A Flare of Dragons


Part One



"Ichijouji! Hold up!"

I stop in my tracks, nearly tripping over the thick carpet in the palace wing reserved for highborn "royal" mercenaries. The voice that just barked out my name in a commanding tone that I know all too well belongs to my superior - and, incidentally, the man who trained me in the use of my weapons - Duke Haiji.

Whenever he gives an order, my immediate reaction is to stop whatever I'm doing and proceed to obey.

So I turn around and face him. He's already marching toward me, weathered face as stony and impassive as ever under a thin head of steadily graying hair. The man is actually a half-head shorter than I am, but the sheer presence he carries somehow makes up for any difference in height. "Yes, your Grace?"

"We have an assignment for you," he says - getting right to the point as usual. The first thing I notice is the fact that he's dressed in formal wear - which is to say, more than plain leather training gear.

That means the beneficiary of this "assignment" must have considerable rank.

That's interesting…

"Where's that partner of yours?" he grumbles, glancing about sourly as if expecting Taichi to jump out of a door somewhere and pretend to have been there all along.

How little he knows my wayward partner. Why would Taichi jump out of a door at this hour of the morning when he could be sleeping in? He's never going to get in trouble for it, and he knows that perfectly well.

"He's in his room."

"Well, go get him." Haiji looks quite surly. Then again, he always looks surly; this isn't much of a change. "This isn't an enthralling enough assignment to go through twice in under an hour. I'll brief you on this when Yagami is present."

"Yes, your Grace." I bow - a little stiffly, perhaps, and continue on the same way I was going before he interrupted me.

Bowing is one of the only things I have trouble with, being a Lord's second son and trained as a royal errand-runner. Or mercenary. Maybe a mix of the two, though the highborn who make up our numbers need to have considerable skill before they're even fit to be used.

In any case, I'm not used to bowing. One, because I didn't have anyone to bow to when I lived at my father's estate - and two, because I didn't spend a lot of time in formal situations anyway.

I've been trained with the katana since I was old enough to hold a blade without hurting myself. I'm also one of only ten trained mercenaries who carry two blades - which itself is a difficult skill to master. I currently rank third in my group, though more than a few people doubted that I'd had the right to be there. I'm only seventeen years old, and many of the mercs here think I'm a spoiled high-ranking brat - but I'm a better swordsman than almost all of them could brag to be.

I have earned gloating rights. At least some of them, anyway.

Taichi and I share a room at the far end of the hallway reserved for the top ranking mercs in our division. It's pretty basic when you consider the fact that it's in the palace - but I suppose if you compared it to some of the places we stay at when we're traveling, it could be considered luxurious. We have our own private bath, for one.

Something I'm more than grateful for, considering the people we might have had to share with otherwise.

The "royal mercenaries" - as we sometimes call ourselves - are made up of highborn children from all across the kingdom who either won't or don’t want to inherit their parents' estates. We run the little errands that involve fighting, defense, or the occasional murder - for the service of our King and Queen. Most of us have been trained for the better part of our lives - like me - but there are a few who started later and relied on talent, almost impossibly hard work, and extremely stubborn wills to struggle their way into a position here. A lot of those in the latter category do surprisingly well, and even make really good leaders on occasion.

Like Taichi.

"Morning." I say the word firmly, opening the door to our room, and lighting a few lanterns to get rid of the dark in the room. "You're going to have to get up," I add, addressing the lump under the blankets in the bed that isn't meticulously made.

"Mmphmrm…" The noise Taichi makes sounds like something between a grunt and a moan, but he pushes the blankets aside and sits up. His thick brown hair is even wilder than usual, and he runs a hand through it, yawning. Large brown eyes fix on me blearily. "What's going on? It's the middle of the night, for crying out loud…"

"It's almost lunch time," I point out, smirking a little. He frowns at me, a raised eyebrow indicating that I haven't answered his question yet. "Duke Haiji has an assignment for us. He asked me to get you so he could brief us both."

"Oh. Why didn't you say so?" Taichi swings his legs over the side of the bed. He's only wearing a pair of not-so-modest shorts, but he stands up, stretches widely, and strolls across the room like it's no big thing. And to Taichi, it really isn't. Even if I'd had Duke Haiji and half his staff - several of whom happen to be female - in here, it would probably still be no big thing.

I prefer to be a little more reserved, but that's just me.

Taichi is twenty years old, and the first son of an Earl somewhere near the border between our kingdom and the next. He wasn't given the same intensive training I got, because he wasn't supposed to need it - being his father's heir, after all. He entered his training in secret when he was thirteen, got himself disowned - out of principle, not because his father was really that angry - and came to the palace all on his own. He's a natural leader, and his talent with the huge sword they call a nodachi made a few heads turn even before he'd been heavily training for five years. He shot right through the rankings, even with that lack of experience, and got assigned as my partner less than a year later. He was even promoted to a level above mine - when he'd only been there a year and I'd been there three.

I resented him right at first, which is only natural - but it's totally unnecessary. Taichi isn't as skilled as I am, but he's a born leader. He knows how to take control of a situation even when faced with the worst sort of trouble. That makes him invaluable.

He's also personable, friendly, and almost impossible to hate - once you get to know him.

"This isn't formal, is it?" he calls out from where he is currently rooting through his side of the closet. It's not messy - soldiers of any kind have to be neat - but it doesn't have the same sort of organized state I keep my things in, either.

Taichi is a little too impatient to bother with intensive organization.

"It might be." That's something to take into consideration. I join him at the closet. "Duke Haiji was dressed in presentable clothing."

He grimaces. "That's formal for him. We'd better at least wear uniforms and bring our weapons along. Even if we dress up for nothing, at least we'll look like we're taking ourselves seriously."

"Good point." I gather up my necessities and head for the bathing room.

Uniforms, for us, consist of an extremely light, extremely expensive layer of almost impenetrable chain mail - which is designed specially to fit the mercenary who owns it, and worn under our clothing. Over that, we wear formal leather: shirts, business-like navy jerkins, and breeches.

And for accessories… belts for swords, daggers, bracers, vanguards, and clean boots for indoor wear.

When I enter the room again, Taichi is just fastening the holder for his sword across his back so that the hilt sits at his right shoulder. The tallest person in the world couldn't wear that thing belted to their waist - unless they wanted to have it drag on the ground and keep them from moving anywhere at all.

The weapon could be referred to as the prime contender for the "I'm a Big Fucking Sword and you'd better not mess with me" stakes. Imagine a katana, scaled up so it's 1.9 meters long, and you've got a nodachi.

And, predictably enough, Taichi adores the damn thing.

I buckle on my two katana, secure my daggers in their usual places - some of which are hidden - and I'm ready to face our new assignment.

Honestly, though… I've seen it all when it comes to these assignments. Murder, battle, bodyguard duty… There's no way they can catch me off guard. I've been around this place for way too long for that.

"What do you think we have this time?" Taichi asks me as we head back out into the hallway.

I shrug. "No idea. I guess we'll find out."

It's not as if we have all that long to wait…

"It's about time," Haiji grounds out, in a voice that gives me the impression of someone grinding rocks between their teeth. "You'll going to be meeting your new assignment soon enough - I want you two to know what you're in for before you do."

Taichi and I exchange quick glances. Meeting the new assignment? That means either guard duty or escort service.

"Pay attention, Yagami, Ichijouji!" The glance apparently wasn't quick enough. "You're going to be escorting two young men to the High Sorcerer's Tower - you do know where that is, don't you?"

There was no need to be insulting… At the risk of appearing cheeky, I raise an eyebrow at him.

"Of course we do," Taichi adds. His tone is an amused one.

"Good." Haiji glares at the two of us - an unspoken reminder to watch our manners. "You're to keep these two from harm, of course, but that's not the only duty I'm assigning. The orders are not to allow these two to venture off without supervision - under any circumstances. It's your responsibility to make sure that they get to the Tower - whether they like it or not. Do you understand?"

That second order erases the notion that we're dealing with anyone highborn. 'Jailer' is a job I haven't been given all that often - but it implies that we're dealing with common criminals. Either that or bratty children who don't want to go along with their parents' wishes.

"Yes, your Grace," Taichi answers for us. He actually sounds interested. As I recall, though, he's never been given the 'jailer' duty at all. So of course this is new to him.

"All right." Haiji pulls a small scroll from his belt. "You're to give this to the High Sorcerer himself. It should explain why these two are being placed in his care. Be sure you don't break the seal," he adds, with a wry glance at Taichi. "There's a spell of some sort on it - you won't be able to fix it again."

Taichi has the grace to look somewhat sheepish as he takes the scroll.

"Expect to meet your charges shortly." The older man turns away from us. "Stay in your room until they've been brought along - and I would get packing if I were you. You'll have to stop by the main office to pick up your traveling funds before you start out, but the sooner you leave the better."

And he leaves us standing in the hallway.

"This should be good," Taichi says with a bit of a grin, tucking the scroll securely into his own belt.

"Don't be too sure about that," I answer, as we make our way back to our room. "We don’t even know who we're guarding just yet. For all we know, they could be spoiled children who want to run away from home for independence."

"They could also be hardened criminals," Taichi points out.

"And why would that be a good thing?"

"Well, think about it." He opens the door to our room and walks inside, glancing back at me. "If we could get in a conversation with them, we'd probably learn something. We're both highborn, so our image of 'common' folk is really limited. Don't you think it would help if we understood them better?"

Sometimes Taichi really surprises me.

"I guess it doesn't matter in the long run," he adds, with a bit of a shrug. "We just have to worry about doing our job. Let's try and get packed before they get here."

It doesn't take us long to pack. We don't need to take much - traveling clothes and the things for cleaning and caring for our weapons. Taichi and I will each get a small bag with our travel funds - which are stretched about as thin as possible. Never mind the fact that the monarchy is backing us…

I shouldn't care, though - Taichi's right. All I need to worry about is doing my job. I can handle whatever brats, snotty nobles, or dirty old criminals we're babysitting on this trip, no problem. It's not like it'll be anything new to deal with…

A knock on the door interrupts that thought.

"Well, here they are." Taichi stops in the middle of tucking another set of pants into his bag, and gets to his feet, not making a move to approach the door. I edge over to stand beside him, just as the door opens and one of the officious administrators enters the room. Just behind him, another administrator ushers our two charges in firmly.

I raise my eyes to give them a quick glance over. The first is a redhead with dark, nervous eyes and plain brown peasant-type clothes - maybe a year or two younger than Taichi. And the second is -

Bronze, exotic-looking skin…

Huge, dancing brown eyes…

Short, wild dark-auburn hair, brushing at the back of a golden-hued neck…

Slender, toned arms and legs… and a slim, eye-catching form encased in the same plain brown that somehow on him looks like the clothing of the gods.

I… I think someone just stuck my mind in a training bag and used it for hand-to-hand combat practice…

Either that… or my purpose in this life just walked in through that doorway.

I've never seen anyone so attractive in my life! I don’t understand how no one else is staring at him… how can people function when he's in a room? He's gorgeous… perfection. I can see him bouncing with restless energy, turning that bright gaze toward me with a huge, friendly grin… such a welcoming grin… It's got a twist to it like mischief… one side quirked up a little higher against the smooth, dark skin lining the perfect structure of his face…

The phrase 'sex on two legs' comes immediately to mind.

I think people are talking around me. Honestly, I have no idea any more. I'm staring into the most bewitching set of eyes I've ever gotten the chance to catch a glimpse of in my life.

I think doing my job is going to be the last thing on my mind during this trip…



Minutes pass by as I occupy myself with having enough clothing. It’s hard enough as it is being a merc when you only have a limited income—add that to the lifestyle that includes sharp objects and oftentimes some crazy guy trying to skewer you with said object…Well, it’s a wonder I still have relatively impressive clothing.

A knock on the door grabs my attention as I stuff some leggings into my pack and I straighten. "Well, here they are," I say. A glance at Ken shows me that he’s interested in who the assignment is, but not enough to show it yet. Ken’s tricky that way. The moment he feigns disinterest is the moment he’s paying the most attention.

It’s a really nifty little twitch and he’s fooled a lot of people with it. I wish I had the facial control to pull it off, but—like some people say—I’m an open book.

The door opens to show one of the Administrators stepping through. From the royal edging on his Robes he’s one of the higher-ranking officers. What a pain; these type of men tend to be self-righteous and pompous. I hate dealing with them; they always think I’m nothing more than some country brat who got lucky.

Even now, as the second official pushes two figures, the first Administrator is looking at us with barely-concealed disdain. He steps aside to show our charges as I straighten up and try to look important.

I glance over them both, taking details and storing them away for further examination later. Right now, taking them at face value will have to do. I meet the eyes of a young man only a few years younger than me. Just a commoner by the looks of his brown clothing, but you can never be too careful. He stares at me without flinching, even as I hitch absently at my nodachi. His face is set stubbornly, and his ebon eyes seem to burn. His hair is a vibrant fiery red, an uncommon shade seen this far south. It suits him, though. Makes him stand out.

Kinda cute, too.

I decide to put that thought away and look over the second boy, younger and dressed in the same simple outfit. His eyes are a rich chocolate color, and his hair is spiky and auburn brown. He looks around with open curiosity, peering around the shoulder of the redheaded boy to stare at…


Out of the corner of my eye I see Ken look up in a customary once-over—and freezing almost instantly. I can’t tell what his expression is, but by the tiny smile on the younger boy’s face, it must have been something. Maybe Ken even smiled back—Lord knows that boy needs to learn how to play nice with others.

"These are the two you’ll be escorting," the first official says, standing stiffly. "The preparations for travel are set. The horses are waiting at the stables, and supplies have been provided for these two. I understand your orders are clear?"

I smile insolently at the man. I’m trying hard to catch a glimpse of Ken’s face without looking like I’m trying, so I think I’m not as respectful as I could be—but I’m not that type of guy, either. Authority and I, well…we don’t make good buddies. "We’ve been briefed," I say finally. His face had turned an ugly shade of red, and there’s no doubt in my mind to what he thinks of me. It doesn’t matter. I rank higher than him anyway, and he knows it.

"Very well then—we’ll leave you to the introductions. If you need anything, a guard outside will attend you." The man pauses to give a stern disapproving look at the two commoners. "This is for your best interests. These men are fully trained, and they will not hesitate to use force to restrain you. I suggest you be on the best behavior possible," the stuffy old coot enunciates.

Man, I wonder what they did to piss him off...and if I can try it too…I think, trying to keep a straight face.

The redhead nods stiffly, emotion flashing through his eyes, and the second—who’s still glancing at Ken in his visual exploration of the room—fidgets and looks down at his bare feet. He’s got the classic guilty pose—and he looks like he’s trying very hard not to smile in the face of displeasure. I don’t think I can blame him.

Even I feel like laughing, and I don’t even know what they did!

The Administrator nods in what is apparently approval of their repentance, and whirls in a stiff flare of fabric. The two of them leave without a second look, and I get a glance of the level-one guard stationed outside. He stands at stiff attention as the officials move past.

The door swings shut, and we’re left with two common boys who don’t look very happy to be here. Great, I think dryly. This should be exciting. Introvert and prank-boy…

Oh well—life is meant to be lived, right? I shrug minutely, brushing my hands together. "Well," I say briskly. "Let’s get down to business! I’m Taichi Yagami, second-rank Red class. My word is gonna be pretty much law for you guys until we get you to the—" I glance at Ken. "The Tower, right? That’s where we’re going?"

The poor boy doesn’t seem to even hear me. "Uh, Ken?" I blink a few times, finally looking at him to figure out what was wrong with him this time.

Oh dear god—Is he—he is! He’s staring! I try very hard not to snicker right there, even as I roll my eyes and mutter a curse under my breath. I found it amusing as hell. He’s got the most lovesick expression I’ve ever seen, and for a boy that stakes a reputation on being aloof—that’s pretty bad.

This could be bad, a part of me states. We’ve got no time for dalliances right now. Assignment, remember?

That thought brought me up short. Even if I hated to admit that this situation looked to be as entertaining as a half-drunken bard and a chicken, there was no time for this.

Especially with an assignment.

"Anyways," I say slowly, giving Ken an odd glance. "My friend here’s Ken Ichijouji, second-rank Blue class. If I’m not around, he’s in charge and you follow him. He tends to be more, um…" I stop for a moment, shaking my head as all the words I’ve used before come up a bit short.

If he’d just pay attention for a second!

"Well, he’s the quiet one." I shrug, and lace my hands comfortably behind my head as I fix my eyes on the two younger boys. "So what are your names, then? It’d be kind of rude to call you ‘boy 1’ and ‘boy 2’…"

"I’m Daisuke!" boy 2 says cheerfully. He looks like he was just waiting for a moment to talk, all bright and friendly—not your average commoner. I smile at him, even as boy 1, the surly redhead who’s kinda cute hisses something under his breath.

"Hello, Daisuke," I say, glancing again to Ken—and damned if he isn’t mouthing the name. I almost break down and laugh right there, if it weren’t for the common sense that Ken’s quicker than I am, and he’s got two swords. "Who’s your friend?"

The auburn boy either ignores the hushed whispers or doesn’t even know they’re there—he bounces a little and beams. "That’s Koushiro," he offers helpfully. "Don’t worry, he’s just in a bad mood because they didn’t fall for our plan."

"Plan?" I question with a grin. "What’d you do?"

The boy grins an identical grin at me. "We tried to run away, but Koushiro trashed the room first and had the window open—did you know that it’s waaay to hard to climb down on bedsheets? Yeah, we had to hide in the bathroom and wait for them to freak out before we got into the hallway, and then Koushiro had to ruin it by looking in the library—"

"Daisuke!" the redhead Koushiro almost screeches the name. He reaches out to shake Daisuke by his arm—not hard or rough or anything like that, just a little touch. It told me worlds of stories how protective this Koushiro was, and I could see the reason why. Daisuke seemed very eager to talk to people, and from Koushiro’s reaction…

It seemed to be a never-ending problem. Interesting.

"Kouuu," the tanned boy whined softly. "Come on, it’s not that bad! Really!"

"Daisuke, shut up!" Koushiro whispers. I paste a bored and distracted look on my face, one of my tricks to look more like a brainless mercenary and shuffle my feet.

It apparently works, because Koushiro pulls Daisuke close and begins to speak in a low voice. It’s hard to make out some of the words—and it’d be easier if Ken wasn’t so gone to the world—but at least I can still hear them.

"You know we can’t trust these guys!" the redhead mutters. "They’re bringing us to the Tower, Dai—that’s the last place we want to be right now! Are you listening?"

Daisuke gives a small nod. "But—" he says. "They don’t—"

"Please, Daisuke! Just listen to me and stop being so nice! They’re mercs, they’re armed and dangerous—" and whatever he says to finish the sentence is lost as Koushiro whispers words too soft to hear.

Damn. I would have loved to know what was going on—and since I can’t fiddle with the scroll, I’d have to find out from other sources. Maybe Ken—

A glance at the slender second-rank shows that no, he’s still not back to earth.

Well, since I can’t hear what they’re saying anymore, I suppose I better go about making Ken realize what an amusing show he’s putting on. I sidle up to him, careful not to make any sudden moves. Trust me, with Ken’s unconscious reaction to things, the last thing you want to do is startle him. He even sleeps with a dagger!

"Ken?" I say neutrally. "Why are you naked?"

It takes about a minute for the words to sink in, and I give him a thorough look to assess the damage while he’s struggling over coherence. His eyes are bright, even a touch wild. His face is slightly flushed, and I have no doubt that he’s been entertaining some dirty thoughts in that pretty head of his. I grin, take one step back as he begins to blink.

"Wha?" he mumbles, looking down with a sudden alarmed look at himself. His hands have twitched to pat frantically at his clothing. "Tai—what the hell?" he pierces me with a sharp glare.

I raise a brow. "You weren’t responding. Are you done staring?"

A quick-rising blush spreads over his cheeks. "You could have gotten my attention in a less embarrassing manner!" he whispers.

"Naw, they’re having a heart to heart over there," I shrug. "I figure I’d wake you up from dreamland and get set. You heard their names at least?"

Ken nods fractionally. His eyes keep straying to where Daisuke and Koushiro stand whispering under their breath. They don’t seem to be paying any attention to us, which makes me suspicious. There’s no time to formulate plans like the present—and from what Daisuke mentioned earlier, they apparently don’t like to be guests of any sort.

"Great," I grin at him. "Let’s go get their stuff and head to the stables. Keep your eyes in your head, loverboy."

"Taichi!" Ken’s voice is scandalized.

Perfect. Score one for me!


Fifteen minutes later Ken was in a relatively normal state—although he kept giving Daisuke glances when he thought I wasn’t looking. I tried hard to ignore it—I knew I couldn’t afford to laugh…

Well, not yet anyways.

After the introductions, and some neutral assurances that we would do the best to our abilities of escorting them and all that, we rounded up the guards outside and told them we were leaving.

"Bring their things to the stables, okay?" I told the semi-sleepy man. "We’re heading out."

The guard snapped to attention, saluting briefly, and turned to stride down the hall. I bet he was just happy to be able to move. I look back over my shoulder, assessing the state of the other three. Ken was still pink in the face, but his alertness was back. He was lugging both of our bags towards the door while Koushiro and Daisuke watched. They seemed nervous, but I don’t blame them. They’re going to a different city, the Socerer’s Tower—

It’s really not a surprise. I’ll just have to be a little more careful on this trip.

"Alright, we ready?"

Nodding, Ken swings my bag towards me without much effort. I’m pretty sure he finished up whatever packing I hadn’t done, and by the weight, he’s packed a few more things. I hope it means I’ll have some extra pants.

"Great—come on you two, we’re off to the stables."

I half-expected them to resist. That would have been normal, but all they did was nod stiffly, even Daisuke. The poor boy looked a bit frightened now, and Koushiro was leading him forward by the arm.

All the more reason to be suspicious.

I made my face into a guileless mask as we go out into the hall, making sure that Ken caught the transition from ‘leader’ to ‘brainless.’ He raised a subtle brow at me behind our assignment. It seems that he doesn’t see them as tricky as I do.

Oh well. I’m pretty sure I’m right about them and that they’ll try to escape. It doesn’t surprise me either that they’re coming along right now—they’re still in the compound. They can’t get out that easily. With us, though, they have a chance to get far away before they ditch us.

If they manage to ditch us at all, that is. We’re not the best for nothing, you know.

It doesn’t take very long for the four of us to make it through the halls and down into the courtyard. The place is huge, but being a second-class gives me the right to take shortcuts through restricted areas. It’s kinda fun, actually. The stables are located down at the southern edge of the wall. The yard itself is huge, and we use it for all sorts of things from practice drills to endurance to something as simple as lunch.

Ken loops the strap of his bag over a shoulder, leaving his right-draw blades free. He’s picky and prefers to belt his katanas on the right, one just below the other, in a show of force. He says that having both in the same area makes the smart take a second look and the stupid miss it entirely. He strides ahead without looking either way, heading directly for the stables.

"Wow, this place is huge! What are all those buildings! How come we didn’t get to see this before?" Daisuke’s in the middle of talking, pointing to Ken some ways ahead of us now. "And where’s he going? I thought he was with us!"

"He is,"I remind him. "He’s going to get the horses. And those buildings on the east are the weapons and armor forging. The long one next to that is the practice area, where the rookies go to learn. The building we came from is the compound, where everyone sleeps. You were probably brought here at night and couldn’t see all it, since that’s the usual protocol."

Daisuke nods, eyes huge as he looks around. He almost twists his head off trying to see behind him.

Which leaves me with the sullen Koushiro. "It won’t be that bad," I reassure them as we walk. "It will only take four or five days to get to Carce, and then you won’t have to worry about anything."

Koushiro looks at me like I’m insane. I merely smile at him. I think I’m going to have a lot of fun picking on him later.

"Horses! Are we going to ride all the way there?" Daisuke asks excitedly. The only thing restraining him is Koushiro’s firm grip on his wrist, and even that doesn’t seem to stop him.

"Yeah, you can ride, right?"

"No, but Koushiro can! I’ll just have to ride with him!" Daisuke informs me.

"Well, that’s fine," I say cheerfully. "We’ll just have to remember to tie your horse to one of ours!"

A tiny look in Koushiro’s direction shows me that he’s trying hard to ignore me, and the smallest bit of disappointment is in his eyes. Hell, he probably wanted to see if we’d be that stupid and ride off the first chance he gets.

Not while I’m in charge, I think firmly.

I look ahead to see Ken leading out the first two horses and tying them to the low rail before disappearing back inside. The beasts are already harnessed and saddled, which is good. Less time to worry about.

We’ve reached the stables by the time Ken reappears, leading the last horse. It’s tall and black, his horse of choice. He looks over at us, a glance sliding liquidly over the still-excited Daisuke. A tiny smile forms on his face again, and this time I know Koushiro is seeing this.

He stiffens slightly, and I think it’s only me that notices how tight his grip becomes. Protective and possessive…it starts to make me wonder if Koushiro is anything more than a friend to Daisuke…

But enough thinking, we’re only wasting time. "Okay…Koushiro and Daisuke, you alright with riding the sorrel mare? She’s a smooth ride and doesn’t pull very much."

Koushiro nods once, still eyeing Ken suspiciously. "That’s fine," he says, talking to me almost directly for the first time.

"Their bags are by the trough," Ken tells me. He’s handing the reigns to Daisuke, telling him to hold the beast steady while he loads up the packs. Daisuke goes wide eyed, but doesn’t move. The hand unencumbered by Koushiro’s grip wraps carefully around the leather strap and the mare whickers, ears pricked.

I go to grab the bags, making sure that Ken’s not about to get lost in those wide and innocent eyes. It seems as if everything will go just fine, and that Ken’s doing his duty and there won’t be too many problems. The idea gives me a calm and oddly happy feeling. It’s been a long time since I got away from the compound.

Yeah, until a mocking voice interrupts my thoughts.

"Oh, if it isn’t little Ichijouji! How sweet—they break you down to stable boy?"

I shrug into the strap of one small and pitiful looking bag, looping the other around a wrist, and raise my eyes to see something that only makes me pause.

Several boys saunter up to our little group, most of them smiling in the uppity fashion the noble-born have. Great. My eyes flicker to Daisuke and Koushiro, making note that they’re edging towards the mare as Ken turns from loading supplies. They haven’t noticed me yet, or they wouldn’t be picking such an obvious fight with Ken.

"Patters," Ken greets coolly, apparently shrugging them off and hoists the last bag onto the black.

"So what are you up to, Ichijouji? These your friends?" a smaller rat-faced boy sneers. "They look kinda dirty…you sure you want them riding on that mare?"

"I’m on mission, Jove," Ken replies without emotion. "Is there something you wanted? I’m rather busy," he finishes. His voice has gone all cold and superior, a true sign of his temper. He doesn’t look it, but he’s probably itching to show off in front of Daisuke.

I grin when the Patters and the rest shift restlessly. They still haven’t noticed me, but as I watch I see Daisuke cast a glance around and focus on me. He seems nervous, even as Koushiro whispers something to him, and tightens his hold on the reigns. I wink at him.

"Mission?" Patters laughs disbelievingly, giving the two commoners a scathing look. "Them? You’re on escort duty for dirty serfs? Oh if that isn’t rich! The high-and-mighty second-rank is on escort duty!!"

Ken fixes him with a narrow look. "I told you to go away, Patters. I don’t have time to play with low-ranks."

The minute he turns back to check on the equipment I know that there’s going to be trouble.

Jove’s face undergoes a brilliant transformation from pale to furious red as he jerks a dagger from his sleeve. "Bastard!" he cries.

He doesn’t have a chance.

Before he takes his second step, Ken has shifted and turned, drawing a dagger to plant in the ground at the attacking boy’s feet, then his blades in a blur. The dagger proceeds to distract Jove into looking down while Ken rests the tips of his twin blades at his chest.

"I am second-rank," he says calmly. "If you attack, I will hurt you. I might even kill you. Go away and leave me to my mission."

When he’d get to be such a dramatic little bastard? I wonder. A single glance shows me why, though, as Koushiro whispers to Daisuke, tugging him backwards. Daisuke seems to be fascinated by the sight of Ken and his blades, the quick graceful movements.

Jove hasn’t moved, yet. By the time I look back he’s worked himself into an even stupider fury and yanks a second blade from somewhere on his person. Bad move, I think. You’re in for it now.

Ken narrows his eyes, flicking one tip down and flows into motion. His blades shatter the sunlight as they slash around Jove. It’s obvious that Jove is skilled with the daggers, but he won’t be able to get near Ken without a sword, but he’s got a good defense.

It won’t last. I’m already gauging the time Ken will decide to disarm him—because it’s even more obvious that Jove is out of his league.

I give him ten seconds. I school my face into something resembling boredom, and finally walk the rest of the way to the horses. Ken is twisting, his blades slapping away the daggers finally, and sliding dangerously against Jove’s skin.

The boy freezes, his face and eyes betraying his fear.

"Now will you listen?" Ken asks. "Before I have to cut you?"

I’m standing by Daisuke before he notices, and smiling down. "Don’t worry," I whisper. "He’s better than all of them."

Daisuke flashes me a shy smile, even as Koushiro pulls him away. "I know," the auburn-haired boy replies. "I can tell."