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stranger in a strange land

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“Sorey-san,” Lailah says, fixing Sorey with a patient, sweet, and ultimately threatening smile. “Stop fidgeting.”

Sorey has half a mind to pout, to whine, or to make a protest in some childish way that Lailah would smack him in the shoulder for. Or, rather, she would glare at him in that disappointed Lailah way that he was weak to in order to avoid wrinkling his uniform. Sorey shoves down a long sigh and picks at the seams of his pants.

Lailah spies his picking and sighs for him. “You’re going to be a king soon, Sorey-san,” she says. Sorey winces. What she means is, it’s about time you started acting proper, at least this once, please?

She has a great point, but she’s also not the one who’s being proposed to today. She’s not the one who’s had to suffer through polite political conversation with girls of every noble background. She’s not the one who’s had to imagine herself marrying someone she’s only known for a day. No one’s been pressuring Lailah to marry this noblewoman or this princess or the future duchess or in the name of the Shepherd, is that girl even of marrying age?!

“I’m nervous,” Sorey says, glumness slipping into his voice despite his attempts to remain straight-faced about the presentation this afternoon.

“Yes, dear,” Lailah says, smiling a little. “I know.”

“Don’t know what there is to be nervous about,” Rose adds from across the room, hands tucked behind her head. “He’s just some stuffy prince from Elysia. Drink a lot of wine and you’ll be able to suffer through him.”

“Why did I invite you in here, again?” Sorey asks. “Don’t you have some, I don’t know, economics-y things to do instead of taunting me in my time of dying?”

Rose says, “Ha, no,” at the same time Lailah says, “Don’t be so dramatic.”

It’s like having a nagging mother and a jeering sister at the same time. Sorey wishes he could regret his choice of royal advisors, but they were just too good to dismiss. Damn it.

It was like this: Sorey had a special not-soft spot for princesses. Nine times out of ten they were entitled gold diggers who happened to be a hell of a lot smarter and more conniving than Sorey. He didn’t do lies or deceit, mostly because his ability to lie was null and void, but in general he was the honest sort. So when he came toe to toe with schemers and liars his first instinct was to distance himself from them, and when that didn’t work, run. Meaning that meeting with princesses was something like an exercise in trying not to die on the spot or sound like a fool when they brought up pancontinental politics while downing as much wine as he could get away with.

It didn’t help that Sorey was a terrible lightweight.

But on top of the fact that this visitor was next in line for the throne, he was also a boy. Sorey had never courted a boy before, nor had he been courted by a boy. It sounded challenging and fun, but also intimidating. Who would lead when they danced? Did he kiss his hand? What if the prince didn’t like exploring and falconing?

What if the prince was just a boy version of the princesses?

“Why couldn’t Alisha be a princess?” Sorey laments. “I’m sure I could get married to someone like her.”

“Because two oblivious people can’t form a relationship,” Rose says. “At least one of you has to understand love and romance on some level and since neither of you do, no deal.”

“But that would make it so much easier…” Sorey says. Whines. He knows he’s whining. Lailah is giving him a look again.

“Then Rose—”

“Not a chance in hell,” Rose says.

Sorey gives Lailah puppy-dog eyes. “Lailah?”

Lailah pats him on the back gently. “You’ll find your soulmate, Sorey-san. You just have to keep looking.”

Sorey throws his hands up in the air. “I don’t even know what to do with a prince, though! How am I supposed to romance him when I’ve only ever been presented to by noblewomen?”

“Uh, talk to him?” Rose says. “Treat him like a human being? Don’t ogle him the whole time and think ‘wow, I’m courting a prince!’”

“I’m inclined to agree with Rose in this case,” Lailah says. “He’s no different from the others who have presented to you before. Perhaps you’ll even get on better with him than the ladies.”

“Yeah,” Sorey says.

“Besides, you’re hot,” Rose adds.

Rose-san,” Lailah chides.

Sorey is in red today, purposefully meant to oppose the blues and greens and silver of Elysia with the golds and reds and black of Izuchi. If this prince would be bringing the untamed ocean from his kingdom, then Sorey would meet him with the strength of earth and mountains. Atop his red button-up, Sorey wore the traditional garb of the Shepherd, the legendary hero of Izuchi. It fit him like a second skin, comfortable and allowing for movement. It was only his nerves that made the cloak feel itchy.

Unlike the prince before him, Sorey was expected to minimize his ornamentation in order to present an ‘honest’ face of himself, free of all but the simplest touches and his own prince’s circlet. Sorey wore only his favorite feather earrings, the Shepherd’s glove, and a ceremonial sword, while the prince would be decked out in every kind of jewelry his kingdom could provide him, as a sign of wealth and prosperity, two necessary traits in a potential match. Sorey wonders what kind of gemstones are unique to Elysia. Rose always raved about their opals and seaglass.

Seaglass. The ocean. Of course, Sorey can talk to the prince about the ocean.

He’s never seen it. In Izuchi, they have lakes that stretch as far as the eye can see, but never the salty air, a breeze kicking up white sands that touch waters so blue-green that bards from all around the continent have written love songs to them. The sun in his hair and the crashing of waves—Sorey wants to know that. If he can get the prince to stop talking about trade routes between their kingdoms and tell him about the ocean just for a moment, this meeting will have been worth it.

He glances at his reflection in the mirror, trying to imagine what the prince will see. But Sorey’s imagination has always been bad, and he only sees himself, a ragtag prince in a too-fancy ready room with his best friend making faces at him in the mirror.

“I’m too plain to be a prince,” Sorey says. “If only I had been born an explorer or an archaeologist.”

“Nonsense,” Lailah says, smoothing out his cloak. “It’s plain, humble princes like you that we need the most. And if he can’t see that, then he doesn’t deserve you anyway.”

Sorey smiles into the mirror and Lailah smiles back at him. “You’re ready,” she says.

“Not quite,” Alisha says, stepping into the room. She’s accompanied by the crown bearer, holding Sorey’s golden circlet of leaves and branches on a red velvet cushion.

He bows to Sorey. “Your Highness,” he says.

Sorey smiles and dips his head so that the crown bearer can lower the circlet onto his head.

“Now you’re ready,” Alisha says, smiling.

Sorey meets the eyes of his three closest friends and nods.

 

-------------------------------

 

Sorey doesn’t fidget on his throne. That would be unprofessional. Lailah’s looking at him though, so he might be fidgeting. A little.

The rest of the noblemen and noblewomen entertain themselves with conversation while Sorey sits high on his throne swirling a chalice of wine and schools his face into what he hopes is a neutral and regal expression. Rose and Lailah are seated at either side of him, a step below. Alisha is talking to some her guards on the chamber floor, keeping a watchful eye on anyone who moves close to Sorey.

Sorey hasn’t lost his nerve quite yet, although that might be the wine talking. He’s usually so good at talking with people, but whenever something official like this comes along, he freezes up. Ugh, he’s so bad with responsibility. He should really just marry Alisha. She can manage the entire military and act as his captain of the guard, surely she could handle running a kingdom? The idea of getting married to someone who has his own kingdom on top of Sorey’s sounds like a lot to look after.

Rose, at least, is having fun. Some of the Elysian people have filtered into the chamber in anticipation of their prince’s presentation. Rose sized up the merchants immediately and has been negotiating trade deals and discussing the inflation of opal and whiskey with a number of different people while Sorey sweats on his throne. Lailah, as always, is the picture of grace.

Oh, thank god, the master of ceremonies has arrived. Sorey can get this introduction done, accept his gifts, and look for more wine to help him survive this afternoon. Evening. Night.

Sorey takes a long sip of his wine.

The master of ceremonies clears his throat and the chatter dies down. “Presenting to His Royal Highness, Sorey-sama, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Izuchi.”

Here we go.

“From the Ocean Kingdom of Elysia, I present to you the son of King Zenrus, Crown Prince Mikleo-sama.”

The chamber claps politely for the prince as trumpets play. Prince Mikleo’s guard marches forward, shining silver knights with cloaks of sea green and designs of white foaming waves sown into the ends. Sorey’s heart beats faster. Two handsome men and a tiny woman follow, all dressed in white except one of the men who wore no shirt but a bare chest covered in white tattoos. The prince’s captains and advisors, then.

And then finally, the Prince himself. Sorey, despite himself, enjoys seeing his potential suitors dressed up in the finest of their kingdom’s clothing. He can read the culture from the traditional garb, as well as the legends that hail from those kingdoms and what their choicest minerals are. It’s a fascinating exercise in anthropology that Sorey enjoys outside of the whole marriage-thing.

Mikleo is different.

Mikleo walks into the chamber in a massive white coat that drags behind him on the floor. The hood is large enough to obscure his face and edged in white fur. Along the back of it and down his arms, dark blue designs like tree branches or the ocean tides curl and twist. He stops in the middle of the chamber floor, only wisps of blue-white hair visible beneath the hood.

He slides his hands (pale as snow) under the hood and hooks his fingers (studded in platinum rings with embedded sapphires) around it, pulling the hood back in a fluid motion.

Sorey thinks of his falcon.

He remembers seeing her first kill, the way she tucked her wings in and dove, a tawny blur with talons extended. The hare stood no chance when she was one with the wind, sinking her talons deep into its body and severing its spinal cord. Sorey let her have that hare, watched her rip into it with a fierce beak, her golden eyes watching him the entire time.

Sorey thinks he knows what that hare must have felt like, helpless under the power of such a magnificent predator.

Mikleo is slight and fine-boned, but Sorey doesn’t doubt for a second that he could snap Sorey’s neck and eat him up in a second. He fixes his eyes (violet!) on Sorey’s and doesn’t move.

Sorey is not as steadfast. Underneath his hood, Mikleo is studded in diamonds and sapphires and opals, Shepherd help him Sorey had no idea he was so in love with opals. Their many-colored splendor resonates with the silver of Mikleo’s jewelry and brings out the blue-green of Mikleo’s clothing and the tips of his hair. He is graced with necklaces and chokers and bracelets and earrings, the longest of which hangs from his right ear and ends in the fattest blue diamond Sorey has ever seen. His circlet is delicate metalwork forged into the shape of waves crashing around opal insets.

All of his clothing is fine and tailored to flatter his thin build from the collar running up his neck to the dark straps that ran from his chest to his hips. Sorey thinks for a moment that he has not been presented with a prince, but rather a fledgling god, like the seraphim of legend. He cannot possibly be worthy to be in this creature’s presence. This prince cannot possibly presume to marry him.

Lailah coughs quietly into her hand. Sorey remembers that he’s the Crown Prince of a kingdom and cannot embarrass himself by ogling a prince until his eyeballs pop out of their sockets. He has time to think, damn it, Rose was right before he speaks.

“Welcome, Mikleo,” Sorey says. It sounds like another person is speaking for him. Shit, had he said Mikleo’s name right? He can’t even remember how it was supposed to sound!

“May I approach?” Mikleo says, voice warm and deeper than Sorey had expected after so many noblewomen.

“Of course, honored guest,” Sorey says. His usually unhelpful brain adds an extra-unhelpful thought: of course, lover.

There may not be enough wine in the kingdom to keep Sorey sane tonight.

Mikleo approaches, climbing the steps in heeled boots and letting his heavy cloak fall off his shoulders and down to his elbows. Sorey feels like he’s being cornered.

Mikleo kneels before him and Sorey offers him a hand. Mikleo takes his hand (wow, alright, soft) and presses his lips to Sorey’s knuckles. He holds the kiss for a long moment, long enough for Sorey’s mind to swim. Then he stands and steps back. Mikleo smiles politely, professionally, no more and no less than what was required of him. Everything about Mikleo screamed raised to rule and not a movement he made was uncalculated or hasty. He was like every other princess Sorey had ever encountered, dialed up to ten and twelve times as intimidating.

Sorey’s not too thick to notice the crack in the prince’s façade, though. Mikleo’s gaze, always trained on Sorey’s face, slips just a little up to his hair then down his body before returning to looking him in the eyes. It was so quick that Sorey might have missed it, but Mikleo’s skin is too pale to hide the sudden flush to his cheeks. Sorey feels his own cheeks heat up in response. What the hell was that all about?

“I present to you the gifts of Elysia,” Mikleo says, possibly a little too quickly. He stands to the side and allows the gift bearers to approach.

This, at least, Sorey could handle. Accept the gold and jewelry, eye up the art, sample the wine or fruits, then move on with the ceremony. He could deal with this and forget about Mikleo returning his interest in some way, shape, or form.

Except, when the gift bearers approach, they carry trunks and cases and one with an armful of scrolls. Sorey peers at the weathered and fraying scrolls with interest until the trunks are opened to reveal—books.

Sorey’s eyes widen.

They’re all books. Dusty, heavy tomes covered in beaten up leather, hundreds or thousands of years old. In the cases, there are rusted, cracked trinkets and lockets and a chunk of mosaic that Sorey recognizes as a remnant of an ancient water shrine said to be located in Elysia’s borders—

Could this all be history from Elysia?

“This is—” Sorey rasps.

Misinterpreting his tone of voice, Mikleo cuts in. “In Elysia we value culture and history over gold and jewels. Of course, some of our finest opals have been brought with, but this is what we believe to be our finest gifts.” He says it in a way that tells Sorey he’s had this argument time and time again with royalty of other kingdoms.

One gift bearer steps forward with a book covered in a sheer green fabric. Sorey beckons her forward and pulls away the fabric to reveal what could only be one of the original copies of the Celestial Record.

Sorey’s heart clogs his throat. He’d only reads transcriptions, as no copies of the Celestial Record remained in Izuchi. He’d tried—so hard—to bargain for it but never succeeded. To have the real thing offered to him as a gift was—

Sorey takes the book in his hands, rubbing a gentle thumb over its cover. You’re home now, he wants to tell the book. Instead, he grips it tightly and turns to Mikleo.

He knows he must look gutted. Mikleo’s eyes widen at whatever vulnerability he sees written on Sorey’s face. “How—?” Sorey says. “How did you…?”

Lailah coughs again. Right, right, accept the gifts like a prince and not like a boy. Sorey clears his throat. “Your gifts will be treasured in our kingdom for decades to come. They will be most prized.”

Mikleo dips his head, eyes still wide.

Sorey gestures to the rest of the hall. “Go on!” he says. “Celebrate! Be merry!” And the conversations pick back up again.

The gift bearers retreat with their gifts, although the girl who had held the Celestial Record hesitates. Sorey is still holding onto it. He’s not sure if he’s capable of giving it back to her.

“Sorey!” Rose hisses, low enough that only the people gathered up top hear.

Sorey breaks from his stupor and returns the book, watching the gift bearer all the way out the doors to the chamber. He barely registers Mikleo seating himself in the throne chair next to Sorey.

They don’t speak after that. This would usually be the time when Sorey had to field questions about his kingdom and sit through long discussions of politics that he couldn’t keep up with. At the very least, he would make small talk with his potential suitor, but Sorey can’t come up with a conversation topic that doesn’t center around where did you find the Celestial Record or have you read it or what did you mean when you said your kingdom values culture and history?

He also can’t look at Prince Mikleo, because then he won’t be able to stop looking at Prince Mikleo, so there’s that, too.

It’s not all his fault, although Rose and Lailah’s pointed looks say otherwise. Mikleo doesn’t want to talk to him either, probably freaked out by what a weirdo Sorey was. Who lost their shit over an old book? No prince was supposed to lose their shit over any of the gifts he received, but in Sorey’s defense, that book had been the only thing he ever wanted in his entire life.

Mikleo’s advisors aren’t pressing him. The shirtless man is very happily partaking of the wine and food and pestering the other blond man who humors him. The petite blonde woman alternates staring at Mikleo and scanning the room.

Eventually, Sorey calms down enough to sink deeper into his throne and be appropriately miserable and hyperaware of Mikleo. He takes to sneaking side glances at Mikleo when he thinks the prince isn’t looking and works himself up over how pretty Mikleo is. Plenty of the women Sorey had been presented with were lovely, even some as delicate-looking as Mikleo, but never any with the intimidation the prince carried himself with.

Or maybe Sorey was just really, really into him, which would be terrifying.

Then Mikleo catches Sorey sneaking glances and Sorey feels it’s about time for his cup to be refilled. He signals for a servant while steadily not-looking at Mikleo. The servant fills his chalice with wine and he takes a long sip from it. Out of the corner of his eye, he spies Mikleo raising a hand to signal for his own wine. Sorey peers curiously at him as he gets a silver chalice filled and takes a long sip himself. Mikleo meets his eyes and raises his cup in a miniature toast. Sorey returns the smile and the toast and they drink together.

Oh god. They were flirting, weren’t they? Was this flirting? Sorey can’t bear to look at Mikleo again.

There’s a recess for the patrons to refresh themselves and touch up their make up or readjust their jewelry. It also serves as an opportunity for the advisors to gauge the interest of the royalty they serve in their potential suitors.

Sorey bolts away. It’s probably rude, but he needs to talk to Rose and Lailah immediately.

“If we had known you were in love with a book, we would have married you  to the Celestial Record a long time ago,” Rose jokes, stepping into the room Sorey had bolted into.

“Well!” Lailah says, clapping her hands together. “What do you think of Mikleo-sama, Sorey-san?”

“Nggghhh,” Sorey says.

“That bad, huh,” Rose says. Lailah steps on her toes. "Ow!"

“Sorey-san?” Lailah asks.

“I don’t know!” Sorey says, burying his face in his hands.

“You don’t know?” Rose says. “Wait a second. That’s not a ‘no’ or even a ‘hell no.’ What’s going on?”

“He’s just—” Sorey gestures. “—and the Celestial Record—” More gesticulation. “—and his hair and the opals and his mouth—” Gestures and gesticulation. “—it’s just a little much, you know?”

“Who knew it’d be a prince to finally bring the great Sorey-sama to his knees?” Rose snickers, crossing her arms and grinning.

“It’s not because he’s a prince,” Sorey snaps. “It’s because he’s Mikleo.”

“Sorey-san,” Lailah says. “He is offering to marry you…” She’s smiling, too, a knowing smile.

“Oh no,” Sorey says, waving his hands back and forth. “Of everyone who’s ever presented to me, I definitely can’t marry Mikleo.”

Lailah pouts. “Oh, boo. Why not?”

“I thought I just explained it to you!” Sorey exclaims. “His hair, his eyes, the way he talks, the way he carries himself, his respect for culture and history—it’s terrifying!”

“So you want to bone him,” Rose says, putting her hands on her hips. “Just because you’re a virgin doesn’t mean you’ll be bad in bed.”

Sorey gapes at her.

Lailah exhales. “What Rose-san is trying to say is that you clearly feel some kind of attraction towards him. It’s natural to be frightened, but you should give him a chance.” She says it in a way that also says Sorey-san, you’ve been propositioned to by over twenty women and never given them a second chance. So help me Shepherd-sama, I will see you court this boy you’re attracted to.

“Don’t wanna,” Sorey whines. “He’s scary.”

“Think about it this way,” Rose says. “You think he’s hot, right?”

“I don’t think I like the way you put it,” Sorey says.

Rose ignores him. “If you marry him, you can tap that whenever you want. You can get married to a literal seraph. Imagine waking up to that face every day.”

Sorey’s heart does a painful thing and he makes a dying noise. It’s too easy to imagine himself waking up in Elysia with the sun filtering in through an open window, a sea breeze making the curtains flutter. He’d sit up, legs tangled in white sheets, to see Mikleo beside him, blinking his eyes open and peering up through long eyelashes to say, “Good morning, Sorey.”

Maybe if he dared, Sorey could imagine tangling his legs with Mikleo’s instead of in the sheets. Maybe Sorey could also run headfirst into a wall repeatedly until he erased the thought of being with Mikleo from his brain.

“I’ll die,” Sorey says. “I’ll definitely die. He’ll smite me with his seraphic artes.”

“He will do no such thing, and you will go out into the hall and talk with him,” Lailah says, pushing Sorey towards the door. “You will talk to him about archaeology and your eyes will light up and you’ll smile and he will fall in love with you, too.”

“What?” Sorey says.

“She has a point,” Rose says. “Everyone falls a little in love with you when you talk about your ruins.”

“I thought you hated it!” Sorey says.

“Sure do,” Rose says, opening the door. “I’m uncomfortable being in love with you.”

They toss Sorey out the door and into the throng of people from both Elysia and Izuchi. The sun’s setting by now and soon the dances will start, beginning with a dance between Sorey and Mikleo. At the very least, Sorey would rather dance with someone he’s talked to a little bit than someone he had essentially ignored all day. Sorey finds Mikleo out on one of the balconies, but he’s not alone.

“Nice performance,” the tiny woman says to Mikleo, twirling an umbrella. “I’m sure His Royal Highness really enjoyed you side-eyeing him the entire afternoon like a lovestruck little boy.”

“Edna,” Mikleo greets, sounding tired. “Why are you always the one who debriefs me after presentations, again?”

“Because Zaveid is a jackass and Eizen is too nice,” Edna says. “So, back to business, are you done playing ‘notice me, oh hot Crown Prince who I obviously have a thing for’ yet?”

“I do not ‘have a thing’ for Sorey,” Mikleo argues. It occurs to Sorey that eavesdropping like this is probably incredibly rude. It also occurs to Sorey that he might really be into Mikleo’s angry voice. He grabs a flute of champagne from a servant passing by to pretend to be doing something while he leans against the wall.

“Listen, Meebo,” Edna says, and Sorey nearly chokes at the nickname, “just because the other two are stupid doesn’t mean I am. You blush like a tomato.”

“So I think he’s good-looking!” Mikleo cries. “Sue me! He’s got nice arms and nice hands and I imagine he could throw me quite a far distance if he wanted to. Is it a crime for me to like that?”

Maybe eavesdropping wasn’t such a great idea.

“Nuh-uh,” Edna says. “I’m not letting you off that easy. He was really shocked by the Celestial Record, wasn’t he? You noticed that, of course.”

“Of course,” Mikleo says quietly. “Edna, he really…he really…loved it, I guess. It was like I’d put the world on a platter by handing him that book. I just…no one’s ever looked at me like that.”

Alright, Sorey is officially feeling guilty as hell for listening in. He moves away and then circles back around to the balcony, hailing a servant to take his champagne glass. As expected, Mikleo and Edna fall silent. Sorey pushes through the curtain and offers them his least guilty smile.

“Could I borrow Mikleo for a moment?” Sorey asks.

Edna bows. “He’s all yours,” she says and leaves them. She puts some interesting emphasis on the sentence. Mikleo scowls at her as she leaves. Mikleo’s scowl feels as dangerous as spying on them.

“Please excuse Edna,” Mikleo says, schooling his features into something pleasant that was as obviously a façade as the smile Sorey levels at him. “She likes to make herself a nuisance.”

“Not a problem,” Sorey says. “My advisors can be overbearing at times as well.”

They’re both holding each other at an arm’s length, measuring each other without breaking eye contact. Sorey understands this, because he expected as much. As with any Crown Prince or Princess, they were raised to rule and to bow to no one. Neither of the princes could back down and break eye contact.

“So, the Celestial Record,” Mikleo says, crossing his arms and leaning against the balcony. He’s missing his giant fur cloak but somehow maintains an air of intimidation despite being half the size he was earlier. “You’ve heard of it?”

Rose and Lailah wanted Sorey to talk about archaeology, right? Well, fine. He’d talk about archaeology.

“Read it cover to cover as many years as I’ve been alive and then some,” Sorey says, proud. “Never the real thing though, always transcriptions.”

“It’s a different experience, holding it in your hands,” Mikleo says. “You can almost feel the ancients who wrote it breathing over your shoulder.”

“You’ve read it too, then?” Sorey says.

“Of course,” Mikleo says. “I’ve memorized it, more or less. Couldn’t part with the book unless I had.”

It’s a challenge. A soft one, but a challenge, nonetheless. Mikleo is testing him.

Sorey grins. “Put that knowledge to good use, I hope?”

“I may not look it, but I can get dirty like the rest of them,” Mikleo says, jutting his chin out.

“I don’t doubt it,” Sorey says. “Anyone who reads the Celestial Record can’t help but want to traverse the ruins of the world.”

“And I’ll use any excuse I can to get out of the kingdom to do so,” Mikleo agrees.

“You get it!” Sorey says, laughing. “No one else here understands what that feels like.”

An admission, a vulnerability, shit, Sorey’s revealed too much. Is he playing the game right? Oh, he’s always been terrible at these kinds of plays, always the first to show his cards. Mikleo takes the admission with a blink.

“In any case,” Mikleo says. “I’m glad that someone who truly loves that book will be the one caring for it.” Ah, naturally, he won’t follow Sorey’s lead. Perhaps he is only attracted to Sorey at the surface level. He’s clearly of too fine breeding to play in the emotional sandbox Sorey always found himself in.

“I’ll treasure it,” Sorey says.

“‘For decades to come,’ isn’t it?” Mikleo says, smiling a little and shit, maybe Sorey was wrong.

He groans. “Please, spare me my naïve words,” Sorey says. “I was overcome with emotion.”

“I liked it,” Mikleo says. “Emotion becomes you, I think.”

“But not you?” Sorey asks.

Mikleo tilts his head to the side, letting Sorey know he’s walking a fine line. “I prefer to keep to myself.”

“I don’t believe that,” Sorey says. “Also, I would give anything to see you laugh.”

“Oh, so we’re playing that game, are we?” Mikleo says. “You’ll have to try much, much harder to get a blush out of me, Your Highness. Plenty of others have tried.”

“Perhaps, but I’m always sincere,” Sorey says. “Surely that counts for something.”

Mikleo leans forward. “I don’t know that we’re well-acquainted enough for me to believe you.”

“Then maybe I should lie to you, so you’ll know how fake I’ll sound when I say you are not appealing to me.” Fuck, what was he doing? Sorey feels his own cheeks heat up.

Amazingly, Mikleo's cheeks color and he turns away. “Ugh,” he says. “You’re right, you are sincere. You’re the worst kind of person—a completely honest one.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Sorey says, turning his back to Mikleo as well.

They’re silent a moment, then Mikleo says, “You’re attracted to me?”

Sorey cycles through a variety of responses, from why does that have to be your question to have you looked in a mirror to I seriously can’t be the first one until he settles on, “I thought you trusted my sincerity.”

“I do.” A pause. “I feel like such a fool, talking to you.”

You feel like a fool?” Sorey says, spinning around. “You’re the one with the intimidating, not-of-this-earth aura to you; talking to you feels like a sin.”

Mikleo whips around, arms crossed. “Perhaps, but do you know how difficult it is to talk to an earnest person while acting the part of prince? You make me want to drop all my walls and get on the same level as you without even trying!”

“Well, maybe you should!” Sorey snaps.

“Maybe I will!” Mikleo snaps back.

They glare at each other for a long moment before Sorey cracks a smile. “That’s real irritation,” he says.

“Yes,” Mikleo says, still scowling.

“I like it,” Sorey says.

Mikleo scowls harder. “You’re not winning me over at all. Is this how you court your suitors? If so, I feel very sorry for them.”

“Most of them don’t like me much,” Sorey says.

“I can imagine,” Mikleo says.

“Do you want to come with me to Rayfalke Spiritcrest?” Sorey blurts out.

“Do I want to what,” Mikleo says. “You know, you are impossible to—”

“It’s a mountain to the northeast of Izuchi,” Sorey cuts in. “There’s a ruin excavation going on and we’ve already uncovered some murals of a dragon god of some kind. It’s only a few days ride from here.”

“Sorey,” Mikleo says. “I am leaving tomorrow.”

“So don’t leave,” Sorey says. “Come with me.”

Mikleo sucks in a breath and the impact of Sorey’s impulsive words hit him a moment later. He doesn’t have time to lose it though, because Lailah pushes past the curtain. “Come, Sorey-san, Mikleo-sama. The dance is starting.”

Sorey takes Mikleo’s hand and pulls him onto the dancefloor in a blind panic. Once he gets there, though, he realizes he doesn’t know who will lead, or what the first dance is supposed to be, and that he basically proposed to Mikleo, oh god

Mikleo puts a hand to Sorey’s waist with his free hand and Sorey’s free hand hesitantly falls to Mikleo’s shoulder. Mikleo leads them into the slow, twirling dance across the floor.

He leans in close, lips brushing the shell of Sorey’s ear. “Honestly,” Mikleo says. “You’re a mess.”

Sorey half-laughs nervously. “I’ve been told that before,” he says. “Multiple times.”

“You’re so charismatic,” Mikleo tuts. “If only you could put that charisma and leadership to good use.”

Sorey smiles, sheepish.

“Someone like you, you need a shadow to complete you,” Mikleo says. “Someone to watch your back and to give you advice in your times of need. Someone you can trust with all your being.”

“It seems people like that are in short supply,” Sorey says, “seeing as I haven’t found one yet.”

“No,” Mikleo says, “that person will find you, not the other way around.”

If Sorey could shrink away from Mikleo, he would, rather than dance chest to chest, only their breath between them.

“That’s not how you propose to someone, you know,” Mikleo says and Sorey winces, almost enough to break their rhythm.

“I’ve been told I have terrible timing,” Sorey says.

“Awful,” Mikleo agrees. “Dreadful. Abysmal.”

“Is that a no?” Sorey says.

Mikleo spins them tighter, agitated. “I don’t like you,” he says.

“Okay,” Sorey says.

“You’re impulsive and earnest, two qualities I can’t stand in a partner.”

“Okay.”

“Despite being practically transparent, I can’t see through you at all, and that makes me uncomfortable.”

“Okay.”

“You also happen to be as dreadfully attractive and dreadfully charming as your timing is dreadful.”

“Oka—huh?”

The song ends and Mikleo stops them, even though Sorey’s mind keeps spinning.

“Against my better judgement, I think I’ll accept, Sorey of Izuchi,” Mikleo says.

Sorey’s eyes widen. “Really?” he says

“Don’t make me say it twice,” Mikleo grumbles.

“You’ll really marry me?” Sorey says.

“I’ll think about it,” Mikleo grumbles some more, this time trying to sink away from Sorey’s broad smile.

Sorey, for once, knows what to do. He pulls Mikleo and kisses his temple right where circlet meets hair. Mikleo makes the most adorable squeak of surprise. The entire chamber falls quiet as Sorey performs the ritual of choosing his suitor.

“I take Mikleo of Elysia as my spouse,” Sorey announces. It’s quiet for a second, and then everyone bursts into applause. Sorey doesn’t let Mikleo go.

“You can let me go,” Mikleo says.

“Will you take me to the sea?” Sorey asks.

Mikleo looks at him. He sighs and smiles, just a little bit. “Yes, Sorey. I’ll take you to the sea and to the ocean temples and through my country. I hope you fall in love.”

“I think I already have,” Sorey says, and he kisses Mikleo.