Taichi, lord of one of the most extensive pieces of land in the kingdom, looked perplexed.
The issue which had him looking so confused and agitated had to do with his younger sister and sole remaining family, the Lady Hikari. At the moment, the Lady was absent, but one of Taichi’s palace servants – and his closest friend – Koushiro, hovered somewhat nervously behind him.
Taichi turned. "What do you mean Hikari doesn’t seem to be in love with Lord Ken? She’s engaged to him, isn’t she?"
Koushiro forgot his nervousness. "Taichi, what makes you think that just because you arranged a marriage between her and some random lord, she’ll be in love with him?" He gave the lord a meaningful look.
"They’ve met before," Taichi said defensively.
Koushiro just smiled at him.
"Hey, well, that’s not important right now." The young lord waved a dismissive hand. "I need to talk to you about something. I’ve invited some friends over for a few weeks."
The younger boy gave him an odd look. "So, why are you telling me?"
"Well… I need some advice." Taichi grinned. "See, one of my friends, Lord Yamato, is bringing his fiance, Lady Sora. And I…" He hesitated.
"What?" Koushiro prompted. "You don’t like her?"
"Of course I like her! We’ve been friends since we were little kids! It’s just that… that…" He sighed, and broke off again.
"Oh~h, I get it." The red-haired servant smiled teasingly at his friend. "Taichi’s got a crush! Haven’t you, Taichi? That’s it, isn’t it?"
Taichi glared at him, crossing his arams over his chest. "So what if it is?" he grumbled. "And I wouldn’t exactly call it a crush…" His expression immediately went from totally grouchy to downright dreamy-eyed in a matter of seconds. "More like destiny."
"Sure, Taichi." Koushiro gave him a knowing look. "If you say so."
"No, I mean it, Shiro." Taichi leaned against the wall of his balcony. "It’s that warm feeling, deep inside me." He put a hand to his heart. "This is it for me, I think."
"Well, OK, if you feel that strongly about it…"
"Yeah, I do."
"Maybe you should speak up about it, then," Koushiro suggested.
Taichi winced. "I’m not so sure about that…"
"It’s up to you, of course." From outside of Taichi’s personal chambers, the faint sound of a bell ringing came through. "I think they need me back in the kitchen, Taichi. I’d better go."
"OK." Taichi grinned. "Sorry to keep you."
"It’s not a bother. I enjoy talking with you." Koushiro hurried out the door, with a quick wave. "See you later!"
Hurrying through the hallway, Koushiro felt the smile slowly fade off of his face, replaced by a worried frown. I wish I could help Taichi with his problem, but… His thoughts wandered back to the other, more serious problem that would still be waiting for him in the small cottage he went home to every night after work. Probably getting worse every minute… Unconsciously, his pace quickened.
Taichi’s just going to have to do without my help this time!
"Jyou? Is that you?"
The blue-haired lord turned his horse and smiled, catching sight of the four riders who were fast approaching him. The blond young man, Lord Yamato, was followed by his fiance, Lady Sora, and her friend, Duchess Mimi. A ways behind them, another blond boy rode silently – Yamato’s younger brother, Takeru.
"Hello, Yamato." He nodded to them politely. "Sora, Mimi. Takeru."
"It’s been a while!" Mimi chirped.
"Nice to see you again, Jyou." Sora smiled.
Yamato looked relieved to see another person. "Are you going to visit Taichi? We’ll ride with you if you are." He fell in beside Jyou without waiting for an answer.
"That sounds great." Jyou turned and smiled again as Takeru guided his horse to the other side of him. The younger boy seemed distracted and unusually moody. "Takeru? Are you feeling all right?"
The blond young man continued to stare straight ahead, seemingly without expression.
"He’s not talking to anyone right at the moment," Yamato waved a hand as if to brush aside his younger brother’s depression. "He’s just gotten a rude shock, and he’s busy pouting about it, that’s all."
"Oh?" Jyou glanced at Takeru, then back at Yamato. "Well, what was the shock?"
"His best friend is engaged." Yamato shrugged.
"Not of her own free will!" Takeru blurted out. He flushed at Yamato’s answering smirk, seeming to just realize that he’d broken his silence, and fell back into the quiet moodiness that had hovered over him earlier.
"It’s an arranged marriage," Yamato explained, answering Jyou’s questioning look. "We’re actually talking about Taichi’s younger sister, Hikari. Her brother is fiercely protective of her, and he believes that Lord Ken would be able to well look after her."
"As if Hikari can’t look after herself," Takeru mumbled, scowling.
Yamato glanced back to where his fiance chatted happily away with Mimi, then moved his horse closer to Jyou’s. "I have to tell you, I’m not that keen on arranged marriages myself at the moment."
Jyou looked at him for a minute. "You’re talking about your own upcoming wedding."
"That’s right." Yamato glanced behind him again, and sighed. "It’s not that I don’t enjoy Sora’s company – I do – but… it’s just that…" He floundered helplessly for words.
"There’s someone else?" Jyou guessed.
Yamato sighed. "You’ve got me there. I do have someone else. The most wonderful someone else in the world." His expression turned dreamy. "I don’t think I could ever find another who would affect me quite like this."
Jyou smiled. "Sounds like a match made in heaven. Have you told Sora?"
"Of course not!" Yamato looked shocked. "Why hurt her? It’s not her fault that our parents arranged this marriage when we were children, and it’s definitely not her fault that I had to go and fall in love…" He broke off. "If I had more courage, I’d call the whole thing off."
"But you’re afraid to break her heart," Jyou finished.
"That’s about it." Yamato sighed again. "I’ve got to figure out how to tell her. I mean, it’s her future, too. I wouldn’t want her to marry someone whose heart could never fully be hers. And something is bound to slip eventually. I’d rather she heard it from me directly than from some gossiping chambermaid."
"You’ve probably got a point there," Jyou agreed.
"But how?" Yamato faced him again. "How am I supposed to tell her? I mean, there’s no easy way to say, ‘I love someone else, so I’m calling off our wedding’. Is there?" He looked almost hopeful.
Jyou sighed. "To be honest with you, Yamato, I don’t have a clue." And you’re probably asking the wrong guy, considering I’ve never been engaged or in love!
"That much?" Koushiro stared incredulously at the man he’d hoped to do business with. "There’s no way I could afford that! Not with the salary I make."
"I’m terribly sorry." The merchant looked down his nose at the red-haired young man, the tone of his voice indicating that he wasn’t really very sorry at all. "I can’t afford to sell this at a lower price. I’m sure you understand."
"But you don’t understand!" Koushiro begged, desperately. "I need these! Please, if you have any shred of human decency in you at all…"
"I’m afraid our business is finished, young man," the merchant said, cutting him off. "If you don’t have the amount of money needed, I cannot sell you the medicine. Good day."
Koushiro stared at him helplessly for a moment, then turned and left the shop, feeling completely deflated. He couldn’t afford to stay and argue with the man; he was late for work already, and it probably wouldn’t do him any good anyway.
How am I ever going to get that much money? The red-head tried to juggle the numbers in his head, yet again. I’m already paying the bare minimum for food… I can’t ask for a raise or I might get fired… And falling behind on the house payments would get me kicked out of my home! There’s got to be a way I can make more money…
"Koushiro!" He’d barely stepped into the kitchen when one of the kitchen boys pounced on him. The boy had brown-red hair and dark, soft brown eyes that seemed to hide boundless energy behind them. "You’re late! Where’ve you been? You’re gonna get it if you’re not careful, you know."
"Don’t worry." Koushiro managed a smile. "I should be all right, as long as it’s just this once. Did anything happen while I wasn’t here?"
"Yeah! Lord Taichi’s paying extra to servant who’ll work in the east wing waiting on his visitors personally – that’s in addition to kitchen duties." The boy made a face. "Too much work, if you ask me."
Extra pay? Koushiro felt hope build in the pit of his stomach. "Where do you go to sign up for this? Is there a way to volunteer?"
"Sure." His friend shrugged. "Volunteers are supposed to gather in the great hall – Lord Taichi’s orders. You going to sign up?"
"Yeah, I think I will." Every little bit can help me. "I guess I’d better hurry." He turned to leave the kitchen. "Thanks for the information, Daisuke!"
"No problem. See you later, Shiro!"
The great hall didn’t have that many people in it – a group of servants who, like him, may have had financial problems or just wanted the extra money stood nervously in the center of the huge room. Taichi was standing a short ways away, obviously in the middle of telling them what their duties would be. Surprisingly, Hikari stood beside him, looking anxious and a bit sad.
Taichi looked surprised when Koushiro slipped into the room and tried to inconspicuously join the others. "Uh… like I was saying," he continued, trying to get back into his speech, "You’re supposed to be at the disposal of our visitors, but they need to know who you are – and I’m going to need to know who gets the extra money. So…" He turned to Hikari, and she handed him a bundle of strangely dyed cloth. "Each one of you will wear one of these on your right arm. A blue cloth means you serve Lord Yamato, red means you serve Duchess Mimi, purple means Lady Sora, green means Lord Jyou, and yellow tells you you’re serving Lord Takeru. If they ask you to do something, their orders come before any and all others you receive. Understand?"
Upon being assured that his instructions were understood, Taichi began to distribute the cloths. As he tied a blue strip aaround Koushiro’s arm, he whispered, "I didn’t know you needed money, Shiro. You should’ve come to me."
"I’m fine," Koushiro managed to answer, and then Taichi had to move off and finish with the rest. It’s better this way, anyway. I can’t take charity from my friends.
"Jyou! Yamato!" Taichi had a huge grin on his face as he moved across the room to greet his two friends. "Hey, I’m glad you guys could come. It’s been way too long since the last time I saw you."
"Nice to see you again, Taichi," Jyou greeted him.
"Yeah, nice," Yamato echoed, giving their host a small smile.
Behind Taichi, Jyou noticed Hikari smiling warmly at them, but she didn’t speak. Her eyes moved toward the doorway, as if she were waiting for someone.
"Where’s Sora?" Taichi asked Yamato. He seemed the slightest bit off, like some of that cheerfulness was not entirely genuine.
"She’s coming," Yamato answered, a bit resentfully, just as Takeru led in both Mimi and Sora.
"Taichi! Hikari!" Mimi immediately tossed aside any semblance of dignity and rushed forward to hug both of her friends. "Oh, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!" she gushed, clasping her hands together. Sora smiled, shaking her head at her friend’s enthusiasm, and greeted them in a more reserved manner.
"Hello Taichi," she said, briefly embracing her childhood friend. "And Hikari, it’s nice to see you again. You’ve grown quite a bit."
"I guess." Hikari smiled briefly.
Takeru kept his greeting down to a smile and a brief nod. "Taichi. Hikari." He looked at the girl. "I heard about your engagement, by the way. Congratulations." He didn’t sound like he intended her to expect enthusiasm about it.
Hikari’s face reflected unhappiness for a brief moment. "Thank you." Jyou got the feeling she didn’t like the idea of her engagement any more than Takeru did.
"Well." Taichi cleared his throat. "I’ll show you to your rooms." He turned toward a large hallway, and the others followed obediantly. "I’ve got servants to look after your needs," he explained, as we walked. "They’ll have colored bands of cloth around their right arms. The colors indicate who they’re serving. Yamato’s are blue, Sora’s are purple, Jyou’s are green, Mimi’s are red, and Takeru’s are yellow. They should be around in this area most of the time, if you need any help."
"Great! That’s really nice of you, Taichi!" Mimi chirped.
"You’re a great host," Sora added.
Jyou’s room turned out to be the last one in the hallway. "Here you are, Jyou," Taichi said, again with that forced cheerfulness he’d noticed from before.
"Thanks Tai – " Jyou stopped as a flash of something caught his eye. Turning, he saw a slight young servant moving quickly down the hall, arms piled with sheets. For some reason, he caught the older boy’s eyes – his hair was a burnished red color, and it was as short as it could possibly be, neatly cut. Jyou liked the way the short strands in the back barely brushed against the pale skin near the top of his neck. Slim shoulders and a slender torso kept him captivated; the way he moved, the way the clothing shifted as he walked… The taller boy caught sight of the blue strip of cloth around the servant’s right arm – he was one of Yamato’s servants, not his.
He blinked and turned back toward Taichi, feeling a bit bemused. "Sorry, Taichi. I got distracted for a moment. What was that?"
Taichi shook his head. "Geez, no kidding! What caught your eye that was so interesting, anyway? You looked like a total zombie!"
"It was just that…" Jyou’s voice trailed off as he turned back. The hallway was completely and totally empty. No enchanting little red-heads in sight. "I thought I saw someone. I guess he went down another hallway."
"Guess so." Taichi shrugged and grinned at him.
Just forget about it, Jyou told himself firmly and tried to push the image of red hair from his mind.