Love's Honor

Chapter Twelve

Late afternoon turned to evening, the golden rays of the sun giving way to the star-adorned mantle of the night. Lord Touga remained in the chair near the fireplace, sleeping deeply as those around him continued on with life. Lady Utena and her retinue amused themselves by playing the board game discovered earlier by the pink-haired maiden; Lady Nanami hovered protectively near her somnolent brother, keeping vigilant watch over him and his surroundings; and even the call to supper as the darkness deepened didn't cause the Kiryuu prince to stir. Nor did the somewhat noisy return of Lord Kyouichi and his men disturb Touga; while those within the lodge gathered somberly outside to arrange respectfully upon the ground the remains of those who had fallen, the Red Tyger slept on. The younger Kiryuu noble stood in for her sibling as a small prayer was recited and the bodies covered over with blankets taken from the fortified manor house, for once her demeanor and mood quite serious and solemn.

While the others reentered the hunting lodge in respectful silence, the Verdant Gryphon directed his clansmen to form watches. While one group each remained awake to both guard the manor and hold vigil over the fallen, those who would relieve them later on would sleep upon the ground nearby. Glancing back over her shoulder as she stepped inside, Utena smiled as she noted with respect that the emerald-haired lord was unpacking his saddlebags after issuing his commands in a low voice; Saionji intended to share his warriors' circumstances, electing to slumber outside as they would be instead of claiming the privilege of rank and spending the night in the comfort of the hunting lodge.

The darkness deepened and still Touga slept, the few attempts made to rouse him coming to little avail, though he did stir just a bit. While Utena and her retinue eventually retired to their assigned chamber on their own, it took the efforts of the rather concerned escort of Kiryuu warriors to make the increasingly worried princess in their charge go to bed in the guestroom given for her use. Once that was done, the group of Kiryuu clansmen arranged themselves on cots near both their sleeping lord and the warmth of the blaze glowing cheerfully within the lodge's great stone fireplace.

And as he slept, he dreamed. At first they were images of balance and harmony, giving Touga's somnolent mind a sense of an unending stretch of time where all was right in the world. There was no sorrow, no fear, no uncertainty, and no disharmony... Then came the shadows, creeping in a little at a time. Peace gave way to vigilance...

Then he dreamed of illness, a growing sense of imbalance as the darkness grew. Fever began to grip him, yet he struggled on against the lengthening shadows. Heat, weariness, the beginning of a sense of hopelessness... Cool, gentle hands trying to ease the ravages of the sickness, hands belonging to a dusky-skinned woman of unparalleled beauty within whom rested a power of light and life and health, yet even her ministrations were to little avail. The illness continued on, the shadows grew longer and darker, and he fought on against them.

The dusky-skinned maiden had been there throughout his dream, a gorgeous figure with a long silken mane of straight hair the color of deepest violet. He had caught glimpses of her all along among the other images, a lovely vision that evoked with it love and contentment. She was his equal, his foil, and the one constantly at his side in balance. And as the illness continued, she was there, doing her best to ease the suffering from the fever and weakness.

He dreamed of a sword, as bright as a sun against the deepening shadows, the blade reflective silver but the sharpest of steel and the golden hilt adorned with blood-red rubies, some of which were cut in the shape of hearts. The powers of Light and health and balance were focused within its length, the weapon becoming the bane to all dark things. But even that wasn't enough...

A single white rose bloomed in the gathering gloom... A dark-skinned hand curled around the hilt of the sword... Desperation filled Touga's sleeping mind, the heat of the illness becoming unbearable, and the shining blade lifted higher... A flash of brightest white and the weapon descended upon the snowy flower, cleaving it in two. Two roses spun out of the scattered petals of the destroyed rose, one blossom royal violet, the other scarlet red. For a moment, they hung in the silence of the deepening twilight, then they fell away, disappearing into the darkness. And as they fell, a sense of something heavy filled the highland chieftain's awareness, as if his entire body was composed of molten lead, the pull of gravity making it hard to breathe...

With a frantic gasp and an overpowering sense of panic, Touga's mind clawed upward into wakefulness even as his body struggled to sit upright. For a timeless moment, the sensation of being unable to breathe clung to him; his body continued to fight for air until he realized that he was indeed awake and that the darkness surrounding him was merely the hunting lodge shrouded in nighttime shadow. Forcing himself to take a number of deep breaths in order to calm his racing heart, he glanced about himself to better orient to place and time.

A pop from the slowly dying fire and the faint sounds of others breathing were all that came to the chieftain's hearing. Noting those lost to the land of dreams around him, he frowned as he recalled the sense of suffocation that had roused him. Then came soft footfalls; long red hair swayed gently as he turned to discover the source of the noise.

Her feminine curves accented by her silken dress, the white cloth rippling smoothly with her movements, the full-cut garment gathered about her slender waist by a girdle of silver chains adorned with pearls, Utena walked slowly up to where Touga sat in the chair. What ambient light there was made both her gown and the loose cascade of curly pink hair almost glow, and for a moment the young lord thought that he was staring at some Fey creature. Recognizing her as she drew near, he relaxed and gave her a smile.

Gracefully she knelt, one knee against the floor and the flowing skirt of her dress a pool of snowy white around her. Comfortably at eye level with him, she returned his smile, an expression of relief there in her aqua-colored eyes. “'Tis good to see you among the living, my lord,” she whispered, not wanting to awaken those of his clan sleeping nearby. “We tried to rouse you but could only make you stir in your slumber. How are you feeling?”

He took a moment to assess his current state of being, carefully moving his injured leg. Already his breath and his heart had slowed to near normal, and the throbbing in his wounded limb had abated slightly. Moving it no longer gave any sharp twinges of pain, though he was suddenly quite aware of a couple of sources of discomfort--the most urgent of which was a ravenous hunger. “I'm starving, my lady,” he whispered in response. “And I need to take another trip to the garderobe.”

Utena nodded, rising as gracefully as she had knelt. “I'll help you if you need it, my lord,” she offered. “Once you've relieved yourself, there's food to be had in the kitchen.”

“Welcome news, that,” he responded, pushing himself up from the confines of the well-padded chair. Though his leg was certainly feeling better and he was able to bear more of his weight upon it, he still found himself having to lean against the lowlander's willowy form for support. They remained in silent companionship as Utena lead him toward the doorway to the facilities, but once he emerged from the small chamber and wrapped an arm around the white-clad maiden's waist, he softly asked, “Why are you awake at such an hour, my lady?”

“You have passed the six challenges I have given you, proving to me your capacity to hold dear the virtues of Amor,” Utena answered, continuing to whisper into the darkness. “The time has come to give you the key to the Rose Arbor.” She paused in her speech while they made their way toward the archway opposite the garderobe, their footfalls muffled by the large patterned carpet that covered the center of the lodge's main room's wooden floor. “I was also worried about you,” she added before he could continue the conversation, “as was everyone else, including the Saionji warriors.”

“I hope Nanami hasn't fretted herself into a fitful sleep,” Touga said, knowing how concerned his sibling must have been.

“I tried to reassure her that you would be fine once you awoke on your own, but she wouldn't believe me,” the rose-haired girl responded, frowning slightly. “Your clansmen had to practically march her off to bed.”

The scarlet-maned lord merely smiled at the news of his sister's reluctance. But mention of the younger Kiryuu made his thoughts turn to someone else almost as dear. “Saionji?”

“He's keeping watch outside with his men, who are both guarding the lodge as well as holding vigil over the fallen.” Utena's voice held a note of sorrow; somehow she would need to send Ryu's body home to his mother. “They were able to bring back everyone, though the animals had gotten to them.”

“At least there's been no additional trouble,” the Red Tyger commented, quite relieved to hear that his foster brother had returned safely. Still, the target had seemed to be the girl that was even now helping him into the kitchen. That those who were left behind in the hunting lodge had passed the day in peace was more then likely pure luck then skill; word must not have gotten back quite yet that the band of warriors had failed.

“Aye, at least,” Utena responded, guiding the tall nobleman over to a small round table and a pair of chairs arranged next to the massive stone fireplace that dominated one wall of the kitchen. True to custom, the fire was still going, a small kettle hanging over the low flames from a movable iron hook attached to the interior surface of the gaping fireplace. Once her companion had taken a seat, the young maiden took a moment to toss a couple more pieces of wood on the fire before turning to look at him. “Wait here, my lord, and I shall bring you something to eat. Once your hunger has abated, then I shall do what needs to be done to open the path to the Rose Arbor.”

“Very well.” Settling back into the chair and noting that this one wasn't nearly as comfortable as the other, the highland chieftain kept his deep azure gaze focused on the other noble as she gathered up the leftovers from their earlier supper.

Slices of cheese and cured meats, along with slabs of bread baked that afternoon, had been set aside for the redheaded lord but had remained untouched while he had slept. Picking up the wooden platter, Utena retraced her steps and set the dish down on the table. “There's vegetable stew in the pot,” she explained as she picked up a wrought-iron hook and deftly snagged the hanging kettle from its perch over the fire.

Taking a moment to offer his thanks in between mouthfuls, Touga turned his attention fully toward the food. The hunger he felt burning there in the pit of his stomach was unlike any he'd ever experienced before--more intense, as if he'd gone without eating for days on end. Considering that he knew that wasn't the case, he had to figure that it was another side effect of the healing, just as the unusually deep sleep had been. When Utena returned with a wooden bowl full of the delicious-smelling stew, he nodded in appreciation and kept his focus on eating.

Settling in the chair opposite him, the slender warrioress was content to watch him in silence as he broke his fast. So here was the first to pass the challenges... All the others had been lords as well, for it was stressed that the champion was one of princely demeanor and experience, one mystically wedded to the land. Many she had thought would pass had stumbled upon one challenge or another. Some were stingy, while others couldn't swallow their pride. Still others had little mercy in their souls or wouldn't justly defend someone who deserved it. All were ones approached because she thought she saw within them what she was searching for; for just over a year, she had been traveling ever northward, observing then testing, only to have to move onward.

A deep melancholy settled over her as she turned her thoughts to possibly having the tender of the roses reject Lord Touga. Though she had only been in his company a few days, she was aware of a growing fondness. Should he not be the one, it would be hard to walk away from the man she'd come to know. And yet any thought she turned back to the now-hazy memory of receiving the ruby-adorned brooch of the fallen Champion made the old, familiar determination and urgency to fulfill her quest return. She had made a promise she would keep.

The worst of the hunger satiated, Touga slowed his consumption and lifted his gaze once more to the beautiful noblewoman. “So, my lady, what must be done to open the way?” he asked, voice low.

“The key must be made to work for you,” Utena began explaining, lowering her aquamarine gaze to her lap. “Otherwise you would be unable to open the gateway guarding the entrance.”

An entry into a Faerie place... “More magic then, my lady?”

“Aye,” she replied, her voice now a whisper.

Touga merely nodded as he silently bit down on a slice of the sharp-tasting cheese. The ways of Faerie were often mysterious, beyond the comprehension of mere men. That this champion seemed invested with the beneficial powers of the Unseen only led the highlander to expect that the process surrounding the choice of a new wielder would be rife with magic.

“I was told that should I find one whose heart was in accord with the virtues of Amor, then I would need to have the Champion's symbol taste the blood of the hand that would wield Love's Honor,” the lowlander maiden added, her hands fumbling with something in her lap.

Taste the blood? the elegant nobleman mentally queried, scarlet eyebrows rising in an expression of intense curiosity. “The Champion's symbol?” Touga asked aloud, attention now fully on the girl sitting across the table.

“This...” Utena responding, lifting a hand up so that it was once more visible to her redheaded companion. Cupped in the palm was a round brooch of exquisite workmanship, the edge of the knotwork-adorned metal lined with glimmering red stones, the center of the disk decorated with a cross composed of four heart-shaped rubies arranged with their points to the center. “Just as you wear the signet ring of the Kiryuu as their prince, so does the Champion wear the symbol of his blessed position.”

He stared in awe at the piece of jewelry, wide-eyed. Aye, it was a gorgeous piece of work, but even its physical beauty wasn't enough to explain the tingle of familiarity that crawled down his spine at the sight of it. Dismissing the sensation, he focused instead on another thought: without a doubt, this must have been the true target of the Ebon Phoenix. “And how do you mean to have it 'taste the blood' of my right hand?” Touga finally asked, cobalt-blue gaze still focused on the golden brooch. Given her words, his best guess would be that something would need to be done to that particular member.

Utena continued to evade his gaze as she deftly flipped the golden object over, exposing the reverse side of the disc. Unlike the obverse, the metal here was plain, showing only the smooth surface and the fastener that would keep the item secure upon someone's clothing. Setting the brooch down on the table, the young noblewoman fiddled with the catch, releasing the pin and swinging it upward. Three inches of glimmering gold pointed skyward like some slender, miniature sword. “You will need to stab the pin through your hand, my lord,” she softly said.

Touga blinked, startled. Though expecting to perhaps scratch himself open with the sharp point, hearing that he must drive the length of the pin into his hand was something unforeseen. “And there's no other way?”

“No. Without doing so, the brooch won't be attuned to you, and you will be unable to pass through the gates,” the rose-haired maiden replied.

As he continued to stare at it, the gleaming sliver of gold seemed to take on a somewhat sinister air. Granted, he had taken far worse wounds in his years of training and then in defense of self and clan--the arrow through his leg being the most recent such injury--yet knowing that there was some sort of magic involved gave him pause for thought. “A little wound...” he murmured out loud, an unconscious effort to reassure himself. “And if Ohtori truly has the power of the Unseelie on his side...”

“Do--do you think that's the case?” Utena queried, her voice with a note of worry.

“Those men who attacked appeared to come from the very air, and there was no mention of a force of strangers within the Kaoru lands. I'm certain Lord Miki would have warned Saionji and me were they aware of it,” Touga answered, lifting his gaze once more to his companion's visage. “Magic surrounds your quest, and defines it. The Phoenix wants this key you hold. I can only assume it is to stop one from obtaining use of the Seelie power promised the new Champion. Either he wishes it for himself--and if so, and he's aware you hold the key, why has he not approached you about taking your challenges?--or he is in league with those forces opposite to what the Champion wields.” The redheaded chieftain shook his head slightly. “No, for the good of all involved, I must assume Ohtori has agreed to be the tool of those who would see there is no new Champion, just as I have agreed to try to be the tool of those who wish there to be one again.”

At the use of the word “tool”, the lowlander maiden frowned, then looked away from the elegant man across the table from where she sat. “Such a harsh way of stating it, my lord...”

“Lady Utena...” Waiting for her to glance at him again, he leaned forward when she did so and gently cupped her chin with his hand. “I apologize if you think my words mean that I'm belittling both your quest and what it means to become the Champion of Amor. I'm truly not, but it's always best to see things as they really are. The Fey are beyond the knowledge of us mortals; their morality and their goals aren't the same as ours, and they do use us for both good and ill.”

She met his gaze once more, noting the earnest expression on his handsome face. He seemed to know much about the world and its workings from what she could tell from her observations, another trait that appealed to her. He was a good prince, able to anticipate danger and keep it from harming those in his care. And she could see in his deep azure eyes that he wanted this, not for himself but for his people because he knew it would further their chances to remain safe, healthy and happy.

But first, he must do this and be accepted by the woman who tended the roses.

And how she'd like to be kissed by him, the slender warrioress realized as she became aware of how close they were to one another, each leaning over the table, his hand warm against her chin. Blinking, she pulled back, blushing faintly. She needed to conduct the ritual she was instructed to perform, not remain sitting here mooning over the beautiful man who had passed her challenges. Leaving the brooch there on the wooden planks of the round table, Utena gracefully stood. “If you're done with your meal...?”

A hint of a smile crossed the highlander's face; he'd caught the glimmer of interest there in her sea blue eyes. Leaning back slightly as well, he nodded. “Aye, I'm finished.”

“Are you ready to do this, my lord?”

His dark blue gaze shifted to the slender needle of gold, the orange light of the fire reflected along its length. To put it off would only heighten the hesitation. Aye, it would hurt--and with magic involved, there could be more than the pain--but there was no other way, and to succeed, he would need to pass through this gate. “Aye,” he softly breathed, doing his best to quell the growing nervousness within.

Utena nodded, then began gathering up the dishes from the table, the firelight reflected in the highlights of her loose, flowing, curly hair. This place would work, being away from where the others slept, a quiet corner of the lodge more than likely not invaded by the rest of those in the area. “Make yourself as comfortable as you can, then. Close your eyes and relax, taking deep breaths. The first thing I must do is prepare the area.”

Her footsteps faded into the distance as Touga sought to do as she had asked. Back against the sturdy wooden chair, he focused his awareness on his breathing, making his inhalations and exhalations long and steady while he emptied his mind of all thought. The wound in his left leg twinged for a moment, forcing him to shift position and move the injured limb, but once he was settled, all he noticed was the slowness of his breathing and the gentle beat of his heart.

They were waiting there where she had left them, on the long, rectangular table used by the cooks to prepare the food served. One of the objects was a small thurible, a delicate silver ball of filigree that could be opened and hung from a delicate chain of silver links; inside already was the small disk of charcoal and dried herbs to be used for the incense of the ritual. The other object was a shallow silver dish made in the shape of a scallop shell, tiny white grains of precious salt covering the interior surface. Both items had been given to her by the violet-haired Fey woman who cared for the roses, along with the instructions with how to proceed.

Picking up a small ewer of water, Utena carefully poured some of the liquid into the silver dish. Setting it down, she gently stirred the salt and water with an index finger until the granules were dissolved. Continuing to cradle the silver object in her hand, she picked the thurible up by its chain and retraced her steps. Coming near where her scarlet-haired companion sat, she looked him over while she set the dish down on the table near where the Champion's brooch rested. He seemed quite relaxed sitting there, eyes closed and face expressionless. Nodding in satisfaction, Utena turned and drew near to the fireplace, crouching down to dangle the filigree ball over the dancing flames. The tongue of fire licked over the silver wire, igniting the charcoal within; she swiftly rose to keep the fire from consuming the incense itself.

Noting that the thurible was emitting a small curl of sweet-smelling smoke, the rose-haired maiden took up a position behind the sitting lord. “To protect us both from perhaps hostile powers attracted to this moment, I shall now create a shield around us. First with Fire and Air, I consecrate this space and those within.” Her actions explained, Utena slowly paced around the table, gently swinging the filigree censer before her. Hearing focused on the measured footfalls of her slow walk, Touga became aware of the sweet scent of the slightly pungent smoke. Once her circuit was complete, she halted just to the side of the highlander and swung the thurible around him, letting the bluish-white ribbon of incense curl over his tall form. “Hold out your right hand,” Utena softly demanded.

Opening his eyes but being sure to remain in the same relaxed, thoughtless state he had achieved, the Red Tyger did as he was asked. Already the scent was having an effect; he was feeling somewhat detached from everything as he lifted his hand into the air. He watched dispassionately as the smoke tickled across his skin and continued on to rise toward the heavens while the white-clad maiden held the censer under the appendage. That done, Utena carefully set the silver filigree ball down at the center of the round table; the burning charcoal disk and herbal incense were perched upon a solid platform within, keeping the heat from being dangerous along the bottom of the openwork sphere.

She picked up the silver dish, resting it in the palm of her left hand. Again taking up a position behind the elegant nobleman, she dipped the fingers of her other hand into the salted water. “With Earth and Water, I consecrate this place and those within,” she said, her voice low in the darkness. Once again she made her stately circuit around the table, this time flicking drops of the liquid from the dish before her. With each measured step, she dipped her hand into the water, flung the droplets from her digits and then took her next step.

The water was slightly cold where it landed upon Touga's exposed skin; he could feel the other drops splattering against clothing and hair. Her circle completed, the lowlander had once again halted next to him, this time intending to purify him with the physical symbols of the other two Elements. Assuming that this would be a reflection of the first pair of Elements, he held out his right hand once more when Utena finished flicking droplets over the length of his body. More of the salty liquid was flicked onto the offered hand before Utena leaned over and set the dish down next to the still smoking thurible.

The slender noblewoman drew back once more; before she disappeared from his sight, Touga noticed her pulling from its leather sheath--which was fastened to her girdle of silver links and pearls--the slim dagger with which she normally ate. The swish of white silk was heard as she stood behind him for a third time. “With this blade, I cast the ward. None shall pass this path I carve in place and time.” Raising the knife before her, point skyward, she kissed the flat of the blade then lowered her arm. The point now facing to the wooden floor, Utena circled around the table and the seated nobleman for a third pass, this time walking backwards, the dagger trailing in her steps. In her wake, she could see a silvery trail of faint light there on the floor where the knife had already passed.

The moment the circle was complete, the rose-maned girl stepped inward, within the area embraced by the pale ring of light. Her slender form next to Touga's chair, she carefully set her dagger down next to the other two objects in the center of the table. “We stand in a place between all places. We exist in a time beyond all times. We are safe and protected within the Four made One.” At the final syllable of her softly intoned words, faint silver radiance sprung up around them, forming a dome that held them within itself. The strangest thing about the warding shield Touga discovered was that no matter what part of it he looked at straight on, it seemed to not be visible, yet he could see the gentle glow of the magic from the corner of his eye and sense it surrounding him.

However, his attention was swiftly turned away to something else. Slim fingers carefully picking up the ruby-adorned gold brooch, Utena straightened and then fished out a small vial from the gray leather pouch slung from her belt--more then likely, that was where she had kept the Champion's brooch until she had shown it to him. Pulling the cork from the container, she dipped the sharply pointed pin of the piece of jewelry into the dark contents. “The tender of the Rose Arbor told me that this liquid would keep the wound made by the brooch from becoming corrupted,” she explained while withdrawing the pin. For a moment, a drop of something as black as night hung there from the golden point, then it fell into the vial from whence it had come. Replacing the stopper, she dropped the small container into her pouch once more, then held out the brooch to her companion. “You know what you are to do. To unlock the gate and open the path to the roses, you must stab the Champion's brooch through your sword hand.”

Touga nodded, his expression somber. A simple thing, yet not so easily done. Taking the metallic object into the grasp of his left hand, he curled long fingers over the disk. Sure of his hold, he stared for a moment at the thin spike of gold jutting outward from the back of the brooch. The instinct to keep oneself intact was a strong one; to deliberately wound himself went against that, making him hesitate. Yet there was no other way. If he could not make the key work for himself, then he would be unable to reach the Faerie place and be judged. Ohtori would then make his move, bolstered by the dark powers, while Utena continued on, looking for one that held the virtues of Love in his heart and could perform this simple task. And he and his quite mortal people would be at risk.

Shifting his position slightly, the Red Tyger lightly rested his right palm against the surface of the circular table. Flattening his hand, he extended the tip of his left index finger from his hold on the brooch and pressed down on the back of his other hand, searching for a place between the bones. If he were to do this, it would be better to make it an injury of the flesh. Discovering what felt to be a viable location, he moved his left hand to hover above his right, the point of the golden pin resting against the unbroken skin over his chosen place. A bit of force, just so, and it will be done...

He could not keep the detached calmness. Adrenaline rushed through him, his heart pounding; tiny beads of sweat dotted his beautiful face as he held the sharp point against the skin. In its way, this was worse than the arrow he took in his leg--at least with that injury, he didn't know it was coming. This one, he knew its source. All of reality narrowed down to the tension of his grip on the ruby-adorned gold and to the feel of the pin against his hand--and of the pair of aquamarine eyes staring at him, watching and waiting.

Touga sucked in a breath, then suddenly bore down on the brooch with the whole of the force of his left arm. The scarlet-haired man's breath came out in a violent exhale at the sharp pain that lanced through his hand; he gasped as the golden pin hit the unyielding solidity of the wooden table underneath, the jarring sensation making the wound flare in even more agony. Lifting the injured member high enough to confirm that the length of the pin had indeed passed through the flesh--the crimson-stained point was clearly visible jutting out from the surface of the palm--he then closed his eyes tightly and yanked the brooch upward. Blood still clinging to the slender, three-inch shaft, the Champion's symbol seemed to glow with an inner light not there before, the rubies glimmering with a deep red light. Touga would have dropped it to the table in the next instant had something not distracted him.

Utena watched, her breath still caught in her throat, as the highland lord made ready to release his hold on the piece of jewelry. His elegant form then stiffened, the expression shifting to a grimace of pain to one of confused wonder. The cobalt-blue eyes remained shut even as he seemed to slowly relax, caught up in something only he was experiencing.

The burning stab swiftly faded away as a bright light seemed to fill his mind's eye. A vision came to him, of a great massive stone gateway, the pattern of a giant rose carved upon its pink-veined white surface. Even as the image seared itself into his memory, Touga got the sense that this place lay to the northeast, in the depths of the wild forests not far from the lands of the Golden Panther. Then the gateway opened, the massive stone rising upward as two wrought-iron gates slid past one another, revealing behind them a winding staircase covered in deep green foliage and rose blossoms. Like the entry, the stairs were made of pink-veined white marble, the banisters supporting climbing roses in a rainbow of colors. Climbing upward and zigzagging through the dense evergreen forest, the stairs seemed to reach for the sky. He soared upwards along them, scaling them far faster then he knew he could by walking, the deep green forest and riot of flowery colors a blur. At the top of the stairs, he passed through a shattered stone archway, emerging in a place that seemed to be a sea of roses. In the center of it all stood a single figure clad in a red the same hue as the flowers that surrounded her, her long, straight, violet hair rippling in the playful breeze that set the roses to dancing. Seemingly noticing him there, the dark-skinned maiden smiled--her visage was that same breathtaking beauty he had seen in his earlier dream--and she held out her arms to him.

In a twinkling of an eye, the distance between them disappeared. “At last,” the mysterious maiden said the moment he was near, “you've come. I've been waiting for you.” Before he could formulate some sort of reply, she took his right hand in hers, her dusky skin dark in comparison to his fair coloring, and looked down at it. Her brow furrowed as she took notice of the twin punctures; she raised the palm of his hand to her lips. Petal soft, they kissed him where the pin had exited from his hand, the throbbing pain suddenly gone as a warm feeling of rightness washed over him. Still feeling the brush of her lips against his skin, he watched as everything began to fade away, falling down a deep, dark tunnel. “Return to me and claim what is yours,” he thought he heard the violet-haired beauty say even as the sense of being once more within his own body reasserted itself.

In the depths of the night, a lone figure stood on the heights of the brooding stone fortress, head tilted back, the silken strands of his long, pale lavender hair tossed about by the passing breeze. High above in the dark velvet vault of the sky, the stars shone like brilliant jewels. Normally, he would stare up at the tantalizing patterns, his emerald gaze sweeping over the majestic sight, but for now, something else was on his mind.

The key was out there, along with the innocent girl drawn to the place and time to take possession of the key.

He had yet to hear from those he had sent to capture girl and key. The time was right; his base of power consolidated. He would be able to sweep over the land and extend his influence over all that he saw, and love was what had made it possible. How ironic, he mentally chuckled, the hint of a smile curling over his expressive lips. Then the expression faltered as he brought to mind that all he could achieve here was only a splintered fragment of how it had once been. How limiting the flesh. No matter. Soon, I shall have what I need to bypass even that.

Soft footfalls sounded against the windswept stones. Clutching a woolen cloak tight about her willowy form, covering up as much as she could of her chemise of palest green cloth, a pretty woman made her way over to where the stunningly handsome, dusky-skinned man stood near the battlements. The cool breeze tossed about her pale yellow-green locks and ruffled the fabric of her clothing. Seeing him there, her visage took on an expression of melancholy exasperation. Once again here he was gazing up at the stars instead of being in bed with her where he belonged. Doing her best to not sigh in frustration, she halted a couple of paces from the man and looked him over.

Beautiful in a decidedly masculine way, his body put together flawlessly and well-toned by exercise and his continued practice in the arts of war, there were times she believed all the whispers of her mysterious husband as being one of the Fey. Certainly there were few mortal men of her acquaintance with skin and hair of those tones or possessing such keen intelligence and a knowledge of the way of the world. As she stood there, she couldn't help but wonder if he was something more than he seemed to be--especially given his apparent fascination with the stars high above. Regardless, he was certainly wonderful when he was paying attention to her, and the clan had prospered ever since he had become their chieftain.

“Akio?” she softly asked, uncertain of her reception. “Is everything all right?”

“Aye, beloved Kanae,” he responded, lowering his head and turning enough to focus his emerald gaze upon her. Giving his wife a smile meant to reassure her, he took one of her hands in his own and gave the back of it a lingering kiss. “Everything's just fine.”

Relaxing slightly, the Ohtori heiress tentatively returned her husband's smile, though she felt somewhat disappointed in the answer. “If everything's well, then why are you up here in the middle of the night? The cold air--”

“Won't harm me in the slightest, my love,” Akio was swift to answer, interrupting her. Glancing upwards, he added, “I felt like looking at the stars.”

Always the stars, she silently complained, her expression turning only faintly sadder instead of reflecting her frustrated turmoil within. Wrapping her fingers around the dark hand still holding hers, she tugged gently at him. “Come to bed, my lord. Please? It's very late.” I don't want to be alone yet again...

He stood his ground, her slender form and graceful strength not enough to move him unless he so wished. Emerald eyes alight with faint amusement, he watched as she tried to get him to move. Such a delicate flower, this one, this regal lily through which he had garnered wealth, power and prestige. All were needed to win back for himself what he deserved, lost when he was thrust into the world. Still, he should be rather grateful for what Kanae had allowed him to achieve. “As you wish,” he softly murmured, still amused at her determined but ineffectual attempt.

Hearing his acquiescence, she gave him a happy, relieved smile and let go of his hand. Stretching upwards, she gave him a kiss of gratitude, then turned and walked off, certain that he would follow close on her steps.

Indeed, the Ebon Phoenix started forward with every intent to return to the marital bed, only to halt before he even took a step as the overwhelming presence of something flooded his senses. The star-spattered night, the stone parapet of the ancient fortress, the slender figure of his pretty wife--all of it faded away in a sudden nothingness. Blinking in astonishment, he became aware of an image that coalesced to an almost real solidity, of a massive slab of pink-veined marble sliding upwards, the iron bars of an inner gate sliding past one another. Metal creaked and stone ground, the sound of rushing water accompanying the movement. Caught by surprise, Akio staggered back; so caught up was he in the vision that he didn't feel the cold granite of the tower's battlements against the backs of his legs.

There was only one thing such an image could mean. The way to the Rose Arbor was open.

Not hearing her spouse's footsteps behind her, Kanae turned, a hand brushing her pale, windswept hair from her face. Seeing the tall form of the Ohtori prince up against the battlements, his body rigid and his face staring in wonder at something only he could see, the young heiress felt a chill of dread run down her spine. What was happening? Was there something beyond the mortal realm at work? Was he going to somehow fall over the edge? “Akio?” she called out, her voice reflecting her fright. “Please come away from there.” Uncertain of his ability to hear her, she dashed over to his side and tried once more to tug him back towards the doorway into the fortress's interior. “Please...?”

So, a contender for the Champion's power has been found... That obviously meant that those sent to fetch the brooch and the innocent girl holding it had failed. Still, this development opened up new avenues to achieve his goals. Body still held in rapture at the now-fading vision, he lowered his head; as his pale lavender hair slid forward, he softly chuckled.

The sound was a strange one, as was the fact that he remained unmoving next to her. Her large eyes focused upon his beloved face, her yellow-green hair once again ruffled by the nighttime breeze, an even more worried expression crossed her pretty visage. “What's happening? What's the matter?” she insisted, her unease at the unusual situation growing. Once again, she thought of all the rumors about her husband actually being more than a mere mortal. Perhaps it was true...?

“Everything's just fine, my beloved Kanae,” he softly reassured her as his awareness returned to reality once more, bending over just enough to give his wife a lingering kiss. Sensing her growing relaxation, Akio gently disengaged himself from both the affectionate gesture and her embrace. Closing the distance between the gray stone battlements and the entrance into the upper story of the tower in long-legged strides, the Ebon Phoenix rushed forward, wanting to confirm something.

Still somewhat confused, though feeling a bit happier at seeing her dear husband apparently once more his normal self, the Ohtori heiress trailed along after him, clutching her clothing tight about herself again. Through the silent corridors they walked; the rest of the household was lost to sleep this far into the night. Even the pair of servants snoring away in their pallets in the antechamber of the royal couples' bedchamber didn't stir as the two nobles returned to their spacious and richly furnished room. Tapestries lined the walls--many depicting scenes from a unicorn hunt--insulating the room from the weather, as did the sturdy rug brought back from the mysterious Orient that lay upon the floor. The mahogany bed was draped with silk brocade curtains of muted, dark shades, while equally comfortable bedclothes in pale green covered the mattress. In the fireplace, the last of the coals were fading to cold grayness, but Akio noticed that his mortal spouse had left a number of candles burning. How touching of her to keep them from returning in the darkness.

Hesitating at the bedchamber's door, Kanae leaned against the stone wall as she kept her gaze of deepest emerald upon her husband's magnificent form; that shade of red his tunic was certainly went well with his unusual coloring. How much she loved him--though sometimes, like just moments passed, she feared him in equal measure. Though she'd like to just return to bed and snuggle up against him, she was hesitant in disturbing him when it was obvious his attention was elsewhere.

Akio walked over to a low table against the chamber's wall. In the light of the candles sitting there on the surface of the piece of oaken furniture, the dusky-skinned lord reached out and picked up the brooch sitting there. The metal was dark, like tarnished silver, and the stones ringing the edge as well as the cross of heart-shaped gems in the center--points facing outwards toward the edge--were as black as jet. A dark reflection of the Champion's brooch, Akio could see that the one he held seemed to thrum with power. He grinned then, an expression that didn't quite reach his emerald green eyes. “At last,” he softly murmured, staring into the black depths of the heart-shaped stones.

Ah, yes. This made many things different. Time to rethink his plans.

Opening his eyes, Touga sat there for a moment still lost in the wonder of it all. In the back of his mind, he could sense in what direction the stone gate lay from where he was now, and he idly mused upon the possibility of being able to always tell where that object was. And the tender... She was the same as in my dream...

“Touga? My lord? Are you all right?” The gentle, but worried, voice of the lowlander broke through his thoughts. Blinking, he turned his attention to the rose-haired maiden and gave her a reassuring smile. “I'm fine, my lady.” Recalling the kiss of the dark-haired Fey on his hand, he slowly raised the injured member and glanced at it. “More than fine,” he softly added, low voice holding a note of astonishment.

The puncture wounds were gone. Blood still stained his hand both front and back, showing where he had driven the pin through the flesh, but of the holes themselves, they were gone. A startled expression on his face, he held his hand out for Utena to see for herself. Blinking, Utena dipped her finger in the salted water in the silver dish, then wiped the wet finger over the bloodstain. Underneath, the skin was whole, healed. “Amazing,” she commented. Lifting her aquamarine gaze to meet his once more, she asked, “What about the leg?”

“The leg?” he echoed, startled. Abruptly curious, he tentatively moved the limb in question--and felt no twinge of pain save for a sharp pull where the stitches were. Glancing at his companion a moment, he pushed up from the chair and stood, then took a couple of steps when he realized his leg could support his weight. Certainly the stitches pulled with the movement, but otherwise he could walk normally once again. “I think she healed everything amiss with me,” he finally ventured, sounding somewhat awed.

“She?” Utena asked, raising her eyebrows in a gesture of curiosity.

Touga nodded, then settled down in the wooden chair once more, recounting to the lowlander noble what he saw in those moments after stabbing himself with the Champion's brooch. “Even now, I can roughly tell in what direction I must travel to reach the stone gateway I saw.”

“What you saw is what you will find beyond the Rose Gate,” Utena began, smiling. “The stairs covered by roses, the sea of flowers that the tender watches over, and the tender herself. She will be the last one to decide if you are worthy, for she is the one that holds Love's Honor.”

“What happens after that?”

“If she decides you are the one, she will tell you the task you need to perform to keep my promise from long ago. After that, then all you must do is defend the ideals of Amor and be the incarnation of the power of the Champion.” Suddenly finding herself yawning and quickly covering her mouth with a hand, Utena paused, then gave the scarlet-maned chieftain an apologetic smile. “I fear the night is swiftly catching up to me. Let me dismiss the warding so that I may retire to bed.”

Touga merely nodded his assent. Despite his earlier deep slumber, he still felt tired; more than likely, the ritual had depleted him of what energy he had regained by his sleep. Still finding himself holding the Champion's brooch in his left hand, he assumed that it was now his to keep until such a time as he was judged by the Fey beyond the Rose Gate. Something occurred to him then, and he glanced up at her. “My lady, since the leg’s healed, shouldn't the stitches come out?”

Utena stifled a soft peal of laughter, leaning over to pick up the dagger from where it sat on the table. “Of course, my lord,” she answered, slender fingers curling around the grip. “All that's needed is a steady hand, a sharp knife and a bit of brute force, as you well know.”

The Red Tyger did know, having learned something of first aid in regards to dealing with wounds caused by training and battle. Come the next time he had occasion to remove his trews from his thighs, he would deal with the thread himself.

Still smiling, the rose-haired maiden turned and faced the mystic dome that protected them both. With a murmured thanks to the Elements involved and a statement affirming that they were once more within the here and now, Utena slashed the steel blade of her dagger through the faintly glowing energy. In a heartbeat, the power was no more, allowing the two within to once again to walk about as they wished. Sheathing her weapon, the young noblewoman looked over her shoulder long enough to give her companion a joyful smile. On the morrow, they could return to Kiryuu Keep. So close now was a chance to finally fulfill her quest.

The highland chieftain returned her smile, hand still curled around the faintly glimmering piece of jewelry. A brief exchange of good wishes for pleasant dreams, and she walked off; Touga kept his cobalt-blue gaze upon her retreating form until she was gone from sight. Then he glanced down once more to the object he held. If this was what Ohtori was after, he would certainly do his best to defend it.

To fail at that would jeopardize all he held dear.

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