puss_nd_boots: (Subaru Antithesis)
[personal profile] puss_nd_boots
Title: A Sort-Of Fairy Tale, Chapter 8
Chapter: Chapter 8 of 10
Author: Boots
Rating: This chapter PG, eventual series rating NC-17
Genre: Fairy tale AU, romance, drama
Warning: For this chapter, just language
Pairing: Final pairings of the series confidential for now. The series started out with Yo-ka (DIAURA) with a harem of young men, which has now been narrowed down to Subaru (Royz) and Yuuki (Lycaon/Initial'L). The fic also contains Toya (Gotcharocka) x Subaru. Former members of the harem include MiA (Mejibray), Ruiza (D), Hiyori (Kiryu) and Hiro (Fest Vainqueur).
Disclaimer: DIAURA belongs to Ains, Royz and Kiryu belong to B.P. Records, Mejibray belongs to White Side Group, D and Gotcharocka belong to God Child Records, Fest Vainqueur belongs to PLUG RECORDS west, Initial’L is property of Battle Cry Sound Company. I own the story only.
Overall Story Summary: Once upon a time, there was a prince named Yo-ka whose father forced him to go through a Culling – a process by which a group of young men are gathered from each district of his kingdom and he eliminates them one by one until he finds his true love. There was another prince named Toya, who came along to offer his brother moral support, but planned to stay away from the fray. And there was a candidate named Subaru, who arrived from one of the country’s poorest districts with little more than a head full of dreams. All three were about to get more than they bargained for . . .
Chapter Summary: The Culling is coming to an end, and the final candidates return to the capital for the big announcement about who Yo-ka has chosen – except a gang of protesters and a very angry king are standing between them and Happily Ever After.
Comments: The final three chapters – really one long chapter in three parts – are being posted on three consecutive days. The inspiration for the royal family's ceremonial outfits was Gotcharocka's Gekiai PV, during which they wore kimonos over WWII German-like uniforms – except the uniforms here are a lot more princely and a lot less Nazi. Subaru and Yuuki's final outfits are the ones from their most recent PV's as of the time of this writing – Royz' Antithesis and Initial'L's Moon Light Down.

Subaru woke up after a night of sleeping fitfully. He turned his head and looked at the sun shining outside.

This is it, he thought. The last day has arrived.

No sooner had the thought registered in his head than there was a knock on his door. He sprung up to answer it – and found a servant pushing a cart containing a covered food dish and a small pot of tea.

“Your breakfast, sir,” he said. “Enjoy it.”

“But . . . but I eat in the dining room, with my friends . . .”

“Today, everyone eats privately in their rooms,” the servant said. “The tailor and stylists will be here shortly, to get you ready. Remember, you are going straight from here to the airstrip, and after you land, straight to the throne room of the king and queen.”

And from there, Subaru thought, where? Back to Royz? Or . . .

Yuuki's words from the night before kept running through his mind. If the prince chooses you, think about what you're going to say to him . . .

Subaru couldn't think. Not about that. Not now. He had to take things one step at a time. The first step was the preparations for this thing – and then the goodbyes he didn't want to say.

He opened the lid of the cart and when he smelled the food inside, he felt surprisingly hungry. He sat down to eat.

Barely had he swallowed the last bite when another knock came on the door. Now what? he thought. He opened the door, to find a small army of stylists, and a tailor holding a garment bag.

“Subaru of Royz!” the tailor said. “We have designed the perfect look for you!”

“You have?” Subaru said. “But . . . the prince just chose me as one of the final two last night . . .”

“We had looks for all of you on our drawing boards the moment the prince narrowed the field down to ten,” the tailor said. “When it became four, we put them into production, sewing around the clock. We'll be giving the third and fourth place finishers their outfits as a going-home present.”

That sounded so distasteful – Subaru wanted to say that Ruiza and MiA weren't racehorses, they were his friends. But he just bowed and said, “Thank you.”

“Now, into the shower with you!” the head stylist said. “Get cleaned up and come out in a yukata.”

“Not in my underwear?” Subaru said.

“We have designed underwear for you, too!” the tailor said. “Because, of course, we know whoever gets picked . . . well, we want to impress His Royal Highness with every layer of clothing, don't we?”

Of course, Subaru thought. Whoever gets picked comes right back here with Yo-ka . . . and straight to the Pavilion of the Heart. He swallowed hard.

Don't think about that, don't think about that . . .

Almost as soon as he came out of the bathroom, he was shoved into a chair and fairly assaulted with combs and spray and brushes and powder puffs. And when that was done, he was dragged behind an old-fashioned changing screen and handed one garment at a time. When he came out, something was plunked on his head.

The stylists adjusted that, pulled this, added a couple of pieces of jewelry, and then propelled him toward a mirror.

“Look!” the tailor said. “Look at how gorgeous!”

Subaru blinked at the image in the mirror – and was shocked. Is that me? he thought. They'd dressed him in a red shirt, over which was a black and white jacket that had one lace sleeve, one plain white sleeve. His bottom half was covered with a pair of black, grey and white patterned pants with wide, flared legs meant to look like a skirt when he walked. (He was glad it wasn't a real skirt, since that was something he was definitely not used to wearing – skirts on men were an upper-class thing.)

Black gloves were on his hands, pearl and silver jewelry at his neck . . . and his head was covered by a wide-brimmed red hat that sported a large feather.

He looked every inch a royal consort candidate, and nothing like a boy from humble origins.

“I . . . this is wonderful,” he said. “Thank you.” He bowed. “Thank you all.”

The Earl appeared at the door. “You are all set, Your Grace?” he said.

“Eh?” Was he speaking to him? Oh, yeah – Yo-ka had made him a duke, hadn't he? “Oh, yes – yes, I am.”

“Then come along. The former candidates are waiting in the front hall. You are to say your goodbyes to them, and then you will be driven to the airstrip while they are driven to the train.”

“But Yo-ka and Toya . . . and Yuuki . . .”

“Their Highnesses and the Grand Archduke of Lycaon have said their goodbyes and been driven to the airstrip already,” the Earl said. “The princes will be in one compartment of their airplane, while you, myself and the Grand Archduke will be in the other. You will not see Their Highnesses until we arrive in the throne room.”

“But . . . why?” Subaru said. I want to see Toya one last time, he thought. I want to talk to him. I want to tell him . . . what?

“It is tradition that the prince does not see his last two candidates until he pronounces his final decision,” the Earl said.

But that tradition doesn't include the younger prince, Subaru thought. He let the Earl lead him to the front hall . . . and there were MiA, Hiro, Hiyori and Ruiza, their bags lined up behind them.

“I . . . I don't want to say goodbye to you,” Subaru said. “Any of you.”

“This isn't goodbye.” Ruiza walked over to Subaru and hugged him. “You're going to come and visit me, you hear? We're going to see each other again.”

Subaru just clung to his friend. He felt a lump swelling in his throat.

Hiro went up to him next. “You don't know how glad I am that I met you,” he said, hugging Subaru.

“Not as glad as I am to have met you,” Subaru said.

Hiyori followed and said, “You haven't seem me perform yet, you know. In dance OR comedy. You need to remedy that.”

“I will,” Subaru said. “I promise.”

The last to hug Subaru was MiA – his first friend among the other candidates, the one who'd been with him the night he met Toya. It seemed appropriate.

“I'm going to miss you so much,” Subaru said. “When I'm back in Royz . . .”

“Subaru, you're not going back to Royz,” MiA said, softly. “You're going to live in a palace. I have faith in you.”

Yes, Subaru thought. But . . . do I really want to live in that palace? If Yo-ka picks me, what do I say?

He stepped back from the group, swallowing the lump again, and said, “See you all on the other side, right?”

The Earl put his hand on Subaru's shoulder. “Remember,” he said, “His Highness is determined that he's going to host a reunion for all of you. You'll see your friends again.”

Subaru just nodded, looking at all of them, as if they were going to fade away into nothingness.

“It's time,” the Earl said. “The Grand Archduke is waiting for you at the airstrip.”

Subaru waved at his friends. “I'll see you,” he said. “Have a nice trip home, okay?” And then he turned and rapidly followed the Earl out of the building, not looking back.

There was a car in front of him, the driver holding the door open. Subaru got in the back, the Earl got in the front next to the driver.

I'm alone for the first time since I came here, Subaru thought. Even when I was in my room at night, there was always the sense that my friends were near.

The door shut, and the car took off for the airfield.

* * *

Subaru would have thought that his first ride on a plane would be an exciting experience. Instead, he spent it deep in melancholic thought.

There were four seats in the rear cabin of the aircraft, and they were filled with himself, Yuuki, the Earl and one stylist, who was going to give both men last-minute touch-ups.

Yuuki was equally quiet. Subaru figured the other man was alone with his own thoughts. The other candidate was also splendidly dressed – the outfit itself, consisting of a white jacket and pants with a black turtleneck shirt, was deceptively plain, but the stylists had festooned that with a spectacular array of silver jewelry going all the way down his chest. Subaru wondered if they'd forgotten that if Yuuki was chosen, he'd have a big collar over all that.

What do I do if I'm chosen? Subaru thought, looking out the window at passing clouds. What do I say? Do I accept Yo-ka's proposal? It isn't as if I don't have feelings for him. I do. It's just that my feelings for his brother are, well . . . different. If I say yes, if I agree to the six-month trial, would my feelings for Yo-ka grow stronger?

And then, there was the alternative – Yuuki being chosen. Then what happens? Subaru thought. Do I just go back to Royz as if none of this ever happened? Could I do that? And . . . would I ever see Toya again?

The plane approached the airfield in the capital. It's going to happen, Subaru thought. They're going to get us in a car, and take us to the palace, and then my fate will be decided . . .

Little did he know of what was going on below him.

* * *

The guard reached the airfield in the private car. Fortunately, the demonstrations seemed to not have reached this spot – yet.

Small wonder, because they were all over the rest of the city.

The palace was prepared for the delegation from Versailles, of course. They fully expected upper-class representatives to fill the streets carrying signs in protest of the final outcome of the Culling, calling for the results to be thrown out and the whole thing done over. The staff had been put on alert to control the crowd if they got unruly.

Small chance of that. Even at their most indignant, upper-class citizens never formed unruly mobs. No, they formed very ruly mobs.

The surprise, however, came when a group of seemingly ordinary merchant boats arrived from Royz – and spilled hoards of screaming, yelling people into the streets, waving signs and chanting, “POWER TO THE PEOPLE!”

They were everywhere. They blocked streets. They jumped up on top of milk crates and started yelling speeches about how the palace was ignoring them, and they wouldn't be ignored any more. They were here to HAVE THEIR DAY, since, you know, a guy from Royz was one step from the Prince-Consort's throne.

His Majesty was informed of the matter right away – and to say he was upset was the understatement of the century.

“God DAMN it!” the monarch shouted, nearly hurling his formal crown across the room. “I KNEW it was trouble the moment that IDIOT son of mine let that GUTTERSNIPE get past the first round! I want Yo-ka brought to the palace IMMEDIATELY! Not his brother, not the boy from Lycaon, and CERTAINLY not that trash from Royz. JUST Yo-ka.”

It was that order that the guard was here to carry out. He saluted the plane as it taxied to a stop. Earl Ohara got out of it, to make sure everything was in order before the princes disembarked . . .

Only to be met with the guard, saying, “Sir! I am under orders to bring His Royal Highness the Prince of Valluna to His Majesty, and ONLY the Prince of Valluna.”

“Excuse me?” the Earl said. “Is there a problem?”

“There is, indeed, a problem, Lord Earl,” the guard said. “A very big problem.”

“Well, then what do I do with His Highness the Prince of Charlotte, and the two candidates?”

“They are to remain aboard this aircraft,” the guard said. “We will come get them if and when His Majesty wants them at the palace.”

The Earl's heart sank. Did this mean the whole Culling was a failure? Never before had one been called off at the last moment – especially not by the king.

“Sir, His Majesty wants these orders carried out immediately. With the way the palace is under siege by protesters, we might not even be able to get into the palace grounds pretty soon.”

“All right,” the Earl sighed. “I will get His Royal Highness. But I want to talk to His Majesty myself.”

“No one is to have an audience with His Majesty but his older son!” the guard said.

The Earl bowed and headed toward the plane, muttering to himself. He'd told the boy he was tempting fate with his unconventional decisions. Now, it seemed, fate was coming to collect the bill.

* * *

Yo-ka did not like the look on the Earl's face when the man opened the door of the royal compartment. And when the nobleman delivered the news that Yo-ka, and Yo-ka alone, was summoned to the palace, his heart sank to his feet.

“If he doesn't like my choice of Subaru . . .” he said.

“I think this may go far beyond the hometowns of your final choices,” the Earl said. “Now, come with me.”

“I'm not going without Toya!” Yo-ka said.

Toya squeezed his brother's shoulder. “It's okay,” he said. “Just go with them.”

“I'm not going to let Father sacrifice your happiness,” Yo-ka said. “He can do what he wants with me, but he is NOT going to force you into anything you don't want.”

Yo-ka stood up and got off the plane slowly, his head held high. If it's a fight my father wants, he thought, he's about to get a fight.

The prince cut quite an impressive figure as he walked toward the waiting limo. He was in his ceremonial outfit, reserved for only the most special occasions – a European-style military uniform topped with a drape in traditional Japanese fabrics that was styled like an open kimono, symbolizing the two cultural influences of the country. Around his head was a diadem, a circle of gold at the center of which was the symbol of the Principality of Valluna, two crossed keys topped with crowns.

It was an outfit designed for announcing a final choice – not for battling it out with one's father.

The guard bowed to him. “Your Highness, I have been instructed . . .”

“I know,” Yo-ka said. “Let's just go there.”

He got in the back of the car, his jaw set, and glanced backward at the plane that still held his brother – and the two remaining candidates.

I'm going to fight for all of you, he thought. I promise.

* * *

It was quite an experience for Koudai, Tomoya and Kuina. They'd never been in the middle of a rampaging mob before.

When their boat arrived at the capital, they walked out quietly along with the rest of the crowd. Ohbuchi pointed to a line of trucks, supposedly awaiting deliveries.

“Get in the back of those,” he said. “I called this company and tipped 'em off last night. They're in this with us.”

Of course, there were lower-class people working within the capital, just like there were in every other city. And just like every other city, they lived in shantytowns on its fringes, close enough to view opulence, but stuck in squalor.

They'd all heard about what was going on from the truck drivers, and they were just as eager to get in on “Power to the People” as the Royz residents were. In fact, they'd brought a truckload of their own neighbors as well.

The fleet moved quietly through the streets, depositing its human load around the palace. And once they got there, things weren't quiet anymore.

As soon as the doors opened, the Royz delegation leapt out, waving their signs, chanting their slogans, some of them just wordlessly screaming and roaring. They'd been silent all this time – they were going to be silent no more.

Subaru's three friends rushed to the side of the street to be out of the way as a throng of protesters stormed past them like a herd of rampaging buffalo, signs held aloft. One of them jumped up on top of a parked car with his sign and bellowed, “Listen here, everyone! We're from Royz! We're the people who make this country possible! You ain't getting' no goods in or outta this place if not for us! And the palace ain't gonna treat us like shit anymore!”

“Well, THAT's not exactly going to help our image with the rest of the country, is it?” Kuina said to the other two.

Koudai shook his head. “I have a bad, bad feeling about this,” he said. “I'm beginning to think this was a huge mistake.”

“Because they're embarrassing us?” said Tomoya.

“No,” said Koudai. “Because if they get rowdy enough to start damaging property? The palace may respond with guns.”

* * *

When the Earl brought the bad news to the two candidates, Subaru's jaw fell open in shock.

Before going to speak to them, the nobleman had called the palace and gotten more details. He was able to report to Yuuki and Subaru that the palace was surrounded by unruly protesters – and most of them were claiming to be from Royz.

“I . . . I didn't mean for this to happen!” Subaru said. “I have nothing to do with them, really! I haven't spoken to anyone from Royz since I first came to the palace!”

“I know,” the Earl said, quietly. “It seems like they were inspired by your rise through the Culling to take matters into their own hands. You've been elevated higher than anyone from any lower class district ever has.”

“But . . . but I didn't mean . . .” Subaru buried his face in his hands. Oh, God. All he had wanted to do was travel, see somewhere other than his hometown. Then, he'd just wanted to stay with his friends, and get to know Yo-ka, and see . . .

“Toya,” he said, softly. “Please, can I see Toya?”

He heard a long silence, as if Yuuki and the Earl were digesting his words. Yuuki, of course, knew of his feelings for the other prince. The Earl did not.

“I doubt that His Highness can do anything more to quell this situation,” the Earl said. “His Royal Highness is on his way to speak to the king now. I'm going to call the palace again and find out what's going on.”

As soon as the nobleman left, Yuuki moved over to Subaru's seat, leaned over and hugged him. “It isn't your fault,” he said. “Don't blame yourself.”

“I'm trying not to,” Subaru said, hugging back. “I just feel if I wasn't in the Culling . . .”

“You had no idea how people were going to react,” Yuuki said. “None of us did.”

“I don't want Yo-ka to get in trouble because of this. I don't know what his father is going to do.”

“Yo-ka is a strong person,” Yuuki said. “He knows his own mind, and he doesn't let someone else's rules dictate what he does in life.” He paused. “I like that about him. A lot.”

Subaru was quiet. He really, really wanted Yo-ka to choose Yuuki. He knew that now. Yuuki was the one with the feelings for him, they were very similar, they'd have a good life together . . .

I don't know if Yo-ka will even be allowed to make his final choice now, Subaru thought.

* * *

Yo-ka realized something was very wrong when he noticed that the car was taking a very roundabout way to get to the palace.

“Why can't we go down the main roads?” he said. “They were supposed to be cleared of traffic for our motorcade, weren't they?”

“They were, Your Highness,” the guard said. “However, they were not cleared of the protesters.”

“Protesters?”

“The reason your father has requested your presence, Your Highness. It seems that a large amount of ruffians are loose in the streets, screaming and yelling and blocking roads.”

“Where did they come from?”

“It seems, Your Highness, that they came from Royz.”

Oh, shit, Yo-ka thought. Of all places. If my father heard that . . .

But the prince steeled his reserve. He was going to do something that he should have done a long time ago. Years ago, in fact.

He was going to stand up to his father, once and for all.

When the car finally reached the palace, it went into a back, service entrance, through an alleyway usually served by delivery trucks. The guard got out and opened Yo-ka's door.

“He is waiting for you in his office,” the guard said. He led Yo-ka through a door that connected to the kitchens, through a room lined with stoves and ovens, out a door and down a hall to one of the back elevators.

Yo-ka held his breath during the ride up. Think of what's at stake, he told himself. Think of your happiness, and your brother's. Think of all the people out there whose voices have gone unheard – and are now, literally, screaming in the streets to make sure they're heard now.

The door opened. The two men walked down a hall, through a set of large double doors, and down another hall. The guard paused in front of another elaborate set of doors.

“And here, I leave you,” he said, bowing. “Good luck, Your Highness.”

Yes, Yo-ka thought, because I'll need it.

He took a deep breath, put his hands on the door handles, and pushed inward. There sat his father behind the desk, ceremonial outfit on, including his elaborate crown. His hands were folded in front of him, and his face bore a scowl.

“Hello, Father,” Yo-ka said.

The king just glared at his son for a long moment, and then said, “Do you know what you have DONE? Do you? You and your foolish decisions! Your misplaced, cockeyed idealism! It wasn't enough that you made an obscene mockery of what is supposed to be a time-honored tradition!”

“Sir, I followed the rules of the Culling.”

“You did NOT!” the king shouted. “What are these reports I got about your progress? Throwing out young men of breeding like so much garbage and keeping RABBLE? Perfume chemists? Professional dancers? ICE CREAM MAKERS? Not to mention the fact that a GUTTERSNIPE is among your final two?”

“I will NOT have you refer to Subaru like that!” Yo-ka said. “You don't know him! You don't know ANY of them!”

“And I do not CARE to know any of them!” the king shouted. “Because you made such foolish decisions, we now have streets full of . . .” He pointed to the window. “THIS! Take a look!”

Yo-ka moved slowly to the window and gazed downward. Sure enough, the streets were filled with people waving signs and banners, chanting “POWER TO THE PEOPLE!” One sign said, “WE ARE STRONG. WE ARE BRAVE. WE ARE ROYZ.”

The sight was distressing, all right. But in another way, it was, well . . . empowering.

Yo-ka turned around, slowly. “This isn't a sign that I made the wrong decision, Father,” he said. “On the contrary. It's a sign that I made a very right decision.”

“WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?” his father shouted. “You have brought shame and embarrassment to the royal house! Why, there hasn't been a demonstration of unrest like this since . . .”

“Since when?” Yo-ka said. “Since King Kisaki? Since Gazetto and Alicenine broke away from us and formed their own countries?”

“Don't you DARE bring that up!” the king shouted. “King Kisaki was an embarrassment to the throne, and I will not have you even INSINUATING that I will end up like him!”

“Do you know WHY Gazetto and Alicenine broke away?” Yo-ka said. “What made them do it? It was because King Kisaki wouldn't listen to them. The people of those regions pleaded with him over and over to consider them equals, to take their opinions into consideration. But King Kisaki dismissed them, over and over. And finally, the people couldn't take it anymore.”

“He was weak!” the king said. “It wasn't that he wouldn't listen to them! He let them walk all over them! And they were . . .”

“Middle-class?” Yo-ka said. “Yes – the districts of Gazetto and Alicenine were, at the time, primarily middle-class. As were most of the young men in my Culling – the ones you said you didn't want to get to know. Tell me, Father – have you ever sat down with people of the middle and lower classes? Really talked to them? Gotten to know them? Spent an afternoon with them?”

“Of course not!” the king shouted. “I am a king! Why should I spend time with anyone who's beneath me?”

“And that is precisely why this is happening.” Yo-ka pointed to the window. “That is precisely what happened with King Kisaki. You considered yourself above them. But you are NOT above them. None of us are. In our hearts, we are all equal – because ALL of use contribute to this nation. Veekay isn't its royalty and nobility. It's all its citizens, acting as one.”

“What is this nonsense you are spouting?” the king yelled.

“It isn't nonsense!” Yo-ka replied. “Look. You said that the people in my Culling are beneath you? Tell me, what would happen here if you had a royal ball? The people would dress all up, put on makeup and perfume, and then enjoy a huge dinner, right? Perhaps with seafood? And then afterward, cake with ice cream as dessert? Then afterward, there'd be entertainment – music, perhaps a dance performance?”

“What are you getting at?” the king nearly groaned.

“Every one of my Culling candidates – every one of those boys you dismissed as worthless – would have contributed to that party. Ruiza very well might have designed the perfumes those guests were wearing. Hiro might have made that ice cream. MiA might be among the musicians, and Hiyori could be one of the dancers. And that seafood? Caught by people from Royz and brought here, packed in ice so it would stay nice and fresh. Oh, and the imported silk that a lot of your guests would be wearing? Also courtesy of people from Royz, because there would be no trade without your merchant marines.”

“I don't see how a PARTY makes up for the fact that you . . .”

“What about the rest of your life, Father?” Yo-ka said. “The pens that you write with? Made in factories in Sukuru. The cars you're driven around in? Designed by a bunch of guys in Pentagon. The radio addresses that you give? There's a host of engineers and transmitter techs around the country making it happen. Father, everyone in our country contributes to other people's lives. Everyone is important. Everyone deserves a voice. That's why they're out there.” He pointed to the window again.

“They are out there because you elevated some ruffian . . . .”

“They are out there because they didn't dare speak up before!” Yo-ka said. “It isn't JUST because of Subaru! It's because they wanted some sign, any sign, that we were paying attention to them! Until Subaru made it to the last stage of the Culling, they'd never had one! Have you paid attention, Father? Have you read ANY of the reports that the regional governors of the lower-class and lower-middle-class districts send in?”

“That is why I have administrative staff!” the king snapped. “I can't attend to everyone's matters!”

“You see?” Yo-ka said, walking over toward the window. “You see, that's just it. You haven't considered them important, ever. You just hobnob with the rest of the upper class, like your father before you, and his father before him . . . and you haven't talked to the common people. You haven't listened.”

“And you got all this by hanging out with a bunch of . . .”

“Perfume chemists and ice cream makers? I don't think of it that way. I spent time with a lot of people. Wonderful people.”

He looked out at the chanting, shouting crowds again. “Father, you remember when you first sent me out in the Culling, I thought it was a horrible idea – a terrible way to find a mate. And you know what? I still think it's a terrible way to find a mate.”

He turned around and looked at his father. “But I also now think that traveling around getting to know a bunch of people of different social classes is a great way to foster understanding, and friendship.”

“So you did not find a match, then?” For the first time, the king looked relieved.

“I didn't say that,” Yo-ka said. “Let me tell you what happened on that front . . .”

* * *

Toya sat in the front cabin of the airplane, growing increasingly agitated.

His brother still was not back. There was no word from the palace. He wanted to go see the two young men in the back – but the Earl kept telling him not to go back there.

I don't want Yo-ka to have to face Father alone, Toya thought. I want to know what's going on there. I want to make sure that he's all right. And I want to see Subaru . . . I want to make sure he's all right, too.

He saw the Earl approach the front cabin again. “Is there any more word?” he said.

“There are still protesters around the palace,” said the Earl. “The last thing I heard is your brother went into conference with your father.”

“Then we will go there, too,” Toya said.

“Your Highness, His Majesty said that . . .”

“His Majesty gave an order that Yo-ka be brought to him,” Toya said. “That order was carried out, wasn't it?”

“Well, yes, Your Highness.”

“And did any new orders come from the palace?”

“No, Your Highness.”

“Then I am giving a new order in my capacity as prince,” Toya said. “You're going to get a car, and the two of us are going to the palace – along with the two candidates.”

“You cannot put them in danger, Your Highness. Not with all those protesters . . .”

“If they're from Royz, they wouldn't dare hurt Subaru,” Toya said. “Now, get a car and take us to the palace. That is an order, Earl.”

Toya usually didn't throw his weight around – quite the contrary. But in a situation like this? It was most definitely called for.

“If it goes wrong, sir . . .”

“If it goes wrong, you were just following orders,” Toya said. “I will take the heat.”

The earl bowed. “As you wish, sir,” he said. He stepped away from the plane, and went over to talk to the members of the royal motorcade that had been waiting to transport all of them.

Toya let out a long breath. I'm coming, Yo-ka, he thought. All of us are.

* * *

The king was sitting at his desk again, mulling over what his son had just told him about the final outcome of the Culling.

“Do you expect me to just accept that?” he said.

“Yes, I do, Father,” Yo-ka said. “The purpose of a Culling is for a prince to make his own choices. And choices have been made.”

“Not the RIGHT choice!” the king shouted.

“Every choice is right to the chooser,” Yo-ka said.

“Yes, but the fact that it was . . .”

“The fact that it was . . . what?” came a new, feminine voice from the doorway.

Yo-ka turned, and saw the queen, also in formal dress – a long gown, over which another kimono-like garment was draped. “Mother . . .”

“You said when you sent Yo-ka and Toya off on this,” the queen said, walking into the room, “that you wanted them to find mates and be happy. And, like Yo-ka said, choices have been made.”

“Oh, yes, Yo-ka has made choices, all right!” the king snapped. “Yo-ka's final two choices are a nobleman – but a nobleman who's a CABARET SINGER, he couldn't even pick a decent noble – and some CREATURE from Royz!”

“And he isn't a creature to your son, is he?” the queen snapped back.

“How much have you heard?” the king shouted.

“I've heard enough!” his wife replied. “I've been outside this door almost since you had the boy brought in here! You are NOT going to interfere with your son's choices!”

“My dear, in case you haven't noticed, there are PROTESTERS . . .”

“Yes, there are protesters, because your son is right!” the queen shouted. “You do exactly what he says you do – you think only the upper class counts!” She paused. “You didn't ALWAYS think that way.”

Well, that startled Yo-ka. “Mother, what do you mean?”

“I mean that during his own Culling, he played the game the way the royal family wanted. He chose only the women from the higher districts. But his heart belonged to a girl from Codomo Dragon.”

The king suddenly looked panicked. “Hidoko, do NOT speak of . . .”

“No, let her speak,” Yo-ka said. He turned toward his mother. “What about this girl?”

“He was smitten with her from the get-go,” the queen said. “He kept her around longer than any other middle-class person who had been in a Culling – until he suddenly remembered that he was a future king, and kings don't hang around with the middle class.” The last words fairly dripped with sarcasm. “And so he cut her . . . officially. But . . . he still found a reason to keep her traveling with us until the end.”

“HIDOKO!” The king's face was red.

“She finished in sixth place,” said the queen. “And at that point, he told the candidates that everyone was going to stick around, because he didn't want any leaks to the press. He kept all the sixth through third place people with us when we were in Ekkisu – he put them up in one of the guesthouses. And then, when the Culling was over? He hired her as one of my ladies-in-waiting, and there she stayed until around the time you two were born.”

She marched right up to the king, leaned into his face, and said, “I would not trade my years with you for anything, my darling. Or my crown. But if you were HONEST with yourself? She'd be on my throne now, instead of being . . .”

“DO NOT SAY IT!” the king shouted.

“Back in Codomo Dragon,” the queen said, quietly, storming back over toward Yo-ka – who just stood there, stunned.

“Father,” he said. “While you were married to Mother, you . . . you continued to have an affair with . . .”

The king sat, head in his hands. “He wasn't supposed to know. He was never supposed to know.”

“And you wouldn't want the public to know either, would you?” the queen said.

“You wouldn't dare,” the king said.

“You let your sons follow their hearts the way you refused to do,” the queen said. “And you hear Yo-ka out when it comes to our people. Unlike you, he is willing to admit he's as human as everyone else.”

Yo-ka walked up to his father's desk. “Father . . . are you willing to listen to me about the people? About how to keep our country from splitting again?”

The king glared at his wife, then let out a deep sigh. “Fine. What do you have to say?”

Yo-ka pulled a notebook out of his back pocket. “I had been planning to speak to you about this anyway,” he said. “During the Culling, one of the candidates talked to me about constitutional monarchies . . .”

“I am NOT giving up full power to a prime minister!” the king shouted.

“I am not asking you to,” Yo-ka said. “But I think the people need to have more of a voice in our government. I propose . . . a full, true Parliament.”

“A Parliament?”

“A system of checks and balances,” Yo-ka said, “to ensure that palace and people are working together equally. I want you to see something.” He held a page of the notebook out. “On the left are commerce and job satisfaction figures for Gazetto – a full constitutional monarchy. On the right? Statistics for us. See how much higher they are than us? The people are happier and more productive, Father – because they have a voice.”

The king stared at the figures for a long time. He then went to the window and looked down at the protesters – and the sight he saw startled him.

The upper-class protesters from Versailles had merged with the group from Royz. They were jumping and shouting alongside them. Some of the wealthy were even waving the Royz group's “Power to the People” signs.

Yo-ka walked to the window beside his father. “See?” Yo-ka said. “Everyone wants to be heard.” Of course, Yo-ka knew that the Versailles group's aim was a lot less noble than the Royz group – they'd come here out of a sort of whiny sense of entitlement – but he wasn't going to point that out to his father. No, he was just going to roll with it – because the visual was helpful to his cause.

Besides, he figured the Versailles people wanted as much of a direct voice in government as the Royz people.

“We've never had a Parliament before,” the King said.

“We've never had protesters around the palace at the end of a Culling, either,” Yo-ka said. “Father . . . think about that girl. Think about what SHE would want. Wouldn't she have wanted her district to have as much a voice as anyone else?”

The king continued to look down at the crowd. “If we were to do this. . . if we were to, hypothetically, do this Parliament as an experiment – and an experiment ONLY, mind you . . .” He looked over at his son. “The Parliament would be made up of the current district governors. I don't want any inexperienced people. Let each district elect a new governor to replace the one that will represent them here..”

“Of course,” Yo-ka said. “No government should be run by people with zero experience.”

“And I am still king regardless, remember? I have full veto power. They can develop and pass bills, but I have the right to veto them.”

Yo-ka nodded. He wasn't going to remind his father that a Parliament could also override a veto. Not when he was so close to getting what he wanted. What everyone wanted.

“We're going to have to make an announcement from the balcony, you know,” Yo-ka said.

“Did I say I'd definitely agreed to this?”

“It certainly sounded like it just now,” Yo-ka said.

The king sighed. “You are shrewd, boy. Too shrewd for your own good.”

“I guess I got it from you, then,” Yo-ka said.

“All three of us will go out there for the announcement,” the king said. “We will do it as a family.”

“I wouldn't have it any other way,” Yo-ka said. Fractured and dysfunctional as we are, he thought – even more fractured and dysfunctional than I thought – we're still a family. And when Toya gets here with Subaru and Yuuki, he thought, the family really will be complete.

Although one thing was niggling at the back of his head. Was his mother going to say something else at the end of her story about the girl from Codomo Dragon – and she dropped it at the last minute? He decided it wasn't important for now – he had too much to think about.

But that didn't mean the thought wouldn't come back later.

Coming Tomorrow: Subaru's ultimate fate! Is he going to live happily ever after – and if so, with whom?
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