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Title - Unintended: A Tale of Clumsy Matchmaking and the Value of Custom Boots
Rating - T/PG-13



Chapter 7 – Tavern


When Kurogane arrived at the Cat’s Eye Tavern at seven o’clock on the sixth evening of the week, he found that nobleman already seated near the back of the main room at one of the small game tables. A grin split across his face, no doubt due to the anticipation of finally beating this guy fair and square.

His opponent for the evening was dressed in clothes that were noticeably less formal than usual. He almost fit in with the rest of the commoner clientele. Almost. It was a strange reminder that the man was above him in social status. Kurogane worked in the palace, interacted with royalty every day, but he was still just a peasant. His father hadn’t had the time to earn himself a title from his work in the military, as he would have surely done had he not died at such a young age. Kurogane hadn’t really thought about it before, but the man waiting at the table for him was, by many people’s judgment, outside his acceptable social circle. But then, Kurogane had never cared much about what other people thought.

He strode over to the table, sat down, and inspected the arrangement of the black and white game pieces. The markers were just as he remembered them being at last week’s event, with the sole exception of the difference in colors.

“So, whose turn was it?” the other man said.

“Yours.”

The guy smiled and Kurogane was fairly sure the man’s eyes actually twinkled with mischief. That was when Kurogane knew he was in trouble.

“Oh, yes. That’s right. Hmmmm.” The conniving rat made a show of pretending to think about his move, but even if the pretense had fooled Kurogane, which it didn’t, he would have known it was a lie as soon as— “There.” The guy moved one of the white pieces. “I win.”

“Bastard.” Kurogane took it all in, studied the board to analyze just how he’d lost and how he’d missed that he was so very close to losing. He replayed the whole game in his head. Saw how every move led to this moment. It was as though he’d lost from the very beginning. He’d played right into Fai’s hand the whole game. “You could have told me you were so close to winning.”

“And you would have just accepted defeat?”

Kurogane ignored the question, knowing the man was right. “We’d better start a new game then. I see the pattern in your strategy now.”

Kurogane rolled his sleeves up past his elbows to help clear the playing board and sort the pieces for a new game.

Fai took the first turn, seeing as Kurogane had done so for their previous game. Kurogane was about to make his initial move when a man stepped up to their table bearing two tankards.

“I ordered you a brown ale. I wasn’t sure what you liked to drink, so I had to guess.”

Kurogane only grunted in response. He’d drink just about anything, but if it was beer they were drinking, he did prefer the more robust, slightly bitter flavor of the ales to the milder lagers.

The server looked too frail to be a bartender in a tavern; maybe he was the owner. The old man was completely bald on the top of his head and had a braid of white hair trailing down the back of his neck. It was amazing the man could see anything with the way he was constantly squinting.

The maybe-owner set the first tankard next to Fai, saying, “Here you are, my lord,” before setting the second in front of Kurogane without a word.

“Please, my name is Fai. I don’t want any special treatment.”

“But… you are nobility…are you not?”

“I never did care for my titles.”

The man ignored his wishes and bowed himself away.

“Titles? You have more than one?”

“They’re not important.”

Kurogane let it go since he tended to agree and turned his attention to developing the perfect strategy to crush his opponent.

Around the time Kurogane ordered a second drink, he caught his opponent with a somewhat peculiar look on his face.

After a few minutes, he said, “It’s your move,” since the man seemed to have forgotten.

“Hmm? Oh, yes. Of course. I’m just considering my options.”

Except Kurogane didn’t think he was. Not as it related to the game anyway. His gaze wasn’t on the board or the game pieces. Kurogane managed a few more swallows of his drink before his patience ran out.

“Is there something wrong? You’ve been distracted for the last ten minutes.”

“I suppose I am.”

“And why is that?”

“Well, I was just admiring Kuro-buff’s muscles.”

Kurogane nearly choked on his drink.

“There is a little muscle in your forearm that jumps out for attention when you reach across the board. When you lift your mug too.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“It’s this one right here, see?” The man ran the tip of his index finger in a feather light touch along Kurogane’s forearm.

He had no idea how he was supposed to react to that touch. His jaw dropped, his pulse quickened. He could feel the blood racing through the skin on his face. He refused to blush, damn it. He never blushes!

It is a strange phenomenon, the way a sight or sound, even a thought, can trigger a memory of something hitherto forgotten. And just now, such a memory popped into Kurogane’s head – a conversation he’d had with the prince months ago. Kurogane-san, how should you act in front of someone you want to like you?

Before he could wrap his mind fully around the situation, the nobleman pulled back and said. “Ah, but look how late it is. I should be going.”

“It’s not that late. We haven’t finished here.”

“Yes, but I promised Sakura-chan that I would be back before she went to sleep. We can finish the game another time, if you like.”

They arranged to meet at the same time and place the following week. It became their pattern. The thing of it was, their games never ended at a reasonable hour. If the night was still young when a game finished, it seemed a waste of the outing not to start another and the new game never could be concluded the same evening. They were obligated to meet again to finish, that was all.

It had nothing to do with the fact that there was something not unpleasant about their meetings. Kurogane was just as annoyed as ever by the man’s fake smiles, ridiculous nicknames, and his constant evasions of certain topics, but it was easy enough to talk about other matters, random happenings from the day and the like. The types of seemingly pointless trivialities Kurogane hadn’t shared with anyone since he was a child living with his parents. The type of things that didn’t appear to hold any meaning, but actually gave away some of the most significant facts about a person – their likes and dislikes, their values and temperament.

Kurogane lost the second game. And the third. But as frustrating as it was, he was glad in a way. It meant the other man wasn’t taking it easy on him and when he finally managed to win the fourth game, he knew it was because he’d truly bested the man.

They continued their meetings even after the kite flying extravaganza came and went. (The Council had managed to bring in a troupe of exhibition kite flyers to perform an aerial ballet of fluttering ribbons and colorful paper. After the show, attendees were encouraged to try their hand at controlling the flying contraptions. When Kurogane had ignored Fai’s suggestion that he fly the kite painted with the likeness of a dog in favor of one shaped like a particularly fierce looking dragon, the idiot had pretended to cry his eyes out. At least, until the pork bun dabbed the fake tears away with one of its stubby little paws and smeared the remnants onto Kurogane’s cheek. Disgusting.)

Lately, they barely got any moves in on their game on any given night. Their strategies were evolving and so was their ability to predict each other’s tactics. Each play took more thought, more time. To speed things along, they started meeting more often. It became their new pattern.

Then at some point, they stopped scheduling their games altogether – it was just something they did now. That was, until Fai didn’t show up one evening at their usual time.

Kurogane sat at their table and waited. With no one there to distract him, he was forced to overhear the town gossip, a loud mouthed man with wild eyebrows, spiked bangs, and long hair gathered at the base of his neck. It was all just more drivel from Jashar, the kingdom that would have been their neighbor were they not separated by a massive lake. The madness was spreading, murderers were running rampant across the kingdom and of course, the king was days away from death. Or so the rumors claimed.

The gossip was working himself into a frenzy trying to convince the man sitting next to him at the bar that every word was true.

“You heard the rumors about the Jashari king’s health?”

“Everyone’s heard that.”

“Right. Well, now, the next in line for the throne’s gone and run away. No one seems to know where he’s gotten himself off to.”

“And a month or two ago, you said their king was dead, but come to find out, that wasn’t true. Why put any credence in these new rumors? They’re likely just as inaccurate.”

“No! I’m telling you, this is true! I heard it straight from a mercantile sailor who just returned yesterday from a trade voyage across the Lake.”

Kurogane tried his best to ignore the chatter and checked the timepiece standing tall on the far side of the room. He’d been here nearly an hour and he hadn’t even been early. How long was he supposed to wait? Anyone else would have left by now.

He made a decision. He would wait until the full hour was up, then go and look for the man on his own. It had been months now since that awful fashion show and the nobleman’s bleak talk of being gone one day, but the memory was fresh. If he was in some kind of trouble…

That was when Fai strode in with his shoulders hunched forward and his eyes narrowed to slits.

Kurogane sprang from his seat and met Fai halfway to the entrance. “Something’s happened. Is everyone alright?”

Fai gave a dismissive sound but Kurogane was certain it was just for show.

“What do you know about the Irtat Forest?”

“It’s dangerous.” The place was overpopulated with strange beasts. They kept themselves well hidden in most situations, but he wasn’t about to recommend that anyone actually go there. That was where his father had died. “Why do you want to know?”

“You don’t need to worry about that.”

Kurogane felt his eye twitch. That was not the kind of answer he was looking for. “But I am.”

Fai seemed to brighten for a moment, then his expression shifted to something even darker than before.

“People worry about those they care for. Isn’t that what you said?”

That’s what he’d said all right. It felt like ages since they’d had that conversation in the library. He hadn’t meant it as any kind of admission of…affection or anything like that.

“I’m sorry. I can’t stay today.”

“I understand. You have more important things to deal with first. We can do this another time.”

“Yes, I suppose we could.”

Could? “Hey, remember what I told you before - nothing stupid. Think about Sakura. If nothing else, I know you care about her.”

“I should be calling you Kuro-papa.”

He must have looked confused in addition to feeling it.

“You worry like a father. Did you know that?” Fai lifted a hand and put the tips of his fingers on Kurogane’s left cheekbone.

The man’s hand was cold, but Kurogane was more focused on the painful look he was being given. Like Fai was breaking right in front of him and there wasn’t a thing he could do to help.

“I’ll try my best. I promise.” The cold fingers slipped across Kurogane’s cheek and over his jaw. The man finished his statement looking at the ground. “For everyone I care about.”

Kurogane was fairly certain he was included in that group of ‘everyone’, but couldn’t help the nagging feeling that there was somehow a lie mixed in with the promise.

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