Snow was falling on the palace of the gods. Kinshiro nestled more comfortably under the blankets, savoring the warmth and comfort of the room. A fire was burning low in the fireplace, and Atsushi had his arms around his husband's waist, his breath a gentle caress against Kinshiro's neck.

"Do we really have to go to a party tonight?" asked Kinshiro, without much hope.

"We really do," said Atsushi.

Kinshiro sighed. He was supposed to be the god of order and justice - absolutely incorruptible, immune to all forms of flattery, bribery, and persuasion. He should not have been moved by his husband's gentle prompting, so why was it that all it took was for Atsushi to smile at him for him to knuckle under? It really wasn't fair.

The party was for the Winter Solstice. Among humanity, it was traditional for the longest night of the year to be celebrated by an all-night party. Everyone would spend the hours from sundown to sunrise feasting, dancing, telling stories, playing games, and exchanging gifts with their friends and neighbors. As below, so above: tonight the gods would be celebrating and gift-giving as well. It was also traditional, at least among humankind, to take a long nap in the afternoon, to make sure they would have the stamina for an all-night party. With most of humanity asleep, the gods usually took a well-deserved rest as well. Traditionalist that he was, Kinshiro had lain down for a nap himself, but snuggling up to his husband on Atsushi's warm, soft bed had somehow ended up resulting in something other than sleep. The thought of interrupting this rare span of time with his beloved didn't please him.

"We don't have to," he said. "It's only a party. They don't need us."

"They'll miss us, though," Atsushi said persuasively. "Come on. You only think you don't like parties. You always wind up having a good time once you get there. Besides, how are you going to get your presents if you don't go?"

"They can bring my presents here if they want to. They've done it before," said Kinshiro.

He felt the vibration of Atsushi's chuckle. "Is that what you want?"

Kinshiro did not answer, but he did think about it seriously. If he went to the party tonight, then tomorrow would be a holiday, absolutely free of responsibility. He could spend it relaxing in front of a roaring fire, tucked up under a warm blanket with Atsushi at his side, sipping warm drinks, eating their way through the boxes of treats their friends would have given them, and generally taking advantage of having a day with no responsibilities. If he didn't go to this party, though, his friends would be turning up on his doorstep all day long to drop off their gifts, and he'd be spending his holiday answering the door instead of enjoying one of his few days off.

"Besides," said Atsushi, "this is Arima's first Solstice with us. He'll be disappointed if you don't even bother to show up. You don't want to disappoint him, do you?"

"I suppose not," said Kinshiro.

"I knew you wouldn't," said Atsushi, with so much genuine warmth that Kinshiro couldn't manage to be annoyed with him. Atsushi propped himself up enough that he could place a quick peck on his cheek. "Now, shoo. I want to get dressed."

He slid out of the bed, and Kinshiro shifted to take advantage of the warm patch he'd left behind. He watched as Atsushi crossed the room to pull on the clothes he'd selected to wear to the party. It was not unlike watching a sunset: pleasing to look at, but the end result was somewhat less spectacular than the process.

Dear Atsushi. Did he have any idea how much his presence in Kinshiro's life had changed things? No, probably not, and even if someone told him, he probably wouldn't believe it. Before he'd come along, Winter Solstice and the first day of the year had been only another day, different from any other only in that Kinshiro could get some work done in peace and quiet. He hadn't spent much time going to parties. Then he'd gotten married, and it had seemed absurd and unfair to ask Atsushi to stay home when a party was going on, particularly when it would be the first time Atsushi had ever even had the opportunity to go to a Solstice party in the Heavenly City. It had seemed equally unkind to make him go alone, so they had gone together. Then, of course, the next year, Atsushi had seen no reason not to go again. That had been decades ago, and they hadn't missed a single one since. Kinshiro felt a sense of resignation come over him as he thought about it. It wasn't like him to change a habit on a whim, once he'd established it.

With some reluctance, he crawled out of his warm bed and went to pull on his own party clothes. Behind him, he heard Atsushi calling words of encouragement. He smiled a little. Maybe Atsushi was right, after all. He might have fun at a party. How often did he just sit down to enjoy himself with his friends? He had few enough of them; he supposed it behooved him to take some time to appreciate them once in a while.

By the time those friends came knocking on his door, he had managed to almost convince himself that this had been all his own idea.

"I'll get it!" Atsushi called, hurrying to open the door. Kinshiro hastily fastened his belt and tugged his collar a little straighter. He didn't want to make a bad impression on his guests, particularly when one of those guests was likely to be the god of beauty himself. In light of the occasion, Kinshiro had eschewed his usual sober garb for something a little more festive - robes of the sort the other gods tended to favor, deep black but spangled with gold trim and ornaments, with a few pieces of simple gold jewelry. Satisfied with his reflection, he went to greet his guests.

Unsurprisingly, Atsushi was making them all feel at home. His original designation had been the god of mercy, but as his power set had developed he'd found a secondary niche for himself as the god of hospitality. Now he was in the process of welcoming his various friends into the room and gathering up the gifts they'd brought with them. Foremost among these guests was their old friend Arima, newly come to the Heavenly City. This would be his first Solstice among them, and he seemed excited, in his own quiet way, to be part of the festivities. Accompanying him were a lively trio - Ryuu, Io, and Akoya, all clearly excited to be together. Akoya was, among other things, the god of spring, which meant that his powers tended to wax and wane throughout the year. Starting sometime around the vernal equinox, he began growing weak and drowsy, and spent most of the time he wasn't working hiding in the underworld, dozing in front of a fire and refusing to venture forth unless it was absolutely necessary. Tonight, though, would be the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one, and that gave him a resurgence of energy. Now he was energized and prepared to celebrate with the rest of them.

"There you are," said Ryuu, flashing Kinshiro a grin. "I didn't think you were the type to be fashionably late."

Atsushi smiled. "Blame it on me for distracting him. Anyway, tonight is a night for all of us to relax, right? It's okay for even him to be late, once in a while."

"Speaking of late," said Arima, "where is Cerulean? I expected him to join us."

"Oh, he's never here on Solstice," said Ryuu casually. "Tonight's his night off."

Arima looked amused. "Isn't every night his night off?"

"If he could get away with it, it would be," said Io, "but tonight is his particular night off."

"I don't quite understand," said Arima. "Let me in on the joke."

Atsushi took pity on him. "Well, think about it. The tradition is that everyone stays up all night to wait for the morning of the new year, right? And that means everyone sleeps all afternoon. So the other tradition is that your dreams that afternoon are harbingers of your year to come. That means everyone expects to have a portentous dream today, and the person responsible for all those dreams is..."

"Ah! Say no more," said Arima, his face clearing. "So Cerulean was actually expected to put in a full day's work today, and now he is exhausted."

"You got it!" said Ryuu. "So he's taking the night off. He'll be around tomorrow to collect his presents and groan about how overworked he is."

"He isn't the only one," Io remarked. "There's always so much more work in winter. People freeze, people's houses catch fire, people run out of food, people get sick..."

Akoya laid a hand on his shoulder. "It will be spring soon, I promise."

"The sooner, the better!" said Ryuu fervently. Once the weather began to warm up again, Akoya would leave the underworld behind for a while and move back into his quarters in the Palace of the Gods - quarters that were conveniently connected to Ryuu's.

"Well, that's what we're celebrating tonight, right? That spring is coming?" said Atsushi. "Come on, let's go before people start wondering where we are."

Kinshiro had to smile a little. All these years, and Atsushi could still get excited over something like this.

"Yes, let's go," he said. "The sooner we put in an appearance, the sooner we can leave."

They started walking towards the feast hall in a chattering, laughing group. Ryuu, Io, and Akoya had a lot of catching up to do after their long separation, Arima was visibly excited at experiencing a new celebration from the divine perspective, and Atsushi was just happy to be among his friends and on his way to a party. Everyone was in such high spirits that Kinshiro found himself relaxing in spite of himself. Atsushi was right, as usual. He was probably going to have fun.

"Hey," said Atsushi suddenly, "can we take a detour? I just remembered, I left your present in En's room where you wouldn't find it."

Kinshiro was mildly offended. "You know I wouldn't peek at a present before it was time to open it."

"I know, I know!" said Atsushi, laughing, "but it's the principle of the thing. Besides, this way I wasn't tempted to cave in and show you early."

Kinshiro allowed himself to be mollified. If there was something Atsushi was really excited about, he probably would have succumbed to temptation to show it off.

"All right," he said, "but make it quick. If he can't be bothered to come to the party, he can't be bothered to socialize all night."

"I don't think you need to worry," said Atsushi, smiling. "He probably won't even come to the door. He said something about spending the evening in the bathtub, contemplating the secrets of the universe."

Ryuu laughed. "That definitely sounds like an En sort of thing to do."

They reached the door to En's room, and Atsushi knocked briskly on it before opening it.

"Hey, En?" he called. "It's me. I'm just going to come pick up that box..."

He took a few steps into the dimly lit room. Everyone else clustered around to peer through the doorway. Other than Atsushi's presence, there was no sign of movement or life anywhere. Atsushi took a few cautious steps, gradually fading into the darkness. Kinshiro waited, feeling vaguely uneasy. What was he worrying about? It wasn't as though Atsushi had anything to fear from En. The two of them had become good friends even before Atsushi had ascended to godhood. It wasn't as though there was anything En could do to hurt anybody. His primary skill was making people fall asleep, and that was no danger at all in a room where virtually everything was designed to be used by a man who might decide to lie down for a nap at any time, anywhere. Still, it was unlike En not to answer when Atsushi called him...

A moment later, Atsushi came out of the room, carrying a box and looking vaguely puzzled.

"Is everything all right?" Kinshiro asked.

"I don't know," said Atsushi. "En isn't here."

It was the coldest, darkest, longest night of the year, and no one should have been out in it. Nevertheless, a lone figure trudged wearily through the forest. He was hardly dressed for the weather. He wore only sandals on his feet, and his only coverings were a loose shirt and trousers covered by a light robe. The path he followed was little more than a game trail, a winding ribbon of white snow in the black forest, occasionally crossed by animal tracks. A lean gray wolf watched from the shadows, eyes glinting as it watched the man pass. Other than that, he saw no sign of life, only the dark, looming pine trees and the occasional patch of brush. The only sounds were the crunch of his own footsteps and the occasions swish and patter of snow sliding off a branch. As he passed beneath one such branch, a small avalanche sluiced down to spatter on his head and shoulders. He made a noise of frustration.

"Every... year!" he ground out. "Every...single...year. Why can't they settle somewhere civilized, for once?"

En brushed at the snow, trying to shake it off. Melting snow trickled down his neck and under his clothes. He scowled. The cold may not have been able to actually harm him - he could have danced naked in a blizzard at the north pole without taking any damage except to his pride, but that didn't mean he liked being cold and wet. He liked it even less when he knew it was all preventable.

Still, there was hope. Just up ahead, he could see a faint glimmer that didn't look like moon or starlight. With a sigh of relief, he picked up his pace, moving at a jog that would have astonished his friends, who had never seen him moving at anything faster than an amble. He forced his way past overhanging branches, collecting more snow in the process, but now his goal was in sight. In a little clearing just up ahead, there stood a spacious building. It looked very old, because it was. It also looked well-cared for and well-loved, which was also true. The windows were brightly lit, and a banner over the door announced to anyone who might be passing through a thick forest on a snowy winter's night that this was the Kurotama Bathhouse.

"Finally," said En, with a sigh of relief.

He broke out of the forest and into the clearing, then paused long enough to make an effort at pulling himself together. He didn't usually worry much about his appearance, but there were times when some respect was called for. He fumbled around in the dark for a bit, brushing pine needles off his soggy clothing and trying to smooth his hair into some sort of order before giving it up as a futile task. If the lords of all creation wanted to live in a bathhouse, they would just have to put up with a few a few visitors who needed a bath. En marched up the stairs and went in.

He was immediately met by a blast of welcome warmth. The moist heat of the hot spring mingled with the warmth radiated by the braziers set around the perimeter of the changing area, so that any customers who wandered by wouldn't freeze while they were removing their clothes and preparing to get into the bath. Sprawled on the floor in front of one of these, warming his furry belly, was a chubby pink creature. En smiled and bent to pat him.

"Hiya, Wombat," he said. "How's life?"

Wombat stirred from his doze. "Hmm? Oh, it's you again. Go on back - the other two are waiting for you."

"Thanks," said En, smiling a little. He could appreciate the desire to nap by the fire on a night like tonight. "Guess I'd better get back there, then. Sorry I can't stay and chat."

"Another time," Wombat said, and turned over to warm his back.

En ambled towards the back of the building, mulling over the mystery that was the Wombat. He was one of the oldest creatures in the universe, older than En, older even than Aurite. He'd been around since the dawn of creation. En didn't envy him for it. An eternity of being cuddled by Chance was hard to contemplate. Fate had mentioned, once, that there was a land far away with its own pantheon and its own gods, where there were many other such furry creatures, even if they weren't pink. En sometimes wondered if in that country, Wombat was a sort of god himself, ruling over the lesser wombats, but he'd never bothered to ask. There weren't a lot of mysteries in the life of a god, and En wasn't about to ruin one of the few he had.

At the back of the building stood the tubs of steaming water, awaiting any patrons who wanted a nice long soak. That was how it was most of the year. Sometimes there would even be customers there, when Chance and Fate were feeling sociable and wanted to play at being normal bathhouse owners. Tonight, though, there was no one there but the proprietors themselves, and all the tubs save one had been drained. Gora sat on the edge of the tub, peering thoughtfully into the water, while Yumoto paced the floor with the air of someone awaiting a treat. He was the first to look up and notice En. He beamed.

"Hey, you made it!" he enthused, bounding over to his side.

"I make it every year, don't I?" En replied. "Even when you guys decide to hide out in the middle of nowhere."

Gora looked up and smiled. "You know we have to do it. At least we made an exception for you so you can find us when you need to."

"And I'm grateful for anything that saves me the effort," said En fervently. The last thing he wanted was to spend weeks trudging around in the snow trying to figure out where the bathhouse had moved to this time.

Gora grinned. "So, ready for your bath?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," En agreed.

Gora slid off the edge of the bath and held out his hand to accept En's robe. "Water's waiting for you, then."

En nodded and began shedding his clothing. The water in the tub splashed gently as he approached it, spinning slowly under its own power. Was it even water? En was never really sure. Maybe it was something else, some primordial soup that could only be found in a place like this. It was dark as the night sky and swirled with starry lights, and En had never quite been able to decide if it was scalding hot or freezing cold. Still, if he wanted to keep doing what he did for another year, he was going to have to get in. He dipped a toe in and grimaced.

"This never gets any easier," he muttered.

"That's the price you pay for getting to sleep the rest of the year," said Gora good-humoredly. "Go on. We'll have dinner and a warm fire waiting for you when you get back."

"I'll hold you to it," said En, and plunged beneath the surface.

In the beginning, there was Chaos - no thought, no form, only purposeless creation and unchecked destruction. Whole galaxies came into being and winked out again in an instant. The universe seethed and churned without plan or purpose.

Then, out of this chaos came something living. Other living things had been created before, but none of them had lasted more than a few seconds in their constantly changing environment. This one, however, always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to avoid being destroyed. He lived long enough to become aware of himself as a self, something separate from the rest of the whirling universe. He gave himself a name, and the name he chose was Yumoto.

For a while, Yumoto simply amused himself by wandering around the universe, hopping from one patch of unstable ground to the next. Here and there, he paused to let a comet pass by on its way to oblivion, or watch a mountain suddenly rise up out of the sea and explode into a flock of birds. He was just pausing by the side of a paper river, watching a flock of square circles tumble by, when something new caught his attention. A short distance down the river, picking its way nervously over the unstable landscape, was a furry four-footed beast. Yumoto stared at it, fascinated. He'd never seen anything so fluffy and pink before. With a cry of delight, he sprinted towards the creature and tackled it, burying his face in its warm fur. The creature squirmed and tried to escape, but Yumoto barely noticed. This was the most wonderful thing that had happened to him in all his short existence, and he was in transports of joy.

And at that moment, the Chaos... stopped.

No one in the universe had ever been happy before. No one had ever survived long enough to be happy. Now Chaos paused to watch Yumoto cuddling his new friend, and the smile on his face was enough to inspire strange new thoughts in something that had never had thoughts before. What the Chaos thought was, This can't be destroyed. Everything else may go, but this must remain.

In that moment, the universe changed forever. In the beginning, there had been only Chaos. In that instant, Chaos become something new: it became Fate.

En emerged from the water that wasn't quite water with a gasp. He was shivering all over, and for a moment, he couldn't make his eyes focus on his surroundings. Underneath that strange liquid, he had forgotten that he had a body, slipping back into that state of pure energy and potential that was the true nature of all gods. It was hard to remember how to see things from a limited point of view again, hard to remember that he needed to move his arms and legs if he wanted to get anywhere. He was still flailing about blindly when Yumoto and Gora reached for him and helped to drag him out of the tub. While Gora helped to steady him on his feet, Yumoto fetched a robe that had been warming in front of the fire and began tucking it around him.

"Thanks," said En. "That was really not fun."

"But it works," said Gora. "You're all set for the next year."

"I had better be," En muttered, "or this was a wasted trip."

Yumoto patted him reassuringly on the back. "It's all over now. And now we can have dinner!"

Gora smiled. "The moment we've all been waiting for. You go ahead and take En to the kitchen, and I'll drain the tub."

"Why can't I ever drain the tub?" Yumoto asked. "You never let me help."

"It's something only I can do," said Gora gently. "Go on. This won't take long."

He made a shooing motion. Yumoto, never one to be bad-tempered for long, seized on En's hand and began dragging him towards the kitchen.

"Come on!" he said. "We made sure to get all your favorites. There's curry and onsen manju and rice cakes and..."

He prattled on happily, but En wasn't listening particularly. He had glanced back over his shoulder to watch Gora leaning over the tub to begin draining whatever starry substance it contained. At moments like this, fresh out of his ritual bath, that he had the sense that he almost understood it all - everything from the reason why gods existed at all on down to why Chance and Fate had decided to set up shop in a bathhouse. Then Yumoto tugged his arm again, and he let those thoughts slide away in favor of concentrating on the lovely smells coming from the direction of the kitchen. The nice thing about being friendly with the man who'd created the universe was that he'd also created food, and he knew what it was supposed to taste like. Even the most humble dishes tasted divine if Gora made them. Deep thoughts could wait for another day. For now, En had done his duty and he didn't have to undergo any more uncomfortable rituals for another year. As far as he was concerned, that was something to celebrate.

Pineridge had never been much of a kingdom. It was little more than a narrow little strip of land, wedged between a river and a the mountains that gave it its name. The ground was too thin and rocky for very much farming, and the trees that grew there were mainly crooked scrub pines with soft, knotty wood. There was a little bit of mining, a little bit of trapping, a little bit of trade along the riverbank, but nothing much that would make a person want to spend much time there.

Unless, perhaps, you happened to be a wizard. Kou Kinosaki believed that there was a lot of potential in Pineridge, if he came at it the right way. He'd come into his gifts at an early age, and had worked out fairly quickly that the best place for a young and rather unprepossessing wizard was someplace out of the way where there was no competition, and where, more importantly, no one was really going to take him seriously. As soon as he'd gotten himself certified as a genuine magical practitioner, he'd set out for Pineridge and the royal palace, where he'd promptly pulled a few rabbits out of hats and turned a few handkerchiefs into doves and gotten himself appointed Royal Wizard to the Crown.

They did have a crown in Pineridge. It was only gold plate over copper, and the gems were only garnets rather than the rubies they pretended to be, but it was still a crown. It belonged to the king, a tall, bony man with a long nose and drooping eyelids who spent most of his time dozing on his throne waiting for something to happen. He'd been rather pleased to have a magician turn up to amuse him with a few tricks once in a while. He had several children and several more grandchildren, all of whom got along with each other reasonably well. There wasn't much competition for who would inherit the throne - most of them were determined to marry outside the kingdom and set up housekeeping anywhere that wasn't as deathly dull as Pineridge. It was generally agreed, with greater or lesser degrees of acceptance, that sooner or later someone would marry into the family of one of the neighboring kingdoms, and Pineridge would be quietly absorbed into someone else's holdings. Within a generation or two, it probably wouldn't be anything but a memory.

Unless, of course, Kou had something to say about it.

Now he moved slowly through the castle's main hall, using his magic to raise garlands to their hooks high on the walls and light a few extra lanterns that hung from the ceiling beams. Hanging up decorations was the sort of thing the helpful, jolly wizard he tried to be would do. He had to admit, the overall effect was rather pleasing.

Someday, when I'm in charge, I will have to think about having some more decorations brought in to hang all year 'round. This place is really quite attractive, when cleaned up properly.

Still, that could wait a little longer. He had made up his mind that he wasn't going to make his move until after Winter Solstice. A few more hours wasn't too long to wait.

"Hey, there you are!" called a voice. "I've been looking all over for you."

Kou turned and flashed a smile at the lanky young man who was ambling towards him. Tazawa was the youngest son of the youngest son of the king, which put him dead last when it came to being in line for the throne. Naturally, Kou had attached himself to the young man. People would be suspicious if he had suddenly become the close confidant to the putative heir, but people were less suspicious about him hanging around with someone who stood practically no chance of ever assuming a position of power. Besides, the two of them were of roughly the same age in a court where there were not a lot of young people around, so it was natural for them to gravitate towards each other. Actually, as it turned out, Kou had ended up genuinely liking him. Tazawa was a quiet, soft-spoken man who watched a great deal and said very little, and was probably more intelligent than he acted. He felt awkward and out of place among his rough-and-tumble siblings, and tended to be overlooked in the general hustle and bustle. Kou could empathize.

"Just making myself useful," he said brightly.

"Can I help?" Tazawa asked.

Kou nodded towards a pile of pine boughs - never in short supply around here. "You can tie some more of those together for centerpieces." He gestured at a few nearby tables that had already been decorated with wreaths of pine and holly berries. "I have to hang up the garlands."

"You could make better garlands," Tazawa remarked, obligingly picking up a ball of string and starting towards the wreath material.

"I could," Kou agreed, "but I'm saving all my energy for the party tonight. Your grandfather wants fireworks, and I intend to outdo myself."

Tazawa didn't say anything - he rarely did, when nothing needed to be said - but he did smile widely. He was immensely fond of fireworks.

The two of them worked side by side for some time, Kou chattering to his friend about what had been going on in the court that day, Tazawa a silent and attentive listener. By the time the bell rang to remind everyone it was time for a break, every table had its centerpiece and every wall and roof beam was strung with yards of garland and ribbon. The whole room smelled of fir and balsam.

"We've done good work," Kou said, as the two of them left the hall. They made their way through a smaller corridor, dodging around various servants trying to finish the last little bits of work for the day, and made their way towards their rooms. Tazawa had originally had a room in another part of the castle, but Kou had enough pull in court that he'd been able to insinuate that even a lesser prince deserved better than to bunk down with the common soldiers, and so he'd been moved into the suite next to Kou's own rooms. Before the sun had gone down that day, Kou had put in a hidden door behind his bookcase, so the two of them could visit whenever they pleased. It was a neat arrangement.

Kou walked Tazawa to his door and left him with a sunny smile and a "Sleep well. I'll see you at the party."

Then he ducked into his own rooms. For a moment, the sight that greeted his eyes was that of an austere cell: a narrow bed with a gray blanket thrown over it, a desk covered in papers, a single wooden shelf full of arcane books, a dusty crystal ball, a stuffed alligator hanging from hooks on the ceiling. The only decoration on the walls was a faded star chart, the only floor covering a few chalked diagrams. It was, in short, what people expected to see in the room of a minor wizard in a cash-poor kingdom. Only Kou and Tazawa ever saw more than that. Kou smiled and waved a hand, banishing the illusion.

Instantly, the whole room shifted. Now the bed was a handsome canopy bed hung with green velvet curtains. The desk became larger and more polished, fitted out with convenient drawers and cubbyholes for all his papers and equipment. The shelves multiplied, spanning most of two walls, all of them stuffed with books, crystals, and various arcane instruments. The floor was covered with several soft rugs patterned with green and gold ivy trellises. The alligator disappeared entirely. Who had ever needed a stuffed alligator for anything?

Kou smiled, pleased as always with the effect. Really, what was the point of having magical power if you weren't going to use it to make yourself comfortable? But for some reason, people assumed that an austere wizard was one who took his work seriously, but a wealthy one had to be a dilettante. It never seemed to occur to them that a wizard who wasn't wealthy was probably that way because he wasn't succeeding in his chosen profession.

But not me, Kou thought smugly. I have everything under control.

With those comforting thoughts, he settled himself on his bed and closed his eyes for a nap.

The future... it was easy to dream of the future. He spent most of his time thinking about it, planning for it, working out every detail. He'd actually been looking forward to today, so he could get some confirmation of what he'd been hoping for, or else perhaps receive a warning of something he needed to prepare for. Either way, he felt that a glimpse of his future could only be productive. He was hardly surprised when he found himself dreaming of the castle's great hall, looking just as he'd always imagined it would be when he finally had the power to arrange it the way he wanted it. He was even more pleased when he saw who was seated in the throne: lowly prince Tazawa, now raised to the height of king - with Kou sitting right beside him on a smaller, plainer chair, the real power behind the throne. He was sipping something from a golden goblet as a courtier spoke to him with head deferentially bowed. Even in his sleep, Kou could hardly contain his glee. Everything was just as he had imagined it would be.

Then the scene shifted. Where there had been sunlight before, there was now a dark sky lit only by the distant glow of fires. The great hall was looking a bit threadbare now, as if no one had been able to take care of it for some time. Kou, too, was looking threadbare. There were bags under his eyes, as if he hadn't been sleeping, and his face had a pinched look that suggested that food hadn't been high on his list of priorities lately either. Tazawa stood before him in battered armor, one arm in a bloodstained sling.

"We can't hold them off anymore," he was saying. "Can't you do something?"

"I've tried! Nothing works!" Kou snapped.

"But you must be able to think of something. You always think of something," said Tazawa. His tone was pleading. There seemed to be no doubt in his mind that if he just asked persuasively enough, Kou would make all the problems go away. Kou knew that was wrong. He was not the sort to put himself through any unnecessary pain. If things were this bad, they were out of his power to fix.

Before he could say as much, a soldier barged into the room, panting heavily.

"Sir," he croaked, "the invaders have broken through our last defenses. We did everything we could."

"I... I see," said Kou, his voice shaking slightly. He stood up. "In that case, there's something I need to do."

With that, he turned and walked stiffly out of the room, with Tazawa scampering after him, demanding to know what his wizard was planning on doing. Poor man, he seemed to think that Kou was about to make some last-ditch effort. The real Kou, the one who was watching all this happen in his dream, knew better. He's seen the look in his own eyes and knew that he'd never surrender or let himself get caught. Either he was getting ready to send himself to the other side of the world and leave all this behind, or, if he couldn't manage to escape... well, he wouldn't let them humiliate him. He'd never been a brave man. One way or another, he would find a way to elude their justice, even if he had to take matters into his own hands...

Kou woke with a gasp and sat up in bed panting. His clothes were damp with sweat, and his pulse still pounded. For a moment, he could have sworn he smelled the smoke of distant fires and heard the clash of swords against armor. In those few seconds, it was all he could do not to race out of his room and flee before the terror caught up to him.

Then he closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath. The smell of smoke resolved itself into the scents from the cooking fires downstairs, and the clanging of weapons into the more domestic clatter of pots and pans. The kitchen staff had awakened from their afternoon naps and were now hard at work on that night's dinner preparations. Kou continued taking deep breaths of reassuring cooking smells until his heart rate was back to something almost like normal.

It was only a dream, he told himself, but he couldn't make himself believe it. Any other day, a dream might just be a dream, but not on Solstice. These dreams were decreed by Fate and delivered by Cerulean himself, and they could no more be altered than the course of the sun or the movements of the stars. If his dream said that his attempt to rule the kingdom would end in death and ruin, then that was how it was fated to be.

I don't want to die...

But he didn't want to give up his plan, either. He'd worked too hard to just turn around and walk away now. Besides, Tazawa was counting on him. What was the poor guy going to do without Kou to guide him? He'd never make it on his own.

"There has to be another way," he told himself, staring thoughtfully up at the ceiling. "Even Fate has to have some room for compromise somewhere..."

When Tazawa came to wake him a few minutes later, he was already up and rummaging through his library, pulling out book after book and riffling through their indexes.

"Uh... are you okay?" Tazawa asked. "You really need to stop. It's almost time for dinner..."

"Never mind that now!" Kou snapped. "I have research to do!"