Draconic, by kishmet. AU, TezuRyo, PG, 8,472 words. Straight from the notebooks to LJ again.
"You had better get going on some quest or another!" Nanjiroh threw up his hands. "Every prince needs a quest! I went on mine at your age. Soon you'll be too old!"
"I don't care." Ryoma stood stubbornly in front of Nanjiroh's throne. "I don't want to go on a quest. I told you."
"You told me," said Nanjiroh, and pointed at Ryoma. "But I am your father, and I am still the king!"
"So?" said Ryoma.
"So-!" Before Nanjiroh could finish, the door at the other end of the throne room swung open.
"Supplicants to see you, Your Majesty!" announced the herald, Eiji. He was loud enough and the chamber echoed enough that it was easy to hear him, even from so far away. The throne room was really ridiculously large, in Ryoma's opinion. It wasn't like the kingdom was all that big. "They're from the village."
"Oh, right, right." Nanjiroh seemed to have forgotten that it was time for him to see any subjects who cared to lodge complaints with him. It wasn't as though supplicants showed up every day, so he tended to forget that they ever came at all, or pretended as though he did. "Show them in, then."
Eiji bowed and disappeared, and reappeared a minute later with two men, one short (almost as short as Ryoma) and one taller.
"Approach!" Nanjroh bellowed. He liked bellowing, which was probably why the throne room was so big. Ryoma moved to the side, so he could lean against the throne while the supplicants made their case.
They did, and they both bowed when they stopped in front of the throne. Then the taller man raised his head and cleared his throat. "Your Majesty, we...ah. Recently there have been reports-"
"I saw it!" exclaimed the shorter man, who looked so much like a woman that Ryoma wondered if he wasn't actually the taller man's wife. "It was huge!"
"Huge?" asked Nanjiroh, leaning forward and looking interested. "What's huge, exactly? Explain!" he commanded, in a way that might have been regal if he hadn't had his feet propped up on one side of the throne.
"A dragon, Your Majesty," said the taller man quickly, before the king could become any more impatient with them. "There have been reports, from more than one source..." he glanced at his companion, who clearly was not the most reliable of sources. "...that a dragon's moved into our area."
"There's some caves, on the hill up above the village!" the other man chimed in. "It's living in those, blowing fire and-"
"No one's actually seen it blowing fire," interjected the taller man.
The shorter one put his hands on his hips indignantly. "I've seen it! Are you calling me a liar?"
"Of course not," said the tall one smoothly. "Only that we can't yet be sure of its, ah...firebreathing tendencies."
"Right then!" said Nanjiroh, so brightly that Ryoma gave him a suspicious look. "Don't you worry about a thing. We'll have that taken care of, no problem. Guards!" he called, waving imperiously to the men at the far end of the chamber. "Escort these two back to their village, and make sure they're not eaten by this dragon on the way, would you?"
Ryoma knew all of the guards by name, given that he preferred their company to his father's and the rest of the nobles'. Momo and Kaidoh hurried over as soon as Nanjiroh called them, and when they heard their duty, Kaidoh's eyes widened. Momo, who was (by far) more outspoken, said nervously, "Uh, Your Majesty. We don't, uh, have to, well, fight this dragon. Do we?"
"Coward," Kaidoh muttered, made brave by Momo's lack of courage.
"Am not!" Momo retorted, and then remembered where he was. "Uh, right? Majesty?" He gave Ryoma a pleading look, which Ryoma ignored.
"No, no, of course not," said Nanjiroh. "It hasn't attacked yet, it probably won't attack you. Anyway, I've got someone else in mind to fight this dragon. So, go. Take these two back."
"Yes, Your Majesty," both guards said in unison, and then glared at one another. They bickered all the way out of the throne room. The taller village man sighed and followed them, while the shorter man followed him, saying, "I saw the fire, you know I did."
"I have just the quest for you!" Nanjiroh proclaimed triumphantly, the instant they were gone.
Ryoma had a bad feeling about this quest, given the nature of the complaint just brought before the throne. There was no way that Nanjiroh had just had such a good idea randomly, which meant that it probably wasn't a very good idea. "No," said Ryoma.
"You haven't even heard it yet," said Nanjiroh, shaking a finger at him.
"Whatever it is," said Ryoma. "No."
As though he hadn't even heard his son, Nanjiroh went on, "You can go and hunt down this dragon! Sooner or later it'll start terrorizing the village, and we can't have that. And put off your quest any longer and you won't have time for one at all! Two birds with one stone, what do you think of that?" Nanjiroh grinned widely at him.
"I think it's stupid," said Ryoma.
"I knew you'd like it!" Nanjiroh crowed. "A good short quest. Not too far away." He stood up and slung his arm around Ryoma's shoulders. "Now get down to the armory and get whatever you need for some dragonslaying. I would take my old sword, if I were you."
Ryoma scowled. Evidently Nanjiroh wasn't going to change his mind. He never did, especially on things that particularly annoyed Ryoma. "I'll take my own sword."
"Fine, fine," said Nanjiroh easily. "Anything you want to do. As long as you slay that dragon for me."
"Fine." Ryoma ducked out of his father's arm and stalked off for his own room. He wasn't going to bother with fancy swords and armor. It probably wasn't even a real dragon, just an oversized eagle or something.
"Tch. This is stupid," Ryoma told his horse as he placed the saddle on his back. Karupin twitched when the saddle settled on his withers, and then continued eating his grain. "I don't want to go on a quest at all."
Not that he wasn't able to go on a quest. Like any proper prince, he'd been trained with swords, bows, spears, and just about every other weapon in the armory. He'd been trained in diplomacy and things, too, but he'd paid less attention during those lessons. He just didn't know why he had to go and slay this dragon to begin with. Some villager saw something that might have been a dragon, and then he had to go off on a wild goose chase.
Ryoma tightened the girth on the saddle, and Karupin snorted and poked Ryoma with his nose. "Easy, Karupin." Ryoma patted the horse's neck. "I wouldn't be doing this if my stupid father didn't want me to." He had to push Karupin away from the grain to get the bridle over his head and the bit in his mouth. "Come on."
"Need any help leading him, Your Highness?" Horio, the most pushy of the stable hands, would never accept the fact that Ryoma groomed and tacked his own horse, and wouldn't have it any other way. "A prince shouldn't lead his own horse!"
Ryoma had no idea why Horio didn't think a prince should lead his own horse, but felt free to lecture said prince about the fact. "No. I'm fine." He tugged a reluctant Karupin out of the stall.
"I can hold him for you!" Horio shouted.
Both Ryoma and Karupin gave him bored looks. "It's fine," said Ryoma. Karupin held still of his own accord while Ryoma put his foot in the stirrup and swung himself up into the saddle. Ryoma clucked with his tongue, Karupin's ears swiveled, and they set off at a fast walk.
"I'll cool him down when you get back, Your Highness!" Horio called after them.
The village over was only half an hour's easy ride away. Ryoma considered going straight up the hill to the caves, one of which supposedly housed a dragon. Then he changed his mind. He'd interrupted Karupin in the middle of his dinner, and the horse wouldn't like seeing a dragon or a large bird, whichever it really was. So he stopped at the local tavern to ask after the two men who'd come to see his father.
"Why do you ask?" the barkeep asked suspiciously. The country was small, but it wasn't as though everyone knew the prince on sight. That suited Ryoma just fine.
"They owe me," Ryoma replied, which was true. "I need someone to take care of my horse."
"And you want to leave your horse with them?" the barkeep asked in disbelief. "Why not leave the animal at the inn, instead? At least Fuji's reliable. Sort of."
"That's the innkeeper?" Ryoma asked, and the barkeep nodded. "Yes. Out the door, straight across the street and to the left. The Blue Goose is right there."
"Thanks." Ryoma walked out the door. Karupin, luckily, was trained to stay where Ryoma put him, and this time he hadn't decided to wander away. Ryoma led Karupin to the inn, which, oddly enough, didn't have a picture of a blue goose on the sign. It had a blue something else instead, which at first glance looked like a ribbon, at second glance looked like a horse, and at third glance looked like something with wings that was definitely not a goose. Ryoma glanced away, and then glanced back and narrowed his eyes. It was a goose on the sign after all.
"Tch." Ryoma headed for the inn door, thinking that the innkeeper had better be more reliable than his sign. Karupin's hooves clicked on the cobbled path. Before they could reach the inn, someone came out of it.
"Hello there." The man had light brown hair and blue eyes as bright as the paint on his sign. He was built as delicately as Ryoma himself, though he was a little taller. "You're looking for lodging, then?"
"Not for me," Ryoma replied. "For my horse."
"Ah, I see." The man (Fuji, had the barkeep said?) smiled. "Most of my customers stay along with their horses, you know."
"Well, I'm not staying," said Ryoma, not trusting this Fuji character. "Do you have a place for my horse or not?"
Fuji walked over and held out his hand for Karupin to sniff. "Of course we do, Your Highness," Fuji said quietly. Karupin nudged Fuji in the arm with his nose, a sign that he approved of the innkeeper. Ryoma would have thought that the not-so-gentle push would have made someone so thin stumble, at least. Fuji stayed calmly in place and petted Karupin's cheek.
"You know who I am?" Ryoma asked.
Fuji smiled again. "Of course I do. What sort of innkeeper would I be, not to know the faces of the royalty who live just an hour away?"
Ryoma eyed Fuji. Karupin seemed perfectly content with him, though, so Ryoma gave a mental shrug. Just because Fuji unsettled him in a way he couldn't define didn't mean that Ryoma couldn't leave his horse at the inn. "Fine."
"I'll feed him and water him, then," said Fuji. "Oh, but wouldn't you like to keep your sword?"
"Oh. Right." Ryoma had almost forgotten, which made him frown. He let Fuji hold Karupin and unstrapped his sword and its sheath from the saddle. He buckled it onto his belt.
"It's not a problem," Fuji assured him. "And, Your Highness? You might want to try the second cave you come to, at least if you're searching for more than bats." He gave Ryoma the most eerily charming smile Ryoma had ever seen.
"Thanks," said Ryoma warily.
Maybe there wasn't just a giant bird in that cave after all.
There wasn't exactly a path that led up to the caves. Ryoma had to scramble over a wide variety of stones and through trees and shrubs. The hill hadn't been cleared at all, probably because it was useless as farmland. The way got rockier and rockier as he went on. Soon enough, he spotted a dark cave's mouth off to his left. He started heading for it, grimacing when a branch whipped him in the back of the head.
Then he hesitated. Fuji had said to try the second cave, not the first one. It didn't seem as though the town's innkeeper would know where Ryoma was trying to go, but then again, it didn't seem as though he'd know Ryoma at all, or that Karupin would react to him the way he reacted to people he'd known for years. So Ryoma went on climbing. He could always go back and try this one, if the second cave didn't work out.
When he got to the second cave, he almost went back. It didn't look very promising. There was no way anything sizable could fit in there, much less a dragon. Still, Ryoma could get in, and he wasn't about to give up. He looked dubiously at the entrance for a moment, was disgusted with himself, and then ducked his head so as not to hit his head on the top of the cave.
He walked a few yards in the semi-dark, which was only "semi" because the sun was still up. He had to go carefully to stop his sword from clattering against the cave walls. Ryoma couldn't help being pleased when the cave started to widen.
He was less pleased when he saw what it widened to. He came to a cavern nearly as big as his father's throne room. It was filled with gold, and silver, and gems, all of which were illuminated by torches set in the walls. The mountains of wealth were impressive, sure.
The enormous dragon in the midst of the wealth was even more impressive.
Its scales gleamed more dully than the treasure, a dark shade of blue. It had a long neck and a longer tail that curled all the way around the rest of it, with sharp spikes all the way down its neck and back. On its tail the spikes diminished until they were short, thin, and translucent. That part of the tail was closest to Ryoma. Its head, which was about half Karupin's height and just as long and wide, was also close. Its breathing was surprisingly quiet. Ryoma watched, unmoving, as the reptilian eyelid slowly opened. The eye was green, flecked with gold-brown.
"I didn't mean to wake you up," said Ryoma.
"I see," said the dragon.
"My father sent me here to fight you," Ryoma said.
"I see," said the dragon again. "What is your name?"
"Ryoma," Ryoma told him. "Prince Ryoma of Seishun."
"And do you want to fight me?" the dragon asked.
"No," said Ryoma. "I thought it was a stupid idea to begin with."
The dragon was silent for a moment. "But you are here."
"Only because my father wanted me to go on a quest," said Ryoma. "Do you want to fight?"
Before Ryoma knew what was happening, the dragon's claws sped at him. Ryoma barely had enough time to draw his sword and parry the blow that could have ripped him open. The dragon had shown none of the classic signs that meant an opponent was about to move. He met the dragon's eyes with his own wide ones, his muscles straining to keep the long talons away.
The dragon drew his claws away. "No. I don't want to fight you."
Ryoma had to catch his breath. "What's your name?" he asked.
The dragon considered him. "My name is Tezuka," he said finally.
"Ryoma! You're back already?" Momo blinked at him, surprised.
"Of course I am," said Ryoma.
"Did you slay the dragon?" Momo asked eagerly. "Was it as big as they said?"
"Did it breathe fire?" added Kaidoh.
"That's such a stupid question," Momo scoffed.
"Yours was stupider!" Kaidoh fired back.
"I didn't slay the dragon," said Ryoma.
Kaidoh and Momo stopped arguing to gape at him. "You didn't?" Momo asked. "But why're you back, then? What were you doing all that time?"
"I didn't find a dragon," Ryoma told them. "I found something else." He held up a gold circlet studded with rubies. "This."
This caused the guards to gape even more. "That was...you found..." Momo sounded incredulous.
"It was easy," said Ryoma, and walked past them into the throne room to show his father what he'd come back with.
"Isn't that the crown that's been missing forever? The legendary one?" Ryoma heard Momo ask Kaidoh in a hushed whisper.
"I...think so," said Kaidoh.
Ryoma grinned smugly. It was lucky that Tezuka had an entire collection of rare jewelry and things, because Ryoma intended to go on another "quest" the next day. It was doubly lucky that Tezuka didn't seem to mind parting with that collection, given that it had been his idea to send Ryoma home with the circlet in the first place.
Nanjiroh had been more than happy with the crown, and had readily agreed to Ryoma's going off on another "quest." He was probably still bragging around the castle that it would take a man like his son to find such a priceless treasure within half an hour of home. Hopefully it wouldn't encourage a whole slew of enterprising treasure hunters to try their luck. Maybe the idea of a dragon would dissuade some of them.
"How do you get out of here?" Ryoma asked, swinging his feet idly. He was sitting on a wooden chest that probably held all sorts of gold and silver and jewels. He didn't know for sure. He hadn't bothered looking. "You wouldn't fit through the entrance."
Tezuka glanced at him. He was in the process of organizing some of the treasure, clearing a wide empty space in the middle of the floor for no reason Ryoma could see. "I can fit."
"Oh." Ryoma decided that he would find out on his own, if Tezuka wouldn't tell him. For the moment, it didn't matter all that much. Tezuka could fit, so it didn't matter how. "This is more interesting than lessons," Ryoma commented.
"You should be learning what your tutor has to teach."
Ryoma snorted. "I know everything already."
"I see." Tezuka turned to him, and tilted his head to the side. "Do you know the major exports of the country?"
"Of course," said Ryoma. "That's easy. We trade wheat and copper with the neighboring countries, mostly. And we do ironwork, so weapons."
"Do you know the major exports of the RikkaiDai islands?" asked Tezuka.
Ryoma almost frowned, but bit it back just in time. "No. I don't think we trade with them." He had a good reason for not knowing that one, since he'd never seen anything imported from those islands before.
"Exotic fruits and stone," said Tezuka. "The keep of your palace is made of RikkaiDai stone."
"Oh," said Ryoma.
"Do you know the language of Hyotei?"
"Of course I do," said Ryoma, in that language. He knew he spoke it fluently. It wasn't his favorite language, given all of its frills and unnecessary syllables, but he could easily converse with anyone from Hyotei, nevertheless. A good thing, too, since that country was Seishun's main trading partner.
"Do you know the language of the province of Rokkaku?"
Ryoma narrowed his eyes. "I learned that one. Yes." He wasn't as good as he should have been with that one, though he could understand anything anyone said.
"Your accent needs work," said Tezuka, in flawless Rokkaku speech. "And the language of the Fudomine territory?"
Ryoma was forced to admit that he only knew a few phrases in that language. It was more than most people knew, but it wasn't good enough, and he knew it. "Teach me," he said to Tezuka, challenging.
Tezuka abruptly pulled the same trick he'd pulled the first time. He lashed out with his claws, directly at Ryoma.
This was the whole reason Ryoma had brought his sword with him again. He dropped onto the ground in front of the chest he was sitting on and rolled, unsheathing his sword as he went. He flung it up to protect his torse and head, deflecting the claws with a metallic clang. He scrambled to his feet.
Tezuka wasn't done yet. He whipped out his tail, catching Ryoma across the shins. Ryoma tried to jump out of the way, but he wasn't fast enough. He went down hard, this time not of his own accord.
Then Tezuka was finished. He returned to his less warlike activities. "Don't get careless," he said, picking up a candelabra with a single claw, placing it in with a group of others.
Ryoma pushed himself off the ground, wincing. He was going to have a lot of bruises, though he hadn't landed on any hard pieces of treasure, which was good. He glanced around the open space in the center of the cavern. "So that's what it's for," he said.
Tezuka said nothing, but there was a hint of amusement in his eyes when he looked at Ryoma.
"So you'll teach me that language," said Ryoma.
"Yes. I will," Tezuka replied.
Ryoma brought home another legendary treasure, a dagger that supposedly prevented its user from being physically hurt. Nanjiroh was so proud, he had the heralds ride everywhere, telling all his subjects of his son's accomplisments.
In addition to the dagger, Ryoma brought home his new knowledge of the Fudomine language and his newly improved Rokkaku accent. He kept those particular acquisitions a secret, though.
"One of the guards asked whether you could breathe fire or not," said Ryoma. "Can you?" He was sitting by Tezuka's side, now, instead of on the chest or another piece of Tezuka's collection. Tezuka was warm, which was good in a cave with no sunlight to heat it up.
"Yes," said Tezuka. He made a sound sort of like a miniature earthquake. Ryoma could feel the rumbling in the ground beneath him. A tongue of flame darted from Tezuka's mouth to one of the unlit torches, which flared into life.
"I'll let him know," said Ryoma, who intended to do no such thing. He leaned back against Tezuka's scales, but kept his sword within easy reach. There was no telling when Tezuka would attack, after all.
He wasn't going to get careless.
"I can't believe you found all that stuff on that hill!"
Ryoma was reluctantly telling all of the guards and heralds about his quests. He'd never been much for embroidering true stories with pieces that weren't true, but that was exactly what he had to do, if he wasn't going to mention Tezuka. "I did."
"Think anyone else could find something?" Momo pressed eagerly.
"Not really," said Ryoma. "Not unless you like sneaking past bears."
"Oh." All of the guards looked disappointed with that answer. They were trained for fighting, true, but fighting bears was something entirely different.
"You could try," said Ryoma.
"Nah," said Momo, and grinned. "We'll just leave the quests to you. You and your brilliant swordplay. You've gotten a lot better since you started going on these quests, you know?"
"I know," said Ryoma.
The next day, Tezuka was nowhere to be found in the cave. This was the first time he'd ever been missing when Ryoma came to see him, although, logically, Ryoma knew that Tezuka had to go out sometime. He hunted, of course, and probably exercised his wings.
Ryoma turned around and went back out the passageway that led into the cave. The sudden gust of strong wind might have blown him over, if he hadn't learned to keep his guard up at all times. He held onto the stone at the mouth of the cave, bracing himself against it. Tezuka settled on the roof of the cave, folding the wings that had caused the wind.
"You were gone," said Ryoma.
"I was," said Tezuka.
"Were you out hunting?" Ryoma asked him.
"Yes," said Tezuka. "And now I'm going to bathe."
"Bathe?" Ryoma asked, interested. "Where do you do that?"
"Oh." The ocean was leagues and leagues away, but with wings it might be easier to get there. "Can I come with you?"
Ryoma was almost surprised by Tezuka's answer. "Yes," said Tezuka. He stretched, or looked like it, making it so that his back wasn't so high off the ground. Ryoma got the idea immediately, and climbed up, past the cave mouth.
"Where?" he asked Tezuka.
"There." The muscles just in front of Tezuka's wings moved, showing him where. There were plenty of scales for handholds, and Ryoma pulled himself onto Tezuka's back, between two of the dangerous spikes. The space where he was sitting was surprisingly comfortable. It was like riding Karupin, if Karupin had been one hundred feet long with wings.
And then Tezuka actually started using those wings, and Ryoma realized that it wasn't like horseback riding at all. He clutched the horn in front of him, gripping with his legs as tightly as he could as the wings pumped behind him, sending the muscles beneath him rippling with every stroke.
Tezuka was fast. Ryoma knew that was true on the ground, given all the times he'd been ambushed. In the air, there was no comparison. Trees fields rivers houses trees again flashed past, beneath them. The wind made Ryoma lean down, so that it wouldn't sting his face. Eyes wide, he watched the scenery go by.
"Are you all right?" Tezuka asked him, his voice rumbling through Ryoma's legs so that Ryoma felt it as much as heard it.
"I'm fine," said Ryoma, breathless and annoyed with himself for being that way. He looked up, squinting against the wind. He could already see the ocean, which sparkled in the afternoon sun.
They landed on a wide, sandy beach. "Close your eyes," said Tezuka. Ryoma did, and just in time. Sand flew all around them, stirred up by Tezuka's wings.
Ryoma stayed where he was for a minute, and Tezuka waited. Then Ryoma slid off of Tezuka's back, landing in the sand. "Not bad," he said nonchalantly. "You're faster than a horse."
"I am," said Tezuka, with a rumble that Ryoma knew was a chuckle.
Ryoma looked out at the ocean. It was impressive, he supposed, eyeing it. It wasn't as good as riding on a dragon, though. "Why do you bathe here, and not in one of the lakes?" There were plenty of lakes, and ponds, and rivers closer to Tezuka's cave.
"The salt water is healthy," Tezuka replied. "Come with me."
"Fine." Ryoma walked next to Tezuka, down to the water. He kicked off his boots, tossing them to the side, and unstrapped his sword belt, which went the same way as the boots. No one was going to steal them, when he was here with Tezuka on a deserted beach. He let a wave wash over his bare feet and shivered. The ocean water was cold.
Without any warning whatsoever, Tezuka lunged at him. Ryoma barely had time to hear the hissing of scales on wet sand. He threw himself out of the way, using the roll that worked best to evade this kind of attack. This roll landed him squarely in the water, not that he had time to think about being cold and wet. He had to get out of the way of another lunge.
Running properly was more difficult in the water, even though it was shallow here at the beach. Ryoma couldn't afford to slip even once, or else he'd lose again. He dived beneath Tezuka's claws, ending up underneath one of Tezuka's partially outstretched wings. He remembered just in time that he had to watch for the tail, too. It was a lot more challenging taking on an opponent who had four, six, or seven limbs, depending on how you counted them.
Tezuka reared onto his back legs like a horse to give himself more room to maneuver, and then the tail whipped at Ryoma. He smirked, sparing just one second to glance up at Tezuka's eyes, and nimbly launched himself over the tail.
He was plunged into seawater at least waist-deep, and came up spluttering. Tezuka watched him, evidently finished with the day's attack.
"I was careless," said Ryoma, as soon as he'd spit out all the salty water.
"You were," said Tezuka, and chuckled again, just for a second. "You're improving."
"I know," said Ryoma. "So are you going to bathe?"
"Of course." Tezuka slid into the water as though he'd been born there. He ducked his head into the sea and then came up, shaking sparkling droplets everywhere. If Ryoma hadn't already been drenched, he would have been right then. Ryoma made a face, and figured since he was already wet, he didn't have anything to lose. He dove into the water, swimming the way he'd been taught (by Kaidoh) in the castle pond.
He came up next to Tezuka, and found, to his satisfaction, that he'd been right. A firebreathing dragon did warm up all the water in his immediate vicinity. He grinned up at Tezuka, who tilted his head and looked as though he knew what Ryoma was thinking.
"Your scales look better now," Ryoma observed. The scales had been dull, and now they gleamed in the sunlight. "They could be even better, though." He stripped off his wet shirt. Tezuka watched Ryoma take the shirt and start polishing with it. Soon that section of scales shone almost as bright as a mirror. Ryoma could see his reflection in them, now, although the reflection was blue, obviously.
It took a long time for all of the scales to be finished. The sun sank below the horizon, and night fell. Ryoma didn't care. He practiced a language he'd learned only from Tezuka, the one used in those RikkaiDai islands. He was almost good enough at it, his accent almost as good as Tezuka's. He wondered if Tezuka would take him to those islands sometime. If it took him such a short time to fly to the ocean, the islands couldn't be too much of a stretch.
They both caught fish to eat. Tezuka, naturally, caught a fish almost the size of a horse for his supper. Ryoma lured some of the smaller fish to him by wiggling his fingers. These fish probably didn't see humans very often, so they flocked curiously to him. He caught two of them, all he would be able to eat. Ryoma skinned the fish with his belt knife. Tezuka cooked all of the fish for them, and much faster than they would have managed back at the keep.
Ryoma was barely aware of their return journey. He was exhausted, and he'd finally gotten used to the feeling of flying. Tezuka was warm to the touch, and probably just being near him would dry Ryoma's clothes. His skin was dry already. He fell asleep almost as soon as he climbed onto Tezuka's back again.
He must have been deeply asleep when they landed. He was only vaguely aware of someone picking him up and cradling him in their arms. "Karupin," he thought he mumbled, nonsensically, since it was obviously not his horse. He curled more tightly against the person's warm body, which, oddly, felt like curling closer to a burning hearth.
He only opened his eyes once, sleepily, as he was set down onto something soft. The hazel eyes he saw were Tezuka's, although they couldn't have been. They were only five or six feet off the ground, not the usual fifteen.
Ryoma didn't have much time to think about it, because Tezuka said, "Sleep," speaking more softly than he usually did when Ryoma was awake. Ryoma wanted to sit up and protest. He was supposed to keep his guard up, and how would he do that if he was sleeping? He found himself obeying Tezuka anyway, his eyelids fluttering shut, which didn't irritate him quite as much as it should have.
He woke up the next morning on a thick pile of silks and looked around. Tezuka wasn't there. Ryoma left the cave and went to get Karupin. His parents had probably been worried, but it had been worth it.
"Hey! Ryoma!" Momo came barrelling toward him, with Eiji, the herald, hot on his heels. "I mean, Your Highness!" Momo added, when Eiji reached out and poked him.
"What?" Ryoma asked, still heading for the stables, leading Karupin.
"You've been gone forever!" said Momo plaintively. "I thought their Majesties were going to send me out looking for you!"
"So brave, Momo," Eiji laughed.
"Well, I'm not a prince," said Momo. "I could've died on a quest! Not that I would've, but still."
"You might have," said Eiji brightly.
"You'd better have something good to show your father for this one," said Momo. "I mean, he's been pitching a fit."
Ryoma brought the set of rings out of his pocket, one set with a sapphire, one with a ruby, one with a diamond, and one with a topaz. They were supposedly magical, one for each of the elements, although Ryoma doubted that.
"Wow," Eiji breathed.
"That's for sure," said Momo reverently. "Now go show those to your father before he knocks the castle down or something!"
Ryoma sat at his desk, sketching dragon wings on his piece of parchment. At least his father had been suitably placated by the rings, although he'd commanded Ryoma to attend his lessons, which Ryoma had been skipping regularly.
"-dragons are very secretive creatures- Your Highness, are you listening?"
"Not really," said Ryoma.
Oishi sighed, shaking his head. "Your Highness, it is essential for the successor to the throne to have knowledge of all the kingdom's inhabitants, man or beast."
Ryoma gave his tutor a disinterested look. "I know about dragons already."
"Highness?" Oishi looked slightly puzzled. "But we've only begun the subject today, and I thought you said the rumor of a dragon nearby proved itself untrue?"
"It did," said Ryoma. "I read about them by myself. They eat medium large mammals, they're about fifteen to twenty feet high when they're sitting up, they're seventy-five to one hundred feet long, with a wingspan of one hundred to one hundred and twenty-five feet. They breathe fire, and they're more intelligent than humans, mostly."
"Well...yes," said Oishi, sounding startled and then pleased. "That's completely right, Your Highness."
"So can I go?" Ryoma asked.
"Of course," said Oishi. "Oh, but there's one more thing of importance, about dragons. They can change their shape at will, particularly to forms that require less energy than their natural ones."
Ryoma had gotten out of his chair and was heading for the door. He turned back when he heard what Oishi said. "What?"
"You see, you don't know everything yet, Your Highness," Oishi told him. "Now, tomorrow we'll cover merfolk and their-"
Ryoma didn't hear the rest of what his tutor said. He was already out the door.
"You can turn into a human," Ryoma said accusingly, as soon as he entered the cave.
"I can," said Tezuka. "Dragons can take on many shapes." Tezuka turned his head to give Ryoma a sideways look, which Ryoma knew was the draconic equivalent of a raised eyebrow. "You would have learned that from your tutor."
"I wasn't listening that day," said Ryoma, though they both knew from past experience that Ryoma practically never listened during his lessons. Ryoma figured he knew most of the things Oishi said anyway. This was apparently one of the few pieces of unknown information his tutor had ever tried to impart to him. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Does it make a difference?" Tezuka asked him, still with his head turned to the side.
"Turn into a human and I'll show you," said Ryoma, crossing his arms.
Tezuka looked at him for another long moment, and then nodded. Ryoma watched with feigned disinterest, as though it was something he saw every day, as Tezuka shifted into the form of a human. It was almost as if he melted into the smaller shape, his scales folding in on themselves.
To Ryoma's mild disappointment, clothing was a part of the transformation. Tezuka turned into a human wearing a tight-fitting tunic and trousers made out of overlapping scales. Then he looked at Ryoma, waiting.
"You should have told me," said Ryoma. Then he marched up to Tezuka and put his arms around Tezuka's neck. He had to stand on his tiptoes to do it, and he eyed Tezuka. "Could you turn into a shorter human?"
"I could," said Tezuka, a smile tugging at the edge of his lips. He set his hands at Ryoma's waist and lifted Ryoma easily until Ryoma's toes just barely touched the ground.
Ryoma rolled his eyes. "Fine." Then he leaned in and kissed Tezuka, wondering before he did it whether he'd feel skin or scales.
Tezuka's lips were most definitely warm skin, although they were, if anything, even warmer than most people's. Ryoma supposed that came from breathing fire. Tezuka deepened the kiss, tilting Ryoma's head back gently. His tongue was hotter than his lips, coaxing Ryoma's mouth open and sliding against Ryoma's tongue. It was all Ryoma could do to cling to Tezuka's neck, trying to stop himself from melting against Tezuka completely. It didn't work.
It was a good thing he trusted Tezuka not to breathe fire down his throat, or he might have been worried.
"I should have told you," said Tezuka quietly, breaking the kiss.
"I know," said Ryoma, and kissed Tezuka again to make up for all the time he hadn't known that Tezuka could turn human.
"Where're you going, son?" Nanjiroh stopped Ryoma as Ryoma saddled Karupin.
"I'm going out to find..." Ryoma searched his memory for the name of one particular artifact. "The Chalice of Hokkaido." He remembered that the chalice was even more jewel-encrusted than most, which should satisfy Nanjiroh when he brought it back.
"No, no, you've had enough of quests." Nanjiroh glanced at him sharply. "Haven't slayed that dragon yet, have you? But that's all right, I haven't had any more complaints. No, son, you don't need quests anymore, you need a wife!"
"A what?" Ryoma demanded incredulously. "I don't need a wife!"
"Oh yes, you do," Nanjiroh informed him. "What would I do without your mother, eh?"
"Die, hopefully," Ryoma muttered.
"So, you have anyone in mind?" asked Nanjiroh. "Any pretty girls who've caught your eye?" He gave Ryoma a lecherous grin. "At your age-"
"You were stupider than you are now," said Ryoma. "I don't want a wife."
"Well, you'll have one," said Nanjiroh cheerfully. "I've arranged a ball already, to announce it. You can choose there, if you still haven't thought of anyone. I'd go with that Sakuno girl myself," he added. "Sweet and quiet, though she hasn't got much of a chest yet."
Ryoma stared at his father. Nanjiroh was really serious. The bad thing about Nanjiroh was that when he got an idea into his mind, it was just about impossible to dislodge it, and Nanjiroh started to plan right away. "I don't want a wife. Leave me alone, old man."
"Go on, go on your last quest, then," said Nanjiroh, with a wave of his hand. "Three days, though." He held up three fingers. "Three days until the ball! Be back by then, and we'll find you a wife."
Three days? Ryoma didn't envy the servants who would have to put that together in only three days. "You idiot," said Ryoma bluntly.
"You'll thank me later," said Nanjiroh, and left.
A few seconds later, Momo and Kaidoh showed up, out of breath. "His...Majesty...where?" Momo panted.
Ryoma pointed. "That way." It was just like Nanjiroh to lose his guards just to come talk to his son in the stable about a completely impractical ball to find Ryoma a wife he didn't want.
"Thanks," said Momo gratefully, and they rushed off after the king.
Ryoma hoped that an assassin found Nanjiroh before the guards did. It would serve him right.
He ran into another parent before he managed to escape the palace entirely. Fortunately, his mother was a lot more reasonable than his father was, and smarter too. Ryoma was just about to ride out of the gates when he heard his mother calling him.
"Hold on a moment, Ryoma." Rinko took Karupin's reins, slipping the horse some treat, probably a sugar cube. Karupin munched whatever it was eagerly. "Your father's been to talk to you."
"That idiot," Ryoma muttered.
"He's just stubborn," Rinko told him, with a very motherly smile. "Like father, like son."
"I'm not like him," said Ryoma, disgusted.
"Not in a way that you'd admit, no," said Rinko, and then went on before Ryoma could argue, not that he was going to. Arguing with his mother was more futile than arguing with Nanjiroh, in a quieter way. "Your father has your best interests at heart, Ryoma."
Ryoma didn't say anything, just looked at her with frank disbelief.
"Remember that he's letting you choose for yourself," said Rinko. She patted Karupin fondly, and Karupin rubbed his nose against her, leaving bits of hay and sugar on the front of her gown. "If you've found anything besides treasure on these quests, I'm sure it won't be a problem." She released the reins and walked back to the keep, lifting her skirts daintily so that they didn't brush the ground.
Ryoma rode off, wondering why both of his parents had gotten so strange all of a sudden.
"So will you come?" Ryoma looked at Tezuka intently. Tezuka was in dragon form, and Ryoma was standing in front of him, arms crossed. Ryoma had a hand near his sword, but they both knew that Tezuka wasn't going to do anything.
"I shouldn't be a part of human affairs," said Tezuka.
"You already are," Ryoma replied.
Tezuka was silent, which said about as much as it would have if he'd answered aloud, or more.
"I don't want anyone else," said Ryoma flatly. "I want you."
Tezuka still didn't reply, although he did meet Ryoma's eyes, with none of his head-tilting.
"I'll see you in three days," said Ryoma, and left.
When Ryoma stopped back at the inn, he glanced up at the sign above the door. The creature on it was, without doubt, a blue dragon. He stood looking at it for a full minute or two.
"You like the sign."
Ryoma turned to see Fuji, who was wearing his customary smile. "Don't worry, Your Highness," said Fuji. "Many people stop to look at my sign. I wonder what each of them thinks he sees, don't you?"
"Do you see a goose?" Ryoma asked. "Or a dragon?"
"Those, yes," said Fuji. He didn't elaborate, which made Ryoma roll his eyes. "So there's to be a ball held in your honor, if I hear correctly."
"It's not like I wanted it," said Ryoma.
"Hmm, really?" Fuji inquired. He leaned closer, looking at Ryoma with those startlingly blue eyes. "So he wouldn't come, then?"
"He'll be there," said Ryoma, accepting the fact that Fuji knew about Tezuka, the same way he seemed to know about everything.
Fuji smiled in a way that made Ryoma subtly uneasy. "I'll bring Karupin around for you," was all he would say.
Ryoma stood in his traditional place to the right of his father's throne, watching the courtiers dance and talk and gossip amongst themselves. Parties like these were so annoying, and this one was even more annoying than most.
Tezuka wasn't going to show up. Someone sensible would have said it was better that way anyway. A prince couldn't marry a dragon, especially not a male dragon, and even if he did, someone was liable to want to slay the dragon if they ever found out what he was.
Ryoma scowled. Being sensible was stupid. Tezuka was sensible, but then...well, he wasn't. He was a dragon.
Someone interrupted Ryoma's thoughts. "Your Highness, allow me to present my granddaughter." Lady Ryuzaki had to give the girl a push before she would stumble up to the thrones, blushing and staring down at the floor. "Sakuno, say hello to his Highness."
"HelloYourHighness," Sakuno whispered, very quickly so that all of the words blurred into one. She turned an even deeper shade of crimson.
Ryoma looked at Nanjiroh skeptically. Nanjiroh grinned encouragingly at him. Ryoma scrutinized this Sakuno girl. She was tiny, delicate, and, he supposed, pretty in a feminine sort of way. Those braids wouldn't work in combat at all. Someone would grab her by them and cut her head off in the first five minutes.
Nanjiroh nudged Ryoma in the ribs. "Go on, ask her to dance."
"Maybe later," said Ryoma. He hadn't asked anyone to dance yet, and all the other nobles looked perfectly content not to have to dance with the prince. Anyone who danced with royalty would shortly find envy (and possibly knives) aimed at thair backs. Sakuno looked relieved enough to faint, and she hurried away, with her grandmother behind her, probably reproaching her for not trying hard enough. Ryoma blinked as he watched the two of them, catching sight of someone familiar. Was that Fuji, there in the crowd? Innkeepers usually didn't get invited to a royal ball, so it probably wasn't.
Then again, it was Fuji, so it probably was.
Nanjiroh frowned. "That wasn't very friendly."
"I don't want to marry her," Ryoma told him.
"Why not?" Nanjiroh asked. "I know, I know, she's not very mature yet." Nanjiroh chuckled. "But there's hope for that girl, if she takes after her grandmother."
"I think she's very sweet," said Rinko, from Nanjiroh's other side. "But Ryoma's barely met her, dear."
"What, barely met?" Nanjiroh scoffed. "All those parties and picnics and hunts all those years, he's got to know her, or some other girl! So don't be shy, son! If not her, who is it that you want?" He gestured all around the hall. "Any one of these girls would be lucky to have you! Just pick one!"
"No," said Ryoma.
Nanjiroh looked as though he was about to explode, either yelling or extolling the virtues of the various females present. As it was, though, the doors to the hall opened, sparing Ryoma a lecture. When Ryoma saw just who had been let inside, he knew that he'd been spared something else, too.
Tezuka cut a swath through the crowd as the courtiers stepped away from him and began murmuring to themselves. None of them seemed to know why they were stepping away from the tall man wearing shimmering blue scales beneath a fashionable green silk tunic and leather boots that came up to his knees. They just did it.
"Hi," said Ryoma, as though there had never been any doubt in his mind that Tezuka would come.
"Your Highness," said Tezuka, with a bow suitable for a prince. "Your Majesties." He bowed even lower to Nanjiroh and Rinko.
"Hm?" Nanjiroh narrowed his eyes. "Who is this? Ryoma, you know him?"
"Yes I do," said Ryoma. He supposed that he could be secretive about who Tezuka was. He didn't feel like it, though. "He's the one I want to marry."
Nanjiroh blinked. Rinko smiled behind her hand. "What?!" Nanjiroh exclaimed. "What do you mean, he's the one you want to marry?" He looked Tezuka up and down. "Not that he isn't good-looking...but that's not the point!"
All of the commotion in the hall had died down. The nobles whispered among themselves, not being exactly inconspicuous about it. Nanjiroh didn't seem to care. "Well?" he demanded. "Who is he?"
"His name is Tezuka. I love him," said Ryoma. He didn't look at his father while he said it. He looked at Tezuka instead.
Tezuka didn't look at Nanjiroh either. "I love your son in return." He bowed to Ryoma again, never taking his eyes away, and then he extended his hand. "Dance with me, Ryoma."
Ryoma had to bite his tongue to stop himself from grinning. "All right." He put his hand in Tezuka's larger, familiar one. The heat from Tezuka's hand spread all through his arm.
"Wait right there!"
Ryoma glanced back. Nanjiroh had gotten out of his throne and was standing with his arms folded, looking dangerous. "I will not let a strange man seduce my son," he said, glaring at Tezuka.
Tezuka returned Nanjiroh's glare with a level gaze of his own. The two men stared each other down. Ryoma met his mother's eyes. She shook her head, hiding her amusement. Ryoma sighed. "I won't have this," Nanjiroh stated.
"You will," said Tezuka.
"I won't! I am the king, and Ryoma is my son. Guards!" Nanjiroh bellowed, taking advantage of the good acoustics, which were even better than the ones in the throne room. "Take this man out of my sight!"
"Don't do it," Ryoma warned Momo, as Momo approached. Momo shrugged helplessly and jerked his thumb at Nanjiroh. He stepped toward Tezuka, who was still looking at Nanjiroh. Oh well, thought Ryoma. He'd tried.
Before any of the guards could so much as touch Tezuka, something about Tezuka suddenly changed. It didn't really change, not as far as Ryoma could tell. He could still feel Tezuka's hand in his. But superimposed over Tezuka, for just a second, was a huge blue shape with wings and a long reptilian neck, and scales that still shone from the last time they'd been washed. Flame flickered around the dragon's head as he eyed Nanjiroh.
Momo, Kaidoh, and the rest of the guards backpedaled as fast as they possibly could. Momo tripped over Kaidoh's feet and they tumbled to the ground, and started loudly blaming each other. One of the other guards, Arai, took one step back and then looked as though he'd fainted on his feet.
"Well," said Nanjiroh. "Good to have you in the family!" He didn't seem afraid, exactly. More like he was considering how they'd use a dragon on their side, the next time a neighboring country tried to invade.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," said Tezuka, with another bow that couldn't have been anything but perfectly respectful.
"Now dance with me," said Ryoma, pulling Tezuka toward the empty space that had been created when the courtiers scattered like frightened chickens, away from the dragon apparition by the thrones. Tezuka followed, squeezing Ryoma's hand lightly, sending another burst of heat through Ryoma.
"That was careless, you know," Ryoma whispered, so that only Tezuka could hear.
Tezuka smiled slightly and replied, "I know."