Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the love, and the poet,
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold –
That is the madman;
The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from Heaven to Earth, from Earth to Heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Vi
“Come on, Kuro-horny; it’s just up this way!”
“Dammit! What did you call me now?” Kurogane seethed as he wound his way through the dense forest, following the faint spec of blond darting quickly between tree trunks. “Slow down, would you? The path is all rocky…”
“Still haven’t mastered those hooves after all this time?” an annoyingly chipper voice warbled in his ear. Kurogane spun to glare, but only caught a flash of gold as the owner of the voice dodged to his left. “And Kuro-horny sounds so much better than Kuro-antlery, don’t you think?”
“Neither of them sound good!” Kurogane winced as he felt a hand molesting his horns from behind, “Let go!” He kicked backwards, hoping to land at least one blow before the blond zipped away again, but his hooves were not suited to the rocky path and he stumbled, crashing ass-over-teakettle onto the forest floor.
Six years. Six years he had been forced to live in this ridiculous body. It was awful and he was never entirely sure which part he hated most. The useless hooves definitely ranked high on the list; the simple hinge-joint ankle made travel over even the least craggy ground a ridiculous obstacle course and had left him scarred in black and blue on more than one occasion. Not that you could see most of the bruises – oh no – they were nicely covered for the most part by the obnoxious fur that covered him from waist to foot. Obstinate, spiky, black hair that refused to be tamed, even with the strictest of grooming regimens. How many days of his life had he lost combing through the lamentable pelage? Picking away nits and ticks? Scratching away the damnable crural dandruff? He didn’t even want to think about it.
The horns he found he didn’t mind so much, so long as the idiot didn’t insist upon groping them like he was currently doing. After the shock of the first rutting season had worn off, he’d learnt to cope with their outrageous sensitivity fairly well; so long as he worked the velvet away quickly from each year’s new growth and kept them neatly polished until they shed, they were manageable. Besides which, they were useful for ramming things – especially the idiot now prancing in a circle around him. He lurched to the side and caught said idiot with a spike to the side of his fuzzy blond butt.
“Ow! Kuro-pan is such a brute!”
“Knock that off!” Kurogane grumbled, getting to his feet, “And quit flitting around and trying to lose me. We have a job to do, in case you’ve forgotten.”
Fay was the bane of Kurogane’s existence. The reason he’d been cursed with this abhorrent faun’s body. The reason he’d been exiled these long six years; away from his home amongst the forest sprites, away from his coveted position as second in command of the royal guard, away from all of the respect he used to command…
“I haven’t forgotten, Kuro-nub!” Fay called back over his shoulder as he darted ahead.
And now he was stuck working with the idiot for the slim possibility that witch of a Fairy Queen might make good on her word and transform the two of them back if they succeeded in her little “mission.” Not that Fay really seemed all that interested in being a fairy again. Being a faun seemed to suit him; he’d worked out the finer points of walking on these blasted hooves within the first fortnight and frequently made a show of zipping and dodging and weaving whenever he was certain Kurogane was having difficulties on uneven terrain, his fur never seemed to have a strand out of place, and he certainly had no issues with over-sensitive horns (if anything, Kurogane had decided they must be well-dulled after the amount of time and effort Fay expended stroking them each day – likely as part of an plot to ensure Kurogane’s blushing, and gaping, and swearing faculties were kept in good working order). Yes, that terrible, fateful day when half the forest had gone up in flames by his own hands seemed to be nothing more than another joke to that idiot.
He wondered why Fay had even agreed to this deal.
They made it to the edge of the forest without too much difficulty; their more immediate concern was how to best steal through the massive garden that separated them from the palace at the forest’s edge without being noticed. In theory, this should not pose much of a problem; humans tended to ignore forest spirits for the most part, and Kurogane was more than averagely acquainted with the security and inner-workings of the castle (or had been, once upon a time). In practice, however…
“Hey, Kuro-pon! Look at this!”
“Get off of that!” Kurogane hissed, swiping at his companion’s hooves as the other danced around an intricate fountain carved in the image of a cherub.
“But it’s peeing!”
“It’s not peeing; it’s just a fountain! Now get down before someone sees you!”
“Why would they make it looking like it’s peeing?” Fay wrinkled his nose, splashing at the spilling water, “Humans really are a strange lot, aren’t they?”
“I suppose,” Kurogane grumbled, shading his eyes as he searched the garden for any signs they’d been spotted. It really didn’t help that Fay’s blond fur stood out like a flame in the darkness against the deep greens of the garden.
“They really don’t make them very anatomically correct,” Fay continued, completely ignoring Kurogane, “I know for a fact that cherubs have much bigger-”
“I said get down!” Kurogane whipped around to glare at the other faun, “And why would you even know something like that?”
“Well, you know, sometimes we all get lonely…” Fay grinned, “Oh! Look at that one! I didn’t know humans could bend that way! I wonder if this one is as disproportioned as the other one – I feel bad for all those women if that’s the case…”
“It’s just a fountain!” Kurogane insisted.
“It looks like an orgy to me…”
Kurogane spun on his hoof and started toward the palace. This had all been so much easier when he’d had wings – glorious, beautiful wings that fluttered in the breeze and sparkled in the sun – and could just float up to the entrance at the top of the east tower without having to worry about being spotted by an overly curious human or worse…
“Well, hello there, Kurogane.”
Damn it. He turned around slowly, his leg hair prickling even more than usual. “Hello, Bols.”
“And what brings you to our neck of the woods, today,” the fairy smirked, raking his eyes across Kurogane in a manner that was somewhat less than friendly and definitely more than a little lewd, “And looking like this, no less?”
“Orders,” Kurogane grunted, puffing his chest out to its full breadth and glaring with all his might, “Her Highness wants a full report of today’s audience with the queen.” This wasn’t entirely true, but it was all the detail he was willing to volunteer at the moment, and it should suffice to get them through whatever security circus Bols was running these days.
Bols lifted an amused eyebrow. “Papers?”
“Of course.” Kurogane produced an official-looking document from the satchel strapped to his waist and handed it over.
The other fairy scanned the paper, eyes lighting up and a smirk creeping across his face as he read. He grinned imperiously as he handed the decree back to Kurogane. “I have to say, I’m surprised you’re back working for Her Majesty. Or rather, I’m intrigued as to why she would allow you…dirty hooves and all.”
Kurogane crossed his feet self-consciously. He didn’t particularly care about the mud and grass wedged between the cloves of his hooves, but that didn’t mean he wanted them inspected. And especially not by Bols. “Are we done here?” he demanded gruffly.
“Yes, yes,” Bols waved toward the palace, “Though usually we have a ‘No shirt, No shoes, No service’ rule, I suppose we have no choice but to make an exception for you and…” he paused to nod at something off in the distance, “I assume that is yours?”
Kurogane had to crane his neck around to find what Bols was nodding toward and was completely unsurprised to find Fay doubled over, sniffing at a rose blossom and whistling to himself. He sighed. “Yeah, he’s with me.”
“Living the highlife in exile, are we?”
“Get bent, Bols.”
“I’m only joking, of course,” Bols chuckled as Kurogane stormed past, “Kazuhiko says to thank you, by the way.”
Kurogane froze in his tracks.
“He’s been thoroughly enjoying his new post. Or, I suppose it’s really his old post now, after six years.”
Kurogane sighed and ground his teeth. “Oi! Idiot!” he snapped, motioning to Fay, “We’re going!”
“Murder on his finger nails, though. Poor boy…”
That was more than Kurogane needed to know, and he forced down a shudder as he walked away. Fay trotted after him, quickly closing the gap that had formed during Kurogane’s interrogation and eyeing the palace with a look of wonder.
“Friend of yours from the old days?” Fay asked, skipping ahead.
“Tche. No. He’s the head of security here,” Kurogane grunted, hoping Fay would drop the topic.
“But weren’t you…?”
“Yes. But we weren’t friends. He’s insane.”
“Why does Her Majesty keep him on if he’s insane?” Fay stared down the long hallway they had entered. It seemed to stretch on forever in each direction and he wondered vaguely how they were meant to find the queen’s audience chambers.
“What else is he going to do?” Kurogane huffed, grabbing Fay’s arm to lead him down a side passage, away from any prying eyes. “He’s obsessive about whatever he’s working on, so this really isn’t a bad place for him,” he opened a short, decidedly drab door and hurried through, “Besides, it’s only security for the human palace. It’s not like they even know he’s here.”
“But I thought you said-”
“Shut up. And get over here.” Kurogane had led them to an ornate entrance and the end of a fantastically decorated hallway and was tip-toeing toward the heavy oak doors, head darting from side to side to ensure they weren’t spotted. He motioned for Fay to hurry up as he cracked the doors open and slid inside.
“Wa-aa-aa. This place is amazing!”
Kurogane spluttered and pulled Fay behind a long velvet curtain. “What the hell was that?!”
“What?” Fay looked confused.
“Tha-that noise you just made! That wa-aa-aa.” He clapped his hands over his mouth as a disturbingly similar sound eked past his own lips.
Fay snickered. “You know I can’t whistle, Kuro-wa-aa-aa.”
“You sound like a damned goat!”
Fay clicked his hooves against the marble floor and tried very hard not to laugh. “I’m sorry…”
“Don’t be sorry, be quiet!” Kurogane shouted. All he had to do was get through this without completely blowing their cover or horribly murdering his ill-weather companion…
There. From this vantage point he had a clear view of the throne and if he concentrated hard enough, he could just make out what was being said.
The queen looked amused, which in Kurogane’s experience was always a bad thing. To her left sat her betrothed, looking equally amused as she reclined toward Her Majesty. Before the throne stood one of the more motley casts of characters Kurogane had witnessed at a royal audience during all his years of service. The tall, dark man and the attendants at his side were the only two dressed in a fashion Kurogane recognized; the brightly colored silks of the younger man and his entourage further back were completely foreign to him. The girl huddled at the tall man’s feet just looked a mess.
“Lord Touya, is the thought of your sister marrying this boy really so incendiary that you must ask me to forbid the union?” the queen spoke levelly, the slight twinkle in her eyes the only betrayal of her amusement.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“And why is it that you yourself are not able to command this yourself? You are the ruler of the western provinces, after all. Surely you’re able to demand a bit of discipline in your own home.”
“I…” Lord Touya faltered, glancing at his sister, “I promised her I would consult Your Highness. Though I find him to be an insufferable little brat, she loves him. I would allow it but for the disappearances of a number of the br-Master Li’s family members in the past years. Both of his siblings have disappeared without ransom; their whereabouts are still unknown, even after a large portion of Clow’s security forces were dispatched on their behalf. This is a curse; surely I have a right to consider her safety in this matter.”
The queen frowned. “Truly a doting brother. And yet, your worries are well-founded. The disappearance of the Li children is well-known, even throughout this kingdom,” she added, looking sternly at the Li ensemble before continuing, “And you, Lady Sakura, wish for me to rule the reverse, that you might be able to wed Master Li despite your brother’s protests and with full knowledge of the Li family’s misfortunes?”
“Y-yes, Your Majesty.”
“A headstrong girl,” the Queen murmured, “And no doubt love-sick and ridiculous,” she paused, turning her attention back to the girl’s brother, “Lord Touya, you are doubtless aware that there are pressing national issues at stake with your request; this is not simply arbitrating a family squabble.”
Lord Touya nodded, grimacing at the floor.
“Forbidden this union between two of our nations’ most prominent families would be a severe insult to the Kingdom of Clow, and that must be taken into careful consideration.” The queen paused, searching the faces of those gathered before her before continuing, “My ruling is this: Lord Touya, I will grant your request that the Lady Sakura be forbidden to marry the Master Li.”
Lord Touya nodded, a small smile forming on his face even as his sister gasped.
“However,” the Queen continued sharply, “The continuation of peaceful relations with the kingdom of Clow are of the utmost importance. A compromise must be made. You, Lord Touya, will wed Lady Nakuru of the Akizuki house.”
The smile disappeared from Lord Touya’s face. “Your Majesty, surely…”
“I am fully aware of your previous engagement,” the queen continued hastily, “However, in presiding over nations and squabbling siblings alike, equivalency must be maintained. You wish to interrupt your sister’s marriage arrangements and for this, you seek my counsel – admittedly because you dote on her and do not wish your relationship to be further soured. For me to make this decree interferes with our international relations. Your marriage to Lady Nakuru presents a practical solution to both problems; our relations with Clow are maintained and your own love is sacrificed in demonstration of your devotion to your sister. Do you not find this arrangement fair?”
“Surely her well-being is what is most important to you,” the queen smiled, “After all, you said this was true not five minutes ago. Or perhaps you are prone to perjury, Lord Touya?”
Lord Touya grimaced and bowed. “I am not, Your Majesty. I will accept your ruling, whatever it may be.”
“Very well, then,” the queen’s face softened as she gripped the hand of her betrothed, “As you are well aware, my own nuptials are fast approaching, which has put me in a very generous state of mind. Consider this not a decree, but an offer. I invite both parties to be our guests for the next three weeks, so that you might have time to reconsider your request. If, by the date of the wedding, your wishes have not changed, the stated ruling will take effect. Do you accept?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” relief poured across Lord Touya’s face, despite his solemn tone.
“And you, Master Li?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Very well,” the queen gestured to an attendant, “See that they are properly accommodated. Lady Sakura, my sister will be your companion during your stay with us.”
“T-thank you, Your Majesty.” Lady Sakura curtsied and made her way from the audience chamber with the rest of her company.
Kurogane shuffled back behind the curtain. That had gone about as he had expected; Queen Kendappa was still as shrewd as ever, though he balked at her generosity even as he appreciated the time it bought him. That Souma woman was clearly making her soft. He quickly pushed this thought away, however, and turned back to Fay to regroup.
The idiot was sprawled out across a windowsill…sleeping! “Oi!” Kurogane grunted, smacking the blond head, “Wake up! You didn’t hear a damned thing that just went on, did you?”
“Oh, I heard things, Kuro-buck,” Fay yawned and rubbed his eyes, “It was just so warm in the sun that I decided to close my eyes, and, well…”
“Tche. Moron,” Kurogane peeked quickly around the curtain once more, “We have three weeks to sort this mess out, so just try not to…” He trailed off as a familiar face entered the audience chamber.
Princess Tomoyo. At least, he was almost certain it was Princess Tomoyo – she had been barely twelve years old when he had seen her last. Now, if he was not mistaken, she had grown into an impressively beautiful young woman, though her eyes retained all the kindness of her youth. He felt his heart drop into his stomach as she turned to face him.
Shit. He ducked behind the curtain, clutching tightly at the fabric. Had she seen him? She couldn’t see him, not now, not like this. He shook with shame at the prospect of his former master seeing this hideous form and grit his teeth. He would not fail.
“Kuro-faun?” Fay asked quietly, eyebrows lifting ever-so-slightly.
Kurogane sighed and stomped toward the exit, still concealed by the flowing drapery. “Come on, you idiot, let’s get out of here. We need to figure out what comes next.”
“Have you ever seen our gardens before, Sakura?”
“Well, no…” the sullen girl replied as she trailed several paces behind her hostess, “We’ve only ever been here on official business…” she trailed off, knowing full well that most “official business” visits to the palace began and ended with Tomoyo planning, plotting, and dressing her in some ridiculous gown (though she had to admit, Tomoyo’s creations had become much more flattering over the years as the princess’s skills had grown; the last gown she had sewn Sakura into had only involved a bit of ruffle and had properly concealed her ankles such that even Touya couldn’t protest too loudly).
“Sakura,” Tomoyo turned suddenly and grasped the girl’s hands, “Please don’t worry too much. My sister may appear heartless on the surface, but she always knows what she’s doing. She’s not a cruel ruler – that’s one thing I am certain of.”
Sakura remained silent for a moment, staring at the ground. Though she had long considered Tomoyo to be a trusted friend, her sister was still a mystery even after years of acquaintance. “It doesn’t matter if she is,” she said at last, “Now my brother has gone and involved himself and Yukito in this mess and I…” she bit back a sob, “Yukito has been a member of our family – in all but name, anyway – since they were children! It’s all my fault…”
“Sakura,” Tomoyo said lightly, “You always assume the worst! Your brother has three weeks to make a decision,” she grinned knowingly, “And he hasn’t even met his proposed ‘fiancée’ yet. Things will happen for the best, and we’ll do our best to encourage him. Right?
“Yes, of course,” Sakura answered, a bit absently, “Everything will be alright, surely.”
Tomoyo paused, worry creeping across her features. She followed Sakura’s gaze toward the forest surrounding the palace. “Sakura,” she said slowly, “Promise me you won’t do anything rash.”
Sakura flushed and looked away quickly. “Of course I won’t!”
“No?” Tomoyo let go of Sakura’s hands and turned away, a cat-like grin spreading across her face, “In that case…” she beamed.
Sakura winced slightly (noticeable to only the most astute of observers, really, and Tomoyo was currently floating down a river of bliss with no eye to the shore) and stepped backward. “Yes…?” she managed, tentatively.
“In that case, you must come with me to my studio!” Tomoyo exclaimed, taking hold of one of Sakura’s wrists and leading the dumbstruck girl along a garden pathway. “I have the loveliest pink satin that would accent the rose in your cheeks, and some lace I’ve been saving for a rainy day, oh! And the whale boned corset my auntie sent last year for my birthday! It’s ever so slightly too small for me, but I’m sure it will look wonderful on you-”
“H-hoe?! C-corset?” Sakura managed to choke out as she avoiding stumbling along the path she was pulled, “I don’t think-”
“It will fit perfectly with the design I have in mind!” Tomoyo continued, “And there’s some taffeta squirreled away here somewhere as well, and tulle! Oh, the tulle!”
Sakura’s eyes grew several sizes wider as she was dragged back toward the castle.
Lord Touya was generally not a sullen man. Stern, stubborn, brusque; these were all far more fitting descriptions of the young ruler of Tomoeda Province – generally. On this particular afternoon, however, one meeting the lord for the first time might have been inclined to describe his demeanor as “sulking.” This would have been incorrect, however, and likely earn the perpetrator of said description an indignant sneer and immediate dismissal from his chambers. Several of his advisors had taken this tack, in fact, and their indiscretion (or impetuousness, depending on who was judging) was the primary reason why he now sat alone, apart from one other, clearly not-sulking in the confines of the room prepared for him.
The view out the window only grew more fascinating the longer he stared.
“Lord Touya.” The voice from his side was quiet, yet insistent.
“Mmm.” Touya allowed his head to pivot slowly against the knuckles it rested on, turning toward the speaker while still maintaining an air of dignified petulance.
“Don’t you think this has gone far enough?”
“Mmm.” Touya was not fond of the calm that seemed to be radiating from his companion. It was, of course, expected that his senior advisor maintain appropriate decorum at all times, but for heaven’s sake they were alone in this god-awful room staring down a decision that held consequences for both their futures – couldn’t he at least show some sign of apprehension, anxiety, anything?
“Lord Touya…” Apparently not, then; the gold eyes of his advisor held the same tranquility they always did. Touya was almost certain he should be annoyed by this, but was having difficulty convincing himself to act accordingly. He sighed instead.
“Yuki…I…stop with the title,” he mumbled, rather than finish his thought.
“Touya,” Yukito addressed him, more firmly than before, “This isn’t solving anything. You have time to make your decision. Why don’t you work on something, rather than just staring blankly at the wall?”
“It’s not the wall,” Touya muttered, “That tree out there has a very interesting shape to its leaves.”
“To-ya!” This at least earned him an amused chuckle, Touya noted with more than a little relief, and twisted around in his arm chair to look at his advisor.
“How are you so calm about this?” Touya wondered aloud, only partly hoping for a response, “This isn’t just me, you know. It’s…it’s…us.”
“Of course it’s us,” Yukito draped an arm across the back of Touya’s chair and followed Touya’s gaze out the window, “That’s why I don’t worry.”
Touya craned his neck around for a better look, eyebrows lifting into vague questions. “You don’t worry?”
“No, of course I don’t,” Yukito replied simply.
“Because it’s you, and you’ll make the correct choice in the end.”
“And which choice is that?” Touya demanded, almost but-not-quite-insulted that he should be deemed so predictable.
“Ah,” Yukito smiled, “My duties as your advisor only pertain to governance, Lord Touya. My advice here would only be that of a jealous lover – inherently inappropriate to matters of national security.”
Touya huffed out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. No, of course he couldn’t ask Yukito for advice in this matter; regardless of the fact that Touya rarely heeded advice from any of this other legions of “advisors.” It wasn’t fair, and moreover… “Jealous lover?” Touya smirked, “I like the sound of that.”
“Which is why I don’t worry,” Yukito repeated, a thoughtful smile at his lips, “Too much.”
Touya sighed and leaned his cheek into Yukito’s palm, still resting comfortably across the back of the arm chair. It appeared, for better or for worse, that the brat had won. Or was about to win. Or might possibly win in the not-so-distant future. There was no reason he had to announce his decision straight away. No…it would almost certainly be more fun to let the brat sweat for a few days. Perhaps a few weeks…
Sakura would almost certainly forgive him. And he supposed he could overcome, in time, the baser instincts that insisted he tear that little horror limb from limb every time he found him within shouting distance of his sister. His eye twitched at the thought. Probably, anyway.
“It’s good to see you smiling again, To-ya,” Yukito said quietly.
“Hmm?” Touya lifted his head to find Yukito staring at him with a grin of his own, “What’s that for?”
“If you’ve finished sulking,” Yukito explained, a mischievous gleam in his eye, “And you’re not quite set on your decision, Queen Kendappa has requested that you take some time to get to know the fiancée she’s picked for you.”
Touya gulped. It wasn’t like Yuki to grin so maniacally…
Kurogane settled onto his barstool with a huff. His hooves were killing him after the long trek back through the forest to their preferred watering hole. He signaled the bartender – a blue-haired dryad with a mischievous smile and well-renown sharp tongue – as Fay settled in next to him; they’d spent enough hours holding up this end of the bar for her to know their order by heart – a dark ale for himself, something ungodly pink and fruity for Fay (preferably with a paper umbrella, which would undoubtedly end up decorating their mantelpiece along with the countless other pebbles, trinkets and random bits of garbage the idiot insisted made their hovel “homey” at the end of the night). She waved back and set about filling their glasses.
“Uwah,” Fay whined, picking a twig from between the cloves of his hoof, “Kuro-buck wouldn’t even stop for a rest! He’s such a slave driver…” He collapsed against the bar in mock exhaustion.
“You wouldn’t be worth the cost of maintenance as a slave,” Kurogane grunted as his ale arrived in front of him. “Thanks, Umi,” he managed, even as he cast a disapproving glare around the tavern; it held the same collection of miscreant forest spirits that populated its darkened hallways every night – drunken fairies, fauns, even a centaur had managed to cram its bulky back-end in through the doorway this evening (and hell if Kurogane was going to help the inebriated idiot stagger back out once he’d finished depleting the wine stores – he’d learned his lesson months ago and still had the horse-shoe shaped scar to prove it). He sighed and gulped his ale; he fit in rather too well here these days.
“Saa…Kuro-pan shouldn’t say such hurtful things!” Fay continued to chatter, completely ignoring Kurogane’s despairing glances about the room, “I’ll have you know I could fetch quite a handsome price on the black market. It’s not often that you find a faun with my coloring, or with my charming personality.”
“If someone’s paying me to take you away, I’ll more than happily oblige them,” Kurogane banged his empty glass onto the bar top, “But for right now, I need you to finish this assignment. We need to figure out what the hell we’re going to do now.”
“Hmm,” Fay mused, swirling what Kurogane assumed had to be some sort of berry jam into his drink, “We just need to make sure the boy and girl end up together, correct?”
“And why was that, again?”
“God damn it, I don’t know!” Kurogane bellowed, making several other patrons wince, “That witch likes to involve herself in everyone else’s business in this realm, why not go dabbling into human affairs as well?”
“It was just a question, Kuro-tan,” Fay chuckled, “Now, why can’t they get married?”
Kurogane stared incredulously. “You didn’t pay attention to a damned thing that went on today, did you?”
“Of course I paid attention!” Fay exclaimed, “How could I not pay attention to big, manly Kuro-clop as he defeated the dastardly rock piles set in his path, threatening to twist his delicate ankles and overthrow his mighty-nghk!” Fay snorted and descended quickly into a fit of giggles at the sight of Kurogane’s face twisting into something that resembled a rabid goat. “It’s the brother, right?” he managed a moment later, struggling to gain composure.
“Yes,” Kurogane continued to glare.
“Okay, so we kill the brother. The kids get married and everyone lives happily ever after. …Except for the dead brother. Done deal.”
“Wha- You- Gah!” Kurogane spluttered, hands balling into exasperated fists, “Will you stop acting like a moron and be serious?”
“I was being serious, Kuro-rin,” Fay insisted, “Death is the surest way to be rid of someone forever.”
“We don’t need to be rid of him forever! We just need to get him out of the way, or change his mind, or something – anything that doesn’t include killing him!”
“How do you know he’ll choose to separate them?”
“Well,” Fay studied his glass carefully, “The queen did give him a choice, after all. How do you know he’ll choose to break off his own engagement just to keep his sister away from that boy?”
“So you were doing something other than sleeping,” Kurogane huffed.
“Of course I was, Kuro-chi,” Fay sang, still staring deeply into his cup, “I told you I was. But you haven’t answered me. Why do you think the brother will make that choice?”
“I just-” Kurogane paused, choosing his words carefully, “I can tell his type.”
Kurogane sighed and waved for another ale. “Overbearing; over-protective. Not going to let his sister fall into the hands of the first little punk that comes along and steals her heart.”
“Saa…Kuro-brute’s sisters must have had a hard time finding dates.”
“What? I don’t have any sisters! What are you implying?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing at all,” Fay assured him, “It’s probably for the best, anyway. I imagine Yuuko would turn you into something far worse than a faun if you massacred every poor suitor that came along looking to woo your siblings…”
“Woo my- Goddamn it! Stop with these tangents! We can’t count on the brother – we need something else!”
“Well,” Fay said thoughtfully (which frightened Kurogane more than he would ever admit), “If we could guarantee that he wouldn’t want to break off his current engagement, then that would solve our problem, wouldn’t it?”
“We can’t count on him! I just said-”
“I think Kuro-gruff underestimates the power of lo-ove,” Fay trilled, slurping down the last of his fruity concoction and signaling for another.
“You can’t guarantee love!” Kurogane blurted, nearing the end of his tether, “You can’t even guarantee attraction!”
Fay grinned wickedly. “Of course you can,” he lifted his empty glass, “I can guarantee that Kuro-pan is now 50% more attractive than he was when we first sat down here. All it took was a little alcohol.”
“Great,” Kurogane growled, resting his face against his palms, “We’ll just get them smashed and everything will be hunky dory. Brilliant.”
“It doesn’t have to be liquor,” Fay continued, still looking thoughtful (which still frightened Kurogane), “There are plenty of other potions that handily remove all sense of reason…”
Kurogane peered through his fingers, the interfering digits dragging down large bags under his eyes. “Really?” He didn’t want to get his hopes up…
“Really,” Fay grinned again.
“Can you make them?” Kurogane asked, almost fearfully. He really, really didn’t want to get his hopes up…
Kurogane’s head crashed back down into his palms. Of course not. That Witch Queen had taken the core of Fay’s magic just like she had taken everything else.
“But it’s not like there aren’t other, natural sources for things like that.”
“…Natural sources,” Kurogane stared skeptically.
“Yes,” Fay sipped carefully at his new drink, “I know of at least one flower growing in the forest that will reduce even the most indifferent troglodyte to a jibbering, love-sick fool.”
“And it works?”
“Of course it works, Kuro-pon,” Fay chuckles, “I wouldn’t tell you about it if it didn’t.”
Kurogane (with a great deal of effort) bit back the urge to detail the exact number, plots, and dates of stories the idiot had woven over the years – just to get a rise out of him – and took a measured swig of ale. “Okay,” he said after a long moment, “We’ll try it.”
“What?” Fay almost fell off his barstool as he whipped carelessly around to stare at Kurogane, “Really?”
“It’s not like we have any better ideas!” Kurogane huffed angrily, clearly implying that this was not his fault, “We’ll find the damn thing tomorrow and try it out. If it doesn’t work…” If it didn’t work, they’d just end up back here anyway. It would only be one day lost. Hopefully.
Fay continued to watch him in stunned silence. Kurogane hoped desperately that this was not an ill portent.