurou has hardly ventured farther than their wing before a pair of knights rush up.
“Where is the Prince?!” one demands. The lantern in his hand shakes.
“Kou must’ve grabbed him,” Tetsurou replies, shaking his head. His lank hair hangs in his face, in his eyes, and he swipes it back. “I dunno where they went. What’s goin’ on?”
The knights exchange a look. “Stay here,” the other says, and they both rush off. They aren’t in full armor, but more than the guards wear, and the metal clanks as they depart.
Tetsurou swallows, and keeps going. It is the middle of the night, moonless, but the palace is far from dark and silent. Too many guards are up, and more and more knights. One of the Academy’s professors bustles by, also in her sleep clothes, hair unbound and a curly mess.
One of the cooks, similarly unkempt, catches Tetsurou when he’s halfway to the royal apartments. “Oh, Tetsurou,” she says, embracing him and brushing his hair back for him. He doesn’t understand the sudden concern. “You’re alright. You’re alright, yes? Where’s Daichi?”
One of the maids comes up on her heels, one of the few still in working uniform. “I heard the Prince was taken!”
“No, he’s with Kou,” Tetsurou replies.
The cook keeps petting over his hair like he’s some sort of dog. “Thank the stars, that means he must be safe. He didn’t take you, too? Do you know where they went?”
“He must be with His Majesty, right?” the maid whispers.
Another pair of palace staff jog over, also looking like they’ve been recently roused from slumber, one of them holding a lighting lantern. It looks as if he’s been lighting the wall sconces as he came. “Wake up any other staff—palace is on lockdown. Staff is to remain indoors.”
“Guards are blocking off exits,” the other adds, before they leave, too, lighting the rest of the corridor.
It is strange, seeing so much of the palace lit up when it’s so late. Tetsurou had been to one gala with Daichi and his parents, and then it had been lit up, but that had been a party. A grand affair full of alcohol and food and too many strange customs. This seems eerie.
“What’s goin’ on?” Tetsurou asks again.
He again receives no answer.
More and more people join their little group, and almost everyone asks Tetsurou the same starting question—where is Daichi. He’s beginning to get frustrated, partly because most of the staff seem surprised Koutarou wouldn’t take him, too, wherever he spirited the prince off to, but mostly because no one appears to know anything about why they’re all awake in the middle of the night with more and more stern-faced guards descending into the halls.
“Kitchen staff!” one of the guards barks and gestures with his pike. “Kitchen staff, to your kitchens while we account for everyone present. Maids, to the Prince’s apartment. Academy staff, back to the Grand Hall, and guards, back to your quarters for assignment details.”
Tetsurou is none of those things. The cook from before pulls him against her nightshirt anyway. “Do we know what is going on? Is Prince Daichi alright?”
Koutarou suddenly appears in their midst.
Several people jump; a couple yelp or shriek. One guard drops his pike noisily.
“There ya are,” Koutarou says, bright eyes locked onto Tetsurou. “C’mere.”
Tetsurou holds his arms up like a boy half his age.
“Wait, Lord Koutarou—”
“What’s going on, Lord Witch?”
“Please, tell us—”
Koutarou scoops Tetsurou up and with a rush of vertigo, Tetsurou finds himself in another place. It looks like it might be in the Academy, which surprises him; it’s a comparatively small room, all stone, and its rug is dusty from disuse. There are a pair of bookshelves with similarly dusty books, and a newly lit fireplace on one side of the room, providing the only light.
Daichi isn’t here.
“Koutarou, what’s goin’ on?” Tetsurou asks. Only then does panic really begin to rise within him, like bile. “Everyone’s awake but no one knows nothin’.”
Koutarou’s eyes flick around the room, at everywhere and everything but Tetsurou. He licks his lips and takes a long moment to answer. “There was—there’s something—I’ll bring Daichi here. I think.”
It is terrifying to see Koutarou uncertain of himself. Tetsurou swallows more alarm, now mixing with dread. “Kou, please, tell me what’s goin’ on!”
Koutarou disappears in lieu of responding. It takes but a moment for him to reappear, this time with Daichi in tow, but immediately Tetsurou balks at the sound of Daichi’s sob.
Koutarou hands Daichi off, and Tetsurou literally catches him, with little other choice. Daichi collapses to his knees in Tetsurou’s arms with a fresh sob, burying his face in Tetsurou’s nightshirt. Tetsurou wraps his arms tightly around him, making sure there is no immediate threat, but he sees no blood and feels no injuries. Only Daichi shaking apart in his arms.
He is inconsolable and unintelligible. Daichi may be younger than him, spoiled and prone to temper and fits of emotion, but Tetsurou has never seen him like this.
“Keep him here,” Koutarou says, and, like he’s scared, touches Daichi’s head. As if to make sure he’s still present, despite his wailing. “I’ll… be back. You’ll be alright here. Keep him safe.”
“Safe from what—?” Tetsurou begins, but Koutarou has already vanished.
Tetsurou sinks down, first kneeling, then sitting, Daichi still clinging to him like a drowning man. His weeping has not abated. Tetsurou is not used to inaction. He rubs Daichi’s back, checks him over again for injuries, and tries to soothe him, but nothing works. The new fire warms the room too slowly, and while Daichi is shaking from the force of his tears, Tetsurou shivers from the chill.
He hums a song he distantly remembers his mother singing as a lullaby, years and years ago. There is little chance of getting any real words from Daichi as he is, so he has little choice but to try to calm him and wait out whatever pain this is.
Tetsurou does not find out that the Queen has been killed until the dawn has broken and Daichi has collapsed from exhausted weeping in his lap.
The King stares down at Tetsurou as if he had never seen him before.
Tetsurou avoids eye contact, and Daichi, clasped tightly against his side, sniffles miserably.
The King kneels down and tilts his son’s chin back with a delicate finger. Both boys are unkempt and exhausted from a night in the tower, crying and shivering. The King doesn’t look any better; Tetsurou had always hated it when adults cried, especially because they never hid it that well afterward.
“My son,” the King rasps, voice hardly more than a croak, and pulls Daichi away from Tetsurou and to his chest.
Daichi begins crying again, and Tetsurou politely steps back from his grief.
He wipes his eyes on his wrist, and finds Koutarou standing at his side. He wordlessly offers him a handkerchief, which Tetsurou had only recently discovered was not for hiding stolen goods but actually for wiping one’s face.
The King holds Daichi so closely to himself Tetsurou worries he might break something. But the man is crying, too, silently, but tears are running down his cheeks into his beard all the same. His crown is nearly falling off his head, but Koutarou straightens it for him with a flick of his fingers. Tetsurou wonders why he bothered wearing the crown at all, when he and Daichi are still in their sleep clothes.
“He only got dressed to wash the blood off,” Koutarou whispers to him, as if reading his confusion from his mind.
Tetsurou swallows not panic, but actual bile this time. He had never seen his mother’s body. He cannot comprehend the sight.
The King stands again, though his son is still crying, and sets a hand on Daichi’s messy hair. “Koutarou, keep him safe. Both of them. You’re not to leave his side for a moment, understand?”
“Yes, Majesty,” Koutarou replies, eyes askance, mouth twisted into an unhappy scowl.
“Father,” Daichi starts, voice breaking, and reaches for him again.
But his father gently guides his hand to Koutarou’s instead. Daichi’s mouth wobbles like he may begin bawling again, but with another great sniff, he holds his peace. Koutarou extends a hand to Tetsurou, too, and with little other choice, he takes it.
They spend the rest of the season in another palace, neither the southern one Tetsurou had loved or the northern one Daichi had told him about before. It is the two boys, Koutarou, and a handful of staff, people he had never seen before and who do not know what to make of his presence at Daichi’s side. Some are rude; most are dismissive. None of them answer any questions about the King or the Queen or anything happening in the capital.
Daichi’s bed here is not as grand as his one in the capital, but it is plenty large for Tetsurou, Daichi, and Koutarou. Every night, Koutarou lays with them, on Daichi’s other side, and tells them stories. He had done this before, but only ever occasionally, and his topics varied wildly. (Tetsurou had liked the ones about pirates the most. Daichi had preferred anything involving Priava and its gryphons.)
Now, he only tells them war stories.
Daichi makes the connection before Tetsurou does.
“Amicora is in a war, isn’t it,” he tearfully asks, nearly a whisper, covers drawn up to his nose.
“Yes, it will be. Soon,” Koutarou answers. He smooths his large hand over the blankets to keep them unwrinkled over them.
“Does it have to be?” Tetsurou asks.
“Love turns to pain in a heartbeat, and pain can only create more pain. It will for awhile,” he admits, sadly. But then, he carefully pokes the tip of Daichi’s nose. “But you, my little lord, will fix it, one day. Perhaps your father will. Wars are pain, but all things have an end, even pain.”
“I will?” Daichi asks with large eyes.
“Princes have plenty of power, too, y’know,” Koutarou proudly announces. “But not as much as Kings. Not yet.”
“Then why couldn’t I have stopped…” Daichi trails off with the sort of sound Tetsurou has expected to precede tears.
“That part wasn’t yours to stop. Wasn’t mine to stop, either. But the future? That will be yours, Daichi.”
“Will you help me, Kou?” Daichi turns his tearful gaze on Tetsurou, clutching him beneath the covers. “Will you both help me?”
“With anything,” Tetsurou promises at once. He doesn’t know what else he could say. (He doesn’t know what else will happen.)
“I’m bound to, and I like ya,” Koutarou says with another prod of Daichi’s nose. “I’ll help you with your troubles, no matter how much trouble you’ll give me.”
“That’s what friends are for,” Tetsurou adds.
Koutarou seems surprised, expression nearly hidden in the dim candlelight. Tetsurou catches it, but Daichi doesn’t, and since Daichi finally smiles, Tetsurou lets the matter lie.
“We can stop the war, then,” Daichi says, and finally, he can sleep.
Tetsurou settles in again beside him, carefully extricating his hand from Daichi’s iron grip, and gets comfortable. Though the angle is wrong, it looks like Koutarou’s eyes reflect the candlelight as he watches them both.
“You can see the future, right?” Tetsurou whispers.
“A little. I know things, and that’s about it. Don’t think too hard on it, it’s not good for humans,” Koutarou advises in just as low a voice.
“Will he be alright?”
Koutarou’s eyes flicker again as he regards Daichi. “I think he will be. Eventually.”
“Good enough for me,” Tetsurou murmurs.
“Not askin’ for yourself?”
“I’ve been through enough—I know I will be.”
“Even with witches and royalty thrown in your face?” Koutarou presses.
“I’ll be okay,” Tetsurou repeats, “if you two are. G’night, Kou.”
He almost misses Koutarou’s surprised expression this time, too, but doesn’t. Somehow, it fills him with something warmth to have won something, however small, against a witch.
Koutarou tucks the blankets in around them both, presses his lips to Daichi’s forehead, and moves the candle to the table. “Goodnight, little lord and little stray. Tomorrow, things will be brighter.”