Shishido felt as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders in the following days. He'd always wanted to be in the loop and prove himself, but now that he was, he understood the heavy responsibility that came with it.

He wanted to be an excellent swordsman still, but he no longer felt that compelling drive to be the commander. Maybe deputy. He enjoyed helping to train with and take care of the Guard, and he certainly wanted a large hand in protecting the King. But being burdened with such dangerous secrets wasn't as fun as he'd thought it would be.

He knew that if he didn't act normal and hold the secrets, he could endanger not only his King, but his friends as well. Not to mention allowing Sakaki or his cohorts a chance to escape. So, he did the logical thing and avoided Lord Sakaki like the plague. He was many things, but a competent liar was not one of them. If he had been, he'd never have ended up training to be one of Atobe's Knights in the first place.

It had been easy enough to swap his Prince Keiya guard duty for a turn at the stables, and it was easily explained away by his well known closeness to a certain tall member of the White Order. It was a little embarrassing, but at the same time, he liked it. It meant the others wouldn't try anything bold with the Knight friendly member.

"Have you been told if you've been assigned to the ball yet?" Shishido asked. They were both leaning against the stable wall, watching the stable hands work the horses in a gentle trot around the yards.

He knew some people found this assignment boring, but right now Shishido found it relaxing. Especially with the good company.

"Yes. I'll be there. I think everyone will be on guard somewhere in the palace. I guess all those small scares has everyone spooked. I've never seen the Order so worked up."

Ohtori looked over at Shishido, but Shishido was busy staring out at the horses. He didn't want to be tempted to give into that look and tell Ohtori just why security had been stepped up from high to ridiculous.

"The Guard's the same. But we thrive on this sort of thing." And it was true. The thrill that something might happen and the chance to use their skills to protect their King had all of the Guard working overtime at practicing their swordsmanship and their carousing. To say tensions were running high would be an understatement, but they also had their bindings riding them, demanding that they do everything to protect the King.

Shishido felt it all, too, but right now, watching a young foal prance around, he was able to push it aside.

"I take it that means you'll be in the main hall?"

"Yup. I'm breaking out my best uniform for it. Even got someone to polish my boots," he said proudly, and he knew that he made a handsome figure in the clothes. He just hoped that Ohtori would be among his admirers.

"It's too bad we can't dance," Ohtori said with a sigh and Shishido felt the same regret.

"Maybe we can sneak one in. I'll be by Atobe's side most of the night, but we do have a small rotation set up," Shishido offered. And even if they couldn't dance among the nobles, they could find somewhere off to the side to indulge a bit.

"That would be nice." Ohtori smiled and Shishido returned it.

"Yeah..."

"I'll keep a nose out for you."

And with that Ohtori actually gave him a wink before walking back inside the stables for their next circuit around the stables. Shishido wasn't sure what to make of Ohtori's cheeky side, but he was sure once he recovered he'd appreciate it.

ooooooooooooo

The band struck up another song, this one a graceful waltz that soon had the dance floor refilling with brilliantly dressed couples once again.

Shishido had an excellent vantage point of the scene from just behind Atobe on the raised area where his seat was. And while his clothes weren't as richly decorated as Atobe's or most of the nobles, it was probably the nicest outfit he'd ever worn. All of the guards' clothes for special occasions were carefully tailored for them.

Shishido thought that in his full dress he looked resplendent, but he also felt like he was being suffocated by his collar and wondered if the ceremonial cape would allow him full mobility in a fight. Still, he did cut an impressive figure.

It was just too bad all of his potential admirers wouldn't be able to approach him as he was on duty. His eyes drifted through the crowds, pausing on all of the figures dressed from head to toe in the white of the Order.

He thought he spotted Ohtori off in a far corner. Despite their earlier talks, he'd yet to find a break in which he could talk to him, let alone steal a dance. He sighed, and when Atobe turned a look at him, hastily straightened and gave a small smile. It seemed to appease the King who went back to watching the dancers.

Atobe had graced the dance floor several times already that night, and sent several ladies into hysterical states at being selected as his partner. It had also sent the Knights into action trying to keep him protected without looking like they were being overly cautious.

Fortunately, the Order and the security checks at the entrances into the hall had discovered nothing out of the ordinary so far. It was even beginning to look like the night might finish without anything bad happening.

Shishido finished his survey of the room and looked ahead, and saw Prince Keiya approaching with Lord Sakaki and several of his handlers at his side. Several Knights discreetly followed the entourage.

"Keiya," Atobe said, stranding to greet his brother and waving off the bow he was wobbling giving. "Have you come to say goodnight?" His attention was solely on his brother but Shishido noticed the quick look to his handlers that the answer better be yes.

"Yup. But Lord Sakaki said if I don't say goodnight to you, you'd be sad," Keiya replied, completely charming anyone who was in ear shot and watching the scene.

"And he'd be right." Atobe knelt down beside Keiya and drew him into a hug, mindless of the expensive clothes and jewels they were squishing between them. "Did you enjoy yourself?"

"A little bit. The food was good but the dancing was sort of boring." Keiya gave a pout as he tried to adjust the overly plumed and jeweled hat on his head that was falling into his eyes.

Atobe readjusted it for him and smiled. "You won't be saying that in another few years when you start thinking girls are pretty."

"Ewwww. I don't want to dance with them. They'll try to kiss me again," Keiya whined and Shishido knew he spoke from experience. One precocious daughter had smacked a kiss on Kieya's cheek earlier this evening, causing the Prince's large eyes to grow even bigger before he had pushed the girl back. It had caused a scene, but the two were too adorable for anyone to really be offended.

Those listening in gave a chuckle along with Atobe and Sakaki, and Shishido felt his eyes drifting to the Lord Advisor. If something was going to happen, it would be after Keiya was tucked safely into bed. Sakaki would need Keiya safe if he wanted to be declared regent. It was also well into the party, and many people were now tipsy and more willing to let their guard down and get swept up into trouble.

"I'll have to assign you extra Knights to protect you from their dreadful kisses then," Atobe declared and Keiya gave several enthusiastic nods.

Atobe gave Keiya a kiss on the cheek before releasing him. "Sweet dreams Keiya. And try not to give anyone too much trouble tonight."

"Okay," Keiya muttered, trying to fix his hat again, something he had done most of the night. "'Night," He called one last time before turning and marching off swiftly, leaving his handlers to catch up. He was so much like Atobe at times that Shishido worried what he'd be like when he was older.

"I'll go with him, your majesty, and ensure he's settled for the night."

There was a moment's pause, but when Shishido's eyes slid from Sakaki to Atobe he could see nothing that gave away Atobe's mistrust of the man.

"Thank you," Atobe said, giving a nod of dismissal before reclaiming his seat. Those who had been listening in quickly joined back in with other conversations and the dancing. All except one sleepy eyed noble who waited another moment before approaching the throne.

Lord Jirou gave a courtly bow and when Atobe gestured, walked up the couple of steps to stand beside Atobe's throne.

Sir Taki stayed down on the main floor, watching his charge for a moment before turning his attention back to the main room.

"Lord Jirou," Atobe said in greeting.

"Your majesty," Jirou returned, though there was a bit of cheekiness to it that Shishido knew that very few others could get away with. "You haven't given the traditional toast and blessing yet."

The ball was held every year at this time to celebrate another successful harvest. And while there were many festivals and other presentations for the event, the formal toast was a highlight at the ball. Shishido thought it was odd that Atobe would wait until after the children were dismissed to do it.

"True enough. It must have slipped my mind, what with all these lovely ladies around." Atobe's statement caused a few ladies nearby to twitter and Shishido suspected that more was being said in this conversation than what could be heard.

"I wonder if Lord Advisor Sakaki will be kind enough to bring you the chalice when he returns." Jirou gave a thoughtful pause as he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. A clear sign that he was more awake and aware than he was really letting on. "I can go find him for you, if you'd like." The offer hung in the air a moment and Atobe looked over Jirou's shoulder and out through the crowd a moment.

"No, I'm sure you have more important things to do than be my errand boy." It was a dismissal, but Shishido felt it was a clear warning that Jirou should stay back and go be safe somewhere. Shishido doubted Jirou would want to miss out on the action, though, even if it meant driving Taki nuts.

"Of course, your majesty." Jirou gave a bow and was turning around when he spotted Sakaki at the far end of the hall. Somehow, Jirou managed to keep on turning until he'd done a 360. "Oh. It seems you didn't need me anyway. Have a good toast!" Jirou enthused before giving another bow and bouncing off with Taki in tow, trying to direct him out of the way.

Shishido looked over at Kabaji who gave a subtle nod. It looked like Jirou wasn't the only one who suspected that if Lord Sakaki was going to try something, it would be now.

As Sakaki walked down the center of the ballroom, deftly avoiding dancing couples, a page in tow carrying a tray with the chalice on it, Shishido tried to keep himself relaxed. He couldn't kill Sakaki unless he was a real threat, despite his binding making him want to anyway.

As people noticed the Lord Advisor and the ceremonial chalice's approach, a hush fell upon them and the dancing stopped. In moments, more pompous ceremonial music replaced the upbeat dance music from before. Shishido watched carefully as servers appeared en mass to deliver flutes of wine to all those in attendance. Some Knights and White Order members took a flute as well, but Shishido suspected it was to maintain appearances and they would be left untouched.

All of the guests were relaxed and enjoying themselves, but the Guard and the Order were tense. Did Sakaki notice? Did he care? Shishido tried to make sure his face was in the bemused mask he often wore as Sakaki approached their King.

"Your Highness, I believe it is time for the ceremonial toast," Lord Sakaki said, and if Shishido didn't think the cravat wearing lord was evil, he wouldn't have suspected anything was amiss.

"So it is. Thank you, Lord Sakaki." Atobe rose and signalled for the servers to come and give Sakaki his own glass of wine as he took up the chalice.

Atobe had only managed a few words of his speech when a white blur flashed past Shishido and appeared in front of the King. Shishido moved instantly, sword drawn, and pointing at Ohtori.

"Choutarou?" He asked in surprise, though his blade didn't waver. He then looked at the fallen chalice and the liquid that had spilled from it that was now frothing and steaming on the carpet as it ate its way through it.

Well, that explained that. He, along with the other Knights nearby them, moved their sword points to Lord Sakaki and the page that had carried the chalice. Shishido vaguely registered the commotion now going up in the ballroom, but his focus was on his King and the enemy at his sword.

"You foolish Knights. Don't point your sword at me. We have a murderer to catch," Sakaki said with all of the dramatics and indignation that was suited for the moment. Nobody's sword moved.

"You should be lucky this boy sensed the magic. It must be skilled witch or wizard, and they must be found immediately before they can launch a second attack." Sakaki's voice was sounding a bit more desperate and Shishido wondered if he was starting to realise that things were not going as planned.

Just then the doors of the ballroom burst open and Sakaki, for the most fleeting of moments, held hope in his eyes before they died at the site of Lord Hiyoshi, Sir Yuushi standing by his side, and leading in rest of his entourage.

"Cousin," Hiyoshi called as he strode into the room with purpose. He was armed, but with Yuushi at his side, nobody dared question him. "Have I missed all of the excitement?"

"Not all," Atobe said as he raised an eyebrow at Hiyoshi who was still in his riding clothes and looking rather windswept. "Though I take it you have excitement of your own to share?"

"I do. It seems you were right." He gestured and several members of his group stepped forward and presented Atobe with documents and chests. Some of which made the members of the Order twitch.

"It's benign. Now, anyway. But they will show you that Sakaki has been working against you and the kingdom. This is the proof. All of it found at his estate, as well as written statements from some of his co-conspirators." Hiyoshi gave a large grin, obviously enjoying taking down one of the most powerful people in the realm.

"We're also finishing securing all of his known associates." Hiyoshi's smile turned practically feral, and Shishido knew that Lord Hiyoshi had a direct hand in taking down more than a few of the traitors who would be enjoying time in jail.

"Thank you, Hiyoshi," Atobe said, and then looked back at his advisor who was still under sword point. "Lord Sakaki, my family has trusted you for many years, and you would betray us. What do you have to say for your actions? We are not without mercy."

With the look Atobe gave Sakaki, Shishido wondered if Atobe really hoped that Sakaki would say something that would make Atobe want to spare his life. It must be hard being betrayed by a close family friend and advisor.

"I have only this to say, my lord." And with that Sakaki reached under his cravat for a small knife and started to lunge at Atobe. Shishido cut him off, bodily coming between him and Atobe, and using the momentum to turn and block the knife with his sword, the blade cutting up into Sakaki's hand as the knife was dropped.

The other Knights rushed to secure Sakaki and insure Atobe's safety while others played crowd control. Shishido stood there for a moment longer before he noticed his sword was dripping blood, and Ohtori's hand was on his shoulder. He gave a shaky nod and stepped off to the side.

"Guards. Take him away. And see that he doesn't die from his injury. We want to have words with him before he's sentenced." And any emotion that had been in Atobe's eyes before had been replaced by cool hard anger. Shishido shuddered and knew that even if that look was directed at him, he would still lay down his life for his King. Much like he knew Sakaki would be doing, though in a much less willing and noble manner, once those words were finally exchanged.

Atobe stepped out of his ring of guards and glanced around the ballroom. "Sorry for the interruption. Does someone have a glass to share with us? We have a toast to make and a celebration to be had," Atobe declared and soon his hand was filled with a glass of wine, a toast flowing from his tongue, and a party getting back underway.

Shishido would have been amazed by the strength of will or the stupidity of certain nobles to just carry on as if nothing had happened, but he was feeling overwhelmed. He had not only drawn his sword and used it in anger, but he had done so to save Atobe's life. Now that the adrenaline was passing, he was feeling shaky.

A glass of strong liqueur was put into his hand by Yuushi, and Ohtori helped lead him out of the room. Clearly, they had been dismissed without his noticing.

As they retreated into a private room, several other Knights joining them, liquor was shared, and together they all unwound and congratulated each other on a job well done.

oooooooooooo

Several days after the ball, Atobe was once again hosting a large reception in the main hall. No dancing, only rewards and the appointment of a new Lord advisor. Hiyoshi, Yuushi, Ohtori, and Shishido had been chosen to receive high honours on the special occasion. They were all supposed to be standing in the anteroom waiting for their turn to be called into the main hall.

For some reason, Lord Jirou was in the room, napping of course, with his Knight keeping watch nearby, but both Hiyoshi and Yuushi were missing. Shishido just prayed that Yuushi wasn't off having sex with Hiyoshi. He'd joked about it, but he didn't really want it to happen.

Of course, there could be any number of real and valid reasons why Hiyoshi was late. Shishido suspected that even if Yuushi was not with Hiyoshi, the reason for his tardiness would be the same.

Hoping that he wouldn't be tasked with finding him, Shishido turned to Ohtori who was once again, like himself, decked out in their finest uniforms.

"You look fine," Shishido said as he watched Ohtori adjust his cape on his shoulders for the third time. "Are you nervous?"

"A little. It's not every day I get to speak to the King. And he's going to be giving me a reward. I was just doing my job. Do you think there's any way I can refuse and just get back?"

Shishido smiled at Ohtori's flustered face and rambling. "I think if he didn't want you to have the reward he wouldn't offer. So you better smile, and suck it up and take it. And you'll be fine. He's not scary at all." Since Ohtori was always unfailingly polite, he didn't even worry about his friend offending the King. And he was sure that the White Order gave just as many, if not more, court etiquette classes. He'd be fine.

"Thanks. I'll just smile and hope it's done quickly."

"That's the spirit," Shishido said with all the encouragement he could muster at that less than enthusiastic sentence. He gave Ohtori's arm a friendly punch, grinned at him, and slowly got one in return.

"By the way, been meaning to ask you, how were you able to sense the magic in the chalice when nobody else did?"

"Oh," Ohtori said as if startled by the question. "It's not that big a deal. I was just near the door when Sakaki came through, so I got a good whiff of it. And, well, we all have our talents. We can all sense every type of magic, but some elements resonate stronger."

"So you're super sensitive to the type on the chalice? And the other times too?"

Ohtori nodded and blushed a little. "It's probably why the Knights' binding doesn't bother me as much. Many of the Order are very sensitive to love and fire elements, but I'm most sensitive to time, and there's not much of that in the binding spell."

Shishido thought that over and then smiled. "Does that mean I can get away with using sneaky love spells on you? You know, since you're weak to them?"

"I'm not that weak to them!" Ohtori protested with a small laugh. "Besides, I don't think you'd need a love charm with me, anyway, Shishido."

"Really?"

"Maybe you should find out?" Choutarou suggested, and oddly enough, he wasn't blushing now. Instead, his eyes were filled with a teasing mischief and Shishido just wanted to kiss him.

Shishido rose up on his toes and was reaching up to pull Ohtori down for a kiss, despite Taki and Jirou being in the room (because Jirou didn't count when he was sleeping and a fellow Knight didn't matter), when the door opened and a flustered and stressed looking aid came into the room.

"Where is everyone?" He asked in a panicked voice. "We're missing Lord Hiyoshi and Sir Yuushi." His head spun around the room as if expecting them to be hiding behind the curtains.

"You!" He said pointing at Shishido, and Shishido knew without anything further that he'd be going on a quest to find Yuushi. "I need you to find Lord Hiyoshi and Sir Yuushi, and hurry up, we can't leave the King waiting."

"Hiyoshi's with prince Keiya," came a sleepy voice from the couch and they all turned to look at Jirou who looked to be still deep in sleep.

"Really? I'll go fetch him them. Sorry to have disturbed you, Lord Advisor Jirou." He bowed and took Jirou's sleepy snuffle as a dismissal before quickly leaving the room.

Shishido caught Taki's eyes and mouthed the words, "Lord Advisor?" at him and Taki just gave a shrug as if to say he wasn't to blame for the insanity of the realm.

Shishido gave his own shrug in reply and then turned to Ohtori who gave him an understanding smile. "I'll be here when you get back. Go serve our King by hunting down his errant Knight."

And with one last longing look at Ohtori's lips, he left the room and strolled down the halls to the spots he knew Yuushi liked to use for quick after liaisons.

Predictably, the door to one room was slightly ajar and there were quiet moans escaping from inside. "Yuushi," Shishido said loudly as he opened the door, "You're going to be late." His eyes scanned the room and he spotted Yuushi's feet hanging off the end of a sofa.

Strolling into the room, he saw Yuushi's head pop up over the back of the sofa. "Shishido, perfect timing as always." Yuushi's head disappeared, and he could hear him kissing again.

"Yuushi!" Shishido yelled, giving the back of the couch a kick and causing Yuushi to nearly topple off.

"Alright, alright. I'd hate to make the King wait." Yuushi stood and buckled his sword back on, and Shishido tried not to give into curiosity and look over the back of the sofa to see who was still sprawled there.

Not that there was any need with the head popping up from behind the sofa, and Yuushi leaning over for one last kiss. "I'll see you after the ceremony, Gakuto. We'll have some celebrating to do." With one last kiss, Yuushi grabbed Shishido's elbow and walked them both out of the room.

Shishido shook Yuushi off his arm and just stared at him once they were in the hall. "You and Gakuto?"

Yuushi gave a casual shrug.

"What happened to the thrill of the chase and all that?"

"Well, getting caught can be thrilling, too," Yuushi drawled, and with a sly grin, turned and walked to the anteroom.

Shishido guessed that was true, but wondered if Yuushi would still enjoy being caught in a week's time. He had a feeling that Gakuto wasn't one to let a guy out of his sights once he had his claws in... then maybe it really was all part of the game that Yuushi liked.

Walking back into the room, he spotted Hiyoshi standing off to the side, adjusting his outfit, and standing as arrogantly as Atobe. Ohtori was talking to Taki and the way that Taki was smiling back at him made Shishido's stomach do weird things. But before he could think about it, the aid returned to tell them they were ready to be announced.

"The new Lord Advisor will be announced after the rewards ceremony, so you and Lord Jirou can continue relaxing here," the aid said, addressing Taki, though Shishido suspected that Jirou was more aware than he was making out to be. Taki gave a nod and watched as the rest of them were shuffled out of the room.

"After the herald announces you and your deeds, you will walk down the center of the hall. Move briskly, but don't rush. Stop several paces before the dias, bow, and then advance three steps, bow again, and wait in line to be acknowledged. When he hands you your reward, say, 'Thank you, Your Majesty,' and bow again. Understood?" The aid rambled off, as if he was afraid that one of them would suddenly forget all of their court training and start doing cartwheels down the hall. Or, if the look he was giving Yuushi and him was anything to go by, that they would either start maiming or kissing all of the guests. Whatever.

Shishido just gave a nod and then caught Ohtori's eyes and gave him a wink, and tilted his head toward the aid. Ohtori gave a small laugh. It earned them a dirty glare, but was worth it.

They heard the trumpets blast, and then the herald started, though most of the words were obscured by the large ornate doors. Still, whatever he was saying sounded impressive.

"Alright, Lord Hiyoshi, after you. Then you, Sir Yuushi, and Sir Shishido. And finally, Brother Ohtori." He physically moved them into place and then opened the door for them.

Having often seen the hall from Atobe's vantage point or off to one side, it was a new experience to have to strut down the center of the hall with everyone's attention firmly on them. As they headed down the hall, instead of being one after the other in line, they shifted so they were walking side by side. Shishido smiled as he made out Yuushi and Ohtori on either side of him.

Atobe was waiting for them at the dias, and on cue, they all bowed, advanced, and bowed again. Even Hiyoshi, who often scourned court politeness directed at Atobe, managed to bow to the proper degree.

"Rise and be rewarded for your deeds. We are most grateful for how you have served us." Atobe continued on making a pompous speech, and Shishido couldn't help looking over to the courtiers and trying to make out what they were holding. Atobe's gifts could be anything from a worthless piece of paper or a dukedom.

"To our dearest cousin Lord Hiyoshi, we are giving you the land that the peach orchard rests on. We remember how you always enjoyed visiting there with your mother as a child. May it bring you many more good memories for all the great services you have done us." Atobe handed Hiyoshi a highly ornamented scroll, and Hiyoshi thanked him with a sort of honesty that made Shishido wonder just what history the peach orchard had for the young nobles.

"Sir Yuushi, we were tempted to offer you a peerage, but feared to give you access to everyone else who has thus evaded your seductions. So, we have thought long hard, and we are giving you Higuma Otoshi, the fastest horse in our stables. May she carry you quickly away from all the jealous wives and husbands you may encounter." There was laughter around the hall, though Yuushi seemed to not mind the teasing from the King, something that Shishido wasn't going to think about. Especially with the way Yuushi's hands caressed Atobe's as he took his own ornamental scroll from Atobe's hand.

"Sir Shishido, your fast reflexes may have saved our life, and for that, we are very thankful. So first, we would like to reward you with the star of service to show all those that see you that you are responsible for their sovereign, living another day." He took the pin from the cushion and pinned it to Shishido's chest.

Shishido was grinning like a loon, and only just remembered to say thank you. Every Knight dreamed of earning these tokens. Monetarily worthless, but it proved that he had done what every Knight was made to do: save their master.

"We would also like to give you this, a small token of our admiration of your quick skills. May you put it to good use." Atobe signalled another page, and he came forward with a small chest. It was opened and revealed a long dagger in a beautifully ornamented scabbard.

"Wow," Shishido said, and then added a hasty thank you as he took the offered dagger and quickly managed to strap it to his belt. The weight felt odd, but good.

"Finally, to Brother Ohtori who had the skill most needed that day. Without you, we may have drunk unthinkable poisons before any warning could be made. To thank you, we offer you this. Use it wisely." Atobe reached for a bag that looked quite heavy for its size and handed it over to Ohtori who bowed slightly and thanked him while turning bright red.

Ohtori's gift wasn't as personalized, but Shishido realized that it was probably because he was the person that Atobe knew the least about. Still, Shishido was sure it was generous and would be put to good use by Ohtori.

With a bit more pomp and ceremony they finally finished and bowed a final time.

"Sir Yuushi, Sir Shishido," Atobe called just as they were about to turn and head back out of the way. "Are you still ready to serve?" He asked, reminiscent of one of the first things he had said to Shishido so long ago during the binding ceremony.

Shishido and Yuushi shared a look, and as one they turned and saluted Atobe. "With our lives, Your Highness!" And as he took up place slightly behind and to the side of Atobe, Shishido saw Ohtori who gave him a thumbs up, and then he knew that this is where he was meant to be and what he was born to do.

It was a great day to be a Knight of Hyotei.