solving problems

The problem with trying to find a quiet place for a bit of private discussion in Houtoujou was the number of people looking for exactly the same thing.

Doku had noticed the growing wrinkles of furrowed thought on his Prince's brow, the downturn of his Prince's compressed lips, the thousand-yard stare in his Prince's eyes, the twitch in his Prince's cheeks whenever they ran across his stepmother or her pet mad scientist, and, most of all, the way that his Prince kept on sinking into the cushions and trying to hide under the newspaper when Lirin came bouncing in and demanding to go hunt the Sanzou-ikkou some more.

Some downtime seemed to be called for. Some quiet time. Some time alone. Some time without even Yaone, who (Doku reassured himself) would no doubt be pleased to have peace and quiet to work on her distillations and alchemical compounds. Some time with the door locked.

He and Kou were just getting down to a bit of innocent and sincere discussion on philosophy in Kou's private chambers when Zakuro crashed through the ceiling.

There was a long pause.

"Really bad wormwood infestation you've got in the ceiling," Zakuro said hopefully. "I was just walking along on the floor above, and quite without expecting it, I find myself landing in bed with the two of you --"

Unfortunately, the hole that he left in the window (after Doku had thrown him through it) created a significant draught, and it was impossible to have sincere discussions on philosophy with the wind whistling in and ruffling the silk sheets all over the place.

They relocated to Doku's room.

"That's a lot of steel on the walls," Kou said.

"I take great pride in my sword collection, your highness," Doku answered.

They'd just got to the point where Kou was checking over Doku's big sword and giving it a thorough polish, when Zakuro walked in through the door (which Doku knew he'd locked).

"Er," he said. "This isn't the Light Taupe Dungeon, is it? No, please excuse me, I'll be leaving . . ."

Cursing Zakuro's timing, and Her Majesty's habit of colour-coding the dungeons and torture chambers, Doku took Zakuro by the seat of the pants and emptied him down the garderobe.

His beloved prince was drooping. This wouldn't do. Doku tried to think of a part of the castle that was absolutely, totally, utterly impenetrable by any casual passers-by.

One came to mind.

"I don't recognise this room," Kou said, looking round at the heavy metal bars and chains. "And I thought I knew every room in the castle."

"Aha," Doku said proudly. "You're a prince, your highness. You don't go near the kitchens or the storerooms. You couldn't be expected to know that there exists a room in the castle specifically for storing, um," he checked the sign on the door, "Renegade Pets Of Taoist Immortals Who Have Temporarily Assumed Human Form And Menace Scripture-Seekers On Their Days Off."

"No," Kou said. "I didn't."

"But now we're quite alone," Doku said, locking the door firmly and sliding the bolts and bars.

"Indeed we are," Kou said, smiling for the first time in months.

"And now," Doku said, "just let me get this coat off, and --"

There was a cough from the ornamental vase in the corner. Very slowly, Zakuro's head rose above the rim.

"If you don't provide a very good explanation," Kou said dangerously, while Doku dangled Zakuro by the scruff of his neck, "I am going to personally deliver you to Nii Jieni as an experimental subject."

"But if I don't have you under observation at all times," Zakuro whimpered, "your stepmother's going to do that anyhow."

"That is a difficult situation," Kou said. "Very difficult. I see the problem."

"You do?" Zakuro whined hopefully.

"Fortunately," Kou said, "there is a way to resolve it."

Ten minutes later, listening to the screaming in the distance, Doku said, "You know, Kou . . ."

"Yes?" his prince enquired.

"Did it really solve his problem to chain him and Lirin together and send them off to play tag with the Sanzou-ikkou?"

"No," Kou said, "but it solved our problem. For at least the next hour."

"Then we'd better not waste it," Doku said, locking and barring the door.