Interlude

Shoryuu returned to the guest rooms of the palace of Kei late that night looking rumpled and smug. There was nothing obvious - no touch of red lipstick on his collar, no lovebites on his neck - but the smugness in the way he walked was just as incriminating.

Actually, Rokuta would have been surprised if Shoryuu had been sporting lipstick marks – he was pretty sure the Empress of Kei didn't wear makeup.

Rokuta had been sitting by the fire, curled up in an old, comfortable chair. Now he sighed deeply; cast his eyes to the heavens and wished they had thought to grant him more patience. "Shoryuu, you idiot," he said with feeling. "Flirting with your host is one thing, but toying with the affections of an Empress? I'm telling you, you're going to get us thrown out, at the very least."

Shoryuu sprawled into the chair across from him, the one closer to the fire than Rokuta preferred. He gave Rokuta an insouciant grin. "Life is short, kid. Seize the day and all that."

Rokuta couldn't find the words to express the depths of his disbelief and disgust. He trusted to his look to convey it all.

Shoryuu laughed and leant forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Honestly, Rokuta, don't worry. Youko's no child, and she's a lot tougher than she looks. If she can survive starvation, treachery and civil war, she can survive a harmless flirtation."

"The Empress of Kei is a much more serious person than you," Rokuta warned.

Shoryuu settled a little, became more solemn. "Yeah, I know. But no one can be stern all the time. It's good for her to relax a little."

"And if she falls in love with you?"

Shoryuu smiled, a little ruefully. "Oh, you give the lady too little credit. She's no romantic, that's for sure."

Rokuta's eyebrows lifted at the tone of private remembrance. "Hmm," he said noncommittally.

Shoryuu's mood abruptly rose. "Anyway, enough chatter. My lady friend has thrown me out of bed, so you'll have to pour the sake in her place."

Rokuta did as he was bid, fetching the sake and pouring Shoryuu a cup. "Tears, I tell you," he sighed, already resigned to it. "There'll be tears by the time this foolishness is done."

Shoryuu raised his cup. "Then, long may it last," he said, a faint smile on his face, and drank to that with pleasure.