It was in the summer that Yuuri first saw him, and he was like a god.
“Barbarians.” The whispers rustled through the streets like leaves in the autumn, after the trumpets had sounded on the other side of the forest to announce the approach of a visiting King and all his troops. “Barbarians, think themselves grand because they’ve won wars against their own kin, filled their banks with blood money, do you know they wrestle naked for fun? Spin their tunics of wool, not silk. They grow their hair long. They are always at war … ”
The King from the West sent no envoys calling of siege. He and his Household were merely traveling through lands unknown to them since spring had allowed — to taste the wine of other kingdoms’ vineyards, unbeknownst to the vines. And the ancient little city Naara in the Empire of Hasetsu opened its ancient gates in welcome as the summer breeze carried the perfume of incense and wildflowers down through the ancient streets, around buildings that had once housed ancient blood. Banners danced high on the city lord’s palace — a humble palace, of course, for a lesser client king, just as ancient as the tiny city and small enough for a King from the West to twitch a wondering smile at. In the winter they called it the Ice Castle for its brittle stone bonelike stretch against the brumal sky.
“Look!” Yuko squealed, pressing her hand into Yuuri’s, and the squeeze of her petal-soft fingers sent a pinch to his heart and a heat to his cheeks. But she loved Takeshi, from what he could tell, and perhaps it was just for her to notice him that sent his heart leaping. From their seat, toes curling on the low, moss-laced stacked stone wall at the base of the shrine hill, she pointed.
The city poured flowers down on the King and his Household, their procession through the winding streets. Sweet pink flowers, saved from the one week in spring they bloomed at the shrine. The King from the West used no litter; he and his men rode their horses as if common men themselves. Barbarians, they did say.
“That must be the Prince!” It was a breathless little gasp, Yuko swallowing the dreamy sigh before it escaped.
Flash of milky face and long hair so fine and pale it was nearly silver. Perhaps sixteen. Wide, sweet smile, glimpse of teeth in a silent laugh, waving and holding his hand out to reaching people as he followed along beside his father, swaying gently on his own white horse. Like a small boat man, running his fingers along the water. Ripples trailing after his touch, ripples of which he would never think again —
The King from the West stayed for three days.
There was somehow both a warmth and a cold about the Prince from which Yuuri could not draw his eyes all through the last day’s festival games and court hospitality. Warmth for the pride and the glory and the life that seemed to burn within him. Cold perhaps for the mystery in his every smile, every sidelong glance, every step. His skin caught the sunlight like ivory; his muscles moved in him like honey.
Barbarian athletic events, which the ancient city cheered with tentative respect. Javelin and disk, wrestling, archery, dancing — women and girls from Yuuri’s city, men from the King’s camp … the Prince.
He lingered off to the side of the city court near the small crop of musicians, under the keyhole arcade arches, whispering tight and intimate with another young man. This one, sun-colored, a bit harder in physique but with dark, beautiful eyes, hair gold fading into chestnut at his neck. He tied up the Prince’s hair; he clasped the Prince’s chiton at his slim shoulder with a lion-shaped brooch; he stooped to peel off the Prince’s sandals, splashed him with sweet-smelling water.
And the Prince danced, too.
“Their royalty?” Mari muttered from the dressing tent where all the shrine hands readied for the coming sacrifice.
If even their royalty danced, Yuuri thought, they were far from barbarians, never mind their bronze weapons and studded leather armor, or that their dance held no prayers in its human self-importance.
The musicians plucked the first notes from their bone-carved flauts and a gold-crusted lyre, and Prince Viktor danced.
From a lissome and languid fourth position he sprang into life with a press off the ready back foot. Swung his leg around, toe pointed, pivoting slow and precise. His fingers spread; his hands reached. He was lithe and lovely as a fawn, body curving, arching, twisting, he was the master of every inch of it as he curled in on himself and flowered open again. Down to one knee, up again, beautiful, stretching contrapposto, twisting this way and that, gliding backwards, forwards, on nimble feet, and how could someone move so perfectly, so effortlessly — even his hair, dancing too, in his face, out of his face, swirling about him like snow on the wind in the cold months. Gentle lunge and a sweep of the other foot, toe sliding across the dirt. He spun, he spun, he spun, fingers threading through the air, arms up, arms out, turning again before landing with a bent knee and tantalizing slide of the free leg. He stretched his arms out as if to fly but it was just a dive into a deep, deep bow, a leisurely plié until his hair, come loose in all his motion and majesty, veiled his face and all there was was the roll of his body as he caught his breath, the tremble of his tight shoulders, the enduring elegant pointe of his front foot.
And Yuuri thought, This is what a god looks like.
The barbarians cheered, raucous. Yuuri’s people hesitated but followed suit. And Prince Viktor, flushed, out of breath, radiant with laughter, threw his hair out of his face with one hand and left ripples in the world with the other, a flattered waving in acceptance of the adulation.
A nobleman, led by one of the foreign King’s soldiers, led his small daughter forth in turn. She’d woven a flower crown for the Prince. He stooped to accept it, let her place it on his head. He smiled and brushed hair out of her eyes for her as his mouth moved on what Yuuri guessed were words of gratitude. The girl retreated behind her father’s hip, clutching nervously at his nobleman’s sash —
“Yuuri!” his father called, he and his mother and the other shrine hands in their fine black silk and bells. Minako was painting Yuko’s face for the sacrifice dance as the shadows of the world began to stretch towards evening. “Come let Mari paint your face, son.”
Yuuri suddenly remembered to breathe and scampered off, away, somewhere away, where he could not see the Prince. But there wasn’t anywhere, because like looking at the sun too long, no matter where he looked, he still saw Prince Viktor.
“King Viktor — ”
“Finishing what his father started … ”
“He’s on the march!”
“Five times undefeated. Taken every city he crosses.”
“Cruel, I hear — ruthless — ”
It is summers later but summer once more that Yuuri sees him again.
His mother’s voice carries through the living quarters at the southern side of the shrine. Through brocade-edged lattice doors and blond wood, her footsteps too, like rain on the roof as she hurries along the wrapping veranda. “Yuuri!”
More lattice doors slide open, faces peeking out after her. Takeshi. Minako. The old shrine men. Yuuri’s mother stops in the open door of the family shrine room, where Yuuri and Yuko sit burning incense at a small death altar for the old shrine dog.
“What?” Yuuri raises his brows, almost concerned by his mother’s urgency. But she is an excited and excitable woman, and he loves her dearly, however flustering she can be at times.
But then he sees the shine to her eyes, the veneer of — something. Not tears, tears almost. And Yuuri’s brow knots as his glance jumps around her face, striving but failing to find whether she is tearful out of fear or happiness. Behind her, the sky is faint but clear, somewhere beyond the scrim of funeral pyre smoke, a mountain wind coming down to caress the trees and paper fans of the inner courtyard.
Strange, for things to be so still and lovely after three nights of battle outside the city walls. On the shrine hill, at least. Down below there are still hospital tents and men collecting arrows strewn in the fields. Ash from funeral pyres drifts on the air like petals. The smoke thickens the air. Trains of troops coming and going. The afternoon sun flirts with the mountains in the distance; there will be a sacrifice, come fall of dark. Three nights of battle. Horrible, horrible sounds in the distance, like wolves howling at the moon — war-cries and death-shouts, clang of bronze and iron, attack horns and the low groaning of the ancient gates as they opened at dawn for King Viktor after the city lord finally called for surrender. King Viktor and his men on their horses still stained dark scarlet and dirt-streaked from battle, didn’t even take a moment to clean, the barbarians, maybe wanted to remind the city that victory of which they were clearly capable, winding up to the Ice Castle to discuss terms of peace and subjugation —
“At the gates,” Yuuri’s mother says, the hand pressed to her heart trembling like a little bird. “There are soldiers at the gates. And the King — ”
Yuuri almost drops the palm-sized slip of linen on which he’d painted the prayer for Vicchan’s little altar. Yuko must have noticed; she takes it quickly from him, brow knitting together as she searches his face for any sign of her help needed.
“The King?” Yuuri echoes.
It follows them like the chirping of hungry birds. “The King?” Minako sputters. “The King,” Takeshi accepts. “King!” Yuko’s daughters singsong. The words follow Yuuri and his mother back to the shrine gates at the north. Yuuri’s sister Mari throws open her sliding door, little gold smoking pipe smoldering as she gawks in wonderment after him and their mother. “The King … ?”
Their new King. The King to whom the city lord pledged allegiance just this morning. Of whom Yuuri and his family and the entire city are now subjects.
The shrine gates are old, chipped black oak. They curve towards the sky — when Yuuri was younger, he thought that the god giants of long ago must have built them. He knows now they aren’t really that tall, but sometimes he still likes to believe the god giants once touched them. His mother lingers at the veranda as Yuuri trails anxiously along the stepping stone path to his father at the open gates, where a small party of foreign soldiers waits in the tired daylight — not just foreign soldiers, two or three of the city lord’s generals. The city lord himself.
Sleeplessness darkens his expression even further, though he stands tall and firm with expired dignity. The sequins and little tear-drop beads along his bell sleeves catch the late afternoon light. He still wears his sash of royalty, his half shoulder-cloak, though other signs of satrapy are nowhere to be seen and it leaves him looking bitter and bruised. He has accepted his fallenness. His losses in battle. He is powerless not only to the old Emperor but to this new ruler who has brought defeat to the city and gods know what sort of anger it will incite from the East.
The group parts like a wave, and at their crest is Viktor.
Yuuri’s heart leaps and sinks at once.
Viktor smiles brightly. The summer wind dances along his hair and his clothes as he peers down the line of them at Yuuri and his father.
Adulthood has blessed him.
The Prince is still there in the curves of his heart face, the curve of his lower lip and enduring roundness of his eyes. But his jaw has squared just enough, his throat firmed up, everything carved with great care by some masterful hand. He’s bathed since the morning, clean and sweet-looking as a flower in the dew of dawn. Hair falling from a cowlick over one eye, the rest of it pulled back from his face, tucked behind his ears. He wears no crown, or even the half shoulder-cloak of a Hasetsu king, but he wears an air of majesty as though tailored just to him. Skin like ivory. Body like honey. Chiton with silver embroidery and gold tasseled rope, girdle a deep royal scarlet, leather relaxed and faded. Eyes clear blue like a winter sky. Somehow even in such borderline informality, the sense of regality about him is daunting. Just as summers ago, he is warm yet cold at the same time. He is beautiful. He is poised. He is powerful. And he knows all of those things.
Viktor’s smile unfurls into a full grin. He waves a hand in friendly greeting.
“I’d like to make a thanks-offering to your gods before the festival tonight!” he singsongs.
The dancing Prince and a flower crown. Pink, purple, powder-blue, delicate green leaves.
In Naara, the gods were called upon through dance. The shrine dancing pole is just thick enough for a grown man to wrap his hand more than fully around, and it stretches up to the heavens for chosen shrine hands to climb for the gods, speak to the gods, sing hymns to the gods with their bodies as they dance. Yuuri could just barely brush the top of the tall pole with his fingers when he was younger, when his father balanced him standing on his shoulders before he practiced his dances, warm weathered hands closed on his ankles.
That day, summers ago, not yet thirteen, before sacrifice for the safety of the King for the West — as altar boy, Yuuri was to dance. He closed his fingers round the pole, leaned slow with one hand outstretched, toe pointed, back curved. The rain of notes had begun on the lyre, and as his people and the visiting peoples watched, the world faded away into the dance.
Sing, gods, O Muses of victory and pure soul …
Summers ago. Being altar boy, Yuuri led the victim stag with its garland of petals up the hill, as the shrine maidens threw petals and his father and the old shrine men carried silver incense pots as they sang the little hymns of welcome and led the visiting King and his party up to the shrine. Through the fruit trees and vines, water trickling over smooth rocks, fire-colored fish flickering to and fro in the pools as the world turned to evening blues and greys. They washed. Yuuri’s father prayed. Libations were poured. Sweet cakes offered. Yuuri handed his father the knife and flinched only a bit when the blood was splashed around the altar like paint on hard clay. The stag was searched for omens. Put in the fire in the center of the room.
Down in the city courtyard, the mixed crowd burst with music and thanks. They could see the smoke drift from the shrine on the hill and knew the offering was made. The barbarians, singing their own praises. It was a raging river of voices, babbling, roaring, incoherent almost. Like the thoughts in Yuuri as in the shadows of the altar room he and his mother and his father and the other shrine hands moved one by one down the line of the visiting King’s Household and higher ranks, giving their blessings in bows and kisses.
Torchlight. Incense. Blood. Fwish —
A silence like a held breath tightened in the cool dimness.
Prince Viktor had slipped off his flower crown and placed it on Yuuri’s head.
Yuuri froze, as did his soul. He gawked at Viktor’s bare toes, almost afraid to look up. Afraid to breathe. Was anyone to say anything? Do anything? What did it mean?
Slowly he rose his eyes. Viktor met them with that wide, sweet smile. And for the first time in his life, Yuuri felt like someone looked at him.
The whispers move like the breeze through the shrine. There is an inherent distrust of King Viktor — only to be expected the day he officially takes the city. It’s like the meditative quiet after funeral wailing. And what when the distant Emperor hears of their swift surrender, even though he had not sent any aid?
But Yuuri does not share in the tight, unsure resignation.
It is Viktor, after all.
I’d like to make a thanks-offering …
Yuuri’s father takes the soldiers and King to wash first. In the altar room, Takeshi hurries to assemble the shrine pole. Yuuri hurries beside him, lighting incense, sticks in the four corners of the room and cones at the four corners of the altar, twisting closed the shades on the circle windows. It’s a dove from the bird room they offer in thanks. Doves are taking frantic flight in Yuuri’s stomach, too.
Look! The Prince!
The former city lord. His few guards. A man who Yuuri is sure is the boy from summers ago, the one with half-golden hair and heavy glances, the boyhood friend who dressed Viktor for the dance. An older man, scowling, cut hard and strong as if the mountains by wind and rain, and seeming just as cold and stony for it. Another sits beside him, who in looks could be his son or the much younger brother who inherited all the ability to smile, his hair long and tied back like a mare’s tail. A young soldier with dark hair and dark eyes and a darker frown; beside him, a man not quite a boy per se but not without his youth, pale and blond like an effigy carved of marble, or icy winter moonlight. And beside this one, the King.
The number of them, settled on tasseled pillows on the south side of the room, facing north. The old shrine men bring out the stringed instruments, the shrine bells. The foreigners whisper to each other — at the most disrespectful, mutters without even turning their heads; at the most reverent, leaning to the side and speaking behind a lifted hand. Viktor is of this latter behavior, though overly gracious. Informal, at least. The childlike verve is at once charming and intimidating. This vivacious King has, after all, just defeated the city’s army (not that Naara was much of a military force in the first place). It puts the others on edge. The old shrine men watch with the venom in their frowns biding its time. But the old shrine men are just like that, Yuuri has learned, dissatisfied and disappointed with many things that do not fit the way the world was when they were young.
Every time Yuuri’s eyes slide to peek at King Viktor, he feels he can’t breathe. So he endeavors to keep his eyes away.
He waits at the side of the small altar court, head bowed and one knee gently bent, foot resting on toe behind the other ankle.
“Sing, O Muses,” his father begins the prayer-song, stretching the words, his voice bouncing around the high-ceilinged room and inspiring quiet in the small audience as the old shrine men pluck at the lyres. And Yuuri moves smartly to the pole, braiding his steps.
It isn’t a spectacular dance, nothing taxing. Just a thanks-offering, after all, a dove clucking and fidgeting in its domed wooden cage. Some spins and straight legs, a climb halfway up the pole and easy glide down with back arched and arm stretched out, ending with a slow sink into the parsvakonasana once his toes tap the flagstone again, one knee hooked at the base of the pole, foot planted flat, and the other leg stretched far out behind with a careful pointe of the toe. Wrist to wrist, hands out, thumbs linked, as if the wings of a bird, reaching for the sky.
The hymn ends with another shake of bells.
Flushed, breath evening out, Yuuri lowers his arms and slowly stands. His eyes slide to the line of guests. To Viktor. He can’t help it. The man is magnetizing. Mesmerizing. The man is …
Looking at him again.
Yuuri’s breath catches in his throat. Something closes on his heart, hot and tight. The dove screeches as it is taken from its cage. Viktor’s eyes shift; they find Yuuri’s. He was looking him over at first. Now he truly looks at him. Into him. His face is cool and serene in a troubling way, but as Yuuri holds his gaze, a generous smile pulls at the corner of Viktor’s mouth.
A warm summer day. Crown of flowers woven by little fingers, placed on Yuuri’s head. The altar room, this very altar room, and …
A heat blooms in Yuuri, both panicked and thrilled. A note hums in his heart and vibrates all through to his fingertips, something stirring, waking, breaking open — a desire, a feeling he’s never known before, thrust into his soul like the arrow of an expert archer, some desperate, all-consuming aching. He does not know that it is a good thing, to ache just to be looked at. That is something to be wary of. If not a vanity, the certain doom of heartbreak —
“Yuuri,” his father whispers, bushy grey brow furrowed low on his soft eyes and shrine master’s headpiece tipped just a bit off-center, black pointed cloth. Yuuri rips his eyes from Viktor to his father, impatiently. Oh — right.
Blushing, Yuuri hurries to bring his father the altar knife. “I’m sorry,” he whispers back, rushed and breathless. “I’m sorry, I was just — I’m sorry, Papa.”
Shake of the bells. Incense. Low lamplight. Blood.
Yuuri has heard many things about Viktor, yet there is no picture successfully painted by the brush strokes of talk alone.
Warrior prince — as a youth three times undefeated in archery and dance at the barbarians’ annual games. Warrior king — bloodthirsty, they say. Ruthless.
He seeks to finish his father’s expedition —
They say he loots cities, burns them to the ground after taking his prizes. But they also say he adores new cities, collects from each with great love and almost childlike wonderment troops, people, treasures, more gēras for a reputation already built of such excellence and courage.
He hungers for all the world!
He is handsome and powerful, and wealthy, and most importantly he is unwed.
Never lost a battle —
Five times undefeated under his father, five times undefeated on his own campaigns. He wants to rule to World’s End, and he is descended of ancient heroes who are descended of ancient gods.
Barbarians, he is on his way to us, he —
He’s like nothing anyone has ever seen before. Yuuri’s heard, and he’s closed his ears, closed his eyes, and seen the Prince on that soft summer day.
Yuuri’s eyes flicker open. He didn’t mean to drift off, staring at the god giants’ gates, past the gates, watching the King and his men on their horses make their merry way back down to the city center where squires and servants are already preparing the courtyard for the night’s festival.
He looks over to his father, smiling sheepishly. His father and the city lord, and his mother and the old shrine men, they’ve been talking together since the King left. All their eyes are on him now. Yuuri’s smile falters.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbles. “I wasn’t listening.”
“Someone to present gifts tonight at the victory sacrifice.” His father’s eyes jump from him to the former city lord and back again. “The girls can’t — Yuko, certainly not — the little ones will be carrying the flower baskets. And the men … ”
“We won’t,” the slumped and sun-spotted old shrine men chorus in or out of some sort of unison, arms resting before them in such a way that their sleeves come together into one great shape, hands disappearing within.
“You’re altar boy,” the city lord insists, voice thick and grating. “Who else to be the public face of the shrine?”
Yuuri gawks at them. Everything is going fuzzy in the retreating daylight, the soft fall of evening. Takeshi and some others wander around the shrine yard, lighting the hanging lamps, gathering what’s needed. The sacrifice will take place in the city courtyard tonight, after the banquet. Yuuri’s ears ring. Gifts. Present gifts to the King. King Viktor. To be in his direct presence again —
“Who else?” he murmurs when he remembers how to breathe.
The city lord’s mouth shifts towards an impatient scowl, but he is too tired for it, it seems. He shrugs, hands clasped together at his waist. “Noblemen and their household choices.”
“Okay.” A chill snakes down Yuuri’s spine, yet his face burns under his fingertips as he moves to brush hair out of his eyes. “Okay, yes. I will do it, lord.”
“Hmph.” Now the man scowls, and it tightens his face like old leather. His eyes glint weakly in the swelling lamplight. “Your lord no longer, boy. Tonight you’ll call someone else lord when you present to him the gifts I give you.”
Look, Yuko had said on the day the King from the West arrived, the Prince!
She said it again the second day they were there, when the city lord and his men took the King and his party out into the forest for a ride and fowling. She and Yuuri, on the hill outside the shrine, where the trees swooped low for the slope of the earth and cast pools of shade that rippled and flickered as light dappled through thin leaves. A doe and her fawn had wandered over from the black pines, eating berries from Yuko’s palm as Yuuri danced idly in the shade — not practicing, just dancing, for the fun of it, lazy pirouettes and lunges and jumps, weaving fingers, bare toes curling and uncurling in grass fresh as mint on the soles of his feet. No, not for the gods. For himself. It made his heart sing whenever he was worried or sad.
“Look!” Yuko squeaked, like she failed at biting back the words. “The Prince!”
The doe rose her head sharply, dropping a berry or two. The fawn still nudged at Yuko’s fingers. Yuuri staggered out of a spin, hands out to steady himself. And at the top of the hill, circling down, was the Prince on his white horse, another boy with gold and chestnut hair close beside him on a broader, freckled mare.
Headed right their way.
Prince Viktor pulled for his horse to stop; he dismounted in a lazy arc down barefoot to the grass. His hair danced free about his throat and shoulders, tucked back from one ear in a fine little braid. Chiton red embroidered in gold thread, hand’s span of a leather belt outlining his slender frame the way the sunlight outlined his tightly-carved arms and legs. He knew how beautiful and special he was. That much was clear in the way he carried himself. And yet somehow, it did not seem wrong of him.
As he veritably pranced over, the doe and her baby shot off, away, behind the great tree, to peek around its gnarled leaning trunk. They knew strangers when they saw them.
Viktor’s smile fell. His eyes darted from Yuko to Yuuri. He looked like a child whose hand had been slapped in reprimand the first time.
“Why do they run?” he asked. The golden-haired boy sat tall on his horse yet, behind him. “They were just eating from your hand. Are they not pets?”
Yuko shook her head mutely. Yuuri just stared, humbled, full of awe, standing still as the shrine pole. Spellbound. A Prince, a Great Prince, just wandering around near them — speaking with them —
Swiftly, he bowed, hands pressed firm to his side. Sitting just beside him, Yuko did the same, low to the grass, as she sat with legs crossed.
“No, stop that.”
Yuuri peeked without straightening up, confused.
Viktor frowned at them, genuinely distressed by the prostration. “Stop,” he said again. “I don’t like it.”
Yuuri exchanged a glance with Yuko.
“They’re not pets,” he finally managed to drag out, the words thick on his tongue and getting caught on the nervous knot in his throat.
“Livestock, then?” The Prince raised his fine, pale brows. “To hunt?”
“Oh, no,” Yuuri sputtered, aghast, straightening up full in his surprise. “They’re — the spirit of Naara. Our goddess. They walk free.”
Viktor mulled over this as his gaze drifted over to the tree, where the doe and fawn watched with their wide, dark, knowing eyes. “To be a deer in Naara and wander free and holy!” he singsonged. From up on his horse, his friend slid him a curious glance.
Viktor’s glance swerved past Yuuri and Yuko to the shrine just a bit further up the hill. There was something almost ominous about his rumination. As if he never forgot anything he observed. His eyes were like a winter morning as they flickered back over to Yuuri’s, and a smile both noble and impish bloomed across his face.
It stayed as he backed away, cast a cat-eyed glance and swung back up on his horse. He said, “Keep dancing. You’ll get better at it. Always remember to stretch more than you think you’re able. It will help with your sickle foot.”
He rode off with the other boy, not a second look, steady on the horse and commanding it with an easy grandeur. Their voices carried back on the breeze, but only the sounds and shapes, not the words themselves.
You’ll get better at it.
It left Yuuri like a wilted flower, just narrowly trampled on. His face burned; his neck was hot. The Prince was right. He was not very good. He was young and he did not know how to dance if not the tradition for the gods.
Yuko picked berries up from her lap. “What could a prince possibly know about dancing?” she mumbled, as if to protect Yuuri’s heart. As if to convince him her crush on the Prince did not lessen his feelings getting hurt. Or convince herself.
“I don’t know,” Yuuri mumbled back.
He would get better at it.
Shake of the bells. Incense. Hot blaze of torches, paper lamps, firelight. The gods’ dance comes before a full sacrifice, at midnight, and before the gods’ dance are the banquet performances.
“Look,” Yuko says, in her Oracle dress, face painted, veil falling from headpiece points to run off her shoulders like a little rivulet over stones. Under the awning of the shrine dressing tent, down near the courtyard, she presses her hand into Yuuri’s and something in him warms a bit. “Look, the King … ”
“I know.” The words are paper-thin on his lips. He doesn’t look but he still sees from the corner of his eye the King riding up on that white horse of his, with the same close party from the thanks-offering earlier, waving and smiling and laughing in that alarmingly gregarious fashion of his that is either stupid and genuine or utterly, flamboyantly vain. Gods, he is seduction incarnate.
Soon, soon, quiet. Nothing but the hiss and crackle of fire. His father’s shuffling steps towards the altar. The first thudding words of the prayer-song, heartbeat of little drums in the musicians’ hands, whine of strings on handheld instruments. This hymn is full of vigor, rich and raw. Calls for the gods to share their guidance and celebrates strength —
Powdered hands, closed on the pole. He takes a deep breath. Slides his grip down to the ground as his back leg rises, extending for a bridge, swinging back round and into a hip lock, toe pointed. He presses up off his pedestal foot, and he no longer touches the earth.
This dance is one of acrobatics and spins. Strong, determined. He weaves himself on the pole like a vine on lattice. Everything, every shift, every curve, every change, each formed from the first, flowing one into another. Drifting pirouette. He arches into the body-stretch of the stag contortion. He shifts around and shimmies higher on the pole with press of feet and hunch of shoulders as the drums thunder towards the prayer-song’s climax, and he slips easily into the pose named after a gold monkey in old myths. Legs folded behind, reverse grab, facing out with body arched back. Turning. Turning. Turning. This spin never fails to horrify him in the best of ways. The way it presses against him, into him, like he’s riding the wind. The music within, the music without.
The world spins around him. Crowd. Old shrine men. His father. Altar. Viktor on his throne of fine cushions, squinting at him through the firelight, across the court.
This time, Viktor’s eyes do not shift to meet his. They’re already waiting, cool, clear winter sky through the flicker of a posted lantern that sways in the night wind. All his startling, prancing charisma, whittled away into a brazen, piercing stare.
And Yuuri holds it.
He spins. Crowd. Old shrine men. His father. Altar. Viktor’s waiting eyes. Crowd. Shrine men. His father. Altar. Viktor, leaning to the side to whisper behind loosely curled fingers to that blond boy next to him. Flash like lightning of the blond boy’s glance. Crowd. Men. Father. Altar. Flower crown. Summer day. Prince. King. Viktor. Viktor —
The hymn ends. Subdued cheering and whistles from those in the crowd of Viktor’s camp. Yuko’s daughters laugh and wave. Still vaguely dizzy, Yuuri crouches down for them to plop a wreath of flowers on his head. He pulls his dance scarf from his nose and smiles at them, in their festival dress, training to be shrine maidens like their young mother.
A nobleman’s daughter is before Yuuri in the small line of gift-bearers. She brings a little box of pearls, sequin-studded silk. Her father probably hopes Viktor will want her as a bride. Surely in every city through which he’s passed, there are noblemen yearning for Viktor to take their daughters as brides.
She steps away after a demure — perhaps coy — and lingering glance, long hair dancing along her shoulders. And then it is just Yuuri and the King, and the vast distance of a few steps between them.
Yuuri can’t breathe. His heart is stuck in his throat. He lays the gold-inlaid tabletop chest at Viktor’s feet, opens it slowly to show the wrapped frankincense and fresh figs inside.
He straightens up.
Without thinking, he slides the wreath of flowers from Yuko’s daughters off his temple and stretches forth to place it gingerly atop Viktor’s head, and an eerie quiet falls fast over the crowded courtyard like a gasp with no breath.
Viktor’s lashes flutter. His brow dimples in the most precious way. It’s almost an innocent look, a child who does not know what to do with something given to him, something which he has never before touched, at a loss and concerned suddenly there is so much yet he does not know. And Yuuri holds his eyes, blushing furiously, proud of this, until he remembers it is the King, and forgets to breathe, and turns sharply on his heel and hurries away. Not before, of course, catching the shocked and insulted glances stabbing his way from those closest to the King’s side in the firelight.
Yuuri does not blame them. He is just the moon, looking at the sun, longing for a light that is not hers. Cursed to chase the sun day and night, punishment for longing to be noticed. Especially altar boys should not wish to be noticed. No one should have such arrogant pride.
But oh, there is something in those winter eyes that makes Yuuri just want to be someone.
There is a small storm turning the sky purple over the mountains. It drives a gentle wind sweet with the scent of summer rain down through the city; the wooden chimes posted around the shrine shift and thud dully together, a soft and musical chatter like the trickling of water over smooth pool stones.
“Meeting all day in the palace … ”
“No, negotiations … ”
“Messages to the Emperor?”
For the second evening in a row, Yuuri’s mother shuffles frantically through the shrine, long sleeves trailing after her as she rounds one corner, the next. “Yuuri! Yuuri!”
Yuuri just waits for her, lying flat on his bed in his open room with the bundle of poems Takeshi brought back from spring’s trip to the Great Palace city. He knows full well that rising to meet her in her urgency will do no better. She comes to a hard stop at his door, the low grey night sky nearly swallowing her in its shadows as the storm moves by. Paper lanterns twirl near the wooden chimes.
There is a pinch to her face unlike the usual.
“The King,” she says, one hand pressed to her breast as if to still a worried heart. And despite the stamp of grief on her little face, her eyes shine bright with joy. It’s an odd combination that puts Yuuri on edge. Or perhaps it’s just the mention of Viktor that leaves him flustered and flushed, chest tight.
“Yes?” he presses, brow knotted.
“Come!” She gestures wildly, like she might pull him with just the wave of her hands. “Come to the gate!”
The god giants’ gate, stretching to the sky. Tonight, it feels as large as it did when he was younger.
The city lord is here again. No Viktor. Yuuri’s confused.
His father in his casual shrine master dress, tassel belt swinging to his knee, watches Yuuri approach with a look much like his mother’s.
“The King’s camp needs tending,” the city lord says, before Yuuri can even come to a stop beside his father with his eyes cast low until spoken to out of habit despite the lord’s lost status. The gentle storm wind tugs and pushes at the man’s high collar, his useless robes. His attendants today are not soldiers, just his personal men. A eunuch, a manservant. Well, save for one soldier, who wears the colors and leather of Viktor’s troops.
Yuuri nods slowly, gooseflesh prickling the hair along the back of his neck. It is the storm in the air, of course. Or the storm inside him.
“Gather what belongings you need,” the city lord goes on.
Yuuri’s eyes cut up to meet his sharply. His father starts back, round old face going slack with subdued shock.
“And where will he be going? What need has the King for a shrine hand?” he demands.
The soldier — Yuuri recognizes him now from earlier, the rugged and handsome one with the sun-kissed blond and chestnut hair, the dark lashes and warm, golden smile — he waves a hand to assuage Yuuri’s father. “We’re in the land of your gods,” he insists with sincerity, voice rolling rich and almost sultry. “We wish to respect them, but we can’t do that without help.”
“He’s my son … ”
Yuuri glances to his father.
The blond soldier nods. “And what pride you should have in him, as his father.”
“The King’s made his summons.” The city lord utters a little sniff of impatience, as if to say, I’m appeasing him, why can’t you?
For a moment, everything around him swirls on, but Yuuri is rooted in place as if alone in nothingness. His ears ring. He goes numb in the most refreshing of ways — exhilaration.
“My belongings,” he echoes finally, voice fraying as he struggles to contain his witless excitement. He clears his throat. He looks around from his father to the city lord, and back again, wide-eyed. “Yes. Okay. I’ll get them together. And whatever I can’t carry, can we send someone … ?”
“Takeshi can help,” his father murmurs. The concern is gone from his face. Perhaps the soldier convinced him — perhaps there really is pride hiding in his soft smile. Pride. Called by the King. Stay with the King. In his army camp. While they are in the land of their gods —
“Yes,” Yuuri says again, nodding quickly, and the little swirl of wind come down over the gates takes his breath away with it. “Okay, yes, I’ll get my things.”
He waits in the room two down from the King’s lodging for what feels like a chain of small eternities.
People coming, going, passing by. An old musician next to him, beard braided and beaded down the center. Eventually, he’s called. And then it is just Yuuri and the old palace, this little room that smells musty, like earth and old clay, masked by the musk of incense and lamp smoke. Spiders have left their prints on the wall-hangings. It doesn’t look it will actually rain tonight; outside the shadeless gaping hole of a window, the winds have calmed, the sky settled into a deep, silky blue, and the face of the moon spills her borrowed light over the forest and hills —
Yuuri jumps immediately to his feet, rigid and wide-eyed. He needs to bow. He knows he needs to bow. But he cannot get himself to move any further, he’s frozen in place, because the King has poked his head in this little room of waiting from around the corner in the torchlit corridor, peeked in and called for Yuuri so offhandedly.
Now he blinks at him from the doorway, like he’s as surprised of Yuuri’s surprise as Yuuri is surprised by him.
“Yuuri, Katsuki Yuuri,” Yuuri rushes out in one tight breath, and twitches to bow but Viktor shakes his head quickly, holds out a hand. Everything about him despite his cheerfulness so smooth and refined, a finesse to his very breath.
“Don’t,” he says. “Don’t bow. You’re fine.”
Don’t. I don’t like it.
The smile lights Viktor’s face. “When is the best time to call the gods’ blessings on my camp?”
Still leaning just a hair forward, the beginnings of a bow, Yuuri gawks at him. His thoughts stutter out almost like a flame in the wind, then shiver back into life again, resilient. The thing is, he is star-struck by Viktor. He never imagined he would see him again after that summer day, let alone be given the chance to speak with him. Guiding him with the gods. They are on two different planes of existence. Viktor is like a god. Yuuri is … not. How damnably poetic, to be helping a god with the gods.
Remember me? Do you remember me? From that day, in the summer, the flower crown, the spirit of Naara, the dancing, the altar —
There is no reason for Viktor to remember him. Nothing special to remember about Yuuri at all. A blessing of the army camp and troops …
“The full moon, lord,” Yuuri finally manages to mumble in reply.
Viktor lights up further, if it is possible. There is someone beside him, Yuuri realizes. The blond soldier he keeps seeing. Shuffling down the corridor. His guards, clearly. His other meetings.
“So tonight, then? Great!” Viktor drifts away out of sight again, but keeps Yuuri’s gaze as he does, one hand trailing behind like fingers leaving ripples on water. “I’ll send Christophe for you in a bit, and we’ll set off for camp.”
Right. It is a full moon tonight, after all, a full, wide-eyed moon, watching, waiting, gaze fixed on the distant sun.
Christophe is the blond one, Yuuri discovers in no more than an hour, when he comes with his square jaw and golden smile, shining eyes fringed in thick dark lashes.
“You have your things?” he husks, like burnt honey.
“Yes,” Yuuri replies.
“A cloak? Windy tonight.”
“You know how to ride?”
Yuuri’s face pinches; he hopes Christophe doesn’t notice the sharp kneejerk glance, or maybe just doesn’t care about it. Of course he can ride a horse. What do they take them as here, idiots?
From the stables, Christophe lends him a horse so deep brown, it is almost black, with a luxurious gradient to the well-brushed mane. Barbarians, they say. Yuuri is not sure about it anymore, never mind their dress or shamelessness in manner.
The army rest-camp is on the other side of the forest, a bit of a trip but nothing unbearable. Yuuri is not the only one traveling with Christophe. The others summoned by the King are herded gently by a couple other soldiers — a carpenter, grooms, cloth-sellers, tentmakers, two armorers, a few working women, all clearing through the thickets and pines. Pine cones crunch beneath their horses’ strong steps as they make their way around into the vast drifting-grass plain in which three nights of battle had raged. The call of kites over the funeral pyres finally eased that morning. There might still be stains of blood in dirt and patches of green. Yuuri decides it’s just shadows from the moonlight.
A lazy trotting weaves through the small party, which drifts apart and closes in again as the horses navigate in the dark. Yuuri almost flinches back when the trotting slows to a plodding beside him. What now?
Next to him swaying with practiced poise on a strong, grey and speckled steed is that young blond he’d seen at the thanks-offering, at the sacrifice. And he is looking right at Yuuri, but not how Viktor looks at him. He peers at him with narrowed eyes. Clearly he’s younger, but feels somehow older than Yuuri, perhaps for the lightning storm of his blue-green eyes, the incline of his chin, the ghost of a smirk or a scowl biding its time at the corners of his mouth.
“So your name is Yuuri,” he says, less a question or even a confirmation than it is a warning of superior knowledge. “I’m Yurii, as well. But we don’t need that confusion, so I might give you a nickname. How’s Mutt? All you people here are muddled blood of last century’s wars, anyway.”
With a dark, uncertain frown, Yuuri just watches him from the corner of his eye. The blond’s not too small, taut and supple in stature with two small braids winding back behind his ears to a humble half-back at the crown of his head. Flash of rich blue chiton below that even bluer cloak. An aristocrat, Yuuri assumes.
“You are to be his lover,” he says.
Yuuri cuts him a sharp, skeptical glance. He pretends he doesn’t know what he feels. He pretends he doesn’t know he actually does know. Whether he knows or not, the suspicion is a vain, selfish, foolish one, and he’s not sure he wants to wonder what is to be if he accepts it —
“Who?” he asks.
Yurii snorts. “The King, idiot.”
Yuuri’s face goes blank even as he blushes hot, choking on a stuttered laugh nervous but respectful. “Oh, no, I think you’re confused,” he insists, still laughing a little. “I’m an altar boy. A shrine hand.”
The blond Yurii issues a dismissive scoff. He’s like the tiger cubs traveling merchants keep in wooden cages, yawning into their squeaky roars, growing into a regal viciousness not yet taught to them. He peers at Yuuri through his hooded eyes, a dimple to his face like he suppresses a twist of scorn. The words rush out of him, indignant. “Things are different. We have different customs. You’d defy the King’s wishes and insult him like this? We rule you now. The way things go as you know them is no longer. Now it’s the way things go as we know them.”
“Is this what your priests and priestesses do?”
“Just trust me,” Yurii says, grinding the words between his teeth.
Yuuri’s chest tightens.
He does not know what it is that sends chills through him, dread or grief or soaring, awe-filled disbelief, but it leaves him wide-eyed and mildly concerned. This is some cruel trick, he thinks. Whether of Yurii or the gods, he’s not sure. But it simply can’t be. If it were a man other than Viktor, he’d be horrified of the task. Lover. But, and maybe it’s foolish, reckless even, Viktor does not feel like a stranger, and because of that, Yuuri is horrified of the fall if — when — he does not live up to …
Summer day. Wreath of flowers, woven by little fingers. Winter eyes and the hush in the altar room.
Yurii is right, though. Things are different. Tears burn Yuuri’s eyes, double and treble the world. He squints against them, breathless, face pinched —
“Why are you crying?” Yurii hisses, not unkindly, not quite sure what to do. Eyes skittish, like he doesn’t want the others trotting along beside them to hear.
Yuuri swallows hard, embarrassed that Yurii can see his almost-tears, struggling not to choke on the swell of warm panic. “I’m not, I … ”
“You’re serving a Great King. The Great King. You know who would kill for that?”
Yuuri clenches his hands on the horse and clenches his teeth against the taste of metal rising. Yes, really, why is he biting back tears? He knows he should either be flattered or feel affronted, feel violated. He doesn’t. He’s lost in the winds of the most confusing astonishment.
The gods say that fate is not man’s choice, that man’s choice is what he does with his fate.
Ah — his heart races — he loosens one fist to press his hand to his chest. This blond Yurii might never understand, but tears sting his eyes and steal his breath because he is so inexplicably ready for his fate.
So it was summer that Yuuri first saw Viktor, summers later but summer once more he sees him again and it is, apparently, to be his lover.
The plain slopes down. Settled below is the King’s enormous army camp. If Yuuri weren’t already in a daze, the sight would have sufficed. A small sea of tents and little wagons, living arrangements, hard to believe they need — or can even fit — anyone new.
“Christophe!” blond Yurii calls, riding up ahead a bit. “I’ll take the shrine hand to his tent,” he offers, though it’s definitely more an assertion. He turns halfway, eyes hanging on Yuuri. “Come on, then,” he says, not without a measure of spite. “Follow me, King’s lover.”
The tent to which Yurii leads him is sparsely-decorated, but not for lack of taste. He leaves him there a moment, in the low kindled lamplight, sitting with his bag beside him and hands folded neatly on his knees. There is such noise in this giant camp, voices and shouts, baying dogs, foreign smells, the occasional burst of laughter and excited talk, a shout, a ruckus. Life. Ordinary life so soon after three nights of battle. Chimes made of shells and ivory in the shape of scales dance at the wide flap-door of the tent as it flutters open at the shove of a small hand.
On the fine tasseled rug, Yurii lays some clothes, a mirror, little hand-boxes.
“I’ve sent for hot water,” he grumbles. “You smell like cheap incense and dirt.”
“Oh.” Yuuri flicks a brow, neck going hot under his collar. “Thanks.”
Yurii stops, the hem of his chiton flirting with the skin of midthigh, as he flashes a glance like he didn’t expect such a smart tone — like it earns Yuuri some warped respect in his eyes.
Yuuri clears his throat. “Why?”
“Me. That the King wants me.”
Something falls over Yurii’s face quickly, almost too swift for Yuuri to catch it — a shadow that returns his youth to him with a brief, vulnerable pinch. “You inspired him when you danced, I guess,” he snaps. “And he decided you were worth it.”
Yuuri gawks at him. He inspired Viktor?
“Yurio,” someone at the tent door says, elbowing it aside with a singing of chimes and creak of leather as he sets down a jug of bathing water, ornately painted with figures and even bands, exposed clay catching almost gold in the low light. That squire from the shrine, too, young but not younger than Yurii — dark hair, darker eyes. The dark eyes jump from Yurii to Yuuri and back again, as unbreachable as the ancient city walls. Or so they had once seemed.
“Thank you, Otabek,” Yurii mumbles, flustered for some reason, without even sparing the young man a glance. He lingers just a breath longer, as if waiting for something, any sort of realer recognition. When he doesn’t receive it, with a hard grit of his sandaled heel in the dirt, he leaves, shoulders bunched, and the tent door falls shut behind him.
“Yurio — ” Yuuri starts.
Yurii bristles, flushing a soft pink in embarrassment. “Others call me Yurio,” he interrupts sharply. “You may call me Yurii Plisetsky, son of old Nikolai’s.”
You are lower than me, is what he really means, Yuuri can tell, but barely, so I must get all I can of that.
Yuuri smiles faintly, a twist of the mouth. He can recognize bruised pride when he sees it. It eases the tension a bit for him. Yurii Plisetsky, son of old Nikolai’s. He’ll think of him as Yurio, anyway. He clears his throat. “I know nothing about him,” he presses. “The King.”
Yurio nods, eyes flickering away. That shadow to his face again, soft and secretive shadow. “For the better,” he mutters. He falls still, musing on something. But then he regains his composure and lifts his chin, shifts his weight to one foot and crosses his arms as he looks down at Yuuri.
“As altar hand, you have the blessings of the gods in your blood, do you not?” His voice is low and careful, tight. “Do you have a god named Eros? Viktor is the King. Your King now. After the blessing tonight, you go straight to his tent. And you dance for him the dance of Eros. Listen, there are roses in the bath water. The tunic is nice. Leave your old clothes here. I’ll have them washed.”
With a push of the hand, he disappears again out the tent, leaving Yuuri there with his bag and the bath water and the feeling of being so suddenly foreign to himself, he looks wonderingly at the backs of his own hands as if he has never seen them before.
Viktor will never cease to surprise him.
The Emperor of Hasetsu is not a common man — his rings are to be kissed when one is presented before him, his path cleared, his litter dazzling and dressed in riches and carried by strong men so his feet never need touch the ground. Even client king city lords deserve a measure of the same reverence, bowed head, averted eyes unless in reply.
King Viktor, however, demands none of that. He doesn’t expect it. And he appears to take pride in it.
Yuuri is deeply shocked by this as he follows Viktor and Christophe, and a few other men around the maze of the camp — important men, clearly, perhaps counsel or attendants, though their dress gives nothing away up front. The informality with which the soldiers speak to the King, the informality with which he, himself, speaks to them — as if they’re all friends. Comrades. Equals to a degree. Something engrained in Yuuri rages against the disrespect, horrified by it. Barbarians. And yet another part of him is enchanted by it. There’s a harmony to it that bewilders him, a unity that resounds powerful and natural.
Viktor laughs. He grins. He gestures and jokes. He is flamboyant and flippant. No one bows to him at his approach. Still he possesses some orbiting sense of leadership; no one needs to open his path, they simply move aside graciously. He’s hardly serious, but carries himself with a gravitas like he knows his men know better than that. Like he trusts they know better than that, and there is an implicit shame in the betrayal of such trust.
Each section of troops lines up at attention, maybe thirty or more ranks deep, their generals standing proud before them for Yuuri to bless them with a prayer-song, a shake of the bells, a swing of the incense lantern. To strength, to cleverness, to victory, to the gods’ good omens, gods of war, of hunting, father gods of power. Now and again someone stirs, eyes glinting, as if they recognize a god named much like their own. Funny, how even sharing the a very common tongue, their worlds are still so very different.
And after, the generals and Viktor and his men all flop down around a fire near the royal tents to drink and chat lazily as if bachelors at a dinner party. Tended, of course, by a servant or two, but otherwise casual and intimate.
You go straight to his tent.
Yuuri goes to his own tent, first, the one Yurio said was his. It’s not his alone. A handful of other beds are laid out or rolled up, a few personal trunks and washstands. He needs a moment. He’s almost too lost in the thunder of his nervous heart to notice the almond-colored boy in the corner, brushing down a fine suit of embroidered silk. Perhaps Yuuri’s age, give or take a bit.
“Hello!” the young man chirps with a smile like a smile could be nothing but pure, and it puts Yuuri’s shy one to shame. “You’re a court entertainer from Naara?”
A brief surge of alkaline anxiety chases the throb of his heart. Lover.
“Shrine hand,” Yuuri replies after a moment. “I tend the altar.”
The almond boy’s smile endures. He’s in thick imported silk and sequins Yuuri recognizes from trade with the East. “I see! I’m Phichit.”
Phichit’s smile is, thankfully, contagious, and Yuuri feels better about the one that lingers on his own mouth now. “Katsuki Yuuri,” he introduces himself, wondering if he should or shouldn’t step out of his slip-shoes and go naked footed like a large part of the camp seems to prefer.
“Phichit!” A squire ducks into the tent, with not much by way of urgency or lack thereof. “They’d like you.”
“Altar boy,” Phichit says on a dreamy little sigh as he grabs up his lyre, and smiles at Yuuri one more time on his way out of the tent. “I thought I recognized you! From the victory sacrifice last night. You danced. I dance, too. I hope one day I can dance as good as you. I’ll be back soon!”
He leaves Yuuri blushing and flustered and wordless, brow knotted.
Straight to his tent.
He couldn’t have missed it even if Yurio hadn’t already shown him by — a broad, luxurious tent, a veritable tapestry of a door, fringed in gold rope with thick scarlet ensigns and chimes in the shapes of the moon. Funny. The noise of the camp is something Yuuri will have to get used to. But soon the camp will pack up and leave, and perhaps when it does and he’s back with his family in the shrine, he’ll miss the noise. Voices, colorful and pleasant, echo from the fire, intertwined now with soft music and song from Phichit. Everything winding down, slowly. Games, sacrifice, feast, blessing. Their souls are content. The fire’s around the corner, thankfully. No one can see as Yuuri edges up to the guard at the tapestry door.
“Good evening,” he mumbles, meeting his gaze from the corner of his eye with as much confidence as he can manage within respectfulness. Otabek, Yurio said his name was. Dark-haired, dark-eyed. He requires no explanation. With a shapeless, noncommittal sound of greeting and a wave of the thumb, he grants Yuuri entrance.
Yuuri slips off his shoes at the door and just stands there for a moment, leery still to believe any of this is real.
Near a fine, low bed is a kline seat buried in a wealth of pillows and cushions, luxurious grey wolf skin falling over its woven platform. An elaborate animal-footed stool, Etruscan heirloom maybe, across the way a squat table with lamp and kindling, cone of incense from Naara, bowl of figs from Naara, gold cups from Naara. Small shelf of scrolls, trunk and leather armor, a hand-painted map longer than Yuuri is tall held out taut between two stanchions. Yuuri stands before it, wide-eyed and mute. He has heard of Egypt. There it is, marked. He knows of the upper East. It is also marked. This is where the Emperor lives. No longer his Emperor.
The thick smell of leather and cloves is pierced by scented oils meant to keep the insects away, and something … distinctly unfamiliar. Sweet and rich, in the way of skin or hair. Viktor, perhaps.
Something clenches on Yuuri’s heart.
He reaches out, dusting his fingertips along the dried hide of the map. Dainty scratches for mountain ranges, for rivers, for cities and forests.
He’s exhausted. It’s nearing dead of the night, the moon slipping past its highest point. It makes everything feel a bit like a dream, one of the vivid vision dreams Yuko often speaks of. Maybe Yuuri’s fallen into his own. Maybe he’ll wake up in a bit, in the cool dark of his room, doors open on the courtyard, and lay there looking at the full moon thinking about how relieved he is to be back in the flat line of normalcy, without the pressure of this honor on his shoulders, on his heart —
About how disappointed he will be if this isn’t real.
Laughter. Movement. A dog’s bark sounds — Yuuri jumps and turns half around just as a tousled ash-brown poodle wrestles in past the tapestry door. It hesitates only a moment, scrutinizing him with its deep dark eyes, before it bounces forth and stands back with paws to Yuuri’s thighs.
“Oh!” Yuuri laughs, startled. The dog’s ears are warm and silky in his fingers; its nose tickles his palm. “Stop, you’ll ruin my clothes — ”
“Stop — ”
“Makka — ”
The tapestry door swishes back behind Viktor and the dog’s paws scrape gently at Yuuri’s tunic as it drops back down to all fours, panting excitedly, leaving a string of slobber to snap from Yuuri’s thumb as Yuuri gawks at Viktor and Viktor gawks back at him.
The world swirls on outside the grand tent. Inside, below the distant dreamy melody of Phichit on the lyre, time stops.
Viktor. The Prince, grown into a man. Taller, lither, like a lily — his silvery hair swept back into a sloppy bun, save for the way it wisps across his eye — broader than before, slim but powerful build. Kissable mouth, the heart shape of his face all the more alluring, elegant yet virile in the smooth way of immortals. That delicate boyish beauty has been refined by gods know what — the years, the responsibility perhaps, war, personal pains and personal pleasures.
And Viktor looks at Yuuri as if he sees a ghost but perhaps Yuuri looks back much the same way.
There is a tale, like that of the moon chasing the sun, that long ago all soul mates shared one body. Two faces, two sets of arms, two sets of legs. But they were foolish and to punish them, the gods cut them in half, dooming each to search all their life for the part of themselves they lost —
Yuuri is dizzied. He opens his mouth. Nothing comes out except a funny little, “Uh.”
Viktor toys idly with the dog’s ears as the thing yips at his side for attention. His winter eyes move over Yuuri, smile sweet beyond obligation in that way Yuuri’s noticed he uses around those itching to flatter him. He raises his brows. “Yes?”
Blushing furiously, Yuuri drops into a quick bow as he greets in a voice almost without breath, “Lord! From the city just pledged to you!”
Suddenly he is so hyper-sensitive of everything around him — every distant sound, every shift, every smell, every whisper of the lamp and canine sigh of the dog raises the hair along the back of his neck, his arms.
Viktor laughs, a light and airy sound, and gives his dog a little tap on the nose to leave him be. Yuuri glances up at him without lifting his head, a shiver zipping down his spine.
“I’m no lord,” he chirps. “Just Viktor. You’ve been waiting for me?”
“Is it about the blessings?”
Yuuri shakes his head.
“What is it?”
Yuuri’s brow knots. He stands up all the way, doubt dimpling his face. His lips part but again the words escape him. Is he going to force him to speak it aloud? Lover, lover, lover. Does he not even remember calling for that service?
Dance for him the dance of Eros.
Ah, perhaps not. Because Viktor is the sun, and Yuuri is only the moon, and the sun can find his reflection in many other places. There is nothing special here. There is only a flower crown, a summer day, and a cursed, lonely moon waiting to be noticed.
Yuuri looks at the backs of his own hands, feeling foreign to himself once more. There comes with it a sense of easy emptiness that is entirely emboldening. Drawing a breath, he raises his eyes to Viktor’s and asks, “Shall I dance for you again?”
A beautiful smile unfolds itself like dawn across Viktor’s face. “A personal blessing? In what god’s name, then?”
“Eros,” Yuuri whispers.
Suddenly the charismatic pretense falls away — and that is what it is, Yuuri realizes then. A pretense. A shield, it would seem. There is both a warmth and a cold about him, Yuuri has thought, but he never guessed they were so cleanly divorced of one another. Something has shifted in Viktor, tucked away the warmth and left nothing but this austerity, brittle but fierce, eyes sharpening on Yuuri with such emphasis it sends another chill down his spine. It’s not threatening. But it pierces him to the bone, hollows him out, and he doesn’t know what it means.
The dog pads around idly in the new quiet, looking up now and again, just as eager as Yuuri it seems to be under his owner’s gaze. Some shade of suspicion creeps at the cool composure of Viktor’s face, like before, the look of a child confronted with something he has never before met. But he gives a little nod of assent. He drifts over and sags down on the reclined seat, one knee drawn up, arm propped on a pillow and face propped on that hand as he holds Yuuri in place with those winter eyes.
“All right,” he says, low and even. “Dance, then.”
Do you have a god named Eros?
Yuuri does not have a god of that name. He didn’t ask Yurio to introduce him. He has no idea what to do. There is no pole. He has no bells or scarves — but who is Eros, anyway, and what sort of blessing dance should he do —
You inspired him.
You’ll get better.
Delicately, Yuuri places one foot behind the other. Fourth position. He closes his eyes and just breathes for a moment, then slides slowly into life with a press off the ready back toe.
Summer day. Flower crown.
He swings his leg around, idle pirouette, one arm drifting overhead as the other winds languid about his middle. Toe pointed. Slow spin. His fingers spread; his hands reach.
Look! The Prince!
He curves his body, arches. Turns. Turns. Gentle lunge and a sweep of the other foot, pointed toe sliding across the King’s wide tasseled rug. Stretching contrapposto, stepping backwards, forwards, spin. Bent knee and tantalizing glide of the free leg. Next he will stretch his arms out as if to fly but only swoop into a deep, deep bow, a careful plié until he is parallel to the ground and all there is is the roll of his body as he catches his breath, the tremble of his shoulders, the fading pointe of his front foot, the memory of the Prince dancing smoldering in him like the waiting embers of a sacrifice fire, he has only seen the dance with his mind’s eye over and over for years, after all, he has practiced it in his free time —
Yuuri doesn’t make it to the bow.
A confident arm snares him abruptly about the waist, and he staggers to a halt against Viktor with a startled grunt and little shuffle of feet, eyes popping open.
“Viktor — ” he blurts, flushed and out of breath.
“The map,” Viktor says, and when he rose and when he crossed the floor, Yuuri doesn’t know. He looks wide-eyed over his shoulder — ah, the map is right there, within a breath or two. He’d almost run into it.
“I’m sorry!” Yuuri’s glance veers back to Viktor, mortified. He is such a dunce in front of him. Every time. Loses his tongue, loses his head. For a moment there is nothing but the throb of his heart. It’s the sacrifice drum, a steady tempo he can feel in his ears as he catches his breath from the dance —
Gods, does Viktor recognize the routine from so long ago? The same one he danced when he came with his father?
“Did I offend you?” Yuuri pants, brow knotting.
“No,” Viktor murmurs. His eyes move over him in flat curiosity. “Was that supposed to be a seduction?”
Yuuri’s face pinches. “Um, what, the dance?”
“There wasn’t any music.”
Yuuri chokes on a breath. “There wasn’t any music!” he sputters. “I’m so sorry — ”
The warmth returns to Viktor in an instant, spreading out from the fresh smile rolling across his face. “I heard the music,” he says.
Heat blooms in Yuuri. “Oh,” he whispers, nodding idly. His blood buzzes in his veins to be pressed so close to Viktor’s body, like a partner-dance, feel his breath as he takes it.
“You’re like fine amethyst, waiting to be tumbled.”
Viktor. Summer. Flower crown. Dancing Prince.
“Teach me, then,” Yuuri demands before he even knew the words were there.
Viktor’s face is eclipsed yet again by that same fragile childlike wonderment. Yes, he is a man well accustomed to getting what he wants and how he wants it, yet he regards Yuuri with such vulnerable surprise.
Inspired, Yurio said.
Yuuri doesn’t know where the gall to request as much came from. Teach me. But he holds his ground like he holds Viktor’s gaze, mouth bitten in a thin line. Maybe it’s the madness of the gods. A summer day. Obsession. That unbidden ache, that hum in his heart, the warmth of the sun … something in him that has awoken under those winter eyes, something begging to be looked at. He is not an altar boy, he is someone else, and he does not know who it is but he wants to, he aches to, Viktor pierces something in his soul that he hadn’t ever known was there. He thinks he should be more afraid. But it's like Viktor is someone else, too, like Yuuri is, it is not a King and a shrine hand, it is just the two of them, themselves, Viktor and Yuuri, and that string of desire’s been plucked, a string that continues to hum. He does not suspect it’s the desire of a lover — not at first, it wasn’t. But it has no trouble sliding up in pitch to a new humming note —
Or maybe it’s just what it is, and that is love.
Yuuri can find no other word for it. He loves Viktor. The memory of him, or the way he looks at him. He is mesmerized. Enamored. His greatness. An indiscriminate, all-consuming, desperate wonderment and admiration of this man and his honest eyes and beautiful smile. Warm and cold at the same time. Viktor. Viktor. He has lived on such a high pedestal to Yuuri for so long, and now he is right here before him, and Yuuri’s heart thunders because he is so happy for it.
It was summer that he first saw him, and he was like a god, and he has loved him somehow ever since —
What now? Lover. Yuuri’s head spins. Lover. There is a tightness to the quiet between them like an arrow pulled taut on the bowstring, quivering, waiting, breaths from the snap and release for its target. Lust. Passion. The hungry animal part the gods left in man. And Yuuri will yield to it; he’s decided it. Or he shares in it. His stomach is aswirl with butterflies. He has never longed for someone to kiss him so badly before in his life and he won’t stop to wonder if he wants him just to be wanted himself. This man he feels he knows yet barely does at all, in truth. This man who led the attack on his own city just to have it. Who —
Viktor heaves a carefree sigh. His arm slides away as he wanders over to his washstand to undress for sleep, as if all that had just happened hadn't happened at all.
Yuuri just stands there, blinking rapidly, stunned and utterly confounded.
Viktor drops his leather, his belt, his chiton, and Yuuri forgets his confusion to see the bloom of brown and purple bruises along one side of his torso. From the battle. The fighting. It is so hard for him to believe this graceful, charismatic man leads an army of as-of-yet undefeated soldiers. Then again, when there is nothing but the cold about him, it is not.
Makkachin the dog sprawls out on the bed, rolls around a little as if to say, Look at me, I’m adorable.
“Should … shouldn’t someone attend you?” Yuuri presses.
Viktor grins like a boy, harmless yet clearly conscious of how charming he is as he undoes his hair, raking and combing his fingers through at the scalp to shake it loose. “I like doing things myself,” he says with some flare of mischief. “Yakov hates it.”
“A general of mine. He believes King should demand such service, earns such service in his conquests. Service. I don’t need anyone to bathe me! But he’s of my father’s day, and I think … ” Viktor pauses as if suspicious of overhearing ears, more for show than for real fear. He winks at Yuuri. “I think he’s a bit jealous my last march was more successful than all the marches he’s put together since we left home.”
Yuuri nods, fingers twisting in the long sleeves of his tunic. After a moment, he remembers to slide a step away from the big map he almost knocked over.
“You look anxious,” Viktor remarks.
“I’m not — ” Yuuri sighs, accepting defeat. “I am. A little.”
“I heard there’s a hot springs up towards the pass,” Viktor says merrily. “Is that true?”
“Um, yes — yes, there’s a springs, just over half an hour’s walk up.”
“With a temple?”
“Yes. Dedicated to god of the seasons, born in the mountains.”
Viktor issues a low, excited hum. “In the corner are some pallets and blankets,” he says. “Make a bed for yourself.”
Yuuri’s face dimples as he shoots him a look of polite horror for such a stark mad offer. But there is nothing on Viktor’s face that speaks of mockery or malintent, not even of pity.
“You’ll just … let me stay here?” he asks.
“Makkachin trusts you.” Viktor smiles at his dog with a pleasant, affectionate, and wholly personal welcome Yuuri knows is actually meant for him. It turns his eyes to little crescent-moons of soft lashes. “So I do, as well.”
A wave of relief rolls through him to know Viktor has no intentions of taking him to his own bed tonight, ready as he might have told himself he was for it. Relief and maybe a bit of disappointment but mostly honor to know Viktor looks at him as more than an object of pleasure. He’s sure of it. Pretty sure. It would fit his already strikingly unorthodox nature, anyway.
He will never cease to surprise Yuuri. Never, never, never.
“Can I at least braid your hair?” he asks quietly. “Yurio told me you like that.”
Viktor falls still. His eyes, downcast, move dully along nothing in particular. Again from outside, the occasional distant coarse laughter and animated shouts of conversation.
“I do,” Viktor says finally, smiling at Yuuri over his shoulder — warm, of course, as is his flashy nature, yet cool for the sense of distance in it. “Love to have my hair braided.”
Yuuri steps lightly across the gold-embroidered rug which covers the tent floor, easing down to his knees beside Viktor where he’s flopped down to his bed. He threads his fingers through that soft, light hair, free about skin like ivory and breaths like honey. It tickles his wrists and knuckles as he separates it into parts, weaves one piece over the other. The closeness of Viktor’s skin sends chills along his arms now and again, like holding one’s palm over an open flame.
There is nothing for a moment but the crackle of the lamp, the echo of life winding down through the camp. The huff and sigh of the dog, creak of leather from Otabek at his post far enough outside the tapestry door.
“Yuuri,” Viktor murmurs. “Do not listen to Yurio.”
Perplexed, Yuuri waits for Viktor to look at him. Viktor doesn’t move.
Nonetheless, Yuuri keeps braiding. And this — this — he thinks if he can befriend Phichit, and befriend Makkachin, and braid Viktor’s hair, then he will be just fine. It’s a new sort of altar. He has discovered a god like no other god. And he will tend this god until his camp takes leave.
Yuuri wakes in the cool paleness of morning, curled up on the little bed made in the corner. Viktor is gone, dressed and gone. Makkachin gone, too. The camp’s stirring. He lets the world blur together through half-open eyes, stretching a little. The tent door flutters hard as someone opens it and instantly retreats —
Yuuri lifts up to peek nervously from under one arm, but he only catches a flash of blond hair and patterned indigo chiton flitting away from the tent like a bird taking flight.
I heard the music.
end summer - part i.