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After Ever After: The Printed Page

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Tacc enjoyed working for His Grace The Grand Archduke of Lycaon (But He’ll Kill You If You Call Him That). Really, he did. Having Yuuki as a boss provided a series of challenges unlike any he’d ever had before.

His main job was allegedly as a page – delivering messages for his employer. In reality, that was just a tiny subset of his duties. For the most part, it was an education in how to run . . . not royal duties, but the business side of a musical act.

Yuuki, it seemed, had quite a successful career as a cabaret singer before he became Pledged to Prince Yo-ka. And not even impending marriage to the heir of the throne of Veekay was going to make him give that up.

“Okay, when Yo-ka becomes king? Then I’ll stop,” Yuuki told his employee. “By that time, I’ll probably be at the point where I’d be ready to hang it up anyway. But until then? I’m not giving up for anyone – not even His Majesty The King. He wanted Yo-ka to get married. Yo-ka picked me. And with me, what you see is what you get – music and all.”

Fortunately, Yuuki’s current position meant he was very in-demand as a performer – which meant that being his page meant keeping track of club dates, radio broadcasts and recording sessions – plus making sure they were juggled with official duties.

It wasn’t unusual at all for Tacc to tell his boss, “You’re christening the new ship for the Yamazuki Transport Corporation at noon, and then you’re singing on the Afternoon Companion show at four.”

“Are you kidding me?” Yuuki said. “The christening was supposed to be an hour earlier! How am I going to get all the way across the capital AND do a sound check with the engineers?” He flopped down in the big, leather easy chair at one end of the office.

“Should I call the radio station and get them to try to make it later?” Tacc said.

“No, don’t worry about it,” Yuuki said. “I’ll send the band ahead of me.” He sighed and ran a hand over his violet hair. “I wanted to be famous, all right. I just didn’t know what would come of it.”

“You could always cut down on . . .” Tacc began.

“On royal business? And have the king call me a lazy, good-for-nothing cabaret singer? Not on your life!” Yuuki said. “It’s worth going through all this just to rub in that bastard’s face that I can be a prince-consort AND have my career at the same time!”

And so, it fell to Yuuki’s staff to make sure he was in the right place at the right time. In addition to Tacc, there were two personal assistants, a secretary and an aide-de-camp. All had gotten very used to living life at a breakneck pace.

“It’s literally dealing with concert promoters one minute and some duchess or another the next,” one of the assistants, Juri, told Tacc when he was first hired. “And with each one, you have to have the right tone of speech and choice of language. It’s challenging, all right.”

On one day in particular, a call came in from the office of one such noble. “Good afternoon,” said the dulcet voice on the other end of the phone. “I represent the Earl of Arshtay. His Eminence would like to have His Grace perform at his garden party on Saturday.”

“Let me check his calendar,” Tacc said, reaching for a ledger in front of him. The Official Office Calendar was all-important. All staff members were required to write down all of Yuuki’s appointments, no matter how small, and no new appointments could be made without double and triple cross-checking the schedule. A conflict was a disaster waiting to happen.

Fortunately, Saturday was clear. “I will have to consult with His Grace,” Tacc told the secretary, “but so far, it looks good.”

“Splendid!” the secretary said. “Tell him the event begins at 4:30, and we will be delighted to have him.”

It seemed fairly routine – until Tacc told Yuuki about it, at which point Yuuki flew into what could only be described as a frenzy.

“HIM?” he said. “Dammit, he’s trying that crap AGAIN? He’s NOT going to get away with it! Not the way he underpaid my band the last time!”

Well, that was unexpected. Yuuki didn’t usually react that way to any gig. Even if it was in one of those clubs run by “a fusty old man,” as he put it, Yuuki just went along with it for the sake of his career.

“But . . . but his secretary said . . .”

“Probably the same thing as before,” Yuuki said. “He is STILL jealous, I know it! And yet, he wants to show me off to his friends like some kind of prize. Just so he can say, ‘I knew Yuuki way back when!’”

Tacc looked baffled. “But . . . why would some older gentlemen be jealous of . . .”

“Because he’s not an older gentleman!” Yuuki snapped. “The Earl of Arshtay is my age. His father passed away when he was a teenager and he inherited his father’s title. I went to boarding school with him for a few years. He was always uppity, and he’s gotten even MORE uppity in recent years. Want to know what my band calls him? The Aristobrat!”

“But why is he jealous of you?”

Yuuki paused for a long moment before answering. “He was chosen to represent Arshtay in Yo-ka’s Culling. I don’t know why, he barely lives there anymore. He spends most of his time in the capital. He told me before we went to the formal dinner the first night that he figured he was going to make the final round, and that I’d be gone quickly because of my music career. ‘Royals don’t like aristocrats who pretend they’re not aristocrats,’ he said. And then, at the end of the first round . . . he was cut.”

Tacc shuddered. “That must have been rough.”

“He wasn’t happy,” Yuuki said. “Not in the least. And since then, he’s had this love-hate thing with me. He keeps inviting me to perform at his garden parties – because, like I said, he likes to show me off to his fancy friends. But he underpays my band – and doesn’t talk to me face-to-face like a real person. He still hasn’t let go of . . .” He stopped. “Forget it.”

“So the secretary – do I tell them no?”

“You tell them . . .” Then, something seemed to dawn across the singer’s face. “No, you’re not going to call them back. You’re going to get that blue page cape, put it on, go to this guy’s manor in person, and ask to be escorted directly into his presence, and this is what you’re going to tell him . . .”

* * *

Tacc always felt rather intimidated when going into the homes of the nobility. Granted, as a son of the gentry his own family wasn’t exactly poor, but his family manor could almost fit into the Earl of Arshtay’s home.

The royal limo drove up and up a seemingly endless, tree-lined walk, at the end of which was a house that seemed to go on for miles in either direction, looking like it was carved out of white marble. He crossed a front porch the size of a high school soccer field before he rang the doorbell. It was answered by a very stiff-looking man in an equally stiff-looking tuxedo.

“Good afternoon,” Tacc said, bowing. “My master His Grace The Grand Archduke of Lycaon has sent me with a message to be delivered directly to His Excellency The Earl of Arshtay.”

“A royal page?” the butler said. “I haven’t seen one of them in years! I will see if His Excellency is receiving guests. If you would just wait in this parlor . . .”

“He doesn’t have to wait,” said a voice behind the butler.

“But sire . . .” the butler said.

“Show him into my study,” the voice said. “I’ll be right there.”

The butler turned to Tacc. “It seems that His Excellency is receiving guests after all. If you would come with me, Sir Page . . .”

The butler led him down a hall, bowed at a doorway and ushered Tacc into a room with a huge writing desk, a few chairs made of the same dark and polished wood as the desk, and little else. There was a man sitting at the writing desk, with chin-length light brown hair.

Well, that’s got to be the Earl, Tacc thought. “Your Excellency?”

The other man didn’t turn around. Okay, Tacc thought, I’ll just go right into the speech. He bowed and said, “My master, The Grand Archduke of Lycaon . . .”

“Spare me the formality,” the Earl said. “Just get to the point.”

“He . . . he said he will perform at the party on two conditions. One, that you pay his whole band twice as much as you did the last time. Not one and a half times more, twice as much. He will not settle for a penny less. Also, you are not to ignore him. You are to speak to him as an equal, because he has always regarded you as one despite your past behavior.” He bowed again. “That is the message, sir.”

The figure in the chair let out a rough, sardonic chuckle. “Oh, Yuuki, Yuuki, never change,” he said. “You’re STILL working the I-don’t-have-to-act-like-a-noble-because-I- can-sing angle, aren’t you?”

He spun around to reveal a face that was attractive in a soft way – but also seemed steeped in cynicism. His appearance made Tacc take a couple of steps backward. “Your Excellency . . .” Tacc said.

“Blue capes?” the Earl said. “That’s what he’s dressing his staff in now? He’s going out of his way to be high-royal-style, isn’t he?”

“This is an official page’s uniform, Your Excellency. That is my position. I . . .”

“Please, stop the Your Excellency. It’s Mamo. That’s my name. It’s what I’ve always wanted to be called – despite certain people thinking I’m an elitist snob.”

Tacc looked a bit stunned. “Call you Mamo?” he said.

“Yes, exactly. What did Yuuki tell you about me? That I have a stick up my ass? That I’m a stuffy aristocrat? Maybe a bit bratty?”

“Um . . . yes?” Tacc said. How else was he supposed to answer when it was the truth?

“This coming from a guy who always wanted to be regarded as an ar-TISTE first and a noble second. He spent most of his time when we were in school studying music.”

“Begging your pardon, sir, but what’s wrong with that?”

“It would be fine if he wasn’t a noble. We’re born with a lot of expectations. We can still have fun, if we want – but we need to live up to what our families expect of us. I kept trying to convince him that we had to accept our lives as they were. We didn’t choose to be born nobles – but we are, and we should make the most of it. When you don’t accept that and go against the grain? Other nobles don’t accept you. You end up in a place where commoners don’t want you because you’re a noble, and other nobles don’t want you because you’re acting like a commoner. I didn’t want that to happen to Yuuki.”

Tacc looked surprised. “You didn’t?”

“No, I didn’t. When we went into the Culling, I told him that his I’m-a-musician-first-and-an-aristocrat-second stance was going to hurt him, and he’d be gone in the first round. So what happened? I was the one who was cut. I was proven wrong.”

“So . . . he was right that you’re jealous of him? Because of the Culling?”

“Because of that? Hardly,” Mamo said. “It’s not like I went in there determined to marry the prince. I just didn’t like being proven wrong.”

“What about his band, then?”

“Oh, God, the undercharging thing,” Mamo said. “How the hell do I know what musicians are going for? My staff usually hires that sort of thing. Fine, he’s got his twice as much. You can tell him that.” He paused. “But damn, he still thinks he’s an ar-TISTE, doesn’t he? Sending a cute boy in a fancy cape to deliver messages?”

“I told you, I’m a royal page.” And – wait a minute, did the other man just call him cute?

“Well, then, you can give him this message,” Mamo said. “I’ll accept his terms but I’m adding one condition of my own.” He paused. “That I can ask his page out to dinner.”

“Really?” Tacc jumped.

“Do I look like I’m kidding?” Mamo said. “Yes, I want to ask you out to dinner. You’re cute. And I want to know just what the hell a royal page is and what one does.” He paused. “Unless you have any objections.”

“No!” Tacc said. “No, you can ask me out to dinner, it’s fine!” His head was spinning. Wait – when did this go from a mission for Yuuki to a date request?

“Good,” Mamo said. “So, go deliver the message, okay? And we’ll pick out a date for dinner.”

“Okay!” Tacc bowed. “Good day, sir!”

He rushed out of the study, thinking – what was that? I just got asked on a date? How? And why? And why am I suddenly excited at that idea?

* * *

Yuuki was waiting for him when he got back to the office. “So . . . how did it go?”

“He agreed to pay your band twice as much,” Tacc said.

“Good,” Yuuki said. “About time. Did he say anything else interesting?”

Tacc paused. Should he tell Yuuki he’d been asked out on a date? No . . . probably a bad idea. Especially if his employer’s feelings for the Earl were less than friendly.

“Just that he thought my blue cape was typical of how you’d dress your employees,” he said.

“I figured as much,” Yuuki said. “Fine, add it to my schedule. I’ll let the other guys know.”

Tacc went back to his desk and began sorting through a stack of mail that had arrived – and then, his phone rang. Not the general office telephone – his personal telephone, meaning the caller had asked the operator to be put through directly to him. He picked it up. “The Grand Archduke of Lycaon’s office.”

It was the same secretary he had spoken with before. “His Excellency said he is picking you up tomorrow night at 6:30 p.m.”

“Excuse me?” Tacc said.

“For dinner, sir,” the voice on the other end said. “That is outside your normal working hours, is it not?”

“Oh!” Tacc said. “Sure, sure it is!” Oh, my God, he thought, he really was serious. He’s really taking me on a dinner date!

“Very good, sir,” the secretary said. “The car will be at the side employee entrance of the palace.”

“Thank you,” Tacc said. “Good day.”

He glanced over at Yuuki, who was on his personal phone, speaking to one of his band members. I can’t let him know about this, Tacc thought. I can’t risk upsetting him. But at the same time . . . I do want to go. I want to find out more about Mamo.

* * *

“You really are going on a date with an Earl tomorrow?” Kosuke asked him at dinner that night, looking flat-out shocked.

“Well, yes,” Tacc said. “And I’m really not sure if I should go through with it, even though I want to.”

“Why not?” Sora asked him. “We’re allowed to not eat in the dining hall. I eat dinner with my brother a lot.”

“It’s not that,” Tacc said. “It’s that I don’t know what his relationship with Yuuki is. They seem to have, well, disdain for each other.”

“Have you asked Yuuki about it directly?” Natsume said.

“I’m afraid to,” Tacc said. “He seems to bristle like a cat as soon as the guy’s name comes up.”

“Well, how are you going to find out what the deal is?” Natsume said. “It may be petty crap from the past. How did they know each other before?”

“They went to school together. And they were both in the Culling during the first round.”

“Well, hell, a LOT of stupid crap happens when you’re in school,” Natsume said.

“Look, if you need us to cover with Yuuki, we can tell them you’re meeting a relative who’s visiting the capital,” Sora said. “But, you know . . . if this turns into a real relationship . . .”

Tacc looked alarmed. “It’s just one date!” he said. “I just want to find out more about the guy!”

The others all looked at each other. Tacc could read the glance Natsume and Sora exchanged – “Sure, that’s what they all say.”

* * *

Tacc waited outside the employee door glancing around nervously. He had changed outfits three times before deciding on a nice dark blue suit with a lighter blue tie. He wanted to look dressed up, but not TOO dressed up.

Quite frankly, this was his first experience dating a member of the aristocracy. For all the stock the gentry usually placed on “trading up,” his family didn’t care very much about it – just like they didn’t care very much about the gender of the people their son dated. (“Boy or girl, long as you’re happy,” his mother told him.)

Before he had a chance to check his watch and wonder if his date was tardy, a black limousine pulled up to the door and a uniformed chauffeur got out, opening the back door. “Good evening, sir,” the driver said, bowing. “Won’t you please step in?”

Tacc bowed back and tried to climb into the back seat as gracefully as he could – it wouldn’t do to just kind of throw himself into the car. There sat Mamo, dressed in a designer suit, the rings on his hands looking like they cost the gross national product of several small countries.

“You look good,” Mamo said. “Obviously, they treat pages well.”

“You look . . .” Tacc wanted to say “amazing,” but he didn’t want it to sound like he was coming on too strong. He was just having dinner with this guy to find out more about him, right? “Elegant,” he finally settled on.

“Elegant?” Mamo laughed a little. “That’s not a word I get very often. Other aristocrats tend to say things like ‘well-put-together’ – after they make sure you’re not wearing the same designer they are.”

“That’s not something I’ve ever had to worry about,” Tacc said. “People like my family . . . we shop for brands, not designers.”

“Your family is gentry, aren’t they?” Mamo said.

“My father is Lord Tamesuke Kikutei,” Tacc said. “He’s the CEO of Kiku Shoes – we make shoes for kids.”

“And that’s what your future is going to be?” Mamo said. “Making kids’ shoes?”

“Not necessarily,” Tacc said. “I mean, I knew growing up that I was probably going to end up in the family business – not run it, my older brother is probably going to do that. But at the same time, I want to do more, you know? But I really didn’t know how. Most people I went to school with just automatically went to work for their parents’ companies after they graduated.”

“So that’s why you became a royal page?” Mamo said. “To get out of the shoe business?”

“Well, sort of. I guess it was more like to find opportunities?”

“Looking to ‘trade up,’ then?”

“No!” Tacc said, quickly. “I mean, I wasn’t sent to work at the palace for that! I mean, I wanted to meet people who might give me career guidance.”

“Good,” Mamo said. “I hate the whole ‘trading up’ thing. Selling your kids to pad your own wallet, that’s what it is. People who do that need to be shot.”

Quietly, Tacc was very glad that he hadn’t been sent to work in the palace for nefarious purposes. With the way that Mamo just spoke, he figured he’d be kicked out of the car if he was.

The limo pulled up in front of a small bistro – the kind where they didn’t bother putting prices on the menu, because if you weren’t extremely wealthy, you wouldn’t even be in there. The chauffeur opened the door and bowed, and a man in front of the restaurant did the same thing as they alighted from the limo.

“Good evening, Your Excellency,” said the tuxedo-clad maitre’d as they entered. “Usual table?”

“Yes, please,” Mamo said. “And the usual wine.”

“May I say you have a charming guest tonight, sir?” the doorman said – which made Tacc wonder how often Mamo came here, and with how many other dates.

“I think so, too,” Mamo said. “This is the page to the Grand Archduke of Lycaon.”

It seemed strange for Tacc to be introduced that way – usually it was just “Tacc Kikutei” or “Lord Kikutei’s boy.” He wondered whether he’d be introduced as “Page Consort” after Yuuki became Prince Consort.

Once they were settled in with wine and menus, Tacc said, “Why do you live in the capital if you’re the Earl of Arshtay?”

“Because the capital is much more interesting,” Mamo said. “The place where I grew up is boring as hell. Mostly commoners with money - the kind who think they rule the world just because they’re rich. They buy huge, flashy cars and then drive them like they’re in a race – getting from one place to another is taking your life in your hands.”

“So, what is it that you do here?” Tacc said. “I mean, other than throw parties. You’re obviously not running things in Arshtay, since you live here.”

“Nobles haven’t really run things in their districts in years,” Mamo said. “Not since they started having regional governors. Most of them spend all their time playing golf or billiards, when they’re not hanging out in country clubs gossiping about each other.”

“And what about you? What do YOU do?”

At that moment, the waiter came to take their orders. Tacc couldn’t help but notice that Mamo had a slightly relieved expression on his face. I wonder what he’s hiding? he thought.

Once the waiter left, Mamo said, “So, what exactly does His Grace have you doing all day, anyway?”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“What question?”

“The one I asked before the waiter came.”

“You don’t miss anything, do you?”

“Nope!” Tacc said, feeling proud of himself.

“All right, then,” Mamo said. “I’m a novelist.”

Tacc looked shocked. “You . .. you write?”

“Oh, yes. And I’ve been published, several times. Not under my own name, of course. Aristocrats don’t openly admit to doing anything for gainful employment. My own family doesn’t even know I do it. But yes, that’s what I do with most of my time.”

“So then . . . what kind of books do you write secretly?”

“Now, you haven’t answered my question, have you?” Mamo said.

“I’ll answer your question after you answer mine.”

There was a long pause, after which the older man said, “It’s erotica. It’s stuff with a plot, of course – but it doesn’t shy away from the intimacy. What you might call literary erotica.”

Fortunately, the waiter chose that moment to arrive with their appetizers, so Tacc didn’t have to answer right away. In fact, he had to keep himself from falling face-first into the plate.

Mamo gave him a smile. “You asked,” he said.

“Why . . . why did you choose something like that?”

“Because I like a challenge. I wanted to see if it was possible to do genuinely well-written erotic novels, and I set out to do it. And no, before you ask, I haven’t done everything I write about.”

“I . . . I wasn’t going to,” Tacc said.

“So now that I’ve answered your question, what about mine? Just what does he have you do all day?”

Tacc went on to describe his daily duties, how he actually spent most of his time working on band business and very little on things related to royalty. By the time their man course arrived, Mamo was looking very amused at it all.

“It’s just like him to do something like that,” he said. “Hire a boy to help with palace duties, put him to work on his band. He really does have odd priorities.”

“But why are you critical of Yuuki’s music career when you have your own writing career?” Tacc said.

“Remember how I said aristocrats don’t openly admit to doing anything they get paid for? That’s the difference – he OPENLY admits it. Flaunts it, really. It breaks just about every code of conduct there is. I mean, he could have used a stage name and performed with wigs and heavy makeup, or even masks – other aristocrats have done that before. But no, he goes out there as himself.” He added, quietly, “And to think he’s going to marry the crown prince.”

Is he really jealous? Tacc thought. Did he truly want to be the one to marry the prince? Did he have a thing for Yo-ka? He was beginning to wonder if this man had secrets that went beyond writing erotic novels.

* * *

By the time they left the restaurant, Tacc was starting to feel very comfortable in the presence of this man. They’d lingered over their meal a lot longer than they had to – extending it to dessert, then coffee, then brandies. Tacc had talked a lot about his time at Tokage Academy and Choverix University, plus his current living arrangements at the palace.

“There’s four of us in one suite,” he said. “Natsume and Kosuke spend most of their time together, because they’re in love. I mean, really in love. It’s cute to watch.”

“And what about you?” Mamo said. “Do you have any desire to fall in love?”

“Well . . I’m a bit busy to think about it right now. But if the right person comes along? Sure, I’m open to it.”

“And who would be the right person?”

“Someone I feel like I could always be myself around, I guess. That’s the most important thing there is, right?”

When the limo finally came to collect them and bring them back to the palace, Tacc felt like the lights of the city were glowing just a little bit brighter tonight. Maybe it was the wine and brandy he’d consumed. Or maybe . . . just maybe it had been the company.

As they arrived, Tacc got out, and Mamo got out along with him. “I had a great time,” Tacc said, bowing low. “Thank you for inviting me.”

“What would you say if I invited you to go out again?”

“Then I would say yes. Yes, definitely!”

“You’ll be hearing from me, then.” Mamo leaned over and took Tacc’s hand, bringing it to his lips and kissing the back of it. “Good night.”

Tacc just stood there for awhile after the limo took off, eyes fixed on the back of his hand.

* * *

The next day, Yuuki approached Tacc when he was sitting at his desk, going through a stack of invitations various nobility had sent for various events. Having a future royal consort at your party was considered a badge of extreme honor, of course – so Yuuki got bombarded on a regular basis. One of Tacc’s duties was to figure out which were even worthy of consideration – and then Yuuki still threw 99 percent of them away. (“I don’t have time for this! My music comes first!”)

“I’d like you to come with me to the Earl’s event this weekend,” he said. “Retsuko has a family thing that day, so I’m going to need some sort of personal assistant with me.”

“Me?” Tacc said. “Well – sure!” (Mamo’s party, he thought. That’s Mamo’s party. I wouldn’t refuse if my life depended on it).

“Thanks,” Yuuki said. He glanced over Tacc’s shoulder. “Oh, God, the Viscount of Ekkisu AGAIN? I get at least one invitation from them a week. Tell them if they ask me to perform, I’ll consider it!”

After he finished work that day, Tacc went out into town, heading straight for one of the biggest bookshops in the city – one that was well-used enough that he could blend into the crowd and not be noticed.

He acted casual – strolling through the store, browsing through a magazine here, an adventure novel there, before heading for the stacks at the back of the shop. It was very obvious which shelves held the erotica, because the books all were sold in brown paper wrap, making them look like cuts of meat at the butcher. The title and author name were printed on the spine, and the back of the wrapper had a few paragraphs describing the content in worksafe terms.

I just wonder if I’ll know which ones are his, Tacc thought. He glanced around, looking to see if anyone was watching him, and then ducked into the stacks, glancing here and there. Most of the pen names he saw were a single initial and a last name – not exactly the height of originality.

Well, he thought, I’ll never be able to guess – and then, he spotted a row of books that bore the name he knew he was looking for: “R. Shitei.”

Of course, he thought. He wrote out the name of his district another way. He pulled one book out, called “Shambara,” and turned it over to the back, reading the description: “Kaede is the son of an aristocratic family who is bored with the usual parties and yacht cruises. Then one day, a chance encounter with a strangely-dressed commoner leads him to a world he never knew existed – the sex club Shambara. There, he discovers and explores the limits of desire – dominance and submission, roleplaying, groups. But what will happen to him when an enemy of his family discovers his double life?”

His other titles all seemed to have similar themes. “Suicide Memories” was about a repressed young noble haunted by dreams of a past life where he was a gay sexual libertine. “Sadomazo” concerned a duke’s son being forced to marry a young woman of equal social standing who carried on kinky playtimes with other men on the side. “Closet Boy” was, as the name implied, about a closeted noble’s son, just out of a prestigious university, who got sexually liberated while staying with a wild cousin at an exclusive resort island.

He felt a bit squeamish about the obvious kink content – is that what Mamo really likes to do? He thought. And if our relationship were to continue, would he expect that of me? And then there was the question of whether any of this stuff was at all autobiographical. . .

Tacc quickly put the books back and headed out of the store. He’d learned a lot more about the man, to be sure – maybe more than he’d wanted to.

* * *

When the day of the party arrived, Tacc dressed in a nice suit and his blue cape and met Yuuki at his office. “Your job is to make sure the bandstand is set up according to this plan,” Yuuki said, handing him a drawing, “and then to get anything the band members need – water, guitar strings, additional cables and the like. You’ll be at the back of the bandstand while we’re performing so we can signal you. Sound easy enough?”

“Oh, yeah,” Tacc said. But I won’t have much time to talk to Mamo, he thought. Maybe that’s just as well. I’m still kind of processing what I saw on the back of his books.

“And you’ll get food while you’re there, don’t worry. You’ll be able to eat while we’re on breaks. Mamo always has these things catered by name chefs, he wants to make an impression on people.”

The two of them climbed into one of the royal limos. Tacc looked out the window as they drove out of the center of the city, toward the outlying areas where several aristocrats and gentry had their manors. “It’s nice out here,” he remarked.

“If you like a lot of green grass,” Yuuki said. “Personally, I’ve always preferred to be where things were actually happening.”

“Did your family have an estate like this?” Tacc said.

“My family’s estate was at the seaside,” Yuuki said. “We just about had grass for a front yard and ocean for a back yard. I used to sneak out at night and join the beach parties where people would be playing musical instruments and singing – that’s how I learned that I loved performing.”

“And your family didn’t support it?”

“Of course they didn’t,” Yuuki said. “Why would an aristocrat’s son do something like music? Why, that’s too much like work!” He paused. “These people don’t realize how good doing work is for the soul sometimes. How satisfying it is to start something and see it come to fruition. Well, their loss.”

The limo pulled up to Mamo’s manor, and it was very different from the last time Tacc had seen it – limos were parked all along the drive, people were milling everywhere. A servant bowed to Yuuki and said, “Welcome, Your Grace. The rest of your band has already arrived, they’re setting up.”

“Come with me,” Yuuki said. “Things are probably going to be frantic for awhile, just warning you.”

So Tacc followed him, made sure the setup for the bandstand was to their specification (except it wasn’t), fetched things the band members would need pre-show, and found he was sweltering in his blue cape. Can’t we have a summer uniform for pages, like we had at school? he thought.

He was told to find one of the household staff and ask them about another outdoor extension cord. Tacc headed back toward the main house – when the host of the party himself suddenly appeared in front of him.

“I didn’t think I’d see you today,” Mamo said.

“I didn’t think I’d have time to see you, either.” Tacc glanced around, nervously. “I’m, um, working for Yuuki today.”

“So I gathered, since you’re wrapped up like a piece of candy.” He tugged on the cape. “Are you available tomorrow night to go out again?”

“Yes,” Tacc said. “But, um, there’s something that I want to talk to you about . . .” And then, he stopped himself. The middle of a party was no time to be asking about his books, and their content, and why he wrote them . . . and whether he’d be required to participate in any of their subject matter, should their relationship progress.

“If it’s about your job, I promise I won’t ask you out at any time that would interfere with your schedule.”

“No, it’s . . . I’ll tell you later!” He quickly ran off toward the house, using the cord as an excuse to get away for now. What if he does expect that kind of thing? he thought. How can I tell him I’m not comfortable with it?

After he returned to Yuuki with the requested item, Yuuki said, “Damn, that took longer than I thought. They have trouble finding it?”

“Yes!” Tacc said, quickly. I don’t want him to know about me and Mamo, he thought. Not yet. Except, down the line, is that another thing I’m going to have to deal with?

“Typical,” Yuuki said. “Okay, we’re finishing setup.”

Throughout their first set, Tacc sat at his perch on the stage watching Yuuki perform. He was, in a word, spectacular. He might not have the most technically brilliant voice there was, but he made up for it with style, charisma and connection to the material and the audience.

It’s almost a shame that he was born an aristocrat, Tacc thought. He’d probably go a lot further in the music world if he didn’t have the baggage of being the Grand Archduke of Lycaon dragging him down. No wonder he hated his title.

When they came to a set break, Yuuki came up to Tacc, sighing. “We need ANOTHER cord. I think there’s a short in the one Zero was using – he kept sputtering.”

“I didn’t notice,” Tacc said.

“That’s because you don’t know what to listen for,” Yuuki said. “Can you please go get us another one?”

Tacc headed back toward the house, found the same person he spoke to last time, bowed and apologized profusely for bothering him again. I hope they don’t think Yuuki’s a demanding diva, he thought. He’s just a perfectionist when it comes to his music.

He was on his way back out to the party when he paused – he was hearing voices raised in anger, two very familiar voices at that. He stood very still, poised to run if either of them came in his direction.

“You KNOW why you asked me to perform,” Yuuki said. “And, I’m sorry, things haven’t changed. I may dislike a lot of the things the royal family does, but I’m still marrying into it.”

“There you go again,” Mamo replied. “You’re still concerned about your image, aren’t you?”

“I am NOT doing this for IMAGE!” Yuuki said. “For the nine millionth time, Mamo, I genuinely love Yo-ka. I was just as surprised by the whole Culling thing actually working out as anyone else, but I want to marry this man – because he RESPECTS me as I am. He lets me be me. And, quite frankly, it’s none of your business! Not anymore!”

“You are reading WAY too much into this,” Mamo said. “I’m not accusing you of the ultimate case of trading up. I didn’t ask you to come here because I want to show off that I know you. And it sure as HELL isn’t because . . .”

“Do you expect me to believe that?” Yuuki said. “Do you think I don’t know that you have characters in those BOOKS of yours that are based on me? You haven’t been able to get me out of your mind, have you?”

“Just because there’s some similarities doesn’t mean that . . .”

“You’re just reminding me again of why I broke up with you,” Yuuki sighed. “Honestly, Mamo . . .”

Tacc suddenly dashed back to the bandstand. He didn’t want to hear anymore. Mamo and Yuuki had been together? Yuuki had inspired the characters in Mamo’s books? Yuuki said Mamo couldn’t get him out of his mind?

Did this mean the whole reason Mamo wanted to date him was to get to Yuuki?

Tacc felt like a heavy ball of sour, sour substances was lodged between his throat and his stomach. He numbly made his way back to the bandstand, handed over the cord and quietly went to his place for the second set.

Fortunately, he wasn’t needed for the rest of the performance. He just sat there, staring into space, pointedly not looking at Yuuki.

When it was over, Yuuki walked over to him and said, “Okay, that’s that. We do breakdown and then we get something to eat.”

“Okay,” Tacc said, quietly.

“You all right? You don’t look so good. It’s the damn cape, isn’t it? I’m going to have a word with Yo-ka about those things, they’re too hot for summer. Look, the show’s over, you’re officially off-duty once we break down. Just help us move a few things, and then you can go into the house, return the cables and ask the staff to take that cape.”

Tacc just nodded. He did what he was directed to do, then took off for the house like a shot, holding the cables.

The cape is the least of my problems, he thought.

Once garment and cables were delivered, he went outside – but instead of going to the party and getting something to eat, he just sat on a chair on the back porch.

I put so much hope into this going somewhere, he thought. I even looked up his books. I never dared go anywhere near that section of the bookstore before. And to find out he was just using me to get to Yuuki . . .

He looked out at the array of well-dressed people, just feeling numb inside. Maybe I wanted a happily ever after of my own a bit too much because I saw how happy Natsume and Kosuke are, he thought.

There were footsteps beside him, but he didn’t look up. He heard someone call his name. Not just someone – he knew very well who.

“Tacc?” Mamo said. “Is there something wrong?”

Tacc looked up. What should he just say? Should he just give a curt “Thanks for using me to get to your ex!” and walk away? Should he deny that anything was wrong at all? Should he say he was just overheated from wearing that damn cape for hours?

But in the end, he went with the truth. “I heard you talking to Yuuki,” he said.

Mamo sat down in the chair next to him. “Oh,” he said. “That.”

“Yes . . . that. And I know now that you . . .”

“How much of it did you hear?”

“I heard him saying you couldn’t get him out of your mind, and you’d based characters in your books on him, and he broke up with you . . .”

“And now you think I’m using you to get to him.”

Tacc looked startled. He’d hit the nail on the head. “I, um . . .”

“You’re not the first person to think that,” Mamo said. “Yuuki and I dated for several months a few years before we were both in the Culling. We met up at a school reunion and it just went from there. It was pretty intense for awhile – both of our families thought it would go to the altar. But it didn’t. There were just . . . things that got in the way.”

“His music?”

“Yes. And my writing. I’d done my first couple of books at that point. He accused me of being a typical stick-in-the-mud aristocrat who was only concerned with public image. Oh, and that I should be open about the fact that I write and stop hiding behind a secretive genre. I told him HE was the one who was too concerned with image, and that having a full-blown on-the-road music career was running away from his responsibilities as his father’s heir. So . . . things fell apart, and we both ended up in the Culling.”

Tacc just nodded. He knew very well what the outcome of that was.

“We both arrived on the first night – it was the first time we’d seen each other in awhile. I told him his music career was going to hurt him, and that I stood a better chance of getting past the first couple of rounds than he did. And then, I was cut, and he was kept around. And in the end, he and Yo-ka fell in love.”

“And you’re jealous because Yo-ka chose Yuuki?”

“He thinks I’m both jealous of Yo-ka for getting him and jealous of him for being chosen. The truth is, I was jealous because he found someone just by being himself. I told him he’d get in trouble for breaking the rules, and instead, it was to his advantage in the end. He was right when he said that he was doing what he wanted to do, and that he’d find someone who supported that. So I started to ask myself if it was a bad thing I’d been secretive about my writing. You’re the first person I’ve dated that I opened up to about that.”

“Did you really base a character on Yuuki?”

“Yes. But there’s characters in my books based on a lot of people. They say to write what you know and who you know. It doesn’t mean I never got over him. The only reason I kept inviting him to perform at my parties was that my guests enjoy his music so much. I kept getting asked whether he was the entertainment. And, yeah, my staff underpaid his band last time. That’s being corrected.”

Tacc nodded. “You asked me how much of the conversation I heard . . . was there something afterward?”

“Oh, there was,” Mamo said. “Yuuki said to me, ‘You need to find someone of your own. Why don’t you ask out my page? He’s a sweet boy.’ And then, he stormed off.”

Tacc looked shocked. “You’re kidding me!”

“Nope. I guess you didn’t tell him about us going out before?”

Tacc shook his head. “I didn’t want to get in trouble.”

“Maybe you should,” Mamo said.

“Mamo . . . are we . . . are we still on for tomorrow night?”

“One hundred percent,” Mamo said. “So, what time should I . . .”

“So, there the two of you are,” said a voice above them. They both looked up and saw Yuuki.

“Oh!” Tacc said. “I’m sorry! Is there something you need?”

“Nope,” Yuuki said. “I’m just glad to see this guy took my advice. You’re going out tomorrow?”

Tacc nodded his head, silently.

“I’ll let you off work a little bit early so you can get ready. You’ll hit it off, I’m sure.” He waved and headed back to the party.

“Well, now I have the boss’ approval,” Tacc said.

“I still would have dated you even if you didn’t,” Mamo replied.

“Then . . . tomorrow night? Same time?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Mamo said – and he picked up Tacc’s hand and kissed it again, like he had after their first date. “Now, why don’t you go get something to eat?”

Tacc got up, feeling much better, and headed for the party. Not only was the weight in his chest gone, he felt lighter than air now.

* * *

The date was followed by another that also included an evening at the theater, and then another where Tacc accompanied Mamo to a party. When they went for drinks afterward, Tacc finally brought up the other question that had been nagging him.

“Mamo – when you said on our first date that you got into writing erotica because it was a challenge, was that really the truth?” The aristocrat had, so far, been a gentleman on their dates – no pressure, although they’d progressed from hand kisses to real ones.

“Of course, it is,” Mamo said. “I’d been writing all kinds of things all my life. I read a quote from another writer that the two hardest things in the world to do well are humor and erotica. I don’t consider myself to be a funny guy, so I took up writing the other instead.”

“So, um, did you also mean that . . . you haven’t done everything you write about?”

Mamo laughed. “I’d be lying if I said there were things in my books that I haven’t done. But a lot of it is based on research studies. You’d be surprised how dry and dull they can be.” He reached over and took Tacc’s hand. “And when the time is right for us? I’m not going to force you into anything you’re not comfortable with, okay?”

“Okay,” Tacc said. That was another massive load off his back.

As the relationship continued to flourish, Yuuki continued to give it his approval. “He and I weren’t right for each other in the end,” he said. “But you and him? It looks like it’s working out great. And I couldn’t be happier – for you both.”

His fellow pages noticed as well. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you quite this happy!” Kosuke said to him as they were on their way to dinner one night. “I mean, you’ve always been a happy person, but now? You’re glowing!”

“I kind of feel like I’m glowing,” Tacc said. “Being with him is always an experience. We’re finding out how to make it work between us so we can be together in the long term. And I’ve never been so glad that I came here.”

“I’m glad we both came here, too,” Kosuke said. Indeed, the two boys had a brighter future stretching before them than they’d thought possible. If things continued the way they were, neither would be returning to their hometown and taking jobs in their fathers’ companies.

“Now we just need one more thing,” Tacc said.

“What’s that?” Kosuke said.

Tacc jerked his head toward Sora, who was currently talking to Natsume. “For him to find the person or thing that makes HIM happy.”

“Oh . . . yeah,” Kosuke said. “I hope it happens soon.”

Indeed, Sora did have something in his future with the potential to make him happy. But that’s another story.