Daisuke looked up from the dish he’d been scrubbing in amazement. “You’re what?”
“I’m going with Jyou – Lord Jyou.” Koushiro’s smile was just a bit embarrassed. “He asked me to come and live with him – and he’s promised to take care of my mother. I said I would.”
“Lucky!” Daisuke looked down at the pile of breakfast dishes waiting for him to wash them. “I wish I had a big fancy lord in love with me.” Or a Lady, he thought, mind wandering to Hikari. Strangely enough, he could hardly remember her face. All he could think about was how great it would be to have someone so wonderfully kind and beautiful as a part of his life. It was a daydream he’d harbored since before he’d even seen Hikari.
Koushiro was blushing. “Well, we’ve only just met,” he said, cautious as always. “But I’ll have plenty of time to get to know him – I’m looking forward to it, actually.”
Wish I could get to know Hikari… Daisuke grinned at his friend. “I guess I’ll be seeing you around then, huh? Whenever you’re visiting, right?”
“Maybe.” Koushiro looked a bit sad. “But I’ll try and at least give you some advice, Daisuke. I know how you feel about Hikari, but you shouldn’t always chase after the impossible. Sometimes the key to your dreams is right under your nose and you don’t even recognize it because you’re looking too far beyond it.”
“Huh?” Daisuke made a face. What does that mean? Geez, this guy doesn’t even make any sense half the time. He scratched his head. “If you say so.”
Koushiro shrugged. “You’ll get it some day. Good luck, Daisuke.”
Then he was gone.
Daisuke stared at the dishes for a while, trying to puzzle his way through that one. Maybe he’s just excited about going. They say people who are in love do strange things sometimes. Still, it seemed like there was a point in that comment that he wasn’t getting – if he could just figure it out…
“Daisuke!” The stern-faced woman who ran the kitchen stuck her head into the back room, scowling at him. “Are you daydreaming again? Get to work!”
“Yes ma’am.” He resumed work on the plate, scrubbing with a furious energy that hadn’t been there before. “Sorry about that. I’ll try harder, I promise.”
She made a frustrated noise. “Hah! Well, maybe I ought to volunteer you for that batch of servants his lordship is sending to his sister.”
Daisuke nearly dropped the plate. “You can volunteer to be sent to Lady Hikari?”
“Didn’t you hear? You’d have to be in the great hall in the next half hour.” The woman narrowed her eyes at him. “I might even give you the time off if you’re going to go.”
“Would you?” Daisuke stood, amazed. Wow, she’s never been this nice to me before! And I could go and be with Hikari… He felt his excitement growing. “Really?”
“Yes, yes, I would.” She waved a hand impatiently. “Now go! Get out of my sight!”
“Thanks!” Daisuke practically leapt for the door, heart pounding hard. I get to go and join Hikari… Maybe she’ll notice me! Maybe she’ll see me and she’ll fall instantly in love and then we’ll be happy together forever!
He almost skipped down the hall, his heart felt so light. Hikari and me… Me and Hikari…The idea was so perfect. She’d be standing in the hallway, absently watching the servants file in… Then her eyes would meet his, and… BOOM! Instant love. Everything just fit so well. What could possibly go wrong? It was like something right out of a fairy tale, the romance Daisuke had always dreamed about. That someone – Hikari – would notice him, and not just ignore him. It would be a dream come true!
Just the way things had turned out for Koushiro.
Daisuke hummed tunelessly to himself as he walked through the hallway. Everything was going to work out for him just fine.
“Why can’t things just work out for me?” The question came through gritted teeth as Ken stared at the ceiling of his broom closet, desperately wishing some all-knowing being might somehow slip him an answer. “Is that too much to ask?”
He’d tried avoidance… he’d tried distantly polite… he’d tried a gentle rejection, and he’d tried and out-and-out rude rejection… he’d even tried an engagement, for Christ’s sake, and still nothing worked.
“Ke-en! Where are you? Come out, come out, wherever you are!” An inane little giggle followed the question. “You don’t need to be coy with me, silly!”
Nothing, but nothing could free him from the attentions of Baroness Miyako.
Please don’t find me, please don’t find me… He heard her opening doors – searching for him in some of the side rooms, no doubt – and felt his heart pound hard. I’m not in the broom closet! Don’t look there! He silently cursed the fact that the solid wood door didn’t have a lock that could be sealed from the inside.
The footsteps grew nearer. No! Ken shrank back against the wall.
“Good morning, Miyako. What are you doing?”
“Hikari! Takeru!” the overly chirpy voice greeted the two. Ken winced, then sighed in relief. His new guests made excellent allies. “I was just looking for Ken. Have you seen him?”
“Hmm.” Takeru seemed to be thinking that over. “I think I saw him around the kitchen, with Iori. Maybe you should go check.”
“Great! Thanks, Takeru!” The sound of Miyako’s retreating footsteps was like music to Ken’s ears. He slumped forward, feeling limp with relief.
The closet door was abruptly flung open and a grinning Takeru stood there, still arm-in-arm with Hikari. “Nice hiding place,” the blond lord commented.
“She caught me by surprise.” Ken came out of the closet with as much dignity as he could muster up, brushing off his shoulders. “I had to improvise. Thanks for saving me, though, Takeru. I appreciate it.”
“We’re just returning a favor,” Hikari told him, smiling. “After all, you’re letting us stay here until after the wedding. I can’t think of any other way we might be able to repay you.”
“I did get a letter from my brother this morning,” Takeru added. “He says Taichi’s sending a couple dozen servants as a “good will” gift. I guess it means he’s forgiven you for running away, Hikari.”
“Let me guess.” Hikari rolled her eyes. “They want to come to the wedding.”
“He didn’t say.” Takeru shrugged. “Probably, but we’d have to talk about that. The reason I brought it up is because I thought we might pass this gift we’re receiving on to Ken – as a thank you. It’s your brother who’ll be paying their salaries, after all.” He glanced at Ken. “What do you think?”
“Excellent.” Ken smiled wryly. “They can keep Miyako busy. Though I have to doubt if there are enough servants in the world to keep her out of my hair!”
“Poor Ken.” Hikari shook her head. “Too many adoring fans for one guy, hmm?”
“Please.” He sighed. “One of her is enough.”
“Well, I’m sorry I couldn’t help you with that.” She smiled. “But the marrying idea had a lot of merit, you know. Maybe she’d give up on you if you fell in love.”
“Right.” Ken raised an eyebrow. “And it’s that easy to do, is it? But maybe I should try the engagement again. I’ll just have to try and remember if there might be any tolerable young ladies like yourself available, Hikari.”
“They’re probably all taken,” Takeru replied, smiling at his bride-to-be. “After all, people like Hikari are usually in great demand. Everyone wants to marry them.”
Hikari grinned. “Takeru, your comments make my knees go weak. Are you sure you haven’t done this before?”
Watching them banter playfully, Ken sighed. That’s the sort of thing that’d almost certainly solve my problem. Why can’t I find someone to have that kind of closeness with?
Daisuke looked around the kitchen of his new home and work-place, feeling somewhat disappointed. I was kinda hoping it would be different from the last kitchen I was in. He shrugged. Oh well.
It hadn’t been a long trip to Lord Ken’s estate – the worst part had been walking, definitely. It only took just a few days of that walking, though, and then Daisuke found himself in a brand new place, farther than he’d ever traveled to before – and it looked almost frighteningly similar to where he’d just come from.
Except with Hikari.
Daisuke hadn’t yet been able to catch a glimpse of the object of his infatuation, but he knew she was there, in the palace. That alone kept his spirits from sinking. Back at Lord Taichi’s, there was no chance of getting close to Hikari. Here, he could be noticed. He could be somebody.
He could be Hikari’s somebody.
The thought made Daisuke smile.
“So, you’re one of the new servants, huh?”
The quiet voice cut into Daisuke’s daydreaming and made him spin around, looking for the source of that sound. “Huh? Who’s there?”
A boy moved away from the wall, smiling faintly. He was shorter than Daisuke by nearly a head, and his light brown hair was straight and cut evenly all around – almost like someone had just stuck a bowl on his head, Daisuke observed. He had strangely slanted dark green eyes that were faintly curious as they looked over the new servant boy.
“My name’s Iori,” the boy said simply, holding out a hand. “I’m a friend of Takeru’s. And you’re from Lord Taichi’s, aren’t you?”
“Yup. I’m Daisuke.” He shook the offered hand. “So, are you another one of those noble types? I mean, you’re friends with Lord Takeru…”
Iori shook his head. “I’m just a commoner. But I travel with him sometimes. I came here to be the Best Man at his wedding.”
“Lord Takeru’s getting married?” Daisuke scratched his head. That was news to him.
“Of course. Didn’t you know?”
“Nope. But then,” Daisuke shrugged, “no one really tells me stuff. So what’s this place like, anyway? You’ve been here longer than me.”
“Big.” Iori half smiled. “But that’s not surprising, is it? Just about every palace in the world is big.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it. This is only the second palace I’ve been in.” Daisuke glanced around again. “Is there anything I should know about this place? You know, like grouchy employers… people to avoid…”
“Not that I can think of,” Iori answered. “You might want to be careful about Lord Ken and Baroness Miyako, though. They’ve got some relationship issues.”
“Oh.” Daisuke wasn’t sure he understood that, but he shrugged it off anyway. “OK. I’ll remember that. Just as soon as I find out who they are.”
“Don’t worry,” Iori assured him, smiling. “You’ll figure it out. From what I’ve heard, Lord Ken’s not that bad an employer. I don’t know him very well, but he seems nice enough.”
“That’s good to know.” Daisuke’s mind flew back to what it had been occupied with before he’d met Iori. “So… have you met Lady Hikari?”
“Of course. Takeru introduced me to her as soon as they got here.” Iori tilted his head and looked curiously at him. “Why?”
Daisuke felt his face turning red. “Ahh… No reason. How about if you show me around the palace? Unless you’ve got important stuff to do…”
Iori shrugged. “Actually, I was looking for something to do, anyway. Come on.” He walked off down the hall.
All right! Daisuke followed. Now maybe I’ll get a chance to see Hikari!
The door to Ken’s room had the most useful device the dark-haired lord could imagine, given the circumstances: a lock. It only locked from the inside, and a person on the outside of the door couldn’t open it, even with a key. The room was one of the safest places to be in the palace.
Its problem was that everyone knew exactly where in the palace it was.
Therefore, once Ken decided to stay inside his room for a while, he usually wound up being afraid to come out again.
There’s got to be an easier way to get rid of her. Ken stared out his window sullenly, down at the expansive grounds below him. There must be some way I can get the point across that I don’t want to marry her! He sighed, and slouched against the sill, feeling very much like a prisoner. And in my own home! This is ridiculous!
“These are the grounds.” The now-familiar sound of Iori’s voice drifted up to him from somewhere below. “I wouldn’t suggest going exploring, though. You can get lost around here if you don’t have someone with you who knows their way around.”
Mildly interested, Ken looked around for the source of the voice. Who would Iori be showing around? Takeru and Hikari already know where everything is.
“That’s kinda neat.” Ken finally located Iori, standing near the front doors. A taller young man was approaching him from one side. “Maybe I’ll have to get someone to show me around out here.”
Ken gripped the edge of the windowsill and stared. The boy talking to Iori was dressed in rough clothing, but he was the type who almost made it look good. Tanned skin, red-brown hair… He was slim and lightly muscled, seeming to always be in motion, as though that browned skin concealed a supply of energy too vast to be contained. Could that be any more irresistible?
“We’ll see how much time it takes me to show you around the palace,” Iori answered him, cautiously. “I’ll take you around the north wing first – that’s where most of the nobles are staying.”
Ken’s eyes widened. He’s coming up here?
“Really? Great!” The boy seemed to jump at the chance, grabbing Iori’s wrist and dragging him back inside. “Let’s go!”
Ken stumbled to his feet and made a mad dash for the door.
What the hell are you doing!? his mind screamed at him. Ken, however, chose to ignore it. Who cares? I just want to see him up close… I mean, I’m curious. That’s right, curious. Yeah. Nothing but a passing interest in a person I’ve never seen before… damn good-looking person… Not that that matters, of course…
He flung open the door and hurried out into the hallway, starting toward the stairs they’d be coming up to get there. I’ll just casually pass them, and get a quick look…
“Ken! There you are!”
The young lord froze in his tracks.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Before he could escape, the bespectacled Baroness Miyako jumped forward and latched onto his arm. “We never get any time like this to be alone together,” she chirped, leaning against his shoulder uninvited.
“Now’s… really not the time!” he grunted, struggling with her. “I have to do something quickly – maybe later…”
“Oh, don’t be silly!” She continued to cling to him, cheerfully oblivious to his rejection. “I’ll come with you! It’ll be fun!”
“Not… now!” Ken gave a vicious tug and pulled free, ripping Miyako’s dress and sending himself tumbling into an undignified heap on the ground. Miyako gave a little scream and fumbled with the ruined garment, knocking her glasses askew.
“…but most of the time Ken isn’t even up…” Iori stopped in mid-sentence. “…here.”
Ken looked up and found himself looking at the pair of deepest, most stunning brown eyes he’d ever seen in his life. I must be dreaming… He stared stupidly at the boy’s face, unable to think of a single thing to say or do.
The boy blinked, once… twice… He looked at first Ken, on the floor in a pile, and then Miyako, dress ripped and spectacles barely hanging off her nose. The corners of his mouth turned up, and he hastily slapped a hand over it to suppress what sounded to Ken to be suspiciously like a snicker.
The lord and master of that palace let his head fall to the ground with a ‘thunk’. Damn.