The messenger bird wearing the colours of Volkov made grumbling noises as Yuuri unraveled the tiny pouch from its leg. It stared intently at the full pot of seeds on the desk, but obediently held its leg out for the Prince to extract the message. Yuuri unrolled the paper and spread it out on the desk before placing the seed pot on the perch.
“There you go, and thank you. There’ll be a reply.” Yuuri didn’t wait to see if the bird had paid attention, they were all well trained. He sat down and started to read.
Victor’s atrocious handwriting covered the page. Yuuri strained to read the closely written lines as Victor had tried to get everything he wanted to say on one page. Volkov was about as far as you could get from the capital city of Hasetsu on the continent of Bayuria, probably at the very limit of the range of the messenger birds, so the lighter the burden the faster the message would get through.
Yuuri shivered in the early spring breeze from the still open window, but letters from Victor were always fun to read and he wanted to compose his reply and give it to the bird for it’s return journey before it left for the rookery for the night. He would close the window afterwards.
His younger friend sometimes got carried away when he wrote about all the events currently going on in his life. Prince Victor of Volkov was 21 and lived life to the full. Yuuri chuckled as he read about the latest dastardly exploit of Makkachin who had somehow crept into the palace kitchen and managed to eat steak reserved for the King’s dinner from the pantry without anyone noticing. A great chunk of the letter was taken up with the exploits of his nine year old brother Yuri, a hellion in the making if Yuuri was any judge. It sounded like he would get on well with Mari once he’d grown up a bit.
Pulling a sheet of light-weight paper towards him, Yuuri began writing back straight away. He told Victor about Vicchan’s latest conquest. The tiny poodle had delicately pranced up to one of the delivery boys and charmed him into emptying his pockets. He rambled on for a bit about the latest political row between the Crispino twins and then sat back and stuck his pen in his mouth thinking about the younger man.
They first met ten years ago when Yuuri was 13 on a state visit with the King and Queen of Hasetsu to Volkov. Both Crown Princes had smiled nervously at each other from behind their parents on the steps of the palace. But the ice was broken immediately when Victor spotted Vicchan in Yuuri’s arms and made everyone jump with a loud screech of delight. Oblivious to his parent’s disapproval Victor dashed forward and came to a halt in front of Yuuri.
“You have a puppy! A poodle! I love poodles!” He bounced lightly on his toes.
Yuuri smiled down at the elfin like boy in front of him and asked, “Would you like to play with him?”
“Can I? Oh yes, ple–”
“After our royal guests have been formally introduced and welcomed to the court.” King Aleksandr interrupted. Victor pouted, then grimaced at Yuuri and reluctantly subsided at his father’s command.
“I...I’m sorry your majesty.” Yuuri apologised, and bowed deeply to the King.
Several hours later, they were kneeling on the floor of the room Yuuri had been assigned playing with the tiny pup. Yuuri shyly admitted that he had named the poodle after Victor when he knew that they were coming to visit. The younger Prince had leapt at Yuuri and hugged him, with the puppy piling on as well and they fell to the ground in a heap giggling.
The Princes soon became inseparable, writing letters to each other in between state visits by their families. Three years ago Victor’s parents had finally given in and allowed Victor to get a standard poodle rather than the normal hunting dogs kept in the palace. Victor named her Makkachin and Vicchan loved her as much as Yuuri did.
Yuuri shook himself out of his daze when the messenger bird shook out its feathers, impatient to go to roost for the night. Over the past couple of years Yuuri had become aware that he wanted more from his relationship with Victor than just friendship. He knew that he loved the handsome silver-haired Prince. If he wasn’t the Crown Prince, he would want to spend the rest of his life by Victor’s side. Unfortunately both of them had to look forward to kingdoms to run when they were older. A union between the two nations was at best improbable with the current political and geographical situation.
Victor was bouncy and when he was excited about something - which was all the time - his gorgeous blue eyes sparkled and his long pony-tail would swing wildly behind him. His father’s exasperated voice could usually be heard shouting after them, as Victor inevitably dragged Yuuri off to the kitchens where he would charm the head chef as easily as his dog. It was almost impossible to tell when Victor was being serious about something, so it was hard for Yuuri to tell if his friend felt the same way as he did. He hoped not, only one of them would have to suffer then.
“Yuuri?” Mari opened the door to his study and walked in, making Yuuri jump. Vicchan rushed over to prance around Mari’s feet in delight, she picked him up and kissed him. “Oh Yuuri!” she exclaimed. “You’re sitting virtually in the dark again.” Walking over to Yuuri, she glanced at the surface of the desk where Victor’s letter was spread out. “Thinking about Victor again, eh?” She attempted to ruffle his hair and he dodged her hand.
“Mari!” He protested. “I’m not five anymore. Give it a rest. I was just finishing my letter back,” Yuuri huffed.
“It’s not as if we don’t get a new letter every week Yuuri, I don’t know what you two find to talk about. Anyway...” she reached over flicking on the desk lamp. “How are you doing?”
“Half wishing that the rules didn’t make me the Crown Prince. You would be far better suited to this than me.” Yuuri looked at Mari seriously. “I’m not sure I have the confidence to handle someone like the King of Leroy. Especially when his accusations are so politically charged and baseless at the same time.” He sighed and put his head on his hand. “We have nothing to refute the claim either Mari. They killed all the fishermen on board the boat and as far as we know none of our ships were anywhere near the Ottawa when she sank.”
Mari patted his hand, “Leave it until tomorrow Yuuri, there’s the council meeting in the morning to discuss it. It’s not all on your shoulders to solve the problem. If anything, I should be the one feeling guilty.” She settled herself on the edge of the desk. “When the marriage proposal from King Leroy was delivered, I could have swallowed my pride and agreed to marry his son.” She sighed and crossed her arms. “But the thought of getting married to a Prince more than ten years younger than me, an arrogant, self-absorbed teenager, made me want to throw up. Ugh!” She shuddered.
“That was probably his first idea and then this is his next gambit to gain control. And I know you’re right about me worrying too much, but I’m the one meant to be representing Hasetsu in the talks the day after.” Yuuri paused and smiled up at his sister. “Don’t worry, I’ll go to bed as soon as I’ve finished this letter.”
“Good! Because I just asked Haru to come and sort you out.” Mari deposited Vicchan in Yuuri’s lap with a quick pat to the little dog’s head.
“Thank you,” Yuuri stood up, cradling Vicchan in his arms while trying to avoid the dog’s immediate lunge upwards to lick his ear. “You’re a great sister. But I still think you’d make a far better Queen than me and when I do become King that stupid law is going to be the first thing to go.”
Yuuri watched as Mari walked over to the door, “I don’t want to be Queen either, so of the two of us, I vote for you Yuuri!” She winked as she left the room, leaving Yuuri grinning and shaking his head. He put the squirming dog down and sitting down again turned back to the letter to Victor, signed off with a cheerful farewell. He folded the note carefully into the small carrier tube and placed it in back in the harness on the bird’s leg. He thanked the bird and it immediately took flight. Closing the window Yuuri allowed himself one finally thought of Victor before putting his dreams aside for the night.
The door to his room opened and Haru walked in holding a tray. This time Vicchan didn’t rush over, he knew that Haru wouldn’t cave in to puppy dog eyes and just wagged his tail from his dog bed by Yuuri’s desk instead.
“Princess Mari said that you needed some refreshment your highness and so I took the liberty of bringing you some hot sake and daifuku.” Haru brought the tray over to Yuuri’s desk.
“Thank you Haru,” Yuuri said, biting into one of the sweet daifuku, “between Mari and you, I’m thoroughly spoilt and looked after.” He smiled at the older man.
“You’re welcome your highness, it’s always a pleasure to do what I can for you.”
“Now that’s a rather large untruth, Haru,” Yuuri said once he had recovered from choking on a sip of sake. “I know it was you who chased me out of the pantry that time I snuck in to get some of the arare that the cooks had put in there.” He grinned. Haru had been his valet since Yuuri was tiny. He had dealt with all Yuuri’s antics and had even helped to clean up a few of Vicchan’s puppy misdemeanours when he was little.
“Ah, your highness you had only gone and made yourself sick the previous day by eating too many Dango, you had a very sweet tooth when you were four.” Haru grinned back. “Do you require any help this evening, your highness.”
“No, that’s fine Haru, I’ll finish this and I am quite capable of putting myself to bed these days.”
Haru’s raised eyebrow begged to differ, but he merely replied, “as you wish, your highness. Good night.” He smiled at Yuuri and left, closing the door without a sound.
Facing the imposing doors to the council chamber the next morning, Yuuri breathed deeply. This wasn’t going to be an easy meeting. Thank goodness Minako had come up with a solution to his anxiety. A few drops of the potion in his tea every evening had meant that he hadn’t had a panic attack for several years. After all, the crown prince couldn’t afford to dissolve in a mess in the middle of a court session.
He pushed open the door and greeted the few council members already seated at the head of the table.
King Toshiya entered with Queen Hiroko and General Minako, and conversation died down as the king took his place at the head of the table. He looked around the room and opened the meeting by restating the problem.
“Thank you everyone for responding to my summons so quickly. As I said in my letter to all of you, King Leroy will arrive this afternoon seeking reparations for a crime he claims our citizens committed. He has accused us of an act of piracy regarding the supposed sinking of the merchant ship Ottawa and has also accused a group of fishermen of spying on the activities of his ships in the harbour of Nootka. The fishermen were executed after signing a confession,” the King waved a hand at one of the clerks who placed papers down in front of the council members, “a copy of which you now have in front of you. Along with the other evidence he provided.”
There was a short silence while the council members read the papers. Gradually a low rumble of angry muttering could be heard around the room. Yuuri noticed that Lady Araya had gripped the papers so tightly in her hand that they looked more like rags. She suddenly pushed her chair back and slapped the papers onto the table.
“This is preposterous! How dare they?” Uproar ensued. Several other council members got to their feet and demanded that King Leroy be apprehended as soon as his ship docked for his preposterous claims. King Toshiya allowed the council to get the anger out of their systems, before waving a hand to make them sit down. They finally settled down and Yuuri glanced at Mari, who was staring down at the papers, drawing on them with her pen.
“There will be a full court session tomorrow morning to come to terms. King Leroy has also informed us that he has sent copies of this evidence to the other countries and expects their support. Prince Yuuri will be collating any evidence you have to refute these claims.” The muttering rose again. “I know, countering any of these accusations is virtually impossible on such short notice. An obvious ploy on his part.” King Toshiya sighed.
“Lord Hata I appreciate that this comes as a nasty surprise to you, and our condolences go to the families of the fishermen.” King Toshiya bowed his head to Lord Hata who was the only one who hadn’t made any noise and rested his forehead on his hand while reading and rereading the paperwork. He pushed himself slowly to his feet and the room went quiet. Yuuri winced at the expression of despair on his face.
“When I received the urgent summons from the King, I interviewed the families of the fisherman. They were just ordinary fishermen. Their boat had been sighted in Hasetsu waters not long before it disappeared.” He sighed and rubbed at his eyebrows. “None of my people have seen the Ottawa and I could find no sign of the ship having been in our waters at all.” The old man shook his head and sat down slowly.
“Admiral Tachibana can you provide evidence of the movements of our ships over the period in question?” King Toshiya asked.
The gaunt, heavily tanned man stood in turn, “At the time of the supposed sinking all our ships were accounted for, your Majesty.” His face turned furious and he slapped a hand down onto the papers in front of him. “I do not believe this, so called evidence! This is made up. Lies and fabrications! What does King Leroy hope to achieve by this?” He glared at King Toshiya, who looked at Yuuri.
Yuuri coughed nervously and stood up, he nodded to General Minako who was sitting with crossed arms and a furious expression. The General looked at Yuuri and nodded for him to continue.
“We have a theory. From our observations King Leroy has been steadily running out of resources. Leroy was a country that was never endowed with great mineral wealth or fertile soil. What resources there were have been steadily squandered by the ruling families oppressive policies and greed. The people have reached the point where they are starving and famine is a real possibility. King Leroy is not the type to beg for help from the other countries and we believe he has fabricated these stories to put pressure on us.” Yuuri rubbed the back of his neck nervously, knowing what sort of reaction his next statement was likely to get, “We think that tomorrow he will demand land in compensation and particularly the land along the border including the city of Omura.” Yuuri sat back down as the room dissolved into uproar yet again.
Lord Hata looked devastated anew and rubbed his face with his hands, too shocked to contribute to the heated discussions around him. Yuuri looked at his father, who looked like he had aged during the course of the meeting and then Mari who had her head in her hands. They were being forced into an impossible situation and had not had enough time to prepare a defence or a counter to the accusations being levelled against them.
Yuuri stood up and placed his hands on the table as soon as the room became quieter again. He looked straight at Lord Hata and tried to summon as much confidence into his voice as possible. “Lord Hata, please be reassured that we will never give in to any demands like this. We will never allow our citizens to become citizens of Leroy and all that entails.” Yuuri looked around the table. “We have called you all together to ask for your opinions and ideas. We will do our best for the country in the talks tomorrow and ask for your support.” A thoughtful silence ensued.
“I will support your majesty.” Lord Hata said slowly. “But I hope you will excuse me if I have planned for the worst case scenario. I have my troops ready for the order to evacuate the area. I ask your permission to send a messenger bird and order the evacuation to begin immediately.”
“I agree,” King Toshiya looked around the table and took in the agreement of the council members. “If, as we believe, this is a land grabbing strategy, then King Leroy will have his troops already waiting on the border to move in. The people are at risk and should be our first priority. Thank you for your forethought.” King Toshiya bowed to Lord Hata and the man left the room as quickly as possible. “Now, we would gratefully receive your suggestions on how to continue.”
It was much later, Yuuri sat on the floor of his room utterly drained, playing with Vicchan. No progress had been made by the council apart from a general agreement that the border was not going to form any part of the negotiation and if the worst case scenario happened and Leroy declared war then, thanks to Lord Hata, the citizens would have already been evacuated from those areas under threat.
One of the Lords had suggested asking for a mage from the college in Venetia, but everyone knew that the college prided itself on its neutrality. Not once in the hundreds of years of its existence had the college stepped in to help in times of war or dispute. Mages who did become involved were disciplined to an extreme degree. Most mages never left the college anyway and were a rare sight.
Lord Hata had left immediately to return to begin preparing his people for evacuation. No one was under any illusions that King Leroy was going to back down peacefully. Letters by messenger bird had been sent to the neighbouring countries of Volkov, Helvetia and Venetia refuting the evidence of King Leroy and asking for support. The military leaders had been dispatched to form a plan for the defence of the country. They had done all they could before the soldier entered the room after a perfunctory knock on the door and reported that King Leroy’s ship had been seen about to enter the harbour.
Yuuri was already exhausted by the time the delegation from Leroy had arrived and were formally greeted. He personally escorted King Leroy and Prince JJ to their quarters and they made casual polite conversation on the way. Well, Yuuri made casual polite conversation. King Leroy barely covered his contempt for the palace at Hasetsu and did not say a word, he did not even look at Yuuri the entire way to their rooms, but Prince JJ was another matter.
The young man did not stop talking. He boasted about his new fiance, the beautiful and apparently flawless woman from the Borden Islands that he was going to marry, by far and away the best prospect in the lands for his marriage. He boasted about the riches of the palace in Leroy compared to Hasetsu and he boasted about the subservient way the population treated their royal family, tithing the best of their crops to keep the palace stores full even when the harvest was poor or the winters were harsh. Yuuri slowly ground his teeth. He didn’t know if JJ was just naive or wanted to make Yuuri feel angry on behalf of his sister. JJ could keep his fancy palace and his oh so subservient population. Yuuri’s eyes flashed with anger, he would much rather have a happy, well fed, well looked after population than a half-starved population scared of the people who were meant to have their well being at heart. He remained polite with difficulty and he thought he had acquitted himself well when they arrived at the rooms and he said goodbye to the King and the Prince.
Yuuri had certainly succeeded in his aim of trying to get a feel for their personalities before the formal court meeting tomorrow.
He entered his rooms and Vicchan rushed over with a toy, still full of energy having been cooped up in Yuuri’s rooms for most of the day. “You need a walk don’t you?” Yuuri ruffled Vicchan’s fur and pushed himself up off the floor, shushing Vicchan’s excited barks when Yuuri went to the door. A walk would be good for both of them Yuuri thought, pulling on his scarf against the cold spring air.
Yuuri woke up slowly. Everything felt heavy, as if there was a huge weight pressing down on him, constricting his chest and keeping him crushed into the mattress. He slowly raised himself up and looked around the luxurious room, the silent, too still luxurious room. When he saw the small empty dog bed near his desk, his already sore throat tightened and he felt tears gathering in his eyes. He slumped back down into the pillows, muffling a small cry when his injured arm twinged, and allowed the tears to roll down his cheeks remembering the previous evening. He could still feel Vicchan’s last breaths as he cradled the tiny body in his arms.
Eventually, he heard the door open and close as Haru entered. Yuuri knew he needed to get ready for the day, but he felt empty inside - devoid of feeling - a hollow shell, a Bunraku puppet who needed puppeteers to make him move. He couldn’t even summon the energy to lift one finger, or make a noise.
Haru finally came over to the bed. Yuuri knew that he was trying to get Yuuri’s attention, but the words just weren’t registering. He felt Haru leave the bedside and opened his eyes to stare at the ornate ceiling.
A while later - Yuuri wasn’t keeping track of time - it could have been seconds or hours, he heard the door open again. This time the voice was one he couldn’t ignore.
“Yuuri!” Minako marched over to the bed and sat down. Yuuri closed his eyes and let out a breath. Minako paused before speaking again, “Yuuri, I know what happened yesterday was traumatic, but you have to put your personal feelings aside and do your duty to your country.” She paused again and reached out a hand to cover Yuuri’s.
“I have bad news. Your father was taken ill last night.” Yuuri’s eyes slammed open and he looked at Minako in horror. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t appear to be serious, but he was in a lot of pain. The doctors have treated him and said that kidney stones are a common problem, and he’ll be fine in a few days, although he cannot host the meeting at the court today. You are the crown prince and need to take his place.”
His father was ill? On the same day as the court session with King Leroy? Yuuri groaned as the apathy was surrounded by a layer of anxiety. Great, Yuuri thought, what more could go wrong?
He knew Minako was right. He knew he had to do his duty. There was no one else who had the authority and the knowledge to do this. No one. But why did it have to be him? Now the familiar clawing of panic at his gut started. He raised his hands to cover his eyes.
“Yuuri?” Minako asked softly. “I know this is hard.”
“Hah! Hard! Impossible may be more accurate!” He lowered his hands into fists at his side. “FUCK!” He screamed and pounded his fists on the bed. He forced himself upright. “I just...I just...arrghh!”
Finally looking around he caught sight of Haru’s face. Haru quickly rearranged his features into a servant’s mask and turned to pick up a tray with a teapot, cup and bandages on it. Minako turned and reached into her jacket to pull out a potion bottle.
“For your nerves. You’re going to need it.” She put a few drops into the cup of tea Haru poured and passed Yuuri the cup.
Yuuri reached out a shaking hand and Minako gripped it with her other hand, guiding it round the cup.
“You can do it Yuuri. You have the skills, and you have everyone’s support.”
Minako’s words were bracing and Yuuri could feel that maybe, if he had time, then he could try. Grief for Vicchan would have to be put aside for today. Tomorrow he would allow himself to grieve. Tomorrow. He took a deep breath and nodded.
“I’ll go and see if we can delay the arrival of the King so you have some time to prepare.” Minako got up and moved to the door, “I’ll be back to let you know.”
There was no time.
Yuuri stayed listless while Haru fussed around him, dressing him in his court clothes. He allowed himself some time for his thoughts to fracture and skitter all over the place. He knew he had to be clear headed in the court.
He was barely dressed when Minako and Mari stormed back in. Mari’s face was livid and Minako face was frightening in its fury.
“King Leroy and his son are in the throne room already demanding that a member of the royal family come and face him to apologise for the insult to his country and the insulting behaviour he’s receiving this morning!”
Yuuri frantically tried to gather his scattered thoughts and bring to mind the plan they made in the council meeting yesterday. He stood quickly and stumbled, not quite as ready as he thought. He looked up, meeting Mari’s eyes. She walked towards him and opened her arms. His eyes widened at the uncharacteristic show of affection and he allowed himself to be wrapped in his big sister’s embrace. He sobbed quietly for a couple of minutes and then felt Minako’s hand grip his shoulder.
“Yuuri, we must go now.”
Yuuri clenched his fists at his side and closed his eyes, breathing deeply as he stood in the antechamber leading to the throne room. The potion Minako had given him in the tea had helped, but not enough. Not enough to quell the turmoil in his stomach and confusion in his head. He felt Mari grip his shoulder from where she stood slightly behind him and to the left.
He could hear the rustling murmurs of the crowd in the room before them, and a raised voice loudly demanding the presence of a member of the royal family. Pulling his shoulders back and smoothing the line of his Kimono, Yuuri gritted his teeth. He gestured for the guards to open the door and walked forward.
“His Royal Highness Crown Prince Yuuri, Duke of Sasebo and Lord of Hirado and Her Royal Highness Princess Mari Duchess of Amakusa!” One of the guards shouted into the room as the door swung open. A deafening silence fell as Yuuri walked forwards.
Standing in an aggressive stance, a hand on one hip the other on his sword hilt, in front of steps leading to the empty thrones was King Leroy. His son, Prince JJ, stood behind him. Yuuri didn’t pay much attention to the King or his son as his eyes were immediately drawn to the servant standing behind JJ. The servant was holding an enormous dog on a leash. Yuuri’s steps faltered and his face showed the horror that he was feeling. This was the dog. This was the dog that had appeared out of nowhere in the streets yesterday in the normally completely safe town of Hasetsu and had viciously attacked Vicchan for no reason before Yuuri could gather the small dog in his arms. Yuuri had not come out of the encounter unscathed. His forearm was still wrapped in bandages from the bite he had received while trying to defend Vicchan.
“So! Finally! Members of the royal family of Hasetsu appear.” King Leroy spat the words viciously. “This is disrespect! You not only disrespect me boy , you disrespect our kingdom too.”
The court gasped, no one had ever spoken to the prince in this way before. Yuuri had stopped walking forward. He didn’t react to the provocative words at all and just stared at the dog, his face pale.
King Leroy noticed this and smiled in vicious satisfaction. The dog growled.
“Your Majesty.” Yuuri said softly, and bowed. He might hate this man’s guts for letting his dog get loose and out of control, but he was damned if he was going to escalate the situation in any way. “I was unavoidably detained in my preparations to meet you. We are, in fact earlier than the agreed meeting time–”
“That’s no excuse!” The King interrupted loudly.
Yuuri put his hands behind his back, not so much as to look more authoritative, but to hide the shaking of his hands that he couldn’t stop.
“If we could move to the meeting chamber, then we can talk about your communications and what–” Once again Yuuri wasn’t allowed to finish a sentence.
“Talk? You want to talk? I demand an apology. Spying on my kingdom and the sinking of a ship in our own waters! This is outrageous. I have written to all the countries in Bayuria and informed them of this act...of...WAR!” King Leroy deliberately spaced out the last words.
Yuuri swallowed, stiffened and protested, “King Leroy. This is unreasonable! We have not been given a chance to defend ourselves. We have never broken our treaty with Leroy. These events must have been instigated by a hostile third party seeking to put the blame on us. Please let us talk and resolve the issue peacefully.“ Yuuri was proud of the fact that his voice didn’t falter, even though he could barely disguise the vibrations of anxiety running through him.
“Pah! You are hilarious if you think that talking will bring back the lives of my sailors! Death has to be repaid with death.” Gasps were heard around the room.
Yuuri could see that nothing would appease the King and desperately he dropped to his knees. “If you need equivalent reparations your majesty, then I offer myself.”
“Yuuri!” Mari’s shocked voice came from behind him.
“I offer my life in exchange for theirs, to bring peace to the land.” He bowed his head.
There was a pause and then King Leroy burst out laughing. Yuuri looked up in surprise.
“Your life? Hah! You think your life is an equivalent exchange? Don’t worry boy , I’ll have your life, but you will suffer first.” King Leroy looked around the room.
“I want nothing more to do with this kingdom or this pitiful excuse for a royal family apart from seeing it ground into the dust.” King Leroy spat.
Yuuri heard Mari gasp at the insult and the threat from behind him.
“I will send you my conditions for peace. Meet them, or I will sweep this country clean of the stain of your rule and you will suffer more humiliation than you or your family could imagine. Come JJ.” With a last contemptuous look at Yuuri and a satisfied glance at his pale face, King Leroy swirled out of the Great Hall with his son, guards and monstrous dog in tow.
Silence reigned in the Hall after the doors had closed.