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After Ever After: The Page's Tale

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Prince Yo-ka and Prince Toya had gotten used to sudden announcements from their father at this point in their lives. Ever since they were kids, they'd be called into his office, or he'd suddenly announce at a family dinner, that they were going to do something because it “is what princes do.”

First, it was what schools they were going to attend. Then, it was how many balls and public events they had to appear at per year. And finally, there was the dinner when their father announced that Yo-ka was going to find a mate in a Culling. (Well, that last one had turned out well for both of them).

But they were both surprised when their father called them in one day and said, “You are both to hire royal pages.”

The princes looked at each other. “Excuse me?” Yo-ka said.

“You heard me,” their father said. “You are to find four young men from the gentry – preferably ones who are closely related to nobility – and hire them to be pages to the two of you.”

“Um, we really don't need pages,” Toya said. “We have enough staff.”

“It's not a matter of staff,” the king said. “It's a matter of giving opportunities to young men who need them.”

“If that were the case,” Yo-ka said, “wouldn't it be more prudent to hire the pages from the lower districts?”

“NO!” the king snapped. “Pages are NOT the same as common servants. They are young men who have the potential to go somewhere in life, and you are to help them get there.”

“In other words, it's a publicity stunt,” Toya said.

“Just answer me this,” Yo-ka said. “Why are we being asked to hire pages NOW? Why not three or four years ago, when Toya and I were hiring the rest of our personal staffs?”

“The time wasn't right then,” their father said, quickly.

“Translated: Toya and I weren't Pledged yet,” Yo-ka said. “You were afraid that if we hired pages before we were publicly attached, there'd be gossip – right? You can't deny that in the past, there was impropriety between princes and pages.”

Their father bristled. “There will be NO gossip,” he said. “Whatever happened in the past, it isn't going to affect what's going on now.”

Toya looked at his brother. “Just what happened in the past? That's some juicy gossip I don't think I've heard yet.”

“Never mind that!” the king snapped. “Now, I have had families who have sons in the needed age range fill out applications for possible employment at the palace – which includes essays written by the young men. I may note that all the families are of exceptional character.”

“Ah, so this is what it's REALLY about,” Yo-ka said. “You have specific families you're rewarding for their loyalty.” More like blatant ass-kissing, Yo-ka thought.

The king sighed. “Must you be so cynical about EVERY royal tradition? I swear, every time I try to get you to do something that all generations before you have done, you buck against it.”

“That's because we don't HAVE to uphold every single tradition,” Yo-ka said. “Do we HAVE to have young men deliver our messages in person when there are telephones? Do we NEED them to run errands for us when we can send one of the palace secretaries?”

“It's a lot more impressive to have an official page as your public representative, dammit!” the king said. “I’m having the applications delivered to your office now. I expect you to have the initial invitations out tomorrow. You choose two men, invite them to be pages, and if you have any turn-downs, you send invitations to one of your backups.”

Yo-ka sighed and bowed. “All right,” he said. “We'll do it. But we DO have the final selection of pages, right? We don’t deliver our finalists to you and have you pick them?”

“By all means, the final choice is yours,” the king said.

“Then I can hire Jun’s brother? Our family DID promise to hire him when he graduated university, you know – and he’s graduating next week.”

“Jun’s brother is NOT in that pile of applications,” the king said. “He will not be working for you OR Toya.”

“What if we hired two more pages?” Toya said. “And one of them could be Jun’s brother. One page for me, one for Yo-ka, and one each for Yuuki and Subaru?”

“Why do the guttersnipe and the cabaret singer need pages?”

“Mother had personal assistants when she was your Pledged, didn’t she?”

“That’s different!”

“How so?” Yo-ka said. “Maybe the fact that one of her personal assistants was the mother of our half-brother – which, by the way, the public doesn’t know about?”

The king slammed his hand down on his desk. “FINE,” he said. “You’ve got your pages for your significant others, and one of them can be Jun’s brother. Now, go. You have work to do.”

As they left their father's office, Toya said, “You’re going to lose a lot of leverage over him if the public DOES find out the full truth about Mahiro.”

“Maybe,” Yo-ka said. “And I don’t like using that as a weapon. But sometimes, you have to. We DID promise to hire Jun’s brother – and Jun IS family, since he’s Pledged to our cousin.”

“Fair enough. Oh, by the way, what was the gossip about past pages?”

“It's not that important,” Yo-ka said.

“Yes, it is!” Toya said. “I want to know what the big deal was!”

“A lot of our ancestors were said to have affairs with their pages,” Yo-ka said. “Mostly men who preferred men, but were forced to marry women because of the times they lived in. I'm not sure how true it was – there probably were some affairs, but it probably didn't go as far as the rumors said.”

“And those were?” Toya said.

“Just really wild stuff,” Yo-ka said. “The kind of things the regular citizens always think happened among the nobility. And this is why Father waited until we were both officially Pledged before forcing this on us – he wanted us to carry on the tradition and reward these ass-kissing families” – he indicated the envelope - “but at the same time, he didn't want people thinking we were having mass orgies with our pages.”

“Are you kidding?” Toya said. “We're not the mass orgy type. I think people know that.”

No, no mass orgies, Yo-ka thought. But he still didn’t like the idea of doing this. He knew damn well why some gentry families sent their children into royal service – and the reason was nearly as insidious as the rumors of old.

* * *
Kosuke Ichijo never expected the paper he’d filled out during his last weeks at the university to really make a difference in his life.

It had been delivered to him by one of his family’s servants when he was buried in books and essays. “The royal palace is asking all the high-born young men to fill these out, sir,” the man said. “It’s for possible employment with the royal family.”

Well, that would be a very good thing, wouldn’t it? Because Kosuke wasn’t quite sure what he was doing after graduation – other than following the usual gentry path, being automatically hired by one of his father’s companies.

If the nobility were the idle rich of the nation of Veekay, the gentry were the working rich. They were the ones who owned all the biggest corporations, the movie studios and the radio networks. Nobody had to pull himself up by his bootstraps – the companies were started with family money. Gentry were descended from younger children of aristocrats who married commoners. Their professional pursuits were basically the end result of them being bored and needing something to do.

In the case of Kosuke’s family, their primary business was bottling and distributing fruit juices. Which was a noble thing, on one level – but it wasn’t exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted, well, more.

“I just wish we had more choices,” he said to his friend Tacc Kikutei one day. “We’re kind of locked into what’s acceptable for people like us.”

“We have guaranteed jobs when we graduate,” Tacc said. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Guaranteed FAMILY jobs,” Kosuke said. “I want my life to be about more than juice. Don’t you want yours to be about more than shoes? I mean . . . we could DO something, you know? We could help people. Not just do what our families have always done.”

“I do want my life to be about more,” Tacc said. “But how do we do that? We’re pretty much expected to join the family business.”

Kosuke didn’t have an answer – until the paper arrived from the palace. It was a flicker of hope. He filled it out quickly and later found out, to his delight, that Tacc had filled one out as well.

Then they both quickly forgot about them in the end-of-semester crush of papers and exams, followed by the excitement of graduation. Until a royal herald showed up at the Ichijo manor the day after the ceremony with a royal invitation.

“A page?” Kosuke asked the herald, his eyes wide. “I’ve been chosen to be a royal page? REALLY?”

“Yes, sir,” the herald said. “His Royal Highness Crown Prince Yo-ka of Valluna has requested that you serve the crown as his personal page. You have the option to accept or reject . . .”

“I accept!” Kosuke was nearly jumping up and down. “I accept! With my whole heart, I accept!”

The decision wasn’t exactly accepted easily by his family. “You KNOW what they said about pages in the past, don’t you?” his mother said. “They were used by the royal family as toys.”

“You have a job waiting for you at our company, you know,” his father told him. “Why don’t you just take that?”

“I’ll be careful, I promise,” Kosuke said. “If anything un-proper happens, I’ll come straight home. But I don’t think it will. The two princes – they seem like good people, don’t they?”

“I’m sure that’s what ALL those young boys said,” his mother murmured.

Eventually, he won them over, promising again and again to call them regularly and to bolt at the first sign of himself or any other pages being mistreated. (“We have an office in Kaypop, you know,” his father said. “If anything happens, we could send you there. The royal family couldn’t do anything to you if you were in another country.”)

Furthermore, as it turned out, Tacc had received a summons as well. “They want me to be the page to His Grace the Grand Archduke of Lycaon!” he said. “You know – the prince’s Pledged? We get to go together!”

“Really?” Kosuke was thrilled. “I’m so glad! Are we the only two? Or did they hire others?”

“The herald didn’t say,” Tacc said. “But I’m guessing that the Prince of Charlotte and his Pledged will have pages also, so we’ll be working with two other guys.” He threw an arm around Kosuke. “We’re going to have just what we wanted! It’s an opportunity to do something other than what our families have done for years!”

I just wonder, Kosuke thought, what’s going to happen from here, and who the other two guys are will be. Is this really going to have an effect on my future?

* * *

The two boys arrived in the capital by train and were greeted by a royal chauffeur. “Welcome,” he said. “The other pages have already arrived. You will be meeting them in His Royal Highness’s office.”

“So there really are two others?” Kosuke said as the chauffeur opened the door of the limousine.

“Indeed, there are,” the driver said, closing the door after his two passengers got in. “Prince Yo-ka managed to get his father to hire pages for both the two princes and their significant others. That boy has some kind of power over his father that the rest of us haven’t been able to figure out.”

“Does that mean he’s – intimidating?” Kosuke had a sudden flash of fear, remembering his mother’s anxieties about what might happen to him in the service of the crown.

“On the contrary,” the driver said. “He’s actually very kind. Perhaps that’s the very thing he uses to control his father. The king usually isn’t very persuadable.”

Kosuke looked out the window as the car drove through the streets. This is my home now, he thought. I’m actually going to be living here – for as long as the palace wants me. Everything looks so much bigger and fancier than it did home in Lezard . . .

The car pulled under an archway of the palace, under which were several side doors. A uniformed official came out and opened the door. “Right this way, gentlemen.”

“It’s going to take awhile for us to get used to this,” Tacc whispered to Kosuke. Gentry usually had household help – usually a live-in housekeeper and butler, plus other staff members who worked just during the day. Constant uniformed people bowing everywhere, however, was not part of their daily experience.

They were led down a corridor, and another corridor, and stopped at a pair of double doors. The uniformed man stepped inside and loudly announced, “The other two pages have arrived, Your Highness.”

“Send them in,” said a voice within the doors – and the two boys stepped inside to see a face they’d only seen before in newspaper photos and newsreels, sitting behind the desk wearing a three-piece suit. Oh, my God, Kosuke thought, it’s the prince. It’s really the prince! His first instinct was to bow low and say, “Long live His Royal Highness!”

Prince Yo-ka raised his hand. “Okay, first rule around here, boys? No formality. When my father isn’t around, you can call me Yo-ka and my brother Toya. No bowing. I’m a guy just like you. I just happen to have been born into a particular family. Got it?”

Kosuke stood up, looking surprised. “Really?” he said.

“Really,” Yo-ka replied. “That applies to all of you.” The prince pointed to two young men seated in chairs next to his desk – one with pink hair, the other with brown, both wearing their special-occasion suits. “Meet the other two pages, by the way. Sora Asukai will be working with Subaru, the Duke of Royz, and Natsume Reizen will be working with my brother. Guys, why don’t you introduce yourselves?”

Despite being told he didn’t have to bow, Kosuke bowed quickly. “Hi!” he said. “I’m Kosuke Ichijo, and I’ll be working with Prince Yo-ka.”

“I’m Takuya Kikutei – call me Tacc – and, um, I suppose you can guess by default that I’m working with the Grand Archduke of Lycaon.”

“Oh, yeah, one thing, guys?” Yo-ka said. “If you value your lives, don’t call Yuuki by his formal title. Trust me on this. Now, I’m going to turn you over to my uncle, the Palace Chief of Staff, and he’ll give you the orientation session we give all new employees. After that, you’ll be shown to your quarters – there’s an apartment complex for the four of you with four bedrooms and a common area. You start work tomorrow.”

“But what will we be doing?” Tacc said. “All we know is we’re going to be pages. What does that entail?”

“That’s going to be up to each individual boss,” Yo-ka said. “You’ll find out tomorrow. Now, head off for your meeting, and I’ll see you later.”

The two at the desk walked over to them. “Looks like we’re going to all be roommates,” the pink-haired boy said – Sora, yes, that was his name. “It’s college all over again!”

“I don’t mind, really,” Kosuke said. “I’m just glad to be here.”

“Family you wanted to get away from?” Sora said.

“Sort of,” Kosuke said. “Let’s just say my father kept insisting I join our family business.”

“Don’t they all?” said the other boy, Natsume. “It would be a shame to hide such a cute face behind a corporate desk.”

Kosuke blushed. “W-w-what?” he said.

Tacc laughed. “He’s right,” he said. “You ARE too cute to hide behind a desk!”

“Tacc!” Kosuke blushed even redder.

“Will you gentlemen please come with me?” The uniformed official bowed to them – and Kosuke took off like a shot. The sooner he got out of that room, the better.

Why did that guy say that? he thought. In front of everyone, yet! It was one thing if Tacc said it, since he’s a friend. But a complete stranger . . .

And it didn’t help at all that the stranger in question was attractive as hell, too. Kosuke had noticed that from the moment he walked in. Natsume had a face that could be on magazine covers – incredible cheekbones, intense eyes. The kind of face, they say, that could stop traffic.

Why is a guy like that flirting with me? Kosuke thought. If it was flirting?

The group headed out into the hall, turned a corner, and started down a long corridor. Another thing I’m going to have to get used to is walking, Kosuke thought.

And then, suddenly, the object of his thoughts a moment ago sidled up to him. “Hi, there,” Natsume said.

“Um – hi?” Great, he was blushing again just from having this guy speak to him. Not to mention feeling warm all over. What was going on here?

“Sorry about that,” Natsume said. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you back there.”

“It’s all right!” Kosuke waved his hands quickly – but knew he was blushing even redder.

“No, it’s not,” Natsume said. “I want to get off on the right foot with you. We’re working together, right? You’re working with one prince, I’m working with the other?”

“I guess so?” Kosuke said.

“So, yeah – we’ll be seeing a lot of each other. Especially if we’re sharing living quarters, too.” He paused. “You’re friends with that guy Tacc, right?”

“Just friends!” Kosuke said, quickly. Oh, God, he thought, why did I say that? “I mean, we went to school together – we both graduated from Tokage Academy, and then we both went to the University of Choverix.”

“Thought you were a Tokage guy,” Natsume said. “I went to Tokagetyou. I would have remembered someone like you if I’d met you before.”

“Oh . . . really?” And Kosuke was blushing again. If you were the son of a gentry family in Lezard, you went to one of the district’s two exclusive, private, pricey-tuition academies, no questions asked. Usually people on the east side of the region went to Tokage, on the west side, to Tokagetyou. Lezard had public schools, all right – but God forbid the children of the gentry went there. Public schools were for the children of the household help.

“You do blush extremely easily,” Natsume said, teasingly. “Do you do that all the time?”

“I . . . I never noticed,” Kosuke said. Great, that was making him blush all the more. He was probably the color of a ripe tomato by now. He’d probably look like a glass of red wine if Natsume kept going.

“I’ll try not to make you do it,” Natsume said. He paused. “Even though it IS cute.”

Fortunately, they had arrived at the office where they were to meet with the Chief of Staff. Thank God, Kosuke thought. Saved by the bell. He quickly scrambled into the room, aware that his heart was pounding and his cheeks were red.

What the hell is going on? he thought. Why am I feeling like this? What is it about this guy?

* * *

The meeting consisted largely on the boys being schooled on royal protocol. Kosuke began to worry about how he was going to remember it all – who you bowed to, who you didn’t bow to, who you addressed as what. He was glad he brought a notebook with him – he was going to need a cheat sheet, at least for the first couple of weeks.

This was followed by another meeting with a couple of the Chief of Staff’s underlings, who told them which areas of the palace were all-access and which were restricted. “You’ll have a table in the Royal Assistants’ dining room,” they were told by one female employee. “You’re forbidden from entering the Royal Family’s dining quarters without personal invitation. And you are NOT allowed to enter the northeastern wing – that’s where the Royal Family has their apartments. If you ARE invited, you must have the invitation in WRITING, and you must have a second person with you.”

Natsume raised his hand. “Does this have anything to do with the reputation pages used to have?” he said.

The woman turned the color of an eggplant. It seemed, Kosuke thought, that a lot of people were multicolor today. "That OLD HEARSAY has NOTHING to do with the role of pages in today’s palace. Please do NOT speak of that.”

“Bingo,” Natsume whispered to the other pages. “That means the rumors were true.”

Kosuke was quiet. He remembered, again, his mother’s warnings. But this wasn’t why we were invited, he thought. Prince Yo-ka seems like a nice guy – and why would he be hiring a page for his significant other if he was hiring pages for THAT?

When they left the meeting, they were led by another staffer to the “Royal Assistant Wing,” where their suite was. “Excuse me,” Tacc said to the staffer, “but what is the difference between a Royal Assistant and a regular staff member? I mean, why do we get our own wing of the palace?”

“Royal Assistants usually serve an administrative function,” the staffer said. “They’re the people that usually work directly with the princes on . . .”

At that moment, there was a whoop from down the hall. The boys turned – and saw a pink-haired young man in considerably more eccentric clothes than most of the palace dwellers wore running toward them.

“SORA!” the man shouted. “Oh, my God, you’re here! They wouldn’t tell me where you were in the palace!”

Sora turned toward the young man, blinking. “Jun?”

The staffer frowned as the pink tornado ran up to Sora and threw his arms around him, pulling him into a crushing hug. “Excuse me?” the staffer said. “Just WHAT is this about?”

“Don’t worry, I’m wearing my Pledged collar.” Jun pulled away from Sora and pointed to the huge, chunky collection of jewels and gold around his neck. “See? I’m allowed in all areas of the palace.”

The other boys looked baffled. “Sora?” Tacc said. “Who is this?”

“Oh, this is my brother,” Sora said. “Guys, meet – um, what is your title again, Jun?”

“Jun,” the other man said. “Just Jun!”

“Your brother works for the royal family, too?” Kosuke said.

“Not quite,” said Jun. “More like my boyfriend does.” He noticed the glare from the staff member. “Fine, my Pledged. Or, rather, I’m his Pledged, since he’s the Duke of Fatima – the princes’ cousin.”

“Another member of the family who didn’t end up with a noble,” sighed the staff member.

“I was born gentry,” Jun said. “And I’m a noble now! I’m the Viceroy of the Spiv States.”

“Yeah, that was it!” Sora said. “That’s the title I was trying to think of!”

The staffer was murmuring to himself, “And I’m sure the family is looking to trade up a second time. Honestly, these gentry, always greedy for more . . .”

Kosuke looked confused. Trading up? What did this guy mean? Just what would they be trading? And with who?

“You have to come to dinner with Hitomi and me,” Jun was telling his brother.

“I, um, have to eat in the dining room with . . .”

“You only HAVE to for the first week or so!” Jun said. “Come on – don’t you want to spend some time with us?”

“Well – can the others come with us?” Sora said. “I mean, it would only be fair . . .”

“Of course, they can!” Jun said. “You think I’m going to be selfish?” He turned to the others. “All of you, you can come with us!”

“My Lord Viceroy,” the staff member said, “it is highly irregular for you to . . .”

“Fine, I’ll talk to Yo-ka and Toya first,” Jun said.

The staff member looked like a bolt of lightning had hit him at the sound of the common names. “You DO mean Their Highnesses, don’t you, Lord Viceroy?”

“Fine, Their Highnesses,” Jun said. He leaned over and whispered to his brother, “You’ll find that people are a bit stuffy here. You’ll get used to it.”

“I . . . guess?” Sora said.

“Lord Viceroy,” the staff member said, stiffly, “we DO need to get the pages settled into their new rooms, you know.”

“All right.” Jun hugged his brother again. “I’m so glad to see you! And to meet your new co-workers – what were their names, again?”

“I didn’t tell you what they were,” Sora said. “I didn’t get a chance. This is Tacc, Natsume and Kosuke.”

“Nice to see you!” Jun waved. “Okay, I’m going, I’m going . . .” He quickly moved back up the hall the way they came.

The group watched them go, blinking. “He’s . . . quite a personality, isn’t he?” Tacc said.

“He always has been,” Sora said. “He decided one day he was going to go off and make guitars – and he did. Now, he’s working for the biggest guitar maker in the country.”

“What did your father have to say about all that?” said Natsume.

“You don’t want to know,” Sora replied.

“Gentlemen,” the staff member sighed, “if we can PLEASE get back to what we were doing?”

The group headed back down the hall. So, Kosuke thought, Sora got his job because of his brother. Well, I’m not holding that against him. It doesn’t matter how he got here, right?

He had to wonder, though, about the staff member’s reaction to the Viceroy and his brother. What, exactly, did it mean that their family would be “trading up again?”

* * *

The rest of the day was pretty much a blur. They settled into their new living quarters – which, as promised, had a large common room and four bedrooms (furthermore, Kosuke was glad to see each bedroom had its own bathroom). What they weren’t told, however, was that their common room had a little nook with a refrigerator stocked with drinks and snacks, plus a few cabinets holding more munchies. They’d barely had time to unpack when they were rushed off to the dining room, where there was a table for the four of them in the corner – the food was restaurant-quality.

“So, where is it that you’re from?” Natsume said to Sora over dinner. “Given that you’re the only one of us not from Lezard.”

“The Spiv States,” Sora said. “That’s why my brother is the Viceroy there. My dad runs a tomato canning company there. Tomato farming is just about the only thing the Spiv States has going for it. What about you guys? What do your families do?”

“Juice,” Kosuke said. “We have a fruit juice bottling company.”

“Kids’ shoes,” Tacc said.

“Boy, it’s probably a good thing we all ended up here, isn’t it?” Sora said. “We’d all end up in boring businesses otherwise? What about you, Natsume?”

“VBC,” Natsume said.

The others blinked at each other. The only VBC they knew of was a nationwide radio network.

“That . . . stands for something, doesn’t it?” Sora said.

“It stands for Veekay Broadcasting Company,” Tacc said. “My father is president of it. My grandfather is CEO. He founded it.”

“You mean – you mean your family owns the network that broadcast Sendai Kamotsu’s show?” Tacc said. “REALLY?”

“My father always says they saved his life,” Natsume said. “VBC was getting its ass handed to them by VRN and VBS” – their two main competitors, the Veekay Radio Network and Veekay Broadcasting System – “on a regular basis. They were even thinking of selling off their stations. And then my dad took a chance on a comedy group, and bam, they were suddenly the hottest network around.”

“Did you ever meet them?” Tacc said. “Sendai Kamotsu, I mean.”

“Once, not for long,” Natsume said. “My dad never wanted me to go around bragging that I knew stars – so he kept me away from them. With Sendai Kamotsu, though, I made enough noise until he gave in.”

“I don’t blame you,” Tacc said. “If I were you, I would have done the same thing?”

Kosuke was quiet. So Natsume knew how to get what he wanted from his father, he thought. Does that mean he’s a brat? He’s used to getting his own way? And why am I thinking so much about this?

* * *

When they got back to their rooms, all four pages retired for the evening. They’d had a long, exhausting day – and tomorrow promised to be just as exhausting.

It’ll be my first day working for the prince, Kosuke thought. What’s it going to be like? What will I have to do? Is he going to be nice as he seemed when we initially met him – or is he going to be a bastard when he’s actually your boss?

They showered, dressed and went off for breakfast the next morning. There were four staffers waiting for them at the end of the meal – one to take each of them to the office where they would be working.

“Do try to learn how to get there yourselves,” one of them said to the boys in a dry tone. “We won’t be able to do this every day, you know.”

“Well, I guess this is goodbye until lunch, right?” Tacc said, heading over toward the group of staffers.

“Oh, you won’t be seeing all four of them for lunch,” said the staffer who just spoke.

Tacc blinked. “We won’t?”

“We have many more people using this dining room for lunch than for dinner. At lunch, we serve both the live-in employees and the commuters. So, the midday meal is split into two shifts. Employees of the offices of the Royal Family eat at noon. Employees of the offices of the Palace Chief of Staff and the Royal Consorts-in-Training eat at one.”

“That’s what they call the Pledged guys?” Natsume said, looking stunned. “Royal Consorts-in-Training?”

“They are still in training on the intricacies of royal protocol,” the staff member said. “Now, gentlemen, can we go to work?”

As they headed down the hall, Natsume leaned over and whispered to the three, “Royal Consorts-in-Training sounds like they’re being taught how to have sex.” Tacc started to laugh and quickly slammed a hand over his mouth when the staff members turned around to glare at them. Kosuke broke out in another blush.

“I did not hear what was said, gentlemen,” the staff member said, “but can we PLEASE keep the off-color humor to ourselves?”

“How do you know it was off-color?” Natsume said.

“One page blushing and another stifling his laughter definitely points to it.”

They reached a corner, where Tacc and Sora were directed to turn one way, Natsume and Kosuke the other. “We will be back to take the two of you to lunch at noon,” one staffer said. “Since the pages are going two by two to lunch, you’ll have a table for two every day against the side of the room, rather than the table for four you sit at for breakfast and dinner.”

And that’s when it hit Kosuke that he’d be having lunch alone with Natsume every day. Oh, my God, he thought. Can I handle this?

* * *

Yo-ka greeted his new page at the door of his office. “Welcome,” he said. “I’m going to go easy on you the first day, okay? But just a fair warning, it might get fast-paced around here.”

“What is it I’m going to be doing, exactly, Your Highness?” Kosuke said. “Nobody told me anything about . . .”

The prince held up his hand. “Yo-ka, remember?” he said. “It’s just Yo-ka unless my father is around.”

“Your . . . Yo-ka. All I know is that pages used to deliver messages . . .”

“That was their primary function before the invention of the telephone, yes,” Yo-ka said. “And you’ll still be asked to deliver formal invitations sometimes. When you go out of the office on a mission for me, you’ll wear this.” Yo-ka moved to a coat rack behind him, where a red cape was resting on a hanger. “Try it on.”

Kosuke took it, gingerly, and looked it up and down. There were wide buttons from the collar to the hem, and the symbol of the Principality of Valluna was embroidered at the left breast in gold thread. “Is the color significant?” he said.

“We just made the four capes in the four colors of the country’s flag,” Yo-ka said. “You’re red, my brother’s page is green, Yuuki’s is blue and Subaru’s is yellow. For formal occasions, you’ll each have a black velvet cape with your symbols embroidered in your everyday cape color.”

The page wrapped the cape around him and buttoned it up to his neck. It fell to his mid-thigh, and there were openings in the side to stick his arms out as far as his elbows. “I’m not going to be able to do any heavy moving around in this,” he said.

“You won’t have to,” Yo-ka said. “Now, as to what you will be doing IN the office?” He opened a side door to a second room where there were half a dozen desks, each housing a secretary or personal assistant, all busy typing or writing.

“As you can see, my job involves a lot of paperwork,” Yo-ka said. “That’s because for generations, the king has passed much of the day-to-day administrative grunt work of the job on to his son and heir and his staff. And I have an excellent staff.” He approached the first desk, where a young man was reviewing a document. “This is my aide-de-camp, I’ll” – the name was pronounced “Airu.” “You’ll probably be working with him most often.”

“Hi!” I’ll said, waving at him. “We’re glad you’re here. I could use some help organizing.”

“Basically, I’ll schedules my appointments and handles the flow of paperwork,” Yo-ka said. “You’ll be helping him sort documents by topic and priority – don’t worry, he’ll work with you until you get the hang of it. Then, when the secretaries process the documents, you’re to deliver them to my father’s office for HIS staff to file.”

“It sounds . . . kind of complicated,” Kosuke said.

“It is,” I’ll said. “But it’s easy to learn. Believe me.”

“Now, let me introduce you to the rest of the staff,” the prince said. “This is the head secretary, Aiko . . .”

By lunchtime, Kosuke was not just well familiar with his new colleagues, he was familiar with the pace of what they were doing. And Yo-ka was right – it was fast. Very fast. There were at least three runs down the hall to the king’s office with filing, and a never-ending stack of stuff to be organized and sorted.

At least I’m not going to be bored, Kosuke thought as the staff member who had escorted him that morning brought him to the dining room where they normally ate – where Natsume was already sitting at a table for two against the wall.

“Hey,” he said, standing up. “I told the servers to wait until you got here.”

“I was a little busy,” Kosuke said. “We have a lot to do in Yo-ka’s office. Mostly having to do with paperwork. What are you doing for Prince Toya?”

“Actually? He’s got me working on stuff for the surfboard company him and his Pledged have started,” Natsume said. “Not what I thought I’d be doing, but hey – I’m not complaining. And I’ll bet Sora is working on the same kind of stuff.”

“I can’t believe Sora’s brother is pledged to the Duke of Fatima,” Kosuke said. “I mean, isn’t he the king’s nephew? Couldn’t Sora have gotten a better job than being, well, a page?”

Natsume leaned back, folding his arms. “You don’t know why some families send their sons to work as pages or personal assistants, do you?”

“Um, well, I heard the . . .” And at that moment, the server arrived, wanting to know which of the three available lunch options they wanted. Great timing, Kosuke thought. I was about to talk about something that really shouldn’t be discussed in polite company.

When the server left, he dropped his voice to a whisper and said, “I heard the rumors – in fact, that’s why my mother didn’t want me to come here.”

“Well, the rumors were true, years ago,” Natsume said. “But I’m talking about the lives of gentry now. You do know that we’re kind of stuck in the middle in Veekay high society, right? Not prestigious enough to be nobility, but more prestigious than the commoners? Most gentry are descended from nobles – and they want to get back into that class. In fact, they come up with all kinds of ways to raise the status of their families. And sometimes, that involves trading up.”

“I heard one of the staff members say that,” Kosuke said. “What does that mean?”

“Let’s put it this way,” Natsume said. “Say you’re an employee of the palace. What kind of people do you meet all the time? You meet nobles. Relatives of the royal family, friends, people who just come to court to kiss ass. And, say one of those nobles takes an interest in you. You go out with him or her for a while, and then, the question gets popped. So what happens if you marry this noble?”

“You become a noble as well?” Kosuke said.

“Bingo,” Natsume said. “That’s trading up. Gentry have sent their kids into whatever palace jobs they could get in hopes they’d meet and marry a noble. A lot of them get told to not turn down any romantic invitations from a noble – at all.”

“But . . . but that’s horrible,” Kosuke said. “They aren’t taking the son or daughter’s feelings into consideration. I mean – it’s almost like using their kid as an object.”

“Of course, it is,” Natsume said. “And gentry have done it for years. How many Ducatesses and Ducats and Marchesas and Marcheses do you think started out as one of us? And most of them don’t love their spouses one bit – but they sure love the titles and prestige that come along with the position.”

“I couldn’t do that,” Kosuke said, looking down at his plate. “At all. I can’t see being married to someone I didn’t love.” He quietly wondered if his fellow pages had been forced into their positions for that reason. Tacc’s family didn’t seem like that, though – and would Sora’s really want to “trade up” if they already had one son who was Pledged to the king’s nephew?

“You know something?” Natsume said. “I can’t, either. Titles mean nothing. I mean, what the hell do I want something like that for? I just want to live my life the way I want and be with who I want.”

“So . . . what does that mean to you?” Kosuke said. “Living your life the way you want, I mean. Are you going into radio like your father?”

“Maybe,” Natsume said. “Maybe I want to do something different first. Like, maybe, travel to other countries. Maybe spend a year living in Europe. Or maybe I’ll try being an actor. I did plays in school, you know.”

“You did?” Kosuke’s eyes were wide.

“You didn’t do anything like that? What kind of clubs did you have at Tokage?”

“I was in clubs for shogi and tennis,” Kosuke said. “I used to write about tennis for the school newspaper, too.”

“Oh, yeah?” Natsume said. “Do you still do anything like that?”

“Well . . . no,” Kosuke said.

“You should!” Natsume said. “I mean, is it something you enjoyed?”

Kosuke nodded.

“Well, then, you should follow your dreams!” Natsume said. “You DO have dreams, don’t you? You’re not one of those gentry that have allowed your family to crush them out of you?”

The servers arrived with their food and drinks. Kosuke waited until everything was set out before he replied.

“I don’t really have specific dreams,” he said. “I just know I want my life to be about more than my family’s juice company. I want to make people’s lives better.”

Natsume leaned over toward him. “See, I know I liked you at once for a reason! You’re cute inside and out, you know that?”

Kosuke blushed again. “I . . . I am?”

“Of course, you are! If you want to make the world better? Hell, yes, that’s adorable! And I’ll bet you’ll find a way to do it.” He raised his glass. “Let’s make a toast right here and now, okay? To both of us doing something interesting with our lives and getting what we really want!”

Kosuke tapped his glass against Natsume’s. “Um, what you just said.”

“The hell with trading up,” Natsume said. “We’ll trade any way we want – up, down or sideways. Because our lives are our own!”

“All our own,” Kosuke said. Quietly, he knew Natsume was right. He wasn’t going to follow the usual expectations for gentry – and even if his parents were interested in trading up, he wouldn’t do it.

I just wonder what form my future is going to take? he thought. And he suddenly found himself wondering just what role love would play in his future – if at all.

* * *

His first couple of weeks as a page continued to be a whirlwind of activity. Yo-ka’s office seemed to never slow down. He was soon getting as familiar with the king’s secretaries that he delivered filing to as he was with his own colleagues.

On a few occasions, he was sent out into town, wearing his red cape, to deliver formal invitations. Those were rather awkward occasions. He’d go to whoever’s manor it was, ask to be invited into the noble’s presence, and bow low, saying, “My master His Royal Highness Crown Prince Yo-ka of Valluna has dispatched me to invite you to tea at the royal palace on Tuesday at 3 p.m.” He then handed over the formal engraved invite – held with both hands, his head bowed. It did seem like a ridiculously overkilled way to ask someone to tea – but, apparently, it went over well with the target audience. Reports started flooding in to the palace about how “utterly charming” the new pages were.

There was also a formal press conference to introduce them to the public. They stood there in their multicolored capes, being photographed for newspapers and magazines, while the king spouted phrases about “unique opportunities for advancement for all our young people, no matter what social class.” (Which Natsume later proclaimed “utter bullshit – no way in hell would the palace hire anyone ranked lower than upper gentry for anything but food service and cleaning jobs.”)

Kosuke wondered how many people would see his picture. Will my old friends at Tokage and from university see that I’m living in the palace now? he thought. What will they think?

Mornings and evenings were always fun times, because the four of them got to get together and have conversations about their work. It seemed that Kosuke was the only one who spent most of his time on actual palace business. Sora, like Natsume, worked a lot on Toya and Subaru’s surfboard and rollboard company, while Tacc had what might be the most interesting assignment of them all.

“I’m handling things for Yuuki’s band,” he said. “Like, I’m actually working on writing press releases and scheduling concerts and radio broadcasts.”

“The king would freak if he knew that’s where you were employed,” Sora said. “My brother said he HATES the fact that Yuuki doesn’t want to give up his musical career. Seriously, the king calls him ‘that cabaret singer’ all the time.”

“If that’s what Yuuki wants to do, let him do it,” Natsume said. “Just because he’s going to marry a prince doesn’t mean that he has to give up his true calling.”

“Yeah, try telling that to His Majesty,” Sora said. “Jun said he’s really glad that Hitomi isn’t a full prince, he wouldn’t be able to deal with it if he was.”

And then, Kosuke said, before he realized it, “Sora, did Jun trade up?”

Everyone stopped eating and just stared at Kosuke. “Where did that come from?” Tacc said.

“I mean, some people become royal employees because their families are forcing them to marry nobles,” Kosuke said. “Did . . . did your family make Jun do that?”

“Nobody makes Jun do anything,” Sora said. “He and Hitomi chose each other. My parents were really happy he was marrying into the Moran family, sure, but they didn’t push him into it.”

“Then . . . you’re not being . . .”

“Forced? Nope,” Sora said. “I mean, I was told if someone who was nobility wanted to date me that I shouldn’t turn them down, but I wasn’t forced.”

“Same thing here,” Tacc said. “My family will be happy if I meet someone above us, but they won’t cry if I don’t.”

That was a load off Kosuke’s mind. None of his new friends were being forced into what was basically an arranged marriage situation – right? They were all there because they truly wanted to be? Wasn’t that all that mattered?

* * *

Kosuke’s favorite time of day was rapidly becoming lunch. He was starting to like spending one-on-one time with Natsume very, very much.

The other page had the most amusing observations about the people he saw around the palace. “You know those two old guys who work for the king?” he said. “The valet and the personal assistant? They’re always in and out of our office.”

“They’re in and out of our office, too,” Kosuke said.

“Well, don’t they look like a duck and a giraffe? I swear, the one guy has a neck you could throw horseshoes around, and the other waddles every time he takes a step.”

“Maybe we SHOULD throw horseshoes at him,” Kosuke laughed.

“Nah,” Natsume said. “He’s the type who would think it was too cheap. He wouldn’t wear any metal around his neck but silver or gold.”

The two of them also talked about what their lives had been like in school, especially compared to what they were now. (“One thing that’s always similar about college and working in a palace,” Natsume said. “You’re always going to have guys who are out to impress people any way they can – and that usually involves massive amounts of cologne. Seriously, you get in an elevator with some of those men, and you can’t breathe.”) And they talked about interests – Natsume strongly encouraged Kosuke to get back into playing tennis, and even offered to be his opponent.

Every once in awhile, Natsume would throw in a compliment about Kosuke’s looks. “You do know that you’re adorable enough to warp reality around you, don’t you?” Natsume said one day, all of a sudden.

“I am?” Kosuke blushed a little.

“It’s because you don’t realize just how cute you are,” Natsume said. “And that makes you all the cuter.”

Kosuke found his companion to be flat-out beautiful. Indeed, just being around him made his chest ache sometimes – and then there were the thoughts that came late at night, when he was alone in his bed, the ones that made him reach down and touch himself as he imagined his friend lying atop him, naked . . .

But he couldn’t find the words to tell Natsume how he felt. He didn’t know if he should. Was there some kind of law against pages being with other pages?

He was starting to really enjoy his new life. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was jeopardize it.

* * *

Kosuke didn’t get an opportunity to work with Prince Yo-ka one-on-one very much – but on the few occasions that he did, he found the prince extremely easygoing and very much like “just a regular guy.” On one such day, they were in Yo-ka’s private office together, organizing a large stack of invitations to a candlelight ball.

“What’s the occasion?” Kosuke said. “It isn’t any kind of national holiday – is it a family celebration?”

“Sort of,” Yo-ka said. “Yuuki and I have set the date for our wedding, and we’re going to announce it officially at the ball.”

“Really?” Kosuke looked thrilled. “Congratulations! I’m happy for you. You must love him an awful lot.”

“More than I ever thought I could love anyone,” Yo-ka said. “Believe me, the last thing in the world I expected to get out of that ridiculous Culling was to actually find the love of my life.”

“That was real?” Kosuke said. “I mean, you really did travel around the country with a harem of potential boyfriends?”

“You don’t think it was real?” Yo-ka said. “Believe me, you couldn’t make something like that up.”

“There were people at my university who thought it was a publicity stunt,” Kosuke said. “That you’d already picked Yuuki, and the other guys were there to make it look like the palace actually cared about the middle-class districts.”

“In a way, I kind of did pick Yuuki from the start,” Yo-ka said. “Part of me knew it was him all along – just like another part of me knew I had to keep Subaru around until the end. Not for myself, for my brother.”

“Natsume said that Toya is crazy about Subaru,” Kosuke said. “They make sure they have lunch together every single day, even if they’re busy with something else.”

“They were meant for each other,” Yo-ka said. “It just goes to show you that love can find you anywhere – even when you least expect it.”

Is that what’s happening to me? Kosuke thought. Has love found me? Is that why I look forward to lunch every day – because I know I’ll be seeing Natsume?

“Oh, by the way,” Yo-ka said, “I have a surprise for you. Well, for all four of you.”

“You do?” Kosuke dropped the handful of invitations he had into one of the boxes in front of them.

“Yes,” Yo-ka said. “You’re going to be attending the ball – not as employees, as my guests. I think you’ve earned an evening of enjoyment.”

Kosuke’s eyes grew wide. “Thank you! Thank you so much, Yo-ka!” He paused. “I don’t have anything to wear to something like that!”

“Not a problem,” Yo-ka said. “We’re going to send the royal stylists to your quarters to take your measurements, and we’re going to have formalwear for you all. You’ll look terrific, I promise you.”

“Thank you again! You’re really kind – not like . . .” He paused. Whoops. He was about to say something about the old rumors.

“Not like . . . what?”

“My . . . my mother didn’t want me to come to the palace at first, because she heard that princes used their pages for . . .”

Yo-ka laughed. “That was way, way in the past, Kosuke. And if your mother still has any objections, I’ll talk to her personally. And I’ll tell her what a valuable employee you’ve become.”

“I don’t think she does,” Kosuke said, quickly. “But . . . I’m glad you think I’m valuable! I want to do well in this job. I really do. Because I want to make a difference in the world. I don’t want to just follow in my father’s footsteps as CEO of his company.”

“Good for you,” Yo-ka said. “There’s no reason all gentry should become CEOs, just like there’s no reason all nobility should be idle rich throwing charity events.” He paused. “Or all royals should do things exactly like their parents did.”

“Is that what you’re planning?” Kosuke said. “When you become king, you’re going to do things differently than your father?”

“Very differently,” Yo-ka said. “You’ll see.” He dropped the last batch of invitations into the nearest box. “Now, this box is to be hand-delivered to the nobles who live in town – I’ll get one of the chauffeurs to drive you around tomorrow. It’ll be fun, really. These two boxes go to the local post office, and this box goes to the airport – it’ll be airlifted to the post office in Pentagon for distribution from there. Yes, we do have people come from that far away to go to a royal ball. Some people will go to any distance to see and be seen – literally.”

“All right!” Kosuke said. He then paused – something that had been at the back of his mind the last few weeks suddenly came to the front. “Yo-ka – what do you know about ‘trading up?’”

“Why?” Yo-ka said. “Is someone in your family trying to get you to do it?”

“No. But, well . . . Natsume was talking about it when we first got here, and I just wonder . . . how many people have to do that?”

“I think it’s a disgraceful practice,” Yo-ka said. “It’s gentry using their children as pawns to get their families connected to the nobility. If I ever find out that’s happening to any of our employees, I’m going to have a word with their family, to say the least.”

“If I find out that’s happening to anyone I know – I should tell you, right?”

“Absolutely,” Yo-ka said. “Tell me right away.”

Kosuke went back to the boxes. Why couldn’t he shake the feeling that someone he worked with – indeed, maybe one of his roommates – was in a “trading up” situation, even though they all denied it?

* * *

The week leading up to the candlelight ball was even more frantic than usual. Kosuke spent a lot of time delivering invitations, sorting RSVPs to invitations and drawing up seating charts (“Whatever you do, don’t seat the Duchess and Ducat of Lynch at the same table as the Marquis and Marchesa of Angelo – there’ll be a bloodbath if you do,” Yo-ka told him).

When they got back to their rooms, royal stylists were waiting to fit the boys with formal wear – dress suits that featured cravats in colors matching their capes. “I don’t think I’ve ever worn anything like this before,” Tacc said as he looked at himself in the mirror.

“I did,” Sora said. “Once. To a school awards banquet. And I was terrified I was going to spill something on it all night.”

Kosuke watched as Natsume came out of his bedroom – wearing his normal clothes. “Aren’t you going to try it on, Natsume?” he said.

“I did,” Natsume said. “In my room.” He leaned on Kosuke’s shoulder. “It would be bad luck for you to see me wearing it before the big day.”

“Oh . . .” The mention of the bridal superstition made Kosuke blush redder than a tomato. “I . . . I see. Um . . .”

“You look cute in yours,” Natsume said. “And you’re going to look even cuter in the ballroom.”

“I’m not used to wearing something like it,” Kosuke said, quickly.

“You don’t have to be,” Natsume said. “You’re a natural.” He leaned over and brushed his lips against the other boy’s forehead – the quickest of pecks. “I’ll be back,” he said. “I’ve got an errand to run for the prince.”

Kosuke just stood there, stunned. The area on his head that Natsume had just kissed felt like it was glowing with a silver light. He turned around to see if the other two had witnessed it – but they were both in Sora’s room, Sora showing Tacc the proper way to put on the cravat.

Oh, my God, he thought. I feel like I’m floating on a cloud. Walking on air. Every cliché there ever was – but now, the clichés feel like they’re true.

There was no doubt or question about it anymore. He was falling in love, deeply.

* * *

When the night of the ball arrived, the four pages were led to one of the grand ballrooms. “Tables for staff are at the back of the room to the right,” they were told. “You have a table for four – and that is your table for the evening. You will NOT try to sit with any nobles or royals.”

“What if they want to sit with us?” Natsume said.

“They won’t,” the staff member said, dryly. “Believe me.”

“Anyone else get the impression the household staff don’t like us very much?” Sora said as they entered the massive double doors.

“Maybe they just don’t like the fact that we work so closely with the princes,” Tacc replied.

Kosuke was going to say something – but he stopped short. He’d seen the royal ballrooms before, but now, it looked transformed. True to the name of the ball, the room was illuminated by massive numbers of candles – on the tables, in chandeliers, in sconces on the walls. There were people wearing beautiful outfits everywhere – women in glittering gowns, men in tuxedos, people of both genders in elaborately embroidered kimonos. At one end of the room was a bandstand where an orchestra was playing softly.

“Oh, wow,” Kosuke said. “This . . . this is gorgeous.”

“Nice to know we all worked our butts off this week for something good,” Natsume said.

A grand staircase was at one end of the room, leading upward to a set of double doors – and it was down this staircase that the nobles made their entrance into the room, each of them being announced by a royal herald. “Their Graces the Grand Duke and Grand Ducatess of Jupiter.” “Their Excellencies the Marquis and Marchesa of Pentagon.” “Her Honor the Baroness of Manterou Opera, accompanied by Lady Fumiko Yamai.”

“What if a noble were to arrive with a commoner as their date?” Tacc whispered.

“They wouldn’t be allowed to enter with the person,” Natsume replied. “The date would have to wait in the ballroom until the noble was introduced. Hell, it was only recently that they were allowed to announce gentry.”

Two royal trumpeters approached either side of the staircase, and the herald said, “Announcing Their Most Excellent Graces, the Supreme Duke of Moran and his family.”

“There’s my brother up there!” Sora pointed at the top of the stairs, where Jun waited with Hitomi.

Sure enough, as soon as they were introduced, the two of them approached the pages’ table. “Hi, guys!” Jun said. “I’m so glad you were allowed to come!”

“It kind of surprised us,” Sora said.

“You’re not allowed to sit with us, by the way,” Natsume said. “And we’re not allowed to sit with you.”

“Who the hell says?” Jun said. “I’ll sit with my own brother if I want!”

“It’s the rules, love,” Hitomi whispered. “You know how traditional my uncle is.”

“Well, some traditions just plain suck!” Jun responded.

The trumpets sounded again, and the herald proclaimed, “Announcing The Royal Family of Veekay, long may they reign.” Everyone in the room stood up – and Kosuke took it as his cue to do the same. How strange that he had to act so formal now toward the guy he saw in the office every day, wearing business-casual clothes, joking with the staff and complaining about his father.

After the introductions of the princes and their Pledged ones, and finally the King and Queen themselves, the herald said, “And now, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Yo-ka of Valluna has an announcement.”

Yo-ka stepped over to the bandstand, climbing up on the stage. “Thank you,” he said. “You might be wondering why I invited you all here tonight. It’s not just so we can show off our awesome candle collection.” There was a low laughter throughout the room. “It’s so I can announce that my dear fiancé and I have set the date for our wedding. His Grace the Grand Archduke of Lycaon and I will be married six months exactly from tonight in the Grand Royal Temple” – a building on the palace grounds designed like a European cathedral, used mostly for ceremonies like weddings, christenings and coronations.

There was applause throughout the room. “So if you’re on my staff, or my fiance’s staff – brace yourselves. We’re going to be just a bit busy for awhile.” The crowd laughed. “I have to say, though, that I wouldn’t even be able to think about planning an event like this without two recent additions to my staff – my aide-de-camp, Endo I’ll, and my page, Kosuke Ichijo.”

“Whoa! You got a shoutout, Kosuke!” Tacc said.

“Way to go!” Sora said.

Kosuke just sat there, stunned. I was singled out? he thought.

But Natsume just gave him a quiet smile. “I knew you could do it,” he said.

“You’ll be receiving your invitations in about a month – so clear your calendars!” Yo-ka said. “And now I’m going to shut up and get out of the way so we can get to what you all REALLY want – dinner and dancing. Enjoy the evening, everyone!”

There was a round of applause. Kosuke stood up. “I have to thank him,” he said.

“Thank him in the office,” Natsume said. “You don’t want to get in trouble.”

“But I want to . . .”

“Trust me, Kosuke,” Natsume said. He leaned over and whispered, “You don’t want to get thrown out, do you? Not when I’ve saved every dance for you.”

“You have?” And Kosuke found himself blushing again – and his heart fluttered.

That meant even more to him than Yo-ka’s praise – and that was saying a lot.

* * *

The evening progressed at a relaxed pace. A sumptuous meal was brought out course by course – appetizer, soup, salad, a massive amount of meat with potatoes and vegetables, cake, and then a platter of cheeses, nuts and raisins. (If this is the wedding announcement party, Kosuke thought, what will the wedding feast be like? I won’t be able to eat for a week afterward!)

Afterward, the orchestra began to play upbeat music for dancing. Couples started to make their way to the floor – or, actually, it was more like waddling after all that food.

“I remember that I promised you something,” Natsume told Kosuke.

“What?”

“I promised you that I’d ask you to dance, remember?” He stood up and offered his hand to his fellow page.

“Yes!” Tacc shouted. “Go, Kosuke!”

“Tacc!” Kosuke looked mortified. “It’s just a dance!”

“That’s what they ALL say,” Sora said, teasingly, leaning over toward them.

“Well, then?” Natsume said, extending his hand again. Kosuke took it, and let himself be led out onto the dance floor.

“He’s got it bad for him,” Tacc said to Sora.

“HUGELY,” Sora said. “Of course, it’s mutual. You see those two together, there might as well not be anyone else in the room.”

Kosuke, meanwhile, just walked out onto the floor with Natsume in a sort of daze. It looks like a movie in here, Kosuke thought. The beautiful decorations, the candlelight, the people in their gorgeous outfits . . .

And then, there was Natsume, looking every ounce the leading man as he wrapped an arm around Kosuke and pulled him close, the two of them beginning to move to the music.

“I’ve been looking at you all evening, you know,” Natsume said. “Everyone else was paying attention to the food, I was paying attention to you.”

“At me?” Kosuke wished he could come up with a response that was more witty and articulate. If this really WERE a movie, there’d be sparkling dialogue right now.

“Oh, yes,” Natsume said. “Most adorable guy in the room – and also, the most gorgeous. You know how lucky I feel to be with you every day?”

“I feel lucky to be with you, too,” Kosuke said, quietly. “You’re . . . you’re not like anyone else I’ve ever known.”

“Oh?” Natsume pulled Kosuke a little closer. “How so?”

“There’s a strength you have,” Kosuke said. “It’s like, you don’t let yourself be controlled by anyone, or anything. Except you’re not, you know, aggressive about it. It’s a kind of quiet power. Like you rely on yourself – and everyone else can rely on you, too.”

“Whoa,” Natsume said, not losing a step as he continued to whirl Kosuke around the floor. “I’m honored. Really. Especially coming from you. You’re pretty extraordinary, too.”

“How so?”

“You’re warm. I mean, you radiate warmth like the sun. You see the good in everyone and everything no matter what. And I think that’s what drew me to you. When someone’s near you, they feel happy.”

He paused, dipping Kosuke a bit, then pulling him back up. “And in particular? I feel happy. Sometimes I think I’ve been waiting to meet someone like you all my life.”

“Natsume . . .” Kosuke was finding it hard to breathe. Oh, my God, he thought, he feels the same way about me that I do about him! “I . . I . . . . never mind.”

“What is it?” Natsume said.

“It’s . . . nothing, really.”

“Oh, come on,” Natsume said. “Tell me!”

“Its just that I feel the same way about you,” Kosuke said. “I have ever since I met you. I just . . .” He stopped. “That didn’t sound right.”

“Yes, it did,” Natsume said. “It sounded perfect. And I think there’s only one thing to do now.”

“What’s that?”

“Ask you if we’re officially a couple. Because I sure as hell want to be.”

“Yes,” Kosuke said. “Yes, we are!”

Natsume pulled Kosuke closer, they looked into each other’s eyes for a long moment . . . and then their lips met in their first kiss, the two of them completely oblivious to the fact that they were surrounded by other people. To them, there was nobody in the world.

They pulled back, and Natsume said, softly. “Well, damn. We should have done that before.”

“Yes,” Kosuke said. “We really should have!”

“So . . . there’s nothing else to do but make up for lost time, right?”

He pulled Kosuke closer, and they kissed again . . . completely oblivious to the fact that there was an older man across the room, looking at them with a disapproving gaze.

* * *

As the evening wore on, they alternated between dancing together and taking breaks at the chairs that had been set up at the side of the room. They held hands and spoke softly to each other during those times, and several passerby even remarked what a lovely young couple they were.

At one point, Natsume excused himself to go to the men’s room, which was down the hall. On his way back to the ballroom, he was humming happily to himself . . .

Only to have his arm gripped in a firm grasp, a harsh voice saying, “Natsume! I did NOT send you to court for you to end up with the son of a fruit-juice-bottling family!”

Natsume’s jaw dropped. “Father?” he said. “What are you doing here?”

“I was invited,” said the man with the salt-and-pepper hair and the trim beard to match. “The king usually invites the heads of ALL the radio networks to formal events.”

“You could have told me in advance,” Natsume said in a frosty tone.

“I didn’t think you would be invited!” his father said. “A mere page . . .”

“Prince Toya doesn’t consider me MERE, Father,” Natsume said. “He’s been very happy with my work. And you WERE the one who insisted I become a page in the first place.”

“And you know WHY I did!” his father said. “And it did NOT involve ending up with someone who is BELOW you!”

Meanwhile, Kosuke was becoming concerned. Natsume hadn’t come back. Did he get sick? He hadn’t been drinking that much, but there WAS the matter of all that rich food . . . he decided he’d head out toward the men’s room to see if his new boyfriend – BOYFRIEND! – was okay.

He moved toward the corridor – and stopped. That was Natsume’s voice, all right – and it was raised in anger at someone? Was he having a fight with somebody? Another employee, perhaps? Quickly, Kosuke flattened himself against the wall, straining his ears to listen.

“You were really serious about that?” Natsume was saying. “You sent me to court just to trade up?”

“Don’t refer to it as that,” his father snapped back.

“Then what do you want to refer to it as?” Natsume replied. “You told me when you sent me off that you wanted me to meet a man or woman who was worthy of me.”

“And that’s exactly what I mean!” his father said.

“You meant you wanted me to marry a noble!” Natsume said. “That’s what this is about!”

His father sighed. “Natsume, you know you DO have a duty to your family. As we all do.”

“So my duty is trading up?” Natsume said. “Marrying someone just so they can bring more money and prestige to your network?”

“Yes, dammit!” his father shouted. “If you put it that way, yes! You have the potential to be a noble, Natsume, and I want to see you become one!”

Kosuke suddenly turned and rushed back to the ballroom, pausing just outside the door, clinging to the wall, his heart pounding in his ears. Oh, God, it had been such a beautiful evening until now . . .

He’d suspected all along that someone in his immediate orbit was being forced to “trade up” by his family. He never thought it would be Natsume. His fellow page seemed so independent, so in control . . . heck, he was the one who had told Kosuke about trading up in the first place, and he’d spoken of it with utter disdain.

He stumbled back into the ballroom and dropped back into one of the chairs at the side of the dance floor, looking dejected. What was he going to do now? Natsume might want to continue the relationship, for sure – but could he, if he knew there was no future in it?

* * *

Prince Yo-ka was having a busy evening, to say the least.

There were the well-wishers coming up to him and Yuuki to press the flesh and offer their congratulations. There were the members of the press constantly wanting a statement. There were the annoying drunks who came up to him with loud suggestions for what Yuuki should wear for his big day and what the music should be and even what the cake should look like.

“You’re all lucky I’m even going through with that royal wedding farce,” Yuuki whispered to his fiancé. “Only reason I am is your father promised me I could lose the annoying title if I did.”

Yo-ka didn’t have the heart to tell him that he wouldn’t have the Grand Archduke of Lycaon title after he was married anyway, since his new title would be Crown Prince Consort.

The crown prince reached a point where he needed to get away from everything for a few minutes, so he headed for the chairs at the side of the dance floor – and that’s when he saw his page, looking like he’d lost his last friend in the world.

Yo-ka approached the boy, leaning over and putting a hand on his shoulder. “Kosuke? What’s wrong?”

Kosuke turned big, sad eyes on his boss. “I . . . I don’t know what to say . . .”

“Come on out in the hall,” Yo-ka said. “You can tell me anything, I promise.” The prince led the way into the corridor, the boy following slowly. Whatever this is, it’s bad, Yo-ka thought. This isn’t like Kosuke.

“So . . . what is it?”

Kosuke took a deep breath. “I asked you about trading up a few days ago, right?”

Yo-ka nodded.

“Natsume . . . his father is doing that to him. I heard them in the hall – his father is trying to force him to marry someone noble in order to enhance their family’s status. And I’m, well . . . not a noble.”

Oh, God. It figured Natsume’s father was one of those rats. The man had a reputation as a social climber, always trying to get nobility to appear on his radio network, having himself photographed with anyone who had even the slightest connection to royalty.

And Yo-ka knew very well what had been blooming between the two pages. He had eyes. So did his brother. The two of them had compared notes on several occasions and concluded that their employees were head over heels for each other.

“You’re good enough,” Yo-ka said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t.”

“Yes, but being involved with me is not ‘trading up,’” Kosuke said.

Yo-ka patted the boy’s shoulder. “I don’t usually like to throw my weight around as the Crown Prince,” he said, “but I’m going to make an exception.”

He’d been forced into a mating situation by his own family – which turned out well for him and his brother, but it could have ended badly as well. He wasn’t going to let that happen to Natsume – and have Kosuke’s heart broken in the process.

They deserve way better than that, he thought. Both of them.

* * *

Natsume’s father was back at his table – and he’d brought Natsume back with him. He insisted his son sit with him for the rest of the evening – because he’d be damned if he let him go back to Juice Boy.

Yo-ka approached the table slowly – immediately getting the attention of its occupants. Most of them, who were also corporation-owning gentry, stood up and bowed. “Good evening, Your Highness!” they said.

“Good evening,” Yo-ka said. “It’s an honor and a pleasure to have you join me tonight. Lord Reizen, a word?”

Natsume’s father jumped up and bowed low to the prince. “Of course, Your Royal Highness,” he said.

“In the hall, please,” Yo-ka said. “I would like to talk to you where it’s quiet.”

“Whatever you want,” Natsume’s father said, bowing again. If it were any lower, Yo-ka thought, his nose would be scraping the floor. He’s a butt-kisser, all right.

The two men walked out of the door and into the corridor, at which point Lord Reizen bowed yet again. “How may I serve the crown?” he said.

“You can serve the crown by letting your son live his life,” Yo-ka said.

Natsume’s father looked startled. “I beg your pardon?” he said.

“Your son has found a perfectly good companion,” Yo-ka said. “And yet, you want him to ‘trade up’?”

“Your Royal Highness, honestly, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t?” Yo-ka said. “Do you know I just had a very upset page on my hands? Kosuke is a wonderful young man. He’s kind, hard-working and has a real vision for the future of this country. How is someone like that not good enough for your son?”

“With all due respect, Your Royal Highness, Natsume does have the right to choose his own mate. I don’t remember the Crown being able to interfere with an individual family’s business.”

“He does have the right to choose his own mate,” Yo-ka said. “And you’re taking it away from him for the sake of your radio network. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but did you send him to the palace to meet potential noble mates?”

“I sent him here to better himself,” Lord Reizen said. “Yes, part of that involves making contacts with powerful people, but that will serve him later in life.”

“And serve you currently in life,” Yo-ka said. “So you can attract nobility to your network as both guests and listeners.”

“Our listenership is down,” Lord Reizen countered. “We haven’t had a smash hit show since Sendai Kamotsu ended. We have their reunion specials now, but that’s only going to be a few times a year . . .”

“And you DO want to keep broadcasting them,” Yo-ka said in a cool tone of voice. “Remember, I know Sakito – Satty. He’s dating a very good friend of mine, one of my former Culling candidates. All I have to do is say the word and he’ll pull the specials from you. The other radio networks would love to have them.”

“Are you kidding me?” Lord Reizen said. “Why?”

“Because if you care more for your ratings than your son’s happiness,” Yo-ka said, “you don’t deserve to have a hit show – even a part-time one.”

“This is all about that juice bottler’s son? Seriously?”

“It’s about a respectable young man with a great future,” Yo-ka said. “It’s about one of the best employees I ever had. And it’s about the person your son loves. And if that’s not good enough for you? Then you have to ask yourself what kind of a father you are.”

Lord Reizen was stunned into silence. He just stood there with his eyes and mouth wide open – as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. And yet, he couldn’t talk back . . . because this was the Crown Prince of his nation.

“Now, I’m going to make a deal with you,” Yo-ka said. “I have very strong connections with the hottest comedy group since Sendai Kamotsu – My Dragon. Right now, they’re doing a ten-minute segment on a show on another network. If they were to be given a full-length showcase, though . . . they’d blossom. They’ll be a ratings smash. You give your son the respect he’s due, you butt out of his love life and let him make his own decisions . . . and I will strongly suggest to My Dragon that they take their act to your network. You continue along the path you’re on? You will be lucky if you still have your network in the future. The Crown CAN seize property, you know.”

Lord Reizen suddenly dropped to his knees, his eyes wide with horror. The whole idea of being stripped of his network, of basically being reduced to the status of a commoner, was obviously a fate worse than death for him. “Your . . . Your Royal Highness, I’ll do anything . . .”

“Then love your son,” Yo-ka said. “Respect him as a person, not a grappling hook to make you climb the social ladder. And make an effort to get to know Kosuke. He’ll be as much of an asset to your family as he is to my office. When someone meets a person who truly enhances their life? That’s the REAL trading up.” He bowed to the other man. “Good evening, Lord Reizen.”

Yo-ka left, feeling a small amount of satisfaction in knowing the other man was still sitting there, stunned. He’d had the fear of losing what meant most to him waved in his face.

Good, Yo-ka thought. That might shock him into being a human being to his son. If only there were someone above MY father who could make him feel the same way.

The irony, of course, was that if things continued to work out for Natsume and Kosuke, there might be “trading up” in the boy’s future after all. Yo-ka was strongly considering rewarding Kosuke with the title Viceroy of Lezard on his wedding day, when the Crown Prince traditionally gave promotions to the deserving.

But in the end, though, titles were irrelevant. What mattered was how the two boys were starting to feel for each other – and that was worth more than all the money and titles in the world.

* * *

As soon as his father left the room with Yo-ka, Natsume got up from the table and rushed over to where Kosuke was sitting. “Hi,” he said.

Kosuke looked at him with sad eyes. “Natsume, your father . . .”

“My father’s an ass,” Natsume said. “You heard us talking back there, didn’t you?”

Kosuke just nodded.

“He sent me off to be a page in order to trade up,” Natsume said. “I didn’t tell anyone – not even you.”

“It’s all right,” Kosuke said, softly.

“But I decided from the get-go that wasn’t what I was going to do,” Natsume said. “If I met the right person, I was going to go for it – no matter what his or her status was.” He reached over and squeezed Kosuke’s hand. “And I found the right person.”

“You could be disowned, you know,” Kosuke said.

“So what if I am?” Natsume said. “I’d rather be with you and poor than be with someone rich and . . .”

“That won’t be necessary,” Yo-ka said, approaching the couple.

Both of them jumped, not realizing their privacy had been violated. “What happened?” Kosuke said.

“I had a word with his father,” Yo-ka said. “I worked some connections, pulled some strings. He’ll be leaving you alone now.”

Kosuke gasped. “Seriously?”

“My father doesn’t listen to anyone,” Natsume said. “How did you . . .”

“Are you forgetting I’m a prince?” Yo-ka said.

“Thank you!” Kosuke said. “But . . . you didn’t have to . . .”

“Yes, I did,” Yo-ka said, softly. “I know what it’s like to have a jerk father interfere in your life. I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”

Natsume stood up and bowed. “Thank you,” he said. “I can’t thank you enough.”

“Don’t thank me,” Yo-ka said. “You two have done a lot for my family. Oh, and by the way? I’ll have something to give you tomorrow in my office, Kosuke. Something to use . . . when you two are ready.”

He waved at the couple and walked off. Kosuke leaned over and gave Natsume a small kiss. “So . . . we really are a couple now,” he said.

“Through and through,” Natsume said, hugging him. “And, you know what? Even though I got sent here for jerky reasons . . . becoming a page has now become the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Kosuke hugged his beloved. “Me, too,” he said, softly.

From a distance, Yo-ka glanced back at the couple. Once again, he thought, my father’s jerklike, life-controlling decisions have resulted in people being happy. First my Culling, now this. Hey, maybe he actually knows he’s doing good. No, wait . . . this IS my father we’re talking about.

He went back to his fiancé, leaving the two lovebirds to themselves.

* * *

As it turned out, Natsume’s father kept his word – he let Natsume have his love life, and he even managed to have a cordial relationship with Kosuke. He got his successful radio show – My Dragon’s 30-Minute Hour aired on his network, and eventually grew to be as big a hit as Sendai Kamotsu’s show had been.

Kosuke was immersed in heavy activity when it came to working on the royal wedding – and even the other pages got involved. He still found time for his relationship with Natsume to blossom and develop further, though – especially with the aid of the little gift Yo-ka had to the couple, which turned out to be access to one of the guest bedroom suites whenever they needed private time. (They might have lived in a four-bedroom suite, but sound did carry from room to room).

When the day of the royal wedding finally arrived, Kosuke was given two huge gifts from Yo-ka as a reward for all his hard work – the title of Viceroy of Lezard, and the keys to an apartment in the apartment building across from the palace that housed a lot of the staff. The apartment was plenty big for a couple to move in together – and that is precisely what he and Natsume did.

Kosuke had come to the capital as a page expecting an interesting job. What he found was far more than he expected – he found his Happily Ever After.

(As for the other two pages, Sora and Tacc? They found their Happily Ever Afters, too – but that’s a story for another time . . .)