“Shuichi, that’s enough.”
The black-haired man’s lips pressed thinly together as he stared at his red-headed son who stood before his desk, his posture straight with his hands behind his back. Shuichi was attempting to give off the air of someone dignified and adult but feared that he sounded more like the young teenager he actually was.
“But, Father,” Shuichi began. “No one asked me — ”
“No one had to.” Kazuya’s tone was brisk and harsh. Shuichi heard the door creak open behind him but he didn’t turn to see who had entered the office. It was probably a servant or aide with papers for his father.
Kazuya continued on, ignoring the new presence in the room as his son did.
“You are a prince and you will do what is best for your kingdom,” Kazuya told him. “You’re a lucky boy. The princess is close to your age and I’ve heard she’s quite pretty.”
Shuichi’s emerald eyes sparked in anger but he bit his lip. His father’s stern expression indicated that he had made up his mind and wouldn’t be swayed by Shuichi’s complaints. It wasn’t the first time that Shuichi’s wishes had been ignored in favour of duty.
A hand landed on the redhead’s shoulder. Shuichi jumped in surprise and let out a small yelp. He whirled to see his uncle standing behind him, a smile curving his red lips up.
Karasu was tall and thin, pale skin stretched over bone. He looked as if a light wind might blow him away but Shuichi knew that his wiry form hid strong muscles. His hair was even longer than Shuichi’s and fell in a sleek obsidian curtain down his back. Despite the late hour, he looked wide awake and alert.
Karasu chuckled quietly at Shuichi’s reaction as he tucked his hand into his coat pocket.
“Your father is right,” he said. “You should be grateful that he made such an advantageous arrangement for you. One day you will rule a prosperous kingdom. Not only that but you will have a beautiful woman in your bed to keep you warm at night.”
Shuichi struggled to keep his face neutral as he stared at Karasu. He didn’t like this man. He didn’t like how he’d come into their lives and he didn’t like how he injected himself into every discussion and decision concerning Barasono. Karasu was only the brother of Kazuya’s new wife. He shouldn’t have such power or influence.
But he did and there was nothing Shuichi could do about it.
The presence of the two men made the room feel as if it had shrunk in size. As if the walls were closing in on Shuichi, threatening to crush him between their unforgivingly hard surfaces.
“Excuse me, Father, Uncle,” he said tightly. He slid around Karasu and made a break for the door. The hairs on the back of his neck, hidden by his long mane of red hair, prickled.
Shuichi froze before turning around.
“You will leave in a week,” his father said. “Your uncle will be escorting you to Reikai.”
A lump formed in Shuichi’s throat. His father’s eyes glittered in the lamplight of his office. If there was any compassion or regret in them, Shuichi couldn’t see it.
“Yes, Father,” he said quietly before making his escape.
As the door closed behind the redhead, Kazuya rubbed his temples. Karasu perched on the edge of the desk and flicked the corner of a piece of paper that was sticking out from a stack.
“You’ve spoiled him too much,” the black-haired man informed him, his tone as bland as milk.
Kazuya met his brother-in-law’s eyes. “He will do his duty,” he responded. “He always does. This is just teenage hijinks.”
“If you say so,” Karasu said. “By now he should know his place, though. He’s too old for such childishness.”
Kazuya sighed. “His mother probably did spoil him too much,” he admitted. “But he’s a good boy. You’ll see.”
Shuichi’s bare feet sloshed in the water streaming along the garden path as he made his way among the flower beds. Above him, lightning crackled across a cloud-covered sky.
Shuichi’s fine clothes were soaked right through but he didn’t care. This might be the last of Barasono’s famous wild storms that he ever got to witness and he wanted to savour it.
His hair stuck to his face like seaweed. Shuichi brushed it aside and turned around a bend. His mother’s favourite red roses loomed before him, their colour dark in the night.
His mother would not have allowed his father to send him away. Shuichi wished that she were still alive. If she were, then Karasu and his sister would not be here.
Shuichi was certain that his stepmother had something to do with Kazuya’s decision. While it seemed logical and beneficial for the kingdom, it was far more beneficial for the new queen. With Shuichi gone, her baby son would be the uncontested heir to Barasono’s throne.
Shuichi gave a violent start at the deep voice coming out of the shadows. A thick coat draped itself over his shivering shoulders.
A large hand pressed against the small of Shuichi’s back and pushed him firmly toward the palace. Shuichi didn’t bother resisting. His guard Bui was as adamant and unshakable as the king was.
“Bathe before you go to bed,” Bui instructed him as they stepped into the palace’s cool interior.
Shuichi tugged the coat tighter around his slim frame.
“I know,” he grumbled.
Bui’s small blue eyes studied him critically. Shuichi shuffled his feet, water forming a puddle on the stone floor around him. He probably looked bedraggled and pathetic.
But Bui had seen him in worse conditions. He’d been Shuichi’s guard for years. It was a pity that the big, dark-skinned man wouldn’t be accompanying him to Reikai. Shuichi would miss him.
“Go to bed, Prince Shuichi,” Bui insisted. “It’s too late for wandering.”
Shuichi turned and paced down the corridor, huddling in the folds of the coat. Bui remained where he was, a fact that Shuichi appreciated. That was what he liked about Bui. The big man didn’t constantly hover over him. He trusted that Shuichi would do what was asked of him.
And he always did. He might kick up a fuss about it at first but he always caved in to others’ desires. There were times when Shuichi felt as though he wasn’t a person. He was a symbol. What he wanted didn’t matter. What he felt didn’t matter. He existed solely to serve the needs of others.
The bathing room was empty when Shuichi entered. He’d expected as much, given the late hour.
Shuichi divested himself of his clothes, grimacing as they clung damply to his body. He left them puddled in a wet pile on the floor and moved to the stool. His first task was to rinse out his drenched hair. The steam from the bath settled against his skin, renewing his shivers.
What Shuichi had never been able to tell his father, and what had formed the base of his objections to the marriage, was that he had no interest in women. No girl had ever made his heart quicken or his palms sweat.
He was interested only in men. Shuichi had never voiced that out loud to anyone. Not to his parents or his guard. If he’d had a friend, he might have confided in that person, but princes didn’t have friends. Not here.
With his hair and body washed clean of the rainwater, Shuichi slipped beneath the surface of the steaming bath. It was almost unbearably hot at first but Shuichi gritted his teeth and bore the heat until his body adjusted.
As the burn faded to a pleasant sensation, Shuichi relaxed in the water. He stared at the tiled wall of the room, his jade eyes tracing the patterns of birds formed by intersecting and curving lines. It was simple but elegant, just the sort of artistry that appealed to Shuichi.
The pattern was very familiar to him. It had always been here as far back as he could remember. Soon he would be going to a place where nothing was familiar. He would be expected to make it his home.
But home would always be here in the place he was born.