Crown Prince Kinshiro had been sitting and drinking tea when he learned the king was dead. He put down his cup and stared at the messenger, trying to control his reaction.
"I see," he said, after a moment's pause. He tried to school his expression into something, if not properly mournful, then at least neutral. "Is there something I should be doing? Do they need me for anything?"
The messenger looked slightly nonplused, but he made a visible effort to collect himself and said, "Not at the moment, no, but your great-uncle did suggest that you might want to think about making a visit of state, or at least send a coronation gift."
Kinshiro blinked. "Wait. When you said 'the king is dead', which king were you talking about?"
The messenger blushed, obviously realizing too late that he had not been nearly specific enough. "His majesty the king of Golden Springs. The coronation of the new king will be in two weeks."
Kinshiro was perfectly still for several seconds, not even so much as breathing.
"I... see," he said, in his most carefully controlled tones. "Thank you for informing me. Tell my great-uncle that I will of course begin planning a proper welcome for him at once."
The messenger took this as the dismissal that it was and scampered off. Kinshiro waited until he was certain that the man was well out of earshot. Only then did he pick up his teacup and hurl it at the wall.
It would have been hard to find two kingdoms whose relationship with each other was more peaceable than Golden Springs and White Sands. The two of them dwelled side by side, isolated from the rest of the world by an expanse of ocean on one side and the arc of a mountain range on the other. For generations, the two kingdoms traded with each other, arranged marriages between their noble houses, and sent ambassadors back and forth to do nothing in particular because there was nothing left for them to negotiate. For years, Kinshiro had watched both kingdoms sliding into shabbiness, as their two kings aged, their economies slumped, and what little military force they had slid into disuse and disrepair, and he'd waited for his time to come.
Kinshiro had known for years that someday he would be king, and that this time would probably be soon. His great-uncle had never sired any children, which meant by tradition the crown would pass to a nephew or niece. When Kinshiro's parents had died in a landslide a few years back while visiting one of their neighboring kingdoms across the mountains, Kinshiro himself had become heir apparent. He'd spent much of the intervening time planning in minute detail what he was going to do when he became king.
His great-uncle had always been a frail man, prone to catching every illness that came along. He'd come near death several times. On the other hand, the ruler of the neighboring kingdom was a plump, hearty sort who never seemed to catch so much as a sniffle. It had seemed logical that Kinshiro's great-uncle would kick off long before his fellow ruler did, and then it would be Kinshiro's chance. As soon as he took the throne, he was going to start revitalizing things. He was going to tighten up the laws, get the army into fighting form, start revising old trade agreements and building new ones to get the economy moving again. He would make his kingdom strong, and then he would move in on his sleepy neighbors and take them down before they knew what hit them. After that, who knew? Maybe after a few years of recovery and assimilation, he'd be ready to move again, against his neighbors on the other side of the mountains or further down the coast. He could be the ruler of a mighty nation, once he got the chance.
"A grape," he said, not sure he could believe what he was hearing.
"So they say," said Arima.
Akoya frowned. "What a ridiculous way to go. It's unbefitting of royalty."
The three of them had gathered in Kinshiro's study to hash over the day's events. Arima and Akoya were Kinshiro's closest confidants - minor nobles who had attached themselves to the court, men whose bloodlines were pure enough to be suitable companions, but not so highly ranked that Kinshiro couldn't trust them not to move against him. Arima seemed happy enough with that arrangement, and had become something along the lines of an unofficial valet for Kinshiro, always at his side to offer assistance and advice. Akoya's rank was even lower than Arima's, but he was tolerated in court because his family's holdings, though small, were immensely prosperous, and Akoya himself was attractive and well-spoken enough to be an asset to court life.
"How on earth," said Kinshiro, "does someone manage to get killed by a grape?"
"As I understand it," said Arima," a server was carrying a tray of fruit down a flight of stairs, and a stray grape rolled off the plate without being noticed. The king followed him shortly after, stepped on the grape, and slipped and cracked his head on a stair."
Kinshiro gritted his teeth. "The fates are against me."
"It's not as bad as it could be," Arima consoled him.
Akoya toyed with a sugared date. "So who is this new king? What do we know about him?"
Kinshrio paused a moment to gather his memories, both of the papers he'd read earlier and his own more personal experiences. When he had explained to his parents that he would really rather not marry a princess, thank you very much, but if they could find him an available prince, that would be splendid, they had been accepting enough, and one of the possibilities they'd presented him with was the heir apparent to the neighboring kingdom. Kinshiro had found him a pleasant enough young man, but there hadn't been any particular spark between them, and he'd eventually taken up a different offer. By the time that arrangement had fallen through, Kinshiro's parents had been dead and Kinshiro himself had not been interested in pursuing any more romances. Still, he remembered his few meetings with the young prince well enough.
"His name is Io," he said. "He's already popular with his people - he's young and good-looking, and as practical as they come. He's particularly good at managing finances, which means he's going to have his grandfather's treasury filled again in no time. He's already announced plans to start making changes around Golden Springs."
"The same kinds of changes you were planning on, no doubt," said Akoya.
"Probably," Kinshiro agreed. "And here we are with our hands still tied."
"He hasn't made his changes yet, though," Arima pointed out.
"No," said Kinshiro, "and that's why we have to move fast. We have to find a way to neutralize this man now, before he has a chance to make life difficult for us."
"An assassination?" Akoya asked, startled.
"Nothing so direct, not if we can help it," said Kinshiro. "What we need is some weakness we can exploit - something we can use to arrange his downfall while making it look as though he brought everything on himself. That isn't information we're going to get just from reading spies' reports. We need someone on the inside."
"That might be difficult," said Arima. "From what I understand, he's not taking on a lot of new staff. In fact, he's letting a lot of people go. Slipping someone new into the household might be a challenge."
"He'll need people for his coronation," said Akoya. "Whoever heard of a coronation staying small and simple?"
"This one might be," said Arima. "A report came in this morning that he's planning on combining his coronation with his wedding to save time and expense."
Kinshiro looked up, suddenly interested. "Wedding? He's getting married already?"
"That's what it says," Arima replied, pulling a scrap of paper from the scree of them on the table and passing it to Kinshiro. "From what I gather, one of the first things he did when he first moved into the palace was to dismiss his grandfather's entire harem as an unnecessary expense, and the next day he announced that he'd chosen a consort. A male consort - a childhood friend, they say."
"I'm not surprised," said Kinshiro. "Not about the consort being male, at least. The rest is troublesome."
He didn't bother to elaborate why, but he'd worked with these two long enough that he was sure they'd understand. Selecting a single long-term consort instead of simply replacing the previous harem with a new lot that was more to his tastes was further evidence that this Io was a man of restraint and self-control. What a pity it was that he couldn't be the type who could be dazzled by a pretty face, or who drank to excess, or who spent money recklessly. But no, so far, every report that came in suggested the same thing: that this man was cautious, practical and without obvious vice.
"Hmm," said Akoya. He reached for the paper Kinshiro had been studying, pulling the corner down so that he could read it. "So it's like that, then."
Kinshiro narrowed his eyes. There were those who couldn't see what use he had for Akoya. The man was very good at playing the brainless beauty when he felt like it, and he had something of a reputation as a dilettante. He was the baby of his family, and had never been expected to accomplish anything noteworthy. Instead, he had been allowed to choose his course of education for himself, and he'd shamelessly indulged his own interests, most of which were tied in some way to making himself look attractive or gratifying his love for pleasure and beautiful things. There were those who suspected Akoya and the crown prince of having a romantic relationship, but there had never been any of that there. Akoya was not to Kinshiro's taste, and Akoya seemed to prefer indulging in a string of temporary partners rather than settling down with a long-term lover. What Kinshiro prized Akoya for was his cunning. He was very good at looking at a situation and finding ways around it that other people might not have considered or might have balked at. For all that his appearance was soft and sweet, he could be utterly ruthless when it came to getting what he wanted.
"What are you thinking?" Kinshiro asked.
"I was thinking," said Akoya, "that there is a difference between what a man wants, what he says he wants, and what other people think he wants."
Kinshiro regarded him thoughtfully. "Explain."
"What I mean is this," said Akoya. "Here is a young man, attractive and vigorous, who is entitled to a whole harem of concubines if he wants them. Obviously, he didn't want the old ones because women don't appeal to him, but no one really expects him to confine himself to one person when he doesn't have to."
"I think I follow," said Kinshiro. "You're suggesting that we might present him with a new member of his household, whether he wants one or not. Plausible, so far as it goes. Even if he didn't want the fellow, he wouldn't dare be so rude as to send him back."
Akoya nodded. "And it will be a very high quality concubine, of course. The sort with skills in things other than mere carnal pursuits - the sort who will be an asset to the his court in so many ways that the king won't even feel the temptation to be rid of him."
Arima looked amused. "Where are we going to find one of those on short notice? Particularly one we can trust to spy on a king."
"That's simple," said Akoya, preening. "You're going to send me."
Kinshiro and Arima stared with identical expressions of surprise. Akoya took a dainty sip from his teacup.
"Really," he said. "You don't have to look so shocked by the idea."
"Are you offering," said Kinshiro slowly, "to seduce a king to help me overthrow him?"
"Why not?" Akoya replied. "You said yourself that he is young and attractive, so it won't be any hardship for me in that way. I know how to conduct myself in a court setting. And I do have other skills at my disposal."
"That's true," said Kinshiro, thinking of Akoya's rather unconventional upbringing.
"Besides, it will be a nice change for me," said Akoya. "Things are a bit dull here. I could use a challenge."
Arima smiled. "Do you expect seducing this king to be a challenge, then?"
"Not," said Akoya, "for me."