Love's Honor

Chapter Thirteen


How...touching. I suppose I should have expected the Red Tyger to have the charisma to sway his clan, came the silent words as violet eyes scanned over the scene. A slight breeze ruffled short-cut brunette hair; the teenaged girl tossed her head to get the stray forelock out of her way. A faintly hungry expression glowed deep within her eyes as she watched the highland lord gracefully mount up on his white horse. Were her heart not devoted to her poor, captured love, she'd be tempted to see if Lord Touga's reputation was a deserved one.

That thought, however, made her blood suddenly run cold. Nervously nibbling on her lower lip, the young woman turned her gaze to watch as the rose-haired lady dressed in mannish attire climbed up onto the saddle perched atop her buff-colored mare. Please, by all that's holy, tell me where the sword is kept! I've waited so long to hear, and every day he suffers so . . .

How long she had played at this, she could no longer say. Months, at the very least, and with each cycle of the moon her despondence had grown. All of this was so far beneath her! But for love, she'd endure even the fires of Hell if it saw her beloved safe.

“Shiori! Stop standing there mooning and mount up,” came a somewhat strident voice.

Wakaba... The girl addressed narrowed her gaze, suppressing a growl. Were there not so much at stake, she would have put the plain-appearing brunette in her place long ago. “I was just getting to that,” Shiori responded, plastering a fake smile on her pretty face. Swinging effortlessly up onto the saddle, the violet-eyed servant took a moment to glance back at the ancestral home of the Kiryuu prince.

The clanmembers were still gathered there, some talking amongst themselves while others stared at their soon-to-depart lord. Though most had been initially stunned at the news--and a number of the older warriors had tried to argue their lord's decisions--the gorgeous redheaded chieftain had calmly explained his reasons for his choices. All knew that ties of blood were the most binding of all, and to have their neighbors in such an alliance at a time when there was danger from the south made even the most obstinate of the Kiryuu reconsider.

And Nanami was there as well, looking as brave as possible as she waved farewell to her older brother. Behind her, like a protective shadow, stood the other highland chieftain; Lord Kyouichi had been talked into accompanying his foster brother back to Kiryuu Keep. Though Shiori was under the impression it was to somehow help Lord Touga in his bid to convince his clan of the correctness of his choice, she also had the idea that it was to also have someone there for Nanami to turn to should the Ohtori move into battle before expected. Poor girl's probably going to need it, Shiori thought. After all, none of them had a clue what it was with which they were messing.

But she knew. She glanced down at the golden ring on her hand, the symbol of her promise. Fear spiked through her again as she thought about the horrors her beloved could be facing at that very moment, horrors possible because she had yet to discover what she must.

Eyes the color of the sea looked upwards at the overcast sky. Though the day looked to be off to a gloomy start as far as the weather was concerned, Utena still had a smile on her face. They were about to embark for the Rose Arbor, and that alone brought a thrill of excitement. Perhaps, at long last, her quest neared its end. Turning in the saddle, she lowered her gaze to take in the sight of the scarlet-maned lord astride the white gelding that she remembered was called Blizzard. How wonderful he looked, hale and whole again, an echoing smile on his handsome visage. Then she thought of Ryu, his absence once again poignant as she saw what remained of her companions gathering around her. Her smile wilted. “My lord, did you send poor Ryu back home?”

Touga nodded, his own expression becoming somber. “Aye, the Kiryuu warriors that are his escort left just after sunrise. They'll see to it that he makes it home to his mother.” Considering that the young man had fallen trying to protect his lady, it was the least he could do. He was confident his men could get the remains there despite the distance to the Tenjou holdings in the southern kingdom.

Utena nodded in an answering response, the plump plume decorating her soft hat floating on the breeze stirred up by her movement. Touching a foot against her mare's flank, the rose-haired warrioress moved closer to the highlander. “Your people took your news well for the most part,” she remarked.

“There are some who aren't happy, mostly those who continue to hold a grudge against the Saionji,” Touga responded. “I may never convince some of them of the good of this. The others, however, can see the advantage of us being able to present a united front against anyone seeking to harm us. Aye, some may resent having to share resources with them, especially in a year where we may come under attack, but most know that we have better odds if we have the Saionji firmly on our side. I have faith that while we are gone to recover the sword, my sister and Saionji will be able to further convince the clan that this is a good idea.” Of the two clans involved, his foster brother's clan had been more accepting of the situation, especially after receiving the news that their lord was once again a sovereign prince, beholden to no one but himself.

“It would probably be in everyone's best interest to hasten on our task,” the lowlander girl responded. “Do you still feel the Rose Gate's location?”

Closing cobalt-blue eyes for a moment, Touga searched within himself. There... “That way,” he replied, twisting in the saddle and pointing to the horizon off to the northeast. The echo of the vision was still there, urging him forward to... something.

Violet eyes narrowing slyly, Shiori gave her fellow handmaiden a swift glance. Determining that Wakaba was too involved in some silly conversation with Tatsuya to notice, the short-haired brunette nudged her mount so that the dark-colored palfrey took a few steps closer to where the pair of nobles were talking. Mentally repeating a desperate prayer, the older girl strained her hearing to catch what they were saying.

Aye, that's the direction, Utena silently agreed. “Aye,” she repeated out loud, a hint of a smile tugging up the corners of her expressive lips. “As you know, it's a three-day ride to Grove. From there, to the east into the depths of Greenwood Forest, we will find a trail that will take us into the wilds and, at the end of four days, the Rose Gate itself.”

Grove. Touga frowned slightly, calling the fortress there to mind. Essentially the southeastern outpost of the Arisugawa lands, it lay on the very edge of civilization. From there, in the direction of the rising sun, were only the savage wilds and the Fey, along with all the other dangers in the woods beyond the control of mortal man. Glancing at his frail-seeming companion, he could only stare in wonder as he realized that she had made this trip once before, when she was even younger than she was now. “So all we need to do is travel to Grove and then follow the trail that leads eastward for four days?”

“Aye, that's all we need do,” Utena responded.

It took all of her will to not let her emotions show. Unable to believe her good luck, Shiori suddenly felt practically giddy with joy. Grove! They were going to Grove, his capitol, though the fortress would be so empty without his dear presence there. Who would have known that the sword would have been so close? Not only that, but she could possibly appeal to the Golden Panther for assistance; after all, that one had a stake in the situation. A hint of a sly smile crossed the handmaiden's lips. She'd much rather deal with the Arisugawa then deal with the somewhat frightening Ebon Phoenix.

Hearing his pink-haired companion's words, the Kiryuu prince mentally nodded in acknowledgment, then twisted in the saddle to glance back at his younger sister and the somber man who would soon be her husband. Saionji and he had talked far into the night about the situation between the clans and this journey of his. He was confident that his childhood friend would do everything in his power to keep both groups safe and to assist Nanami. And, God willing, Saionji and my sister will be able to come to an accord. I know they'll be good for one another so long as they manage to do so. Noticing the younger Kiryuu waving--and looking like her world was coming to an end--Touga smiled and waved back, hoping to reassure her. Then he turned away and gave Blizzard the signal to start. With the wind in his hair, the highland chieftain set off in the direction from which the Rose Gate was calling to him, the rest of the party traveling with him following in his wake.
The water felt good, the cool liquid washing off the dust from the dirt track they were following as it splashed merrily back into the mirror-like lake. Cupping her hands together, Utena drew out more water, this time drinking it from her careful grasp. Nearby, Wakaba was refreshing herself in much the same manner while in the near distance, the sounds of men's voices revealed where the Kiryuu prince and his escort of a half-dozen men were preparing a hasty noon-time meal.

“Ah, that feels wonderful,” the spunky servant happily sighed, crouching back on her heels as she glanced about the surrounding forest with her brown-eyed gaze. They'd been on the move since an hour after dawn, and Wakaba found it quite the pleasure to get out of the saddle for a short while.

“Indeed it does,” Utena agreed before taking another drink of water from her cupped hands.

“So tell me, my lady,” the ponytailed girl asked, turning her attention to the noblewoman that employed her, “what are you going to do should you achieve this quest?” In all honesty, Wakaba could easily see how taken her lady was with the dashing highlander--the men of the rugged northlands were quite attractive, especially a certain green-haired prince--and she couldn't help but worry about Lady Utena. From what she'd been able to hear from the other servants, Wakaba knew that Lord Touga wasn't exactly known for his loyalty when it came to women. However, he had passed her lady's tests, which had made Wakaba wonder if she ought to rethink her position on what sort of man the scarlet-maned prince truly was.

“Well, I've agreed to return to Kiryuu Keep and be a guest of Lord Touga's hospitality for a while,” Utena replied, getting to her feet and brushing off her trews.

“But what about your holdings, my lady?” Wakaba asked, realizing just how deep the other girl's infatuation must run.

“My stewards have handled things well for over a year already,” the lowlander noble responded. “A few months more wouldn't hurt anything. After all, I went into this expecting it to take quite a bit of time.” Glancing about, Utena suddenly frowned as she realized that the gregarious servant was the only other person about. “Where's Shiori, Wakaba? Did you see where she went?”

Startled, the brunette frowned as well, scanning over the forested area with her brown gaze. “No, my lady,” Wakaba replied, racking her brain in an attempt to recall just when was the last time she'd seen the older handmaiden. Shiori had remained mounted, mentioning something about needing the privacy of some bushes. “Perhaps she finished seeing to her needs and returned to the camp while we were washing up?” she suggested.

That certainly made sense. Feeling a small sense of relief, Utena walked back over to her mount and untied the reins from the small tree to which it had been tied. “Then let's return as well.” Taking her palfrey's reins in hand, the slender noble retraced her steps back to where the men were eating, her faithful servant following along with the other mare in tow.

“I still don't exactly like it, my lord,” one of the Kiryuu warriors was saying between mouthfuls of the roll he was eating. Though most of the escort were young men in the prime of their life, the one speaking was one of the older men, a veteran of many a raid and battle. “You could have used your sister to gain more land or more wealth, but instead you offer her to our former enemy. Have you forgotten that it was the Saionji who started the conflict between us?”

Before the Red Tyger could respond to his follower's words, one of the other Kiryuu spoke up. “No one's forgotten about that, but it's over and done, Hikaru.”

“There's no excuse for not only rescinding their servitude, but also giving them half our wealth and Lady Nanami,” the battle-scarred man growled, scowling at the black-haired warrior that had spoken. “They only got what they deserved, and now it's been utterly undone. Thieves and murderers shouldn't be rewarded.”

“I would rather help a neighbor I know than watch them fall to someone I don't know. Give me the familiar over the unfamiliar any day,” Michiyo said, speaking up. The sandy-haired man, one of those who had survived the ambush, gestured toward the general direction in which the Saionji lands lay. “They were desperate then, their lands not supporting them as well as ours support us--”

“They stole our cattle, our crops, our daughters,” Hikaru countered with a growl. “And they killed our brothers and our followers--”

“And we broke them,” Michiyo replied. “But now we face an even greater threat, and we need allies such as the Saionji. They know these lands as well as we, and they are steadfast warriors. We face a common possible foe from an area beyond our homelands. If they should fall, then our own chances are that much more tenuous. They were in that ambush as well, and in that moment, it didn't matter who was Saionji and who was Kiryuu. All those that fell were defending all of us.”

Touga leaned back against the rough bark of the tree behind him, back propped against it as if it were a sturdy chair. Taking a bite from the slice of cheese he held in his hand, he continued to watch as his clansmen talked amongst themselves about his earlier announcements to them.

“He's got a point,” remarked one of the other Kiryuu, a young warrior around the same age as their redheaded lord. “If the Ohtori are determined to come up here, then we stand a better chance fighting with the Saionji then standing alone.”

“And if they're as impoverished as our lord says they are, they won't be as strong of help as they could be,” another of the younger clansmen added. “We've more then enough to sustain ourselves though the summer is embroiled in warfare. We help feed the Saionji and not only will they be at their best, they'll owe us besides.”

“They were our enemy,” Hikaru reiterated, sounding frustrated.

“They paid dearly for it already,” the sandy-haired Michiyo replied, his voice sounding every bit as stubborn. He'd seen both the Saionji and their lord in action and he knew he'd much rather have them fighting at his side then against him. “Now it's time to put that behind us and stand united against the Ohtori should the Phoenix come calling. Once the crisis is over, the marriage will keep them on our side. They will be kin by blood.”

That had the younger Kiryuu nodding in agreement. One of the unwritten but sacred traditions of life was that bonds of blood were the most honored of all. In an uncertain world, family was all you could rely upon for assistance; kinfolk looked out for one another, and the most despised person was one who turned on his own family.

“They killed our men,” Hikaru stubbornly insisted.

“And we killed theirs, but they've also lost many to the disease and starvation their war brought to them. Once Lord Kyouichi and Lady Nanami are wed, they would be fighting their own brothers should they take up arms again, and no sane man would do so,” the raven-haired Kiryuu man responded.

That brought another round of head nodding by the other less seasoned warriors, though the older man looked like he was becoming disgusted at the younger generation. From what the others had seen of the green-haired lord, it would be unlikely that the Saionji would be despicable enough to attack those who had become family--at least as a whole, and so long as the Kiryuu gave them the aid brothers were expected to extend. No more Kiryuu should die at the hands of their neighbors, making the world a slightly safer place.

Touga opened his mouth to take another bite of his cheese, but movement caught his attention. Turning his head, he smiled as he saw the boyishly-clad noblewoman return with her servant. “Ah, there you are. Lunch is awaiting you.” Then the smile faltered, becoming an expression of puzzlement. “Where is your other handmaiden, my lady?”

Utena grimaced in worry. Looking about, all she could see were the Kiryuu clansmen. “Shiori's not here with you, my lord?” she asked, equally confused.

The Red Tyger shook his head in denial. “No, and I've not seen her since she left with you to take care of your needs.”

“But I thought she had returned...” the lowlander warrioress replied, her expression turning to one of deep concern.

“We've seen nary a hair of her, my lady,” one of the Kiryuu said, his words echoed by all the others.

“Then where is she?” Utena asked, glancing to the equally worried appearing Wakaba.
Hooves thundered down the deer track that wove between the massive trunks of ancient trees and the thick underbrush that grew in the shadows of the giants. Glancing back over her shoulder for what had to be the millionth time, Shiori looked for any sign of pursuit, her violet eyes searching for a hint of movement behind her. So far, there had been none, and she was beginning to think that she had indeed slipped away from the lowlander woman and her highlander acquaintance. Considering that she had ridden for quite a distance within a stream bed, it should be quite a while--if ever--before the Kiryuu discovered her palfrey's tracks.

The masquerade was over. Somehow, she had to get someone to get their hands on the magic sword, but she knew she could far more trust the Arisugawa chieftain then she could the beautiful but eerie Ohtori prince. If she could somehow convince the Arisugawa to get the sword first, then maybe the return of her beloved would be even more guaranteed. After all, no one messed with the Golden Panther if they could avoid it.

Lord Akio had come close to snatching the lowlander girl, but in the ensuing battle, Shiori had been equally at risk as the rest. That fight had opened her eyes, made her realize that she was expendable after all. Thoughts of the Ohtori prince getting his hands on the sword he so badly wanted and then killing her beloved anyway spurred Shiori onward, sweat beading on her brow beneath her brunette bangs. Getting the Golden Panther involved would surely force the dark-skinned lord to release his captive once he had gotten what he wanted.

That sword would need to become the property of the Arisugawa chieftain before Lord Touga and Lady Utena came to claim it...
There was no sign of her at all. It was as if she had vanished off the face of the earth.

Her heart heavy, Utena twisted in the saddle and looked behind herself once more. Somewhere, out there in the dense foliage of the evergreens, was her handmaiden. Inwardly cursing at the necessity of continuing on without Shiori, the young warrioress turned her attention back to the path ahead. What had happened? Where could she be? Why was there no evidence of where she had gone? A hundred such questions filled her mind as she rode on behind the equally silent Red Tyger.

Next to her, glancing at the rose-haired maiden in concern, the normally exuberant Wakaba was silent. She could tell from her mistress's face alone how disturbed she was at the sudden disappearance of the older servant. Bad enough knowing that the dashing Lord Kyouichi was being wedded to the younger Kiryuu, but seeing her lady in such a state made Wakaba's heart ache. “I'm sure she'll turn up somewhere, my lady,” the handmaiden softly said hoping to cheer the other girl up.

“I hope she's all right. How I dislike having to leave her behind,” Utena responded, her voice sounding weary.

“Everyone tarried as long as we dared,” Wakaba reminded. “And no one looking found any sign of her, though the Kiryuu did their best.”

“I know, Wakaba,” the lowlander noble sighed.

“I'm very sorry, but it couldn't be helped,” Touga said, turning enough in the saddle to look back at the two riding behind him. “The longer we delay--”

“--The greater the risk that Lord Akio could prevent us from achieving Love's Honor,” Utena finished, nodding. She understood the risks and the reasons, but she still worried about her lost lady-in-waiting's well-being.

“Correct,” Touga responded, though he continued to mull over the mysterious happenings. A thought came to him, one that made a cold shiver run down his spine. “Lady Utena, how long has Shiori been in your employ?”

“For only a few months, my lord. She came stumbling in during the winter snows, begging for assistance and saying that she had escaped cruel treatment from a former mistress. I couldn't turn her away,” the kind-hearted maiden responded. “And since none came to demand her back, I kept her in my custody.”

Only since the winter? Touga echoed, still feeling that chill. “When in the winter, my lady? Do you recall?” he asked, his voice taking on an undertone of demand.

“If it pleases, my lord, Shiori was found a week past Midwinter's Day,” Wakaba spoke up, answering in her lady's stead. In all honesty, there was something about Shiori that put Wakaba on edge almost every time they were in one another's company. When no one else was around, Shiori had carried herself as if she were better, as if she were a noble instead. From the look in Lord Touga's dark blue eyes, he must suspect that there was more to the now missing woman than was first believed.

“Aye, that's right,” Utena confirmed, then blinked in surprise as the color seemed to drain from the handsome lord's face. “Whatever's the matter, my lord?”

Half a day wasted, looking for the girl. Half a day in which they were delayed. The Kiryuu prince inwardly cursed, hoping that they hadn't somehow given the others also seeking the sword an advantage. “I hope 'tis nothing, my lady, but I fear the girl may have been a spy for those also looking for what we seek.”

“What do you mean?” the lowlander asked, a feeling of dread coming over her.

“Somehow those men that ambushed us knew you were traveling with Saionji and me. And now your lady in waiting, one that you know not where she comes from nor have you known her long, goes missing.”

“Perhaps those also seeking the power took her?” Utena suggested, fear showing on her beautiful face.

“Were they in a mood to be taking people, they would have taken you,” Touga pointed out After all, only he and the rose-haired lady knew that he now possessed the Champion's brooch. “No, to be safe, we must assume she has ridden on to notify those to whom she reports.” Once the girl told them the latest news, what would Ohtori do? Would he swoop down to make another attempt to grab the key Touga now held? Would he take the chance to strike swift and hard against the Saionji and the Kiryuu, knowing that the latter was being watched over by Lady Nanami? Would he do both, splitting his forces between two objectives? Turning his gaze once again solely to the path they followed, the Red Tyger urged Blizzard on to a faster pace. If they were to have any reasonable chance at all against one wielding dark powers, then he must be confirmed as the new Champion. He could not fail this, nor could he allow Ohtori to gain more of an advantage than he already had. “Come, my lady!” he called out to the one riding in his wake. “We must hurry. Already we have lost half a day's travel.”

She didn't want to believe it, but she had to admit that what her scarlet-maned companion feared could be true. Frowning in both worry and dismay, Utena tapped her heels to her palfrey's flanks, urging the mare to a speed that matched that of the Kiryuu prince's mount. They needed to reach the Rose Arbor, swiftly, before Lord Akio's plans could be carried out.
Emerald eyes swept over the sight, the corner of a mouth twisted up into a grin. At long last, he stood here before the Rose Gate with a way to get beyond the massive stone doors. It was easy to come here--it always was--for he retained the ability to walk within shadow and the feel of this place was always in the back of his mind. Unlike his other, weaker half, he still had some of his lingering power though he too was encased in mortal flesh and bone.

The gateway was impressive, a pair of smooth pink-veined white marble doors upon which were carved the stylized insignia of a rose within a circle. In the center of the right-hand door, a large handle with a circular depression at its top protruded. Around him were the shadows of the deep woodland glade, this entryway seemingly out of place in so wild an area. But he knew where this would lead, back to that place where he truly belonged.

Nimble hands opened the pin of the tarnished silver brooch, swinging it away from the blackened disk of metal. The slender rod jutting outward, those same fingers then held the brooch steady as he set the piece of jewelry into the circular depression, the pin sliding into the deeper stone sheath meant for it. Before now, the way had been barred to him, the dark reflection of the Champion's brooch that was his only link--aside from his physical appearance--to what he had once been not good enough to unlock the gate. But all that had changed now, the way being opened by the claiming of the true brooch. Hearing the faint snick, his smile grew a bit wider as he gave the handle a turn, his skin dark against the white stone.

It rotated to the left, as he expected it would. Letting go, he could hear the sudden sound of running water, though he knew one couldn't see the waters that flowed. Slowly the Rose Gate began to move, transforming, the marble grinding against itself as the twin panels swung outward and up smoothly. Behind them, two gates of sharp-tipped metal grilles slid past one another, one to each side. High above, the petals of a large stone rose reached up toward the boughs of the surrounding forest; he looked up at the sight for a moment, the wind playfully ruffling his long, pale-lavender hair, then lowered his gaze to the now open entrance.

Stairs greeted him, a flight made of the same marble as the gateway, the thorny vines and fragrant blooms of a rainbow of roses entwined about the banister of the stairs that zigzagged upwards through the thick forest. He took a moment to breathe in the sweet scent of the flowers; she always did love the things, and he had loved them because she had. The smile still on his gorgeous face, Lord Akio began the walk up the long flight of steps.

An archway awaited him, the graceful curve and rose emblem at the top of it shattered. Though broken, the two halves still rested against one another, the massive lanterns hanging from each post illuminating the area around the base of the arch. He passed through the shattered entry, emerald eyes scanning over the place beyond.

A sea of roses stretched out before him, all red, the color of blood. Narrow pathways crisscrossed the area between the well-tended bushes; the fragrance was almost overpowering. In the center of the scarlet sea a lone figure stood, her dark purple hair and brown skin making her stand out from the ruddy hue surrounding her. At the moment, she was bent over slightly, watering the flowers in her care.

Seeing her there made some intense emotion stir within him, but whether it was love or hate, Akio couldn't say. Both were merely sides of the same coin, after all. Regardless, he could no more remain unmoved at the sight of her then could this flesh and blood body of his stop breathing. He wanted to rush to her, but was uncertain whether he intended to hug and kiss her passionately or wring her neck when he reached her side. Instead, he merely walked calmly toward her, determined to remain in control as he made his way between the lush foliage of the bushes.

The slender figure, clad in a regal gown of a hue that matched the surrounding roses, straightened; a stray gust of wind danced over the area, tossing blood-red petals into the air, rippling Akio's mane of light hair even as it tossed about the long, straight strands of the woman's locks. Though the gold-accented bodice of her dress fit snugly, showing to an advantage her feminine charms, the skirt of the gown was full, voluminous, obscuring the shape of the rest of her. Atop her head, like the rays of a brilliant sun, a tiara of golden points glittered from among the deep violet of her hair. Turning to face the newcomer, she smiled.

Akio noted the expression of happiness even as he realized that the leaf-green eyes staring back at him were devoid of any and all emotion. She was just as he remembered, save for the lack of light deep within her large, beautiful eyes. So she too had changed by what she had wrought, but in what manner?

He had returned; of that she could not be mistaken. The same dusky skin and magnificent form, the same heartbreakingly gorgeous face, the same silvery-lavender hair--though he looked older, more... worldly. Her heart should have been leaping in utter joy, but she no longer had a heart--that object had fled with her soul. And he seemed different inside as well, changed in a manner she couldn't quite describe. My poor beloved, how mortality has effected you.

Akio stopped before the graceful woman, looking her over with eyes as well as mind. A shell, a projection... Gone is the soul within? Looking into her vacant eyes, he knew that to be the case. What he faced now was merely a doll, an automaton. Holding out a brown-skinned hand, he spoke a single word, “Anthy.”

“My dearest beloved,” the tender of the roses replied, reaching out and resting her graceful hand atop his. “When I sensed the presence of one brought by the brooch to this place, I had prayed that it would be you to climb the stairs. Welcome home.” Still the smile remained upon her lips, the leaf-green gaze equally devoid of life.

“Long have I waited for this moment,” Akio responded, changing his hold upon Anthy's hand to lift the back of it to his lips in a greeting that was more sensual then respectful. She may be a heartless doll, but if enough of the true Anthy remained, she would react as he expected. “To return whence I belong and see you once more, to have a chance to mend what was done.”

Anthy remained standing there, unmoved by the tall lord's gesture, her hand still held in his loose grasp. “The sundering can be fixed?” she asked, her voice carrying the same flatness of emotion as her eyes.

“Aye, but there are things I need, Anthy.”

The faintest stirring of emotion, the tinge of a look of hopefulness. “What do you need, beloved?”

Akio mentally smirked. How well he knew her, that even this shadow of what she once had been would leap at the chance to undo what had been done. A look of heartfelt pleading on his handsome face, the pale haired noble replied, “The sword, Anthy.”

Another subtle undercurrent of what passed for emotion, this time it was uncertainty upon the rose tender's otherwise vacant face. “But the sword...”

“Come now, Anthy. You've been holding it for me. Look at me. You know who I am, who I was.”

Still she hesitated, uncertain. The sword was for her Champion, and the one standing here had the look and feel of her lost beloved--yet there was still something that didn't seem right. She had always trusted him before, so why was this moment any different?

“Everything can be restored, but to do so, I need the sword,” the Ebon Phoenix reiterated. Staring at her tenderly, he added, “Knowing the whole of you, I love you.”

She returned his gaze. He was mortal now--powerful and still wielding some magic, but still mortal. Should something happen to him, he could be lost forever as was the fate of any other born into the physical world. By her own hand, he was now less then what he had once been. If there was some way to take it all back... “And though you know the whole of the world, I love you,” Anthy softly said in reply.

He held out his arms to her. “The sword, Anthy...” He saw the surrender in her posture, read the tinge of acceptance there on her beautiful face, and made ready to catch her slender form. Her eyes closed as a brilliant light suddenly appeared over her cleavage, a mystic breeze swirling around them as magic awoke in response to her will. Anthy arched backwards, falling, even as the golden hilt of a ruby-adorned sword emerged seemingly impossibly from her heart. Catching her with one strong arm, Akio reached over and grasped the golden wire-wrapped handle. With practiced ease, the Ebon Phoenix drew the glittering blade from its living sheath; the shining silver-colored blade cut through the air as Akio swept the weapon down and outward, reveling in the familiar heft and weight of the sword.

At long last, he once more held Love's Honor. He would be able to finish his plans. Glancing down at the expressionless face of the still-bent woman he held, he gave the hollow projection a smile. He leaned down and gave the red-gowned rose tender a lingering, passionate kiss as a sweet reward for her cooperation.

It would only be a matter of time now before he could turn the power of the sword into something he could wield, and with it, he would hunt down and eliminate his weaker half. Then all that would remain would be himself, the Phoenix, rising remade from the ashes of what he once was.
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