A/N: I came up with this story idea for Akagami no Shirayukihime a little while ago and I loved it too much not to run with it. I wouldn't call it AU necessarily, but it's definitely diverging from the main plot trail. Shirayuki hasn't left for any ball and there is no mysterious guy looking for her. I'd say it takes place after Shirayuki and Zen confess to each other but before the start of the next story arc. So… the end of chapter 14, I guess? Constructive criticism is greatly appreciated.
She hadn't been on guard. That's the only excuse Shirayuki could give for not seeing the attack coming. Though in her defense, who expected to be attacked inside the palace grounds?
Well, she had been—by Obi no less—but she thought that had been the exception to the rule. Now, as she was grabbed non-too-gently around the throat and dragged off into the shadows, she was starting to wonder if she wasn't the unfortunate exception. Maybe she was going to have to accept the fact that this was the norm for her, and stay on alert for such things.
That is, if she survived this encounter.
The person who grabbed her came to a stop. It was late, and there was little light, but the moon was full enough for Shirayuki to make out where they were, and the knowledge made her breath catch.
They were directly underneath Zen's bedroom terrace.
A strong arm looped around her waist and the hand around her throat disappeared. She heard the quiet shing of a dagger being unsheathed, and a second later felt the sharp, cold edge of the blade being pressed against her neck.
She thought for sure he was going to kill her then, without ever finding out why or who. But then her captor shifted as he bent close to her, and his breath puffed warmly against her ear as he whispered, "Now, why don't you give me a good, loud scream so Zen will hear and come running, and we can settle this once and for all?"
For a moment, shock overrode fear. She knew that voice. But then his words sunk in and they made her heart ache.
"You would kill your own brother, Prince Izana?"
He shook her; the knife slid dangerously along her skin as her head snapped forward and back. "Think, girl. If I wanted to kill my brother would I have to resort to something like this?"
Well, that was certainly true, but… "If you're not planning on killing Zen, why lure him out here?"
It was a reasonable question. Nearby, a cricket chirped its agreement and the leaves on the nearby trees rustled, Yes, why? Why…?
"You're awfully curious for someone with a knife to her throat." Izana's tone was almost amused. "Why do you care? All you need to do is call Zen out and I'll let you live. You want to live, don't you?"
"Of course I do," Shirayuki snapped, then cast a hasty glance at the terrace, afraid she'd spoken too loudly. In a quieter voice she went on, "But if you think I'm going to play bait so you can do something to Zen—"
The first prince made a noise of frustration. "So stubborn. Fine, I promise to you now that I won't touch a single hair on my little brother's head."
"Then why call—"
"Consider this a test," Prince Izana hissed. "One I'm growing quickly tired of. Now scream."
Shirayuki had been dying to scream since the second he'd grabbed her. But to do so now…
Her answer must have thrown him, judging by the long stretch of silence that followed. But Izana was used to hiding his shock over things and rallied quickly.
"I'm sorry, you don't seem to be understanding me," he said. "Scream now, or I'll slit your throat and leave your body for the guards."
"No," Shirayuki said again, even as her pulse pounded so hard she could barely hear her own voice. "I promised to protect Zen. If I scream I wouldn't be doing a very good job of protecting him, would I?"
"Protect him from what? Didn't I just promise not to harm him?"
"Yes, but you said this was a test. You want to test Zen's loyalty, don't you? Just like before. That's what this is all about. You want him to come out here and see us, and then you're going to make him choose."
"Between me and you. Me and the kingdom. That's what your afraid of, isn't it? That he won't put his kingdom first, over me?"
A pause. "And what do you think he'd do, if he had to make the choice?"
Shirayuki fought the urge to fidget. "I… I don't know. I think he would choose his kingdom."
"I think he would too," said her royal captor. "But you know what makes me angry? That I only think he'd choose his kingdom, and before he met you, I know he would have chosen it. Now he'll hesitate, at the very least, and a prince can't hesitate over such a matter. His kingdom must always come first. That Zen might falter, however briefly, over some no-name peasant, is more than I can stand."
"I'm sorry," she said softly. "It must be hard on you."
"Being first prince is hard, but—"
"No," she corrected, "I mean because you are Zen's older brother. You want him to grow up right. You worry over him. I understand how troubling it would be. But I care about him too and I promised. Which is why I won't scream for you now."
"I don't understand."
"I know Zen cares about me. I care about him as well, very much. But he is a prince and I know, as you do, that if push comes to shove he can never choose me over his responsibilities to his kingdom. That's why I promised to do my best never to put him in such a position."
"So you'll die tonight for a boy who won't even put you first?"
She started to nod, but the sharp sting of the knife stilled her. "Yes. If I have to."
"You have to. This is not a bluff you know. Say no again and you'll greet death."
For a moment, Shirayuki hung in a terrified limbo. She knew her choice and wasn't about to change it, but fear of being killed had her hesitating to speak. She didn't want to die. There was still so much she wanted to see, do, learn. She'd barely begun her journey in this world and as she stood there, she felt her heart fill with grief, not just for herself, but for everyone who'd ever been struck down too young. Fate was unfair to them all.
Izana's grip on the dagger tightened; she heard the squeak of the leather handle against his palm, felt the pressure of the blade against her pulse point. Waiting was pointless.
She exhaled, her response the softest whisper. "No."
The blade sliced across her throat. Shirayuki gasped despite vowing to die silently. He let her go and she fell to her knees, grabbing at her neck. She expected to feel a smiling gash, a flood of blood—but there was only the smallest of nicks, barely bleeding.
Tears pricked her eyes and she choked back a sob. The first prince stepped in front of her. She couldn't make out his expression in the gloom, and hoped that meant he couldn't make out her's either.
"I guess I lied about it not being a bluff," he said, his voice flat. "Lucky you."
Only when she was sure he was gone did Shirayuki try to stand. Her legs wobbled beneath her like a newborn colt's, the terror she'd managed to suppress while at knifepoint finally breaking free and leaving her cold and shaking. Believing you were about to die and then suddenly facing a reprieve was a jarring thing, to say the least; it was like playing mind tricks with the soul. Relief at still being alive clashed against Shirayuki's acceptance of death, and for a scary moment it felt wrong to still be standing there, to still be breathing and seeing and thinking.
A whimper escaped her lips she bit down on it, hard, reminding herself that she was still too close to Zen to lose it completely. It was tempting, almost irresistibly so, to call out to him now. With the danger gone, she could safely have him come and comfort her, like she knew he would if he became aware she was there. But it would invite questions that, if answered, would only upset him. There was nothing he could do. It would be pointless and selfish to burden him with this. She would deal with it as best she could on her own.
After a few minutes, Shirayuki tried again to move and this time made it all the way to the palace domiciles before stumbling and going down. She stayed that way on her hands and knees, head hung, fighting to keep it together. She'd never felt so unsteady in her life. Not even that time she'd gone three days without sleep, or that time she'd been drugged. If she could just stop the tremors in her legs long enough to get to her bedroom—
"Little Miss? Is that you?"
Obi. She cursed herself for collapsing in such a visible spot, and then him for wandering around at night when he wasn't supposed to. Though there were worse people to run into, the last thing she wanted to do was deal with anyone else right now.
He crouched down in front of her, leaving what some would have called a "proper" amount of distance between them. Shirayuki knew he didn't do it to be proper. More out of wariness, or safety, though whose safety she couldn't have said.
Shirayuki fought to get a hold of herself, but the harder she tried the more she shook. It was as if, by forcing herself to calm down, she was squeezing the fear from her body at a faster rate than it should naturally go, making her limbs shudder under the strain.
"Hey. Are you all right?" It said a lot about how worried Obi was that he reached out to touch her. His grip on her shoulder felt odd but reassuring.
"I-I'm fine," she said, knowing it sounded like the lie it was.
Whatever he heard in her voice must have scared him, because his hand left her shoulder and she felt the tip of one gloved finger under her chin, forcing her to look up. His eyes widened when he saw her face. "Shirayuki…"
"I'm fine," she said again, proud that her voice didn't waver this time.
He gave her an unhappy look, but thankfully didn't press it. She didn't think she could take it if he piled questions on her right then; maybe he sensed that.
"I'll walk you back to your room," was all he said. Shirayuki nodded, but when she attempted to stand and toppled, he grabbed her and swung her up into his arms. She was too drained to feel embarrassed about it.
When they reached her door, it took her a minute to get the key free of her pocket. As soon as she did, Obi plucked it from her numb grip and unlocked the door himself, carrying her inside despite her protests that she could make it the rest of the way on her own.
The layout was standard for someone of her station. The door opened up into a humble entrance room with a table at its center. A couch pressed against the far wall, bookended on either side by, ironically, bookcases. A small window looked out over one of the more sparsely landscaped stretch of grounds. To the right and left lay two stubby hallways, both leading to bedrooms. Obi paused, uncertain which one was hers; Shirayuki pointed to the right one.
Usually, the non-royal bedroom suites were shared by two people, either of the same station or family house. For example, a pair of maids may share quarters, or close brothers or cousins. Ryuu, a fellow pharmacist and Shirayuki's boss, would normally have been the ideal suite partner for her, since they worked so closely together every day. But the differences in sex and age made the arrangement inappropriate; both were told they would have suites to themselves until better matches could be made. But it had been months for Shirayuki, and in Ryuu's case, years.
Shirayuki understood the difficulties with assigning someone with her young boss. Besides being male, they would have to be close to his age. But most twelve year olds still lived at home with their families, and those that didn't would hardly fit with Ryuu anyway. Ryuu was… special. Possessing a mind that surpassed even most adults. He wouldn't know how to deal with a normal pre-teen, even if it was only in the evenings.
Herself, on the other hand, should have been much easier to pair up. There were plenty of other young females in the palace she would be more than happy to share the suite with. But every time she asked, she was told that it wasn't necessary right now, and that she should just enjoy the privacy while she had it. Shirayuki secretly suspected this was Zen's doing, the one little bit of favoritism he thought he could get away with giving her. She didn't mind enough to call him on it, and living alone meant that there was no one tonight to witness her being carried to bed by her usually aloof guard.
He carried her to the bed. Once she was down, she fumbled with her boots until Obi nudged her hands aside and took them off for her, along with her coat. When he was done and stood to leave, she grabbed his arm to stop him.
"Please don't tell Zen about this," she said.
Obi rolled his eyes. "Why did I know you were going to say that?"
"Please. You have to promise me you won't."
"I don't have to promise anything to you, Little Miss," he told her, not unkindly.
"Zen can't do anything about this. Telling him will only upset him unnecessarily."
Obi gave her the hardest look Shirayuki had ever seen from him. Without a word, he pulled out a slightly stained handkerchief and pressed it to her neck. She flinched from the pain and again when he held it up and she saw the light smear of blood.
"I don't think there would be anything 'unnecessary' about it," he told her quietly.
Shirayuki could only stare up at him. "Please, Obi."
He made a sound of frustration in the back of his throat. After a moment, he sat down next to her on the bed and took her hand. Gently. So gently she could barely feel it.
"Be honest with me, Little Miss. Was that the only place he hurt you?"
She knew what he was asking, and though embarrassed, was glad she could honestly answer, "Yes."
Some of his tension eased, but he was still clearly upset. He dropped the handkerchief into her hand and then folded her fingers over it. He kept his gaze downward, and she knew he was thinking serious thoughts. Finally, he stood.
"No promises," he said, and then he left before she could argue for more. Shirayuki didn't think she had it in her anyway. She lay in bed and held the handkerchief to her neck until the blood dried, then she set it aside and tried to sleep. It came easier than she thought it would, but it was Prince Izana's face that haunted her dreams.
Though Obi wasn't the type to often smile, he also wasn't the type to look somber either. Mostly, he kept a very bland expression. Careless, some would call it. Of course, believing that attitude went more than skin deep was to underestimate him.
Maybe that's why he did it.
Whatever his reason, it made reading his stronger moods easier, whenever he happened to suffer from one. Which was why Zen knew something was up the minute he spotted Obi waiting for him outside his office the next morning, wearing a fierce look on his face.
"Is there a problem, Obi?"
"A problem?" He shrugged, immediately feigning nonchalance. "I can't say there is."
Zen gave him a hard look. "Did something happen, Obi?"
"I can't say."
Mitsuhide and Kiki were trailing Zen. At Obi's repeatedly vague answers Mitsuhide frowned and Kiki said, "Stop wasting time. If something's wrong just say it."
Obi glared at her. "I just said. I. Can't."
Zen shot Kiki a warning look, then he turned back to the young guard. "Who said you couldn't, Obi? My brother?" More softly, "Shirayuki?"
Obi met his gaze. "She's in the garden."
That was all Zen needed to hear. He took off. Mitsuhide and Kiki stayed behind, most likely to try and interrogate Obi some more. Zen would do that later if need be, but first he needed to see Shirayuki.
She was in the garden, just like Obi said she'd be. When she saw him coming she smiled in welcome, but Zen noted that it didn't come close to reaching her eyes.
He slowed as he approached. He'd been so anxious to see her that he hadn't given himself time to figure out how to precede without tipping Shirayuki off that Obi had told him something.
"Good morning, Zen," she greeted him, wiping dirt from her skirts only to smear more on. If he'd been in a better mood, the sight would have made Zen smile.
"Good morning, Shirayuki," he replied with a small bow. "How are you this morning?"
She gave him an odd look. Inwardly, he grimaced at how stiff he sounded. He needed to be casual about this. He was frustrated that Shirayuki hadn't come to him with whatever was wrong after he'd made such a big deal earlier that she do so, but he also couldn't reprimand her when he couldn't prove she was hiding anything.
"I'm fine," she answered him, but her smile slipped for a moment before she managed to paste it back on, and his heart clenched that she felt she had to keep this from him. Whatever "this" was.
It was pure luck that the wind came just as he was looking at her collar, which he was thinking seemed a bit too high for such hot weather. The brief gust of air made her hair billow outwards, and from his higher angle he had a perfect view of what he otherwise would never have been noticed: A small cut on her neck, perfectly straight. The kind of clean cut that could only have come from a blade.
The thought of anyone holding her at knifepoint made Zen's blood run cold, then boiling hot. He almost stepped forward and demanded answers right then, Obi's confidences be damned, but caught himself just in time. It could have been an accident—as far-fetched as that idea was—but her unusual wardrobe and sedated attitude told him it wasn't. He knew Shirayuki and knew how she thought, and if it wasn't an accident, then the only reason she didn't tell him about it now was because she thought it would put him in an awkward position.
Which meant he knew who gave it to her.
Shirayuki had gone back to picking herbs, humming quietly as she worked. Every so often she threw a smile his way, probably wondering why he came just to stand there.
Zen wanted to cry. He wanted to yell and beat his fists, draw blood on her behalf. Unfortunately, he could do none of those things. He could, however, demand answers.
But not from her.
He found his brother in one of the bigger study rooms going over maps of the country's woodlands. When Izana saw him, he smirked and set down his pen.
"Well, that certainly didn't take long. Did she break down and tell you this morning, or did she go last night and you've just now torn yourself away from comforting her?"
Zen's blood hummed in outraged indignation, but when he spoke his tone stayed even, if curt.
"She hasn't said a word," he told him. "I deduced what happened myself from the way she was acting this morning. That, and the cut on her neck." Zen stepped closer to his brother, who only looked amused at his attempt to be more intimidating. "What did you do to her?"
He expected some heavily veiled explanation full of political justification and insincere apologies, so he was taken aback when Izana bluntly answered, "I dragged her underneath your window last night and told her that if she didn't scream for you I'd slit her throat right there."
The image that created in his mind was so shocking that for a moment Zen couldn't comprehend it. "My God, why?"
"I told her it was a test. She assumed I was testing you and refused to scream out of some misplaced sense of loyalty. Wanted to spare you apparently. Wouldn't stop rambling on about a promise not to force you into any tough decisions."
Despite his horror at the situation, his brother's words warmed Zen's heart. Shirayuki wasn't just one in a million. She was the only one.
Some of his pride must have shown on his face, because his brother frowned. "I don't see why you're so happy about that. The girl has no sense of self-preservation."
"She does," Zen disagreed. "She just loves me more than that. And she passed your test."
The frowned deepened. "Figured that out, did you?"
"That the test was for her? Yes. And she passed."
"In what way?"
Zen smiled. "In every way."
Izana sighed and shook his head. "This isn't good, Zen. You know it's not good."
"I swear I won't let you down," Zen told him, unsure how else he could reassure his brother. "You or the kingdom."
The first prince's expression was somber. "I hope so, Zen."
Zen bowed and saw himself out. Izana turned back to his maps, but looked up again when Zen added from the doorway, "I feel I must warn you though, Brother. If you ever pull that kind of stunt on Shirayuki again, first prince or not I will see you repaid."
He said it casually, as if he were merely saying goodbye instead of threatening the future king. Izana's eyes widened in shock, an expression not many caught on his face anymore. Zen held his gaze a second longer, then walked off.
He was almost to the end of the hall when he heard his brother start to laugh.
Shirayuki was still crouched in the garden when he returned. Without a word, he pulled her to her feet and tugged down the collar of her shirt. She blushed at his sudden actions and started to splutter, but choked on a gasp when he leaned in and pressed a kiss to her wound.
He pulled back. There were tears in her eyes. At that moment, Zen was more furious with his brother than he'd ever been in his life. Izana was a brilliant strategist and would make an excellent king some day, but even understanding his reasoning, this was one thing Zen could not condone. Was that a weakness on his part? Perhaps. But who could strengthen themselves against love's bias?
"I'm so sorry, Shirayuki."
She didn't ask him how he knew.
He stayed with her the rest of the day, Shirayuki's royal shadow of protection, keeping her safe for the time being, though they both knew it was more an illusion than anything. They talked little, and not about last night's incident at all. What was there to say? It was a crappy situation neither of them had an answer for yet, but both prayed they'd find one soon.
A week later, there was a bad flu outbreak in one of the outer towns. Shirayuki was sent out, along with Ryuu. Zen was sad to see her go, but both of them secretly thought it would be good to get her away from Prince Izana for a while.
Zen saw her off, ignoring the gaze of his brother who watched him from the front steps. It was only after Shirayuki's wagon disappeared over the hill that he acknowledged the first prince's stare. His expression was back to being inscrutable.
Zen didn't want to start another argument, if that's what Izana was looking for, so he said nothing and went back to work. Shirayuki would be gone for several weeks. He hoped time could convince his brother where proximity could not. And if that didn't work, well, he was sure Shirayuki could prove herself eventually. People seemed impressed by her even against their will sometimes. There was no reason she couldn't win over his brother too, sooner or later.
No reason at all.