.

.

She was shivering. It was the first thing Damiya noticed as Seimiya stood in front of him, small and pale and vulnerable in her night dress. The fire behind her was the same color as her eyes, casting a warm glow around them.

Damiya stepped close. She seemed afraid, but she didn't move as he let his hands cup her shoulders, thumbs gently smoothing down the straps of her nightgown.

"Beautiful," Damiya murmured, and he dipped low, letting his lips graze the curve of her shoulder. "There is no man as lucky as I tonight."

"Will it hurt?"

Damiya stopped. Seimiya looked up at him, eyes wide and fearful but also trusting him, a trapped animal coaxed out from the brush. "Oji-sama?"

"Damiya," Damiya said. He gently brushed back her hair, letting the tips of his fingers rest on the side of her neck. "We are soon to be married, Seimiya. You may say my given name."

She swallowed and Damiya couldn't help but think how small she is, how fragile. He smiled and he pressed a soft kiss against her brow, murmuring, "I shall never hurt you, Seimiya. Trust in this."

Her eyes closed. She nodded but she was still shaking.

"Who is the one who loves you best?" Damiya said.

"Oji-sama loves me. He is the one who loves me best."

"That is right," Damiya said. He dropped a small kiss against her cheek, then let his lips press gently against the side of her throat.

xXx

.

The dissenter slammed backwards into the chair, his head making a loud thwack against the wooden table in front of him. The spray of filthy light puddled across his neck, a trickle of blood dripping down his temple.

"Enough," Damiya said. He motioned for the soldier to step aside, then leaned close to the dissenter's face.

"Have we learned our lesson?" Damiya said.

The man spat in Damiya's face. Damiya frowned.

"How indelicate," Damiya said. He wiped the saliva from his cheek.

"The Wajyaku will rise," the dissenter said. Damiya bristled as the man dared lift his head, chest heaving and the cut on his face bleeding at the corner of his mouth. "They drive us to war and they drive us to famine. The Holon have no claim to us. They want only to dance on Wajyaku graves."

"The Wajyaku would be so lucky," Damiya said. His eyes narrowed.

Over the years, he had refined his techniques. Control for him was no longer a matter of brute force; it was a suggestion, a whisper of a threat. When he authorized the kill, his men barely even blinked.

He stood and turned. Behind him, he could hear another punch, the sound of a fist coming into contact with the other man's mouth.

"Oji-sama. What is it that you do?" Seimiya had asked, once. She was still young; they were standing at the garden.

"I do what is necessary to keep the country safe," Damiya said. "I am no warrior, Seimiya. But I have skills that are well-suited to this task."

"What kinds of skills?" Seimiya asked. Damiya paused and considered.

"The types of skills that are necessary, but somewhat unsavory, to people enjoying times of peace."

"I see," Seimiya said, and she smiled.

When the dissenter was dead and lying slack-jawed across the ground, Damiya did not feel satisfaction. Only the crushing weight of his own oversight. He had eyes and ears all over the kingdom, and yet he had missed the most basic of threats.

Protest. It was the poison that spread through the populace like tendrils of ink in a vat of clear liquid, and Damiya saw it firsthand: he saw it in the eyes of the commoners, their furtive jeers and their quiet talks of revolution. That the Grand Duke controlled the strongest army worried him; they were ill-equipped to deal with an outright revolt.

Outside, an autumn storm grew, rain pouring and washing away every trace of murder from the dissenter's body. Damiya stood with a black umbrella and watched as the life dribbled out from the man's insides, blood black like ink swirling into dark eddies around his shoes.

xXx

.

"There are rumors you had a man killed today," the Queen said.

Damiya said nothing; he stayed fixed in a low-sweeping bow, his eyes fixed on a polite point on the floor.

"Damiya. You know how I feel about needless bloodshed."

"My Queen, that man had plotted to seek your demise; he would have wanted a Wajyaku for the throne."

"The Wajyaku are our protectors," the Queen said. "Furthermore, my men tell me this man has done us no harm."

"He had sought to have others such as himself assemble," Damiya said. He kept his eyes fixed on a polite point on the floor. "Surely Your Majesty can understand the potential threat?"

He raised his eyes, and was not surprised to see the Queen bristle.

"Damiya," the Queen said. "I am the goddess of my people. I want nothing more than their happiness. If they are unhappy, then we will simply have to meet their demands."

"If the Wajyaku had their way, they would abandon the fight and let the Lazal invade," Damiya said. He bowed again, forcing his eyes downward. "Highness. It would be a mistake to allow the touda to be within the Grand Duke's command. If we were to take over their forces, keep it under our control-"

"The Grand Duke is our ally. His people are who keep us safe."

"Be that as it may," Damiya said. "His people are dissatisfied. They say they march to slaughter while we take our bread. Ridiculous of course. But it is this insolence which is a danger. If you would allow me to neutralize this threat, reclaim the Grand Duke's army as our own-"

"-and offend our greatest ally, who has helped us since the foundation of this country?" The Queen watched him with leveled eyes. "We have disagreed in the past about these things. but you will remember I am your Queen."

"Indeed," Damiya said. The Queen rose.

That night, Damiya stood at the balcony and looked out into the kingdom. The darkness was vast and quiet, and when he lifted his eyes, he could just barely make out the shapes of the city stretching up from the ground.

xXx

.

"Come again, my Lord?"

The soldier's eyes widened. Damiya frowned, straightening his shirt.

"You heard what I said. You will try to assassinate the Queen."

Even beneath the mask, Damiya could see the soldier's face pale.

"Try," Damiya said. "But you will purposefully fail. It should be close enough to jar her. Nothing more."

xXx

.

Seimiya was sitting in the garden, weaving a wreath of flowers on her lap. Damiya watched silently how the morning light seemed to diffuse softly around Seimiya's form; he took a moment to quietly admire her before stepping forward.

"Beautiful," Damiya said, and Seimiya looked up, delighted.

"Oji-sama!"

"Seimiya," Damiya said, and he offered her a low, sweeping bow. "No man is as lucky as I to see you today. You are exquisite," Damiya said, and Seimiya giggled. He was pleased to see her begin to blush. "What have we got here? A wreath of flowers?" Damiya asked. Seimiya giggled again, showing it to him.

"It's for Oba-sama and her birthday," Seimiya said. He watched as she tucked her legs demurely underneath her, one slender ankle peeking from beneath her dress, before delicately lifting his eyes. "Would Oji-sama like a wreath as well."

"If by your hands you weave one for me, I shall not refuse," Damiya said. Seimiya blushed again and began twisting the stems of another wreath, working quickly.

There were things in this world Damiya would kill to protect. His country and his Queen, but most of all this beautiful creature sitting before him, an angel bathed in purity and light.

"Lean forward," Seimiya said, and Damiya dutifully complied, letting her place the wreath of flowers on his head. He felt her fingers brush against his temples, and he quietly closed his eyes.

Later, the old hag hissed, "Disgrace," but Damiya ignored her, walking down the tunnel and into the dusty outskirts of the city. The Queen's attendants all whispered amongst themselves how Damiya, cruel and manipulative bastard, followed the Queen's granddaughter like an ever-present shadow, and they gave him a wide-berth, watching him with suspicious eyes as he passed. A lesser man would cave beneath the weight of his isolation, but in point of fact, Damiya preferred it: the company of others, with its blind faith and trust, only made it easier to betray, and Damiya was not the sort of man to be caught off-guard.

xXx

.

"What do you think about marriage?" Seimiya asked, once. It was the day after the Grand Duke's visit; Damiya had accompanied Seimiya to the gardens, strolling leisurely and taking her by the hand.

"Marriage?" Damiya frowned. "Seimiya. You are much too young to be thinking of these things."

Seimiya grew quiet, and Damiya watched her with quiet interest as she began to fidget with the sleeves of her dress. Damiya sighed, affectionately. "Surely you cannot tell me some young man has caught your eye? Someone other than your dear Oji-sama, to whom you confide your deepest, darkest secrets? Because where I am standing, it is tantamount to sharing your heart," Damiya said, but Seimiya's face darkened.

"Seimiya?" Damiya said "What is wrong?"

She bowed her head, and Damiya couldn't see her eyes. "What do you know of the Grand Duke's son?" Seimiya asked.

"It depends which one," Damiya said.

"Shunan," Seimiya said. Her voice was tremulous. Damiya frowned.

"He is one whose heart often wavers," Damiya said. "He is not loyal to the Queen."

"Do you think...do you think he likes me?"

Damiya stopped. Seimiya was looking up at him with wide, wet eyes.

"Of course," Damiya said. He stepped forward, walking at a leisurely pace. "You are the adorable and utterly charming heir to the kingdom's throne. He would be a fool not to think otherwise."

"Really?" Seimiya brightened. Damiya frowned.

"Seimiya," Damiya said. "You must be cautious of this young man. For as benign he appears in court, he and his father are an ever-growing threat."

"Perhaps," Seimiya said, and then she smiled. "Perhaps Oji-sama is jealous."

"Perhaps," Damiya said.

She was teasing him, but Damiya did not smile. He looked at her with the sad knowledge that she would be used, she would be discarded, her life a mere piece to service the greed of powerful men.

They would not last. Damiya made sure of this: in darkness he sent his eyes and ears to the farthest reaches of the kingdom, dispatching with invisible enemies with cunning and guile within the shadows of the wall.

xXx

.

The fake assassination attempt went as Damiya hoped: it jarred her, his idiot Queen, from her naive good will and senile complacency. The number of guards increased and the palace became a veritable barricade.

It was the only way. Better he strike first before the Grand Duke revealed his treachery.

"I do not understand," the mage said. He looked up at Damiya, uncertainly. "You want us to attack the Queen?"

"Attack, but not kill," Damiya said. He could almost see it: an army horde of touda soldiers swarming the Queen's barge. She would realize how dangerous it is, letting the Grand Duke and his forces go unchecked. It would. be enough to justify their subjugation, the Wajyaku and all their treacherous kin.

"It is for the good of the nation," Damiya said. "How better to fortify ourselves than to expose our very weakness?"

"Yes, My Lord."

Damiya's mouth stretched into a smile.

xXx

.

The attack did not go as planned.

The Queen was dead. There was this: the gnashing of teeth, the wailing of prostrate subjects, horrified at seeing their goddess collapse and die before their eyes.

There was this: the gnawing, wretched feeling, knowing that it was all his fault.

xXx

.

It rained the day they buried her, the Queen's attendants crying quietly into their coats as Seimiya bravely and quietly looked on, the Queen's crown glistening with rain. Damiya watched, heart in his throat, as the Grand Duke's son threatened to invade the kingdom if Seimiya refused to marry him.

His fault. His fault. Around him, his men quietly congratulated themselves, foolishly thinking that Damiya could now ascend the throne.

In the bedroom, Seimiya was crying. Damiya had watched as she forced herself to be strong for her subjects, dully going through the treatises and scrolls as the late Queen's advisors tried to get her up to speed, before silently following her to her room. He watched as the door clicked shut, and waited a few moments more before the muffled, half-shuddered sobs came lurching out from beneath the door.

xXx

.

"The King of Lazal proposed to me." Seimiya's eyes were dim. "First Shunan and now this. Oji-sama. What am I to do?"

She looked up at him, and he could see the rims of her eyes start to darken. Gently Damiya sat next to her and took her hand.

"It is a vulnerable time," Damiya said. "You are young and untested, and the kingdom is undergoing great change. There are those who would seize upon this as a golden opportunity."

Seimiya's eyes closed. A tear spilled, then another. "I must bear an heir as soon as possible," Seimiya said.

"Do not push yourself. You are not a tool to be used for creating another Queen. You are my Seimiya," Damiya said, and he folded her against his chest, resting his chin against her hair.

"I am the one who loves you best. And I will not let them use you," Damiya said. Seimiya raised her head.

"Oji-sama?"

Damiya said nothing. Around them, the light that fell was a watery gray, and it seemed as if everything was quiet. Still, as if all the world had stopped for this one moment. Seimiya let him trace his fingers over the line of her neck, before closing her eyes and allowing him to kiss her. Tender, worshipful kisses, because she was a goddess and his Queen, and Damiya knew this was what he should do.

He would not call himself a king. Not like Shunan, who would make those proclamations without so much batting an eye.

Quietly he marked the name on the scroll, the inky dot spreading on rough-surfaced page, and all of Seimiya's enemies began to fall.