when the gales of November come early (kishmet) wrote,
when the gales of November come early

Desert Rose, 2/4

Desert Rose, by kishmet, part two of four.

"We'll be serving supper at exactly six o'clock in the main dining hall," says Shishido. "Be there on time."

"He won't be there at all." Atobe stalks past without looking at either of them. "I will not have another stranger at my table. Bring his food to his room."

"Now wait," Ryoma begins, but Atobe is gone, up the grand staircase in a few short bounds.

Shishido shifts uncomfortably in place. "Ah, well, Atobe says you're to have your supper in your room. Come on, I'll show you the way." He takes the stairs with surprising ease, each one in a single hop. Ryoma follows, running a hand over the dark marble banister, trying to get a closer look at the statues lining the steps. They're made of some black stone without a hint of shine to them. Some are broken, missing their heads or their limbs, and the ones that are whole are monsters, gargoyles, all of them hunched over with half-open wings, bulging eyes, and spiked tails.

The room Shishido leads him to is large and well-appointed, with a separate room for bathing and other necessities. The color scheme is blue, from the hearthrug in front of the fireplace to the pale blue sheets on the bed and the tapestry above it, which features a mounted herald with a sapphire blue standard underneath a pure blue sky. "I hope you'll find this room to your liking," says Shishido. It sounds more like something he's learned by rote than any real sentiment on his part. "You'll find the bureau stocked with clothing, and if you need any of it tailored, bring it to me and I'll have the adjustments made."

"Thanks," says Ryoma absently, exploring the room. There's a rug by the bedside, too, ostensibly to protect bare feet from the chill of the stone floor. The bureau is tall and sturdy, with graceful arched carvings framing the drawers. As soon as Ryoma puts a hand on one of the knobs, meaning to see what sort of clothing is inside, eyes fly open on the drawer above.

"Another guest?" inquires the bureau. "Shishido, you should have told me."

"You just found out anyway," Shishido points out, annoyed. "This is Taki, the wardrobe master."

"If you don't like anything in here, I can find you whatever you like elsewhere," Taki promises with a flirtatious smile. Then suddenly his smile fades and they all fall silent at the screeching of claws on stone and the sound of raised voices.

Ryoma can hear the conversation outside of his bedroom door. Oshitari is trying to keep the volume down, but Atobe's not attempting any such thing. "No! I will not share my table with another stranger. He will eat up here, or not at all!"

"Please, my lord, on his first night in residence-"

"No! I will not hear of it!" Atobe's pacing back and forth in the hallway, by the sound of things.

Ryoma pushes the drawer back in and starts for the door. "Wait, what are you doing?" Shishido asks in an alarmed whisper.

"They're fighting about me, so I should be part of it," says Ryoma. Shishido hops quickly over to block his way, but Ryoma steps over him. "How bad could it be?"

"Very bad!" Shishido hisses. "Believe me, you do not want to do this! Oshitari is more than capable of handling himself. I suppose. At times," he adds doubtfully. "Anyway, he's had practice dealing with Atobe, he knows how far he can push him."

"I can handle myself, too." Ryoma turns the knob and steps into the hallway. Atobe skids to a halt only an inch or two away from him, and looks surprised for a moment. Then he glowers. "What do you want?"

Ryoma shrugs, lifting his chin slightly, though Atobe's still a head taller than he is, even down on all fours. "It's almost six, isn't it? Where's the dining hall?"

"Oh, no," Shishido groans behind him.

Atobe shoots Shishido a look, then eyes Ryoma again. "I told you. You will be eating in your own room."

"You didn't tell me." Ryoma points to Oshitari and then to Shishido. "You told them. You could at least have the courtesy to say it to my face."

"Fine," Atobe snaps. "I've said it to your face now. You will take your meals upstairs, not in the dining hall with me."

"Too late," says Ryoma breezily, and heads for the steps. There is a momentary stunned silence, and then a commotion as all of them hurry after him. Atobe reaches him first, naturally, and lunges to bar Ryoma's way. He's a formidable barrier when he stretches out to his full length. Ryoma would have to dive underneath him or climb over to get to the stairs at all.

"You… you are not going down there!" Atobe says indignantly, flexing his claws, each one longer than Ryoma's longest finger.

"Yes I am," says Ryoma, sidestepping to see whether he can get by on the tail side. Atobe lashes out with one leg and Ryoma has to move back. "You don't have any manners, do you? This is how you treat guests?"

"My last guest was no paragon of etiquette himself," Atobe retorts.

"I'm not my father!" Ryoma flings back at him. "You're the one being rude here."

"This is my home, and you will abide by my rules!"

"Your rules are ridiculous." Ryoma folds his arms and sets his jaw stubbornly. "Fine. If I can't eat downstairs, I won't eat at all. I'll lock myself in my room and starve, will you be happy then?"

"I will be wholly satisfied!" Atobe snarls.

Ryoma turns around and marches past Oshitari and Shishido, into his room, and slams the door so hard that the hinges rattle. This door isn't quite as sturdy as the main set. Atobe could probably destroy it if he ever wanted to. Ryoma can hear Atobe going down the stairs, and then a pause, and then Oshitari and Shishido follow him, clinking and tokking all the way down.

The moment they're out of hearing range, Ryoma turns to Taki. "Are there any other staircases in this place?"


There is another staircase. It's down the hall, through an upstairs drawing room with a stunning view of the gardens and the desert beyond, and then into a bedroom set aside for visiting servants. The stairway is meant for servants, of course, and it's less than a fifth the size of the main steps. Atobe wouldn't be able to fit on this one, if he even knows that it exists.

Ryoma slips down the stairs, holding the rickety banister for support. These steps are also steeper than the ones on the grand staircase, and look more likely to collapse at any moment. He makes it to the end and pauses, hearing voices from the other side of the door at the bottom. It sounds like this passage leads out to the kitchens, which makes sense, given its purpose. He can hear the clattering of pots and pans, and someone giving orders, talking about pheasant and oregano and pastries. Ryoma licks his lips hungrily and opens the door a little.

The kitchens are enormous, at least compared to the ones back at Ryoma's home. There are three ovens lining the wall to his left, and a large counter in the center used for food preparation. The pots and pans that are making such a ruckus, he notes, are throwing themselves merrily about, letting spice canisters and cooking utensils add the necessary ingredients to the dishes being created in them.

Treading lightly, Ryoma edges along the right-hand wall, the area with the fewest people bustling around. He's only gone a few paces before someone clears their throat politely in his direction. "Excuse me. You are the new guest?"

Suddenly a hush falls over the room. Ryoma looks warily around at all the utensils and serving utensils, who have begun to stare at him. The same person clears their throat again, and the noise and activity resumes as abruptly as it had ceased.

Ryoma glances down at the floor, and comes face-to-face with some sort of metal implement with a narrow handle at one end, something like an egg-shaped cage at the other. A whisk, which makes him wonder if this person has anything to do with Shishido.

"Yes, that's right. My name is Ryoma."

"Ah, yes, Shishido told me about you. My name is Choutarou," says the whisk, sounding friendly enough. "I'm the master of the kitchens, although Kabaji could be, if he wanted it. He's more interested in the craft itself than in taking command, though. Isn't that right?"

"Yes," says the largest of the ovens shortly, probably preoccupied with fixing supper.
"Good to meet you both," says Ryoma. He doesn't offer to shake hands because it would probably be pointless anyway.

"I thought you were taking your meal in your room?" Choutarou inquires, with an air of mild puzzlement. "Oshitari said-"

"Things have changed since then. I hope it won't be too much of an inconvenience for me to eat in the dining hall." Ryoma glances around, looking for the entrance to that room, which is sure to be in the kitchens somewhere.

"Oh, no, of course not," Choutarou assures him hastily. "I'll have the maids set another place for you." He nods to a pair of serving spoons, and they hop to the other end of the counter to prepare another plate. "Dinner is nearly ready. If you'd like to wait at the table…?"

"I'll do that, then. Thanks." Ryoma heads down to the other end of the room to the huge double doors that must lead to the dining hall. He pushes through them and finds himself at the end of an enormous table, draped in the center with a tablecloth of delicate white lace, lit candlesticks all in a row along the length of it. The table is surrounded by heavy oaken chairs, carved with designs that resemble the statues along the grand staircase. He runs a hand over a carving on one of the chairs, walking slowly to the far end of the hall.

At the head of the table there's a larger, heavier seat, obviously made to accommodate someone important who won't fit into the ordinary chairs. Ryoma smirks slightly, and pulls out the seat next to this one, the only other chair with a plate and setting in front of it. For the next fifteen minutes, he watches the servers carry in covered silver platters, inhaling the most delicious aromas. His mouth waters, and he toys with one of the forks at his place. It wriggles in his grip, and he gives a startled laugh, setting it down again.

"As soon as my lord is seated, you will be served," Choutarou promises once all the food has been laid out, and then he goes back to the kitchen to supervise the washing of the pots and whatever else needs doing.

Ryoma waits until Choutarou is gone and he's alone in the great empty space. He's not completely alone, of course, but he doesn't think the cutlery will try ordering him around. Pushing his chair out, he goes to the one at the head of the table. Even with all his strength, he can't move it, and so leaps nimbly over one of the arms instead. This seat is comfortable, though too wide for him. He can only touch both armrests if he reaches his hands out as far as he can.

Then the other doors, the ones on the left side of the table, slam wide open, hitting the stone walls to the right and the left. "My lord, if you'd only reconsider letting him come down to eat."

"My mind is made up, and that's enough, Oshitari." Atobe's voice is already distinctive and familiar, low and rasping as it is.

"But my lord, surely his company cannot be that undesira… ble…" Oshitari stops and stares.

"What are you looking at?" Atobe demands, and follows Oshitari's line of vision. He stops in his tracks, and both of them simply gape for a good long minute.

Ryoma waves cheerily to them. "Hi. Mind sitting down now? I'm hungry."

"What do you think you are doing?" Atobe asks slowly, sounding mildly bemused. "I told you that you were to have supper upstairs."

"I didn't feel like it," says Ryoma. "Besides, you eat all alone at this huge table every night? That makes no sense."

"Oh dear," says Oshitari.

"It makes plenty of sense if I say it does," says Atobe, anger rising in his voice.

"It doesn't work like that," Ryoma informs him. "You can't just say something makes sense and have it make sense. People will listen to you, maybe, even if you're an idiot, but that doesn't mean you're making sense."

Atobe storms down to the end of the table, lifting himself to his full height in order to glare imperiously at Ryoma. He is almost twice Ryoma's height when he does this, and more than that right now, because Ryoma is sitting. "As master here, my word is law. My word is sense!"

"No it's not."

"If I might-" Oshitari begins.

"No, you might not! You see now what comes of treating guests as though they deserve fine meals, fine bedrooms, fine treatment. You see! They expect this." Atobe gestures wildly at Ryoma and the chair, then drops back down to pace like a wild animal in a cage, snarling all the while.

"Actually," Ryoma puts in helpfully, "I would've done this no matter how they treated me."

"Silence!" Atobe roars.

"No," Ryoma retorts.

Atobe continues pacing, each footfall a shriek as he lets his claws drag over the stone. Ryoma winces but says nothing. "In my own home," Atobe mutters, stepping right over Oshitari, then turning to come back again. "This dining hall belongs to me. This table belongs to me. That chair belongs to me!" He swats at one of the other chairs, sending it clattering to the floor. Oshitari makes it out of the way just in time. "I am tired, I am hungry, and I want my supper!"

"Why don't you sit down, then?" Ryoma suggests. "They said they'd serve everything as soon as you were seated."

Atobe pauses in mid-step and gives Ryoma an incredulous look. "You expect me to tolerate this ridiculous behavior on your part?"

"Well," says Ryoma. "I've been tolerating your ridiculous behavior all day. So yes."

"You're not going to leave, are you," says Atobe.


"All right, fine." Before Ryoma has time to congratulate himself on the victory, Atobe stalks to him and grabs him by the back of the shirt.

"Hey," Ryoma objects, surprised, as Atobe lifts him and drops him unceremoniously into the chair that had been prepared for him to begin with. "Oof."

"You will take your meals with me, if you must," says Atobe loftily. "But you will not usurp my place at the table again, or I will have you fed with the pigs instead."

"What's the difference?" Ryoma grumbles. Atobe's eyes narrow. "All right, all right." He wriggles around to find a more comfortable position. This chair fits him better anyway, though it's still a bit large.

The moment Atobe seats himself in the chair at the head of the table, the servants swarm in from the kitchen. A pair of serving spoons lay Ryoma's napkin across his lap, while Choutarou himself does the same for Atobe. "My apologies for the confusion, my lord," Choutarou says quietly.

"Don't apologize. I am certain that he tricked you into this," says Atobe, eying Ryoma.

Ryoma looks innocently back at him, and Atobe sighs, disgusted.

The servants load their places with soups in several different varieties: tomato with barley and wild vegetables, some sort of white meat with long, flat noodles, dark meat, possibly beef, with thinner noodles and onions and potatoes. There are a few types of salads, too, with various kinds of greenery, some bright, some dark, some with a purple tinge around the edges. This is all before the main course, roast pheasant stuffed with something Ryoma can't identify. It's delicious nonetheless, and he digs into it with relish.

Shishido hops into the room about halfway through the meal. "My lord, it seems that our guest is no longer in his-" He cuts off and gapes. "My… lord?"

"Yes, I know our guest is no longer in his room, because he is here, making my life a misery," Atobe says bitterly.

"It can't be that bad," says Ryoma, and devours another chunk of pheasant.

"Yes," says Atobe. "It is."

Shishido looks dazed. "Well. All right."

Once the worst of his hunger has been assuaged, Ryoma darts a glance at Atobe, who is holding an ordinary-sized fork clumsily between two of his claws. With each bite, he can only pick up a mouthful that would be appropriate for a human. "Why bother using a tiny fork like that?" Ryoma asks. "Wouldn't it be easier just to use your claws?"

"I generally do," Atobe replies, turning away from him to stare at the far wall, which is covered with tapestries depicting scenes of the hunt, and of the feasting that follows. "Now you understand why I prefer to eat alone."

"Why bother changing how you eat just for me?" Ryoma blinks, cocking his head to the side. "It's not like I care."

"There are certain rules of etiquette which must be observed while in company," Atobe informs him. "Eating with one's hands is barbaric."

"I'd bet that ordering your guests to eat in their rooms is barbaric, too," says Ryoma thoughtfully, and Atobe gives a halfhearted growl. "If you've got to eat with a fork, why not use one of these?" He leans across the table and snags one of the serving forks, which nearly leaps out of his hand, startled by the sudden grab. "Sorry. Anyway, these are bigger. You should use them." The tines of the serving forks are almost as long as Ryoma's fingers, more than twice as wide as the normal forks.

Atobe accepts the utensil when Ryoma hands it over to him. It fits more properly in his large hand, and the bites of food he lifts with it look almost adequate. "All of this trouble simply because you refuse to eat on your own," says Atobe grumpily.

Ryoma grins smugly at his plate. "No trouble. I don't mind at all."


There's no sound at breakfast except for the quiet clink of silverware against china. Ryoma notes with a certain amount of satisfaction that Atobe's taken his advice, and is eating again with an oversized spoon. And there's been no more complaint about Ryoma's insistence on taking his meals downstairs.

"The porridge is good." Ryoma takes another bite of it. The porridge is sweetened with sugar, cinnamon, apple pieces and sultanas. He glances expectantly up at Atobe.

Atobe grunts noncommittally into his bowl.

So that's how it's going to be, then. Ryoma doesn't need any conversation at the table, especially when the candles lining the walls stop him in the corridors for a discussion. All the household implements are more than willing to show him around the castle, to the library, the study, even the servants' quarters, when he asks. While he's taking a tour of these, he muses that they look more like storage rooms these days, full of candles and rugs and spare furniture. The difference, of course, is that the items being stored move about and joke and laugh with each other.

In fact, on an ordinary day, the castle is loud and bustling as a marketplace full of vendors and customers. There's only one exception to this: any common room Atobe frequents is surrounded by a bubble of silence. Ryoma slips into the library one day, and the sudden absence of sound is so peculiar that he halts for a moment, just to be sure that his ears are still working.

Atobe is on the floor with a large book spread in front of him. When Ryoma steps closer, he glances up, hackles raising until he sees who it is. Then Atobe narrows his eyes and looks back down at the text, which seems to be accompanied by illustrations.

Ryoma walks even nearer, slowly, tilting his head so that he can see what the book is about. The illustrations are maps, filled in with different colors and textures to show mountains, valleys, forests, rivers, lakes, and deserts. "An atlas," he says quietly.

"Yes," says Atobe.

Ryoma waits, but Atobe doesn't offer anything further. So Ryoma explores the library around him. Most of the books are unsorted and uncategorized, though in a few sections there seems to have been some cursory attempt to alphabetize. He has no complaints, however, because he's not looking for anything in particular. He comes across a book on rose varieties that's clearly been read many times over, and he flips through the dog-eared pages with some interest, matching the sketches with the flowers outside. This doesn't keep him occupied for long, though he marks the shelf so that he can take the book into the garden sometime, and identify the ones he can't remember now.

There's a firsthand account of jungle exploration, a treatise on higher mathematics, and a romance novel all on the same shelf. Ryoma passes by them without paying them much attention, though he spares a laugh for the novel and its flowing prose. He's read a few before, not that he'd ever admit to it in company; they're ridiculous, through and through, but they still hold some unknown appeal.

After the laugh, he darts Atobe a sideways look, but Atobe's engrossed by his atlas, or pretending to be. Ryoma shrugs inwardly and walks among the high shelves, reading the books' titles to himself, pulling out a few that don't have their names printed on their spines. One of these turns out to be a book of trade routes, all marked in spidery, faded handwriting on maps that are barely visible.

In fact, there's a whole shelf full of trade routes and information about them, slightly odd, perhaps, given the random order of the rest, but not so surprising that this subject merits its own section. The castle is located in the middle of nowhere, and they must obtain most of their food from trade, at least that which doesn't grow in the garden, which always remains almost magically protected from the sandstorms that rage fairly frequently.

Ryoma looks through them, and laughs again, pleased this time. There are routes marked that he's never seen or heard of before, through unknown passes and unknown oases. Nanjiroh and Yukimura would both give their left arms for these, and chances are they'll never get their hands on them. Ryoma may never have a chance to use them, but there's some smug satisfaction in the private knowledge that he is aware of something his father is not.

The books are a small piece of entertainment. Staying in the library while Atobe's reading in there is another, and taking his food with Atobe in the dining hall is a victory each time he does it.

That doesn't make the meals much more interesting or lively, however.


"Another hour of silence," says Ryoma cheerfully, plopping down in his customary chair beside Atobe's. "I was looking forward to this one."

Atobe glowers at him. "It would begin sooner if you would keep quiet."

"No one ever told you to save the best for last?" Ryoma snags the cover off one of the silver trays and surveys the meat inside. It looks delicious, drizzled with some kind of sauce he doesn't recognize, but that smells wonderful regardless. "Mm. Camel."

"What?" Atobe blinks, momentarily surprised. "How do you know that?"

Ryoma rolls his eyes and replaces the platter's cover. "I live on the edge of a desert. How do you think?"

"Your home isn't far from here, then," says Atobe, watching him closely. He's showing interest in Ryoma's life for the first time, and Ryoma decides to take advantage of it as much as he can.

"Far enough," Ryoma replies. The servants are dishing up the meat and some cooked vegetables that look to be covered in the same type of sauce as the camel. "I rode a week through the desert to get here." Or more, but he hadn't bothered to keep an accurate count.


"Mmhm." Ryoma lifts his fork and it wriggles playfully in his grip. He grins slightly at it, and it wiggles once more, and then holds obediently still. "I'm worried for my horse, though. He ran away when-" he pauses, realizing that this probably isn't the best topic of conversation.

"When I came along." Atobe's tone is bitter, and a change comes over him; he shuts down, pulling back warily as though he expects to be hit, or set afire, or something.

"He was already startled by that flower of yours," says Ryoma, trying to find a way to prevent the collapse of the first successful conversation they've had in days.

"Why are you trying to make idle conversation with me?" Atobe snarls, glaring fiercely at him.

"Why shouldn't I?" Ryoma fires back.

"Because. I am. A monster!" Atobe stands up and slams his hands, paws, whichever they are on the table, so hard that the goblets skitter away for him and the plates clatter. "Don't you have eyes?"

"Why would I need eyes to see that?" Ryoma retorts. "You're a stupid, violent bastard, but I've met enough humans just as bad!"

"You don't understand." Atobe slams his chair back and stalks away.

"What is there not to understand?" Ryoma leaps nimbly over the armrest of his own seat and paces after Atobe, ignoring the soft protests from the silverware. A few of them dart away, presumably to fetch Shishido, Oshitari, or both. "What don't I understand?"

"Everything!" Atobe shoves open the door to the room with the shelves and the fireplace. The hearth is dark and empty this time, making the room barely visible in the tiny amount of light that trickles in past the edges of the curtains. "You don't understand any of it."

"So tell me!" Ryoma slips in with him before Atobe can close the door. Atobe growls and begins to pace restlessly. "If I don't understand, tell me." Out of the corner of his eye, Ryoma sees Oshitari enter the room as well, followed by Shishido, who retreats into a corner in order to stay out of Atobe's way.

"You think it's that easy?" Atobe demands without looking at him. "To tell you how I became this? It doesn't matter. It makes no difference whether you know or not."

"So why does it matter if you tell me?" Ryoma argues, using logic in his favor. "You weren't always like this, then?" Atobe bares his teeth furiously for a brief second.

"I wouldn't-" Oshitari begins to say, but Ryoma pays him no mind.

"Well? What made you like this?" he presses, following Atobe as he prowls around the room, glaring at the heavily-curtained windows. "If you weren't this way to start with, what happened?"

"Nothing happened."

"That's a lie."

"Nothing that concerns you!" With one expansive gesture, Atobe sweeps a collection of vases off of a small wooden table. They shatter into a thousand tiny pieces on the stone floor and Atobe turns, teeth bared, to glare at Ryoma, who crosses his arms over his chest.

"That was stupid," Ryoma points out. "Those had to be worth something, and now you've broken them for no reason."

Dropping onto all fours, the way he does only when truly agitated, Atobe stalks along the wall, claws screeching and leaving long marks on the stone. He paces back when he reaches the far side of the room, Ryoma still trailing him from a distance a little too close for safety. "Look-" Ryoma says, but it's too late. Atobe's put one foot down right in the mess of the broken vases, and he hisses like an angry cat, snatching his foot back. Dark red blood drips onto the floor among the porcelain wreckage.

Ryoma steps forward without a thought, to help and to say, "I told you."

Atobe growls savagely at him, cradling his injured foot against his body, looking more like a wild animal than he has in weeks, and hurtles out of the room. Ryoma can hear him clawing his way up the stairs, and the tearing of fabric when he hits the finely-woven rug in the second floor hallway. "That one will be ruined," Ryoma remarks, more shaken than he's willing to let on.

"You probably shouldn't have pushed him," Oshitari says. "It's a sensitive subject."

"And I'm living here, probably for a long time," says Ryoma. "I deserve to know." He eyes Oshitari speculatively, righting one of the chairs Atobe had knocked over in his rage and sitting in it. "You know what happened, don't you?"

"Don't you dare tell him," Shishido puts in fiercely from his corner. "If Atobe doesn't want him to know-"

"Yes, yes," says Oshitari, motioning for patience. "My apologies, of course, but I cannot disregard our lord's wishes so freely. In the meantime, if you'd like to occupy yourself," he goes on, and his tone makes Ryoma take notice, "there's a book in the library you might enjoy."

"Oshitari," says Shishido, alarmed.

"It should be on the, hm, the third floor, second shelf on the left, if I'm not mistaken," Oshitari says thoughtfully. "No title or proper binding, but-"

"Enough!" Shishido is nearly as furious as Atobe. Ryoma doesn't hear anything more of their argument, though, because he's already gone, seeking the book Oshitari's mentioned, and whatever secrets it may reveal.


Closing the door, Ryoma locks out the rest of the world, especially Shishido, who is still looking for him, enraged. Ryoma holds his prize close to his chest, a small, plain book with pages falling out of it, pages he'd caught and tucked back into the book, though out of order. He puts the book down on the bed and then flops in front of it on his stomach, opening the cover and squinting at the handwritten text inside.

"Rained today, again," he reads aloud. "If it floods, Shishido will probably order me to clean out the basement. I'll tell Hiyoshi to do it instead, he's always eager to show himself capable of work, the silly boy." Ryoma frowns, wondering why Oshitari's sent him to this. He flips another page. "Shishido brought in a gazelle for Choutarou today, and received the usual expression of gratitude." Here there is a quick sketch of a heart and a flower, and the word kiss. "Of course, they didn't realize I was watching. Must coax them into admitting their love to everyone, not that anyone's in the dark anymore."

It's a diary. Oshitari's diary.

Ryoma couldn't care less about Shishido's love affair with the head cook, nor about the mundanities of everyday life at the castle. He's seen those for himself. He flips ahead again until he comes to a long section that stretches over four or five pages. The handwriting here is even worse than before, as though Oshitari had been upset while making this entry.

Or as though his hands had been transformed into something entirely different, less suitable for holding a quill steady.

"Our lord is no fool, though I've said time and again that he acts one. This time I fear he's done something…" Then something scrawled illegibly and blotted partially out with ink. "Both Shishido and I were in the hall at the time, though he refuses to speak of it now. I can't think why, everyone knows that something's happened, how could we not? If only…" More inkblots. "…not many beggars, out of the way as we are, and I have no idea how an old woman might have… no, of course, given what she is. I can't say I blame Atobe for his reaction, the way she pushed inside, though I would have given her a room just to quiet her down."

"I am not writing very sensibly, but then, what can be expected? If I had been minding the door, this never… ah, regrets, little good they will do me. I will be brief: a beggar came to the door, an old woman dressed in rags, having made her way somehow through the sandstorm. Atobe answered her knock himself, and she asked shelter for the night, or demanded it. She pushed past him, looked around, and said it would do, which I believe insulted him most of anything. Then she pushed the rose at him, the rose, and said that it would be more than adequate payment, though of course it was only a red rose, and when compared to the hybrids, the exotic vines Atobe has obtained in the past… Well, as you can imagine, this did not sit at all well with my lord, and he threw her out, quite literally, rose and all. And then… the light…" Here Oshitari's handwriting trails into complete illegibility for half a page before restarting.

"Now, well, we are as we are, and though it is a novel experience, I confess that I would rather not remain this way forever. My lord will tell me nothing except that the spell is never likely to be lifted, and he has fallen into a dark mood now."

There is a soft knock at the door and Ryoma glances up, startled. "Who is it?"

"Shishido. And no, I don't mean to take the book. It's-" A pause. "It's Atobe."

"Atobe? What's wrong with him?" Ryoma closes the book and swings his legs over the side of the bed, padding to the door in his bare feet. When he opens the door, Shishido is there, wringing his hands and glancing back over his shoulder.

Shishido stills when Ryoma comes out, and looks up, his expression pleading. "He won't let anyone touch him," he says. "The porcelain shards are still, well. But he won't let us near him."

"Oh." Both of them turn to the dark, forbidding hallway that leads to Atobe's rooms. Most of the candles are unlit, probably blown out by Atobe's passage, though one flickers stubbornly, a single bright point in the corridor. The carpet is ripped, the huge gashes in the carefully-woven red fabric looking like bloody slashes across a dead man's throat. "I'll go," Ryoma says suddenly. "That idiot would let himself bleed to death over something so stupid."

"Thank you," says Shishido quietly behind him, as Ryoma walks down the hall into the unknown.


Ryoma doesn't knock on the heavy wooden door, because he knows Atobe will only tell him to leave. He pushes it open, putting all of his weight against it, feet slipping on the stone as he struggles for leverage. Finally, the door creaks wide enough for him to enter. Inside, the room is black as pitch, with a single sliver of moonlight reaching across the floor from the gap in the curtains on the window.

Squinting his eyes, Ryoma can make out no more than outlines: a large, canopied bed, with shredded curtains around it. An indistinct hulk in the darkness, probably a wardrobe. Black shapes on the floor that he cannot identify until he prods one cautiously with a toe, and finds that it's a piece of clothing, torn and tattered. He can't identify any other pieces of furniture, but he finds Atobe easily enough.

"Please, my lord, you cannot-"

"Get away from me." Atobe lashes out, and there is a clatter as Oshitari is sent tumbling backwards to land at Ryoma's feet.

Oshitari takes a moment to right himself, and then notices Ryoma. "Ah. Did Shishido-"

"Get out. Both of you, out. Now." Atobe's eyes are no more than glimmering slits, shining in the light from the window. He is lying on the floor like a hunting dog, or like a lion curled on himself, injured foot out of sight beneath him.

"No." Ryoma steps closer, though Atobe's growling intensifies. "You need help."

"I don't need help," Atobe snaps. "Not your help, not anyone's help. Leave me alone."

"No," Ryoma repeats, and comes closer still, though if Atobe bats him away, Ryoma's body won't forgive the damage the way Oshitari's metallic one does. "At least let me see."


"You're being completely unreasonable." Ryoma kneels and reaches out a hand to Atobe's shoulder. Atobe bares his teeth again, jerking away. "You're worse than Karupin."

"I'm not an animal. I'm not a pet."

"Well, you're acting like one," says Ryoma, the voice of reason. "If you stop, then I won't treat you that way, idiot. Give me your foot."

Atobe shifts, and stares at the window, then narrows his eyes and slowly, reluctantly, unfolds his leg. The soft fur there is stained darker than the rest, covered in drying blood. Ryoma picks up the foot and strokes it, trying to take out some of the blood, to no avail. "All right, well." He looks around, locates Oshitari's form, anxious and waiting. "Get me some water and some cloths. Maybe some brandy, too. I have to pull the shards out."

"Yes, right away." For once, Oshitari has no smart remark ready, and simply leaves the room, making a 'clink' sound with each step he takes until he reaches the rug in the hall.

Ryoma can see the shards when he turns Atobe's foot over and rests it in his lap. They're embedded in the paw pads, two in the large pad, one deeper in the smaller pad just beneath the first claw. "This is going to hurt," Ryoma says bluntly.

"Just stop talking and do it."

"Fine." Though Oshitari hasn't yet returned with the water, Ryoma studies the shards for a moment, and then reaches for the largest and least deeply-caught. When he grips it, Atobe's muscles all tighten at once, but Atobe doesn't flinch, even when Ryoma pulls out the shard with a quick tug, the easiest way, a flash of pain instead of a long agony. He drops the shard on the floor next to him and quickly staunches the new flow of blood with his shirt. The next is done in a trice, leaving only the worst cut to be tended.

"This is your fault," Atobe growls, face turned away.

"For wanting to know more about you?" Ryoma rolls his eyes, idly petting the fur on Atobe's ankle. "Sorry."

"For prying," Atobe corrects him.

"I can't live here forever without knowing what's going on," says Ryoma.

"Then leave," says Atobe, barely raising his voice above a mutter. "No one's holding you here."

"We made a deal. I thought you were supposed to be honorable?"

"I am."

"So then." Ryoma settles more comfortably on the floor, still holding Atobe's foot on his lap. There is a tap on the already-open door, and Ryoma calls, "Come in." Oshitari and Choutarou deposit a flask, a kettle of water, a bucket, and some clean cloths within Ryoma's reach, and though Choutarou hesitantly offers his help, Ryoma declines, and they leave again, leaving Ryoma and Atobe alone in the dark.

"This one's going to be bad," Ryoma warns. He first rinses his hands in the steaming water, hissing when it touches his skin and then growing accustomed enough to the temperature. He pours some of the water onto a cloth and places that on the floor, to the side, ready for use. Then he picks up the flask, pulling out the stopper with his teeth and letting it drop. "Here. Sip this."

"I'm no drunkard, either," Atobe says sulkily. "I don't need it."

"Fine. Use it if you want to." Ryoma sets it down where Atobe can get to it, and then, with no advance warning, darts his fingers into the deepest cut. This time Atobe lets out a howl. Ryoma flinches, but determinedly keeps his hand steady, digging for the shard that's barely visible. Atobe is taut and trembling with the pain, jaw set in a grimace, hands curled so tightly that his long nails dig into the pads there.

Ryoma's fingers finally close around the bit of vase, and he pulls it out, giving a small triumphant sound. He takes up the wet cloth and presses it to the cut, staining the fabric dark with Atobe's blood. Atobe, for his part, snatches at the bottle of brandy and takes a long gulp of it before pitching the flask across the room.

"I could have used that," Ryoma reproaches.

"It's already helped," says Atobe curtly, but he turns his head back, enough so that one glittering eye shows, watching Ryoma.

"All right, fine." Ryoma checks Atobe's foot and is satisfied to see that the bleeding has come to a stop. He's puzzled, then, when the cloth is stained with new blood after he takes it away.

"You cut yourself," says Atobe. "I can smell it."

"Oh." Ryoma looks, and the hand he'd used to extricate the deepest shard has a cut of its own running across the center of it, just below the line that goes from above his thumb to the side of his hand.

"You're an idiot." Atobe turns away again, and says, almost inaudibly, "Thank you."

"You don't have to thank me," says Ryoma. "Just stop being an idiot yourself. Don't step on broken vases anymore."

"Don't make me break them, and I won't."

Ryoma smiles slightly and picks up another cloth, to wash out the blood that's already dried itself into Atobe's fur.

Part Three.
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