The clouds hung darkly over the landscape, their looming black-gray forms threatening rain. Two pairs of eyes looked up--one brilliant blue, one deepest violet--and matching expressions of dismay crossed their young faces. It was springtime in the highlands, and that meant swiftly gathering and sometimes violent storms. That it had been partly sunny and warmer when they had left the clanhold didn’t mean anything. They should have kept a better watch on the weather.
“We really should head home,” the violet-eyed youth said, turning his gaze to his taller, scarlet-haired companion. “Father will—”
“I’m well aware what Father will do, Saionji,” the redheaded boy responded. A stiff gust of wind swirled through the clearing, making the silken strands of both shoulder-length manes--one wavy, forest green hair, the other straight and scarlet-red--dance in the wake of the whistling breeze. The chief of the Kiryuu Clan would be less than pleased to have his sons--one a fosterling, the other his only begotten male child--caught out away from the clanhold during what promised to be one hell of a storm. “Come on. The horses should be nearby.”
Saionji glanced around. Though the surrounding light was dimming fast, the storm cutting off what sun there was in this hour just before twilight, he could tell that their weapons practice hadn’t taken them too far from the well-worn dirt path that lead first up the ridge and then down into the glen of Clan Kiryuu. Thunder and Lightning, the two rouncies they had ridden, were tethered to trees just to the side of that earthen path. Pointing in the general direction from which he thought they had entered the clearing, the shorter of the boys asked, “That way, right, Touga?”
“I believe so,” the redheaded youth agreed. Hefting up his blunted practice sword, the long-legged boy started walking off in the indicated direction at a swift pace.
“Hey, wait up!” Saionji called out, dashing after his foster brother. Overhead, a bright flash of blue-white light illuminated the forested hillside, a loud rolling peal of thunder echoing over the glens almost right afterwards.
If Touga heard the other boy’s shout, he gave no indication as he half-strode, half-trotted into the thick underbrush that separated clearing from trail. Emerging out of the lush greenery, he scanned over the area with his brilliant azure gaze, his eyes still adjusting to the sudden change in illumination. Though he was looking for the two rouncies, he thought he saw the flash of something down the trail a ways, at a place where he knew it curved alongside a short dropoff to a lake below. If the horses had pulled their reins loose somehow and were dashing down toward the lake, he and his foster brother would be in even more trouble. Muttering something under his breath, the tall boy erupted into a sprint, his mane of thick red hair rippling in the wake of his passage.
“Touga! What are you doing?” Saionji shouted as he ran after his foster brother.
Another branch scratched her face, but she didn’t care. How long she’d run into the forest didn’t matter either. All that mattered was somehow getting away from the horrible, aching hollowness she felt inside. Stumbling forward, her little body continuing to be wracked by her sobs and gasps for breath, she barely felt the twinge as a number of strands of her fine, rose-colored hair were pulled from her head by the cruel grasp of a bush.
They were gone. Never again would she see either one of them. The finality of that had at last dawned on her, shaking her entire world. Mother and father both were no more, leaving her essentially alone in the world. How could they have left her like this, all alone in a strange land? They had said that they had loved her, that they would always be there to take care of her. And now they were gone.
Lightning flashed; thunder rumbled loud and long. Startled, the little girl looked up, noticing the lowering storm for the first time. Not that it mattered. Nothing really mattered anymore. Pushing on ahead, she did her best to not think about the gathering storm or the swiftly approaching night. The forest was a dangerous place, true enough, but she missed them so much, she didn’t mind the thought of dying. A moment of fear and pain, and then she’d never be alone again. New tears making her large blue eyes shimmer, she sobbed again and broke into a shambling run.
The ground suddenly gave out from under her; with a sudden thrill of pure terror, she felt the dirt crumbling under the soles of her leather shoes. A shrill little scream sounded from her as she abruptly felt herself falling. Then that was cut short as her young body hit the surface of the cold water, the splash tossing silvery drops onto the wind-tossed lake.
“Did you hear that?” Touga shouted as he ran toward the place where the dirt trail skirted along the steep hillside to the lake below. Another brilliant flash of lightning momentarily blinded him, causing him to come to a sudden stop. He was too near the edge to safely continue without being able to see.
“Hear what?” Saionji yelled back, violet eyes blinking with the afterimage of the lightning. Managing to notice that his foster brother had come to a halt, he dug his feet into the ground to brake his own forward momentum just as another loud peal of thunder rattled their location. And with that came the promised rain, the heavens opening up with a sudden deluge.
The redheaded boy frowned, certain he had heard someone cry out in fear. His eyes adjusted again to the rapidly darkening light, he scanned along the edge of the road as best he could through the driving rain. Something caught his eye and he moved forward, gasping softly as he realized what it was he was seeing. The ground had given way here at the edge, the weight of something causing it to crumble. Even as he watched, the pounding rain was making more of the dirt disappear, washing it away to the lake waiting down below.
“What did you hear?” the green-haired youth asked again, loping up toward the other boy.
Turning swiftly, Touga hissed at his foster brother, “Careful! The edge is washing out! Don’t get too close!”
“Sorry...” Saionji muttered, scowling a bit. One glance over at the area indicated by the other boy and he was instantly contrite. Touga was right; the ground there was obviously dangerous.
Azure eyes focused on the treacherous earth, Touga inched his way closer to the edge. He couldn’t get rid of the feeling that he had heard someone scream. The rain plastered his hair to his head, and ran in thin rivulets down his neck and under his tunic.
“Touga! Don’t!” the other boy called out, realizing the redhead’s intent. If anything should happen to the heir to the clan, Saionji was sure that he’d be throttled by the Kiryuu for not discouraging his foster brother from doing something stupid.
“I have to see, Saionji,” Touga responded, making his way forward another step. Another look to the place where the ground was washing out reassured him that he wasn’t in any immediate danger. Inwardly nodding in satisfaction, the boy turned his gaze to the churning surface of the water below. Hissing softly, the youth turned and braced himself. He didn’t care if it was rash or foolish. In fact, he gave his choice little thought at all.
Violet eyes widening in horror, Saionji watched as the other boy deliberately dived off the thirty-foot high elevation. “Touga!” he shouted, all to no avail. The tall, redheaded form disappeared from sight; only the sound of the pounding rain and another roll of thunder answered the green-haired youth’s shout.
Arms flailing, legs kicking, the little girl fought against the chilly embrace of the wind-swept liquid. Even so, she could feel it making her clothes heavier, weighing her down. Each movement of her limbs became progressively weaker as fatigue set in. She could feel the rain beating down on her head along with the frantic splashing her own efforts to keep herself above the surface, the hissing sound punctuating the noise her flailing was producing.
Why am I fighting this so? she suddenly thought. If I give up, I can be with Mommy and Daddy again. Going on living without them makes me sick... So tired now anyway... Closing her eyes, she stopped her struggling. An unnatural calmness filled her as she felt herself slip under the surface into the icy embrace of the lake.
Oh god, Father’s going to kill me! Saionji frantically thought, violet eyes huge in fear. Standing as near to the edge as he dared, the heavens continuing to deluge him, his green hair dripping wet and plastered to his head, the youth stared down the steep embankment and searched for any sign of the other boy. Ever since he had become aware of the fact that he was not a Kiryuu, he had had the dubious knowledge that his life would be forfeit if ever a member of his blood clan broke the truce imposed upon them by their loss to Clan Kiryuu of the blood feud between them. Originally brought to the Kuryuu clanhold as a hostage--the fact that he was called by his clan name and not by his given name was a taunt, at least in the beginning, of the fact that he would one day be the Saionji and leader of a conquered clan--it had been Touga’s idea to claim him as a foster brother instead. So true had their friendship been that the Kiryuu, Touga’s father, had reluctantly made Saionji’s de facto foster status legitimate, but never once did the verdant-maned boy forget that his blood would spill should anyone from Clan Saionji cross the will of the Kiryuu.
No doubt that the Kiryuu would probably lop off his head in a fit of rage should he come home with Touga either missing or drowned. There was still no sign in the rain-spattered lake of the scarlet-haired heir to the most powerful clan in the immediate area.
Groaning, Saionji tore his violet gaze from the wind-tossed surface of the water below and scanned down the rain-slicked dirt trail. From what he recalled, the road continued down the ridge to the valley in which the lake resided. Breaking out into a sprint, the boy headed down the road, careful to stay away from the edge overlooking the lake. Maybe Touga had already made it to shore and was even now waiting for his foster brother at the foot of the cliff-like embankment? Clinging to that ray of hope, the youth ran onward.
Where am I? Am I in heaven?
Huge blue eyes looked around, an expression that was as much bewilderment as fright on the little girl’s cherubic face. Stray wisps of her rose-colored hair floated around her as she turned a slow circle, not recognizing anything at all. There was no impression of surroundings of any sort, just a mysterious grayness that loomed around her. “Mommy? Daddy? Are you here?”
Nothing answered her; a profound silence was all of which she was aware. Being as brave as possible and holding back a whimper of terror, the little girl started walking forward in that featureless place, bright blue gaze darting around for any sign of where she could be. “Mommy! Daddy!”
Up ahead, she suddenly thought she could see something, a brilliant whiteness in that unrelenting gray. Tiny feet picking up their pace, the girl ran forward, wanting to see what that brilliance could be. It wasn’t until she was almost next to it that she realized what it was she was staring at, and she came to a halt with a gasp.
The whiteness was a bier, a three-foot high rectangle of silvery-gray veined white marble, the corners and edges of each side decorated with a carving in high relief of intricately entwined rose canes, the sculpted stone roses looking to have delicate, almost translucent, petals. On top of the stand lay the unmoving form of a man, his tall, lean, perfectly proportioned body clad in princely clothes of gold- and ruby-adorned white. Though his hands were arranged resting one upon another atop his still chest, the corner of his scarlet-lined white half-cape hung down over the side of the bier, a splash of brilliant red against the snowy whiteness of his clothing and the stone upon which he rested.
Her breath catching in her throat, the rose-haired girl made her way carefully up to stand next to where the man’s head rested against the cold stone. He was absolutely beautiful, much as angels were wont to be, his face--so still and peaceful in death--as perfect as the rest of him. Silvery hair the palest shade of lavender framed that gorgeous visage, the strands cut short and feathered along the sides of his head, the whole only descending as far as the nape of his neck. On his right shoulder, an ornate brooch of gold and rubies fastened his white half-cape to his equally snowy tunic. Though he looked like he was sleeping, the little girl somehow knew he was actually dead; her own existence touched so recently by that specter made her somewhat familiar with the manifestations of the absence of life.
Who is he? she wondered, part of her drawn toward such a beautiful sight and another part of her repelled by the presence of death. Sadness and pity both filled her little heart as she became aware of death’s universal claim; even the angels were susceptible to being cut down by that eternal blade.
A sound caught her attention, something that seemed to be a faint moan of pain. Her melancholy visage turning to one of puzzlement, the girl looked about herself for the source of the noise. Further on, another spot of illumination caught her eye, one that she was sure wasn’t there a moment ago. Again determined to be brave, the child walked past the fallen angel, toward the light.
The light was ruddy, the color of blood and danger. Blue eyes huge, the girl made her way toward the red radiance. Within the pool of color she could see steps leading up to a silhouetted form that twitched and writhed in agony. Peering into the light at the figure, it took her long moments before she realized what it was she was seeing. All she could do was stand and stare in horrified dread.
Roses. Glimmering petals of what looked to be silver and gold adorned what appeared to be sinister, vine-like canes, their thorns as large and sharp as small daggers. The formidable plants were entwined around the writhing, softly moaning form, every tiny movement embedding the points of those canes deeper into flayed and bleeding flesh. Blood, sweat and tears mixed together into a pitiful liquid that shimmered like dew on the deceptively beautiful blooms. The girl being so horribly tortured was every bit as beautiful as the dead man behind on the white marble bier, her long deep violet hair curling around her otherwise nude form and entwined within the cruel vines, her large emerald eyes glazed over in agony.
The rose-haired child gasped, small hands coming up to cover her mouth. Who is she? the girl wondered, unable to comprehend why anyone would deserve such terrible treatment.
“She is Love,” answered a soft voice.
Jumping in startlement, her voice giving off a faint squeak of surprise, the blue- and white-dressed little girl whirled around, searching for the source of the words. “Love?” she repeated, her own voice sounding tiny and quavering.
“Yes, the spirit of Love,” responded the disembodied voice. It sounded melodious, like that of a youthful man. “The hatred of the world binds her, the poison of the thorns make her agony that much more.”
“What—what happened to her?” the girl asked, still looking around.
“Her champion is no more, and without his protection, the hatred of the world caught her in its grasp.”
“The one who lies in eternal sleep was the one sworn to protect her, to keep her light of hope from fading in the world,” the bodiless voice replied, seemingly coming from everywhere at once. “But he grew ill with the effort. She so loved him that she sacrificed herself to save him, but she lost him anyway as hatred destroyed him. All she has left is her suffering.”
Turning to stare up at the writhing girl in the middle of her deceptively beautiful prison, the little girl’s lower lip quivered as tears puddled up in her large azure eyes. “Too cruel,” she sobbed, seeing an aching and a suffering far worse than her own. “Why should she be hurt when she tried to save her champion?”
“It wasn’t her place. In trying to take up his burden, she neglected her own, little one,” came the answer from the gentle voice. “She no longer trusted him, which made him vulnerable to the wiles of hatred. He was destroyed, and that left her defenseless. Hatred has her in its grasp, trying now to extinguish the light of Love from the world.”
“Too cruel!” the child insisted, suddenly running toward the four-stepped dais over which the dreadful vision of the rose-entwined girl hovered. Tears streaming down her cherubic face, she dashed up the stairs--only to find herself suddenly flying backwards as her little body was stopped by an invisible but immovable force. Stunned, she laid there a moment, her only thought focused on finding some way of rescuing Love from her horrid imprisonment.
“Only Love’s Honor can free her.”
Sniffling, the little girl lifted up her rose-colored head. Love’s Honor? she wondered, looking around.
The sudden flash of a ruby glimmer caught her attention and held it. Hastily wiping her eyes, the child slowly got to her leather-shoed feet, the red glitter beckoning her onward. Retracing her steps, her reddened eyes widened as she saw what was making the shimmering dance of scarlet light.
She stood now on the other side of the bier, once again looking upon the dead form of the angelic man who had once been Love’s champion. Lying alongside his white-clad body was the most gorgeous sword she had ever seen. The long blade gleamed like the brightest of silver, the dual edges appearing razor sharp and deadly. The ornate golden hilt was decorated with numerous tiny rubies that glittered with a brilliant fire, the pommelstone being a large ruby cut into a perfectly smooth sphere and trapped within a golden cage at the apex of the hilt. The crosspieces were carved on either side with the image of two rings linked into the symbol for eternity, while on each end of the quillions was embedded into the gold an impressive ruby formed into the shape of a heart. The sword as a whole faintly glimmered with a quiescent power that the little girl could almost see and feel. Without the voice replying, she somehow knew that the sword was called Love’s Honor, and that that blade was what the voice meant when it said that Love’s Honor could free the suffering spirit.
An abrupt flare of hope filled her. Maybe that’s why she was here, to take up the sword and save the agonized girl. Her expression suddenly determined, the rose-haired child grabbed at the hilt of the glimmering weapon. Once again she met with an unseen and unforgiving force, the resulting shock flinging her little body to the ground and making her hand sting. No! It wasn’t fair!
“Little one, so noble of heart, the sword was not meant for you,” the disembodied voice gravely stated.
“Then who gets it? Who can help her?” the girl sobbed, once again dissolving into tears at the cruelty of it all.
“A new champion must be found, a man worthy to wield the blade. Only then can Love be saved.”
“I’ll become worthy and save her myself!”
“Even if you keep that noble heart, you will one day soon become a lady. The sword was not meant for girl nor woman, and to try to wield it would only compound Love’s original mistake.”
The child quieted her crying into soft sniffles, almost instantly contrite. She wanted to save the other girl, not make things worse. “Then I’ll find someone worthy of the sword. I’ll see to it that Love is saved.”
“Such a gentle and caring child,” murmured the soft voice.
“Should you retain your kind and noble heart, you may indeed find the one worthy to be the new champion, though I fear you will forget all about this place.”
“I won’t forget! I’ll find the one to save her!” the little girl insisted.
There was a long pause, the very atmosphere in that gray and featureless twilight giving her the impression that something was being thought over and decided. Then the quiet voice from seemingly everywhere at once spoke again. “Look to the fallen champion. Do you see the brooch he wears?”
Big blue eyes looked over the still form of the angelic man, focusing on the gold and ruby-adorned piece of jewelry that fastened the half-cape together. “Yes,” she replied, her gaze lingering over the intricate knotwork around the four heart shaped rubies set into the golden surface in a cross, their pointed bases all touching in the center of the design.
“Take the brooch as a memento of this time and place. Should you remain as noble and kind a lady as you are now as a girl, then it will surely lead you back to this place. If you can return here, then by letting your heart be your guide, you shall find the one that can free Love from her unending torment.”
Swallowing hard in nervousness, tiny fingers reached up and carefully worked the brooch’s fastening loose from the dead man’s clothing. Tugging it from the snowy-white cloth, the rose-haired girl gently cradled the beautiful piece of jewelry in her hands.
Now she had something for which to live, a reason to continue her existence.
No longer would she meekly surrender to death.
Her hands tightening around the golden brooch, she turned and looked back at the weakly struggling form bound tightly by the horrid roses. Pain-filled and clouded eyes of purest emerald gazed back at her, and in that brief moment, the little girl understood what true, never-ending suffering could actually be.
“Touga!” the verdant-haired youth called out yet again, the sound of the pouring rain hissing through the lush forest foliage and dimpling the surface of the wind-rippled lake. His clothes soaking wet, a side of his trousers smeared with mud from a slip and fall while he had been making his way back to the bottom of the cliff from where his foster brother had dived, Saionji made for a rather pitiful sight as he fervently searched for any sign of the other boy. Thunder, distant now, rumbled across the valley, and he was finding that the rapidly approaching night was making it hard to make out what was what in the deepening gloom of the downpour. Oh god, what if I can’t find him? What if he’s dead?
A sound caught his attention, one that was out of place from the music of the surrounding storm. Breaking out into another sprint, occasionally slipping on the treacherously thin sliver of ground between the base of the cliffside and the edge of the large body of water, Saionji scrambled as swiftly as he dared toward the place where he was sure that sound had come.
Splashing, more coughing, sounds of what could only be retching and desperate gasps for air. Heartened by the noise, the green-haired youth redoubled his efforts, only to damned near trip over the bodies when he did finally discover them. Hidden partially by a thick bush that filled up the space between cliff and shore, only a faint flash of deepest scarlet in the dim light and the continued noise alerted Saionji to his foster brother’s presence there. Coming to an abrupt halt, the shorter boy cried out, “Are you okay?”
Only more coughing, followed by violent retching, answered the youth’s question. Peering into the rain-soaked dim light, Saionji could see that Touga was lying on his side, body gasping for breath. The sounds were coming from a huddled little form lying just in front of the Kiryuu heir. Violet eyes wide, Saionji just stood there, trying to make sense of the scene.
“Is... she okay?” the scarlet-haired youth finally managed to say when he had caught his breath. Considering that the little form was continuing to violently expel water from her lungs, he thought that was a good sign for her eventual recovery.
“I’m not sure,” Saionji helplessly replied.
Groaning, Touga pulled himself up into a sitting position, opening his eyes and leaning forward to take a look at the child he had dragged from the water. She was a little thing, clad in plain brown leather shoes, a blue overtunic showing glimpses of a white chemise underneath. Though the clothing was waterlogged and more than likely utterly ruined, he got the sense that they had once been an outfit of a modest value. Hearing her breathing beginning to stabilize, he reached forward and carefully rolled the child onto her back.
From what he could see in the growing twilight, the girl was a pretty one; her fine mane of hair lay water-slicked against a charming and noble face.
“Who is she?” Saionji asked, a worried frown settling on his handsome visage. He was sure he’d never seen this little girl before in his life.
“I have no idea,” Touga finally responded, the fingers of a hand brushing a few wet strands from her face. Shifting himself into a kneeling position there in the mud, he carefully slid his arms under the child’s body and pulled her into a cradling embrace against his chest. “But we can’t just leave her out here in this storm.” Hauling himself up into a wide-braced stance, the scarlet-haired boy looked over at his foster brother. “Lead the way back to the trail, Saionji. We really need to get home before the clan comes looking for us.”
Stiffly nodding, the shorter youth turned and began to carefully pick his way back along the slippery ground, the deepening darkness making it hard to see. Since they hadn’t expected to be out past dark, neither one of them had brought with them anything with which to light a torch; besides, the storm had swiftly soaked everything, so had they had fire-making tools, there was nothing available with which to make a torch of any sort.
“Slowly, Saionji,” Touga reminded the other. “It’s getting very hard to see.”
The sensation of strong arms holding her and of being lifted up in the air roused the little girl. Opening large azure eyes, it took her a moment to realize that she could hear and see. The soft hiss of rain, the low voices of what sounded like two boys, an angel-like face framed by soaking wet dark hair… Without knowing why, she felt safe in those arms. Relaxing slightly, she became aware of an ache in her right hand; she knew she held something important, something she should never lose. Closing her eyes again in utter exhaustion, the little girl snuggled against the warmth of the one carrying her as best she could.
Into the darkness the little progression continued, Saionji slipping and sliding his way forward, muttering a curse here and there as he stumbled along back the way he thought he’d come and Touga striding along behind, carefully testing each step before pulling his weight on it, his arms full of tired little girl. When the cliffside began to change into a steep hill, the green-haired youth actually smiled. They were almost back to the now-muddy trail that led up and over the ridge that encircled the glen of Clan Kiryuu.
Voices shouting their names and torchlight in the distance greeted the two boys as they staggered up along the road. Once voice in particular thundered out, making the two groan softly in apprehension. Steeling his nerves, Touga called out in reply, “Down here!”
The sound of hooves came closer; torchlight and the relieved men of Clan Kiryuu swiftly surrounded them. Any tongue-lashing the Kiryuu may have had for his sons died unspoken as his violet-blue eyes looked down on the sorry sight of the water-soaked boys, the small form of a much younger child in his redheaded son’s arms.
“She fell into the lake, Father,” Touga softly explained. “I couldn’t just let her drown...”
A stern frown on his handsome face, the imposing redheaded man merely nodded at his son’s words. “Mount up and let’s go home,” the Kiryuu ordered. A gesture to the surrounding men, and a young warrior with dark brown hair and eyes equally dark brown came forward, Thunder and Lightning trailing after him by their bridles.
With a cursory nod, Saionji swiftly made his way over to the all-black Highland pony that was his rouncy. Putting a foot in the stirrup, the green-haired youth lifted himself up into the saddle atop Thunder and then took the reins from the Kiryuu warrior.
Touga walked up to where his father sat astride his impressive chestnut-colored stallion, not meeting the other’s disapproving stare. “Could you please hold her?” he softly asked. “I’d like to carry her home,” he added, once more looking down at the apparently dozing child. Something about her, some indefinable quality, made him want to keep her close and forever protect her from the dangers of the world.
The only answer he got was feeling his waterlogged burden be taken from him. Stepping back from his father, the scarlet-haired boy strode over to where the Kiryuu warrior continued to hold the snow-white Highland pony by the reins. Gracefully mounting the rouncy, Touga took control of the reins and urged Lightning into a walk, only stopping when he was once more next to the leader of Clan Kiryuu. For a long moment, he wondered if his father wouldn’t honor his request; violet-blue eyes stared down at him with a mixture of emotions Touga couldn’t read. At last, however, the tall redheaded man lifted up the little form of the girl toward his son.
Lashing the reins around the horn of the leather saddle, Touga carefully balanced himself and once more pulled the girl into his arms. Getting her settled comfortably across his thighs and in his embrace, Touga looked down at her again. In the torchlight, he could see that her cherubic visage held the hint of a promise of future beauty and that her fine mane of hair was rose pink in color, judging by the few wisps that had dried and were floating about her face.
The jostling around disturbed the child’s uneasy slumber. Opening her eyes again, she caught a glimpse again of that handsome face surrounded by dark red hair, this time clearer now in the dancing orange-tinged illumination of firelight. Seeing that she was being held by the same youth as before, the girl faintly smiled and let herself drift off to sleep again. There was something about him that let her know beyond all doubts that he would keep her safe.
Around him, the Kiryuu and his men turned their horses around and began riding back up along the rain-washed trail. Knowing that Lightning would follow their lead, Touga kept his arms around the girl and his eyes on her. He’d noticed her eyes the moment she opened them, their brilliant blue color truly startling; he let out the breath he didn’t realize he was holding once she snuggled closer to his warmth and closed those azure orbs once again. Overcome by curiosity--her hair looked amazingly fine and soft to the touch--he shifted his hold on her and gently ran a hand through her still-wet hair. Despite it being soaked, it still felt like the finest of silks as it slipped between his fingers; the tactile sensation only added to the child’s appeal. All of his protective instincts aroused at the sight of her--so pretty and trusting, sleeping peacefully in his arms--Touga silently swore that he would be her protector for as long as she stayed among Clan Kiryuu.