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Less Than Three Press LLC

Heat Rating: SWEET
Word Count: 16,000
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When the emperor has his father killed, it's the breaking point for Haruo, who sets out from the island of dragon shifters where he lives in search of revenge. The tournament being held to marry off the emperor's son seems like a perfect opportunity—what better way to get close to the father than through the son, afterall.

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“I need you and Taka to stay inside tonight.”

Haruo looked to his father. “Why? What’s going on?”

“Tonight’s the night.” His father grabbed his sword and his jacket. Haruo simply stared at him. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

He did, but he hadn’t realized his father was going to attempt the assassination tonight. “I thought you were going to the temple in two weeks, when the new moon came and you’d have that cover. Why the rush?”

His father jerked the door open. He was in a hurry, and Haruo would have normally let him go without an argument, but they’d been planning this assassination for over a year—and it wasn’t supposed to happen tonight.

“The son is here early. He wasn’t supposed to be here until Friday, but I heard that he’s here now. They’ll be expecting something at his coming of age tournament in two weeks. People aren’t even supposed to know he’s home yet. Don’t question me anymore, Haruo, just stay inside. Don’t give them a reason to suspect you of anything. Not tonight. With any luck, this will all be over soon. Where’s Taka now?”

“She’s where she always is at night,” Haruo said, still trying to make sense of what his father was saying.

His father growled. “She needs to stop going to the water. The spirits aren’t getting any quieter, no matter how much she speaks with them. The only solution is to kill the family that is hurting the spirits of our lands.”

What his cousin did was the least of Haruo’s concerns right then. Taka could spend all night talking to the spirits and trying to keep them from hurting if that was what she wanted, as long as his father didn’t go to the temple tonight. “Dad, no. Let’s wait until the tournament. It’s just two weeks away. That’s two more weeks to prepare.”

He slammed the door closed and Haruo knew his father was less than pleased with him. “You don’t think I’m prepared,” he snapped.

“I want you to stick to the plan,” Haruo argued.

“The plan is, and always will be, that Shiro and his line will die by our hands. If not mine, then yours. I will take this opportunity. You should want me to go after him tonight. Is your heart not in this? Do you not care about freeing this island from their strangling hold on her power?”

Haruo jumped up from the chair he’d been reading on before his father’s sudden decision to leave. “Of course I care about the island!” He was offended that his father would even suggest that he didn’t.

“Then you should want me to go. You should believe in me, and in our mission.”

He was gone then, slamming the door in Haruo’s face, and as much as he wanted to go after his father, he knew that doing so would be a lost cause. His father was set on attempting the assassination tonight. Haruo didn’t think he had a chance, but he wanted to believe that he did. It would be his father’s fifth attempt, and he’d never come all that close. He’d never been caught either, so that was the best that Haruo hoped for.

Instead of chasing his father down and trying to make him see reason—and that he and Taka should be allowed to go with him to at least help keep watch—he went to go find his cousin. She, at least, was predictable and didn’t change her plans at the last minute and then yell at him about it.

Haruo sighed as he sat down beside the river with her. She was covered in scales, swimming just below the surface, and not paying any attention to him. Not until he dipped his hand into the water and wiggled his fingers enough to cause some splashing sounds to get her attention. Only then did she rise to the surface and blink up at him as if to ask him what he thought he was doing there interrupting her time in the river.

“We have to go back in,” he quietly explained. They couldn’t talk about why, not outside where someone could overhear them, but he hoped she understood how serious he was without him having to say more.

Fortunately Taka nodded, and as she stepped onto the rocks and came out of the river, her scales were pulled back into her skin. “I guess we need to go then.” She didn’t sound happy about it, but he could tell she wasn’t worried. Not yet anyway.

“Yes, we do.”

“Is your father making his fish stew tonight? I’m hungry.”

Haruo got up from the riverbank as well. If he could have stayed out there by the water all night, he would have. He found peace out here. “No. He’s not home right now.”

She jerked her attention over to him and Haruo nodded, confirming her suspicions. “Of all the impulsive… ridiculous… Argh!”

“We should go inside.” Haruo didn’t want to be caught by Shiro’s men, especially not when his father was out trying to kill him and his son.

Taka was thankfully quiet until they got back into the small house they shared with his father, but that was all it seemed she was able to do. Seconds after he had closed the door, she was pacing around the living room, stomping her feet as she went.

“He should have let us go with him,” she hissed.

Haruo nodded. “His chances would have been better then, but maybe he didn’t want to risk us being seen. It’s a lot easier for one person to get away than three. He would have probably been worried about us.”

She turned a hard glare on him. “You didn’t even try arguing with him, did you?”

“I did.”

“Not nearly hard enough.” She scoffed at him.

Haruo had listened to enough of that from his father, he didn’t need it from his cousin too. “I’m going to bed. He’ll be back in a few hours, like he always is.”

“You could at least pretend you want him to kill those two!” she screeched at him.

Haruo sighed. “I do want him to kill Shiro and his son. Of course I do. It’s what he’s been training for his whole life. It’s what we’ve been trained for as well. But Taka, this isn’t the first time he’s tried. At this point, all I want is for him to come home safe. I know it has to be either him or me that kills them, and if I’d had a child, they would have been trained to kill Shiro too. But I didn’t, so now it’s down to just us, and I’m tired of it. I’m tired of all of it.”

“You’ve given up. Haruo, tell me that you haven’t truly given up.”

Maybe he had. Maybe he was just tired of not having any kind of a life outside of planning the deaths of two people he didn’t know in order to free the island spirits. “I’m going to bed,” he repeated.

“I hope their screams keep you awake tonight, like they do me,” she hissed. She would have done better to slap him.

“He’ll be back in a few hours. He always is.”

Taka turned her back on him and Haruo went into his room, glad to be alone and no longer facing her anger.

When his father hadn’t returned by the next morning, he knew he’d been wrong well before news spread of his capture and upcoming execution.

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