Twelve strokes of midnight, that’s all it took. One minute he was at the top of the world, the next running for his life. The cruel world snatched up his childhood and spit him out into the harsh reality of what his kingdom failed. Fifteen years he waited for this moment. Fifteen painfully, excruciating years.
The dusty air burned his lungs as he sucked in a calming breath. The hum of cheers from the crowd surrounding the arena assaulted his ears. Underneath his thick leather gloves his hands began to shake. He couldn’t escape the dream bombarding his mind. It was always like this. The memories of that night acted as a fist clenching around his throat. The unspeakable acts of treason, the lies, the deceit, all covered up like nothing happened. Except that the king was dead. And as the country mourned for his loss, the Regent, with a guilt-stricken face, stepped forward taking his place. No one knew what happened, and no one was talking.
His dreams were the same. Dying screams of the royal guard loyal to his family, the rivers of blood as their limp bodies fell to the marbled floor, the jostle of the carriage his mother and sister escaped within. The hand of the Regent murderously seizing his throat. Only after his last breath would he wake drenched in sweat with the first light of the day burning his eyes.
The kingdom may not know the mutiny his family witnessed that night. It was his goal to reveal the truth. The drive to regain what rightfully belonged to him flowed thick through his veins. If anything, he wanted to set things right. Since the Regent took the title of King, things have been amiss within the surrounding lands. Whispers of a war between king and kingdom were growing. The tension it was creating was palpable. The same tightness could be felt just inside of the colosseum.
Gripping the hilt of his sword to hide any weaknesses, Rin stepped forward. The cheers from the crowd only grew as his boots fouled the freshly raked dirt. This particular show of strength only happened once every five years. It was the chance to gain entrance into the royal army. And, judging on a set of strengths and weaknesses held by the challenger, determined rank. Fifteen years created a sense of impatience within him. Rin wasn’t aiming for middle ground within those ranks; he was aiming straight for the top: General. Because he blatantly, and rather arrogantly, voiced his goals, some sick bastard put him down as the number one fighter during the very first day of festivities. Honestly, he couldn’t have been more overjoyed. Knowing the interworking of the regal court allowed him to exploit it to his favor.
Day one is attributed to the largest portion of scheduled fights. Being first in line usually meant the contender’s skill set in the prelims offered the most entertainment. It also meant that that specific person would more than likely fight a second, maybe even third round that same day. Days two and three of the festival ushered in a less serious mood. A circus would open in the morning and thrilling pre-determined fights would take over as the main attraction at the colosseum. By the end of the festivities, the induction ceremony would begin. If Rin would defeat all of his opponents, he would certainly place number one. All he would have to do then was defeat or out-contend the active General earning the highest rank.
Then the real chess game would begin.
However daunting, he must keep a level head. The General rarely participated in the festival. That challenge would come with patience. To successfully lie and wait would ultimately be his finest achievement. For years Rin struggled with the principle. He was one to act first and ask questions later. The one who attempted to drill the fault out of him was surprisingly not his father, but rather a stubborn young man to the name of Haruka Nanase.
His fist tightened even further around his sword’s leather wrapped hilt blanching his covered knuckles white. A series of memories flooded his mind temporarily drawing him away from cheering crowds and the mechanical clicks of opening gates.
“Treat him well,” his father had told him, “and he will gift you the world.”
On his seventh birthday his father brought Rin to the west wing of their castle to a room very unknown to him at the time. There was a thick level of fear in his deep blue eyes. With his hands tied behind his back, Haru shied away as they approached. As he aged away from the protection of his castle’s walls, Rin realized the means of the smaller actions of his second half. How he probably was forcibly taken from his home to serve the king’s son. It some something he resented his father for, but it was a feeling that came well after his death.
Before Rin’s eyes, four dangerously hungry lions stepped through their now open doors. The thoughts of his memories slipped away, clearing his mind. Heaving his sword and shield into a defensive position, he sucked in a large breath of air. Animals were like humans in a way, hungry for victory. But unlike humans, lions were predicable and easily deterred. After fighting them long enough, they would turn away out of boredom. The problem Rin faced was nothing of the sort. They were skinny, obviously deprived of food for days. Their want suddenly became a necessity for life. This would be a hard battle on both ends. To think that this was only the beginning, what would they throw at him next?
The first lion attacked, leaping toward his armored body. Rin almost laughed. With one strong swing of his sword, the poor animal was cut down, an easy strike straight through its head. The crowed was mass pandemonium. The second attacked without warning, followed quickly by the third. Using his shield, Rin pushed back the first volley as he swung his sword at the next. With a hiss, the lion backed away, swiping its large paw at the weapon. The fourth lion carefully paced around him, taking in the sight of the fight looking for an opening. This one, Rin decided, would be the most difficult to kill.
Be patient, Rin reminded himself, taking a jab at the closest beast. The tip of his sword stuck its shoulder, producing another hiss of annoyance. That lion backed off further. The three lions remaining had seen their fair share of colosseum fights. Large, white scars covered the length of their bodies where soldiers or contenders attempted to take their lives before falling victim to their systemized attack. Rin figured the first had replaced a previously fallen animal. A blatant head on attack would hardly be enough to kill or maim even a slightly experienced opponent.
The tension shifted, and the crowd quieted. The feeling in Rin’s gut changed with it. They were coming. Within seconds, all three attacked simultaneously. In that moment he froze. One wrong move and it would be over. Two of the three lions were closer together than the other. He decided to use his shield against them and pick off the more vulnerable one. Rotating his body and wrist at the same time, he stepped into perfect position. With his shield horizontal, it would temporarily protect him from a wide head on attack until he was able to use his sword offensively against them. The two lions hit the shield hard sending a vibration up his arm and across his back. One swift swipe of his sword took out the third lion, another thunderous blow through the beast’s head. If he learned anything over the years about fighting wild animals, always go for the head.
Resetting his position quickly, Rin swung his sword at the lion on the right. The steel blade cut through the animal’s meaty hide like butter until it hit its boney shoulder. With it distracted, he pushed the last lion away with his shield to focus his attention on the now injured beast. With a few simple steps to chase the lion down, he ended its life just as painless as the first two.
Only the last lion remained. It was, as Rin predicted earlier, the one that paced around him in the beginning. It would be the one to give him the most trouble, and without a single new injury on its body, it would be more difficult to chase down or kill. It suddenly was a patience game. Rin sucked in a sharp breath of air.
“Rin, you can’t win if you jump out of your hiding place screaming bloody murder,” he harped, a stark frown settled on his lips. How common that look was, it pissed Rin off while making him flood with joy. Something about that particular expression gave him a sense of pride, at least when he was the cause.
“My dad won all of his fights with sheer, brute strength so I can do it too!” Rin complained. His grin contradicted his tone of voice.
It had taken two months before they could fully trust each other, two simple months. They had been practicing sneak attacks that day. Rin’s father wanted him to be the strongest fighter. That way, when he became king, he would lead honestly. That day the air was cold, much too cold for April. A tremendous storm was approaching. At the time, Rin hardly knew how severe it truly was.
Somehow the frown on his face deepened. The wind picked up. Rin’s smile faltered as his red hair fluttered in the strong breeze. “Something wrong, Haru?”
The gut-wrenching flesh on metal sound pulled him from his memory. Subconsciously, his body reacted to the lion’s fleeting attack. Without recall, he somehow pushed the striking lion against the dirt and pierced the animal right through the heart. After a small, final struggle to live, the lion’s body went limp at last.
Rin withdrew his sword from the beast’s chest, standing up to his full height. With it, a long, relieved breath of air escaped his lips allowing his body to relax. It was a quick fight, but something about being eaten by lions if he failed settled uncontrollably at the bottom of his stomach. The crowd’s cheering shook the stadium around him. The last time the festival occurred, the projected winner of the first day died within a few minutes, falling victim to one of the lions Rin just honorably defeated. The crowd lapped up the drama like a dehydrated sponge to water.
Within seconds, the doors to the arena began to open. The ominous clicking quickly silenced the spectators. Ten men entered the space, nine immediately running toward the lions. The one offset man casually sauntered forward fully clad in palace armor. Things had changed from the last festival. Rin’s hands gripped his sword as the tension quickly returned to his expecting muscles.
Patiently waiting, he watched the majority of the men collect and drag the dead lions away from the colosseum floor. A trail of blood followed each animal back through the gated openings. The palace knight remained stationed, double handed sword at the ready. There was no shield in sight. As the crowd waited for the debris to be removed, Rin sized up his next opponent. Knights were notorious for their brute strength. Their ranking was relatively unknown, but fairly high up the food chain. Where their skills spread across a wide margin, they were chosen strictly for how viciously they killed and how well they tolerated pain in the aftermath. They were the most indomitable soldiers.
The second the doors closed, a solitary bell chime deeply resonated around the colosseum. There was no hesitation. Kill or be killed. Rin felt the murderous intent of the man in front of him. He stepped back out of fear rather than taking the sword head on. The knight’s blade crossed over his head and hit the dirt sending a shower of sand across a wide area. Rin’s body tensed from the sound. It shuddered the ground at his feet. Swallowing, he held his shield in a defensive position waiting for the next strike.
The knight was quick, much swifter than Rin anticipated a man would be in heavy armor. His sword struck Rin’s shield sending him into the dirt. His body ached with the impact. Shaking it off immediately, he scrambled to his feet to nearly dodge another swing of the two handed sword. The crowed reacted, sadden that the palace fighter didn’t finish off the commoner.
It was decided then to take a form of defense would ultimately end his life. He was losing the only advantage he had. By running or defending, his energy would rapidly deplete. Without it, he wouldn’t be able to dodge the knight’s brutal attacks. Using his sword as a means to defend would fail. The strength behind the strikes thrown at him was immeasurable. A simple, accidental attempt to block would result in a deep wound to his body. The knight would cut him down without a second thought.
He must use his lighter body to his advantage. Palace armor was incredibly heavy. He remembered helping his father dress for a formal affair when he was younger. After enough prodding, his father agreed to let him try on the chainmail. He could hardly stand under the weight. The difference between his body’s strength then and now was immeasurable. But with the breastplate and helm added on to the rest of the armored pieces, it was enough to slow even the fastest fighter. All he would need was a second.
The knight’s sword viciously swung at his head. He stepped back just in time. He could feel the altered air flow through his helmet. Cussing, he took a few hasty strides away from his opponent. If the entire palace saw the color of his hair, questions would circulate. His loyalties would be called into question, rightfully so, however troublesome. Around the age of fifteen, news reached his party’s ears that the exiled prince, Rin Matsuoka, had perished under a knight’s sword. They couldn’t believe it. Not only had some innocent victim fall to the hands of the Regent, but a plan could now be set into motion. A plan to expose the truth and the falsehood of the man sitting in the king’s chair, the horrors that man committed for power. The last ten years of preparations for this exact moment would falter ever slightly if something careless happened. The preliminaries gave him no trouble, only a few wayward looks. But exposing himself in this environment, in front of the majority of the kingdom. It meant suicide.
The knight rushed toward him. Prepared for a head on attack, Rin sidestepped his swing retaliating with one of his own. It hit the knight’s side and bounced off his armor hardly doing any damage. Before the palace fighter had a chance to swing again, Rin adjusted his footwork and struck another, less armored part of his body. He felt it then, the blade of his sword hitting flesh just as the knight’s sword careered toward his head.
His helmet tumbled into the tousled dirt.
Instantly, there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere. Whispers passed through the crowd. Unfamiliar wondering of deceptions long since dead seemingly started clawing at the surface. The knight quickly rebounded, sensing the unsteady air about the colosseum. He haphazardly swung his sword at Rin’s head again, a misstep on his part. He was expecting it regardless of the curious murmurs of the crowd. This fight had long since past its expiration. Most of the contenders would’ve fallen by now. Hastily stepping within his range and placing his shield in the direct path of the sword, Rin made quick work of small, but rather precarious, advantage. Driving his sword directly under the metal chest plate, the knight’s sword came crashing down. It rebounded off his shield before thudding into the bloodied dirt at their feet. Using the knight’s body as leverage, Rin placed his foot against his abdomen and pulled his sword from his body. That noise sickened him. Blood splattered across the dirt and across his body as the knight fell hard and remained unmoving at his feet.
Silence was quickly overruled by chaos.
Sousuke shifted, his attention now fully drawn to the red headed contender. Slowly rising into a seated position, he supported himself against the railing that separated him from an injuring fall into the crowd below. Haru, standing behind the prince, leaned up against the wall watching from the shadows. Attempting to hide his elevated pulse by crossing his arms and remaining still, he strained his eyes. Could it be him? Biting the inside his cheek, he forced his excitement into remission. He wouldn’t come back, why would he? There was nothing for him here except the demoralizing acts of treason repeated throughout the last fifteen years. Nothing could be done. Each attempt Haru had made was subsequently thrown back into his face.
How may lashes had he received? How many nights had passed locked into a room so small it induced claustrophobia? How many times did the Regent force him?
But that distinctive red hair.
His teeth drew blood. Sousuke turned to look at him, a sparkle in his teal eyes attributed to pure curiosity. A disheartening feeling sunk to the bottom of his stomach making him nauseous. Whomever he was, curiosity from the prince, however high a compliment, came with a heavy price.
“I want him to fight our best man,” was all Sousuke said. His lips curled into a devious smile. “Go tell my father.”
Turning to leave, Haru glanced back at the prince. His intrigued, teal eyes already returned to the fight. It wasn’t long before the crowd bellowed in excitement. The fighter, whomever he was, had won the match. Without a second though, Haru seized his chance.
Almost tumbling down the stairs, he deliberately turned his back toward the Regent. To him, the title of King was far from earned. In his defense, Sousuke should’ve been keeping a closer eye on where the supposed lifelong protector of his family was going. These chances were slim and hardly exploited. To slip out from under both of their radars tasted something he attributed as freedom. That was an unfamiliar feeling. To be completely free would mean to leave the castle walls without a worried glance behind. And that, certainly, would never happen. He would sooner see death.
His downward trodwas as unsteady as his breathing. With his mind steadfast, he couldn’t tempt the feelings of excitement of his return. It wouldn’t only cause him heartbreak. But his heart refused to budge. Hitting the landing at near inhuman speeds, the mage pushed off of the stone wall splitting the landing into two distinct directions. He knew to descendfurther, which caused him to turn left. The hallway extended to the right, the darkness consuming the unlit gray walls. Not many people knew the underworking of the colosseum but growing up in the palace gave Haru the chance to explore and discover the area with Sousuke. He knew where they would take the victors; he had visited some of them personally. That was, until the Regent reigned him in.
The stairs deepened another story or so into the underground. Only wall-mounted candelabras lit his path. Suddenly feeling his heart in his throat, he slowed his pace. Low voices could be heard echoing through the empty corridors. It would be a miracle if they didn’t hear his approach. Perhaps most of the noise he created was resonating from his own heart beating in his ears. Their tones remained unwavering. After a few moments to confirm his stealth, Haru continued down the last few steps.
The wooden door in front of him was open only a crack. The light from the room beyond flickered in a fine line across the floor. Seijuro Mikoshiba’s voice was easily recognizable. As General, he earned the honor of meeting a potential member of his ranks. It used to be Haru. Many things changed over the last few years. His leash shortened a few links to say the least.
“Your reflexes and speed are incomparable,” Seijuro exclaimed. Haru could picture him throwing his hands on the fighter’s shoulders out of excitement. “I’m at aw. Wherever did you learn such skills?”
The voice that returned his compliment was unknown. “Thank you. I’ve trained very hard over the years. Things are different living away from the castle. If I’m not imposing, it would be an honor to serve you and the King.”
Haru dared to step closer. The absolute need to see his face drew him in. Dodging the trail of light over the stone, he approached apprehensively, inadvertently holding his breath.
“By all means, if you survive your final duel, I’ll personally make sure you join our ranks at the highest standard.”
“Oh, I fully intend to survive. After all of these years, surviving is what I do best.”
Haru bit his lip, inching closer to the crack in the door. It was nearly impossible to remain inconspicuous while listening for an approaching soldier or committee member all the while attempting to predict if one of the two men would exit the room. One trip, one slip up, and his cover would be blown. It would be weeks before he would see the sunlight again.
But his need to know drove him forward. The flickering light beyond the door disappeared as his shadow covered its light source. The red head’s back was turned. Haru could tell just as much as he could while watching his fight this morning. It was about as defining as skin color. It was impractical to justify his answer with a mere crimson shade of color. After all, that feature alone fooled the entire regal court along with the Regent. Would they be on guard after all of those years thinking someone had killed the true heir to the throne? The lies Haru personally went through to convince them were outstanding. Sousuke was devastated. It was his tantrum that allowed the imposter to be buried with the King Matsuoka.
The truth of the matter was that Rin couldn’t be dead. After all of these years, the Matsuoka crest remained unchanged on his skin. With simple magic, he fooled everyone into thinking it had disappeared with the emergence of the dummy Prince. Then to suddenly reappear when he was forced to serve the Yamazaki family. The magic was easy. The lies were less so. Fortunately for him, Kosuke Yamazaki, the regent now king, never knew the true nature of the contract created that day, nor the rules to owning someone of magic blood. The mark meant nothing. It acted as a simple spark to fuel the deception. Haru lived and thus Rin lived. There simply was nothing more to it.
They were still talking but the words never penetrated his mind. His blue eyes were trailed on the back of the fighter’s head, he wondered if he could feel his dissonant stare. Maybe it would cause his position to shift. Fifteen years changed a lot in a person, but his eyes would remain untouched. It would be difficult in the short amount of time to get a good look of his face, but he was determined.
The room altered again. Haru backed away from the door immediately sensing a foreboding feeling deep in his gut. Seijuro had walked toward him. Did he see him through the crack in the door? Pressing his body against the stone beside the entrance into the room, Haru waited. After a few minutes, the breath he was holding slowly slipped by his lips. He attempted another peak. His time was running out. It was now or never. Peering through the crack, Haru’s eyes fell on the back of Seijuro’s head. He was standing directly in front of the fighter.
Move, he silently pleaded. They were still talking. His heartbeat swallowed all external noises. He inched in even closer fully prepared to jump away from the door at a moment’s notice. The seconds ticked by. Seijuro let out a hearty laugh before moving ever so slightly to the left. It felt as someone took a knife, jabbed it straight into his heart, and twisted the blade. The suffocating feeling overpowered all others. The face wasn’t recognizable. The hair was plausible. But those eyes…he would never forget those eyes.