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The Desperate are not Damned

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His Majesty King Reigen Arataka of Halite was a desperate man. His kingdom was dying, and it wasn’t even dying slowly anymore. Halite was dying the rapid death of a country that was poor. They were powerful people; magic flowed through near every inhabitant like a pulse, their warriors were nigh uncontested, and if the Halite armies did not stop outsiders their local magifauna would. But they were not a wealthy country, nor were they settled on fertile soil, and no matter how Reigen shifted resources and arranged his floramages and stared and stared and stared at numbers until the cost of keeping candles burning compelled him into bed, he could not balance the costs of his kingdom. It had taken every ounce of charisma in Reigen “Silvertongue” Arataka’s body to trade and deal and all but outright steal from neighboring countries enough to keep them alive this long, but he’d reached the breaking point.

Reigen had not been born king; initially that was the duty of his cousin, who actually had the royal blood of the Kageyama line in his veins. Reigen had been in every way akin to siblings with him, but was also his most trusted advisor, confidant, and strategist. The weight of a dying kingdom, a slowly dying kingdom that had been doomed since well before his birth, had been a heavy one to bear, and when his wife Her Majesty the Queen died he crumbled under that weight like sand. His death left Reigen with a ten and a nine year old, a frantic counsel, and the kingdom’s weight on only his shoulders until Shigeo came of age. In his youth, Reigen had poured over the library, lusting after knowledge like a starving man might food. He was grateful for that in the start of his career, advising his cousin with the wealth of knowledge he’d procured, and he was grateful for it now, when the crown sat enthroned on his head.

A knock on the door pried Reigen’s eyes from his papers with their numbers that he could not make balance. The royal suite was now located in what was once the guest wing of the castle. The truly royal rooms were too large to warm or light efficiently, and lumber and candles were items no one had excess of, anymore. Thus, they sat behind closed doors, with sheets draped over furniture collecting dust. Reigen’s drawing room acted as his office, the place he worked and the place he sometimes slept adjacent to each other. The room was small, but it was functional to Reigen’s needs.

“Come in.” The tired bags of Minegishi’s eyes were more pronounced than when Reigen last saw the High Floramage of Halite, and although he tried to carry himself proudly there was exhaustion along every slumping line of his body.

“Your Majesty,” Minegishi both greeted and started, but Reigen cut him off with a sharp upward snap of his hand.

“Sit, Minegishi.”

“Your Majesty,” Minegishi chided, as though he thought Reigen a child who was plugging his ears.

“There is time for bad news after you’ve sat and had a cup of tea,” Reigen stated firmly, getting up and moving to his low-burning fireplace to fetch the tea himself. He brought two cups to the couches ‘round his table and handed one to Minegishi. There was no real space on the table to set tea: a map of Halite covered the entire thing, little tokens littering the surface, each meaning a unit of people or resources that Reigen knew the exact value of. As such, Minegishi and Reigen had nowhere to place their tea except their own hands.

“Ahh- hot!” Reigen exclaimed, somehow managing to forget that he had quite literally just taken the tea from the fireplace. Minegishi chuckled at Reigen’s frantic wiping at where he’d spit his tea, leaving his cup in his lap for the time being.

“Your Majesty,” Minegishi said for the third time, and Reigen stilled in his brushing of his pants. “There is only so much magic we can force the earth to take.”

Reigen knew this. The words still made his eyes close slowly, neck tense and lips tight, as he took a deep breath. His hand closed into a fist in his pant leg, and then slowly flattened out. “How much is our expected yield?” he whispered, just louder than the fire.

“I’m sorry,” Minegishi prefaced, and Reigen felt just as struck as he would have at the predictions. He ran his hand over his face, up into his hair, and his mind started scrambling as Minegishi gave his report. Each year they had to make allowances for the inevitable locust swarm that would find its way through the cracks in the protective netting of magic, for how much the locust would consume before the bug catchers could get to them. Each year they had to make allowances for the tsuchinoko that would lay claim to edible roots and fungi and evade the beast-slayers. But if Reigen could somehow arrange his people so the catchers and slayers were preemptively where they were needed- if the netting could somehow be strengthened to prevent holes in the first place- if his hunting parties could maybe bring the meat of the larger magifauna-

Reigen arranged the tokens on his map as Minegishi spoke, his arm heavy, tea held balanced on one knee. Minegishi drained his own cup between sentences, involuntarily wincing each time his king dropped a token off the board. Minegishi was not privy to Reigen’s machinations, but Reigen believed even he could look at the map and see that the tokens present were nowhere near enough.

“Minegishi, stay,” Reigen ordered softly when Minegishi stood to leave at the end of their meeting. “You know there is always space at our table for you. Eat dinner with us.”

“What a flagrant display, Your Majesty. Your people starve and yet you have food to spare?”

Reigen laughed at the joke and drank from his tea, cool enough now. “We can distribute food well enough with a single extra mouth- and I would not have you collapsing on my doorstep. Look at yourself, man, you need a meal and some blasted rest.”

“I would ask that His Majesty examine the particular castle of glass from which that stone was thrown.”

“Glass is far too expensive a material to be building with,” Reigen said with a wild wave of his hand and a small smile.

“Kettle.”

“Pot.”

Minegishi refilled their cups with tea and sat again as Reigen rifled through the many documents on his desk, searching for the ones pertinent to the information Minegishi gave.

“How fare Their Highnesses?” Minegishi asked.

Reigen’s hands paused and he smiled at nothing. “Well enough. Shigeo still struggles in his studies and flourishes in his garden- you should see the size of some of the broccoli he’s grown, I swear, one day we’ll be able to carve out a new castle in something that he grows.” Reigen rejoined Minegishi as he spoke, taking the tea offered to him as he sat, his documents momentarily forgotten.

“A shame that our heir should need to do garden work,” Minegishi muttered over the lip of his cup.

“There is nothing demeaning in agriculture,” Reigen reminded him firmly, “And besides, Shigeo likes it. He’s also taken to speaking with the frogs in the pond. I do believe he’s befriended them.” Reigen’s hand began to gesture as he spoke, unchecked thanks to his affection. “Ritsu remains as adamantly antagonistic to me as he has these last four years,” Reigen continued fondly, “He’s thirteen now, you know, I can only imagine how his demeanor will worsen as his adolescent angst comes into bloom. Just this last week he wrote a beautifully diplomatic letter to me, tantamount to telling me to go fuck myself.”

“You’re so proud,” Minegishi remarked with a laugh. Indeed, Reigen seemed to be positively preening as he announced Ritsu’s flourishing words and passive-aggression.

“I am,” Reigen agreed easily, face folded in a loving smile, “Those two mean the world to me.”

Minegishi nodded, and then the two lapsed into a comfortable silence, each man in his own thoughts.

“Ow- hot!”

Late the next evening, Reigen stared at his ceiling over his desk as though the solutions he grasped so desperately for could be found there. A noise that was some mix of dry shrivelling and a wet squelch alerted him to the arrival of one of his Faces.

The Faces were magic, and technically Reigen’s, but they were not Reigen’s magic, as he was one of the few members of his kingdom who had no magic at all. They were a magic of Halite, loyal to whatever current monarch held the throne, and a critical part of Reigen’s ability to rule despite how obnoxious they made themselves. The Faces were just that: faces, magic faces that appeared on walls and observed. They watched and listened and, to Reigen, spoke; they were the most invaluable of informants and a giant pain in the ass.

Reigen dragged his eyes down from the ceiling to meet the “eyes” of the Face. “If you’re only here to give me useless information, I will paint over you again,” he threatened. Magicless, he couldn’t actually do anything to the Faces, but two could play the annoying-game.

“I come from Umberland,” it rasped. The first time a Face had spoken to Reigen, he thought the things demonic. Now, he didn’t even register their creaking, vaguely-echoing voices. “They remain under attack across their eastern border. Their crown prince is twelve years old and reckless, a woman in the capital owns twelve cats, a butcher threw a meat cleaver at me…” The Face continued on, listing things and people and events it had observed, but Reigen’s brain hitched on that early fact.

Twelve. That’s close to Ritsu’s age, Reigen thought. Then another thought occurred to him, then another, until his mind drowned out the Face in front of him entirely and he had a whole plan- rough still, but complete- that might just save his kingdom.

Ritsu will never forgive me.

Reigen’s people were good, they were kind at heart, he knew, but they were magic, and they were desperate, and Reigen knew that even kind people could be driven to anger, and to violence, when desperate. Desperation warped everything, really, made the world harder and sharper and narrower than it needed to be. A starving, desperate populace turning to violence could destroy itself, and Reigen knew that this year would be the time the leash would snap.

Desperate people could be pushed to do anything, really, even hurt the ones they love.

“I still don’t know why we have to attend,” Ritsu said skeptically, eyeing Reigen and holding his elder brother’s hand as they walked down the sparsely used stone corridor. The rooms in this wing were too large to efficiently warm and light, but in the day the sun took care of lighting and when there were enough bodies to justify a larger room warmth would not always be an issue.

Reigen did not answer Ritsu’s prodding, but he did pause, and turn, and bend to hug Ritsu and Shigeo. “You two: know I love you dearly.”

“...You’re going to do something bad,” Ritsu accused warily, stiff in Reigen’s embrace whereas Shigeo hugged him back with one arm.

“Ritsu, calm down. Uncle Reigen isn’t going to do anything bad,” Shigeo said plainly. Reigen was always “uncle” to Shigeo, never cousin, sometimes “teacher.” Ritsu avoided referring to Reigen much at all, but when he did it was either a scathingly spit “His Majesty” or a simple “Reigen” with nothing else to it at all.

“Boys,” Reigen started, leading them down the hall once again, facing forward so he didn’t have to look at them. “You know what I’m always telling you- about loyalty?”

“Since our people have trusted us to rule the country, we have to put the country first,” Shigeo cited obediently. “It has to be our number one priority, because the trust of thousands have been placed in us, and we cannot let them down.”

“Family first,” Ritsu said stubbornly, and Reigen did not have to look behind him to know that Ritsu was giving Shigeo’s hand a tightened squeeze.

“That too,” Shigeo agreed.

Reigen took a deep breath but kept walking. They were almost to the meeting room now, and what else could he possibly have to say? He pushed open the doors and was relieved to see that most of his council was already assembled. His Faces had actually done what he’d asked them to, for once. It was like pulling teeth, getting them to talk to anyone other than himself.

Tsuchiya and Minegishi seemed to be in the middle of a staring contest of some sort, possibly surprised to see each other. That was fair. Reigen didn’t often call for meetings for the entire council, he needed his people out doing things in his kingdom, not sitting about in a room chatting endlessly, so it wasn’t often his High War General met with his High Floramage. Reigen ushered Shigeo and Ritsu into chairs near the head of the table, and Tsuchiya paused to give them both a smile. Admittedly, Halite was not at war, so Tsuchiya’s job had been a quiet one ever since the skirmishes with Her Majesty Queen Tatsumaki on the northern border had ceased.

Reigen tried not to fidget too badly as he awaited the arrival of the rest of his council, smiling tersely at Muraki and Takeuchi as his leg bounced rapidly. He attempted to go over what he wanted to say, how he could say it in the best possible way. He hoped dearly that his silver tongue would not decide today was the day to fail him.

The council in its whole was 25 people, Reigen being a sovereign 26th, and once all were gathered he waved his hand rapidly rather than clapping in order to gain the attention of everyone in the room. Ritsu hastily finished whatever sentence he’d been in the middle of with Shigeo, and Reigen cleared his throat.

“As you all are obviously aware, our country is in dire straits,” Reigen started, wishing he could actually think things through before words came tumbling out of his mouth for once in his goddamned life. “This last winter nearly killed us, and this next winter surely will. Our bordering countries are already giving us more than we are capable of trading for, and not even I can convince them to part with more.” A small chuckle rose from the group. Reigen’s silver tongue was something of a joke, something of a religious hope amongst his council. No one, Reigen first and foremost, knew how Reigen managed to charm his way into the hearts and coffers of so many people, and if it weren’t for thorough vetting from many powerful mages most would be convinced that that was Reigen’s magic. “And, on top of it all, in their anger and frustration, our people are turning on each other. Illegal magic use is rampant in the streets, and the healers do not have time or energy enough to deal with the fallout we could very shortly be looking at.

“If there was ever a time for a mad gamble and some stupidly good luck, now would be it, gentlefolk. And, I think I have one such bet in mind.” Reigen had to be careful with this next part, get all the necessary information out before the part that would send the room into a fray. “The countries on our northwestern border, Nocnitsa, and our southwestern border, Claw, have been attacking Umberland for three years now. I am aware that Nocnitsa and Claw have been two of the countries we’ve been trading with at a massive advantage to ourselves during that time, and I am aware that by joining with Umberland, we will be all but permanently forfeiting our alliances with those two countries, should they exist by the end of this. However, we are guaranteed not to exist by the end of next winter if something drastic does not change, and Umberland is being invaded specifically because it has a wealth of resources and richly fertile ground. Should we strike an alliance with them, we can lend whatever forces Umberland might seek from us,” Reigen nodded to Tsuchiya, “And in return I will find a way to take from them everything they’ve got. I’ve convinced people to trade with us at a disadvantage before, I can do it again, aided by both myths and truths of our military strength and-” not hopefully, Reigen couldn’t say hopefully, not now, “-my natural ability to persuade.”

“Your Majesty,” Banshoumaru, Reigen’s Keeper of the Abacus, said, “first: if we are at war with Nocnitsa and Claw, the trade routes we have through those kingdoms will be no longer available, and anything we could gain from Umberland would be stopped before ever reaching our border. Second, how will-”

“Which is why, Banshoumaru, we will have our forces on the main trade route, protecting it, before we ever ambush Nocnitsa, should the deal go through. My intention is to finalize the arrangement with Umberland as Tsuchiya finalizes readying our troops, and between Halite and Umberland we will pop Nocnitsa like a blemish, and then cascade down upon Claw from three sides. The war likely will not be won in a year,” Reigen admitted with some rapid hand motions, “but so long as even only one trade route remains open to us, by whatever force is necessary, we will survive the winter.” He pointed at Banshoumaru with a flat palm, “That is what matters now. Survival first, and then everything we can wring from Umberland, and then a potential return to prosperity, or even just mediocrity.” Reigen would settle for anything, at this point.

“What I believe may have been Banshoumaru’s second point, but is now my point,” Takeuchi said, “Is the concern of Umberland even accepting such an arrangement. Unless your Faces have told you things we know nothing about, surely a country with such wealth could afford to furnish their army well enough that they would not be half so desperate for our aid as we are for theirs. We have nothing, comparatively, to offer them, even with your silver tongue.”

Right.

“Which is why,” Reigen said, bracing himself (no amount of preparation could surmount to anything, he knew) for Ritsu’s reaction, “we will not offer only military aid. Their crown prince is twelve, and according to my Faces he is not betrothed. We will offer him Ritsu’s hand in marriage.”

“NO!” Ritsu’s hands slammed on the table, fissures spreading from his fingers like broken glass, splintering the wood in lightning patterns. Reigen knew it was coming, but still he flinched. “No! Absolutely not! I refuse!” The fury in his voice was almost enough to drown out the hurt, the betrayal. The fear.

“Ritsu-” Shigeo started, lifting up a hand to Ritsu’s shoulder, and to the surprise of everyone in the room Ritsu brushed him away.

“No! No, Reigen, no, you cannot do this to me, you cannot do this to me!”

Reigen tried so hard to make his face impassive. He was a skilled and practiced liar, perhaps he even succeeded.

“I understand,” he said slowly, “that an engagement between two boys is uncommon.” God, if Reigen could do this in a way that wouldn’t result in Ritsu crying, that’d be great, but so far nothing seemed to make that option feasible. “And I understand that convincing Umberland of the arrangement’s legitimacy will take cunning, but I ask that you all trust me to act in this kingdom’s best interest, even here in the middle of a mad gamble.”

“You cannot intend to dress Ritsu up as a girl,” Takeuchi said thoughtfully, “The secret would be revealed eventually, and might be taken as a dire slight against Umberland.”

“No,” Reigen held a hand up, silencing Ritsu’s bubbling panic and wherever else Takeuchi’s mind might have been going with that line of thought, “Ritsu will not be dressing as a gender he is not, it will be a union between two boys. Such a charade would be a fool’s errand, and I prefer my lies to be much more secure than that.”

“Most royal unions are made with the promise of producing an heir-”

“No-!”

“Enough!” Reigen shouted, startling everyone in the room. “I am aware of everything that any of you might have to say about this, what I am asking is that you trust me as your king. You do not need to know every detail, just the ones pertaining to your duties to this country. So trust that I will do mine.”

Ritsu hit the seat of his chair with a resounding thud in the silence that followed, this time allowing Shigeo to place his arms around him and comfort him as he clutched at his mouth and tried to stop the tears racing down his face. Reigen supposed, as he often did, that it was a testament to his strange and enigmatic charisma that he could sit here, in a room full of people who knew him to be a liar and a keeper of secrets, and still have every council member trust him as he asked them to. They asked no more questions on how the engagement would come to be, how it would work, how Reigen could force Umberland to accept it when there were a plethora of reasons why Umberland shouldn’t. They only moved forward to preemptive planning, to armies and trade and distribution, who would be needed where, on what front, and when they needed to be there. Reigen’s Faces shifted in and out of existence throughout the meeting, providing snatches of information he had asked that they seek out specifically for this meeting, and Ritsu and Shigeo were allowed to step out early, Ritsu still crying.

“You swore!” Ritsu shouted at Reigen, late in the night after hours spent with the members of his council. “You promised you would keep my silence!”

“And I have,” Reigen said firmly. “I have told no one.”

“But you will!” Ritsu accused. “When you have to convince Umberland to take me as the fucking bride to its prince! You’ll tell them, then! You’ll damn me to a life in a different kingdom I know nothing of, with no one who knows me there, to be called a she for the rest of my life!”

“I will not,” Reigen said, still keeping himself calm in the face of a screaming, overpowered adolescent whose magic bled from him in multicolored tendrils, who Reigen had seen warp metal with the ease of wet reeds.

“How, then!” Ritsu demanded. “How will you convince them to take me as- as- as the betrothed; unions are supposed to produce heirs, remember? I’ll have to-” Ritsu cut off with a hand on his mouth, making a gagging noise as he pitched forward, other hand flying out to catch himself on the arm of the loveseat. “Oh god, oh god oh god.” He was crying again.

“Ritsu,” Reigen said gently, moving somewhat closer but not close enough for the agitated, undulating tendrils of magic to touch him, “You have years before your body is even capable of safely doing that, it won’t be an immediate thing.”

“But it’ll happen,” Ritsu spat. His legs were visibly shaking.

“Ritsu,” Reigen said, soft, pitying, crouching down with his hands outstretched. “Take a deep breath. The future will worry about itself, but right now you need to reel yourself in away from the brink of throwing up in the middle of your chambers.”

Ritsu laughed, a bitter thing. But, to his credit, he did indeed take a few deep breaths following that. “You took an oath,” he said when he seemed a little less likely to vomit, fall over, or both.

“One I intend to keep,” Reigen said gravely.

“How?” Ritsu whined, his magic curling in around him now, anger spent and leaving a frightened, hurting child huddled in a ball of protective iridescence.

“Ritsu,” Reigen said, swallowing hard around the dryness of his throat, “I just need you to trust me, okay?”

Ritsu looked at him from under his hair, through the tears he wasn’t quite done spending.

“Swear again,” Ritsu demanded, “Swear to me you won’t tell Umberland, even if you have to in order to make the deal.”

“I promise,” Reigen said. “I swear to not tell Umberland your secret, even if it’s necessary,” Reigen lied.

Ritsu searched Reigen’s face, but Reigen was a very good liar.

“Okay,” he said, “I- I’m going to regret doing this, but I’ll trust you.” Ritsu shivered and sniffled loudly, a wet noise of hauling snot, and wiped at his eyes. “I’m going to bed,” he announced, so much quieter than Reigen was used to hearing him speak. Reigen watched the shivering ball of blue magic recede, and then turned to Shigeo, who had been wringing his hands on the sideline of their discussion the whole time.

“Uncle Reigen,” he said anxiously, “this is just one of your tricks, right? You’re- you’re pulling wool on Umberland. You don’t actually mean to send Ritsu away, right?” It spoke volumes of Shigeo’s distress that his emotions were so plain in his voice.

It occurred to Reigen, then, that Shigeo might never forgive him for this either. That the hands that so firmly clasped together so often would be separated all but permanently because of this, and that there was nothing in this world Shigeo loved as dearly as his brother.

But Reigen was a desperate king, and desperate people could do anything, really.

“Oh Shigeo…”

Including hurting those they love.

“I’m so sorry.”