The imperial princess Tomoyo was the younger of two children and younger also by such a number of years as to almost make her the child even of her older brother. She grew up petted but escaped being spoiled, was so small that she was thought delicate, and comported herself so quietly and properly that she was viewed as having been born naturally good, and shy, and sweet.

Kurogane knew better.

Tomoyo was worthy and more than worthy of being his sister. She chose her frills and laces as seriously as he inspected his armor and with the same purpose; to gird herself well for battle. Her dancing and drawing lessons were as his lessons in sword-fighting and horsemanship. She mastered the art of smiling and staying silent when she might have spoken, with just the right tilt to her head to indicate she was shy and struggling not to appear so. And Kurogane watched her at this and learned the proper amount of hesitation to put into his form to lure an opponent into striking first.

And what Tomoyo had that Kurogane did not and could not learn was a wise, waiting watchfulness. The heir to the empire quickly scanned his battlefields, made decisions, and rode forth. His little sister bided her time.

She watched him, too, not just the people about court and the servants and visiting dignitaries. At first it was with nothing more than the innocent adoration of a child for their older sibling who has not the authority of a parent but still is taller and stronger and faster in all things. And then later, with clearer vision yet no less admiration. And then later still, with many, many different looks. She never lost her look of love for him, her brother who carried her around with grudging grumbles but careful hands, her brother who scolded her sometimes but never berated her before their parents. But she added to her look of love; sparks of wicked mischief hidden from all other eyes behind her fan, gentle sorrow and flashes of pity quickly smoothed over when they were alone, and a strange, speculative stare now and again from across a crowded room.

She knew about Fai before even he did, he was sure. She foresaw the friendship between the princes while they were yet bickering, perhaps even hoped for and encouraged their love while they were yet circling each other warily at tourneys and festivals and feasts. And when she decided to give her hand in marriage to the crown prince of neighboring Valeria, it was Kurogane she told first.

"I shall marry the eldest prince of Valeria," Tomoyo announced, pursing her lips in dissatisfaction at the folds of her skirts as she settled herself into a chair near the center of her brother's study. While she arranged her gown to her liking, Kurogane smoothed out his brow and pulled some imaginary wrinkles from his tunic as an excuse to unclench his fists, and by the time she looked up, he was passably calm. He knew she did not love Fai, certainly not as he himself did, and waited for the explanation that she had obviously come to give.

"The political advantages are plain to be seen," she said, meeting his gaze steadily. "Joining our families will be as great a security for a long-lasting peace as any but the gods could promise. And as for personal advantage, he is as well-looking as any man I have ever yet seen and with manners nearly as pretty. I shall have my own maid with me to look after my comfort, and with regular visits from my brother to assure my family of my well-doing, I feel confident that it will be a happy marriage."

And then after a pause, letting this pleasant picture she was painting settle into his thoughts, she nodded her head in deference to him and asked,

"Don't you agree?"

He frowned as he forced himself to consider her words, unable to mask his displeasure despite knowing already that it was the right path, the best outcome. Heir to an empire he might be, with countless wealth and power unrivaled by any save for his parents, but he had to bear the responsibility of putting his people's security before his own happiness. He and Tomoyo - and Fai and Yuui - were born to rule, and therefore to sacrifice for those they ruled over. They would marry advantageously, needed to sire and bear enough children to secure the next generation, and spent their lives working toward passing on the honor and burden of the crown.

The imperial princess of Suwa would be given in marriage to the crown prince of Valeria. The families, already friendly and tied together in trade, would be blood- and honor-bound allies. Someday the Suwa-born princess would ascend the royal throne of Valeria and rule by her husband's side. Kurogane himself would likely take a noblewoman from Valeria to be his bride, to further secure the relationship between the two largest powers in the land. Even now there were hardly any who dared to oppose the Suwa Empire or the Kingdom of Valeria, but combined, the families would be unassailable. They would have peace.

And Kurogane would have Fai. Not as he wished, but as much as was possible. His little sister would be far from home and bereft of all who had made up her comfort all her life but for her personal maid; this was excuse enough for him to visit her often. He could invent more hunts and private dinners to invite Fai to as well, giving as his reason that he wished to know better the man upon whom his sister's happiness depended. (He knew him better than anyone already, save perhaps Yuui. But that was knowledge no one held, save again perhaps Yuui.) He could even be long in choosing his wife from among the Valerian court, visiting often, consulting with the princes even, stretching out his decision for years.

It would be frustrating, lonely, bitter. The brief embraces they could share would only make all the other nights colder. But it was the best they could have.

Tomoyo knew it, had thought through it and planned it and tested it soundly, and now only needed him to agree to it.

He took a deep breath, relaxed hands that he didn't recall clenching around the armrests of his chair, forced himself to envision the ceremony as a final test of his resolve. His sister, resplendent in white brocade and cascades of flowers and gemstones, stepping away from her family with one last small smile before giving her hand to her betrothed. Fai, bright hair, bright eyes, bright smile, elegant and perfect and casting just one quick glance at him with his heart in his eyes.

"I do."