Love's Honor

Chapter Two

Large aquamarine eyes glanced about, taking in her surroundings. Kiryuu Keep was actually rather spacious for a building of its sort, with sturdy granite walls and a cozy wooden interior structure. Compared to some of the other fortresses in this far-flung northern end of the land, it was downright luxurious, what with its stone construction, the many fine tapestries on the wall, the cleanliness of the rushes that covered the Great Hall's floor. And it too, like its young lord, held a note of familiarity that haunted her.

“The guestroom is this way, m'lady,” prompted the boy guiding her through the fortress. An active youth of about eleven winters, with short-cropped golden blond hair and large, adorable azure-blue eyes, he was clad in dark blue tights, a sky blue tunic that was simply decorated with silver braid, dark brown, soft leather shoes and a tabard that proclaimed him a page of Clan Kiryuu's prince. Fabric as white as snow covered the boy's other clothing, front and back sporting upon the surface the appliquéd cloth visage of a rampant tyger brandishing a sword in its right-hand forepaw, all as red as new-shed blood. Even as far as the lowlands, she'd heard rumors of the prowess of the Red Tyger; Touga Kiryuu was supposedly one of the bravest and fiercest of lords, as well as one of the most chivalrous and honorable. “Your ladies are waiting there for you.”

“Thank you,” the rose-clad girl--for truly a girl she was, having only seen fifteen winters--replied, her soft shoes making hardly any sound on the stone steps of the spiral staircase. A hand rested lightly on the breast of her masculine-cut, baggy overtunic as she descended the flight behind the boy. “What about my men at arms?”

“His Lordship means to have them bunk in the guard's dayroom. That way they'll be just outside your door and you and your ladies will have some privacy.”

How very thoughtful, she mused, a smile settling on her rose-hued lips. The moment he'd entered the Great Hall, after seeing to making sure that the grooms had taken care of her palfrey, Lord Touga had been enthusiastically greeted by a slender blond girl who was obviously a lady in high standing in the household. Insisting that he needed to check on various things, the orange- and yellow-clad lady had monopolized the highland lord's time, even calling for the page to attend their unexpected guests. Murmuring his apologies to her, Touga instructed the page to show her to the guestroom while he had walked off, the blond girl arm in arm with him.

The blue-eyed girl hadn't overly minded. After all, Touga was the prince of the clan, and as such, he was sure to have a busy schedule. Besides, the thought of freshening up after a day's travel and recovering from getting tossed from her mare was something quite pleasant.

They emerged from the stone shaft of the stairwell out into a large room with two heavy, brass-bound oaken doors, one in the center of each wall to the sides. Across from the archway leading to the stairs, a large shuttered window overlooked the oval courtyard in the center of the circular shell keep. Like most of the rooms in the tower, this one was somewhat triangular in shape, taking up close to a quarter of the circle encompassed by the thick granite outer wall. A few rough-hewn wooden trestle tables with matching benches on either side furnished this chamber, with tapestries depicting scenes from legendary battles hanging along the walls. From a beam of the ceiling, a banner of Clan Kiryuu--that same white field with a red rampant tyger holding an upright sword as was on the page's tabard--hung just to the right of the shuttered window.

“This is where your men will be sleeping,” the boy explained, pointing to the twin cots set up against the wall, one to either side of the door to the left of the stairs. “Inside that door is the guestroom.”

“Thank you again,” the girl replied, giving the blond youth a bright smile. “I believe I can take it from here.”

The page sketched a swift but respectful bow. “As you wish. If you need aught else, give the bell cord in the room a pull and I'll be right down to see to your wishes.”

She merely nodded, the feathered cockade on the side of her dark rose colored cap rippling slightly from the air of her movement. Turning away from the boy, she pulled the catch on the door and pushed it open. “Hello?” she called out, stepping inside.

There was a pause as she pulled the door shut behind her. Then came an excited voice, one that was feminine and sounded quite relieved. “Lady Utena! There you are!”

The source of the greeting was a somewhat pretty maiden of fifteen winters, her reddish-brown hair pulled up into a single topknot ponytail by a red ribbon save for a lock before each ear and a single forelock that curled in the middle of her forehead. Large, soulful brown eyes gazed at the newcomer in pure delight. Dressed in simple garb of the current fashion, the dark brown kirtle underneath her emerald green sideless surcoat--the sides of which were laced up with green ribbon in a criss-cross pattern--gave tantalizing hints as to her body’s shape beneath.

The somewhat boyishly-attired maiden had only enough time to blink her aquamarine eyes in mild surprise at how enthusiastic a greeting she received before the brunette girl grabbed her and gave her a huge--and very familiar--hug. “Lady Utena! I was getting so worried about you. When they said you weren’t here...”

“I'm quite all right, as you can see,” the rose-clad girl responded, doing her best to smile despite getting somewhat crushed by the other's embrace. “Please, Wakaba, control yourself. It's not exactly proper...” In the affectionate gesture, the cloth cap finally succumbed to all the bouncing and jostling it had taken throughout the day. It fell to the floor, releasing the wealth of wavy rose-pink hair that had been stuffed underneath it.

“Oh, all right, m'lady,” the brunette replied, turning loose of the other and taking a step back. “So what happened to you? We couldn't find you anywhere.”

“I'm sorry for that. Something caught my eye, so I wandered off the road to take a closer look. Not overly far into the woods, my palfrey shied and ran off with me, finally tossing me off her back. I twisted my ankle, so I couldn't walk right away.” Shaking her head slightly and running a hand through her hip-length mane of hair, the young noblewoman did her best to untangle her formerly bound hair.

“Oh dear!” Wakaba said, a hand coming up to cover her mouth. “Are you sure you're all right?”

“She said as much the first time around,” answered another voice. Stepping from the large, well-made bed, another maiden approached. Older than either one of the others by a couple of years, her slightly wavy brunette hair was cut short, curling down to only the nape of her neck. In contrast to the other, her bangs were worn long and loose, the central forelock curling between her large, violet-hued eyes. Her taller form was attired in another outfit of the current fashion, an azure kirtle snug beneath a sideless surcoat of violet cloth. Like all of them, her garb was rather plain; their lady didn't believe in drawing the attention of evil-minded men by advertising their relative wealth while traveling. “Don't you believe our lady?”

“Well, of course I believe her, Shiori,” Wakaba grumbled, crossing her arms over her bosom.

“It's okay, both of you,” Utena said, looking from one to the other. “Where are Tatsuya and Ryu?”

“Last I saw, they were hanging out with the household guard,” the short-haired maiden responded.

“I think they said they wanted to get in some training with the Kiryuu men now that we're here,” Wakaba added.

“That sounds like a splendid idea. The Kiryuu are supposed to be skilled in the arts of war,” the pink-haired noblewoman said.

“Among other arts,” Shiori pointed out, a sly expression on her pretty face.

“Well, Lord Touga certainly seems gallant enough--”

“Lady Utena! Have you met Lord Touga?” Wakaba asked, surprise and admiration both on her openly expressive visage.

“Well, yes... You see, he was out hunting in the woods and happened across where I was tending my hurt ankle--” Utena began, only to be cut off by her older handmaiden's words.

He brought you here? How envious.”

“Really, Shiori, it was no big deal,” the pink-garbed girl hastily said. “He only did what any true noble would do.”

Just then, a knock on the solid wooden door sounded, breaking through the conversation. The trio of maidens all glanced at one another before Utena called out, “You may enter.”

“Excuse me, m'lady, but I've brought a message from His Lordship,” came the voice of the youthful page once the door opened. Stepping into the room, they could see his slim arms straining under the weight of a pair of ash-wood buckets filled nearly to the brim with water, curls of steam rising from each one. Behind the boy, a number of other servants filed in after him, each one also carrying a bucket full of hot water. “He wishes you to enjoy the hospitality of his home and to offer to you a bath with which to wash the dust of your travels from you and your ladies. He also hopes you'll grace the Great Hall with the light of your presence this evening at our feast in celebration of the coming of spring. He would be greatly honored to have you join him at the high table.”

While the blonde boy spoke, the other servants--a grouping of people young and old, mostly female but with a few youths and men as well--filed through the room and began dumping their buckets of hot water into a large cast iron tub placed off in the far corner of the room. Glancing over there, Utena could see that there was a movable folding screen of varnished rosewood in that same corner, its surface adorned with a gorgeous pattern of entwined roses. Obviously the screen was to be stretched out and positioned around the tub to give the bather some privacy. Turning her attention back to the youth and noticing that he seemed to be staring at her with a slightly dazzled expression, the noblewoman nodded in agreement. “Tell your lord that my people and I will gladly share supper with him this evening, and also that I thank him for the bath.”

“Of course, m'lady,” the white-tabarded page acknowledged, bowing slightly before lugging over to the tub his own pair of water-filled buckets. With his added, the tub was reasonably full; the servants filed out as quietly as they came in, the three guests watching as they disappeared out the entryway. Then the door was closed, returning to them the privacy that they had had.

“Well, I don't know about you, but a hot bath sounds like a good idea to me,” Wakaba said, eyeing the metal container sitting in the corner of the room.

“It'll be nice to get the dirt from traveling off, yes,” Shiori agreed.

Utena merely nodded, walking over toward the tub, a hand reaching up to unlace the ties that kept the slit in front of the neckline of her rose-colored cyclas. Protocol allowed her to go first, being the highest ranked of the ones there; knowing that the hot water would help soothe the remaining ache in her ankle, she was willing this time to do as her title allowed her to act. She would just be sure to get back out before the water got too cold for her handmaidens to enjoy.

Music filled the air, crystalline notes from harp, flute, and lute supported and driven by the low, throbbing beat of the drum. The musicians occupied a corner of the raised dais situated between the single shaft of the barred window leading to the outside of the keep and the large fireplace that warmed the Great Hall as best it could. The C-shaped chamber was the largest single room in the upper floors of the keep, and it served as the center of life for the lord of the Kiryuu and his household. It was here that disputes between clanmembers were decided upon, the evening meals and celebrations of the royal household were conducted and the majority of the staff slept in cots at night after the tables and benches were picked up and placed against the walls and the dirtiest of the rushes covering the wooden floor were swept out to be burnt in the fire. During the day, the cots, pillows and blankets were folded up and stored in a closet just off to the side of the vestibule between the outside door and the Great Hall.

The table and individual chairs upon the dais were always present, the table bolted to the wooden platform's floor and the seats ornately carved heavy pieces of furniture that could only be shoved back or forth for a short distance. Whether sitting at the table during a feast or in attendance upon court business, the Kiryuu chieftain would be present in the red-upholstered silver birch throne-like chair, other equally fancy seats reserved for those of a similar station in life. Tonight, however, things were far more relaxed than their usual wont.

The majority of the trestle tables were still leaning against the tapestry-lined walls, with only a scant few arranged in a curving line between the door to the kitchen and the main entrance into the keep. It was on those tables that the staff had arranged the bread and rolls, roast venison and vegetable stew for the evening meal were situated, the rough-hewn tables covered with cloths alternating between white and scarlet red. Across from them, in the inner curve of the C-shape formed by the Great Hall, two shuttered windows overlooked the open, oval-shaped courtyard that was in the very center of the circle enclosed within the shell keep's outer wall. The rest of the rush-covered floor was open, the sturdy plant stalks having a few fragrant herbs--once dried, they had been reconstituted and then allowed to air dry in order to make them supple yet again--scattered about to lend their sweet scent to the air as the people milling about crushed them underfoot as they walked.

Touga stood before the fireplace, the warmth of the flames making his backside quite comfortable as he scanned over the scene with his cobalt-blue gaze. Having wanted to get everyone's mind off the hardships winter may have brought, he had asked for the celebration to be an informal thing and the hall cleared to allow for dancing. The musicians were a traveling band, and quite good; their lively tunes so far certainly had more than made their food and lodging worth it. He was glad to have invited them to stay when they had first appeared a week ago, and he was tempted to offer them a permanent position were they looking for such employment. Lifting the golden goblet to his lips, he took a sip of the rich red wine within as he looked about for his sister.

There she was, looking as splendid as always. She wore her best sideless surcoat, the snowy white one upon which was embroidered on the skirt in both front and back in scarlet and gold thread the Kiryuu tyger. Ribbons of silver-edged red braid laced up the sides of the overtunic, under which could be seen a kirtle of deep golden-yellow, the hem of neck, skirt and sleeve trimmed with a pattern of ruby-adorned golden flowers. Over her braided blond hair rested a netting of golden thread with tiny glimmering rubies at the junctures that shimmered with a ruddy fire as she moved among the others there. Touga allowed himself a smile. No doubt she was making sure that everything was being handled efficiently for the celebration. That was one of her gifts, despite her age. Already she knew how to keep a noble household running well; she would be an asset to whatever lord she was given to as a bride.

I suppose I should turn my thoughts to arranging something advantageous for her and myself both, he silently mused, taking another sip of the wine. However, I'm reluctant to give up her talents just yet, when I have no one to step in and take over once she's gone.

Unaware of her brother's current thoughts, the slim blonde made her way over to the tables holding the food. Everything seemed to be in order for once: the trenchers were there, ready to be picked up, the fresh rolls were hot and buttered, the venison sliced into all sizes for the hearty and light appetites both, the stew had a delightful scent that left the mouth watering. Seeing that a number of the household had already served themselves and were seated on the floor eating away--she understood her brother's thought behind making it an informal, buffet type of feast--Nanami decided that the time had come to make sure her beloved sibling was pleased with the arrangements. Glancing about, she grinned as she spied him standing near the musicians and the dais before the roaring fire.

God, he was magnificent as always, as proud and sleek and beautifully deadly as the red tyger emblazoned upon his white cyclas. Buttoned on the side and sleeveless, as well as its lower length split to allow for better movement, the silver-trimmed overtunic was in startling contrast to the deep scarlet undertunic he wore beneath. Silver fox fur trimmed the neck, long sleeves and hem of the red tunic, a braid of ruby-adorned silver sewn just above the furry material. White hose adorned his legs, his feet in comfortable, black leather shoes. His waist-length scarlet hair hung loose, the perfect frame for his handsome and charming visage. Sighing in absolute adoration, Nanami again thanked her lucky stars that she happened to be related to such an important and wonderful man.

“My dearest lord,” the slender blonde noblewoman began once she approached close enough for her brother to hear her over both fire and lovely music, “it seems as if the feast is off to a good start.” For a moment, a look of insecurity crossed Nanami's beautiful face, clouded the large violet eyes. “Are--are you pleased with everything?”

Touga slowly lowered the goblet, his azure gaze resting on his younger sibling's uncertain expression. After a long pause, he gently smiled. “Aye, Nanami. I'm quite pleased. Everything's turning out well so far.”

The look on the young lady's face was absolutely priceless as she heard the chieftain's verdict. Smiling brightly, she impulsively grabbed her brother's arm and gave it a warm hug, rocking herself and him ever so slightly in her enthusiasm. “You're so wonderful, my lord,” she softly breathed.

“I wonder how I managed to get such an adoring sister,” Touga softly murmured, glancing down at the blonde clinging to him. Despite his words, a hint of a smile was there on his lips. Looking into his goblet, he noticed that the wine had gotten to a low level. Besides, he was rather hungry and had yet to eat; in showing to his folks his generosity, he had given permission for them all to start before he had himself served. “Come along, Nanami. I wish to have something to eat, and I daresay that my cup is almost empty.”

“I'll be happy to serve you, my lord,” the younger Kiryuu sibling quickly replied. Still clinging to his arm, she trailed along as the tall highland chieftain began to make his way over to the tables upon which the sumptuous meal was spread.

Just as the two were midway to their destination, the door to their left--the one leading to the antechamber that served a dual function of waiting room for those wishing to enter the Great Hall for court as well as storage room for the fine linens, cups, plates and eating ware made from precious metals used for feasting--opened up, admitting a small group of people into the tapestry adorned hall. Flanking the trio of well-dressed women were two men, their matching outfits of black and white adorned with the crest of a rampant silver unicorn. It was obvious to see that the pair--one was a handsome youth with dark brown eyes and short-cropped, straight, dark-brown hair parted in the center; the other was older and equally attractive, with short, wavy, dark auburn hair and golden-brown eyes, a forelock straying to rest between his eyes--were the guards for the three maidens that walked between them. A splash of color in shades of green and shades of violet, the two brunettes were quite a lovely sight.

But it was none of those four that caught Touga's eye and then held it in fascinated wonderment. No, that alone was due to the stunningly beautiful angel that glided into the Great Hall in the center of her group of retainers.

She was absolutely gorgeous, this strange noblewoman that walked into the room and seemed to dominate it with her quiet presence alone. A cascade of rose pink hair fell in soft waves around her face, about her shoulders and then ended at the tempting curve of her hips. She wore a very feminine dress in the latest fashion, her rose beribboned surcoat made from a woven tapestry material depicting white unicorns frolicking in a wealth of white, pink and red roses. Her kirtle was a deep pink, silver braid decorated with tiny pale pink gems glittering with her every movement at the hem of skirt, neck and sleeve. On the left side of her face, the silken locks of her hair were pulled up to the side of her head and fastened there with a silver comb decorated with a sculpted rose, a pale pink jewel held in the heart of the metallic flower. In the middle of her neckline, she wore a golden brooch, four heart-shaped rubies arranged in a cross, their points to the center decorating that piece of jewelry.

But the most captivating thing about her still were her eyes. Those aquamarine pools drew him in, kept his attention, made it hard to see anything but their fascinating and mysterious depths. By those eyes alone, he knew he was looking upon that same maiden that he had brought home earlier in the day. The transformation from seemingly lost waif to heavenly angel left Touga speechless--save for a gasping inhalation of breath at the first sight of her.

Startled by her brother's abrupt cessation of movement and his sound of amazement, Nanami frowned, perplexed, as she glanced up at him. Whatever it was that he'd noticed, it held him utterly spellbound. The golden-maned maiden's expression deepened as she looked over in the direction at which her dear brother stared. Who the devil is that? she wondered, violet eyes narrowing in slowly dawning annoyance. How ostentatious the stranger appeared, how seemingly above everyone else she carried herself as if she was some sort of queen. How dare she grab her older sibling's attention so?

“Magnificent...” the scarlet-haired chieftain softly breathed, his voice holding a note of rapt admiration.

“Oh, I don't know about that,” Nanami responded.

“She cleans up very well indeed,” Touga added, still staring at his rose-haired guest.

“'Cleans up'?” the younger sibling echoed, her voice having a tone of puzzled surprise. Looking again at the beautiful--and indisputably feminine maiden--a feeling of dread filled Nanami, draining the color from her face. She can't be the one he brought home, the one in that dreadful clothing, her stunned mind whispered. She just can't! However, a part of her already knew the truth, that this obviously well-born lady was that same girl, and a serious threat to taking her brother away.

The Great Hall was every bit as well-kept and sumptuous as the rest of the stone keep, but the moment Utena stepped inside the crowded chamber, a deep sense of familiarity washed over her. I've been here before...? she silently mused, looking about. The great stone fireplace, a marble mantle fastened to the wall above the blackened stone arch, was right where she expected it to be, as was the dais upon which the high table sat. The tapestries, both those lining the walls and those hanging from the massive beams of the ceiling, were of scenes and patterns she was sure she'd seen a long time ago; the shields and crossed arms that also decorated the walls were equally familiar. As her gaze darted about at her surroundings, Tatsuya and Ryu kept a watchful eye on the others in the chamber while Wakaba and Shiori trailed along just behind her. And there are the two windows that look out on the courtyard below... Utena added, again noting a feature of the hall right where she expected it to be. The delicate fingers of a hand reaching up to lightly fondle the brooch from the fallen champion of Love, the rose-haired lady searched through her memories.

Her parents had died here in the highlands, stranding her all alone in a place hopelessly unfamiliar. Somehow, a local lord had found her and arrangements had been made to return her to her remaining relatives from her home in the lowlands, but that entire time was hazy, it happening a very long time ago. All that she was sure of was her pledge to find a new champion and free Love from some sort of horrible fate. What that fate was, she couldn't recall; all she could remember was the sense of seeing eternal torment.

Her aquamarine gaze swept over those there, noting how happy and content the people of Clan Kiryuu seemed. From what she could tell, her eye trained in the way of supplies, households and the like told her that this was a clan that saw that its people were taken care of very well. Smiles were everywhere, the laughter raucous and lighthearted, the singing happy, and the dancing energetic. Nowhere she looked did Utena see the signs of poverty and disease. It spoke well for the young lord in charge of the folk. Then she spotted him, and it seemed as if her very breath was stolen away.

Tall and lean, he looked the very essence of a dashing prince in his glittering court finery, his scarlet mane set off gorgeously by the white cyclas upon which his arms were emblazoned. In all her travels in her quest to find a new champion, she had yet to see another who was equally magnificent. Yet as she stared at him, an odd feeling came over her, causing her to blink in faint astonishment. In the low illumination of the Great Hall, his hair took on a darker shade--and for a moment, she thought she saw in him a familiar visage, like that of a face within a dream. Then the sensation was gone, leaving her to continue staring at him in wonder. Could he be the one?

Upon the dais, the troupe of musicians finished up their current piece and proceeded to tune up for yet another dance. Hearing what sounded to Nanami to be a rather stately and slow dance, full of regal moves and closeness between dancing partners, she gently tugged on her brother’s muscular arm. “My lord, dance with me, please?” she implored, turning her violet gaze up to her beloved sibling. Always before, he had honored her request for such sport when she asked; they had grown up learning the ways of proper courtly dancing together, partnering one another.

“Not now, Nanami,” Touga gently declined, patting her hand where it rested against his arm with his own hand. Nicely yet firmly removing her grasp from himself, he held out his golden chalice to his sister. “Do me a favor and hold this for me.” Then he walked away from her, never once looking back as he crossed the distance between himself and the enchanting maiden that had so dazzled him.

“But...” the blonde noblewoman began to protest, a heartbroken expression on her beautiful face. She took a step toward her brother's retreating form, only to visibly wilt as it became quite apparent that the chieftain had utterly dismissed her from his mind. Holding the cup in her hand, the yellow metal still warm from where he had been holding it, Nanami's hurt look slowly turned to one of indignant anger as she watched her dear brother flutter around the pink haired girl like a moth around a flame.

“Can it be?” Touga softly murmured, stepping up to stand before the heavenly maiden. “Can it truly be the same innocent I rescued from being stranded in the deep forest? My lady, you are far lovelier than I had ever imagined.” Staring at that fascinating head of rose pink hair, the color seemed to strike a chord. It looked almost like hair he'd seen a long time ago.

Utena looked up at him, blushing faintly at his charming words. Even so, there was something almost overwhelming about him, a something that made her wary of his advances. According to Shiori, the Kiryuu lord had something of a reputation when it came to those of the fairer sex; there was little doubt in Utena's mind that a noble as comely as Touga was would ever truly lack for the attention of the women around him. “You flatter me, my lord,” she gently protested, demurely averting her gaze. Yes, she had come here to observe the somewhat famous Red Tyger and see if he could be the champion she sought, but she needed to keep a clear head in order to conduct her quest in a rational manner.

“Please... Would you do me the honor of a dance?”

“I don't know...” Utena hesitated, caution and curiosity both warring within her. Behind her, Wakaba and Shiori looked on in utter amazement while the pair of men at arms frowned in faint annoyance at their lady seemingly made to be uncomfortable.

“Come now, fair lady. Surely one dance won't harm anything,” Touga purred. Noticing the expressions on her protectors' faces, he smiled at the two youthful warriors. “You truly have nothing to fear for your lady here. I am always the most gracious of hosts.”

Utena could feel her blush deepen. He did seem to be as gallant as the stories would have one believe. Looking for a way to change the subject, she turned her aquamarine gaze to her companions. “My lord, I'd like to introduce you to my handmaidens. Wakaba, Shiori, Lord Touga of Clan Kiryuu.” The two in question hastily executed curtsies, their skirts brushing against the herb-perfumed reeds. “And my escort, Tatsuya and Ryu.” The pair of black-clad youths bowed in response.

“A pleasure, I'm certain,” the highland chieftain replied, nodding ever so slightly at the small entourage. “And what of you, my lady? Must I forever be in the dark as to the name by which mankind knows such loveliness?”

“Oh,” the rose haired maiden gasped, realizing her slight breach of etiquette. “Forgive me. I'm Lady Utena Tenjou of Rosehaven.”

“Rosehaven?” Touga inquired, arching a scarlet eyebrow over a cobalt-azure eye. This vision of loveliness was the daughter of a lowland banneret, then?

“Aye,” she acknowledged, nodding. “'Tis in a kingdom to the south of here.”

“Well, the pleasure is definitely all mine,” the highland lord replied, reaching out to take her hand in his and raise it to his mouth. Blue eyes watched her as he pressed warm lips against the back of her hand, letting the kiss linger there for a few beats longer than propriety demanded. Lowlander she may be, but what little he'd seen of her convinced him that she could possibly hold her own among the people of the highlands--especially if she knew how to use that dirk he had seen sheathed at her side.

The tiniest thrill of something ran down Utena's spine, but only until she realized that he was kissing her far longer than was proper. Eyes flashing in sudden irritation at the assumed familiarity, the maiden snatched her hand away from him. “Control yourself, my lord,” she said in a low hiss.

Stepping back, Touga held out his arms to either side in a gesture of peacemaking. “Lady Utena, please. Don't be like that. Surely you'll forgive a poor man for becoming dazzled by your radiance.”

“I'm much more forgiving to those who display proper manners,” the pink-maned noblewoman replied. Stepping past him, she gathered up her long skirts to keep from dragging the rushes about as she walked. “At the moment, I'm more interested in a hot meal than a dance.”

“Then allow me to make up my lack of manners to you, Lady Utena,” the Kiryuu prince offered. “I have yet to eat as well. I'll serve you up your supper as well as mine, and let us get to know one another better through conversation as we dine.”

She paused in mid stride, glancing back at him, blue eyes glimmering with an expression of faint suspicion. “Very well, if that is what you wish, my lord.” Turning and shifting her focus on her retainers, Utena gave them a gentle smile. “Be off with you and get something to eat as well. I shall come find you should I have need of you, but for now, I should be fine in the company of Lord Touga.” After all, there was little he could do to her there in the very public setting of the Great Hall. Besides, she was a guest, and should be treated accordingly by the rules of the ancient and sacred tradition of Hospitality.

Though her handmaidens curtsied and rapidly made themselves scarce, the pair of men at arms hesitated a moment. Encouraged to do as she commanded by a nod from the rose haired maiden, they too wandered off, Tatsuya taking the same direction Wakaba had chosen.

Her attention back on the regal-appearing redheaded lord, Utena gave him a hesitant smile. “Lead the way, my lord. I fear I'm hungry enough to devour an entire horse.”

“Hmm,” Touga purred, an amused expression on his handsome face. “I'm afraid you'll have to settle for venison. We ate the last of the horse only yesterday.”

Blinking, she stared at him as he walked up to stand next to her, taking her arm in his. At the playful wink of a cobalt-blue eye, she suddenly realized that he was joking. Laughing despite herself, she let him lead her to where the deliciously scented food was arranged on the linen-covered trestle tables.
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