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Prince Charming and a different kind of Cinderella

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Prince Charming and a different kind of Cinderella

 

The girl looked aside coyly. She hid her lips behind her fan, looking by all means nothing but an innocent, sweet ingénue. At her side, her mother smiled approvingly, like a master of orchestra conducting her symphony.

Kaoru raised her drink and hid her grimace behind her cup’s brim. She could just imagine what a disaster this girl would be in their plans. They needed someone who could keep a secret. Someone, whose loyalty she could attain and who couldn’t be easily controlled by their parents, relatives or other power hungry parties preying on the court.

Was it too much to wish for beauty and brains in your romantic partner?

“We have a lovely countryside estate. The grounds are extensive, perfect for riding and hunting trips.” The ingénue’s lady mother prattled on. “I’m sure the Prince and his friends would find it a good place to relax from the court’s demands. What do you think? Would you be interested to visit?”

“Yes, you must certainly come!” The girl enthused. “I could show you my garden!”

“It would be surely a sight to see,” Kaoru allowed. She gave a subtle hand sign to her father, sitting on her right.

King Kamiya Koshijirou, the first of his name, the ruler of island kingdoms Yamato and Ezzo cleared his throat. “Lady Inoue, Miss Inoue – your offer is very kind. Unfortunately, I cannot spare my son from his duties at the court for the time being. Maybe we could discuss this matter some other time? In the coming autumn, perhaps?”

“Oh,” the ingénue’s mother gasped softly, a hint of dismay flashing in her severe eyes. Clearly, she recognized rejection, even as politely phrased as it was.

Kaoru fought back a smile. It would be beyond insulting to show her amusement in a situation like this, but at this point, she just didn’t have much patience left for the potential in-laws' meddling plans. After all, this was far from the first time she had met a potential bride to be. Or even among the first dozen of such meetings. Gods, the past year she must have met all of the daughters from suitable noble families in the country!

And yet, despite all this effort, none of them had felt right.

King Koshijirou and Lady Inoue exchanged polite pleasantries as they finished their tea. Kaoru managed her part, allowing some of her disinterest show to cauterize any hopes Miss Inoue might have entertained. Judging by the look in her doleful eyes, the girl wasn’t particularly surprised. It was for the better, really, even if their farewells became quite lukewarm as a result.

Then it was over and the mother-daughter pair disappeared from the sight.

Kaoru flopped down to the patio’s padded divan, throwing her head back as she groaned in exasperation.

The footsteps echoed on the marble floor, the clothes rustling as a heavier weight sat down on the other end of the divan. “Surely she wasn’t that bad.” King Koshijirou let out an amused rumble. “I found the girl quite sweet. Pretty, too.”

“Yeah, pretty. I wager that’s all she’s ever been allowed to be,” Kaoru sighed. “I much prefer brains and capability for independent thought over looks. Besides, her mother was a controlling busybody.”

“True,” King Koshijirou huffed. “But you shouldn’t discount the daughter just based on her mother.”

“Shouldn’t I?” Kaoru raised her brow, “A girl like that, if she was allowed to find out sensitive secrets – just how long could she resist before spilling the beans to her mother? And how fast would that come to bite us?”

A shadow of regret swept over her father’s face and he looked at her seriously. “Kaoru, I have done so much wrong by you. I have demanded so much from you and yet, even now, in matters like this, your first thought is for the good of the kingdom.” He paused to consider his words. “But you know that I… I, ah wouldn’t demand my daughter to make sacrifices like that.”

Kaoru looked aside.

“It’s not a sacrifice,” she said slowly. “For the king’s heir, the marriage is always a political affair. And even if… yes, even if I was known as your daughter, my marriage would be carefully orchestrated for the best possible effect.”

“No,” King Koshijirou denied and reached for her hand. “Kaoru, no – never think that! I have always wanted you to find someone you could love! The only reason I have allowed this farce to continue as long as it has is that you said– “

“–that I find women just as attractive as men?” Kaoru cut through his words. “That hasn’t changed. Neither have any of the more pressing reasoning as to why your only child and heir should be a son. Or need I remind you of the threat Makimachi present to us even now? With just a hint of instability in the Kamiya line and they, their supporters or any of our long line of enemies could gain leverage they need for a coup.”

The reminder soured her father’s expression through hell and back.

In his youth, King Koshijirou had gone to war to combine kingdoms of Ezzo and Yamato, and though he had spent two decades trying his best to stabilize his reign and bring forth an era of peace and prosperity for them all, the ugly fact was that their Yamatoan’ rival family, Makimachi, had nearly as compelling right to the throne as them.

Even now, there were dozens of noble families who would leap at Makimachi banner, just for a chance of a coup, to better their own positions in the aftermath.

What brought even more uncertainness to Kamiya’s reign was that King Koshijirou had only managed to sire one child before the death of his wife at assassin’s poison and he had never married another. Kaoru had never been told a reason, but she had long suspected the poison hadn’t just struck her mother, but her father as well, only in a way that wasn’t outright visible…

…at least, it would explain a whole lot.

As a result, King Koshijirou’s only child wasn’t just his precious child, but his heir and the future of his kingdom. And so, for the sake of Kamiya’s reign, Kaoru had grown up as the Prince instead of the Princess.

“Dad,” Kaoru said softly. “I have never blamed you for anything.”

King Koshijirou looked up at her, sadness in his eyes. “You should. For the sake of peace, I sacrificed your happiness.”

Kaoru shook her head mutely.

“It’s true that I don’t get to wear pretty dresses… but I get fancy uniforms and tall boots instead. A much more practical choice,” she grinned a little, letting a hint of levity enter her tone. “Besides I have gotten to learn your swordsmanship style, ride, travel, go out and hang out with my friends… Oh, and let’s not forget that I can study whatever interests me! So no, I don’t think you have done me much harm.”

“Yes, that’s something we really should fix, shouldn’t we? The right for women to study,” King Koshijirou huffed, his fondness apparent. “Oh, Kaoru – how I treasure you! You really bring me perspective on life.”

“I aim to please,” Kaoru smiled. “But really, don’t worry about my dating woes. I’ll find a suitable wife to be, someone who can keep my secret and help us to maintain this illusion.”

“I’ve no doubt of that,” King Koshijirou said, but then sighed. “I just fear that you’ll trade a loving marriage for that of a convenience. What if you can’t find a woman who can look behind the appearances to the person underneath? Someone who could be interested in – ah, the same sex?”

“Then we will come up with an arrangement. A marriage of convenience, as you said.” Kaoru said resolutely. “My wife can have a lover and a child, as long as everyone thinks the child is mine. And I… well, I can have dalliances on the side. That’s even common for men of my caste, isn’t it?”

“I’d prefer for my bloodline continue, but if it’s not possible… yes, I could settle for your son in a name.” King Koshijirou smiled sadly and reached for her hand. “Alright, I’ll trust you. But for the sake of your father’s concern, would you mind a suggestion?”

“Of course not,” Kaoru replied, somewhat baffled. “I value your opinion greatly, as you know.”

“You do – most of the time,” King Koshijirou nodded sagely. “However, I have noticed that you approach this marriage of yours like you’d arrange an alliance. You scout the most influential families for the most suitable daughters, and then approach them through their families.”

“…Yes?”

“I merely note that you get what you order. Love is rarely so neatly arranged; often it shows up in the most unlikely situations – as does attraction.” King Koshijirou remarked. “A more informal event, as it were, might be better suited for your purposes than an interview with the family.”

“Oh,” Kaoru paused, struck by the simplicity of the comment. “That could be very true, but…”

“Also, I note that for the purpose of finding a woman who would be blessedly free of tangles in the political sense, it might be better to broaden your net. Even a wealthy merchant’s or a landowner’s daughter, or someone from an old, honorable family fallen to hard times could be perceived suitable with little work. If the affair were made out to seem romantic, it could even help to endear your choice to the people.”

“But,” Kaoru paused, her eyes widening in disbelief. “I don’t have many contacts among the lower castes and, and… how would I even approach them?!”

King Koshijirou laughed at her shock. “Perhaps a ball?” he suggested with a twinkle in his eye. “The castle’s ballroom doesn’t see much use these days. We could organize an event and invite all the eligible young women for an evening of music, dance and good food. We could even make it a spectacle; let it be known that Prince Kaoru is looking for a wife.”

Kaoru wrinkled her nose. “That’s a bit… tacky.”

“A bit,” Her father shrugged. “But it would be effective; even if nothing would come out of the night, you’d get to see who you are dealing with. Meet new faces, see who you’d be interested to contact afterward.”

“That’s true,” Kaoru admitted with no small reluctance. She drummed her fingers on the chair’s armrest thoughtfully, then scoffed, “Awh heck, what’s there to lose? Sure, let’s do it.”

 


 

“It’s illogical. Father said you were like me: an orphan adopted to become an heir to a noble family. But instead of being grateful, you threw it all away… and for what? To be this? Even if you’d manage to lure some poor sod to marry you and they wouldn’t beat you for deceiving them, you can’t do half the things women ought to be able.”

Kenshin carefully twisted most of the soapy water away from the cleaning rag, letting the silence take over the grand hall of the manor, becoming more pressing by the moment.

Was young sir expecting an answer, then?

“There’s more to the women’s lives than pleasing their husbands and bearing children, that there is.” Kenshin murmured at long last, glancing up to the stairs, where Lord Soujiro was sitting. “Would you say your Lady mother’s political endeavors are meaningless? Or Miss Megumi’s studies and practice in medicine?”

Lord Soujiro smiled blandly, as he usually ended up doing whenever he didn’t know the answer.

“You know what I mean,” The young lord stated, his eyes were locked on Kenshin like he was studying a particularly strange creature. “You had status, wealth, connections… and now, you have trouble finding paying work. If not for my Lord father’s interest in peculiar and my Lady mother’s compassion, you would be out on the street again, penniless. Why would wearing a dress merit all these difficulties?”

Kenshin tensed. “It’s a choice this one made, quite knowingly.”

“But why?” Lord Soujiro insisted, merciless like a cat on a hunt. “Why would anyone want to be a woman?

Kenshin looked aside, dipping cleaning rag back to the water to give something for her anxious hands to do. Her stomach churned, like a snakes slithering all over her gut. This was a personal matter, not something she’d wish to discuss with anyone, least of all, not for the sake of a young lord’s curiosity. Yet she couldn’t afford to antagonize her employer’s son. This job she had as a maid was the best work she had found in these last thirteen years she had been on her own, trying to live a lie that felt like the truth.

It wasn’t that she didn’t know how illogical, how absurd her choices were.

The body she’d been born with was perfectly fine and healthy, yet it had never felt quite right. Even as a child, she had realized it on some level, though she hadn’t been able to pinpoint what bothered her so. But when her family had passed away due to an epidemic and she was adopted to become the heir for an old, dignified bloodline – a stroke of luck, according to everybody – the weight of expectations, of trying to please her benefactor, that all had started to feel nothing more than a gilded cage. For all the kindness of her new father, for everything he’d given her, the role of a nobleman’s son and all the underlying expectations it brought: to court a wife and have a child with her someday just to continue the generational pageant, it all had felt too much to bear.

“It’s…” Kenshin hesitated, “It’s just easier to breathe like this, that it is.”

“But you’re wearing a corset.”

Lord Soujiro’s expression was so baffled, that a smile tugged at Kenshin’s lips. “A figure of speech, young sir,” Kenshin bowed slightly, to hide her amusement behind the manners of a servant. “Please, pardon this unworthy one, for being unable to explain it more clearly.”

However, before Kenshin could get back to her task, the main doors swung open and two women marched in. Both of them were strikingly tall and beautiful – a mother and daughter pair that turned heads everywhere they went. As always, they were carefully dressed to match even if their faces bore no family resemblance.

No accident that, but then again, in Lady Yumi’s schemes, nothing ever was. Lord Shishio’s burn wounds he had gained in the aftermath of the Great War might have caused him to be unable to sire an heir, but his lady wife had turned this misfortune to her advantage, scouring through lower-ranked houses for a perfect daughter to adopt. Miss Megumi Shishio, formerly of the house Takani fulfilled all the requirements for intelligence, beauty, and cunning Lady Yumi could possibly want and so, Miss Megumi’s birth family had agreed to sign her off – against a suitable sum, of course.

“Lady Yumi, Miss Megumi – welcome back,” Kenshin rose to greet them and rushed to take their afternoon cloaks. “How was your day? Did the matinee go well?”

Lady Yumi shrugged off her expensive, fur-lined cloak and pushed it to Kenshin’s arms like it was a worthless rag, then paused to look around the hall. “You still haven’t finished cleaning? What have you been doing the whole afternoon? Sleeping?”

Kenshin paused. There was no way she could say Lord Soujiro had been pestering her the whole day, now could she? “Pardons, my Lady. There was an– “

“Save your excuses.” Lady Yumi interrupted her. “You can finish this mess later – but first, take out and air all of our evening gowns. Everything needs to be washed and ironed to perfection. We shall have to see if any gowns we have on hand are suitable, or do we need to have new ones tailored.”

“The older gowns might be better for this – make it easier to stand out from the crowd.” Miss Megumi remarked coolly behind Lady Yumi. “Given how everyone has been thrown into hysterics over this, I’m sure all the capable tailors are knee-deep in orders already.”

“Exactly my thoughts, my dear,” Lady Yumi remarked over her shoulder.

Kenshin blinked in surprise. “Has something happened, that is?”

“The royal castle just announced an event of a lifetime.” Lady Yumi turned to face Kenshin, a glimmer of excitement shining in her dark eyes. “In two weeks time, Prince Kaoru will be holding a ball for all the unattached ladies under the age thirty. Finally, in his search for a wife, he is looking further than the daughters of the most influential noble lineages. This time, every daughter from wealthy merchant families, landowners to lower ranked noble houses have been invited.”

“Oro!” Kenshin gaped, too stunned for words. A ball like that… Oh, it would be a sight to see: all the eligible young women of the kingdom wearing their best dresses and most extravagant hairstyles. Even a freak of nature like her should be able to learn a thing or two, seeing all that beauty in one place.

“Kenshin,” Lady Yumi’s voice pulled her out of her wistful thoughts. “Need I remind you what an opportunity this is for us? If our Megumi makes an impression on Prince Kaoru, it would change everything for the whole Shishio family.”

“Aa,” Kenshin nodded in understanding.

“Very good,” Lady Yumi said. “Then get to work! We have only two weeks until the ball and everything has to be perfect by then!”

 


 

“Oof!” Miss Megumi grunted.

Kenshin cringed but kept pulling the corset strings tighter. “Just a little more,” she murmured in consolation.

“It’s fine. I can handle it,” Megumi answered.

“Don’t get too sentimental, Kenshin.” Lady Yumi’s voice carried behind the folding screen. “Nothing less than perfect figure will do! The dress must fit Megumi like a glove. This is not an ordinary ball, but a battlefield for fashion and beauty.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Kenshin demurred and went back to the upper row of Miss Megumi’s corset strings, tugging them tighter as commanded. She didn’t quite like the look of determined endurance settling on Miss Megumi’s brow, but what could she do? Miss Megumi had her part to play and that was acting the obedient daughter to her benefactor, Lady Yumi.

Miss Megumi’s hand clenched on the back of an armchair she was holding for balance. “Kenshin,” she whispered softly, half a request, half a demand like she was intentionally trying to distract herself.

Kenshin winced, understanding the need. When laced this tightly, the corset could be downright painful. “Yes, Miss Megumi?”

“I never quite figured it out, but you were a noble, too – weren’t you?”

“…er,” Kenshin paused, taken aback. In general, she didn’t like to talk about herself, but she couldn’t quite avoid a direct question without appearing rude. “Well, technically – you could say that, that you could.”

“You hesitate because you were adopted?” Megumi bit out, her fingers clenching on the chair’s backrest.

“Um,” Kenshin cringed. “That is to say…”

“Megumi, don’t bother the poor thing. Such sordid family history ought to be uncomfortable to talk about.” Lady Yumi’s voice interrupted them. “But as it is something that might be useful for you to know, I’ll tell you. It’s a nice little secret, too. Not many follow Yamatoan news in that sort of detail or remember that far back. You see, the man who adopted our Kenshin was the heir of the great Seijuurou legacy and fortunes, Lord Hiko Seijuurou the 13th. You remember him, don’t you, Megumi? The crusty, arrogant codger who turned down my lord husband’s generous offer for an alliance?”

“Oh.” Megumi gasped. “So that’s who…”

Kenshin swallowed and hid her eyes behind her bangs. “What Lady Yumi says is true, so it is.”

“Of course it is.” Lady Yumi said pointedly. “My information is always accurate. But in any case, Megumi – we don’t need to associate with Lord Seijuurou anymore. That man is the type of a man who never listens to anyone but himself. No wonder he drove Kenshin to the streets after learning of his delusions.” She shook her head. “Well, not many people can understand why a young man would want to wear dresses like our Kenshin, now can they?”

“But that isn’t…” Kenshin bit the inside of her lip, trying to hold back her instinctive retort. It took a moment, but she managed to gather herself. She exhaled through gritted teeth and returned lacing Miss Megumi’s corset with swift, precise tugs.

“This one ran away on her own, that she did,” Kenshin muttered, keeping her voice so soft that it wouldn’t carry across the room. Lady Yumi would never understand, but Miss Megumi – she was the closest thing Kenshin had for a friend and she couldn’t let her misunderstand a matter like this. “Even at his best, Hiko was a difficult man, true,” Kenshin explained quietly. “But he only ever wanted the best for this one, that he did. Even to this day, this one isn’t sure if Hiko knows why this one left.”

Miss Megumi hummed, a consolation in her tone, “But why did you leave then? Without a word, no less? Surely that’s too… drastic?”

Kenshin looked aside, the shame and guilt twisting in her belly like snakes coiling tight. It had happened nearly thirteen years ago, and still, the memory made her feel so very small. “Hiko… Hiko was the person this one looked up to and respected, more than anything. The last thing on earth this one wanted to do was to cause him a disappointment, but this one simply couldn’t be the son he wanted, that’s all.”

“But don’t you think–” Miss Megumi bit her lip, and started again. “If you could, would you tell him now?”

Kenshin closed her eyes. “I… I don’t know.” She shook her head and clarified, “one would want to, certainly – but it’s been much too long since then. It’d bring him nothing but grief at this late date, that it would.”

“I see,” Miss Megumi murmured.

In resounding silence, Kenshin laced the corset of Miss Megumi’s bodice, too and then tied the strings to a neat little bow. Finally, she turned around and took the magnificent, rich purple evening gown down from the dress stand beside them and helped Miss Megumi to pull it over her undergarments.

For an old dress, was in a very good condition. No one would have known how terrible it had looked last week when Kenshin had dug it out of the attic storage, all mottled and yellowed. Now, not a hint of stain remained in white lace of the sleeve’s accent, nor was a single stitch of embroidery loose or frayed. It had been tough work, washing and repairing the gown, then ironing it to such perfection. Now Kenshin could only exhale in relief, proud of her achievement.

Miss Megumi stepped in front of the mirror. “I think this is it,” she decided.

Lady Yumi walked around Miss Megumi, eyeing her critically. “Yes, you might be right. Your figure is perfect and that purple brings out your paleness and contrasts well with your colors. It’s old enough that the style is ready for rebirth; it’s no longer shabby but excitingly different. It’s almost shade to shade with our house’s official colors, too, which should work nicely in proclaiming our status at the ball.”

The Lady paused to hum thoughtfully. “I shall have to wear something complimentary, too.” She glanced at Kenshin. “Good work, Kenshin. I shall have to figure out something nice to reward you for this.”

“About that,” Miss Megumi smiled, eying Kenshin through the reflection of the mirror. “Why don’t we take Kenshin to the ball with us? She could wear one of my last season’s gowns.”

“Oro!” Kenshin froze, thoroughly surprised. Where had Miss Megumi gotten such an impossible idea?

Even Lady Yumi paused. “Why would you suggest that?”

Megumi turned around and motioned towards Kenshin. “You said so yourself – didn’t you, Mother? Every unattached, eligible woman under the age of thirty is invited. Kenshin was adopted by a noble family. That’s a status far more eligible than a merchant’s or landowner’s daughter and we certainly wouldn’t lose anything having one more pair of eyes on our side. This ball is an unprecedented opportunity to catch the Prince’s interest, so I’m sure there will be plenty of upstarts trying to tilt the scale to their favor through any means necessary.”

“You have a point,” Lady Yumi agreed slowly. Then, quick as lightning, she snapped, “Kenshin! You are still under the age of thirty, aren’t you?”

“Uh… yes?” Kenshin hesitated. “That is to say,” she swallowed and then counted on her fingers, just to make sure. “Um, this one is twenty-nine, that she is.”

“Then what are you waiting for? Fetch a gown and we will see if any of them can be adjusted to fit. You are a fair bit shorter than Megumi and we’ve got no time to make significant alterations.”

Kenshin resolutely didn’t ‘eep’, but gods, did she feel like it. The Prince’s grand ball? Lady Yumi and Miss Megumi were thinking of taking her with them? She’d have a chance to see a real, live ball for the first time as a woman? She could get to enjoy the live music, watch the dances and all the beautiful women dressed to their best? Kenshin’s heart skipped a beat at the thought and for a second, she felt such yearning that her throat tightened, making it impossible to breathe. Her knees grew weak—

But then, Miss Megumi slipped past her and winked at her slyly. What are you waiting for? Come on! Her smile seemed to say.

And Kenshin exhaled in relief, rushing after her to the walk-in closet where most of Miss Megumi’s recent dresses were stored. As fitting of a young lady partaking to all social gatherings of the season, Miss Megumi couldn’t wear the same gown twice – which meant that she had to have dozens of dresses, all arranged by type of an event, a timing of the event and season in question.

Miss Megumi browsed through her collection of evening gowns, picking one made in red silk and rich embroideries and held it up for inspection. “What do you think?”

“Ah, well,” Kenshin didn’t want to protest, but she remembered that gown – it had been one of the more expensive ones Lady Yumi had ever bought for her new daughter, a fancy dress where embroideries had been made with real gold thread. Even now, a year out of fashion, it drew eyes. It was far too fine for a servant to wear, no matter what her origins might be.

“Um, isn’t that far too bold a color?” Kenshin demurred, lifting her left hand’s fingers to fiddle with a longer strand of her vivid red hair peeking under her headscarf.

Thankfully, Miss Megumi caught the hint. “If you say so,” she murmured and put the dress back to rack, only to pick another, a satin number made in lush forest green shade. Miss Megumi had worn it only once and for a good reason: it was very simplified for an evening gown and they had found out a bit too late that the rich color was very difficult to match with any jewelry.

“How about this one?”

Kenshin bit her lip, stepping closer to touch the silky fabric. “Well, if you don’t think it’s too much…”

“Of course not,” Miss Megumi huffed. “I was the one who suggested this, wasn’t it? Now, let’s do this! Take off your uniform and I’ll help this on you.”

A wave of panic flashed inside Kenshin and her smile grew fixed. She hadn’t undressed before anyone in years. Not even to her undergarments; the chaste pantaloons, petticoat, and bodice that came up high enough to push up her pectorals to form a fairly believable likeness to real breast, albeit writ small. But then again, she had helped Miss Megumi and Lady Yumi to put on these elaborate dresses for countless times and they had accepted her presence, even knowing perfectly well that she was not exactly like most women in the body.

And obviously, one couldn’t lace up a proper gown alone…

“Um, thank you – Miss Megumi,” Kenshin murmured. Swallowing down the wave of nausea stirring at the pit of her stomach, she drew her hands behind her, tugging loose the apron she usually wore over her modest, black maid’s dress.

She was about to raise her hands over her head to unbutton the dress’ high collar, when Miss Megumi said, “let me help.”

Nimble fingers tackled the row of buttons at the nape of her neck…. and never once in her life, had Kenshin felt quite so terrified. The absurd fears and anxiety stirred inside her, raising their ugly heads. What if Miss Megumi realized just how wrong she was in the body? How much of a liar she truly was? What if she would come to hate her?

Out of all Shishio household, Miss Megumi was the only one who didn’t hesitate to treat Kenshin as a woman.

The rest, well… Lord Shishio and Lord Soujiro found her an amusing freak, a man so desperately wanting to bed another man that he had started dressing up as a woman. Kenshin had never protested their assertions or tried to explain the shameful truth – that no matter what clothes she might wear or call herself, she wasn’t after a man.

No, she was after no one.

Though, if she had to confess; what drew her eye had always been other women, even if calling it attraction was too strong a term. The fact was that Kenshin had never once dared to entertain a notion that another woman could want her in turn, so her feelings could be at best summed as wistful thoughts.

Perhaps, Lady Yumi was closest to the truth, thinking Kenshin a harmless, neuter thing, too deep in her delusions to even desire love.

“All done,” Miss Megumi proclaimed. “Now, step out of that dress and let’s pull this on you, hmm?”

Kenshin blinked slowly, the world aligning to its place out of sudden. A shiver raced through her spine as she registered the draft on her naked shoulders and upper back. Her gut lurched and she felt like throwing up, but now – now was far too late to protest.

She slipped the loose, untied dress away from her shoulders and stepped out of it, taking her time to fold it neatly.

Then, she turned around; arms huddled in front of her chest.

Miss Megumi didn’t even blink. Like, not for a second, did she feel there was anything strange about Kenshin’s body at all. Instead, she handed her a crinoline and helped her to put it around her waist, huffing in disapproval as she had to improvise the fastenings to make them tighter. “You need to eat more. You are thinner than young girls who are still waiting for their first periods.”

Somehow, it felt good, to be treated like she was just another woman. Kenshin looked down; feeling a little overwhelmed by everything and fought back a smile.

“This one eats aplenty,” she protested softly.

“Liar,” Miss Megumi huffed fondly. “Now, hands up and let’s hope this gown can be tightened enough to show off that tiny waist of yours.”

Obediently, Kenshin let Megumi help the gown over her head, and feeling it fall down around her, enveloping her in that smooth, silky fabric… it felt like a dream. She blinked, not entirely sure why her eyes were misted.

“There we go.” Miss Megumi said fondly. “Now, turn around and I’ll lace this up. While I’m doing that, take down your hair, would you? I bet it will contrast this dress nicely.”

It helped, to have Miss Megumi be so matter-of-fact about this and it allowed Kenshin to gather her nerves, to focus on the matter at hand. She tugged off her headscarf and unpinned her long hair from the tight bun she usually wore it in. It was too long, too eye-catching to be left loose. The last thing she wanted was to attract needless attention. It was enough for people to glance at her and look away in disinterest, seeing nothing but a maid running an errand.

She felt, rather than heard Miss Megumi’s struggles in lacing up the gown – it was a little too large for Kenshin. They all knew that. A bit too long in the hem, bit too wide in the waist, but that’s why most gowns had lacings, to help in adjusting the fit.

Then it was done.

Miss Megumi walked around her, looking at her up and down. “My, my…” She smiled. “You clean up pretty.”

“Oro?” Kenshin looked up, surprised. Had she heard that right?

Instead of explaining more, Miss Megumi nodded in a decision. “This is going to be perfect.” Then, she headed to the living room, obviously expecting Kenshin to follow.

The shoes Kenshin wore in-house were the comfortable, modest slippers, far from the high heels ladies wore with evening gowns like this. Fearing the hem would drag the floor, Kenshin lifted it with both hands as she rushed to follow Miss Megumi. However, she didn’t make it but a few feet in the living room, when a loud gasp rang out.

Lady Yumi stared at her with wide eyes, her hand covering her mouth. “Kenshin…?” She asked faintly, as though she had gotten the shock of her life.

“Ma’am?” Kenshin hesitated.

Miss Megumi walked to Kenshin’s side, smiling smugly as a cat with a saucer of cream. “What do you think, mother?” She asked. “Wouldn’t you say Kenshin passes the muster?”

Lady Yumi frowned, looking at Kenshin – then at Megumi, then at Kenshin again. And suddenly, her eyes narrowed, as if in anger?

Why would she be angry?

Kenshin’s shivered, a sense of evil premonition rushing through her. Had she done something wrong? But all she had done was what Miss Megumi had asked of her, what even Lady Yumi had agreed to…

“No.” Lady Yumi’s voice was as cool as arctic ice. “Forget it. What would people think if we took our resident freak to the event of the year? A man deluding himself by thinking he is a woman… we would be laughed off the court!”

Miss Megumi inhaled sharply. “Mother…”

“You are too kind, my daughter, when you encourage Kenshin’s delusions. Harsh as it may be, the truth is better. Kenshin is not and never will be a woman.” Lady Yumi sneered and marched to the door, holding it open. “Kenshin, take that dress off and burn it. Megumi is too good to wear a dress someone else has worn. Then go and clean the cellars. I don’t want to see you for the rest of the day.”

Each word struck like whiplash, burning like salt and acid on wounds. It hurt. It hurt far worse than any insult Kenshin had suffered in years to have a woman she had thought accepted her in some level to turn on her and tear down the trust they had built between them. Kenshin walked past her slowly, barely holding back the anguish and and anger threatening to overtake her by a storm.

The door slammed shut behind her.

Kenshin covered her face to her hands, gasped softly… only to realize she was crying. For the first time in thirteen years, ever since she had run away from Hiko and the only place she had called her home, she was crying.

 


 

Prince Kaoru gazed down to the patio, where maids, servants, and other workers were rushing back and forth, busy with the preparations for the grand ball – the event of the decade, as many had taken to calling it.

Only two days left… and so much to do.

She sighed tiredly.

She should have never agreed to this madness.

These past two weeks had been the most stressful of her life, and that was saying something! Now, make no mistake, normally Kaoru even enjoyed the hustle. But this time, it seemed everyone and their grandmother had taken a far too personal interest in everything Kaoru did, trying to gauge hints on how to prepare their daughters for the task of catching her interest.

If Kaoru asked for a second slice of cake, attentive ears caught it and passed it down the rumor mill as a good topic to mention during a conversation over tea. If her eye happened to linger a second too long on anyone of the feminine disposition, attentive eyes noticed it and made sure every bit of that poor girl’s looks was analyzed to the bone and her most prominent choices expertly replicated the following day by half a dozen contenders. Hell, the most ridiculous example of this was the damn scarf Kaoru had taken to wearing couple weeks ago with her uniform. It had been a nice, blue silk scarf and she had fancied it looked good – but the rumor mill had taken notice and now, it was said there was no scrap of blue or blue shaded fabric left in town as every tailor had been booked to make blue evening gowns.

Hopefully, the ladies would take notice of the trend in time and pick something else to wear, or the whole crowd would come to the ball wearing shades of blue.

Kaoru shook her head in exasperation and turned around, leaning her arms against the balcony railing behind her.

The grand ballroom was a bit quieter than the outdoor patio, a bit more finished in decoration. Many nobles were present, handling the preparations for their gifts. The term “gift”, of course, was at best a polite fiction. An event like this was a huge drain on the King’s resources and as such, the organization costs were shared with wealthier nobles in the manner of gifted decorations, catering and other things that were necessary for an event meant to include hundreds of guests. This was no one-way street, by any means. Showcasing their fiefs products’ and artisan’s best efforts often resulted in increased sales revenue and resulting tax money for the nobles.

Prince Kaoru was just about to leave, when she caught a sight of a tall, strikingly beautiful woman making her way towards Lord Hiko Seijuurou the 13th. Lord Hiko had been very demanding about the handling of his fief’s famed master potter Niitsu Kakunoshin’s artworks for the whole morning, so much that no one in the hall would have dared to interrupt him. Yet, this young lady did – boldly and unapologetically.

Kaoru blinked.

She was too far away to overhear their exchange but damned if she wasn’t interested.

Lord Hiko had a well-established – and well-deserved – reputation as a confirmed bachelor. For all his wealth, fame and good connections with King Koshijirou, he was known as a particularly abrasive, arrogant man, who didn’t suffer stupidity for a moment. Hiko had made no secret of his lack of interest in marital matters, either. Because of this, most ladies warned their daughters to stay away from him.

So, to see a young lady – and what was that young lady’s name? Kaoru was sure she had seen her somewhere before – approaching Hiko on her own, to engage him to a discussion without a chaperone, it was interesting.

Kaoru frowned, studying the striking pair from a distance.

Hiko’s initial disdain was melting, only to be replaced by an honest curiosity.

The young lady smirked, looking up to meet his gaze fearlessly and then, pressed a letter to his hands. The young lady said something…

And Hiko paled, the letter grumbling in his massive fist.

The lady bobbed a slight curtsey and left without looking back.

Kaoru stared, studying the lady with an unabashed interest. It wasn’t often she saw a woman like that; beautiful and ballsy enough to take on a man like Hiko. Yet, why couldn’t she recognize her? The expensive dress the lady was wearing and the fact that she was here today, it meant she had to be of a noble rank – but of what family? Kaoru could have sworn she would recognize all the daughters of the noble families by this point…

Well, the mystery should be easily solved! Kaoru shook her head fondly, heading to chat up Hiko. It had been a while since she had exchanged a word with one of her father’s closest friends among Yamatoan nobility.

Lord Hiko didn’t visit the capital often, preferring to stay in his estate in Kyoto and keep an eye on the Makimachi family. However, he was a trusted ally and their best, unbiased opinion about Yamato’s true state after Ezzo had annexed them.

“Lord Seijuurou, I hope the travel fared you well,” Kaoru greeted him, noting how pale he still was. Truly remarkable. She hadn’t believed there was anything in the world that could render a man like him so obviously off-balance. Arrogant as Faustus, sharp-tongued and reclusive by nature, Hiko was a singular personality. In looks as well. In his mid-forties, he was still built like a brick wall, taller and more muscular than most men doing hard manual labor.

“Prince Kaoru,” Hiko rumbled. “I take you saw that…altercation?”

“I did,” Kaoru confirmed easily. “Believe me, when a young lady of good breeding approaches you – most people take notice. It’s not an everyday occurrence, after all.”

“Plenty of women approach me,” Hiko scoffed in disdain. “I merely don’t see any benefit in having a wife nag at me, as you well know.”

“So I understand,” Kaoru smiled. “However, I can admit I was curious as to what happened. That young lady, who was she?” She glanced at the crowd where the woman in question had disappeared.

“Got your interest, then?” Hiko raised his eyebrow and then looked at her seriously. “Give it up. That was Shishio Megumi, the girl Lady Shishio adopted to be her daughter.”

“Oh,” Kaoru gasped, having no trouble catching the distrustful sentiment in his words.

Even now, after two decades of hard work, dedication and painful compromises from her father, there were still tensions among Yamatoan and Ezzo nobility. There was no shortage of nobles, who would do anything to raise their own status and among those, Lord Shishio was considered the most likely to stir trouble. Resourceful, wily, yet with such connections that they couldn’t be entirely ignored… and worse, there was a rumor that the major burn wounds Lord Shishio had suffered on the last day of King Koshijirou’s war to unite Ezzo and Yamato were caused by a failed assassination attempt on behalf their own.

Those burn wounds restricted Lord Shishio’s movements to this day and were said to be a reason for his antagonistic attitude towards King Koshijirou.

Kaoru didn’t know why, but she suspected her father’s reluctance to appoint Lord Shishio to any politically significant post was born from that bad rep.

Yet, was a lord’s bad rep enough to scorn the whole family?

She had seen Lady Yumi working tirelessly for years to raise her influence in the court, visiting each and every event of the year. It was a dedication that Kaoru could respect, even if she had always steered clear from the family.

And this Megumi… She could be something different, indeed. If Kaoru couldn’t recognize her, this meant Lady Megumi had been adopted when she was already an adult in her own right. Which meant, that there was no way on earth that Megumi was yet another brainless ingénue taught to obey her mother’s beck and call.

Interesting, indeed.

“What are you thinking?” Hiko asked, pulling Kaoru from her thoughts.

“Nothing. Nothing at all,” Kaoru said. “However, if you don’t mind me asking – what was that business with the letter?”

“This?” Hiko raised the crumbled paper and scowled, “A personal attack or a personal favor. The hell if I can tell which.”

Kaoru blinked. “That sounds… sinister.”

“Hardly that,” Hiko looked aside, a strange look flashing in his eyes.

Sorrow? Anger? Something that was both and neither, but deep as an ocean. Kaoru shivered, struck by the weight of emotion.

“This is just an opportunity to solve a mystery that has bothered me for a long time.” Hiko mused softly, half to himself. “Thirteen years, I have spent wondering what I did wrong, and now, I have the means to find an answer. Yet, after all these years, what would it gain anyone if I went out there seeking the truth?”

“What would you lose?” Kaoru asked.

Hiko startled, turning to look at her. Obviously, he hadn’t expected an answer.

Kaoru looked up at him, her eyes serious. “Whatever that was, it’s obviously important for you – right? So, at least in my eyes, you should ask yourself what would you lose if you knew the answer?”

“Time,” Hiko huffed. Then, he shook his head. “Time and enough sake to get drunk afterward,” he grudgingly allowed.

“There you go.” Kaoru nodded, as it was decided.

“You have grown up awfully pushy, haven’t you?” Hiko stated. “But fine, I’ll think about it. Now hop along. Surely you got some other poor sod to bother than me.”

Kaoru grinned and waved a lazy salute to his direction, then left.

After all, she had her own mission to get to: finding out exactly what kind of a woman Miss Megumi Shishio was and could she become the bride the Crown Prince of the Kingdoms Yamato and Ezzo needed.

 


 

Miss Megumi was beautiful. The purple evening gown brought out her perfect hourglass figure to the best effect. Her expensive, white gold jewelry and elaborate hairdo framed her carefully painted face like an exquisite artwork.

If that wasn’t enough to catch a Prince’s eye, then nothing was. Kenshin smiled wistfully as she watched through the attic’s windows as Miss Megumi and Lady Yumi step into their carriage. The driver bowed and closed the doors. He rose to his seat and waved his whip, spurring the four, matching bronze furred horses to trot. The carriage disappeared from the townhouse courtyard and melded to the street’s midday traffic. They were leaving early, hoping to avoid the rush.

Now, there was nothing left to do but to wait and hope for the best.

It would be the pinnacle of Lady Yumi’s ambition if her adopted daughter managed to enthrall Prince Kaoru. Such a match would be advantageous to Miss Megumi too. Perhaps even on a personal level.

Not that Kenshin claimed to know much about anything, but most people in the streets agreed that Prince Kaoru was good-mannered, well-read and altogether a charming man. No one certainly had anything but good things to mention about him. Well, if the occasional jokes about his lack of height weren’t counted – and Kenshin certainly didn’t; the punch line in those jokes hit a bit too close to home in her case.

So Kenshin dared to have a little faith.

If Miss Megumi succeeded tonight, she would have a life every young woman could only dream about.

Rubbing her knees to alleviate her aches and pains, Kenshin straightened. She was getting a bit too old to spy from the attic at the Lady of the house and her daughter. She had just wanted to see them off, but Lady Yumi was still angry at her and had told her to stay out of her sight. It was, of course, the Lady’s right. Kenshin had overstepped her boundaries rather badly and even now, Lady Yumi had shown no sign of forgiving her, so Kenshin had done her best to work when Lady Yumi couldn’t see her.

Grabbing her bucket and the broom from the closet, Kenshin headed down to the first floor. Now would be a perfect time to finish washing the hallway floors. Lady Yumi had been disappointed about her work earlier, so now she would have a chance to make the marble floors shine like a mirror. There would be no quests coming in, not tonight. Even Lord Shishio had retreated with Lord Soujiro to the countryside, not wishing to take part in a ‘women’s showmanship event.’

Not an entirely inaccurate statement, that.

From what Kenshin had understood from Miss Megumi, the only men partaking in the Prince Kaoru’s ball were either fathers, brothers, uncles or other relatives. That is, if the menfolk opted to go at all. Given the purpose of the ball was for the young ladies to try to catch the Prince’s eye, it seemed that quite a few women felt that coming in with a male chaperone was disadvantageous to their purposes.

Just for that, it would have been an interesting event to observe.

Kenshin smiled, but then shook her head firmly. No, she shouldn’t think about this. Despite her past, these days she was just a maid and a mere maid could never attend an event the Crown Prince of the kingdom had arranged to find a bride to be.

Kenshin dunked her broom to the bucket, wrung it mostly dry and started washing the floor with determinate, almost furious movements. It was far better to focus on her job, the job that quarantined her livelihood than waste time pondering about the impossible.

Yes.

You made your choices, knowing perfectly well how it would turn out and now you are just a maid.

And it was the right choice, no matter how much it hurt.

Never forget that.

The time flew. It was hard to say how long had passed, minutes or hours, but not long after, the sweat clung Kenshin’s dress to her back and tiny aches were becoming more pressing on her hips, on her waist and her ribs where her corset dug the worst pressure. Maybe she had pulled it too tight, too angry at herself to care of the practicalities?

She huffed angrily and straightened her back, digging couple fingers under the corset’s brim. It wasn’t that tight. Maybe she was just getting old that it got uncomfortable to crouch for longer periods of time when washing the hallways?

A decisive knock on the door startled her out of her thoughts.

What on earth?

No one should be coming tonight…

Well, perhaps it’s some door to door salesman or someone who has gotten lost? Kenshin bit her lip, swept her hands to her apron, straightened her skirt and hurried to answer the door.

“Yes? How might this one be of service?” Kenshin asked promptly, gazing up at the visitor’s face only to blanch white as a sheet.

“F-father,” She whispered in shock, unable to believe what her eyes were telling her. Those piercing dark eyes set in that ageless, handsome face. The towering height and sheer mass of his body, the outrageous white cape he wore to every event, even the sword he carried at his waist like it was a perfectly normal accessory for an outing to the town. It was like she had been swept decades to the past. Take away those lines around his mouth, those faint crow’s feet cornering his eyes and this was the same face she still dreamed about every now and then, imagining her adoptive father’s disappointment if she ever met him again.

Yes, in her dreams – he frowned just like this.

Kenshin’s knees buckled under her, and she fell to a deep begging bow, her forehead pressed to the harsh marble floor she had spent hours washing until it shone. She swallowed, her throat gone dry. She knew exactly what she should say. She should apologize and beg for forgiveness for abandoning his generosity and kindness, and then apologize once more, for leaving without a word. She had done everything wrong, offered the worst insult an adopted child could offer for their parent.

And yet, yet… the words refused to come.

Her throat felt too tight, her lips too dry. Her voice was not hers to command, not anymore, so she laid still, in that deep begging bow and hoped, hoped so fervently that it was enough.

The silence that fell between them was heavy, like a thick shroud drawn across old furniture to cover them from dust.

Finally, her father spoke. “This… This was why you left?”

Kenshin didn’t need to look up to know he had motioned to her with his right hand, palm open – accusatory, but not yet judging. Even now, she knew all his habits and gestures with the attentive familiarity of a student who had watched him for years upon years, hoping to copy even a sliver of his self-confidence. There was no need for her to look up, for she knew the disappointment that would be on his face now that he saw her like this, wearing a dress and corset just like another woman. The very thought of his gaze was enough to make her shiver.

“Yes,” She whispered, feeling smaller and more vulnerable than ever before. “I… I tried, but I couldn’t be the son you wanted.”

He hummed, his voice low and rumbling like earth shifting beneath their feet.

“So you left,” he said. “Never saying a word, never telling me why – you simply let me wonder for thirteen long years.”

He scoffed.

“I don’t know why I’m surprised.”

Kenshin flinched as if struck.

“You were always a coward.”

“It wasn’t cowardice!” Kenshin insisted, raised her head for the first time. “Please, sir – you have to understand!” And then the words just flooded out, like a torrent of emotion gushing out alongside tears and anguish she had been harboring inside for as long as she could remember, “I couldn’t become a disappointment to you! Not when you adopted me for a reason! The Hiten Mitsurugi sword style that has passed through your family for thirteen generations and the name of Hiko Seijuurou were so important to you, a legacy you wanted to honor. But I’m not Hiko Seijuurou the 14th, I never could be! That’s not who I am!”

Kenshin heaved for breath and looked down, gesturing to her chest and dress wildly. “This! This is who I am. I’m just Kenshin. That name you gave me the day you adopted me was more than enough for me! It was a sign that you wanted me, that even a freak like me was worth something. But had I stayed, had I told you all this… I would have become a burden to you, a mockery of all the things you valued and I couldn’t do that to you!”

Hiko’s face had become so still that it seemed like his features were carved out of marble, but then he looked at her, met her eyes directly, like he was seeing a person, not a memory, and his gaze grew strange. Soft, and almost like… had he actually listened to her?

Kenshin blinked like an owl. What? I must be more deluded than I realized because Hiko would never…

“You really are an idiot,” said Hiko at long last.

“Oro?”

“Only a self-sacrificial, overly dramatic idiot like you would think that running away from home would help their parent.” Hiko gave her a pointed, disapproving look. “I adopted you because I didn’t want to die without anyone to remember me. All men desire a legacy of a sort, even if they can’t stand to suffer a wife and the usual trouble that goes along making a family. Now stand up and let me have a look at you. It’s been years since I have seen my child and you are far from the sixteen-year-old I remember.”

“…Oro?” Kenshin gaped, unable to come up with anything more coherent to say.

Slowly, she climbed to her feet. Feeling rather awkward, she smoothed down the creases on her dress and apron, as to give something for her hands to do while Hiko walked around her, studying her intently like she had seen him studying vases and bowls from finest potters he wanted to use as an inspiration for his own artwork.

“You still don’t eat enough,” Hiko concluded. “What have I told you about skipping the meals for your other interest?”

Kenshin looked aside, feeling heat rush to her cheeks. She had no trouble remembering the lecture: Hiko had told her that if she skipped meals, she would never grow past the average height for women. Those words had been meant as a mortifying barb at the time. After all, for most young men the very idea of being shorter than girls was abhorrent, but for Kenshin… well, it had never quite hit the mark, even if she had to endure her share of teasing from her contemporaries about the subject afterward.

“It’s not such a hardship, being short,” Kenshin said softly, glancing up through her lashes. “Most women are.”

Hiko grimaced, acknowledging her jab. “So I see.”

Kenshin studied the slew of expressions flitting through Hiko’s face as he tried to process through this change of dynamic between them. They were not the father and son they had been, nor could they ever again have that same relationship. For all Hiko’s genius intellect, for his artistic ability and tremendous self-confidence that bordered on arrogance – Hiko was used to relying on his perfect recall, his ability to pick up details from his impressive memory that most people would have forgotten.

But now, he couldn’t do that – simply because Kenshin was not who she had been. Nor was Kenshin willing to fold and give up any of the hard-won understanding of herself she gained during these harsh years. No, she knew now who she was and she wouldn’t give that up for anything, not even for Hiko.

“You really think you are a woman, then?” Hiko asked, a hint of hesitance entering his eyes. “It’s not an act?”

“No. It’s not an act,” Kenshin said quietly. “It’s not a game or something this one could just give up, either.” She took a pause, inhaled sharply and motioned to her body. “I, ah… I always was a woman. I know it’s not normal, but…” She shook her head. “I just am.”

Hiko looked at her for a moment, then slowly – nodded. “Alright.”

Kenshin looked up, “Sir?”

“If that’s what you say, then that’s how it is,” Hiko stated firmly like he was speaking of the stars on the sky, or the rising tide or any phenomenon that a man couldn’t change, only adapt to. Like for him, it really was that simple.

It was terrifying.

Since Kenshin first met Hiko, he had loomed over her as a personality that was larger than life. He was a demanding man who didn’t suffer for fools. Even on his best days, he didn’t have the patience for people, for listening to their woes. For years Kenshin had struggled to achieve anything he had wanted from her, to be worthy of all he had given to her. But never once had she entertained a notion that he could believe her and accept her as she was.

Except… somehow, he had.

Why?

Kenshin gaped, unable to comprehend it. Had Hiko changed during these years?

…Or did I just never give him the chance to accept me?

The thought made her feel faint and her knees wavered under her weight as might-have-beens rushed through her mind. She had been sixteen years old, heartbroken and terrified, all but suffocating under the weight of expectations. But what if there had been other options she just hadn’t seen? What if she never had to run away from home? What if all her hard choices, loneliness, and grief had been for nothing? Nausea stirred and for a second, Kenshin was sure she would be sick. Oh, gods! Just how many things could have been different had I just tried back then?

A strong arm caught her, steadying her before she could fall. “Calm down, idiot,” the low voice rumbled. “What’s done is done and there’s no changing it.”

It was thoroughly unfair how easy it was to relax into that hold, to believe those words and fight through the haze of panic and regrets threatening to envelop her.

Kenshin closed her eyes and swallowed, “Yes, sir.”  

Hiko pushed her to straighten, then sought out her eyes and uttered slowly, purposefully, “Good girl.”

Just two words and Kenshin felt like she could cry. Blinking through the mist in her eyes, she smiled. “You mean it. You really mean it.”

“Of course I do. I don’t make a habit of lying,” Hiko huffed but looked aside – as if he was somewhat uncomfortable. But that was alright. He was trying. Out of all people, Hiko Seijuurou the 13th was trying and that meant more than words could convey.

Overwhelmed by the realization, Kenshin reached to hug him.

She could feel how he stiffened in her grip, but he endured it for briefest of moments before pushing her away. She wasn’t deterred by the least. With him, it had always been the little things that mattered. He had never been an emotional man. So she let him step back and gather himself in peace, retreat to his reserved, brusque manners.

Hiko glanced around the hallway, his eyes landing on the bucket and broomstick Kenshin had abandoned to the floor in her hurry to answer the door. “This work of yours… is it important for you?”

“Oro?”

“You do realize that no child of mine needs to work for their living?” Hiko asked, a hint of distaste appearing on his face, “At least, not in such a… insignificant job.”

“There’s nothing shameful about doing housework, that there isn’t,” Kenshin protested.

“I never said there was,” Hiko replied mildly. “However, you are my daughter and I am not without means to provide for you. Your room at the manor is still the same when you left. You could come back to Kyoto with me and think through what you want for your life instead of the choices you have made to support yourself.”

It mattered, that he was asking. Hiko of her childhood wouldn’t have bothered. He would have just ordered her to pack up and whisked her away to the night without as much as a warning.

However, Kenshin was not the child she had been either.

“I… This one appreciates your offer, that one does,” Kenshin said softly. “But could this one have some time to think about it? This one’s work… ah, that’s to say, this one has obligations here. It would be beyond rude, just go and leave milady and milord without capable house-help. One would at least prefer to help them find a replacement and train the new maid as to make the disruption to milady’s routine as slight as possible, that one would.”

“That’s…” Hiko’s distaste was obvious. “Well, if you think that’s necessary.”

Kenshin bopped a little curtsey, “Thank you, sir.”

“Hmmph! Stop that!”

Kenshin tensed.

“Not with the girlishness,” Hiko scowled, but then corrected himself, “it’s unnecessary for you to act so formal with me. You’re not just a maid, but my daughter, are you not? At the very least, I’d like to get to know you – as you are now – better.”

A relieved smile inched up to Kenshin lips. “Aa,” she agreed. “This one would like that too, um – father.”

“Good.” Hiko cleared his throat. “It seems I’ll be staying here longer than I originally planned for.”

“You are? But you hate the capital!”

“Well, how else am I going to get to spend any time with you? Or get a chance to spoil you rotten?” Hiko shrugged, a touch awkward. “Most old coots at the court claim there is no other way to please their daughters than to gift them with extravaganza. Not that I ever imagined having a daughter, but… eh, it seems I need to learn.”

Gifts? Extravaganza? With each word, Kenshin’s eyes flew wider. “No, sir! You needn’t buy this one anything! It’s enough that you are here, that it is!”

“Hush now. If I feel like buying you gifts, you will just smile and accept them. That’s how any woman with manners behaves.” Hiko eyed her, “Or need I hire you a tutor in ladies manners as well?”

Kenshin paled. “No, no need to!”

“Hmm. We will see.” Hiko’s lips curled to a pleased smile. “It ought to be a learning experience – for both of us, I wager – to get you introduced to the court and start partaking in all those socializing events the ladies arrange through the season. Well, better you than me. From what I understand, the highborn ladies gossip circle is uncanny at picking up information that I usually would have to hire spies for.”

“…Sir?”

Hiko waved his hand dismissively. “I have been keeping an ear out for hints of potential dissidence among Yamato’s nobility for King Kamiya for quite some time. You ought to be able to help me with it.”

“Ah,” Kenshin blinked. That, that actually explained a great deal about Hiko’s actions in the past, mainly how he had pushed Kenshin to try to befriend younger sons of Yamatoan nobility and partake in their hunting trips during the last years she had lived with him. It had been very uncomfortable. Despite her best tries, Kenshin had never been anything but a short, shy and ‘sissy’ outsider among them.’

“Speaking of introducing you to the court,” Hiko muttered, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “We really ought to get going. It’s going to be a rush job, but I think we should be able to manage to get you ready.”

“Oro?” Kenshin shook of her bad memories and focused on the present. “What do you mean, sir?”

“The ball,” Hiko stated as if it was a particularly stupid question. “Prince Kaoru is arranging the event of the year tonight.”

“But…” Kenshin gasped. “But, I’m not a-“

“You are my daughter, are you not? The prince’s invitation was clear. Every unattached, eligible lady under the age thirty should attend. It would be a scandal like no other should I try to introduce my daughter to the court if I didn’t bring her to the event of the year. So make yourself ready and let’s get going. I’ll go to alert my driver.” Hiko spun around and marched away, his white cape flowing behind him.

Kenshin was left staring after him, struggling to pry her jaw off the floor.

The ball?

Hiko wanted to take her to the ball?

But, but… she was a maid. She had obligations!

“Oh gods,” Kenshin whispered to herself. “What should I do?”

Her gaze landed on the bucket and broomstick she had abandoned to the floor and marble tiles that were cleaner than they had been in all the time she had worked in Shishio household. The townhouse was empty. There would be no guests coming in tonight. No one would know if she left work early and took part to an event alongside hundreds of other women.

And the fact was… she wanted to go.

It was that simple.

A small, juvenile smile rose to her lips and Kenshin grabbed her cleaning tools, then rushed off to put them away and change to her street clothes.

 


 

So far Prince Kaoru had concluded that Miss Megumi Shishio was not only staggeringly beautiful but also deeply intelligent, cunning and independent enough that her loyalty might be seduced… and just about the most frightening woman Kaoru had ever met. Not like the unsuitable women that bards and storytellers described in the horror stories. No, Megumi was most definitely in her right mind and while she clearly had her own plots and machinations, she was no black widow hunting for a mate to use for her own gain.

No, what raised Kaoru’s shackles was something far more subtle.

During these two dances they had shared, never once had Megumi’s gaze wandered away from Kaoru. Her dark eyes studied Kaoru like she was something strange and mysterious that needed to be analyzed and categorized. Every gesture Kaoru made, every word she said, Megumi noted and responded with something mild, unassuming that didn’t give a hint what her personal thoughts about the subject were.

It made Megumi an easy conversation partner. Kaoru could talk to her about anything, from politics, popular gossip to relevant events and Megumi would always say the right thing encourage Kaoru to talk more. There was nothing wrong with it. Hell, most young men would gulp up all that unrivaled attention and just run with it, thinking they had found the perfect woman. Even for Kaoru, it wasn’t an unpleasant experience.

It was just… it left her feeling like she was talking to a mirror that showed her only what she wanted to see.

Kaoru bit the inside of her cheek, realizing perfectly well how silly she was being right now. For all intents and purposes, Megumi was everything she had been looking in her bride-to-be. She had the looks, the brains, the family connections – if Kaoru had written a list of an ideal wife for the Crown Prince to have, Megumi would have met all her standards with ease.

And yet, she couldn’t help but to feel something was missing here.

“What about you, Miss Megumi?” Kaoru ventured out to ask, drawing a charming smile to her lips. “What is that piques your interest? You must have heard more than you ever wanted to know about my hobbies and likes by now.”

“Oh, it has been a pleasure listening to you,” Megumi answered, her eyes flickering with a hint of surprise. But smoothly, she continued on, never once wavering on the elaborate steps they were dancing. “As what comes to me, I enjoy reading in my spare time.”

Finally! Some personality at last! “Oh?” Kaoru smiled encouragingly, “What subjects do you enjoy?”

Megumi tensed slightly, a reaction so subtle Kaoru wouldn’t have caught it if she had not been holding to her waist.

“Sometimes I like reading the popular plays.” Megumi demurred, looking aside for the briefest of moments. It was an obvious signal. This was something Megumi didn’t wish to talk about, but Kaoru’s curiosity was piqued.

“Who wouldn’t? Fantastic tales are perfect for quiet evenings.” Kaoru answered easily and then, quite rudely – decided to inquire. “But such a light-hearted topic cannot be where your heart lies. Please, no need to hesitate on my account. I’d like to get know you better.”

“Ah,” Megumi murmured. “Well, in that case…” She frowned and met Kaoru’s eyes directly. “I study medicine. Was I a man, I would be an acknowledged doctor by now – but I am not, so I’m just a discreet healer for my lord father’s ailments and other, ah, sensitive illnesses that my family or our family’s allies may have fallen ill with.”

“That’s,” Kaoru paused, deeply shocked by the admission. Women were forbidden from studying sciences or seeking out an acclaimed profession in those fields. It was something Kaoru’s father had been trying to change for over a decade now, but even if there had been no public trial against a woman healer or physicist in years, it was still very much a taboo subject, especially for a noble lady. For Megumi to admit to such a thing, it was something that could easily destroy her reputation.

Kaoru swallowed, one, twice, then started again. “I understand. My lips are sealed, my lady.”

“Thank you,” Megumi inclined her head. “I’d appreciate your discretion.”

Feeling somewhat uncomfortable, Kaoru looked aside but continued to lead their dance in silence. It wasn’t that she held Megumi’s admission against her. She didn’t. No, if anything – learning this detail made Kaoru respect Megumi even more. She truly was an intelligent and brave woman who would have no trouble playing the games the court nobles lived and breathed.

But the thing was; the one reason why Kaoru had never seriously entertained the thought of becoming publicly known as Princess Kaoru was that as a man she didn’t need to deal with the archaic bullshit women of her caste had to endure. All her life, she had been able to circumvent the trouble that Megumi had faced head-on. So how could she respond to a statement like that? How could she meet the eyes of a woman who had the balls to do something she had always avoided?

The dance ended, the orchestra starting up another, far more light-hearted tempo. However, Kaoru didn’t have the heart for another dance, not right now.

She braved a smile, “perhaps a drink, my lady?”

“Please,” Megumi demurred, eyeing her intently – like she was trying to figure out why Kaoru had reacted as she had.

A shiver raced down Kaoru’s spine and for a moment, she felt an awkward need to check that her chest binder and codpiece were in place, that she hadn’t inadvertently given away her secret. A stupid, irrational fear. Nothing of the sort could happen; she knew it all too well. Kaoru straightened to her full height of five feet one, looked up to Megumi’s eyes, eerily aware how high she had to look up and offered her arm to her.

Megumi took it easily and allowed her to be led.

Usually having a partner that was taller than her wasn’t something Kaoru disdained. No, Kaoru quite liked the thrill of escorting tall ladies. Perhaps it was because she was not a man, who had to suffer from a man’s ego? For her, the identity of a prince was just a game she had chosen to play. An elaborate act that allowed her freedoms her true gender never would. So whenever people made jokes about her lack of height, how she was always the shortest among her male friends – it never mattered to her.

But now, she couldn’t help but feel awkward, like she was somehow ill at the place, a puppet dancing out choreography that she didn’t quite like.

The feeling was blatantly ridiculous.

She was the Crown Prince of the Kingdoms of Yamato and Ezzo. She needed to have a wife. Miss Megumi Shishio fit to all the standards she could name and more, she was someone Kaoru could easily come to respect. But why, why did she feel like she was settling for something less than perfect?

What else could there be to a marriage than finding a partner that fulfilled your needs?

Megumi would be perfect socially, politically – hell, she was also attractive! Kaoru knew herself well enough that in a right mood, with little prompting, she would have no trouble at all partaking acts between lovers with a woman like Megumi. Should Megumi be interested in such things, of course.

So what was she missing here?

Infatuation?

The thought brought a thinly veiled grimace to Kaoru’s lips, and she grabbed two glasses of champagne from the waiter’s tray, offering the other one for Miss Megumi.

Megumi accepted it coolly, her dark gaze lingering on Kaoru’s face, studying her.

“For your beauty,” Kaoru toasted, flirting a little just to distract herself from her irrelevant thoughts.

Megumi raised her brow but toasted as well. “For luck.”

The champagne was dry on Kaoru’s tongue; dry and far too sweet and altogether unappealing. She chucked it down nevertheless. What was with her tonight? Sure, her father had been preaching about the virtues of marrying someone you could love for quite some time, but how could she even consider doing that? She was the Crown Prince. Her marriage would have consequences for the well-being and future of her country, no matter how she tried to spin it.

Letting her heart rule in a matter like this, it would be irresponsible and dangerous. Stupid. Besides, her heart had the worst taste ever! All her teenage crushes had been so blatantly unsuitable that it wasn’t even funny. Her first crush, at the tender age of thirteen, had been a stable boy with an easy smile and silly jokes. Gods, the boy would have pissed himself if he realized Prince was going riding every day and hanging around the stables just to sneak a peek at him in work!

Or what about that charming maid, who had sneaked sweets from the kitchens to her younger sisters waiting at the gates? The court ladies would have eaten her alive had Kaoru dared to show any outward interest towards her! As it was, having sixteen-year-old Prince stumbling across her every other day, and inquiring after her days had been enough to bring the poor girl to the point of a nervous breakdown!

No, the fact was that Kaoru didn’t have the option of following her heart, no less trusting it to make any reasonable choices.

The importance of infatuation and love were severely overrated, anyways. One could have a perfectly good marriage with a partner chosen with reason and logic. The important emotions: trust, loyalty, and caring were cultivated over time, like building a relationship from the ground up into something magnificent.

A soft gasp from her side startled Kaoru.

Megumi was looking over Kaoru’s shoulder, towards the staircase, a victorious smile rising to her lips. “You really made it,” she whispered, “Kenshin.”

Her date wasn’t the only one looking that way, either. Quite a few heads had turned to watch at – was that Hiko Seijuurou the 13th?

And on his arm…

Kaoru paused to stare at a stunning, red-haired young lady.

Even from that first glance, Kaoru could tell she had never seen that young lady before. She would have remembered her. That long red-hair was bright like a silk spun of scarlet fire and her pale skin shone in stark contrast to it. Soulful eyes, lush lips, high cheekbones and sharp chin; even at the distance her face was memorable and strikingly beautiful, but in a way that was unapologetically different from the classical idea of beauty.

The same could be said about her dress.

Eye-catching and bright, the magenta evening gown with white and pink flower decorations at the bosom stood out of the mass with ease. Among hundreds of dresses tailored in Kaoru’s favorite colors; all the shades of blue from navy, indigo to turquoise, and few done in green or yellow – that bright magenta stood out and shone with a personality that was unique to its wearer.

Who would have thought a redhead could wear such a bright shade of pink and make it look good?

And Kaoru didn’t even like pink.

“My apologies,” said Megumi and curtseyed to her. “Could we continue our discussion later? I’m afraid I have an important matter to attend to.”

Kaoru blinked in surprise. “Of course, if that’s what my lady wishes.”

Megumi inclined her head and ventured off towards the lady in pink with a purpose in her steps.

It took several seconds before it dawned on Kaoru that she had been ditched. For the first time in her life, she had been ditched by a woman. Kaoru couldn’t help but grin ruefully, “Ballsy lady, indeed.” Then she glanced down at her champagne glass, grimaced and left it to the side table. At a polite distance, many young women were eyeing her with interest, few of them whispering to their escorts – obviously wondering should they try to catch her eye now that she was by all appearances alone again.

It would be the smart thing to do; to chat with a few of them, maybe take one or two for a spin on the dance floor. It would soothe some bruised egos and smooth down the awkwardness, make a pretense that everything was going as planned.

If she were to follow after Megumi now… it would look desperate. Like Megumi had caught her attention, shaken her and now Kaoru was running after her like a stray dog following the hand that fed it.

Not an inspiring comparison, that.

Or particularly accurate, for that matter.

But damn if she wasn’t interested in what was going on between Hiko Seijuurou the 13th, Miss Megumi Shishio and that pretty redhead in pink. Undoubtedly, it was somehow connected to the letter she had seen Megumi handing out to Hiko.

Choices, choices… Kaoru frowned.

She shook her head and let out a soft laugh. Since when had she needed to hesitate about going to talk with someone? She was the Crown Prince and this was her ball. She could approach whoever she wanted!

A self-confident swagger in her steps, Kaoru headed towards the mystery trio.

 


 

“You made it,” Megumi said breathlessly, her face shining with joy. She clasped Kenshin’s hands, “I am so happy for you!”

“Oro?” Kenshin blurted, too startled for words. Miss Megumi had never been the most expressive of women, so for her to show her emotions like this, it meant…

“So it was a favor, but not for me,” Hiko remarked. “Now, it all makes sense. Kenshin, I gather Miss Shishio is a friend of yours?”

“Y-yes,” Kenshin stammered. “That’s right, so it is.”

Miss Megumi smiled, “It is alright, no need to be so alarmed.” Then, she turned to face Hiko. “Yes, I am a friend and an ally to Kenshin, even if I don’t always have an opportunity to show it. As you might understand, my situation is dependent on my Lady mother’s and Lord father’s good opinion.”

“Understandable,” Hiko inclined his head, just an inch – as was appropriate for a highborn lord to a lady of lower rank. “I must give you my gratitude, for your help and friendship… and for the letter.”

A letter? Just what has Miss Megumi done this time? Kenshin blinked, not quite following the conversation.

“Save your gratitude,” Miss Megumi harrumphed. “Just talk with your daughter, alright? You two already lost over a decade because of your famed stubbornness. Instead of empty gratitude or some arcane favor, I’d much prefer you to ensure Kenshin has the opportunities she deserves, and wouldn’t need to clean and keep other people’s house for her living.”

A shiver of alarm raced down Kenshin’s spine. The way Miss Megumi was talking to Hiko… oh god, this couldn’t end well!

Hiko’s brows furrowed in consideration, but then, instead of the storm Kenshin had been bracing for, he smirked. “I appreciate the advice. Though I’d be careful if I were you, Miss Shishio – if you continue with such a fierce attitude, you might end up enticing an entirely wrong man than the one you are hunting.”

Miss Megumi raised her brow, “Oh?”

That's… those two, what are they saying? Kenshin stared, feeling faint.

Before the situation could escalate further, a light, energetic voice cut through the strange pressure enveloping their party. “Lord Seijuurou, I wasn’t expecting to see you here, least of all in such a pretty company. And Miss Shishio, I hope I am not intruding upon your conversation.”

Miss Megumi’s smile grew tight for a briefest of moments before she turned around and curtseyed elegantly. “Prince Kaoru, it’s a pleasure.”

….Prince Kaoru? Did they mean that the Crown Prince of all Yamato and Ezzo was talking to them? Kenshin grew stiff, before dropping to a deep curtsey, her gaze fixed on the floor. She was a shade too late for a greeting according to proper etiquette, but hopefully, no one noticed.

In front of her, she could see the leather of the Prince’s heeled boots shining like a mirror, so bright that Kenshin could see her own reflection from them.

“And who is this?” That light voice asked. “I can’t remember seeing you before, lady…?”

Hiko tugged at Kenshin’s arm, prompting her to straighten and meet the startling blue eyes of the Crown Prince for the first time.

He was short and lean, just like the rumors had painted him to be – and somewhat shorter than Kenshin, though how much of that height difference was in the heels Kenshin wore, was impossible to say.

However, despite hearing people to gossip about the Prince often enough, hearing all about his charming manners, affable nature and his good looks, what Kenshin hadn’t quite realized was how young the Prince was. Not exactly a youngster, but a young adult of eighteen years. She didn’t know why she was so surprised. Every citizen was aware of the Prince’s age. There had been a great nation-wide party two years ago when the Prince had reached his adulthood.

But eighteen years old… it had been eleven years, almost a lifetime ago when Kenshin had been the Prince’s age. She had been homeless then, desperately searching for respectable work and trying to find ways to disguise the small tells that gave away her body’s wrongness to the casual observer.

“Prince Kaoru, how good of you to show up. I guess I haven’t ever mentioned my daughter to you, have I?” Hiko’s firm voice pulled Kenshin out of her thoughts. “This is my daughter, Lady Seijuurou Kenshin.”

Prince Kaoru’s eyes widened slightly, the only sign of his surprise. “I’m pleased to meet you, Lady Seijuurou,” He said, bowing slightly, like a true gentleman.

Kenshin wavered on her feet, overwhelmed – that name! Did Hiko just give this one his family’s name? And publicly acknowledge this one as his daughter to the second highest power in the kingdom? – before rushing for another curtsey. “This one is pleased to meet you, Prince Kamiya.”

“The pleasure is all mine.” The prince smiled, meeting Kenshin’s eyes and winked.

“T-thank you, sir,” Kenshin managed, before glancing aside, the heat creeping to her cheeks. Damnit! This was far from the first time a man decided to flirt with her, so why was she reacting like this to it? She hadn’t ever been interested in men! And Prince Kaoru, the most sought-after bachelor in the whole country, was so unsuitable a practice partner that it wasn’t even funny!

“Such a pleasant surprise,” The prince said, before clearing his throat. “Lord Seijuurou, my Lord Father and I are not generally speaking averse to surprises, at least when they are as pleasant as this, but I must admit to curiosity. How come I have never heard of you having a daughter before?”

Kenshin stiffened, panic curling at the pit of her stomach as she turned to Hiko. They had been so busy earlier, rushing from one place to the next, trying to find a gown and shoes that fit her, then get her hair and makeup done… they hadn’t gotten a chance to discuss the practicalities, to agree on a socially acceptable story that would explain why a lord like Hiko with a well-known reputation as a bachelor could suddenly have a daughter.

Worse, to lie to the member of the royal family was akin to treason! Oh god, should she say something? Make a distraction? Anything to keep Hiko from needing to answer?

Even Miss Megumi’s smile had grown forced.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Hiko just scoffed. “I adopted her.”

Oh… Kenshin blinked.

“So I see,” The Prince let a little laugh. “And when did this auspicious event happen, if I may ask? I think it might be good for me to mention the facts to my Lord father before any busybody springs a little surprise to him in a potentially awkward way.”

“That would be the best, I think.” Hiko agreed blandly. “And to be clear, I adopted my child at seven years old. If someone asks, the papers can be found in Kyoto, in official Yamato clan registries. I simply haven’t publicly spoken out loud about my family matters in Ezzo. You see, my position is not without its risks, not when I need to work with both Yamatoan and Ezzo nobility.”

That sounded particularly dodgy to Kenshin’s ears, but Prince Kaoru’s eyes grew serious and he nodded. “I’ll let my father know that.”

Hiko inclined his head, “I’m willing to discuss any concerns he might have in person.”

While Kenshin had never been the best at reading such byplay, it almost seemed like… just how close was Hiko to the King and the Crown Prince, really?

Even Miss Megumi was watching the interaction with interest, so much so that she didn’t notice a familiar figure approaching them with a stormy expression. No, that dubious honor went to Kenshin alone.

Lady Yumi’s eyes were fixated on Kenshin, and the anger in them was palatable.

Chills raced down Kenshin’s skin, and she looked down, curtseying as deep as she dared, without letting the Prince, or rest of the people around them to realize just how much of an intruder she was to their grand ball. Lady Yumi was the last person she had wanted to see tonight, but of course, the Lady wouldn’t have wandered far away from her prized daughter.

“Lady Shishio,” Kenshin said holding that deep curtsey as she prayed that this wouldn’t turn to a scene, “How are you tonight?”

Lady Yumi didn’t answer her, but walked past her and curtseyed promptly. “Prince Kaoru, Lord Seijuurou – What a delight! I hope I am not intruding upon your conversation?”

“No, by all means,” Prince’s voice answered. “We were just exchanging pleasantries.”

Kenshin closed her eyes, and exhaled softly, ashamed of her irrational fears. Lady Yumi was a master of political intrigue. She wouldn’t cause a scene, no matter how furious she was – at least, not if it wouldn’t serve her own agenda.

And true it was: Lady Yumi was smiling gently, her anger expertly masked as her eyes fixated on the Crown Prince. “An intriguing conversation to be sure,” she was saying. “However, I can’t help but notice that the dance floor is awaiting the star of the night.”

Prince Kaoru glanced over his shoulder.

Albeit the music was playing, none one was dancing. No, the guests had moved to the sidelines, leaving the dance floor empty. Most people were eyeing their party, some discreetly, some less so.

“Ah,” Prince Kaoru said, reaching to rub his neck. “I guess I should get back to it.”

“If you would, my Prince,” Lady Yumi curtseyed again. “Perhaps my Prince wouldn’t mind taking my daughter, Miss Megumi on another spin? You two looked marvelous together.”

“Thank you for your kind words, Lady Shishio,” the Prince said, “However, a prince must aim to be fair – I couldn’t possibly dance three dances in a row with the same lady.” He smiled, and then held out his hand to Kenshin, “My lady Seijuurou, perhaps you wouldn’t mind a dance?”

“Oro?” Kenshin gaped, staring at the Prince outreached hand.

Is t-the prince asking one to dance? But this one is not… “I… I ah, couldn’t possibly-“

“Do forgive my daughter for her lack of manners,” Hiko’s voice cut through her attempt to decline. “It’s been a while since she has been to an event like this. Go on, Kenshin – let the Prince accompany you for a dance. You still remember the dances your tutor taught you, don’t you?”

Kenshin gulped. Holy hell, now she had no way of turning down the invitation, not without causing a scene herself! She took a deep breath, bobbed a curtsey, then clasped the Prince’s outreached hand and allowed him to lead her to the empty dance floor.

The stares aimed at her felt like hundreds of needles being driven to her back. Panic churned in her gut, like snakes curling tight and twisting to their own tune.

Kenshin felt sick.

What if people realized what she was? That the esteemed Crown Prince Kamiya Kaoru wasn’t escorting a proper woman, but a freak in a dress and high heels? Oh gods, she never should have agreed to come!

The Prince bowed and gave a whisper of a kiss to the back of her hand. “My lady, please relax – it’s just a simple waltz. I’ll guide you through it.”

“Aa,” Kenshin managed weakly.

The Prince straightened, and with a charming smile pulled her close, to a proper dancing pose.

Now, Kenshin was not new to dancing. How could she be? It might have been over a decade since she had last danced ballroom, but she had been adopted at a young age to a high ranking noble family and like most youths of her former caste, her education had included extensive dancing lessons.

The difference was, of course, that her dance lessons had been tailored to teach her to lead.

Kenshin struggled to hold back a cringe, and lifted her hand to the Prince’s shoulder, forcing herself to focus. It might have been ages, but she should be able to manage a simple waltz, shouldn’t she?

“There we go,” the Prince smiled at her. “Now, let’s take this slowly, shall we?”

“I… um, yes. This one would appreciate a slow start, that she would.”

The Prince took a step and another forward, his hand firm at Kenshin’s waist. It felt weird, to start with a backward step, but the Prince’s guidance was easy enough to follow, even for such an inexperienced follower as Kenshin.

“And now, a side step,” The Prince said, leading them with confidence. “And then we repeat the same, but backward. Now, this isn’t so bad, is it?”

“No,” Kenshin agreed. “Thank you, for your understanding.”

“It’s my pleasure,” The Prince said, continuing the classic sway of the waltz – leading them to step by step closer to the middle. “Now, if you don’t mind my curiosity, but the way you speak – you come from Yamato, do you not?”

Kenshin gave up staring at her feet like an absolute beginner and met the Prince’s curious gaze. “Um, it’s been a long time, but yes – this one thinks she was born in south-western Yamato, that she was.”

“You think?” Prince Kaoru raised his brow.

Kenshin looked aside, feeling a tad uncomfortable. She didn’t like talking about herself, but she couldn’t lie to the Crown Prince, now could she? “This one doesn’t remember her childhood very well,” She finally said, tried to pass it off. “One’s family was struck down by an epidemic plaguing the south at the time and one was weak and sickly for months, even after Hiko adopted this one.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” The Prince said. “I hope you accept my condolences, even at this late date.”

The sincerity in the Prince’s voice – it felt genuine. Kenshin paused, not quite sure how to answer. “I… thank you,” she finally said.

“Though I must admit to befuddlement – because of my status, I have studied quite a bit of Yamatoan history and the matters of the state, and to my understanding, there haven’t been droughts or epidemics that typically follow them in the south-west since the war… And it has been over two decades since Yamato became part of my lord father’s kingdom.”

“That’s true,” Kenshin allowed with notable hesitance, wavering the steps of the dance just a bit, before countering the roundabout question with one of her own. “What is that my Prince wishes to know then? Is there something wrong about this one’s heritage?”

“No, nothing of the sort! Quite the contrary! I was just being nosy. My apologies, my lady,” The Prince hurried to assure her, his cheeks reddening with embarrassment. “It’s just, I can’t quite place your age, that’s all.”

“Oro?” Kenshin blinked, “You were trying to ask how old this one is?”

If possible, the Prince’s blush became deeper and he cleared his throat awkwardly. “It’s quite rude of me to ask, isn’t it? Ah, please – forget my breach in decorum. Of course, these things are not something a gentleman should ever ask from a lady.”

That blush on his cheeks, how his blue eyes avoided her gaze, it was strangely charming how he blustered. Kenshin couldn’t quite help the smile that tugged her lips. “It is rude to ask, so it is – but only this once, one doesn’t mind answering you. This one is now twenty-nine, that she is.”

The Prince’s eyes widened almost comically, “Twenty-nine? But you look like you are about my age, in your early twenties at the tops!”

Flattered, Kenshin glanced aside, feeling a bit better about her looks. Perhaps the hard years of work, first as a cook in a roadside tavern, then as a seamstress to a small village, then a cleaning lady and finally as a maid weren’t as obvious as she had thought?

In the background, the music quieted and then changed to a more lively melody.

Kenshin gathered her poise and curtseyed, “Thank you for the dance, Prince Kamiya.”

However, the Prince didn’t let go of her hand.

“My Lady Seijuurou, I… I must apologize for my terrible manners. I’ve made you uncomfortable with my blundering.” The Prince offered her a deep bow, a deeper bow than a man of his rank should ever bow to a woman. He turned his hand palm up, lessening his clasp on her hand to only a touch like he was holding a small bird in his palm. “Please, allow me to redeem my honor and offer you another dance. I’ll do better, I promise.”

Again, that sincerity in his voice… Kenshin paused, not quite sure how to react.

Still, the Prince bowed – his hand still, waiting for her choice.

Kenshin bit on the inside of her cheek, before glancing at the sidelines. Hiko had retreated to the table where champagne was being served. Some distance away, Lady Yumi was bickering with Miss Megumi.

Guilt twisted at her stomach. Miss Megumi had done nothing wrong, but undoubtedly she had to endure the anger Kenshin’s actions had spurred. Kenshin knew what she should do. She should say no to the Prince’s invitation and walk away from this mess. And if the Prince followed, she should try to guide his gaze to notice Miss Megumi.  

That’s what a freak like she was expected to do.

“Lady Seijuurou,” the Prince glanced up, his gaze troubled. “Please, allow me to repay my earlier blundering to you.”

But the Prince, there was something about him, something strange and enthralling that Kenshin couldn’t quite put her finger to. She knew it was a bad choice. She knew it better than anyone because even if the interest in Prince’s gaze was genuine, there was no way this could end well. He was the Crown Prince of the kingdoms of Yamato and Ezzo, a man with the world on his palm – and she, even had her body been right – she had been born in a small hut with a packed mud floor in the middle drought, starvation, and epidemics that followed it.

The gap between their origins was like the night and day.

Too large a gap to bridge together, she knew.

And yet… she couldn’t bring herself to say no. Kenshin bobbed a curtsey and clasped the Prince’s hand. “One more dance.”

 


 

So far Kaoru had concluded two things about Lady Seijuurou.

One; she had the looks of a woman who could walk into a room and steal everyone’s attention without even trying.

Two; she had been lying about not knowing how to dance.

Actually, everything about Lady Seijuurou seemed to be shrouded in mystery. For as soon as Kaoru thought she had figured Lady Seijuurou out, she did something that completely defied Kaoru’s expectations.

Like the issue with dancing. Kaoru had assumed Lady Seijuurou’s hesitance about accepting her invitation was because she didn’t know how to dance. Because of this, Kaoru had intended to lead her through the most basic dance she knew, step by step. However, as soon as they had gotten started, Lady Seijuurou had relaxed and followed Kaoru’s lead with the ease of someone who had danced the steps thousand times.

Even more mysterious, when Kaoru had blundered with their conversation and faltered in her steps, Lady Seijuurou hadn’t – instead, she had taken the lead from Kaoru and continued on as nothing had happened.

So quite understandably, Kaoru’s interest was piqued. Perhaps, even too much. She glanced aside, the heat lingering on her cheeks at the memory of her earlier rude questions.

However, even as embarrassing as it was to inquire about a woman’s heritage and age, it was starting to become more and more obvious that Kaoru had found a woman who could be even more suitable to her needs than Lady Megumi Shishio.

As a daughter of Hiko Seijuurou the 13th, Lady Seijuurou Kenshin had the status only very few women in the kingdom could match. Even better, by her charming accent and her own words, she was from Yamatoan origin – which could help in King Kamiya’s long-term goal of acclimatizing the annexed Yamato to the Kingdom of Ezzo. Her status as an adopted daughter was not an issue. Even had she been born to a lower-ranked countryside lord’s family, they could easily spin her rise to a rank as a true feminine success story.

The fact that Lady Seijuurou had been orphaned at a young age also meant that there would be no uncomfortable questions of her loyalty in the long run. Not like with most Yamatoan nobles. Well, other than to Hiko, and Hiko had been Kaoru’s father’s friend as long as she could remember.

Lastly… as trivial detail as it was, it certainly didn’t hurt that Lady Seijuurou was a beautiful woman.

Kaoru looked up, only to see Lady Seijuurou glancing at the sidelines, where they had left the Shishio women.

Ah. Well, she’s only a good match if you can catch her interest. Kaoru reminded herself and then, not letting herself to be deterred by her partners’ wandering attention, she drew an inviting smile to her lips, “Perhaps my lady would like to lead for a while?”

“Oro?” Lady Seijuurou startled, her back growing stiff with tension. “Whatever you mean?” She asked, trying to misdirect.

Shame that Kaoru wasn’t so easily deterred. She grinned, relaxing her guiding hold on Lady Seijuurou’s waist, “Don’t think that I haven’t noticed that my lady is an expert dancer. If you’d prefer to lead, I don’t mind following.”

However, instead of the flattered glance she expected, Lady Seijuurou blanched white as a sheet and her gaze dropped to her feet, a notable uncertainty entering her motions. “T-this, ah… I, really – please, my Prince – no.”

“Why not?” Kaoru tilted her head to a side, honestly baffled. “It’s obvious that you are more familiar at leading. I genuinely don’t mind if that’s something you’d rather do.”

“…still, no.” Lady Seijuurou said, stiff as a board. “It’s… um, one did originally learn to dance in a leading role, but it’s not proper for a woman, that it’s not. And really, this one would much rather learn to be better at following, that one would.”

“Oh. Well, if that’s the case.” Kaoru paused in consideration, “Or perhaps, I could teach you?”

“Oro?”

Again that adorable sound! Kaoru tightened her hold, pulling Lady Seijuurou even closer to herself. “You see, if we are a bit closer to each other, you can more easily follow on my cues and wouldn’t so easily seek to take my lead by reflex.”

“Um,” Lady Seijuurou hesitated, her violet eyes huge. “Err, well, if you think that will help?”

“Just trust me,” Kaoru grinned. “It’s a bit unorthodox, but this should work. I mean, it’s a bit similar than the way my father sometimes helped me with my sword moves. He used to hold my hand and physically adjust my pose during the kata.”

“Oh,” Lady Seijuurou blinked and then agreed almost shyly. “Hiko used to do that, too, when he taught this one. It does help sometimes, to have someone else adjust your pose instead of trying to copy their example.”

The trace of redness on Lady Seijuurou’s cheeks drew Kaoru’s gaze to a hint of a freckle on her nose, and on her cheekbones. Beautiful. Utterly beautiful. Kaoru swallowed dryly and tore her attention to the present. “Uh… what did you say? Lord Seijuurou taught you? Wait – I thought he didn’t dance? At least, that’s what he has always claimed when I tried to get him to socialize!”

“…this one has never seen him dance, either.”

“Oh,” Kaoru paused. “So what was it then, what he taught you? If you don’t mind me asking?”

Lady Seijuurou hesitated, “Um – swordsmanship.”

Now, it was Kaoru’s turn to stare. “Lord Hiko Seijuurou the 13th taught you his sword’s style? The Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu, the famed sword style that has been passed down on inside his family line since the era of civil wars?”

“Yes?” Lady Seijuurou asked, her gaze uncertain. “It’s why he first decided to adopt this one, or so this one thinks.”

“That’s…” Kaoru paused. “That’s pretty remarkable.”

And it really was, because what she had heard of Lord Seijuurou’s exploits during the war, he was widely rumored to be one of the best swordsmen in the country. A reputation that was still uncontested, because no challenger had managed to convince him to partake in a duel after the war, not even a friendly match among the peers.

Now, Kaoru didn’t think she was particularly vain, or hungry for an achievement – but learning that there was another woman who enjoyed swordsmanship and had skills in such a style? It was too good a lure to pass up. After all, Kaoru took great pride in having learned her father’s sword style, the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu. As an entirely new style her father had developed after the war, it was somewhat controversial in approach, but she would love to test her skill against a legacy as prominent as the Seijuurou’s Hiten Mitsurugi.

Besides, Kaoru loved the art of the sword. It was that simple. So, she ventured out to suggest, “Perhaps my lady Seijuurou wouldn’t mind a friendly match at some point?”

“No. Thank you.”

Errr… what? Kaoru blinked. “No – to a friendly duel? Or you don’t want to meet me again?”

“No,” Lady Seijuurou said, then looked aside in haste, avoiding her gaze. “Um, that’s to say – this one doesn’t duel, that one doesn’t. That was one of the rule’s Hiko was very adamant about. No fighting for a show, or for one’s own gain. Besides, this one hasn’t had a chance to train in years. It wouldn’t be much of a match.”

“I see,” Kaoru said. “Well, with your permission – could I bring up to him the possibility of a private spar between the two of us? No audience, and only to extend you’d be comfortable with, of course! I mean, I don’t often get the meet women so deeply after my own heart and I would definitely like to meet you again.”

“Oro?” Lady Seijuurou looked up. “You’d like to – but me? But I, I’m not… and what about Miss Megumi?”

“What about her?” Kaoru tilted her head, honestly baffled. Why was Lady Seijuurou so spooked? Didn’t she realize how deeply she had captivated Kaoru’s attention in just two dances?

When the silence dragged on, Lady Seijuurou rushed to explain, “You are looking for a woman who could become a princess, are you not? Surely you have noticed that Miss Megumi would be perfect for that? She has the family connections, she is beautiful, elegant and smart and–“

“So are you,” Kaoru countered. “Look around us. Who is everyone looking at?”

Lady Seijuurou froze, before glancing over her shoulder – and Kaoru let go of her waist, turning the motion into a controlled spin, letting Lady Seijuurou see the crowd of hundreds, all of them watching at them, the only pair at the dance floor.

“You see, my lady,” Kaoru grinned and pulled her back to her arms, “You are the star of the night. Not only did you walk in on the esteemed Lord Hiko Seijuurou the 13th’s arm, but within minutes of your arrival, you had me utterly captivated. I assure you, there is no one in this room who doesn’t think you are a force to be reckoned with in your own right.”

“Oh.”

“So please, my lady – allow yourself to enjoy the moment.” Kaoru smiled. “And between the two of us, I honestly can’t remember when I have last enjoyed a dance as much as right now, and that’s all because of you.”

“I…” Lady Seijuurou started. “Um, thank you? Prince Kamiya.”

“Please, call me by my name.” Kaoru said easily, and dared to extend Lady Seijuurou to a classic dip, “All my friends do.”

“But we just met?” Lady Seijuurou said, looking up from her dipped pose.

Awh, hell – not only was she a looker, Lady Seijuurou was damn adorable too.

“Time is relative,” Kaoru grinned, and pulled her up, enjoying how easy it was. It really made all the difference to dance with someone who about her own size, instead of a head taller. “Haven’t you noticed how you can know some people for ages and still not like them for a bit, and with some, you just instantly enjoy their company?”

In the background, the orchestra changed to a quicker tempo and Kaoru decided to take it up a notch – and this time Lady Seijuurou didn’t hesitate anymore, just followed her lead.

A quick learner too! Kaoru noted with delight and sent her partner to another spin.

Lady Seijuurou parted, spinning elegantly, her pink evening gown flaring to its full width around her, a flower in full bloom – and then, at the end of her arm’s reach, she paused, turning to look at Kaoru, her lips slightly parted, and Kaoru’s knees wavered at the sight.

Gods, she is beautiful.

Holding out her hand, Kaoru waited – and Lady Seijuurou spun back, her right hand clasping Kaoru’s and her left hand finding its’ place at Kaoru’s shoulder.

So natural, so easy – it’s almost like we were made to each other. Kaoru grinned in exhilaration. “Are you sure you are new to following? Because you follow like a dream, my lady Seijuurou.”

The corners of her lips twitched, and then finally, the miracle happened: Lady Seijuurou smiled. It was an open, honest smile – a woman flattered, relaxed and enjoying the moment.

“It’s all thanks to your teaching, Prince Kaoru.” Lady Seijuurou demurred, “It has been years since this one has last had a chance to dance. And even then, it was a common tavern dance, not ballroom, so it was.”

A tavern dance? Just where had Lord Seijuurou hidden away his prized daughter for all these years that she hadn’t had a chance to dance anything finer?

“And please, Prince Kaoru,” Lady Seijuurou continued, pulling Kaoru from her thoughts. “Since you asked this one to address you with your given name, perhaps you could return the favor? Seijuurou is this one’s lord father’s name. This one has always been just Kenshin.”

“Of course, Lady Kenshin,” Kaoru agreed on the spot, pleased by the development.

The blush on Lady Kenshin’s face grew a shade deeper, but she didn’t tense up anymore.

Very good, indeed, thought Kaoru.

She had been waiting for a while Lady Kenshin to relax enough to treat her like they were on more equal grounds.

After all, Kaoru didn’t want a partner that treated her like the Prince around the clock. That would get tedious and quickly. No, what she had been looking for from the start was a woman who she could trust, who she could lean on when need be, and be leaned on in turn – in short, someone who could become the Princes, and later on the Queen, to Kingdoms of Ezzo and Yamato needed.  

Princess Kenshin – that has a nice ring to it, Kaoru decided.

Amused, Kaoru couldn’t help but note that like her own, Lady Kenshin’s name had several spelling variations, including many popular boys’ names. The first syllable was particularly tricky because it was often written with the character ‘sword’ – a much too aggressive a name for a woman, especially during these peaceful times.

Actually, now that she thought about it, Kaoru could come up with only one way of spelling that she personally would use for a girl’s name – devotion.

I’m starting to see why people comment on Lord Seijuurou’s skill with words. Kaoru thought with helpless abandon. He certainly picked the perfect name for his daughter. I bet no one who meets her will be able to look aside…

Being so close, Kaoru could feel Lady Kenshin’s lean figure against her body, feel her warm breath tickling the side of Kaoru’s neck. A bead of perspiration was running down her cheek, to her jaw, falling to her neck, trickling down to-to—

Kaoru took a swallow, feeling light-headed out of a sudden. She relinquished her hold on Lady Kenshin’s right hand and tugged at her neck scarf, pulling it loose. Why had she decided to wear high neck scarves again? They were so damn constricting when one wanted to anything physical than just walking!

“Are you alright, Prince Kaoru?” Lady Kenshin asked, a genuine concern flashing in her eyes.

“Yes, yes –of course,” Kaoru said and reached for her hand again. She didn’t want to quit dancing with her, not yet, not ever. “We just got started, didn’t we?”

“But you...” Lady Kenshin hesitated, her eyes trailing Kaoru’s face, falling lower, to her neck…

And suddenly, Kaoru remembered why she wore high neck scarves. The Adam’s apple. The lack of it was among the more subtle tells of her true gender, not something that most people would pay any attention to, but Kaoru had always been careful and had used a lot of money and ingenuity to keep up her guise as a male.

Tailored coats to accent her shoulders, expertly made chest binders to press her breast akin to the shape of masculine pectorals, a habit of wearing high neck scarves and chalking it up as a personal preference, her insistence to wear codpieces ‘to protect the family jewels’… No matter how eccentric, she had always been meticulous, no matter the occasion or company she kept.

At least, until now.

Anxiety flared in Kaoru’s gut, the scenarios rushing through her mind – from bad, to worse to the disaster. No, she couldn’t think like this! There were very few people who would notice such a subtle tell. She still had time, time to make sure she had made the right choice, that Lady Kenshin was the sort of person who could keep a secret, who wouldn’t react badly, whose loyalty could be won! All she needed was time. Yes, time!

Kaoru looked aside for a– aha!

Drawing on all her much-practiced charm, she turned to her partner, “I think you are right, it’s getting a bit hot in here. Perhaps you’d like to join me for a stroll in the gardens? I’d really like us to continue our conversation.”

The look Lady Kenshin gave her was strangely… considering. Not the earlier hesitance or denial, nor the more recent acceptance and delight, but something that was neither. That hooded gaze didn’t give away even a hint to what she was thinking, not even when her eyes followed to where Kaoru was pointing, to the dimly lit outer gardens opening from the ballroom patio.

A shiver raced down Kaoru’s spine.

Finally, Lady Kenshin spoke, her voice soft as velvet, “yes, fresh air could do us both good, so it could.”  

Not entirely sure how to read that, Kaoru braved on a smile. “Well, then – after you, my Lady.”

 


 

The Prince was a woman.

The sole heir of King Kamiya Koshijirou, the Crown Prince of the Kingdoms Yamato and Ezzo, was a woman, or at least he had a woman’s body. And he was trying to disguise it, very much like Kenshin had struggled to disguise her body’s wrongness for the last thirteen years.

The sheer enormity of that realization left Kenshin reeling in abject disbelief, but it was the only explanation that made sense.

Was this why Hiko had pushed Kenshin to accept that first dance with the Prince?

Given how close Hiko seemed to be with the Royal family, maybe he had known about this and had been hoping Kenshin to realize the similarities she had with the Prince? Perhaps, that was why Hiko had decided to seek her out in the first place?

Kenshin gnawed on the inside of her cheek, following the Prince through the patio’s glass doors, down to the marble stairs to the gardens.

The moon shone a gentle light of the bushes and flower beds, illuminating the hedge maze to the right.

It was quiet.

Yet, the Prince didn’t try to engage her with talk or request her attention. No, he merely escorted her around in silence, like he too had something heavy on his mind.

It was perfectly fine for Kenshin. She wasn’t sure she could manage a polite conversation, not when she was so rattled.

After all, she had never met someone like herself.

She had met men, who portrayed the role of a woman in a theater. She had met men, who dressed as women for other men’s pleasure – yet both of those roles were fleeting in nature, taken up for show, pleasure or profit and were easy to discard when it suited them. Very much different than Kenshin’s quiet struggle trying to live a lie that felt like a truth.

However, there was one problem with the theory that the Prince was like her…

Kenshin paused, thinking back to the year when Prince Kaoru had been born. That summer, there had been a great many celebrations all over the country, everyone rejoicing the first sign of stability to King Koshijirou’s rule that the birth of a male heir indicated.

So right from the start, Prince Kaoru had been publicly known as a male.

For Kenshin, it had taken years to reach the understanding of herself and of her gender, to figure out where the feeling of wrongness was coming from. There was no way anyone could have that sense and understanding of themselves straight from the birth, no matter how auspicious their circumstances were.

No, Prince Kaoru, whatever her reasons were, she had to be a woman in disguise.

As far as disguises went, it was next to flawless – as close to it one could get, truly. After all, as Kenshin knew with terrible familiarity, hiding all the physical expressions of one’s birth gender was next to impossible.

And now that Kenshin knew what look for…

The Prince’s voice was light, soft in pitch like it had never been broken. His hands, no matter how calloused, were slender like a musician’s – or a woman’s. Hell, even the way his jacket had been sewn, expertly blended seams and layers of padding to create an illusion of width to his shoulders and back… it was marvelous craftsmanship, but for a seamstress as skilled as Kenshin was, it was becoming easier and easier to notice what was fabric and what was an illusion, and what it all was used to hide.

“Lady Kenshin, what‘s on your mind? I could feel the heaviness of your gaze all the way from here,” The Prince joked, his smile charming as ever, even if a hint of uncertainty lingered in his stormy blue eyes.

“Oro? It was nothing, that is wasn’t.” Kenshin said and paused, trying to find a way to guide the conversation to safer waters. “At least, nothing important. Um, one couldn’t help but notice how beautiful a night it is.”

“Yes,” the prince nodded, his smile growing softer. “It is rather pretty out here, isn’t it?”

Kenshin inclined her head in acceptance, then motioned towards the flower beds. “You have skilled gardeners here, that you have. Those irises require a deft touch, or they will wilt during a summer like this.”

“Not only skilled with dance and swords,” the Prince raised his brow, “but you know gardening too, my lady?”

“A little,” Kenshin murmured dismissively. “The flowers are easier than people, sometimes.”

“That I don’t doubt!” The Prince let out a little laugh and held out her hand. “Join me? I’d like to show you something I think you’d enjoy.”

The spark of mischief in the Prince’s eye, it was strangely infectious – Kenshin took her hand, a smile tugging at her lips too.

The Prince grinned in victory and pulled her along, leading her deeper into the garden, to the high walls of the hedge maze – and the pathway that opened there.

“No better place in the castle grounds, not when one wishes to have some privacy.” The Prince declared. “And after an evening of playing nice to all busybodies and their mothers – it’s pretty good to have some peace and quiet, don’t you think?”

Kenshin covered her mouth with her hand, barely managing to hold back a most impolite laugh at the statement. It was the Prince’s serious expression, more than his outrageous words that made her laugh. Kenshin shook her head, trying to regain her composure. “Surely it hasn’t been that bad? All those beautiful women wearing their best, seeking out to impress—“

“Me?” The Prince huffed. “Trust me, if I had known how crazy this ball would drive everyone, I’d never agreed to my father’s suggestion to arrange this thing.”

Kenshin blinked, “Not that this one had the chance to really meet anyone, but the people out there seemed nice? At least, not something one would call crazy?”

The Prince gave her a look. “Imagine, that one day, you decide to wear the same scarf as the day before. Not for any particular reason, but simply because it felt nice and you fancied that it looked good.”

“Aa?” Kenshin murmured, not quite following.

The Prince tugged at her indigo scarf. “It was a blue piece, a bit like this. Nothing special. But a week later, every tailor shop and seamstress in the town had run out of blue fabric.”

“That’s,” Kenshin hesitated. “That’s a bit much.”

“Isn’t it?” The Prince grinned. “It was why I was so surprised to see you and your pretty dress, actually. You see, I have never owned a single item in pink – so I thought it a surefire bet that none would pick that color to wear.”

“Oro?”

“Though I must admit, you look beautiful in it. So beautiful,” The Prince repeated, his gaze soft and–and—

Her blush returning full force, Kenshin looked down, smoothing down her dress – a stupid, illogical thing to do, but it gave something for her hands to do lest the Prince see how they wavered. Why was she so shaken? It didn’t matter how the Prince looked at her, or that she was a woman and that Kenshin had always watched the women with wistful longing, never daring to even entertain the thought of love and attraction further than a fantasy, an impossible daydream because of what she was.

None of those things mattered.

Shouldn’t matter.

Couldn’t matter. No, because, if they did, then the way the Prince was looking at her, how she was acting towards her, it would mean that, that… But the Prince, she needed a wife. Everyone knew what. And a wife was someone who could help the Prince to continue the Royal lineage, and…

…the Prince was a woman.

Kenshin felt faint.

“Lady Kenshin?”

“Yes?” Kenshin managed weakly.

“What is wrong? The look on your face, have I done something to make you feel awkward again?”

“It’s,” Kenshin struggled to make sense of the words. But the words, they felt so terribly inadequate right now. “No, it’s nothing you did… it’s,” She motioned to herself, trying to find a way to explain without telling too much. “I… I was born on a mud packed floor in a simple countryside hut, a third child to a rice farmer – a scrawny, good for nothing spare. No one expected anything of me. Not even Hiko.”

“But—“

“Don’t, please – just don’t,” Kenshin shook her head. “I, I need to – you need to understand why it’s not – why even if I would allow myself to want, the gap between us, it’s too much. And children, that’s – one can’t even think of that. It’s too big of a leap.”

Prince Kaoru hesitated, “Why? No matter your status at birth, you were adopted by a highborn lord. That’s a fact. Lord Seijuurou declared it openly. You must know just as well as I do that an adopted child is perfectly valid as an heir, especially if there are no other children to contest the claim.”

Kenshin grimaced, feeling of entrapment becoming stronger.

The Prince stepped closer to her, taking her hand. “Lady Kenshin, please – it’s okay.”  

“But it’s not,” Kenshin denied.

The Prince sighed, rubbing comforting circles at the back of Kenshin’s hand. “Would it help to know, that just two weeks ago, my lord father said that I shouldn’t worry about an heir? That as long as I married for love, he could wait as long as it took? That he even would accept any child as my heir as long as it carried my name?”

“Oro?” Kenshin gasped, not quite sure she had heard right. “But you—“

Prince Kaoru smiled, “My father has been adamant about my happiness for the longest time, especially because of the things he has needed to demand from me for the good of the kingdom. Not that I mind!” Prince Kaoru laughed. “I love my country. In a way, everything I do, all the choices I make and my entire life – it’s all a service for my people.”

Prince Kaoru’s role, her father’s expectations, her long search for a wife, the dots connected at lightning speed in Kenshin’s mind. She looked up, meeting the Prince’s gaze, “But… why this one?”

“You make me smile,” The Prince said. “And you laugh at my terrible jokes.”

“That’s it?”

The Prince let out a soft laugh. “Well, it doesn’t hurt that you are pretty. And adorable. And a good dancer. And smart, let’s not forget smart.”

Kenshin frowned, “Now you are pushing it.”

“Am I?” The Prince dimpled. “Well, what if I like complimenting you? You have the most adorable blush.”

T-that girl! Kenshin looked down, fighting back the heat rising to her cheeks – sadly, it was a wasted effort. Damn it! Like most redheads, she had always blushed far too easily.

Determined to avoid the Prince’s gaze, Kenshin looked past the hedges to the castle’s lights illuminating the night.

That was, of course, when her stomach decided to make its presence known by letting out a loud rumble. Startled, Kenshin pressed her hand to it, suddenly realizing that it had been a quick lunch since she had last eaten anything.

“Oh.”

The strangest sound sounded from her side, pulled Kenshin from her thoughts.

The Prince was covering her mouth with her hand, then lost the uphill battle entirely and started giggling like a little girl. “Your face!” She gasped breathlessly. “Oh gods, you looked like you’d want to admonish your stomach! Please, have some sympathy for the poor thing, it has been strapped for hours in that corset!”

Kenshin snorted. “There’s nothing wrong with wearing a corset, that there isn’t. Wearing one is not even uncomfortable when one has done it often enough.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” The Prince quipped back. “Besides, I’m sure your stomach would disagree with you if it could articulate any clearer.”

“This one forgot to eat, that’s all,” Kenshin grumbled, starting to walk towards the edge of the hedge maze. “First Hiko picked up this one without any forewarning, then he hauled this one from one store to the next, in search of something to wear. As it was, we barely made it in time to be ‘fashionably late,’ as Hiko put it. Honestly, anyone would have forgotten to eat in that hurry.”

“Sure, sure,” The Prince agreed, jogging up to her to walk by her side. “But maybe you wouldn’t mind me offering you a dinner? I’m sure we can find something to eat.”

“It’s near midnight,” Kenshin said. “If there’s anything left to eat at the ball, it must have been a dish too strange for you esteemed guests’ palate.”

“Perhaps,” The Prince said. “But trust me, if I ask for something to eat – there will be food.”

“Must be nice,” Kenshin harrumphed, not particularly impressed. She still remembered when she had worked in a tavern nearly ten years ago and how annoying it was when a quest had decided to demand food in the middle of the night.

They were just climbing up the patio stairs, when Kenshin noticed that ball had already ended and the guest were in the process of leaving – and worse, from this high-up, she could see the castle’s front yard, where she spotted the familiar purple gowns of Lady Yumi and Miss Megumi, both women already climbing to their carriage.

The reality struck like a lightning bolt from the clear sky.

Kenshin had just spent the whole evening with the Prince. Worse, she had caught the Prince’s attention in front of Lady Yumi and Miss Megumi, right after Miss Megumi had danced with the Prince. Worse, Kenshin hadn’t even tried to explain herself, why she had come to a ball Lady Yumi had forbidden her to attend, why she had abandoned her responsibilities at the Shishio townhouse…Gods, no matter how she’d spin it, this would look bad – no, it would look like a betrayal.

And it was a betrayal, wasn’t it?

The pinnacle of Lady Yumi’s ambition was for Miss Megumi to catch the Prince’s hand.

It was something Kenshin had known perfectly well.

And still, she hadn’t said no to the Prince’s invitation, hadn’t walked away when given a chance to do so – no, instead she had gone with the flow of the moment, and in doing so, spat on her employer’s generosity, trampled on the trust Lady Yumi had given her when she had decided to hire her, allowing her a chance for an honorable work and a place to live without a fear of persecution.

And worst of all, Lady Shishio Yumi, the woman who she had so spurned, was famed for her vindictive wrath and she knew Kenshin’s worst secrets.

Shiver racing down her spine, Kenshin whispered, “T-this one… I’m sorry – and thank you.”

The fact was: if she couldn’t find a way to appease Lady Yumi, it wasn’t just Kenshin’s reputation she could tatter in revenge. No, because if she made it known to people that Kenshin’s body was not as it seemed, that she was trying to disguise her birth gender… How long would it take the people to realize the Prince was doing the same?

“What?” The Prince stared at her, “Why for?”

“You made me feel like I was worth something. I’ll never forget that.” Kenshin’s heart felt like it trying to claw its way out of her chest, and still, she smiled. “Thank you – and goodbye.”

She turned, and ran –

“Kenshin! Hey, wait!”

The Prince’s shout echoed after her, but Kenshin didn’t turn around. She raced up the stairs, across the patio, past the pathway leading to the castle’s front yard –

“Kenshin – don’t go!”

Her eyes blurry with tears, Kenshin gasped for breath and ran faster, even when her heel lurched in her feet and made her stumble, she hopped on one foot and pulled off the damn shoe and continued running.

She couldn’t stop, not now—

Because it she glanced back even for an instant, she would stop, and she would tell the Prince everything, what a freak she truly was and then, she would have to face the Prince’s disgust when she realized that the Lady Kenshin she had been chasing didn’t exist after all.

No, it was better she ran now – when they both still had this beautiful illusion to remember.

“KENShIIIiiiin!”

 


 

Red hair flowing behind her, her pink dress gathered up so she could run freely, Lady Kenshin disappeared past the castle’s gate. Kaoru slowed down from her frantic run to walk, staring after her.

What had happened? What had Lady Kenshin seen, that she would change her mind so drastically?

The guests?

The trickle of people leaving had waned, most of them turned to look at the spectacle of Prince Kaoru running after a girl, hollering her name. Kaoru grimaced, and lifted her hand to assure them that it was all good – even though it really, really wasn’t – then turned on her heel, and headed back up the marble stairs. She didn’t feel like explaining her actions to anyone. Not right now. Preferably, not ever.

However, as she walked up towards the castle, her eye caught on a glimmer of… pink?

Her heart racing, Kaoru rushed to pick it up – a shoe made of pink glass. Who would make a shoe out of something as impractical as glass? She couldn’t even venture a guess. However, that didn’t matter, not when she knew exactly whose shoe this was. After all, only one woman had worn pink at the ball, and women always matched their shoes with their outfit.

No, this… was Lady Kenshin’s shoe.

A tangible sign, that Kaoru hadn’t imagined her beauty, grace—

“What happened?” A gruff voice cut off her train of thought.

Kaoru startled and looked up, only to face a broad, broad chest clad in white. She blinked, looking up even higher-

Lord Seijuurou raised his brow, and repeated, “The shoe. Why do you have Kenshin’s shoe?”

“Uh,” Kaoru swallowed. “Um, she dropped it? She was stumbling when she ran down the stairs, and I, ah-“

“Never mind you,” Hiko cut off, impatient. “Why was Kenshin running? Did you upset him?”

“I… don’t think so?” Kaoru asked, stepping back. Gods, she had never realized how intimidating Lord Seijuurou could be when he was looming over someone like that. “We were just talking nonsense, joking around – about food? Yes, it was about food, hardly something that could upset anyone, I don’t think. I thought she’d like something to eat, so I offered her a dinner, but as we were coming back she saw something and suddenly spun around, thanked me and said–“ Kaoru’s breath caught, “G-goodbye. She said goodbye-“

“Slow down! Take a deep breath, and look at me, boy.” Lord Seijuurou clasped her shoulders. “There we go. You said he saw something? Where?”

Kaoru’s throat felt too tight for words, so she waved towards the stairs. “There, in the driveway, I think.”

“I see,” Lord Seijuurou hummed. “Yes, I think I have a pretty good idea why Kenshin reacted like that. That child… even now, he,” Lord Seijuurou scowled, “She thinks nothing of herself, of her own happiness.”

“…what?”

Lord Seijuurou straightened and looked away, gazing down the castle’s yard. “Kenshin… You’d think she is demure and sweet, with those understated manners of hers. She’s not. You will never meet anyone more hard-headed and independent as her. She thinks and thinks and thinks, bringing up the matter once, twice, thrice and the way she does it, it’s so gentle, so nice and accommodating, that you’d think this is just a simple thing, a little matter that develops character if thwarted – but when she makes up her mind, she will act on it, no matter the consequences to herself.”

“Oh,” Kaoru paused, not entirely sure why was Lord Seijuurou telling to this her. Was this some sort an arcane way to tell her off? Stay away from my daughter, or else? Hah, like she’d give up now! Kaoru narrowed her eyes and said firmly. “That’s not something I’d consider a fault. I like independent women who are not afraid to stand their ground.”

Lord Seijuurou snorted like he had just heard the best joke in all night. But he didn’t turn around. “You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” Kaoru said evenly, stepping to stand beside him. “Yes, I do.”

“Hah. Maybe you do then.” Lord Seijuurou said softly and glanced at her. Despite their difference in height, the fact that Lord Seijuurou had always towered over everyone – he had never seemed more vulnerable, more human than right now. “I never hid Kenshin. She ran off at sixteen and never returned. The letter you saw Miss Shishio hand me earlier today? That was the first I had heard of Kenshin in thirteen years.”

“What?” Kaoru gaped. “How would – what happened?!”

Lord Seijuurou furrowed his brow. “I didn’t listen. I didn’t look. It was always there, right in front of my eyes, but I refused to understand, simply because it went beyond what I was comfortable to accept. How blind of me.”

Refused to understand? Not seeing what was in front of him? Just how much had Lord Seijuurou drunk again? Kaoru frowned. “A spymaster of your capabilities should have easily found her.”

“True,” Hiko let out a bitter laugh. “But I never looked.”

“But why?”

Hiko didn’t answer.

The silence dragged on, and then, Kaoru couldn’t take it anymore. “You should go to her. Right now.”

“No.”

Kaoru raised her brow in disbelief. “Why not? Kenshin was really upset, she needs you. Are you really going to let her suffer alone?”

“Kenshin’s tougher than she looks,” Hiko said dismissively. “She knows the name of my hotel. If she gets in trouble, she can find me and I’ll rain hell on anyone who even thinks of hurting her. But not before she asks me to.”

“That’s…” Kaoru bit on her lip, tempted to say something she knew she’d regret. Suddenly, she didn’t wonder at all why Hiko had had troubles raising a child. “Then, at least tell me where I can find her. Please. I need to go to her and apologize.”

“No.”

Kaoru growled, clenching her hands to fists. “And pray tell, why not?”

Hiko huffed. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Trust me, kid – I have tried. No, Kenshin is the sort of self-sacrificial idiot who will never step out of the miserable little life she has made for herself, if not by her own choice. She’s difficult like that. She’ll run and run until she decides not to.”

“But surely I can talk to her? Try to help her?” Kaoru said, trying to make any sense of Hiko’s arcane musings.

Hiko scoffed, shook his head – blatantly ignoring her and then the bastard decided to head down the stairs. “’til later,” he called out loud and lifted up his hand if farewell, holding up a bottle of—

“Son of a bitch!” Kaoru gaped, unable to believe what her eyes were telling her. Had Lord Seijuurou grabbed a whole bottle of their most expensive champagne? Really? “How wasted are you?”

“Not even nearly enough.” Lord Seijuurou declared without turning around. “I’d recommend you to do the same. It passes the time.”

Kaoru stared – that, that bastard! “You seriously aren’t going to give me even a hint where to find her?”

“I’d rather watch you sweat for it. After all, what a man has to fight for, he will always appreciate more than a price neatly handed to him.”

“What?” Kaoru stated, oddly furious. “Women aren’t things.”

“Yet, the principle still stands.” Lord Seijuurou turned around and pointed his bottle toward Kaoru. “Besides, you have everything you need to find her yourself, don’t you?”

“Tsh,” Kaoru hissed, peering at the shoe in her hands.

It was an odd one, most certainly.

At least five years, if not more past the current fashion, a bit too ambitious in material and design to be practical for anyone and –

Kaoru’s brows furrowed in thought. She hopped on one foot, comparing Lady Kenshin’s pink shoe to her own uniform boots.

It was at least three, maybe four fingers larger in size than hers.

“Huh.”

So it was an odd size, too – larger than most women’s wear, maybe even larger than what tall beauties like Miss Megumi would wear. An impractical, inflexible and notable old design… something a craftsman had made to an order but hadn’t managed to sell after all?

That would fit, wouldn’t it? Lady Kenshin had mentioned to having some trouble finding something suitable to wear in such a short notice, hadn’t she?

Kaoru gnawed on her bottom lip, turning the shoe in her hands, an idea sparking at the back of her mind.

Yes, did have everything she needed to find Lady Kenshin, didn’t she?

The shoe – it was the key.

 


 

The next morning, Kaoru woke up early – a step by step plan fully hashed out in her mind and ready to be executed. The first step, of course, was to find Mrs. Tae, the castle’s head maid and uncontested queen of the gossip circle.

“List of Lady Shishio Megumi’s friends, you say?” The older maid asked, startled. “But didn’t you-“

Kaoru flashed her most charming smile and rubbed the back of her neck, as if embarrassed. “Unfortunately, it didn’t quite click between Miss Megumi and I. And, well – um, this is a touch awkward – but you see, Lady Seijuurou seemed to be friends with Miss Shishio, but she forgot to mention to me where she was staying and now I don’t know how to contact her.”

“And you haven’t tried through her father?” Mrs. Tae asked. “As I recall, Lord Seijuurou has been staying at the same hotel he always does when he visits the capital.”

Kaoru didn’t even try to hold back her grimace. “Ah, that’s… unfortunately, that path is a no go.”

“Hoo?” Mrs. Tae grinned. “Do tell? You know how I enjoy interesting stories.”

“Maybe later?” Kaoru smiled weakly. “I’m afraid, it’s a matter of some urgency – you see, Lady Seijuurou was a tad upset with me last night and I do wish to apologize to her at the soonest.”

“Awh,” Mrs. Tae’s eyes grew softer. “Well, you should have started with that! Sure, let me just grab my notebook and I’ll get you a list in a jiffy. I assume you want only the names of the nobles who are staying in the town?”

“And any lesser ranked contacts if you possibly could,” Kaoru asked.

Mrs. Tae’s brows climbed in surprise. “I see. Well, let’s see what I can do for you – but when this is over, be sure to introduce me to this young lady? I’d love to meet a woman who has caught your eye so strongly.”

“It’s a deal,” Kaoru said. “Thank you, Mrs. Tae – you are the best!”

Mrs. Tae huffed, shaking her head. “Now hop along – and be sure to mention the news to your honorable Lord father. If I’m not completely off the mark, he should be having a breakfast at the grand hall.”

“Really, so early?” Kaoru blinked.

“It’s halfway to the morning for most of us.” Mrs. Tae said ruefully. “Ta-ta.”

As promised, Kaoru found her father at the grand hall, enjoying breakfast with his advisors and old friends, the venerable Lord Maekawa and the court Primary Physician, Doctor Gensai. Now, the last thing Kaoru wanted was to tell a trio of noisy old men – no matter how dear or wise – that yes, she had finally met a woman she liked but said woman had run off in tears.

No, it really was a bit too mortifying.

So Kaoru shoveled a light breakfast to her plate and chomped it down in hurry, avoiding her father’s curious gaze and well-intended questions with a few well-placed hums, nods and roundabout replies; yes, the ball had been nice. Yes, she had met interesting people. Yes, it had all gone well, thanks, dad.

“Really Kaoru – what’s got into you this morning? You seem unusually hurried.”

“Oh, nothing much,” Kaoru deflected. “I just need to get to a thing, that’s all. Oh by the way – you don’t mind if I take a carriage to town, do you, dad?”

“Of course not,” King Kamiya Koshijirou agreed easily. “But Kaoru –“

“…Yes, dad?”

Lord Maekawa and Doctor Gensai leaned back, both of them watching the exchange in curiosity.

“You know that I fully trust your judgment? Even if… I would like to be there for you, to support you, no matter how awkward the topic.”

“I know that,” Kaoru said, her softly. “And I’ll be sure to tell you all about it, but later. I really must go if I want this to work, so could I take my leave?”

“By all means,” King Koshijirou said, “please.”

“Thanks, dad.” Kaoru grinned and rose to her feet. “Oh, and I need to loan Sanosuke as well.”

King Koshijirou paused, his surprise obvious. “And why would you need the Head Guard of the Castle for an outing to the town? Surely you don’t fear for your safety—“

”Nope,” Kaoru grinned. “But he is nicely tall and intimidating. His presence would save me a lot of fast talking.”

A notable silence followed that statement.

Kaoru let out a small laugh, “Anyways, I’ll be off—“

“Kaoru…”

“Lord Maekawa, Doctor Gensai – It was nice to catch a breakfast together.” Kaoru addressed her father's’ advisors and then waved cheerfully. “Thanks, dad – I’ll be back by the nightfall.”

“Fine,” King Koshijirou huffed. “Safe travels.”

“Always,” Kaoru grinned and marched off with a cheerful whistle, her dress sword clinging against her tall riding boots. The buttons of her best day to day uniform coat shining in the morning sun. Oh yes, with the list from Mrs. Tae, the permission from her father and convenient help acquired, she was as ready as she could be.

Now, it was time for the search to begin.

She knew Miss Megumi Shishio was somehow acquainted with Lady Kenshin. However, she had no way of knowing what their exact relationship was. And given the arcane mutterings of Lord Seijuurou last night, there was a possibility that wherever Lady Kenshin was hiding, living her quiet life, it was not a role anyone would expect to find a noble lady in.

So, the scheme she had concocted during the quiet hours of the night was simple: she would visit all the families Miss Megumi was connected with and have the Head of Castle Guard, Sagara Sanosuke-san to demand on the Prince’s authority that all the women in the house, from the lady to her daughters, relatives, visitors, even the staff to try on Lady Kenshin’s glass shoe. Given its oddities, it was a good bet that it would fit no one but the intended owner.

If it so happened that there was someone else the shoe fit but a pretty redhead, she had given Sanosuke instructions to deny and dismiss the occurrence to the best of his capability.

Now, quite understandably, Sano was not a fan of misusing his authority, but he was her friend and Kaoru knew that should the need arose, he was perfectly capable of pulling wool over anyone’s eyes.

So, the search began.

As Kaoru had suspected, the play worked like a charm: the tall and intimidating Sanosuke had no trouble to get even ladies of the noble families to fulfill the odd request of trying on someone else’s shoe. Especially when there was a promise to meet the Prince should the shoe fit. So woman after a woman, old, young, from highest ranked noble to most common serving girl, they all tried on that pink glass shoe, only to realize, that it was too loose on their dainty feet.

House after house, they visited the townhouses, manors, and apartments that Mrs. Tae had listed as Miss Megumi’s connections. The sun climbed to its axis, then started its slow descent, the morning changing to midday to afternoon, as they crossed over one name after another.

And yet, they had found nothing.

Kaoru’s bottom lip tasted like copper, as they drove out from the gates of the last manor on the list. Even her friend, Sanosuke was visibly frustrated. “Where to, then? Surely there is some place where we haven’t looked.”

“There isn’t,” Kaoru said and tore the list to pieces. “That was the last name on the list.”

“But…” Sano trailed off. “But what if we tried again tomorrow? Maybe your girl wasn’t home or something?”

Kaoru huffed and reached to rub her eyes. “There’s a limit to how many times you can badger people with a strange request and not piss them off. The last thing I want is to needlessly antagonize the local nobility. As you remember, most of the ladies you met today were at the ball yesterday, and saw me dismiss their daughters over a total newcomer.”

“You reckon they are jealous?”

“Of course they are,” Kaoru sighed. “After all, getting their daughter to marry me is a surefire bet for a rise in rank and status, for their whole family.”

Sano huffed. “Well, I can’t argue over that. Hell, I happen to punch the prince during a bar brawl and now I’m Head of the Castle Guard, my old man has a house and proper job as a gardener in the castle and even my brother and sister are in school. An association with Kamiya sure drags people up from the mud.”

The memory of that drew a smile from Kaoru. ”Well, it wasn’t much of punch. I’d call it a glancing shot at the very most. And I did get up to my feet right after, and socked you in the jaw.”

“Sure you did.” Sano laughed. “I almost felt it, too. A tiny squirt like you trying to hit me. Hah!”

“What can I say? Not all of us have been blessed with height.” Kaoru grinned ruefully.

“No,” Sano agreed, his eyes growing unusually serious. It was his best big-brother-face, the one that he so rarely directed to Kaoru. “You might not have the height, but you got tenacity by the buckets. I have never seen you give up. So why would you give up now?”

The words shook Kaoru to the core. She paused, her heart thundering in her chest. “What would you have me do then? The Shishio’s are my father’s most outspoken opposition! It’s bad enough that I showed interest in their daughter and dismissed her in favor of a more interesting newcomer… but it would be beyond the pale to go knocking on their door, and rub salt to the wound the very next day.”

Sano didn’t even blink. “But do you have a better chance to find out where your girl is?”

“No.” Kaoru had to admit. “Lord Seijuurou told me to find his daughter myself.”

“So, what are we waiting for?”

Kaoru closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Rude as it was, she had already gone door to door of all nobles who were who in the town. With this much precedence, a visit to the Shishio household would be seen as only a few more toes she had stepped on today, instead of a direct insult to her father’s long-standing political opponent.

“Alright,” She said. “Fine, let’s do it.”

“That’s our Prince Kaoru.” Sano grinned.

“But you’ll be on your own there,” Kaoru warned him. “Just run the drill as per usual. If I can possibly avoid it, I really shouldn’t show my face and risk turning this into a personal insult, not unless it becomes absolutely necessary.”

“Ay, ay, sir.” Sano drew a lazy salute, and opened the carriage door, leaning out to shout to the driver, “Katsu, turn around! We have one more stop to make!”

 


 

Shishio townhouse was eerily silent as they pulled to the driveway. No soul was in sight, but the lights were flickering past the second floor curtains and made it apparent that the family – or at least some members of it – were home.

“Alright, then,” Kaoru whispered and signaled to Sano to step out of the carriage, then pulled the curtains shut, leaving only a subtle pace for her to watch the proceedings.

As per their routine, Sano walked to the door and knocked on it.

In mere moments, a short and dainty maid wearing a white apron over her uniform and a headscarf to cover her hair stepped out and addressed Sano. It was too far away for Kaoru to make out any particular details, but she had no doubt as to how their discussion went. She had watched this play dozens of times today.

Sure enough, after a moment, the maid gave up her protests and curtseyed deeply, before disappearing behind the grand doors, no doubt going to alert the lady of the house. Or any noble present, Kaoru corrected herself, biting her lip again. Gods, she hadn’t even made certain that Lady Shishio hadn’t left to the countryside again, hadn’t she?

Like before, Sano retreated closer to the carriage, ensuring that whatever discussion followed, Kaoru would be close enough to overhear.

Then, Lady Shishio marched out of the house, and on her heel, the ever so lovely Miss Megumi.

“Good day, sir,” Lady Yumi started, poised, elegant and deadly as a cobra flaring its hood. “What brings you to our humble doorstep today? My maid mentioned something about a decree by the Crown Prince Kamiya himself?”

Sano straightened to his full height and cleared his throat. “Yes, my lady – that is correct. Crown Prince Kamiya Kaoru has requested that every woman in the house steps out, and tries on this shoe.”

Lady Yumi’s eyes fell to the pillow Sano was holding, looking at the pink glass slipper like it was dirty.

“I see,” She uttered, voice cool as midwinter blizzard. “I guess we must, then. Please, hold it out for me.”

Sano kneeled, holding out the shoe –

And Lady Yumi took hold of her daughter’s shoulder, slipping it on. As expected, it lurched, much too large on her dainty feet.

“Thank you, my lady,” Sano said, keeping his voice carefully bland. He turned to Miss Megumi, “If you would, Lady..?”

“Shishio – Lady Shishio Megumi.” Miss Megumi said and let on a knowing smile. “We have met before, haven’t we – Sir Sagara?”

“I remember that,” Sano let out a sheepish laugh. He held out the shoe to her. “But please, if you would.”

Miss Megumi’s didn’t say anything more, but her smile gained an edge to it as she, too, tried on the shoe. It was a better fit, but still not an exact match.

“Thank you, my ladies,” Sano inclined his head and stood up. “Could you please summon all the female staff you have here? I’m afraid the Prince’s decree was very clear – I need to have all the women in the house to test the shoe’s fit.”

Lady Yumi raised her brow.

Kaoru’s hands drew to fists, and she held out her breath: this is it, this is my last chance-

“We have no female staff,” Lady Yumi said. “Megumi and I are only women present.”

What?

Sano cleared his throat pointedly. “My lady, I am acting as the Crown Prince’s voice. Lying to me bears the same punishment as lying to a member of the Royal Family.” Like everyone in the kingdom knew, this meant treason, a crime punishable by death.

And still, Lady Yumi didn’t bat an eyelash. “I am aware. However, that doesn’t change the facts. I don’t have any women in my employ.”

At her side, Miss Megumi’s smile grew tense and she looked aside like she wanted to say something-

“Lady,” Sano started, his voice gaining an edge to it and he pointed towards the grand doors, where Shishio’s maid was following on their conversation. “Your maid, she is right there.”

Lady Yumi turned to look over her shoulder and asked slowly – her voice almost lazy. “Oh, you mean Kenshin?”

Kaoru sat up, by some miracle managing to hold back the cheer rising from her throat in time. Yes! I found her! At last! But she couldn’t give out she was here, not if she could possibly avoid it…

“Yes, if that’s her name.” Sano said and addressed the maid, “Please, miss – join us.”

Sano can handle this, Kaoru told to herself. The shoe would fit and then Sano would ask Lady Kenshin to step to the carriage, and then – then, they could discuss this out in private, without causing a mortal insult to lady Shishio.

Lady Yumi smiled, and raised her voice, “Come on then, Kenshin. You heard Sir Sagara, didn’t you?”

Hesitant as a fawn, her face pale as a sheet, Lady Kenshin walked closer.

Kaoru’s throat tightened at the sight of her unhappiness, but she bit on her lip and leaned closer, trying to press every single detail to her mind. A maid! Lady Kenshin, the daughter of Hiko Seijuurou the 13th had been working as a maid! It seemed so far fetched, that even now, Kaoru could hardly believe it!

…but damn, that maid’s dress looks cute on her.

Kaoru shook off the errant thought of her head, forcing herself to focus. There was something wrong here, it was obvious by the tension in the air, how scared and sad Lady Kenshin seemed, but they would get the bottom of this. They would.

And everything would be fine.

Lady Yumi motioned Lady Kenshin to join her by her side and drew her hand over her shoulder. “Kenshin, dear – why don’t you tell Sir Sagara yourself why the Prince’s degree doesn’t include you?”

Lady Kenshin’s eyes widened, and she gasped-

“Or would you rather that I do it?” Lady Yumi smiled sweetly. “Remember, lying to the Prince’s designated voice is like you would lie to the Prince himself and we all know how bad that is, don’t we? A treason, a crime punishable by death.”

“Mother…“ Miss Megumi said. “Isn’t that a bit too cruel-“

“Silence,” Lady Yumi smiled at Megumi. “Don’t think I have forgotten your stunt yesterday.”

“But...” Miss Megumi hesitated.

“All choices have consequences,” Lady Yumi said to her daughter. “You got what you wanted, but there’s a price for everything and it’s time you learned that as well.”

“Ladies,“ Sano said, his confusion evident in his voice. “What’s going on here? Why wouldn’t your maid, Kenshin – was that your name? Why wouldn’t she be part of the Prince’s degree? I thought I was being clear: the status doesn’t matter. We just need to find the woman who this shoe belongs to.”

“Well?” Lady Yumi prompted, pressing her hand on lady Kenshin’s shoulder.

Like a puppet with its strings cut, Lady Kenshin fell to her knees, looking at the shoe with sheer despair in her eyes…

And Kaoru, Kaoru couldn’t take it anymore. She rushed out of the carriage. “Enough” That’s enough – all of you!”

“Oh, Prince Kaoru – Welcome.” Lady Yumi turned to her, calm as ever like there was nothing out of ordinary going on. “What a pleasant surprise! I’m afraid we weren’t expecting you.”

“Please, take your hand away from Lady Kenshin,” Kaoru growled, “It’s obvious that she doesn’t want it there.”

“Did you hear that, Kenshin? The Prince called you a lady. Oh dear,” Lady Yumi tittered, then kneeled by Lady Kenshin’s side, stroking her hand on her back, like she was comforting her. “Why don’t you tell him the truth? Haven’t you let this farce continue long enough already?”

“The truth? Of what, pray tell?” Kaoru asked, her voice wavering with fury all but boiling over.

Lady Kenshin inhaled weakly, but then finally looked up and met Kaoru’s eyes. “T-this one… I…” She smiled a vane, terribly bleak smile. “I was born a third child to a rice-farmer like I told you. But I… I was raised a son, not a daughter.”

“A son?” Kaoru repeated, unable to believe her ears.

“Hiko, too, adopted a son to be his heir.” Lady Kenshin continued, her voice becoming smaller and she looked to her lap, twisting her fingers. “It’s why this one was taught swordsmanship, why one’s dance lessons aimed to teach one to lead… even why that shoe is such an odd size.”

Lady Kenshin let out a breathless, utterly hollow laugh.

“It’s why this one could never become what you need, Prince Kaoru. You need a woman – and it took me sixteen long years to understand that I was one.”

“…Sixteen?” Kaoru asked, “Is that why you ran away from Lord Seijuurou’s household at that age?”

Lady Kenshin tensed but inclined her head.

Kaoru breathed out loud, all her anger and tension trickling away. The pieces of the puzzle were finally snapping in their place, unveiling the mystery surrounding Lady Kenshin… and yet, Kaoru didn’t feel angry or betrayed. No, for all the many things Lady Kenshin had withheld from her, she hadn’t stated a single lie outright.

Funny, how such a thing could matter.

Kaoru smiled a little, stepped forward and knelt in front of Lady Kenshin, “I appreciate you telling me this, my lady. But the way I see it, you haven’t done anything wrong.”

“What?”

“The hell?”

Shouts of surprise echoed around them, but Kaoru could only pay attention to one of them, the faint, disbelieving-

“Oro?”

She smiled, utterly charmed and clasped Lady Kenshin’s hands. “You might have been born as a son, but I don’t see a son in front of me now. You said it yourself too, didn’t you? You are a woman.”

“But,” Lady Kenshin said, glancing down to her bosom, “What about-“

Kaoru raised her voice, without bothering look behind her. “Sano, if a fully grown woman says she is a woman, who would have a right to deny her claim?”

“Errr,” Sano hesitated. “I don’t—“

“Please, bear with me.” Kaoru smiled at Lady Kenshin and glanced over her shoulder towards the man whose manner had grown extremely awkward. “Sano, you are the Head of the Castle Guard. You know the laws better than anyone in this company, don’t you? So if you had to make a decision, right here and now, who would have the right to deny a woman’s claim of her gender?”

“Well, no one,” Sano grimaced. “Except, perhaps the head of her family, if said woman was minor, or suspected of not being in her right mind. For anyone else, they’d need to present proof. But over such a matter… any proof they could provide or demand would be considered harassment, especially if said woman was of noble caste, and at that point – it would come down to the royal ruling, as you all know. “

“That’s what I thought,” Kaoru nodded sagely. “And Miss Megumi, weren’t you present yesterday, when Lord Seijuurou introduced me to his only daughter, publicly declaring her as his heir and offered the proof of her adoption?”

Miss Megumi huffed softly and then smiled. “Yes, I was. I heard it myself.”

“But that’s like trying to turn oil into water!” Lady Yumi hissed, “It doesn’t work that way! A man is a man, and a woman is a woman, and there’s no changing it, no matter what delusions a person might get into their head.”

“Perhaps,” Kaoru said quietly, tightening her hold on Lady Kenshin’s hand. “But who’d claim otherwise?”

Lady Yumi looked at her, then opened her mouth-

“My ladies, My Prince,” Sano interrupted them. “As intriguing as this discussion is, you do remember that any disputes between nobles are solved with a Royal Ruling? Ever since Prince Kaoru reached his majority and King Koshijirou declared him to be his heir, his word has been the royal decree.”

Kaoru waited, tense – looking at Lady Yumi.

Lady Yumi’s expression was difficult to describe: fury, defiance, and frustration battled in her eyes. A moment turned to two, three, four…

And still, Kaoru waited, daring her to say the words.

At her side, Lady Kenshin was silent as a ghost.

Lady Yumi looked at Kaoru, then at Kenshin… and her expression grew sour. She gritted her teeth. But finally, ever so reluctant, she inclined her head and curtseyed. “Very well. If my Prince so decides to turn oil into water, then the oil must be water, even against all the evidence to contrary.“

Kaoru rose to stand, pulling Lady Kenshin up to her feet with her. “Thank you, my Lady.”

“Don’t thank me!” Lady Yumi hissed, her eyes dark and angry. “It’s not right, but against the Prince’s words… I cannot do more than state the truth.”

“Mother,” Miss Megumi whispered.

Lady Yumi raised her hand, to still any further words from her daughter and looked aside, about to walk away.

Kaoru struggled to held back her smile. That’s right, you rigid and vindictive-

Lady Kenshin wavered at Kaoru’s side, and she reached forward, whispering, “please-“

Just one word, too low for anyone but her to hear and Kaoru’s heart swelled. Even after being subjected to those harsh, abusive words, Lady Kenshin hadn’t broken down or given in to anger. No. Even now, Lady Kenshin was trying to mend her relationship with Lady Yumi. It showed maturity, the type of strength Kaoru had always struggled with and what her teachers and her father always tried to get her to consider.

And at that moment, it finally struck Kaoru that she couldn’t let this incident sour the relationship with Shishio clan either. Lady Shishio had acquitted because she had no other option left – but she was still a dangerous foe, both as a political player in her own right and as the wife of Lord Shishio Makoto, King Koshijirou’s most outspoken political opposition. If Kaoru left things like this, she would soon find Lady Shishio’s wrath in front of her, in front of Kenshin and their happiness together.

No, somehow… she needed to find a way to do damage control. And quickly! And the only way to do that would be to find a way to give Lady Shishio something she wanted more than the revenge.

Kaoru looked at Lady Kenshin, a thousand thoughts rushing through her mind: that maid’s dress, the mess things had turned here, even the relationship Lady Kenshin had with her father, Lord Seijuurou that was only given a chance to start healing now, over a decade after the fact…

No, as quick and dirty as it was, Kaoru couldn’t think but only one way how she could solve this mess in a way that would give all the parties with something they wanted.

“Lady Kenshin, I know this comes too soon, but…” Kaoru said, went on one knee and looked up the Lady Kenshin’s eyes, “marry me, please?”

“Ororo?” Lady Kenshin gaped, eyes as round as teacups.

“Kaoru!” Sano’s hissed at her left. “Your father’s going to kill me!”

“He won’t,” Kaoru said, determinately maintaining her smile, her eyes never leaving Lady Kenshin’s. “Please, my lady. The moment you walked into the ballroom, you had my heart. And then, you sealed the deal by laughing at my stupid jokes. Please, you are the one and only I want by my side.”

“That’s,” Lady Kenshin’s flushed red, and she looked aside. “Prince Kaoru, you really are too much.”

“Yet, hopefully not enough?” Kaoru suggested, letting a hint of humor to her tone. “My lady, please say yes already! My knees are starting ache!”

Lady Kenshin let out the most unladylike snort and covered her face in surprise. “We can’t have that, no can we?” She finally stated. “What are you, eighteen and in perfect health? And yet you still complain about bad knees?”

“Well, how else am I supposed to make you laugh?” Kaoru complained. “Come on, Lady Kenshin – say yes.”

“Fine,” Lady Kenshin looked up, a shy smile on her lips. “Yes, I’ll marry you – But! This one will get to say when we keep the wedding, that one will.”

“Deal,” Kaoru grinned, and kissed the back of her hand, “As my lady commands.”

“Y-you flatterer!” Lady Kenshin reddened, her blush deepening, “You do that on purpose, that you do.”

“I do,” Kaoru agreed easily. “But I can’t help myself, you blush so pretty.”

Lady Kenshin huffed, her embarrassment obvious.

A fond feeling curled at the pit of Kaoru’s stomach, but she knew she had to keep up with the momentum. She clasped Lady Kenshin’s hand more firmly, the only warning she could afford to give, and turned to Lady Yumi, “Lady Shishio, given that we seem to have royal wedding incoming – perhaps, you and your daughter would like to help in their planning?”

At Kaoru’s side, Lady Kenshin tensed.

Kaoru rubbed the back of her hand, running her thumb up and down in loose circles, and faced the Shishio women. “Of course, you’d need to work together with my lady fiancée, to make sure everything is like she desires, but I think – perhaps, it could even be good? A chance to mend bridges before they are lost?”

Lady Yumi’s eyes were hard as stone as she eyed Kaoru from head to toe – like she had never seen her before.

Miss Megumi thought, her gaze was locked with Lady Kenshin’s.

Finally, after a notable pause, Lady Kenshin whispered from Kaoru’s side, “T-this one would like that, truly. Lady Yumi offered this one a home and honorable work, a chance for one to have a good life when this one had all but lost hope. This one would like to repay that, if one could.”

“It’s a good opportunity,” Lady Megumi said, softly. “Please, mother – let’s accept it. We can turn it to our advantage.”

Lady Yumi’s expression grew cooler with each word. Finally, she sighed and curtseyed. “Thank you. We’ll accept.”

Then, she turned to Miss Megumi, “It’s your victory. Please, handle this opportunity with care.”

And she walked away, without looking back.

Miss Megumi looked at Kaoru and Kenshin, one soulful glance before she rushed after her lady mother, following her into the house.

“Huh,” Sano said and let out a loud, exaggerated sigh. “That was intense.”

“It was, wasn’t it?” Kaoru agreed numbly.

“Lady Yumi is a strong woman,” Lady Kenshin murmured. “But today, you not only defeated her but then also stole her rightful revenge from her, so you did.”

“Oh,” Kaoru said. “But, I… it was the only way I could make sure she wouldn’t try to hurt us afterward!”

Lady Kenshin looked at her and tilted her head aside. “This one didn’t say you did anything wrong. If anything, you ensured that we could have a future, that you did.”

“But-“

“Prince Kaoru,” Lady Kenshin interrupted her, and bobbed a curtsey, “Thank you for your kindness.”

Kaoru stared at her numbly, before exhaling slowly. “Thank you, too. For understanding why I had to make that offer. Not many would have, after all the things she said to you.”

“Perhaps not,” Lady Kenshin agreed. “But, she was doing only as she thought was right. And as much as it hurt, she was right in one thing – this one should have told you the truth sooner instead of running away, that she should have.”

Kaoru paused, not quite sure how to answer to that. She didn’t necessarily agree. After all, everything had turned out more or less fine. But at the same time, if Lady Kenshin had just confessed earlier, perhaps some of this mess could have been avoided.

“I… it’s fine.” Kaoru finally said. “Just know that you can talk to me about anything, alright? I’ll promise I’ll listen. Always.”

“Alright,” Lady Kenshin agreed softly.

“And please, the next time you feel like running – give me a bit of a warning?

“Oro?”

“You see, I don’t mind chasing,” Kaoru explained, rubbing the back of her head. “But I’m afraid I’ll have to ask my father for a day off beforehand. The Crown Prince’s duties, you know?”

Lady Kenshin’s eyes sparkled, and she let out a laugh. “Gods, what’s with you? You are constantly trying to make this one laugh, that you are.”

“I hope you don’t mind?” Kaoru dimpled. “Because I warn you, I’m in this for the long run.”

“And that’s it, enough of your mushy stuff!” Sano interrupted them, waving his arm between them. “Seriously, shouldn’t we leave already? It’s getting late and still, you two flirt! Surely you can continue that at the castle?”

“Way to spoil the mood, Sano,” Kaoru said grumbled, looking up.

“Well, someone’s gotta do it.” Sano shrugged, ever the diplomat and headed back to their carriage.

“He is right, that he is,” Lady Kenshin murmured, stepping forward too. “Besides, we should probably go, before Lady Yumi becomes more upset.”

“Okay,” Kaoru said. “But… do you need anything? Personal possessions or something?”

Lady Kenshin looked at the house. “No, not really,” she decided after a moment. “Everything one truly needs, one always carries wherever she goes.”

“Even the things you need for…” Kaoru bit on her lip, before waving vaguely toward her chest.

Lady Kenshin looked at her strangely. “Whatever this one wears should be enough, and for anything else – well, this one can sew, that she can.”

“Alright,” Kaoru said. “Well, after you, my lady.”

“Charmer,” Lady Kenshin smiled.

“I do try,” Kaoru admitted and followed Lady Kenshin to the carriage. Sano had climbed next to the driver at the front, leaving the carriage for them. Was it because he was being uncommonly gentlemanly? Or was he spooked? Or perhaps, maybe he had simply gotten his fill of Kaoru’s and her new fiancée’s ‘flirting’ as he had so delicately put it.

They climbed on, and without a further word, the driver spurred the horses and drove them off from the townhouse driveway. Lady Kenshin looked out of the window, watching its gates fade away in the distance.

It struck Kaoru suddenly, that Lady Kenshin had effectively just lost her home, her job – all the vestiges of normalcy she had obviously worked so hard to build for herself.

Kaoru felt sorry for her, but at the same time, she couldn’t regret how things had turned out. Lady Kenshin deserved so much better than a life as a maid for a vindictive woman with a vile tongue and no respect for Lady Kenshin’s words or requests. The way Lady Yumi had forced Lady Kenshin to confess her birth gender, how she had ignored Lady Kenshin’s obvious distress and then went on to insist that despite all the evidence on the contrary, Kenshin was a man… Kaoru drew her hands to fist, digging her nails into the skin of her palm. Grr! Sometimes I hate being the Prince! I’d have loved to say my piece to that woman!

Seriously, if she hadn’t needed to consider the ramifications to her future happiness with Lady Kenshin and to her father’s rule, to the kingdom – she would have. No one had the right to trample on someone’s wishes like that, least of all over something as insignificant as gender.

Besides, Lady Kenshin passed so well as a woman, in manner and looks both, that even now, when Kaoru knew what she was hiding, she couldn’t see it.

Well, there was that shoe size… but there were women with large feet, weren’t there?

And okay, Lady Kenshin’s voice was a tad low in tone, but from the very first time Kaoru had heard it, she had thought it sexy, the sort of soft timbre that went straight to her libido.

Really, from her short stature and lean build to her long vibrant hair, large eyes and pretty face, to the narrow waist and slight curve of bosom her dress hinted, Lady Kenshin looked female to the bone, seemingly effortlessly.

Honestly, Kaoru was a little jealous.

Even when it had been announced to everyone in the kingdom that a prince had been born to the King – even now, when people met the Crown Prince for the first time, they had to take a second glance. If Kaoru were a little taller, a bit thicker in build or if her face was a bit rougher, her life would be so much easier.

Not then again, given how faultless Kenshin’s looks were, maybe she could have a tip or two on how Kaoru could try to improve her own disguise? Kaoru wetted her lips, about to make a comment, when she suddenly remembered one tiny little thing she had forgotten to mention….

She paled.

“Oro, Prince Kaoru? What’s wrong?”

Lady Kenshin, the woman she had just asked to marry her, had agreed to marry a man.

Oh, gods, what should she say? How could she make this right? She couldn’t take Lady Kenshin at home and introduce her to her father, not when she didn’t know what she had agreed to! Kaoru stared at Lady Kenshin in horror.

Lady Kenshin leaned forward, her worry obvious.

Kaoru shied away, her hand clasped in front of her mouth in shock – her words, her charm, all her great explanations grumbling to dust before she could verbalize them.

“Prince Kaoru,” Lady Kenshin asked, “Please-”

Kaoru inhaled sharply, and then, the words just bubbled out, without her say so. “I, I’m so sorry! I asked you to marry me, without even telling you what you were agreeing to! And then I even had the gall to criticize you for running away and not telling me your secrets, when I, I – when I was doing the same thing, all the damn time – gods, I’m such an idiot, a selfish idiot-“

“Oro?”

That cute habit of Lady Kenshin’s, this time it made Kaoru feel even worse.

“I can’t even explain this thing right, can I?” She asked, wrapping her arms around herself. “That’s me, the ditsy Kaoru, always making a mess.”

Lady Kenshin stared at her, befuddled.

Kaoru looked up, smiling wanly. “I, ah… I need to tell you something. But first, for whatever it's worth, I am sorry. I have made you a great injustice by withholding a pretty big secret from you. I… I understand if you want to break our engagement because of this, and obviously, you don’t need to come to the castle with me, either. I’ll tell Sano to take us to the hotel Lord Seijuurou is staying, or if you’d prefer someone else, we can do that too.”

“But why?” Lady Kenshin paused, but instead of fear, her eyes narrowed with – anger? “What is it? Why would you suddenly decide such a thing on this one’s behalf?”

Kaoru blinked, startled.

“Um,” She hesitated. “I… I’m not a prince. Err, not where it matters.”

Lady Kenshin froze, her gaze becoming utterly unreadable.

And Kaoru scrambled, trying to explain. “Um, you see – a bit like you, I have to disguise my body because unlike everyone thinks, I wasn’t born a man, and I’m not really a man at all. Um, I just dress like a man, to keep up the role because it’s better for everyone thinks my father has a male heir. It creates this illusion of starting the dynasty, and stabilizes his rule, you see.”

“Ah,” Lady Kenshin’ stated, her tone strangely… dry? ”So, that’s why.”

What? What was with that lackluster reaction? Kaoru stared, taken aback.

The silence dredged between them.

And finally, Kaoru couldn’t take it anymore. “Why aren’t you shouting at me?”

“Should this one be?” Lady Kenshin asked, tilting her head aside. “Not that this one isn’t a tad… annoyed, but that’s because you said you’d cast this one aside, and break off the engagement, just like that, like it would be easy.”

“No! No, no, never think that!” Kaoru sprung across the seat, her hands on Lady Kenshin’s shoulders. “I… it breaks my heart, but I can’t expect you to marry me, not when you fell for a man, instead of a woman in disguise. Even if we would like each other, I can’t give you what you want. Worse, the minute after we step into the castle, everyone will know you are mine. Even if we called the wedding off, that reputation would follow you anywhere you went! I can’t that to you, not to you – never to you.”

Their faces were so close, that Kaoru could see nothing but Lady Kenshin’s beautiful violet eyes, wide in shock and–

A hand slipped behind Kaoru’s neck and pulled her off-balance, and suddenly, her mouth was on Lady Kenshin’s, their lips molding against each other's, tongues meeting in the middle… and finally, Kaoru realized that Lady Kenshin was kissing her.

What? Why? She wanted to ask, but she had no breath to form questions and really, questions were rather pointless, weren’t they?

Lady Kenshin was kissing her.

And gods, what a kiss it was! She gasped for breath and dove back in, kissing her back with all her passion, her fears and doubts bleeding away from her with each consequent meeting of their lips.

How long they kissed, she couldn’t tell – but finally, the need to breathe become too pressing. She pulled back, drawing air to her burning lungs, trying to make sense of to the world she had turned upside down with a single act.

Lady Kenshin covered her reddened lips with her hand, an enchanting blush on her cheeks.

“Uh, not that I minded that, “Kaoru said, “but, um?”

“It was the fastest way this one could come up with to explain,” Lady Kenshin said, avoiding her gaze. “Um, the thing is, this one has never cared for men… romantically, that is. And um, one knew about you, that one did.”

“Huh?” Kaoru blinked, not quite sure she had heard right. “You knew? That I was a woman?”

“Yes. Since the ball, that one did.”

“But,” Kaoru gaped. “But how? Is there something missing in my disguise, or what?”

“Err,” Lady Kenshin hesitated, “This one can sew, as she told you. When one knows what to look for, one can notice the padding and hidden seams in your clothing. And your voice, it’s light – like it has never broken.”

“Damn it,” Kaoru cursed. “I should have known it’s the damn voice that would give me away. I just can’t seem to keep it low enough.”

“It’s tricky, to learn to control one’s voice,” Lady Kenshin agreed, her lips curving to a little smile.

“Anything else?” Kaoru asked, honestly curious.

Lady Kenshin pointed upwards, at her neck. “Err, your neck-scarf, too. You tugged it loose before we headed for the gardens. It’s what clued all the pieces together, that it was.”

“Wait a minute!” Kaoru paused. “You didn’t figure it out before I gave it away myself! You little minx! You were totally fooled when we were dancing! That’s why you were so stiff and hesitant! You thought you were dancing with a man, weren’t you?”

“So one did,” Lady Kenshin agreed, smiling, “a cute man with the most charming smile. This one was all but starting to doubt oneself, furious for being so easily shaken. But then… well, it was a relief, to learn the truth.”

“Oh?” Kaoru grinned. “So you were interested, but just played coy? You truly are a minx, aren’t you? Playing hard to catch, letting me do all chase…”

Lady Kenshin reddened. “Don’t read too deeply on it!”

“But it’s the nicest thing you have said to me all day!” Kaoru grinned and held her hand to her chest dramatically. She had always loved romantic plays and the words of her latest favorite character came to her mind, “Oh my Princess, what tales they will tell about our love, how our hearts were shaken from the first sight, gravitating towards each other, locked in eternal dance-“

“Wasn’t it bad enough to be forced to listen to Hiko’s bad poetry for years?” Lady Kenshin pouted.

Kaoru stopped, but wasn’t deterred by the least. Lady Kenshin didn’t dislike her words, not really – she just said she did. Her blush gave her away there. Kaoru smiled, utterly charmed. “Well, if my lady so wishes, I guess I must figure out some other way to express my fondness.”

Slowly, Kaoru leaned closer and pecked the softest kiss on Lady Kenshin’s lips.

Lady Kenshin tilted her head, leaning back slightly, all but pulling her in – and the one kiss turned to two, three, four…

Oh, well – reciting romantic dramas has never been my forte. Maybe it would be better to leave that for the professionals, Kaoru decided, burying her hands to Lady Kenshin's’ hair, keeping on kissing.

After all, with this woman, a hundred kisses, no – not even a thousand kisses would be enough.

 


 

It was strange, how life could change so quickly, so thoroughly – that even now, after having lived through every spin and turn, Kenshin could hardly believe it.

She frowned thoughtfully, taking a good look at her mirror image.

He face was clear and youthful, no signs of her true age visible to the casual observer: no crow’s feet, laugh lines or even a hint of a shadow under her eyes. Her hair was dressed into loose curls, the long tail tumbling over her shoulder in a mass of fiery waves. It had taken the hairdresser better part of an hour to create that effect: the impression that beauty was effortless. Her dress, too, was deceptively simple – but when one looked closer, one could see the most beautiful details embroidered into it and should she walk, it would flow like a dream made of finest silks and lace.

If she had seen the woman in the mirror at the street, or an event or a gala, her first instinct would be to curtsey. Only people, who wore such finery and took such care in their looks, were the highest of high.

Kenshin looked aside, an uncomfortable feeling curling at the pit of her belly. She reached upwards, her fingers finding the curled ends of her hair to play with as she struggled to wrangle that ugly feeling into submission.

It was perfectly normal to feel awkward and nervous, she knew that.

Miss Kaoru had told her so time and time again. She had kept insisting to her that these feelings were not a weakness, that as long as they were true to each other and talked about these things, it would be okay.

And yet, yet – when Kenshin looked at the mirror, she still had trouble seeing herself instead of a stranger wearing the clothes she had picked for the day.

It was stupid, but…

In all the many roles she had been in her life; a maid, a seamstress, a cleaning lady, a cook and a waitress, a noble’s heir and even before all that, just a poor rice farmer’s third child, never once had she felt so out of the water. Like she was an imposter in her life and all these great people around her hadn’t simply realized it before. That if she made a misstep, a mistake, it would all fall down like a deck of cards and she’d lose everything, again. Kenshin shuddered, then determinately turned around and walked away from the damn mirror.

She drew in a deep breath and then exhaled slowly. Then she repeated the motion, again, and again. She forced herself to breathe deeply, to reign in her jumpy heart into a calmer rhythm.

Miss Kaoru had said it was okay. That people knew and loved her, that even if she made a mistake, it would be okay.

And Kenshin trusted her. She did. And because of that, she would fight these fears lurking in the back of her mind for the hope that one day, she too, could believe in those daring words, and learn to accept that a woman like her could deserve a life like this.

A gentle knock cut through her morose thoughts.

Kenshin tensed and then drew a smile on her lips, and called out: “Come in, please.”

It was Kaoru’s father, King Koshijirou.

Instantly, Kenshin fell to a deep curtsey, “My king, how may this unworthy one help you?”

A notable silence followed before King Koshijirou cleared his throat. “It will take some more time before they are ready at downstairs. So I was thinking, that maybe now would be a good moment for us to talk, just the two of us.”

Kenshin swallowed, her throat gone dry. But somehow, she managed a faint little nod.

Footsteps echoed on the marble floor. “Be at ease.” The King said. “And if you’d join me, please?”

“Aa,” Kenshin agreed numbly.

The King was gazing out of the grand windows, watching the people bustling on the yard, quests and dignitaries, plus all those servants dashing back and forth, making sure everything was ready in the gardens.

“They call it the event of the century already,” King Koshijirou mused out loud. “No wonder why, it’s grander than any celebration we have had during my rule, or during the old dynasties. Just the flower arrangements alone have made an army of gardeners busier than ever before in their lives. And don’t even mention the food. I’m sure Mrs. Tae will be ready to take a month’s extended holiday after this is over.”

“Lady Megumi had a grand vision to start with, but then Hiko dismissed it and challenged her to think even bigger,” Kenshin murmured quietly. “This one tried to say no, but… even Prince Kaoru found their fighting too hilarious to step in, that she did.”

“Well, it’s certainly something else to see my old friend Lord Seijuurou to get so invested in anything.” King Koshijirou huffed. “Besides an event of this magnitude has a way of bringing people together. I don’t believe I have ever seen my nobility so keen on trying to outdo each other in displays of generosity.”

“They have been very kind, that they have,” Kenshin agreed.

“It has nothing to do with kindness.” King Koshijirou smiled wryly.  “It’s a game of one-upmanship, a way to showcase their status.”

“Aa,” Kenshin agreed blandly.

King Koshijirou’s brows rose, just a hint. “But you knew that already, didn’t you?”

“Oro?”

“You see far more than you let on, it’s obvious when I stop to think about it. Even Kaoru has said to me as much.” King Koshijirou stated. “And yet, I must confess to having trouble reading you. My eyes tell me one thing, but my mind tells another.”

Kenshin looked aside, her stomach lurching with guilt and something far worse – fear. Was this the moment when King Koshijirou told her that the play was over? That he wouldn’t suffer to have a person like her so close to his dear daughter? That Kenshin should pack up her things and leave, never to return?

“I… I, ah,” Kenshin hesitated, trying to find the words, “If this one has offended-“

“What? No,” King Koshijirou said. “Why ever would you think you have done something wrong? No, it’s nothing of the sort. If anything, you have taken everyone by surprise with how well you have adapted to the court life. And with how well you handle yourself among all these seemingly benign requests, attempts at one-upmanship, in-fighting, and lobbying that’s constantly going on in this place.”

Kenshin blinked, looking up – King Koshijirou was smiling at her?

“No, what I was trying to say,” King paused, hesitating for just a moment. “I didn’t give you the best welcome, and I’m sorry for it. If you would allow me the chance, I would like to redeem myself to you.”

But that – that was…. that didn’t make any sense!

King Koshijirou had reacted like any father would have, when he heard his only daughter had decided to propose to a stranger, who wasn’t even a proper woman, not like people had grown to understand the gender, after knowing them one day. If anything, King Koshijirou’s reaction had been tame. He had just said he thought Kaoru had made a reckless decision, and then walked away, without shouting once.

Kenshin twisted her hands. “It… It was your right. You were only concerned, that you were. ”

“Perhaps. But as a reaction for the kind of man, the father I want to be? It was narrow-minded.” King Koshijirou’s gaze softened. “You see, even if I don’t understand you and the sacrifices you make to live as you do – I need to be able to accept that it isn’t my place to question your or my daughter’s choices.”

“Oh,” Kenshin swallowed, stunned.

King Koshijirou continued, “Kaoru is my beloved daughter, the sunshine of my days – and I love her dearly. I trust her, and because of that, I need to also trust and value her choices, her judgment. That’s how it works. You can’t expect trust, not without giving it in turn.”

There was something constricting Kenshin’s throat, a feeling so overwhelming that it was almost painful.

King Koshijirou placed his hands on her shoulders, “My daughter thinks the world of you. I have watched her look at you with such an eager attention that anyone would be jealous. I have watched how you have made her laugh, how you have brought joy to her days, no matter how long or arduous her duties. I have seen her grow calmer, and learn to think before committing to the reckless decisions she would have once made without a second thought.”

“But, my King,” Kenshin whispered. “T-this one hasn’t done anything, really–“

“Kenshin, just being here and living with us, you have already changed everything.” King Koshijirou said to her, his eyes serious. “Thank you.”

And he hugged her closed, wrapping his arms around her.

Kenshin stared blindly at the solid chest her face was pressed into, her mind blank in shock –

“And given that you are going to be marrying my daughter today,” King Koshijirou said softly, “Could you please drop the titles and start calling me father? Or if it is too much and makes you feel uncomfortable, could you at least address me as something else than the King? I, too, am just a man, a father – and I’d like to enjoy that when I can.”

Drawing a breath, Kenshin let herself to relax into the warmth of the hug. “T-this one will try to remember that… father.”

King Koshijirou straightened and shot her a pleased smile. “Thank you, my dear.”

Kenshin looked down, feeling the heat on her cheeks.

“My, my, no wonder Kaoru fell for you so fast!” King Koshijirou laughed. “I dare say the bards are going to be singing nothing but praise about our new Princesses’ beauty and grace quite some time. Not something I can fault them in the least.”

That wasn’t about to make Kenshin any more coherent! She sputtered. “But this one… is it truly okay for you? That is to say, that one like this,” Kenshin waved at herself, “would be a Princess?”

King Koshijirou paused. “Why wouldn’t it be? You are who Kaoru chose to stand beside her, in the good and the bad.”

“But…” Kenshin tried again, “It’s such a grand title, for one born to a status so low, and-”

“Kenshin,” King Koshijirou interrupted her. “Do you not want to become the Princess of Kingdoms Yamato and Ezzo?”

“N-no! I, this one- one means yes, one guesses, but,” Kenshin grimaced. “Isn’t it too much?”

King Koshijirou hummed, thoughtful like he was actually listening to her. “For most young women, to become the princess would be a dream come true. They would accept the title without a second thought. But you, even after living with us and being engaged to my daughter for almost a full year, you still question it?”

Kenshin bowed her head, chastised. “It’s just that, it’s such a heavy responsibility, that’s all. People hear that title, and consider this one’s words, as if expecting wisdom and the right to make a decision on the spot, that they do.”

“So they do,” King Koshijirou agreed. “A princess’ word is a word only another member of the Royal Family can question. And though people wouldn’t come to you with matters concerning the state, the ruling, the well being of the people – at least, not directly – it’s still a powerful thing to have that sort of weight in your every word and action.”

Kenshin nodded, wringing her hands. “People look up to this one, come asking for this one’s opinions, about gardens, fashion, decorations, servant’s performance… A whole lot of things and if this one indicates one way or another, they take it as an order. Like the time they suddenly decided to redo the great dining room curtains because this one said Miss Kaoru enjoyed blue over purples.”

King Koshijirou burst into laughter. “So that’s why we got the new curtains! I had wondered if the purple offended your sensibilities, or if you simply wanted to make your mark on the castle. Which would be your right, most certainly.”

“Oro?”

“This is your home, the same as it’s mine or Kaoru’s.” King Koshijirou explained. “Besides, I wouldn’t know anything about aesthetics. And Kaoru, as wonderful as she is, she has taken her role to the heart. Her interests are rather, well... I’m afraid she doesn’t have much interest in refining her feminine viewpoint. So really, I would appreciate if you took time and reviewed the decorations. The castle is not only our home but serves a role as an official residence of the King. We wouldn’t want to be seen as lacking in taste, or look like We are old-fashioned, you see. So please, do change things as you see fit.”

Not quite sure what to say to that, Kenshin paused and offered a curtsey. “As my King commands.”

“Please, just father – or Koshijirou, if you would.”

“Yes, father.” Kenshin smiled.

“And about your hesitance to your suitability to bear the title,” the King mused, “the fact that you realize the weight and responsibilities the title grants makes you a hundred times more suitable to the role than any youth seeing only the privileges of the position. So instead, having seen and lived through the hardships of my people, wouldn’t you say it makes you more adept at giving suggestions on what we could do to improve their livelihoods?”

“Oh.” Kenshin blinked. “This one… One hadn’t thought about it that way, that she hadn’t.”

King Koshijirou smiled. “So you see, even discounting the emotions, there are a great many logical reasons why you are not only good enough but perhaps even better suited to the role of the Princess than the other young women Kaoru met and evaluated before she fell in love with you.” He raised his hand to her shoulder and gave her a reassuring squeeze. “No, you’ll make a fine Princess to my kingdom – I’ll have no doubt about that.”

“I…” Kenshin hesitated. “Thank you, father.”

“There we go.”

A loud knock on the suite’s doors startled them both. “My King, Lady Seijuurou,” Mrs. Tae’s voice called out. “Lord Seijuurou told me to let you know that everything is ready for you.”

“Ah!” King said. “Thank you, Tae – we’ll be with you shortly. Please, let Lord Seijuurou know that I shan’t make his daughter late to her own wedding.”

“As you wish, my King,” Mrs. Tae said.

King Koshijirou offered his arm to Kenshin. “Shall we? After all, I did make quite a hefty promise to your lord father just now. It would be grounds for war, should I betray my word on a matter like this.”

“We couldn’t have that,” Kenshin huffed fondly, and reached to take the King’s arm for the very first time.

The King inclined his head, pleased and then escorted her out of the sanctuary of her suite.

As they walked side by side, their pace respectful of the pace Kenshin could manage to keep up with her high heels and the long, impressive train of her wedding dress, Kenshin couldn’t feel even a hint of her earlier fears or doubts bothering her.

No, for the first time in this year she had lived in the grand castle, being stared and watched no matter where she went, what she did – she felt calm, at peace with her choices.

As Mrs. Tae had warned them, Hiko was pacing in front of the castle’s grand doors. That door would open to the castle’s garden, the avenue for the wedding that had been chosen to celebrate the scene of Prince Kaoru’s and Kenshin’s first meeting and the fantastic love story that had spurred forth from that moment.

“Finally,” Hiko scowled. “Wasn’t it supposed to be a little chat, not an hour-long private meeting? Your damn son has sent me a dozen messages already, asking what’s the hold-up and don’t even let me get started on Megumi’s comments-”

“So it was,” King Koshijirou said. “But sometimes, some discussions need to be given the time they need, no matter what important things are held up as result.”

“I see,” Hiko stated, his voice so dry that it could have seen as an insult.

King Koshijirou merely laughed it out. “I’ll leave your daughter to you and be off, to let Kaoru know that we are ready.”

“You do that,” Hiko said, his voice full of snark.

Even for Kenshin, it was unprecedented to see Hiko this frazzled and she had to look aside, lest she insult him by showing her amusement. Ever the perfectionist, Hiko’s high esteem of his own capabilities and his sincere attempt to try to get to know Kenshin once more, had ended up with him being far more invested in the wedding arrangements than anyone would have expected.

Though perhaps Miss Megumi had something to do with it, Kenshin mused. After all, even at his most temperamental, Hiko had never been quite as abrasive as he was with Megumi on daily basis. It was almost like it was on purpose…

“Kenshin,” Hiko cut her thoughts. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes,” Kenshin said – and to her own surprise – she really meant it. “This one is good, that she is.”

Hiko’s brows furrowed, but he nodded. "Very good.” After a moment’s silence, he cleared his throat pointedly and offered his arm to her. “Let’s get this thing over and done with.”

Seeing how uncomfortable he seemed, Kenshin couldn’t hold back her smile any longer. She took his arm, this strange warmth spreading inside her chest. If even her adopted father, the man who couldn’t stand the presence of people for long periods of time, who had never felt at ease with showing affection – he, too, was trying to overcome his discomfort for Kenshin’ s sake.

“Thank you,” Kenshin said. “For everything.”

Hiko raised his brow. “The hell if I know what’s going on in that head of yours,” he finally scoffed. "But you’re welcome. Now, draw a pretty smile to your lips and keep it up, because if you don’t, I’ll guarantee someone will decide it means you dislike them.”

“Yes, sir,” Kenshin said, straightened her back and drew her best, polite smile as instructed.

“Good girl,” Hiko muttered, and then pushed the doors open.

The sun was blinding, but Kenshin didn’t allow herself the luxury of looking aside and blinking. The hundreds, no thousand faces turned towards them, watching their every step, their expressions, noting the slightest detail in their dress. No, in her. They were all looking at her, Kenshin realized.

The men and women, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of noble blood, all the richest and most privileged people in the country, the representatives of all the great houses in kingdoms of Ezzo and Yamato, they all were here and they were looking at her.

There was Shishio family, the bandaged and much suffered Lord Shishio and by his side, Lady Yumi and their adopted children Soujiro and Megumi. The Shishios’ expressions were tight, almost blatant with tension, well everyone’s but Miss Megumi’s.

It was perfectly understandable, Kenshin told herself.

They walked forward. One step after another.

There was the family, whose son Hiko had once pushed Kenshin to try to befriend, in hopes of teaching her to network among her new caste.

There was the family, whose daughter Kaoru had introduced her, hoping that she’d have some more friends…

Hell, there were even the Kamiya’s greatest rivals, the heir of Makimachi clan, the honorable lady Makimachi Misao and her companion, Lord Shinomori Aoshi. They too were here, watching her.

Kenshin forced her back straighter, trying to make sure that she didn’t slouch by mistake or stumble and fall and make a fool of herself in front of these great people.

Thankfully, the pathway was even, the sand swept until not even the oldest participant could stumble on it.

And there… there was Kaoru. Kenshin gasped in wonder, admiring her wife to be.

Miss Kaoru was waiting for her next to the altar, a most charming smile on her lips, hair brushed until it shone and tied at the nape of her neck with an indigo ribbon, wearing her best uniform… God, she took Kenshin breath away. No matter what Miss Kaoru wore, the uniforms and tall boots as befitting of her status, or the few times she had donned the most feminine lace gowns in the privacy of her rooms, Miss Kaoru had that effect on her, every single time.

Then they were there, and Kaoru bowed slightly and offered her hand–

Hiko nodded, giving his approval.

Kenshin smiled shyly and took Miss Kaoru’s hand, slipping her fingers between Kaoru’s and stepped to stand beside her at the altar.

The archbishop inclined his head respectfully and cracked the great old book in front of him open, addressing the crowd behind them with grand words. Frankly, his archaic speech was overstated and needlessly grand, but it served its purpose. And besides, there would have been a great many people who would have gotten apoplexy had Kenshin put her foot down and said what she thought about this particular part of the ceremony.

Miss Kaoru smiled at her, amusement glinting in her gaze. Most likely, she knew exactly what she was thinking.

Kenshin glanced aside, feeling a tinge of heat rising to her cheeks. Sometimes, it was like Miss Kaoru knew her too well. But then again, perhaps it was only a good thing. These days, there rarely were things left unsaid between them. No, more often than not, Miss Kaoru knew what was bothering her, or at least had good enough inkling about it and knew what to say to her.

The same, of course, worked in reverse.

While Kenshin had never been the best with words, this past year had been enough that nowadays she could see when Miss Kaoru was troubled, stressed or otherwise bothered. And more often than not, she could figure out a way to invite Miss Kaoru to discuss it or offer a suitable distraction.

“Do you, Prince Kamiya Kaoru swear to stay steadfast in your faith, and love Lady Seijuurou Kenshin in sickness and in health, come good or evil?"

"I do,” Miss Kaoru said, her voice strong and sure.

“And do you, Lady Seijuurou Kenshin hereby swear to stay steadfast in your faith and swear loyalty to Prince Kamiya? Do you swear to love him from this day onward to forever more? Do you swear to give up all ties and bonds that would conflict with the wellbeing of the good people of kingdoms Yamato and Ezzo? And do you accept your role to support Prince Kaoru in his duties and loyalties and stand by his side as the Princess of the kingdom?”

Kenshin’s stomach lurched, shivers racing down her spine, the last vestiges of her fears and doubts raising their ugly heads. She drew a deep breath and met Miss Kaoru’s beautiful blue eyes, softened with sheer emotion of the moment.

Her heart swelled by the sight.

“I do,” Kenshin said, and realized that she meant it.

“Then, with the authority granted to me, I hereby declare you wed in the eyes of the law and the gods!” The Priest declared with a booming voice. Then he nodded and raised his hands in celebration. “Prince Kamiya, you may kiss the bride.”

Miss Kaoru turned to Kenshin, clasped her hands in her own and rose to her tiptoes to kiss her.

It was a simple touch, their lips pressing against each other like they had done hundreds of times during the past year, but this time, it felt electrifying – and it was over too soon.

Miss Kaoru’s eyes sparkled with good humor and she directed her to turn around. Together, side by side, they faced the crowd awaiting them.

Kaoru raised their hands, entwined. “Ladies and gentlemen, please meet my wife – Princess Kamiya Kenshin.”