Nagisa was only eight years old when the soldiers from Makuria came to his village in Nekor. As the shouts came from the outskirts of town, warning families to hide their children, Nagisa’s father took him aside. He knelt in front of him, his face grim.
“Nagisa, listen to me, these men . . . they’re going to take you. But whatever you do, don’t give them reason to hurt you. Be charming. Smile. Do what they say.”
Nagisa, frightened, clung to his father. “B-but I don’t want to go!” he wailed, tears streaming down his pale cheeks.
“My boy; my dear, sweet Nagisa.” His father pulled him close, stroking his fair hair. “Be strong.”
The soldiers marched down the streets, calling for all those with young boys between the ages of eight and ten to bring them forth to be inspected. Every year it was the same. In order to ensure this conquered Nekoran tribe did not rise against them, did not attempt a revolution, the Makurian kingdom demanded hostages, young boys to serve the kingdom in various capacities.
A popular rumor in the village was that Nagisa’s mother had killed herself out of grief when Nagisa was born, knowing that such a beautiful child would surely be taken. His father had been quick to reassure Nagisa that this was not the case, that it had simply been complications during his birth. Still, Nagisa often looked at his own reflection and wished the gods hadn’t given him beauty.
Nagisa and his father stood in the center of the room, as the Makurian soldiers entered by force. A scary one with a long beard pointed to Nagisa, barking a question to his father. Nagisa couldn’t understand their harsh language, but his father seemed to, as he answered despondently. Apparently he’d given them the answer they wanted, for they simply pushed him aside and grabbed Nagisa.
“No! No! Papa! Papa, don’t let them take me!” Nagisa screamed, struggling against the strong arms of the man who started to carry him away.
But his father didn’t move from where he stood, tears streaming down his cheeks.
They brought him to a long building that didn’t seem elaborate enough to be the official palace. Nagisa didn’t stop crying until three days after his abduction, but the soldiers had seemed used to it, and none of them made him stop, though they seemed irritated by the noise. Nagisa did his best to stay quiet and make himself as small as possible. Other boys had been taken as well, about a dozen others, and some of them tried to escape and were beaten for it. Nagisa remembered what his father had told him and remained meek and humble, going where the soldiers gestured for him to go, doing his best to stay out from underfoot.
A man with fair hair and a stern expression stood in the doorway of the building. As the boys left the caravan, guided by the soldiers to stand in a single line before the man, he stepped forward to inspect them. His hands massaged fingers, pried open mouths, checked ears and eyes. It was invasive and humiliating, especially when he lifted their loincloths to observe their private parts. Nagisa endured the inspection quietly, staring straight ahead and biting his lip to keep it from quivering.
He seemed impressed by them all, though, and said something to the soldiers. Evidently it was an order to bring the boys inside, because they were prodded with the ends of spears and made to walk forward into the building.
Nagisa couldn’t help but be in awe of the lavish decorations indoors. There were bright reds and purples and golds in every tapestry and curtain. The floor was made of cool marble, and magnificent columns held up the painted ceiling above. Never before had Nagisa seen such extravagant décor. But the spectacle wasn’t enough to reassure him, and he twisted his fingers together in anxiety, as he and the other boys came to a stop in the middle of a large, circular room. Dozens of boys of various ages stood against the walls, their heads bowed, dressed in flimsy tunics.
The stern man stepped up to each boy, asking every one several questions in that harsh language that sounded nothing like the sweet, melodic one of Nagisa’s people. Most of the boys answered haltingly, but when he came to Nagisa, he could only stare up at the man uncomprehendingly, his knees trembling.
Frustrated, the man asked his question again, this time louder. Nagisa flinched, but couldn’t speak, terrified of what might happen if he didn’t reply in the correct language.
One of the boys from the wall ran forward, saying something quickly to the man, who appeared surprised. But he stepped back and allowed the boy to turn to Nagisa.
“He wants to know if you have any special talents,” the boy said with a small, reassuring smile. He had kind green eyes and light brown hair and appeared to be a couple years older than him.
Nagisa blinked, stunned by the fact that he could understand him. “You . . . you speak Nekoran?” he asked softly.
“I’m from a town on the border,” the boy said. “Now quickly, he needs an answer.”
“Why? Why am I even here?” Nagisa asked despairingly.
“Shh, shh I’ll explain everything later,” the boy said, patting his shoulder gently. “Now, please, before he gets angry.”
“I-I . . . I like to dance,” Nagisa admitted softly, not sure if that was the correct answer or not. But the boy was smiling again, and he turned to repeat his answer to the man.
He asked Nagisa a couple more questions (how old he was, if he had any disabilities that weren’t visible, if his family had any history of disease), and the boy remained beside Nagisa to translate. When the interrogation was complete, and the man completed the same questioning with the others, they were dismissed. The boys along the wall came forward to take the new ones back to the barracks, and the boy beside Nagisa grabbed his hand, pulling him close.
“My name is Makoto,” he said softly, as he led Nagisa through several large double doors, following the others. As they walked, a striking dark-haired boy the same age as Makoto joined them, falling into step beside Makoto. He wore a solemn expression, but looked at Nagisa with some interest.
“This is Haruka,” Makoto introduced. “He’s from an island colony. We arrived here on the same day.”
“I-I’m Nagisa. Where . . . where is here?” He clung to Makoto’s hand, focusing on his face instead of the narrowing walls.
“This is where they send all the boys from Nekor and the colonies. They train us here; teach us palace etiquette and some basic fighting skills. When we turn sixteen, they give us our official positions. Most of us go on to become soldiers in the army, but some are taken to the palace to serve the royal family.”
Nagisa swallowed, thinking neither of those options sounded pleasant, but at least as a servant he’d be far away from the war and safe. He hoped he’d get that job. Cleaning up after royalty didn’t sound so painful.
They came to the barracks, a single room lined with rows and rows of bedding on the floor. Makoto didn’t let go of his hand, but instead led Nagisa over to where two mats had been pushed together. Haruka sat down on one, while Makoto lowered onto the other one, pulling Nagisa down beside him. He wrapped his arm around Nagisa’s shoulder then, pulling him close.
“Don’t worry, Nagisa. We’ll take care of you,” he said gently.
And for the first time since Nagisa left his homeland, he wondered if maybe he’d be okay.
Nagisa stuck close to Makoto and Haruka as his training began and the years passed. The stern man who’d inspected him turned out to be a palace official named Goro Sasabe, and he was the one in charge of their education. He taught them the proper ways to address and treat royalty, how to correctly serve tea, how to dress, and how to act. They were all taught dancing, storytelling, and seduction. This last part confused Nagisa, but he thought maybe it was just a part of the acting he needed to know to flatter his superiors and make sure they never felt the need to get rid of him.
Every evening, Makoto would teach Nagisa the language of Makuria. He had undying patience, and Nagisa was grateful for the help. Haruka would stay with them during these lessons, reclining on Makoto’s mat behind the taller boy, sketching. Nagisa had quickly learned that Haruka’s best talent was art, and Makoto often bragged about how Sasabe frequently took Haruka’s work to the palace for the king himself.
Haruka never seemed that impressed by his skills, but he continued drawing. For the palace and Sasabe, he drew landscapes and still-lifes. But for Makoto and Nagisa, he drew portraits of the three of them, or sometimes simply one or the other. Nagisa had a small collection underneath his pillow.
Although he’d received his own mat, he preferred to sleep nestled between Makoto and Haruka. It was how they’d fallen asleep his first night there, and as the years passed, Nagisa didn’t feel like breaking the tradition. He felt safe and warm with the older boys on either side of him: Makoto’s arm wrapped around his waist, Haruka’s resting on top of Makoto’s.
One day, when Nagisa was twelve, after Haruka had to be taken to the palace physician for his yearly inspection (a procedure they all were required to take), he ventured a personal question.
“Why doesn’t Haruka ever talk? Does he not know how?”
Makoto blinked, appearing surprised by the question. He quickly recovered though, and tapped Nagisa’s shoulder. “In Makurian, Nagisa,” he admonished gently.
Nagisa frowned in frustration, but switched to the foreign language, hating how stupid he sounded and the way the harsh sound felt on his tongue and in his mouth. “Haruka . . . not . . . speak?” he managed. “Why?”
Makoto sighed. “He knows how to talk,” he admitted in Nekoran. “But when he was eight, his colony was raided by soldiers. His family resisted, fought against the soldiers when they tried to take Haruka. So the soldiers they . . . they killed his parents. Right in front of him.”
Nagisa paled, feeling his stomach turn unpleasantly. “Poor Haruka!” he exclaimed.
Makoto nodded, pain etched on his features. “I first met him on the caravan over here. He was the only boy not crying. I knew that he must have experienced something terrible to be so in shock. My heart ached for him.” Reaching up, Makoto placed his hand on his chest, curling his fingers into the thin material of his tunic. “So I went to him. I sat with him. I told him stories of my village. I’ve been by his side ever since. Sometimes he speaks to me, but it’s not often. But I think he’s better now, if only a little.”
This subdued Nagisa, and when Haruka returned from his inspection, Nagisa flung his arms around him, crying. He couldn’t help it. He felt so bad for the solemn older boy.
“Haru-chan!” he cried, resorting back to Nekoran, as he clung to him. “I’m so sorry you lost your parents! It must have been so awful for you!”
Haruka appeared confused; he patted Nagisa’s back gently, looking over at Makoto for an explanation.
Makoto smiled, as he stood. “-Chan is a term of endearment in Nekoran,” he said. “Reserved for close friends, lovers, and small children. There’s not really an equivalent in Makurian.” He scratched the side of his head, looking thoughtful.
Nagisa reached out, pulling Makoto into the hug. He buried his face in his chest, thinking about his own parents now, how he’d lost them. It wasn’t in as horrific a way as Haruka, but he supposed it the grand scheme of things it didn’t truly matter. They were all orphans, and all they had was each other.
Nagisa never wanted to be apart from them.
Makoto and Haruka turned sixteen when Nagisa was fourteen. Sixteen was the age when Makurians became men. They could join the army. They could marry. They could begin employment. Therefore, all of the boys who’d been taken from Nekor and the colonies were selected for their lifetime duties at age sixteen.
The night before the selection, the three gripped each other tightly on their mats, Nagisa between Makoto and Haruka as always. Haruka’s face was buried in Nagisa’s hair, and Nagisa pressed his own face against Makoto’s chest. Makoto tried to reassure them everything would be okay.
“None of us are very skilled with a blade,” he said as optimistically as he could. “So we’ll probably all wind up working in the palace. We’ll still be together, even if we’re leaving before you, Nagisa.”
Nagisa wondered if that was possible. He felt Haruka’s arm tighten around his waist, and tears filled his eyes. He curled his fingers into Makoto’s tunic, holding it tightly.
“I don’t want you to go. You’re the only family I have,” he said miserably.
Makoto’s hand rested on the side of Nagisa’s head, and he stroked his thumb across his cheek. “We won’t be apart for long,” he promised softly.
But Nagisa doubted he could promise such a thing.
The next day, all the boys gathered in that large circular room. Nagisa stood against the wall with the other boys who were still too young to be chosen. Those that had turned sixteen stood in the center of the room. They’d been washed and adorned with colorful kaftans. Their hair had been combed until it lay silky against their necks, and their skin gleamed with scented oils.
From where he stood, Nagisa could tell that Haruka was the most beautiful of the group. But Makoto, with his broad shoulders and kind face, was different from the rest. He had an air of warmth that radiated from him and drew people to him. Nagisa knew with certainty that both of them would be chosen, he just hoped they would be able to remain together. Makoto’s hand reached for Haruka’s, and they stood side-by-side, fingers interlocked tightly. Nagisa felt his chest ache for them, knowing they had to be terrified.
The door opened and Sasabe entered with a man Nagisa didn’t recognize. He was tall and stately, with maroon colored hair and red eyes. He wore jewelry around his neck and on his fingers, and his kaftan was made with intricate brocades. On his head was an elaborate turban, with a large red ruby in its center above his forehead. Nagisa realized with a start that it was the king himself. Sasabe reminded them all to bow, and the boys prostrated themselves before King Matsuoka. Nagisa couldn’t help but peek though, and he watched as the king made his way toward the boys lined in the center of the room.
“You may rise,” he said, and Nagisa was shocked to realize he understood him perfectly.
“Fine looking young men you have here, Sasabe,” the king said with a nod toward their educator.
“Only the best for you, mi’lord,” Sasabe said with a short bow.
“I believe I have enough servants for now, so I suppose they should be sent to the military. Pity. They are very beautiful. This one in particular.” He stepped up to Haruka, touching the young man’s chin to lift his head
Nagisa saw the way Haruka’s jaw tightened, and how he gripped Makoto’s hand. A feeling of trepidation spread through him, but he remained on the floor, not wanting to draw attention to himself.
“My son’s sixteenth birthday is fast approaching,” the king mused. “I’ve been meaning to find him a gift. He’ll want to start his harem soon, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t give him a boy to begin with.”
Nagisa saw Makoto stiffen, but he was confused. He didn’t recognize the word “harem.” What had the king said to elicit such a reaction? What was he going to do with Haruka?
King Matsuoka stepped back, nodding to Haruka. “Take this one to the palace. Send the rest to Mikoshiba to be trained for battle.”
Nagisa could only watch in horror, as two soldiers stepped forward to take hold of Haruka, pulling him away from the rest. Haruka’s eyes were wide, and he clung to Makoto’s hand, resisting.
“Makoto!” he cried, and Nagisa flinched at the panic in his voice.
Makoto stood where he was, tears sliding slowly down his cheeks. Although he didn’t move, his grip never faltered on Haruka’s hand. Haruka struggled against the soldiers, and one of them grabbed Makoto’s shoulders, yanking him back in an attempt to break their hold. It didn’t work, and finally the guard drew his sword, slamming the hilt of it down on Makoto’s arm.
Nagisa heard a sharp crack, and Makoto yelled in pain, dropping to the floor.
“No! Makoto! Makoto!” Haruka’s desperate voice carried through the room, echoing even as he was dragged out of the doors.
Nagisa didn’t wait for the king to leave. He ran forward, dropping to his knees beside Makoto. He wrapped his arms around his friend, kissing the tears that continued to fall.
“Mako-chan,” he murmured. He had no idea what was going on, or where they’d taken Haruka, but he knew that the two had been separated, and that was bad enough.
Makoto cradled his broken arm, burying his face in Nagisa’s shoulder. Nagisa frowned up at the king, as the man observed the scene.
“And who is this?” King Matsuoka asked with interest.
“Ah, that is Nagisa. He is still a child, not yet sixteen,” Sasabe said, stepping forward quickly. “Pay him no mind, mi’lord. The three of them . . . they were close.”
“I see.” King Matsuoka crouched in front of Nagisa, regarding him with those sharp red eyes. “I am sorry for your loss.”
Nagisa’s frown vanished, replaced by shock. He stared at the man, as he stood and walked away. He hadn’t expected sympathy from the king, and he wondered why he’d felt the need to apologize.
Later, Nagisa and Makoto lay on their mat, feeling keenly the missing presence of Haruka. Makoto’s arm had been splinted, and he was to wait until it healed before he left for his military training. Makoto lay on his back, and Nagisa pressed against his side and gripped his tunic, shivering as his back registered the chill of the night.
“What’s going to happen to Haru-chan?” he asked softly.
Makoto closed his eyes in pain, but Nagisa knew it wasn’t because of his arm. “He’ll be made to entertain and-and pleasure the prince.”
Nagisa felt his skin grow hot, though his blood felt cold rushing through his veins. “P-pleasure? Y-you mean . . .”
Makoto nodded, opening his eyes. “Why did you think we were taught the art of seduction? Some of us become concubines in the palace. I feared he would be chosen for such a position, but I’d . . . I’d hoped I’d be able to work in the palace as well. To . . . to at least be near him . . .”
Nagisa swallowed, watching as the tears fell down Makoto’s face again. “He’ll be okay though, won’t he?”
“Knowing Haruka, he’ll make trouble for himself soon enough.” Makoto sighed, sniffling some. He reached up with his good arm to wipe his face on the back of his hand. “I just hope they’re patient with him.”
Nagisa pulled himself closer to Makoto, moving his head to the older boy’s chest.
Two months later, Sasabe sent Makoto away, and Nagisa was left alone. Every night, he gripped the portraits Haruka had drawn of the three of them, pressing them to his chest, as he curled into a ball and shivered in the lack of warmth from his friends’ bodies.
Two years passed, and Nagisa turned sixteen. After Makoto had been taken, Nagisa realized that Makoto was strong and would probably become powerful and a great fighter while in the army. Nagisa had to believe that his abilities would keep him alive in battle. But as for himself, Nagisa knew that he wouldn’t last a day. So that meant he had to try his best to get into the palace.
More specifically, he had to get into the prince’s harem. At least then he’d be with Haruka.
So he threw himself into his dancing, swiftly becoming the best dancer of his age group. He also improved his acting skills, his seduction techniques. He practiced on the other boys, pleased when he could make them stutter or blush, even those who didn’t have a preference for men. Sasabe seemed impressed by how quickly Nagisa had developed his talents.
Finally the day came when it would be decided where Nagisa would be placed. He stood in line with the other boys his age, waiting with a heart thudding wildly in his chest for the doors to open and reveal his fate.
When they did, it wasn’t the king who came striding into the room. It was Prince Rin Matsuoka himself. Beside him stood a tall, handsome man with blue eyes and dark hair. For a moment, Nagisa thought it was Haruka, and he inhaled sharply. But then he realized this man was much too tall, his build too wide, and the blue of his eyes were tinted with green.
“What do you have for me, Sasabe?” the prince asked. “I’m looking for another harem boy. Sousuke got rid of my favorite one.” Here he sent an exasperated look back at the man beside him.
“He attacked you, my prince.” The man, Sousuke, spoke in a low, respectful tone, but Nagisa could sense his frustration.
“I goaded him into it,” Prince Rin said, waving his hand dismissively. “But no matter. I’m sure I can find a new favorite.” His red eyes scanned the line of boys before him, before settling on Nagisa. He grinned, and Nagisa was shocked to see teeth that had been filed into sharp fangs.
“You! What’s your name?” he asked, and it took Nagisa a moment to realize he was pointing towards him.
He bowed quickly. “Nagisa, mi’lord,” he said.
“Nagisa. I like your look. What skills do you have?”
“I dance, mi’lord.”
“He’s very skilled,” Sasabe said, stepping forward. “You will surely be impressed by him.”
Prince Rin snapped his fingers. “I want to see. Show me!”
Sasabe nodded. “R-right away, mi’lord!” He turned to some boys against the wall. “Fetch your instruments! The prince wants to see Nagisa dance!”
Nagisa stood where he was, as the boys moved out of the way and the others ran to get instruments. He looked down at the floor, steadying his rapidly beating heart. This was the moment he’d been preparing for. He had to impress the prince if he was ever to see Haruka again.
The boys returned, and as the music started, Nagisa closed his eyes, allowing the melody to move through him. Slowly, he started to dance. He thought of Makoto’s smile, of Haruka’s eyes. He thought of his family, and he danced for them.
Opening his eyes, he saw the way the prince was watching him. The gleam in his eyes. When their gazes met, Nagisa gave him a coy smile, and felt a sense of accomplishment when Prince Rin smiled in return. There was a hunger in his, but Nagisa had readied himself for that. He knew exactly what he was getting into; it was the only way to try to get his family back together.
He danced closer to the prince. Noticing how Sousuke stiffened, his hand moving to the hilt of his sword, Nagisa was careful to keep his disarming smile and make no sudden movements. Reaching out, he twirled his wrist, brushing the side of his hand against Prince Rin’s jawline. The prince reached up quickly to grab his arm, halting him. His eyes were dark with desire, and Nagisa smiled again, lowering his gaze respectfully.
“I want this one,” the prince said in a low voice.
Sousuke didn’t appear pleased by this decision. “Are you certain, my prince? There are others you’ve barely glanced at.”
“I am certain.”
Nagisa remained still, until Prince Rin released his arm. He took a step back, bowing once more. “It is my honor to serve, mi’lord,” he said in his best Makurian.
Sousuke sighed. “Have him ready to go within the hour,” he told Sasabe, placing his hand at the prince’s elbow then. “Let’s go, my prince.”
Nagisa kept his smile until the heavy doors closed behind them. Then it slipped from his face, and he solemnly walked back toward the barracks to gather his things.
Mako-chan, Haru-chan . . . we won’t be apart for long.