Enough light of the new day filtered in through the small window high up in the room to illuminate the cozy chamber. Sitting on the edge of the bed, her two ladies in waiting still gently snoozing, Utena finished tying her hair back with a ribbon of pink silk. Since she was planning on remaining in the fortified manor, there was no need to hide her lush mane under a hat. Fluffing out the wavy ponytail of soft curls, she rose and crossed over the wooden floor, pushing open the door.
On the pallet next to the arched doorway, Tatsuya remained lost in slumber as well. A gentle smile settled on her face; at least she hadn't lost both her faithful guardsmen, though the death of Ryu remained a dark spot in her mind. Her attention caught by sounds coming from the main room of the hunting lodge, the slender warrioress made her way into the hall-like chamber.
Saionji and his clansmen, along with the single remaining Kiryuu warrior, were standing together in a small knot a distance away from where Touga remained asleep near the fireplace. Catching sight of most of the men clothed and awake made her softly gasp and stand there in the archway leading to the corridor from whence she'd come. It wouldn't exactly be proper to go further without any sort of an escort. Still, seeing them up and about made her curious. “My lord, you're awake at an early hour,” she said, resting a hand against the stone of the entryway.
“Hmm?” the Verdant Gryphon responded, startled by the feminine voice. Glancing about and noticing the woman standing nearby, he grimly smiled. “Ah, 'tis you. Aye, and all the better that I'm up with the dawn. I mean to rush home as swiftly as I can.”
“Are you taking your warriors with you as escort?”
“Actually...” Saionji paused with a frown, then shook his head. “No. I'm going to travel alone. I have a feeling my men are needed here moreso than galloping through the forest with me. I'm on my own lands after all, and it would only be the ride to Pinehaven I must worry about.”
“Then what of your men?” Utena asked, gesturing toward the group of solemn-looking warriors.
“I'm sending them out to patrol the immediate area,” the gruff chieftain responded. “Even here, with the current strength of our party--including you, my lady, but with Touga wounded--we are in danger from another attempt so long as we have only these numbers. If someone should try again, you would be more vulnerable with only two men, so I'm leaving you my three as well.”
“But what of you, my lord?”
Saionji gave the pretty woman a confident smile. “As I said, these are my lands. Alone, I can travel as swiftly and by whatever route I wish, and I'm certain that there's little here that'll pose a danger to me. I'm traveling deeper into Saionji territory, and should encounter more of my clan the closer I get to Pinehaven. Of us all, you who stay here run the greater risk.”
Utena returned the other's smile, nodding slightly in acknowledgment. “Thank you, Lord Kyouichi. Fare well on your journey, then.”
“I'm certain I shall,” he responded. Clapping one of his clansmen on the shoulder, he gave them the order to leave the lodge and take up their patrol around the building. They filed out through the door opposite where the rose-haired maiden stood, closing the heavy oaken portal behind them. “Expect me back with more of my clansmen when the sun's halfway to the western horizon. I'll return as swiftly as I can,” he said to the one who had so thoroughly enchanted his foster brother. Then he was gone as well, disappearing out that same door.
A headstrong man, that one was, and good in his own right though at times his passionate nature got the best of him. Utena smiled faintly, her eyes settling to gaze at the tall form stretched out between chair and footstool. He was in the exact same place she had left him, face tilted upward toward the ceiling with his head resting against the padded back of the chair, one arm lying across his breast while the other dangled down against the side of the seat. His bare feet were propped up on a padded footstool, the long legs stretched fully out. Beyond the soles of his feet, the great fireplace gaped open, the last of the embers from the fire the night before long since cooled to ash.
More than likely he was going to be rather stiff in the joints when he awoke, she mused, silently making her way over to stand next to the chair. At some point in the night, he'd stripped off his clothing save for the now one-legged trews, leaving almost the whole of him exposed to her aquamarine gaze. She couldn't help but stare at him, his sleek, potentially deadly, masculine beauty made somehow more enticing by the innocent tone sleep gave his features. And as she stared at him, she could once again see the lad he used to be.
His hair had been shorter then--just brushing against the tops of his shoulders--but it remained the same flame-bright silk. His eyes, she knew, were still the same intense dark azure. How she ever could have forgotten was beyond her, but as she watched him in repose, she knew him.
Faint memories came to her, like shadowy dreams. She'd watched him before, sleeping like this, but she had been so much smaller then... Like a moth to a flame, the girl she had once been had been drawn to the boy he once was, knowing somehow that she had found someone to hold back the frightening darkness of reality. Other images were there, of her watching him and his friend go about their lives as best they could with a younger child trailing after them.
Lost in thought, she almost didn't see the redheaded chieftain's head turn toward her, the cobalt-blue eyes opening to stare back. “Oh!” Utena gasped, startled. “You're awake.”
A corner of his expressive mouth quirked upwards. “I've been so for a short while, but I thought it better to try to continue resting. Good morning, my lady.” However, it had been the feeling of eyes upon him that had kept him from drifting off--her eyes--and now that he was truly awake, he became aware of a rather urgent need.
“Good morning to you as well, my lord,” she responded, stepping back when the highlander groaned and sat up, dropping his feet to the floor. She continued to watch, wide-eyed, as he pushed himself up from his seat and balanced precariously on his feet, the majority of his weight supported on his uninjured leg. “Careful,” she warned as he attempted to take a hobbling step, though she couldn't help but wonder just why he was getting up in the first place.
The traumatized muscle was stiff; any movement sent pain shooting through him. Still, it can't be helped, he grimly thought as he struggled forward.
The lone remaining Kiryuu warrior yelped softly in consternation as he noticed his lord's stumbling gait. Rushing to assist in some manner, the sandy-haired clansman was halted by a gesture from Touga to stay where he was.
“Stubborn man,” Utena murmured, dashing forward while the Red Tyger continued his attempt to walk. Wrapping an arm around his slender waist, she grabbed his left hand and placed that arm across her shoulders. “You'll strain the stitching if you persist on proving to everyone how impervious you are,” she complained. Though she longed to ask him just what did he think he was doing, she thought better of the question and remained silent, waiting to see why he was so determined to walk.
Touga relaxed slightly, leaning against her to allow her to help bear his weight whenever he raised his right foot. “I need to keep the muscle somewhat mobile, my lady. It'll get better the more I walk,” he responded. Besides, I do have my pride... Glancing over at his retainer, he called out, “Michiyo, fetch me some fresh clothing from my saddlebag.” As the young warrior hastened off to do his chieftain's bidding, Touga limped the rest of the way to the garderobe with his feminine companion's assistance. Once they were there, he pulled open the door, graciously ignoring the sudden blush of embarrassment that colored Utena's face when she finally realized his motivation. “Thank you for the help, my lady. When Michiyo returns, have him toss my clothes inside.”
“As you wish,” Utena responded, meeting his gaze despite the continued heat in her cheeks. Of course he'd need to relieve himself after sleeping all night; she could hardly tell him to do so in the fireplace--or worse yet, in the chair in which he was sitting. “But I'm determined to see you stay off your feet, at least for today.”
“I shall do as you wish, within reason,” Touga replied. He smiled down at her as he slipped from her grasp. “You're going to help me back to the chair.”
“Aye,” she said, noting that the scarlet-maned chieftain was merely stating a truth they both already knew.
He disappeared behind the portal then, leaving her there to stand waiting alone with her thoughts. Her mind turning from her embarrassment, she focused on a stray memory from her childhood. Even the return of Michiyo only pulled her from her musings long enough to relay to the Kiryuu clansman his lord's message. Touga had promised her, long ago, that he would show her the stars since she was as pretty as they--and he had. He had recalled who she was even when she had not remembered him.
And he had made her another promise, one that--like the other--he would strive to keep no matter what cost now that he was a man of power. Utena frowned slightly at that thought.
When Touga emerged, he was clothed in scarlet-trimmed violet garb decorated at hem, wrists, sleeves and neck with silver-threaded knotwork embroidery. Without a word, he leaned against the side of the garderobe's entry and held out his left arm in a gesture signaling his willingness to accept her support once more.
The slender noblewoman smiled at him, noticing that he was bearing slightly more weight on his left leg, and she slipped next to him to take up once again the burden of assistance. She also noted that he had been correct; his gait was steadier and his steps more fluidly graceful on their return trip. The moment he became settled in the chair and had his bare feet propped upon the footstool, she stepped back and looked him over. “I know who you are,” she finally said.
“Mmm?” he responded. Something in the way she spoke kept Touga from pointing out the obvious--that she should know his identity after spending so many days in his company.
“You're the one...” Utena gently said, “the one that pulled me from the water, who took me to your father's home and watched over me.”
“Aye,” he softly answered. “And it was from Kiryuu Keep that your relatives took you when you were returned to them.” How he remembered that, being forced by his father to travel to one of their clan's more distant holdings without the girl in tow. He had thought she would be safe there in the keep, that she didn't need him to guard her from the world for those two days. He had been stunned to find her gone upon his arrival home; no little rose-haired moppet ran to greet him, and all his father had to say was that she was where she belonged. Even now, thinking on it, the helpless melancholy set in once more. He'd failed her then, and it had taken him a while to get over her absence--so much so that not only had Saionji been worried about him, but so had his little sister. It was about then that the golden-haired child had started keeping her brother company as much as she was allowed.
A concerned expression settled on Utena's visage as she watched his gorgeous eyes darken in sadness. Had the memory of her presence in his life become some sort of perfect fantasy, then? If so, then she feared the reality could never match. What Utena was it that he hoped for? The one his mind may have created or the woman she had truly become? “Why the sadness, my lord?”
Those orbs of deepest azure turned their gaze to her at the question. “I had promised that I would keep you safe, that you would never get hurt again if I could help it...”
“I know... And the child I was then needed a protector like that. But time has changed us both, my lord...”
“Did you ever resent me for abandoning you?”
“No, because I wasn't abandoned. You were only a boy then yourself. You had to do as the adults said, and I belonged home with my aunt and her family.” Sighing softly, she lowered herself to kneel next to the sturdy, well-padded chair. She knew what she had to do; just as she was testing him against the virtues of Amor, so she too would be asked to uphold them. She had to be honest. “I release you from your promise to me, Touga.”
He stared at her in amazement, then slowly sat up. “Why?” he managed to finally choke out, cobalt gaze still focused on her. Couldn't she see how much it had meant to him?
How uncertain of himself he looked in that moment, something she knew was a rare sight. Smiling, she reached up and lightly caressed one of his cheeks with her fingertips. “Because I don't need you like that. I've grown, and I've learned to take care of myself. I don't need a guardian deciding what's good for me and what's not. I want to take my own risks. I'm afraid...”
At the feel of her soft fingers against his face, Touga shut his eyes. Savoring the touch, he became aware of a different ache then either the one in his leg and the one in his heart. “Of what?”
“I've only been able to observe what you've become in the span of a few days, but I feel as if I've somehow always known you. You would cling to your promise should it remain there, doing all you could to carry it out, even were it against my own desires. You have the power now to keep your word, but I fear how far you would take it,” Utena answered. She let her fingers slide upward to gently stroke his mane of red hair. “I don't want a keeper. What I desire is a partner.”
“I wish for a partner as well...” Touga admitted in a voice barely heard. Then he wryly smiled. “You sound so sure, yet only days ago you had given little thought to the future of your life beyond your quest.”
“It was a mistake--an oversight--on my part,” Utena conceded, nodding in agreement. Letting his hair slide through her grasp, she lowered her hand. “But ever since you showed me my lack of foresight, I've been thinking about the matter.”
“And now you know what you want?” he softly queried.
“Aye,” she murmured, the low tone of her voice coaxing him to open his eyes. When she spoke no further, he did look at her, cobalt-blue gaze meeting her sea-blue one. “But the quest comes first, my lord,” she added by way of a reminder.
“It means so much to you then, even now?”
“I made a promise that I must keep.”
“Then I accept being released from my vow, my lady. But there's one thing I must ask, and I pray you are generous,” he said, his eyes continuing to stare into hers.
She furrowed her brows, curious as to what he would ask of her. “And what boon do you wish, Lord Touga?”
“When your quest is done and your childhood promise kept, whether I'm the champion you've sought or some other, give me the chance to get to know you better. I'd like for you to stay on as my guest at Kiryuu Keep.”
Utena frowned thoughtfully. To do so would certainly keep them in the close proximity needed for them to learn what sort of people they had become, but it would also leave her own lands in the hands of her stewards. In and of itself, that wasn't a terrible thing; her stewards ran her lands anyway, since she traveled often in the pursuit of the task given to her from the tender of the rose arbor. Though she had hoped to take up the management of her demesne once the quest was complete, her holdings wouldn't suffer by having her men watch over them for a while longer. “I... Aye, I would like to do that,” she finally answered.
Touga smiled at her. “Thank you, my lady.” Then his smile grew a bit more. “A shame we have neither goblets or wine.”
“Oh? And why's that?” the pink-haired noblewoman asked, curious once more.
“Because I'd offer a toast to the future,” the highland chieftain replied.
The young warrioress laughed softly, then switched to a related topic. “Speaking of futures, when are you going to tell your sister what's been decided?”
“Almost as soon as I see her next,” Touga answered, his smile turning wry as he imagined his sibling's reaction. “'Tis far better to get the tantrum over with as soon as possible, for the sooner she gets over it, the sooner she can be made to think more rationally. Besides, it's not fair to her to not let her know right away. After all, it is her life.”
“A shame she can't be allowed to make her own choice,” Utena said, once again thankful for the provisions in her father's will. That legal paper had long ago stated that should anything befall both of her parents, the young heiress would become the ward of her aunt; so long as her aunt made sure Utena was comfortably kept and would never be forced to marry against her wishes, that relative would be able to claim the Tenjou domain's income for her own until such time as the rose-haired girl was married.
“Lady Utena, were I to allow my sister to do as she pleases, she would try to be my wife in all the ways that were allowed for someone of her relationship,” Touga responded, shaking his head slightly. “No, that fledgling is one that must be kicked from the nest before she realizes she can fly.”
“She sounds very devoted to you.”
“Aye, and too much so for her own good,” the Red Tyger swiftly admitted. “With Father often busy in the past and now dead, my sister and I have only had one another, though I do consider Saionji family as well. She's always sought to capture my attention and dedicated herself to learning all a lady should to run a household properly so that I should never worry about that as I deal with other matters that concern the clan.”
“Don't you think that marrying her off is only going to chain her down?” Utena asked, looking at him with an expression of curiosity. “How can she fly when you decide her fate?”
“Because her desire isn't proper, nor have some of her actions been either as she's done what she could to keep for herself the role she's made. In all honesty, I'm partially to blame.” Touga frowned, reaching up to tuck a silken lock behind an ear. “Looking back on it, I must confess that my darling little sibling discovered a quest of her own. When she began, I encouraged her to continue on--after all, any lady of her position needs to learn how best to run a household. Later, when I began to see how devoted she had become, I ignored it. Her care of the household made up for any bedevilment she caused those who sparked her jealousy. I didn't want to give up the good work she did, so I looked the other way as she made sure in her way that she would always be the one closest to me.”
“And now you've changed your mind?” the slender noble queried.
“Aye, Nanami and I both must face reality--we're not children anymore. The moment I take my dynastic obligations seriously, she'll think her entire world's crumbling around her.” He frowned at the image, then added, “To continue on in this manner will only make both of us miserable. I regret having to be so tough on her, but she won't deal with this without being forced to do so. I've done what I can to make the situation the best that I can for her.”
“How do you know that it's the best, my lord?”
“Because I know my sister. Fear motivates her--fear of the unknown, of leaving all that's familiar.” That he discovered this himself only recently made him feel annoyed at himself, but Touga was willing to acknowledge that it had come from him turning a blind eye to his sister's behavior. “She feels vulnerable knowing that her life's dictated by politics. She's already stated that it would be better where she given to someone she already knows. And there's no one she knows better than Saionji, save myself.”
Utena nodded, aware of the history between those involved. “I admit that politically such an arrangement would further strengthen both clans--”
“My lady,” Touga said, cutting in, “in all honesty, the political arrangement was a secondary--though still important--consideration. My sister needs someone she knows and can trust to treat her well, someone she can grow to admire as she admires me. My foster brother needs someone who will look after his household as his clan continues to recover from the feud that decimated it. He also needs someone who can handle his passionate nature. He would overwhelm a weaker woman, and though he may enjoy having a cowering servant to wife, it wouldn't be the best thing for him. Nanami will certainly put him in his place should he act without thinking.” Touga leaned against the back of the chair, letting his mind wander over memories of the trio of nobles growing up. “There's a fondness already there. As I've mentioned before, my sibling's always tolerated my friendship with Saionji.”
“What if that's merely because she considers him a brother, just as you do?” the rose-haired maiden asked. “After all, you even convinced your father to accept Lord Kyouichi as a foster son.”
“Well...” The scarlet-maned chieftain intertwined his fingers and tapped his extended index digits against his lips for a moment. “Considering her somewhat inappropriate adoration of me, I'm sure she'll adjust well in transferring her affections to a sibling not related by blood. I see it truly depending on how well Saionji can win over her heart.”
The pretty maiden merely nodded, her eyes glancing momentarily around their surroundings. Somehow, she needed to test his ability to trust those he loved, and yet it seemed as if there was little that would shake his faith in those closest to him. That he was here, resting comfortably while Saionji was off on a dash back to Pinehaven was evidence enough that there was probably nothing that would make Touga doubt his foster brother's friendship.
No, the test would have to involve his little sister. Her childishness... “My lord, who watches over the clan when you are off on business?”
Touga raised his scarlet eyebrows in surprise, mildly wondering at her query. “I generally leave the household to Nanami's charge and rulership of the clan to Ichiro, the captain of my household guard.”
“You don't let your sister rule in your place?” Utena asked, pursing her lips in a gesture of thought.
The highland chieftain shook his head in the negative. “No. Though Father allowed her to learn something of politics and the rulership of the clan--after all, any of the blood royal may hold the coronet so long as the clan endorses the choice--she's too impulsive yet to truly handle more than just the household of my main fortress.”
The lowland noble frowned slightly. Perhaps here, then? Times at the moment were uncertain. Should Touga be sent on the quest to retrieve the magic blade and rescue the spirit of Love, he would have to leave his clan behind in capable hands. War threatened, and generally the people turned to those mandated by blood to rule over them in such circumstances. Were the Red Tyger gone, the Kiryuu would expect to turn to Lady Nanami--the captain of the guard, more than likely a member of a cadet line of once-royal blood, just wouldn't command quite the same loyalty as a member of the truly noble senior line. There was magic from the very beginning of time held in royal blood, a pact to put life and limb in jeopardy for the sake of those watched over in exchange for the bounty of the land, and only those directly descended from a prince of the land held that power. Yet Utena knew for a fact that whomever held the power of the Champion would have the forces of Light and Life there to offer protection and plenty to the people watched over by that one.
War may be possible and the clan left vulnerable, but in exchange for taking the risk and winning the challenge, Touga would gain the blessings of the best of luck, harvests yielding their fullest, the herds, flocks and people at their healthiest. Such was the promise of the power inherent within the one chosen as worthy of being the new Champion.
For her part, Lady Nanami needed to learn independence from her brother--or so it seemed to the pink-maned maiden. This would certainly give the younger Kiryuu that chance, as well as give her and her clan an opportunity to come to trust Lord Kyouichi. If Touga wasn't available for advice, then perhaps the golden-haired princess would turn to the Saionji prince since he already had experience in ruling his clan. That her redheaded companion expressed a reluctance to allow his sibling to rule gave her the test she needed. “Then, my lord, I have decided upon the final task you must perform.”
The highlander chieftain blinked, deep azure gaze settling upon her. Trust... he thought, his heart skipping a beat as he wondered what he would be asked to do to show that he trusted those close to him. Reining in his desire to ask her outright what his quest would be, Touga waited in silence for her words.
“Allow your sister to rule over the Kiryuu while you journey to seek out Love's Honor,” Utena said, slowly rising to her feet. “Tell her she must rule over the clan fully since you won't be available to advise her. Remind her that she can ask anyone else help should she be unsure how to proceed on a matter.”
The scarlet-maned lord stared up at her in astonishment. Turn the Kiryuu over fully to Nanami while he was elsewhere was reasonable enough, but for how long? What of the possible war with Ohtori? “My lady...”
“How long would I be away from my lands? Should conflict come while I'm away...”
“Are you saying that you cannot trust your own sister with the well-being of your people?” Utena gently asked.
“Not quite, my lady,” Touga responded, frowning. Well aware of the ideal to be truthful in all matters, he hesitated at actually defining his thoughts on his sibling's merits. “I can trust her to do her best. I am just not certain that her best will be good enough should we find ourselves fighting against the Ohtori. She was never expected to be Father's heir and chieftain, so she's not had the same training I have had.”
“I'm aware of that, my lord. However, she is of the blood royal. God forbid something should happen to you, but if so, your people would be facing the same situation but without you there to step in should something drastic happen,” the young noblewoman softly continued.
Touga's jaw tightened, the thin line of his lips becoming harder in tone as he thought it over. So much hung in the balance. Nanami was inexperienced, though she had been taught something of rulership. How could he be asked to stand back and watch as his people struggled on without him, especially with conflict in the air? Would it really be the best for the clan? Steepling his fingers together, he closed his eyes and rested the extended digits against his lips.
I want to be this champion, yet I fear for my people... My sister means well, but should the Ebon Phoenix strike... I trust my sister with my life, and yet I have my doubts when it comes to the lives of others...
Utena carefully watched her companion, sensing the deep hesitation within him. So he is uncertain when it comes to his sibling in this capacity... Intertwining her fingers together, she frowned at her own presumptuousness. How could she ask him to choose between this ideal and his people? Even the choice itself was against the very virtues she hoped to promote. No, it was time to trust in this candidate herself. “My lord, I beg your forgiveness. It's not proper to me to make this sound as if you must choose between your people and some quest of idealism. Please, let me explain something to you. In proving your worth, you better things for your land and your people.”
“How so?” the highlander asked, opening his eyes to look at her once more.
“The one who wins this quest would have all of Light on his side. No ill luck would hound him or those in his care, the land he rules would prosper to its fullest. Sickness would be at a minimum among his animals and his folk, and all the bad things that plague mankind would find little purchase within his holdings.” Noting that she had his full attention, Utena nodded. “You may have guessed that this quest had something to do with Faerie. It does. The Rose Arbor resides in that Other Realm, and that is where a candidate must go. The entrance to the mystic path to the Arbor is a seven-day journey from here; should all go well, you will only be away from your lands a fortnight. Should you be the one worthy, you will have all that is Seelie blessing you and yours.”
“Only a fortnight?” Touga echoed, thinking it over. Two weeks wasn't so long, all things considered. With the paths only now being open to travel, it could possibly take that long for the Ebon Phoenix to gather enough of his forces to even start a campaign. Any opening conflict would more than likely begin with the Kaoru, unless the impending alliance between the Honorable Shadow and that clan diverted the beginning of hostilities to the Saionji. Even then, it would take time to shift forces into position within the Kaoru lands--and the Red Tyger was under the impression that Lord Miki would do what he could to avoid his folk being put into such a circumstance.
Then again, it would be slightly longer than that, as the dull throbbing in his left leg reminded him. More then likely, he was looking at a number of weeks before his limb was healed enough to handle the stress of walking, let alone riding on horseback for long periods of time.
“If all goes well,” the young noblewoman replied.
“What exactly do you mean?” the elegant chieftain queried, raising his eyebrows in curiosity. There was more here to be learned, he was certain.
Utena glanced down at her still-intertwined hands. “A year ago, on my fourteenth birthday, I had a dream in which I was told the time had come to find one worthy of being Love's Champion. In that dream, I was shown where to find the way to the Rose Arbor, and it was there that I met the Fey who cared for the roses that grew there. She told me about the quest, the things that needed to be done to find a new Champion, then sent me on my way. But she also warned me that there were those out there who would do their best to see to it that a new Champion wouldn't be found. I was told to be careful, to watch my step...”
Touga inwardly froze, his startlement hidden deep beneath his outwardly relaxed and attentive exterior. Lord Akio was apparently searching for this youthful lowlander at the same time he was agitating to extend his power further north. Those who had attempted to grab Lady Utena from her mount had seemingly used magic of some sort to keep themselves hidden, both from the party they had attacked as well as, presumably, the Kaoru patrols spread throughout that clan's homeland. If this Champion gathered to him the benefits of the helpful side of Faerie, it would be reasonable to believe that someone opposed to finding a new Champion was in league with the harmful powers of the Other Side. Was that then the deciding factor for the Phoenix to make his move now, that he had dark powers at his command? “My lady, do you know of any reason why the Ohtori are looking for you?”
The slender warrioress blinked, startled by his question. Admittedly, she knew of Lord Akio and had seen him on a number of occasions in the court of her king along with others of his rank, but there were no reasons he could be searching for her of which she was aware. Other than perhaps an interest in her hand in marriage, she had to admit--the Tenjou lands were extensive and well cared for, bringing in quite the income and thus making Utena a desirable heiress. Even so, she was legally free to choose her own husband by the dictates of her father's will. The Ohtori were a clan under the auspices of the fragmented northern kingdom; as far as she knew, there were no alliances Lord Akio had with any of the nobles among the southern lands. “No... My father had no alliance with him, and there are no plans for me to wed anyone. Granted, I could be taken by force--my holdings could be prize enough for an attempt--but I can think of no legitimate reason to be sought out by Lord Akio.”
“Do you happen to hold some sort of key to the Rose Arbor in Faerie, or can just anyone find the path?” he asked, dark azure gaze staring at her intently.
“No, you can't... Aye, I have the key, or so I was told,” Utena answered, turning slightly pale.
“What's there at the Arbor?” he demanded, the hair on the back of his neck rising. If the young maiden held the key to this place of magic, it would make sense for the Ebon Phoenix, were he one determined to keep a new Champion from being discovered, to be searching for the one holding what was needed to reach that site.
“The Fey woman who tends the roses. She is the one who will determine if a candidate sent to her is worthy of being the new Champion of Love,” the lowlander noble responded.
Touga frowned, that cold feeling still clinging to him. More than likely, Ohtori wished to take the key from the young lady and make his way there to the Rose Arbor. If he were allied to Unseelie powers, then he probably could cause harm to the Fey who would be the one to choose a new Champion--and none of the mortal clans would be able to stand against the Phoenix were he to wield darkling magic against the highlanders.
A fortnight, and that would be if he were healthy. With this wound, how long could they all hold out against one that could have black magic on his side? “Lady Utena, listen to me. I have reason to believe that the men who attacked yesterday were sent by Ohtori. I was told by a reliable source that he was searching for you, and I'm certain those men were trying to abduct you, not kill you.”
“The key,” she gasped, looking worried. “Could he be someone opposed to the finding of a new Champion?”
“Aye, we should assume that. I fear for all of us. Ohtori seems to be readying to war against us while he looks for this key you hold. Would that I weren't wounded! It could be months before I'm healed enough to attempt this, even should you find me worthy to send on.”
“My lord,” the pink-haired maiden said, giving him something of a faint smile, “I have the ability to speed your healing. A gift given to me by the tender of the roses in order to help with my task, but considering you were wounded on my behalf, it seems, and leaves you and yours vulnerable, it's only right I should use it on you.” Leaning forward, she lightly placed her hands over where she knew the wrapped wound to be, being careful to not cause more pain by her touch. “I know not how swiftly you will heal once I am through, though I suspect you will grow more tired than usual while it works.”
He closed his eyes and leaned hard against the back of the chair, grimacing slightly at the twinge of pain even her light touch generated. “Any help in this would be appreciated,” Touga softly admitted, not liking at all the thought of having to send out his clansmen to die defending their land while he personally would be unable to share in their risk should they be forced to fight as summer wore on. The grimace faded to a look of mild wonder as her hands on his leg seemed to radiate a gentle heat that soothed away the ache from the wound. A sense of energy, like the radiance of the noontime sun, filled his awareness, making him tingle in a not-unpleasant sort of way, a sense that was accompanied by one of peace and well-being. That the lowlander was using magic was obvious; that the force was from the powers helpful to mortals was equally obvious.
For a long moment, all was silent between the two, the others in the large room carrying on their various conversations. At last, Utena opened her eyes and lifted her hands from her redheaded companion's leg, the tingle of the magic still noticeable to her even as she felt the warm power fade away. “I was told that this would make the course of naturally healing take less time, but I was to warn anyone I used it on that they should be certain to eat well and sleep should they become tired while the wound healed.”
Touga smiled at her, cobalt-blue eyes opening once more. The leg no longer throbbed with pain, and that alone was quite the relief. “I'll be certain to take care of myself. My thanks, Lady Utena.”
She returned his smile. “It's the least I could do.”
The golden rays of the sun, lancing through the broken cover of fluffy white clouds high above, were angled toward the east when the door to the hunting lodge was rather forcefully opened. Everyone present in the large room jumped, startled, their minds having been occupied with their various amusements. Off in a corner, Tatsuya and Wakaba had been holding a low-voiced conversation, the man at arms occasionally glancing about and the handmaiden working on some embroidery project. A discreet distance away from them, Shiori had been working on stitchery as well, the sandy-haired Michiyo hovering near her as the slender brunette had been flirting with him as she worked on her task. As for the pair of nobles, Lady Utena had found a Nine Man Morris set tucked away in one of the cupboards about the lodge and had challenged the Red Tyger to a game. Touga's hand remained poised upon one of the ruby-colored glass markers--they appeared as smooth, oval gems of a rich hue, the other markers of the lady being a deep cobalt-blue--as he turned to look at the source of the sudden disturbance.
“Lord Touga?” a voice roared out, somehow sounding rather concerned, the tone punctuated by the slamming of the solid wooden door against the wall. Seemingly filling up the portal, a shadowed figure paused there at the entry, violet eyes scanning over the room.
The sound made the redheaded chieftain suddenly grin. How amusing for his friend to be that concerned despite all the anger and jealousy that had marked their relationship since their adolescent years. “All's well with us, Saionji,” he said, swift to reassure the other lord. “There's been no signs of trouble at all here this day.”
“Good,” the verdant-maned noble responded, visibly relaxing, his expression of apprehension fading into his usual scowl. Stepping inside far enough to allow those who followed him into the comfortable setting of the hunting lodge, Saionji stopped a number of feet away from where his foster brother and the lowlander were sitting, a wooden board with concentric squares attached by lines at corners and the centers of the squares' sides etched into the varnished surface sitting between them. “I've brought enough men to secure this lodge while I lead the others back into Kaoru territory.” Before Touga could respond, Saionji then said, “And when I got to Pinehaven, I had something of a surprise there.”
“What do you mean?” the elegant lord asked, the tone of his friend's voice making Touga quite curious. Something was amiss, though not a something overly alarming.
“Where's my brother? I want to see my brother! Get your worthless hide out of my way!” demanded a somewhat shrill and feminine voice from outside. Judging from the increase in volume, the source of the voice was rapidly coming closer to the entrance into the lodge. A flurry of activity made its way through the open door, the emerald-haired man beating a hasty retreat to allow in the golden-maned girl.
“Nanami,” Touga said, his expression taking on the look of a man expecting to need quite a bit of patience in the immediate future. Across the wooden game board, Utena raised a hand to her lips and concealed an amused smile. The redheaded lord appeared to be a man getting ready to meet his own untimely demise. However, the rose-haired lady couldn't help but be surprised at the other Kiryuu's appearance.
The young noblewoman in question rushed past Saionji's tall form, her gold- and saffron-colored skirts swirling about her as she made her way quickly toward where her brother sat in the comfortably-upholstered chair. “My lord! My lord! Are you all right? They told me that you were hurt! What happened?” Nanami demanded as she crossed the floor.
“I'm fine, Nanami,” the Kiryuu prince swiftly replied, giving his sister an unconcerned smile despite his surprise at seeing her there. “I took an arrow in the leg, but it's not a serious injury. However, I need to know something. What on Earth are you doing here? Why aren't you back home at the keep?”
“An arrow?” the younger noble yelped, her dark violet gaze sweeping over her sibling's outstretched legs as if she expected to see a pool of blood showing on his trews. “Let me see, my lord.”
“I'm fine, Nanami,” Touga repeated, his voice taking on a hint of steel. “It's been looked at and taken care of well, so don't concern yourself over it. Just answer my questions, please.”
“Oh, very well,” Nanami huffed, folding her arms over her chest. “I'm here because you weren't where you said you'd be. You're supposed to be at Pinehaven,” she complained, her voice taking on an accusing tone.
“Saionji was called away for something important and I asked to accompany him,” the older Kiryuu answered. “But what were you doing at Pinehaven in the first place?”
“Well, I got the message requesting the gold, and since it seemed like an odd request and it was so much gold in the first place, I didn't feel comfortable just sending it with one of the men, and I figured that it would be much better if I were to take the gold to you since that would mean that I knew for sure that you got it like you'd asked,” Nanami replied, her youthful face still showing her concern for her sibling. “So here I was all ready to give you the coin but you were gone, and that left me just having to wait and wait and wait for you to return.”
Closing his eyes a moment, Touga held up a hand in a gesture for his sister to stop with her explanation. “What did you do with the coin, then?”
“Oh, I held onto it until Saionji came home,” Nanami began, only to have the Verdant Gryphon interrupt.
“It's safely in my treasury, Touga. I explained to your sister that you had requested it on behalf of our agreement and she turned it over to my custody before we traveled here,” Saionji said, watching the pair of Kiryuu interact.
“Good,” the Red Tyger responded, a smile curling the corner of his lips. “Then that's one obligation on its way to fulfillment.”
“Speaking of obligations,” the other highland chieftain said, “I'm taking my leave to return to the Kaoru lands. I have a full dozen of my men assigned to stay here, and your sister's escort's remaining here as well.”
“Sounds like we'll be well protected should something happen,” Touga remarked.
“Are you expecting something to happen?” Nanami asked, alarmed.
“No, no, of course not,” her brother was swift to reply. “However, we were attacked, and we don't wish to take any chances.”
“Touga, I'm going to leave now. I don't want them left to the scavengers any longer than necessary,” Saionji informed his friend, turning and walking toward the door.
“Good luck to you, Saionji,” the other lord replied, flicking his cobalt-blue gaze to the other man for a moment. Once the door shut behind the green-haired noble, Touga turned his gaze back to his sister. “Have a seat, Nanami. There's a couple of things I need to discuss with you since you've made the journey here.”
“Oh?” the golden-haired girl said, her expression turning to one of concern and curiosity both. As Nanami glanced about to search for a chair, Utena gave the other noblewoman a looking over. Touga would certainly tell her of the plans he had for his sister, but what of the challenge the lowlander had set for him? Would he address that as well? Wood scraped against wood as the younger Kiryuu spied a vacant chair and dragged it over to sit next to the side of the board between Touga and Utena. Other sounds swirled around them as a number of Saionji and Kiryuu clansmen walked into the lodge and took up positions throughout the large room, their relaxed banter a low murmur. “What do you want to discuss, my lord?” Nanami asked, appearing abruptly quite nervous.
“Your future,” the scarlet-maned chieftain replied.
Nanami blinked, then all the color drained from her face. Leaning forward, she grabbed hold of the sleeve of her brother's violet-hued tunic. “No! No, I'm not going to be married off! How could you?” she demanded.
“Nanami, please,” Touga sighed, his expression becoming strained. “You already knew that I would have to look into the matter. I told you as much during the spring celebration.”
“You also said that there'd be no more talk of the future then,” the Kiryuu princess snapped.
“I meant then. It's another day, dear sister. And I have someone in mind for you who has agreed to negotiate a contract.”
“Who?” Nanami demanded, her anger giving her face color once more. “And what are you getting in return? What trinket are you getting in exchange for my maidenhead?”
Utena blinked, startled by the younger girl's very frank and outspoken question. Quickly glancing at her redheaded companion, the lowland warrioress noted that Touga seemed to be doing his best to remain patient and in control.
“There's no excuse for such a lack of manners,” the Red Tyger softly growled, eyes narrowing in displeasure at his sibling. “Now, you will comport yourself in a seemly manner or you will be removed from my presence and I shall carry out negotiations without your input. Do I make myself clear?”
Nanami swallowed hard, suddenly intimidated by her brother's menacing presence. Lowering her dark violet gaze, she turned her head away from him. “Aye, my lord.” She'd overstepped the boundaries, and the thought of having her future decided without her say made her realize that her brother was right. Any frank disagreement should be saved for a private moment between them, not shouted out in front of company and followers alike.
Touga nodded slightly, then reached up with a hand and gently pried his sibling's fingers from his sleeve. Wrapping his fingers around his sibling's hand, he leaned back against the padded chair. “That's better. I truly want your involvement in this matter, dear sister, but I will not stop the world for you. Now, to answer your first question, the 'who' is Lord Kyouichi.”
Saionji? Nanami blinked. Lifting her head, she stared at her brother with a stunned expression on her pretty face. For once, she couldn't think of a thing to say in reply; of all the possibilities that had flashed through her mind at the thought--all of them had been horrid ones, of lecherous old lords or overly-proud younger ones--none of them had been of the emerald-haired youth that had grown up with her and her brother. But there was nothing, truly, that the Saionji could give her brother in either power or land that would compensate him for her loss, so why did her brother agree to this?
“Of all those in this world, there's none you know better than Saionji,” Touga pointed out, still holding his sibling's hand. “For the sake of himself, I've released him from vassalage. I couldn't continue with him being subordinate to me. For your sake, I offered your hand in marriage to him.”
“But you could have gotten so much in exchange for me--”
“Aye, but I want to see you happy, Nanami. You're my sister after all. And I can't think of anyone better,” the wounded chieftain replied. “Aye, he needs a lot of work. I see that; his temper still gets the better of him now, but if anyone can deal with his thoughtlessness, it's you. I have faith in you.”
The golden-haired girl blinked again, this time tears making her dark purple eyes brighter than usual. He had faith in her. He was doing his best to find something good for her because he'd rather please her than increase his wealth or power. “But is this truly the best for the clan?”
“Think about it,” Touga gently said. “The Saionji are our neighbors. We've had conflict before and a feud that made us enemies. This will unite us by blood into kin. Both clans can only grow stronger with such a union. They were decimated by the feud--I'm certain you saw the state Pinehaven is in--and they need someone of your skills to help them recover their prosperity.”
That much was true, Nanami silently agreed, nodding her head. They were in a dismal state of affairs, but looking back on it, she was certain she could straighten things out were she in charge. And her brother did have a point, that it would be good for the Kiryuu to turn once-enemies along the border into kinfolk obligated to mutually protect one another.
“And Saionji needs someone at his side that he can depend upon. I can't think of anyone better for him than you.”
“Aye, that's true, my lord,” the yellow-haired princess responded, thinking the circumstances over. “I know I can probably manage his household well through the lean times he's going through, and he is familiar to me. I just never thought of him in that manner...”
“Do you not like the idea?” Utena softly asked, her sea-blue gaze focused upon the other noblewoman.
Nanami frowned, turning to glare at the lowlander that dared stick herself into the conversation. “I didn't say that. I just never considered being given to him.”
“And now that you know you are, what do you think about it?” Touga asked.
“Well... Truthfully, I don't hate the thought,” Nanami confessed. Saionji was a known factor, a familiar presence though he had been sent away a few years ago. He was a caring man, brutally honest, easily offended. As a child, he'd been subjected to an inferior position and had countered it, turning it into something admirable and becoming the best friend of one who should have been his foe. Much of his brusqueness and negative traits could be explained from the circumstances of his childhood; deep within, Nanami knew Saionji was a good man despite outward appearances. “I suppose I couldn't do much better, though being impoverished isn't fun.”
“That would depend on what you want, dear sister. If you'd rather have riches no matter what the lord is like, I'm certain I can find something else for you,” the scarlet-maned chieftain said. “But you know as well as I that once he's won over, Saionji is the most loyal of men. And honest. You'll always know what's on his mind.”
“Aye, and that's certainly a point in his favor,” the other Kiryuu responded. “And given enough time and proper management, the poverty won't last overly long.” No, she'd rather have a man she could respect than have all the riches in the world and be taken to bed by a horrid man. And Saionji could be one to respect, though it would take effort to make him drop the worst of his mannerisms.
“I'm certain you can help him with that. So what say you? Will you accept this arrangement then?” Touga asked, watching her carefully.
Nanami stared back at him, her face slightly pale. No matter what, she would be eventually married off. That was just the way of the world. That her brother was making an attempt to arrange something to please her was a favor that he didn't have to perform. It would be either take this or reject it for something unknown. She frowned, only to let her brother know that she wasn't happy about the fact that this was how the world worked. “Aye, I'll accept it. I truly think you can't do any better, and since he's agreeable as well...”
“Thank you, dear sister,” the Red Tyger replied, lifting Nanami's hand to his lips for a respectful kiss of appreciation. He then let her go, turning his attention momentarily to his pink-haired companion. Noting that Utena was carefully scrutinizing his interaction with his sibling, he clamped down hard on the twinge of fear that lanced through him. Ever since their conversation that morning, nothing more had been said about the trial of Trust or his thoughts on turning over the Kiryuu to his sister's rulership, yet he was under the impression that he had to decide one way or another soon. Deep azure eyes staring once more at the yellow-clad princess, Touga gently sighed. “When we return to Kiryuu Keep, I'll announce your upcoming engagement to everyone. And I have another announcement I must make.”
“What do you mean?” Nanami asked, her frown deepening. Something seemed a bit amiss.
“Nanami, listen to me carefully. This is very important. I'm being asked to put my trust in you in order to prove my worth for a certain matter,” Touga began, meeting her dark violet gaze with his own. “For years, you have run my household well, and Father made certain that you knew something of rulership. I trust you with my life and with the lives of those there at Kiryuu Keep, but now...”
A sudden sense of apprehension filled the younger clanswoman. Though his words made her glow with pride, she could tell that whatever he was asked to do made him worried, and she didn't like the idea of being a disappointment to her wonderful older brother. “Please, trust me. I'll do whatever it is you need if this task is so important to you. I just agreed to marry Saionji after all.”
Touga nodded, giving his sibling a smile. “I know, and your willingness to accept the agreement makes me happy. But I need to turn over rulership of the clan to you for a short while.”
“Me? Be chieftain?” Nanami asked, astounded. Shaking her head slightly as she mentally recovered, she shrugged and returned her brother's smile. “Well, that's not so bad. If something happens, I can always ask you what to do.”
“No, I'm afraid you won't be able to do so. I'm not going to be there at the keep for you to ask,” Touga responded.
“Your brother needs to be free to claim something, and he cannot do so as long as he's tied to his lands,” Utena replied before the redheaded lord could say something in return.
“You,” Nanami growled, turning her attention to the pink-haired lady. Ever since she showed up riding in on her brother's horse, Touga had been acting strangely. “This is all your fault, isn't it? Making him look to marry me off and now you're taking him away for God knows how long...”
“That's enough, Nanami,” the Red Tyger said, voice low in warning. “I'm doing as I choose in this matter; no one's taking me anywhere. However, you must keep your energies focused on the chieftainship. Listen to me.”
Catching the tone of his voice, the younger Kiryuu glanced back at her sibling.
“There's talk of trouble. The Ohtori could be preparing to war against the highlands this summer. That's why I went with Saionji to talk to the Kaoru,” Touga said the moment he was certain he had her undivided attention.
“But, if that's the case, then how can you choose to abandon the clan to me?”
“It's not abandonment. I have reason to believe that completing this task will help us against the Ohtori. Besides, you will have all those who advise me there to ask,” the Kiryuu prince replied. “And the moment I return home, I shall retake control. I only expect to be gone perhaps a fortnight, perhaps a week more, and I cannot truly leave until after I'm healed.” Reaching out, he set a hand on his sister's shoulder. “You are of the royal blood. You have the knowledge and the tools available. And I have faith in you. I trust you to lead the clan well.” Taking his hand from her shoulder, he gently rested it over his wounded leg. “Yesterday, Saionji and I were attacked on the way here. The arrow only pierced my leg, missing the bone, but we lost four Kiryuu to the dastards. Had I taken the arrow elsewhere, you could have been permanently the chieftain.”
The blond noblewoman paled, seeing the truth in his statement. She would have been alone then, expected to lead, and he would not be there to resume command once this other task was done. As Saionji's wife, it would be assumed she would stand in for him those times business took him elsewhere. Once again, her brother was attempting to do her a favor, giving her the opportunity to improve herself before some horrid twist of fate forced her into such a role. “I understand,” she finally said, gently smiling. “I'll make you proud of me. I swear.”
The determined light in his sister's large eyes made Touga faintly smile. So she would try her best. He truly expected no less from her. Turning his cobalt-blue gaze to Utena, he asked, “When does her rulership begin?”
“Why the hell are you asking her?” Nanami demanded, her scathing glance focused on the other woman. “Since when is she the one to dictate to you what you should be doing?”
“Enough,” Touga growled again, his handsome face showing his irritation.
The lowlander looked the pair of siblings over for a moment. So he was willing to do as she asked. One step in the right direction. And the younger sibling had a point as well. “There's no need to do so until you take your leave of your folk to make your journey,” she replied.
A slight nod, and Utena watched the highland nobleman's expression relax. “Very well.” His gaze turning to his lap, he glanced down at the ring adorning the fourth digit of his hand. “When we return home and I'm healed enough to travel, then you will become chieftain of the Kiryuu for the length of time I'm gone. Again, I expect it to be no more then a month at the very outside once I leave, and I hope for it to be sooner.”
“But what happens if the Ohtori attack while you're gone?” Nanami asked, her expression worried as she gazed at her wonderful brother.
“I'm certain our people and you will handle it the best you can. However, there's no point dwelling upon it before it happens,” Touga said, his voice sounding slightly weary. Fatigue was beginning to claim him, and he idly wondered if this wasn't one of the effects of Utena's healing magic.
Nanami blinked, then looked at her sibling. How strange to see him suddenly looking so vulnerable, no longer the invincible warrior she'd come to expect. My poor brother, she thought, once more frowning.
“Ladies, please... If you could perhaps leave me to rest now?” Closing his eyes, Touga turned his head away from the two sitting near him. His leg was beginning to hurt again, and a strong sense of needing sleep was slowly robbing him of consciousness.
Concern crossed Nanami's face; her usually strong and healthy sibling now appeared tired and pale. Standing up, she gestured to the pink-haired annoyance to rise as well. “Come on. He needs to rest up in order to heal.”
Utena stood, choosing to ignore the younger Kiryuu's faintly rude tone. The Red Tyger had done as she had asked. From what she knew of him, he would strive to keep his word. Though joyful that he had done as demanded to demonstrate his trust, an odd sense of apprehension gripped her. One had passed the tasks imposed; now it would be time to prepare the way to the winning of the sword. Noting that the yellow-clad noblewoman was waiting for her to take her leave first, the slender warrioress turned away and began walking toward the room given her and her handmaidens. Let him rest for now; he was still wounded, and had been quite tolerant of her company all day long. He would need his strength that night, and she was certain his sudden fatigue now was a side-effect of her earlier healing.
Come the darkness, the path would need to be made ready as the tender of the Rose Arbor had instructed.