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After Ever After - The Hidden Prince

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When Prince Yo-ka had finished his Culling, one of his goals had been to help his final six candidates – or, rather, the four candidates who were not chosen by either himself or his brother – achieve their dreams for themselves.

It was the least he could do for them. He'd taken weeks out of their lives to chase a dream of becoming royalty that didn't bear fruit. Besides, when he'd gotten to know all of them, he knew that he genuinely liked them. And what better way to use wealth and power than to help people you liked get ahead in life?

So he got Ruiza of D appointed the Royal Perfumier – an assignment that worked out in more ways than one, as his former candidate ended up romantically involved with Yo-ka's friend Tatsuya, Royal Undersecretary of the Exchecquer. This made Yo-ka feel doubly good, because he'd helped his ex-candidate on both professional and personal levels.

Next, he arranged to have MiA of Mejibray hired for the royal photography staff, and even influenced a hip fashion design collective within the capital to add MiA's boyfriend, Koichi. Since Koichi designed rather eccentric fashions, he fit right in with them.

Hiro of Fest Vainqueur was a bit tougher – he was from a family of ice cream makers, and Yo-ka couldn't persuade his father to add an ice cream specialist to the royal kitchen staff. However, the dilemma was solved when the proprietor of a long-standing ice cream shop near the palace passed on without a will or an heir – meaning that his property was automatically taken over by the Crown.

Yo-ka got wind of this through his friend Tatsuya – and seized the deed before his father even knew it was there. He made a gift of it to Hiro, who promptly moved to the capital, bringing several friends with him to help run the business.

But the biggest challenge for Yo-ka had been Hiyori of Kiryu. Hiyori's dream had been to have a comedy troupe. There was little Yo-ka could do at first but give Hiyori the financial backing and encouragement to get it started, and then encourage club and theater owners to book them. Fortunately, they started to grow a reputation quickly – which was compounded when a well-known comedian had them as guests on his radio show. They went over so well that they were invited to become weekly attractions on the broadcast – which originated from the capital.

“Hiyori's moving here,” Yo-ka told Toya, Yuuki and Subaru one night at dinner. “I just helped him and all his troupe members find apartments.”

“He is?” Subaru said. “That's terrific! That means everyone is going to be living here now! Everyone from the Culling, that is!”

“They're even getting a residency in a comedy club,” Yo-ka said. “And I didn't even need to set that one up! The owner heard them on the radio and sought them out himself.”

“This week is just full of good news, isn't it?” Toya said.

“Oh?” said Yo-ka. “What's the other good news?”

“My brother is moving here, too!” Subaru said. “I found out this morning. He's got a job running the office at one of the shipping services.”

“Don't tell Father,” Toya said. “I can just hear him now.” He imitated the king's voice, saying, “ANOTHER guttersnipe? Isn't one enough? How many people ARE there in Royz?”

Yo-ka and Subaru laughed, and Yuuki just shook his head. “I hope you made sure your father wasn't around before you said that,” he said.

“At this point?” Yo-ka said. “I don't think Toya really cares if Father was around.” He turned to Subaru. “When is your brother coming? I'll make sure he gets a place.”

“Next week,” Subaru said.

“Same time Hiyori's group is moving in,” Yo-ka said. “I'm going to have to make sure I have a party to welcome all of them. And Father can't say anything about it. Hiyori was a Culling semi-finalist, and your brother is going to be related to this family by marriage if things keep working out. They're entitled to a party.”

“Yes!” Subaru said. “Definitely, let's have a party! And I can't wait to see my brother AND Hiyori! This is going to be an exciting couple of weeks!”

Little did Subaru know, but things were going to be a lot more exciting than he – or anyone – had planned on.

* * *

Kurosaki Mahiro never thought he'd be living in the capital, with regular radio and comedy club gigs. When he started in this business, he figured he'd be kicking around small-time clubs for a long time, paying his dues like just about everyone else in this business.

But here he was, standing in his new apartment, looking out his window at the spires of the damn Royal Palace. And the schedule in the notebook in front of him was saying radio rehearsal tomorrow, broadcast Thursday night, then a weekend of shows at one of the biggest comedy clubs in the capital. Oh, and there was a party for them at the palace somewhere in there, too.

It was all moving way too fast. He knew going into this that their troupe leader, Hiyori, had been in the Royal Culling, had finished pretty high, and stayed in touch with Prince Yo-ka. He didn't think those connections would carry them this far, though.

Not that he was exactly complaining. He'd rather things happened fast. He wanted to play on as many stages as he could, make as many people laugh as possible, before, well . . .

He wasn't going to think about that. There was too much to do right now. For one thing, he needed to finish unpacking. He still had both his regular street clothes and various costumes for his group's comedy sketches – a magical girl dress, a bee suit, a quasi-military uniform of the type commonly worn by vocal groups – scattered around the room. Better make some order out of this chaos.

But while he worked, he was going to call his mother back in Kiryu. The phone had a long enough cord that he could still move about the room.

“Hello, Mother,” he said. “I'm getting settled in. You should see the place. It's right near the palace. I mean, I can see it from my window.”

“That's nice, dear,” his mother replied. “It's been a long time since I've been in the capital, you know. Since before you were born. I wonder if I'd know the place if I came back?”

“I forgot that you lived here,” Mahiro said, struggling to fit the bee costume on a hanger. It wasn't cooperating.

“Lived and worked there,” his mother said. “It was the first place I lived after Codomo Dragon. That was the best time of my life. I probably still would be there if I . . .” She abruptly stopped. “Never mind. Did you contact the eye specialist – the one Dr. Nakaboyashi recommended?”

“Not yet,” Mahiro said. “I'll do that tomorrow, before rehearsal.”

“You don't want to drag your feet on that, dear,” Mahiro's mother said. “You need to be established with someone just in case you . . .”

“I know, Mother. I know,” Mahiro said. “I'll take care of it as soon as possible, I promise.” He'd finally managed to get the costume draped on the hanger in a way that at least would hold it semi-unwrinkled.

“Good,” she said. “And I'll be listening to your radio broadcast. I'm getting all our friends to listen, too. You've got a lot of people rooting for you back here in Kiryu.”

“You know, when I'm more settled in here, you could always come and visit,” Mahiro said. “You said you might like to see how the capital has changed.”

“That's all right, sweetie,” she said. “You know how busy I am here – I'd be lucky if I'd get someone else to watch the bakery for a day, let alone a whole vacation.”

“Just a suggestion,” Mahiro said. “But you do need the time off – and you said you were happy when you lived here. I figured you might want to see it again.”

“I know,” his mother said. “I'll . . . I'll think about it, okay?” But her voice sounded stiff – as if it was going to take some convincing in order for her to go from thinking to doing.

“Okay,” Mahiro said. “I need to finish cleaning up here. Love you.”

“Love you too, sweetie,” his mother said.

Mahiro frowned as he hung up. Why did her mother seem so reluctant to come see him in the capital? It wasn't as if the place was connected to any BAD memories – right?

He started putting clothes away. He'd think about it later – he had other things to do right now.

* * *

Hanamizakura Kouki looked out the window of the limo as it approached the palace grounds. This was flat-out surreal on two levels. First, the fact that he was in a limo. When he grew up in Royz, the biggest car he had ever ridden in had been the mid-sized sedan belonging to a teacher who gave him a lift to school. Second, the fact that he was being driven to the palace. The only castles people in his hometown usually saw were made of sand.

Of course, that was before his brother got chosen for the Culling.

Kouki had been living in Dauto when Subaru gave him the good news over the phone. “I don't expect to go very far,” he said, “but at least I'll get to see the capital for a few days!”

“You'll go further than you think,” Kouki had told his younger sibling. “You're too adorable not to!”

Of course, not even Kouki had dared dream that Subaru would have ended up with a prince's Pledged collar around his neck. But he was overjoyed that it happened – not just because Subaru was marrying into royalty, but because he seemed absolutely crazy for his Toya, and Toya was equally crazy for him. That, to Kouki, mattered far more than the guy's status.

Of course, he wasn't complaining about the royalty part, though. Not at all.

The car stopped at the main palace gate. The driver opened the door, bowing. “Here you are, sir.”

“Um, thanks?” Kouki wasn't sure what to do at this point. Bow back? Tip the guy? Go into a little song and dance? This sort of thing was completely foreign to him. Good thing he hadn't been the one chosen for the Culling, he would have been booted the first day.

Fortunately, his dilemma was resolved by a blond tornado hurling itself through the gates of the palace and over toward his vehicle. The tornado then launched itself at the much taller man, grabbing onto him with two strong arms, at which point it solidified into Subaru.

“You're here!” he said. “You're here, you're here, and I'm so glad . . .”

“Of course I'm here,” Kouki said, reaching out to ruffle his brother's hair. “Did you think I was going to pass up a chance to see you?” He looked up to see another man, this one with dark hair, moving much more slowly toward the car. “Toya!” he said. “How's it going!”

The chauffeur looked mildly scandalized that Kouki had addressed the prince as “Toya” and not “Your Highness.” Toya himself, though, looked completely unruffled. “Never been better in my life,” Toya said. “Subaru has brought me a lot of happiness.”

“Good,” Kouki said. “And have you brought him happiness, too?”

“Yes, yes, yes!” Subaru said. “I have so much to tell you about, Kouki! We started our surfboard and rollboard business! We're getting stuff into stores all over the place! We're even shooting ads for it – I had my first modeling assignment last week!” He grabbed his brother's hand and tugged him toward the palace. “And all my friends are here now! You have to meet MiA and Hiro and Ruiza, and Hiyori just arrived a few days ago, and we're going to be having a party for both you and Hiyori, and you have to meet the ambassador from Jiluka and his fiance too, they're really good people, and . . .”

“Whoa, whoa, slow down!” Kouki said. “Take a deep breath, Baru-chan, you're going to explode into a million pieces!”

“It's just that I'm happy to see you!” Subaru said. “I haven't had many chances to since, well . . .” He squeezed his brother's hand. “I still have trouble sometimes saying, 'since I became a duke.' It doesn't seem real.”

“It's real,” Kouki said. “It's real, and you deserve it. Whoa, wait a second – what's this about a party?”

“Tomorrow night,” Subaru said. “Yo-ka's idea. It's to welcome you to the capital. You and Hiyori's comedy troupe.”

“I haven't got anything to wear to a royal ball!” Kouki said. He looked around, frantically. “You got any fairy godmothers? Any of them hiding among the bushes here?”

“You could get away with wearing a nice kimono, if you brought one with you,” Toya said. “Or we could have our stylists fit you with one.”

“Stylists?” Kouki said.

“People who take care of the royal family's wardrobe and makeup for special occasions,” Toya said. “Since you're Subaru's brother, you're entitled to their services.”

“You ARE hiding fairy godmothers around here!” Kouki said. “Do I have to bring my own pumpkin? Wait a minute – are they going to have kimonos in my size? I don't know if you noticed, but I am kind of tall.”

“That's kind of obvious,” Subaru laughed, squeezing his brother's hand. “They'll have something, I'm sure. There have been tall members of the royal family.”

“Whoa,” Kouki said. “A personal dresser. They don't wash you in the bath too, do they? That would be kind of weird.”

“No,” Subaru laughed. “That, we do ourselves. Come on – I'll show you to the rooms you'll be staying in tonight and tomorrow. They're the same ones I stayed in at the start of the Culling.”

He led his brother down the hall, thinking, I wish I could find a fairy godmother for him. I want him to find someone or something to make him as happy as Toya has made me!

* * *

The My Dragon troupe entered the party together. Tonight, they weren't wearing their silly costumes – they were wearing nice kimonos. Of course, their outfits were color-coded to the same basic scheme they used in a lot of their comedy sketches – Mahiro was purple, Takemasa was green, Mitsuki was red, Hiyori was pink and Junji was blue. They sort of did it on automatic reflex – even though Mitsuki said, “I think we can tell each other apart by now.”

Walking into the ballroom was an experience for all of them except Hiyori, who'd been there before. “Holy crap,” Junji said. “Look at this place! Look at the fancy furniture! Look at all the WINDOWS! How do they keep it all clean?”

“Servants,” Hiyori said. “Lots of them.”

“They must employ an entire town worth of servants,” Junji said, craning his neck this way and that. “I mean, with all the . . .” He stopped suddenly as a much smaller body ran into him. “Whoops,” he said.

“It's okay,” Mahiro said, taking a couple of steps back. “I didn't see you.” Which was the truth. The painful truth.

Hiyori gently pulled Junji aside and whispered, “Junji . . . please, remember to be mindful of Mahiro's peripheral vision. That means offstage as well as on.”

“Sorry,” Junji whispered back. “I was kinda overwhelmed and, well, I forgot.”

Mahiro was turning his head to look around the room, slowly. Everything seemed to either glitter and gleam – windows, silverware, glasses, candles – or appeared big, heavy and made to impress. It was as if the royal family didn't want you to forget that you were in the most upper-class of upper-class surroundings.

A waiter approached him with a tray of champagne glasses. “Something to drink, sir?”

Mahiro wasn't particularly in the mood for champagne. Truthfully, he just wanted an old-fashioned beer. “Is there an open bar, by any chance?” he said.

“Right over there,” the waiter said, nodding his head. “There are, in fact, several throughout the ballroom, sir.”

“Thank you,” Mahiro said, bowing. He walked over to his troupemates and said, “I'm getting a beer. I'll see you in a few.”

He wandered over to the line for alcohol – which, fortunately, wasn't that long, probably because the drink station was one of several. He heard someone else get in the line right after him.

“Pretty damn impressive, isn't it?” said a voice behind him. Mahiro turned, and looked up – and up. There was a guy about his own age, maybe a few years older, who was as tall as Mahiro was short.

Great, Mahiro thought. Nothing I love more than talking into someone's belly button. “I don't think I've ever seen anything like it,” he said. Well, that was the truth.

“So I take it you don't come here often, either?” said the tall man. “It's my first time in a palace. Guys like me usually don't get invited to these places.”

“Guys like me don't get invited, either,” Mahiro said, continuing to crane his neck. He was ignoring the voice in the back of his head that told him the craning was worth it, because this guy was damn attractive.

“Oh?” the blond said. “So, what is it you do? A model? You'd think I'd remember a face like yours.”

Mahiro restrained himself from eye-rolling. “Hardly,” he said. “I'm with a comedy troupe. The one formed by Hiyori – um, the Viceroy of Kiryu.” He had to remember to refer to his friend by his formal name in this place – as ridiculous as it seemed.

“You are?” the tall man said. “That's great! So you're performing tonight?”

“No,” Mahiro said. “We just got invited to be the guests of honor. Well, us and the brother of Prince Toya's pledged.”

“What a coincidence!” the other man replied. “I'm that brother. We were both fated to meet up here!”

“I don't really believe in fate,” Mahiro said. He reached the counter and gave his beer order.

“How about luck?” the tall man said. “Do you believe in that?”

“Sometimes,” Mahiro said. “But I believe you earn your success. You HAVE to believe it in a competitive business like comedy. And I'm willing to work hard to get where I want to be.” He took his beer, bowed to the bartender and stepped aside. “Well, it was nice meeting you.”

“Where are you going?” the blond said.

“Well, I have my drink.”

“And I'm about to get my drink, too. Can I interest you in sharing those drinks together?”

Mahiro looked around. He wanted to say he needed to get back to his group – but they had fanned out around the room and were talking to various people. He saw Hiyori chatting to a not-quite-as-tall-as-this-guy blond and a pink-haired man whose outfit could only be described as eccentric. Mitsuki was talking to a reporter who'd done a story about them not too long ago, and Junji seemed to be chatting up a pretty young man with longish, peach-colored hair and very full and shapely lips.

Well, so much for that excuse, he thought. And the tall man really wasn't hideously bad company. Plus, he WAS attractive – he couldn't deny that.

“All right,” he said. “We'll sit down together.”

“Great! But, hey – can I ask your name? If we're going to have drinks, I want to know what to call you.”

“I have two names. My real name is Kurosaki Mahiro. My stage name is Dandy Maro.”

“What do you want me to call you, then?”

“Mahiro is fine.”

“Great! And I'm Hanamizakura Kouki. Just call me Kouki. Let's find a table!”

Above them, the royal family prepared to enter the ballroom. All activity had to cease, of course, while they were formally introduced. The king glanced around, looking for a signal from the royal herald that they should start down the stairs . . .

And his eyes fell on one particular person. Someone who was currently sitting down at a table for two with a very tall blond.

“Is that . . .” he murmured aloud. No, it couldn't be, right? There was no reason for him to be here.

“What is that, dear?” said the queen, standing at his side as always.

“Nothing,” he said. “Just thought I saw someone I haven't seen in awhile.”

* * *

Mahiro didn’t think when he came to this party that he’d spend most of it sitting at a small table talking to a guy he’d just met. He especially didn’t think he’d enjoy doing something like that. He wasn’t exactly a party person.

But much to his surprise, he was enjoying the company of this oversized blond very much. He was good at conversation, seemed genuinely interested in what Mahiro had to say, and had the good sense not to mention their height difference – even though it was screamingly obvious.

“Just what is it that you do, anyway?” Mahiro said. “Other than be a duke’s older brother, of course.”

“He didn’t start out as a duke, you know,” Kouki said. “He kind of got promoted. He started out as a surfer boy like everyone else where we come from.”

“And that’s what you do for a living?” Mahiro said. “You’re a surfer boy?”

“Nope. I work with boats. That’s the OTHER thing everyone does where we come from. That’s our one and only industry – anything to do with boats. Fishing, shipping, you name it. Okay, we also have teachers and shopkeepers and that sort of thing, but three-quarters of the working people in Royz? Either a captain, a crew member or shipping office staff. I’m the latter. Of course, I do most of them one better. I’m an office MANAGER. I had to move to Dauto for that promotion, though. I think I was the first person is five generations of my family to get the hell out of Royz.”

“So how did you end up here?” Mahiro said. “Your brother?”

“Nope. The company finally opened an office in the capital, and they sent me here to help run it. I took it in two seconds so I could be closer to my baby brother. We hadn’t seen much of each other over the past few years. He’s grown into someone I can be proud of – like I knew he would. When he got chosen for the Culling – you know how that works, don’t you?”

“Oh, yes, I do,” Mahiro said. “My mother was in the King’s Culling.”

“No kidding!” Kouki said.

“Representing Codomo Dragon,” Mahiro said. “That’s where she grew up. She finished in sixth place – at the time, it was the highest finish for a commoner ever. Then, she spent several years serving as a Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen.”

“Whoa!” Kouki said. “She’s an important person! So she's not working in the palace anymore?”

“Her aunt passed away and left her a bakery in her will,” Mahiro said. “So she left the palace and moved to Kiryu to run it. That was around the time I came around. Her mother moved to Kiryu, too, to help take care of me.”

“Your father was too busy working?” Kouki said.

“I never knew my father,” Mahiro said. “I haven’t really asked many questions about it. All my mother told me was he lived at the palace and he probably wouldn’t want to be involved in my life. My guess? A high-ranking member of the staff who was married. It’s not something I think about. As far as I’m concerned, my mother and grandmother are all the family I need.”

At that moment, the Palace Chief of Staff, the Duke of Umiyuri and cousin to the king, stepped up to the microphone in front of the bandstand. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “before we begin our entertainment for the evening, I would like to introduce this evening’s guests of honor. First of all, we have Hanamizakura Kouki, brother of His Grace the Duke of Royz, the Pledged of His Highness the Prince of Charlotte.”

“Oh!” Kouki said. “That’s me!” A spotlight swerved around to their table and hit him. “Do they want me to go up there?”

“I think that’s a good possibility,” Mahiro said.

“Okay, then!” Kouki got up and moved toward the stage – yes, the Duke was gesturing him to come up there. Well, damn. He didn’t have any remarks prepared. He climbed up on the stage, the spotlight nearly blinding him, and said, “Well, thank you, your Dukeness – um, Your Grace, yeah, that’s it.”

At the royal table, the king sneered. “Another guttersnipe,” he whispered. “He’s even worse than his brother.”

“Dear, can you please try not judging people for five minutes?” the queen whispered back. “It will probably do wonders for your digestion.”

On the stage, Kouki said, “Thanks very much for having me here! I’m really just an ordinary guy – I just happen to have a very extraordinary brother. I’m so happy that he’s with Toya and they’re making a life together and, well, that you all have accepted him. Thanks again!” He waved and went back to his seat. The nobles looked at each other, not really knowing how to react – and then, there was a smattering of applause, which grew to polite clapping throughout the room.

The Chief of Staff approached the microphone again. “Next, we have His Honor the Viceroy of Kiryu.”

Hiyori darted up to the stage, not shy about taking the microphone at all. “Hi, there!” he said. “I’m the Viceroy of Kiryu, as His Grace said, and I had the honor of serving in His Royal Highness’ Culling last year. Since then, with the help and support of Prince Yo-ka, I have been able to achieve my dream of forming a comedy troupe – and the members are here tonight! And so, I’d like to present to you My Dragon!”

“He didn’t say we were going to be performing!” Mahiro whispered.

“I’m going to call them up one at a time and introduce them,” Hiyori said. “First of all, there’s me, Isshiki Hiyori, also known as Panty Hiwai! And then, Sakai Mitsuki, also known as Charity Miki!”

Mitsuki walked up to the stage, waving, giving Hiyori a “What the hell?” glance. Hiyori gave him a “Just roll with it!” glance in return.

“Next,” Hiyori said, “Kujou Takemasa, otherwise known as Beauty Tama!” Takemasa walked up to the stage, looking rather embarrassed at being in public without the face bandana that was his onstage trademark, and gave the crowd a smile and a wave.

“Tokai Junji,” Hiyori said, “otherwise known as Pretty JuJu!” Mahiro couldn’t help but notice his friend had been still busy chatting up the lovely boy with the peach hair and full lips – so he ended up bounding to the stage in a hurry, making a quick, sheepish bow.

“And finally,” Hiyori said, “Kurosaki Mahiro, also known as Dandy Maro!”

Mahiro rushed to the stage and bowed quickly. I would have preferred it if we were performing, he thought. I’d know what we were doing if we had costumes and an outline of a sketch. He just gave everyone a smile, trying not to notice the audience.

Meanwhile, at the royal table, the king was staring at the stage with a clenched jaw and equally clenched fists. It is him, he thought. It is definitely him. How the hell did he end up mixed up with one of the losers from my son’s joke of a Culling?

He beckoned over one of the royal footmen. “See that boy?” he said to the servant. “The short one onstage with the dark hair? I’m going to my private chambers in a moment, and I want him brought to me – as soon as possible.”

* * *

Yo-ka figured it could never be said about him that he wasn’t a good boyfriend.

He was always willing to provide whatever Yuuki needed, when he needed it – even if it meant going down to the kitchens to fetch him some juice at three in the morning. Of course, Yuuki was willing to do the same for him as well – one of the primary ingredients in a functional relationship. You’re there for me, I’m there for you.

What Yuuki needed right now was his wide-brimmed black hat.

“I left it in the rehearsal studio,” he said to his Pledged. “Right next to your father’s private office. I can’t go onstage without it, and we need to start our sound check in five minutes.”

“Love, do you really NEED it?” Yo-ka said.

“I need it! This whole outfit was designed around that hat. Look, it’s a performer thing, you wouldn’t understand, okay?”

“Oh, I understand,” Yo-ka said. “Sort of.”

“Anyway – can you do me a favor and run to the rehearsal studio and get it? Please?”

“I can’t say no to you,” Yo-ka said. “Okay, I’ll go get it.”

He was halfway there when it occurred to him that he could have gotten any of the household servants to fetch the hat. But he was doing it personally, because he was just such a good boyfriend. I must really, really be in love, he thought.

Hat in hand, he was a few steps into the hallway when he heard voices coming from his father’s office. What’s this? he thought. There isn’t supposed to be anyone there during a party – is there? He paused and strained to listen.

His father’s voice was saying, “So tell me, Mahiro-san – your mother, how is she doing?”

“She is fine, sir,” said the voice of a young man – Yo-ka recognized it as one of the members of Hiyori’s comedy troupe. Mahiro, his name was. “We’re both living in Kiryu nowadays. She’s running her aunt’s bakery.”

“She did mention her aunt during the Culling, I remember,” the king said. “She was still living in Codomo Dragon then.”

“I know, Your Majesty,” Mahiro said. “She’s spoken of her time in your Culling, and when she served as Her Majesty’s Lady-in-Waiting.”

“What has she said about that time?” the king said.

“Just that she was very happy,” Mahiro said. “I think she was reluctant to leave – but she did have to fulfill a family duty.”

“Yes,” the king said. “Family duty.” He paused. “And you are with the Viceroy of Kiryu’s comedy troupe now?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Mahiro said. “I’ve been performing in various theater and dance groups for awhile now. Hiyori – the Viceroy – offered me an opportunity to be in his new troupe, and I accepted. He’s been a friend of mine for a long time.”

“And you seem to have become the kind of young man about whom your mother should be proud,” the king said. “Give her my regards, will you?”

“I will, Your Majesty,” Mahiro said. There was silence – and then, the sound of someone bumping into something, a quick thump and rattle. “Oh!” Mahiro said.

“I apologize,” the king said. “If that bust was in your way . . .”

“Oh, it’s just that I have trouble with my peripheral vision sometimes,” Mahiro said. “It’s an eye condition I’ve had all my life.”

The king muttered something. Yo-ka didn’t fully pick it up – but it sounded almost like his father said, “So you still have it.” That’s a strange thing to say, he thought . . .

And then, Yo-ka realized he had to get the hat back to Yuuki before his lover went onstage. He rushed back toward the ballroom, the conversation he’d just heard replaying itself in his head.

Why does something seem odd about it? he thought. Why is there something I can’t put my finger on . . .

He rushed up to the bandstand just as Yuuki and his group were finishing their soundcheck. “Here you are, love,” he said, handing the hat up to his Pledged.

“Just in time,” Yuuki said. “Thank you!” He leaned over, kissed Yo-ka quickly, then placed the hat on his head.

Well, that’s my good deed for the day, Yo-ka thought. He headed back to his table – and suddenly, the thing he couldn’t put his finger on hit him like a freight train.

Mahiro was saying his mother had represented Codomo Dragon in his father’s Culling. She’d also been a Lady-in-Waiting to Yo-ka’s mother.

And he remembered the fight his parents had the day Yo-ka’s own Culling ended . . .

His mother had said that the king had fallen in love with the candidate who had represented Codomo Dragon during his Culling. He’d bent the rules of the Culling to keep her by his side even after she’d been officially cut – since he bowed to the convention that the king had to marry a woman from a noble home. He’d hired her as a Lady-in-Waiting after he’d married Yo-ka’s mother. And he’d continued to have an affair with her for years.

Holy crap, he thought. Mahiro is her son. Does that mean that he’s . . .

He watched as Mahiro reentered the ballroom and went right back to the table where he’d been sitting – with Subaru’s brother, as it turned out.

“He wanted to talk to me about my mother,” Mahiro said to Kouki. “He remembers her from his Culling and when she lived in the palace.”

“She must have made quite an impression,” Kouki said. “And I have to say that making an impression runs in the family.”

“Are you flirting with me?” Mahiro said, sitting back down at the table.

“Maybe,” Kouki said. “Is it working?”

“Maybe,” Mahiro said.

“What if I asked you out tomorrow night?” Kouki said.

“Then I’d say you definitely were flirting.”

“But what would your answer be?”

“Yes,” Mahiro said. “Yes, I’ll go out with you.”

Okay, I shouldn’t be eavesdropping on this, Yo-ka thought. He looked away from Mahiro, back to his table . . .

His eyes fell on Toya. And then, he looked from Toya to Mahiro, and back again. There was definitely a resemblance there.

Yo-ka had always looked like his mother’s side of the family. Toya had always looked like his father’s. And the fact that Toya resembled Mahiro . . .

He was definitely going to have to have a talk with his brother tomorrow.

* * *

“Are you sure about that?” Toya asked Yo-ka the next day. They were sitting on a bench together at a far end of the palace courtyard, far away from any prying ears.

“There’s far too many things that are adding up in a strange way,” Yo-ka said. “The girl Father had an affair with from Codomo Dragon? Who was serving as Mother’s Lady-in-Waiting? And her son shows up – looking like you?”

“You think I look like him?” Toya said. “I consider that a compliment. He was damn attractive. In fact, if I were single, I’d find him hot.”

“You’re not single,” Yo-ka said. “And even if you were, there may be a damn good reason why that couldn’t happen. I wish there was a way we could be sure, though.”

“We could always go to the Royal Archives,” Toya said. “Find out what we can about Father’s Culling. There would be a ledger there with the names of all the women who participated in it, wouldn’t there? We’ll find out the name of the one from Codomo Dragon. What was his family name again?”

“I don’t remember,” Yo-ka said. “I have to go back to my room and find the letter Hiyori wrote me when he formed the troupe. He’s got all their real names in there.”

“Get the letter. If her family name matches his, we’ll know we have something. And then, where do we go from there?”

“See what we can find out about her working for Mother,” Yo-ka said. “But we have to do this quietly. Like, whenever we don’t have anything else to do. We don’t want it to be too obvious what we’re doing – until we have enough evidence to confront Father.”

“And if we do find the evidence?” Toya said. “What do we do then?”

“We ask him why Mahiro hasn’t been given at least the status royal bastards have in the past,” Yo-ka said.

“Hey! If Kouki is interested in him, he must be a nice guy!” Toya said.

“I don’t mean that kind of royal bastard!” Yo-ka said, giving his brother a playful whack. “I mean an illegitimate child of the king. You know that most of the hereditary dukedoms in this country are descended from people like that, don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” Toya said. “Not just dukes. It goes all the way down to gentry. Jun and I found out we were both descended from King Kisaki. Not exactly something to be proud of.”

“Usually, when the king had an illegitimate son he was granted a title, a large portion of land and a royal stipend. Mahiro is a commoner. If he had a title, he'd have been introduced by it. Even if he were gentry, there would have been a 'Sir' in front of his name. Odds are that he grew up as common as mud. He wouldn’t be running around a stage in a bee costume if he had been given his due.”

“Or maybe he would,” Toya said. “Maybe he genuinely loves doing comedy. May I remind you that your own Pledged . . .”

“Refuses to give up singing, I know,” Yo-ka said. “That’s how I found out about this in the first place. I had to go fetch his stage hat.”

“Stage hat?”

“Never mind,” Yo-ka said. “We’ll go to the archives this afternoon. You have a couple of hours free, right?”

“Yes,” Toya said. “Meeting with the surfboard distributors at 1, free after that.”

“Good,” Yo-ka replied. “I’ll meet you at the archives then.” He paused. “It’s going to be a funny feeling if we find out we’ve had a brother all this time, and we didn’t know about him.”

“Hey, I’d welcome it,” Toya said. “One more person our age to hang around with at family parties.”

“We’re not kids anymore, Toya,” Yo-ka said.

“Still would rather have more young people at the family parties,” Toya said. “We have far too many relatives who look like shriveled apples stuffed into expensive suits.”

Yo-ka shuddered. “You have one hell of an imagination sometimes, you know that?”

“Thanks. Subaru says that, too.”

“I’m not going to ask under what circumstances,” Yo-ka said.

So the brothers were resolved to find out the truth behind this rather unusual family mystery. And Yo-ka wondered if, when they found it, things would ever be the same again.

* * *

Their first visit to the archive proved fruitful, at least. They found the ledger listing all the Culling candidates, and indeed, the candidate from Codomo Dragon was named Kurosaki Emi.

“She finished sixth,” Yo-ka said. “Just like Mother said she did.” He flipped the pages. “There’s a photograph in here of Father and his top ten candidates.”

“Does it say which one is her?” Toya said.

“There’s no names on it.” Yo-ka flipped it over. “No, wait, they’re on the back. It doesn’t list names, just the districts they represented. Codomo Dragon is third from right.” He traced his finger across the picture. “That’s her.”

Toya leaned over the photo. “She doesn’t look all that much like him. I mean, there’s some features that are similar, but . . .”

“The nose,” Yo-ka said. “The nose and chin. The rest of his face?” He reached in his pocket for the letter Hiyori had sent him, which contained the troupe’s first publicity photo. “The shape of the cheekbones, and the eyes? That looks like Father.”

“Well, okay,” Toya said. “But that’s not concrete proof, is it?”

“We need to find out the exact date she left here,” Yo-ka said.

“And how can that be proof?” Toya said. “First, we’d have to find out Mahiro’s birthday. Second . . . you said Mahiro had mentioned something about his mother leaving because of family duty. She could have left before Mahiro was born, and never told Father about him. That would explain why Mahiro never got his due.”

“But Father knew damn well about him,” Yo-ka said. “Why do you think he called him to his office for a talk – in the middle of a party? He doesn’t usually do that. Kurosaki isn’t a unique enough name that he’d hear Mahiro’s family name and automatically know he was Emi’s son.”

“She may have written the palace to tell them she’d given birth after she left,” Toya said. “And it still could have been someone else’s child. Remember, we've got a lot of relatives working at the palace. Like our uncle. Maybe he’s Hitomi’s brother instead of ours, so he'd be our cousin.”

“You really are playing devil’s advocate, aren’t you?” Yo-ka said.

“Just thinking one step ahead to what Father is going to say,” Toya replied.

“We need to do more research, then,” Yo-ka said. “We need to find the records from her time of employment here, and . . .”

“And Mahiro’s birthday,” Toya said. “Don’t forget about that. Might be just a slight factor in all this.”

“And Mahiro’s birthday,” Yo-ka sighed. “Though I don’t know how we’re going to get it.”

“I have just the information connection on that one,” Toya said. “Leave it to me.”

* * *

Over the next several days, Mahiro had no idea that he was the subject of a detective investigation of sorts. No, he had other things to be concerned about.

For instance, there was how fast My Dragon's career was moving. It seemed like a constant whirlwind – club rehearsal, club performance, radio rehearsal, radio performance. Mahiro was actually glad they just did one sketch on the radio show a week – if they'd had to fill a whole hour by themselves, they'd probably collapse from exhaustion.

Not to mention that he'd have no time for the OTHER major development in his life.

True to his word, Kouki had taken Mahiro out on a date the night after the ball – dinner at a pleasant but unpretentious restaurant not far from the club, followed by drinks at a bar next door. The more Mahiro was with the tall man, the more he had to admit that he felt, well, relaxed in his company. Like he could truly be himself.

At the bar, he told the other man how he got into the troupe. “I had been shifting around to different kinds of performing,” he said. “I was in a traditional dance group with Hiyori – that's how we met – and I was also taking roles with a local theater company. Dramas, historical plays, that sort of thing. But nothing made me happier than doing comedy.”

“So what was it that you liked about it?” Kouki said.

“Probably because it was so freeing, in a way,” Mahiro said. “You can throw all kinds of inhibitions out the window – everyone expects a comedy performance to be over-the-top. And plus, it's the way you connect with the audience. There's no better feeling in the world than hearing people laugh out loud. It's like, you went out on a limb, and the audience went out there with you.”

“Instant gratification,” Kouki said.

“Something like that,” Mahiro said. “More like the feeling that you and the audience are truly one in that moment, though.” He took a drink of his beer. “I was kind of the last kid you'd expect to get into comedy. I was pretty quiet. I'd had some health issues, so . . . there was that.”

He wasn't going to tell Kouki the full extent of his eye issues. Not yet, not when they were just getting to know each other. Besides, he didn't want to risk scaring him off – not when it was going so well.

“You're not quiet now,” Kouki said. “You seem full of life.”

“Full of life, huh?” Mahiro said. “Well, I could also say that about you.”

“Maybe it's because I feel every day of life is worth living,” Kouki said. “When your life is the sea – which, let's face it, is pretty damn dangerous – you come to make the most out of all the time you have. That's one reason I'm glad I'm here. I get to experience living in the big city and hanging out at a palace.”

“But not the only reason?” Mahiro said.

“Well, I have another reason now,” Kouki said. “Getting to know you.”

“You really are an expert flirt,” Mahiro said.

“Only with people who are worth it,” Kouki said. “And you most definitely are.”

Mahiro had to admit that he found Kouki's flirting to be flattering – no matter how much he seemed annoyed with it on the surface. And so, he accepted a lunch date from him the next day, between rehearsals – and then another dinner, although he told Kouki he couldn't have drinks afterward that night.

“Club performance,” he said. “I need to get over there as soon as we're done.”

“Not a problem,” Kouki said. “I perfectly understand.”

And when Mahiro came out for his final bow at the end of the performance – dressed in the magical girl outfit, yet – there, in the front row, were Kouki, Toya and Subaru. Oh, my God, he thought. He not only showed up, he brought the prince with him. He couldn't believe the audacity.

But he was also flattered as hell. Nobody he had dated before had been this, well, determined to pursue a relationship with him. And he knew that this meant he was pretty special.

* * *

“See?” Kouki told Subaru and Toya at the conclusion of the performance. “I told you he was special! I told you!”

“He's really talented,” Subaru said. “I enjoyed the show a lot. Hiyori really found a good group of people.”

“I know I've only known him for about a week,” Kouki said, “but I like being with him. Really, really do. I'm going to keep asking him out as long as he's willing to go out with me.”

“He's from Kiryu like Hiyori?” Subaru asked.

Toya was quiet. He and Yo-ka hadn't shared their investigation with their significant others – yet. He figured it would be a good time to do so, though – especially since Subaru's brother seemed so completely smitten with Mahiro.

“Is he older or younger than you?” Subaru asked Kouki.

“Younger,” Kouki said. “He's older than you, though, Toya. Two years older. His birthday is October 19. Yes, I asked. Because I'm getting a present for him when it comes!”

Jackpot, Toya thought. I have the information I was looking for. He and his brother had hit something of an impasse in their research – not helped by the fact that they hadn't had much time to go to the archives in the last few days.

But this, he thought, this was a big help. He and Yo-ka were going to take this and run with it tomorrow.

* * *
Toya got his chance to fill Subaru in when they were back in their apartments after the performance. “But that's great!” the commoner-turned-duke said. “I mean, it's not great that your father didn't accept him as his son, but if that's true? That means my brother is dating a prince, too!”

“He'd never be a true prince,” Toya said. “You have to be born within wedlock to be considered royalty. But we're hoping to get him a high title and lands to call his own.”

“You and I would know he's really a prince, though,” Subaru said. “And so would Kouki. He'd be thrilled! He's really nuts about him, you know.”

“I figured when I saw them together,” Toya said with a smile.

“I want Kouki to be happy. Really, really happy. And if he ends up with Mahiro? I'll be thrilled. I like Mahiro, too. He seems, well, unpretentious.”

“Just the kind of person my father doesn't like,” Toya said. “Ironic that all three of his sons turned out like that, isn't it?”

“It's not ironic. It's terrific. And if there's anything I can do, any way I can help . . . just say it.”

“Well, we could use another pair of hands in the archives, if that's okay,” Toya said.

It was definitely okay – the next day, Subaru was in the stacks of old bound ledgers with the two princes, trying to gather as much information as they could about Kurosaki Emi.

“There was nothing unusual about her employment here at all, it seems,” Subaru said, looking through the books.

“There wouldn't be,” Mahiro said. “If there was a coverup of their relationship? If he was paying her extra money? There'd be no note of it.”

“She does seem to have received an exemplary service to the crown award,” Toya said. “That was presented by our mother, though.”

“And it seems that Mother was very fond of her,” Yo-ka said, holding up a bound volume of press coverage. There was a picture of the queen, surrounded by her ladies – and Emi was at her right hand. “She talks in this article about how much of a help her staff is to her, and it mentions Emi specifically. It even talks about how she was in the Culling.”

“I did find something,” Subaru said, holding up a book. “It's medical records from the year Mahiro was born.”

The two princes instantly dropped the books they were holding and flocked to him. “What does it say?” Yo-ka said.

“Well, it seems that Kurosaki Emi suddenly started going to the doctor regularly about five months before Mahiro's birthdate,” Subaru said.

“Five months?” Yo-ka said, looking over at the ledger.

Subaru nodded. “No word about her condition – just the appointment dates.”

“Why only five months? Maybe she went back to Kiryu before Mahiro was born?” Toya said.

“Most likely she was hiding her pregnancy the first few months,” Yo-ka said. “She wouldn't have wanted the king or the queen to know. Especially the queen.”

“Do you recognize the name of the doctor?” Subaru said.

Yo-ka nodded. “He was the top Royal Physician. He took care of Toya and I when we were kids. Ladies in waiting usually didn't see him – they saw one of the other doctors in the clinic. So the fact that Emi was seeing him? Yes, that looks suspicious.”

“And then after the five months . . .” Subaru turned the page. “Nothing.”

Yo-ka leaned over. “Oh, there's something, all right. There's a page torn out.”

“Are you sure?” Subaru said.

“Right here.” Yo-ka ran his finger over the ragged edge of a page. “I think we have all the proof we need. We're going to Father.”

“I think we need to talk to Mother about this first,” Toya said. “We need to make absolutely sure we have the details right before throwing them in his face.”

“I don't know if that's a good idea,” Yo-ka said. “It's just going to upset her. I mean, we ARE going up to her and saying, 'Hey, Mother, remember that other woman Father had an affair with?' If there were someone else that we could ask . . .”

The two princes suddenly looked at each other and said in unison, “Aunt Rumiko!”

“Rumiko?” Subaru said, looking confused.

“Hitomi's mother,” Yo-ka said. “She and Mother have been best friends for years. If Mother confided in anyone about what was going on with Emi, it was her.”

“We're going to Moran tomorrow,” Toya said. “Subaru and I have to talk to some distributors first thing in the morning and then I think we're free.”

Subaru nodded. “What about you?” he said to Yo-ka.

“Some paper-pushing stuff that Father pushed off on me – as usual,” Yo-ka said. “I can try to get it all done early, though. And given that we can make it to Moran and back in a day? This is doable.”

“Except you DO need to tell Yuuki, if you haven't already,” Toya said. “He's going to be asking questions if you suddenly vanish on him.”

“I'll tell him, I'll tell him,” Yo-ka said. “He may even want to go with us.”

“And if all this does check out?” Subaru said, quietly. “What then?”

“Well, we do have to talk to Father about . . .”

“I don't mean the king,” Subaru said. “I mean Mahiro. Doesn't he have the right to know about all this first?”

The princes exchanged glances. Subaru had a definite point.

* * *

To Kouki, Mahiro was rapidly becoming an addiction.

He hadn't known the smaller man for very long, of course – but that didn't mean he didn't want to get to know him better. And the more time they spent together, the more he wanted to know.

Mahiro usually saved being funny for when he was onstage – but that didn't mean he wasn't a pleasure to be around in his “civilian” life. Despite his cool demeanor, he did have a streak of risk-taking in him – that was obvious not only onstage, but in the way that he enthusiastically approached life.

For instance, there was tonight's date. The two of them went on a sunset dinner cruise – and when Kouki wanted to climb as far out on the bow as they could in order to get the best possible view, Mahiro was right out there with him, clinging to the railing as strong winds buffeted them both.

“You really are something, you know that?” Kouki said. “You reach out and grab life with both hands – even though you don't always admit to doing that. Like right now. You went this far to get the best possible view of a sunset.”

“It's because I want to experience the sunset while I still can,” Mahiro said, quietly.

“What was that?” Kouki said.

“Nothing,” Mahiro said. “Just that I'm glad we came out here tonight. It's quite a setting.”

“You bet it's a good setting!” Kouki led Mahiro out of the wind, to a part of the boat where there were a few couples strolling around, but at least it wasn't as crowded as it had been in the main dining room. “It's the ocean. There's always a sense out there that you're truly free. You're not bound by the rules from back on land. I think we can all stand to be like that sometimes. Well, you must feel like that when you're onstage. Comedy is all about breaking rules, right?”

“It's actually a lot more disciplined than you'd think,” Mahiro said. “It may look chaotic, but you have to watch your timing very carefully, and always be thinking about what you're doing next. And, yes, that even applies to improv. When we do that, we have a sense of where we're starting out and where we're ending up, and everyone has to arrive in the same place at the same time.”

“Sounds like it requires a lot of trust,” Kouki said.

“It does,” Mahiro said. “We have to trust each other a lot. It's kind of like hurling yourself off a building and having absolute confidence that your friends will be waiting below with a net.”

“Well, isn't that a lot like love?” Kouki said. “You fall in love, you're hurling yourself into the void and hoping someone will catch you. If they do, you're happy. If not? Well, it's a pretty big splat, isn't it?”

Mahiro was quiet for a moment. “It's been a long time since I threw myself into that particular void,” he said.

“Because of your career?” Kouki said.

“Mostly,” Mahiro said. “And partly because, well, I wasn't ready.”

“Think you're ready now?” the other man said.

Mahiro looked at him. “Is that an invitation?” he said.

“All I'm saying is if you're willing to throw, I'm willing to catch. We could keep following this thing and see where it goes.”

“You like dramatic statements sometimes, you know that?”

“I'm just telling the truth,” Kouki said.

Mahiro reached out and put a hand over Kouki's. “All right,” he said. “You throw, I catch, and vice-versa. But this has to be at a speed we're both comfortable with, understand?”

“Understood perfectly,” Kouki said. “I wouldn't have it any other way.”

He leaned over toward Mahiro, and Mahiro tilted his head upward, and before either of them knew it, they were sharing their first kiss. It was long and warm and sweet, and both of them knew that they wanted it with all their hearts.

They pulled back from each other, paused for a long moment, and then kissed again, longer and a bit hotter this time, wrapping their arms around one another and pulling close . . .

And then, they heard a distant gong being sounded, and a voice calling out, “Ladies and gentlemen, the main course is about to be served.”

Mahiro eased away from Kouki and squeezed his hand. “Guess we'd better get back in there,” he said. “We don't want people coming out and looking for us.”

“I guess not,” Kouki said. “But it would be entertaining if they did.”

Both men laughed softly, and then headed for the dining room, hand in hand.

* * *

Later, Mahiro sat in his apartment, gazing out at the spires of the palace as he had done his first night in the city.

Things were looking up for him on all fronts. He'd just shared another kiss with Kouki when the other man walked him to his door. Part of him wanted to invite his date in, but . . .

He said they were going to pace themselves in this relationship, and he meant it. They'd be intimate when they were ready.

He knew that when they reached that point, he'd have to divulge his ultimate secret. And then, it would be up to Kouki to decide whether to continue the relationship or not. If he did, Mahiro would know that he'd found an absolute gem. If not . . .

Well, this wouldn't be the first time that had happened to him.

Love is leaping into the void, huh? he thought. It was a corny cliché, to be sure, but coming from Kouki? It had sounded absolutely sincere, because Mahiro had no doubts that Kouki believed it with all his heart.

He was going to take the chance on that leap. Although if he landed without being caught, it would be a hell of a splat this time.

* * *

Moran was the very epitome of an upper-class town. Everywhere, there were sprawling homes with gables to the sides and lacy ironwork at the top of the front porch. Lawns were wide, well-manicured and dotted with flowerbeds. Swimming pools and fountains were visible in the rear yards of quite a few.

“This place looks like where the nobility come to die,” Yuuki said as they rode in the cab from the train station to Aunt Rumiko's place.

“It's where the nobility buy houses for their younger sons, mostly,” Yo-ka said. “Half of the residents here are gentry who are one or two generations removed from having a title. The other half are just plain old money.”

“I came from a place with a lot of money, too,” Yuuki said, “but it wasn't quite this, well, pretentious. This town just screams, 'Look at us, we're rich.'”

The cab pulled up to the biggest house of them all, surrounded by an extremely ornate set of iron gates. A loudspeaker set into the gates crackled with static. “State your name and your business,” the voice said.

Yo-ka leaned out of the back window. “His Royal Highness the Prince of Valluna and His Highness the Prince of Charlotte to see the Duchess.”

“And you and I are just chopped liver,” Yuuki murmured to Subaru.

“You may proceed, Your Royal Highness,” the voice on the other end said.

The cab made its way up a long, long, curving drive as Subaru gazed out the window. He still couldn't get over how the nobility lived, even more than a year after becoming Toya's Pledged. This manor is about as big as half of Royz, he thought.

When the cab pulled up to the gate, a butler came out and bowed low. “Your Royal Highness, it's a pleasure,” he said. “I must say that Her Grace was not expecting you.”

“Our visit is something of a surprise, I'm sure,” Yo-ka said. “We have an important matter to discuss. Just let me take care of the driver and we'll be right there.”

“I must insist that we take you back to the train in one of our cars,” the butler said. “Royalty shouldn't be traveling in . . .” He paused, then added with disdain, “Public vehicles.”

“We do it all the time,” Toya said. “We have since boarding school. You should try it!”

Once the driver had taken off, the butler escorted the group down a hall lined with portraits of previous kings – direct ancestors of the master of the house, since the Duke of Moran was the king's brother, and had once held Toya's title of Prince of Charlotte.

They arrived at a parlor filled with red and gold furniture, with red, gold-accented walls. Subaru knew by now that something like this was called a reception room, and was used solely for greeting guests. “I will get Her Grace now,” the butler said, bowing.

Subaru inched over to the pricy furniture, feeling like he'd defile it if he tried to sit. “Go ahead,” Toya told him. “It's what it's for. Yo-ka and Hitomi and I used to bounce around on these seats when we were kids.”

Subaru sat down, but it was more of a very careful perch on the edge of the seat than a true “sit.” Moments later, a woman wearing wide black palazzo pants and a green silk blouse walked into the room, diamond-studded hairpins glistening in her upswept tresses.

“Yo-ka, darling!” she said. “And Toya! And you brought your Pledged ones with you! How have you been, Subaru?”

“Fine, Your Grace,” Subaru said, standing up and bowing, then gingerly perching on the seat again. He did remember meeting Hitomi's mother a couple of times, though they'd never spoken at length. He'd always thought of her as “the Duchess” rather than “Aunt Rumiko,” though.

“So, to what do I owe this pleasure?” the aunt said, taking the biggest and most elaborate seat in the room. “It isn't that my son has broken it off with that lovely young pink-haired man, is it?”

“No, Auntie, Hitomi and Jun are happy as ever,” Toya said. “Happier than ever, in fact.”

“Good,” Aunt Rumiko said. “If there was another breakup, I might need to have a word with the young man. I was very upset when he split up with Kamijo, you know.”

“We all were,” Yo-ka said. “No, Aunt Rumiko, we've come here about, well . . . something in the past. Or, rather someone. Do you happen to remember the name Kurosaki Emi?”

The Duchess looked thunderstruck – as if someone had brought her a piece of very bad news. She gripped the arms of her chair so hard the flesh around her impeccably manicured nails was white. “How did you hear that name?” she said.

“Her son Mahiro is living in the capital now,” Yo-ka said. “He's part of a comedy troupe there. And more than that, he's dating Subaru's brother.”

“I . . . I see,” the Duchess said. The grip hadn't loosened.

“I overheard him talking with Father,” Yo-ka said, “and I can't help but have certain suspicions. Tell me – what do you know of Mahiro's mother? Of when she was at the palace?”

The Duchess looked down. “That poor woman,” she said. “That poor, unhappy woman, and the boy who . . .” She suddenly stopped and looked over at Subaru. “Did you say he was dating your brother?”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Subaru said.

“We're family, dear,” the Duchess said. “If you're Pledged to Toya, you can call me Aunt Rumiko, you know. So, have you met your brother's new boyfriend?”

“Yes,” Subaru said. “He's a very sweet man. I hope things continue to go well.”

“Did anything about him seem . . . unusual to you?”

Subaru looked confused. “No. Well, he's a bit short, but . . . a lot of people are short, aren't they? My friend Ruiz – the Earl of Denis-Auvergne-Puy-de-Dome is about the same height. What would I have found unusual about Mahiro?”

There was a long moment during which the Duchess looked down at her hands, which were now twisting and wringing around each other like she was washing with an invisible bar of soap. She seemed to be warring with herself.

Finally, she looked at the group and said, “May I offer you some tea?”

It was a stalling tactic, of course. Everyone's heads turned to Yo-ka, who nodded.

And so, the tea was brought out, poured and served by several members of the household staff with great pomp and ceremony. Another thing that Subaru really should be used to by now, but wasn't. Up until this past year, tea had involved going to the kitchen, boiling water and sticking the little sachet of leaves in the cup.

Once they were all dismissed, the Duchess sat back with her cup, looked reflective for a moment, and then began her tale.

“Hidoko” - the Queen - “always liked Emi. She used to tell me that during the Culling, they became very good friends, even though it was obvious very early on who the prince was smitten with. He always seemed happiest when he'd he'd been on a one-on-one date with Emi, and during group dates? The other girls almost had to stage a ruckus to get his attention. Hidoko figured that she'd be sent home, so she'd just enjoy being a part of the Culling while she could.”

Subaru nodded. This all sounded very familiar. His own Culling experience was one long marathon of holding his breath with every elimination, wanting to hold onto every happy moment while he could – because it was impossible for anyone from Royz to make it to the end, right?

“But then, toward the end, Emi was suddenly cut, but she wasn't sent home. And suddenly, Hidoko found herself getting more and more of the prince's attention. She wasn't complaining, she just found it odd. After she was chosen to be the prince's Pledged, he suggested that she hire Emi to be a personal assistant, and she agreed – she figured it was a better opportunity than any the girl would get at home, and besides, she still liked Emi.”

“How long before she came to regret that?” Yo-ka said.

“How do you know about your father and Emi in the first place?” the Duchess asked.

“I heard Mother yelling at him about it during an argument.” Yo-ka didn't want to tell his aunt that his mother had flat-out used the information to blackmail his father into letting the princes be with who they wanted.

“I imagine she's been holding it over his head all this time,” the Duchess replied. “Hidoko told me she suspected Emi was still involved with her husband about a year after they were married. There were times when she couldn't find her – Emi was your mother's right-hand woman by this point – and when she'd go searching, she'd hear noises coming from her husband's private office, or from one of the guest bedrooms, and she could swear it was their voices. She told me about it, and I told her to confront them both. Of course, they both denied it.”

“But they kept on with it,” Yo-ka said.

“Yes. And it got worse when Hidoko had her health problems. She was tired and listless for a long time when your sister was a child, and couldn't get pregnant again. That ended up just deepening the bond between your father and Emi. They were getting more careless about sneaking around. I'm sure the whole situation just made your mother's condition worse. And then, around the time that the doctors figured out your mother's thyroid was the problem and put her on proper medication . . .” The duchess paused.

“She got pregnant, didn't she?” Yo-ka said. “Emi did, I mean.”

“Hidoko came here in hysterics,” Rumiko said. “She said she'd gone to the royal physician to ask a question about the side effects of her medication, and found him in a consultation with Emi – who was definitely pregnant. She was about two months along at the time. Now, you know and I know that the royal physician usually doesn't treat staff. They have their own doctors. So Emi knew for sure it was her husband's baby. I told her that she had to confront Emi about it, but not judge her.”

The Duchess paused again, then added, “It was a horrible situation – and really not the fault of either woman. Emi was the one your father really wanted, but Hidoko better fit the profile of the ideal queen. Emi really should have been the one on the throne, but . . .”

“But because Father thinks nobody is worthy of being anywhere near royalty but the highest of nobility, he married my mother and kept Emi around as a plaything,” Yo-ka said in disgust.

Yuuki reached over and squeezed his hand. He'd figured that Yo-ka's father was an asshole – the fact that he kept referring to Yuuki as “that cabaret singer” even though he was from a very noble family was proof of that. But he never dreamed the man was THIS much of an asshole.

“That's what happened,” Rumiko said. “But Hidoko didn't take my advice. She just held it in, and held it in, as Emi kept trying to disguise her pregnancy. She'd wear baggier and baggier dresses and would try to sit at her desk as much as possible when she was around the queen.”

She took a deep breath, as if wondering how to phrase this next part. “Finally, when Emi was about six months and a couple of weeks along . . . Hidoko couldn't take it anymore. She finally confronted them – and there was an argument. A huge one. And when it was all over . . . Emi went into early labor. She ended up delivering the child prematurely.”

Subaru winced. Oh, my God, he thought. Poor Emi. Poor Mahiro. Poor Queen Hidoko, too, because she was just trapped in this mess – in the end, it wasn't her fault.

“When the king found out,” Rumiko said, “he was furious. Except he didn't blame Rumiko for it. He thought it was because of Emi's genetics that she had the child early. You see . . . Mahiro wasn't supposed to be their only child together. Since it looked like Hidoko couldn't have any more children, he'd actually been considering using Emi as a royal surrogate mother.”

“WHAT?” Yo-ka said.

“Oh, yes, he figured Emi would have children for him, and your father and mother would raise them as their own. When Emi gave birth early, it made him sort of lose interest in her.”

“Does that mean that Toya and I are . . .” Yo-ka said, suddenly looking very pale.

“No,” Rumiko said. “You and Toya are both Hidoko's sons. Yo-ka, you're Hidoko's spitting image. You couldn't be anyone else's child.”

“So Emi was sent away after that?” Yo-ka said.

“She didn't get sent away,” Aunt Rumiko said. “She ran away. She stayed at the palace until the royal physicians had her baby out of danger. And then, a reason to leave presented itself. Her aunt had a bakery in Kiryu, and she died without leaving an heir – so Emi announced loudly that she had to take the bakery over and left the palace. After that, your father made a big show of remorse to your mother, and she took him back . . . and, because her health had improved, she was able to have the additional children that your father wanted.”

“So Toya and Yo-ka were born as . . . as . . .” Subaru didn't want to voice it. They were make-goods. They were something to glue the royal marriage back together – a marriage that should never have been.

In a perfect world, Subaru thought, the king would have married Emi, the woman he truly loved, and Mahiro would be Prince of Valluna. He'd probably be a lot taller and stronger, too – his small and frail appearance was no doubt rooted in his premature birth. Hidoko probably would have married a man she loved, and Yo-ka and Toya would be that man's sons. (Of course, Subaru also knew that in that particular world, he and Toya probably never would have met – which was the only part of that fantasy that wasn't good.)

“Yo-ka and Toya were born as part of a royal marriage,” the Duchess said. “Just like any other royal marriage. The goal is to have an heir, a spare, and a second spare. No offense, boys.”

“None taken,” Yo-ka said. “I know how it is.”

“Nice to know I'm a second spare tire, though,” Toya said. “That would explain why Father always considered me as sort of riding along in the back.”

“Your mother has always loved you deeply, though,” the Duchess said. “She often told me that she wishes you weren't born royalty, so you could have the lives you really wanted. That's why she encouraged you to live a bit out of the royal box. She overruled your father on a lot of things – including sending you to a boarding school that accepted students other than nobility.”

“Best thing she ever did for us,” Yo-ka said. “That's how we learned that gentry, and even commoners, were HUMAN.”

“But one more question, Aunt Rumiko,” Toya said. “We know that in the past, illegitimate sons of kings were always given a title and lands and a royal stipend. How come Mahiro got none of those? How come he's been living as a commoner until now?”

“I don't really know,” the Duchess said. “Once Emi ran away to Kiryu, your mother never mentioned her again. She'd wonder sometimes how she and the boy were doing, but I don't think they were in direct contact.”

There was a long silence as all of them processed this. Oh, my God, Toya thought, I really do have another brother. Mahiro's my half-brother – for real. This is unbelievable. What's going to happen when he finds out?

My father is an ass, Yo-ka thought. He is the worst kind of product of years of backwards royal thinking. And I still want to know why Mahiro is being denied what other illegitimate sons of kings have gotten in the past. There's got to be something else, something I can't put my finger on, something I've probably seen already but it's escaping me . . .

Fortunately, just when everyone was ready to sink into a blue funk, the Duchess decided to offer a welcome distraction. “Come, I want to show Yuuki and Subaru our property. You haven't seen it yet, have you?”

“No, we haven't,” Subaru said. “Thank you very much.” He stood up and bowed.

“We'll go along with you,” Yo-ka said. He needed the distraction badly, even if he was going to be covering ground he'd covered a billion times since he was a kid.

But was the familiar really familiar now? Was ANYTHING familiar, or the same? His world had been turned on its ear by his aunt's story. So many secrets, he thought. So many secrets, and lies, and marriages that shouldn't have been marriages, all for the sake of upholding outdated royal tradition.

Yo-ka was more determined than ever that when he became king, he was going to send all those outdated mindsets to the grave where they rightly belonged.

* * *

It was a very quiet group that arrived back at the royal palace, only to be met with a butler carrying a small silver tray with an envelope on it, the preferred method of message delivery to the royal family and their significant others.

“This is a message that came in for His Grace the Duke of Royz,” the butler said.

“Thanks,” Subaru said, taking it. “Who is it from?”

“I believe it is from your brother, Your Grace. One of the secretaries took it when you were out.”

Subaru tore open the envelope and read. “He wants to know if we want to triple-date,” he said. “We can go to Mahiro's club show tonight and then out for drinks afterward.”

The two princes looked at each other. A triple-date, with the man they now knew was their secret half-brother.

“We probably should get to know Mahiro better,” Toya said. “Tell him we're going.”

“We're definitely going,” Yo-ka said. “And please . . . nobody let on to him what we know.”

“Mahiro doesn't know it himself yet . . . does he?” Subaru said.

Yo-ka shook his head, quietly. That much was apparent from Mahiro's conversation with the king. Indeed, Mahiro had seemed confused as to why the monarch wanted to talk to him in the first place.

And so, a few hours later, they were sitting in the comedy club watching My Dragon go through their pratfalls and shenanigans. He really is talented, Yo-ka thought, looking up at his half-brother. He's a gifted comedian. Maybe it's better if he never found out who he really was – he'd never have been allowed on the stage if he was living the kind of life Toya and I had growing up.

But he couldn't help but wonder what it was that he couldn't put his finger on. There was something in Mahiro's conversation with his father, he knew, that held the last piece of the puzzle – the answer as to why Mahiro never got his due. If only I could figure out what it was, he thought.

When the show was over, Mahiro walked over to their table, having changed into street clothes first. “Hello,” he said. “What did you think?”

“It was outstanding,” Yo-ka said. “Hiyori couldn't have assembled a better group of people.”

“And this guy was something special, wasn't he?” Kouki stood up and wrapped an arm around Mahiro. “He was on fire tonight!”

“It was just another performance, really,” Mahiro said.

“I've seen you twice now,” Toya said. “There's no such thing as just another performance. You guys bring something new to the table every time.”

“That's because we trust each other,” Mahiro replied. “A wise man – or maybe just a wise guy – once said that comedy was a lot like love. You have to be able to take a leap and know that you'll be caught.”

“Except that love doesn't involve dressing up like a bee,” Toya said.

“Unless you're into that,” Mahiro said. They all laughed.

The group moved on to an izakaya next door, where they ordered beers and bar snacks. When the manager was informed he had royalty on the premises, he went to greet them – but ignored the dignitaries as soon as he saw Mahiro.

“You're Dandy Maro!” he said. “I saw your show! You guys were hilarious!” He bowed so low his head nearly touched his kneecaps. “It is a pleasure, sir! An extreme pleasure!”

“Thanks,” Mahiro said. “We try.”

“You're getting famous now,” Toya told him as the manager scurried off to bring them a bottle of top-shelf whiskey, on the house.

“It's hard to get used to,” Mahiro said. “But I suppose I'll have to.”

“Why is that?” Yo-ka said.

“There was a film producer in the house tonight,” Mahiro said. “He wants to film Nijigen Complex” – their best-known sketch, the one where Mahiro played a bee – “as a short subject and show it in theaters before the main feature. Everyone was thrilled to death when he said that. It's more than any of us ever dreamed of, really. Pretty much what we've all wanted our entire lives.”

“Congratulations!” Yo-ka said. “That's wonderful!”

“I told you he was special!” Kouki said. “He's going to be a movie star before long, mark my words!”

“It's just one short subject,” Mahiro said.

“Yes, but what if it goes over well?” Kouki said. “It'll lead to another short, and then another, and then maybe a feature film deal! You'll be traveling the world in planes and limos!”

“Let's just wait until we make the one short before talking about that,” Mahiro said.

He should be traveling the world in planes and limos anyway, Yo-ka thought. Although . . . if we do give him what he deserves as our half-brother, will it take away from what he really wants out of life – his comedy career?

Yo-ka firmly resolved he wouldn't allow that to happen. He'd make sure that Mahiro got his title – AND that he continued on the path he had chosen. The latter, he knew, was just as important as the former, if not more so.

* * *

By the time the night was in the wee hours and they reached the bottom of the whiskey bottle, Yo-ka decided he liked his half-brother a lot.

Mahiro was definitely an easygoing personality, discussing the challenges and heartaches of performing with Yuuki and expressing a mild interest in learning to rollboard – although he stopped short of wanting surfing lessons. “I don't want to get hurt in this stage of my career,” he said.

“Mahiro, if you weren't in comedy, what would you do with your life?” Subaru said.

“I don't really know,” Mahiro said. “Probably still be in performing of some sort. I've been in straight drama and dance as well. It's just so much a part of me that I can't imagine NOT doing it. Maybe I was born for this, you know? We're all born for a reason, and I think mine is being on stage.”

“So you really have been performing for a long time?” Yo-ka said.

Mahiro nodded. “My mother said I started when I was a toddler, imitating things I'd heard on the radio. I spent more time listening than most kids. I had health problems when I was a child. My mother said I was born way too early.”

Yo-ka and Toya exchanged a glance. They remembered that part of Aunt Rumiko's story very well.

“And, in fact, I still have problems with, well, vision,” Mahiro said. “But I deal with it. Anyway, yes, I've been performing all my life.”

He seems to have brushed past the vision thing really quickly, Yo-ka thought. I'm wondering if that's more serious than he's letting on . . .

And then, a detail of Mahiro's conversation with his father suddenly repeated itself in his mind in brilliant focus: Mahiro running into something, saying something about his peripheral vision, and his father muttering something that sounded like, “So you do still have it . . .”

Oh, my God, he thought. Is THAT why Mahiro isn't getting his due? Because he has an eye condition as a result of being born prematurely?

He knew there was one more person he had to talk to. He just hoped that the person would be willing to talk back to him.

* * *

When they had left the bar at night and Kouki was walking him home, Mahiro knew they had to have a conversation that he'd been dreading.

Their relationship was definitely on the upswing. After the date on the boat, well, there was no doubt that they were boyfriends now, right? And he knew a further step into intimacy wasn't that far away.

Which is why he had to tell him this now. If Kouki was going to make a run for it, better he do it now than later, and minimize the heartbreak.

“Kouki,” Mahiro said, “can I talk to you about something?”

“You can talk to me about anything,” Kouki said. “Just name it.”

“It's, well, about me,” Mahiro said. “Me and my eyesight.” He took a deep breath. “Or lack thereof.”

“What are you talking about?” Kouki said. “You can see, right? I mean, I know you have some peripheral vision issues, but it's not that bad, is it?”

“Not now,” Mahiro said. “But later on . . . it may be.”

* * *

When the two princes arrived back at the palace, they told their significant others to go back to their quarters. “Sorry, love, but this guy will only talk to Toya and me,” Yo-ka said. “Especially about something like this.”

“How do you know he'll still be up?” Yuuki said.

“He's a night owl,” Yo-ka said. “He has been since Toya and I were kids. I think the man gets by on four hours of sleep a night. We used to joke that he was a vampire.”

And so, Yo-ka and Toya set off for a set of apartments near the ones their parents occupied. Yo-ka knocked on the door – and it was opened a crack, an older man peeking out.

“Your Highnesses?” he said. “What are you doing here at this hour?”

“We need to talk to you about something important,” Yo-ka said.

“Involving your father?” the man said.

“Yes, in a way,” Yo-ka said. “But mostly involving Kurosaki Emi and her son.”

“How on earth did you find out about that?” the man said, without missing a beat. “You weren't supposed to!”

“We know Kurosaki Mahiro,” Toya said. “He's a friend.”

“Nagumo-san, we know you've been with my father” - as his butler and personal assistant - “since before he was king,” Yo-ka said. “We know you've seen just about everything that's happened here, in public and behind the scenes. We promise to keep everything you tell us to ourselves – well, other than telling the people who need to hear about it. We know some of the story of Kurosaki Emi already – that she had an affair with my father, got pregnant and delivered too early. But what we need to know is . . . why didn't we know about it until now? And why wasn't that child given a dukedom, a parcel of land and a stipend?”

There was a long pause, and then Nagumo-san stood aside. “Come in,” he said. “But what I tell you here is absolutely confidential, do you hear? It doesn't leave the palace.”

“It won't,” Yo-ka said. “But we DO need to talk to my father about it – and Mahiro.”

“Fair enough,” the man said. “But nobody else, understand?”

The boys entered the man's sparsely decorated apartments and sat down in two austere chairs. The elderly man paced the floor ahead of them, not quite sure what to say.

“Do you know what happened after Emi left here?” Yo-ka said. “Did my father continue to keep in touch with her?”

“My, yes,” Nagumo-san said. “There were telegrams going back and forth between here and Kiryu for years. He was always checking on the boy's problems. Because he DID have problems – especially with his eyes.”

“What about his eyes?” Yo-ka said.

“It seems the boy has a progressive condition,” Nagumo-san said. “They thought at first that it was from his birth – because he was premature – but it seems it runs in the woman's family. The reports called it retina-something, a very long and complex word . . .”

* * *

“Retinitis pigmentosa,” Mahiro told Kouki. “What it means is that my eyesight is breaking down little by little. I can't see well at night – you notice I usually stick to well-lit areas. I have to have a nightlight when I sleep, or else I'd be running face-first into walls.”

“That's perfectly okay,” Kouki said. “I can sleep with a nightlight.”

“It goes beyond nightlights,” Mahiro said. “Every year, the tunnel vision progresses a little bit more. I've learned to live with it and compensate for it. My teammates in My Dragon have, too – all our sketches are carefully blocked to allow for my lack of peripheral vision. When we do improv, the others are always mindful of me – have you noticed that?”

“No,” Kouki said.

“Good,” Mahiro replied. “That means they're not making it obvious. But . . . that's why it's so important to me to be onstage now, and do as much as I can . . . when I still can do it. Because eventually . . .”

* * *

“The disease ultimately results in blindness,” Nagumo-san told the two princes. “It will most likely happen some years down the line – but, Emi said, it will happen. She had a grandparent and two uncles who went blind. She hoped that her son would be spared, and maybe he might have been, but the premature birth made it more likely he'd develop it.”

“Blindness?” Toya felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. “But that's not fair! He's such a nice guy, and so talented . . .”

“Tell me,” Yo-ka said, “how did my father react when he found out about the disease?”

“Not well,” Nagumo-san said. “He'd been prepared to acknowledge the Kurosaki boy as 'a relative of the royal family' – you know, the euphemism that's always been used for royal bastards – until he heard about that. When he did, he said that the royal family didn't contain any . . . well, never mind. It's not important.”

“Didn't contain any . . . what?” Yo-ka said. “What did my father say about Mahiro?”

“Didn't contain any defective children,” Nagumo-san said.

Yo-ka just sat there, shocked. “Defective?” he said. “DEFECTIVE? My father called Mahiro DEFECTIVE? He isn't a faulty car part! He's a human being! A very nice one! And talented! And my father thought that he was . . .”

The prince got up from his seat and stalked across the room, standing there with his arms crossed and his head hanging down. Breathe, Yo-ka, he told himself. Get ahold of yourself. You aren't doing Mahiro any good if you get angry.

He has to have his due now, Yo-ka thought. If he has this eye condition, if he'll eventually end up blind, that means he won't be able to be on stage forever, and he'll eventually end up . . .

* * *

“I'm going to end up a burden in the long run,” Mahiro said. “If I'm not able to see, I may need assistance all the time. I don't know when it's going to happen – it could be ten years from now, could be twenty. But . . . there it is. I'm having fun with you, and I want to see where this relationship goes. But if it starts to get serious . . .”

Kouki suddenly grabbed him in his arms from behind, pulling Mahiro close to him in a near-crushing hug. He rested his head on his hair.

“If it gets serious,” he said, “then we deal with it when the time comes, right?”

Mahiro looked surprised. “Kouki?” he said.

“We're not going to think about the future just yet, okay? We're going to concentrate on the present. Because the present is pretty damn terrific. And if this relationship continues long-term? We'll deal with the problem when we have to. But if you focus too much on tomorrow, you don't learn to appreciate today, right?”

Mahiro closed his eyes, snuggling into the embrace. “I . . . I guess so,” he said.

“I appreciate today,” Kouki continued. “And I appreciate you. You're pretty damn special. And you'll be special no matter what life throws at you. Plus, the fact that you've deal with this until now? That shows you're strong, and up for any challenge. And even if we end up deeply involved, and the worst happens . . . you won't be a burden. Remember, people in love catch each other? If we're in it for the long haul, I promise to catch you always – even if you're continuously falling.”

Mahiro felt tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. He hadn't talked to anyone about his vision issues since the earliest days of My Dragon. He hadn't taken the love leap for even longer because of that very issue.

Here was someone who wouldn't reject him, no matter what happened, who wouldn't think of him as . . . defective.

* * *

“We need to talk to Father tomorrow,” Yo-ka said, stalking back to his seat. “This can't be allowed to go on any longer. He has to acknowledge Mahiro and make sure he will be provided for after his vision fails.”

“Don't you think we should talk to Mahiro first?” Toya said. “Because if we don't, and we talk to Father, and we DO manage to convince him of this . . . then Mahiro's going to hear from Father that he's a member of the royal family, and I don't think Father would exactly be delicate about it.”

Yo-ka gave his brother a wan smile. “As usual, you're the real brains in the family,” he said.

“Just doing my job,” Toya replied.

“Thank you, Nagumo-san,” Yo-ka said. “You've been very helpful.” He stood up and bowed.

“I'm glad,” the butler said. “Good luck with your efforts to help that boy.”

Yo-ka and Toya headed out of the room and back toward their own quarters. “As if we needed any more proof that Father's style of royalty is on its way out, and good riddance,” Yo-ka said. “Can you believe that he called him defective? DEFECTIVE?”

“It's not the best way to handle things, is it?” Toya said.

“We're not going to tell him that part,” Yo-ka said. “And we're not using the words 'royal bastard,' either. We're just going to let him know that, well, we're his family, and we're there for him, and we're going to help him any way we can. And that includes getting him to the very best eye specialists – the kind that only serve the highest nobility. Because, dammit, he IS the highest nobility. I mean, in a way? He's the REAL Prince of Valluna, not me. Because he's Father's first-born son.”

“So he's the real Prince of Valluna, you're the real Prince of Charlotte, and I'm just some guy running a surf and sailboard company with his significant other,” Toya said. “I can go for that.”

“But we know that can't happen,” Yo-ka said. “Even without the eye thing, illegitimate offspring can't be in the direct line of succession. But . . . we'll get him something, at least. We just have to.”

* * *

Mahiro was in his apartment again, looking out at the spires of the palace. He realized he sat in that seat almost compulsively now. There was something about looking at the palace that was oddly, well, comforting.

Not that he needed comfort. He was feeling very good after the conversation with Kouki. The evening had ended in a longer, warmer kiss than before. Their relationship was on very solid ground now.

Next time I come up here after a date, he thought, I probably won't be alone. And the thought made him feel very warm inside.

He looked over at the palace again and thought, what will tomorrow bring, I wonder . . .

* * *

My Dragon had booked time and space in a rehearsal studio not far from the club in order to develop new material. With the speed that their career was moving at, it was vital that they always stay fresh – especially since they knew that people were coming to see them over and over. It was flattering, but it also presented a unique set of challenges.

By the time they were finished in the late afternoon, Mahiro was feeling tired – but satisfied. They'd made a lot of progress, and he was feeling comfortable with it. He made his way home, thinking he was going to take a nap before meeting up with Kouki later.

And then, he saw the stretch limo parked in front of his building.

What the hell is this? Mahiro thought. We don't have cars like that around here. Is someone hiring this to go off for some sort of joyride?

And then, he saw the crest of the royal family on one of the doors.

Okay, he thought, this just got even odder. What the heck is a royal limo doing here, unless it's Subaru's brother?

The door opened, and Yo-ka got out, followed by Toya. “Hi,” Yo-ka said. “Sorry to startle you like this – but we have something important to talk to you about.”

Mahiro frowned. “It's not about Kouki, is it?” he said. “There's nothing wrong with him – right?”

“No,” Yo-ka said. “It's not about Kouki. It's about you.”

“Me?” Mahiro suddenly looked panicked. “What did I do?”

“You didn't do anything,” Toya said. “Look, we need to go somewhere where we can talk privately. Can we go to your apartment, or is there somewhere else . . .”

“No, no, my apartment's fine,” Mahiro said. “It's a bit small and cluttered, I guess not what you're used to . . .” He rubbed the back of his head.

“That's okay,” Yo-ka said. “Just lead the way there.”

Mahiro was consumed with nerves throughout the trip up the elevator. About me? He thought. What could this possibly be about? Is it about My Dragon? Do they want to hire us for a royal performance or something? But if that's the case, why just talk to me? Why not Hiyori, since he's the leader?

His hands were shaking as he unlocked the door and pushed it open. “Come in,” he said. “I can't really offer chairs, but there's a couch over there, and I'll sit on a folding chair. Can I offer you tea or milk or something?”

“No, thanks,” Yo-ka said.

“Same here,” said Toya, as he and his brother sat on the same couch.

Mahiro got the folding chair in question and set it down opposite them, folding his hands in his lap. Tell me, he thought. Tell me what it is, and drive these fears out of my head.

Yo-ka began, “Mahiro, over the past several days, we've learned some . . . things about you and your mother. About what happened when she was in the Culling, and serving as our mother's Lady-in-Waiting.”

“Mother always said she was very happy during that time,” Mahiro said.

“But did she give details?” Yo-ka said.

“No. Just that she had a love affair with a palace staff member, and it resulted in me.”

“She didn't say anything about your father at all?”

Mahiro shook his head. “Neither of us considered it an issue,” he said. “I never thought of my family being anyone but my mother and grandmother.” He paused. “Did you find out who my father was?”

Yo-ka and Toya exchanged glances – and Mahiro didn't like the expressions. It was the look of someone about to deliver bad news.

“Yes,” Yo-ka said. “The question is – are you prepared to know? Because the news may be not what you're expecting.”

“It wasn't a criminal or anything, was it?” Mahiro said.

“No,” Yo-ka said. “Not a criminal. Not anything or anyone bad.”

“Then . . . who was it?”

Yo-ka took a deep breath. “Your father was my father,” he said. “Your father was the king. You're a half-brother to me and Toya.”

Mahiro just sat there. What? He thought. WHAT? Okay, my brain just short-circuited. My ears are going the way of my eyes. I could have sworn I just heard Yo-ka say I was their half-brother.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but did you just say . . .”

“I did,” Yo-ka said. “I . . . I overheard your conversation with my father the night of your introduction party. It made me curious, so I did some research, and some asking around, and that's what I found out.”

“Your mother and our father were in love,” Toya said. “That continued even after he married our mother, and eventually, you were born from the union.”

Mahiro leaned forward. The world was spinning around him. He tried to grab at the arms of his chair – and grabbed air. Right, he was in a folding chair. He was so disoriented right now that he forgot where he was.

“That . . . that means I'm a . . .” he said.

“You're a member of the royal family,” Yo-ka said. “And even though you can't be in direct line for the throne, you're entitled to be classed as highest nobility and given property and funds to go with it.”

“Oh, my God.” Mahiro leaned forward, clutching his head. Why didn't you tell me, Mother? He thought. Why didn't you at least let me know who I really was . . .

He felt Yo-ka's gentle hand on his shoulder. “I know this is hard,” he said. “I know you're having a difficult time believing it. But it's the truth. Toya and I made damn sure of that.”

“I . . . I . . .” Mahiro swallowed hard. It had to have been a nasty breakup, that was it. The relationship had to have ended badly, and his mother didn't want anything to do with the king anymore, and she didn't want Mahiro dragged into the mess of the royal family's lives . . .

“That's why the king asked me about my mother the night of the party, isn't it?” Mahiro said. “Because they'd been in love. But he probably doesn't know about me, right? That I'm his son.” He leaned over again. “Oh, God, it's so bizarre to say that!”

“He knows,” Toya said, quietly. “We're sure of that.”

“We were kept in the dark, too,” Yo-ka said. “We would have loved to have known we had a half-brother. We could have grown up all seeing each other from time to time like we did with our cousin, Hitomi.”

“It's too much,” Mahiro said. “Too much! I . . .” He sat up, but his hands clenched and unclenched. “I don't want to give up my career. I can't. It's all I ever wanted to do. But now that I'm a . . .”

What was he? A prince? A lost prince, like in innumerable children's stories?

“You're Dandy Maro,” Yo-ka said. “And you won't be expected to give that up. Not at all. But we want to make sure that you're ALSO a nobleman. That you will never want for anything – and that you have the best of care, always. Including top-notch eye doctors.”

Mahiro looked up, sharply. Yes, he'd told them he had vision problems, but he hadn't told them the full extent of it. If he had access to the caliber of doctors that the rich utilized, would it make a difference? Would it stave off blindness for a few years more, so he'd have more time on the stage?

“I'd want that,” he said, slowly. “The top-notch medical care, I mean.”

“You'll have that and more,” Yo-ka said. “We're going to bring you to Father tomorrow, and we're going to talk to him. ALL of us are. You, me, Toya, maybe Yuuki and Subaru. And we're going to make sure that you're acknowledged as a member of the family and given what you're entitled to.”

“And we're going to back you entirely,” Toya said. “We don't intend to let up on him until he gives in.”

Mahiro took a deep breath and said, “I . . . I'll go with you. But, I don't understand – if I'm entitled to these things, why haven't I gotten them already?”

“I think Father is going to have to tell you that himself,” Yo-ka said.

Toya leaned over and put a hand on Mahiro's shoulder. “And I want to tell you that I'm really, really happy to have you as a member of our family.”

“So am I,” Yo-ka said.

Mahiro looked up at them. They're my siblings, he thought. Well, half-siblings. All my life, I thought I was an only child . . .

“I'm happy to be family with you, too,” he said.

And then, all three of them stood up and came together in a group hug. It suddenly felt very natural to Mahiro, and very special. I've been waiting for this moment all my life, haven't I? He thought. Even though I didn't know it.

“So what is your schedule tomorrow?” Yo-ka said.

“I have a radio rehearsal in the afternoon and a broadcast at seven.”

“What time is the show done? At eight?”

“We just do one sketch a show,” Mahiro said. “Usually about halfway through. So we're done before eight.”

“We'll pick you up after the show, then,” Yo-ka said.

“Shouldn't we do it in the morning, though?” Toya said. “Before his rehearsal and broadcast? So he doesn't have it hanging on his mind and wreck the show?”

“Good point,” Yo-ka said. “We'll pick you up at nine in the morning – does that work?”

Mahiro nodded.

“All right,” Yo-ka said. “We need to get back to the palace before anyone notices us missing – are you going to be okay?”

“Sure,” Mahiro said. “I'll be fine.”

The two princes gave him hugs, and then left. Mahiro found himself carrying his folding chair to its usual position . . .

Right by the window where he could stare out at the spires of the palace, as he'd done every night.

Maybe I've always known, he thought. Maybe I knew it in my heart. That's why I've wanted to look at it all the time. Because, in a way, it's my home, too.

He reached over to his phone and quickly dialed a number that he'd come to know by heart. Please let him be home, he thought.

Fortunately, it picked up. “Hello?”


“Kouki, it's me,” Mahiro said. “Can you come to my place instead of us meeting up? Something has come up, and I need to talk to you about it.”

* * *

The last thing in the world Kouki was expecting to hear was what Mahiro had to say.

He came dashing over to Mahiro's apartment as soon as he got the call, fully expecting to hear there was some sort of catastrophe with My Dragon – they'd split up, one of the members had quit, they'd lost their radio spot or their regular club gig.

And when he'd been met by a thunderstruck Mahiro, his suspicions were confirmed. He held the other man close, saying, “It's okay, whatever it is. Just let it out and tell me.”

“I . . . I don't know where to begin.”

“Just begin at the start, okay?”

“Well, when I was on my way home from rehearsal today, I saw a royal limo in front of this building . . .”

And before Kouki knew it, Mahiro was telling him he was a half-brother of the two princes. An illegitimate son of the king. A bona-fide royal bastard.

“I had no idea,” Mahiro said. “None at all. I knew my mother had lived in the palace, but I had no idea that she . . .”

“She never mentioned the king?”

“Not at all. And when he asked to talk to me the night of the party, I thought it was just that he remembered my mother and was curious. I didn't think it was ME he wanted to see, because I was . . .” He brought a hand to his face. “I still can't really say it out loud. I thought I knew who I was, but . . . it seems I don't.”

“You DO know who you are,” Kouki said. “And so do I. You're Mahiro, you've always been Mahiro and you'll always be Mahiro. You're the same guy. A title isn't going to make a difference.”

“But now that I'm something royal . . .”

“Still doesn't make a difference,” Kouki said. “You're not giving up performing, are you?”

“Hell, no!”

“There you go,” Kouki said. “Long as you're going to stumble around the stage in silly outfits, you're always going to be you.”

“It's just . . . my whole world has shifted,” Mahiro said. “I was an only child. Now I've got two half-brothers. I was just a regular commoner like most of the people in this country. Now I've got royal blood.”

“Bet we all have at least a few drops of royal blood in us, somewhere,” Kouki said. “Even the people in the lower-class districts. With all the royal relatives and half-relatives and partial relatives marrying and intermarrying with the general public? Hell, yes, we're all a bit royal!”

“I just . . . wonder how I'm going to feel about myself now,” Mahiro said. “How other people are going to feel about me. My teammates. You.”

“I don't feel any different at all,” Kouki said. “You're still my favorite bee.”

Mahiro leaned against him. It felt good to have this man here, to feel his warmth. Even his large stature seemed comforting right now – it's as if there were endless amounts of Kouki to envelop him and make him feel safe and assured.

“I'm just glad you're with me.”

“I'm glad you're with me, too,” Kouki said.

Mahiro tipped his head up, and Kouki leaned down, and then they were kissing, sweet and tender at first, then quickly getting hotter and more intense. Mahiro found himself reaching up to tangle his fingers in Kouki's hair, pulling him closer . . . never wanting to let him go.

When they broke apart, both of them were panting. “Wow,” Kouki said. “If I kiss you again . . . this might get dangerous.”

“I don't mind,” Mahiro said. He meant it – and when he said it, he felt his whole body relax. They were ready for this intimacy now – and quite frankly, he needed it.

“You don't?”

“Not at all.” Mahiro wrapped his arms around him and pulled Kouki's head down toward him. “That is . . . unless you do.”

“Are you kidding?” Kouki said. “I wouldn't mind if my life depended on it.”

They kissed again, and it rapidly got hotter and wetter. Mahiro felt Kouki's tongue stroking his, and he eagerly stroked back, a small noise of pleasure sounding in his throat, a heat rising through his body.

This is what he wanted. He knew that. He's wanted it from the moment he met. And no sudden revelation about himself was going to change that.

* * *

The moonlight streaked through the window of Mahiro's bedroom, illuminating the clothes strewn about the room, the flickering candles on the nightstand, the two bodies entwined on the bed.

It was far darker in the room than Mahiro was usually comfortable with. But he didn't mind – because he didn't need to see right now. All he needed was to feel. And that's exactly what he was doing right now, since he was lying on top of Kouki, letting his hands and mouth tell him all he needed to know.

He was kissing along his new lover's collarbone, his tongue flicking out to trace the shape of it and dip into the little hollow. His hand slid along the torso, thinking that Kouki had a damn nice build – obviously, working in the ship industry was doing good things for him.

Mahiro moved down further, kissing along the other man's chest as his fingers slipped lower, and lower still, caressing in small circles over the skin, feeling the warmth and the smooth texture.

His lips followed the path of his fingers, as he kissed a line down toward the nipples, rubbing his tongue along one eagerly – and feeling Kouki grab at the back of his head in response.

“Fuck, you're eager,” Kouki gasped.

Mahiro just smiled. He was going to show the tall man just how eager he was – or could be. He reached down with one hand as his tongue continued to rub back and forth across the nipple, the fingers brushing the very tip of the his new lover's hardness. He was pretty damn big, Mahiro observed – which pretty much went with the rest of him.

And he knew just how he was going to handle it, too.

He pulled himself up so he was straddling Kouki's hips, deliberately making sure that his cock brushed against his skin a little as he was doing it – giving him a hint of what was to come. He leaned over so that their erections rubbed briefly, just a mere touch – then pulled back. He repeated the motion, rubbing them a little longer that time, then pulled back again.

Kouki leaned upward. “Tease,” he said.

“Do you want this?” Mahiro rubbed them together again, grinding a little this time, then pulled back yet again.

“You know I do,” Kouki said, arching upward toward the smaller man.

“Really?” Mahiro repeated the teasing motion, and God, it was getting harder and harder to pull back every time, he felt so fucking good, so firm and strong, a damn perfect cock if there ever was one.

But pull back again he did, even though he was panting with eagerness – and so was Kouki. The taller man reached up, grasping Mahiro's nipple between his thumb and forefinger, and squeezed it gently, making Mahiro let out a gasp.

“You're a relentless tease,” Kouki murmured.

“I try,” Mahiro replied.

“You're going to have to make me come really hard to make up for that. Are you up for the challenge?”

Oh, Mahiro was. He leaned over, crushing his lips against his lover's furiously, and finally lay full-length atop him, rubbing cock against cock, grinding hard. And any effort to make this a tease was gone as Mahiro lost himself in the other man, in his warmth and his scent and the sensation of two bodies pressed against one another, the motion as Kouki started to grind up against him in return.

“Fuck,” Mahiro gasped, burying his head in the other man's shoulder, his hips churning as his erection continued to grind against his lover's, the two cocks rubbing and rubbing, each touch sending a fresh wave of pleasure through him.

He felt Kouki flipping the two of them over, and he was on his back, Kouki moving down so he was kneeling between Mahiro's thighs, bending over to kiss slowly up and down the length of his cock. Mahiro sat up partway, looking at the blond head lowered over him as a wet tongue began to caress the head of his cock relentlessly, sweeping back and forth over the tip.

Kouki took the head in his lips, running his tongue all over it, and Mahiro leaned back, moaning loudly. Oh, God, yes, this man knew what he was doing, he really did, he was going to drive him absolutely insane . . .

When the other man slid down further, engulfing more and more of Mahiro's hardness in that wet heat, the smaller man cried out, reaching down and gripping Kouki's head with both hands, lifting his hips as he panted loudly, pleasure just about boiling through his veins.

Kouki pulled back quickly, then thrust downward again, taking more of Mahiro into his mouth every time he did so, and Mahiro was writhing on the bed now, letting out near-inhuman sounds, hands tangling in his lover's hair.

The heat within him was building, and building some more, it was becoming flat-out relentless, he didn't know how much longer he was going to be able to hold out . . . A well-placed tongue flick suddenly shattered the last of his control, and Mahiro arched forward sharply as he let out a long, wild cry, his whole body shaking as he came harder than he ever had in his life.

He barely had time to relax into an afterglow when Kouki moved up, kissing his lips hard again, and rolling them back over so Mahiro was on top. The smaller man reached down, finding that wonderful cock he had been admiring earlier and wrapping his fingers around it, stroking it slowly, tip to base and back again, then running his thumb back and forth over the tip when he reached it, teasing the slit until Kouki shuddered and let out a long, delicious moan.

Mahiro began to stroke the shaft rapidly, up and down, leaning up to nibble and suck on Kouki's neck as he did so, feeling the other man writhe beneath him, hearing him murmur, “It's good, fuck, so good, keep going, don't ever stop . . .”

He wasn't going to stop. No way in hell. He began moving faster, pumping him rapidly, feeling precome against his fingers. He heard the other man's breathing get more ragged, his movements more jerky, and he knew he was getting close . . .

And then, Kouki cried out loudly, arching upward, and Mahiro felt the wonderful hot wetness pour over his fingers. He bent over, kissing his new lover's lips, and Kouki kissed back, softly.
They snuggled into each other's arms, Mahiro quickly finding a tissue to wipe his hand off. “Wow,” he said.

“You're everything I thought you'd be,” Kouki said, kissing him again. “You're pretty incredible.”

“You're amazing,” Mahiro said. He yawned. “And you wear a guy out.”

“I'm going to take that as a compliment,” Kouki said. He nuzzled Mahiro. “I can wear you out any time you want, you know.”

“Is that an open invitation?” Mahiro said.

“As open as you want it to be,” Kouki said.

Mahiro closed his eyes. “I want it to be very open,” he said. “Very, very open.”

He was feeling very relaxed right now – and not just because of the afterglow. The intimacy with Kouki gave him a warm feeling to the bottom of his heart. He felt, well, accepted on every level.

It didn't matter what the circumstances of his birth was. Kouki would feel the same about him whether he was a prince or the lowliest commoner from the lowliest of districts.

As he drifted off to sleep, he thought that a noble title would be nice – but it wasn't crucial. Right now, the title that meant the most to him was Kouki's boyfriend.

* * *

Mahiro stood in front of his apartment, watching the royal limo pull up in front. He thought about the last time he'd seen it, when Toya and Yo-ka had brought the news that had changed his life.

It's about to change again, he thought. What's going to happen when we talk to the king? Is he going to accept me? Reject me? Give me some kind of settlement and tell me to go away?

He'd said goodbye to Kouki a few minutes before. His new lover had wanted to know if Mahiro wanted him to come along to the palace, but Mahiro told him he could do it alone. “Besides, I don't want you dragged into this,” he said. “If the king reacts badly, it would get ugly.”

The door opened, and Yo-ka stepped out. “Ready?” he said.

“As I'll ever be,” Mahiro said, climbing in next to him. “I'm just keeping my fingers crossed at this point.”

“We both are,” Yo-ka said. “Toya said when it's all over, we can go to his favorite izakaya.”

“Can't,” Mahiro said. “Rehearsal, remember? And I have a radio show to do tonight.” He was beginning to wonder if doing this on a show day was a mistake. If he was rattled, his timing was going to be off. If he was off . . . he'd throw off everyone else. A comedy team had to be in perfect sync at all times.

I have to be a pro, he thought. I need to be a pro and stamp down any strong emotions that result from this. I can't let this affect my career. Because no matter what else I am, I'm a performer, first and foremost.

The car pulled up in front of the palace, where Toya, Subaru and Yuuki were waiting. “You'll have full support for this,” Yo-ka said.

“I'm going to need it, aren't I?” Mahiro said.

“Hopefully not,” Yo-ka replied. “But it doesn't hurt.”

“Hey, there,” Toya said. “We're going straight to Father's private office – the one where he met up with you before. He knows Yo-ka wants to talk to him. He doesn't know about the rest of us.”

The trip through the corridors was quiet. Yo-ka leaned over and put a supportive hand on Mahiro's shoulder. Mahiro gave him a wan smile. If nothing else, he thought, I got some new family out of this – even if the king doesn't acknowledge me.

They reached the double doors of the king's office. “Wait here,” Yo-ka whispered. “I'll tell you when to come in.” He knocked on the doors and said, “It's me, Father.”

“It's about time,” the king said. “I have a busy afternoon planned, you know.”

Yo-ka opened the door and walked in. “I'm sorry for this, but it really is a matter of utmost importance.”

“This isn't something bad about that Parliament of yours, is it?” The king was seated behind his desk, looking rather terse. It was what Yo-ka had come to identify as the “I know bad news is coming” face.

“No,” Yo-ka said. “It's a family matter.”

“You've broken it off with . . .”

“Yuuki and I are fine,” Yo-ka said, before his father could say “that cabaret singer.” “No, this has to do with another son of yours.”

“Toya has seen the light of day about that guttersnipe, then?”

Yo-ka rolled his eyes. “For the nine millionth time, Father, his name is Subaru and he is NOT a guttersnipe. He is the Duke of Royz. And he and Toya are doing fine.”

“Well, then, what is this about? I only have two sons, you know!”

“Do you, Father?” Yo-ka crossed his arms over his chest.

“What are you talking about? As far as I know, only two sons of mine grew up in this palace!”

“And one grew up elsewhere,” Yo-ka said.

Now the king looked flat-out startled. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, the boy who was born BEFORE Toya and myself. The son of Kurosaki Emi.”

When he heard her name, the king sank back in his seat as if he'd been hit in the stomach with a cannonball. “How do you know about . . .”

“He's in the Viceroy of Kiryu's comedy troupe, isn't he? Hiyori and I are still friends.”

“Hiyori told you . . .”

“No, he didn't. I figured it out myself. And a couple of other people told me. And besides, I have the word of the man himself.” He opened the door. “Come on in.”

Mahiro walked into the room and stood beside Yo-ka. Oh, God, he thought, now what do I say? He just bowed and said, “It's a pleasure to see you again, Your Majesty.”

“Can the rest of you come in as well?” Yo-ka said. “Father, you really can't deny that there is a resemblance between Toya and Mahiro.”

As the others walked in, the king looked from Mahiro to Toya and back again, like a man at a ping pong match. His expression was approaching flat-out panic.

“I will deny it, you know!” he said. “And if you go to the press without my consent, so help me, Yo-ka, you will be removed as my successor!”

“And Toya will be put in?” Yo-ka said.

“I'd only reinstate him as the rightful king when my time came,” Toya said. “And so would Hitomi, if you plan to make him the heir instead.”

The king looked even more panicked. “You can't prove it!” he said.

“We have at least two witnesses who spoke to us and identified you as Mahiro's father,” Yo-ka said.

“It's their word against mine!” his father retorted. “I am the king! I overrule them all!”

“You're the king,” said another voice in the doorway. “And you're also a man who needs to own up to his responsibilities.” The queen stormed into the room, her face in a full fury.

The king suddenly stood up. “Why are you here, Hidoko?”

“Rumiko called me,” she said. “She said that my boys had been there asking plenty of questions about Emi. I figured they weren't asking just because they'd heard her name in casual conversation.”

“That matter was settled years ago,” the king said.

“Was it?” said the queen. “I didn't connect Kurosaki Mahiro to Emi when he first appeared at the party. But after what Rumiko said? I realized that was Emi's son – and he'd grown up as common as mud. As common as THAT boy did!” She pointed to Subaru. “No offense, my dear.”

“None taken,” Subaru said.

“I KNOW you continued to keep tabs on him,” the queen said. “I know the boy had an eye disease. Is THAT why you never acknowledged him as a member of the family? Because he was born prematurely and has vision problems?”

“It's more than vision problems!” the king shouted. “He's going to go blind someday!”

“And that makes him less of a person?” Yo-ka said. “That makes him less worthy than the rest of us? Father, do you know what you're saying?”

The king was quiet for a long moment. He sank back down into his chair, his hands folded on his lap.

“You wanted to use Emi to breed royal heirs, didn't you?” the queen said. “And you cast her and her child aside when he proved to be imperfect in your eyes. Well, there's people who do NOT consider Mahiro imperfect. He's becoming a star now. He's on the radio – he's going to be there tonight. And I'm sure there may be a person out there who considers him their special someone.”

“My brother,” Subaru said. “He's dating my brother.” He stepped forward, tentatively. “And Kouki thinks the world of him, Your Majesty.”

“We're not asking you to consider Mahiro a full prince and include him in the line of succession,” Yo-ka said. “We're just asking for what the illegitimate children of the royal line are always entitled to – a ducal title, lands and a royal stipend.”

“Codomo Dragon already has a duke,” the king said in a dull voice.

“He grew up in Kiryu, Father,” Yo-ka said.

“Kiryu has a duke, also.”

“But there is no Archduke of Kiryu,” Yo-ka said. “Please keep that in mind.”

The king was silent again. Then, he said, “Leave me. All of you.”

The group exchanged looks, and then they quietly filed out of the room – except Mahiro. He turned, walked back to the desk and knelt beside the king.

“I know you don't consider yourself my father,” he said. “But I want you to know that Mother never forgot you. She never told me your name – she always said my father was a member of the palace staff. But there was always a soft look on her face when she mentioned my father, or spoke about her days at the palace. I think she wishes with all her heart that things had turned out differently. And . . . I wonder if you do, too.”

The king continued to be silent. Mahiro took a step back and bowed. “Good day, Your Majesty,” he said.

He walked out of the room, quietly, as the king continued to sit in silence at his desk.

* * *

When a royal limo pulled up in front of the rehearsal studio, the other members of My Dragon rushed over to the windows. They were all there except Mahiro – and it was very unusual that he was the last one of them to arrive.

He was arriving now, though – in high style. A chauffeur opened the door, and he stepped out, bowing to the man. He walked casually up the walk as the others watched open-mouthed.

“What the hell . . .” Mitsuki said. “He's got the royal family giving him rides now?”

“Well, he IS dating Subaru's brother,” Takemasa said. “And Subaru is Pledged to a prince.”

“Damn,” Junji said. “Hey, Hiyori, are there any other single princes we don't know about? Any way I can get one of my siblings hooked up with him? I want a ride like that!”

Mahiro walked into the room – and the others all rushed from the door over to where he stood. “Whoa, look who doesn't need a cab!” Junji said.

“You're reaping the benefits of dating a kindasorta royal brother-in-law!” Mitsuki said.

Mahiro looked from one to the other. I have to tell them, he thought. They're my friends and partners. They have a right to know.

“Guys,” he said, “before we get started, there's something I want to talk to you about.”

“Ooh?” Junji said. “Does it involve Kouki?”

“No,” Mahiro said. “It involves me. I'm, well . . . not who I thought I was.”

The others looked at each other, puzzled. “You ARE Kurosaki Mahiro, right?” Hiyori said. “Dandy Maro? The bee guy?”

“I'm still Mahiro. And Dandy Maro. I mean that, well . . . I thought my father was some palace staffer my mother had a fling with when she was a Lady-in-Waiting to the queen. And, um, it turns out . . . it was somebody else.” He paused. “It was the king.”

There was a long silence. The other members of the group looked at each other, blinking.

“The king?” Mitsuki said. “The king of what?”

“THE king,” Mahiro said. “I'm what's known as a royal bastard.”

“Don't be so hard on yourself!” Junji threw an arm around Mahiro. “You're still the nicest guy I know, no matter who your father is!”

“No, no, I mean that I'm an illegitimate child of the Royal Family!” Mahiro said. “I'm a prince . . . but not a prince. Usually, someone in my position is given a title of nobility, but I . . . wasn't.”

“How come?” Hiyori said. “Because you're a performer? His Majesty has never liked the idea that Yuuki is still a professional singer.”

“Yeah, until he needs entertainment for a royal party, right?” Mitsuki said.

“It's not my career,” Mahiro said. “It's . . . it's my eyes. It's because my eye problems make me less than physically perfect.”

“Are you kidding me?” Hiyori looked horrified.

“Not at all,” Mahiro said.

“Yo-ka always said his father was a bastard!” Hiyori said. “He's even MORE of a bastard than we all thought he was! Who the hell wouldn't want you as a son?”

“How did you find this out?” Takemasa said.

“Yo-ka and Toya told me,” Mahiro said. “Apparently, they found out when Yo-ka heard me talking to His Majesty the night of the party. Yo-ka wanted to know why he was talking to me about my mother, and, well . . . that's what he found out.”

“Holy crap,” Junji said. “Holy FREAKING crap, Mahiro!”

“They just brought me to talk to . . . to him. The king.” Mahiro still couldn't say “my father.” Part of his brain still refused to believe it. “And it didn't go all that well. They were trying to get me what I was due, but . . .” He shrugged. “They gave me a ride here. And now, I'm just plain old Dandy Maro again. I wouldn't have given up performing even if the king HAD accepted me as his son.”

“You're not plain old Dandy Maro.” Hiyori rushed over to Mahiro and gave him a hug. “You have NEVER been just plain old Dandy Maro. You're Mahiro, and you're something special to all of us.”

“And if the king doesn't want you as part of his family?” Junji said, hugging Mahiro from the other side. “Fuck him, his loss.”

“We don't consider you to be any different,” Takemasa said, as he and Mitsuki joined the group hug. “You're still the same Mahiro we always knew and loved. The same guy who hogs all the best pieces of sushi.”

“Thanks, everyone,” Mahiro said, feeling himself start to relax. “It means a lot. Really. And now, I want to . . .”

“Yes?” Hiyori said.

“I want to start going to work. I want this to be the best broadcast we ever did. I want this to be the funniest fucking sketch anybody ever heard. Let's GO!”

“You heard the man,” Hiyori said. “Let's get to work!”

Mahiro suddenly felt fully fired up. Imperfect? He'd show the king who was imperfect! He was going to put on the performance of a lifetime – and you didn't need perfect eyesight to do that.

* * *

His fired-up mood continued through the broadcast itself. He felt like a horse steaming and stamping in the starting gate as he heard the cast running through the commercial that always preceded their segment. When the director pointed at the host to introduce them, he was ready to jump out of his skin.

“And now,” the host said, “direct from Kiryu, here's the merry pranksters known as MY DRAGON!”

Just like that, they were off. The sketch tonight was a trial scenario, filled with puns and silliness. Mahiro was playing the prosecutor, and he affected a snobbish accent to deliver his lines. He felt like he was on fire. His timing was impeccable. His line delivery was so good that he noticed his colleagues struggling not to laugh.

It was one huge “Take THAT!” He might not be a prince, but right now? He was the best Mahiro he could possibly be – funny and sharp and perfectly in tune with the other performers. He was what he was always MEANT to be.

When it was over, the studio audience gave them a massive round of applause. Mahiro felt satisfaction coursing through every bit of his veins. We did it, he thought. We really did do the best sketch that we could possibly do.

And then, the host came back on and said, “My Dragon, ladies and gentlemen! Before we move on with tonight's show, we have a very special announcement.”

The members of My Dragon looked at each other, puzzled. Their broadcast usually wasn't interrupted like this.

“I have just been informed that His Majesty the King is on the premises, and he has something he would like to say to the listeners.”

Mahiro felt Hiyori's hand grip his arm. The king? He thought. THE KING? Why the hell is he . . .

There was a rush of royal bodyguards into the room, one of whom shooed the My Dragon group into the corner of the studio. They stood aside, and sure enough, the king entered the room, looking straight ahead, not glancing over at Mahiro.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the host said, “without further ado, the voice of your king.” He moved away from the main microphone.

“Thank you,” the king said. “I have a pronouncement to make, and I wanted to do it here and now, because it concerns one of the performers you just heard, Kurosaki Mahiro – otherwise known as Dandy Maro, a member of My Dragon.”

Hiyori gripped Mahiro's arm tighter. Mahiro felt his jaw tightening. What are you going to say about me? he thought. Because so help me, if you out me as having vision issues, I don't care who you are, I'm going to . . .

“It is not well-known,” the king said, “but Kurosaki Mahiro is a relative of the royal family. As such, there were certain honors he was entitled to that he did not receive – through my own foolishness. I am going to rectify that now.”

Wait a minute, Mahiro thought. Is he showing REMORSE for how he treated me before? How he thought about me?

“Henceforth,” the king said, “let it be known to one and all that Kurosaki Mahiro is now the Archduke of Kiryu, and he will be granted all honors and titles ascribed hereto.”

Hiyori nearly crushed Mahiro's arm at that one. He whispered “Holy . . .” and caught himself. He didn't want to risk his friend's newfound fortune – or his group's future – by swearing on the radio.

“Furthermore,” the king said, “this does not mean that you will be deprived of his comedic talents. If His Grace wants to continue his career, he is fully entitled to do so.”

Mahiro stepped up to the microphone. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I want to continue with My Dragon. And thank you, Your Majesty. This . . . this means a lot.”

He noticed the glances that several of the radio personnel were giving each other. It was well-known in the kingdom that “relative of the royal family” was a euphemism for “royal bastard.” Even though there hadn't really been one for a couple of generations, people still knew their history. The king had, in not so many words, acknowledged Mahiro as his son.

“It is my pleasure, Your Grace,” the king said. “And I hope to continue to see you grow in good health.”

Was that last line deliberate? Mahiro thought. Is he really going to look after my health?

He turned his head, and saw the show directors frantically whispering to each other in the control booth, trying to figure out which segments could be cut from the balance of the show to accommodate the king's interruption and not run over into the next show's time slot. The king was already heading back into the green room, and the broadcast was going to a pre-recorded commercial – meaning the mikes in the studio were dead.

“I'm going to talk to him,” Mahiro said, rushing out after the king. “We're done with our part, anyway!”

He hustled down the corridor to the room where he knew special guests waited before making their appearances. Sure enough, the king was still there – although he was being helped into a coat by an assistant.

“Your Majesty!” Mahiro cried. “Your Majesty – what made you change your mind? Was it Yo-ka and Toya? Did they convince you?”

The king turned around, slowly, and Mahiro felt the eyes of the man he was still trying to think of as his father on him. He felt like a deer in the headlights.

“No,” he said. “It wasn't them. It was Emi. It was what you said to me about your mother.”

“It was?” Mahiro said. “How?”

The king looked sharply at his servants. “Leave me with the boy for a moment,” he said. “I'll come get you when I need you.” The servants and guards bowed and abruptly left the room. When they were alone, he turned toward Mahiro, slowly.

“I tried to put that woman out of my mind for the longest time,” the king said. “She was the loveliest thing that's ever happened to me – and I was in denial about it for years. How much she meant to me, how much she made me happy. She was the only person to ever make me feel like a person, not a king. And if I had continued to feel like that – if I'd let myself choose my human side over my royal side – she would be my wife now. But I did the proper thing, and settled for a high-born woman. Or . . . what I thought was the proper thing. But still . . . I couldn't let Emi go.”

“So you kept her as a woman on the side,” Mahiro said.

“She was happy, though,” the king said. “And so was I. Especially when my wife couldn't have any more children after our daughter – or so I thought. I started entertaining dreams of having Emi birth more royal heirs for me . . .”

“And I was born premature and with retinitis pigmentosa,” Mahiro said, bitterly. “So you decided I was garbage.”

“Not garbage,” the king said. “But I was disappointed. It seemed like the end of my dream for her, when she didn't produce a healthy child.”

“And she took me and ran,” Mahiro said. Deservedly so, he thought. A son of a bitch with a crown on his head is still a son of a bitch.

“I kept in touch with her after she moved to Kiryu,” the king said. “That's how I found out about your vision issues. I didn't know at first, but she told me. Apparently, the condition runs in her family, and your premature birth made you more likely to get it. By that time, my wife had gotten over her own health issues, and given me two sons.”

“Who followed their hearts in matters of love,” Mahiro said. “Unlike you.”

“A cabaret singer and a guttersnipe,” the king said. “The last mates I would have chosen for them.”

“But they chose their own mates,” Mahiro said. “They did what you wanted to do, but didn't.”

“And I tried to forget I'd done that,” the king said. “Once I had my sons with my wife, I tried to pretend Emi had never been there, that I hadn't been foolish enough to not choose her . . . and I used your problems as an excuse to not contact her.”

“You WHAT?” Mahiro said.

“I told myself that Emi was an unfit consort for me because she'd had an imperfect child,” the king said. “And I tried to ignore you, and her. But I knew that wasn't it. I was lying to myself.” He added, quietly, “I was the imperfect one. I put my duty over what I really wanted.”

“And that's why you resent Subaru and Yuuki,” Mahiro said. “Because your sons did what you didn't have the courage to do.”

“I made Yo-ka go through a proper Culling so he'd choose a proper mate,” the king said. “He chose a nobleman, all right – but one that didn't look, act or live like a nobleman. And then, my OTHER son decided he wanted one of his brother's cast-offs – a boy from a lower-class district, yet.”

“But they've made them happy,” Mahiro said.

“Yes. As happy as Emi would have made me.”

“I want you to know,” Mahiro said, “that I've been dating Subaru's brother, Kouki. It's been going very well. I don't intend to change that – just like I'm not changing the status of my career.”

“I'm not expecting you to – on either front.”

“But I really am getting everything I'm entitled to?”

“The title, a manor home in Kiryu and a royal stipend,” the king said. “Plus, you'll have access to the best doctors – including eye doctors. We're going to preserve your eyesight for as long as we can. Also, we will get you a much better apartment to live in here in the capital.”

Mahiro bowed. “Mother will be pleased,” he said. “Very much so.”

“When you speak to her,” the king said, “tell her . . .”

“Yes?” Mahiro said.

“That she had a very special son. But then, I'd expect nothing less from her.”

“I will,” Mahiro said. He bowed. “Thank you very much again, Your Majesty.”

He walked out of the green room and straight to the exit doors. He pushed them open and stepped out to the walkway in front of the studio, breathing in the cool night air.

I'm not a royal bastard, am I? he thought. I'm a love child. I was born of a love that couldn't be fulfilled – because the king was too stubborn to follow his heart.

He knew that would never happen to him. He was going to follow his heart wherever it led – be it professional matters or personal. And while it was nice to finally have his title and all that went with it, he knew there were more valuable things.

A voice at the end of the walk said, “Congratulations, Your Grace. You were great tonight, by the way.”

Mahiro blinked and looked up. “I can't believe you came down here, Kouki,” he said.

“Why not?” Kouki said. “I knew you were going to be here, didn't I?”

“And it's not Your Grace. It's Mahiro. Same as it's always been. I'm not any different just because I'm technically HIS son.”

“I thought I'd be able to call you something else,” Kouki said.

“Like what?”

“Maybe something like baby, since we're dating and all?”

Mahiro walked over to the taller man, wrapped his arms around him and pulled his head down for a kiss, which lingered for a good, long moment.

“You're still flirting with me,” he said.

“And you don't mind,” said Kouki.

Mahiro eased away, slowly, a smile slowly making its way across his face.

“No,” he said. “Not at all.”

I'm not going to let him get away, he thought. I'm not making the mistake my parents did. We're going to see where this goes, and if it goes all the way to full-blown love? We're going to grab it with both hands and not let go.

“We're going to an izakaya,” he said. “I feel like celebrating.”

“Your title?”

“No – how well the show went tonight. That was the best sketch ever.”

“You're on,” Kouki said, wrapping an arm around Mahiro. “Let's go.”

They headed down the street together, Mahiro feeling better than he thought he ever had in his life. He had everything he'd ever wanted – and then some.

* * *


Mahiro did end up moving to a bigger, better apartment – in the same complex where Hitomi and Jun were living, in fact. He didn't get as much time to spend there as he thought, since My Dragon's career continued to take off. The short film increased their visibility a hundredfold, including national tours, more shorts, and even a weekly radio show of their very own, My Dragon's 30-Minute Hour.

Throughout it all, though, he still found plenty of time for Kouki. Their relationship continued to grow, to the point where, a few months after Mahiro moved to his new place, Kouki moved there with him. Subaru, of course, was thrilled. “We're family twice over now!” he told Mahiro. “One through Toya, once through Kouki!”

Mahiro also grew a warm relationship with his newfound brothers. He hung out with Yo-ka, Toya and their significant others quite a bit. He also got to know his cousin, Hitomi – on one memorable occasion, Hitomi and Jun triple-dated with Mahiro and Kouki, plus Junji and the boyfriend he'd met at the party, Gaku.

As for his father, the relationship was still a bit on the standoffish side – they were getting to know each other, true, but it wasn't the kind of relationship a lot of his friends had with their fathers. Then again, Yo-ka and Toya didn't really have a traditional relationship with their father, either – so Mahiro didn't feel too bad about that.

The king did give Mahiro one other royal boon, though, which was much appreciated. At one particular royal party – attended by the entire My Dragon group – a royal messenger came to Mahiro's table with a flat box. “From His Majesty,” the messenger said.

“Really?” Mahiro said. “It's for me?”

“You are the Archduke of Kiryu, are you not? Yes, it's for you.”

Mahiro lifted the lid – and there was a sparkling collar of gold set with purple stones, very similar to the ones Subaru and Yuuki wore. “What is this?” he said.

“A Pledged collar, Your Grace,” the servant said. “It is one of the collars the royal family used to use when they had six or seven or eight children. His Majesty has issued it to you to give to your significant other, if you have one.” He paused. “I'd consider it an honor, Your Grace. Dukes normally don't get Pledged collars, other than the Duke of Fatima.” He nodded his head toward Hitomi.

“Really”?” Mahiro sad.

“Oh, yes. You usually have to be a direct blood relative of the king.” The servant bowed. “Good evening Your Grace.”

Kouki leaned over, looking at it. “Whoa!” he said. “Would you look at that! Does that mean you're going to have to have a Culling?”

“No way in hell,” Mahiro said.

“No?” Kouki said. “You don't want to be surrounded with hot people?”

“I don't need to be,” Mahiro said. “I have someone to wear this collar already – if he wants it.”

“Really?” Kouki said. “Who?”

“You need to ask?” Mahiro said. “All right – I'll get down on one knee and ask formally if I have to.”

“You don't need to,” Kouki said. “The answer is a big, fat yes. I'll be your Pledged. I'll be anything you want me to be.”

“Just yes is enough,” Mahiro said. He took the collar, unfastened its heavy clasp and put it around Kouki's neck, then stretched up to kiss him – until he heard the sound of applause. He looked up, and there were both his half-siblings and their significant others, as well as the members of his group.

“GO MAHIRO!” Junji said.

“Congratulations!” said Subaru. “I am so thrilled for your both!”

“You deserve it,” Yo-ka said. “All of it.”

Mahiro smiled at them, waving – but he also leaned over toward Kouki and whispered, “I didn't intend for this to be a performance!”

“Just enjoy it,” Kouki said. “Besides, we'll have our private celebration later, right?”

But secretly, Mahiro really was enjoying the applause, and the warmth. It was a sign he was truly part of their family, in every sense of the word. And he wasn't going to complain about that at all.