Warnings: mentions of character death.
The scent of burning wood—of burning flesh—followed them well into the day. Chuuya’s human senses may not be sharp enough to notice it after a mile stood between them and the castle, and his mind too crowded by the task now entrusted to him by fate and Dazai’s own words, but nightfall had come again, and Dazai still smelled smoke on the air. He still smelled death upon the wind, still felt starlight pierce his skin as if he were born to it instead of the moon.
The ivory band around his right wrist turned crimson before the first hours of day. He watched it fall to the ground without a word. Above their heads the blood-like arrow that Ango had carried traversed the sky, heading to Xadia, where the news of the human king’s death would soothe all grieving creatures.
Chuuya did not notice. The human kept ahead of him with surprising stamina, not complaining once about their grueling pace, the dragon egg in its deerskin bag probably digging deep into his shoulders.
On Dazai’s left wrist, the other band tightened.
They stopped at a clearing to make camp for the night. Dazai made way for the center of it and looked up at the sky; he let the rising moon shed its light upon him like a stream of cool water, washing away the sweat and dust of the past two days. For the first time since fleeing the castle, he filled his lungs with clean air.
“Get us some wood for the fire,” Chuuya said gruffly from the shadowed side of the trees. He had put down the bag in which he kept his Primal Stone, but not the one holding the egg.
Still don’t trust me, Dazai thought, amused.
“I wouldn’t light a fire if I were you,” Dazai replied. “We don’t know who’s after us.”
“We don’t know that anyone’s after us. I doubt they noticed my absence with everything going on, and I don’t think your friends have such loose tongues either.”
His voice was rough for his age. He couldn’t have been more than twenty human years, young even for such standards, yet he spoke with the exhaustion of lifelong soldiers. He spoke as if he had learned long ago not to trust anyone but himself.
“Your kind may survive with moonlight, but I won’t,” Chuuya went on. He shuffled closer to the stream by his side—a rivulet of water dug deep into rock and soil, still clear enough despite the previous week’s rain. Dazai watched him wash his face and neck with it in quick movements. Once he was done, he said, “Summer’s coming to an end, and nights are cold in this part of the realm.”
“I defer to your judgment, then,” Dazai murmured.
As much energy as this human had, it was still nowhere near what a moonshadow elf could endure. Dazai walked back into the forest making sure to step as close to Chuuya as possible, and sure enough, the human’s back tensed like a bow, his sharp blue eyes watching his every move as if ready to unsheathe his sword.
Dazai climbed to the roof of the trees. The sun’s last golden rays washed over the forest canopy in shades of gold and green as he took what was needed to keep his companion warm. Perhaps the job could have been finished more quickly, but Dazai could not resist waiting for the moon. Last night the pleasure of the full had been all but gone in the face of his mission; he had not enjoyed a second of the power running through his veins and turning his skin translucent, had not basked for a moment in the monthly gift that his lifesource gave him. Now the full moon was over, but at least he could enjoy the light in peace.
It might be the last peace he could enjoy for the foreseeable future.
Chuuya was gone from the campsite when he slid back down to earth. The dragon egg was gone with him, and so was the bow he had carried on his back, which told Dazai that the human had probably gone hunting. At least he wasn’t saddled with an incompetent. Chuuya had proved to him at the castle that the weapons and armor he wore were not for show, and Dazai might have been able to guess it on his own even without fighting him.
There was no ceremonial garb to be found on the prince of Katolis when they bumped into each other. His wrists were bound in leather, not steel. The sheath of his short sword was wooden, clipped and flaked in places from use, the jewel on its pommel long devoid of its shine; yet the blade was as sharp as Dazai’s had been, and the strength to brandish it equal to his own.
Chuuya was lucky that the full moon had not yet risen when they met, though they seemed of a roughly equal standing without that added power. A few minutes later and Dazai would have killed him before the prince could hear him breathe. A few minutes later and no one would have discovered the dragon prince’s egg kept in the court mage’s secret lair like common loot.
Katolis would be missing an entire royal line, not just its current king.
Dazai busied himself with making the fire. He played idly with the oath still wound around his wrist once flames arose from the hearth he had dug. He knew trying to cut it off with a simple blade would be futile—oaths taken under moonlight, in blooming magic, especially oaths of life and death, were resistant to worldly forces. He would need to find a better weapon. Perhaps a sunfire elf’s blade, if ever he crossed paths with one.
Chuuya came back with two hares strung above his shoulder and the deerskin bag still tightly held to his side. It was a wonder he had managed to hunt at all with the dragon egg bothering him like this. Curious, curious.
“Hope you like meat,” Chuuya said, throwing the hares at Dazai’s feet before dropping down onto the grass himself. He looked exhausted. “Otherwise there’s a lot of wildberries around. I don’t know what elves eat.”
“Meat is fine,” Dazai replied, taking one of the hares and beginning to skin it.
He still had a flask full of moonberry juice, but he would rather save it for emergencies. Winter would come before they reached Xadia, after all.
Soon the smell of roasting meat covered everything else. Chuuya’s catches were not ideal—too skinny at this time of the year, too young perhaps, easier to catch but harder to take anything out of. Dazai still ate his share without complaint, down to suckling on the small bones to get everything he could of the meagre meal. Chuuya smoked and dried half of a hare for them to have meat to chew on the following day. There was no certainty that they would be able to rest as they did now, after all, once word got out that the prince was missing.
He caught the human stealing glances at his hands from time to time. No doubt Chuuya had never met an elf in his life before and found them surprising.
Dazai raised one of them—the one free of the oath bond—and spread his four fingers wide. “Curious?” he asked.
The man’s eyes widened, and his ears turned a shade of pink darker. How charming.
“Just wondering how that doesn’t bother you when handling weapons,” Chuuya replied uneasily. “Swords are heavy.”
“Mine are not.”
He looked skeptical. Dazai chuckled and took his folded blades out of their holsters at his back, paying no mind to the way Chuuya’s shoulders tensed at the sight, before handing them to him with the blades pointed toward himself.
A gesture of trust.
Chuuya took them wearily. The handles were indeed narrower than what he was probably used to, and his pinkies had little space to hold onto them the way they did to man-made blades. He still unfolded the blades easily after a moment of examining them, taking a tentative swing at the air in front of him. Firesmoke parted under the gesture as if it had been cut.
“What are they made of?” he asked, staring intently at the blades.
They shone under the moonlight more brightly than ever. Only moonshadow smiths knew how to harbor the moon’s power like this, and then only a few of them. Dazai only ever got his weapons from Oda.
“Steel melted by dragonfire,” he answered. “I don’t know the specifics. Elven blacksmiths are very tight-lipped about their trade secrets.”
Chuuya handed the daggers back to Dazai. His hands, once freed, rested upon the deerskin bag sitting by his hip.
“You really didn’t know that the egg was intact,” Dazai said softly.
The bag could not completely close on the egg, and from the interstices left after the metal clasps were tightened, the shell diffused its otherworldly light.
“Of course not,” Chuuya replied. “And neither did the king. He would never have kept it if he knew. He always blamed Mori for killing the dragon prince as well as the king, he would’ve given it back to the dragon queen in a heartbeat, no matter if it cost him his head.”
The king had already paid for his crime with his head, no matter that the crime was only half of what they all thought. Dazai didn’t share that information with Chuuya.
“You are a strange prince,” he said instead, toying with the band around his wrist. It was even tighter now. “I thought you were just a member of the royal guard when I met you. Do all Katolian royalty act like you?”
A shadow passed over Chuuya’s face. It exacerbated the fatigue lining it, the scar running down his right cheek vertically, no doubt a memento of some past battle. His hands lifted from the bag and went to rest in his lap, fingers clenched together.
“I’ve never seen a moonshadow elf that looked like you,” Chuuya said. “You don’t have…”
“White hair? Horns?” Dazai smiled tersely. “Ah, that would be because my mother was human.”
Surprise was a good look on the human prince. His eyes looked even brighter with it.
“It was quite the scandal, as you can imagine. My father was shunned by his village, and so was I, until his death. I’m lucky that my superior took a shine on me when I started training to join the assassin squadron.”
Chuuya didn’t seem to have regained use of his voice yet. He stared at Dazai with those unsettling eyes, his brow creased with confusion and some modicum of pity. Dazai stared back until Chuuya, embarrassed, looked away.
“I don’t consider myself half-human, before you ask,” Dazai said. “I am an elf. I never knew my mother. I was raised in Xadia my whole life, surrounded by moonshadow elves and raised by their standards. I never met a human before coming here—never talked to one before talking to you.”
“I’ve never talked to an elf before either,” Chuuya muttered, still flushed. “You’re not exactly what I expected.”
“Centuries of war and propaganda will do that. You’re not what I expected either.” Dazai grinned and added: “I thought the royal prince of Katolis would be taller.”
“Shut up,” Chuuya growled.
How very simple Chuuya’s temper seemed to be. He had been quick to rile up when Dazai had stumbled upon him in the castle, each jab at his pride making his teeth clench tighter and his sword sing louder. Yet he had never faltered. He had held his own against a moonshadow elf, an elite assassin, on the very brink of the full moon. If they had kept dueling long enough for the moon to rise, Dazai had no doubt that Chuuya would have put up the same fight, even with Dazai turning invisible to his eyes.
He would have died, of course. But he would not have given up.
“I’m not… I’m not the royal prince,” Chuuya said suddenly.
His body language was different now. Not demure, not embarrassed, oh no; but his voice was softer, the line of his shoulders appeased. The darkening sky overhead could not erase the flame-bright color of his hair, and in that penumbra, he looked less like a soldier and more like a young man.
A very beautiful young man, Dazai could not help but think.
“You told me you were prince Chuuya,” Dazai replied. “Or was that a lie? Should I expect the dragon prince’s egg to be nothing more than another trick of your court mage, then?”
“I am Chuuya. But I’m not the king’s son.”
Ah. “The late queen’s, then.”
Chuuya nodded. Grief came and went through his eyes like a brisk summer breeze. “I never knew my real father,” he said. “Only that he was a scientist of some sort. I actually don’t have any memories from before I was seven or eight, and my mother married king Fukuzawa shortly after that. The princess was born within the year, so Katolis has its royal line secure whether I’m here or not.”
That would explain why Chuuya seemed so unworried that the Katolian army would be deployed after him.
It was terribly easy for Dazai to fill in the blanks in that story. With the queen dead for years and a princess by blood here to take the throne, there was little use for a bastard, no matter how royal. Chuuya would not have been raised in the same halo of admiration and luxury that princess Kyouka did—indeed he would be considered a hindrance, perhaps a threat, to the rightful heir. It was no wonder he had been delegated to the lowly position of royal guard, and at that not one of those kept in close quarters with the king or his daughter.
Dazai had only glimpsed the princess very briefly the night before. She had stood at the sideline of battle, a girl of eleven or twelve, no more. Her sweet face torn with fear and hopelessness.
“You protected her so adamantly,” Dazai said, thinking of the blows Chuuya had taken to make sure her step-sister would not come to any harm. “I would’ve thought you’d resent her.”
“She’s my sister.”
“Blood means little in the face of injustice.”
Chuuya bared his teeth at him. “She’s my sister,” he repeated. “She’s innocent. She’s never treated me like an outsider, not once in her life. Neither has the king. I may not be of royal blood, and I may not be of much use to them, but she calls me brother anyway. She has nothing to do with this war, nothing, and if you or any of your kind try to hurt her, I’ll erase every trace of your existence from this earth.”
The threat was clear enough. Chuuya had known the princess to be in safe hands when he fled the castle, but he had no idea what had happened since then. He couldn’t know, like Dazai did, that the king was dead. That Kyouka had become queen before morning light came to bathe the blood left around her. If the princess had come to harm…
Well. Dying at the hand of such a man might not be the worst way to go. Chuuya had been the one to find the egg; he had been the one to suggest, immediately, that it be given back to the dragon queen in the hope of putting an end to the war. Any other human would have destroyed it on sight.
If he was human at all.
They set up no watch for the night. In the unlikely event that someone had come to look for the missing bastard prince, what with the grief of losing a king and the preparation of no-doubt sumptuous funerals, Dazai would pick up their footsteps from miles away. Chuuya fell asleep curled around the deerskin bag, one hand holding it as one held a newborn. After enough time had passed for Dazai to be sure that his regular breathing was not faked, he slowly grabbed the man’s only other bag.
The Primal Stone sat in it, gleaming softly in the dark, the tempest caught within it raging as it ever would.
Though he had never seen one before, there was no doubt at all that this was an authentic stone from the old ages. Before the world was split in two, before human mages stopped draining from the six magic sources and started draining from life itself, blinded by their greed. It was not any heavier than its size indicated; indeed it seemed surprisingly light in Dazai’s palm, considering the power trapped within its depths.
Modern humans could use Primal Stones as magic sources. Theoretically. Elves had little use for them, for magic was as much part of their bodies as blood, and Dazai had seen the human court mage use this very one to draw runes and spit lightning at them, before Chuuya stole it from him. But human powers were too steeped in dark magic now for natural sources to be sufficient. The mage had left dead spiders and moths in his wake, rats even when he had become more violent.
Chuuya had drawn the rune for wind with no experience, no other source of energy, and the stone had obeyed him. He had not had to kill anything living to blow enemies out of their way multiple times. As far as Dazai knew, human mages had not been capable of such things since before dark magic was first used.
It could be that his information was wrong. None of them had known, after all, that the prince was not of the king’s blood. Contact with humanity was fraught with danger, skewed by eons of bias and hatred. What else did Xadia take for granted that humanity had proven false or outdated?
Dazai had not come to Katolis because he longed to learn about humanity. A lifetime of hostility for his mixed heritage had taught him, down to the bone, that humanity never brought anything good with it. He had come because the mission given to Ango’s squadron was to infiltrate the biggest of the human kingdoms and take the head of the man responsible for killing the dragon king. His, and his son’s, for the innocent egg they had lost in the tragedy.
He had not expected to find the prince so soon upon infiltrating the castle on his own. He had not expected that this skilled guard he was fighting would hear of his goal and immediately reveal himself for who he was.
I am prince Chuuya. You don’t need to attack anyone else.
Dazai had not planned to. Moonshadow elves did not relish in bloodshed. The two oaths bound around his wrists were only for two heads—Fukuzawa Yukichi and the prince. No amount of killing would free him from their grip as long as both still breathed. He had sworn it, they all had, upon Xadia and their hearts.
One had fallen the night before when Ango fired the blood arrow toward their homeland. Fukuzawa was no more. The other stayed around Dazai’s forearm, tightening more with each our. Already he could see his skin turning blue from lack of circulation.
He would lose this hand if he did not kill the man now sleeping next to him.
It would be so easy. With the full moon so close behind him, with the night now spread over him like the roof of his home, Chuuya would not stand a chance. Even if he did hear Dazai unsheathe his daggers to prepare to slit his throat, he would not be quick enough to parry the blow. The white band wrapped around Dazai’s wrist would turn crimson with the blood sacrificed and fall to the ground like a dead leaf. His hand would be saved.
“Give me the egg,” Dazai had ordered in the dark of the lab, unnerved by the stench of death and frightened animals, by the sight of bugs pinned to cushions like grotesque jewelry. “I’ll take it back to Xadia, and your life will be spared.”
Chuuya had been disarmed then. He had not yet taken the stone from the mage who would follow them soon after. But he had stood his ground, his hands carefully holding the egg as if scared of breaking it. “No,” he had replied, teeth bared and eyes glinting with determination. “I’ll take it to Xadia. It has to come from a human. It has to come from me.”
Dazai had only thought of the present. Chuuya had seen the egg, the promise of Xadia’s survival, and thought, I can end this war for good.
Dazai slid the primal stone back into Chuuya’s leather pouch. He lay back against the soft grass and watched the moon unblinkingly.
All his life he had thought humans to be war-mongering and lawless creatures. He had wept for the dragon king’s death as all the land had wept, feeling the ache through his bones as magic struggled to readjust. He had felt his soul cry for the loss of the dragon prince’s egg, of an innocent life torn down by greed, by violence, by inexcusable and soulless monsters.
Now a human slept by his side. A human who had taken injury to protect not only his kind, but Dazai himself, once they had stolen the egg. A human mage who did not need dark magic to make use of his powers; a human prince on the run, sleeping in the dirt, his body curved around a dragon egg as if trying to add to it another shell, another shield.
What a waste it would be to kill such a person.