The sun was gone, and in its place the stars emerged, one by one throwing their brilliant light down on the city of Tomoeda. No longer was it the quiet and subdued place it had been in the evenings of Gorrell's short rule. Light and laughter spilled out from public houses. Businessmen no longer feared plundering soldiers, and dared to keep their dining rooms open longer into the night. The economy was growing again, the people regaining their confidence.
There were more of them out that night than Touya had seen all summer, and he smiled as he guided his horse down the Great Road, searching the temples with his eyes. Nobody paid attention to him, which was fine. He was riding his favorite mare bareback, with none of the expensive tack that was available in the royal stables. His clothes were clean but cheap, the rough cotton material worn by laborers. And the growing darkness concealed his face. Nobody gave a second look to their king as he signaled his horse to stop and then slid off her back, tying her halter to the post before the temple and patting her soothingly, as much for his comfort as hers.
Captain Blacken was probably tearing his hair out right now, but there wasn't anything to be done about it. Touya needed to do this without an audience. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the heavy oak door and entered the temple.
It looked empty; the only movement was the flickering flames on the many candles set out. But he knew that she was here. He could feel it. Tapping his hand restlessly on the hilt of his knife, he paced up the center aisle, looking around at all the different idols. When he returned his attention to the altar, she was standing by the railing, watching him calmly. He refused to show his surprise.
"Your majesty." She gave a graceful curtsy, which seemed out of place. This was her domain, she ruled here. Already he felt like an intruder, but he stepped forward anyway.
"I've come to see how you were. If you were all right."
"Did you?" She knew he was talking nonsense, and it showed in her eyes. He grunted at his own stupidity and continued to walk toward the front of the temple. She turned her attention to lighting the candles by the idols behind her, turning as if to avoid his eyes, though the movement was deliberate and calm. "I'm touched by your concern, your majesty."
"Call me Touya."
"As you wish."
"I should have come sooner. But it's been a very trying summer, you know. It's not easy to reclaim a kingdom after an internal revolt."
"I can imagine." She didn't seem hurt, or bothered, or upset that he had been gone. But she didn't seem to very happy that he had finally come, either. Would he ever figure out this woman? "That is not the only reason you came," she stated, breaking into his thoughts.
He hesitated, then nodded.
"I came for your help. I want to ask you a favor."
She positioned a candle in its holder and met his gaze. He couldn't tell if she already knew or not. She was waiting for him to ask. Rather than face her, he turned away and sat on the polished wooden railing, then pulled his cotton tunic over his head.
"I hate them. I want them gone. Will you do it?"
He stared fiercely at the marble floor in front of him, gripping his shirt in one hand. It was so quiet behind him; she could have disappeared for all he knew. But then he felt a light touch on his back, and he sucked his breath in.
"The scars run deep."
"Yes. Sakura healed the wounds shut the day it happened, but the scars haven't gone away. It doesn't even seem like they faded very much these past few months."
"Why come to me? Your sister is far more powerful."
"I know, but I do have my pride. I'm her older brother. I don't want her to think about the day that I was tied to a post and whipped like an animal." His throat tightened a little as he spoke, and he clenched his fists tighter.
"You don't want to think about it either."
"Of course not. Why would I want to be reminded of that humiliation every time I take off my shirt? I can't see them, but I'm always conscious of them. He's gone, dead, but he left me permanently marked. They're scars of defeat and degradation."
"They are badges of honor," she murmured. "Scars of victory and perseverance. Like a clay bowl scorched by the flames of an artisan, you were tested and not found wanting. You are stronger now for it."
Her fingers were running up his back now, and he slumped a little in defeat. He should have known she would say something like that.
"You're not going to heal them, are you?"
"I would be remiss in my duties if I did. The scars of your lashing are the result of a power-mad general and his frightening government. Someone has to remember his brutality, what happens when someone has too much power. Who better than the king to carry the reminder?"
He sighed wistfully, then became conscious of how her hand had stopped to rest on his shoulder. Without thinking, he reached across and placed his hand over hers.
The temple was silent for a few seconds. Then he broke it.
"My parents are gone. There's no one to tell me who to love or what is appropriate anymore."
"No one except an entire kingdom."
She slid her hand out from under his and he felt her presence fade a little. Hastily he stood up and turned around. She was already beside the altar, rubbing it absently with the sleeve of her robe, as if it weren't already spotlessly clean.
"Li is posing as a noble again, training the students of the King's Own. They plan to marry next spring."
"It is different."
She was right about that; she always was. Sakura was princess; considerably high up on the status scale, but she would never be queen. She would never be the ruler of Hapeynia unless something happened to him while he still had no heir. And while the nobility of the kingdom would certainly be shocked if they knew Li's true origins, for the princess to marry a mysterious and reclusive noble was at least acceptable. A woman that he married and made queen would be put to much more scrutiny.
"It's not as if you're a peasant."
"I am not nobility."
He tried to swallow his frustration as he stepped closer. She moved around to the other side of the altar, casually, as if she'd been thinking about doing it anyway.
"Li's managing all right. If you really wanted to, if you really tried, you could do it." He tried to keep the accusing tone out of his voice. He may be the king, and she not even nobility, but it had been the same ever since they first met. Somehow, in some strange way, she was always the superior.
"There's no noblewoman that could be a better queen than you could. Help me. Sakura's been a wonderful partner, she's helped reestablish the city orphanage, and she and Tomoyo took on the job of compensating all those financially hurt when Gorrell ruled. Imagine if the three of us were working together; imagine what we could do. You could rule by my side."
"Perhaps I don't want to."
"You can't tell me that." He leaned across slightly, locked into her eyes. "I won't believe that. You can't look me in the eye, knowing what we once had… how amazing it was…" He was much closer, his lips almost on hers when she abruptly turned away.
"It is not the same," she said in a low voice. He had to strain his ears, but he thought he could just barely detect a crack in her velvet tone. He had to be close.
"What's not the same? I'm older, you're older, but the way I feel hasn't changed. You know it's true."
"Yes, I know it's true." He circled around the altar, and this time she did not move away. Placing a hand on either side of her and standing so near, they were closer face-to-face than they had been in a long time. She smelled of light incense and sandalwood, like she always had. Nothing had changed. "I know you still feel the same for me, your majesty."
"But I am not first in your affections."
He shook his head slightly. "There's never been anyone else."
"It's not a person."
He frowned quizzically, and she sighed. "Tell me, how did the princess convince him to stay? He knew how difficult it would be."
"She offered to go with him, she was ready to give up the palace - " He stopped short. "What, that's what you want me to do? Give up my responsibilities? Give up being king?"
"It's different for my sister. She's not the ruler, she never will be. I need her, but Hapeynia doesn't. If I abdicated, the loss of a strong central ruler could mean civil war. The whole kingdom could break up." He felt odd, trying to rationalize himself to this woman. The weight of his duties lay heavily on his shoulders, almost tangible to his acute senses. "I could never walk away. Don't you see that?"
"Then come with me. Come to the palace."
"I can't. I never was and never will be first in your affections, Touya. Your obligations to the people of the kingdom will always come first in your heart. You know it, I know it. I knew a long time ago that we must take separate paths, it's why I left the palace."
He was silent, watching her with anguished eyes. There was a struggle in them, between what he wanted to believe and what he knew was true.
She laid a hand on his cool cheek.
"I will never know another like you. But I know that it's over. There is no sense in prolonging what is doomed. Go back to your palace, Touya. Be the strong and wise leader that your father was; bring justice and peace to all corners of your kingdom. I know it is your only true desire."
Maybe, thought Touya miserably. But that doesn't mean my heart isn't breaking. A true leader has less freedom than the lowliest servant in the land.
It was something Gorrell never understood, but Touya felt it all too well as he pressed his lips against hers in a final goodbye kiss. She did not pull away, but didn't respond either, and after a moment he drew back to give her one last look. Then he turned away and crossed the distance to his discarded tunic in quick strides. He could feel her eyes on him as he pulled his shirt on, covering the scars again.
Somehow, he'd known before he even came that she would never remove them. It didn't matter. He would bear the evidence of a treacherous ruler on his back for life, and every day he would remember to never become that man.
It would be her final message to him, and perhaps it wasn't such a bad way to say goodbye. Neither said anything as he strode down the aisle and pulled the door open, departing into the night.
The woman waited until he was gone, and then she sank down to the floor and leaned her head back against the altar.
It is the way…I have foreseen it in my cleaning and I know it has to be done. I show them, give them instruction and advice, and then I have to let go. They must fly on, and I must remain. I knew it was coming.
But it hurts still. And it always will.
The young king paused outside to take a few deep breaths. The summer night air was cool and fragrant, and it was calming to his troubled soul.
I can't believe I let it rest so easily. I left her! Do I love her less than Sakura loves Li? But she's right, I know she's right. I'll never have room in my life for anyone; the kingdom takes priority. Defending this new law that allows commoners to carry swords is taking every minute of my time. And there are those threats of invasion from the north, and rumors of the nobles who might have helped Gorrell, and –
He shook his head as he mounted his horse. He'd spent too much time down here in the city as it was. It was time for him to return to the palace, time to resume his leadership. He was the heir to the kingdom, and he had a job to do.
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Disclaimer: I do not own these characters