Final Author's note:
Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to read and respond to "Seasons." I know you probably got tired of hearing me say this, but I truly appreciated it. Seriously! Of all the stories out there, you chose to read mine. And the feedback that you gave me was very helpful—especially the plot points that you liked. And, some of you asked questions that I kept so that I could review them later and add them into the story—with answers, of course.
So, whether you read this in English or Spanish (thanks to kotori-chan88 and petula petunia), you were a wonderful part of this experience for me.
Seasons of Beautiful Wolfram
"Love bears it out even to the edge of doom." --Shakespeare
"We got up too early, Yuuri," the blond moaned, covering a yawn. "It's hard to stay awake even after eating all that food at breakfast."
Yuuri and Wolfram were sitting on the bench—their garden bench—enjoying the cool morning before attending the trial. The double black noted with an inward chuckle that his fiancé was out of his schedule and was struggling to keep his dark green eyes open.
Green eyes. He smirked at that. Some wild rumor had been circulating lately that Wolfram with glowing blue eyes, spiked hair, and a hellish grin had grabbed the innocent sage and was seen giving him massive hickeys in the temple when they were alone. The story went on to say that Murata had protested at first but was forced to give in to the much stronger full demon. Yuuri reminded himself that it was best to quit listening to wild rumors—like the one where Conrad, in a cat outfit, and Yozak, in a maid outfit, had been caught smooching on the stairs leading to the highest turret in the castle. That one had to be a load of garbage, too, because: 1) there was no reason to be up there, 2) Conrad wasn't the "dress up" type, and 3) having stone steps crunched into your back couldn't be at all comfortable. Then, Yuuri thought about it again. Maybe Yozak was, indeed, tougher than people thought he was. Still, the rumor about the wild "hickey giving Wolfram" had to be a total and complete lie because he saw Murata just last night at dinner and there wasn't a mark on him. Yuuri quirked a grin when he remembered that Wolfram avoided the sage like the plague. He must have heard the rumor, too. Poor guy.
The blond was half asleep now. His head nodded slowly down only to be knocked back again when he felt himself falling forward. He did it again and heard a faint chuckle to his left. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew it was Yuuri but didn't care. Wolfram was too tired and the tone of the chuckle was good natured.
Ignore it… Zzzz….
Green eyes opened, half lidded, when he felt a strong hand rest gently against his head, guiding it to a warm shoulder. Wolfram snuggled in close to the dark material and the ebony hair. Arms circled his shoulders. Yuuri must have washed his hair with vanilla shampoo again this morning. He smelled absolutely delicious.
"Nice…" Wolfram practically purred, his face buried softly into Yuuri's neck. But then he stopped and leaned back a little to look at him. "Yuuri?" he said with a slight yawn. "You hate public displays of affection, we'd better not…"
"Don't worry about it. I don't care."
Not this again. Blond hair shook "no." "You do care. It's just the way you are." He ended it with a sleepy sigh. "You don't have to change for me."
"I know" was said back very gently. The double black's hand reappeared and Wolfram's head returned to the shoulder.
Another snuggle followed, initiated by the form in dark clothes. Yuuri's arms tightened around him again.
"Can we stay like this for awhile longer?" Yuuri felt a blush coming to him when he asked, but he was fine with it.
"I'm yours" was whispered in his ear.
"I-I know that…and I'm glad."
Within a few minutes, a tired Wolfram had pulled his feet up on the garden bench. His breath hitched a little—reminding Yuuri that Wolfram was still not back to his old self. Then, slowly, Wolfram's head ducked down and ended up resting in Yuuri's lap. A short, piggy snore followed. With an amused smile on his face, the double black remained seated, slowly running his fingers through blond hair. The mop of blond was soft and loose. It smelled of sunflowers and Yuuri was sure that he would never be able to see or smell another sunflower without thinking of his fiancé. The two images were locked together in his mind.
Blond ribbons ran through his fingers again.
To sleep like this…with me…out in the open…
He found a dark blond strand and ran his fingertip against it, tracing a path all the way down to a curved chin.
This is trust.
Fingers delved into fine hair.
Just what he sees in me, I'll never know. But I'll accept this gift, his heart.
Slowly, the stroking was taking its effect on Yuuri, too. He could feel his eyelids tug down for a bit of rest. He told himself that he'd shut his eyes for only a moment and then open them again. The eyes closed and onyx eyelashes rested on his cheeks.
Cecile, wearing her favorite black dress that was cut too low in all the wrong places for this occasion, walked along the garden path with Conrad. She was putting some effort into chattering aimlessly and contributing as much small talk to any conversation around her as possible so that things would seem normal around the castle. But, deep inside, she was worried—as all mothers would be—about the state that her poor Wolfie must be in before the trial was about to start. Conrad, as usual, accompanied her but had been trying to calm her fears and to give her his typical—and very real—reassuring smiles. So far, it had all worked. Now, they were both going to check in and see how Wolfram and Yuuri were doing.
Once through the shrubbery, the winding path took them to a quiet garden bench that looked over beds of white, fragrant roses still in bloom. Cecile almost squealed with joy, again, at the sight of her Wolfie and the maou alone together. Thanks to Conrad shushing her with a worried look on his face, no sound escaped to wake up the sleeping couple.
Yuuri was still sitting on the bench, but had his left arm running the length of it. His head was turned slightly to the side, using his arm as a pillow with his black hair blowing back slightly with the breeze. Wolfram's head was still in his lap with his body curled up. Yuuri's other hand was resting against a pale cheek, the thumb stroking it slowly.
Marelda's trial had been a headache from the start for Gwendal. He wished by all the spirits in the heavenly realm that Marelda had just disappeared, never to be heard from again. Why? Because this trial was more than just a local affair. It held all kinds of implications, both social and political, well beyond the borders of Shin Makoku.
By all rights and laws of the land, it was the noble and true Demon King who would decide matters that concerned the royal household, nobility, diplomats, and higher ranking military. Yuuri was to act as judge and jury according to the traditions of the country. But the fact that it was his fiancé that was kidnapped by one of his guards (even if the man was sent into the castle to act as a spy) along with a social climbing, ex-concubine sister bent on revenge—well, it didn't make the situation any easier to deal with. Understandably, even monarchs in the human lands were waiting with baited breath to learn the outcome. (Which, of course, made things politically quiet for the time being.)
The previous night, while Wolfram was tucking Greta into bed, it took Gwendal, Günter, Yozak, and Murata two solid hours to explain to Yuuri the implications of the trial. With previous rulers, the trial would be only a formality because just laying hands on a maou's fiancé with intent to do harm would bring on the penalty of death by hanging. But, Yuuri had insisted that they have a real trial and give Jacob and Marelda a chance to defend themselves. And when Wolfram's uncle, Waltorana, sent a pigeon with a message in which he insisted that he be given the honor of acting as the trial judge (with the not so subtle implications that it was because the wimpy king didn't want to do it), Yuuri politely refused. Instead, he gave the position to Anissina's cousin, Michelle von Karbelnikoff, a legal scholar and peer of Günter's.
Sitting at the long table next to Murata, Yozak chimed in, "But there are other things to consider. Word is that the money to pay for the Meigers' lawyers has come from Big Cimaron."
"Why would they do that?" Yuuri asked, scratching his head.
"Heika," Günter said, almost as though Yuuri hadn't been paying attention in his lessons—which was probably true--"the human kingdoms wish to see exactly where this situation will lead."
Yuuri blinked back with the same confused expression. "I still don't get it."
Murata smiled a little. It was that naïve quality that attracted people to him, making him seem more than a bit vulnerable and in need of protection. "Shibuya, you have a reputation for embracing peace…never executing anyone. In fact, you prefer to negotiate with people calmly instead of incarcerating them for every minor infraction of the laws. Right now, the only prisoners in the Blood Pledge Castle dungeons are Jacob and Marelda. And you've assigned one of the maids to keep an eye on Marelda just to make sure that she's not a woman alone in a prison with men guarding her."
"So?" He shrugged back.
"So, all of Shin Makoku and the other kingdoms are eager to see if you are willing to follow your own country's laws," Gwendal said with a hard tone and a steely stare. "Which will you do? Follow the laws that everyone here must abide by for the protection of the citizens? Including Wolfram? Or, will you despise the outcome and simply change the rules because you don't wish anyone to die?
Yuuri lowered his head and focused on the wood grain on the over sized table. Gwendal's words brought back to him the knowledge that Wolfram was Gwendal's cute baby brother, one that he had diapered and rocked to sleep at night. No matter what age he may be now, Wolfram was in many ways his child. And that life was precious—to them both.
The administrator fixed his eyes on Yuuri but spoke to the rest of the room. "I'd like to speak with Yuuri Heika alone."
The tone told everyone that he meant business. With that, the room cleared out pretty quickly. Yozak, being free for the evening, went off in search of Conrad looking as though a great weight had been lifted. Even Murata felt relief as he exited the doorway with a satisfied stretch and a brief "you're in for it now" glance backward.
"I know what you're going to say," Yuuri sighed. He rested his elbow on the table and put his cheek in his palm.
"I don't think you do," Gwendal said and leaned back in the chair a little.
The double black turned to him with wide, curious eyes. "Then…?"
"I was one of the people who encouraged Wolfram to break off his engagement with you. Did you know that?"
Yuuri's mind flashed back to the balcony scene where Gwendal and Wolfram discussed ending the engagement. It hurt badly because he'd just come to realize his growing affection for Wolfram. He also felt betrayed—that people who were to be his advisors, the very people who were supposed to support him and seek out his happiness, were telling Wolfram to end it. And the passionate blond had stubbornly held onto him as long as possible—until it seemed that letting go was for the best.
"Yeah," Yuuri said quietly, "I knew."
He got a surprised eyebrow that quirked up.
"Romantic entanglements only cause problems and disruptions. And with you, Wolfram had become so strongly bonded…" Gwendal shook his head grimly. "In the beginning, instead of ignoring the engagement, you should have called it off before he became attached. And, when you adopted Greta, as wonderful as she is, you should not have allowed Wolfram to call himself a 'second father.' Once again, you ignored what Wolfram was doing…even though it was obvious to the rest of us." There was the sound of a chair scraping back against a wood floor. Gwendal stood up from his seat and went to the window. The evening scene glittered with stars. Even so, he frowned at it. "While you were busy playing 'father' to Greta, you were allowing Wolfram to form more bonds. You gave him the hope of a marriage, the hope of a child, the hope of having his own family. You knew that he grew up without having a father of his own. Now, he could be a father to Greta—the kind of perfect father that he never had for himself."
Yuuri listened and what scared him the most was that, not too long ago, these arguments would have swayed him. He would have approached his favorite blond and ended their lives together right then and there because it was the easiest course of action and because he thought he wanted a different kind of life than the one Wolfram offered. The double black's heart began to beat hard—the feeling of having Wolfram's warmth and weight against him in bed suddenly being gone. Those passionate, green eyes that encouraged him—gone. That feeling gone. It was almost too hard to breathe now. Was he that easy to influence?
"I want Wolfram by my side," Yuuri said quietly.
Gwendal turned from the window and looked at him suspiciously. "For now, maybe… You're really too young to know what you want."
"No, I want him…always," Yuuri said, a little louder but with an even tone.
"Until your honeymoon and you realize that you're married to a man."
Yuuri shook his head at that. "It's the soul…I want. The temperament challenges me. He treats me like an equal and makes me face reality. He respects what I do… even if he doesn't necessarily agree with it." Feeling more confident, Yuuri said, "He's strong in ways even you can't understand." Yuuri tightened his fists as he spoke. "You didn't see him tied up and torn up the way I did." There was blood. So much blood… Yuuri scrunched his eyes closed at the memory, but then forced himself to look over to Gwendal. "He never gave in to them. He never gave in to despair. And, no matter what happens to us in the future, I will always come for Wolfram."
"This sounds like pity to me." His face was stern and set. His brother deserved better.
"Pity?" That seems like Wolfram's words. Maybe, this is where he gets it from…Gwendal. The double black straightened his shoulders back. A determined look coming to him. "No, it isn't. And, like I said, I will always come for Wolfram when he needs me."
"You can't promise this. You have only an elementary understanding of the political and social stage. For example, hypothetically, if you were forced to make a choice between turning Wolfram over to the human kingdoms or keeping Wolfram here but having a war as a consequence, under your current administration's policies you'd have to hand Wolfram over. We both know that."
"I'd find a way to keep him."
Gwendal muttered, "This is stupid."
"No, this is…love."
Günter had arranged for Marelda and Jacob's trials to be held separately in the Shin Makoku Throne Room where a silk curtain barrier had been hung in front of Yuuri's throne to give a solid red backdrop. Other furniture had been moved in—an ornately carved chair and matching ebony table for the judge, a witness stand, as well as more scaled down versions of the judge's table, in keeping with the formal occasion, and seating for the lawyers, defendants, and those wishing to watch the trial unfold. Extra guards had been posted by the doors and windows long before even the furniture arrived. Günter also hand selected the guards outside. He chose a specific "mix" of castle guards—specifically, veterans who had never worked with Jacob, and those who were too young to have ever known that Marelda was once at Blood Pledge Castle with Wolfram's father.
The first trial would be Marelda's. This was not surprising for anyone once the rumor spread that Jacob intended to testify against her. Apparently, he was going to give testimony that he only wanted a little of Wolfram's blood for the potion he was making, even though they had evidence to the contrary and almost all of his blood would be needed, and that it was Marelda who had deviated from the plan—wanting bizarre, random things like marrying the maou and chopping Wolfram's body into little pieces only to mail them off to his uncle, Waltorana.
Yuuri took an isle seat with Wolfram next to him. In fact, he had ushered the blond in with a kindly hand on his shoulder the way Gwendal always seemed to "steer" young Wolfram, and he pointed to where he wanted them to sit. Now that Wolfram was fully awake, he seemed out of it, staring vacantly at walls or the floor. His mind was somewhere else, and he didn't even notice that Günter was sitting next to him. The king's advisor looked to Wolfram, and seeing no response, leaned forward—turning his face to Yuuri only to get a vague, noncommittal shrug. Gwendal and Anissina, sitting side by side, glanced at each other with concern and then the back of Wolfram's head—almost wishing that they could see inside to learn what the blond was thinking of. It suddenly occurred to Yuuri that most of the people here were attending, not out of curiosity but as a sign of support for Wolfram. Yuuri decided that later, once they were tucked in bed, he would point that out while they cuddled. Since they got back to Blood Pledge Castle and the blond was well enough to share a bed with him, Wolfram would whisper his thoughts and dreams before drifting off, enjoying the safe feeling of being wrapped in Yuuri's arms. And Yuuri felt strong when he did it—protective. And it gave him a new sense of power that was far more satisfying than going into maou mode.
Marelda entered the room with her grey eyed, grey haired aging Mazoku lawyer and Wolfram almost immediately stiffened. He sat up higher in his seat with his face a pale, blank sheet. The hands, so callused from sword fighting, had been resting on his knees up until this point. Now, the nails dug in while the emerald eyes tried to cut into her with the kind of look that soldiers had in combat.
"Wolfram? Wolfram?" Yuuri said quietly, shaking the blond out of his thoughts.
"Hn?" He blinked owlishly. Thankfully, the fierce scowl faded from his face, which made Yuuri glad.
An arm wrapped in black cloth went around Wolfram's shoulders. Yuuri leaned in and whispered in Wolfram's ear, "We can leave if you want."
A rasped "no" came back at him.
"Then, lean on me again…like you did this morning," Yuuri said and saw the hint of a smile coming to pink lips.
"Everyone's here…No, I'd better not." He fidgeted with his fingers a little. As much flack as he'd given Yuuri about the "bench incident," he was really no better about affection in public—or anything that could be interpreted as affection. I'm such a hypocrite he thought.
Onyx eyes looked at him sincerely. He whispered again, "They won't think you're weak."
"I'm not weak. I know that," Wolfram said harshly. But Yuuri had a much better understanding of Wolfram now, through all of his life lessons. What the blond was saying was to buck himself up, not tear his fiancé down.
"Then, we agree. So, lean on me."
Still sitting behind Yuuri and Wolfram, Gwendal got the shock of his life when he saw Wolfram lean to the left and rest the side of his head against Yuuri without complaint, protest, or tears. Black hair and blond mixed. There was that typical, boyish chuckle coming from Yuuri and a gentle pat to Wolfram's cheek.
"Next time, Yuuri, you can lean on me."
"Count on it."
Marelda paced in her jail cell back and forth. Her hair, which had all of the colors of an autumn leaf, was pulled back into a pony tail which swung with every step she took. Her clothes, which were long sleeved due to the dampness, were chocolate brown right down to the boots.
Marelda's trial had taken a full week of testimony and evidence to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the things she had been accused of. Nonetheless, she felt angry and betrayed by her brother and those idiotic assassins that she had hired to work for her.
They're just trying to save their skins, that's all…
Instead of everyone taking a fair share of the blame for the plan's failure, she took the full bront of it and it pissed her off royally.
She stomped her foot, kicked the food tray that was on the floor, and continued to pace in the dimly lit cell like a brown shadow. The sconces flickered with the thin cool, draft that wandered in. Through the bars, Marelda shot a dangerous look to Sangria—who was sitting nervously on a chair perched by the exit to the dungeons. The short haired, aproned woman twisted her white lace handkerchief nervously as the guard next to her watched the pacing with little emotion.
Ignoring her lawyer's suggestion that she plead insanity and throw herself on the mercy of the king, court, and country, Marelda decided to go ahead and take credit for her part of the scheme but also decided to serve up a large portion of "blame" on the part of her smart ass brother. His trial would be coming up in two weeks. Giving testimony like that would get back at him for sure. At one point, it had become a lot of name calling—especially the part when Jacob said that her oracle wielding had led her into "dark arts" and that she wasn't responsible for her actions. "Dark arts" wielding was a load of crap in her opinion. It made her sound like a total loon. Then, he said that she went so far as to try to molest Wolfram when he was tied up. Jacob testified that he'd seen her mouth smeared with blood, and then she tried to cover it up by saying Wolfram had attacked her as a slash-mouthed ghoul.
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
Since oracle wielding, which fell under "fortune telling," was not a crime or even discouraged in demon realms, nothing that she did there was considered illegal. Even the judge herself admitted that she didn't believe it was possible for an oracle wielder to have the power to alter the outcome of present or future events. So, the wielding was ignored. But everything else that Marelda was charged with did matter: laying hands on a member of the royal family with intent to cause harm (and as a fiancé to The Demon King, Wolfram fell into the "royal" category), conspiring against the kingdom (Yes, they found her letters to Jacob regarding Wolfram's schedule and training practices.), kidnapping of a royal personage, assault (Gisela was forced to show drawings of Wolfram's injuries and scars that remained despite her best efforts.), attempted sexual assault due to the bloody kiss, and two counts of attempted murder.
I'll make them pay. They'll all pay for this! I'll push events to the worst outcome ever…even if I get lost in the penumbra and never find my way back. They will suffer! War… A war with the humans. That would be easy enough to do if I find the right people. Shin Makoku will have no chance with this feeble king.
Marelda walked back and forth. She chanted under her breath and tried to cast her mind forward—to push herself into the penumbra. Oddly, she couldn't do it. This part was the most infuriating. She had never lost her gift before. It just wasn't possible. Now that she thought about it, since the ride back to Blood Pledge Castle, she hadn't been able to oracle wield at all. At first, Marelda thought it was stress brought on by being captured, bound and gagged. That horse ride was hard on her butt, too. But, she didn't need to speak in order to use her gift unless she wanted to enter the penumbra in an awakened state. Usually, she slipped into it when she dreamed.
Marelda swished her pony tail and turned hard on her heel just as the footsteps of Murata and four burly guards reached her ears.
They entered the dungeon.
"Marelda Meiger," the sage said smoothly. He had his hands behind his back, taking steps toward the bars. He smiled blandly.
One of the guards had the oversized key and was unlocking the door. There was the sound of metal grinding against metal.
Marelda stopped, giving the slightly shorter young man her full attention. Just for a second, she felt the spark and stared with eyes widening in curiosity. He was like her—an oracle wielder. She could recognize her own kind. No, he wasn't as powerful as she was. But he was good and strong.
If I had known about this one earlier on, I would have eliminated him.
Marelda stood her ground, standing on the uneven stone floor with arms folded against her chest.
Murata took off his glasses, polished them against his shirt for a second, and then put them back on. "You're right," he murmured, "I am that and much more."
She stared at him suspiciously. "More?"
"I'm the reason why you can't oracle wield. I know you've been trying, so I wouldn't bother denying it." He came closer to the bars. "In fact, I've been blocking you for awhile now." He opened his palm showing a highly polished piece of rainbow obsidian lying in the center. "I picked this little rock up when I helped search your home for Wolfram. I guess, it was a leftover from the arrows that you made, and I picked up your aura and energy right away." He tossed the rock up in the air and caught it with his right hand. "I'm sure you know why no one uses this kind of rock for arrows anymore. Rainbow obsidian is far more valuable as a power booster for those who wield magic. Of course, alchemists prize it, too—for other reasons."
Murata smirked. This was fun. "And you almost got away with it, too. You're pretty good at changing the course of events. Oh, it's not easy, granted… It's like blowing on soap bubble. You can push events in a certain direction, but there's no real accuracy to it. And, just when you feel that it's going your way, a breeze hits and things turn out differently…and, sometimes, far more so than what you originally planned." He rested a hand on his hip. It was haughty of him, the speech that he was giving, and he knew it. "Of course, the future is not a set thing. It is something yet to be. It floats on the wind. But, you know that, too."
"Tsk." She rolled her eyes.
"Oh, yes… The reason why I'm here…which is something you don't know," Murata said with a jolly curve coming to his face. "Well, understandably, you decided to skip your sentencing. But you really shouldn't have. A lot was said about you and there was some debate."
Marelda sighed openly and impatiently. He needed to get this over with.
Murata tugged at his sleeves and pretended to smooth the creases out distractedly. "Death is the standard punishment for all of this."
"And the maou is a total pacifist," Marelda spat back. "He's afraid of his own shadow. And this will show everyone that it's true."
Onyx eyes began to harden, an impish curve came to his face. "There are parts that are kind. But there are parts that would frighten even you… if you knew."
"Then, you're dumber than you look. He's not a king, he's a man-child."
Murata looked to the guard and gave a nod. The door swung open with a rusted groan of metal on metal, but proud Marelda didn't move.
"You put Shibuya—our maou—in an impossible position. On the one hand, he had to follow the laws of the land and approve of your execution…which, by the way, was what the judge issued."
Marelda knew that was coming and had prepared herself for it. She didn't even flinch.
"On the other hand, the maou is a peace loving person. He hates to give up and he hates to see anybody die." Murata adjusted his glasses. "You see, he holds the opinion that life is an education, and it's really hard for dead people to learn anything or repent their former ways."
"A fool," Marelda said, "just like I said. He's too weak, too feeble to rule. The human kingdoms will see this for what it is and force your maou to be a man. To fight…" She took a step forward to face Murata with her arms still folded against her chest. "So, my death won't be pointless after all." She grinned at him.
Murata laughed at her. "You know, those things occurred to me, too. However, even I was surprised by the final words given to the court." He chuckled again at what had happened only an hour ago and the fact that Marelda knew none of it. "You see, after all was said and done, it is tradition to allow interested parties to have a say to the judge about the crimes committed and how they caused an impact. With the sentencing of death, and your own brother testifying against you, no one bothered to speak up…no one…except…Wolfram."
Marelda gave a kind of "blah, blah, like I really care" look to the sage.
"No, really. And can you guess what he said?"
Her brown eyes held a bored look to them, but Murata shrugged and continued anyway, "Wolfram stood up, took the stand, and told everyone that you shouldn't die. He said that you should be imprisoned, not hanged."
Marelda's face told him that she didn't care about the turn of events. Her fate was out of her hands. So, the sage was just wasting his breath. But Murata went on with, "Can you comprehend the amount of anguish he went through in order to do that? To spare Yuuri from making a decision that would have haunted him forever? And possibly bring on the wrath of the nobles as well as the human kingdoms what would have seen him as weak when he spared you?"
Marelda's brown eyes widened, the realization slowly sinking in. No! This can't be!
"It was more mercy than you deserved." Murata's happy-go-lucky tone dropped, revealing his true feelings. Then, he shook his head and straightened his shoulders. He forced his voice back into the placid sage's tones. "So, Lord Wincott, one of our kindest nobles, has graciously offered to have you as a permanent guest in a dungeon cell in his castle. He's even trained a few female guards…approved by our own expert, Lady Anissina von Karbelnikoff… and fully armed with some of her inventions…" Murata smirked at that and hoped that the inventions didn't explode—or, if they did, they'd send the blast in Marelda's direction. "Oh, yes… and one other little detail."
From behind his back, Murata pulled out a silver collar embedded with a row of pebble sized Houseki stones. The collar was shaped like a dog collar with a lock in the back, designed by Anissina of course, so that it would be impossible to take off once the lock was in place. "You've lost your power to oracle wield permanently. After all, I can't keep an eye on you forever. It's quite draining after a few days."
The sage gave one of the guards a nod. "Don't get too close to the collar," he said quietly to the man, "you'll start feeling weak right away."
The uniformed guard took Marelda by the shoulder with the intention of turning her around and forcing her to her knees so that the sage would have an easier time getting the collar on.
A silver blur came from her long sleeve. Marelda took the spork she'd hidden from her breakfast tray, with the end sharpened against the stone floor to a point, and grabbed Murata—forcing the object to his throat and making drops of blood spill down. The sage held back a groan as the warm blood ran down and her grip around his shoulders tightened with fingernails digging in painfully.
"You touch me and I'll kill him." Her eyes were on the guard. She meant business.
Murata, startled and frightened, found himself unable to move. His heart was beating hard in chest, almost rattling him. But, in front of Marelda, he wouldn't show fear and he was grateful that she could only see the back of his head and, at best, a slight angle of his profile. Murata wouldn't give her the satisfaction of seeing him afraid. No, that wouldn't happen. The sage's face paled a bit before he said, "I-I'd prefer you not. I'll just get reincarnated again and come back." He gave a nervous, boyish laugh that would not be unreasonable for any teenager. Then, Murata held perfectly still and tried to take in the situation. Much to his displeasure, he noticed that there were many sharp things besides Marelda's homemade knife. In fact, all of the guards in the dungeons had their swords drawn and aimed at them.
Not good. Definitely not good…
The grip around him tightened as Marelda shifted her weight. He suddenly realized that his arms were wrapped around his chest and the woman behind him was using him as a human shield.
"Are we going somewhere?" Murata asked.
There was an uncomfortable pause. He could feel Marelda breathing against him—breathing hard.
"In a way… I think… The plan has changed. We'll die together," Marelda said defiantly. "It's impossible for you to escape…and the same goes for me, too."
Murata forced himself to take an even breath. She's getting desperate pretty quickly. But then, she prepared herself to die here anyway.
"Better yet, just give up," Murata said evenly, "and accept this fate peacefully."
"No," she said with gritted teeth. She had the sage in her arms. She wasn't going to lose. Even if she died here in this stinking dungeon, she'd take the sage with her. He deserved it. And there was no way the guards would be quick enough to stop the inevitable.
Marelda growled in Murata's ear, "Tell them goodbye. You're about to die."
Sangria gave a little cry and covered her mouth with the handkerchief. They were both as good as dead and the looks on the guards' faces proved it.
Murata's right arm slid across his chest and under his left arm, now hanging at his side.
"Well, I tried," the sage said and thanked the heavens above for Shinou making him a total and complete perv as he reached around and pinched Marelda's nipple through her blouse.
Marelda shrieked, dropped her weapon, and, upon realizing what he'd done and why, kicked at him with a rather large brown boot—sending the sage flying against the nearest stone wall. Within seconds, the guard closest to her forced her down on her knees, skinning them on the floor in spite of the thick skirt, and Murata, still slightly dazed, slapped the collar on with a look of satisfaction.
Wolfram sighed to himself and rolled over. A clumsy hand grabbed the sheets and pulled them up over his shoulder. The blond snuggled in and sighed again. His body felt heavy now, sleep finally taking him after all of the turmoil that had happened.
Wolfram knew that he would never forget the look on Yuuri's face when he raised his hand and insisted that the court recognize him. He had something to say and he'd say it in front of the whole kingdom. News would spread that far in only a day. That was for sure.
At first, Yuuri just looked shocked, his eyes wide and his mouth open slightly. Then, pain and sadness edged in—understanding that Wolfram was reliving his experiences with Marelda. Thus, his need for justice. But Yuuri wasn't sure what to do to create that justice—to make things better for his fiancé—and that feeling was painted all over him. He was dripping wet with it.
From where he sat, Wolfram saw it. Understood it. And he knew what he had to do.
The blond looked at the judge, the lawyers, and then the rest of the courtroom. Wolfram knew his reputation. How they saw him and, oddly, how they would continue to see him without noticing the change—that Yuuri was now just as much a part of him as his very own soul was.
Wolfram took a long, slow breath to calm his nerves and began. "What Marelda did to me was vile. I was on my knees for hours…tied up… and then she beat me with the same whip that she used for her cattle."
There was grumbling in the far back corners of the room. The judge flashed a glare in that direction, but tried to keep her focus on the maou's fiancé.
"You have no idea what it's like to watch your own blood pour out of you…matting up your hair…making puddles on the floor. She thrashed me within an inch of my life, and then intended to bleed the rest until I was a husk. And, even now, I'm still not fit enough to resume my duties with my men. Not that I can't handle it. I can. All of my training as a soldier helped me through it. And a soldier from Shin Makoku can deal with anything that comes. And I'm an example of that."
There was a series of "whoops" and cheers coming from the back of the courtroom again where Wolfram's personal guard sat together as a block wearing their formal blue dress uniforms to show support. The judge cast them a stern glance this time and they all settled down.
"My last memory was bleeding in…Yuuri Heika's arms. And, if it weren't for him, using his healing magic, I would now be buried along side my forefathers in the von Bielefeld cemetery." Wolfram raised his voice so that everyone could hear. "Our maou is strong and powerful, but also kind and merciful." This time, Wolfram's eyes drifted to Gwendal. Referring to Yuuri as "heika" satisfied the formalities required in legal proceedings but the determined gaze told his older brother that Yuuri was important to him, and they both needed to recognize that openly.
"So, I ask the court, concerning Marelda Meiger…to spare her life."
There was a general gasp in the room and Yuuri's head shot up with an incredulous look on his face.
"I'm the one who is at the center of this. And I could call for her death, as our laws would clearly dictate as penalty for these crimes. But what kind of fiancé would I be if I asked for a punishment that went against what my soon-to-be husband's policies so clearly dictate? He is right. And we are of one heart and mind…in this matter."
Yuuri melted at that. Wolfram had, indeed, changed. He had matured far beyond the selfish, pretty boy that he was when they first met. And he was no longer the young man who was on the floor, bleeding with an arrow embedded in his side, uttering bitter words. Now that he was looking, really looking, Wolfram seemed slightly older, and much wiser… merciful…unbelievably merciful.
Faking confidence that he truly didn't have, Wolfram turned his head to Yuuri to get his reaction. He would be happy, of course. But what else? To be honest with himself, he didn't really know. Wolfram cocked his blond head to one side and watched closely. Then, he saw it. He could recognize it. For the first time, he could see the glow of love in onyx eyes.
He…loves me? I never thought I'd live long enough to see that in him.
Green eyes grew misty. It was worth it. It was worth everything he'd gone through: the loneliness, the despair, the terror, and the pain. Even thoughts that he would die in Yuuri's arms—the only place he would want to be when that time came. "Yuuri…" They were connected. He finally felt it—that link between them. The red thread wasn't a lie after all.
"I do not seek her execution. I ask the court to imprison her for life."
Wolfram rolled in his sleep, slowly reviewing the day's events in slow motion. They were beginning to lose color now, becoming little more than rough sketches in his mind. Though the look on Gwendal's face was priceless. He had to admit that. And Wolfram replayed that image in his head more than once.
Darkness and the feeling of falling.
Fire was coming from somewhere. No, there were fires. And not magical ones, either.
Horse hooves pounded into dirt and grass.
Darkness. It was dark outside. No moon. Only clouds.
More screams filled the night. Women. Some of them were women.
Doors and windows slammed shut.
Weapons clashed, metal against metal.
"They're burning the village! Run!"
A backdrop of fiery rain and black smoke billowing up appeared from somewhere. A blond figure, dressed in finery with a cape carelessly flung over one shoulder stared without smiling. "In spite of your best efforts, this could not be avoided. You tried, Wolfram. Accept it."
"There are some events that are simply meant to be. It's called 'Free Will'."
"When you go to this place, remember…your heart's desire will be covered in soil."
"Please, no! I'll do whatever you say. Just don't let it happen!"
Wolfram was sitting up in bed. His right arm was stretched out, hand reaching for Shinou—to grab hold of him. To force him to change everything. To see reason. Wolfram was breathing hard, sobbing before he even realized it.
"Wolf…ram?" Yuuri said cautiously, his tone concerned. "Are you awake?" He was shocked to see emerald eyes swimming in tears.
Wolfram put a hand to his head, raking back blond hair. He nodded an answer with fingers still fisted in silky strands, his voice gone. He nodded a "yes" again but didn't feel it. He squeezed his eyes shut and more tears fell down his cheeks.
"I'm fine," he rasped with a wet voice.
Yuuri reached out a hand, hesitantly, and touched Wolfram's face. He expected his fiancé to have more nightmares. So, he wasn't surprised at all—especially with the trial going on.
"It's okay," he soothed in the same tone he used for Greta's bad dreams. He leaned in to get closer and realized that their daughter had, indeed, snuck into their bed in the middle of the night. She was between them, now, with her head softly buried into a yellow bunny-shaped pillow that Gwendal made for her.
Yuuri caressed Wolfram's face with the palm of his hand. It was warm and wet. "Better now?" He got another nod. "Do you wanna talk about it?"
Wolfram put a hand against the one stroking his face. He pressed Yuuri's palm a little harder against his cheek.
"The village that I told you about? The one in Shinou's false vision…where I died?"
"Yes…" Yuuri said quietly.
"I saw it again. In my dream. It was like…I was there."
Yuuri leaned across Greta to near Wolfram's face. "A dream…that's all…"
"No, it's burning to the ground right now. All of it. A group of thugs…mindless but strong." Wolfram looked into Yuuri's face, searching for some sort of comfort but, deep down, he was afraid there would be none. "I think they're all dead."
"Wolfram…" Yuuri said the name softly and placed his arms around Wolfram's shoulders. "I think it was a dream. I really do."
"No, I saw Shinou in it. And he gave me a message." Wolfram began to sob. He buried his face against Yuuri—more warm tears trickled down, soaking into a blue pajama top.
"We'll talk about it tomorrow. Okay?" Yuuri forced his tone to be even. He didn't want worry to creep into it. But it was hard. Wolfram was never like this—ever. It had to be the trial causing this dream and these fears. He also worried that they'd wake Greta.
"What if something bad is going to happen now that I'm…with you…and happy?" He cringed at that. "I've always known that, as a soldier, my life is too dangerous to share with anyone else. Maybe, this life is too much to hope for. I'm being selfish again."
Now, Yuuri gave Wolfram a stern look. "You promised to be by my side forever, remember?"
"Always," the blond answered. "But, Yuuri…I want you to be safe."
"I want you to be happy."
"I want you…"
Yuuri cut him off with a kiss. It was soft and comforting, sweet in simplicity. He could feel Wolfram sobbing a little through it, but no more tears came. Slowly, they relaxed into each other. The double black toyed with a ringlet of blond hair.
Greta opened her eyes. Looking up to what she expected to see would be the canopy, she saw, instead, the towering figures of her fathers—arms around each other, sharing a gentle kiss.
She smiled and rolled onto her side. Tomorrow night, I'm sleeping in my own bed.
Marelda stretched out on the cot and tugged furiously at her collar over and over until the skin around her neck turned cherry red and chaffed. There was no getting the damn thing off. If she dared to let her fingers linger on the Houseki stones imbedded in it, she would feel a sharp, cold pain where the stones sapped her strength. Add to the fact that it was shaped like a dog collar…
"I'd rather die than wear this thing!" she yelled and jerked at her neck again.
There's got to be a way out of it. I'm not spending the rest of my life wearing a collar and being trapped in a cage. I've tasted freedom in the penumbra. I'm not letting go of that.
Marelda gritted her teeth and pounded the thin mattress beneath her with a fist.
"This sucks!" she hissed under her breath, not wanting the other to hear anything besides words of provocation or contempt.
Marelda flopped her body back down, trying to stare a hole right through the stone ceiling.
Something bumped under the cot and seemed to shift with a kind of swishing sound against the floor.
"Eh?" She half sat up, pushing herself on her elbows, only to see a grey mouse scurrying against one wall, leaving the cell. It charged straight for Sangria, who had been watching Marelda resting.
"Whoa! Whoa! EEEEKKK!" Sangria screeched, pulling up her skirts and scrambling up the stairs with a happy little mouse following her—jumping gleefully from step to step. It sprung again at her heels and the maid "eeked" again in an even higher pitch. Her skirts were up way past her thighs by the time she got to the top of the flight of steps and two guards, rushing to help, got nosebleeds.
Marelda laughed at that. "Stupid bitch…afraid of a little dungeon rat." She leaned back on the cot and smiled for the first time in days. Maybe, this wouldn't be so bad after all.
Two thick arms shot out of the mattress and grabbed Marelda around the waist—capturing her and pulling down with darkened hands and split nails.
She inhaled sharply, eyes impossibly wide.
"Marelda, my dear," the voice growled softly. It seemed to be coming from everywhere. "You're alone now, aren't you?"
The one from the penumbra. The one I met. It's him. He's the thing under the bed!
"You tried… to kill my sage tonight…DIDN'T YOU?" It bit out the words—both angry and vicious. Almost right in her ear.
She turned to look.
"Unlike Yuuri Heika, forgiveness is not in my nature when it comes to protecting the people that I love. And do not mistake me, I love my sage…love him with a passion…and will do so until the end of time."
The hands tore at her clothes—ripping them and digging in filthy nails.
Her eyes widened and she struggled, tilting her head towards the ceiling as she screamed "Guards?! Guards!"
"They can't hear you, my lady." The laugh that followed was cruel, sadistic.
Marelda struggled anyway, clawing at the hands pulling her down.
"Dungeon rat," Shinou growled at her. The arms forced Marelda's body into the mattress. "Laughing at a stupid bitch…"
With a defiant howl, she felt her soul being torn out of her body and into the penumbra where it wandered aimlessly and alone—slowly going mad.
The next morning, Yuuri was at his usual table, signing a stack of papers that Gwendal had already pre-approved. Not surprisingly, Wolfram was his shadow, having pulled up a plush chair and sitting to his left. He was reading a book called The History of Political Philosophy and Its Correlation to Battlefield Stratagems in Shin Makoku.
Yuuri smiled at the angelic face with a button nose stuck in a book. He always knew Wolfram was smart.
"That's one of the books I'm supposed to read for my lessons today."
The blond turned the page with great interest. He ran his finger across a few paragraphs. "It's a good one. You'll start out with Shinou's Directives, move on to Social Contract Theory, and then…"
"Die of boredom…?" Yuuri chuckled a bit at his joke.
"No," Wolfram grumbled under his breath.
He got a coy glance from a double black hiding behind a stack of papers.
The blond saw it and lowered his head with a slight peachy tinge to his cheeks. Trying not to appear flustered, he went on. "I'd study anything in bold or italics. The maps are good, too. And, if you get stuck for an answer, just tell Günter that the political ideas of the day influenced the way we went to war."
That earned him a smile.
"Maybe, I should have you study with me from now on."
Wolfram shrugged at that with a thin smile. "Maybe you should. I can teach you a few things."
Yuuri leaned forward and whispered seductively, "I'll look forward to it."
He gave a typical "humph" and turned his head away. "You're all talk and no action."
Yuuri's eyes widened. "Talk about bold." He had to hold his breath to stop himself from laughing when a very embarrassed Wolfram lowered his head again and pretended to read the book's fine print.
"You forgot to add 'wimp' to that last sentence."
Yuuri reached around the stack of papers and took his hand. They both smiled.
There was hard banging on the door. The knocking was long, loud, and persistent.
The magic of the moment broken, Wolfram hung his head in frustration. Yuuri saw and chuckled inwardly at that. Being with me means that much to you. I'm glad.
"Come!" Wolfram ordered with a very cross tone before Yuuri could say anything.
"And just who is 'maou' around here anyway?" he grumbled but in a good natured way, hoping to cheer his fiancé up.
Wolfram shrugged and wanted to release Yuuri's hand, but the double black held on. "You'll just have to learn to be a little more affectionate in public."
The blond leaned forward and whispered "Exhibitionist."
Yuuri raised a black eyebrow with mock surprise. His "wolf" gave him a challenging, sadistic smirk and then turned to where a soldier was standing at attention in the doorway.
The man gave a swift bow and said, "We have received word about the village that you had under observation, Lord von Bielefeld."
"The same," he gave a nod. "We have word that early this morning, it was attacked and burned to the ground. The villagers fought bravely, but…"
Wolfram dropped the book he was holding. It tumbled off the edge of the desk and clattered to the floor, spine up and pages bent. A shaking hand went for it, making two swipes before finally clutching the tome and pulling it into his lap.
"I see…" he said dryly. "Then, call forth my personal guard and order them to wait for me at the stables. We'll go and investigate."
"Hold that order," Yuuri barked with a tone that was harsh, even for him. The dream was real! No! I can't believe it. He turned to the blond, slamming his fists on the desk and making the papers jump. Anger written on his face. "I'll agree to an investigation, but…You're not going!" He pointed a finger at his fiancé.
"I have to…but I want YOU to stay here." Wolfram's mind flashed back to Shinou's message. He suppressed a shiver.
"W-o-l-f-r-a-m!" Yuri growled out.
"I'm going!" the blond bellowed, storming off on the direction of the door with the soldier standing in it. As he approached, Wolfram glared a warning at the man who had a very perplexed expression on his face—not knowing what to do. On the one hand, the soldier was very well aware that Yuuri could turn into the maou and then he'd die from being crushed by water dragons. On the other hand, Wolfram could conjure a fire lion and have it chase him around the courtyard, giving his butt third degree burn-bites.
"I'm going and that's the end of it. I'll meet them at the stables," Wolfram ordered while running past the guard in the direction of the bedroom to fetch his sword. The blond was bent on facing this nightmare, not fleeing from it. It was something that he simply had to do, or the dream would haunt him forever.
Only a few steps behind, Yuuri, just as determined, jogged after his fiancé with fury burning in his heart. "I'm not letting you do this!" he shouted, soon passing Yozak and Conrad without so much as a glance or even a "good morning."
The pair froze in the hall, curious eyes tracking the retreating royal couple.
"No, I'M NOT!" The voice boomed.
"See reason, or…or…" Yuuri stammered.
"I'll order you to stay!"
"You and what army?!"
"Gee, I don't know, Wolfram. I suppose I'll use the one MARCHING OUTSIDE!"
The door to their bedroom opened with such force that it swung all the way and the handle smacked into the wall with a deafening BANG.
"You can't tell me what to do! I'm not a twenty year old or something!" Wolfram shouted with a bloody edge to it, planting his feet solidly. His fists were balled up at his sides, emitting red sparks, and steam began to rise from his body.
"You behaved better as a twenty year old! So, stop being stupid!"
"Stupid?! You're the one being stupid!"
Yuuri looked around them and saw the gathering, vastly amused, crowd. "Don't you dare burn me," he growled as he grabbed his fiancé by the hand—leading the blond into the bedroom.
"I'd never burn you," Wolfram returned with a tearful anger as he disappeared through the doorway.
An irate, "You forgot to add 'wimp' to that, Wolf-chan!" came back at him.
"Oi! Don't call me 'chan'—whatever that means! So, do not PISS ME OFF!"
A fireball was volleyed out the doorway and into the wall opposite.
The door slammed shut.
Yozak turned to Conrad. Blue eyes danced into soft brown ones. "Should we break up the fight?" the spy asked with a quirky grin.
"Hmmm…good question." Conrad thought about it and stroked his chin a little as he kept his gaze on the bedroom door in the distance. A secretive smile coming to him.
Then, there was the sound of sliding metal followed by a "thunk"—the very audible sound of a heavy deadbolt being thrown. The locked door was tested. It rattled twice.
"On the other hand, they may not be fighting at all by now," Yozak said with a wink. Then, he thought about it a little more. He chuckled and placed one hand behind his head boyishly.
With the show over, groups of maids chattered idly as they passed by. Greta skipped down the hallway after her red ball—which was rolling away at top speed. Anissina, with her newest invention in her hands, was making a beeline for Gwendal's office. The murmuring of voices grew to a pitch and, just as quickly, tapered off.
Conrad was still watching the door and gave no reply. Yozak narrowed his eyes at that a bit and continued with a hint of mischief, "Well, if they're anything like us…" He neared his captain and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Those kiddos will make up soon…Ahh…but that's the best part."
"Is there an 'us'?" Conrad asked playfully.
"Do you want to see that leather cat suit with the lace-up back again?" he threatened.
Conrad began to sweat nervously, eyes darting around the emptying hallway. "There's an 'us'."
One hour later, Wolfram and Yuuri emerged with a better attitude, a change of clothes and smelling strongly of honey nectar lotion.
Yuuri had grumbled, insisted, and, finally, roped in Yozak and Conrad into the very one-sided conversation before Wolfram relented and agreed to let them all come along. Morgif moaned pathetically, just awakened from his mid-morning nap in the Treasure Room, while being unceremoniously strapped onto Yuuri.
It was annoying. No, they were all annoying! Wolfram cast the trio a sharp look and then headed for the stables where he knew his men were waiting for them. At least, they could act maturely…sometimes.
"I suppose you've all heard where we're going and why," Wolfram said in a raised voice to his men, feeling slightly guilty for making his own guard wait for so long. Then again, considering what he was doing all that time with Yuuri, it was worth it. He smirked to himself.
"Yes, and we are with you," Gerard said dramatically, tucking a strand of his beautiful, soft hair behind his ear. The man walked the last few steps with Wolfram, stopped, and offered him his hand to steady his superior officer as he tried to get on his horse. Gerard was handsome, well connected socially, and a peacock, but he was also keenly observant. Wolfram's gait was not that of a man who had made it back to the peak of performance. Clearly, he was hurting. Everything in his stride spoke of that.
Gerard's eyes flashed in Yuuri's direction as he offered Wolfram a hand in getting on.
"I can do this," Wolfram said quietly, ignoring the hand held out to him. Instead, he gripped his ribs tightly as he swung a leg over the side of his horse. Wolfram held back a groan and forced his face to be slack. It didn't work, though. No one was fooled. There were glances among the guard. The men worried about Wolfram, but didn't say anything to dishonor him or to make him feel uneasy. The situation was uncomfortable enough as it was. Nonetheless, it tore at them to see Wolfram in such a state and pushing himself to face an unknown enemy.
Yuuri frowned at the scene a little. He knew that Wolfram loved him. There was no doubt about that. But he would have to get used to Wolfram's guard being like this, both fretting over him and adoring him. It was just the way things were.
The light bulb turned on. Wait a minute… Maybe there is something he thought impishly and turned to the soldier closest to Wolfram with a knowing smile.
The group rode down the lane with a sandy haired soldier in front who knew the way to Juergen Village intimately because he had an ex-girlfriend who lived in the neighboring town. The rest of the soldiers shot teasing remarks at him for that, which made the man annoyed. He didn't like being teased in front of Wolfram. It felt bad. It made him look like a tart.
Yuuri and Wolfram rode in the middle with Yozak and Conrad behind them and more of Wolfram's private guard following up the rear.
"But I don't get it, Yuuri," Wolfram said with a confused look and an arm bracing his ribs tightly. They had to travel slower because of the ache from being jostled on the horse. And the blond soldier hated that. "Why did you send Gerard back to the castle to tell Gwendal where we were going? That's the kind of thing I'd assign a rookie to do…or maybe a stable hand or maid…or something. You've just insulted him, and he's an elite veteran soldier among this guard, mind you." Wolfram's voice wasn't loud. It was almost conversational. But, Yuuri got the distinct feeling from the men riding near him that he had committed a faux pas.
The double black thought quickly and said, "Remember that 'vision' you got from Shinou?"
Wolfram nodded. He also noticed that the other men were listening but pretending not to. The blond smirked to himself. He was no fool as to what was happening, but he decided to let it continue if that was what Yuuri wanted to do.
"Well, you mentioned Gerard covered in blood."
All of the men in the guard paled at that. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the exchange of looks when he turned to watch Wolfram's stern profile.
"Yes, I saw that in the vision," the blond admitted reluctantly. He gripped his ribs tighter and tried not to wince.
"Thus, we've already changed things. If Gerard is nowhere to be seen, then there's no way he can be covered in blood." He forced Ao into a bit of a "victory" trot. He was proud of himself for the excuse—even if it had been partially true. "No Gerard" meant "No Gerard around Wolfram today." It felt good.
"Covered in blood? Ummm…Wolfram?" Conrad called from behind. The blond tried to turn in the saddle to glare at him only to grab his ribs and double over with a gasp.
Immediately, Yuuri reached a hand out and touched Wolfram. The fun was over. "Take it easy," he said seriously. "I want to keep you in one piece."
The blond nodded back to him, forcing air into his lungs. "What do you want, Conrad?" Wolfram said huffing, without turning this time.
"I think Gwendal will be wanting a full debriefing on this little incident. So, you'd better be prepared for that."
"Of course," Wolfram said in his typical, bratty tone that he reserved for his older brother. "He'll learn what he needs to."
"I see…" Conrad said, "So, I suppose, our reports will be the same."
"Same?" Wolfram said in a hollow voice.
"Yes, I intend to give Gwendal one as well."
Wolfram rolled his eyes at that. This sucks.
They turned a u-shaped bend and took a left through the wooden gates that were swinging off their hinges.
"We're here," Yuuri said quietly as they entered the village.
"Welcome to Hell," Wolfram added darkly.
It was still smoldering. The village square's modest little fountain that had goldfish in it was the only thing standing tall enough to greet them. But the stone was chipped in several places and the top of the fountain, which had a carved statue of a white tailed deer, was broken off—the pieces carelessly thrown into the water. The fish nibbled at the rubble, wondering if anything was edible.
The smell of burnt wood and death grew stronger. Fighting nausea, Wolfram urged his horse to go farther in at a trot. He was seeing everything and nothing. The scenes before him matched up perfectly with the vision that Shinou had shown him in the water mirror of his own death. Had Yuuri seen it, the way he did, there would be no way that the double black would even allow him to be here. It was only through sheer will, stubbornness, and the companionship of Conrad and Yozak that he was able to come at all. Wolfram knew this only too well. He was not so naïve as to believe differently.
The white steed passed houses that had been burned down to the foundations. Used matchstick remains of barns teetered, threatening to fall on the charred earth below. Hay for the livestock had been burned, too. What seemed to be animal carcasses littered the dirt roads and pastures. They had been butchered and roasted on crude, makeshift fires. So, the attackers did more than just ransack the homes, burn the village, and murder the citizens. They ate hunks of the livestock, too, and killed the rest of the animals—leaving the bodies to swell and rot among the flies.
"Status report," Wolfram said with a hard edge to the nearest soldier. The man had a small cart and was transporting barrels of water.
"My superior officer," he pointed to the left. He hoped that answer would be satisfactory. He was wrong.
"I'm asking you, not him," Wolfram barked with green eyes that sparkled malevolently.
"Yes sir!" he gave a respectful bow. "We're recovering the dead and placing them in a makeshift morgue by the old blacksmith's shop. Others on the scene here have been assigned to search the area for survivors. My commanding officer has just finished questioning the man you assigned to watch the village."
"And the water?" Wolfram tilted his head in the direction.
"The bandits poisoned the well before running away. I got this from one of the villages north of here so that we have something to drink."
"Fine," Wolfram said. And, with a kick, he urged his horse forward. With one arm, he braced his ribs again, but what he was really doing was hugging himself.
These people were terrified. I saw it…their last moments.
Yuuri pulled up along side him. He was still worried. Wolfram was acting strangely, almost in his own world and cut off from the rest of them. He was afraid that if he didn't do something, Wolfram's soul would be out of reach. "Can I talk to you?" he asked.
"Of course, I'm your fiancé," the blond said quietly, but his voice had trailed off.
Yuuri jumped down from Ao and waited patiently for Wolfram to do the same. The second the blond's feet hit the ground, he made another grab for his ribs and rasped, "That one hurt." Yuuri, grabbing his forearm, murmured a quiet, "Are you okay?" He got a sharp nod and even sharper eyes. The second Wolfram straightened up, Yuuri took his fiancé by the shoulder and steered him in the direction of a place away from everyone, but still within full sight of Conrad and Yozak. From the size of the smoldering foundation, it was a place where a large house once stood. Only the root cellar with wooden doors across it and the trees lining the property still remained.
"Look," he said putting a gentle hand on Wolfram's shoulder. "I think that what Shinou showed you was a lie. You know, the best lies are based on truth—a twisted truth. And, I'm sure that what Shinou showed you was just a way of getting you and me to see that we…"
"…Need each other..."
The blond noticed that Yuuri was really shy with "need each other" but that he meant it.
Yuuri blushed a little but continued. "In his own bizarre way, Shinou was trying to make us recognize that we belong together."
Wolfram said quietly, "I suppose you're right." He scanned the remains of the village again—taking everything else in.
Yuuri followed Wolfram's lead—looking around at the smoldering remains of the village. "I know that this is the absolute worst situation to tell you this… And I've been trying to find a 'perfect time,' but I can't. And I really need to tell you…"
Wolfram eyed him curiously. What did his wimp want to say?
He dug the toe of his shoe into the soft earth awkwardly. "I've thought about this before… When I left through the vortex for Earth, for what I thought was the final time, and I said 'sayonara,' I couldn't look at you. I couldn't look back. I said sayonara…but I didn't really mean it. I know I said it, but my heart didn't. Does that make any sense? You're the only person I can't say 'goodbye' to."
Yuuri's hand stroked Wolfram's. Then, the double black linked his pinkie finger with his fiancé's. It was subtle—a sweet and innocent gesture. Totally Yuuri. The blond turned away slightly to hide the grin he couldn't suppress.
It didn't work. Yuuri was good at reading his fiancé. "I'm glad Shinou's vision was a lie. I need you in my life, Wolfram."
That got him a grin—a wide one.
"And one other thing…I wanted to say," Yuuri said, feeling his heartbeat quickening. I have to say this. I want to. And, right now, he needs to hear it. Yuuri resisted the urge to twiddle his thumbs or play with his fingers anxiously. He'd never confessed his feelings to anyone before. But he knew that he would not be rejected. Their hearts were the same and their souls linked.
"Wolfram, I lo-"
There was a snap. Wolfram heard it. A twig snapped behind the tree.
His eyes taking everything in. It all fit. He'd seen it before. The images all snapped into place.
The vision! I'm standing right where…I…die…
"Oh, hell!" Wolfram shouted, shoving Yuuri backwards while Morgif moaned a series of warning cries to his clueless master.
There was no time to conjure fire. He smoothly drew his sword with the metallic sound that Wolfram had come to expect. And, without hesitation, he charged into the thick brush behind a tree, disappearing behind a leafy barrier.
Metal clashed and there were grunts. The sound of dirt kicking up and a little brown cloud of it mixed with ash floated.
"Wolfram?!" Yuuri shouted, panicked. He forced himself to stand even though his legs were wobbling beneath him.
It drew the attention of Conrad, Yozak, and some nearby soldiers. They turned and ran for Yuuri with swords at the ready—yelling demands to know what was going on.
"Wolfram!" He shouted again, feeling his happiness slipping away. His future…. Would he even have one after this moment?
There was a scream. It was Wolfram.
His blood ran cold.
"Morgif," Yuuri said with determination, "Let's go!" Yuuri slid the heavy demon sword from its sheath and charged. With each step, his hair grew longer and his eyes darkened. There were black slits. The body shifted, growing slightly and with more defined muscles, feet slamming into the ground like a batter running for home. Blue energy crackled around him, pulsing with the rotation of the blue bands of light.
I need you to save Wolfram, Yuuri begged in his heart. One more time…please!
Rushed steps continued, avoiding debris and tall weeds.
No, was the answer, we will save our beloved…together.
Morgif was raised to strike the male figure dressed in black and brown with a ragged hood over his face. His sword was striking Wolfram's.
As one, Yuuri answered the maou, together…we'll do it!
Wolfram and the stranger had their swords crossed and pressed together. Wolfram's plan was to draw as near to the enemy as possible and then kick the stupid man away—preferably in the crotch. A shadow above them blocking the sun told them that they were not alone. They suddenly noticed the presence of another person rushing down at them. Both Yuuri and The Demon King held onto Morgif and swung hard, knocking the bandit back.
Wolfram's jaw dropped as he stepped away with a dazed expression. The Demon King stood there with bands of energy swirling. The powerful bands struck the trees and the shrubbery—sending blasts of plant debris away from them. Conrad, Yozak, and five of Wolfram's elite guards watched, almost terrified, at the scene. When it seemed safe enough, they approached with caution, not wanting to draw the wrath of the long haired maou.
Wolfram, a bloody slash mark on his cheek, watched in wonder. This was the power of his fiancé but it wasn't the only part of Yuuri that he was in love with. Nonetheless, it was an awesome thing to watch as the enemy dropped the sword, doubled over, and groveled at his feet.
Sharp eyes looked down on the man before him. "As the 27th Maou of Shin-Makoku, I, Shibuya Yuri, pass judgment on you for the attempt on my beloved's life."
The winds picked up even higher as the man's hood fell back. It was a human, in his early forties, who had a face like tanned leather with deep scars on his forearms and hands. This one was tough, determined, and knew what he wanted. He also knew that he failed.
"I do not accept your judgment, demon. I will make one of my own!" he shouted back above the roar. He reached down into his boot and pulled out a small dagger. He placed it to his own throat and made a hard cut. Blood flew in the wind and his body crumpled immediately.
Wolfram turned his face away before it happened. He could see it coming, but he was equally sure that Yuuri probably didn't and would need some comforting later because of it. When faced with failure, a few of the veteran bandits were known to do this. And, yes, he found some measure of pity coming from somewhere for this strange man who was his "would be" assassin. But, that pang of pity aside, the blond never found taking one's own life honorable. Wolfram preferred to fight to the last with a sword in hand. At least, you would go to the afterlife with the knowledge that you tried.
The winds died down and Yuuri sunk to his knees, shaking hard as he transformed back. This really wasn't the outcome that he had expected. It never occurred to him that the man would end things this way.
Yuuri's body sagged. His form slowly shifted back to short, boyish hair and soft features. Dark eyes filled with tears. He'd failed. That's what it felt like.
Gingerly, Wolfram touched the bleeding cut on his face as he took even, and very painful strides in Yuuri's direction. It was time to escort his wimp back to the castle. Maybe, he could get the double black to take a long bath and then he'd give Yuuri another back rub like he got earlier today after their argument. Of course, the make out session that would probably follow, just as it had this morning, would be fun as well. Wolfram cursed his bruised ribs. Now, they hurt even more than they did when he woke up this morning. Just breathing was painful. He must have done something to himself when fighting that goon. Then, the thought occurred to him. Maybe, Yuuri could give HIM a little TLC with some healing magic. He'd probably be well in no time after that. The blond wore a sexy smile at the thought.
Wolfram stopped. He shifted his gaze to the dirt covered cellar doors. There was another "thump" and the metallic rattling of something hollow, maybe a bucket, rolling around inside.
Oh, no! Not another one!
He drew his sword.
Wolfram, weapon at the ready, ran towards the danger. Forcing himself to leave instead what his heart wanted—to run to Yuuri's side and shield him.
In the dream, Shinou talked about my "heart's desire." I won't lose Yuuri to these people the way we lost the whole village. I will not watch him die. I will not bury him. He blinked back tears. If this is the end, then I'll go first, Yuuri. And I'll wait for you across the river. As long as it takes, I'll wait. He rubbed away tears with the heel of his hand. Join me when you've lived long enough…when you're a very old man. I just hope you'll still want me after all that time…that I'll still mean something to you.
"You can't have Yuuri," he breathed. Wolfram placed two fingers to his temple and uttered the words with a renewed determination, accepting what was to come, "All the beings that make up the element of fire, obey this brave Mazoku who summons you!" He made a sweeping motion with ribbons of flame flowing from his hands. He hurled the fireball at the doors to the shed and they exploded. Dirt rained down.
The blast caught everyone's attention.
As exhausted as he was, his head shot up and turned in the direction of the now smoldering doors that the blond entered. "Wolfram! No! Stop!" he shouted as Conrad took a limp arm and tried to steady his godson on shaky feet.
Yozak was already on his way—his faun colored tunic rustling against his well-built frame. Wolfram's elite guard gathered from all over the village, sensing the power of Wolfram's magic.
"Conrad, let's go!" he said.
With a grain of satisfaction, he saw Conrad draw his sword. They needed Wolfram back. That was all there was to it.
Nearing the smoldering doorway, Yuuri pushed people aside, not caring who they were. He was too focused on his fiancé anyway.
The cellar was cool and dark on the inside. It seemed to have a dirt floor, walls made of stone and mortar, and the framed structure of a wooden shed perched on top. There were light brown baskets filled with vegetables, mostly potatoes and carrots, with two small shelves that had containers of rock salt, jam, and salted herring. Lighting the interior, Yuuri saw the glow of three baseball sized fireballs hovering in mid air.
"Wolfram!" Yuuri practically shouted from the smoldering doorway, still upset. "What were you thinking?!" He was overjoyed, furious, relieved, and annoyed all at once.
Wolfram turned from his work. His sword was sheathed and he seemed to be untangling something from a thick coil of rope.
"Sorry, Yuuri…" he said distractedly.
"Sorry?! That's all you have to say?" Okay, they were going to start their next argument right here and now. It didn't matter who was listening in.
Then, Wolfram sat the little figure up. It was filthy, covered in dirt. The blue clad soldier took out his canteen and poured—much to Yuuri's surprise.
"Wolfram, what are…you…?" He entered the cellar and ducked under the first fireball. "This is…" His eyes stared in wonder as Wolfram washed the filth away with gentle strokes of his hand to reveal yellow, matted hair. Brown eyes, so dark that they were practically black, blinked up at him innocently. The double black's first thought was a sunflower.
"I think," Wolfram said while picking up the baby, "we've found the sole survivor."
"So it is," Yuuri said as a sigh, suddenly realizing that his fears had left him. It was a relief. This was over. Then, glancing around them he added, "Let's go, Wolfram. It's time to leave."
Two pairs of feet clomped up the simple wooden steps. They emerged from the cellar into the bright light. Yuuri noticed the looks from Conrad and Yozak. They, too, were surprised at the outcome.
"It's a…baby…" Conrad said, still trying to wrap his mind around the odds of one surviving the attack.
"The mother probably hid it in there when the raid started," Yozak said with some regret, remembering his own difficult childhood. He felt a warm hand on his back and gave a wry smile. The orange haired man murmured a quiet "thank you."
Passing a group of his elite guard, Wolfram walked with Yuuri at his side. Their horses, not being tied, had been startled at the first sign of trouble. But, later, they wandered off to the fountain for a drink during all the fiery chaos. The goldfish avoided their noses.
Tiny brown eyes met with green ones.
My heart's desire…that's what this is…
"Yuuri?" Wolfram said with a determined edge while running his fingers through the shock of blond baby hair to get a dirt clod out of it. "I'm keeping the baby."
Yuuri stopped in his tracks and stared, with his jaw practically on the ground. Wolfram took several more paces towards the horses alone and then turned with his head tilted to one side. With the morning light shining on them, Wolfram and the small child were a matched set—both golden, wan, and fragile. The infant in Wolfram's arms seemed so right. One complemented the other, holding and being held.
The baby's filthy apricot colored shirt and lacy diaper cover were smudging dirt and half dried mud clumps all over Wolfram's impeccable uniform. But Wolfram didn't care in the slightest. He cuddled the baby anyway. Chubby legs swung gleefully.
Yuuri smiled to himself and scratched his head. "I don't know why I'm surprised." He shrugged and then stepped lively to catch up with his fiancé. The two walked away, elbow to elbow. But it wasn't enough. Yuuri wanted—no, needed—more. With a nod of acceptance, knowing it was the right thing to do, he slid an arm gently around Wolfram's waist and leaned into him softly.
"But, you know what this means, right?" He said the words quietly into a shell-like ear and then, with his other hand, brushed dirt off of the baby's cheek.
"No," Wolfram said, confused. There was a growing frown between his brows.
"Well, with you and me and two kids, I'm definitely going to need to make an honest man out of you." He grinned at that. "It makes me wonder how quickly your mother and mine can plan a wedding."
Wolfram grinned. "A wedding…" he said with a glow. Then, he looked at the baby again. It was sitting up in his arms with pudgy hands patting his neck. He lifted his chin and the baby started to play with the silver antique neckchain. Next, the baby turned to Yuuri and said "Bah!" A tiny hand gripped the finger of the double black when it was offered.
"Well, I wonder what kind of wielder the baby will be?" Wolfram mused while rubbing his nose against a tiny button nose. The baby giggled.
They got to the horses and stopped.
"I wonder what we'll name her," Yuuri said with a contemplative, questioning tone. "Naomi? Ayami? Ai?"
Wolfram pulled back the diaper and looked in owlishly. "I'd name him Ken."