Kimiko and the Accidental Proposal – Forthright

Eloquence’s resolve wavered. Rumbles of rowdy good humor drifted across the ice-bitten garden, which meant Dad was busy. Too busy for a son’s petty grievances and injured pride. But he had to try, for Ever’s sake if not his own. And soon. Time was as short as the fading day. The winter solstice had slipped past, and the New Year was fast approaching. “Tonight, then,” he promised himself. “Provided they don’t crack a second cask of star wine.” He tested the air for telltale scents. Today’s guests were a blend he knew well enough—wolf, cat, fox, and dragon. A meeting of the Five. Over the past few decades, Eloquence had grown accustomed to the comings and goings of his father’s assorted friends. Few Amaranthine mingled outside their clans except to establish an enclave or cooperative, but Harmonious Starmark wasn’t one to enforce boundary lines. Dad had never liked barriers.

Giving up, Eloquence turned toward the pavilion he shared with his younger brothers and all but ran into an elder one. Sly dog. “What’s with the glare, runt?” Prospect’s perpetual grin widened. “You always used to like our little games.” “When I was a pup.” Eloquence ducked out from under his brother’s heavy arm. Quen was no longer the youngest Starmark, but that didn’t stop his three older brothers from reminding him of his place within the pack. This amounted to a whole lot of tussling and teasing, with an ego-wrecking range of embarrassing stories thrown in for good measure. “Not my fault you’re too lazy to mark corners.” Prospect mussed his hair, irreparably loosening Eloquence’s heavy, auburn braid.

“What would Uncle Laud say?” “That a downwind approach is as rude inside the den as out.” “Granted.” Prospect’s copper eyes sparkled. “But seriously, Quen. You should make some effort. I’m not the only one on the prowl.” “Journalists wouldn’t dare. Not after the last time.” “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. But speaking of pups, I’ll loan you mine.

” All this while, Prospect had been carelessly cradling a dozing newborn, his third child. Swaddled in a blanket lavishly embroidered with copper ribbon rosettes, she fit neatly in the crook of his arm. “If your bondmate put you on baby duty, who am I to interfere?” But Eloquence was already reaching for the newest member of the Starmark clan. It wasn’t little Clarion’s fault that her dad couldn’t tune his instrument with a little one hobbling his hands. “Dad asked for you?” “Yes, though his message implied popular demand.” Prospect stooped to stroke his daughter’s cheek. “Star wine tastes better with an accompaniment.” “I don’t mind.” This was both trust and a treat. “Lyric and Lavish are always so quick to carry her off, Ever and I barely get a turn.

Rise even grumbles.” “Further proof she’s my girl. We’re both in high demand.” Prospect’s gloating smile faded, and his tone took a turn toward the serious. “I heard you’re to be recognized soon. That’s good. You’ve waited long enough.” Eloquence could feel embarrassment burn into the tips of his ears. There was a reason his brothers had nicknamed him runt. On the day he was born, his mother had died.

No one would give him any details, but according to the pack’s songs and stories, Aurora Starmark had clung to life long enough to protect his passage into the world. She could no longer run with them, but her strength had not gone from the pack. Her influence lingered. Many of Quen’s sisters had her daintier chin and fine brows. And there were subtler legacies—quick wits, quiet manners, and a fondness for stringed instruments. For whatever reason, Eloquence had always been small for his age. Standing tall, he barely reached his brothers’ shoulders, but his hands and feet were large enough to suggest that he hadn’t yet reached his full growth. And so Dad kept putting off his attainment, waiting for him to grow into his paws. “I’ve been old enough for a long time now,” Eloquence said stiffly. He was nearly twice the age Valor had been when the pack recognized his next-older brother as an adult.

“Everyone knows it.” For once, Prospect didn’t tease. “You know, Anna’s the one who put her foot down.” Eloquence had no doubt that had been a lively conversation. And his step-mother’s bark was nothing compared to her bite. “I’ll be sure to thank her.” With a final brush of knuckles across his daughter’s fuzz of auburn hair, Prospect said, “I need to go.” “You know where to find us.” His brother stalled long enough to press a kiss to Clarion’s forehead. A good sign that his heart was in the right place.

But then he grinned and kissed Eloquence’s forehead as if he were a halfweaned nuzzler again. Quen felt fully justified in delivering a parting kick to Prospect’s shin. Fussing with Clarion’s blanket, he meandered slowly toward his rooms, a sway to his steps. Across the way, his brother was already tuning his instrument. Low notes quickly ascended in a glissade that led seamlessly into a sprightly tune more suited to dancing than drinking. Quen flowed through the steps of one of the walking dances that would be part of this little one’s whelping feast. Clarion opened her eyes, and he chuckled. “Do you hear your sire? He plays for you.” She squeaked and squirmed. Only then did Eloquence notice the source of her dismay, a figure standing quietly at the end of the porch.

Watching him. And probably waiting on him. With a soothing rumble, Eloquence strolled on. “Good nose, little one. You found a stranger, but he’s a friend to this pack. Trust your Uncle Quen.” Her answering gurgle put a smile on his face. And a pang in the secret places of his heart. Prospect was so lucky. At the moment, all Eloquence could claim was a vague sense of being cornered.

But he covered his surprise, tossing off a casual gesture of welcome and peace. “Good day, Spokesperson Twineshaft.” TWO The Starmark Tribute “Or good evening, if you prefer,” Eloquence continued. The deepening blue of the sky would soon be showing stars. He drew up before the spokesperson for the cat clans. “My brother may hold out hope that Clarion will inherit his talent for music, but I think she shows a tracker’s instinct.” “My apologies for disturbing your dance partner. Whatever her path, I am sure she will be a credit to her den.” Hisoka offered a finger, which Clarion promptly grasped and gummed. “I was hoping to meet you, Eloquence.

Can you spare a few minutes?” He dipped his head. It was only polite … and probably a great honor. But Quen was a little wary of Hisoka’s pleasantries. They often led to suggestions that were more like requests, which could be taken as commands, and always—always—demanded a great deal of effort to see through. Like the time the cat had suggested Harmonious learn Spanish. So of course Dad made sure the whole pack was fluent. “I wanted to personally thank you for agreeing to join the inaugural class at New Saga High School. I’ll rest much easier knowing you’re involved.” In point of fact, Eloquence hadn’t agreed; Dad had volunteered him. And if his father had been able to spare the time this evening, Quen had planned to argue his way out of the commitment.

Hisoka probably knew, or at least guessed as much. So Quen filed his grievance at the source. “I’m too old for this.” “But you look the part.” Hardly a compliment. “I’ve waited for attainment longer than anyone. That’s embarrassing enough without being pushed into a group of human children.” Bitterness sharpened his words. “They’ll assume I’m like them.” “Yes, they will.

” Hisoka’s hand settled on his shoulder. “I would have thought you’d appreciate the respite, given the usual round of social obligations triggered by a young male’s advancement.” Eloquence’s eyes stung. He couldn’t tell if the cat was being coy or if he was truly ignorant. Since all of Quen’s older sisters were bonded and building dens of their own, it was possible that Hisoka hadn’t realized he had nine older siblings. “I will be spared. I am the Starmark clan’s tribute.” “Yes.” So he did know. “Then why…?” Emotion cracked his voice in an embarrassingly adolescent manner, and his face burned.

The more he insisted he was an adult, the more childish he sounded. Hisoka eased even closer and carefully took Eloquence’s hand, the one that wasn’t supporting Clarion. “This has been an awkward season for you—not quite full-grown, yet full of years. I’m glad your father will finally acknowledge your maturity.” Eloquence nodded jerkily, but he kept his gaze fixed on his niece’s face. She’d drifted back to sleep after Hisoka reclaimed his finger. “I do believe you’ll find common ground with the humans in your class. In one year, they’ll graduate, but they don’t really know what they want, let alone how to achieve it. And they’re under a lot of pressure to make the right choice, to distinguish themselves, to succeed. Except most of them really only feel trapped and confused.

” “Are you saying that’s how I feel?” “I am saying that this is the usual state of mind for those who stand between adolescence and adulthood.” Irritation flashed so hotly, it was a good thing Eloquence was holding a baby. He forced himself to stay calm lest his spoiling mood rouse her. But even the fact that he was shorter than Hisoka was becoming a source of frustration. Why did the cat know all his sore spots? “While I want Dad’s blessing, I don’t need it to know that I left childhood behind long ago.” His chin lifted. “What is the median age of your Amaranthine volunteers?” Hisoka’s gaze never wavered. “All of our student representatives have passed but are close to the two-century mark.” “And how many have reached their attainment?” A slight hesitation, a wry smile. “Nearly all.

” “Am I your only straggler?” “Yes.” “I have three-hundred and eighty-three years,” he said wearily. “Look to my nieces and nephews for a Starmark representative. I know my place, and it is here.” “None of your packmates have the qualities I require.” And suddenly, Eloquence noticed that Hisoka wasn’t simply holding his hand, he was gently kneading his palm. A soothing gesture, to be sure, but focused on the calluses he’d developed through long years of training with Uncle Laud and with Uncle Karoo-ren. “You need a tribute?” He’d overheard snatches of concerned conversations here and there, but maybe he shouldn’t jump to conclusions. There were many tasks given to a tenth child. “Because you need someone to speak for our Kith?” Hisoka gestured to the negative.

Which really only left one sobering possibility. “You expect trouble.” “Expectation and preparation are certainly part of my job description.” His smile was bland. “Didn’t I mention how much easier I’ll rest knowing you’re at New Saga? I’m sure I did.” Eloquence mounted the steps to the pavilion that had been his home ever since Dad had given him over to Uncle Laud for training. He eased through the door. In the corner, a large dog raised his head, copper eyes catching the light. Rise’s tail thumped against tatami. Welcome back.

He grunted an acknowledgment as he toed out of his boots and wriggled free of his socks. “How’s Ever?” Peaceful. The Kith curled protectively around Quen’s greatest responsibility. Sure, Ever still spent much of his day with Mother, but he slept here. And that made this his den. Because even before Ever was weaned, Dad had settled matters. Eloquence was Ever’s big brother, babysitter, and bodyguard. They belonged to each other in much the way Eloquence belonged to Uncle Laud. A fosterling. Did he change his mind? Eloquence leaned into the big auburn dog’s flank and slid to the floor.

“It’s no use. I have to go.” Rise whined sympathetically. Stroking his baby brother’s silky hair, Quen gently tugged at a pointed puppy ear. “Wake up, little brother. I brought you a baby.” The ear flickered, and Ever’s head popped up, nose already twitching. “Clare!” “Yes, Clarion is here.” He patted a place at his side. “Uncle Prospect needs us to protect her while he plays music.

” The boy crawled closer. “Baby,” he crooned. “Ours?” “Yes, she’s our packmate.” As the boy gave her blanket an experimental poke, Quen murmured, “Gently, Ever. Mind your claws.” “I mind,” he promised. Born the same year as the Emergence, Ever Starmark was the most famous hybrid on the planet. His mother, Dad’s second bondmate, was human, and Ever’s very existence was considered proof that peace wasn’t just possible, it offered new possibilities for the human and inhuman races. Eloquence slouched into Rise and smiled at Ever’s shifting expression. He knew every quirk and dip of those auburn ears, the swirl of emotion through shining eyes, and the eager thump of his stubby tail.

If Quen was completely honest, Ever was the main reason he’d dragged his feet about enrollment. He couldn’t exactly bring a three-year-old to class. How was he supposed to explain high school to Ever? “I don’t have a choice,” he whispered. The Kith nosed the top of his head and licked his ear. I will be here. “Thanks.” Eloquence tangled his fingers in Rise’s fur. “I’ll be counting on you.” But Quen’s frown deepened. Because Hisoka’s subtle request had definitely carried the weight of a command.

And although Eloquence had never attended any kind of school, he’d known students, seen textbooks, and heard enough grievances about homework to strongly suspect that his immediate future would require large amounts of ef ort. And quite possibly danger.

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