“I can do what you ask,” the witch says. “For a price.”
The girl swallows nervously, but keeps her gaze on the witch. The fire in the hearth casts the little cottage in dancing shades of yellow and orange, burning red and glowing amber. You’ve come this far, the girl thinks, no point in turning back.
“Name it,” she says with more courage than she feels.
The witch smiles, slow, and cocks her head. She looks nothing like what the girl was expecting: her face is smooth, without blemish, and her hair a thick rope of pale gold draped over one shoulder. The witch stands and moves towards the hearth. There is a cauldron on a long hook, and she moves it until it is hanging over the fire. She pours in water from another pot, and then begins adding ingredients from little bottles and vials that line the mantle.
“You are a singer, yes?” the witch asks. The girl nods, uncertain. “Your voice, then. The price of the spell.”
“My voi--” the girl begins, but stops her own protest. You’ve come this far. “All right.”
The witch smiles again, strangely benevolent for the deal they have just struck, and goes back to her cauldron. The concoction inside begins to bubble and glow, golden like the witch’s hair.
“You will have seven days, seven sunsets,” the witch says. “Win the prince’s heart, and the spell will keep. Fail, and you will die.”
“Die?” the girl repeats, suddenly short of breath. “You didn’t say--”
“It is the nature of the spell.” The witch looks up with steady brown eyes. “You have come this far.”
“I--” The girl hesitates here. Her head spins. Die? “Fine,” she says, without allowing herself to think. “Fine.”
The witch nods. Then, she turns back to the potion and dips a hand straight into the boiling mixture--the girl gasps, but a moment later, the witch pulls her hand out again, unscathed. In her palm sits a shimmering nugget of what looks like pure gold. She holds it out to the girl.
“Eat,” the witch says.
The girl winces when the witch tips the gold into her hand, but it is cool to the touch. Feeling rather foolish, she brings it to her mouth, and after a deep breath, sets it on her tongue.
The gold begins to melt immediately, and her hands fly to her throat--she can feel the spell coating her tongue, the inside of her mouth, and then sliding down her throat with a taste like liquid fire. She opens her mouth to scream, but no sound escapes.
“Seven sunsets,” the witch says again, as the girl feels pain begin wrack her body, feels her shape begin to change. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the ends of her hair begin to pull back, begin to glow. The girl falls to her knees, and the witch kneels before her, turning the girl’s face up and looking into her eyes.
“And remember, girl, the way to seal a spell: it is always with a kiss.”
The throne room is possibly the largest room Nino has ever been in, tall and cavernous, with a forest of carved pillars down its length and grand tapestries hung on every wall. It seems to take a century to walk across it on the long, plush carpet that runs down the middle, through the patterns of light from the ceiling-high windows on the south side. But the figure in the throne at the far side of the room pulls Nino forward, he can’t look away.
The prince is slouched in his seat, and Nino can’t blame him: Nino is one of the last in a long line of supplicants that have been filing through the palace all day. Although, on closer inspection, the prince looks more uncomfortable than bored. Nino lets his eyes rove over the familiar face: round cheeks, sharp nose, sleepy eyes, and soft lips currently curved in the slightest pout. He is dressed all in royal finery today, complete with a band of jeweled silver across his brow, though Nino is accustomed to seeing him in simple tunics, with dirt smudged on his face and sun in his auburn hair.
Nino hasn’t been this close to Satoshi--the prince--in what seems like ages, and if his plan doesn’t work, perhaps he never will be again.
“What is your request?” says a booming voice--not the prince, but one of the stewards standing by his throne.
Nino startles a bit, then gathers himself together. He makes an apologetic face, then points to his throat and shakes his head. At the long pause, the prince looks up from where he was watching the dust motes dance in the light through the windows, and Nino repeats the charade.
“You can’t speak?” the prince says curiously. Nino shakes his head again, and smiles when he sees the prince’s gaze wander above his eyeline, to his golden hair. An unexpected side effect of the spell.
“How can I help you?” the prince asks, looking genuinely interested now.
Nino just smiles, and pulls the guitar around from where he was carrying it on his back. He sees the prince’s eyes widen for a moment and wonders Does he remember? but surely Satoshi would not recognize Nino as he is now. The prince watches as Nino begins to strum his guitar and takes a few steps closer to the throne. Some of the guards in the room shift nervously, and Nino stops, watching the prince hopefully.
“That was very nice,” the prince says encouragingly. Nino smiles and begins again, a more lively tune this time, and gives a little spin. Then he plays a sorrowful romantic strain, then a soft lullaby.
The prince tilts his head to one side, shaking it just a little. “I don’t...do you...want to play me a song?”
Nino’s mouth opens in a silent laugh, and he stops playing to wave one hand in a negating motion. He points to the prince and plays again, this time a few chords from the Royal Fanfare, and then bows with a flourish.
“Oh!” the prince says. “You want to play for me--you want to work for me?”
Nino nods emphatically, and drops to one knee, entreating. The prince blinks a few times, thoughtful. “But why?” he asks eventually.
Nino grins and shrugs, gestures to the grand room around them and pulls out his pockets to demonstrate their emptiness. The prince grins back, one side of his mouth curling up more than the other, and Nino feels his heart twinge a bit to have that expression directed at him, after so long. The prince turns to the steward at his side.
“Is there an opening for a royal minstrel?” the prince asks.
The steward blusters for a moment, obviously not thrilled by the idea. “Well, I--that is, your highness, that particular position has never been, er, available--”
“All right then,” the prince interrupts lightly. “I hereby decree my need for a royal minstrel, and it is my wish that this man, um--sorry, what was your name?”
Nino stands and begins to move closer, but a guard blocks his way. “Step back,” the prince orders softly. When Nino is allowed to advance, he stops and kneels at the prince’s knees, and gestures for him to hold out a hand. The prince does so, and Nino takes it gently, and writes his name into the prince’s palm with his index finger.
“Ni...no,” the prince sounds out, and his brow furrows as he looks back up to Nino’s face. Again, Nino feels a swoop in his gut, a tightening in his throat--but no, it passes: Satoshi never knew the name Ninomiya. The prince clears his throat.
“So, yes, it is my wish that Nino enter my employ as my personal minstrel. Master Steward, could you...find him someplace to stay?”
The steward sniffs indifferently and gestures for Nino to follow him as he walks toward a room behind the dias. Nino bows to the prince a final time, and glances towards the windows as he leaves the room. The sun is just beginning to set, a dramatic dive into a bank of red and pink clouds on the horizon.
Six more days.
The room Nino is escorted to is tiny, little more than four walls, a bed, and a slit that might be a window, but this is something Nino is more accustomed to than grand halls and well-appointed chambers. He is left with instructions not to wander around, and a reminder that supper--for servants--is served in the kitchens at seven o’clock. But Nino knew that already. Best to avoid the kitchens for now, he knows other ways to scrounge up food around the palace.
Unfortunately, that leaves him with little else to do but sit in his new room and pluck at his guitar. He should rest, he tells himself, and lays himself out on the hay-stuffed excuse for a mattress. But sleep is elusive, his mind filled with troubled memories rather than dreams.
...Kazuyo is five years old when she meets Satoshi. She doesn’t realize he is the prince because he doesn’t tell her, but she figures it out when his nanny catches up to him and starts scolding him while calling him “your highness” and “young prince”. It takes a moment to really sink in, because Satoshi is still covered in dirt and hay from where they have been playing hide-and-seek in the stables. Surely he can’t be the prince.
“You mustn’t keep wandering off from your lessons,” the nurse says to Satoshi, then turns to Kazuyo. “And who is this? Where are your parents, and why aren’t they keeping you at your own work, hmm?”
Kazuyo doesn’t say anything, just moves a little further behind Satoshi, confused and overwhelmed by the sudden presence of a loud, angry stranger.
“Don’t yell at her!” Satoshi says, with much more force than Kazuyo would have expected from how much of a pushover he’s been since she found him pouting in a dark corner of the tack room.
“Your highness,” the nurse begins, flustered at his outburst, but Satoshi interrupts her.
“I’ll come back, just--I would like to say goodbye, so...” His bravado falters a little, but he straightens his spine for a last order. “You may wait for me over there. Please.”
The nursemaid purses her lips, and for a moment it seems she will refuse. But then, with a great, long-suffering sigh, she marches over to the door of the stable, out of earshot, and waits with arms crossed. Satoshi turns back to Kazuyo, mouth open to speak, but Kazuyo beats him to it.
“Are you really the prince?” she asks indignantly, and then when he nods, she punches him in the arm. “Why didn’t you say so?”
Satoshi rubs his arm, even though the blow from Kazuyo’s tiny hands cannot hurt very much. “Well, I didn’t think it was important. Look,” he says quickly, before she can berate him any further. “It was fun, today, though, right?”
Kazuyo nods, and Satoshi leans in a little closer, with a furtive glance back at his nanny. “If I come back tomorrow, will you be here?”
There’s a sneaky little smirk growing on Satoshi’s face, and Kazuyo can’t help but smile back.
“Okay,” she says...
Later, when all the light has gone from the sky, Nino is summoned to the prince’s chambers. A page leads him to a set of grand doors, and after traversing room after room of winged chairs and claw-footed tables and marble fireplaces, Nino finds the prince seated at the foot of an expansive bed, his feet swinging idly. The prince smiles when Nino arrives, but Nino finds himself distracted by the two other occupants of the room.
“Oh,” the prince says, following the line of Nino’s gaze. “Nino, let me introduce you: this is Sho-kun, and Jun-kun.”
The two men dip their heads in greeting, and Nino bows in return since they obviously outrank him. It turns out Sho is the prince’s head of staff, and Jun is his personal tailor, and while Jun is taking Nino’s measurements for a new uniform, Sho gives Nino a rundown of the prince’s schedule and when Nino will need to make himself available for the court’s entertainment. Once they are done, the prince dismisses them, leaving him and Nino alone at last.
For a moment, Nino doesn’t know what to do with himself. He looks around the room, and feels comforted when he notices messy piles of clothes, and a corner full of paints, brushes, easels--he had thought Satoshi had given up painting years ago.
“So,” the prince says, and Nino turns to find the prince standing now, shuffling his feet a bit awkwardly. “Sorry for all the fuss, but. Well, I just wanted to talk with you, since--I mean, not talk with you, obviously, but--because I don’t know anything about you, and--”
And now Nino finds himself relaxing, and he smiles and motions towards the fireplace. They sit together, both of them opting for the rug on the floor rather than any of the plush chairs. Nino still has his guitar, and he strums it idly, quietly. The prince watches, fascinated.
Despite his professed interest in talking, there is a long silence, filled only with the crackle of the fire, and the soft notes of Nino’s guitar. Nino doesn’t mind. It gives him another chance to take in the way the light plays across Satoshi’s face, and Nino can see better now how he’s aged, grown into his skin.
“You haven’t always been mute, have you?” the prince asks. Nino blinks in surprise, and the prince gestures towards his collar. “Your throat--it was moving while you played, like you wanted to sing or...or something.”
Nino grins sheepishly and nods in acquiescence. He points to the prince then, mimes singing, strikes a rising, interrogative chord.
“Me?” The prince rubs a hand through his hair. “Well, not so much, anymore.”
Deciding to be bold, Nino scoots over until they are seated side by side. He lays a palm across the guitar strings to quiet them for a moment, then begins a new song, a simple lullaby that anyone would know, that Nino knows Satoshi’s mother used to sing to him. He watches the prince expectantly, and then, after a few more notes, the prince begins to sing.
It is an old song--“Asleep in the meadow, in a clover bed, where can my baby be?”--and Satoshi’s voice fills it, inhabits each note so that the melody seems to float in the air. Now that the prince has pointed it out, Nino can feel the muscles in his throat moving and contracting, longing to add his own harmony. They used to sing like this all the time, quietly so no one would find them, and Nino squeezes his eyes shut on the memory. He has no idea how he can win the prince’s heart, as he is, in just six more days, but perhaps it will be worth it just for this. Six more days of these little moments, of being by Satoshi’s side again.
They reach the end of the song, and Nino lets the last note hum through the air until it fades of its own accord.
“It’s been a long time,” the prince says after a while. “Since I’ve sung, I mean.” He looks up at Nino, and again, a furrow appears in his brow as he searches Nino’s face. “I used to, when--there was someone--and you sort of reminded me of her, today, so I--but that’s foolish, it’s been so long...” The prince shakes his head, looking vaguely embarrassed, then stands suddenly.
“Forgive me, I am tired. We should both get to bed, I think.”
Nino blinks, and it takes him a moment to get to his feet. He feels breathless, all the wind knocked out of him, at the thought that perhaps, just maybe, Satoshi remembers. Before the prince can turn back to his bed and properly dismiss Nino for the night, Nino grabs his wrist--another bold move, but the prince looks only curious. Nino turns the prince’s hand over, and writes into his palm again, as he did in the throne room.
Who was she?
The prince stares at his hand for a long moment after Nino has finished writing, flexes his fingers and closes them around the words. He looks up and meets Nino’s eyes.
“An old friend,” he says simply. “Goodnight, Nino.”
...It is midwinter, and the palace and all the grounds are covered in a thick layer of snow. Kazuyo and Satoshi have hidden themselves away in an old linen closet, and made a warm nest of blankets and rugs that smell like cedar and mothballs.
“Do you really have no one else to play with?” Kazuyo asks, not for the first time since their unlikely friendship began.
Satoshi doesn’t answer for a moment, busy leafing through the book of fairytales he brought, stopping to look at the colorful illustrations. “Not really, not like you. Only people who treat me like the prince.”
“Well, you are the prince,” Kazuyo points out.
“Yes, but...” Satoshi has to think about this for a minute. “But that’s not all that I am, you know?”
“I know,” Kazuyo says. Then, in a reassuring tone: “And I would still be your friend even if you weren’t the prince.”
“I know,” Satoshi says with a smile. But he closes the book then, and fixes Kazuyo with the most serious expression his ten-year-old face can manage. “Will you stay my friend? Even if we grow up? Even if they make me be King?”
“Of course,” Kazuyo says immediately. “As long as you don’t turn horrible or something. You won’t will you?”
“I’ll try very hard not to,” Satoshi says solemnly.
“All right, then,” Kazuyo agrees, and grabs one of Satoshi’s hands to shake on it. “Friends.”...
The next day, Nino is fitted for his new uniform. It is a bright, sunny yellow with the royal crest in white on the front.
“To match your hair,” the prince says, and Nino makes a face at him. The prince just laughs, and says it suits him.
The rest of the day passes in a blur. The prince spends the morning seeing supplicants again, until his sister, Princess Mina, takes over for the afternoon. The rest of the day is allotted for various social meetings in the prince’s chambers, which Sho told Nino he need not be present for, but after the third time Nino has been called from his room to play a song for the prince’s guests, he is allowed to stay, and he loiters by the fireplace in the prince’s bedroom between performances. In the evening, they attend dinner in the Great Hall, where Nino is again asked to play the occasional song for the company. That night, Nino is again summoned to the prince’s chambers.
This time, he finds this prince in his bathing room. In the bath. Nino fixes his eyes determinedly on a spot on the far wall and tries to fight off the blush he can feel climbing the back of his neck.
“Hullo,” the prince says, pushing wet hair out of his face. “How was your first day?”
Nino nods vaguely, and glances around for somewhere to sit, eventually settling on a low bench along one wall. When he looks up, the prince is still watching him, so Nino manages a smile. But there is still the fact that the prince is naked, so Nino pulls his knees up in front of him for something to hide behind.
The prince gives a soft laugh, that sounds like hm, and then there is a splash as he climbs out of the tub. Nino stares hard at the fabric of his new uniform, but he has to look up when he realizes the prince is standing in front of him. Luckily, he’s wrapped himself in a robe, but Nino gives him an annoyed scowl, anyway.
“I didn’t think you’d be so shy,” the prince murmurs, a laugh still lingering in his eyes. He motions for Nino to follow him, and they sit themselves in front of the fire, just as they did last night. “Play something?” the prince asks, and Nino pulls his guitar into his lap, strumming quietly. The prince spends a long time staring into the fire, long enough that his hair is dry and the wet sheen gone from his skin when he finally speaks.
“My parents told me I have to get married,” the prince says, without preamble. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but.”
Nino knew this already, of course, it’s been the meat of all the palace gossip for weeks. He wouldn’t even be here if he didn’t know that already. Nino stops playing, and reaches out to take the prince’s hand.
Do you want to?
“No,” the prince answers with a mirthless smile. “Not to any of the girls they want me to marry.”
Nino takes his hand back and plays a few bars of Runaway Jack--“ran away, ran away, and never came back”-- and the prince chuckles. “I don’t think it would be as easy as running away.” He lets out a long sigh, and watches Nino’s hands as they continue to move over the guitar strings. “Did you run away, Nino?”
Nino starts to shake his head, then stops because...how can he even really explain it? He settles for a shrug, and plays the opening notes of A Wandering Minstrel, which is about as close as he can get, really. Briefly, he wonders if he should tell Satoshi everything: he could write it down, maybe. But who would ever believe it?
“I am tired,” the prince sighs eventually. But when Nino rises to leave, the prince stops him with a hand on Nino’s elbow. When Nino’s turns back to him, there’s a strangely embarrassed look on his face. “Could you--would you play for me? Until I fall asleep?”
After a moment of surprise, Nino just smiles, and nods. He follows the prince back over to the bed, and perches at the foot. The prince crawls under the covers and pulls them up to his chin, watching Nino expectantly. He looks so young, so familiar, Nino almost wants to cry. Instead, he passes a hand over his face, miming Close your eyes, and the prince does.
Nino begins with the same lullaby they sang the night before, and then plays another, letting the notes float out and linger in the corners of the room. He watches the prince’s face as it relaxes towards sleep. It only takes a few songs. Nino plays a final chord, and smiles at the little snuffling noises the prince makes as he breathes slowly in and out.
He should leave, he knows he should, but mustering the will power to climb off the bed and walk out the door seems utterly beyond him. The prince’s sheets are blue silk, his mattress filled with down, and it is all very soft and fine, finer than any bed Nino has ever slept in. Surely it will do no one any harm if he lies down for a moment. Just for a moment.
…“There you are!”
The head steward comes barrelling into the garden before Kazuyo and Satoshi can make it over the far wall. He catches Satoshi by the ankle and they both come tumbling down.
“Young--Majesty--” the steward huffs, now with an iron grip on Satoshi’s arm. “This is unacceptable behavior, you are fifteen years old--” His gaze lands on Kazuyo, then, and narrows to a glare. “And you! Encouraging him! Back to your work, and if catch you shirking again you will be out in the streets!”
Satoshi shoots her an apologetic look, but lets himself be dragged away. Kazuyo curses his spinelessness. After they are out of sight, instead of going back to the kitchens, she scurries after them at a distance.
“--to be King!” the steward is saying. “You are to be the Lord and Steward of this land: you cannot spend your days playing in the dirt with a kitchen maid!”
“Fine,” Satoshi responds in a petulant mumble. “I’ll just wait until I am King, and then I may do whatever I want.”
The steward sighs heavily. “If only she were a young man. Then there would not be this kind of trouble.”
“That’s stupid,” Kazuyo hears Satoshi say, with more heat than he can usually muster. “I’d still like Kazu just as much even if she were a boy.”
The steward just chuckles, but Kazuyo can feel her ears going red. She decides to stop following them.
In the morning, Nino wakes slowly, by degrees. He first registers the softness of the bed he is in, how very comfortable it is, how he would like to sleep for just a moment longer. Just a moment. He hugs his guitar to his chest, stretches his legs and they rustle against the silk sheets--but Nino doesn’t have silk sheets. His eyes blink open, and he rubs the sleep out of them. Nino doesn’t have silk sheets--the prince does. Nino is still asleep in the prince’s bed, curled up at the foot of it like a dog.
With a silent curse, he makes to scramble off the bed and away, but just as his feet touch the floor, he hears the prince stirring. In a panic, he ducks, crouching down next to the bed with a half-formed plan of maybe crawling away discreetly. But it’s too late.
“Nino?” the prince says, muffled. Nino peeks back over the edge of the bed, and the prince gives a sleepy laugh. “Did you fall asleep?” Nino nods, chagrined. The prince only laughs again, and sits up, hugging a pillow to his chest. This is followed by a jaw-cracking yawn, and then a long moment of stillness. Nino wonders if the prince has fallen back to sleep sitting up.
“We should, um,” the prince says finally, around another yawn. “Um. Breakfast. Yes, let’s have breakfast.” He reaches for the little bell on his nightstand, but knocks it over instead of picking it up. Apparently his staff is used to this, because a page appears almost immediately.
While breakfast is being brought up, and the prince is still struggling towards full consciousness, Nino moves around the room pulling back curtains and opening windows. The sun has only just crested the eastern horizon, and the sky is a riot of pinks and oranges and silver-lined clouds on a backdrop of crystalline blue. It is a sunrise, not a sunset, but Nino still can’t help but think: Five more days.
They spend the day out. The prince gathers a company for a hunt, although apparently this means the rest of the party hunts ducks while the prince fishes. Nino is tempted to decline the prince’s invitation to join--they will need horses, and Aiba works in the stables, and of all the people who might recognize Nino and make a scene, Aiba is very near the top of the list--but in the end, Nino cannot miss any opportunities to spend time with the prince.
Nino stays with the prince by the stream he has chosen to fish in, occasionally playing him songs, or just watching him work. The rest of the hunting party is downstream at the lake, so they are more or less alone. The prince talks much more than Nino would have expected--mostly about the weather, how pleasant the stream feels when he wades in in his bare feet, how he wishes more fish would bite. But also, so fleetingly Nino almost misses it, he talks about how he does not really want to be the King.
When they return to the palace that night, the prince summons Nino to his chambers again. They sit by the fire, Nino plays, the prince sings a few songs, and again he asks Nino to play for him until he falls asleep.
“And,” he says haltingly as he pulls the covers up to his chin. “I would not mind if you were still here in the morning.”
So Nino stays, once the prince has fallen asleep. This time, he crawls up to where he can rest his head on the pillows. The fire--mostly embers now--is behind the prince, so Nino cannot really see him, but he can hear him breathing slow, he can smell him all over the sheets, a warm scent like summer. And for the first time since he’s arrived in the palace, Nino lets himself wonder what he’s doing here, if he really has a plan. What good is it, even, if he wins the prince’s heart? The prince cannot marry a man, and to be kept as a secret lover while Satoshi takes his queen to bed to get an heir...it would only make everyone involved unhappy.
So, Nino will do nothing. Nothing but what he has been--spending time with Satoshi, singing for him, and four sunsets from now, Nino will die. The thought does not scare him as much as it should, and he thinks he is probably not letting himself feel it properly. But why worry? He cannot undo what he has done, and the chances of this plan succeeding were always slim at best.
All he can do is stay. He can be here when Satoshi awakes.
Nino closes his eyes, and sleeps.
...Kazuyo slips through the rose garden on silent feet, maneuvering herself through the pricking thorns without a scratch. There is a kind of tunnel, here, behind the tall bushes, that she and Satoshi have been cultivating for years. She was hoping to find him here, today, although it is getting harder and harder for him to get away as his twentieth birthday approaches.
But, instead of Satoshi alone, she finds Satoshi and Princess Mina, seated together under an arbor covered in roses. The tunnel comes out near the arbor, and Kazuyo wonders if Satoshi had been trying to sneak away, only to be caught by his sister. Kazuyo knows she should go, or at least hang back, until they are done speaking, but her feet carry her forward anyway, until she can hear the low words they are exchanging.
“It is a cruelty,” Mina is saying, “to keep seeing that girl. You are only giving her false hope for something she can never have.”
Satoshi shifts uncomfortably, not looking his sister in the eye. “I do not understand you. We are only friends. Is it so wrong for a prince to have friends?”
“She is not a little girl anymore,” Mina says sternly. “And nor are you a little boy. You cannot make me believe that neither of you cares for the other as something more.”
Satoshi doesn’t answer, instead giving his attention to the rose he has in his hand and is slowly ridding of its petals. In her hiding place, Kazuyo feels her heart pounding, desperate to hear what Satoshi will say, without letting herself think about why she needs to hear it.
“Maybe,” he says finally. “Maybe you are right.”
Kazuyo feels her breath catch, but it goes out of her again almost immediately when Satoshi speaks again.
“Perhaps it is time to stop.”...
When Nino wakes up the next morning, the prince is sitting up and watching him. Even after Nino opens his eyes, the prince keeps staring, doesn’t seem to realize what he’s doing until a few moments have passed, and then he blinks and shakes himself. He drops his head into his hands and says, to no one in particular: “I think I’m going crazy.”
Still bleary with sleep, Nino reaches out to touch the prince’s arm in a gesture of comfort and concern. The prince looks back to Nino, and there is such an intricate war of emotions on his face, Nino cannot make any sense of it.
“I have to go away for a couple days,” the prince tells him. Nino pulls himself upright, takes the prince’s hand.
“To a certain lord’s estate in the north. It is not so far.”
The prince hesitates, licks his lips, and Nino already knows the answer. “It is just business. Better for you to stay here. I will be back in two days.”
Nino ducks his head in acquiescence, because what else can he do? He cannot say You must take me or You must stay, I only have four days left. Instead he smiles, and writes into the prince’s hand again.
I will miss you.
The prince blinks down into his own palm, then looks back up at Nino with a bemused sort of expression.
“You know, it is strange,” he says. “I have only known you for three days. But I will miss you, too.”
Nino watches the prince ride out, escorted by a sizeable guard, and waves from the high window he is perched in, even though the prince does not turn back to look. Nino is not allowed in the prince’s chambers while the prince is gone, so he lets his feet take him where they will. He finds himself wandering many of their old haunts--the linen closets, the vegetable gardens, the rose tunnel, the musty library. They seem almost like something out of a dream, not quite right: too small, too ordinary. He goes to bed early that night, feeling strangely heavy, and noticing a little tickle in his throat that makes him keep swallowing, trying to dislodge it.
By the time Satoshi gets back, Nino has exhausted all of the places he could wander, and his health has gotten noticeably worse. The tickle in his throat has progressed to a screaming burn, making him cough soundless coughs that feel like swallowing razors. His skin is warm, and only grows moreso throughout the day.
When he is called to the prince’s room that night, Satoshi realizes something is wrong immediately. He puts a hand to Nino’s forehead and his eyes go wide.
“You’re sick,” he murmurs. “You have a fever.”
Just a cold, Nino scribbles into the prince’s palm. It will pass.
The prince urges Nino into the bed, but Nino refuses to lay down, so the prince wets a cloth in the bathing room and brings it for Nino to press against his face. While they wait for his skin to cool, the prince tells Nino about his journey--about the villages they passed, the river they forded, the condition of the horses. He never mentions his destination, and Nino begins to wonder, until:
“I met her,” the prince says at last. “The girl they mean for me to marry. She is only fifteen--that’s seven years difference!”
Don’t like younger girls? Nino writes with a smirk.
“I--well--” Satoshi falters, scrubs a hand through his hair. “Fifteen is too young. I remember being fifteen. It is no age to be becoming someone’s spouse.”
Satoshi sighs, tries to scowl at Nino, but it comes out as more of a grin. “I don’t know. You are terrible company. Play me something.”
Nino just smiles back, and tosses aside the rag that is now only lukewarm. He pulls his guitar into his lap, and sets his fingers to the strings, feeling a strange weight of anticipation. He is about to play a song that he has never played, in its completeness, to anyone. The beginning, though--strum, pluck-pluck...strum, pluck-pluck--has been with him for years, and began chasing around his mind again the past two days, while Satoshi was away. He has always wanted to see where that chase would lead, and he plays the song now, for Satoshi, finally finished.
It starts off soft, slow, unobtrusive, and grows steadily, swelling in the first chorus, and swelling again into something greater, almost overwhelming. There are lyrics, too, about a friendship that starts slow and unobtrusive and grows, unnoticed, into something more. And here, at last, Nino feels a clench in his chest and tears pricking in his eyes, because Satoshi will never hear the words. Nino will die, and he will never be able to sing this song for Satoshi, as it is meant to be.
But Nino swallows the tears down, past the burn in his throat. After he’s finished playing, Satoshi stares for a long time, brows furrowed.
“That’s,” he begins hesitantly. “I feel like I know...what is that song?”
Nino smiles weakly, and reaches for the Satoshi’s hand.
It’s for you.
Satoshi looks up at him, still baffled, but with a desperate expression--he wants so much to understand. “Will you stay, tonight?”
And of course Nino cannot refuse.
They sleep side by side. The prince fades into sleep in only a few minutes, but Nino drifts in and out of consciousness. His throat burns, his head throbs. He feels his skin growing warm again, and sweat gathering under his arms and at his temples. Eventually, towards morning, he climbs out of the bed quietly, without waking Satoshi. His feet wander again, and this time they carry him back to his old quarters--to Kazuyo’s quarters.
The room is smaller, even, than the one he was given inside the palace: a little shack in a row of more of the same, with a door that locks, and just enough room inside for a wooden pallet and room to walk around it. Nino collapses to the threadbare mattress, and begins to dream.
He dreams in memories, and the present invades constantly: catching frogs in the palace moat--there is light coming in around the door, daylight--and stealing sweets from the kitchen--they trim the roses slowly, carefully, to coax the tunnel into shape--Nino’s skin is on fire, he can feel the mattress beneath him already soaked in sweat--“Will you stay my friend?” Satoshi asks, and “Of course,” Kazuyo replies--and Nino knows this is the spell at work, the spell killing him as surely as it sealed his voice--Kazuyo shows Satoshi the little lute her mother gave her, and how she can pick out a few notes on it, notes that go strum, pluck-pluck--if he said it is time to stop, Kazuyo reasons, perhaps it is--the light fades again, surely it is almost sunset, almost over--“Have you heard? The prince, the prince is to be married.”--there is a pounding on the door, soft at first, then louder--“Remember, girl, the way to seal a spell.”--
And then Nino is being pulled upright, too fast and it makes him dizzy. He grabs weakly onto the front of a tunic, someone is here, holding him up and asking him things--the prince, Satoshi, looking into his face with wet, frightened eyes.
“You’re burning up,” he says, his voice panicked. “You are sick--you...it is you, isn’t it? Kazu?”
Nino’s eyes go wide, and he feels them fill with tears he doesn’t want. Yes, his lips move around the word and Satoshi seems to understand, yes, but how...?
Satoshi gives a broken kind of smile. “I think I always knew it was you, I--I never stopped thinking about you, but I didn’t want to hurt you, so I--But you looked so like her, like you, your eyes and the way you smile and your hands and even the little spot on your chin, and I thought--I thought I must be losing my mind, seeing you because I wanted to. But then you played that song, and that was so familiar, too, and then I remembered, you would always play it, just the beginning, over and over. But, Kazu, why are you so ill, what is the matter?”
Nino dislodges one of his hands from the front of Satoshi’s tunic and it practically falls into Satoshi’s waiting palm.
A spell, Nino manages. My voice, the price. But only for seven days.
“Only seven days,” Satoshi repeats, and looks at Nino imploringly. “And then?”
Nino cannot meet Satoshi’s gaze, and closes his eyes wearily. I’m sorry.
“No,” Satoshi says immediately. “No, you’re going to be fine, you’ve just--you’ve caught a chill, or. No, you can’t just go, Kazu, please. Oh, please--”
Satoshi’s arms are tight around him, and Satoshi continues to chant in his ear--“No, please, Kazu, Kazu, please”--but it is all fading, going down with the sun that no longer lights the courtyard beyond the door. At least it can end like this, with Satoshi here with him.
Nino gives a last soundless sigh, too tired to keep his head up any longer. But then Satoshi’s hands come up, blessedly cool, to cup Nino’s face, and then their lips meet.
The feeling is immediate, like ice, like freezing snow melt in the spring, filling Nino’s mouth and diving down his throat to his stomach and then exploding out into all his extremities. Nino’s strength returns, his hands clench in the front of Satoshi’s shirt, and his heart races with renewed purpose because he suddenly knows: he is not going to die.
Satoshi makes a muffled noise of surprise, but he doesn’t pull away, seems to know that this is the right thing to do, and reels Nino in closer, tilting his head and deepening the kiss. The feeling of cold is replaced immediately with more heat, but this is a bubbling joyful warmth that starts in Nino’s gut and spreads like a slow burning ember. He holds on and lets it fill him until he runs out of air.
“Oh,” Nino gasps, when they finally part for air. And then his eyes widen. “Oh!” he says again, louder. He takes Satoshi’s face in his hands excitedly. “Satoshi! My voice! I can talk!”
“You can,” Satoshi agrees, with a giddy laugh. “And you sound like you.”
“I sound like a boy,” Nino replies, laughing along.
“I know, but...I don’t know, you still sound like you.”
Nino’s smile fades for a moment. “I--I won’t turn back into a girl, you know.”
“All right,” Satoshi says easily. “But you’re not going to die?”
“Not from the spell, no,” Nino says. “You really don’t care?”
“I really don’t,” Satoshi says, and leans in for another kiss, to prove it. Nino lets this go on for some time, but eventually has to pull away.
“But now what will we do? You are to be married.”
“Run away?” Satoshi suggests.
Nino gives an indignant huff. “But you said--”
“Kazu,” Satoshi interrupts softly. “That was before I knew you loved me, too.”
“Oh,” Nino says through an unexpected blush. “But--”
“I’m sure Mina will love being Queen. I was never for the kingship, it’s never what I wanted, I’m made for something simpler.” He meets Nino’s eyes with a giddy, pleading stare. “Let’s go, Kazu. Let’s just go.”
“But where?” Nino says, unable to keep from smiling in the face of Satoshi’s good humor.
“Anywhere. I hear the Islands are lovely this time of year.”
“...and then they both lived happily ever after,” Nino says airily, the same way he always finishes the story. And, like every other time, the girls in the cafe coo and exclaim.
“I love happy endings,” Riisa sighs, clasping her hands dramatically.
“It never happened,” Meisa retorts, eyes narrowed. “If Satoshi-kun is a prince, then I’m a flying fish.”
“Your gills are showing.” This from Ryoko in her usual corner table. “Enough stories, my coffee is getting cold!”
Nino gives a mock salute and hurries to refresh her cup. The other girls go back to their gossip, and debating the truth of Nino’s story, amidst the smell of warm bread and salt air through the open door. Nino gathers a few empty plates and glasses and takes them into the back of the shop. He passes Satoshi on the way to the sink, covered in flour, humming contentedly and kneading a lump of dough. Nino has to concede, he looks nothing like a prince.
But Satoshi is happy here, in their shop by the beach, far away from his palace. Nino is happy here, with his cafe full of snarky customers, and his guitar, and his golden hair.
And he never has to count the days.