Love's Honor

Chapter One

Springtime had returned to the highlands, bringing with it the promise of warmth and an easier life. The hardships of winter were over; the land was shaking off its yearly slumber. New shoots were showing on the bushes and underbrush, their lighter green a contrast between the dark trunks and deeper greens of the evergreen forest. Once again, the clan had come through the cold weather, sparse food and lengthy nights well, only losing a few old-timers and sickly newborns to the harsher time of the year. All told, it had been a mild winter, and for that, the chieftain of Clan Kiryuu was glad.

Around the noble figure of the leader, the fit and lean forms of his clan's warriors waited on horseback as the tracker searched around for signs of worthy prey. Already a couple of the men held a freshly killed and field-dressed buck suspended between them, the dead animal dangling by tied ankles to a sturdy pole slung from one man's shoulders to the other. Also tied to the pole was a boar, also similarly field-dressed. A breeze blew through the clearing, sending the chieftain's scarlet hair swirling around him while he turned to stare at the two men holding the downed game. “Take the game back home to the clanhold,” he ordered. “We'll continue on to hunt more. Our larders need to be restocked now that winter has depleted the stores.”

“Aye, Lord Touga,” replied the taller and older of the two. Looking over his shoulder, the brunette nodded to his auburn-haired partner. “Let's go.”

Smiling to himself, thinking of the grumbling his younger sister Nanami--ever since the death of their father, the former chieftain, the energetic blond had been the lady of the keep, overseeing the household staff--would do in herding up the kitchen staff in preparing the meat for storage, Touga strained his hearing for any signal from the tracker. The little fourteen-year-old tyrant would actually enjoy another chance to boss around the staff that worked on the upkeep of the stronghold. That thought made the eighteen-year-old highland lord softly chuckle.

Just then, a shout from deeper in the woods rang out between the evergreens. Holding up a hand in an imperious gesture for silence, Touga listened for a repeat yell. Instantly the surrounding warriors--the fighting men of Clan Kiryuu, the protectors and providers of the myriad descendants of a common royal ancestor--fell quiet. Only the whimpering and barking of the waiting dogs, their leads held tightly by the houndsman, broke the hushed silence of the clearing.

“Unicorn spoor!”

A unicorn? Touga thought, feeling a flush of excitement flow through him. The creatures were elusive and highly prized, their horns proof against any sort of poison. There hadn't been signs of one around the Kiryuu glen for months. There was true glory in capturing one of the gorgeous creatures, and they'd already sent home some meat for the almost bare larders. Tugging on the reins with his left hand, he swiftly dropped his right in a gesture for the gathered men to follow him. A touching of his heels to his courser's flanks sent the white gelding cantering forward in the direction from which the shout had come.

Horse and rider made their way between the trees, the rest of the hunters trailing along in their wake. Spotting the flash of the tracker's scarlet tunic, Touga urged Blizzard onward then softly called to the courser to halt when the kneeling man came into full view. “How close is it, do you think?” he asked the youthful man.

“Not far at all, Lord Touga.” The tracker, a dusky blonde of about sixteen winters with intelligent-appearing grass-green eyes, pointed down at the droppings amongst the cloven hoofprints there near a small puddle in a hollow in the ground.

Good. Gracefully turning in the saddle, the highland chieftain motioned for the houndsman to come forward with the dogs. The middle-aged clanmember did so, the pack of black and brindle hounds becoming excited and starting to bark as their keen noses detected a whiff of prey they'd been trained to track. The braided leather leashes swiftly became taut as the canines struggled forward, the pack of animals threatening to drag along their handler through their combined strength. “Let them go once they've got the scent,” Touga ordered.

Moments later, the dogs were loose, their excited barking turning into baying calls as they dashed through the forest in search of their prey. “Kiryuu, onward!” Touga called out, shouting the battle cry of the influential clan. Tapping Blizzard's flanks hard with his heels, the young lord rode after the hounds, the pounding of his heart in the excitement of the hunt echoing the thunder of his white gelding's hooves. Behind him, he could hear the sounds of the other's mounts and the excited shouts of his men as they too gave chase to the elusive creature.

Long scarlet hair flowed like a silken banner as the elegant nobleman followed the sounds of the baying hounds, his dark blue eyes focused on the best way through the forest foliage. This way and that he guided his courser by knee and by rein, threading a path between tree and bush, brush and trunk, using the sounds of the dogs to guide him. Horns began to sound as his warriors spread out into small groups to better cover the area, their crystalline notes signaling to one another where each gathering of men were in relation to one another. Aware of hoofbeats behind him, Touga knew that a number of his warriors were staying with him, seeing to their duty to keep safe the chieftain of the clan.

A flash of white caught his eye, off there to his left. Though the barking of the canines continued to come from straight ahead, the highland lord gave in to his sudden flash of intuition and pulled the reins to the left. Blizzard responded beautifully, slowing from his full gallop to leap toward the left, running in the direction indicated by his young master. Pushing their way past the still mostly-bare branches of a thick bush, horse and rider continued on, Touga looking again for that patch of white.

There! He actually saw it for a fleeting moment--the pristine equine-like body, the dangerous spiral horn, the lion-like tufted tail--as the unicorn dug its cloven hooves into the ground and darted to the right, away from both the pursuing lord and the sound of the dogs and other hunters. Momentarily awed at his very first glimpse of such a beautiful and noble beast, Touga could only stare in wonder as the sleek and snowy form disappeared into the depths of the forest. Even more determined to catch the wondrous animal, the scarlet-haired lord tugged on the reins, urging Blizzard to chase after their prey.

Leaping over fallen trees, splashing through small streams, Touga kept after the fleeing unicorn. Though the animal was darting this way and that, trying to use its graceful agility to advantage, the determined chieftain would catch a glimpse here and there of the noble beast's white hide and turn in that direction. As the merry chase continued on, the sounds of his followers eventually faded away, the baying of the hounds and the calling of the horns impinging on his determined concentration just enough to make him dimly aware of becoming separated from everyone else. But it wasn't until he no longer caught any sight at all of the elegant beast that he tugged on the reins and called for Blizzard to halt.

The white gelding snorted, shaking his head and making the bridle jingle, as he patiently waited for his rider to give the next signal. Frowning in slight annoyance, Touga stood in the saddle, scanning over his current surroundings for any sign of either prey or hunters. He didn't recognize this precise part of the evergreen wood, but he was fairly certain his dashing about hadn't taken him off Clan Kiryuu lands. A swift glance up at the sky confirmed what direction he faced, and he relaxed slightly. Even if he was somehow off the lands held by his clan, the territory he could be trespassing upon would be those of Clan Saionji, their neighbors--and vassals--to the immediate west.

The thought of that made his frown deepen. It had been a couple of years since he had last seen his foster brother, Kyouichi Saionji; the temperamental man had been ordered to return to his clan after a training mishap had concluded with Touga being seriously wounded. Having been newly confirmed as the chieftain by the warriors of the clan, Touga had had to do something about his foster brother in light of the incident. Under the circumstances, he had been as lenient as possible.

As they had gotten older, their friendship had become a turbulent one. Though he had always regarded the green-haired boy as a true brother as well as a friend, Saionji had become more and more distant as they had gone from boyhood to being young men. Try as he might, nothing he did ever truly stopped the growing distance; if anything, his efforts had only made things worse. He had done his best to counter Saionji's growing jealousy, only to see it in the other's violet eyes that he thought he was being patronized. Accepting the inevitable and locking the sadness he felt about the situation away, Touga had given up, letting Saionji believe whatever it was he wished to believe. If being miserable was what made his foster brother truly happy, so be it.

Then had come the fit of temper on the training field. One of the best swordsmen in the clanhold, Saionji was truly a master at wielding a blade, so long as his passionate nature wasn't turned against him. Having successfully won a number of duels against the Kiryuu men with the blunted practice swords, he had become utterly enraged when a sore loser had insulted him, stating that no matter how hard he tried, he would never be as exalted as the lowest of the true-blooded Kiryuu and that he and his bloodline were worthy of only breeding with dogs. Dropping the rebated weapon, Saionji had drawn live steel and had charged at the back of the retreating man. Just then, a young girl maybe only three winters old, having slipped away from her mother, came toddling through the area right between Saionji and his prey, stepping right into the space where the glittering blade was beginning to thrust upward in a swing. Seeing the danger, Touga had instantly reacted, dashing forward as swiftly as possible and then leaping across that last bit of distance. Pain had lanced through him as his back took the blow, the infant huddled under his protective body. Utterly shocked, Saionji had dropped the deadly sword, staring in horror at the blood that had begun to stain the back of Touga's clothing. Though it had turned out to be only a grazing wound, it had still been painful and had required his sister to stitch the edges together, and he had had to keep his arm in a sling for a month to immobilize the muscles of his shoulder so that they could heal correctly. And Saionji had been sent away from the only home he had truly known, back to the clan he would one day lead.

Perhaps it's time to pay my dear brother a visit? Touga idly thought, dark azure eyes scanning over his unfamiliar surroundings. See how he's doing, see if he's gotten over his jealousy... One thing was for certain: he'd not bring down the wrath of Clan Saionji by inadvertently being there within their territory. They were his vassals; they had no right to deny him safe passage on their lands.

Still no sign of either the unicorn or his men. Around him, the sounds of the forest--birds, the creaking of trees in the breeze, the scurrying rustle of small animals--were all he heard. Sighing slightly, wondering just how far away dogs and men were, Touga lifted up the reins and was about to urge Blizzard to walk back the way they came when an unexpected noise impinged itself upon his awareness.

A voice, one that seemed to have the higher tones of a female. Though he couldn't make out the words, the tone alone conveyed something he interpreted as irritation and then awe. Curiosity overcoming him, he focused in on the source of the sound and silently signaled his white courser to move onward.

“...Such a pretty thing. I don't suppose you could aid me?”

What the devil? the young highland lord wondered, finally able to catch what the woman was saying. Azure eyes locked in on the spot from where he believed the other person must be, he fought back the impulse to dig his heels into Blizzard's flanks and have the courser gallop over the remaining distance. The moment he could see the woman in question, he was instantly thankful he had chosen to be patient.

A slender form wearing oddly mannish-looking clothing sat perched upon the dark trunk of a fallen tree, the sunlight shining down on her from the hole in the evergreen canopy left behind by the death of the giant pine. At first glance, the person looked like a boy, slender limbs clad in form-fitting hose and undertunic of ivory hue. A sturdy, knee-length tunic of dark rose pink was belted around a willowy waist by a slim girdle of golden links, and a shapeless cap of matching fabric covered the other's head, a cockade of colorful feathers adorning the left side. No hints at all of the color of her hair were revealed by that soft fabric tam. Leather shoes covered dainty feet, though from the way one of her hands was wrapped around the hose-covered ankle of a foot resting up on the tree truck, it seemed obvious to Touga that she had somehow hurt herself there.

But the sight that truly took his breath away was the fact that the unicorn was there, snuffling in curiosity at the outstretched hand of the strangely-dressed woman. Its white hide brilliant in the sunshine--it seemed to faintly glow to the bedazzled lord's eyes--the horse-like animal lashed its side with it's leonine tail and softly whickered. Then it suddenly lifted up its bearded and single-horned head, turned its fathomless gaze to stare directly at the scarlet-haired nobleman and galloped off, swiftly disappearing into the thick underbrush.

“No, don't!” the woman called out after the disappearing animal. Lowering her hand, her face a study in disappointment, she abruptly jumped and looked over in alarm at the man and horse that seemingly stepped out of nowhere to invade the peace of the quiet clearing. “Oh!”

“Forgive me, m'lady,” Touga hastily said, wanting to swiftly lay to rest any fears she may have at his appearance. “I didn't mean to frighten you so.”

The woman shook her head, then gave the stranger a hesitant smile. He was absolutely gorgeous, sitting as proud as a king upon the back of his magnificent white horse. Long, straight, scarlet-red hair framed a handsome and noble face, clothing in the current style colored in shades of red, white and gold covered a tall and well-made form. “That's quite all right. I was more startled by your unexpected but welcome appearance.”

“Welcome, m'lady?”

“Aye...” Her pretty face taking on a rueful expression, she gently massaged the ankle of the leg she had propped up on the trunk upon which she was sitting. “I fear I must ask for some assistance. I was thrown from my horse and she seems to have wandered off.”

“If I may, allow me to look at that--” Touga offered, beginning to swing down from the saddle of his mount.

“No, no, it's not necessary, kind sir,” the woman hastily replied, shaking her head in the negative. “My ankle hurts, but it's otherwise intact. I merely need someone to fetch me my horse. Could you please do so? I've been dreading the thought of having to try walking to my destination.”

“Of course. Just point the way and I shall fetch your mount for you,” the Kiryuu chieftain replied, giving the woman a charming smile. A subscriber to the gentle sentiments of chivalry, Touga was more than willing to offer any assistance the lady in distress asked of him.

“The last I saw, she went past those trees,” the maiden responded, pointing to a stand of pines on the other side of the clearing.

Peering over there, Touga caught a glimpse of a pale colored horse happily grazing away on the available foliage of the woods. Smiling to himself, he touched heels to Blizzard and tugged on the reins to guide his own mount. “Come now, naughty mare,” he gently chided the grazing animal as he and his courser drew close. “'Tis an ungrateful action to leave your mistress stranded out in the woods so.”

Snorting, the mare lifted her head and eyed both man and horse. Turning, she started to bolt, but Blizzard was faster, having been urged to speed up by his rider. Leaning over to the right, Touga reached quickly out with a hand and firmly grasped the mare's dangling reins. “Now, now, that's not very kind of you,” he murmured to the buff-colored palfrey. “I promise I won't hurt you. Just come along...”

Turning Blizzard to the left and retracing their steps, the highland lord lead the skittery mare back into the clearing and toward the woman sitting there on the fallen tree. She was still massaging her ankle, but the moment she heard them approach, she looked up and smiled again. “Thank you, kind sir. You are a true gentleman.”

“Glad to be of service to one of the gentler sex,” Touga replied, returning her smile. “I'll hold her steady while you mount.”

“Thank you,” the maiden responded, gracefully rising from her impromptu perch. Though the silken-appearing hose and tight sleeves of the undertunic gave hints as to the charms of her feminine body, the overtunic hung baggily on her willowy form, making most of her figure indecipherable. In some ways, Touga found that even more intriguing than some of the current styles that gave hints of a woman's body under her colorful gowns. As she limped over toward her palfrey, the scarlet-haired lord was surprised to see a slim dirk belted to her waist, a plain leather scabbard holding what was more than likely a keen-edged blade. A very intriguing woman, this, he thought, his dark blue gaze resting upon her as she lightly stroked her pale mount's mane and talked softly to it.

“If I may be so bold,” he began, the faintest of puzzled frowns settling on his handsome visage, “why do you dress in such a manner?”

With a soft, feminine grunt, the maiden lifted herself up into the saddle. “What? This?” she asked, tugging on the dark rose-colored fabric of her sturdy tunic with one hand as she tugged on the reins with the other. “I find that dressing in such a manner is more convenient on my travels,” she answered, looking over at the noble-appearing redhead. “And it reminds me of--Oh!”

The palfrey had looked calm, and the woman had appeared to be in control, so Touga had released the reins at her tugging with no qualms at all. However, it seemed as if the buff-colored mare had designs of her own. The moment her mistress seemed firmly in the saddle and holding the reins, there was a crashing through the forest, followed by a shout of discovery. Startled by the abrupt noise, the palfrey bolted into the woods, cutting the maiden off in mid-sentence.

Touga turned and shot his men a look of exasperation. He couldn't blame them for their noisy entrance, nor could he truly get upset at their shouts of greeting after having found him. After all, the trio of raven-haired warriors had been assigned to be their chieftain's guard. “Stay put!” he shouted to the three Kiryuu men. “I'll be right back!” With a shout and a light kick to his courser's flanks, the scarlet-maned lord chased after the panicked mare.

They thundered through the woods, weaving among the bushes and underbrush, the young nobleman's dark blue gaze focused on the slender figure atop the other horse. She seemed to be clinging tightly to the saddlehorn, her surprise at the palfrey's bolt having cost her the hold she had had on the reins. To Touga, she looked as if she was afraid of taking yet another spill from the back of her mare.

“Hyah!” he shouted to his courser, urging Blizzard to catch up to the runaway animal with another tap of his heels. Long hair rippling behind him, he kept his focus on the maiden's willowy form, fervently praying that misfortune would not happen to fall upon the strangely-clad woman. Nearly bare branches tore at him and his horse as they made their way through the foliage, and once he had to lean low over his courser's neck, the strands of the animal's mane tickling against his face, in order to miss being swept off by a low-hanging branch of a pine. Even so, the faster gelding gained on the panicked mare, the distance between them swiftly disappearing as the chase continued.

Leaping over a small stream, the galloping mounts and their riders dashed through more thick brush to emerge into a long but narrow clearing. Finding the room to draw abreast of the other animal, Touga quickly lashed the reins of his white gelding, trusting in the courser's training to remain predictable. Taking a breath and gripping tightly with his knees, the highland lord leaned far over to the left. Arm contacting the warm solidity of the maiden, he grabbed for her with his other arm and pulled, hard. Grunting with the effort, feeling a strong grip clutch at him, fingernails digging into his shoulders through his scarlet-trimmed white tunic, Touga jerked himself back to an upright position as he gathered to his chest the slender form of the maiden. Settling her onto his lap as best he could, he reached around her and tugged on the reins. “Ho, there, Blizzard.”

Ever responsive to his young master's commands, the white gelding came to a halt. Her breathing rapid from her fright, the maiden--oddly enough, Touga idly noted, her rose-colored hat remained perched perfectly still upon her head--turned her gaze to look up at her rescuer. Her mouth opened, but nothing came out as she stared at him.

Her eyes... They were large, a captivatingly luminous blue. Up close, they were her best feature, a shade of azure that was enough to take someone's breath away. A man could easily get lost in those eyes...

For a timeless moment, they remained like that, the Kiryuu chieftain holding against him the lovely stranger in the odd garb, each staring into the other's eyes. The runaway mare, the evergreen forest, everything else was forgotten, their entire existence focused only upon themselves and that particular minute. How exquisite her beauty, her visage certainly one of a noble heritage. Though from a distance she may pass for a youth in that outfit of hers, there was no mistaking the feminine structure of her face, the lushness of her rose-tinted lips, the thickness of her long eyelashes...

He seems... familiar... somehow... the maiden thought, her gaze focused on that angelic face, those cobalt blue eyes, the scarlet hair that framed his noble visage. Suddenly aware of how close she was to him, sitting upon his lap as she was, she suddenly pinked slightly and looked away, scooting forward on the saddle slightly. “Thank you again, kind sir,” she murmured.

Her abrupt shyness made his expressive mouth turn up in a smile. “I never could ignore a damsel in distress,” he replied.

Looking around, she took on an expression of vexation. “Now where has my ungrateful mare gotten off to?” she complained.

“I'm sure she'll not run overly far,” he reassured her. “What was your destination, m'lady, if I may ask?”

“I was traveling to Kiryuu Keep.”

Touga blinked, surprised. He hadn't heard of any guests coming to visit, especially not any maiden of such loveliness. “Pardon my inquisitiveness, but what business do you have there?”

“Oh, nothing overly important,” she responded, still not looking at him. There was something about him that made her faintly uneasy; she was very aware of his nearness and the warmth of his magnificent form. “I enjoy traveling, kind sir, and have made it a goal to visit as many holdings as will allow me to stay.”

“Do you travel all alone?” Touga wondered aloud, frowning slightly. The thought of any maiden braving the forests of the highlands by herself, even if she should know how to use the blade at her side, made him feel like throttling her for her foolishness.

“Oh, no, I do not. I just happened to get separated from my party and then my palfrey threw me.” Taking a breath and looking back at him, she faintly paled at the displeased expression on his face. “I'm sure they've continued on to Kiryuu Keep, thinking that I may have reached there ahead of them. I'm certain I'll be reunited with them were I to go there.”

“We shall see,” the young lord replied. Leaning over, he tugged open a saddlebag single-handedly, fishing around in it until he pulled out the object that he sought. A horn from a highland bull, hollowed out and bored into in order to allow one to blow it as an instrument, it was decorated with the intricate knotwork common to the artistic styles of the area. Raising the horn to his lips, Touga blew two short notes followed by a lengthy tone. He knew that his waiting men would recognize the signal and come to his side. “I shall take you to the keep,” he added, lowering the horn.

“But what about my mare?” the woman queried.

“My men will look for her and bring her back.”

“Your men?” she echoed, frowning thoughtfully.

“Aye. The ones that came crashing into the clearing and set your palfrey to flight are warriors of my clan,” Touga responded, his tone matter of fact.

Your clan?”

Before he could reply to her astonished query, the sounds of the trio of Kiryuu men came to his ears. Tugging the reins and getting Blizzard to turn around, he waited with a smile as the raven-haired warriors rode into the clearing on their fine steeds. “Is everything all right?” the man in the lead called out.

“Aye, is it?” added the second of the similar-appearing men.

“There's no danger?” the third chimed in.

“Everything's fine, I assure you,” Touga answered, nodding slightly to the three. “However, the lady here has had her horse run off. I wish to return home with her, so I'm charging you with finding her mare and returning to the keep with it.”

“As you wish, Lord Touga,” the apparent leader of the trio said, bowing in acknowledgment of the order, a gesture swiftly echoed by the other two. The three then spurred their horses onward, leaving the chieftain and his guest alone.

Lord Touga? She stared at him in awe, realizing that the gorgeous man was the one she had hoped to observe. So this was the young lord of one of the most powerful clans in the highlands. Feeling her cheeks warm with a blush, the maiden turned her gaze away from him.

Sensing her pensive mood, Touga was content to find his way back to Kiryuu Keep in silence. Intrigued by the mystery of her, he was willing to let her reveal things at a pace she wished. Perhaps she would explain more once she was reunited with her people and behind the safety of the walls of the strong fortress. For the moment, he would certainly enjoy her company there before him, breathing in the tempting rose-tinged scent of her. There would be time enough to satisfy his curiosity once he got her home.

Well now, things were beginning to look up. The Clan Kiryuu men had returned from a successful hunt, bringing home a brace of boar and a couple of stags along with four pheasants, putting to ease some of her fears about the lack of food in the keep's nearly depleted larders. With her usual cheer, the slim blond exercised both will and tongue to whip the kitchen staff into frenetic activity. One of the stags was skinned and dressed, its body now turning on a spit within the massive fireplace within the kitchen while the rest of the meat was being stripped from the carcasses in preparation to being cured and salted for preservation. After being reduced to feeding the household on what legumes, roots, tubers, and grains remained in the sacks, boxes and barrels in the basement of the shell keep for the last couple of weeks while they waited out a last cold snap and hard frost, she knew that a feast tonight would improve the clan's morale greatly. With the coming of spring, her brother and the warriors would be busy replenishing the stores by hunting; it was a yearly ritual that was familiar and comforting both. They had made it through he toughest part of the seasons.

Crossing her arms over her bosom--though small, it was already showing the promise of her coming physical maturity; she would more than likely be as beautiful as her brother was handsome--the fourteen-year-old watcher scanned over the approach to the keep with her violet gaze. From her perch on the stone balcony overlooking the single entrance into the fortress, she could see the whole of the clanhold and the surrounding fields beyond. The keep dominated an artificially made hill on the site of what had once been a hill-fort first constructed in time immemorial, the granite shell covering the majority of the top of the motte. A stone curtain wall had replaced the wooden palisade that had once ringed the inner side of the ditch around the motte, the change made during the last chieftain's lifetime. In the shadow of the keep, still surrounded by a wooden palisade, the rest of the clan's cottages and barns were arranged around the stronghold, the royal stables being the building closest to the gateway through the curtain wall that lead to the pathway up the hillside to the entrance to the tower. Of course, there were other villages scattered throughout the valley in which Clan Kiryuu made its home, each one a gathering of homesteads of men who were either descendants of the first royal Kiryuu or were vassals of the clan, but here was the place where the prince of the Kiryuu maintained his traditional home.

“Lady Nanami?” called out a voice, breaking the silence.

Frowning petulantly--she wanted to assure herself that her beloved older brother had made it home safely--the slim girl turned and glared at the one who had disturbed her, violet eyes narrowing. Though the locks of her shimmering blond right around her face were caught in a braid she wore across her crown in a style reminiscent of a tiara, the rest of her medium-length hair was unbound, free to fall in graceful waves about her head and shoulders. Looking every inch the princess in her orange-colored chemise and saffron-yellow sideless surcoat, she imperiously queried, “What is it, Keiko?”

The girl addressed hastily bowed, her twin light auburn ponytails swaying with the movement. Averting her brown-eyed gaze, the other fourteen-year-old cleared her throat nervously. “Begging your pardon, m'lady, but where should the guests be placed for the night?”

“In the guest room, of course,” Nanami swiftly answered, her tone suggesting that the maiden must be a simpleton to not have figured that out herself.

“We weren't sure, since they'd be crowded in there--”

“'Tis the only place we have for them,” the young lady pointed out, her voice sounding both matter of fact and irritated all at once. “They'll have to make due with cots if they wish to partake of our hospitality.” Thank god Big Brother managed to get some meat in the house, Nanami silently added, frowning at the reminder of the extra mouths to feed. Two men at arms and two apparent handmaidens had shown up, asking for hospitality and stating that they had somehow become separated from their noblewoman, who had been traveling here to Kiryuu Keep. Though alarmed when they had been told that their lady wasn't present--as they had apparently been expecting--the news that the chieftain was out hunting in the immediate caused the group of strangers to decide to abide at the keep and see if their lady should show up on her own. From what little Nanami had overheard of their conversation, they figured that no blackhearts would dare try anything on Kiryuu lands while the prince was out and about.

“As you wish, m'lady,” Keiko quickly replied, bowing again and hastily walking backwards toward the oaken door that lead from the balcony to the women's solar.

Turning her back to the retreating handmaiden, Nanami once more gazed out over the clanhold to the fields beyond, searching for any sign of her brother's return. The roasted stag along with a hearty stew made from what vegetables remained as well as the bread baked from what little stone-ground flour they had left would make for a decent feast, even with the five additional people. There was certainly enough ale and wine remaining in the kegs down below in storage for a celebration, and if the weather held, she could count on a trip in the near future to the nearest market city in order to purchase more supplies with what scant money her brother had along with any game with which they could barter.

There, across the fields, she thought she saw movement. Leaning forward, stretching out over the battlements of the shoulder-high wall of the balcony, Nanami's breath caught in her throat as she strained her eyesight to catch a glimpse of who was riding over the currently-fallow land. A flash of white, a glimmer of scarlet, and a jolt of joyous excitement ran through the young noblewoman. Big Brother's home!

A bright smile on her pretty face, she couldn't take her violet gaze from the magnificent form of her older sibling; how wonderful he looked--how utterly noble!--as he rode across the dark earth on his gorgeous white steed. She was the luckiest girl in the world to have the prince of the Kiryuu as her big brother. Hardly noticed at all were the trio of dark-haired warriors that rode in their chieftain's wake, their figures astride almost identical chesnut-colored coursers, though a part of Nanami's mind acknowledged their return as well. After all, Suzuki, Yamada and Tanaka had made it known that any one of them would like to one day have the chieftain's sister for a bride.

As Touga rode closer to the keep, Nanami's smile faded ever so slightly. The moment the young lord was through the open gate in the wooden palisade that protected the homesteads of the clan members, his people warmly greeted him, calling out and waving. It was obvious to any observer that Lord Touga was beloved by the clan, both male and female alike--though the women were much more vocal and demonstrative. Why must they make such fools out of themselves every time he comes near? Nanami mentally growled.

No matter,
she continued, straightening up and pushing away from the gray granite wall. In her mind's eye, she watched as her brother came riding up to the stables. She would then dash down through the keep, her long skirts held up out of the way in her hands, run out the single door, sprint down the incline of the grass-covered motte and give him a joyful hug the moment he dismounted from Blizzard. She would tell him how happy she was he made it home safely, and he would hug her back and tell her how much he missed her company as he was out hunting. Life would be wonderful as they walked arm in arm together back up into the tower that was their home. Sighing happily at her warm vision, Nanami began to act on her decision when she suddenly noticed something that brought everything to a crashing halt.

Touga was riding with someone else on his courser.

Who could
that be? the slim blond mentally hissed, her violet eyes narrowing in annoyance. Staring at the form perched between Blizzard's neck and her older brother's white-clad torso, she couldn't decide if the figure dressed in dark rose pink was a boy or something else. The clothing hinted at a masculine identity, but there was something about the slender figure--and the way her brother was holding that person...

Gasping, Nanami felt a nameless sort of dread as the Kiryuu prince and his followers made their way through the village upon the central path and halted before the long, rectangular, thatched-roof building that served as the royal stables. Continuing to watch from her perch high atop the three-story shell keep, Nanami absently clenched a hand shut into a fist as her brother dismounted and then gallantly helped down his unexpected passenger. From the way he acted and the way he moved, she knew.

The stranger was a woman. Though oddly dressed, she had to be a woman nonetheless. Otherwise, Touga would be behaving in a different manner altogether.

dare that tramp get in the way of my happy reunion with Big Brother! Nanami fumed, a stormy expression marring the loveliness of her face. Look at her! She can't even dress properly. Well, I'm certain she's of no consequence. Big Brother wouldn't look twice at such an abnormal female. Reassured by her thoughts, the young blonde stepped away from the balcony wall and headed for the door to the women's solar. It was time to welcome home the lord of the keep and to find out just who it was he'd brought home.
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