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Arqan

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The day they met, the Sun shone gentler.

It dawned subdued, timid after the catastrophe that had shaken up the Tribe of Iwatobi. The flood had laid waste to the broad valley the nomads had camped on without a warning, so devastating they had yet to count all their losses.

The disaster had also shaken up Arqan, capital of the Kingdom and too close to the disaster. Not even its oldest inhabitants could recall a single precedent of a nomadic tribe asking them for asylum— nomads were independent, often regarded as the offspring of gods and demons and uninterested in involvement with sedentary people.

And yet the Arqanians had thrown themselves into giving the tribe shelter, donating food and clothes for the nomads and organising a search for the missing ones as soon as the Sun had come out, following the course of the torrent and hoping to find more people alive. Even the Royal Family had wanted to help; they had prepared an entire wing of the Palace for the tribe to rest and be treated by the best healers in the Kingdom and the Sultan himself had received the Sheikha of the Tribe to personally give her his condolences.

There was no ceremony for it, because there was nothing to celebrate. It was in the main hall prepared to shelter the nomads, surrounded by the ones who weren’t too gravely wounded; most of them probably didn’t even recognise the Sultan.

Prince Rin accompanied his father, stayed by his side as he spoke to the leader of the tribe. He curiously watched the woman, fascinated by how easily she conducted herself in spite of the deep wrinkles creasing her face. There was exhaustion and sadness in her gaze, but to Rin they looked older than the flood nobody had been able to predict.

Soon, though, the child accompanying her caught most of the Prince’s attention: the boy looked around ten, like Rin, and seemed to want to be anywhere other than there. Blue eyes shone bright and feverish beneath his still wet hair, droplets of water running down his face like tears. He was bundled up in a red blanket provided by the Palace servants, shivering as he leant against the Sheikha’s side.

“I believed you had… means to see this kind of things coming,” the Sultan was saying.

The woman sighed, running her fingers through the boy’s hair. “There were no warnings… None at all.” A couple of extra wrinkles creased her forehead. “It’s almost as if…”

“As if…?” the Sultan softly prompted.

But the Sheikha had fallen silent; she glanced down at the child with her.

“I told you, you need to rest,” she quietly scolded. The boy looked down, lips pressed together. “Go with Makoto for now, alright?”

The scowl between the child’s eyebrows deepened, but he nodded, tightening the blanket around his shoulders as he turned around and dragging his feet across the hall.

“May I ask who such a quiet child is?” the Sultan said softly, setting a hand on Rin’s shoulder. “A relative of yours, I assume.”

The Sheikha smiled for the first time. “My grandson and successor, Haruka.” Her grey eyes lowered towards Rin. “And I suppose this gentleman here is Prince Rin, right?” The child nodded. “Hm, I think you’re both the same age.”

Rin glanced at Haruka; the boy staggered a little as he walked, but what intrigued the Prince was seeing him head towards the open door, making his way among the people that stood in the hall. He tilted his head; maybe that Makoto’s injuries were too serious and he was in the other room.

“Father,” Rin quietly called. He had started to speak to the Sheikha anew and the Prince didn’t want to interrupt; the Sultan smiled at him, though. “Can I go with Haruka?”

“Of course, Rin.”

Immediately the Prince broke into a sprint, zigzagged between the adults leaving a jingling of jewels in his wake. He turned right as soon as he was out of the hall, in spite of not really wanting to see the ugliest facet of the disaster— the tiredness in the Sheikha’s gaze and the torment in Haruka’s were enough. But his steps only faltered when he saw Haruka turn left at the end of the corridor, instead of walking through the entrance at the end of it.

“It’s not that way,” Rin muttered, chasing after the nomadic boy; but this time he only had to walk quickly, for Haruka’s pace was too slow. “Hey—” the Prince halted when he was next to Haruka— “don’t ignore me!” he whined as Haruka kept walking, as if Rin hadn’t even spoken.

They passed two stern looking guards; Commander Yamazaki waved at Rin, but the child barely noticed, too focused on Haruka’s rudeness and his wounded pride to even notice where the boy was heading.

“You shouldn’t be here, we’re going out of the wing Father—” Rin grabbed Haruka’s wrist, flinched at the heat radiating off him— but the boy finally stopped, so abruptly he might have run into an invisible wall. “I think your grandmother’s right,” Rin commented when those blue eyes fixed on him, disoriented and absent and too bright in his ashen face, “you should rest and get some medicine.”

Haruka didn’t move. He was staring at Rin, his frown deeper than ever as if he were trying to decipher old petroglyphs, the shudders running down his spine the only thing breaking his stillness. And Rin had no idea such concentration was possible while running a fever, and he felt as if Haruka were reading him deeper than he even knew was possible, but he didn’t let go of the nomad’s burning wrist.

After what felt like several lifetimes, Haruka spoke.

“…You’re the one from before.”

Unlike his whole body, his voice didn’t waver; but it was tinged with confusion.

“Yes! I’m the Prince of Samezuka,” Rin confirmed, grinning in spite of the stare still piercing his very soul. “And where were you going? The people with more serious wounds are there.” He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder, and for the first time Haruka tore his gaze off the Prince.

He looked in the direction Rin pointed at, then turned his head towards the end of the corridor the Prince had followed him along. He blinked as he glanced back at Rin.

“I don’t know,” he whispered, so small Rin barely heard it. “I don’t…” He raised his hands, and Rin let go of him to let him rub at his glazed eyes. As the blanket slid down to the floor, what Rin could see of his expression grew distressed. “Understand,” he choked out, “I don’t remember—”

Growing up with a sister and the children of other nobles so close in age to him, Rin was familiar with what someone about to cry looked like; but that didn’t mean he was any better at consoling people than the average, particularly when they were complete strangers that had caught his attention barely ten minutes prior.

“Haruka…?” he quietly called, weaving his fingers together to keep them from scratching up his arms out of anxiousness.

The boy winced, but when he lowered his hands he wasn’t crying.

“Haru,” he corrected, voice thin.

“Haru.” Rin bent down to retrieve the blanket, held it out until Haruka (Haru) grabbed it and wrapped himself up in it again. “I’m Rin.”

Haruka followed Rin back to the hall where his grandmother was still talking with Sultan Toraichi, his posture slouched and his lips stubbornly pressed together. He slumped down as soon as he found a column he could lean against, drawing his knees up to his chest under Rin’s concerned gaze.

“’m fine,” Haruka snapped as soon as he noticed, glaring as the Prince crouched down before him. Apparently he had forgotten about his task of looking for that friend of his.

“Do you want camel milk?” Rin offered, because might be just a child but he wanted to help as much as everyone else. “I think the healers are still busy, but Mother always gives me some when I’m sick.”

Haruka frowned, but eventually he nodded, burrowing further in the red blanket.

“Great!” Rin’s expression lit up as he jumped to his feet. “Wait a minute here, alright?”

It was only when he reached the kitchen and asked for a glass of milk that it occurred to Rin that the path Haruka had taken earlier seemed to head towards the underground tunnels.

He soon shook that thought off his head, though. Nobody knew about those, other than his family, and it was the first time the Tribe of Iwatobi was in the Palace. Haruka had probably just got lost, like Sousuke did often.

It would take Prince Rin ten years to realise how wrong he was.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

The Matsuokas were a dedicated family.

To their status, to their respective roles in Palace, to their people— with few exceptions, theirs had always been one of the most stable nations in the continent. Their progressive views on politics had earned them some enemies, both outside and inside Samezuka; but theirs was one of the only dynasties that had refused to lose contact with their people throughout the centuries, which was the main key to the stability reigning within the Kingdom.

But at the end of the day, even the most powerful families were just families; and as such, the Sultana took advantage of her birthday to ask for the company of her husband and children as her gift, for a day without meetings and other duties that could distract them from their bonds.

Not that the Prince and the Princess were children anymore. The successor to the throne would soon turn twenty, and Gou was already eighteen; but they still enjoyed their parents’ presence, so they gladly complied with their mother’s wishes.

The only problem was… not a problem, at least not objectively speaking.

The Matsuokas were too attached to their routine; and even though for hours they read poems aloud, sang and suffered together with Gou’s admittedly improvable musical skills, by the evening they were back in the regular dining hall, though, habits too ingrained to skip them more than twice a day. They burst out laughing every time their gazes met, but staring into their dinner while they spoke was no better option; Rin nearly choked on a grape when his sister pointed out one could take the Matsuokas out of the throne, but never the throne out of the Matsuokas, decided he needed a walk to clear his head before he ended up dying due to his own stupidity.

“Rin the Almost-Sultan. Assassinated by a grape one month before being of-age.”

He scoffed as he walked out. He could nearly hear the songs the bards would write about him.

He raised an eyebrow, though, at the guard standing at the entrance of the dining hall.

“Where’s Sousuke?” he asked, ignoring the other’s customary bow.

“He felt indisposed, so I encouraged him to rest tonight, Highness,” the guard explained, pushing his glasses up his long nose. “He pointed out it might be something he ate.”

Rin raised an eyebrow, thanked Ryuugazaki for his answer and took his leave.

It was odd for Sousuke to fall sick. It was even stranger for him to fall sick due to food. Saying his friend had a robust health was an understatement: as a kid, Rin had seen him eat all kind of stuff that clearly wasn’t edible and shrug it off without the slightest sign of illness.

He headed towards his personal guard’s chamber, wanting to both pick on him and make sure it wasn’t serious, his walk forgotten. His steps were forcibly slow, a mock of the calm the Sultan had spent years teaching him and Gou to display for their people. A Sultan was never in a rush, never scared. Concerned at most.

The Palace was significantly less crowded at night, without noblemen and counsellors rushing from meeting to meeting; therefore there were less guards positioned inside the building, while the servants used the late hours to clean the public spaces.

Coincidentally, they were the only ones protocol wasn’t compulsory for. They were busy enough keeping the Palace pristine, so bowing and honorifics happened only when they were directly addressed. It was Nudara and Yasmin who bowed when they passed Rin down the corridor— Rin had tried to tell the former to stop doing it until she gave birth, with little success.

But Nudara of Ebeid had captained an army to help to subdue the uprisings in the northern country of Dessia when she was pregnant with her first child— the Prince expected nothing less from such a headstrong woman.

Rin halted before the door leading to Sousuke’s chamber, not too far from his own, knocked three times with ringed fingers. Upon hearing an unintelligible whine coming from inside, though, the Prince regretted it; he opened the door himself, slipped inside and froze.

He had been prepared to see his personal guard in various stages of sickness, but Sousuke struggling to keep standing with an unsheathed scimitar was something Rin was not ready for.

“Ah…” The man’s steps faltered. “It’s just you.”

“Yeah, just the future Sultan, what a disappointment, I know,” Rin snorted, closing the door behind himself. “You alright?” he asked quietly, because Sousuke was too green to be healthy, ignoring the blade as he got close to push his friend towards the bed. “The hell did you eat now? A venomous snake?”

Sousuke shook his head. “Listen…” He set the scimitar on his bedside table, next to his carnivorous plant; he then ran his fingers through his damp hair. “Go back with your family.”

“Huh?”

“I just came back from the infirmary,” Sousuke choked out. “I’m not sick. It’s poison.”

Rin had moved to his friend’s other side to sit down, but strength left his legs at those words.

“What?” He dropped himself on the mattress. “But are you―…? Haru’s…”

“Leave Nanase out of this,” Sousuke grunted. He had never bothered to conceal his dislike for the nomad. “It’s not lethal,” he added. “But I don’t… I don’t like it. Someone wanted to put me out of commission tonight and…”

But he trailed off. Rin momentarily forgot the conversation, too, when a bloodcurdling scream pierced the night.

Gou’s shrieks had always been the loudest thing the Prince could think of, and in spite of both of them growing older that hadn’t changed. Rin jumped back to his feet, found himself at the door before he could remember his father’s lessons.

Calm could be damned; that was his little sister.

“Sousuke, hide,” he said, his body a mess of tense springs yelling at him to move. But the guard was as much of a sibling for the Prince as Gou herself; he glanced up, visibly struggling not to throw up. “It’s an order. You can’t help now.”

Rin ran― whether it was towards his family or away from the hurt in Sousuke’s eyes, he didn’t know. He passed a couple of surprised noblemen, not even bothering to tell them to watch out for any potential danger; the dining hall was relatively close to the Royal Family’s chambers, but upon hearing heavy steps approaching him from an adjacent corridor Rin dug his heels in the marbled floor.

Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.

He spun around, deciding to take an alternative route.

 

 


 

 

It wasn’t the first attempt at a coup d’état Rin lived through, and if the prior incidents had taught him something was that regardless of the smiles and the bows there were very few people outside his closest relatives he could trust unconditionally. Sousuke was one of them.

Rin saw the stranger charging against him as soon as he turned around the corner; but, more than anything, he saw the blood soiling his janbiya, dripping a scarlet trace on the white tiles in his wake. The Prince didn’t even think about walking back. There were more people chasing him, he knew that, and he could handle a single man by himself, no matter how big the knife he carried.

Rin waited until the man was close enough, then stepped out of the trajectory and grabbed his wrist, twisting it behind the man’s back as he tripped on Rin’s foot. He forcibly released his hold on the janbiya, let out a yelp when Rin’s knee sank between his shoulder blades.

“Whose blood is this?” the Prince hissed, telling himself he still had some precious seconds to gather information until his chasers arrived. But a low chuckle was all that came out between the man’s lips. “I want my reign to be a peaceful one, but I will stain my hands with as much blood as necessary for that to happen,” he warned, the sharp edge of the janbiya dripping red droplets on the back of that bastard’s neck.

Yet there was amusement in those hazel eyes.

“Sultan Toraichi’s, His Majesty.”

In spite of the multiple people quickly approaching them, Rin heard nothing.

Not steps.

Not voices.

Not even the crackling of the torches on the walls.

Only the scarlet droplets falling off the janbiya.

His father’s.

No.

No.

“I should cut your tongue so that it cannot spew more filthy lies,” Rin grunted― but his breathing was growing ragged, irregular, his grip on the black hilt tightening in a desperate attempt to control the panic surging up his chest.

He’s lying. He’s lying. Father’s alright.

“Will you adulterate your father’s blood with that of a mercenary, Majesty?”

“I’m Highness.” He was. He should be until his twentieth birthday, when his father abdicated and Rin’s reign started. Not now. Not now because it was his mother’s birthday and being addressed as the Sultan already would mean―

“Prince Rin.”

Rin looked up. Other than Harb, Nudara’s husband, he knew none of the people who had finally caught up with him, even though a few of them wore the Guard uniform.

“Where is my family,” he demanded to know. “Ebeid,” he hissed, glaring at the man’s golden eyes. “What did you do to them, you rats?”

He realised they weren’t going to give him an answer as soon as he formulated his question. More people were quickly approaching along the same path the mercenary had; Rin could hear them. The only place he could escape to was the closed room to his left, and it had no secret exit.

Rin still kicked the door open, dashed through the room and pulled the window open. He glanced across the garden, made sure there were no guards there― he had no idea whose side they would be in.

“Highness―”

Rin climbed to the sill and, still holding onto the janbiya like a lifeline, jumped into the night.

He hadn’t spent the past ten years pestering the current Sheikh of the Tribe of Iwatobi for nothing. While magic, according to Haruka, had decided Rin wasn’t worthy enough to order it around, he had learnt a few tricks from the nomad.

It… kind of worked. Rin ground his teeth together in his fall, mentally recited the polite request in a dead language Haruka had taught him like a prayer. And the wind did come to cradle the Prince, but it changed its mind when Rin let out a childlike giggle, leaving him at the mercy of gravity two metres above the ground.

Laughter morphed into a pained grunt when Rin’s right ankle twisted under his weight. He heard the startled cries of the traitors looking at him from the window, but he wasted no time to grab the janbiya tighter and stand back up, dragging his injured foot across the empty garden.

His destination wasn’t any of the gates that led to the city, though. He wasn’t naïve enough to think the traitors hadn’t positioned some of their pawns at every entrance, but very few people outside the Royal Family knew of the tunnels built under the very foundation of the Palace, of the intricate labyrinth the first Sultan had devised in case this exact situation took place; and absolutely nobody else had any idea where the entrances were.

“His Highness!”

Rin raised the janbiya on instinct, only to realise the one who had called was none other than Commander Yamazaki.

“Father,” the Prince exhaled. “And Mother and Gou…”

“The Sultana and the Princess are safe,” the man quickly soothed him. “Toraichi, on the other hand…”

The hand holding the janbiya trembled. “What?”

“I’m looking for him.” Sousuke had inherited his father’s intent stare, that ability to look judgemental regardless of his actual intentions. “You, though, should leave the Palace.”

Rin blinked, the advice momentarily numbing the sharp pain in his foot. “Huh? No. No, I have to stay. I want to―…”

“I’m not sure what’s going on, or who’s behind this,” the guard explained, with a patience his son lacked, “but you are the logical target of this attack and I don’t even trust half my men. All I know is that if they catch you, Rin, it’s over.”

Rin had been fourteen the last time Daisuke Yamazaki addressed him simply by his name, without honorifics or titles; it made him feel like a child. And it was the helplessness boiling in his lungs, more than the urgency in the guard’s voice, what knotted the mess in his stomach with a choice he had to make:

“Alright.” He let out a short sigh. “Sousuke, he’s… He was poisoned, but I think he’ll be fine. I told him to hide, but still…”

Yamazaki nodded, a new wave of concern darkening his expression.

“I will send my most trustworthy men to look for you… Until then, take care,” he advised, running past Rin. Whether he was going to look for his son or his Sultan, the Prince didn’t know.

Rin threw a new glance to the bloodied janbiya, swallowed nausea down before resuming walking.

 

 


 

 

Rei wasn’t one to talk much.

That hadn’t been always the case; as a child he used to be a curious boy, questions never stopping piling up in the back of his throat at school. He was the teachers’ favourite, with his hungry eyes always avid for more knowledge.

It had been throughout his adolescence that he had realised keeping quiet and alert often led to more findings. When one didn’t ask, they got no answers; but they could look and listen instead of merely seeing and hearing. He had grown to be a prudent, observant young man that wanted nothing but to earn his place in the Palace Guard.

The night Sultan Toraichi was assassinated was the first time Rei Ryuugazaki regretted learning something.

He had been relieved shortly after the Prince walked out of the dining hall, but the Princess’ shriek froze the blood in his veins before he could step out of the building.

Immediately Rei’s hand flew to the hilt of his cutlass. The guard spun on his heels, sprinted back into the heart of the building; he found no one as he ran along the corridor, but halted upon climbing up the stairs.

He saw the Prince run past him, caught a glimpse of the determined frown in his face; Rei wanted to follow him back to the dining hall, where the rest of the Royal Family must be, but froze at the loud steps preceding at least fifteen guards chasing the future Sultan down.

Rei frowned, peeked from the staircase once they were at the end of the corridor. He made out the unmistakable long hair of Harb of Ebeid, but before he could make up his mind a new set of steps, fewer yet quickened with nervousness, made him recoil into the shadows of the staircase.

“…a complete mess,” a deep voice grunted.

“Shut up,” as they turned the corner Rei tiptoed back down the stairs, a second, chirpy voice lowering. “The Sultan is dead, isn’t he?” Rei covered his mouth to conceal a sharp inhale, kept drawing back as the pair approached the stairs. “Our dear Prince will follow him soon, and then…”

“Then what? This is madness.” If Rei’s hearing wasn’t wrong, the woman was none other than Omaira of Arekat, the Sultana’s favourite niece. “What guarantee do we have the djinn is honest, anyway?”

Rei arrived at the bottom of the stairs as the pair started climbing them down; he sharpened his ears as he crouched down under the spiral staircase.

“What good would this bring him?” Omaira retorted. “And Naqueeb… Honestly? Are you going to quail now?”

“No.” Rei shrunk into himself as the two pairs of steps grew closer. “I’m just saying there’s a reason djinnis aren’t pleasant creatures in our books.”

“Of course they aren’t.” Omaira snorted, her feet finally reaching ground floor. “Neither are we, Naq.

“They come from hell, and that’s where we’ll end our days.”

She picked up her pace, filmy fabric and red curls floating around her hips; Naqueeb struggled to catch up with her.

By the time Rei walked out of his hiding place, the Sultan had already been found.

 

 


 

 

The closest entrance to the tunnels was hidden in the mausoleum, in the form of a nameless headstone that had never contained a corpse.

Rin limped among his ancestors like a ghost, his white tunic soiled from his fall and stuck to his sweaty back. He had seen some guards on his way there, had hidden from them just in case. Luckily there was nobody there; it was an entirely inappropriate place to fight.

Once he closed the entrance to the labyrinth, he advanced in complete darkness, through such a thick silence the tinkling of his necklaces and bracelets was deafening. As a child, the Prince had spent many, many hours playing there; there was no more reliable plan than his memories. He dragged his fingers across the wall, both to keep count of the corridors he passed by before reaching the one he had to take and to ease the pressure in his injured foot.

Still, in the quietest night, Rin felt safe for the first time.

He wandered beneath the city, along the zigzagging tunnel, trying to come up with a plan for the next day― he had to find out whether his father was alright, who exactly was going for him and why, and act consequently. But would he have support, once outside the city? Even with the guards Yamazaki would send to assist him, if some usurper claimed his father’s place they would surely turn everyone against him… Being the legitimate successor meant nothing without lands, without wealth, without people.

His breath was growing shallow, irregular. His arms itched— there were too many things that needed his attention and Rin was still too shocked, oddly numb to the bits of information he had gathered since walking out of the dining hall, less than one hour and five lifetimes prior.

Sousuke had been poisoned. Gou –and presumably their mother– had been attacked. The Sultan had gone off on his own, the Gods knew where. Commander Yamazaki was looking for him.

His blood.

That was what the mercenary had said, but…

But…

A whine scrapped Rin’s throat before echoing in the empty tunnels.

“Lies,” he hissed, voice so tense it was about to snap.

It was then that he realised, with a certainty that froze the blood in his veins, that he wasn’t alone.

The steps were synced with his limping, hidden beneath the jingling of the Prince’s jewels. And the breathing, well― Rin’s was too loud for it to be a problem. But he heard it in the single second after speaking into the darkness, the moment he could hold his breath before it came out terrified.

The stranger was right behind Rin.

Had they followed the Prince to the mausoleum without him realising? Had they, maybe, known about the tunnels somehow? Why were they just following him? Whatever their intentions were, they had no plan to carry them out immediately― they were just playing a twisted game of cat and mouse; and Rin was, for the first time in his life, the prey.

Rin turned right, knowing the other was following. He was nearly outside. Once out of the narrow tunnel, he would be able to see, to defend himself and even demand an explanation. He still had the janbiya, stained in blood he hoped was anyone’s but his father’s.

However, the stranger’s steps fell out of pace, a horrid dissonance that made Rin’s limping come to a halt.

Time was up.

“Got tired of following me?” Rin taunted, turning around as he wielded the janbiya tighter, even though he wouldn’t see the stranger regardless.

The blow came without warning. Heavy iron impacted on the side of his head, the force slamming Rin against the wall with a jingling noise. Rin collapsed against the protruding rocks, struggled to keep standing, to retrieve the janbiya he had dropped.

His arms felt numb with a tingling that crawled up to his shoulders; for all Rin knew, the blow might have as well left him completely blind. And yet the darkness spun around, made of lumps of different shades of black closing in on him.

As soon as a hand grabbed his hair, though, Rin finally got what he needed.

A reference.

He reached up for the attacker’s fist, swung his leg forwards, knowing he would hit something. He smirked at the howl he heard in response, feeling around for the janbiya as the stranger let go of his hair, no doubt to mourn the kick to his groin.

Once he found the blade, Rin half-limped, half-crawled towards the exit –his balance had gone on vacation along with his magical skills, it seemed–, leant all his weight to open the door; but something made its way to the inside of his thigh before he could walk out, so fast Rin’s yell didn’t even have the time to leave his throat before his hair was back in the attacker’s grasp.

He realised then the injury in his leg didn’t hurt like a regular blow.

…A knife?

“Send regards to the Sultan, His Majesty.”

The slash glowed across Rin’s throat like the last bolt before darkness flooded his insides.

 

 


 

 

The Tribe of Iwatobi did not particularly like sandstorms, but Haruka was thankful for that one. The reverential fear most people professed nomads granted them immunity nearly anywhere they went, but being so close to Arqan in the middle of a coup d’état was still dangerous; it was good they were almost invisible from the city.

Especially, considering their newest guest.

Haruka rubbed at his eyes upon hearing Makoto’s steps heading inside the tent, was met with an equally exhausted expression.

“Hey,” he greeted. Makoto gave him a weary smile, sat by his side.

“No news?”

Haruka glanced down, at his drawn-up knees.

“I’m pretty sure him being still alive is the news.” He huffed, rubbed at his eyes again before burrowing his face between his knees. “…Sorry, I’m…”

“Tired.” Makoto sighed. “It’s been a rough night…” He stayed quiet for an unnaturally long time and Haruka understood before his friend quietly ordered: “Haru, stop.”

Haruka looked away, but he didn’t let go of Rin’s hand.

“…He’ll be a pain when he wakes up.”

And he prayed that was all. Without the touch of magic Rin would be undoubtedly dead, but there was only so much nomadic tribes had the knowledge to fix. The Prince was neither here nor there, trapped in a deep slumber until the most serious injuries were healed enough to weigh less on the thread his life hung from; the news arrived at the campsite disjointed and contradicting from the people sent into the city to investigate, and at some point Rin would have to confirm or deny the rumours— and learn of everything else.

If his state allowed such a thing.

“Sheikh?”

Haruka looked towards the entrance of the tent once more, gave a curt nod in response to the healer’s silent question.

While every palace he had ever visited had a protocol complicated enough to write several books –which, according to Rin, was exactly what some of his ancestors had invested years of their life on–, nomadic tribes’ traditions were more practical. Even though Haruka couldn’t say he knew the name of every one of his fellow travellers, all of them saw him regularly, the group having finally reached a hundred of adults again the year prior. There was no physical separation between the Sheikhs’ lineage and that of commoners; children grouped up and made friends regardless of family status, were taken care of by the whole tribe.

It was a warmer, more familiar environment than the rigid boundaries ruling sedentary kingdoms, where manners weren’t as important as respect itself.

The healer bowed the tiniest bit before kneeling next to Rin’s other side, setting his bag down and pulling the bedding back to change Rin’s bandages and clean his wounds.

The slash across the Prince’s throat, while terrifying even after being stitched up, wasn’t the deepest wound he sported. That twisted honour belonged to the puncture wound in his thigh; the blade had nicked the artery, nearly reaching bone. Haruka pursed his lips together at the unwelcome memory of vibrant red splattering his clothes, the sight repeating itself a hundred times before the cut was hidden beneath a clean gauze once again.

The bruises in the right side of Rin’s head, on the other hand… It was that what worried the healers the most, even more than the haemorrhage. Because wounds healed and blood was continuously produced, and the patch of hair cut off would grow again; but his head… The magic-induced sleep would help on that front, sure, but it was hard to predict what would happen when Rin broke free from the spell.

“You’re still doing it,” Makoto muttered. His voice came oddly muffled, as if Haruka’s ears were stuffed with cotton.

Haruka closed his eyes, resigned himself to the fact that Makoto was right. There had been no other option the night prior, with Rin bleeding out in his arms, but Haruka forced himself to see the bigger picture— they ignored what the intentions of the people currently ruling Samezuka were, but lowering their guard was not wise.

He squeezed Rin’s fingers, attempting to give him some of the heat radiating off his own skin, and even though Haruka knew better he still searched for a change in his expression.

There was none.

Haruka bit onto his lower lip.

The Prince would really be a pain once he awoke.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Gou had never seen her mother cry.

Out of the four of them, it had always been Rin the one who teared up the easiest, who got emotional at weddings and reading books of poems. He would try to conceal it looking down, or casually hiding behind his father’s turban until he could wipe his tears.

As children, when they felt like poking him, Gou and Sousuke would team up to make fun of such an embarrassing trait; but they both knew Rin was no weakling, with or without tears. He had a generous heart, had been brought up to be one of the best prepared monarchs in History.

It had not been enough.

The Princess had fixed her empty gaze on her intertwined hands, hoping her own tears blurred her mother’s wailing. She refused to look up— to face half her family was gone. One glance at the two corpses had been enough to engrave the twisted smirk across her brother’s throat onto her memory, to bind her father’s calm face to her nightmares for what was left of her life.

They had killed them— those bastards had murdered the Sultan and the Prince.

Gou could barely pay attention to the conversation only a couple of metres away. Riots, distress among the population and protests at the Palace gates; something the Princess would have cared about had she not been drowning in her own despair and the wrath consuming her insides. The lively tone in her cousin’s voice felt like a slap— and Gou had kept a dagger hidden between the folds of her sash since she was thirteen, but it wasn’t just Omaira.

The infirmary was infested with traitors. The Princess didn’t know how many of them were in the Palace, but she suspected they all had occupied strategical positions for their plan to be fruitful— from what she had been able to gather, a handful of high-ranked sentinels that made sure to keep the Guard under control and around eight nobles that were setting their own men in the Palace.

“Sir.” A guard entered the room in quick steps, lightly bowed before Omaira’s husband, Nur. “The execution will be tomorrow at dawn.”

“Execution?” Gou flinched at her mother’s voice, found her looking at the newcomer, for the first time away from her dead husband. Tears still streamed down her face— but the Sultana stepped next to her daughter without hesitation, upright and unashamed of the twin trails reddening her cheeks.

“Of the traitors who plotted the Sultan and the Prince’s assassination,” Omaira explained, lacing her hand with Nur’s as the guard headed out, as quickly as he had arrived; she toyed with the auburn curls falling over her shoulder.

“Are you going to the gallows yourself, cousin?” Gou grunted, ignoring the pang of uneasiness twisting her grief into nausea.

“You wish, little girl.” Omaira’s dark eyes shone, taunting. “But your people want blood to feel justice is done.”

The Sultana took a step forward. What little colour remained in her cheeks was gone.

“You are not executing innocent people,” she warned. “Not to cover your crimes, not with my permission.”

“We don’t need your permission, auntie.” Omaira squeezed Nur’s hand. “We never have, actually. You were just the Sultan’s pretty doll—”

“Watch your words,” Gou hissed, hands closing into fists at her sides. “I don’t recall you being this reckless… Must be that you feel safe, now that you’re surrounded by your kind.”

Omaira smiled, impervious to the sheer hatred in her cousin’s voice. “Aw, Gou. Better don’t talk about things you don’t understand and keep mourning your waste of a brother.”

Only the Sultana’s hold around her elbow stopped Gou from reaching for her dagger and jumping on Omaira; unlike her daughter, she showed no sign of being affected by the woman’s words.

“What makes you think I will collaborate with the likes of you, Omaira?” Her voice had no emotion whatsoever, something Gou had always both admired and envied. “You have taken my husband and my son. You will take the throne from my daughter, too. What do I… No, what do we have to lose?”

Omaira’s smirk grew malicious.

“Believe me, auntie, there is so much more we could take away.”

“And we don’t want to deny Gou her birth right,” Nur intervened. Gou raised an eyebrow. “We don’t want to uselessly shed our people’s blood, which is why Her Highness must placate the mob… She’s always been loved by the Arqanians, after all.”

Gou narrowed her eyes. “And what do I gain from this?”

“Nothing.” Omaira let go of her husband’s hand. “This is not a deal, girl. We’ve already won.

“But you’re quite fond of Comm—… ah, former Commander Yamazaki and his son, aren’t you?”

“You bitch,” Gou hissed. The Sultana’s grip on her daughter’s elbow tightened in warning. “Where are they?”

Omaira took her time to answer, inspected her painted nails. “Alive, for now… Nur isn’t a liar: this is a coup, not a slaughter.”

 “Unnecessary losses are on you, Princess.”

 

 


 

 

The tribe broke camp before Rin awoke.

Moving him so soon was not the wisest option, but the situation in Arqan was steadily heating up; it was only a matter of time the tense climate led to an uprising, and the streets were becoming increasingly unsafe at an alarming rate. No matter how important keeping the Prince alive was; as the Sheikh Haruka had a duty to keep his own people safe.

They stopped every two hours for healers to check on Rin; Makoto rode his camel close to the carriage they had prepared for him, regularly drawing the curtains to make sure there were no changes in his condition in between stops. For his part Haruka did his best to keep sitting straight, riding Chappy in the lead, but exhaustion oh so clearly weighed down on his shoulders.

Not sleeping for two nights was finally taking its toll on him, but Makoto knew the worst part was the wordless deal he had agreed to every time his friend turned his head to look at the carriage.

It was ironic, in a frustrating way, how Rin was never able to see just how much Haruka cherished him. Beyond Haruka’s sighs at Rin’s frequent invasions of his personal space and Rin’s imagination to come up with silly things to compete over, they considered each other friends, of course— but the Prince was, to Makoto’s knowledge, unaware of the way Haruka’s eyes lit up every time the tribe caught sight of the towers of the Palace, of the subtle acceleration as the gates of the city came into view.

Except the last time.

Makoto bit the inside of his cheeks, leant down to take another peek at Rin’s still figure in the carriage.

The Prince had to make it.

 

 


 

 

Sousuke had never stopped to think about how uncomfortable the dungeons of the Palace were.

To begin with, they had a ridiculously low ceiling. He could understand that it had been built centuries prior, when people’s nutrition was deficient at best, so they didn’t grow as tall as they did nowadays; if he tried hard enough, he could even accept that he was taller than most people. But even Gou’s head would brush the ceiling of the damned cell.

Then was the mould growing in the cracks of the wall— Sousuke didn’t know whether it was that or the water leaking from higher floors the main responsible for how wide they were, but he had dreamt of rats sneaking into his cell a couple of times and he wasn’t particularly fond of that idea.

Not to mention the leaks themselves. The drop… drop… drop… that echoed in the chamber and sounded louder than it should and was slowly driving Sousuke crazy.

But what the guard had the most trouble with was the lack of sunlight. Moisture clung to his joints, gave him a persistent headache; but darkness was like a cloth wrapped around his neck, slowly but surely tightening its hold until it asphyxiated him.

And the worst part was— Sousuke welcomed it.

Not the choking, not the nightmares. But counting the cracks or the droplets that fell in the corner of the cell were welcome distractions that prevented him from getting too caught up in his own mind, to fall in the abyss of his own memories.

They made sure Sousuke didn’t think about Rin for too long.

He had seen the Prince— his best friend was the last person the guard had seen before being thrown in that dank hole, the already decaying body drained of blood. When Sousuke dreamt of rats, they were eating Rin’s corpse, and if Sousuke tried to stop them they would shift their attention towards him.

But the rats were the only part of his nightmares he had yet to see with his eyes open.

Rin was dead, had got his throat slit by a bunch of traitors.

And Sousuke had done nothing to save him. He, Rin’s personal guard, had been in his room with a stomach ache, being protected by the one he was supposed to take care of.

Something within Sousuke refused to believe it. He had seen it, had been allowed to hold that blue, freezing hand; and yet he would rather think he had gone crazy before being imprisoned, that the Prince’s corpse had been but a very well-made hallucination, perhaps caused by his still upset stomach.

Because Rin couldn’t be dead. He couldn’t, because he had yet to travel to the coast and see the ocean with his own eyes, to be crowned and become the most beloved Sultan in the History of Samezuka even though he had tough rivals in his own ancestors. Rin couldn’t have been murdered just like that, because he had still not gathered the courage to confess his ten year-long infatuation to that damned nomad and propose the first lasting alliance between a nomadic tribe and a sedentary kingdom, like he had been babbling about ever since the flood that brought that tribe to the Palace.

But he was— the traitors had made sure Sousuke knew what the current situation was before throwing him in that hole, that he was fully aware there was nobody that cared about him or his father among the rats ruling the Palace.

Perhaps it was for the better that his stomach was empty; only bitterness clung to his throat when Sousuke retched, arms tight around his abdomen as if he could keep himself together if he pressed hard enough. It took him a while to notice his sobs were louder than the water leaking from the ceiling, though.

Sousuke tried to hold his breath, tried to bit his lip; because he wasn’t the only one imprisoned and his own father could probably hear him and he had no right to cry over what his own failure had brought upon himself, upon the whole kingdom.

In the end, the only thing that helped was, just like the other times, syncing his breathing with the droplets constantly falling from the damp ceiling.

 

 


 

 

The crescent moon marked the third day since Rin’s attempted murder when the tribe reached an oasis remote enough to stay for at least the earliest stages of the Prince’s recovery.

Haruka dozed off in the infirmary tent, glazed eyes finally closing during another change of bandages— he had been present for each of them, yet he couldn’t keep count of how many times he had seen the gauzes come off stained in blood. Hands that could be only Makoto’s guided him to lie on his side before the world faded to black.

Like the other times, Haruka tried to fight it off. Sleep was such an unnecessary waste of time, hours that made one disgustingly vulnerable. And Rin was already sleeping enough for the both of them; while there were no traitors in his tribe, the possibility that someone had followed them existed, tiny as it was.

Gods, Rin could come to.

Or get worse.

Or even…

No.

Haruka didn’t want to think anymore; worrying was all he could do, which made him virtually useless. So he curled up into himself, gave himself up to the darkness that had been lurking in the corners of his vision for so many hours.

He dreamt of Rin, of the immobile Prince lying at the bottom of a sea of blood.

 

 


 

 

Rin wheezed against the weight crushing his chest, a whine scratching past his lips. He struggled to lift his arms, to push the load off him, only to find nothing but air— and realise his lungs were being smashed by the sheer weight of his ribs.

Another stifled call for help scratched his aching throat, and this time there was some kind of answer from the nothingness he was caged in— a warm hand trailing down his forearm, fingers running through his hair.

“…Is he waking up already? Man, sedentary royalty is amazing.”

“Lower your voice, Asahi.”

The hands on him disappeared.

“…Shouldn’t you let him rest?”

Rin’s fingers curled into fists at the voices slipping into his ears and hammering against his skull from the inside. He retched at the pressure building up in his head, fire stinging behind his eyelids at the bitter taste that was all that lingered in his stomach.

“Pr—… Ah, His Majesty...?”

Rin’s breathing hitched at the word, a knot tying his empty stomach tight. “No…” he managed, new tears escaping the corners of his eyes. It was wrong, it was all wrong. That was the way to address the Sultan, not— “’m not… No…”

“Rin.”

The word came out quiet, hesitant; but for how short the name was its timbre lingered in the Prince’s ears, small and familiar and still— misplaced.

A hand slipped under his head, lifted him a little to help him drink water, to soothe the scorching heat in his throat before it guided him back down and disappeared. Licking his lips, Rin eventually succeeded in opening his eyes, tried to look around.

It was uncomfortably dark, though Rin was able to make out his surroundings. He could see where the trembling light barely brushing his eyes came from, but he thought the ceiling was made of leather. Around him sat four people, only two of whom the Prince recognised— but none of them fit there, for he recalled no warning prior to their arrival.

“…Haru?” he called, more air than voice. “Makoto,” he muttered at the taller man, still puzzled by their presence.

“Ah, they are two of our healers,” Makoto intervened, only partially guessing Rin’s train of thought. “Healer Serizawa, and As—… Healer Shiina, his apprentice.” Rin frowned. “We’re in an oasis not many people know of, so we’ll probably stay until you’re better… Something wrong?”

Rin tried to shake his head in an attempt to clear his mind, but he decided against it when the tent –he supposed they were in one, which explained the leather above– started spinning.

“’m not the Sultan,” he eventually mumbled— it was important, he knew it was. “That’s Father. I’m…”

“Highness, we know,” Haruka finished, but he stared down at his lap when Rin’s gaze flitted back to him.

He looked oddly subdued, brilliant eyes dulled with weariness that slouched his entire posture.

“How do you feel, Highness?” one of the healers asked— the one with glasses; his green, droopy eyes made Rin wonder whether he and Makoto were related. Even his voice was gentle, even though it held a stern edge that caught Rin off-guard.

The Prince took a second to consider it.

“Burning.” He had no idea how else to describe the overwhelming pain in his head, the scalding grip around his throat; and yet he knew, before the healer set a cautious hand on his forehead, that it wasn’t a fever. It still was nearly enough to ignore the hell crawling up his leg, though. “How…”

How was I injured, was what he wanted to ask.

But the question never made it past his lips.

A cold kiss dragged across his throat, as if metal were slicing through skin once again. Darkness made of narrow tunnels, of heavy breathing and steps synced with his limping.

“…Rin, do you remember anything?”

Rin sought Haruka’s eyes, and this time the nomad stared right back into his growing panic.

“Where are they?” the Prince asked. “Gou and my parents… And Sousuke, he was poisoned. His father was—… Did he tell you?”

Haruka shook his head slowly.

“We came to Arqan because things looked suspicious… We know your mother and sister are alright, and Yamazaki… too.”

“Father?” Haruka froze, and Rin knew he had found it. The path his friend had prepared to get away without lying or saying the truth. “I… You found me,” he muttered, more of an affirmation than a question. Haruka flinched before nodding, gaze growing curious when Rin looked around once more. “I had a… If that bastard didn’t take it… I know you can—…”

The metallic hiss of a blade being unsheathed drew Rin’s attention back to Haruka, who showed him the janbiya with the embellished black hilt.

“You mean this?” He put it down when Rin nodded, ignoring the strangled sound Makoto let out.

“He said the blood was…” Rin trailed off, throat closing at the mere thought of finishing the sentence.

Haruka bit the inside of his cheeks, and Rin could tell he was struggling with not looking aside.

“It was the Sultan’s blood.”

 

 


 

 

Haruka spent the remaining hours of darkness drifting on and off sleep.

He and Makoto had left Rin at the care of Nao and Asahi; no magic could heal grief, anyway. There was still a lot of information the Prince needed to catch up with; the sooner he came to terms with his father’s death, the sooner he would be ready to be told about all that had happened while he was unconscious.

Haruka didn’t recall asking to be the responsible for that task, but it seemed the whole tribe had one-sidedly decided he was the only one whose status was high enough to directly talk to Rin.

“Rin has no status now,” he told Makoto in the morning, when his friend suggested visiting the Prince.

Makoto winced. “Don’t be cruel. You know what I mean.”

Haruka did, but he changed his mind as soon as he peeked into the infirmary. He could hear Rin’s sobs across the place, and in spite of the darkness reigning inside the leather tent the nomad picked up on the tremors running down his back. He retreated in silence, deciding to take a bath instead.

Rin was a proud man, and he didn’t like crying with witnesses.

In the desert, water was the most precious resource; but for Haruka it also provided a sort of comfort that was completely out of reach anywhere else. His grandmother used to tell him that he had been born in the heart of the desert, miles away from the closest body of water; Haruka had come into the world frail and feverish with a yearning no magic, lullaby or embrace would relieve. It was four days afterwards that the tribe reached the sea— and it was that night, when his mother bathed him with salt water and moonlight, that his wailing stopped and his fever lowered.

Looking back,” his father would comment, stroking his hair, “it’s no wonder you learnt to manipulate water by yourself.

Even in the current situation, swimming in the lake at the centre of the oasis was able to soothe Haruka’s nerves, painfully on edge for longer than three days already; everything was too confusing and strange and wrong for the nomad to drift into oblivion for longer than a few minutes, but he wanted to think the worst part was already over. Rin was awake now, and he was injured and in pain but he was alive.

There would be time to figure everything out later.

Haruka stayed floating on his back until the Sun rose high enough to sting his skin with the threat of a burn; he swam back to the shore, put his clothes on and walked back towards the campsite. He forgot his plan to eat something, though, when Asahi approached him as soon as he reached the first tent, a worried grimace plastered to his face.

“What happened?” Haruka questioned, wiping a stray droplet of water off his temple. “Is Rin…?”

“Ah, no, he’s alright.” Asahi clicked his tongue. Nao might not care much about protocol, but the redhead had always been an absolute disaster when it came to manners. “It’s just, well…”

Two minutes later, as he walked in the infirmary tent and headed straight for the mattress Rin was lying on, Haruka tried his best not to look as annoyed as he felt.

The Prince was still lying on his left side, facing the wall opposite the entrance. His breathing had evened out at last, but every now and then a hiccup wrecked his entire form. He didn’t move when Haruka entered his field of view, oblivious to the nomad’s attempts to be loud; only when he sat down on the mat did Rin glance up.

Haruka threw a glance at the plate of fruit and the glasses of water and milk, reluctantly picked a grape before looking back into still reddened eyes.

“Good morning.”

Rin snorted, gestured towards the fruit with his chin. “I said I’m not hungry.”

“And I said I’d make sure you eat,” Haruka replied, “so sit up.”

The Prince frowned, mildly mortified.

“You’re not feeding me.”

Dear Gods, Haruka hoped so. “Then eat yourself.”

Rin shook his head, fists curling tighter.

Haruka’s gaze wandered to the bandage wrapped around Rin’s head, halted upon seeing the mess of matted locks his hair had become even though it had been washed only a day prior. Not to mention the shorter patch… And the bruises on the right side of his face; Haruka prayed nobody gave Rin a mirror until he looked less like a ghoul with a particularly bad day. The Prince was way too vain for his own good.

“You’re less of a pain when you’re sleeping.”

Rin blinked several times, clearly not expecting that comment. “Well, sorry I woke up?”

Haruka hadn’t exactly expected Rin to understand. The Prince was far from thick, but he had a knack for misinterpreting half of what Haruka told him; it was truly incredible in an annoying, endearing way.

“It’s not that,” he muttered, grateful sunlight didn’t reach inside the tent as he threw the grape in his mouth. “I like you better when you’re awake.”

It took Rin some minutes to speak; Haruka looked down, revelling on the sweetness of the fruit. He wasn’t sure whether he was more embarrassed by his words or Rin’s lack thereof; he didn’t regret them— but if half the things Haruka said flew past him, the Prince had an unnerving skill for seeing more than Haruka intended to show through the other half.

That, and a unique talent to get under the nomad’s skin.

Haruka didn’t want to dwell on what would happen the day Rin noticed too much.

“…Thank you.” The smallest smile lit up the Prince’s expression when Haruka gathered the courage to raise his gaze. “For finding me.”

Haruka shook his head, trying to get rid of a heat that had nothing to do with the Sun shining through the tent leather.

“Just eat something,” he nearly pleaded.

Rin was still too weary to sit up without help, but once he found himself comfortably leaning on pillows and cushions he only needed Haruka to hand the plate to him; for his part, Haruka drew his knees up against his chest, watched the Prince’s winces as he ate and tried not to let his mind wander anywhere else.

“Hey,” Rin eventually called— he hadn’t eaten more than half an orange and a couple of grapes, but it was more than Asahi had managed. “Did you see him?”

Haruka tilted his head. “Him?” But he understood when Rin raised his hand towards his still bandaged neck. “Ah… A bit.”

In his list of things Rin needs to know, the circumstances surrounding the moment Haruka had found him were so far down the line he couldn’t even see them. Which was good, because the Prince drowning on his own blood was not something Haruka was willing to think about when his friend’s wounds weren’t closed yet.

Haruka hugged his knees, grabbed fistfuls of his sirwal so tightly his knuckles paled; but, for once, Rin seemed satisfied with half the truth.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Rin dozed off shortly after eating.

He awoke to agony and a yell that came out as a feeble whine; his throat protested at the noise, invisible nails digging deeper into the wound in his thigh. The healer that resembled Makoto was by his side in a second, holding his head to help him drink something warm.

Rin whipped his head to the side on instinct, though, at the bitter taste of the first droplets in his mouth.

“Highness, I know it doesn’t taste good, but it’ll ease the pain,” the healer gently coaxed, the edge of the glass setting on Rin’s lower lip again. “It’s not that bad, is it?”

It was easily the most awful thing Rin had ever had, but he took a few sips anyway, face scrunching up every time he swallowed. When the healer considered he had had enough he guided Rin’s head back down, but he walked away before the Prince could ask him anything.

…Not that Rin particularly wanted to speak, anyway. He stared at the ceiling with glassy eyes, tried to think of something, anything other than the pain threatening to strangle him; by the time it subsided he was so far gone in his own mind he couldn’t even find his voice.

 

 


 

 

He wasn’t startled by the roar of the quickly approaching flood.

The noise was engraved in his memory, perhaps the only permanent thing about that day. He recognised it like an old acquittance, though not a friendly one.

He rushed across the empty campsite, calling for the members of his tribe. Makoto, Nagisa, Kisumi— even a timid Mum and a desperate Dad left his lips in his hurry. But nobody rushed out of the tents; Haruka’s voice came out small and quiet in spite of the screams tearing his throat. They had already left, and had forgotten him there.

He stomped his foot on the ground in frustration. The flood was nearly there.

But when Haruka raised his gaze and looked past the tents, the torrent towering over him was different.

Clean.

Red.

With a hostage inside, a human silhouette the nomad recognised as effortlessly as his own breathing.

Haruka had no voice left by then, so no sound came to call that figure.

It wouldn’t have changed anything.

Just like it had done for the latest years, the flood devastated the campsite.

It tore the tents off, devoured camels and carriages and closed in on Haruka as he squeezed his eyes shut, not opening them until the stream of blood engulfed him. He looked around, barely discerning the disaster around him through the red veil clinging to his eyes, swam towards the still figure as soon as he saw it.

But the bloodstained water didn’t let him. It had long fingers that curled around his limbs, holding him back; it didn’t matter he wanted to go fetch that person or breach for air.

It pushed him down, down, down—

…and Haruka kept sinking, because the ground beneath was gone.

 

 


 

 

The metallic taste of blood accompanied Haruka to wakefulness.

The don’t don’tdon’t don’t rushing in his mind like the flood that had filled his nightmares for the latest week was as loud as it was useless, for the amalgam choking him was made of real events that since the Sultan’s assassination were more stubborn about suffocating him than they had ever been. Haruka had long since stopped caring what was real and what a twisted fantasy he would be never able to shake off, but barely anything up until the point he had met Rin felt impossible enough to discard it as a mere dream.

It had been ten years since half his tribe drowned, and several months since the last time he had a similar nightmare.

Until the Sultan’s death, that’s it.

Despite knowing it happening again was impossible –the Tribe of Iwatobi had learnt from their tragedy, and no matter how clear the skies looked, there was always someone watching out for all of them–, Haruka still scurried out of the asphyxiating cosiness of his tent, barely aware of the cold seeping through his nightwear, shaking him whole.

Nothing about the wide valley the oasis was in spoke of danger. The nearly full moon bathed the campsite gently, almost shy; it smelt of humidity and water and incense and only Makin and Aki were outside, taking advantage of the quietude to cuddle without her parents’ disapproving frown looming over them. They didn’t even notice Haruka’s stare— not that he had more thoughts about their supposedly secret relationship than he had in regards to the letters Kisumi wrote daily for someone whose name he refused to say.

The ground under his feet was compact as he advanced, the kind that allowed more plants to take root; but his naked soles sunk in the thin, perennial layer of sand brought by the wind as he wandered among the tents, unable to even feel relief by the fact that he had successfully avoided Aki and Makin seeing him in such a pitiful state.

He noticed where the iron in his mouth came from when his steps came to a halt: he had bitten his tongue. He recognised the entry to the infirmary as soon as he allowed himself to look around again, both surprised and disgusted at himself; the freezing water of the lake was not an excuse to end up here once again.

But the relief of dawn and routine wasn’t close, either, so Haruka resigned himself to give in just one more time, breathed deeply until he was more or less confident to be able to attribute the tremors running down his spine exclusively to the cold.

Not that Rin would notice, Haruka mused as he stepped in the infirmary, making his way to the Prince’s mattress in the darkness.

Since the effects of the slumber Nao had put him in had worn off, the chances to talk to him were scarce: more often than not the Prince was too spaced out to even listen, and the precious time span between that state and the agony of his wounds healing grew too slowly for Haruka’s taste; between the meetings with the Council of the Tribe and Rin’s nearly perennial delirium, they hadn’t had a proper conversation since the Sheikh convinced Rin to eat.

Perhaps that was the reason Haruka tripped over his own foot when he heard the Prince’s voice cutting through the darkness.

“Who is it?” Rin sounded wary and hesitant and clearer than he had for the latest days.

“Me.”

“…That’s not an answer, Haru.”

Haruka sought the edge of the mattress with his hands before sitting down, then felt around for the oil lamp he knew was somewhere close and lit it up with a snap of his fingers.

He found Rin covered in a thick blanket, hands clutching at fistfuls of fabric. Even if opium barely clouded his eyes now, the Prince’s lips were tightly pressed together, a hint of uneasiness clinging to his gaze as it flitted around, as if trying to make sure he was somewhere safe— or at least familiar.

“You still knew it was me,” Haruka replied quietly, not wanting to wake Nao and Asahi.

Rin shrugged. “You’re the only creep that likes to hang at my bedside I can think of.”

He closed his eyes, but Haruka kept staring at him, mildly terrified. He had assumed Rin hadn’t noticed the other times the Sheikh had been there, lying on the empty mattress next to the Prince to console himself with his breathing.

“…I thought you’d be asleep,” he eventually admitted.

“Can’t.” Rin brought his hand to his eyes, rubbed at them. “I woke up and it was too dark… Can you make the lamp keep burning all night?”

“That’s not hard.” Haruka set the lamp on the mat. “Are you in pain?”

“Don’t drug me again,” Rin warned with a hiss, and when he opened his eyes there was a glare in them. “It’s driving me crazy, I swear. I feel so stupid, I don’t even know how long it’s been since…”

“Four days since you woke up,” Haruka supplied. “And seven… Seven since I found you.”

“Since that bastard killed my father.” The flame of the lamp trembled, shaken by the vitriol in the Prince’s voice. Haruka, on the other hand, found solace in such wrath— for Rin sounded, looked –felt– alive again. “There’s more, right?”

Haruka exhaled slowly.

“More what?”

Rin grunted. “About that night… You said Mother and Gou are fine, but the Palace… Did they arrest…?” He trailed off when Haruka shook his head. “What else happened?”

Haruka couldn’t say he hadn’t been expecting such a question, but when he had let his feet guide him to Rin he had only hoped that his presence would chase the nightmare away.

But Rin needed to know— deserved to, more than anyone.

“It was your cousin’s doing,” he started, not sure how to organise what his spy had found out.

He knitted his eyebrows together when Rin choked out a strangled noise.

“Omaira?” Haruka nodded; Rin scrunched up his nose. “That snake.”

“She’s not the only one,” Haruka continued, not knowing how to sugar-coat such a terrible truth. “Her husband, and other families… They hired a mercenary to kill you and your father…”

Haruka recalled the invitation to attend the wedding of the Princess in the neighbouring Kingdom of Varauli, Kisumi’s conflicted feelings when asked about the possible reasons behind such a suspicious event right when they were heading for Arqan. The picked-up pace afterwards, and the tracking spell and the hidden door at the feet of the hill Arqan had been built on—

…and the blood.

Dribbling down Rin’s throat, soaking his white clothes, pooling on the ground beneath.

Flooding Haruka’s dreams.

He had wanted to follow the stranger grabbing Rin’s hair. He had wanted to chase after him, to drain the life out of those malicious hazel eyes with his bare hands for daring to lay a hand on the Prince. But he hadn’t— he had barely managed to cling to his sanity and keep Rin alive until they made it back to the campsite.

“Haru?”

The warm fingers curling around his wrist startled him. He jerked back, magic prickling in the palm of his hands on instinct until he raised his gaze to meet red, alarmed eyes.

“Are you alright?” Rin went on, voice laced with worry.

Rin, who had been on the verge of death just a week prior and even now could barely walk.

Worried.

(About you.)

And Haruka despised everything about himself for giving away the turmoil within his chest, for how hard it was to just keep breathing, but he couldn’t for the life of him tear his thoughts off that damned night.

“…I didn’t kill him.”

He hadn’t.

That man was still out there, alive and free.

Rin frowned. “Who?” He reached for Haruka again, this time gentler. “Hey, Haru,” he squeezed his arm, “what’s wrong?”

Haruka shook his head, swallowed the remnants of blood in his mouth and came up with a pitiful excuse of a lie.

“Nothing.” Rin’s scowl deepened. “Nothing,” he repeated, irritated. “What was… I…”

“The mercenary,” the Prince reminded Haruka, still sceptical.

“…Yamazaki and his father are rumoured to be in prison.” Haruka spluttered, clinging to what he knew and didn’t involve thinking about the man that had been so close to taking Rin’s life. “Gou gave a speech the day before we left; she said the traitors had been identified and caught, that she would be the Sultana in your place… She and your mother were there for their execution. But the executed men were actually just thieves.”

What?” Rin struggled to sit up, and in spite of the remnants of drug he looked more awake than Haruka felt. “But wasn’t it… Wasn’t Omaira the one…”

“We don’t think Gou’s acting out of free will,” Haruka quickly clarified, guessing where Rin’s thoughts were derailing to. “She… Everyone in Arqan,” he tried again, because perhaps that was the most disgusting part about the whole ordeal, “they think you’re dead.”

“…Why?” Rin’s voice came out feeble, more air than sound. “I’m not, I’m here— there’s no—… There’s no corpse…”

He trailed off; he looked like he wanted to throw up.

Haruka avoided his gaze, the wide red begging him to admit that his words were but a joke.

“There’s… It seems there is a corpse.” He bit his tongue, winced when his teeth sunk into the fresh wound he had inflicted minutes prior. “And looks a lot like you, they say…” Haruka forced himself to glance up, to face the horror slowly taking over the Prince. “There’s no way they did that without magic, but that explains why the mercenary had to cut your hair.”

Rin’s hand flew to the area of his head where the red locks were shorter. “…Didn’t your people refuse to interfere in sedentary kingdoms’ business?”

“Nobody from my tribe has anything to do with that.” Haruka would have sworn that on his life.

“But you nomads never teach anyone else magic,” Rin argued. “It was one of your kind.”

The accusatory edge in the Prince’s voice was sharp enough to slice through Haruka’s determination, through the pride and the conviction about his people’s ethics. His eyes reflected the flame shedding a trembling light in the infirmary, poisoned it with a reproach that was as rightful as Haruka wanted it to be misplaced.

“You’re right about that.” Haruka admitted, shifting his weight until he was kneeling; he took a deep breath before bowing to Rin until his forehead almost reached the mattress, eyes tightly shut. “On behalf of the Twelve Great Tribes, I apologise for the misdemeanour.”

“Wh— Haru, you don’t…” Haruka heard the shuffle of the blanket, but he didn’t straighten up— nor did Rin’s fingers reach him. “I wouldn’t think for a second you guys…”

“We wouldn’t,” Haruka confirmed— words came clumsy, abrupt, tripping over his tongue. “Regardless of our rules, we… We don’t forget.” He opened his eyes. “Arqan opened its gates for us ten years ago; your family gave us shelter when we lost everything.

“There are twelve tribes, but we’re actually only one, split across the desert.” Haruka breathed out slowly. “A betrayal to one is a betrayal to all of us… I’m so sorry one of us did this to your family.”

Rin’s hand finally reached Haruka’s shoulder, weakly pushed him up. “Rise,” he ordered, and they had the same status but the nomad obeyed, knelt up and looked at Rin’s half sad, half bewildered expression. “I’m not blaming you—… You saved my life, after all.”

Haruka’s fingers curled into fists. “But you’re angry. And you have the right to.”

“Well, you don’t have the duty to feel guilty about what that bastard did,” Rin declared, firm. “You can’t control everything, Haru.”

Betrayal and thirst for power were more common in sedentary kingdoms, where boundaries between the rich and the poor were easier to set. It was seen as unavoidable, and it was the main reason nomads refused to settle— moving around kept them a family, safe from the corruption ownership brought. While there were fights derived from envy over others’ belongings, they were rare and considered shameful for the parties involved.

That was something Rin would never be able to grasp, simply because he had been raised where honesty was the exception.

So Haruka just nodded, too tired to keep arguing.

 

 


 

 

Seven days after awakening, Rin attended a Council meeting.

It was Haruka who told him to, because the pain was bearable now and the Prince had made sure healer Serizawa –Nao– knew he would rather writhe in agony a little than keep having his existence reduced to light-headedness and delirious dreams.

He had no idea what he was supposed to say— from what Haruka had explained, Rin might have as well been invited to just watch how the meeting developed; but the Prince awoke at dawn, spent a good while to pick what he wanted to wear from the chest a man who looked twice as big as Sousuke (Makin, Highness, he had introduced himself quite brusquely) had left the night prior in the infirmary.

Rin made his way inside a white tunic that resembled one he used to wear in the Palace between grunts and groans, the stab wound in his leg still too fresh but his pride too big to ask the healers for help. He scrunched up his nose when he looked into the small mirror he had asked for a couple of days prior, tied a red turban around his head to conceal the shorter patch of hair. There was nothing he could do to hide the bruises turning green in the right side of his head, though.

Even though he also sported smaller contusions in his left shoulder from bouncing against the wall when the mercenary had hit his head –what with, Rin still had no idea–, his right side had taken the worst part: the wound in his thigh throbbed with each beat of his heart even when he was just lying down and his ankle was still sore, even though the afternoon prior Rin had managed to walk around the tent without leaning on the healer for support.

That, and the disgusting slash across his throat, standing out against the pale skin as if it had been etched with kohl.

When Haruka stepped in the infirmary to pick him up, his gaze immediately fell to the jewels hanging from Rin’s neck, tearing a frustrated growl off the Prince. He was supposed to not look there.

“You don’t need to dress up that much, it’s just a meeting,” he pointed out, purposefully missing the point.

He wasn’t even wearing a turban, just his sirwal and black top; on his hips, with his scimitar, rested the sheathed janbiya, gems adorning its black hilt.

Rin tore his glare off the blade, buried his hands in the box he had found at the bottom of the chest and scowled at the golden ring he pulled out at random. “I just want to make a good impression, that’s all.”

He wasn’t really expecting Haruka would buy the blatant lie, but he had hoped his friend would at least be nice enough to pretend he did.

“Scars aren’t something to be ashamed of, Rin.” He spoke slowly, so quietly Rin would have only had to rattle the jewellery box to drown his voice out. But the Prince didn’t move. “They’re where wounds used to be, and they exist because you survived.”

Rin ground his teeth together.

“It’s repulsive.”

“It’s not.” But Haruka must have not been in a mood for arguing, for he didn’t insist when the Prince shook his head because he didn’t understand. “Let’s go.”

Rin barely limped as he headed outside behind Haruka, his ankle nearly completely healed. Haruka said nothing, only greeted the people they passed with a curt nod until they reached what he had said was the Tachibanas’ tent. There wasn’t a specific tent set for meetings, he had explained, so they rotated among the members of the Council’s homes.

Once they walked in, Rin counted six people sitting around a low table; he assumed they had been waiting for him while he struggled to cover the traces of his most recent murder attempt. He recognised Makoto and the older healer, Nao, and after staring for a couple of seconds he recalled the man with pink hair was called Kisumi; the other three women were vaguely familiar, perhaps from seeing them behind Haruka and his grandmother all the times they had visited Arqan since that flood.

“Greetings, Sheikh,” an old woman said. Grey curls fell out of her bun, brushed a long scar that cut through her cheek, from her nose to her earlobe. The other people repeated her words quietly as Haruka and Rin sat down between Makoto and Kisumi. “Greetings, Prince.”

Rin bit the insides of his cheeks. He was no prince. For everyone outside the Tribe of Iwatobi, he wasn’t even alive.

“She is Natsuki,” Makoto introduced. He looked mildly conflicted, but when he went on: “the oldest member of our Council,” Rin was sure that was not what his friend had originally intended to say.

“Pleased to meet you,” he replied. His gaze quickly hopped off Natsuki’s disfigured face, Haruka’s earlier words resounding in his ears.

“Sadira,” Makoto continued, oblivious to Rin’s turmoil; a very pregnant blonde whose age Rin was unable to guess gave him a bright smile, “and Hikari.”

If Sadira was light, Hikari was darkness; her skin was heavily tanned from the unforgiving Sun, and her black eyes had no glow in them. She looked around Omaira’s age, very bored to be in the meeting. She still bowed the tiniest bit in acknowledgement in response to Rin’s own nod, glance focused on the table.

“I guess you already know me,” Nao commented, “and Kisumi swears you two are friends.”

Truth be told, as a child Rin had played more with Haruka and Makoto than he had with Kisumi, despite all of them being the same age. Kisumi would nearly always be sick –according to Makoto, due to his gift– and even now he looked paler than the Prince had in the mirror, his fingers shaking slightly around the glass he held on top of the table.

“We are!” he assured, though.

Perhaps prompted by Rin’s nod, Haruka huffed; but made no comment.

“After deliberating for eight days, we have finally reached an agreement regarding our stance after the coup d’état in Arqan,” Natsuki started— her voice was a perpetual growl, and Rin did not know whether it was due to her nature or her apparent disagreement with the words she had to speak in behalf of the Council. “Our rules regarding not interfering with sedentary kingdoms’ conflicts go back to the founding of Arqan and the Kingdom of Samezuka, nearly seven hundred years ago; and there are good reasons for it.

“However, the fact that such a shameful situation was caused, or at least contributed to by one of our kind is something there are no precedents of.” Her small, bright eyes hopped between Haruka and Rin. “I do not like it, Prince,” she grunted. “We may not worship the Gods the same way you sedentary people, but we do respect our laws. Gratitude shouldn’t bind us, regardless of the former Sheika’s opinions—…”

“…Grandma Natsuki,” Haruka cut the woman off, quiet, “she’s not among us anymore.”

’Grandma?’

Natsuki breathed out something between a sigh and a huff. “I know that, Haruka. I know, but she…”

“Anyway,” Makoto cut her off, voice an octave higher than usual, “a betrayal to one of us is a betrayal to all the tribes.” Haruka looked at his best friend, but Natsuki kept staring at the Sheikh. “We cannot act on our own, not before figuring out which tribe the traitor is from; it’s their job to pick a punishment for them. We will have to wait until that happens in the Great Meeting in Lagar before acting.

“That being said, once that is settled the Council has resolved that, as gratitude for giving us shelter after the flood ten years ago, we want to offer you, Rin, the Tribe’s help to reclaim your throne.”

Makoto’s lips quirked up in the smallest smile when he finished speaking; Rin, for his part, could barely raise his eyebrows in surprise, jaw slack.

Because he was grateful to Haruka for finding him, to Nao and Asahi for taking care of him and the whole tribe for staying in the oasis as his wounds healed even though they surely had places to visit and deals to make, but he would have never even thought of them as active allies, as an actual help to return to Arqan and get rid of the traitors.

He wasn’t naïve enough not to realise the decision hadn’t been unanimous; Natsuki, for one, didn’t even bother to pretend she wasn’t completely against it, and the cautious glint in Nao’s eyes gave away what his gentle expression tried to conceal.

So he could do nothing but to thank them.

 

 


 

 

The Tachibanas’ tent gradually emptied when the meeting was done; Rin accompanied Nao to the infirmary after declaring he was starving, Haruka nearly ran in his desperation to reach the lake and Natsuki abandoned the tent with Sadira and Hikari among a quiet grumbling no doubt related to the Sheikh’s decision to offer the legitimate Prince the Tribe’s assistance.

Kisumi chuckled as the old woman headed out, but was careful she didn’t hear him.

“She’ll never stop hating Haru, right?” he commented once he and Makoto were alone.

“Old Natsuki doesn’t hate Haru,” Makoto argued. He followed Kisumi with his gaze, watched as his friend headed towards a chest he already knew was full of alcoholic beverages. “You drink too much.”

Kisumi shrugged, shuffled in the chest until he took what Makoto identified as the strongest substance they had. “It helps with the headaches,” he replied, steps wobbly when he walked back to the table and dropped in front of Makoto, struggling to open the bottle. “Want some?”

Makoto shook his head, couldn’t help his frown when his friend filled the glass and downed it in two gulps.

“And then you complain Haru’s mean to you…” It wasn’t as if Makoto enjoyed Haruka’s caustic remarks to their friend, but he disliked having to convince Kisumi to behave when he was too drunk to get a grip of himself just as much. “Does it hurt that much?”

Kisumi raised his gaze, bottle levitating to refill the glass.

“’s not about the pain,” he muttered. “Not entirely…” He looked the golden liquid inside. “I get what Haru is trying to do, but it’ll only bring misery.”

Something cold dropped in Makoto’s stomach.

“What did you see?”

In spite of the children playing outside, of the adults talking as they passed, an unnatural silence flooded the tent for the seconds it took for the seer to utter a barely audible answer:

“Death. The desert, consumed by fire— and blood, enough to drown in it.” He glanced up, pleading. “I doubt he wants it –I doubt he knows–, but this is what the Prince will bring to the Tribe, Makoto. And Haru won’t listen to me— he keeps clinging to the other possibilities, but I swear I’ve never seen fewer than now.

“I don’t know what is going on in Arqan, but soon hell will crawl up to devour us.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

The Tribe left the oasis two weeks after arriving.

The order was given the day prior; Makin and his twin Mahir informed every family the Council hadn’t told directly yet, and soon everyone stopped their chores and devoted themselves to gather their belongings and make sure their mounts were in a good condition to resume their never-ending trip. In the afternoon, a short-haired girl that exuded that distinct smell of domestic animals dragged Rin to the shore of the lake, where she took care of the camels.

“I’m Aki! Main camel caretaker and route designer,” she introduced herself, walking across a sea of animals whose fur ranged between the palest beige and the darkest black, with an enviable grace Rin struggled to mimic. “And she’s Saf,” she added, patting a camel’s neck.

Saf was the colour of cinnamon and looked slightly smaller than the animals around her. She didn’t stop chewing the cud at Aki’s enthusiasm; but her big, black eye fixed on Rin, unblinking. The Prince hesitated before taking a step forward, transfixed by her long lashes.

“She’s one of my youngest children, but she’s really good and docile, I don’t think you’ll have trouble with her…” Aki scratched under Saf’s chin, then looked back at Rin, beaming. “Come closer, Highness! I want to make sure you two will get along.”

Truth be told, Rin had never been too interested in animals. It was true Gou had adopted a sand cat when they were children, but Steve was a fat, lazy ball of fur that had never liked the Prince.

“…I don’t think I’m good with animals.”

Aki raised an eyebrow. “That’s nonsense. The only people no animal likes are those with a rotten heart, and the Sheikh wouldn’t have mobilised the entire Tribe for you if you were one.” Her bright eyes sought Rin’s, but the Prince had fallen silent at the news. “But animals have personalities, just like humans; you can’t expect everyone to like you, right?”

Rin gave a resigned nod after a couple of seconds, Aki’s smile growing wider when he gingerly approached Saf. Trying not to think about the scratches he had got throughout the years from attempting to touch his sister’s pet, he raised his hand, halted a second as the camel followed the movement with her gaze and, slowly, reached for her neck.

Saf blinked and continued chewing.

“See? She likes you!” Aki patted the camel’s hump, enthusiastic and affectionate. “Most of them have preferences, like you’d expect,” she added, more quietly, “but they tend to behave well with everyone… Just don’t get close to Chappy.”

“Chappy?” The name lit something within Rin’s head, but he couldn’t place it.

Aki pointed at a camel that was close to the water, pale as the desert sand. Even though he was sitting, he was almost twice as big as Saf and visibly older. “He’s the Sheikh’s. And doesn’t like people other than him, at all. He even bit the Tachibana twins once…”

Rin arched an eyebrow, amused. There were no other camels around Chappy, a space they seemed to grant him out of caution. “That sounds familiar.”

“I don’t bite.”

The Prince flinched at the sudden retort, turned around just in time to see Haruka nearly slide towards his camel.

“I didn’t mention you,” Rin shot back, and he couldn’t help a smirk when Haruka glared at him, pressing the rolled-up towels he carried under his arm against his side.

“Don’t make fun of Chappy.”

“I would never,” Rin assured, running his hand down Saf’s dark neck. “But it’s no wonder it’s yours.”

“Hm, Sheikh.” Aki slightly bowed when Haruka glanced at her. Chappy stretched his neck around Haruka’s waist, snatched the ripe apple he carried and swallowed it whole. “Saf likes the Prince.”

“Good.” Haruka scratched between Chappy’s small ears, the camel nuzzling his hip, then looked back at Rin, eyes brighter than the Sun above. “Can you swim?”

Rin could, but he would have nodded had Haruka asked a couple of days after waking up, anyway. He barely remembered to wave Aki goodbye as he followed Haruka along the edge of the lake, until they reached an area where long, flat rocks gradually disappeared beneath the surface. Rin snorted when Haruka took his clothes off in a blink, dropped them next to the towels he had brought and nearly ran into the water.

“You’ve had two weeks to swim there,” he commented, taking his turban off to set the borrowed jewels on top of it. Regardless of what Haruka said, his throat was an upsetting sight— and even as its pink faded to a parchment-like colour, it stood out against his pale skin. He glanced up when Haruka didn’t answer, but instead of seeing him already reaching the opposite shore of the lake he found the Sheikh staring at his every move, too close to be completely submerged. “What?”

Haruka shook his head. “Are you coming or not?”

Rin was unfastening his sash; but scars could be damned, he stepped out of his tunic nearly as quickly as Haruka had and strode into the water, ignoring its cold bites crawling up his ankles, his shins, his knees—

…and then the ground disappeared and Rin sunk into the lake like a particularly heavy rock, arms flailing in alarm until he breached and found Haruka failing to conceal his amusement.

“I could’ve split up my head!” Rin complained; Haruka rowed with his arms, cautiously drawing back until he was out of the Prince’s reach.

“Your head’s pretty resistant,” Haruka replied, convinced. As if he had proof.

(Admittedly, he kind of did.)

Rin snorted. “This is the kind of thing you should warn people about.”

“I thought you’d seen me.”

“I have better things to do than looking at you.”

“It seems looking where you put your feet isn’t one of them,” Haruka commented, turning around to swim to the deepest part of the lake.

Rin followed him, not sure whether it was a race or a chase that would end with either of them plunging the other underwater for a couple of seconds.

“Despite what Aki says I bet you’re worse than your camel.”

“…Don’t get close to Chappy if you appreciate your fingers.”

There was something comforting about their bickering, about the familiarity of it all. Rin felt idiotic for the relief just being in the water with Haruka brought; but his father had been murdered a fortnight prior and his life was in shambles and he was dead for everyone except the hundred people in the Tribe of Iwatobi, and having at least something be the same was… good, he guessed.

Not enough, something within him chimed in.

Whatever it was, Rin had to admit it was right.

But that wasn’t Haruka’s fault.

 

 


 

 

The Sun had nearly disappeared behind the dunes when they got tired of swimming.

Rin climbed out of the lake first, shivering when the already chilly wind blew on his wet skin. Haruka was quite cold, himself, but he revelled in the water for some more minutes, for it would be a while until he could be submerged like this again.

Besides, in the dying light of dusk Rin’s guard was lowered, more than it had been throughout the latest days. He didn’t rush to hide inside his borrowed clothes, confident darkness would conceal the now yellowish hue of his bruises and the almost closed wounds. And he might be out of shape –like he had claimed when Haruka had won four races in a row without breaking a sweat–, but with each movement came the sight of muscles tensing and stretching beneath that pale skin.

Haruka’s gaze climbed up the Prince’s ankles, his calves, the back of his knees— and as he looked further up, beyond the new-born scar testifying the stab wound in his thigh, the Sheikh was suddenly thankful for the freezing water sinking its sharp claws into his flesh. For the better or the worse, though, Rin chose that very moment to wrap himself up in one of the towels; Haruka plunged his head beneath the surface to chase all the blood away from his cheeks before he was caught.

“Won’t you get cold?” Rin muttered when he breached.

Rich, coming from someone whose lips were blue.

But his gaze strayed off Haruka before receiving an answer, focused on the blades that had fallen among his clothes. When he reached out, though, it was the sheathed janbiya with the black hilt which he grabbed, fingers trembling just barely as he took the blade out of its green case, running his fingertips along the curved edge.

“Do you want it?” Haruka heard himself ask, quiet enough not to startle Rin. He didn’t want the Prince to accidentally cut his fingers off.

Rin set the janbiya down again, glanced at Haruka. “Why did you keep it?”

Haruka shrugged. He hoisted himself up to the platform that ventured into the lake, lying on his stomach as the ripples lapped at his chin.

“At first I thought it was yours,” he admitted.

“Now you know it’s not.”

The swings in Rin’s mood were decidedly unpredictable these days, but that particular remark didn’t register as a reproach in Haruka’s ears.

“It’s still a good blade.” Haruka stood up, headed for the other towel; the water was definitely getting too cold and he had no wish to fall sick. When he turned around, though, Rin was still staring at the janbiya, something undecipherable darkening his gaze.

Truth be told, Haruka had no idea what to do with the dagger. While pragmatism was one of the pillars his society was built upon, he could not forget that beautiful janbiya had been the tool used to assassinate the Sultan. He had consulted Makoto, but his friend’s only advice had been pointing out that if anyone had the right to decide what to do about it, that was Rin.

“Hey, Haru,” the Prince called, so late Haruka had already got dressed and was carefully setting his scimitar to his left side. “Can I keep it?”

Haruka’s blue eyes met conflicted red, but he nodded anyway. Rin’s expression grew puzzled when the Sheikh extended his hand towards him, palm up.

“Lend it to me for a second,” he ordered. Rin handed him the janbiya, more perplexed the longer Haruka held it between his palms; the Sheikh closed his eyes, but he still sensed the glow of the blade through his lids as he whispered in a forgotten language, a bluish hue clinging to its steel even after the spell was successfully affixed. “Here,” he declared, giving it back to Rin.

Rin grabbed the janbiya cautiously, studied its faint glow; it illuminated his face, making it look paler than usual.

“What did you do?”

“Enchanting it.” Haruka leant his hand on the hilt of his scimitar, caressed it with his thumb. “It will deactivate whatever magic someone might be using if you draw blood. All our weapons are like this.”

Rin frowned. “Don’t you consider violence shameful?”

“That doesn’t mean we aren’t ready to defend ourselves,” Haruka replied. “Besides, nomads aren’t the only magic users wandering the desert…

“And the others hate us.”

 

 


 

 

They parted at dawn.

Rin could hardly recognise the campsite when he walked out of the infirmary; most tents were gone, and the remaining ones were on their way to be taken down too. The Prince himself helped Asahi to gather the few mattresses and pillows still in the infirmary and load them up in one of the carriages, but soon the items flew out of his hands, headed, apparently by themselves, towards the carriage.

Rin had to admit magic had its advantages, but watching Ran (little Ran, who didn’t look older than ten) be more helpful than himself was quite a blow to his pride.

“The twins are nine, actually,” Makoto corrected, and it wasn’t until he walked past Rin that the Prince realised he had spoken aloud.

“Don’t make it worse,” he pleaded. Makoto chuckled. “Where are we going?” came after a couple of seconds, realising Haruka hadn’t mentioned it in any of their conversations.

“The coast.” Makoto didn’t tear his gaze off his siblings. “We’ll stop in Khashbi first, though.”

Rin couldn’t speak again, though, because the camels’ distinctive smell preceded Aki; the route designer walked in the terrace where the campsite had been followed by her animals— Makin and Mahir advanced among them, the latter making sure none stayed behind. Such care seemed unnecessary, though, for Haruka and Chappy were the last ones and no camel seemed to want to get close to the old, always moody one.

Immediately the nomads approached their respective mounts –how they could tell them apart, Rin didn’t know–; the Prince watched, agape, how the herd of camels slowly grew smaller as people sought theirs to saddle and load what didn’t fit in the carriages. Rin hadn’t noticed it when he met Saf the afternoon prior, but there were easily one hundred camels— which meant about that many people belonged to the tribe.

“I swear there weren’t this many when I met you,” the Prince muttered.

“There weren’t,” Makoto confirmed, but now there was no smile in his voice; his green eyes were dulled when Rin glanced at him. “Over half our people died in the flood; it was last year that we were officially more than one hundred again.”

Rin swallowed down, not daring to ask how big the Tribe of Iwatobi had been before the flood. He had learnt, shortly after meeting him, that Makoto’s father was one of the many losses in the flood; but it was hard to picture such a hard blow for a group of people who for centuries had prided themselves on being the greatest, most powerful tribe in the desert.

“There are a lot of children,” he commented, not knowing what else to say.

“Most of the newcomers are adults, though,” Makoto replied. “People from other tribes and places who paired off with some of us, and others who joined as apprentices. Makin and Mahir, for example, were personally chosen by Aki.”

Rin hummed, impressed. Upon glancing at the twins –taller and broader than Sousuke, with their skin heavily tanned by the sunlight and thick beards that reached past their chest–, though, he couldn’t help the question slipping past his lips:

“Wait, how old are they?”

“Hmm, they joke a lot about it, but I think they’re about seventeen.”

Rin let out a low whistle.

“Highness!” Aki’s always energetic voice snapped him out of his surprise; the woman headed towards him, Saf swaying under her saddle in that elegant way camels did. “Do you know how to ride a camel?”

Rin tried not to roll his eyes. He might come from sedentary society and be awful at magic, but he wasn’t completely useless. “I do.”

“Great! Then here you have Saf. I have to help the children…” Aki shoved the camel’s reins in the Prince’s hands, then broke into a sprint and quickly disappeared among the tribe.

“I’ve got to help my mother, too,” Makoto excused himself. Rin waved at his friend as he walked away.

Saf stretched her neck towards the Prince, sniffed at his hair, then down his clothes, most likely looking for food.

“Oi, I bet Aki already gave you breakfast.”

But Rin scratched at her neck, smiled when she leant her head on his shoulder.

Throughout the past days, he had tried his best to keep himself busy, be it helping out with what he could in the infirmary or seeking Makoto and Haruka’s company. While it did distract him for a while, it also meant memories came back more violently at night, sharp and painful in a darkness that no longer provided comfort.

Nothing he did could change the fact that he was, to the eyes of everyone outside that oasis, dead. That he might have survived thanks to some deity bringing Haruka to him when the Prince needed a miracle the most, but he had no life to return to.

That was the most painful part— not the headaches that reminded him of the incident, not the newfound fear of what might hide in the darkness; even with Haruka’s offer to help after the Great Meeting, it would be long until Rin could change anything— if he could.

Rin leant his cheek on Saf’s snout, raised his other hand to stroke under her eye.

He was tired, in a way he hadn’t thought possible before his father’s murder.

“Rin.”

The Prince looked up. Haruka was already on Chappy, looking at him from two metres above the ground.

“Uh…” He glanced around. The Sheikh wasn’t the only one ready; the carriages were coupled to camels, and most people were on theirs too. “Already?”

Haruka nodded. His eyes shone even in the shade of his turban, but he looked like he had slept as little as Rin himself.

Rin pulled down at the reins; as Saf obediently sat so that he could mount her, his arms fell to his sides. He sought the hilt of the janbiya without thinking, grabbed it tightly enough to hurt.

He loathed that blade, hated every second he spent touching it. But even though he let go of it as if it had burnt him when he mounted the camel, Rin had made his choice the moment he asked Haruka to keep the janbiya.

“Isn’t it heavy?”

Rin struggled to keep his balance on Saf as she stood up, first unfolding her hind legs, then her front ones, and by the time he glanced at Haruka Chappy was walking away.

“I don’t care,” he replied.

Only a slight flinch gave away that Haruka had heard him.

 

 


 

 

The Guard of the Palace, while perceived as distant when wearing their uniform, were generally welcome anywhere in Arqan. There were a few people in particular who did not enjoy such friendliness, but as long as they kept their job aside, they were well-received.

Two streets away from the walls of the Palace, there was a tavern that also served as an inn, which had belonged to the Shiinas for four generations. Even though Akane, its current owner, was married and had theoretically adopted her husband’s last name, the place was still known by her family name.

Sitting at the innermost table of the tavern, Rei sipped on his glass, scrutinising the customers already there; it was definitely too early for a drink, but the people staying in the inn had just woken up and wanted to eat something before heading out into the city.

Rei asked Akane to refill his glass a couple of times before the man he was waiting for walked in, a mess of jingling jewels and bright clothes. By then most customers had left, but Rei was glad the hostess was a discreet woman. The newcomer, while being Rei’s own age, looked like a boy— and yet he was among the most capable people in Arqan.

“Do you need to make such a fuss, Nagisa?” were Rei’s greeting words, but the man only laughed as he sat down.

“Nobody saw me come here, so what’s the problem?”

Rei huffed, but he had no doubt Nagisa was honest.

The Hazukis were one of those rare cases of nomads settling down permanently. They had stayed in Arqan after the flood that had decimated the Tribe of Iwatobi nearly ten years prior, and Rei had had no option but to befriend the loud, perseverant kid next door.

Nagisa was good at playing with people’s senses. Rei couldn’t quite explain it, but while Nagisa couldn’t make himself invisible he was able to draw people attention to or away from him, depending on his intentions. Rei had experienced it sometimes, when his friend wanted to prank him: no matter how loud or flashy he was, if Nagisa didn’t want to be noticed, he wouldn’t.

“Anyway, why did you summon me here?” Nagisa asked. “Aren’t things calming down in the Palace?”

Rei sighed. “I don’t know half of what is happening in Palace. Most of my colleagues have been replaced by foreigners, and I can’t say I like what has happened to most of them.”

Nagisa bit onto his lower lip, concern bright in his eyes.

“So it’s time to leave?”

“I’m not going to run away,” Rei clarified. “Well, a little,” he admitted at Nagisa’s raised eyebrow. “But I don’t want to just turn tail, especially after what you told me.”

Nagisa sighed.

“If Omaira of Arekat is really relying on a djinn, we are in big trouble; it’s a pity the tribe left before you told me.”

“We were practically locked up in the Palace until we proved we knew nothing,” Rei replied, even though there was no reproach in his friend’s voice. He thought of the Yamazakis, still locked up in the dungeons. “But that’s what I want to help with; you know where your tribe is, right?”

Nagisa squirmed on his seat, uncomfortable. “…More or less. I know what Haru tells me, which usually means where they are headed… But it’s hard to tell now.

“The last thing I knew was that they were headed to an oasis northwest Arqan, to be safe while the Prince recovered from his wounds,” the nomad recalled, lowering his voice in spite of his gift. “But I don’t know if they’re still there, or even if the Prince survived the trip… And I can’t leave Arqan to help you to look for them, I have a duty to gather as much information as possible for my people.”

“Isn’t there… somewhere you know I’ll find them for sure?”

To his surprise, Nagisa nodded.

“Have you heard about the Great Meeting?” His face lit up when Rei nodded. “It’ll be in around a moon…” But his expression fell. “And its location is a secret.”

Rei huffed. “Oh, come on!”

“No, it’s not like that!” Nagisa quickly added, raising his hands to placate his friend. “It’s not like we don’t want sedentary people to know, but… as far as I know no sedentary people have ever been there, because, well. They don’t usually take part in our ceremonies.”

A groan left Rei’s lips as he slipped his fingers between his glasses and his eyes to cover his face in desperation.

He wasn’t used to feel helpless— he was pragmatic and diligent and flawless at work. But ever since the night the Sultan had been assassinated, Rei had the feeling all he had done was being too late. Too late to save the Sultan or protect the Prince, too late to tell Nagisa about the djinn and the traitors –his friend had figured out who they were on his own–, too late to decide what to do with the information he had gathered.

“Maybe you can meet up with them on their way there,” Nagisa said, quietly, after a heavy silence; Rei lowered his hands to glance at him. “The Meeting is close to Lagar; most tribes camp outside the city a couple of nights before the Offerings.”

Rei’s eyes widened. “Are you sure?”

A smile spread across Nagisa’s face when he nodded.

“Yes! You’ll have to wait in Lagar for a bit, but…”

Rei didn’t mind. At this rate, anywhere was safer than Arqan for him: from the shadows, the traitors were slowly taking over the city in every way. He couldn’t shake off his head the Princess’ expression when she had announced her upcoming marriage the day prior, the smile so tense Rei had feared it shattered her face and she burst in tears right then and there.

Besides, Nagisa was right; if there was truly a djinn pulling the strings, the greatest weapon they could count on, as a species, was magic.

 

 


 

 

Rin soon learnt there was a specific order in the caravan.

It appeared vague, like protocol usually was for nomads, but the first one was always the Sheikh, followed by the members of the Council and their families. The majority of the tribe followed them; once they were out of the oasis Rin could really see how many people they were. At the end of the –at times– seemingly never-ending line were the carriages with communal supplies that camels couldn’t carry by themselves.

As someone of noble birth, Rin was granted a position among the Council, between Kisumi and Makoto. The former was but an unsteady lump swaying with his camel’s steps, but Rin was glad the one in his other side was someone that didn’t hate him; Natsuki had been very explicit in expressing her disagreement with the others members, but feeling her glare hopping from his back to Haruka’s was bad enough.

“It’s not that she dislikes him,” Makoto explained in whispers, in case they were heard above the song of the dunes. “It’s just… complicated.”

“Are they really related?” Rin inquired. He remembered the former Sheikha, the fondness in her eyes whenever she looked at Haruka; but he had never seen Natsuki (or anyone other than Makoto, for that matter) too close to his friend.

“It’s complicated,” Makoto muttered again, looking away.

Rin thought of asking Haruka himself, not too scared of the chance the Sheikh’s answer was a huff and a glare, but soon the Prince was too concerned about the heat to care about his friend’s family life.

He swayed in sync with Saf’s elegant steps, grabbing the reins tighter as he struggled to find some air in the steam lifting off the sand; even though the Prince had been prudent enough to throw a cape over him to protect his skin from the sunlight, the sweat running down his torso was boiling. Rin wasn’t sure whether he was more concerned about the growing pain in his lower back from the rigid posture or the way the faraway mountains wobbled in the distance.

Someone had to pull at his reins to make Saf stop and sit down; all in all, it was a miracle Rin didn’t topple over. He rubbed at his eyes, found a goatskin before him when he lowered his hands.

“Water?” Haruka offered. Rin nearly snatched the item from his hand. “I thought you’d travelled before.”

Rin took his time to drink half the volume of water before replying. He stood up cautiously, tried his best to ignore Haruka’s snort to muffle his laughter at his arched legs.

“I went in carriage!” Rin whined, taking small steps around Saf. “And we stopped more often. I’m boiling.” He halted, though, right before entering Chappy’s personal space; the camel was sitting too, but he eyed Rin suspiciously. “Uh, can you control your mount?”

Haruka sat back on the camel, rummaged through a saddlebag and took out two yellow fruits, about as big as his fist. He throwed one at Rin, who caught it easily, and offered the remaining to his camel.

“Chappy, here.”

Saf, for her part, nearly bit Rin’s hand in her haste to eat hers. The Prince walked between the two camels, not taking his eyes off Haruka’s, stretched his sore muscles once he was out of Chappy’s reach.

Once he sat on Saf again, Rin took a look around. Makoto had disappeared from his field of view, was probably with his family; the rest of the Council had fallen back, and Rin guessed Haruka had rushed to stop his camel when the Prince failed to hear the order to stop.

Haruka, who was still petting and pampering Chappy— Rin had tried to approach him when they had taken off, but the camel’s glare made him change his mind. And still, odd as it was that the animal didn’t stand anyone other than the Sheikh, it wasn’t that what had set Rin off the second he learnt who was Chappy’s owner.

“Hey, Haru.” Haruka glanced up. “Why did they give Chappy to you?”

“Huh?”

“I mean,” Rin went on, “I know your customs are different than mine, but wouldn’t it make sense that the Sheikh got the best mount? Chappy is… well, old.” He finished quietly, unsure of whether he had said something he shouldn’t. Haruka had no problem explaining things, but it made Rin feel dumb, even though his friend didn’t get most sedentary traditions either.

But Haruka smiled, small but enough to be seen above his blue scarf.

“It’s usually like that,” he admitted, “but I inherited Chappy from my grandmother.”

Rin wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, but it certainly hadn’t been that. He had never asked about the former Sheikha’s death— one day, nearly three years prior, Haruka had showed up in the Palace leading the procession by himself, not accompanying his grandmother. Everyone had assumed what that meant without questioning him, and Haruka hadn’t offered any explanations, that Rin knew of.

“Which one?” the Prince found himself asking, though. “Up until the other day, I thought…”

“…Natsuki, right?” Haruka guessed, glancing away at Rin’s nod; but he didn’t look bothered. “Forgive her, she’s been grumpier since Grandma died, too… They were lovers.”

It took a second for the last word to register in Rin’s mind.

“…What?”

Haruka stared for an uncomfortably long time, and the Prince had the irritating feeling his friend was trying to discern whether he was as dumb as he looked.

“My grandmother and Natsuki,” he eventually clarified.

“I got that!” Rin lightly kicked the sand. “I’m… just surprised.” Haruka frowned, eyes slightly narrowed. “Not… Not in a bad way, I just…”

Haruka stood up again, so brusquely he startled Rin. He started walking towards where the Council was, and Rin deduced it was to tell them to keep going but that didn’t make Haruka’s sudden rigidness any less painful.

“Different customs, alright” he muttered.

By the time Rin found his voice his friend was too far to hear him.