Excerpt: Treasure

Prologue: A Promise Made

“This is my hiding spot!” Kinni hissed in outrage, furious that some street rat had found his little corner in the old warehouse. He’d searched ages for a place no one would think to look. “This is my spot,” he repeated. “Go find your own.”

“So-sorry,” the figure said, slowly standing up. He pressed his hands to his face to wipe away tears, but managed to do little more than smudge them into the dust that had landed on his face. There was always dust in the old warehouses in the harbor. The sunlight that filtered through the cracks in the old wood walls was just enough to see by.

He’d thought the other person was a girl, what with the crying and the shoulder-length violet hair. Now, though, he could sort of tell it was a boy. Crying. Kinni shook his head and motioned impatiently. “Sit down. If you run now, the guards will see you, and I don’t want to get caught. Took all day to get away from the storming smith.”

“S-smith?” the boy asked, still sniffling, but he obediently sat back down, curling his legs up as he set his back against a towering packing crate.

“Silversmith,” Kinni said shortly, not interested in discussing the bastard he’d finally run away from. He belonged on the sea like his dad, not slaving away in some stupid shop full of dumb trinkets. “I ran away.” He slid down to sit down next to the strange crying boy. “Why are you crying?” he demanded. “Boys don’t cry. My dad said so.”

In reply, the boy only hunched his shoulders and sniffled, obviously trying to stop crying. “They tried to hurt me again for ‘acting up’ in lessons.”

Lessons. Violet hair. Some noble brat. Kinni grimaced, but slid off his pack. Mamma had always said to be nice, and the boy was crying, so he could try. “I have some food, if you want to share. Just don’t eat all of it.”

“Me too,” the boy said quietly, and he suddenly scrambled over to a shadowy corner, pulling out a satchel that seemed way too big for his tiny body—he was smaller than Kinni, but then the shop women always said Kinni was big for his age—and opened it up, pulling out half a dozen clumsily wrapped bundles. “Took it from the kitchen when the cooks weren’t looking,” he said with another soft sniffle.

Kinni stared: Little oranges that were actually called something else but he couldn’t remember what; flat bread that smelled like cinnamon; two little meat pies; and hunks of cheese. It made his own feeble takings seem that much more pathetic. Grimacing, he pulled out what he had: A few small apples, some hard bread, and a few pickled eggs he’d managed to snatch right before he’d fled while the storming smith was starting in early with the cheap wine. Storms, it was only lunch time.

“Apples!” the boy said eagerly. “Those are my favorite.”

“Trade you for an orange,” Kinni said, holding out one of his green apples. Immediately the boy nodded, taking the apple and giving Kinni an orange. “My name is Kinni. What’s yours?”

The boy stared at him, silent for a long time. “Koori,” he said at last.

Kinni grunted and began peeling the little orange, ripping the skin away and tearing the slices apart, popping one in his mouth, and grinning around it. “This is good.”

“Mmmhmm,” Koori agreed, taking another bit of his apple, holding it with both hands as if worried it would get away from him.

“So why are you here?” Kinni asked when his orange was gone, more interested in getting another one than in knowing why Koori had run away.

Koori paused in the middle of taking a bite, and Kinni almost groaned when he realized he’d made Koori start crying again. The apple fell into the dirt as Koori curled up, sobbing quietly into his arm.

“Hey! Storms take it! What’s wrong? Stop crying—boys don’t cry, come on. What’s wrong?” Kinni struggled to get Koori to stop, utterly confused. This was worse than even the way the other kids picked on him for his white hair and skin and refused to play with him. He knew how to deal with mean people. Crying people just left him confused.

He reached out to touch Koori’s shoulder, yelping when he abruptly turned and embraced Kinni tightly, clinging tighter than a starfish to a ship. Desperately Kinni tried to think of some way to get the crying boy off of him. Shoving wasn’t working. He settled for what he’d seen some of the men around the shops do when their women started crying and patted Koori’s back and shoulders. “Dragons, it’s all right. What has you acting like this?”

“I-I-I-don’t-don’t,” Koori sniffled loudly then started coughing before he regained control of his voice. “I don’t want to g-go h-home.”

Kinni rolled his eyes. “Then don’t. S’why I ran away. I’m going to be a sailor like my dad.”

Koori’s sobbing eased a bit, and slowly he sat up. “A-a sailor?” he repeated, voice full of the same longing Kinni felt every day.

“Yeah,” Kinni said proudly. “My dad taught me all about sailing, so I know any ship will be glad to take me.” He hoped. He didn’t want to go back to that storming trinket shop, and now that he’d run away, if a ship didn’t take him he was in for a lot worse than making trinkets all day.

“I can’t do anything,” Koori said with a sniffle. He wiped the tears from his cheeks, smudging the grimy dust further, then fumbled in his satchel again. “I don’t know where to go, and all I have is this,” he said in a low tone, pulling something out of his bag and handing it to Kinni. “Mama said it was special.”

Kinni knew silver when he saw it, even in the dingy light filtering into the tiny corner. It was a dagger, decorative rather than actually useful, and he could see there were stones set into it—possibly saphir or esmeralda, though it was hard to tell. The sheath was silver as well, set with more stones. He handed it back. “You could sell that for a lot of money.”

“Maybe,” Koori said with a frown. He set the dagger in his lap and retrieved his apple, meticulously wiping it off before he resumed eating. “So why are you going to be a sailor?”

“My dad was a sailor. A captain. I’m going to be captain of the best ship in the world and bring home the ultimate treasure just like he did.”

Koori looked at him with wide eyes. “What’s the ultimate treasure?”

“Ah—I don’t know yet. Dad never said; he just always smiled at mom like they were keeping a secret.” Kinni frowned at the memory, refusing to be sad that his parents were dead. He was tired of being sad. He was strong, just like dad. “I’ll find it anyway though, just wait and see.”

“I wish I could,” Koori said, smiling sadly. “I should probably go home, though, even if I don’t want to. I don’t know how to be a sailor, and if I stay away they’ll hurt my sister instead of me.”

Kinni glowered. “Hurt your sister? Who?”

“The t-tutors,” Koori said, beginning to sniffle again. “They always h-hurt when I do or say something wrong. M-ma-mama says it’s ‘growing up’ when I tell her.” He wiped his cheek again.

Kinni patted his shoulders again, really hoping Koori wouldn’t cling all over him again. “It’s cause you cry,” he said knowingly. “The storming smith I worked for picked on me a lot after my parents died, and I was sad. Then I just started laughing at him, and he got so mad eventually he stopped punishing me all the time. When they try to hurt you, just laugh instead of cry. Then they’ll stop and maybe leave your sister alone too.”

“R-really?” Koori asked, blinking those wide, wide eye up at him.

Something about him made Kinni want to hug him, which was just girly and weird. “Really,” he said.

Koori nodded obediently. “I still wish I could be a sailor.”

“Why can’t you?”

“B-because of my s-sister,” Koori said, beginning to cry again. “And no-no-no one likes me…” He looked miserably at Kinni, then down at his own hands which were fisted in the fabric of his grungy robes.

“Aw, that’s not true. I’m sure there are people that like you.” He reached out to pat Koori’s shoulder again, letting out what sounded like a squeak when Koori abruptly leeched onto him, crying quietly against him.

Storms take it. Kinni patted his back, really wishing he could figure out how to make Koori stop crying and going all starfish. “What about your parents?” Instead of calming, Koori only cried harder. Wrong thing to say. Kinni struggled to think of what to do. “Well—I like you. Even if you cry a lot.”

“Y-you just met me,” Koori said plaintively. “You can’t like me already.”

Kinni frowned. “Yes, I can. The only people I don’t like are mean people, and you cry too much to be mean.”

“M’kay,” Koori mumbled against his shirt then slowly he sat up. “I like you, too.” He smiled.

Kinni stared, but his thoughts were broken up as outside the harbor bells began to ring. “The ports are closing soon,” he said. “If I’m going to try and get on a ship before they find me for running away from my apprenticeship, I have to go now.”

“Oh…” Koori said glumly, smile vanishing. He obediently moved away and packed up all his things, slinging the overlarge satchel over one shoulder.

“Come on,” Kinni said. “The guards should be busy collecting all the riff-raff and stuff, and I can find a ship to sneak onto or something. I’ve been planning this for months.” If ‘run away and find a ship that would be willing to take him’ counted as a plan.

Taking Koori’s hand, not sure why he did, though from the way he clung tight it was obvious Koori didn’t mind, Kinni weaved his way through the boxes and crates that filled the warehouse until they made it to the doors. Outside the sunlight was slowly fading, though it would still be a couple of hours before it was really dark. He dropped his hand and turned to look at Koori—then stopped.

Koori was… really pretty. He’d never known a boy could be so pretty. Filthy, but pretty. “You’re a mess. How long have you been in the warehouse?”

“S-since yesterday,” Koori said, cheeks flushing at the comment to his appearance. He knelt on the ground and opened his satchel, fumbling briefly to yank out a piece of cloth, Kinni assumed to try and clean his face or something. Koori frowned when it caught on something in the bag and gave a hard yank.

Kinni gawked when the dagger spilled free, fading sunlight catching on Highland silver and brilliant saphir. Flawless, he bet, though he didn’t know jewels as well as he did silver. He knelt down and picked it up. “Koori, you could buy a ship with this.”

“Really?” Koori asked doubtfully.

“A whole ship,” Kinni repeated. “You’d never have to go home. You could take your sister too, if you’re worried about her.”

Koori frowned, then shook his head. “Sister wouldn’t leave. ‘Sides, mama said I have ‘sponsibilities. I only meant to run away for a little while.” He took the dagger as Kinni handed it to him then suddenly thrust it back. “You take it. Buy a ship.”

“What?” Kinni said, mouth gaping.

“Buy a ship,” Koori repeated. “Be a sailor.” He smiled sadly. “You can find the ultimate treasure.”

Kinni swallowed and looked at the dagger. What would his dad do? He always said never accept gifts.

“Maybe you can come and show it to me someday. Your ship too,” Koori said wistfully, turning to look out over the harbor and the ocean beyond.

Then Kinni knew what to do. Fumbling for a moment, he pulled a heavy silver chain from beneath his tunic, unhooked the clasp, and shoved it into Koori’s hands. “Here. That belonged to my dad. He gave it to me before—” He stopped as memories of that night tried to surface, but he stamped them down, refusing to be sad anymore. “Before he died. It’s our family crest.”

Koori turned the necklace over in his hands, examining the pendant attached to the chain: a lighthouse from which emanated beams of light. “Pretty,” he said softly.

“Dad always said never accept gifts. A man earns what he receives. This dagger is worth a lot, and I can’t repay it. So… how about I make you a promise?”

Those wide eyes turned up to him, and Kinni wondered why they made him want to hug Koori again even though hugging was girly and stupid. “A promise?” he repeated.

“Yeah,” Kinni said, wishing his heart would stop beating so fast, confused as to why it did. “You said you can’t run away now, but if you ever can run away forever, then I’ll help you. I’m not a Captain yet, but I will be one day. I’m going to call my ship the Kumiko. Ask for Captain Kinni and show me that pendant, and I’ll take you wherever you want to go. Maybe… maybe you can even help me find the ultimate treasure. If you come soon enough.”

A smile lit up Koori’s face. Even the grime and drying tears couldn’t dim the power of that smile. Then Kinni found his arms full again, Koori wrapped so tightly around him that he was practically choking. “It’s a promise, then.”

“Y-yeah,” Kinni said, but didn’t manage anything more as Koori suddenly kissed his cheek quickly, shyly, then turned and bolted away. He turned around briefly to wave, then vanished into the crowds of people leaving the harbor.

Kinni watched him go, shaking his head in confusion, then hid the dagger in his own bag before bolting away from the warehouse to find a ship that would take him.

Chapter One: A Bargain Struck

Taka strode through the dark halls of the palace, fervently hoping he would run into no one else. He did not want to have to devise an excuse as to why he was headed toward Nankyokukai’s private quarters well after the curfew.

Candles flickered in the wall sconces, only half as many as he remembered being lit as a child. The carpet lining the halls was the same, though it was faded and worn. In another time, it would have long been replaced.

He shivered as cool air wafted in through a window tucked into the place where three hallways intersected. Taka turned right and continued on his way, holding tightly to the roll of dark blue fabric bundled in one hand.

The sound of bells reached his ears, and he swore softly, looking around anxiously and finally ducking behind a large statue of King Taiseiyou the Second. He made himself as small as possible and tried to remember to breathe as the sound of bells drew closer.

Bells and far too many feet, he thought with a frown, but resisted the urge to look because really, the less he knew, the better for everyone. He flinched when he heard Taiheiyou’s unmistakable deep voice, nothing at all like his brother’s smooth tenor. Why, he though irritably, did he always wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time? Of course he would cross paths with the crown prince in the middle of a midnight rendezvous.

Just please do not let it be with—

As though cued, an all too familiar giggle shattered what was left of Taka’s calm, and he buried his face in his hands to stifle a groan. If he thought he could get away with it, he’d strangle Taiheiyou himself in that very moment.

Why the king favored his bed-hopping, empty-headed eldest son when he had Nankyokukai waiting in the wings, Taka would never know. Storms spare them the continued stupidity of the royal family. Taka scowled at the wall while he waited for Taiseiyou and Lady Etsuko to go on their way. He could not wait to see the maelstrom that erupted when her father caught her. That would be the end of the prosperous marriage to Lord Hamasaki that her father had been lusting after.

Taka was almost sad he would not be around to see the lightning strike when they invariably got caught. He wondered if angering Lord Hamasaki would finally be the wave that tipped the boat, and Taiheiyou would find himself shoved unceremoniously into the royal shark pool.

The thought almost made Taka snigger before he caught himself and held it back.

Several minutes later, the couple continued on—in the direction, Taka noted, of the royal quarters. Normally, he found it irritating that Nankyokukai, in his continuing efforts to see which son could drive their father to homicide first, had chosen to take rooms in the southernmost part of the palace. It gave him a beautiful view of the royal city, but put him well away from literally every place of importance in the palace.

Right then, Taka was grateful. If he’d had to wait until Taiheiyou and his flower actually made it into Taiheiyou’s room, Taka would have spared the king having to kill him. Huffing out an irritated breath, he shoved back loose strands of his dark green hair and slipped from his hiding place, making his way more quickly through the halls.

When he at last reached the hall where Nankyokukai’s rooms resided, Taka let out a sigh of relief. Reaching Nankyokukai’s room, he did not bother to knock, simply opened the door and slipped inside. He closed the door quietly behind him and padded across the sitting room floor to the rightmost of three doors, sliding the door open and calling out, “Highness?”

“Here,” Nankyokukai replied, stepping out of the shadows that had cloaked him. He looked unusual with his long hair braided and bound instead of loose as he normally wore it. “Really, Taka—your presence is not required.”

Taka rolled his eyes. “Highness, I am not stupid enough to leave you to your own devices. If you insist upon gallivanting about, I insist on going with you, and I really think we may as well leave off discussing the matter further.”

Nankyokukai laughed softly, and Taka was reminded all over again why the king was stupid for favoring Taiheiyou. If Taka had dared to speak so to Taiheiyou, he would have found himself cuffed at the very least and more likely publically humiliated the following day. “What has you so cranky, Taka?” Nankyokukai asked. “Do not tell me that delegate from Pozhar was attempting to win your favors again. I thought I took care of him.”

“You did, Highness, and I believe his grace further addressed the matter, though he said nothing of it to me.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” Nankyokukai said softly. “That is not his grace’s way. So what, then, has you so irritated, hmm?” He drew up the length of fabric he’d been holding and wound it around his head and shoulders to make a hood, securing the fabric in place with a plain silver clasp in the shape of a dragon’s head.

Taka snorted. Even when Nankyokukai took pains to look perfectly ordinary, he failed miserably. He was too beautiful, too royal, too Nankyokukai, to ever be ordinary. “I really wish you would tell me what all of this is about.”

“I really wish you would tell me what has you angry,” Nankyokukai replied. “As I am the prince, and you the secretary, speak.”

“Brat,” Taka muttered, then gave up. “I saw your brother taking Lady Etsuko off to his room. Nearly ran into them, which would have been decidedly awkward.”

Anger flickered on Nankyokukai’s face, but he almost immediately smoothed it out and flapped one hand dismissively. “Tai will get his comeuppance. Even a crown prince does not get away with everything forever. His day is fading and will shortly turn to night.”

“I wish that sounded less like a certainty and yet am glad I do not know why you are so certain,” Taka said with a sigh and stepped out of his palace slippers to pull on the town boots he had tucked into the fabric roll. When his boots were in place, he mimicked Nankyokukai in wrapping the fabric about his head and shoulders, though his silver pin was of much simpler quality and a plain square in shape. “Come on, then, Highness. Let us get this over with.”

“We will not get far if you continue to call me that,” Nankyokukai pointed out.

Taka did not bother to reply, simply led the way to the balcony and swung neatly over the railing, then out onto the rough stone of the palace wall, making short, easy work of climbing down it to the ground below.

Nankyokukai was only moments behind, leaping neatly down beside him and brushing dirt from his loose, dark pants. “We have become rather skilled at that, haven’t we, Taka?”

“I prefer not to think about it, Kyo,” Taka replied. “Where are we going?”

“The warehouse district, the half-moon quadrant,” Kyo replied and led the way away from the palace and down into the city.

The royal city smelled like the sea and the last fragrant traces of flowers fading away as summer turned to autumn. He shivered in the cold, but the chill would vanish after a few more minutes of brisk walking. Down in the city, it was less strange to see people walking about well after curfew. The moon was fat and pale in the sky, gleaming here and there on the streets. Taka walked alongside Kyo, something he would never do by the light of day, where propriety dictated he walk two paces behind.

He resisted an urge to touch the dagger tucked away at the small of his back, not wanting to alert anyone who might be watching as to where he kept his weapon. It was rare someone bothered them—Kyo just had that sort of presence—but it paid to be cautious all the same.

“I wish you would tell me what we are about.”

“I am going on a journey, and I am looking to secure passage,” Kyo replied, and the undertone in his voice made Taka wince. That particular hint of frost only ever came from one source: Kyo’s father. Taka stifled a sigh and looked at Kyo out of the corner of his eye.

He was the image of his mother, and the only person as highly regarded for beauty was the Princess Umiko. Taiheiyou was a loud, obnoxious, spoiled brat who would ruin his handsome figure long before age did it for him. He lacked everything that Kyo possessed: discipline, refinement, a sense of responsibility, and the knowledge and acumen suitable to ruling a kingdom. It infuriated Taka that Kyo would never have the throne despite the fact he deserved it.

No, it was the flamboyant buffoon who would sit on the throne and wear the Eye of the Storm until he passed it on to an heir—and Kyo would rot, neglected, never given a fair chance to sail.

Storms spare him bratty, spoiled, flamboyant men who did not care who they hurt in pursuit of their own selfish wants. Kyo might have been ruthless and cunning, but he wasn’t malicious. Taka blew out an irritated breath. “We are going on a journey, you mean,” he said.

“No,” Kyo replied, employing a sharp tone of voice that Taka rarely heard—and even more rarely heard directed at him. “I am going; you are remaining here. That is final.”

Taka did not deign to reply because they both knew he was going to ignore that order. Everyone else might think Kyo was best ignored and left to his own devices, but Taka knew him far too well to do that. “So with whom are we meeting tonight?”

“A merchant,” Kyo murmured as they entered the warehouse district at the southeast edge of the city where it circled the main harbor. The bulk of Kundou’s money was made in trade, for nobody traveled the seas even half as well as the people of Kundou. For goods to go from country to country, they nearly always went by way of Kundou ships.

Taka fell silent as they wended their way through the mazelike warehouse district until they reached the half-moon quadrant. He frowned, wondering why Kyo needed such a high-end merchant. Rent in the half-moon quadrant was nigh on obscene, though he knew it was little more than a drop to those who could afford it: the wealthiest and most powerful merchants in the city, and all the lords and ladies who had shares in the various ships.

Kyo stopped in front of a warehouse that seemed to bear no markings past those which designated its location and that it was rented. He did not knock, simply pushed open the small door on the right side of the front of the warehouse and slipped inside.

Heaving a sigh, Taka followed him, tense as they wove through stacks of crates, barrels of wine and beer, bolts of fabric, and numerous casks of spices and other dried goods.

Orange-yellow light spilled out of a room at the back of the warehouse—an office, likely. Taka frowned as they approached it, but resisted an urge to ask Kyo if it was really such a good idea. Of course it wasn’t, and near as he could tell, that was at least half its appeal. Kyo wasn’t happy unless he was risking life or limb to accomplish some goal that only made sense to him and only made sense to everyone else long after the fact.

He’d never clandestinely met a merchant in the dead of night, however, and Taka did not like that he was doing so now. But he knew better than to try and stop it; the best he could do was stay with Kyo and keep him out of as much trouble as possible.

Reaching the door of the office, Kyo knocked. A deep-timbre voice called for him to enter, and Kyo pushed the door open and slipped inside. Taka followed him, eying the man they were to meet suspiciously—and immediately hating him on sight. He was everything Taka loathed: flamboyant and loud and arrogant, even just sitting there watching them.

He was beautiful, in a dark and striking way, though Taka hated admitting it even privately. Certainly he was not conventional. He was broad, and though it was impossible to tell from the way he was sitting, Taka bet he was also tall. His hair was a deep, rich blue, half-covered by a vivid scarf of deep violet and decorated with gold stars and silver crescent moons. His robes were also violet, with an expensive-looking sash of gold and silver bands embroidered with black pearls.

Taka did not recognize him, but suspected he knew the man by reputation. Eyes the same dark blue as his hair fastened on Taka, startling him with their focus, and he drew a sharp breath only when the man looked away to regard Kyo once more. “Good evening.”

“Good evening,” Kyo murmured. “I assume that since you are waiting here, you are willing to consider my offer.”

“Offer me terms I like, Highness, and we’ll talk.”

Kyo laughed softly and, to Taka’s dismay, reached up to shove back his hood. “If you had not known it was me, Master Raiden, I would have cancelled the deal and gone home. Perhaps your reputation is not exaggerated.”

“Depends on what aspects of my reputation we are discussing, Highness. I would have been quite surprised if it had not been you.” Raiden replied, confirming Taka’s suspicions. He was no less than Master Shimano Raiden—the wealthiest merchant in the city and the only one to hold every permit and license for trade it was possible to obtain. His company was one of the oldest in the country; if Taka recalled correctly, it could practically trace its roots to the Last Storm.

What was Kyo thinking? He was not certain he wanted to know. “I do not like this.”

Raiden looked at him again and quirked a brow. “I am fairly certain it is not yours to like or dislike.” He looked at Kyo, jerking his head at Taka. “Who is he?”

“My assistant in all things,” Kyo replied and gestured with one hand for Taka to relax.

Making a face, Taka nevertheless obeyed, unwinding his own hood and wrapping the fabric around his shoulders, smoothing down his shoulder-length hair. “I repeat, I do not like this—whether it is mine to like or not.” He met Raiden’s dark eyes, daring the man to argue with him. He was a royal secretary, arguing was what he did best. There was no other way to get a royal to do anything.

Instead, Raiden just stared at him, and Taka once more found it hard to draw a proper breath. Why did Raiden stare so intently? Before he could find his voice and ask the question, Raiden turned away and stood up, moving to an ornate wooden cabinet. Opening it, he pulled out a crystal carafe holding a wine so dark it nearly looked black and a tray that held four delicate-looking crystal glasses. They were stem-less, as was common in the country that produced the dark wine: Piedre, kingdom of death. Raiden half-filled three glasses and presented one each to Kyo and Taka, then took the last and resumed his seat. He took a sip, then licked traces of the dark wine from his pale lips.

He glanced again at Taka, something flashing in his eyes—and that was a look Taka knew, a look he loved to remove from the face of every smug, entitled noble who thought a secretary would be panting at the chance to ride their cocks and accept whatever favors they handed out.

Just as he started to tell Raiden exactly what he could do with his cock, Raiden turned back to Kyo, and murmured, “Let us bargain, Highness.”

Kyo smirked, relaxing back in his seat. “I think I may safely assume that money is of no interest to you.”

“You assume correctly,” Raiden said, and Taka almost rolled his eyes at both of them. He never understood why Kyo enjoyed such things so much, but he knew the only thing more obnoxious was letting two people so inclined argue with each other. “I collect treasures, Highness. Money I can amass easily on my own. Offer me something that only you can give me.”

Chuckling, Kyo said, “There are several things in my possession that you want. Do you want pearls, esmeralda, saphir, rubi…?”

Taka tensed when he realized that Kyo was offering up his private jewel collection—a collection in which Taka took great pride. He was the one who had actually collected most of the pieces in it, after all. He narrowed his eyes at the back of Kyo’s head and considered lobbing a shoe at it.

Raiden’s gaze flicked back to him and looked over him almost appraisingly, Taka would have thought, if that had made any sense. “The Mermaid’s Grasp,” he said, looking back at Kyo. “That will do for a start.”

Kyo laughed outright and gestured lazily. “Done. If you are going to be this easy, then it was not even worth my personal attendance at this meeting.”

“We are just getting started, Highness,” Raiden murmured. “You also have the Faerie Jewels.”

“Those I purchased to give to my sister,” Kyo replied. “But if you like that set, I might be willing to offer the Tears of the Lady Umi.”

Raiden looked at him sharply. “I did not know that was in your possession.”

“Most don’t,” Kyo replied and finishing his wine, set the empty glass on Raiden’s desk. “The Mermaid’s Grasp and the Tears of the Lady Umi: a fine choker and a full set of diamonds and pearls. I am already paying you handsomely for what I want—now tell me precisely what I am buying.”

Snorting in amusement, Raiden pushed what proved to be a map toward him and then set a ledger on top of it. “Passage, Highness, precisely as you requested. Discreet, capable, and we will take you wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go.”

“You have an impressive fleet; which ship have you selected for the duty?”

Raiden smiled, pride practically pouring off him as he said, “You are getting my best ship, manned by my best Captain. He’s young for the post, but better than men twice his age and more—Captain Kindan Ningyo of the Kumiko. He is still out at sea, unfortunately, but he is due back within the week, two at the most. If he takes longer than that, we will discuss the matter then, Highness.”

“Acceptable,” Kyo replied, and he stood up to better peruse the map and ledger. “He makes you a handsome profit.”

“He’s very good at making people do what he wants,” Raiden said, mouth quirking. “You will see what I mean when you meet him. But you can see that even with the jewels you are giving me, I am going to lose a great deal of money while he is working for you.”

“Money you said you would not miss,” Kyo replied.

Raiden smiled, slow and crafty. “I can recoup the loss, that is true, but I still think I deserve compensation.”

Kyo laughed. “Name your price, then, and let us see if I am willing to pay it.”

“I am not as organized as I should be,” Raiden said, motioning to his desk which was a chaotic jumble of papers, ledgers, maps, receipts, and the Lost Gods alone knew what else. Taka had been pointedly avoiding looking at it since he had first noticed it because the urge to make order of it all was strong. Honestly, royal prince or merchant prince, they could do nothing for themselves.

He tensed when Raiden’s eyes once more fastened on him, and he wondered what it was about that dark blue gaze that made it so damned hard to breathe. “I find myself in need of a secretary—a very talented one. Give me your secretary, Highness,” Raiden finally looked back at Kyo.

“What!” Taka demanded. “You are out of line, merch—”

“Taka,” Kyo said, voice cold. Taka felt as though he had been slapped; Kyo never used his ‘royal voice’ on him. Hurt, Taka fell silent.

Kyo would never sign over his contract. They had grown up in the palace together after they had met at the age of ten. Taka had worked hard to join the secretarial pool, and only days after he had made it, Kyo had taken him as his only private secretary. The king and queen had six secretaries apiece, Prince Taiheiyou had four, and even Princess Umiko had three. But Kyo had only ever had him. He wouldn’t.

“Why do you want Takara?” Kyo asked, looming over the desk while Raiden reclined in his seat.

“I told you, Highness. My only interest is in treasures, and if you are taking my finest ship and my finest captain, I do not see why I should not have your finest secretary in return.”

Taka shook with anger when Kyo laughed. “A fair point, merchant. Very well, I—”

“You can’t!” Taka burst out. “Kyo, why—”

“If you cannot be silent, Taka, wait outside.”

Taka lapsed into silence, biting back everything he wanted to say—but only barely. He had never thought that Kyo would betray him. One of Kyo’s greatest assets was his loyalty; Taka had never had to fear, as so many contracted palace workers did, that his contract would be handed off to another noble or royal upon a whim. He had always been able to rest easy knowing Kyo would never treat him so callously.

He didn’t know what to think, to be proven so horribly wrong. Why would Kyo do this to him? Taka felt numb as he listened to them work out the details. The jewels would be delivered upon the arrival of the ship, at which time the formal contract would be signed. His own contract would be officially handed over to Raiden on the day they boarded and left Kundou.

Relief flitted through him briefly that he would be going with Kyo, after all. He had worried that he would not be able to work out how to follow Kyo wherever he was going. Then again, Kyo was a backstabbing bastard—

Except he wasn’t. Taka frowned at that. It wasn’t like Kyo to just throw away the contract of his only friend, even if that friend was technically only a servant.

He was jerked from his thoughts by the sound of a chair scraping against the floor and looked up with a scowl as Raiden approached him. “Master Noumi,” Raiden said and sketched him a bow, the silver and gold of his robes and scarf catching the light, the ends of his hair spilling over his shoulders like dark ink.

Handsome, flashy, arrogant—everything Taka hated. He bowed stiffly. “Master Raiden.”

“I look forward to furthering our acquaintance,” Raiden murmured and reached out, lightly touching Taka’s cheek before he could jerk away. Turning to Kyo, Raiden bowed again. “Your Highness. Would you care for an escort on your walk home?”

Kyo shook his head. “No. Better my secretary give me a tongue lashing without an audience—they only encourage him. Good night, Master Raiden. A pleasure doing business.”

“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you, Highness,” Raiden said, smiling in a way that made Taka nervous, though he could say why.

He did not wait for whatever Raiden might have said to him in parting, merely turned and wended his way back through the warehouse. He shivered in the cold air while he waited irritably for Kyo to rejoin him.

When Kyo finally appeared, Taka did not wait for him to speak, simply resumed walking. They walked in silence for several minutes before he finally could no longer take it and lost his temper. “Why would you do this to me? Just—throw me to some merchant? I don’t understand—”

“Exactly,” Kyo cut in. “You don’t understand.”

Taka fell silent and just stared at Kyo, realizing belatedly they had both failed to restore their hoods. He reached out automatically to take the fold of fabric around Kyo’s shoulders and wind it up around his head. Kyo grabbed his hands before he could withdraw them, face invisible between the dark and the hood. “Taka, you have to trust me.”

“I’d be happier if you told me what you are doing.”

“If I told you, you’d try to stop me, and I can’t have that,” Kyo said, squeezing his hands tightly. “I would never betray you, Taka. I believe you’ll be safe with Raiden, and that’s all I want. All right?” He let go of Taka’s hands to restore Taka’s hood, then flicked his nose.

Taka jerked back and swatted at him. “Stop that.”

Kyo laughed. “Anyway, Taka, you could do much worse than Raiden. He will keep you busy; he likes to collect jewels, and I would be willing to bet he’d be more than happy to let you wear them whenever—”

“Only if I let him fuck me,” Taka said scathingly. “I am not my peers to trade tokens for sex, I do not care how fashionable or common it is.”

“Your finest quality.”

Taka rolled his eyes as they resumed walking. “For all the good it does me when the entire palace and half the population is convinced we are sleeping together.”

“I get enough of your demands out of bed, I certainly do not want them following me into bed,” Kyo replied, smiling in that playful way he only did when there was no one else around. It made Taka sad to think no one else ever saw Kyo’s playful side.

“Don’t think I’m done being mad at you,” Taka said. “You had no business just throwing my contract at a merchant; I do not care what the law says.”

Kyo sighed softly, a sound Taka hated to hear because it meant there were problems that Kyo would not share. By the Storms, he hated Kyo’s stubborn refusal to ever let someone else help him. “You don’t have to do everything alone, Kyo. Just tell me what is going on.”

“I am afraid, my friend, that I do have to do this alone. But look on the bright side, Taka: now that you belong to the handsome merchant, you will get to come along. Now hurry up, before the first morning bells ring. I have enough to contend with today where my father is concerned. I do not need another lecture on being out past curfew.”

Heaving a long, loud sigh, Taka nevertheless quickened his pace as they headed back to the palace.

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