I would’ve liked to stay and watch Satoshi sleep, but my grandfather indicated that he wanted to speak with me privately, so I followed him out of the room. "What is it?"
He sighed. "I’m going to be blunt, Shigeru; I think that boy is the true heir to the lands of Tokiwa district."
I blinked – once… twice… The third time my reaction actually hit me. "What!?"
"The son of Tokiwa’s original Lord was spirited from the palace, when Lord Sakaki won his ‘duel’." The sardonic tone to his voice belied the fact of an honorable beginning to the Lord’s rulership. "The boy would have been just two months old. You, at the time, were three months old."
I thought back to what Satoshi’s kidnappers had said about him. Grandfather’s theory actually made a lot of sense when I thought about it. "But… Satoshi said that his father died of plague."
"The man he believed to be his father died of plague," Grandfather corrected. "He would have been living with people who were not his real parents, of course. And Lord Sakaki has been attempting to tie off his loose ends."
"Your theory isn’t flawless, Grandfather," I said skeptically. But I couldn’t help but see advantages to this. If he were, we could arrange an alliance marriage… It would work because Sakaki married his mother and produced an heir. I could marry him, and it would be perfectly acceptable…
Except, of course, for the fact that he didn’t want to marry me.
"I can find records that may or may not prove it," Grandfather said, shrugging. "Come along, Shigeru." He turned and started off down the hallway.
I didn’t stand around waiting for too long – Grandfather wouldn’t wait for me, of course. So I hurried after him right away, being sure to keep up. "What records are you talking about?" I asked him as we turned into the library.
"Correspondence," he murmured in reply, taking a key from his belt to open a locked cabinet. "I would have received a letter – courtesy, you understand – informing me of the birth of Masara district’s heir. I would have kept it, even after the take-over." He began to flip through the papers inside his cabinet, muttering to himself. I watched in bemusement.
"Is that every letter you’ve gotten from other rulers?" I didn’t wait for an answer; Grandfather was very thorough. "There have to be a ton of them! How are you going to find just one?"
"They’re catalogued by date, of course." He gave me a look that clearly said I should’ve known that, or at least guessed it. "Ah! Here we are!" He triumphantly held up a thin piece of parchment.
"So what does it say?" I tried to catch a glimpse of the message, but Grandfather wasn’t about to ease my suspense.
"Patience, Shigeru," he chided, maddeningly. "The letter merely informs us of the birth of the new heir to the lands of Tokiwa district." He gave me a dry smile. "Officially named Satoshi."
"Then it’s the truth." My mind whirled. Just that morning, I’d been fighting with the true Lord of Tokiwa district. I’d kissed him… offered to marry him… insulted him more times than could be conveniently counted… How many people could say that?
So now what? Another take-over? If we challenged the Lord Sakaki to a duel, he’d be honor-bound to accept it. All we’d have to do was get into the palace somehow, find the supposed Lord of Tokiwa district, and challenge him. If we won the duel, then Satoshi would be able to regain his lands, we could arrange for that alliance marriage, and he’d be all mine.
"He’ll be in terrible danger." Grandfather’s brisk statement of reality intruded on my lovely little daydream. "There are going to be others coming after him; it isn’t considered prudent to leave alive someone from the direct bloodline of the man you’ve just killed."
"I know that," I answered irritably. "So what do we do? We have to tell Satoshi, of course, but they will still be – "
"Don’t tell him," Grandfather interrupted. I blinked at him, startled. "Just have guards follow him wherever he goes, without letting him know. It will be easier than arguing with him."
I opened my mouth to disagree, then shut it abruptly. I had a sudden image of Satoshi yelling in my face that he could take care of himself and I should stay out of his life. "I think you’re right," I admitted.
"Of course." Grandfather was about as modest as I was. "Keep your sword by you when you sleep tonight, Shigeru. We don’t want to see a second attempt, do we?" He turned and wandered off, back toward his own room.
I had to wonder just how stupid he actually thought I was.
Satoshi was fast asleep already when I came back into my room. I snickered; had anyone ever told him that he snored? Not like it was that bad, though – I could live with it. Nice to know my perfect little beauty wasn’t totally perfect. I stood by the bed for a few minutes, content with watching the soft rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.
I will never let anything happen to you, I thought fervently, then turned to lay out the matrice on the floor for myself.
I glared up at Shigeru’s expression of dismay. "I want to go out and look around the market with Hiroshi. Is that OK, your Highness?"
"But…" He seemed at a loss for words. "You can’t!" he finally blurted out.
Anger flared up immediately. "Try and stop me!" I shot back. "And I won’t speak to you for a week! At least!" I spun around and marched off, away from him.
"Wait!" Shigeru hurried after me, sounding almost desperate. "Can I come along? I mean…"
He should’ve known better than that. "I don’t need you hanging all over me!" I retorted. "I’m just going out with my friend, all right? I can see you any time; I hardly ever see him any more." I turned away. By now, I figured, Shigeru knew enough not to take the things I said personally.
"All right." He sighed, and I turned back. "Do you want me to send him a message, or did you make plans yet?"
Giving in already? He was getting soft. "I already made plans. I’m supposed to meet him in about five minutes, so if you’ll excuse me, I’d better be going." I turned again and walked off without a backwards glance.
Typical, I guess.
Well, it wasn’t that I didn’t like Shigeru, I mused, strolling boldly past the guards at the front gate. It was just the principle of the matter. He’d virtually kidnapped me, and I had promised that I’d hate him forever. So I had to at least manage a month, right?
Sure. I had a real chance of lasting even that long. Yeah, right.
"Hey Toshi!" I looked up with a grin as Hiroshi waved me over. "You made it!"
"What, did you think I wouldn’t?" I fell in beside him. "I’m not in chains or anything, so I can still do what I want. And where’s Kasumi? Didn’t she want to come?"
Hiroshi shrugged. "Just you and me today. She understood, I think. Besides, I want to hear everything that’s been going on since you got moved up to high class." His smile turned wicked. "And don’t spare me, Toshi. I want all the gritty details."
I shrugged. "Well, there’s not much to tell. I mostly just get into arguments with Shigeru. I’m learning how to use a bow and arrows, which is really great. And I got locked into a closet for fighting. Plus, Shigeru wants to marry me and I nearly got kidnapped…"
"What!?" Hiroshi’s eyes went as wide as saucers.
"I know." I smiled at him. "Bow and arrows. Pretty neat, huh?"
"Satoshi, stop kidding around!" He hurried around in front of me and we stopped walking. "Married? Kidnapped? I want details, not generalizations! Come on, spill! What happened, already?"
"Well, Shigeru told his grandfather that he wanted to marry me." I frowned. "And we got into another fight, so I stormed off into my room. But then when I got there, two guys were waiting for me, and I got kidnapped. They wanted to take me back to the Lord of Tokiwa district, but Shigeru shot them with arrows." I shrugged, and grinned at my open-mouthed friend. "Pretty exciting, huh?"
"Understatement of the year!" He sounded awed. "That’s amazing, Satoshi! I leave you alone for a few days, and look what happens!" We both laughed at that, and then he gave me another evil grin. "So, did you accept?"
I blinked. "Huh? Accept what?"
"Satoshi!" He made a mock-exasperated noise. "Accept Shigeru’s marriage proposal, of course! Come one, am I invited to the wedding? I’m your best friend; I reserve the right to be thoroughly pissed off if I’m being excluded."
My face went red. "He hasn’t proposed," I answered, scowling. "And no one ever said I’d want to marry him. All I said is that he told his grandfather that he wants to marry me. He knows that if he ever asked me, I’d laugh in his face."
"More like throw something in his face." Hiroshi grinned. "So, still pretending that you don’t like him, huh? I thought you’d have given that up by now, but it looks like I underestimated your stubbornness."
I scowled. "I do hate him!"
"Sure." He snickered. "Come on, you and I both know that’s not true."
Could I lie to my best friend? "I’ll think about it."
I smiled to myself. It was great to be back with Hiroshi, after everything that had happened. I missed him. Sure, I was busy fighting with an all-too-arrogant noble, and even – when I felt humble enough to admit it – falling hard for him, I still couldn’t help but miss the times I’d spent with Hiroshi and Kasumi. They were my friends, after all.
"So," I grinned, turning my thoughts back to the present. "What have you guys been up – "
That was about all the warning I got before a few rather shocking things seemed to happen at once. A fully panic-stricken Hiroshi tackled me hard, sending us both smashing into the cobblestones, just as an arrow struck the ground a few feet behind us.
If I’d still been standing where I was before, it would’ve gone straight through my skull.
"Gods… that guy…" Hiroshi was gasping in breaths of air; he could barely get the words out. He spun about on the ground, eyes looking wild. "He’s still there! Satoshi, we’ve got to get out of here!"
People around us had scattered; some were screaming, some still watching, a few running away at top speed. Hiroshi and I were a nice, easy target and as I followed my best friend’s gaze, I found a man up behind one of the stalls, raising another arrow to his bow…
…just in time for one of Shigeru’s iron-fisted guards to deal him a crushing blow to the skull. The bowman toppled like a felled ox.
I pushed myself shakily into a sitting position. "Hiroshi…" Someone had just shot at me with an arrow. "I…" He’d pushed me out of the way. He’d saved my life! "Th-th-thank you…"
Hiroshi was still breathing heavily. "N-no problem." He sat up slowly and managed a shaky grin. "I’d never get to see the wedding if you died."
We both laughed a little at that, feeling a little of the shaky feeling drop away. I felt a bit calmer, and took in some deep breaths.
"Sir." The guard had reached us. "My Lord Shigeru gave me instructions to insure your safety. I was to follow discreetly."
I probably could’ve been angry at Shigeru for taking that kind of liberty, but considering the circumstances, it didn’t really seem appropriate. "Oh."
"Do you plan to continue with your outing, sir?" the guard asked.
"No." I gave Hiroshi an apologetic look. "I think Shigeru and I need to talk. We’ll do something later, all right?"
"Got it." He grinned. "See you, Toshi."
"Thanks," I said again, over my shoulder, before the guard let me off.
It was damn hard to concentrate on reading. I scowled at the book, trying to force the words to mean something. I couldn’t help but feel horribly worried about Satoshi, even if I had sent the guard to look after him. Someone had tried to kidnap him already, and there were sure to be those desperate enough to just kill him if that plan failed. Obviously enough, the ruler of Tokiwa district wanted him dead – and he had enough power to actually make it happen if he tried hard enough.
They only had to succeed once. We had to keep succeeding.
Obviously, then, defense was going to get us nowhere. If we wanted anything to happen, Satoshi was going to have to strike instead of parry.
Perhaps I should’ve taught him to fight with a sword rather than the bow and arrows, I mused, looking back down at the book again.
I barely got my fingers out in time as the book slammed shut. Satoshi stood beside me, looking decidedly not impressed, one hand on the cover. I hadn’t even heard him come in.
"What the hell is going on, Shigeru?" he demanded.
"Well – " I began, but he cut me off.
"First of all, why did you send a guard after me?"
"Satoshi – "
"Why was someone shooting arrows at my head?"
"Satoshi – "
"What the hell does it mean, Shigeru? Why don’t you answer me?"
That did it. "I WOULD IF YOU’D STOP TALKING AND LISTEN!" I roared, glaring at an astonished-looking Satoshi. "Now shut up already and let me talk if you want your answers!"
His eyes narrowed, but he kept his mouth shut.
"OK, I’ll give you the short version," I said, feeling irritation rob me of any and all patience. "The Lord of Tokiwa district wants you dead. Want to know why?"
"If you wouldn’t mind." His voice was at least as irritated as mine, and he had his arms crossed over his chest.
"Because you’re the true heir to Tokiwa district," I answered simply, and watched as his jaw dropped. "The former Lord was murdered, his wife was taken to add claim to the district, and his son had been spirited out of the palace as a baby. That’s you, by the way."
"That’s ridiculous!" Satoshi blurted out.
"Oh?" I raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah!" He scowled. "It’s not like I’ve been an orphan all my life, you know! I had parents just like everyone else! You must have it wrong."
"Right." I gave him a smug little smile. "And I’ll bet you they died in a way that seemed accidental, that might have killed you as well – but you somehow escaped. Am I right?"
He opened his mouth, but no words came out.
"Listen to me, Satoshi," I said seriously, playing up to my advantage. "The way those kidnappers talked last night, you probably look exactly like your father did. And even if you’re not truly the heir, they think you are. They’re still going to try and kill you."
Satoshi sat down heavily.
"I’m the heir to Tokiwa district," he said in a flat voice. He was staring straight ahead, looking like he’d swallowed something too big for his throat. "My father was murdered when I was a baby. My mother was forced to marry his murderer." He looked up at me suddenly, sharply. "Did she have any more children?"
I nodded. "Tokiwa has two children, a girl who’s the eldest and a boy who’s still very young."
"I’ve got a brother and sister." Satoshi laughed weakly. "And now there are people out there who want to kill me. And I’m not even twenty years old yet!"
I shrugged. "If it makes you feel any better, you outrank me."
"A little." He managed a small smile. "I don’t think I care much any more, to tell you the truth. You’ve been awfully patient with me, Shigeru. And I appreciate your sending that guard after me. It saved my life."
I put a hand on his shoulder, feeling warm just at that slight contact and even warmer when he accepted it and smiled at me. "It’s not a bother, you know. I’m in love with you; that means I’d do whatever it took to keep you safe." I grinned. "Even from yourself."
"Thanks a lot." He stood again, this time looking at me with a kind of determination in his eyes. "I need to go get something, Shigeru. But… I’ll probably see you later, all right?" His grin had a mischievous tint to it that made my knees feel weak, for some reason.
"Sure," I managed, watching his grin get wider. Satoshi turned and rushed out of the room, a decided purpose in every step.
Good lord, what was I in for this time?
Okay, what am I doing?
I wasn't too sure of that at the moment. I felt a little light-headed… There was the whole bit about finding out I was a prince and all… and Shigeru…
My face flushed.
Okay, maybe I'd been wrong about him. Maybe… he wasn't so bad. I mean, he was being kind now, and looking after me and all. And I did like him. A little. Okay, a lot. So maybe he was arrogant sometimes and he made fun of me enough to get me yelling at him. So maybe he was overconfident and he boasted a lot, and he had this habit of smirking really irritably whenever he was right about something.
I could live with that.
The point was, he was generally nice, and brave, and he definitely had a capacity to love me. I mean, he looked after me. And cared about me. And tried. And that was the important thing, right?
Well, it was important enough for me.
"What are you looking for, Satoshi?"
Uh-oh… "Nothing!" I said, too quickly, with a huge, disarming smile for Nanami.
"Nothing, huh?" She smirked at me. Do those smirks run in the family, or what? "Is nothing what you're calling it? Okay then. Let's go find you some nothing."
I stared at her blankly. "What?" Shigeru never told me that his sister was insane…
"Never mind." She shook her head. "I have some oils I use for my skin… That'll probably suit your needs, won't it?"
My eyes went wide, and I couldn't stop a blush from spreading across my face. "Um…"
Nanami laughed. "Oh, relax! I knew it'd be on your terms, and I had a feeling that it'd be soon… Now, hmm?" Her smile wasn't mocking at all. I felt less embarrassed. "I'm glad. You'll be good for my brother - teach him his place, make him mind his manners…"
I grinned in response. "Oh yeah, I will!"
"I'll be right back," she promised, and hurried off in the direction of her rooms - probably to get that oil she'd promised.
Well, that solved one problem.
The only thing left to wonder about… was how, exactly, I was going to broach this subject to Shigeru while staying firmly in control of the whole situation. If he gives me one smirk, I'm seriously saying the whole idea was a joke! I promised myself, feeling stubborn.
Shigeru did that to me sometimes.
Well, actually all of the time.
"Here." Nanami returned abruptly, and held out a small-sized bottle for me. She was beaming. "Good luck!" she told me brightly, turning me firmly and giving me a push toward Shigeru's room.
"Thanks," I said, slowly, not sure whether I should be grateful for her help or indignant about the way she manipulated me.
Okay, I can be indignant later. Don't want Shigeru to fall asleep or anything. I grinned at the thought, and walked faster. I wouldn't really put it past him… And then I'd have a great excuse to put this off for another week or two.
Not that I really wanted to do that.
All right, damn it, so I was impatient too! Heck, I'd been holding out for almost a week pretending I still hated him! I was entitled to wanting him… I was entitled to be impatient… I was entitled to be in complete control of the entire - whatever it was we had.
"I'm back!" I announced brightly, stepping into Shigeru's room again. He gave me a wary look, like he wasn't sure that I didn't have something up my sleeve. Or behind my back, I guess, since I had both hands there.
Geez, it was almost like he didn't trust me or something!
"What are you up to?" he asked me, suspiciously.
"Not much…" I was grinning wickedly, and it was making him even more nervous. Good. Let's see you sweat. You deserve it, anyway.
"You’ve got some diabolical plan to kill me, don't you?"
"What?" My temper flared. I was giving him what he wanted; how dare he accuse me! "You take that back, you little - "
"I was kidding! Kidding!" Shigeru held up his hands, trying to placate me. "What's on your mind?"
I drew back loftily. "I don't think I'm going to tell you."
"Oh, come on." He stood, and faced me. "You wanted to tell me something, didn't you? You're not going to give up your chance to give me a heart attack with whatever surprise you've got planned now."
I made a face at him. "Yeah, well maybe I will."
We stared at each other for a moment, at a loss.
I decided to go ahead anyway. It was going to be a boring night if I didn't.
"I've got something you don't know about," I said, smirking, and tossed the bottle his sister had given me from one hand to the other. "Something you want to know about, I'll bet." I considered that for a minute. "Maybe. If you even know what to do with it…"
Shigeru's eyes narrowed. "And what would that be?" He leaned forward a little, frowning.
All the opening I needed. Tossing the bottle back into my right hand, I grabbed his shirt, pulled him forward, and kissed him. Passionately.
Shigeru went rigid for all of two seconds. Then he softened. Then he grabbed me around the waist, like he thought I was going to run away if he didn't have some kind of hold on me.
Then he pulled me against him roughly and started kissing back with frenzied need.
Unnn… I just about forgot about surprising him or anything else. Instead, I pulled him backwards onto the bed, on top of me, and grabbed his neck in practically a strangle-hold, ready to return everything he was giving out. Without my conscious consent, my legs hooked around his waist.
Great. We even did this violently. Not like I thought Shigeru and I could ever go halfway on anything…
"Sat…o… chan?" Shigeru broke away from the kiss, breathing heavily. His hair was messy from where my fingers were tangled in it, and he looked dazed. "Not… that I'm complaining," he explained, quickly. "But… what brought this on?"
I took the opportunity to smirk at him, and pulled down the bottle to dangle it in front of his face. "Didn't I say you'd like your surprise, Shigeru?"
His eyes widened. "Are you sure?" The question was grudging, I could tell - he wanted to screw me first and ask questions later. But I guess he really did care, because I think if I'd said 'no', he would've stopped right then and there.
That was probably the final deciding point for me. I wanted this. I really did.
"Are you?" I asked, as an answer, and kissed him again.