This is an independent fic, but may contain references from my previous stories 'Departure' and 'Why I Love My Aniue.'

"You certainly took your time coming in today." Kou Reishin did not look up when he came in the door. "As you can see, the pile on your desk cannot possibly get any higher. You'd better get started."

That, in Reishin language, means 'I've missed you'. Kouyuu could tell from the way Reishin was lounging in his chair, cup of tea in one hand, his favourite journal in the other – he certainly missed Kouyuu enough not to take on any of the extra work himself, preferring to leave it in the good faith that his hardworking son would obediently take care of it upon his return.

Kouyuu's ironic, wry thought of the day gradually took on a more somber stance; he could only hope his adoptive father was in a good mood this morning. He bowed in greeting. "Reishin-sama."

"How did the blessing ceremony go?"

"It went well, Reishin-sama. Kurou-sama sends his regards."

"Does he now?" Reishin turned to a new page idly. "I'm surprised he has yet to tire of all this land-clearing business. God knows we have too much of it already."

"He deems it necessary," Kouyuu said vaguely. While they were on the subject… he was almost tempted to say in the prospect of land resources he had decided to spare no interest, since Reishin, the head of the Kou clan himself, obviously had very little. "He did say he wished you could have been there."

"Why should I when I could easily have you go in my stead?"

"Right," Kouyuu concurred patiently. An awkward silence fell over the room.

"I would be extra cautious if I were you. Kurou's sneaky." Reishin turned another page. "He hasn't done anything to you?"

"Uh, no."

"Then why are you limping like a lame dog?" Reishin asked casually.


He should have known better than to think he could get away with hiding anything from his father's astounding perceptive faculties. And to think that Reishin-sama had not looked at him once since he walked in the door!

Reishin finally looked up from his book expectantly.

"W-we just had a little accident along the way," Kouyuu almost stuttered.

He had to think fast! Before he got Kurou-sama into trouble! Reishin-sama doesn't need to know all the details, right? He thought desperately. "Um…the horses spooked suddenly, and…the carriage kind of, uh, shook."

"A shaking carriage gave you a lame leg?" A lazy, deliberate blink.

"It was shaking quite…violently," Kouyuu said very slowly. He knew he was not a good liar at all, but maybe if he answered in short sentences…

Oh no! Reishin was looking at him strangely now, and when one of his eyes was bigger than the other like that, Kouyuu knew trouble was soon to come. He had to stop Reishin-sama from thinking, and he had to stop him fast-

"Here, Reishin-sama! The reports you requested from Kurou-sama!" Kouyuu hurriedly emptied the content of his traveling pouch and moments later, half a dozen scrolls tumbled and rolled across the length of Reishin's work desk. "Kurou-sama also sent you a few private letters-and oh, here!"

Kouyuu plopped down a small misshaped bundle last. "Oranges. They're really sweet," he finished innocently.

He waited for bated breath, fearing for the worst. But luckily for him, Reishin's attention was soon pulled to the pile of junk on his desk. He pushed the stack away to the side before picking up the topmost roll of parchment, a most peculiar look of distaste on his face.

"Welcome back," he mumbled distractedly.

Kouyuu bowed respectfully, yet beaming triumphantly inside. "Thank you, Reishin-sama."

The uneven, unintentionally exaggerated shuffling of his feet as Kouyuu limped toward his desk was almost enough to make Reishin want to throw an orange at him, just to see if he would break into some sort of a dance. At least then Reishin would know how badly his son was hurt.

"I heard about your accident," Shuuei said, frowning. "Are you alright?"

Kouyuu shrugged. "I'm fine. It's just my leg. I must have banged it when the carriage tipped over."

"Did you get it looked at, at least?" Shuuei eyed Kouyuu's left leg. His friend was still walking a bit stiffly.

"Yes, I stopped by the infirmary yesterday. It's just a bruise, Tou Roushi said it will be gone in a few days," Kouyuu explained. "Ishii-san was fussing about it at home, but I escaped before he could call a physician to the house."

"Should you be walking around? We can always take a carriage, and say it's for official business," Shuuei suggested cheekily.

"I hardly think lunch with you counts as official." Kouyuu said dryly. "Or business. Hardly anything with you does."

Shuuei laughed. "No. Seriously."

"No thanks. No more trips to the country, no more long-distance traveling. I've had enough of carriages and horses, at least for the time being."

"Suit yourself." They walked in silence until the woods dropped off on one side, opening up into a familiar path they had taken a hundred times before. Not many knew of this shortcut to the town center. Before long, they reached the first main city gate, which was already bustling with activity and people; with the sun this high up in the sky, it was no surprise.

Speaking of long-distance traveling…

"I didn't know you were away visiting again," Shuuei said casually. "Were you not at your uncle's just last month?"

"It's the new year," Kouyuu said nonchalantly, waving a dismissive hand. "You know, lots of new businesses and deals opening up, lots of functions to go to which Reishin-sama never wants to attend."

"So he's making you go instead?" Shuuei's…concern for his friend lay solely on the fact that the Honorary Head of the Kou clan had never actively involved his adopted son in the governance of the Kou Province, at least not directly. He did not think it wise to point it out however.

Kouyuu did not answer immediately. While Reishin-sama was clear from the very start what his wishes for Kouyuu were, Kurou-sama's were more…obscure. Yes, Kouyuu understood perfectly why his uncle had initially wanted Shuurei for him, for them to be duly joined in matrimony. He even fully expected Kurou-sama's interest in him to wane when Kouyuu decided he needed more time...but now, his uncle seemed to be demanding even more of him.

Yes, the Kou brothers were a strange bunch.

All he could finally give Shuuei was a mere shrug of the shoulders. "I saw no harm in going," he answered simply.

"Well, next time you're going somewhere, let me know." Shuuei let Kouyuu walk ahead. "And don't be gone too long, I might just get lonely."

Kouyuu snorted. "You keep saying nonsense like that and yet still wonder why I go away-"

Something zipped past Shuuei's face, and with a resounding thud, lodged into the wall next to where Kouyuu's head had been a mere fraction of a second ago.

"What the hell-?" Shuuei hissed, his head snapping up in the direction where the object had come from. His arm shot out on its volition, pulling Kouyuu toward him and shoving him against the nearby wall simultaneously as Shuuei braced for another attack.

"What was that?" Kouyuu let out a harsh gasp, partly surprised, mostly breathless; Shuuei's robes were smothering him. "What's happening?"

"Stay down," Shuuei growled. Kouyuu tried to curl himself into as small a ball as possible without hurting his leg too much. He couldn't see a thing with his friend engulfing him like this, but through the gap between Shuuei's voluminous sleeve and him, he could barely make out a small, palm-sized object embedded in the wall just an arm's length away from them, an object that would have been perfectly round if not for the numerous very sharp-looking spikes poking out from its edge-

A shuriken?

"What is that?" Kouyuu peered at it closer, and his eyes went wide. "Is that a throwing star?"

Shuuei was only half-listening. His eyes searched the crowd frantically, his training putting his body on full alert; then suddenly, out the corner of his eye, he caught the glimpse of a form running across the ridge of the roof right opposite the one they were huddling under, before swiftly sliding the rafters on the other side, disappearing from view as abruptly as it had appeared.

Shuuei's eyes narrowed as he fought to keep his anger in check. His instincts would have seen him giving chase, but bringing them both to safety was top priority; whoever it was, he might have not come alone.

"He's gone now." Shuuei laughed nervously, finally releasing Kouyuu from his hold. "Sorry about that."

"Did someone just throw a shuriken at us?" Kouyuu brushed dust and dirt off his tunic. He watched with increasing wariness as Shuuei gingerly plucked the sharp, protruding object free.

"It's all part of the latest training programme," Shuuei lied smoothly, applauding himself despite the situation for his instant-story-making skills. "You know, to keep us on our feet, work on our reflexes, that kind of thing."

"Using your general as target practice is part of training?" And in the middle of the crowd? Kouyuu's forehead wrinkled. "That is kind of…severe."

"Even the general gets rusty sometimes." Shuuei smiled tightly. On the contrary, he was not entirely convinced he was the real target…Kouyuu had been at least three feet in front of him. A good assassin would not have misgauged such a distance.

"So…did you find out what happened to cause your carriage to overturn like that?"

"Huh?" Kouyuu was still looking at the throwing star in Shuuei's hand.

"The day you got back from the Kou Province. What happened?" There was an urgency in Shuuei's voice he could not understand.

"Apparent a bolt had come loose only we did not realise it - I mean, it didn't feel wobbly at all! But as we came around a corner, the wheel gave way and the next thing I knew the carriage was lying on its side. And so was I." Kouyuu rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. He was still feeling slightly guilty for having kept it from Reishin-sama, but God only knew what he would have done if he had found out. Surely Kurou-sama had a lot more things on his mind than just the running maintenance of his carriages.

"But nobody else was hurt?"

"Thankfully no. The horses were a bit shaken, but Kurou-sama's coachman calmed them down quite quickly." Kouyuu shivered slightly at the memory. "It was quite a narrow stretch of road…a good thing the postillions were riding ahead of us or there could have been a tragedy."

"A loose bolt, a weakened tether, drunk horses – anything can cause tragedy." Just as easily as someone with possibly malicious intent could, Shuuei thought darkly. He surreptitiously gazed heavenward.

Ignoring the glare of the sun, he swept his eyes across the rooftops above for the hundredth time; his line of gaze then swooped down to fix on the numerous small alleys…all dirty, dark, and ominous. Shuuei recalled a creeping uneasiness such as the one he was feeling right now; it was inauspiciously similar to the one he always got whenever he knew he was on enemy territory.

Shuuei moved closer to Kouyuu.

That feeling in your gut that tells you you're being watched.

They were not safe there.

"Shuuei, is something wrong?"

"Hmm? No, everything's fine."

"You sure?" Kouyuu asked doubtfully. "You look – tense."

Shuuei hesitated. "Actually, I think the heat is getting to me." Feigning lightheadedness, he covered an eye with the palm of one hand. Through the crack between his fingers, Shuuei caught the glimpse of faces looking in their direction, each of which he scrutinized as best as he could. Peasants and street vendors mostly, he noted with mixed relief and apprehension.

"If you're not feeling well we can always go back and have lunch some other time-" Kouyuu too, was staring at him strangely. "And maybe you and your subordinates should come up with a less dangerous training programme."

Shuuei's smile looked forced and pasty. "Maybe we should. Shouka-dono's residence is just around the corner, isn't it? I'm sure he wouldn't mind if we stopped there…just for a while.

Kouyuu bit the inside of his lip uncertainly. Dropping in Shouka-sama's house without notice - regardless of the fact he had done it a couple of times, dead drunk on a few occasions too – it was not something he particularly liked doing, but…Shuuei was looking a bit pale.

"Alright," Kouyuu conceded, deciding some tea, however horrid, would be the best course to return some colour to his friend's face – if Shouka-sama's legendary tea-making skill was anything to go by. "H-Hey-!"

Shuuei wasted no time pulling Kouyuu's arm in the direction of Kou Shouka's home. If there was a place they could be safe, it was there. If anyone knew the answer to the many questions playing on his mind, it would be Kou Shouka.

If Shuuei was feeling ill at all, he did not show it. Kouyuu recalled how Shuuei miraculously recovered his spirits after the unplanned visit to Shouka-sama's house yesterday, although he did spend a good half hour lying down in Shouka-sama's guestroom and talking with his uncle in private. And he was especially spirited this morning when Kouyuu attended to his daily duties of going through the Emperor's paperwork and official letters.

The three of them talked about the upcoming banquet Shou Taishi was giving at the end of the month, and about Kou Shuurei's progress as a governor in the Sa Province. Everything was normal, just the way Kouyuu liked it. So engrossed was he in their camaraderie, he only realised they had missed lunch when he got back to his office later that noon.

A small dish of savoury rolls and a fresh pot of tea sat side by side on his desk. Eyeing the unusually lavish spread, Kouyuu wondered if he had time for a short break; it was too late in the afternoon to have lunch and from the look of the low sun, Reishin-sama must have had his tea already.

It was that cat again, the same one which had made the Civil Affairs office its playpen since a fortnight ago, and the only reason it was still alive and well was because it always seemed to only come when Reishin was not around.

The cat rubbed against his leg, its ginger fur bristling against the smooth leather of his boot. Kouyuu debated whether to nudge it away, or let it be. He had never been that fond of cats to begin with, but ever since that one horrible afternoon when he had been forced to impersonate one just to keep a little girl from crying, his dislike of them had grown considerably.

Ah well. It was probably hungry. He tore off a small piece of deep-fried bun, grimaced a bit at his oily fingers, and dropped it onto the floor. The cat sniffed at it warily, and after a while, a pink tongue darted out. Kouyuu tore off another piece.

"Here you go," he said to it, hoping it would go away; the last thing he wanted was the thing to lick his boots.

"Where on earth did that thing come from?" Kouyuu looked up as Reishin strode in, his robe rustling against the stacks of books lined against the wall which Kouyuu was supposed to have put away this morning.

"I think it's a stray." Kouyuu threw another small piece onto the floor. The cat was really hungry. From the looks of it, it might just finish the whole thing before Kouyuu could have a bite.

"Well, get it out! I have no need of a cat in my offi-"

A shrill, loud mew pierced the air, cutting Reishin half-way into his tirade.

The cat was now lying flat on its back, its teeth bared showing small, pointy canines. For a second Kouyuu thought it wanted its tummy scratched or something but when its body folded double and its mewls grew, he knew something was wrong.

"Now what?" Reishin snapped. But he caught sight of the animal and abruptly froze as well.

Kouyuu rose slowly from his desk. He watched in horror as it writhed and squirmed in agony, spewing dark red blood across the floor.

Reishin was also staring at it in bewilderment, unable to take his eyes off its hind legs as they began to jerk spasmodically, its front paws splayed out in tetanic extension. After long seconds, the excruciating throes of pain ceased, and the poor creature gave a final twitch. And it moved no more.

Stunned, Kouyuu dropped the bun onto the table like a piece of hot coal.

The cat was dead.

Kouyuu gave a sudden hiss, and for a wild moment Reishin thought Kouyuu had ingested the poison as well. His anxiety was hardly assuaged when Kouyuu showed his palm instead; angry welts had appeared on the pads of his fingers where they had come into contact with the poison, painful and bright red like a bad case of whitlow. Reishin's jaw clenched abruptly.

What in heaven's name is going on?

"You are so certain the original target was you. Are you sure you have read into this as thoroughly as you think you have?"

"Well, whatever do you mean?"

"You lead a difficult life, Reishin. Hardly anyone likes you. I do not blame you for jumping into conclusions."

"Right. Because a stray cat happened to pose such threat to my enemies they were suddenly dying to kill it." Reishin's sweet smile was laced with enough poison to still Kijin's brush.

For it was not in his nature to sigh, any display of exasperation was limited to a reduced rate of blinking, for surely his serpentine stare could convey his annoyance across more effectively than mere words could. Surely an intelligent man like Reishin would have reached the same conclusion much earlier than he had, unless he was deliberately playing the fool.

Reishin only glared at him. "Come now, Houju. You're not suggesting?"

"In your defense, he does have all the vulnerability of a kitten." An elegant shrug of the shoulders. "A pardonable oversight, Reishin."

"Why would anyone want to harm Kouyuu?"

"It's happened before."

"He was not the intended victim back then. You know that." Reishin shifted uneasily in his seat. He did not like to be reminded of what had nearly happened the last time someone tried to assassinate him.

Kijin studied his friend. "I trust you will be using only silverware when you dine from now on," he said lightly, for there was no need to be anxious; Reishin was certainly not going to discard his casual advice with absolute nonchalance. Thus he was not surprised when the agitated man paled slightly.

"Assuming-" Reishin hesitated momentarily, "Assuming this were true, why and who do you think is out to get him?

Kijin clasped his fingers together, holding his forefingers against his slightly puckered lips as if in deep thought. "Whatever the reason, I'm afraid I cannot say. You might want to have a little…talk with Ran Shogun. I hear he is quite acquainted with your son."

"What does the Ran boy have anything to do with this latest chain of events?" The tip of Reishin's nose curled upward slightly in distaste.

"It may have escaped your attention, but lately he has been following your son like a shadow, more so than usual. Now unless there is something going on between the two that I really have no wish to be part of for fear of tainting my…morality, shall we say, I would think it warrants a…healthy suspicion, if not a full-blown investigation."

Reishin was out of his seat and at the door so fast Kijin could feel a breeze brush past his face. Just as he was about to turn the handle, Reishin turned around suspiciously. "How do you know all this, Houju?"

" 'The bigger the eyehole the more you'll be able to see'," he quoted, mimicking Reishin's indignifying pitch flawlessly. "Maybe next time you'll start making my masks just exactly how I commission them. Being this enlightened isn't a very freeing experience."

He picked up his brush again, scanning the page for the spot where he stopped when he was so rudely interrupted. "Close the door on your way out."

Reishin harrumphed derisively.

Kijin craned his neck.

"And don't do anything crazy!"

Reishin slammed the door.

"Kou Shousho." With a nod, Shi Ryuuki allowed him entry into the Royal Chamber.

"Your Majesty," Reishin murmured. He gave a curt nod in greeting to the other man sitting next to the Emperor, who nodded in return. Good. Just the man he wanted to see. "Ran Shogun."

"We are still investigating the source of the poison. There has not been a report as yet of anything or anyone acting suspicious in and around the Department of Civil Affairs prior to the incident, but the internal security committee is doing everything possible to get some answers," the Emperor explained in a light but serious tone. His serious expression turned somber. "Who do you think it was intended for, Kou Shousho?"

Reishin wondered if the young emperor had his own suspicion. "My initial assumption was it was yet another assassination attempt on my life, but Kijin thought differently. And I was also told that you, Ran Shogun, seem to know something I don't."

Ryuuki leaned in his chair, looking thoughtful. "Hmm. Shuuei has told us of his suspicions, yes. We thought it was something you needed to hear."

Reishin listened with growing alarm as Shuuei filled him in on what had happened the day before in the town center. As thankful as he was that Shuuei was with Kouyuu at the time, Reishin had to wonder why the shogun was so quick to think that the shuriken was meant for Kouyuu, not him.

Unless…unless the younger man knew the incident was not an isolated case.

He started to ask more but Shuuei beat him to it. "Yes, first a loose wheel, then an attack in the market. Now we have a dead cat," he was saying in response to something Ryuuki mentioned.

"A loose wheel?" Reishin stared blankly.

"Kouyuu did tell you he had an accident on the way home from the Kou Province?"

"Yes. His horse spooked, and he got thrown around. What's all this about a loose wheel?" Reishin gazed back and forth suspiciously between the identical looks of apprehension and dread on their faces.

"It completely overturned and suffered enough damage to render it unusable," Shuuei informed him, very reluctantly. He did not wish to get Kouyuu into trouble with his father, the predicament he was already in was delicate enough. "Lucky for him, a rider happened to pass and offered to take Kouyuu into Kiyou."

Unbelievable. Reishin clenched his fist around his fan. "Forgive me, Shujou, but I think I'm about to become quite angry."

"Now, now," Ryuuki held a hand in a placating gesture, grinning weakly. "Maybe a cold drink will calm you down, Kou Shousho?"

"Kouyuu may not have been entirely truthful because he did not want you to worry, Kou-dono," Shuuei said hastily, trying to defuse the tight situation.

"The nerve of that boy," Reishin fumed.

"More importantly-" Shuuei fumbled inside his sleeve for a while, before producing a folded handkerchief. There was something hidden inside it.

"Do you recognize this?" It was the throwing star, its sharp edges glinting in the sunlight. Shuuei held it out for Reishin too see.

"Be careful, the tips are poisoned. Or were. I cleaned them already, but you never know."

"It looks…familiar," Reishin murmured, his forehead instantly furrowing in thought.

"Looking at the shape, the intricacy of the pattern and the type of the blade, Shouka thinks it belongs to a particular school originating from a rural area in the Kou Province," Ryuuki said seriously.

"Aniue knows?" Reishin's voice rose a notch. Shuuei nodded silently.

"Kou Province?" Shuuei nodded again. Shouka-dono did not take long to confirm his suspicion.

Reishin had gone pale. "Does Kouyuu know?"

Because if he did, and somehow found it convenient to keep Reishin in the dark…

"No, he doesn't." Shuuei recounted his proud moment at the market but from the look on the man's face, he doubted Kou Reishin was all that impressed with his wit and quick mind. "Somehow I'm beginning to think I should have told him."

"And he could have done what? Chased after the guy?" Reishin said mockingly, but both Ryuuki and Shuuei could see how worried he was, when he continued his tirade. "He would have needed directions to get home, and the guy would have probably helped, once he was done killing him."

In disgust, Reishin tossed the shuriken back onto the Emperor's table, oblivious to the looks the two men in his present company were exchanging with each other but only too aware of the very uncomfortable feeling that was starting to coil in his gut.

First the possible sabotage, then poison, and now this?

Were they right in thinking this was someone from the Kou clan? The wheel came loose on Kouyuu's journey home from the Kou Province. Was it simply an accident like Kouyuu believed or was foul play involved? The throwing star was allegedly one from a school of martial arts in the Kou Province, as attested by his own brother.

And Aniue is never wrong, Reishin thought numbly.

"Kou Shousho." Ryuuki had once more assumed his regal sitting posture. "We understand if you would rather take this matter into your own hands. It is not our place to stop you. But as is the case for someone who is so close to the Emperor and an important person in the government of Saiunkoku, we would like very much to help. Kouyuu must not be harmed."

Reishin looked at him and knew what the young emperor was thinking. It had not been so long ago that any of them had forgotten how close they had come to losing Kouyuu to the hands of the enemy. His enemy.

The enemy this time, as he feared, was from within. As the head of the Kou clan, not knowing who it was? His blood boiled at his own powerlessness. It was something he found inexcusable.

Kouyuu arrived at home later than he expected, but he paused in his steps outside the dining room. He watched in confusion as a boy he could only assume to be a new servant stepped forward toward the dinner table and proceeded to taste each dish one by one.

"What's going on, Ishii-san?" Kouyuu asked his father's personal steward and most trusted employee, who seemed to be overseeing the whole procedure.

"Ah, Kouyuu-bocchama, welcome home." The elderly man gave him a small bow before sweeping a hand in the direction of the dining table. "This? This is just something Danna-sama has ordered us to do, to have the food tested before every meal."

"Tested? For what?"

"Why, for poison of course!" The mock exasperation in the old man's voice was affectionate and kind, much to Kouyuu's amazement, as if encountering poison in food was a normal, everyday occurrence - a concept Kouyuu still had difficulty to grasp even after the manjuu incident yesterday afternoon.

Kouyuu stared at him in barely-concealed horror. "But why – who would - he's just a boy!"

"Oh don't you worry, Kouyuu-bocchama, he's the best food taster in the industry, and you know our top priority is to keep you and Danna-sama safe."

The best… in the industry. There were so many things wrong with that sentence, he had no idea where to start. He could not tear his eyes away from the boy who was now trying his favourite pork and ginger dish. A very bad feeling was starting to churn in his gut. "How long has this been going on?"

A thousand new lines joined the fine creases on the old man's forehead. "Just today, Kouyuu-bocchama. Danna-sama sent a messenger home from the palace requesting me to find the best man for the jo-"

"Ah, Kouyuu, you're home." A voice spoke from behind. "Ishii, how is everything?"

"Ah, welcome home, Danna-sama." Ishii bowed. "Everything is going as-"

"With all due respect, Reishin-sama," Kouyuu interrupted. "I refuse to have a part in this. No one should be forced to taste my food like-like-"

"No one is forced to do anything. This is for your own safety."

"But I don't-" Kouyuu looked on helplessly. In his head he could only see the poor cat, lying dead at his feet. "I don't feel comfortable-"

"No food will be served without anyone tasting it first, and that is final," Reishin said flatly.

"Then I am willing to go without, Reishin-sama." Kouyuu's voice was tight. He did not care if Reishin thought him unreasonable or ungrateful, but the sheer thought of someone else gambling his life just so he could eat was enough to sicken him.

"Do you expect to live on air? Or do you wish to keel over and die like your pet cat?" Reishin's lips twisted into an ugly sneer. "Tell me, is that what you want?"

Kouyuu was avoiding his eyes, but the tightness in his jaw belied the otherwise calm guise.

"Kouyuu, you will answer me." Every servant in the room stood up straighter, fear evident on their faces. Everytime their Master's voice dropped dangerously low like that, someone was bound to lose something; a head, an ear, a finger – something.

"Is that what you want?" Reishin demanded sternly.

"I don't want this!" He held out a shaky palm, gesturing in the general direction of the dining table. His Adam's apple danced crazily in his throat as Kouyuu tried to breathe and speak at the same time. He looked up and peered imploringly at his father's face. "Reishin-sama, please..."

"Fine," Reishin snapped. "You, boy! Get out of here."

The food taster, who had been standing transfixed at the head of the table like a deer caught in the path of a horse, nearly stumbled when he hastily excused himself. Kouyuu followed the boy's footsteps with the tail of his eye, greatly relieved, yet very wary still.

"Go on, sit down and eat, you ungrateful boy. See if I care." Reishin threw himself into his chair at the head of the table. He glared when Kouyuu finally sat down, and glared when his son started eating slowly, timidly, yet adamant. He glared when he realized Kouyuu was refusing to touch the pork dish, steadfastly avoiding meeting his father's poisonous gaze.

What a stubborn, nettlesome, vexatious child! Reishin raged. He had to find out who was behind all this, quickly, because he had a feeling the infuriating boy was going to be the death of him one day.

He debated broaching the subject of the accident again, to see if Kouyuu's act of bravery was truly foolhardy, or merely blissful ignorance. He wondered if Kouyuu had the slightest idea of the danger he was in.

Since Kouyuu was conveniently ignoring him anyway-he scratched the air delicately with two fingers, beckoning his steward over to the table. Ishii tilted his head politely.

"If we can't do it when he sees us, do it when he can't," Reishin murmured under his breath.

"Yes, Danna-sama," Ishii whispered back. "The kitchen staff will be informed."

Only then did he stop glaring.

He wondered if Reishin-sama was still mad at him. After the argument last night, and since this morning, his adoptive father had been more curt and biting than usual, especially when Reishin asked him about his leg. It was a given that Reishin was not a sympathetic man to begin with, but after the long day cooped up in the office with an extra snarky boss, Kouyuu was tired and a little cranky himself.

"You will accompany me home tonight." Reishin glanced at him disinterestedly. "But I need to see to a few things with the Emperor first, and drop by the archives for a while to see if Aniue's in. Finish up here and come pick me up."

"Yes, Reishin-sama." Kouyuu nodded dutifully.

For reasons he could not explain, he suspected Reishin did not want him to go anywhere by himself. In fact, ever since he came back from the Kou Province, everyone seemed to have become more…fond of his company. He had yet to find himself left alone at any time, he seemed to bump into Shuuei wherever he went, the Emperor was requesting his presence several times in a day, to whom he had to give his thanks anyway – Ryuuki had placed more guards outside the Civil Affairs office after the poisoning incident. At least now no one was free to come and leave the department without anyone knowing. If only Reishin would agree to having a personal bodyguard, Kouyuu would not have to worry so much.

"Li-jirou," a voice called from the door, snapping him out of his daydream. Kouyuu craned his neck to see who it was and his face broke into a pleasant smile. "May I have a moment?"

"Kei-jirou," he greeted his friend, the good-natured assistant to the Senior Secretary of Finance. "Do come in."

"I have a letter addressed to you but mistakenly delivered to the Ministry of Finance-" The man handed him a roll of paper with a sheepish grin.

"A letter for me?" Puzzled, Kouyuu accepted it.

"I'm sorry, but I only realized I had it when I was cleaning up to leave for the evening. I hope it is not a very urgent letter."

"It's alright, Kei-jirou. Thank you very much." Kouyuu put the letter aside. "Did you see Reishin-sama on your way here?"

"Oh yes, I walked past him, but he looked like he was in a hurry. Which reminds me, so am I-" Kei-jirou let out a nervous chuckle. "I need to get going now, but I do apologize again for the blunder."

"Oh no, it was hardly your fault, Kei-jirou-"

Kei-Jirou was already at the door. "By the way I have heard about the poisoning attempt from the Senior Secretary of Finance, are you alright?"

"Ah, yes, I am perfectly fine, Kei-jirou." Kouyuu smiled bravely. "Thank you for your concern."

"Right." The man looked as if he wanted to say something more, but decided against it. "You should get going too. Almost everyone's gone home for the day. Do take care, Li-jirou, and I will see you tomorrow."

Kei-jirou took his leave, and Kouyuu found himself alone again. A quick look outside his window and sure enough, the falling light of dusk was starting to paint the evening sky a sanguine, eerie colour. He'd better hurry up and get Reishin-sama. Just as he was about to open the letter Kei-jirou had brought him, he stopped and frowned.

He looked out again. The colour of the sky had not changed.

But he did not remember ever opening the window.

Kouyuu got up slowly.

The window panes flapped gently, swinging back and forth soundlessly in the breeze.

Slightly puzzled, he reached out and pulled them to a close, but he never got the chance to latch the window shut because a large hand suddenly reached out from behind and clamped over his mouth and nose. His surprised yelp died halfway; Kouyuu now found himself struggling to breathe.

A strong arm snaked around his waist and dragged him away from the window as Kouyuu frantically lashed his legs out in the attempt to kick the wall, to stomp his feet, anything to make some noise-

"Quiet," a voice hissed in his ear. Kouyuu squirmed some more, but his struggles died down when he felt the sharp tip of a knife against his throat. His heart racing, Kouyuu willed himself to stay silent, and forced himself to breathe, now that the strong vise-like grip around his waist had gone.

When the blade finally fell away from his neck, Kouyuu took his chance. He wrestled his hands free and elbowed his assailant as hard as he could in the ribs-

He was free! Dropping onto all fours, Kouyuu frantically scrambled back onto his feet and tried to run, but before he could go very far rough hands grabbed the back of his head and shoulder. Kouyuu's legs flew out from under him as he felt himself pulled backward hard, and he hit the floor with a cry. He struggled to find his bearing, climbing to his feet again.

Something sharp sliced through the middle of his tunic. Kouyuu gasped.

His assailant viciously spun him around by the shoulders and shoved him into the wall, hitting his head hard. Kouyuu slid to the floor in a slump, black spots dancing in front of his eyes. Blinking frantically, he cleared his vision enough to make out a huge black figure looming over him…and the glint of a long, hooked blade raised high above him.

In the darkness, the glint was brightening, and that could only mean two things: the sword was plummeting.

And that he was going to die.

He shut his eyes, and prayed. Help.

Dimly, Kouyuu was aware of the door suddenly breaking open, and he could hear muffled shouts and cries. Through his closed lids, Kouyuu could make out faint, blurry shadows…

An odd, prickly sensation was crawling across his pelvis and lower abdomen, but strangely there was no pain.

Lunging forward, Shouka slammed the fleshy part of his palm into the intruder's neck with enough force to crush his windpipe, and used the other hand to slap the man's forearm so hard he dropped the sword; only Shouka's lightning reflexes saved Kouyuu from the blade as he swooped down to seize the hilt.

Shouka straightened fully, and with a deadly precision, slammed the hilt of the stolen sword against the attacker's right kneecap, sending him down on his knees with a hoarse cry; Shouka once again aimed, and slammed the hilt right in between the eyes.

"See to Kouyuu," Shouka said through gritted teeth, as he dragged the man's limp body away from the unmoving form of his nephew sprawled against the wall.

Reishin did not need to be told twice. He dropped down on his knees and reached out for his son. Kouyuu's eyes were closed and he wasn't moving. His fingers were like ice.

A ball of terror formed in the pit of Reishin's stomach.

Reishin slid an arm gently underneath Kouyuu's shoulders, and supported the back of Kouyuu's neck in the crook of his elbow, lifting his son's leaden form upright slightly. He tried not to look at the red fast blossoming across Kouyuu's midriff, which thankfully disappeared from his vision when he instinctively pulled his son in closer - but the false sense of relief was short-lived; a peculiar wetness was seeping through the thickness of his own robe, warm and sticky. Reishin's stomach churned.

He grasped the side of Kouyuu's lolling head. "Kouyuu!"

Befuddled, Kouyuu blinked and tried to make out what his father was saying; he stared at the frantically moving lips, but his blood was roaring in his ears, clouding his vision and drowning out his senses-


The fog in his head lifted just a mere fraction as he struggled to respond; Reishin's chest rumbled again with a deep vibration against the cold, clammy skin of his cheek as he strained in all futility to listen.

When a large, warm hand pressed hard against the uncomfortable dampness spreading across his midsection...Kouyuu decided it did not matter. A deep, almost guttural sigh whistled past his colourless lips. He had need of neither hearing, nor of any other modality, when he had this.

Is this…a dream?

"Reishin-sama…" His teeth chattered. More people barged in into the room, and Kouyuu could hear mumbling and more muffled voices. He tried to call his father's name again, but the pain was too much. He felt so cold.

"Reishin. We have to get him to a doctor."

Reishin looked at his brother, looking very white and shaken.

"Give him to me."


"Quickly!" Reluctantly, Reishin relinquished his son into his brother's waiting arms.

The guards had finally arrived, he noted bitterly, and Ran Shogun marched into the room only to stop short at the sight of Kouyuu in Kou Shouka's arms. His face drained of colour, but he quickly stepped aside to let Shouka through as he hurried off to where Tou Roushi was waiting in another room.

"Pick him up and take him in," Shuuei ordered, and a few men marched forward to pick the unconscious assassin up from off the floor. When he turned to look at Reishin next, his eyes were filled with grief.

"Kou-dono, any special-" Shuuei hesitated only slightly. "-instructions before we proceed with the questioning?"

Reishin grabbed a handful of hair and viciously pulled it up, and an instant rush of loathing filled him as he took a good look at the man's slack face. He did not recognize him. In disgust, Reishin dropped the head and let it loll to one side.

"Start with the left thumb. It's the thickest. He'll talk faster."

Shuuei nodded grimly. "We can do that."

One by one, his men filed out of the room, leaving Reishin to stand over the small puddle of blood at his feet which was fast drying into a claret-hued crust against the marble green of the floor. He stared at it, and then at his own clothes. He fingered the stain, and noticed his hand. It had the same stain.

He tore his eyes away from the nauseating sight, and saw the unopened letter on his son's desk.

He recognised the symbol of the Phoenix and the Kirin emblazoned in a garish clash of gold and red on the head of letter.

A letter to his son, sealed with his brother's personal seal. The seal of the Kou clan.

With slightly shaking hands, Reishin unfolded the crisp piece of parchment completely, smearing thin streaks of blood across the bold, black letterings. The message was short and lacking Kurou's usual cryptic flair.

It simply read

Kouyuu, you may be in grave danger. Stay close to someone at all times.
I will be arriving in Kiyou shortly, wait for me.

Kou Kurou

The Emperor was livid. Shuuei did not think he had ever seen Ryuuki this angry before; his face was white, his lips stretched so tight they were a straight, thin line, his long hair hiding most of his eyes, but what little Shuuei could see of them, he wished he hadn't.

They had waited for nearly three hours. Shuuei was hoping to hear some news about Kouyuu's condition, so agitated was he that he wrapped up the interrogation earlier than he intended and would have liked. Of course, the man started to babble and spill everything he knew by the time Shuuei was done with his left hand and about to start on his right. He supposed fingers were essential to a hired man's livelihood.

He looked to his right. Sitting by the window was Kou Reishin, looking lost in thought, his hands clasped around the ever-present fan on his lap. Shuuei tried not to think what that large red stain on the front of the man's robe was. Shouka was standing next to him, his smile long-gone, in its place a hard, stern scowl he seldom saw the man wear.

Suddenly Shouka touched his brother's shoulder. "Reishin."

Tou Roushi allowed Reishin to go in first.

Kouyuu looked as if he was sleeping, if not for the thick layers of bandages wrapped around his waist from the level of his hips up till the lower edge of the last rib. His sallow skin was not as pale as the last time Reishin saw him, but his breaths came in too shallow and rapid for Reishin's liking.

Tou Roushi spoke to him, his voice hushed and low. "The wound itself is not very deep, so thankfully none of his internal organs is seriously injured. But some of his abdominal muscles were badly torn and those took some time to realign and suture. We managed to stop the bleeding, but our main concern right now is to watch out for infection."

"Is he going to be alright?"

"It is too early to say. All we can do right now is pray that the wound is clean, and he is not carrying a blood-borne infection from a dirty sword. If he develops a fever or relapses into another shock, then we might have a problem."

Reishin watched Kouyuu sleep for a full minute, before turning toward the doctor.

"Please do everything you can," Reishin said flatly.

Tou Roushi was about to say something when a new voice interrupted them from behind.

"Oh, dear God..."

Reishin froze. He knew that voice.

A tall, imposing figure dressed in crimson stood at the door staring past them, eyes fixed on the figure resting on the bed.


"How is he?"

"Still alive, no thanks to you." Reishin exaggerated a smile, unpleasant and entirely without mirth. "Please, have a seat."

"I…came as fast as I could."

"Not fast enough." Reishin tossed Kurou's letter onto the table. "He did not even manage to read it."

Kurou could only stare at the dry streaks of what could only be blood on the letter.

"I only have one question for you." Reishin clasped his hands in front of him, leaning forward in his chair. "Why are my own people after Kouyuu?"

Kurou swallowed hard. This was a question the answer to which he never quite knew how to put into words.

"Because Kouyuu is not your real son."

Reishin sagged in stunned silence.

"They could not accept someone from outside the clan as their leader. If he had only agreed to marry Shuurei, this would not have happened."

"Don't you blame this on something my son did, or did not do." Reishin's face was white with anger.

Kurou's jaw snapped shut.

After a beat, he hung his head slowly. "You are right. I am sorry. This is all my fault. I have failed to keep my promise to Kouyuu."

"I had no idea you and my son were so close. When did you promise Kouyuu anything?" Reishin demanded sarcastically.

Kurou clutched the hem of his sleeves with white-knuckled fingers. "I don't know if you already knew this, but a few months ago, I offered Kouyuu the opportunity to succeed you as the next head of our clan. And I assured him that…" his voice trailed.

Kurou licked his suddenly dry lips. "I told him not to worry because if any of our family members were to object-"

"Yes?" Reishin snapped, although he had a feeling he was not going to like what he was going to hear.

"I promised that that I would do everything in my power to silence them." A soft, pained whisper.

"Oh yes, you're doing a mighty fine job!" Reishin stabbed a finger at the letter on his desk so hard it tore a clean rip through the center. "And that was why you needed to write this letter! Well, you know what? It's too late!"

Reishin punctuated the last word with an acid hiss, before throwing back his chair and stalked to the open window. He needed air. He gripped the window ledge with fingernails crusted with blood, and he closed his eyes.

Breathing is always easier when you close your eyes.

Kurou dared not lift his head. Reishin's silence was just as deadly as his wrathful temper.

When he spoke again it was almost with puzzled wonder.

"They have always been loyal to me. What changed?"

"They still are."

His younger brother stayed quiet for so long if Reishin did not know better, he would have thought the conversation over, instead of just beginning.

"Do not insult my intelligence, Kurou. You know more than you are letting on."

"The man who attacked Kouyuu tonight was hired by the leader of one of the branch families, a very far relation."

"But a relation nonetheless. Where?" Kurou named a place Reishin recognized as one of their smaller strongholds very near the rural, northern border of the Kou Province.

"Is he acting alone?"

Kurou hesitated. "Our spies have identified a few others in on the plan, two of the conspirators have been brought into capture back home-"

"Are there more?" Reishin gritted his teeth.

"I do not know. I was hoping the hired assassin would tell us."

"You knew what was going to happen."

Kurou held out a hand helplessly. "I tried to stop it. I could have. That letter was supposed to reach Kiyou the day before yesterday."

"You had suspicions but you never told me." Reishin sounded more stunned than accusatory. "You didn't even tell him."

"I thought I had it under control. I did not expect them to act this quickly-"

"The rider who just happened to be riding by when Kouyuu had the accident, he was one of yours, wasn't he? You had Kouyuu followed."

"I was trying to protect him!" Kurou's voice rose a notch.

"And yet it was you who put him in such danger in the first place!" Reishin shouted in rage. "Why Kouyuu? Why not your own son?"

"As much as it pains me to say this, as much as I love my son more than anything else in this world, I think we both know who would make the better leader. And it isn't Hakuyuu."

Reishin's pale face went even paler.

"Sometimes I find it hard to believe we're related."

Kurou's chest felt uncomfortably tight. "Do you."

"Power is a dangerous, fascinating thing. Fathers and sons turn against each other. Remember Sa Enjun and his beloved province? Brothers slay each other for power." Reishin gave his head an imperceptible shake of disbelief. "And yet you?"

"I was trying to think of the future of our clan. Please, Rei-Aniue-" Kurou implored, "Please try to understand…we both know what the Kou clan needs-"

"What, a puppet leader who will bend to your every whim?"

"This is NOT about me!"

"I told you!" Reishin roared. "I told you a long time ago, Kurou! Do-not-touch-him. Or did you not remember?"

Kurou sank into his seat as if Reishin's harsh words had physically thrown him. "Rei-Aniue, I did what I thought was best-"

"What you thought was best?" Reishin jeered, throwing Kurou's pleading words back at him. He stabbed a finger in his brother's chest. "You had no claim over him!"

"I just…wanted to give him what you-" Kurou's breath hitched in his chest as his voice died to a faint rasp. "-didn't…"

"And what did I not give him? Answer me this!" Reishin could not remember a time he had felt as furious with his brother as he was right now. He seized the side of Kurou's neck and the look in his eyes told Kurou nothing he did not already know, and for one crazy second he actually did believe it; his brother had no qualm about killing him, Reishin was that angry.

"I gave him a way OUT!" He hissed. "Because that was the only thing he needed!"

"He has never needed you. My son is capable of making his own legacy, Kurou." Reishin's fingers curled around his collar, fists clenching and unclenching as he fought to control his voice. "With or without your help."

"My intentions are honest. I acted in good faith and conscience – everything I did, I did it for the sake of our clan…for you, our Leader! My brother!"

"You are no brother of mine."

"Ani…ue…" He was stunned into silence.

Reishin refused to meet his imploring gaze. He looked out the window instead. The night sky was nothing but a blur of grey and black, as black as the gaping hole in his heart.

"I did not raise him just to watch him die before my eyes." There was a dullness in Reishin's eyes Kurou had only seen once. It was a night like this. Hell, exactly like this. Kouyuu was fighting for his life too the last time he came around.

Kurou's own eyes glistened with frustration and grief.

"You know what your problem is, and has always been, Kurou?" Reishin finally looked at him, but his eyes were dead. Empty. "You have no patience."

"I'm sorry," was all he could manage. The lump in his throat was too big.

Reishin shook his head. He looked out the window again.

"If he dies, Kurou…"

"Hey," a husky voice wafted somewhere from his side.

"Oh, it's you," his own voice was rough from thirst and disuse, but even in his condition, Kouyuu managed to sound bored. An overwhelming sense of relief washed over Shuuei in waves, and he laughed for the first time in days.

"I thought you were never going to wake up."

"Oh dear God in heaven," Kouyuu moaned when his whole body finally decided to wake up with pains and aches in places he never knew existed. His hand flew to the wound on his belly where it hurt the most. "What the hell hit me and why am I not dead?"

"Shh," Shuuei reprimanded. "Quit moving around so much. You need to save your strength."

That sounded like a good idea. Kouyuu closed his eyes, but before long, they flew open again, his pale face tight with fear. "There was a man-he had a-a-knife-"

"Shh," Shuuei soothed. "He's gone. You're safe."

But Kouyuu was wide awake now. "How long have I been asleep?"

Shuuei heaved a sigh. So much for resting. "Four days. Thankfully you only had a slight fever, but it was enough to knock you out for most of the time. Reishin-dono was beside himself for days."


"Relax…he's not here today, but believe me, he wouldn't have left your side if he did not think you were alright."

"Where…where has he gone?"

"He left for the Kou Province this morning to uh, oversee some…things."

"Kou Province-what? Why?"

Shuuei took a deep breath. Kouyuu was not going to take the news well at all. He just knew it. But he knew he had no choice but to tell lest he wanted Kouyuu to worry to no end and consequently not get any rest.

"A few members of a Kou branch family have been tried and found guilty of conspiring to assassinate the heir to the Kou family. You."

Kouyuu's lips worked but for a while no voice emanated from his throat.

"But I am no heir!"

"You are," Shuurei said gently, "And have been, ever since the day Kou Kurou voted in your favor as Kou Reishin's successor, with a decree that there was to be no contestation from any member of your clan."

"You-you were not supposed to know that," Kouyuu stammered, aghast. A very bad feeling was beginning to churn in his chest. "So…so what is Reishin-sama doing there then?"

"Kouyuu, you must understand." Shuuei clasped a hand over his. "Reishin-dono was very…upset. No one could have stopped him."

"Surely-" Kouyuu pulled away and wrung his hands, clearly distraught. "Surely the Emperor had some say in this?"

"Kouyuu, you are the personal tutor and advisor to the Emperor, and one of His Majesty's most trusted confidants. Any attempts on your life will be construed as treason against the Emperor himself."

Kouyuu's face drained of what little colour it had. "You don't mean…a public execution?"

"By nightfall, they will be dead."

"This can't be happening…"


"I have to get to the Kou Province." Kouyuu struggled to rise from his bed. Shuuei did not know where he found the strength to even keep upright. "Shuuei, is there a carriage we can use?"

"You are out of your mind. You are in no condition to travel anywhere, especially not in a carriage!"

"You are right, it's too slow, it will be too late-" Kouyuu's feverish eyes searched his best friend's anxiously. "You'll have to take me then!"

Shuuei stared at him incredulously, and knew he had to forgive himself for some inevitable redundancy. "You are out of your mind! Especially especially not on horseback!"

"You're the fastest rider in Kiyou, or was all that bragging just for show?" Kouyuu threw his blanket aside feebly. "We have to hurry!"

"Kouyuu, calm down!" Shuuei desperately held out a hand to try to push Kouyuu back onto the bed. He had to make his crazy friend see reason. "You can't do this!"

"Why the hell not?"

"You're going to rip your wound open, wound the doctor worked so hard to close-"

"And he can damn well close it again." Kouyuu leaned heavily against the bedpost, struggling to maintain his balance. He muttered to himself, "Where are my clothes…"

"Kouyuu, listen to yourself! You can't go-not in your condition! You'll end up opening your wound and bleed-"

"People are going to be killed, and you're not going to stop it because you don't want me to bleed all over your horse?" Kouyuu shrieked, bending almost double with the effort.

Shuuei had to wince, noting the protective arm around the heavily bound waist. At least he had the good sense to support his wounded torso, Shuuei thought. Kouyuu was just as stubborn as his father, whether he wanted to admit it or not.

"Shuuei, let's go, we're wasting time!"

The crowd turnout was spectacular. Most came to witness the execution, some to see the Emperor, who was ensconced on the middle of the dais, flanked by Kou Kurou, and the Honorary Head of the Kou clan, Kou Reishin himself.

The five captives were lined up in a single file on a lower platform bound and blindfolded. From where he was sitting, Reishin stared down at the backs of their heads with hatred he was not even bothering to conceal. The Kou clan was not known to be kind to traitors.

When the sentence was read out again, the crowd roared in unanimity; for they had no pity to those who wished harm upon their leaders and their family. Kou Reishin was of so high a standing in his province that his words were law. Those who knew of Li Kouyuu would say the same of him; Kou Reishin's adopted son was a remarkable young man of amazing potential, the Emperor himself attested to this.

The executioner took a step forward, his long sword held out in front of him. Decapitation was a sentence reserved for those who had committed the most serious of offense. The Kou clan had ruled the region so fairly and effectively he could not remember the last time anyone was subjected to this public and humiliating an execution.

He stood behind the first condemned and lifted his sword.

"Li Kouyuu-sama!" Someone from the crowd cried out. Ryuuki shot out of his seat, hardly believing his eyes. True enough, a familiar looking horse galloped into the square, cutting in through the crowd, its two riders huddled against each other.

"Ho!" Shuuei pulled the rein, coming to a halt a few feet away from the platform.

Reishin's eyes were wide and unblinking, his mouth slightly agape.

Shuuei carefully helped Kouyuu alight from the back of his horse, particularly mindful of the heavy layers of bandage his friend now wore on top of the original one. He had no idea if Kouyuu had ripped his wound open again or not as he could not see any frank bleeding, but Kouyuu's pallor was very worrying.

"No!" Kouyuu gasped breathlessly, holding his arm out toward the prisoners and the executioner. "Stop this!"

"Kouyuu!" Even Kurou had jumped to his feet.

"Reishin-sama, tell him to stop!"

A loud noise was erupting from the crowd. They were not expecting any interruption, let alone one led by Li Kouyuu himself.

Kouyuu staggered slowly toward the middle of the platform, his arm wrapped tightly around his waist. Beads of perspiration had long since plastered his clothes to his skin, and he hurt. But he had to stop this madness. "Reishin-sama…"

His father only stared at him coolly. Then he turned his gaze toward Shuuei who did not fail to read the contempt and anger in it. Reishin-dono did not look pleased.

"Proceed," he droned.

"NO!" Kouyuu yelled. He turned toward the emperor pleadingly. "Shujou!"

Ryuuki was glancing back and forth uncertainly between Kouyuu and the silent Reishin. He felt every bit as helpless; all decisions lay in Reishin's hands now, he had no right to dishonor the head of the Kou clan when his mind was made up.

The executioner as he was trained to do, paid no heed to Kouyuu's cries. He lifted his sword again.

In panic, Kouyuu made one last, desperate plea.

"Father, please!"

Reishin's head snapped up as if slapped, his eyes now wide as saucers.

Kouyuu dropped to his knees when all strength left him and he made a desperate grab for his father's armrest.

"Please. Let them live. I don't-" He choked. "I do not wish for anyone to die because of-"

His breath caught in his throat, his eyes shining with tears. "Because of me."

Reishin could not speak; he could only stare at the hand clutching his forearm so tightly the knuckles washed white and translucent against Kouyuu's pale skin.

"Kou Shousho?" The Emperor inquired.

A slow raise of the hand halted the executioner in mid-swing. "Very well."

The crowd was stunned into a hushed, eerie silence.

Reishin placed his hand atop Kouyuu's own and lingered for a while, feeling the cold, clammy skin of the ill, before prying it off his forearm. He rose to his feet, gathering his robe around him as he addressed the prisoners. He nodded curtly toward the executioner who proceeded to take off their blindfolds.

All five men gasped when they finally saw Li Kouyuu himself; they had heard the crowd cry his name, heard his cries, but here he was, looking pale and weak, hanging onto a chair for dear life. Next to him was Kou Reishin, towering over them like a large swooping bird of prey, his eyes hawk-like and cruel.

"You have been spared. From this moment on and thereafter you will live under the mercy of the clan, and more so of the man you have tried to kill. Look at him, and remember this moment. The moment he has saved your head from being separated from your body. Live and let this be a warning. To you, to your children, to EVERYBODY." The wind brought Kou Reishin's voice across the crowd.

"Let this be a warning to you all." His words reverberated through the heavy night air.

When he was finished, he dropped back into his seat. But Kouyuu was gone.

Reishin's head spun around so fast it made him dizzy, but his vision cleared just in time to see Ran Shogun carry his son's limp form down the steps-

Kouyuu had passed out.

It was only a week later that Kouyuu was declared fit to leave the bed. Tou Roushi was not pleased, first at having to travel all the way to the Kou Province, but for that he understood as it was an emergency…and second, the utter mess Kouyuu had done with the wound he had worked on so hard.

"Damn you, Li-dono, and your hot young blood," he grumbled to himself as he tended to the ailing young man. If Kouyuu had been well enough to respond, he would have given him a piece of his mind.

Kou Shuurei had also returned to Kiyou, much to the delight of her loving uncles. Upon hearing the news of Kouyuu's recovery, she thought it now safe to come and visit.

Kurou now sat to a lavish tea spread in the gardens of his manor.

He had been close enough to the royal dais to see the look on his nephew's face as he begged mercy for his assailants, the solemn determination in his fever-glazed eyes. When Kou Reishin called a halt to the execution much to the surprise of everyone present, Kurou then knew; his brother had seen the same thing.

If Reishin had gone on, Kouyuu would never forgive him.

His eyes fleeted across the table.

Apparently that was something his seemingly inexorable brother could not live with. So still Reishin was in his countenance, he appeared almost statue-like. Even in deep thought, Reishin seemed untouchable, unfathomable. But he knew better now.

Kurou cleared his throat loudly. "More tea, Rei-Aniue?"

Reishin broke out of his catatonic reverie, and waved his hand despondently in a wandering, almost mechanical arc. "I have had enough."

"Something on your mind?"

"Nothing that concerns you, Kurou." Despite his words, there was not a trace of malice in his voice and Kurou, so unused was he to such cordiality from his brother, could not suppress a renewed sense of admiration for Reishin, as misplaced as it may very well be.

A soft smile ghosted over his lips, disappearing just as quickly as it had appeared. "Very well, then. I shall not pry."

Reishin said nothing. His eyes once more traveled across the span of the lake, resting again on the three figures huddled together in animated conversation under a flowering fruit tree. He watched his niece cover her face politely in laughter; Kouyuu must have said something amusing, because Shouka was next to beam merrily.

People he loved in this world were few. Amazingly, they were all here.

And now he was thinking…

"I was thinking…"

Reishin turned his head slowly.

"I was thinking that-" A hesitant pause. "That I am in no hurry to die, Kurou."

Kurou turned his head toward his brother very slowly.

"There is still time."

Time. That was Kurou's mistake. The mistake that had nearly cost his nephew his life, because he thought he had too little of it.

Reishin was right. They still had time. Shou-aniue did say it himself, didn't he? If anything were to happen to the Kou clan, anything that could jeopardize the order of this noble family he was so proud of…Shouka would not hesitate to take control.

And that was reassurance enough.

"I'm going to hold on to what you said." Kurou said finally. "Let Kouyuu decide what he wants, when the time comes.

"It may not be to your liking."

Kurou smirked. "Nor yours."

"Fair enough. As long as it is what he wants."


Author's notes: Dedicated to those who miss these characters as much as I do or even more. If you've reached this line then I know you've been reading, and I thank you. ♥ Comments are very much welcome. ) Take care