Quiet reigned over the scene. A soft breeze swirled over the emerald blades of the field's vegetation, ruffling it as it did the silken hair and brightly-colored cloth of those gathered there. The noontime sun shown down on the nobles, peeking through broken clouds racing across the cerulean sky.
Eyes the color of the sea glanced about, taking in the details of the moment. Two figures stood--relaxed and poised--in the center of the loose ring of onlookers. Elegant and enigmatic, the pair of chieftains faced one another, their focus each centered upon their opponent.
Around them--near enough to observe clearly but far enough away to give them room to duel--were arranged the witnesses to the solemn event: the Kaoru prince, his twin offspring, the rose-haired maiden once more attired in her boyish clothing, the wide-eyed and pretty squire, and the verdant-maned noble whose honor was in question. More than likely there were other observers; situated as they were upon the grassy fields overlooked by the stronghold, anyone up on the ramparts of the keep or on the outskirts of the village would be privy to the encounter.
He should win, Utena reminded herself. The truth is on his side. Even so, she could feel the rapid beat of her heart, nervousness filling her, as she kept her eyes focused upon the gallant Red Tyger.
Garbed in scarlet, a shade complimenting the hue of his hair, Touga appeared as calm as always. His clothing was form-fitting--knee-high boots of black leather, hose, an overtunic of padded brocade, the design stitched in silver thread on the ruby cloth--and at a space a handspan above the neatly-trimmed ends, his long mane was gathered and tied with a red ribbon. Both attire and tie were concessions to the necessity of the moment. His longsword remained within the lacquered redwood embrace of its sheath, tucked between cloth and wide black-leather belt around his waist.
Equally poised was his opponent. Dark brown eyes staring back, his sable and silver outfit similarly well-tailored to allow for the greatest freedom of movement, Souji kept his hand at his side, waiting. Longsword still in its black-lacquered wooden sheath, it would remain there until the decisive moment, when the two of them would draw and strike as fast as possible, the first one to shed blood proving his point.
Controlling his breathing, using the familiar movements to keep himself focused, Touga continued to stare deep into his opponent's eyes. You will lose, Shadow. You are defending the wrong side of this dispute... Around them, the sunlight dimmed then brightened again as a passing cloud momentarily blocked the rays of the golden disk high above. This is bigger than you... Greater than us both...
What do you see when you look upon me, Lord Souji? Someone maliciously slandering an innocent maiden to protect a friend? Someone threatening the integrity of something you hoped to gain in my stating of the truth? Could you even see me as someone only defending what I believe to be justice?
Justice... One of the virtues of Amor... Is this then another of the trials the champion must pass? Lady Utena's quest... How silly, I had first thought--something fanciful and yet, she derives her inspiration from it. So real is it to her that it defines everything about her life. And I...
I've only played along... Used it as a path to try to win her...
But this... I'm not doing it for her, or for Saionji. This is for Justice. Virtue is what separates us from the animals; without it, there is no order, only instinct. There's already enough chaos in the world--enough selfishness, enough hatred...
And you, Lord Souji... I see it in your eyes. You fight to protect the worth of your property. That's all she is to you, isn't she? A thing by which you can amass more objects. But that's not what I want...
Around the unmoving nobles, the silence hung heavily over the scene. Utena drew in shallow breaths, feeling like even that could be enough to shatter the moment and disturb the chieftains' concentration. Neither visage--either the Red Tyger's or the Honorable Shadow's--gave away any hint at all as to what was passing through their minds as they stared down one another.
I want... Touga's blue eyes narrowed the slightest bit, his focus as sharp as the blade still housed within its delicately curved wooden scabbard. ...an equal, not an object. A partner, not an easily crushed flower I must constantly keep from harm. The light dimmed again as the shadow of a cloud scudded over the duelists standing as still as statues, brightening once more as the nimbus hurried on its way and the sun again bathed the knot of people in its golden rays. I want to be an example of the best that humankind has to offer...
Rose-tinted brown eyes slid from his own cobalt-blue gaze; a hand burst into motion to grasp an intricately-wrapped hilt. Even as Touga reacted as swiftly as lightning, a silvery power seemed to suddenly flow through him. Past, present, future... A crystalline web of possibilities... A single argent star glowing in the blackness of utter chaos, holding back the nothingness... And he knew.
Golden light flashed off metal as abruptly-bared weapons slashed through the air. Dropping his shoulder and pivoting away from that place where he'd watched his challenger focus dark brown eyes--and waiting for the very last fraction of a second in which to move--Touga expertly flicked his wrist during the well-controlled swing of his weapon. There was a slight tug, then the sensation of cool air and even colder metal against the top edge of his left shoulder--but no pain.
As suddenly as it had started, the duelists' movement stopped; both chieftains froze in place the moment they hit the end of their momentum. Souji remained in an extended position, one leg in front of the other, arms outstretched in a thrust, the top third of his longsword piercing through the scarlet and silver brocade of Touga's tunic. The Kiryuu prince as well had his legs braced apart, but his sword was pointed down, tip resting against the emerald grass of the field. Even as he watched the sly grin of triumph appear on the other's face, the expected bloom of red appeared, a striking contrast to the Nemuro chieftain's pale flesh.
“Ha,” Souji said, pulling his weapon back and out of Touga's clothing.
“Look to your face before you claim victory,” the redheaded nobleman responded.
“Hmm?” For an instant, the Honorable Shadow's visage held an expression, one of puzzlement. Reaching up with his free hand, the pink-haired man wiped the back of it against a now-stinging cheek. Feeling wetness, he lowered his hand; his eyes grew slightly wider as the crimson blood smeared there registered in his mind. Then that was gone, his face once more taking on his normally blank countenance. Looking over at Touga, he demanded, “What of my strike?”
Stillness settled over the scene once more, broken only by the slide and click of steel against wood as Touga resheathed his longsword before dropping the weapon to the ground. “Close, but not quite,” he responded, fingers reaching up to nimbly unfasten his tunic. Stripping it off as well as removing the loose-fitting, white, blouse-like undertunic, his clothing made a bright spot against the verdant grass as he bared his torso for all to see.
The rose-haired maiden could feel her cheeks taking on a heated blush as she stared wide-eyed at the Kiryuu prince's bare upper body. He was magnificent in conformation, everything in proportion and well-sculpted by years of training. Muscle rippled smoothly under light skin as he turned to show his opponent that his shoulder was unmarked; the weapon had been tilted slightly, the cutting edge angled to the point where all that had touched the Red Tyger was the flat of the blade.
For a lingering moment, Souji merely stared at the other chieftain, expressionless as always, before bowing slightly. “Well fought, Lord Touga. You are a worthy opponent.”
“As are you.” The scarlet-haired nobleman returned the gesture of respect before swooping down to retrieve both clothing and weapon.
While the Honorable Shadow slid his own longsword back into its black scabbard, the Kaoru chieftain turned a disapproving glare first at his daughter--Kozue at least had the grace to look horrified at the outcome, her face pale--then at the still-scowling Saionji prince. “Lord Touga's witness has been proven true. Therefore, I must conclude that there's been no wrongdoing on your part.” Despite his words, the tone of the grizzled warrior's voice left no doubt: the man was still in a cold rage over the entire incident and what it may do to his daughter's reputation.
A reputation already in question according to the rumors I've heard, Touga silently remarked, looking from Kozue to her father and then back. Miki, however, evoked a sense of pity; the older Kaoru twin had a stunned expression on his innocent face, as if he couldn't quite believe his sister capable of such unsavory action. The Kiryuu prince frowned then, recalling his promise to the young lord. At the moment, considering how Saionji had been treated, Touga felt angry enough to just leave all of Clan Kaoru to the wolves.
Saionji nodded at the older chieftain's words, grateful to have had the black mark against his honor cleared. Taking a moment to glare at the still-stunned Kozue--an action that made a curl of disgust and rage both sit there in the pit of his stomach like a lump of molten lead--he growled at the azure-haired princess, “I hope you find happiness in what you've wrought.” He then turned away, walking back towards the keep, every bit as determined now to just go home and lick his wounds as he had been to arrive there at the Kaoru stronghold in the first place.
“Saionji! Wait up!” the redheaded prince called out. “Let the two of us walk back with you.” Worried about his friend--after all, the entire situation was surely a blow to the green-haired lord's pride--he wanted to reassure himself that Saionji would recover. Noting that his foster brother had stopped, the Red Tyger then turned and glanced back at his feminine companion. He waited long enough for Utena to catch up, then held out a hand to her; he echoed her smile when she wrapped her fingers around his. Together, they walked across the emerald field to return to the castle in Saionji's company.
The trio remained in silence until they were halfway back to the massive gatehouse that protected the entrance to the bailey. Then the curly-maned chieftain came to a halt yet again, turning to stare back the way they had come.
Stopping as well, Touga and Utena focused their gazes in the same direction. Still there at the site of the Kiryuu prince's victory, the three Kaoru were evidentially having some sort of discussion with the Nemuro chieftain, his pale-haired squire standing off a short distance away.
“If he still wants her after all that, he deserves what he gets,” Saionji muttered.
“Certainly,” the scarlet-maned lord readily agreed. Glancing sidelong at his friend, he queried, “Saionji, were you even aware of the rumors about her?”
“Hrmph.” The scowl on his face deepening, the violet-eyed prince spun back toward the stone tower and once more covered the ground with his long-legged stride. “They were just rumors,” he finally added. Still more quiet followed; Utena carefully observed the interaction between the pair of men while Touga willingly gave his foster brother the opportunity to speak as he wished about the matter. “Sadly, I believed her when she acted as if she cared. Silly me, to think there could be something more than a marriage being purely political,” Saionji continued after another long pause.
“That kind only thinks about themselves. And marriage can be more than just politics,” the other chieftain responded, “with the right woman--if you're willing to put some work into it.”
More silence. Without even a glance around, Saionji stormed through the open gate in the middle of the fortifications overlooking the entrance to the bailey. How glad he would be to get out of this place and back home. Even as he walked among them, he could feel their eyes upon them, staring; he was well aware how swiftly news of a man's dishonor could spread among people. That Touga had proven the truth and had exonerated him meant little at the moment, since word of that had yet to be common knowledge. Once more he found himself among a crowd that looked at him with suspicion and dislike.
Strangely enough, that made the verdant-maned chieftain's thoughts turn to the golden-haired girl who was his friend's younger sister. He'd seen Nanami give plenty of others looks similar to the ones he was now receiving from the Kaoru clanmembers; though he too had borne the brunt of her annoyance on a few occasions while they were growing up, never once had she looked upon him with the dark looks the other Kiryuu folk, or even his own people once he had returned to them, had tossed his way. However, the girl was fanatically devoted to her brother. No one in the entire world could live up to the shining image of Touga Nanami kept in her heart. “Your sister would scratch my eyes out,” the Saionji prince muttered, “and she'd do worse to you if she wasn't so devoted to you in the first place.”
“She'll get over it, with the right man,” Touga pointed out. “And she's very loyal to whomever has a place in her heart, as you're well aware.”
“Whatever makes you think I could be the right man?”
“She knows you. And so do I. You're persistent when you set your mind to a goal, Saionji.”
“So I am, Touga. So I am.”
Another long halt in the conversation took place as the trio of nobles made their way through the keep's bailey. Around them, people stopped what they were doing to stare at the three of them--the dishonored Saionji prince, the bare-chested Kiryuu chieftain, and the pretty maiden clad in boy's clothing--and then whispered to one another sibilantly once the nobles had passed. Doing her best to ignore all the gawking they were getting from the Kaoru clanmembers, aware of the tenseness in Touga's gorgeous form and in his hold upon her hand, Utena swallowed nervously. She'd noticed the angry fire deep within his cobalt-hued eyes, knew what she must do next for the sake of her quest. Even so, the knowledge of what had to be done weighed heavily on her mind. “So what now, my lords?” she finally asked as they approached the stone tower that was the heart of the stronghold.
“We get out of this accursed place,” Saionji growled, answering.
“We go home and negotiate a contract,” Touga responded, glancing at his friend. “Isn't that right, Saionji?”
Utena momentarily pressed her lips together. While the verdant-maned chieftain's gruff voice sounded resigned, it was easy to tell that the other highlander was still furious over the incident involving Lady Kozue; Touga's voice held a tone that chilled her to the bone. Such anger could easily fester into something ugly. “My lord Touga,” she began, only to come to a faltering stop as she searched for just the right words.
“Aye?” he queried, blue gaze focused upon where he was walking; they were climbing the stone steps into the keep, Saionji in the lead and Utena trailing behind him, their hands no longer clasped in one another's light grip.
“There's something I must ask you to do. It will be very difficult, given the circumstances--more than likely the hardest thing I must ask of you to accomplish to prove your worth--but I must make my request simply because it is not easily achieved.”
Touga frowned, abruptly coming to a halt. Turning to face her then looking down at the masculinely-attired girl, he felt an unexpected shiver of dread as he stared into her aqua-hued eyes. Noting her deadly serious and uncertain expression, he softly asked, “What is this thing, Lady Utena?”
“You must forgive Lady Kozue.”
The redheaded prince stared down at her, thunderstruck. Forgive her? his stunned mind thought, unsure he had truly heard her correctly. “Forgive her?” he repeated aloud, the blood draining from his face.
“Aye. The heart of the champion of Love must be able to forgive the sins of others,” the rose-maned girl responded, continuing to meet his gaze.
How could she ask that of him? Was she mad? “Saionji's reputation and honor both could have been ruined forever by Lady Kozue's machinations,” the Kiryuu chieftain protested. “The friend dearest to my heart could have been utterly broken by what she did.”
Utena's cheeks flushed faintly red while she tore her sea-blue gaze away from the handsome highlander--with him half-nude like that, he was certainly a distraction, and she felt uncomfortable staring at the confused and outraged expression in his eyes. “I'm aware of her sins, Lord Touga. But you must look to your own heart. The trials must go on.” Regardless of the convenience--or the agony such a choice may evoke. I'm sorry...
Forgive her...? Turn the other cheek, acknowledging the fact that Kozue attempted to ruin his beloved foster brother yet not holding it against her? Look upon her and somehow not feel like wrapping his hands around her slender neck and slowly crushing the life from her? The scarlet-maned chieftain continued to stare down at the lovely maiden, his cobalt-blue eyes wide in shock, as he wrestled with his emotions. He had every right to hate the younger Kaoru twin for what was an unnecessarily vicious way of spurning Saionji, yet part of him realized that such a hatred ran contrary to that shining example he wished to be. Hatred drew to it pain and chaos as a lodestone drew iron; he needed only to look upon the aftermath of his clan's conflict with the Saionji for a confirmation of that.
It's appropriate to be angry, but to stay enraged would only fester like an infected wound... leaving hatred in its place, Touga thought, feeling the ice-sharp edge of his rage abate somewhat. And hatred tends to devour the heart it inhabits, leaving little room for more tender emotions...
The Kiryuu prince closed his eyes, turning his head to the right. His newfound desire to lead by example, to be all that was noble and right, struggled against the remains of his ire and his longing to see the one who had hurt Saionji suffer an equal amount. Ah, but her lies have been shown for what they truly are, and she must deal with the consequences of her actions. There is... no more need to pursue it further.
And with those thoughts, he knew he could forgive her. There was no need to hold onto the potentially poisoning fury. Taking a deep breath, he held it for a moment then slowly exhaled, letting go of the anger as he forced the air out of his lungs. It was over and done; life would go on, as it should.
Hearing the sound of his long exhale, Utena glanced back at the bare-chested highlander, then kept her fascinated gaze there as she watched the tension literally drain away from the lines of his gracefully muscular body. A nervous sense of hope quivered within her as she awaited the return of his deep azure gaze.
It never came. Footsteps sounded above, then came a voice tinged with annoyance. “Are you coming along, or are you going to stand there for eternity, Touga?” Saionji grumbled, poking his head out of the doorway into the keep.
“I'm coming,” the redheaded nobleman replied, turning away and walking up the remaining steps as his friend disappeared through the arched entryway once more.
The rose-haired girl softly sighed, her hope giving way to a sense of nervousness. Trailing along after the two chieftains, she did her best to have faith in the Kiryuu prince. He had come so far--further than any of the others that had attempted to be what she sought--but this could be the test that would break him. Somehow, he needed to have true forgiveness in his heart before he left Kaoru Keep. If he couldn't do that, then she would have to take her leave of him and begin looking elsewhere; it was a thought that made a deep sadness momentarily impose itself upon her.
It was her fervent wish that it wouldn't come to that.
All of the belongings they had taken with them had been packed away once more, secured in the saddlebags of their mounts. Most of their party was down below--the servants and men at arms, as well as the still-fuming Saionji--near the stables, holding the reins as they awaited the remaining stragglers. However, the Red Tyger paced along the hallways of the stone shell tower, his feminine companion silently following in his wake. She had disappeared for a short amount of time while Touga and his foster brother had gathered up their possessions from the guestroom and had gotten word to their warriors that they were leaving at the earliest possible convenience. That she had later reappeared with her handmaidens in tow to see how Saionji and he were faring made him think that she had left to gather up her own belongings. After dismissing Wakaba and Shiori to the stables to gather their palfreys, Utena had remained--though the scarlet-maned lord had noted that she was quieter than usual. She had, however, asked how soon were they going to be leaving; Saionji had growled that it couldn't be quick enough to suit him. Though Touga hadn't remarked, he certainly understood the other chieftain's reaction. The green-haired prince had never been one that liked to stay around a place that made him think of negative things, and this had been the most potentially embarrassing thing he'd faced in his life.
The boyishly-attired maiden had only nodded then had stood there silently as the two chieftains had finished gathering their things. While Saionji had stormed out, Touga had remained behind in the guestroom, thinking. Then he had left, Utena following a couple of paces behind.
Why did Lady Kozue do it? That was the question that weighed upon the Red Tyger's thoughts. It was startling to have witnessed the change in her, he realized now that he was over the purely emotional reaction and had begun to analyze the incident. The whole of the matter rested on her intent, and he meant to discover just what it was she had had in mind since he couldn't deduce from her actions just what she had been trying to achieve. He was certainly willing to admit that there may have been good reason to act as she had done.
Rounding a corner, he came to a halt when he saw a youthful figure approaching from the other direction. The light of the few torches illuminating the windowless corridor made azure highlights shimmer in the older Kaoru twin's short-cut hair. Catching sight of the older noble, Miki stopped as well, his gaze falling to the wooden floor and his expression becoming one of uncertainty. “I've heard that you and Lord Kyouichi are taking your leave.”
“Aye, that's true. Saionji's of a mind to get some distance between himself and this place,” Touga gently admitted.
“If I thought my apologies would do any good--”
“'Tis not your fault, Lord Miki. You are blameless.”
“Even so... I still cannot believe...” The wide-eyed youth shook his head, his voice fading away.
“Have you any idea why your sister would be so inclined to make such a scene?” Touga asked.
Another shake of his azure-haired head. “I'm mystified, actually. My twin can be quite headstrong and somewhat impulsive, but I really can't think of any reason why she would do such a thing,” Miki responded. “However, Father's furious with her--”
“Where is she?”
“In her room, my lord. She's to stay there until Father gives her permission to leave it,” the Kaoru heir responded, turning and gesturing down the hallway. “There's a guard there keeping watch over the door.”
Utena raised her eyebrows in surprise at the younger nobleman's revelation. So the princess was being punished, but for what? Under the circumstances, it could be for any number of reasons.
“Would it be possible to allow me to talk to her for a short while before I take my leave?” Touga queried.
“I don't know...” Miki answered, appearing even more uncertain. It was obvious that he didn't want the Red Tyger to leave in anger, but he also probably didn't wish to incur the wrath of his sire as well.
“She can remain in her room and I shall remain in the hallway. With Lady Utena and you watching, I'm certain nothing untoward could happen,” the Kiryuu prince said. Noting the other nobleman's hesitation, he added, “Please, Lord Miki? I just wish to discover what her motivation was.”
After a lingering pause, the blue-haired youth finally nodded. “All right. I can't see the harm in asking her that.” Turning, he started down the hallway, adding, “Follow me then, if it pleases my lord.”
Deeper into the private quarters in the center of the keep they walked, the youth leading the way. Coming to an iron-bound door before which sat a burly-looking warrior on a sturdy wooden chair, Miki focused his azure gaze on the man. “Leave us, Issei.”
“But my lord--” the brunette man began to protest, only to be halted by the upraised hand of the Kaoru heir.
“I wish to speak with my sister, in private. Should she leave her room, I'll take responsibility for it.”
Issei frowned, not liking the situation. However, he stood up when it became obvious that his lord's heir wasn't going to back down from his demand. Bowing respectfully to the young noble, the muscular warrior walked away--though only far enough to be out of earshot but not out of sight, Touga noted. The Kiryuu prince nodded slightly in satisfaction; the man took his job seriously, which was always a good quality.
Slipping a hand into a black leather pouch attached to the belt around his slim waist, Miki produced an iron key and put it into the lock on the door. Giving it a twist then pushing the oaken door open, he called out, “Kozue?”
“What is it?” came the reply; the Kaoru princess's voice sounded both subdued and suspicious. Behind the shorter lord, Touga settled into a relaxed stance, clearing away any lingering anger. To be fair to the girl, he needed to hear what answers she would give with an open mind.
“Lord Touga's here,” Miki said in answer to his sister's question. “He wants to speak with you.”
“Tell him to go away,” Kozue snapped. “I don't want to speak with anyone.”
“Please, Kozue. He just wants to know why--”
The door abruptly opened further, apparently yanked from the other side. Loosing his grip on the knob, Miki stumbled into the room a step but swiftly recovered his balance. Before him, her hand on the other side of the knob, stood his twin; though her face was cold, with an expression of pure annoyance, Utena noted that there was some evidence that the princess had been crying earlier. From what little she had observed of Kozue, it was quite likely that the other girl had only shed tears in the privacy of her room; the Lady Kozue standing there now was every bit the one that had seemed callous and in control. “Why? I'm certain you already know the reason.” Sapphire eyes glared at the elegant, redheaded noble. “So you're just wasting your time.” She started to close the door, only to have her brother remain in the way.
“Actually, my lady, I truly don't know why,” Touga admitted. “Hence my seeking you out to ask it of you.”
Kozue turned her angry gaze to her twin, her expression clearly showing her annoyance. “Miki, get out of the way,” she demanded, then glanced back at the waiting chieftain. “I did it just to spite your friend, since that's the kind of person I am. A wild beast...”
Something about her response didn't sit right. Cobalt-blue eyes narrowing slightly, Touga looked the girl over. Though she insisted that she did it out of malice, he somehow knew that it was a lie, that she was saying only what she thought he wanted to hear.
“Kozue!” Miki protested, still keeping himself against the door so that his twin couldn't shut it on them.
“Well, it's the truth. It's what everyone's saying,” the young noblewoman replied.
“Just because everyone says it doesn't mean that it is the truth,” Touga said. “Lady Kozue, truly, why did you feel the need to make such a scene? You risked much in doing so...”
The violet-blue haired princess stopped trying to shove the door shut against her brother, then slowly looked up at the Kiryuu prince. “I know what I risked,” she softly replied. “But I would do it again.”
“You know him. You grew up with him,” Kozue answered, turning loose of her hold on the door and taking a step back. “He can be... overwhelming, obsessive. It's frightening at times, even though at others, it's flattering.” She sighed, her gaze sliding to the floor as she shook her head. “And I, being a princess, am forced to be a pawn in the games of others...” She stopped, folding her arms over her chest, still staring at the floor.
“Go on,” the scarlet-haired chieftain gently prodded when she didn't continue her words on her own.
“Father's frightened. He has been ever since we began getting word that the Ohtori could be making ready for war. You know we're a clan of modest means; against the Phoenix's might, we may not be able to stand were we on our own. So he looked to form an alliance, using me as the prize.” Kozue shook her head slightly, her frustration evident.
“Father bypassed you, Lord Touga, because he fears that any alliance to you would result in our clan becoming subordinate to you,” Miki added, his own voice soft. “He thinks you are very much your father's son.”
A frown settled on Touga's face as he listened to the twins. Granted, he had spent much of his time as chieftain consolidating what he already had, so he could understand the assumptions his neighbors could have about him. Given what he knew of politics and of the people involved, he said, “Your father invited both Saionji and Lord Souji at the same time, did he not?”
“Aye,” Kozue replied. “Though he made it very clear he'd prefer Lord Souji over Lord Kyouichi because the former would be not only more powerful and wealthy, but also a coup, given how neutral the Nemuro have traditionally been. When only your friend responded, I was expected to do my best--and I did.” She shrugged helplessly, one of the few times her brother ever saw her looking so vulnerable. “He saw me as a way out, a means to getting some sort of independence from you. And that idea became almost everything to him. He talked often about how he would do this or that once we were wed and he and Father were allies, so much so that at times I was bothered by his fixation on the matter. When I hinted that Father may find what he considered a better alliance, he grew angry enough that I was scared--though I didn't let him see my fright.”
The frown on Touga's face deepened. This certainly had the ring of truth to it; he knew exactly what she meant as she talked about Saionji, for he had seen that those same traits in his friend before. “And then tonight, Lord Souji finally arrived in answer to your father's summons...”
“Aye, and I could see the way Father looked at him that he truly would rather make that alliance than the one he considered second-best.” She paused, then finally looked up at the tall, redheaded lord. “I didn't think I could just tell him that the alliance wouldn't be made after all. He wouldn't believe it, and he could cause grief to those I hold dear as he insisted on his rights. If Father manages to actually strike up a deal with Lord Souji, I feared that Lord Kyouichi wouldn't step back and gracefully admit defeat. He already acted as if he owned me...”
“And so you acted out in desperation, setting up a situation where you knew you'd be free of him no matter the cost, because he would no longer want you?” Touga asked, his expression compassionate. It made sense; given Saionji's temperament and his personality, the Kiryuu prince could easily see how Kozue could have felt trapped in a situation not of her making. Had Saionji truly had made up his mind that Kozue was his, then yes, he certainly would be nearly impossible if her father decided to give her to someone else.
“The weapons we noblewomen have are very limited, Lord Touga,” Kozue replied. “We are shuffled about as prizes, objects given to other men in return for wealth or power. It's my duty to do as my father pleases. If that means stooping to dishonorable means, well...” She shrugged, the icy facade settling over her once more. “You know that it's stated that women have no honor, though the ones that try to act in an honorable way are to be prized above others. If we should be dishonorable, then we are only being female.”
The scarlet-maned lord felt sorry for her. In that moment, he could see her truly as a person, caught in circumstances beyond her control yet struggling to do her best to meet everyone's expectations. The incident certainly achieved what she wanted--at this point in time, Saionji wanted nothing at all to do with her--but at what cost, she probably still didn't know. Touga's own accusation, the victory of the duel proving the truth of it, could jeopardize the alliance her father actually hoped to make--which more than likely explained why she was confined to her room until further notice. Her father was waiting to see what Lord Souji's reaction would be to the incident as well. “Thank you, Lady Kozue,” he gently said, nodding his head slightly. “I understand now why you did as you had.”
“Good,” she replied, her sapphire gaze turning to glare at her brother. “Now go and leave me to face the consequences.”
Touga nodded, taking a step back. “I forgive you for what you did. Perhaps I can help make Saionji understand so that he can forgive you as well.”
“I don't care whether I have his forgiveness or not,” Kozue snapped, once more grabbing hold of the oaken door. “I just want him to leave me in peace. Miki, get out of the way.”
This time the older twin did as his sister demanded, retreating beyond the swing of the door. Able to close it, Kozue did so; the oaken panel slammed shut with an ominously hollow sound. Softly sighing, Miki turned the key in the lock once again, then slipped the iron object into his belt pouch. “I'm sorry, Lord Touga--”
“No, don't apologize. She has reason to behave in such a manner, and I won't hold it against her,” the scarlet-maned chieftain replied, interrupting his youthful host.
Still standing a few steps behind the tall highland prince, Utena smiled brightly. He had done it; she sensed that with the knowledge of the why behind Lady Kozue's actions had come a true forgiveness of what she had done. Only one test remained for the dashingly handsome man, and with every challenge overcome, she had discovered a deeper liking for the Red Tyger. Turning her aquamarine gaze to the younger highlander, she watched as Miki stepped past them both and strode down the corridor.
“You must be wanting to leave now.”
“Aye, I should rejoin Saionji and travel with him. Safety in numbers after all,” Touga replied, walking along after the blue-haired noble.
“Lord Touga,” Miki began, his soft voice sounding uncertain, “I must know if I can continue to rely upon your help. With the change in situation...”
The nobleman addressed frowned thoughtfully. He needed to stand with Clan Saionji should the Ohtori come sweeping northward bent on conquest, especially after asking Saionji to do so. Yet he didn't want to take the brunt of the possible hostilities, which would be the case should Clan Kaoru fall. And what of the possible alliance between Clan Nemuro and the Kaoru? Given the possibility that Lord Souji had as squire a relative of Lord Akio, he couldn't dismiss the fact that the Nemuro may be allied to Clan Ohtori after all. However, he did find it intriguing that Miki was asking for assistance while his father was looking to make an alliance elsewhere. “You may,” Touga finally said as the trio of nobles descended a flight of stone steps leading to the next floor. “I still believe it's in my clan's best interests to support you against the Ohtori should it come to that. However, I cannot promise anything more than my own assistance. Saionji is free to do as he wishes, and he may not want to come to your aid.”
“Unfortunate, but understandable,” Miki replied, leading the way to the main entry into the shell keep. Opening the door, he stepped to one side and then turned his bright azure gaze to the Kiryuu prince. “I appreciate any effort you may render on our behalf. I just hope that we are not forced to meet one another on opposite sides of the battlefield.”
“Why do you say that?” Utena asked, startled by the youth's grave-sounding words.
“Because... I fear that the Nemuro may have some sort of alliance with the Ohtori, and should my father have his way...”
“Then the south and west could be united to make a push into the north and east, all for the greater glory of Clan Ohtori,” Touga finished, frowning.
“What truly bothers me is that Father may be exchanging phantom chains of submission for true ones,” Miki replied.
The Red Tyger nodded. Giving the youthful heir a smile, he bowed slightly. “Fare well to you, Lord Miki, and tread carefully. God willing that we shall not end up on opposite sides.”
“Fare well to you also, my lord,” the blue-haired youth said, smiling in return. He remained standing there by the door, still holding it, as Touga and Utena carefully made their way down the stone steps to the bailey down below. Near the stables, their party was mounted and waiting, the still-fuming Saionji staring at them in frustrated anticipation, anxious to get out of the stronghold's confines. Miki was still staring at them all as they rode off through the gate, a faint sense of dread filling him. God willing, he thought, turning away at last to step into the stone tower.