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Forbidden Love

Chapter Text

It was the third spring since Emperor Nanjiro’s death. The buds of plum blossom trees were blooming now; its fragrance wafted over the garden of the imperial palace. A soft breeze lifted a few flowers and petals off the boughs of the trees, scattering them across the wind. It showered the place in a flurry of pink snow. Ryoma stood on the wooden bridge, watching them flutter to the ground, some landing to float atop the water. Taking in a breath, he leaned against the railing and wondered what the new year will bring.

 

Hurried footsteps caught his attention, bringing his attention back to current events. Today was his brother’s birthday. To be specific, it was the 27th spring since Emperor Ryoga’s birth. The imperial palace was filled with noises as servants and maids ran amok to prepare for the celebration. Ryoga had been against it, but the high nobles, the Furuyas and Namikazes, insisted he throw a celebration for all to celebrate. Thus, the palace, which was often silent, was now boisterous. The capital city also joined in. Ryoma had gotten a brief glance at the city earlier on his way to the garden, catching sight of colorful cloths being hung and a large stage being built for performances.

 

He turned in time to catch a servant skid to a stop and bow before him. He waited as the servant raised his head. “Emperor Ryoga asks for your presence in his quarters.” The servant bowed again.

 

Ryoma nodded. He took one last look at the beautiful garden before silently making his way back to the palace. As he walked through the halls, maids and servants flitted about. Each time they caught sight of him, they would stop whatever task they were doing, drop their gaze and bow to greet him. He paid no attention to them, purposefully heading toward his destination. Even when a clumsy maid accidentally stepped on the trailing of his robe, immediately apologizing and dropping to her knees to beg for forgiveness, he didn’t bother. He merely waved her off and continued on his way. There were much bigger things to worry about than someone stepping on his clothes.

 

He eventually made it to Ryoga’s private quarters. Halting in front of the doors, he knocked and announced himself. There was silence. Frowning, he knocked again. He heard the clattering of things being knocked over before the familiar voice of his brother told him to come in. With a sigh, he opened the doors and entered. Ryoga stood by his desk, his black green hair a mess, and his clothes a skewed. Ryoma’s brows furrowed at the sight. “Drinking?” he asked bluntly.

 

“Wha—? No, of course not!” Ryoga exclaimed. “As if I even have time fore that anymore.” He grunted as rounded the desk and plopped into the chair. He sighed loudly as he slouched over, resting his forehead against the palm of his hands.

 

Ryoma walked closer, stopping in front of the desk. “What is it?”

 

“Long night...I didn’t tell you, did I?” Ryoga said tiredly.

 

Ryoma raised a brow even though Ryoga couldn't see it. He waited, letting Ryoga continue.

 

“The Tokugawas sought an audience with me a few months back. Apparently, since this whole celebration—” Ryoga lifted a hand and waved it in the air. “was agreed to in the last Winter, they wanted me to allow the return of Commander Tokugawa briefly, so as he may also enjoy the celebration.”

 

“And you let them?” Ryoma asked with raised brows.

 

“What could I say? I spent the last three years after taking the throne catering to the Furuyas and Namikazes. I had a feeling the Tokugawas or Atobes were going to ask for something sooner or later. I’m not blind to the fact that they’ve been trying to undermine my authority...but now with Commander Tokugawa coming back...I get the feeling things are going to just get worst. The Furuyas and Namikazes I can handle. They’re a line that is mostly made of merchants. But the Tokugawas is a military family. They’re also supported by the Atobes who stand on par with the other two families in terms of money. And let me tell you, money and military together is bad news! They’ve already left the Northern borders three months ago. They’re to arrive by today.”

 

“That’s why I told you to stop catering to the Furuyas and Namekazes,” Ryoma said, crossing his arms across his chest.

 

“I would have if it wasn’t for the fact that they kept bringing up the fact that the open borders with the South was thanks to them. And that treaty was formed thanks to them. Open trade with the South has helped the kingdom a lot as well. Spices, dyes, and access to ports have truly helped.”

 

“Right. And now with the Furuyas and Namikazes having power over that, the Atobes and Tokugawas feel threatened. The land they preside over are lands that border the Northern front. They’re lands have been ravaged by war far longer than the South and the Imperial family has not done anything to help them...” Ryoma raised a brow. “I can see why they aren’t too happy.”

 

“Telling me what I already know isn’t helping.” Ryoga sighed. “Ryoma...you’re the only one I can trust.”

 

“I know.”

 

Ryoma knew, more than anything, that it was just the two of them. Everyone was against them. Not even the royal guards were trust worthy because most were paid off by the Furuyas or Namikazes. There was really only two royal guards he trusted because they were specifically chosen by their father. Momoshiro Takeshi and Kaido Kaoru. The two were men he knew since he was child. They all grew up together. But two out of hundreds was not enough.

 

Suddenly, a knock on the door interrupted them. Ryoma glanced to the door, then back to Ryoga, silently asking him if he had summoned someone else. Ryoga was just as confused as him. They waited for the person to announce themselves.

 

“The Empress Dowager!” announced a female voice.

 

Ryoga stood immediately as Ryoma straightened his back. Ryoga quickly assented, calling for them to enter. The doors swung open and the Empress Dowager stepped inside. She was donned in elaborate, silk robes of gold and black with gold stitches of intricate designs lining against the black fabric. Her hair was wrapped into a spiral, pinned into a bun. With each step she took, the dangling golden beads from her floral hairpins chimed. She was beautiful despite her age. The two maid servants quickly closed the door, leaving the three of them alone. Ryoma stared, as did Ryoga. The Empress Dowager, Rinko Takeuchi, raised a brow at their silence. Then slowly her lips lifted into a kind smile.

 

“My sons,” she said.

 

“Empress Dowager,” the two said in unison.

 

She rolled her eyes. “Come now, it’s just the three of us.”

 

Ryoma looked to Ryoga. His brother blinked, then shrugged with a grin. His brother turned his gaze back to the Empress Dowager. “Mother!” Ryoga said in greeting.

 

Laughing sweetly, their mother walked forward. Ryoma stepped aside to let her stand where he once stood. He watched as she reached over and fussed over Ryoga’s messy hair. A whimsical sigh escaped her lips.

 

The Empress Dowager Rinko was the second empress during their father’s reign. When Emperor Nanjiro was still alive, he had married a women from the Furuyas. It was she who was the first empress and gave birth to Ryoga, the crown prince. Oddly enough, the first empress and Rinko had gotten along well despite the fact that his mother held the position of Imperial Noble Consort, someone who the Emperor favored. When the empress had passed from a sudden illness, Rinko had mourned deeply for her. At that time, Ryoga had only been two. When their father chose to take her as his official wife to become empress, she raised Ryoga as if he was her own, even after giving birth to him a year later.

 

“It’s already the twenty-seventh year since you were born and yet look at you. Still as unorganized as ever. Hurry and get dressed. The celebration will start soon.” Rinko said gently.

 

“Of course...”

 

The Empress Dowager frowned slightly. She folded her hands in front and hummed thoughtfully. “Talking about matters that don’t concern me much, I see...”

 

“Mother...” Ryoga said despondently.

 

She smiled. “It’s fine. I understand...but I am still your mother, so know that you can always come to me. My family may not be as powerful as the Furuyas or Namikazes, but they will fully support you.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Now then, have you thought of who you will be marrying?”

 

Ryoga flushed with a groan. He rubbed his face and sighed loudly. “Not you too! Everyone has been pestering me about that. The Furuyas have been shoving multiple noble women from their line and telling me about how nice they are. Each and every one of them are skilled in the arts of music, poem, and their beauty unbound! And yet I have not seen them once face to face. Just painted pictures...to which I am sure they do not even look as beautiful as they do in the drawing!”

 

“You are twenty-seven now and you have not taken in any concubines. You are at the age of thinking about who will become your wife, the next empress. I don’t mind if you...take on a male concubine, but just be sure to remember the lineage must pass on.”

 

Ryoma bit back a smirk, but utterly failed and ended up snickering softly. That earned a glare from his brother, but he shrugged nonchalantly at him. After a few more discussion, the Empress Dowager mentioned that if Ryoga didn’t want to marry anyone from the Furuyas or Namikazes, then there was always Nanako, their cousin. Ryoga adamantly refused the suggestion. Even Ryoma agreed with Ryoga refusing the offer. Nanako was like a sister to them. They grew up with her. Ryoga marrying her would be too awkward.

 

Soon, their mother ushered for Ryoga to hurry and get ready. After she left, Ryoma also took his leave, but not after hearing Ryoga whine about him no longer calling him brother like how he use to when they were children. Ryoma rolled his eyes, choosing to ignore Ryoga as he shut the door behind himself. He shuffled down the hall, making his way to the courtyard. Taking a glance at the sky, he noted the time. Around this time, he usually visited the city to check in on the citizens—usually in disguise. It was always the best way to find out honest opinions. Momoshiro also joined him each time he went out, but both he and Kaido were pulled for guard duty which meant he had to go to town alone. The thought of traveling alone nearly deterred him from going, but he couldn’t let something as little as that waver his determination. With a nod, he started walking to the most Western wall.

 

When he reached it, there was an unused stable where he hid the clothes he wore as disguise. Taking a glance around, he quickly went inside the stable. He took off the robes he was wearing and changed into the other ones. These were darker in color, not made of silk, but still comfortable, and were robes for women. In a wooden crate, he opened the lid and took out a clip with fake hair made from horse tail hair and small little jars. He clipped the wig to the back of his hair, giving himself long hair. He then opened the little jars and began painting his face in a light powder. His lips were tinted a pink hue. With a brush, he drew two moles under his eyes.

 

He wasn’t sure how well his disguise was, but the townspeople hadn’t recognized him within the five years he had been doing it. Then again, that could also be that his normal face wasn’t recognizable. After all, whenever the imperial family stepped out, everyone had to bow and look away. He was once told that any commoner who dared to look upon the face of the imperial family would become blind because the imperial family bore the blood of the great man who slayed a demon with the sword of Yamato to save the land from the famine the demon brought. But he didn’t believe in such stories in anymore. How many servants in the imperial palace had walked and stared upon him before bowing and had not turned blind at the sight of him? None. It was childish myths.

 

Tightening the dark green sash around his waist to give himself more of a figure, he finished his disguise. He hurried to the wall and climbed over with the help of a tree. He landed on the ground with a light plop. Ryoma took another look around, finding no one in sight. A breath of relief left his lips as he adjusted his robe once more, then finally made his way to the city.

 

The city was in high spirits for the celebration as well. As he had seen earlier, colorful cloths of red, gold, and orange hung across the city, flapping with each soft breeze. The stage which was set in the center of the city was near completion. Merchants promoted their wares, shouted out discounts, and welcomed guests. With the enacting of open trade treaty with the Southern border, visitors from the South also clambered into the city. The place was more crowded than usual. Ryoma had to push his way through just to get the area where he often walked. After much struggle, he finally came upon the common route he took. Relieved, he began walking down the street, staying near the edge to avoid the rattling carriages and crowds of people. A few merchants called out to him, waving to him familiarly. After five years of this, he wasn’t surprise that a few of them knew him now.

 

“Ah, Ryo!” an older lady stepped out from her restaurant and waved to him. “You don’t have your handsome friend with you today?”

 

Ryoma shook his head. He never spoke because he couldn’t fake a female’s voice, so everyone just thought he was mute. The old lady, Ryuuzaki Sumire, gestured for him to come closer. He did and was surprised to see her handing him a wrapped banana leaf. The smell of it told him they were steam buns. He couldn’t possibly accept such an offer, so he tried to give it back, but Sumire waved it off.

 

“It’s thanks for helping me out last time,” Ryuuzaki said. “Besides, you were able to get my granddaughter to work in the palace!”

 

He blinked. He couldn’t really remember, but after a moment, he recalled a young girl around his age with long, brown hair in two pigtails. He had gotten her a place in the imperial palace as a maid to his mother. She was a little on the clumsy side, but his mother hadn’t complained so far, so he assumed she was doing fine. He would have to check in on her some other time. With a light sigh, he nodded his head and tied the string around his wrist. He listened to Ryuuzaki talk for a little while longer. She didn’t have much to complain about. She was, however, pleased with the opening of the Southern borders. She has been receiving more customers thanks to the treaty. Ryoma was glad for that.

 

Soon, he was waving goodbye to her and making his way down the street, farther inward to the city, to visit the blacksmith. He was almost there when he was suddenly stopped by two strangers. Their skin was a darker tan and when they spoke, there was a strong accent he couldn’t quite pinpoint. Ryoma blinked, watching the two men try to lure him into joining them. Since he couldn't speak in fear of breaking his disguise, he shook his head at their offer to escort him. When they didn’t take his answer seriously, Ryoma chose to walk pass them. He barely brushed pass them before one of the men grabbed his arm tightly. He winced, whirling around with a glare. Momoshiro was usually around to keep ruffians like these away from him, but since he had gone out without him and had no weapon on himself either, he had to find another way to fight them off. Growling under his breath, he tugged his arm hard, trying to pry free, but the man tightened his grip. Shit. If he had to, he was going to break his disguise. He opened his mouth, ready to tell the two men off when another hand joined them, except this pale hand gripped the arm of the stranger holding him. The grip was so tight, he saw the flesh of the man holding him turn white. Ryoma winced at the sight, but was glad his arm was released. He brought the arm to his chest, rubbing it.

 

“Gentlemen, you should be more gentle with a woman. If she refuses your company, you should politely listen,” said the voice of his savior.

 

But the voice was familiar and one that he didn’t care to hear again. Ryoma’s shoulders tensed as he turned his gaze upon the man who helped him. Light brown hair ruffled in the wind as blue eyes stared at the two other man. A serene smile was plastered on his face. The dark armor of the military uniform he wore was a stark contract to the bright colors of celebration.

 

“Urgh, it’s a member of the military,” said one of the man.

 

The two strangers immediately muttered an apology then turned and ran away. Ryoma should have felt relieved, but he didn’t because now he was left alone with a man he never wanted to meet again, Fuji Syusuke. When Ryoga had told him Commander Tokugawa was returning from the Norther front, he didn’t expect the Seigaku unit to accompany him. He wished his brother mention this earlier. If he did, he would have avoided the city at whatever cost.

 

Fuji Syusuke was a man who he met when he was much younger. The older man, now the same age as his brother, was an enigma. He teased Ryoma whenever he could even knowing that Ryoma was a prince. He seemed playful, but at times, Ryoma felt the cold stare of the man. He would always remember the cruel gaze of the blue eyed man during a war council meeting when his father was still alive. The military was requesting for reinforcement to the Norther borders, but his father had refused. When he did, Ryoma remembered glancing over to Fuji and saw the cold glare of the man staring straight ahead. It sent a chill down his spine. It also didn’t help to know that in the Seigaku unit, he was second best to the captain, Tezuka Kunimitsu.

 

“A pretty lady like you shouldn’t be walking alone.” Fuji’s lilting voice interrupted his thoughts.

 

He blinked, staring blankly at the other man. He pressed his lips into a thin line. He may not like the other man much, but he did help him. With a nod of gratitude, he turned on his heels and continued on his way. Of course, he was aware that Fuji started trailing after him. Ryoma stopped in his tracks, then turned again to raise a brow at him.

 

“Ah, I was thinking I should accompany you in case they decide to come back,” Fuji said with his annoying smile.

 

Ryoma shook his head. He couldn’t let the other man know who he really was. It would be a great humiliation to let others know that he dressed as a woman—bad enough that Momoshiro already knew. Plus, he was also a prince. What a disgrace it would be if the royal court found out what he did. To emphasize that Fuji did not need to follow him, he waved his hands, silently telling him not to follow. He turned again and scurried down to an alley to resume his path. He didn't make far when he heard soft footsteps behind him. Sighing, he stopped again and looked over his shoulder. Fuji was still there, standing a few feet away with a smile on his way. Groaning inwardly, he ignored the man and continued on his way.

 

The sound of metal clanging against metal could be heard before the blacksmith shop came into view. When he did come upon the shop, Ryoma found the old blacksmith hammering away at a sword in the back. He neared the entrance and waited till the old man lifted his hammer into the air. Before it could swing down to slam against the blade, Ryoma tapped on the doorway. The old man faltered and looked up.

 

“Oh? Miss Ryo, good day!” greeted the blacksmith when he caught sight of him. “Here without Momo? That's very dangerous. A pretty young lady like you shouldn't be walking alone in the streets like these. Hm? What's this?” The blacksmith glanced passed him and then grinned broadly. “Well, well! If it isn't Fuji! Ah, I see, are you accompanying Miss Ryo, here?”

 

“Yes,” Fuji replied before Ryoma could answer and walked over to stand beside him.

 

“That's good! Miss Ryo, don't be too wary of Fuji. He's a good man despite his looks.”

 

“Hm? I'm quite sure my looks are very proper.”

 

The blacksmith laughed loudly as he stood and walked over to the door. He stopped with his arms folded across his chest. He let out a thoughtful hum. “Miss Ryo, as you can see here, Fuji is a part of the military, commanded by the great Commander Tokugawa. He's a good lad. Heard he's one of the best swordsman.”

 

“You flatter me,” Fuji said jokingly.

 

“But it's true. He's been a good customer of mine for a long time as well.”

 

“You make good swords. Even Commander Tokugawa mentioned it. We may be placing orders soon, too. We'll probably pick them up before we head back to the North.”

 

“Just here for the celebration?” The blacksmith rubbed his chin.

 

“Mm, and for a couple of weeks. So, Miss Ryo here has been visiting you?” Fuji asked without looking at Ryoma.

 

“Yup. Hmm, when was it...maybe five springs ago? I saw a pretty little lady wandering the streets. Looked a little loss. When I tried to help her out, some drunkard tried to get his hands on her. Before I could even go to help her out, her friend rushed out of no where and defeated the man. I was so amazed by his combat skill, I gave him a discount to have his sword fixed! Since then, the two of them have been visiting me, but...today I don't see him.” The blacksmith turned his attention to Ryoma.

 

Ryoma shrugged with a shoulder. He couldn't tell them that Momoshiro was a royal guard. The blacksmith was worried, but when Ryoma waved it off that it was fine, their topic turned to the celebration and eventually his shop. Like Ryuuzaki, his shop was doing well, though he did mention his concern of whether trusting the people from the South was such a good idea. For now, he was refusing to take on any jobs for them.

 

Unlike the South, the area the Capital was located in, as well as the North, had good mining and raw materials. Such items were a rarity for those in the South. While the relationship with the South wasn't as bad as the North, tension was still high enough to cause a few skirmishes. Thankfully, the Namikazes and Furuyas were able to quell the skirmishes with a treaty for open trade. Ryoga had been quick to approve seeing the positive outcome with access to sea ports.

 

“Well then, you should head on your way and enjoy the celebration, Miss Ryo. And Fuji, take good care of her. Miss Ryo here is practically an idol to the young men here in the city,” said the blacksmith.

 

“I will,” Fuji said with a nod.

 

Ryoma huffed, shaking his head. He did not need Fuji looking after him. Grunting, he turned on his heels and left. Fuji scurried after him, chuckling under his breath. Ryoma ignored it, making his way back to the main streets. He exited one of the alleys in time to see a street performance. A young, lithe man jumped into the air, twirling and landing as soft as a cat. Wooden sticks and balls were being tossed overhead as the young man danced and jumped around each thrown object. The performance enthralled the crowd. Cheers erupted from the audience as the young man climbed a makeshift tower make of chairs and unstable items. When he made it to the top, he opened his arms in victory. The crowd went wild and screamed even louder when the man jumped off, flipping a few times before landing gracefully. Even Ryoma was impressed.

 

“Hm, if Eiji was here, he would have wanted to join in,” Fuji said beside him.

 

He was a little surprise seeing how close Fuji was to him. Ryoma shifted, scooting farther away. He looked back to the performance, but it was already coming to an end, so he started walking again. Once more, Fuji followed after him, calling his name every now and then trying to catch his attention. Annoyed, Ryoma tried to lose him in the crowd. But the plan had backfired when the crowd became too much. He stumbled over, losing his balance as he was pushed to the side. He fumbled out toward the street. There was a gasp as Ryoma looked to the side to see a pair of horses pulling a carriage along heading straight for him. His eyes squeezed shut, waiting for impact.

 

It never came. Instead, a pair of strong arms gripped him, pulling him away from the streets and into a warm chest. Ryoma gasped as those same arms wrapped around him tightly. Glancing up, he saw Fuji frowning down at him.

 

“Are you alright, Miss Ryo?” he asked softly.

 

This up close, Ryoma could see Fuji better. Beautiful blue eyes, fair skin, and high cheek bones. To any women, Fuji would be considered handsome. Flushing, he pushed away from Fuji. Clearing his throat, he smoothed his robe down and nodded his head. However, when he tried to walk away, Fuji grabbed his arm and held him in place. Scowling, he glared at the other man. He tugged his arm a few times, but Fuji didn't let go.

 

“Miss Ryo, it's quite dangerous. How about we go together?” Fuji asked.

 

Seeing that Fuji wasn't going to give up, Ryoma sighed in defeat. He let his body relax as he slowly nodded his head. He let out a surprise yelp when Fuji tugged on his hand and started dragging him away. Unable to stop the man, he let himself be dragged around the city. They visited various booths and watched different street performances. Ryoma was engulfed in the spirit of the celebration he had forgotten that Fuji held onto his hand throughout the whole exploration.

 

Eventually, they made their way to the food section. Aroma of grilling meat and soup wafted through the air, making Ryoma's stomach grumble. Biting his lower lip, he stopped in his tracks. Fuji looked over his shoulder at him with a raised brow. Ryoma glanced to him, then down to their entwined hands. Blushing, he pulled his hand free. He looked away as he untied the string with the wrapped banana leaf and opened it. Two delicious steamed buns sat in the middle of the banana leaf. Hesitantly, he offered Fuji one. Fuji seemed a little surprised, but then broke into a smile and grabbed one of the buns, thanking him. Ryoma watched him take a bite before taking the other bun and also biting into it. The bread was soft and chewy. It was filled with a savory, sweet pork that was most likely braised overnight. Ryoma hummed in delight. After taking the first bite, his stomach rumbled for more, so he quickly consumed the rest of it, even licking his fingers from where the juices of the filling dripped down to. At the moment, he didn't care for manners.

 

Fuji chuckled. “You must be hungry. Hmm, let's see, let's try that booth over there!”

 

Fuji looked back to him after pointing to one. He held his hand out to him and waited. Ryoma stared at the hand. He really shouldn't become so comfortable with Fuji. The other man was a member of the military. His loyalty was to Commander Tokugawa, not Ryoga. But...Ryoma looked to the booth Fuji had pointed to. The food they were selling did look delicious. Grilled meat on sticks, white puffs of sweet powdered rice cake, grilled to perfection for the perfect crunch, and boiled rolled meat balls with a flavorful broth. He licked his bottom lip. He was hungry...and he hadn't brought any money with him because he didn't usually stay that long in the city to get hungry. Carefully, he looked back to Fuji. For the briefest moment, he wondered if it was a good idea, but his curiosity won over. Lifting his hand, he placed it into Fuji's outstretched one. He felt his face flush when Fuji's hand wrapped around his, encasing it in warmth. Flicking his gaze to the ground, once more he let himself be dragged again.

 

They ate their fill of different food. Ryoma even got to try out the dried squid specialty from the South. It was a little fishy, but he didn't mind. And before he knew it, they had made their way back to the main streets where jewels of gems and trinkets were being sold. Ryoma's eyes caught a delicate silver hairpin carved into a phoenix. He thought of Rinko, wanting to get her something. And then he thought of Ryoga. He hadn't gotten anything for his brother's birthday. He walked over to the merchant's booth, perusing the items on the table. His gaze stopped on a jade pendant tassel. The jewel was smooth to the touch, formed into a simple circle with gold and white beads. If only he had brought his money. He would have bought the jade pendant for Ryoga and the silver hairpin for his mother. He sighed. As he turned to leave, Fuji was suddenly next to him and slipping something into his hair. Ryoma blinked, lifting a hand to touch whatever item the other man had clipped on, but Fuji grabbed his hand, preventing him from removing it.

 

Fuji's blue eyes were on him. They weren't cold like the times during the war meetings, nor were they dancing in mirth. Ryoma didn't know what it was, but the longer the other man stared, the more he became uneasy.

 

“Oh? The white plum blossom hairpin. It's a favorite among my collection. It's a symbolism of beauty and purity, of hope and perseverance. Quite a beautiful pin,” said the old lady merchant. “It's a lovely gift for your beautiful lover.”

 

What? Ryoma blanched. He was not Fuji's lover and did not want to be seen as one. He tugged his hand free, turning his eyes to the sky so he was no longer staring into those blue, blue eyes. And then his eyes widen. The sun was far too West, much later than the time he spent in the city. And today was the celebration which meant he had to be there for the banquet. He needed to return to the imperial palace to get ready.

 

He hurriedly pushed pass Fuji, ignoring his shout and ran for the palace. He needed to outrun the other man before he was caught, so he had to take the advantage of surprise. He turned into an alley, hoping to lose Fuji in the maze of twists and turn. He was so close to the West wall of the palace when two dark figures blocked him. Ryoma skidded to a stop. Breath heaving heavily, he glared at the two men. At first he didn't recognize them, but after they stepped out from the shadows of the buildings, he immediately knew them as the men from earlier who Fuji had saved him from. He cursed under his breath. If only he had brought a dagger or something with him as protection. He was a fool for not preparing himself since Momoshiro wasn't with him.

 

“Can't let you go back after all the hard work we did to get here,” said the man who had grabbed him before. Again, the accent was thick, but Ryoma somehow was able to put the sentence together.

 

“That's right. Now, why don't you come with us, Prince Ryoma?” asked the other male.

 

Ryoma stilled. They knew who he was. How? No one knew what his disguise was other than Momoshiro—and he was not a man who would betray him or Ryoga. So, who was it? The two men took a step forward, brandishing two sharp swords. Ryoma growled as he took a step back. He had to prepare himself for an attack. The first man lunged, his sword raised to slice down. Ryoma steadied his feet, ready to dodge the assault, but he faltered when he heard the faintest footsteps behind him. It was light, almost too quiet for any ear to hear, but he heard it. A blur of a figure shot pass him.

 

Black was the armor. In the darkness, a silver gleam of a blade was unsheathed. In one swift, smooth movement, the sword swung across, slicing through air, hitting cloth, then skin and cutting through flesh. A spurt of red showered the walls of the houses. Before the man could scream, the blade swung back, cleanly cutting across his neck, silencing him into a gurgle. The man dropped to the floor in a crumple. Dead. His partner turned to run, but as swift as he came, he darted forward, stabbing the sword through the other man's back, pushing upward as the sharp blade cut through vitals and bones, splitting his shoulder from its connection with his neck. The agonized scream was shrouded in the musical beating of drums and singing.

 

I viewed the flowers in Spring
As the uguisu whistled its sweet song
Oh woe betide my weary soul
My true love passed me by

 

The metallic smell of blood and torn intestines filled the alleyway. In the midst of the carnage, Fuji Syusuke, stood between the two dead bodies. Like a demon, dressed in black, pale skin smeared in blood, and the scarlet liquid dripping from the tip of his blade, he turned toward Ryoma. A smile, as serene as the unwavering water, and azure eyes cold and cruel as Winter, glinted in noticeable recognition.

 

“Well then, I do believe it is time for you to head back to the palace, Prince Ryoma,” Fuji said. “Allow me to escort you.”