A thunderous roar of laughter filled the tavern, hiding all conversation behind its deafening sound. It was a merry sound, one that would bring a smile to even the most sinister of fellow’s mouths. It reverberated off of the walls long after it ended, the whispers of conversation around them breaking through until only the last minute.
The dull thud of a knife against a wooden table was constant through it all, marking the table over and over. He ignored the looks he was getting from the master of the house, those cold eyes burning holes into his clothes, but he couldn’t help it. The motion was therapeutic for Hikaru to destroy the spot in which he sat, to get his mind off of everything.
He really should chastise Yabu. The further south they went in their little country, the less understanding people were of mages. Especially one with straw blond hair, twirling his finger above his mug to brew his tea. He stood out amongst the other patrons of the tavern, their eyes searching him over, hands wrapped around their bowls as if Yabu would magic them away in a moment.
It was the life they lived, and the life Hikaru had resigned himself to once he became friends with the mage. People couldn’t understand what they couldn’t see, the invisible power of spells too much for their minds to comprehend. One minute a surface was a bottomless black and the next a warm copper. It didn’t mean you couldn’t call the kettle black.
He had tried before to have Yabu hide his talent when they were in the public eye, but the other man shrugged off his suggestions.
“Why should I hide who I am?” he said. “Besides, this old man finds it too hard to stir tea with a spoon now. Let me rest my bones.”
Hikaru had laughed. An old man? Yabu was only entering his twenty-seventh summer, far from being able to call himself ‘old.’ Though his bones cracked often when he was riding his horse, and he complained of a stiff back more often than not, he was still young.
It was one of these reasons why he stuck by Yabu’s side for these many years. His strange sense of humor in their travels made the cold nights and long days pass far quicker than Hikaru cared to admit. Yabu was one of the few people that put up with his own humor and his sarcasm that cut like a knife. They meshed together, complimenting each other, and were the people that kept each other sane.
An elbow nudged Hikaru in the side, distracting him momentarily from his knife. Yabu motioned over to the newest addition to the tavern. “Think that’s him?”
Whether from wear or stain, the stranger’s tunic was dark, rings of brown coursing through the cloth. His black hair was long, as if it hadn’t been cut in years. Hikaru couldn’t see his face to see if he recognized the angles, the bridge of his nose.
“He’s too far away,” Hikaru said. He jerked the knife out of the table once more and slid it into his belt.
“Try not to kill the kid,” Yabu sighed. He took a sip of the tea, face scrunching from the bitter taste.
The tavern was difficult to navigate, chairs pushed back as tables mingle together, people joyously shouting from one to the other. He snaked along the edge, making his way to the bar, eyes always trained on the other man as he moves. Once or twice he narrowly avoided a swinging arm, mind cursing himself of why he didn’t ask Yabu to confront the man instead.
“Another ale,” Hikaru called out to the bar keep. He drummed his fingers against the table, hands itching to get his knife out once more, but it wasn’t the impression he wanted to make, especially in front of the owner of the establishment.
His eyes shifted over to the man next to him. He was taller than Hikaru originally believed and more imposing with his solid build.
“Long travels?” he asked.
It took a moment for the other man to notice he was spoken to. Honest eyes widened as he glanced around for a moment. “Ah, yes,” he said, “and not over yet. I have to travel even further south before I can rest."
“To the ocean?” The other man nodded. “Sounds fun. Perhaps I’ll accompany you. I’ve never been that far south before.”
And for a good reason. Rumors of a crazed seer named Inoo had spread throughout the country, his words never traveling linearly, always jumping from story to story before he completed a reading. Despite the confusion, his visions always came true. Once he grabbed someone with his vice grip he couldn’t let go until the visions stopped. Hikaru wanted to avoid such an interaction, and for that he stayed north.
“Sadly, I’m not much of a travel companion,” the other man said. “I prefer to walk by myself.”
“My money is better spent elsewhere,” he said. “I only spend it on what I need rather than what I want.”
A barmaid reached across the counter giving the other man his food. When he reached for it, the sleeves of his shirt brushed back revealing dark tattoos. The marks interweaved seemingly floating against his skin, the patterns shimmering in the low light. Hikaru’s eyes followed them up the arm to the stranger’s neck where the patterns tickled the edge of his collar.
Finally, it’s him. He had waited so long, so very long for this moment, and now that it was before him, Hikaru could hardly control his joy. Five years he had waited. The journey, the sleepless nights spent on hard earth would near be over. He could feel the return to soft beds and warm blankets within his grasp.
He could feel the beat of the stranger’s heart stop, how the terror flooded his eyes in that very moment. He knew. He knew Hikaru recognized him from those very markings, and worry filled his body with every passing second. Time hung between them, their eyes never leaving the other until Hikaru smiles.
“You spend more money walking than if you had a horse to take you,” he said, leaning against the bar. “It seems like you have a lot to learn about travel, kid. Why don’t we chat and get to know each other more?”
The shouts drew closer with every passing moment, spurring them to go quicker. Their horses stomped the ground, sensing their nerves as they worked.
“Did you really have to kidnap him?” Yabu asked.
The last of their packs were secured, and Hikaru triple checked the billet strap to make sure it’s secured in place. He didn’t need to slide sideways to the ground with the distance they need to cover tonight.
“It was the only way,” Hikaru said. He circled around his horse to where the bound and gagged man sat, eyes flitting between both him and Yabu as they worked steadily but quickly. His hands cuffed together by a pair of Yabu’s own design. “He wouldn’t have gone with us if we asked.”
“At least do it less conspicuously next time?” Yabu said. He grabbed their guest by the scruff of his collar, pulling him to his feet. “Which direction are we heading? South?”
“North,” Hikaru said. “They’ll expect us to go south. Besides, our business resides in that direction.”
Firelight danced through the open windows, the shouts deafening to their ears. They were out of time. It would be any moment before the drunk tavern men broke in, ready to rain down their justice and save a kidnapped stranger from their clutches.
“Come on, let’s go.”
Hikaru hooked his foot into the stirrup, swinging himself into the saddle. Before he had a moment to relax Yabu lifted their captive towards him, and Hikaru helped pull the taller man into his lap. He waited patiently for Yabu to clamber onto his own horse before spurring his off through the open barn door and into the night, Yabu hot on his heels.
The shouts of angry men followed them, their chubby feet pushing them as far as the edge of the town, their voices being swallowed by the blackness of the night. They continued moving, pushing themselves faster and farther until the morning sun broke through the sky. Only then did they feel safe enough to stop, collapsing off of their steads and resting for the day.
The farther they traveled, the more the joy of completion and glory started to fad from Hikaru’s mind. It was too risky to give the kid his own horse, and they didn’t want to spend their hard earned coin on a beast they wouldn’t need once their job was completed. Besides, it was hard enough to find someone to sell a horse.
They had tried once for their new friend to ride with Yabu. After a few failed attempts on Yabu’s behalf to balance him on his knees, once nearly dropping the poor man to the rocky earth, the responsibility fell to Hikaru to ride with him. It was safer than possibly killing the other man from a broken neck.
The kid never sat still. Not a moment passed where he wasn’t wiggling about. Whether he wasn’t comfortable or merely trying to annoy him, Hikaru didn’t know. If he knew any better he would have grabbed the taller boy by his breeches and thrown him off of his horse or thrown a punch straight between his shoulder blades. To hell with this mission.
But that couldn’t happen. Oh, no. He knew harming a single hair on the kid’s body would only spell disaster for them in the long run. People didn’t take a kind eye to those that damaged their loved ones. It was better to sit tight, bite his tongue, and ignore whatever words came from the younger man’s mouth.
The kid had tried, several times, to convince Hikaru to let him down, let him walk along side the horses since they were going at such a leisurely place. He said he was far more used to the ground than being balanced upon the lap of a stranger. He had even tried convincing Hikaru that he was a fast runner if they wanted to move more swiftly.
“Like hell we’re letting you walk,” Hikaru said, grasping tightly to the reins with one hand and using the other to steady the man on his lap. “I can’t have you running off on us.”
So they stayed that way, Yabu glancing over at Hikaru every so often to check on him, eyes lingering far longer than Hikaru wished. The kid wiggled about on his lap. Hikaru’s patience wore thin. It would be a miracle if they all survived the journey.
Over the bend of the next road the wide expanse of the River Lea was soon before them, the calm river dancing across the shore of the earth, winding its way across the land. Bushy cattails covered the water, making it difficult to wade out to the depth but once there, it was as clear and open like the sea. The undiscovered lands of the west lay on the other side of her bed, a country Hikaru had only heard of through stories told in his youth.
They made their camp on the edge of the forest, hidden from any travelers who may use the river as their guide. This close to the Capital they needed to hide from any unwanted attention that may come from nervous eyes.
They took turns bathing, Yabu watching their friend as Hikaru sank into the depths, scrubbing the weeks of filth from his skin, the cool water filling him with life. How long had it been since he has had a moment to himself? To take away the memories and stench from himself? Far too long, he knew. Since he and Yabu narrowly avoided being captured in a neighboring kingdom. The people didn’t take too kindly to their visit.
It was better being in their land, where the people were kinder, sweeter, and their smiles enough to give one the drive to push forward each day. They should have known better, that their target wouldn’t have left the country, but they were young and foolish. The world was a wide, wide place, and it was a limitless possibility on where he could have hidden himself.
Yabu took far less time than Hikaru to bathe, being in and out of the water in ten minutes, skin and clothing dried from that beautiful magical ability while Hikaru suffered. His hair soaked the clothing bunched around his shoulders.
Yabu casted a small spell, dispelling the chain between the kid’s cuffs before Hikaru led him to the riverbed. Against his will or not, the kid deserved a chance to refresh himself before they continued their travels north.
The kid froze, not moving at the edge of the river, glancing back at Hikaru with widened eyes. Hands grasped at something as his mouth attempted to form some sort of words, anything to get him out of bathing in the river. The wild movements revealed again those dark, twisting vines affixed to his skin.
Hikaru paid no heed to his words, merely pushing him into the river, enjoying the loud clap as his body hit the solid water and sunk to its depths. It took but a minute for the other man to rise, gasping for breath before Hikaru heaved a hunk of soap at him.
“You have fifteen minutes,” Hikaru said, trying to hold back his laughter. “If you’re not back at camp in that amount of time be prepared for the consequences.”
The camp’s set up went faster with two pairs of hands. Yabu gathered stones in a circle for their fire pit while Hikaru rummaged around the edge of the woods for sticks and kindling for their fire. A quick spell and their fire roared in the hearth, giving them warmth for the long night ahead. A good hunk of bread remained along with a little of their supplies they gathered while traveling. Sooner rather than later they would need to stop in a town to resupply. At the very least they can hunt for fish in the river over the next few days.
“I think our friend ran off,” Yabu said. He brushed his horse’s fur, saddle on the ground next to him.
“He definitely didn’t,” Hikaru said. Though the fire was going, he stared into the depths. Once their friend was done he planned to fill their pot with water to make a stew for their dinner that evening. “I warned him of the consequences.”
They continued working for a few moments, Hikaru straining his ears to hear anything. When Yabu had been bathing he could hear the faint sound of someone splashing about in the river, running water over his skin and hair to cleanse it. Even over the crackling sound of the fire, he heard nothing.
“How long ago?”
“About ten minutes or so,” came Yabu’s reply.
“And you didn’t say anything?” Hikaru jumped to his feet. “He could be anywhere at this point.”
“Relax,” Yabu said. He could feel the roll of Yabu’s eyes, despite not seeing them. “Unlike you, I’m far more clever than my own good. I put a tracker in his cuffs. Follow me.”
Hikaru would have preferred to re-saddle the horses before they left, giving Hikaru something to grip onto as they raced through the woods. The remnants of Yabu’s spell were strong, leading them south through the woods where their companion had run off to. He fought to keep himself grounded instead of bouncing every which way on his horse, hands grasping the mane as they moved as one through the maze of trees. With a single tug, his horse followed his command, seeking out the one that fled.
He was stumbling through the woods when they finally spotted him, clothing dripping from the river water, mud clinging to every surface and twigs stuck in that long hair of his. Hands touched every tree he passed as he stopped for a moment before jumping to the next to steady himself.
Hikaru swung one of his legs around so he was sitting sidesaddle on his beast waiting until the opportune moment to jump, knowing full well that Yabu would take care of his horse and make sure it didn’t run off.
He tumbled to the ground, far less graceful than his imagination allowed, hands scrapping against the rough earth, knees and palms aching from the hard impact. He would feel that in the morning when he pulled himself onto his horse for their trek. He didn’t have time to think. The kid slowly ambled away, and he was so close Hikaru could taste it.
He ran, building up his stride so he’s sprinting through the forest after him. Arms pump by his side, egging him faster. His hands reached out, grasping at the soaking wet fabric of the other man, tugging it downward, and they tumbled to the ground. A brief fight, the other man gained the upper hand, but Hikaru was stronger. He forced the other man’s face into the dirt, pinning his hands behind his back.
“Seems as though it’s time we had a little chat,” Hikaru said.
Their camp was silent. The kid borrowed a pair of trousers so Yabu could scrub the dirt from his clothes, drying them with one of his many nifty spells when he’s done. It had taken a few trips, but Hikaru had managed to fill their pot with enough water to boil for their stew. The proverbial clock ticked by slowly as he waited for the contents to boil before adding what vegetables, meat, and spices they had to flavor it.
“How much are you going to sell me for?” the kid asked, his words filling their silence. His hands gripped his pants, scrunching the fabric into tight knots.
Yabu and Hikaru exchanged looks, the older boy shrugging. It had been Hikaru’s idea from the start, and Yabu would follow through with whatever his friend decided.
“We’re not going to sell you for anything,” Hikaru finally answered.
The fire danced in the stillness of the night, casting shadows each way. As if they wished to tell a story that only the most intelligent human beings could interpret, could share with those around them.
“I,” the other man stuttered. “I don’t understand. You kidnapped me. What do you mean you don’t mean to sell me?”
“Just that. We don’t mean to sell you,” Hikaru said, taking a knee in front of the poor soul in front of him. “We’re going to help remove your curse so you can return home, Duke Okamoto Keito.”
There’s a little known secret about the world. No matter where you go, no matter where you try to hide, greed exists. It curls around you like a snake, waiting for that one moment, where your mind is at its weakest, to strike. It pulls you down into its depths until you can’t breath anything but its venom, and there it attacks your still beating heart.
The worse is when your own greed affects the ones you love, the very same people you would give your life to protect. To watch as the monster stick its fangs in them, claiming them as its own. Your power is nothing to the great beast, and you can only sit by and watch as they’re carried away. The victims are always the losers in the end.
Nothing had been Keito’s fault. He was a mere child, a nephew of the king. He grew up in the depths of the palace, sprinting through its halls, seeking out new passages to explore with his cousins when their parents turned a blind eye to them. Kids will be kids, they said, especially when they were young. As long as they straightened their backs, behaved in front of their guests and subjects, they were to do as they pleased.
But greed was always there, sitting in the back of their minds, waiting for an opportune moment to strike. Greed took its hold on Keito’s parents. Their visions of a golden crown, subject bowing before the might of their son were too powerful to ignore. The might, the excitement. Their hearts beat for their lowly crest and name to be spoken throughout the land instead of the names of their forefathers.
They pushed for him to ascend the throne, making deals behind closed doors to open a path to lead their son to greatness. Poison, a powerful tool, was what they wished to use to take every son from the king’s hand. Every son between the king and Keito would fall, making him the sole and only heir to the throne, catapulting him to greatness.
Their vision had been clouded, their minds forgetful. For every king has a powerful ally by his side: a mage, the most powerful of their generation. They were meant to protect the king and his people, it was natural his parents would forget such a powerful ally hidden in the shadows of the palace, always watching, always waiting. His hands casting spells of protection, eyes seeing into the future to watch over the ones he swore to protect.
It had been easy to stop them, a little extra coin thrown in the cook’s direction to stop him from mixing those dangerous drops into the children’s food. A soft ‘thump’ as it was set before the pair at that very same dinner. The discerning eyes of the king as watching his very own flesh and blood froze before him, knowing what they had planned.
It would have been easy to punish the parents, to hang them for treason against the crown. Death would be swift and vengeful for attempting to eliminate the royal children, but it would not bring them the pain the king wished. He wanted them to suffer as he might have for the loss of his dear ones.
He picked Keito instead, bringing forth the court mage to complete the task. Using the cattails from the River Lea passing by the palace, the mage placed a curse upon Keito’s body, the dark marks covering his young fourteen year old body, shimmering in the candlelight as if they were blowing in the wind.
The curse was simple. If he so much as stepped foot in the capital the reeds of the River Lea would spring forth from his body wrapping them in their embrace before stealing the very breath from his lungs. His parents were forbidden from leaving the palace or contacting him, or be wanted for treason against the crown.
Before leaving, the king clarified one detail. Keito was never permanently barred from returning home, for it was not his greed that forced him into this situation. He was a victim of circumstance. His punishment would not be until death. He may return to the palace if he sought death by the hands of the river or if had paid enough for a mage to lift the spell. If that day may come where the curse had been lifted he would be welcomed back with open arms and may resume his place at the table with his family.
At a young fourteen years old he was cast out of his home, the one place he had known for his entire life. The moment he stepped out of the capital the finality of the curse was placed, taking its roots in his skin. With one last look, the palace standing imposing against the gentle flow of the river below, he turned his back on his home, believing he would never return again.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
Another question, another response. Hikaru really should have given up on trying to eat. Every time he raised his spoon to his mouth, ready to partake in the food he had made, Keito fired off another question. His mind was turning, circling, as if he was trying to remember every detail from the past few days, trying to discern whether they were truly trying to help or not.
“Don’t you want to eat first?” Hikaru snapped.
“Food can wait.” Keito’s bowl was left untouched by side, eyes focused on the two merrily chomping away at their food. He rubbed his wrists, now free from the cuffs Yabu made.
“I don’t know,” Hikaru sighed. “It didn’t seem important at the time.” He glared across the fire. “If you’re not going to eat, at least let us-”
“I wouldn’t have tried to run if I knew,” Keito shouted. “And you!” he pointed over at Yabu. “You knew as well. Why didn’t you say anything?”
Yabu scraped the last of his stew out of his bowl, sighing after the last of the liquid slid down his throat. In the moment Keito’s ire turned to Yabu, Hikaru started scarfing down his food as quickly as he could.
“It wasn’t my place to tell,” Yabu answered. He set his bowl beside him. “I’m only here because it seemed like fun, and it was a reason to go out and see the world. I’d still be at home, casting spells for old ladies to firm their faces and regain their youth, if it wasn’t for Hikaru.”
“So Hikaru saved you too,” Keito mused. Then shouted, “So then why did you decide to help me then?”
Hikaru choked on his food.
Yabu sighed. “This happens too often.”
He waved his hand and in a moment the food blocking Hikaru’s airway was dislodged, flying into the pit of the fire, burning on contact.
“I was enjoying that!”
“Didn’t seem like that,” Yabu snorted. “More like you were dying.”
“Guys!” Keito said. “Focus please. You’re laughing and joking, but I have no idea what’s going on.”
“What’s more to know?” Hikaru asked. He had been so close to finishing his food. There were only a few bites left, and his stomach longed to claim them. “Together we’re going to break your curse. The why isn’t the important part, so sit back, princess, and enjoy the ride.”
“I’m not a princess,” Keito muttered, tugging at his long hair. “Then if you won’t answer why, then who? Even I know the options are limited, and looking at your friend-” he shot a look over at Yabu who was picking the dirt from his toes with his spoon, “I know he’s not powerful enough to break it. Who do you have in mind?”
Options were few and far between. Other countries had their own powerful mages, but few would help those from other lands from the goodness of their own hearts. With great power came immeasurable amounts of fees for simple spells. The more complex the spell, the more money, and the more Hikaru and Yabu weren’t able to afford it.
They looked inward to their own land, searching high and low for mages with great power. Few had the technical ability to break curses, most focusing on simple charms housewives and farmers bought for good luck or protection. When they began the journey, they had three options.
The first was the mage that cursed Keito. Court mages were the most powerful throughout the land, and those that placed curses could also remove them. Since the older man knew the words he used to place the markings on Keito, he knew the counter spell to remove it. There were two issues with using him.
Court mages were heavily protected within the palace walls. Attempting to even speak with him would be difficult, near impossible, without the king’s consent. They had ruled out the court mage for another reason entirely. A few years ago the mage had passed away of unknown causes, his magic released back into the earth, ready for a newborn mage to claim.
The second was the current court mage, the son of the previous. Nakajima Yuto was rumored to have power even greater than his father, able to weave together spells and protection charms with such speed no one could touch him. People told stories of how you could see him working at all hours of the night, lights shooting from his tower and he blended together ingredients and explored new spells to protect his charges. He was far more guarded than his father before him, so Hikaru removed him from the list as well.
It left only one.
“We’re going to find Yamada,” Hikaru said.
Keito sank off of the tree log he was using as a seat, hands covering his face. “We’re doomed.”
Yamada, much like Yuto, was from a powerful family of mages. He had spent his life perfecting his craft, spending long sleepless nights studying large tomes and practicing the magic he had been gifted since birth. He was a natural, and people spoke of his skill from even a young age.
He had been invited to the palace to test his skill against those vying for the position of court mage. It was natural that Yamada would be one of the few left, his spell casting ability far above the others. Only he and Yuto remained, and a battle in the mountains would take place to see who would claim the top spot.
Few knew what happened in those days. They were gone, the sky a painting of red and blue magic swirling together, shooting off lightning in the blackened sky. One emerged, a battered and bruised Yuto, who returned home to claim his spot at the very top. No one knew what happened to Yamada. As far as the country knew, he never left those mountains.
“Oh stop looking so defeated,” Hikaru said. His meal completed, he went back to their cooking pot for seconds. “You’re acting like you’re stuck like this for forever. I told you, we have a plan.”
“And how do you propose we raise someone from the dead?” Keito asked.
“First, Yamada isn’t dead. We’ve met him before.” Hikaru settled back at his place. Hopefully there wouldn’t be too many questions this time. He was still starving. “Second, we just need to find his contact. They’ll bring us to him. Then we ask nicely for him to remove your curse, he does a little magic, and bam! No more cursed Keito.”
“It sounds too easy,” Keito mused. “I feel like there should be a huge dragon we have to slay.”
“Yabu,” Hikaru whined, banging his spoon against his bowl. “The kid isn’t letting me eat."
“I’m not a kid! I’m twenty-three!”
“Relax, Keito,” Yabu said. He was picking his way through one of the few spell books he kept. “We, and by we I mean Hikaru, have thought of everything.” He glanced over the top of his book. “We wouldn’t have embarked on this journey without thinking of every detail.”
“And what if Yamada can’t break the curse?” Keito asked. His hands finally reached for his cooling food.
Hikaru and Yabu exchanged glances once more.
“We’ll get to that when the time comes,” Yabu answered.
The farther north they traveled along the River Lea the more Keito’s markings changed in color. The deep black swirls turned lighter and lighter until they start resembling the green cattails they were based upon. The marks danced every time a wind passed by, their song singing against Keito’s skin.
Hikaru woke one morning to Keito’s screams, back pressed against the trunk of a tree and holding a hand as far away from his body as he could. Reeds. They grew out of his fingertips, growing upwards towards Keito’s heart as if they were following the very blood that flowed through his veins.
They turned east, galloping amongst the trees as quickly as their horses would allow. Keito clung to Hikaru’s back, holding tightly as he bounced around, eyes slammed shut as they covered the rocky terrain as quickly as they could. When they stopped, allowing the horses to trot along the dirt path, the reeds were gone, retreating back into Keito’s sun kissed skin and the color darkening to a solid black once more.
Hikaru couldn’t help but think it was his fault. He had been selfish, uncaring. He had believed that the power of the curse wouldn’t seep out in the general vicinity of the Capital, but he had been wrong. Even if he hadn’t known the specifics of the curse, he had placed Keito’s life in danger with every passing second they had traveled north. Looking upon that sleeping face, dark hair cascading down to the earth, Hikaru knew he needed to make it up to him. He would find a way to apologize, whether by breaking the curse or by other means.
A town poked its head over the trees, its golden lights a welcomed sign. The robust yells of men drinking rang through the night, and Hikaru couldn’t help himself from smiling. The last time they had paid for room and board the experience had been stolen from them the moment Keito walked through the door. He shot a smirk over to Yabu, enjoying how the mage sighed in acceptance.
“We’ll sleep in beds tonight,” Yabu said, spurring his horse forward. “Let’s find a tavern with open beds.”
“Finally, a bed,” Hikaru cried out, following after him. “I’ve been dreaming of this for months.”
“I don’t mind the dirt,” Keito muttered, digging his face further into Hikaru’s back.
Food was much more filling when it was cooked by another person’s hands. They paid good money for their plates, receiving the best cuts the tavern owner, a short man by the name of Daiki, still had to offer at this hour of night. Hikaru dug in with all of the enthusiasm he could muster, tearing the fibers of the meat apart and drinking it down like a fine wine. His stomach would burst at the end of it all he knew that much, and it was the feeling he was seeking out.
Their mugs were refilled at every moment, ale for him and Keito and tea for Yabu. He laughed, letting himself loosen and unwind after the long trek north, but Hikaru could feel it in his bones. They were close. The mountains Yamada claimed as his home were drawing near, their tops just visible in the distance. The only step missing was to find Yamada’s friend, his confidant, to lead them to him. If he was right, the man was close by. He never dared to go as far as the capital in case Yamada needed him.
The more they sat in the tavern hall, the more alcohol they crammed into their system. Drinks flowed like the river between all of them, and, for once, Hikaru was glad he knew how to handle his liquor. Keito was tipsy, possibly even drunk, from the way his face reddened, making it appear far prettier than it ever had been.
Suddenly, Keito stood up and kicked back his chair, nearly hitting the man behind him.
“Where are you going?” Hikaru asked. He set his mug of ale down.
“Outside,” Keito stuttered.
“For a walk? I’ll go with you.” Hikaru went to stand, hand reaching out to steady the other man. “I can’t have you getting lost this late at night.”
“Going to puke,” he said. He brushed off Hikaru’s advance before stumbling towards the door. “I’ll be back in a second.”
Hikaru settles back into his seat and grabbed his mug once more. He watched Keito shuffled through the front door. A small figure, about the size of a child, followed soon after him.
He took a few more sips of his drink, enjoying the burn of the liquid as it sifted around his mouth, and he placed the empty mug back onto the wooden table.
“Keito is definitely in trouble,” he said.
Yabu looked over from his spot at the table where he was attempting to create waves in his tea. “Think so?”
“I know,” Hikaru said. “That kid attracts trouble like flies to honey.”
“And here I thought we’d have a quiet evening,” Yabu sighed.
He finished his own drink before the two rose, paying for all three of their meals, and they slipped out into the blacked sky. Keito couldn’t have gotten too far in that short amount of time. If too much time passed without finding him Yabu could always cast a tracking spell to find the difficult duke.
They found him, back pressed against a barn door and hands by his face as a small, nimble looking man ruffled around his person. One hand dedicated to searching for whatever he sought, a purse or jewelry, while the other hand held a knife trained at Keito’s jugular.
“Are we really going to need to babysit you through this entire trip?” Hikaru called out.
The assailant jumped, and his knife nicked the side of Keito’s throat. In a moment the knife flew from his hands, Yabu sending it far from where the pickpocket could reach it. Before the other man could think, Yabu casted another spell with another wave of his hand. He pinned the smaller man to the barn and let Keito stumble away.
“Mage,” the pickpocket spat. His tried to resist, pulling against the power of the spell, but Yabu’s magic was too strong.
“Oh, please, you don’t hate mages, Chinen.” Yabu said, running a hand through his hair.
“You’re right. I won’t hate you if you let me down?” Chinen’s face changed in a moment. From one filled with hatred to one where Hikaru believed he wouldn’t hurt a fly.
“Wait, you guys know each other?” Keito asked. He couldn’t stop looking between where Hikaru and Yabu stood and where his assailant was pinned to the door.
“A little bit,” Hikaru said. “He’s not too important.”
“Not important? How rude,” the smaller man huffed. “I will admit I am a little disappointed, to be frank,” Chinen said, stretching out his neck. “I thought you’d want to play along a little more and drum up a little drama. I was prepared to scream and cry before giving in to your demands.”
“Listen, Chinen, we’ll let you down if you do two things.” Hikaru raised one finger. “First, apologize to Keito for scaring him. Second,” he raised another, “lead us to where Yamada is hiding.”
“I’m sorry for scaring you. I only did it because I thought you were an easy target.”
“And?” Hikaru said.
“And what?” Chinen said. He tried kicking his legs forward, but the spell held them snug against the barn door. “I shouldn’t have to tell you where Ryosuke is hiding. You’ve been there before.”
“The last time we saw him he was living in a hut on the top of a mountain,” Yabu said. His foot was tapping against the dirt. “When we returned later for help the hut was gone and all signs of life had been destroyed.”
“Are you sure you went to the right mountain?” Chinen asked, innocent enough.
“The point is your friend moves around, so where is he hiding now?” Hikaru asked, hand grabbing for his knife to ground his nerves. His patience was wearing thin.
Every time they met Chinen liked to play these mind games, to keep the secret hidden of where his best friend hid. Even if Yamada didn’t have a secret keeper for his dwelling, it didn’t matter. His magic was powerful enough to hide himself from anyone he didn’t want finding him.
Chinen rolled his eyes before speaking with a riddle. “All shining and silver with a beautiful face. You look into me and find this place.”
“Fucking hell, I don’t know.” Hikaru looked over to his friend, and Yabu shrugged. “Is it a river?"
“The mirror caves,” Keito whispered. He pressed a piece of his torn tunic to his neck to stop the bleeding.
“Oh, the kid is good,” Chinen said, nodding along. “Where did you find him? That would have taken you a solid three days and a toddler five minutes to solve.”
“Listen here,” Hikaru roared. “I am your senior in life, and I deserve a little respect.”
“A rather stupid one,” Chinen chuckled. “Now will you let me down? Pretty please?”
It was hard to take his eyes off the mountains the closer they loomed. Their majestic white caps scraped the top of the clouds, disappearing into the depths with each passing day. The caves they sought weren’t far into the mountain range, taking over the southern portion. Their mirrored walls were known to confuse travelers and were a final resting place for many who dared to seek the treasures rumored to be hidden within.
Chinen had his own horse making their travel quicker. Keito remained an ever remindful presence of their travels to Hikaru. His body pressed close to Hikaru’s, hands gripping firmly to his waist and stealing the very breath from his lungs. Even when they were gone, hands focused on Keito getting off of Hikaru’s horse, he could still feel the ghost of their weight as he drifted off to sleep that night.
“Chinen and I will search for Yamada,” Yabu had said during their final night in the forest.
“No, we’re all going together,” Hikaru said.
“I mean this in the nicest way possible, but you’re an idiot,” Yabu said, earning a snicker from Chinen. “I’m sure Yamada has spelled a few of these caves to keep unwanted visitors out, and you’re just foolish enough to fall for it when I have my back turned. You’re too precious to me to lose.”
“But you’re putting me on babysitting duty?” Hikaru asked. He paused while sharpening his knife. “Doesn’t seem like I’m precious if I’m watching over the kid.”
“I don’t need a babysitter,” Keito said. “And I’m not a kid. I’m twenty-three.”
“Really?” Chinen asked, his head peeking up from over the fire. “What season were you born in?”
“Good,” Chinen said, disappearing once more. “I was born in winter, and I should always be the child in the group.”
“We’re getting distracted again,” Hikaru said, rubbing his temples. “The point is we’re sticking together to find Yamada.”
“No, we’re not,” Yabu said. He leaned back against the tree he was using as a chair. “Both you and I know the mountains are a lawless part of the country. Those that go in don’t always make it out. If they get so much as one whiff of royalty from Keito they’ll steal him from under our noses.” He rummaged around his bag for his spell book. “It’s safer to keep both of you under lock and key while Chinen and I find Yamada. Also, do you care to remember what happened the last time we were here?”
“I don’t remember,” Hikaru muttered.
“I’m guessing he nearly died,” Keito said, earning a glare from Hikaru.
“An avalanche,” Yabu said. He skimmed through the pages until he found the spell he was looking for. “Someone was arguing with our guide and nearly caused a deadly avalanche in the middle of winter. This time around,” he tapped the page, “I’m going to spell both of you in a cavern so neither can leave and no one can enter without knowing the entrance to the cave.”
“You shout one time that someone is being a brat, and you get a prison sentence.” Hikaru rolled his eyes. He knew there was no point in arguing, but part of him hoped he could still change Yabu’s mind. “I’m not the same man I was back then. I’m smarter.”
“Would you like me to spell your limbs together so you can’t move?”
“House arrest it is,” Hikaru said almost a little too quickly. He returned to sharpening his blade. “Let’s enjoy our time together, Keito.”
They settled in the first cave they found, the mirrored surfaces sparkling in the light of the fire they created. Chinen assisted with stocking firewood while Yabu focused on spelling the outside of the cave, fingers reading the complicated texts and mouth muttering the forgotten language.
Hikaru knew better than to disturb his friend when he was working on his magic. Yabu’s specialty was wordless magic, needing only a thought and a flick of his wrist to cast, but the more powerful the spell, the more concentration it took. The more concentration, the more Yabu used his voice, and Hikaru remembered the last time he disturbed Yabu when he was speaking a spell. It was another memory he preferred to forget.
With the flick of his wrist, Yabu closed his spell book, and Hikaru felt the air around them crackle with an energy only magic could provide. It was a warning that only darkness and misfortune lay before them before it disappeared, allowing them to breathe once more.
“Once you go in you won’t be able to leave unless Chinen or I come to retrieve you,” Yabu said. He put his spell book back into his bag. “It shouldn’t be more than a day or two for us to find him. Until then, try not to kill each other?”
“You said you guys weren’t trying to kill or sell me,” Keito said, his eyes growing wide.
“It’s a joke,” Hikaru said, rolling his eyes. “We’ll be good, don’t worry.”
It was quiet without Yabu, far quieter than Hikaru cared to admit. For five years he had travelled with the mage, scouring the open earth for the lost duke. Even the nights they had spent in silence, minds picking over the clues they had discovered that day, were ones he enjoyed. It was like losing a limb without Yabu around.
Being around Keito wasn’t bad. The kid was awkward, but he was endearing. Several times Hikaru caught him opening his mouth, words at the tip of his tongue, before he shut it and went back to reading one of the books Yabu had left him.
Yabu had driven the conversation between the three of them, dragging them both unwillingly into conversations about gossip he heard when he went to resupply in a town or random songs he remembered from traveling bards as a child. More often than not it led to a bout of bickering between him and Hikaru that had Keito laughing behind his hand.
“I’ll start dinner,” Hikaru said, getting up. Yabu had left them most of the supplies used to cook with and taken most of their bread and cheese. It wasn’t as if Yabu would be able to start a stew while out searching. He was worthless when it came to cooking. Chinen as well, from the stories he told.
A loud thump and a yelp distracted Hikaru from searching through their packs of food. Eyes darted back to Keito as he pulled the book from the fire and stomped on it to remove the flames.
“He’s going to kill me when he sees what I did,” Keito said. He flipped through the pages to assess the damage. From what Hikaru could see only the edges had been burned.
Hikaru found a hunk of meat and a few carrots that didn’t look too mushed, perfect for roasting. “He’s not going to kill you.” He grabbed a pan out of one of the packs, sticking it deep within the flames. “Though it makes me wonder how you survived for nine years and weren’t killed from tripping over something.”
“I wasn’t alone,” Keito said. “I had guards watching me, a man and a woman, so we wouldn’t stick out.”
“At least the king was smart when he exiled you,” he said. He stuck a hand over the pan and, satisfied with the heat it was radiating, placed their meat and chopped vegetables in it to sear. He sprinkled coarse salt over it all. “Would have expected that he’d send you out with two men and you’d stick out like a sore thumb.”
“Our king is far more clever than we give him credit for,” Keito said. He shuffled closer to the fire and where Hikaru was working. “We were supposed to pretend to be a family, and it was fun. We would eat and work together. At night, they would tell me stories of their families back home.” He sat down, pulling his knees closer to his chest. “Their kids were around my age.”
Hikaru didn’t know what to say, so he focused on the meal he was preparing. He turned their meat over carefully with a fork, pulling his sleeves back so the nipping flames wouldn’t catch it on fire.
“They were charged to watch over me until death,” Keito continued. “Can you imagine that? Not ever being able to see your husband and wife again? Having to live a lie for the rest of your life and never see the person you truly love?” He grabbed at his pants, scrunching them in his grasp. “They only wanted what was best for me. They tried to find me a girl to settle down with, to begin my life outside of royal court, but I,” he turned his head towards Hikaru, eyes filled with something Hikaru couldn’t quite put his finger on, “I just wasn’t interested in girls. I could only think about their families and what they were missing in their own lives.”
“They knew what they were getting into when they were given the position of your guardian,” Hikaru said. He turned the meat over once more, mouth watering. It would be his best meal yet, and he hoped Keito would enjoy it as well. “You can’t blame yourself for everything. After all, it was your parents that put you in this position to start.”
“But they didn’t know the outcome,” Keito said. “My parents didn’t know I would be cursed from their actions, and even then how could I be responsible for tearing two families apart?” He looked away, back into the depths of the flames. “So on my twentieth birthday I lied. I said I was going to the market to buy myself a knife as a present, and never returned.”
“Just because you left them doesn’t mean they’re living happy lives in the capital now,” Hikaru said. He hopped up and returned to the packs, procuring their plates to eat off of. “They’re probably exiled because they failed their mission.”
“Even then,” Keito said, uncurling himself. “They still have their families now.” He accepted his plate of food from Hikaru. “You and Yabu will do the same once my curse is broken. You’ll return back to your families and live out your lives.”
Something pinged within Hikaru’s heart, reminding him of what had been. A gentle hand, a warm hug. The tears that flowed after one final embrace. The darkness that remained once that light burnt out.
His first instinct was to throw the plate in his hands, but he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t waste good food. So he stood, eyes dark.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” he said, trying to keep his voice as even as he could. “Not everyone has a family to return to.”
He grabbed his pack and stomped deeper into the mirrored cave, leaving Keito and the fire to themselves.
Hikaru woke in the middle of the night, body shivering from the cold. The cold winds of the mountains had sunk deep within the caves, and he only had the clothes on his back to keep him warm.
He sat up, bones cracking from sleeping on the rocky surface. He grabbed his belongings, his pack he had used as a pillow and his dirtied plate from dinner, and walked the path he marked back to their base camp at the mouth of the cave.
Keito was still awake, curled into a ball once more and he jumped when he saw Hikaru round the corner.
“I’m sorry,” Keito said.
“Get some sleep,” Hikaru said. He threw his pack to the ground and grabbed one of the saddle blankets to wrap himself with for more warmth.
“Sleep,” he said, as sternly as he could without snapping. “We’re not talking about this tonight.”
Morning came far too quickly, the sun’s rays peeking around the bends of the cave. Hikaru struggled to find his words, to tell the story so few knew.
The palace had been Hikaru’s life for as long as he could remember. When he was young, far too young to know any better, he had always tried to follow his brothers to their apprenticeships with the royal blacksmiths before his sister would grab his ear, dragging him back to the warmth of their little home. His mother would chuckle, pat his head, and tell him to be good for the neighbors as she left with his sister to wait hand and foot on the royal ladies that day.
They had long days, coming back tired and full of soot from working over hot flames and feet aching from standing all day, but they were a family. Happy and healthy, and Hikaru often forgot they lacked a true man in their life to ground everything. His father had never been in his life, walking out on their family before he was born. His brothers were the only male role models he needed.
Their bond could not stay together forever. Once their apprenticeships were done, his brothers sought to open a shop together. With many blacksmiths crowding the streets of the capital they made plans to leave and work in a new city. They bid their mother goodbye and left Hikaru with one of their prized creations, a knife they melded together as a sign of their strength and knowledge.
“Keep it close,” the elder said, wrapping Hikaru’s tiny fingers around it. “You’re the man of the house now. Use it to protect the ladies.”
The year Hikaru turned thirteen he started his apprenticeship in the palace’s kitchen, and his sister left to begin her life with a butcher a few towns over. Their once full and bustling house had dwindled quickly, and the light that had shone in his mother’s eyes slowly died with each passing day. He cooked for her, told her stories of when the five of them had been together, but it only cause the blackness to increase.
It was easy to be jealous over the royal children. Their cheerful screams and laughter radiated through every hallway and the outside air. They were the lucky ones, always by each other’s sides, never worrying about whether one would leave or stay. They took their meager lives for granted, and Hikaru knew that they would never work a day in their lives to support themselves. Everything would be handed to them on a silver platter.
The worst was a little duke who clung to the edge of his mother’s skirts. He never spoke much, just followed his royal relatives around, laughing at their games but never joining in unless the game was explained to him first. He was foolish. He was the furthest thing from a born leader, and every moment Hikaru saw him he held back the urge to smack him. Nothing good came about from striking royalty. It only ended in a whipping for harming those far, far above him.
The summer of his sixteenth birthday Hikaru lost his mother. He held onto her hand as she passed, a tearful smile on her lips. Whether from a broken heart or the darkness clouding her lungs, he wasn’t sure. Only one thing was certain: he was alone.
Hikaru had never been good at expressing his feelings. He hid his pain and broken heart behind a locked door, so that no one knew how deep his emotions went. He threw himself into his work, not letting anyone see what clouded his eyes. He didn’t want to see the pity the cooks and handmaids gave him as he passed. He knew what they whispered, for it was always the same. The poor boy, hardly a man and living for himself. Someone should call his brothers, his sister, anyone to collect him and raise him to adulthood, but no one stepped forward.
He remembered when the curse had been placed, how the whole palace stood still that one day. The tension seeped through the stone walls, suffocating anyone that dared walk in. He remembered the look on the kid’s face, one that had always been wrapped in his mother’s skirts, as he looked back on the palace once more before walking out of the keep. So sad, so full of mourning, his hand wrapped around one of the guardsmen who was to watch over him.
Something struck within him that moment. They were the same, torn from their parents and not by their own choice. The actions of those around them had altered their destinies and thrown them into an entirely new path. The anger that had once consumed Hikaru when he gazed upon the duke disappeared, and he was filled with a new conviction. He would not allowed Keito’s family to remain separated, for death did not tear them apart. He would help the broken boy return home.
“You don't have to tell me, if you don’t want to,” Keito said softly. He sat next to Hikaru, their thighs brushing. “It has to be a difficult story to tell if it angered you that much.” He covered one of Hikaru’s hands with his own. “Tell me when you’re ready. Although, I would like to know the story of how you and Yabu met.”
Hikaru’s hand felt like it was on fire. His skin burned on every inch Keito touched, and he could hardly look the younger boy in the eye.
“It’s a long story,” he said, setting aside his brother’s knife he had been playing with. He looked across the cave, but the mirrored walls showed a scene he didn’t wish to see. His face far too red for his liking, and Keito’s gentle face looked at him with questioning eyes. “It involves a pair of knitting needles and some cabbages, and Yabu tells it far better than I do.”
Keito laughed. “Seems like it’s a very strange story.”
“It is, and I can’t mimic the shopkeeper like Yabu does either,” Hikaru continued. “There’s something the way that Yabu yells ‘my cabbages’ that I can’t touch. It’s the whole reason why we met Yamada the first time, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
“You guys are really close,” Keito whispered. He leaned his head onto Hikaru’s shoulder, and Hikaru felt his body freeze at the sudden contact. “It makes me a little jealous, if I’m being honest.”
“I wouldn’t be jealous over that,” Hikaru muttered. He took Keito’s hand in his own, massaging the top of it. The hem of his tunic was pushed up, exposing the tattooed cattails hidden beneath it. “Yes, Yabu is the only family I have, and I would be lost without him.” He paused for a moment. “I don’t know where I’m going with this at all, and it’s probably only making you feel worse.”
Keito nodded, his hair brushing against Hikaru’s neck. “I’ve just never had friends outside of my family before. I’ve met children from the countries surrounding our border, but I was always too scared to talk to them,” he said, softly. “It sounds dumb, but you and Yabu are the closest things I’ve had to friends.”
Something brushed against Hikaru’s thigh, drawing his attention up to Keito’s face. He wasn’t used to being this close to another person. His heart skipped, beating in an irregular rhythm he didn’t think was possible.
“I haven’t said this at all, but I’ve been meaning to,” Keito said, biting his lip. His eyes were shining, so big and pure they drew Hikaru into their depths. “Thank you for everything. If it wasn’t for you and Yabu I’d still be wandering the country, trying to make something of my life.”
Everything Hikaru had bottled during the previous weeks was slowly chipped away. His anger, his annoyance was picked at until only crumbs remained. He cared for Keito, wanted to see him succeed. His young adult life had been dedicated to finding this one kid, and now Keito was before him.
“Keito,” Hikaru muttered.
His heart hurt the more he looked at Keito. The more he wanted to hold him and try to erase some of the pain he had experienced in his hard life. If only for a moment, he wanted Keito’s life to return to an easy one.
Horses hooves pounded against the rocky earth, and they jumped apart. Hikaru scrambled to his feet, running to the entrance of the cave where Chinen was dismounting off his stead.
“Good news,” Chinen said, dusting himself off. “Ryosuke wasn’t as hard to find as we thought.” His smile irked Hikaru, so full of pride. “Let’s pack up and head out. We still have a long day’s ride to his home.”
Yamada’s cave was half a day’s ride west over rocky, mountainous terrain. Keito hugged close to him as they ascended the tall peaks, jumping several times when their horses kicked a loose rock over the edge. The trail was tight and steep, and several times they had to dismount so they could lead their horses through the path.
It was a wonder they passed over half the obstacles they did. Once or twice, Chinen had to stop his own horse, looking at the path ahead of them before he picked his way over the rocks. A loose rock fell from above once spooking Hikaru’s own horse, and it took a tight hold on the reins and a little finagling to keep them from falling off the side of the mountain.
Keito kept him close, those fingers weaving their way into Hikaru’s tunic to ground him during the long ride. It tugged at Hikaru’s concentration, trying to focus his attention on the weight of Keito behind him, how close he was. Many times he snapped his attention back to the path, but those delicate fingers always tempted him again.
When they neared the top of the mountain they came to a cave with grand black doors with stones encrusted, stone pillars on both sides. Flames burned bright on top of those monstrous towers. There was a small, humble hut built off to the side where Hikaru could see Yabu’s horse tied up along with another he didn’t recognize.
“Someone wants to make an impression,” Hikaru muttered. He helped Keito off of their horse. He started to lead the beast to where the others were tied when Chinen stopped him.
“Like he would make it that easy to get in,” Chinen said. He pulled out a black onyx stone from his pocket. “He always has spells in place.”
Chinen tossed the stone towards the mouth of the cave, and it collided midway, as if connecting with a wall. The surface shimmered for a moment, rippling slowly before gaining traction. Before their very eyes the imaged changed into a simpler appearance. Instead of the grand entrance, so shiny and full of stones, stood a humble wooden door.
Chinen skipped to where the hunk of onyx was on the ground, pocketing it once more. “Cool, isn’t it? And to think your friend could only change the air of the cave to warn off visitors. All it took was a little spelled water to lift it. Ryosuke is powerful enough to-”
“Yes, we get it. He’s powerful,” Hikaru said, brushing off whatever complimentary tirade Chinen was about to go on. “Let’s get to it.”
Chinen huffed, glaring at Hikaru, before he led them through the door.
The inside of the cave was cozy, cushions adoring the chairs and expensive tapestries hanging from the walls, blocking many of the mirrored surfaces. Lamps were posted around the room, but it was a low light that made it difficult to see. Furs were piled onto the floor, Hikaru’s boots sinking into the surfaces as they crossed the open cave. He offered a hand to Keito to help him cross. He was certain if they dug into the many chests and drawers that lined the walls they would find mountains of magic tools Yamada used for his spells.
Yabu and Yamada were sitting on the far side of the cave at a table, sipping tea near a roaring hearth.
“Yamada,” Hikaru said, nodding to the other man.
“Hikaru, it’s been a while,” Yamada said, smirking over his cup. “Not since you asked me to remove a few knitting needles from, oh, where were they stuck again?”
His temper flared, remembering the first time they met. The trials Yamada put them through before he would accept their proposal for help. “You seem a little shorter since we last met,” Hikaru shot back. “Have you been able to reverse the shrinking charm?”
“Listen here,” Yamada slammed down his cup, rising from his seat. “Is that any way to be speaking with someone that you’re asking for help? I could throw you out with the snap of my finger."
“Do it,” Hikaru said, stomping across the room until he was within arm’s reach of the mage. “We’ll find someone else to assist us.”
“Both you and I know,” Yamada hissed, “that if there was another option you wouldn’t be here.” He put a hand on Hikaru’s chest and pushed, the slight bit of magical energy enough to knock Hikaru to the ground. “I didn’t have to help you before, and I certainly don’t have to now.”
Keito scrambled to Hikaru’s side, hand brushing his shoulder as if to check on him. “If you won’t help him,” Keito said. “Then why don’t you help me?”
The room was silent. The crackling of the fire a deafening sound to their ears as Yabu sipped his tea. Yamada snapped a finger and the lamps brightened, bringing them into the light. He looked Keito once over, his eyes discerning every detail of Keito’s body.
“And who might you be?” Yamada asked, tapping his chin.
“Duke Okamoto Keito,” Keito said.
Hikaru could see the fire burning in his eyes as he spoke. How, for the first time since they began their journey together, Keito was confident. He spoke with the authority one might see of a royal descendant. He was a completely different person staring down the mage.
It was difficult to tear his gaze away from Keito in that moment. How his eyes darkened, almost threatening Yamada to disbelieve him, and if Yamada harmed so much as a hair on any of their heads it would bring him his doom. He was proud to see the young duke grow a backbone.
Yamada waved a hand, and the sleeve of Keito’s tunic was dragged upwards, revealing the dark tattoos beneath. The dark marks swirled under the firelight, and the cattails danced for Yamada’s eye.
“He’s not lying, Ryosuke,” Chinen said. He had picked a pile of furs to lie on. “I found his crest during our travels. Besides,” he kicked off his boots. “no one but a court mage could cast that sort of spell. He’s the real deal.”
“And I’m guessing you want me to remove that curse of yours,” Yamada said. “Is that correct?”
“Of course,” Keito said. His eyes were staring deep into Yamada’s, never breaking contact with him. “I want to return home.”
“It’s impossible,” Yamada said. He returned to his seat at the table across from Yabu. “Nine years is quite a long time, and, at this point, that magic has settled into your blood. There’s no physical way for me to break it.”
Hikaru’s rage returned once more, and it was difficult to contain it. They had spent so much time, traveling over rocks and forest, to find a mage they could coerce into helping them. It was as if Yamada was forcing them back to square one.
“There has to be some back alley,” Yabu said. He placed his own cup of tea down. “Both you and I know that magic isn’t a one way street. There are multiple paths to end at the same result.”
“We’ve been through this before with your last visit,” Yamada said. “My magic isn’t like yours. My spells require me to put a little of myself into it, and seeing as how that curse has grown over the years,” he sighed, “I would have to put everything I have in order to break it. I may live a pitiful existence outside of glory and honor, but it is one I want to continue living.”
“Then let me help,” Yabu said, hands grasping the table. “If there are two of us then it would balance everything out, and it wouldn’t pull from you as much.”
His heart ached for his friend. Yabu had only agreed to the mission because it was important to Hikaru. He was willing to put his life on the line for a friend, and Hikaru knew there wasn’t a way for him to repay Yabu for his dear loyalty.
“And risk both of our lives? I refuse,” Yamada snapped before returning his attention back to Keito. “I apologize, but you’re stuck like this for the rest of your life. You will never return home.”
“Yuto would be able to do it.”
The room was quiet once more as time stood still.
“What,” Yamada stuttered. One of his hands grasped firmly to the edge of the table. “What did you just say?”
“I said Yuto would be able to do it,” Hikaru repeated. “He’s powerful enough, but rumors say you’re stronger. I suppose we should seek out his help instead.”
The room exploded into a brilliance of light. Hikaru pulled himself and Keito to the ground, surrounding their eyes with the soft furs until the light around the edges dimmed once more. They sat up once more, eyes transfixed by the fire that glowed in Yamada’s.
“Ryosuke,” Chinen shouted. In a flash he was beside his friend. “What happened? Are you okay?”
“Strip,” he said.
Chinen stepped away from him. “What?”
“Strip,” Yamada said. He waved a hand, and the hem of Keito’s tunic was tugged upwards. “If you want my help, I need to see what I’m working with. And you,” he pointed over to Yabu. “Don’t think you can take back your words. You’re helping me with this.”
“You changed your tune quickly,” Hikaru chuckled. Keito was next to him, struggling to get his tunic over his head. “What happened to needing to conserve yourself or risk death?”
“I’ll fight death and come back to the side of the living,” Yamada said. He grabbed at Keito’s tunic and helped him tug it off of his body. “I’ll show that pesky court mage what true power is. I’ll break this damn curse and show everyone who’s stronger."
With his shirt off it was easy to see the depths that the curse had taken root. Not only were Keito’s arms marked with cattails, but also his chest and back, the dark marks dipping below his trousers, and Hikaru couldn’t help but imagine how far they went. It was easier to see the movement of the tattoos, how each time Keito moved an arm, the leaves danced on his skin, moving from the elbow to the crook of his arm. Oh his chest lay the royal crest, the mark of a stag as black as night against his tanned skin.
“Where did it start?” Yamada asked.
Keito pointed to the crest sitting above his beating heart. “They’ve grown over the years. It started as a few vines and now,” he held his arms out, “look at me. I’m a walking riverbed.”
“So he grounded the spell in the crest,” Yamada muttered to himself, hands brushing over the king’s mark. “More than likely he intertwined it with a growth spell, so, if you happened to get closer to the capital, the vines springing from your fingers would be able to strangle you. I don’t believe he meant for the tattoos on your body to grow. It’s got a mind of its own.”
“You’re doing a lot of talking and not a lot of work,” Hikaru grumbled.
He didn’t like the way that Yamada was so casually touching Keito. How his fingers skimmed the surface of that beautiful skin, not caring if there were any consequences. How determined Yamada looked as he focused on those marks and the muscles rippling beneath them.
“If you want it to be done right,” Yamada said, glaring at Hikaru. He backed away, going to one of the many wooden chests. “I’ll have you consume carob for protection and a little hydrangea to see if we can weaken the roots of the curse.” He rummaged around one of the trunks, producing the flower and the fruit. “Yabu, how good are you at brewing spelled tea?”
“One of my favorite past times,” Yabu smiled. He rose from his seat as well and crossed the room to where Yamada sat, pilfering through the chests. “I’ve been brewing passionflower into Hikaru’s drinks for years.”
“You’ve what?” Hikaru shouted.
“Just to give you a little peace of mind,” Yabu shrugged. “It’s what helped you sleep those rough nights in the beginning of our journey, and I’ve kept doing it ever since. “He accepted the ingredients from Yamada. “I’ll start on this.”
“Good,” Yamada said. He cracked his knuckles. “I’ll start researching a counter curse. And stay out of my way.” He shot a glare over at Hikaru before disappearing deeper into the cave, and Hikaru heard a door slam shut behind them.
“Are you sure of this?” Keito asked. He tangled his hands around his tunic. “He seems...”
“Seems what?” Hikaru asked.
“A little strange,” Keito said. He slipped his arms back into the sleeves, and pulled his tunic over his head. “Do you think he’ll really die to save me?”
Hikaru shook his head. “If I know Yamada like I think I do, he has power stored someplace in this cave. He has a few enchanters that make him amulets to store his magic in. More than likely he’ll use one of those to fuel the spells to heal you.” He only hoped that Keito would believe him.
Keito merely nodded along, settling into the furs next to Hikaru. They were close again. The feeling of Keito’s body burning against his own, but it calmed him. It opened Hikaru’s mind to the possibilities of the future. Of one where Keito would be able to walk through the doors of his home, finally returning to the palace.
Once he had greeted his relative, they could possibly travel the country together. Side by side, the wind sweeping through their hair as they battled crooks and explored every crevasse the sun touched. They would grow closer, Hikaru finally being able to tell Keito about his life, about his brothers and sister.
But it was all wishful thinking. For now, they needed to focus on the present.
Hikaru laced his fingers with Keito’s, giving them a tight squeeze. “I know you don’t trust him, but trust in me who trusts in him,” Hikaru said. “I don’t like him, but Yamada is powerful. He’ll find a way. I know it.”
He could feel Keito’s smile in the air, how that one ray of happiness lightened the mood around them.
“Okay,” Keito whispered, squeezing Hikaru’s hand back. “I’ll trust you.”
The days passed by slowly as Yabu and Yamada worked together. There were days when it was quiet, the only sound being Keito and Hikaru’s hushed tones as they talked, playing card games to pass the time. Other days they could hear the frustrated screams of Yamada echo through the cave, glass shattering from the confines of his study.
A few times he emerged from his work room, Keito’s head peeking over the furs to watch as Yamada stomped through the proposed living room of the cave, shuffling around ingredients in his many chests before stomping out again.
Chinen had long left, packing his things to return back home.
“My sister is getting married in the coming weeks, and I promised I would be there,” he had said. “I’ll return to check on him when everything’s completed.” He heaved his bag over his shoulder. “Hopefully all of you will be gone by the time I return.”
During the nights they slept together, curled around each other as they burrowed deep within the furs on Yamada’s floor for warmth. Despite a full cavern to claim, Keito always stayed close to him, snuggling into his body for the long night ahead. Hikaru didn’t want to push the younger boy away, his face reddening by the sudden contact. He wrapped an arm around Keito and fell asleep, hoping Keito couldn’t hear how fast his heart was beating.
Yamada never updated them on the progress of the spell, if it was good or bad, and he kept Yabu tight lipped and working diligently as well. The only time Hikaru saw his friend was when they were about to fall asleep, the tall mage collapsing onto the spot on the floor he had claimed for his bed.
“You don’t want to know,” Yabu groaned, stretching out his joints. “Every time we think we have it, another road block is thrown our way.” He smiled still, burrowing deeper into the furs. “Don’t worry, Keito. We’re dealing with one of the most brilliant mages of our time. It’s a puzzle that needs to be solved, and we’re close.”
Five day. Five long days was what it took before Yamada emerged from the room and settled into his chair, putting a small vial of silver liquid on the table. He was pale, far paler than when they arrived at his home. His movements were staggered, feet sloshing against the floor in an irregular rhythm.
“That,” he motioned over to the vial, eyes weary, “is the curse for your curse. Drink the liquid and the marks on your body will disappear, and you’ll be able to return home.” He sighed. “Consider my fee waived since your friend helped.”
Keito’s mouth dropped open. “Thank-”
“Don’t thank me just yet,” the mage said. He massaged his temples. “There’s a catch.” Yamada slumped over in his chair. “That one vial contains the interworkings of seven different spells, each with their own solution and side-affect. We are dealing with high-level magic, after all, and to get something you must give something in return.”
“You’ve lost me,” Hikaru said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Of course you don’t understand, you’re simple,” Yamada sighed.
Hikaru opened his mouth to counter, but a glare from Keito had him snapping his mouth shut once more.
“I’ve tried to balance the good with the bad, but not everything would align the way I wished,” Yamada continued. “If you drink that potion you won’t be cursed, but your memories will reset to the moment the curse was cast.” Sensing the confusion in the room, Yamada clarified his statement. “Which means you won’t remember any of your travels from the past nine years nor the people you’ve met.”
“We’ll take it,” Hikaru said.
“No, I won’t,” Keito said, standing tall and proud. “My memories are precious to me, and I won’t give them away.” He left the cave, teary eyed, before anyone could stop him.
“I’ll talk to him,” Hikaru said, clambering up from the floor and taking the potion from Yamada.
Keito was sitting on the edge of the mountain’s path, legs dangling to earth far, far below. The peaks of the mountains reached for the sky, the taller caps covered in white. In the distance they could see lights sprinkling the earth, signaling a town was closer than they originally believed.
“Tell me what you’re thinking about,” Hikaru said, settling next to Keito.
“I don’t know,” Keito said, biting his lip. “It’s…a lot to think about. The one thing I’ve always wanted was to return home, to see my family again. To be amongst my cousins and aunts and uncles, but now,” he balled his hands into fists, “I don’t know what I want anymore.”
Hikaru’s heart was beating quickly. He knew the words he wanted Keito to say, to put them out into the open, but it was all wishful thinking. There had to be other issues weighing down Keito’s mind besides a weary cook and his mage companion.
“I don’t want to forget about you,” Keito continued. “I don’t want to forget all of the conversations we’ve had. And your cooking. I don’t want to forget how you talk with Yabu, so full of life and how focused and determined you are to win your arguments with him.” He laughed, hand covering his mouth. “And that time you tried to catch that fish for dinner and fell in the river. I don’t want these memories to become meaningless.”
“They won’t be meaningless,” Hikaru whispered. He pulled Keito close, hugging him tightly. “Because I’ll remember them, and Yabu too. They’ll live on, and we’ll be sure to tell you all about them. About all of the trouble you caused us, and how much you brought life into our lives.” They separated, so Hikaru could look Keito in the eyes. “We’ll keep telling you these stories over and over again until you can feel them in your bones and know that they’re true.”
He wanted to kiss him. He wanted to kiss Keito so bad it hurt. The way that he was looking at Hikaru as if he was the only person in the world struck something deep within his soul. He wanted to taste Keito, to see his if lips tasted as sweet as he was. It was so easy to lean forward, to close that distance. Hikaru had a feeling Keito would accept everything he had to offer.
Hikaru pulled away.
“But you should think of your happiness and your position,” Hikaru said, procuring the potion vial from his pocket and wrapping Keito’s hands around it. “I’ll only be around for so long, but family is forever. And you’ll have a powerful mage to protect you once you return to the palace.” His words kept trying to catch in his throat, one of his hand’s reaching down for his brother’s knife, but he kept pushing forward. “Do what will benefit you in the long run.”
He left Keito there, sitting underneath the blackened sky. His hands held onto the one thing keeping him from the happiness he had sought.
In the morning, they woke to frightened shrieks. Keito’s back pressed firmly against the wall, eyes darting around the room. The pain in Hikaru’s own heart was unbearable as he looked upon the duke with panic flowing through his veins.
Yamada pulled his robe closer to his body, crossing the room with a few hurried strides, and he grabbed onto one of Keito’s arms. He pulled back the fabric to reveal clean, unblemished skin, free from the marks of the curse.
“It appears as though we have a little explaining to do, Duke Okamoto,” Yamada said, releasing Keito’s arm. “Would you like some tea? It’s quite a long story.”
It didn’t take long to calm Keito down, to tell him the story of his past. He listened attentively, ears drinking in their words as his mind refills all that was once lost. They purposely left out several parts. Their horse rides together. How Keito’s touch felt on his body. How he nearly kissed those royal lips to sway him to stay, but refused at the last moment.
Skillful hands cut away the mane of hair Keito had grown over the years, revealing a polished and refined duke underneath it all. The short hair looked good on him, showing off the dimples his long locks had once hidden.
Yamada lent them his horse to make their travels to the Capital swifter. His all-knowing eyes watched them as they packed up their belongings for the trip.
“Bring him back,” Yamada said. “That horse cost me far too much to lose.”
“Don’t move around and we will,” Hikaru shot back in return.
They told stories of their time together as they traveled. Hikaru recounted the time he had pushed Keito in the river all those weeks ago, laughing at how Keito’s nose scrunched up at the mere thought of taking a dip into it. He ignored Yabu’s eyes, his worried expression, and kept a smile on his face.
The less he thought about it, the more he was able to convince himself this was all for the better. Keito needed a family, not a rag tag bunch of men who could hardly keep themselves in line with each other.
The palace rose above the hills, its white stone sparkling in the light of the afternoon sun. The River Lea bent to the will of the palace, making it curve around those majestic peaks, bowing to its might.
“Yaotome-san, I have a question for you,” Keito said. He held his reins loosely as he let Yabu jut out in front, picking out their path down the hill and to the capital’s gates.
“Hm? What is it?” Hikaru asked.
He couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t stand how formal Keito was being with him. He missed the Keito who would speak his name without fear, instead of the proper man that sat before him.
“Why is it that whenever you look at me it looks like you’ve lost the love of your life?” Keito asked, his eyes so pure, so honest. “It’s been bothering me since we left Yamada-san’s home.”
“No particular reason,” Hikaru said. He nudged his own horse forward. “You merely remind me of someone I used to know.”
He was off before Keito could speak again, racing down the hill past Yabu to the gates. Hikaru wanted it all to end. To deliver Keito back to his home, and to slowly forget their time together. It would be easier if he cut everything off in one swoop instead of a tearful goodbye.
He negotiated with one of the guardsmen, a pretty man who called himself Takaki, to escort Keito to the palace gates. The crest in Keito’s pack would be enough to get him entrance to the throne room, and, from there, he would be able to prove his lineage to the king.
His last look at Keito was him slipping through the heavy gated door, Takaki’s hand on Keito’s shoulder as he led the duke through the crowded streets. For a moment, Hikaru could have sworn he saw Keito look behind, to see his travel companions one last time, but the moment was lost. Before he knew it, the pair disappeared into the crowd.
“Where to now?” Yabu asked. His hands held both his horse’s reins and Yamada’s.
“Back to the mountains,” Hikaru said. He spurred his horse east once more. “We have a promise to keep.”
“And after that?” Yabu said, rolling his eyes. “I knew we’d be going there.”
“I don’t know,” Hikaru said. He kept his attention facing forward, no matter how much he wished to look behind him. “Wherever the wind takes us, I suppose.”
One Year Later
“Hikaru, what did you do?”
“Nothing. I didn’t do anything.”
“People don’t get arrested over nothing,” Yabu huffed. He played with the chain that cuffed his wrists together.
They were sitting in a cold, damp cell, Yabu lying on the bunk as Hikaru curled himself into a ball on the floor. Water dropped from someplace on the ceiling, the drops irritating Hikaru’s ears the more time passed. It was a small, cramped place, maybe only meant for one person, but whoever captured them decided they were better together than separate.
They had tried to magic their way out, casting a small unlocking spell to free themselves from their cuffs, but Yabu’s magic was stopped. Whoever had captured them had prepared the cuffs in advance for them specifically.
“Maybe it was you,” Hikaru said. The cold floor of the cell was starting to freeze his butt the longer he sat there. “I’ve told you before. This far south people don’t appreciate mages as much in the north. You must have spelled something away from an undercover royal.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” Yabu said, rolling his eyes. “I haven’t so much as touched my magic. This is what you get for wanting to seek out that crazy seer and see the ocean.”
A new guardsman that entered the jail stopped their conversation, the symbol on his chest familiar but still foreign to Hikaru: a pair of doves on an ivory sky. He unlocked their cell and grabbed Hikaru, pulling him from the musky domain and leaving Yabu behind.
The guardsman pushed Hikaru through the halls if he walked too slowly. He nearly fell several times, but caught himself on the rough stone walls before scrambling forward once more.
He was in trouble. He knew it. The rough handling was a definite sign, and he was certain that wherever he was being brought was going to be his final resting place. He had lived a good life, one he wasn’t proud of but a good life. His regrets outweighed the good in the world, but he would stand tall and fight against his predestined fate.
Hikaru was led to a room with a roaring fire, the sole occupant sitting in a large chair and facing away from him and towards a crackling fire.
“Listen,” Hikaru stuttered as the guardsmen took hold of his wrists. “I don’t know what we’ve done, but we’ll pay for it. We’ll do whatever you want. Just let us go free.”
The guardsman reached into his pocket, and Hikaru flung out his words as quickly as he could.
“We’ll swear fealty to you,” he continued. “I apprenticed at the royal kitchens. I can cook for you. My friend is a powerful mage, and he’ll protect you. Just please don’t kill us.”
With a small clink, the cuffs fell away, and the guardsman was gone as quickly as he came.
Hikaru couldn’t move. He didn’t understand anything. He had been prepared to beg for his life, to avoid death. What was going on?
The other man in the room stood and adjusted his embroidered jacket before he spoke. “I don’t think it’s fair,” he said, turning to face Hikaru, “how you left without a goodbye, Hikaru.”
His hair was longer since they last met, returning back to the shaggy length. It hid those beautiful dimples that Hikaru had come to love during their long journey.
“I always felt like a piece of me was missing,” he continued, crossing the room one foot in front of the other to where Hikaru stood. “Like my mind was crying out to remember something it had forgotten, as if someone had left out a few details by choice.”
“So you did something to fix that?” Hikaru asked.
“Of course,” the other man laughed. “I had a new, powerful mage friend who was able to crack open the spell that was placed on me, so all of my memories came flooding back.” He ran his hands down the front of Hikaru’s own tunic. “You can imagine my disappointment when I realized one of the people I cared about most left without saying goodbye.”
“I can,” Hikaru said. He couldn’t breathe. Not with his vision swimming before his very eyes. “So you remember everything, Keito?”
“I do,” his breath was hot on Hikaru’s face, “and I remember someone telling me to think of my happiness, so I came to seek it out."
His lips were everything Hikaru wished them to be and more. His arms pulled him into a deep embrace, snaking around his body and pulling every excuse from his mind of why this couldn’t happen.
Hikaru had to be dreaming, but the way that Keito’s body felt against his, how his hands wrapped around his biceps, pulling him closer, it couldn’t be fake. His heart wanted to burst from everything, unable to contain his emotions. Keito was real, standing before him.
“Are you sure?” Hikaru asked when they broke away, his forehead resting on Keito’s.
“I am,” Keito said, his smile far more beautiful this close up. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.”
He wanted to claim those lips once more, to make them his own. He wanted to see the hidden expanse of Keito’s body, and to map all of the ridges and valleys of it, but one thing pulled at Hikaru’s mind.
“Shouldn't we get Yabu?” he asked. His feather light touch grazed Keito’s skin.
“He can wait,” Keito said. His hands desperately grabbed for Hikaru. “I need you now.”
He pulled Keito in for another kiss, lips meeting as if they were meant to be together. Hands tugged at clothing, removing it from the other as their hearts melded into one.
Yabu could wait. Hikaru needed this more.
And with that, River Lea comes to a close. Thank you to everyone that's checked this story out and read it from beginning to end. It's been a wild ride, and I'm glad I finally wrote this story. Maybe some day I'll come back and explore this world some more. For now, to whatever the future holds!