Very sorry for the extremely long wait for this chapter. Here, at long last, is the end. I hope that you enjoy.
Kyoko slipped into the chair behind the desk with a reminiscent sigh. She still had some vague memories of when she had been too small to heave herself onto this seat and large hands had hoisted her up, settling her into a lap that was more than willing to hold her while its owner worked. She remembered the smell of her father, the sound of his voice, his laugh, the twinkle in his eyes when he found her mingling with his staff and learning their trades.
"I'm home…" she whispered to the empty space, and she almost could have sworn a voice answered her. But she could not make out any distinct words and decided it must just be a memory.
Her fingers traced the rich trim on the dark mahogany desk, her mind calling up memories of turning the knots into people and places, telling stories in the swirls. The room still smelled like him, just a little. Under all of the dust she could still feel him there. Those were his books that he had loved, that was the candle that he always worked by, the quill he always used, the wax that he sealed all of his letters with. All of it remained, almost untouched. All but the portrait that her sisters had cleaned and returned to its place on the desk. The place where every time he even glanced up, he would have seen it. Seen her.
She was glad to be home. She had enjoyed her stay with the Duke and had had a very hard time parting with Maria when it had come time for her to leave after a couple of weeks. But leave she did. There was work for her at home, and she needed to do it. And maybe, if she could get it done quickly enough-
Kyoko discarded that thought with a shake of her head. Kanae had not yet dragged her into the details of the work that was going on outside the keep and Chiori had only passingly mentioned the workers that were bustling about inside her old home, repairing things, but Kyoko knew how big this project was. Revitalizing her home. Making the entire area a livable place again, and not just for her. She had been given the rest of today to recuperate from her journey and plod through her memories, but tomorrow was time for work. No distractions. Especially not tall, blonde, and handsome ones.
A soft knock sounded on the door and Kyoko was shaken from her reverie.
"Come in," she invited, dragging herself back to the present. The door opened to reveal one of the new servants, informing her it was time for supper. "Thank you," Kyoko answered with a warm smile. The servant, a young woman about Kyoko's age, returned the smile timidly and retreated.
"Ah, there you are!" Lory welcomed Kyoko as she entered the dining room. "You've been hiding since we got here. Were you resting?"
"Oh no," Kyoko answered pleasantly. "I was in my father's study, looking at his old things."
The Duke smiled sympathetically and gestured for her to take her seat at the table. Kanae and Chiori were still standing, but Saena, silent and not looking at anyone, was already seated at the lower end of the table. Kyoko walked over to her stepmother and curtsied appropriately.
"Good evening, Lady Saena," she said calmly. Saena shifted slightly to nod her head at her stepdaughter.
"Good evening, Lady Kyoko," she responded stiffly. Kanae growled under her breath and Lory shook his head sadly. Kyoko hesitated before she nodded primly and moved to her seat. Dinner was a quiet affair, conversation being held softly. Kanae and Chiori questioned Kyoko and the Duke about their trip. It was odd, but even though her sisters barely knew Lory, they were comfortable around him. A bit leery of his idiosyncrasies, but comfortable none the less. Kyoko related several anecdotes about her adventures with Maria, and the Duke entertained everyone with stories from his past.
"I don't think Kuoki had ever thought a woman was willing to hit him," he told the group of giggling girls as he shamelessly related his son's first time meeting Lina. "But she called him three kinds of stupid and demanded to know who gave him the right to reproach her for living. I've never seen my son as shocked as he was then. I told him the moment she flounced off in a huff that he was going to marry her." The girls snickered in an unladylike fashion and at the far end, Saena sniffed disdainfully.
"I imagine he was so pleased," Kyoko interjected. Lory chuckled darkly.
"Oh, he just shook his head and rolled his eyes. Which made it even better when he came back a month later and told me that he was going to marry her. He has trouble accepting his father's brilliance." The girls shared an understanding look.
After supper the group divided. Kyoko, though she could not be brought to admit it, was exhausted after all of her travels and went straight to bed after asking to be woken by a certain time the next morning. Lory returned to his room, but stayed up for a while longer, composing a letter that he had been intentionally delaying writing to his anxious monarchs. It would be deviously full of a load of tripe and carefully devoid of any valuable information and would drive Kuu and Juliena mad with frustration. Kanae and Chiori retreated to the bookroom to compose their reports for Kyoko, and Saena disappeared to her new room in the tallest tower.
Her daughters had thought it a fitting place for her.
Kyoko woke the next morning and felt ten years old. She was in her own room, she had slept in later than usual, and all of her baggage had been carelessly tossed around the night before as she had searched for her nightgown. The whirlwind appearance of her chambers was so childish, she could not repress the giggle that escaped when she sat up and looked around. Not that she had ever been a messy child, but this nightmare was going to be very troublesome to clean up.
There was no time like the present, so Kyoko got to work organizing her mess, sorting what had to be pressed before it was put away, and placing items back where they belonged. She was still hard at work when the servant from the evening before entered her room to wake Kyoko. The young woman let out a gasp when she saw Kyoko carefully laying out dresses on top of a bed that had already been made.
"My Lady, if you had told us the mess was distasteful, we could have-" Kyoko cut her off.
"It's fine," she said with a smile, wishing Kanae or Chiori had explained her habits before she arrived. "Father taught me that anything you can do you should, and I've always taken care of my packing when I travel." The girl's eyes grew wide.
"I- I had heard that Your Ladyship was very… capable, but I didn't think you actually-" She stopped with a furious blush and Kyoko took pity on her.
"I hate leaving my messes for other people to clean up," she told the young woman. "I don't like leaving work undone. My father told me to be responsible, and this is just how I am."
"If- if Your Ladyship is certain," the girl stammered.
"Absolutely certain. Thank you for coming to get me for breakfast."
"Yes, ma'am. If there is anything else we can do for you?" She seemed rather hopeful to be of service and Kyoko knew that Lory had been scolding her for not taking advantage of the servants in his own home, so Kyoko glanced around her.
"If you could have those dresses pressed and put away, that would be excellent," she told the girl. The servant nodded and left Kyoko to freshen up quickly before she went downstairs for breakfast.
After eating the girls gathered for their first day of real work. They started with letting Kyoko know about everything that had already been implemented. After several hours of crop planting, polishing, and renovating had been discussed, all three of the girls were ready for a break. Lunch was served and the Duke was asked to join them.
"Productive morning?" he asked cheerfully to the party. He was met with a tablefull of glares. He chuckled. "Ah. I don't suppose there is anything that I can do to help."
"Take notes," Kanae sighed, flexing her cramped fingers. Lory watched her thoughtfully for a moment.
"Where is your clerk?" he asked mildly, surveying the girls. They blinked. "You know, that person who takes notes for you, organizes things, occasionally sends invitations, does those very useful things that Sebastian and Yukihito do."
"We never hired one," Chiori answered. "As far as staff was concerned, I was more worried about cleaning and gardening when we were putting things together. And Kanae didn't want anyone helping her."
"The only people available around here were all men," Kyoko added. "She didn't want their help. They stare," she mentioned helpfully. Kanae rolled her eyes while Lory chuckled.
"Well, that could be problematic. Since you don't want my help with your plans, perhaps you can let me take on this project?"
"You think you can find us a clerk that we can work with?" Kanae asked skeptically.
"If you don't mind," the Duke answered.
"Could you?" Kyoko questioned. Lory nodded.
"Leave it to me. I'll start searching as soon as we finish eating, and I'll be back when I have completed this quest." The girls thanked him, but remained uncertain that he would succeed.
Two days later the sisters were hard at work again when the door burst open to reveal that the Duke had returned. He grinned, bowed, and stepped aside to allow a woman to enter and step up next to him. Kyoko smiled a welcome and Chiori glanced at this new woman before turning back to a piece of paper in front of her. Kanae frowned.
"My ladies, may I present to you Mistress Shoko Aki. I've.. um, commandeered her from a nearby family. She was working as one of the Fuwa's clerks." There was a notable chill in the room as the three girls resurveyed the woman at the door. "I've rescued her," he added dryly.
"Oh," Kyoko breathed, giving Shoko an apologetic look. "You worked for Shotaro?" she asked quietly. Shoko smiled in understanding.
"For a while. He was… rather selective in the people that he wanted to work for him and I apparently fit his criteria." Kyoko, examining Shoko, did not find this hard to believe.
"I'm very sorry," she said. "Would you prefer to work here?" Shoko nodded.
"Very much, Your Ladyship. If your sisters don't mind," she said cautiously.
Kanae was quiet for a moment, but she shrugged.
"If the Duke found her worth the time to drag out here, she should be worth something. And if she can put up with the Fuwa's son for any length of time, she should be able to deal with us."
"Trial period?" Chiori suggested.
"A few days," Kanae agreed. "Then we can see how things stand."
"We're only just getting started. It can't hurt us to add her now."
"She can at least be scribe."
Shoko watched the two girls with a small amount of anxiety. Finding work for a woman that did not involve all kinds of crafts that she did not know or was not scandalous was no easy task, and her last job had been well paying, if fairly degrading. But when she had been offered this new position, or the possibility of this new position, she had not hesitated to leave her old place. The idea that she could be useful and work with women had been too appealing. She wanted this job, and she wanted it badly. These girls looked intimidating and difficult, but they also looked strong and independent. And the one with gold eyes, Lady Kyoko she thought, seemed to be less frightening than the others. If she could hold out for just the next few days… After all, they could not be worse than Sho had been.
"If you'd like a trial, I'm willing," Shoko said calmly. "If you can just let me know what your expectations are…"
"Of course," Kyoko interceded, stepping forward. "We'd be happy if you could help us."
Two hours later Shoko had demonstrated just the skills needed to warm Kanae over and was contentedly taking notes while the group made preparations and changes. The days that followed demonstrated her various skills in making contacts, covering forgotten details, and being incredibly patient. She was good with the girls and even earned a place of respect among them. She was good enough even that the Duke decided to cut his visit short.
"You're leaving?" Kyoko gasped over supper one evening. "Now?"
"I've been staying to make sure that you were settling in well and adjusting to all the work you need to do. You're in good hands with Mistress Shoko. You have things under control. I will be back to check on you at some point, but for now, I do have to get home. I try and spend my summers with my family for a reason, and you seem to have everything that you need."
"Oh," Kyoko said softly. She looked up at him, the hint of tears in her eyes. "I'll miss you." Lory smiled.
"Oh, don't worry. You'll be seeing me again. Do you have any letters that you want me to take to Maria?"
The next few weeks were agonizing. There was no end to the documents that Kyoko had to review, visitors she had to interview, and purchases she had to barter over. Kanae was always willing to step in and take over, and Shoko was a great help. But Kyoko insisted on being a part of everything that was going on. She worked herself into a depressing fatigue by the end of each day and made it out of bed by sheer force of will most mornings. Only the thought that her duty still lay before her kept her going. She could do this. She would do this. It was what her father wanted.
It was not what her father wanted at all. Being a ghost was getting tiresome, but Eiji Mogami was not ready to leave his daughter yet. From one extreme to another, she was just like her mother, always just a tiny push away from falling off the cliffs of insanity. He was proud of all the work that she was doing, but a little less collapsing into her bed at the end of the day would have been a nice change.
Just when Kyoko finally felt that she had settled into everything, Lory reappeared with an added task.
She was sitting quietly in her father's study, carefully reviewing some bills, when a knock sounded at the door and she bid the guest to come in without even looking up. It took her a full minute before she realized that the Duke had entered, not some servant. She started.
"Your Grace! You've returned!"
"I told you I would," he retorted congenially. "It seems like I have surprised you."
"I'm sorry! Are you tired? Please, have a seat!" she gestured to a chair sitting just in front of her and Lory took it, smiling kindly.
"It is just fine, Lady Kyoko. You seem to have been quite busy. It's normal to be a little distracted in these sorts of circumstances. Kuoki suffers from it all the time."
"It has been a bit trying," she admitted quietly. "But I'm doing better. Things seem to be on track for this year, and everyone seems to be accepting the changes we are instituting."
"Nothing could be worse than Saena?" Lory suggested casually. Kyoko flinched and nodded.
"Any change is a good change in their minds. They don't even mind when I have to leave things to Kanae. And she's very happy working with Shoko. I try to be involved in everything directly, but some days we have to go two directions at once, and they're both very good at handling peoples' problems." Lory smirked.
"How is your stepmother doing?"
"Not very well," Kyoko sighed. "Kanae and Chiori are better at keeping her in line, though she does listen to me. We stay out of each others' way most of the time and don't talk much when we do meet. I think she would be happiest if I were still at the palace, though." Lory shook his head, suddenly serious.
"That is unfortunate, but good to hear. Because I've come to remind you of another duty that you have to fulfill. Your sister might have to step into your shoes some more, and I would hate to leave her in charge of a woman she could not handle." Kyoko sagged.
"Something else to do?" she asked in depressed accents before she could stop herself. Lory smiled sympathetically, but nodded firmly.
"Oh yes. With everything that you have been catching up on, I'm sure no one has thought to mention it, but you are quickly adopting your father's worst habit, Lady Kyoko." She frowned.
"And what was that?" she asked, trying to rack her brain for some fatal flaw her father had possessed. None came to mind.
"He ignored his neighbors," the Duke stated softly. Kyoko stiffened, then blushed.
"Of course, you haven't been able to speak to anyone yet, because your home was hardly fit to entertain in. But now that things are bustling again, you need to consider your social duty. You don't have to entertain here, though I am certain that your clerk could easily help you do so with her many experiences, but you need to know the people that are around you and be involved in their lives. I believe you once taught Maria the boundless importance of at least maintaining a written correspondence with nobles throughout the realm." Kyoko gave him a sheepish look.
"I believe I did say something of the kind, Your Grace. And I have been writing to Maria," she pointed out. Lory chuckled, but shook his head.
"Lady Kyoko, besides my family or yours, who have you spoken to since you came back?" Kyoko mumbled something that sounded enough like "no one," that Lory continued. "You have any number of options, but you do need to consider your position. Writing a few formal letters to your neighbors to inform them that you are in the neighborhood will be a good start, and you will probably receive several invitations to parties all around. Summer is a time for travel, and if you have the means, you might even consider taking a trip to the south to visit your mother's relatives."
"South?" Kyoko asked in a tiny voice.
"Of course. Then you could stop by the court on the way down and pay homage to our monarchs, who are rather interested in how you are doing, by the way. I've been giving them only the tiniest bits of information since reporting your progress is really your own duty. They would be happy to know that you have settled in."
"I don't think… going south while things are so busy up here is a good idea," Kyoko stated weakly. Lory shrugged.
"Then sending the king and queen a letter should suffice. Her Majesty's birthday is not too far off. You can send your regards and let them know you have arrived safely and are working well."
"That sounds like a good plan, Your Grace," she answered in relief. Lory studied her carefully for a moment before speaking.
"Lady Kyoko, have you considered returning to the court for the winter?" he asked firmly. Kyoko seemed to recoil.
"I'll be needed up here. Winter will involve sorting and going through all the harvests' numbers. The work won't be done. It will barely have started."
"That may be the case, but it would be very smart for you to at least come down for the winter feast," Lory countered gently. Kyoko hesitated.
"I would have to come down early to make sure that I was not held up by the weather. And getting back could take a long time, depending on the condition of the roads. If I were to come down, it might as well be for the whole season."
"That certainly is an option," the Duke replied. Kyoko shook her head, squaring her shoulders.
"No, Your Grace, it isn't. I have work that I need to do and a responsibility to my people."
"You have a responsibility to see them happy and well taken care of. And you also have a responsibility to represent them at court so that they are never cut off from the help that their king might need to provide. And you owe your sovereigns the occasional visit so that they know how much they can rely on you."
"I'm sure they will understand if I can't come right awa-"
"If you can't come until Kuon's married," Lory cut her off. "Because that is what you're waiting for. And could be a very long time in coming, Lady Kyoko." She faltered.
"I'm sure I don't know what you're-"
"I'm not going to play games with you anymore, young lady. I'm very much aware that your hasty retreat and adamant desire to stay away from the palace comes from some plaguey idea you have about avoiding the Prince. I expect you believe your feelings were not obvious. But even if you have rejected his offer of marriage in the past, that is no reason to hide in these cold northern mountains all winter, avoiding the reality of the situation. You've known him long enough now, don't you think he's forgiven you? I imagine you've discussed the incident with him."
"Briefly," Kyoko admitted. "He… accepted my apology."
"So you have no good reason to stay away," Lory declared irritably.
"I'm sure… even if he has forgiven me he wouldn't want to see me again." Lory showed his opinion of this statement with an undignified snort. Kuon would give just about anything to see Kyoko again, and the Duke had no doubt of this.
"And what do you want?" he demanded in an unyielding tone, fixing her with a piercing gaze. Kyoko squirmed.
"I… would like to go back. Maybe not this year, but perhaps next I could go and see Their Majesties and pay my respects. If I went over the summer I could make it a short trip and visit my family like you suggested. Maybe take a full month for the entire expedition."
"Lady Kyoko," Lory sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, "I don't think you're listening to me."
"Your Grace suggested that I visit the capital," she answered meekly. He gave her a pouting glare.
"Have you ever considered, Lady Kyoko, that your talents for misdirecting questions and looking deplorably innocent would be ideal tools for living at court?" She cocked her head and pondered this.
"Well, if I wasn't needed here, I suppose-"
"You aren't needed here," Lory interjected briskly. Kyoko blinked in surprise.
"I thought the entire point of revealing who I was to Their Majesties was because I was needed here." Lory rubbed his forehead. He really should have expected this. She was so literal. It was how he had gotten her out here without giving away his plans in the first place after all.
"The entire point of getting you out of your servile position was to get you back where you belonged," he corrected her tiredly. "But just because you belong among the nobility doesn't mean you belong right here, Lady Kyoko." He made sure she was looking at him, catching his every word. "In fact, there are some people around you who would be very happy to see you leave this place."
"My stepmother," she sighed.
"You stepsisters," Lory added, ignoring her shocked look. "And your king and queen."
"Lady Kyoko, I think your sister has told you about her aspirations to promote the cause of the capability of women?" Now Kyoko was very lost.
"Are you talking about Kanae or Chiori, Your Grace?"
"Lady Kanae. I want you to listen very closely to what I am going to say, Lady Kyoko. Because I have a plan…"
Kyoko leaned forward on the desk curiously, giving the Duke her full attention.
It had been three months since Kyoko had left the palace. Kuon had rallied himself as best he could, knowing that both of his parents were watching him for signs of despondency. He put up patiently with the advances of Lady Mimori and Lady Erika, but had been glad to see them leave at the end of one month. They had been exhausting to avoid. He socialized and worked hard, and by the end of the season had gathered a certain amount of respect from the nobility. They were not sure that he would be as well behaved when they returned in the fall, but if he continued acting so maturely there was an unstated agreement that he might have re-earned his place as his father's successor. Somehow, though Kuon was aware of these sentiments, they brought him none of the pleasure he had once thought they would.
He took good care of the slipper he had received, but could not decide if he was glad to have it or not. Every time he saw it was a rather bittersweet experience. He hoped that some day he would become used to the empty feeling he carried with him now. But he did not allow himself to hope too much.
Tonight was the final closing social event. The company was in one of the smaller ballrooms having finished supper earlier. The guests danced together and chatted, but there were much fewer people than had been here even a week before and half the people who were there would be gone within the next three days.
Kuon would be glad when the palace became quiet again.
His parents sat in two small thrones at the far end of the room, watching their guests and giving their official farewells to those departing. Yukihito stood nearby, chatting with a few people. Kuon stood on his father's right, giving a polite word where needed, saying goodbye to those who might have been called his peers, and trying to keep the look of absolute boredom off of his face.
"You are wasting a last lovely chance," Hidehito declared, striding up to the Prince and claiming his attention. The Kijimas were year round residents of the palace, and their son found the summer to be sadly devoid of company. He came to share his woes with a most unsympathetic listener. "The ladies here will be leaving us shortly. Don't you have even the tiniest desire to bid them farewell?"
"I've already said goodbye to all of them," Kuon answered shortly, not even looking at his guest. "I am not doing so again." Hidehito sighed.
"I just want the Duke's granddaughter to return," he sighed wistfully. Kuon gave him a bemused look.
"I thought you hated Maria, in spite of your boundless affection for small children." Hidehito held a finger to his lips.
"Don't go spreading my secret about," Hidehito scolded. "The only reason I've managed to avoid marriage is because all these women think I would hate to have a child."
"Wouldn't you?" Kuon asked dryly.
"One of my own, and right now, of course. You and I are young, dashing, and single. We should enjoy it! And since you won't, I'll just have to enjoy it for both of us." Kuon made a noncommittal grunt.
"So, why are you anxious to see Maria?" he asked, redirecting the conversation back on track. Hidehito smirked.
"Because, she has the most lovely and graceful -and unattached- chaperone, and I would desperately love to see Miss Kyoko again."
"Really?" Kuon asked, his voice disinterested. Hidehito was not discouraged.
"Don't you?" he pressed mockingly. Kuon did not dignify this probe with an answer, so his companion continued. "She was your star pupil, after all. Don't you miss having her around? And so lovely besides…"
"Kijima, I have no expectations of seeing Miss Kyoko in the near future, and possibly not ever. Enjoy your last moments with the ladies present. The last thing you want is for me to join you."
Hidehito shrugged, clapped the Prince on the shoulder and sauntered off to pay his final respects to Lady Itsumi. He might find Kuon's behavior boring, but was happy for the lack of competition. Kuon as a contender for the attentions of the young ladies present would seriously distract from Hidehito's pleasure. He had cornered the Prince mostly to try and discover if Miss Kyoko would be returning sometime soon.
"I don't know how you put up with him," Yukihito sighed, materializing next to the Prince. Kuon shrugged.
"He isn't as high pitched as most of the annoying people that I know."
"He wasn't speaking very well of Miss Kyoko," Yukihito pointed out with a keen eye watching the Prince's reaction. Kuon disappointed him, remaining stoic.
"He doesn't really mean it. I'm sure he would flirt with her if he were given the chance, but he isn't terribly disrespectful. She could handle him."
"Really?" Yukihito asked. "If you ask me, Miss Kyoko seems like the kind of girl who wouldn't take him seriously and would end up accidentally engaged to him." Kuon considered this with a frown.
"It's… unlikely. He wouldn't ask her, in any event, because of their difference in station." Yukihito smiled teasingly.
"So if they were of the same station…" he suggested wickedly.
"Yukihito," Kuon murmured warningly. He was ignored.
"I just think that you should be considering the issue," his aide stated calmly. "She might not catch everyone's attention, but I'm sure there are a number of people that will find her attractive. You might have to protect your interests." Kuon glanced around to make sure no one was listening.
"She has no plans on coming back in the near future, and is there a particular reason why you are being so indiscreet?" he asked irritably. Yukihito gave him an eerily innocent look.
"I wasn't being indiscreet. I made sure no one was around." Kuon rolled his eyes. "Have you considered traveling this summer?" he asked casually. Kuon repressed a glare.
"Not even a little? I'm sure it would do you good to get away from here. Go see new places."
"I'm not going after her," Kuon stated as calmly as he could.
"I didn't say you should go see Miss Kyoko," Yukihito replied with inordinate satisfaction. "Why would you assume I was?"
"I've already explained to you, on the several occasions that you have suggested travel to me, that going north is not an option. Miss Kyoko is busy with her work, and will be for some time yet. Even if there were the possibility of anything between us," he emphasized, stressing the public setting to his careless aide, "the work that she would have to do would take years to complete. Years that I can't spend away from the court and she can't spend at it. Years that would require both of us to find other people to become involved with."
"Only because neither of you is looking for a reasonable solution," Yukihito retorted.
"I'm not traveling, Yukihito. Let it drop."
"You're going to lose her," his aide pointed out.
Kuon started glaring, and Yukihito decided it was time to exit. He waved cheerily and went back to stand on the other side of the king and queen. Yukihito had not been told very much about the Duke's plans for Lady Kyoko, but he was fairly sure that Lory Takarada had not given up on the Prince and the runaway as a couple. Yukihito certainly had not given up on it. He liked Kyoko very much, liked how she had changed Kuon, and disliked the idea that she would spend the rest of her life hidden away, slaving over the mismanagement her mother had allowed to fester. He hoped Kuon would take action. Things could still be resolved. Yukihito was sure of it. So he would try and prod things along.
Kuon sighed in frustration and turned to glance over at his parents who were just saying their last farewells to Lord Hiroaki and his wife, Lady Haruki, who was the oldest of Count Asami's children. His father caught him staring as the two visitors stepped away and gave Kuon a knowing grin, the message, "Just a little longer," etched clearly onto his face. Kuon smiled in return and opened his mouth to ask how much longer until they retired when a massive fanfare began playing. The king rolled his eyes, but seemed to become more animated as the ballroom doors swung open to reveal a parade of trumpeters, blaring their noise and forcing the remaining couples on the dance floor to separate and stand aside. There were a few chuckles and several confused looks as the band formed an aisle, but no one strode through the door to follow them. An explosion of smoke appeared before the throne, but the guards in the room only rolled their eyes and held position.
"My king, my ever lovely queen, I return at last to your sides! Was I missed?" an exuberant voice exclaimed.
Where the Duke had sprung from, no one could really be sure, but both Kuu and Juliena smiled when they saw him. Kuon was amused, but was not sure that he was happy to see Duke Takarada just yet.
In his more bitter moments, he blamed Lory for the current state of affairs.
"Duke Takarada," Kuu answered with mock seriousness, "We pined ourselves away in your absence. You were gone so long, We quite despaired that you would ever return." Lory flourished his hand and bowed his head penitently.
"But I have returned, Your Majesties. And I have brought with me the fruits of a most laborious harvest. I believe I mentioned to you the great charity I was involved in before I left you."
"You mentioned it," Kuu answered, and Kuon instantly became suspicious. Both his father and mother had the most devious looks on their faces. And Yukihito was ignoring this conversation and staring behind Lory, his mouth agape.
What on earth?
"I am proud to tell you that all of my efforts have paid off! I have revived a wilting flower and have brought it before you. Praise me, and all my magnificence, I beg, Your Majesties, Master Yukihito," he looked directly at Kuon, "Your Highness."
His eccentric opulence was draped this particular evening in a spectacular cape, making him look rather larger than normal. He reached his hand back and whisked a young woman hidden behind the manifolds to his side, bowing as he presented her to the royal family.
Kuon was torn between wonder and a hearty desire to kill the Duke.
"King Kuu, Queen Juliena, Prince Kuon, may I present to the three of you, for your approval, my Lady Kyoko Mogami. She has been with my family these past years as she has recovered from the death of her father, and I now bring her back to court, prepared once again to step into the den of the social jungle."
Kyoko gave a beautiful curtsy, a small blush on her face, not quite willing to meet anyone's eyes. She was dressed as she ought to be, without any of Lory's flamboyance, in a gown of rose pink. Her hair had been returned to its original color and had grown long enough that it was held in a small bun on the back of her head, a few strands allowed to hang artfully, framing her face. Around her neck, to Kuon's pleasure, was the pendant she had received from the Prince for her birthday.
"Your Majesties," she raised her eyes to meet Kuon's. "Your Highness."
"No girl," he thought frustratedly, "should be allowed to look that lovely just standing there. It is not fair."
Thankfully, his face only had room for his pleasure in seeing her, and while her knees might have felt weak, Kyoko could find nothing disheartening in the smile he was giving her.
"It's a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Lady Kyoko," the king stated calmly, aware of the eyes in the room that were turned towards the thrones. "Did you have a safe trip?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. I'm sorry we arrived at so inconvenient a time," she apologized sincerely. There were a few more chuckles from around the room. Anyone who knew the Duke knew that convenience was not his passion; flamboyance was.
"I hope that you aren't too tired," the queen smiled. "You're welcome to join us here for the rest of the evening if you would like."
"That would be lovely," Kyoko replied. "Thank you, Your Majesty." She curtsied again and the room's occupants shook themselves out their stupors to return to their fun. The Duke's fanfare took refuge along the walls and he and Kyoko stepped up to the thrones to speak with the king and queen.
After a few more pleasantries, the monarchs became heavily engaged in a conversation with Lory, leaving Kyoko to glance over at the Prince as she stood in abandoned silence. Kuon knew he was being forced to play gracious host by his parents' blatantly rude behavior, but he was not in the mood to be manipulated any further. Clearly, they knew something about what was going on and Kuon wanted no part of it. He was not a toy for any of their amusement.
Thankfully for Kyoko, Kuon was not completely devoid of common sense. Stubborn he might have been, but when he noticed Hidehito Kijima approaching with a determined and questioning look on his face, Kuon knew that there had been a blunder in the plans, and quickly moved to Kyoko's rescue.
"I know that you have just arrived," he stated abruptly, stepping up to her, "but if you are planning on staying with us until the evening is over, would you mind if I claimed you for the next dance, Lady Kyoko?" She blinked, slightly baffled by his sudden change in behavior, but nodded.
"I would be honored, Your Highness."
"Ah, you captured her before I did," Hidehito declared, giving Kuon a reproachful look before carefully scrutinizing Kyoko, causing her to blush nervously. "I'm disappointed. You seem particularly familiar and I hate to think that I forgot so lovely a face."
"I- I'm afraid we've never been introduced," Kyoko murmured, adding enough of a smile to her face to make her look more flirtatious than nervous. Kuon was fairly certain she was not flirting, but decided he had already had more than enough of this conversation. And if Kijima had recognized her…
"I'm sorry, but I think the next song is starting," Kuon stated, taking Kyoko's hand in his own. "If you'll excuse Lady Kyoko and I, Hidehito, perhaps I can introduce her to you later?" His opponent agreed dispassionately, still watching the young woman caught between them.
"Later then, Your Highness, Lady Kyoko," he bowed with a touch of sarcasm.
Kuon led Kyoko away onto the floor as the music began. The warm feeling he had every time he held her was there again as he began to lead her through the dance. She was as light on her feet as he remembered, and he did not lose the opportunity to speak with her.
"Well, that was close," he said ruefully. Kyoko gave him a weak grin.
"I suppose challenging him to a duel was not such a good idea," she agreed wholeheartedly. "I think Master Ryutaro is watching us now too," she added.
"Well, hopefully he will stall Hidehito. He's always liked you and would be the first to discourage rumors about you."
"Do you think so?" she asked, surprised. Kuon smiled. Yes, this was the Kyoko that he remembered.
"You don't think he's angry?" she asked, casting a quickly glance at the man across the room.
"I doubt it. I think the only thing that could possibly make him angry is if you had shirked your practice while you were away, or gave up fencing."
"Never!" Kyoko declared, her gaze turned back to the Prince. "No one at home was as good as you were, though Maria's father made for a fairly good opponent." Kuon chuckled.
"I think you are going to embarrass an unseemly large number of men in this realm, Lady Kyoko," he told her, a touch of fondness in his tone.
"Oh, I'm sure that isn't true," she protested. Kuon let the subject drop.
"How long will you be here?" he asked, as he caught her after a quick spin.
"As long as I can stay," she replied steadily. "I've arranged things with Kanae and Chiori, and Kanae is currently running things back home. She is still working with the tenants and basically doing all of the things that I should be. She said it was the condition that His Grace put down for getting me out of here so quietly, that she take over whenever I wanted to leave. And she also said she figured that after all the work I had done, it was the least she could do."
"That was very generous of her," Kuon said, his grip on her hand tightening slightly.
"Oh, well she's always wanted to manage her own lands," Kyoko told him. "I think she is happy to be in charge and not have me around. It makes her feel powerful." The Prince chuckled.
"So what are your plans for while you're here?" he asked as casually as he could. He was pleased to see her blush.
"Nothing definite yet," she admitted. "His Grace had to bring me here to reintroduce me to your parents and make sure that everyone knew I was still alive. I'm here as his guest, and what that means for me, I still can't figure out. I suppose I'll get used to court life and see what I can do to keep busy without causing a ruckus."
"No sneaking off to help in the kitchens?" he suggested. She giggled.
"No, though I do want to head down there at some point. The head chef was told who I am before I left. I'm beginning to think now that His Grace consented to it because he was planning on bringing me back, and the chef and his wife were likely to recognize me."
"So this was the plan all along?"
"Yes, and before you frown at me, I didn't know either. His Grace kept talking about me accepting my responsibility and taking on my family name again. He said nothing about lying to everyone in sight for months when he brought me back here until after I had been home for a while."
"Are you glad that you came back?" he asked. She blushed again.
"Yes." He relaxed and smiled again and she was very glad he was holding her up. Too much more of this and she was going to melt.
"Ah, I have something for you, by the way," he told her with a touch of excitement.
"Yes. I think your Fairy Godmother paid me a visit, because I seem to have a slipper that was supposed to have been bashed into pieces over my head sitting perfectly whole in my room."
"You have the other slipper?" she asked in astonishment.
"Yes, and in one piece."
"A perfect set," she murmured to herself as he continued to lead them through the steps. Before he could ask her what she meant, she looked up at him with a smile that turned his stomach in funny little ways.
He needed to get her out of here, before he did something that would really give them away.
With a quick look over his shoulder the Prince caught Yukihito's eye. Yukihito nudged Lory, who in a second had created an appropriate distraction to hold the guests' attention while Kuon stole Kyoko out a side exit onto a small balcony. Kuon led her out into the garden, now coming back into bloom, and kept walking until they were a good ways away from the party. He listened to make sure no one was there before leading her to a bench and sitting her down.
"Your Highness, what-"
"I'm sorry, but if past experience is any example, I probably won't find time to talk with you again for another several days with the last of the guests moving about and all the work that I am supposed to be doing. And we couldn't keep talking inside."
"No, that's fine. Was there something in particular you wanted to talk about?" she asked, curiously. He thought about this for a moment since he had not really considered exactly what he wanted to speak to her about. He had just wanted to escape the prying, and matchmaking, eyes.
"I suppose I still wonder what your plans are, but it doesn't seem like you have any at the moment," he told her, still scrambling for a topic of conversation. She smiled apologetically.
"Well, no. I am staying here, but I'm not quite sure that counts as an actual plan. I've been told on my way here that I'm not allowed to go back and see my stepmother again until she apologizes, and I'm not so optimistic as to think that will ever happen. But I can't really head home then as long as she is alive, since she doesn't really have anywhere to go."
"Her old husband's lands should still be around," Kuon pointed out.
"Yes, but since she didn't have a son, they were given off to his other family, and they won't keep her anymore."
"I see," he replied dryly. "Well, then it's kind of you to let her stay."
"Not really. I do want to go back someday, but I like it here, and I'm happy to stay as long as I have the excuse."
"You need an excuse?" he asked, confused. "I thought your sister was happy to be in charge."
"Oh, yes. But… it still feels like I am shirking," she confessed. "I don't really have a… compelling reason to stay here."
Kuon stared at her, wondering if now was the right time to tell her how he felt. It had certainly seemed like she had come back to see him, but now he was feeling a little less confident. But he was not sure he wanted to wait and find out just how many other admirers she could gain before declaring his feelings.
It was selfish, but he was possessive of her, and he wanted the right to keep her all for himself.
"Kyoko-" he began.
"Your Highness, you shouldn-" He placed a finger over her lips.
"Kyoko, I will call you by every title you possess when we have company, but not right now. And I won't stand for you calling me 'Your Highness' anymore either. I told you to stop that a long time ago. I have a name, you know."
"Yes, Your Highness. But-"
"Names, Kyoko. We both have them, and I want to you use mine. I'm going to be using yours, with or without your permission. You see, it is a very lovely name." He paused for a moment, then chuckled. "Yes, this is your punishment."
"Punishment?" she swallowed.
"For lying to me," Kuon explained. "You told me when we first met that your name was so horrible you couldn't speak it because it would ruin your image."
"Oh. Did I?" She could not really remember all the things she had said that first night.
"Yes, you did. But you're wrong. You're name is, as I said, lovely, and fits your image perfectly." She looked up at him pleadingly.
"I won't answer you if you don't use my name, Kyoko," he told her sternly, earning a pout from the girl sitting in front of him. She held out for a long moment before giving in.
Her stammer was cute, and the blush brightening on her cheeks was just too much. Before she could think to object, he leaned in and kissed her.
When he pulled away she seemed a little dazed, but not unhappy. He cradled her face in one hand and held her hands with his other.
"Kyoko Mogami, I am very much in love with you. I can't think of a way I would rather spend my life than with you at my side. This time, in all sincerity, would you please, please marry me?" He had not meant to beg, but it had come out anyway. He hoped it added to his sincerity. Her mouth opened and closed a few time as she tried to articulate an answer and he became nervous.
"No one will understand it, Kuon. They'll think it's strange," she mumbled, not meeting his gaze.
"That might be true, but it is not an answer," Kuon retorted, covering his nerves with a surreal calm. "And if that is your only contingency I will state that not only will the stuffy nobility be so glad that I actually am marrying a noble that if I do something strange and rash, they'll blame it on my father. I promise, there is not a force in this kingdom besides your will that can prevent us from being married. And we have enough eccentricity on our side that we can even pull it off without a scandal. So, your answer please, Kyoko."
She hesitated for a moment and he held his breath, comforted only by the fact that she was not holding a glass shoe this time.
"I'll marry you Kuon," she told him at last, a mischievous smile peeping onto her mouth. "But only because I love you." He smiled.
"That's fine with me," he whispered before kissing her again.
Later, when they finally returned to the party, Kuon did not leave her side. She accepted this and allowed him to introduce her properly to several guests, including Ryutaro and Yukihito. Ryutaro gave them a scolding look before warmly welcoming Kyoko to the palace and demanding to know if she had any knowledge in fencing. She could not lie to him and he demanded that she come and practice with him and the Prince some mornings if she had the time. Yukihito was pleased to see her, and was the only man successful in dragging her away from Kuon that evening, promising to guard her with his life if he was given the privilege of dancing with her again. Kyoko, grateful for his calm acceptance of her presence, agreed.
When all the guests had left for bed and the royal family had retreated to the usual bookroom, Kyoko was brought along on Kuon's arm. No one questioned this and when they both announced what everyone had assumed since Kuon had spirited her away, the couple was smothered in congratulations. There were a great number of tears from both the queen and the king. Mostly from the king. Kyoko was hugged repeatedly and Lory had to call everyone to order to stop the ruckus from alerting any late working servants to the events that were unfolding.
"We need to create a plan of action to arrange the engagement and wedding so that everything will happen quickly, but not too suspiciously," he directed as everyone took a seat around the room, Kyoko staying close to Kuon.
"Can't this wait till the morning?" Kuu asked tiredly. "When we are awake and thinking clearly?"
"No," the Duke stated. "Tomorrow Lady Kyoko will be wandering the palace, and we need to have our stories straight before we set her loose. Especially since no one is going to know she is engaged."
"We aren't going to tell them?" the queen asked sleepily, staring fondly at her husband. "Lady Kyoko will be very popular, and there aren't many other women at court right now."
"Not just yet," Lory repeated, and Kuon nodded in grudging agreement.
"We have to let at least a little time pass, to alleviate suspicion. It won't kill all the gossip, not with Kyoko being Saena's stepdaughter, but it will help."
"I don't see why anyone would think it terribly strange," Juliena continued to protest. "With Kuon's more social behavior this season, we could explain it as an engagement that has been standing since last March, but because Lady Kyoko was still court shy, she couldn't come down yet, and we wanted her to be here for the announcement." Lory shook his head.
"She wasn't at the ball last spring, according to our story, and Kuon's never been far enough north to meet her," he stated.
"But she's been living with you," Kuu argued. "He's been up to see you once or twice in the last five years. Call it an arranged marriage, which is why he's been so rebellious, and it could work." Lory considered this.
"It could work, if we started the rumors carefully enough," he agreed.
"I don't think so," Kyoko interjected timidly, shifting as all eyes in the room turned to her. Kuon nodded in agreement, encouraging her. "His Grace has forgotten, but before I left, I was training with Ryutaro and practicing with the young men here in the palace. Most of them have left, but I think some of them might remember me. Especially Hidehito Kijima," she admitted guiltily. Lory groaned.
"How did I forget that?" he groused. "Well, we can't use the story then. But that isn't the problem." He sighed. "You're going to be recognized, aren't you? And not just by people we can trust, like Ryutaro and Takenori." She nodded and shifted again. Kuon took her hand.
"I'm sure we can make this work," Juliena soothed, noting Kyoko's rising panic. "As long as she doesn't fence, I'm sure we can let it slide. If we stick to our story, no one has evidence that she was here. And she looked different."
"Changing hair color isn't a usual practice," Kuu agreed. "Especially not lightening it. And definitely not in a servant. I hate to think of it, but some people might decide to explain it by making comments about your father," the king explained to Kyoko. "But we can avoid connecting it to you."
"As long as I don't fence?" she asked pitifully, pinching the hearts of everyone in the room. "Ever?"
"Maybe when no one else is around," Yukihito suggested. "She practiced early with Miss Maria after all, and no one came around."
"Mostly to avoid Maria," the Duke countered. He sighed. "All my carefully laid plans, torn to pieces because a weeping female can't contain her penchant for violence!"
"I'm not weeping," Kyoko protested. "And if I can't fence, then I won't. Or I can pretend to fence horribly and have Master Ryutaro teach me again."
"No, no," Lory dismissed. "He would be offended at the thought. We'll just have to let you play around and see what rumors spring up."
"It shouldn't be too terrible," Kuon said quietly. "As far as the servants go, no one ever saw her fence. Only the nobles, and the young men at that. They never knew Kyoko while she was working in the kitchens, only when she was acting as Maria's tutor. And because people avoid Maria, even those that were here the longest always talked about Kyoko as if she had come with you. They might think that you brought her back here secretly for some devious purposes of your own, but they aren't likely to talk about her, even in front of servants who might put two and two together."
"Especially not since she beat them all mercilessly," the king pointed out. "A noble girl masquerading as a servant tricked them all and beat them at fencing? It doesn't make them look very impressive. And if nobles hide among the ranks of servants, you don't know who could be listening."
"You're stretching it," Lory grumbled to the king. Kuu only shrugged.
"Maybe a little. But I think we can weather this."
"I think we're ignoring the biggest issue," Juliena reminded them. "Kuon and Lady Kyoko are going to be married, and we'll agree to it regardless of what anyone says. We can plan all we like, but as long as she is a noble and he wants to marry her, our biggest concern should be the wedding."
A glint seemed to appear in Lory's eyes.
"Ah," he whispered. "The Wedding!" Kuon groaned.
"You have no part in this," he stated. "Leave, before you cause problems." The Duke pouted.
But- but… a royal wedding. It has to be grand!"
"It will be, I'm sure," Kuon promised. "But it isn't about you, so it doesn't need to be your kind of grand."
"Lady Kyoko would like it," he insisted. Kyoko shook her head.
"I'm sorry, Your Grace. But I think I have to agree with Kuon. And I don't think we should make plans for that tonight."
"It is late," Juliena agreed. "We might end up being trampled by the Duke's opinions."
"And we can't have the wedding until the fall in any event," Kyoko added. Kuon frowned.
"Because Maria will kill us if we get married when she isn't around, and since she's planning on traveling with her father this year and he can't leave until the fall, we can't get married until then."
"Oh," Kuon sighed in disappointment. "Well, you're right. We don't want to leave Maria out."
"Or my sisters," she added. "Kanae should be able to trust her new clerk enough that once things calm down at home, she and Chiori can join us for the wedding. Shoko can keep things in order."
"I'd be happy to wait for your sisters," Kuon promised, figuring his life was very likely forfeit if he did not invite the two excessively overprotective siblings.
"Thank you," Kyoko smiled at him. He took her hand and kissed it.
"Of course," he smiled back. Lory coughed.
"Alright, time for bed," he announced. "Let's go. Now."
"I thought you enjoyed romance," Kuu teased as he helped his wife to stand. Lory snorted.
"I do. But pure sap from young trees right before I go to bed is a little much even for me. I put up with enough of it from you and your wife." Kuu chuckled as he pulled the queen into his arms and kissed her head.
"Oh, you don't really mind," he insisted as Juliena giggled and took her husband's hand.
"I'm off," Lory responded with a roll of his eyes. "Come Yukihito, we are unwanted here." The king's aide nodded vigorously, smiling at the two couples before beating a hasty retreat behind the Duke.
"I don't know why he calls himself the Luminary of Love," Kuu complained. "He always gets irritable when people act all romantic around him, no matter how much he pushes them together."
"Maybe he's a little jealous," Juliena suggested gently. Kuu frowned.
"That's a depressing thought," he grumbled. Kyoko looked to Kuon in confusion.
"His wife," Kuon explained softly. "He probably misses her."
"Oh," Kyoko answered just as softly. She frowned as well before looking up at her intended. "That is depressing."
Kuon stroked her head gently.
"I know. It's hard not being with the person that you love." Kyoko grabbed his hand.
"I'm not going anywhere," she promised, earning a smile and a kiss on her forehead.
"Neither am I," he answered. Kuu and Juliena watched the exchange contentedly, the queen still caught in her husband's arms. Eventually Kyoko and Kuon remembered that they had an audience and bid the king and queen goodnight.
"He looks happy," Juliena told her husband as the door closed on the young couple. "Don't you think?" Kuu spun her around and kissed her softly.
"Very happy. Our son is happy, Julie," he whispered, his forehead resting against hers. She smiled.
"We should head to bed," she told her husband. "It's going to be a long day tomorrow." He kissed her again.
Escaping his parents, Kuon escorted Kyoko out and to her own rooms. She would be staying in a guest suit near the Duke's. Stopping outside her door, he kissed her once more before finally releasing her.
"Sleep well," he told her as he stepped back, her hands still trapped in his.
"I will," she told him with a secret smile. He raised a brow in question and she reached into a well concealed pocket in her gown, pulling out the blue stone that he had given her. "It keeps away the bad dreams," she told him. "Like a talisman."
Kuon smiled and recaptured her hand, pulling it to his face and kissing the small stone suspended in her fingers once before placing another feather-light kiss on her palm. He looked up to find her face colored again. Kuon realized he liked this blushing Kyoko very much.
"Sweet dreams," he bid her, releasing her hands and stroking her cheek once with his fingers. She mumbled some sort of embarrassed thanks before falling back into her door and fumbling it open. Kuon reached out to steady her before she fell over her own two feet. "Careful."
"I think my biggest fear now is that I'll do something like this at the wedding," she admitted bashfully. Kuon chuckled.
"Well, you have plenty of time to prepare. And lots of preparations to make." Kyoko giggled nervously.
"You know," she said before she had disappeared behind the door, having recovered some of her calm, "the nice thing is that I don't have to worry about what shoes I'll wear with the wedding dress."
"Glass matches white, I should think," Kuon smiled.
"But you still have to give me the other slipper," she reminded him.
"I'll make it the official engagement present," he assured her.
"Then you had better take care of it. If anything happens, it won't be the perfect set anymore."
"I know," he took her hand and kissed her fingers one last time as she slipped into the room and shut her door.
Kuon strolled down the hall, casting a final glance over his shoulder at her room. He smiled warmly and sighed in pleasure, before hurrying to his own rooms. The coming days seemed much brighter, and he wanted to be awake to appreciate them.
Behind him in the hallway, Kyoko's guardian spectre remained outside her door. Eiji Mogami chuckled at his future son-in-law's behavior before turning back to the closed portal in front of him. He considered going in to bid his daughter a final goodnight, but thought better of it. He had been stalling since she had arrived at the palace, but the truth of the matter was he had no reason to remain. To say farewell again would be indulgent. He had long overstayed his welcome in this world. She would be safe here, surrounded by people that loved her. It was time for him to rejoin his wife for their own happily ever after.
Nodding to a couple of fairies standing guard at Kyoko's door, Eiji's translucent image shimmered, then dissolved into the night.
I hope that you all have enjoyed this litter adventure into the Skip Beat/Cinderella universe. And that you are satisfied with the happily ever after. Sorry you had to wait for so long for this chapter. I had to make sure that all the loose ends were tied up, and that meant lots of editing. Thanks to all of my reviewers and my readers. Thank you for your patience, your comments, your applause, and your sympathies. Will thanks everyone that noticed her. She appreciates being remembered. I appreciate her being remembered. These stories would not happen without a beta.
A quick question anyone out there that has a very deep knowledge of the Japanese music territory (or has a friend that does). If I were to have an arrogant but talented singer perform at the most career noteworthy and auspicious (and large, holding many people) venue in Tokyo for a fic, where would he be singing? Or what would be the place that screamed he had reached the peak of a music career in Japan if the venue was not in Tokyo? I, uh, am working on a little project, and find that the internet is not a perfect resource. I have the names of several venues, but I am not sure which is the best, and most realistic, one to use. Anyone who knows, or can find out, I would really appreciate a message letting me know.
Ten points to anyone that can find the Princess Bride reference in the chapter...
Our prayers remain with those in need.