Love's Honor

Chapter Three

The stew was heavenly, the broth a delicious blend of spices that complimented the chunks of vegetables swimming within. The venison was also divine, the succulent meat perfectly roasted and then braised in an onion, mint and red wine sauce. Holding down a piece of the meat with her two-pronged fork, Utena sliced off a morsel with her plain and very serviceable eating dagger. Stabbing it with the point of the knife, she raised the meat to her lips and pulled it off the utensil with her teeth. Next to her, the scarlet-haired highland chieftain chewed on a bite of his own supper, cobalt-hued gaze watching her.

She sat at his right, in the place of honor there at the high table, her graceful form well-suited to the carved rosewood chair next to his throne-like one. Protocol dictated that since she was a lady of noble blood, he should not only share a trencher of stew with her, he should also choose the best of the meat for her, cut it up for her and feed it to her. However, she had had other thoughts; she had swiftly asserted her independence in such matters with glaring looks and soft sounds of distaste when he had attempted to treat her in a courtly manner. Taking the hints, Touga had let her dine at her own pleasure.

Not that he truly minded. He liked the fact that she could be headstrong and stubborn when it came to her independence. He could probably easily forget that she was a lowlander.

“The fare is absolutely wonderful, my lord,” the rose-haired maiden pronounced, her voice easily heard over the sounds of a soft instrumental piece being played by the troupe of musicians. “My compliments to your cook and his staff.”

“I shall be sure to pass them along, my lady,” Touga responded. Taking a sip of the sweet red wine--Nanami had refilled his golden goblet, returning it to him as he had taken his seat at the high table, a sullen expression in her violet eyes--he added, “So tell me, fair Utena, why exactly have you come to visit my domain?”

“Well..” Utena began, pausing long enough to swallow a mouthful of the stew. “I'm on a quest.”

“A quest?” he echoed, surprised at the answer. Adventures such as those were more for knights and warriors than they were for angelic lowland maidens.

“Aye. I seek a champion.”

Ah. Well, that certainly is an endeavor appropriate to the talents of one of the fairer sex, the redheaded lord silently mused, the hint of a smile coming to his face. “And just what sort of a champion are you searching for?”

“A very special one,” Utena murmured, lowering her dagger to the table and lifting her aquamarine gaze to stare at him.

“And what sort of man would this 'special' champion be?” Touga gently insisted, leaning toward her slightly. The thought flashed through his mind that he could be what she was looking for, and he smiled just a bit more. He truly liked that idea, the longer he mulled it over. There was something utterly captivating about her.

“He would have to be one who would champion the virtues of Love...” she responded, looking away, slender fingers resting lightly on the cool metal of her eating dagger.

A scarlet eyebrow arched upward at her words; again, it was an answer that he hadn't expected. Love? he wondered, continuing to stare at her.

Of course, he was familiar with the concept of courtly love. Troubadours and minstrels sang the virtues of those who loved on a purely spiritual plane, the great ladies of the land held courts where questions of love and romance were asked and answered, and many a chivalrous knight sought inspiration and hope from their love's token and presence. It was quite the fashion in the lowlands, though the highlanders were too practical and pragmatic a folk to pursue such a sport in a passionate manner. As the prince of the Kiryuu, he had gone to some of the great courts as the representative of his clan, so he had observed the sport of romance as practiced there. That the maidens and ladies adored it so was all the impetus he had needed to adopt such mannerisms himself.

She was still looking away, her gaze focused on some distant point. In the ambient light of the Great Hall, her wavy pink hair took on a darker hue, one that tantalized Touga with a half-forgotten memory. “Forgiveness, generosity, honesty, justice, mercy, and trust...” he spoke, his voice a low purr, reciting the six virtues held above all others in the pursuit of courtly love. Her hair shimmering in the firelight, it beckoned to him, urging him to reach out and stroke it, to discover if it was as soft as it appeared to be.

“What--what do you know of the virtues?” Utena queried, still looking away. She could feel the heat rising in her cheeks as a blush, her heart suddenly in her throat. The very idea that this gorgeous chieftain could be the one she had been searching for made a thrill shiver down her spine. Something about him made her fervently wish that he could be the one after all.

Her romantic quest must mean a great deal to her, to make her react so, Touga idly noted, observing his companion's growing nervousness. That he too was having some sort of an effect on her was made clear as her maidenly blush deepened slightly when he leaned closer to her. He felt a smug sense of satisfaction at seeing her respond to his presence like many other women had reacted before. “I know that to truly follow the ways of Love, one must be free of the poison of the sins of Hate,” he murmured in reply. “A heart dedicated to Love must be large enough to be forgiving of the fallacies of us imperfect humans, must be generous to those in need, must be honest in the dealings with others, must uphold the tenets of justice and never arbitrarily settle a matter, being merciful in such judgments...” Giving in at last to the temptation, he reached out and ran the slender fingers of a hand through her shimmering, wavy pink-hued hair. “And above all, it must be trusting of the one it loves...”

It had all the softness of the finest of silks, the rose-colored strands flowing over his skin like water. An unusual sensation washed over him, making his breath catch in his throat. The delicate shade of pink, the soft feel of it...

The slight tug on her hair brought her back to reality. Softly gasping in sudden outrage, she shoved his hand away, irritation narrowing her aquamarine eyes. “Curb your familiarity, my lord,” she commanded.

He pulled his hand back, strangely afraid of the wrath he saw in her lovely eyes. “Forgive me. You're absolutely right. I should have controlled myself.” Leaning back, he found himself fervently wishing that his impulse hadn't turned any possible affection into dislike. “But I truly couldn't help it, fair lady.”

The color in her cheeks now was due to her continued annoyance at her companion's lack of polite manners. “Enough flattery, my lord.”

Touga nodded slightly, setting his mind to regaining his suave composure. “What will you do once you've found this champion you seek?” He truly was curious about her quest, though it seemed a little on the silly side as far as he was concerned.

“I need him to perform a task that only he can achieve,” Utena responded, her voice low as her angry expression slowly faded.

“What is this task, my lady?”

“I... No, I cannot say, not to anyone other than the champion I seek,” she replied, once more turning her azure gaze to staring off into the distance. Strangely enough, she looked haunted now, as if she carried a great weight on her slender shoulders.

He felt a small stab within his heart at seeing her so troubled. He suddenly wanted to reach out to her and gather her in his arms, to stroke that silken mane of hers and tell her that he could deal with all of her troubles. “And what would happen should he achieve this task successfully?” he softly murmured, cobalt gaze fixed upon her beautiful form.

Utena turned to stare at him again, gorgeous eyes wide in sudden amazement. What would happen? she asked herself, abruptly realizing that that was a question she had never dwelled upon. Always, ever since the night she had seen Love's suffering, she had focused upon saving the tortured maiden. “I... I fear I've not thought that far ahead. The quest itself has taken all my energy.”

“Would you consider such a man worthy of your own love?” the redheaded chieftain queried in response, blue gaze still fastened upon her. “Could you find it within your heart to marry the champion you find?”

Marry? Would I have as a husband such a man? Frowning thoughtfully, she turned the idea this way and that, exploring the possibility. So focused was she on her promise that again, this was something she had never truly brought to mind. Even so, she knew; she would want such a man for her own love and protector. “Aye,” Utena finally said, the syllable a soft breath. “I would marry none other.” The more she dwelt upon the thought, the more convinced she became. No other would do for her, save the champion she discovered, for he would be all those ideals she had kept close to her heart for so long.

A flash of silken pink hair, a cherubic visage... The image hung there in the back of his mind, tantalizing. Could it be possible? Touga wondered, taking a sip of wine from his golden cup. So intent was he on the puzzle and the sight of her that he truly didn't notice at all the taste of the deep red liquid as he swallowed it. “Lady Utena... Do your parents yet live?”

Surprised by his question, she gave him a look of mild astonishment. It seemed quite the change in subjects, to be honest. Perhaps he wishes to let my family know that I've arrived at his stronghold safely? she thought, trying to deduce his reason for asking the question. “No, my lord, they do not,” she answered, shaking her head in a negative gesture. Taking a moment to eat a couple more spoonfuls of her cooling stew, she continued, “They died a long time ago, when I was a little girl.”

“If I may be so bold, what happened to them?” Touga asked, that odd sensation getting stronger. A thrill of fear hung there, though he couldn't say why he was afraid of what he would discover.

Utena dug around in the remains of her stew, scraping off some of the soaked bread of the trencher that acted as a bowl. The image of long ago came back to her from where she had buried it: the carnage, the crimson blood staining the ground, the absolute terror and sense of overwhelming loss. “We were on our way to someplace here in the highlands, though I don't recall now what our destination was to be,” she responded, her voice a barely heard whisper. Her mind focused on the memories of long ago, she didn't notice the scarlet-haired lord next to her lean closer again to catch her words over the strains of the gently playing music. “As we were passing through a great stand of evergreens, our party was set upon by men who came pouring out of the woods. We were surrounded, Father and our knights fighting furiously with the strangers. Nurse grabbed me and ran, somehow making it past the ring of strangers, and she fled with me, carrying me into the forest. A couple of the strangers broke off attacking our party and chased after us...” She picked around again in her trencher, idly stirring the contents, her thoughts a million miles away. Distantly, she could recall the sounds of steel on steel, the shouts of outrage and the cries of pain, the screams of the women, the harsh panting of her frightened nurse's breathing. Face turning pale, she resumed her low-voiced narrative. “Nurse fell, tripping on something. I hurt my knee, but I was otherwise all right. She screamed at me to run, and I did. The strange knights...”

Next to her, Touga's face took on a slightly pained expression; she had gone through so much. Noting her just sitting there silently, her skin far whiter than was its normal wont, he gently prodded her with another question. “How did you escape?”

“I... found a fallen log, one hollowed out by decay. I couldn't outrun them, not their horses, so I crawled into the hollow. They were too busy with Nurse to see me take shelter there...” Again she could hear the horrible screaming, the terrible sounds; tears welled up in her aquamarine eyes. “They rode off, shouting at one another to find me. I stayed there for a long time, until the sun was low in the west. It was silent around me, save for only the noises of the forest animals.”

“Did you go back to where your parents had been?”

Utena nodded, her mind recalling the sanguine scene that had greeted her young gaze there. “They were all dead, their blood staining the ground. I didn't understand at first. Mother was lying atop Father, and I tried to rouse them both, but they didn't move. But then I realized the truth, realized that I was all alone. I ran away from the scene, into the forests. I tried to run away from it all, but I couldn't...”

God how he wanted to reach over and comfort her yet again in that moment. She looked so vulnerable and scared just then as she relived being the little girl she had once been. Touga frowned, taking another sip of the wine in an effort to curb his almost overwhelming impulse. The story she told sounded like one he'd heard before, and again he caught a flash of a memory, of a girl-child trailing after him, looking upon him with a mixture of happiness and trust. Suddenly feeling very brittle, the scarlet-haired lord slowly lowered his golden chalice to the surface of the high table. “What happened to you next, Lady Utena?”

“I ran and ran, and then a storm came. I fell off a cliff into a lake...”

It was her! He stared at her, blinking in astonishment, seeing in her now the promise at which her child self had hinted. The rose-colored hair was perhaps a few shades lighter now, her face angelic instead of cherubic, but the eyes were as he remembered them. After so long, had Fate truly brought her back to him? “And then?” He wanted her confirmation, wanted to hear from those tempting lips of hers that she was the girl he had saved from the waters of the lake all those years ago.

Utena stirred in her stew a bit more. How could she explain her vision and her determination to live for the day she could free Love from her eternal torment? He would probably laugh at her and call it a fanciful hallucination. No, she would keep that vision to herself, sharing it only with the champion she found. He would understand, the moment he touched Love's Honor. “I'm not certain, though I must have been pulled from the waters or perhaps I managed to swim to shore. The next thing I clearly recall is waking up in the stronghold of a local lord. I stayed a few days there, until my identity became known, the news of my parent's death had been spread and my remaining family had come to take me home to Rosehaven. I do remember...”

Touga leaned over just a bit more, straining to catch her next words. “Aye?”

“There was someone there, someone I trusted... Someone I knew would take care of me...”

Who was it? Utena asked herself, fingers of a hand reaching up to stroke the gold and ruby brooch fastened to the neckline of her sideless surcoat. I can't recall, only that I knew I was safe around that one. Try as she might, neither a face nor an image came to her. All she could see in her mind's eye was the spirit of Love struggling against the hatred-poisoned thorns of those gold and silver roses. “I'm sorry, my lord,” she finally said, giving up the effort. “I can't remember. It was too long ago.”

The disappointment gave him a bitter taste in his mouth. Frowning, his ire suddenly sparked, he snatched up his cup once more and took a long drink of the wine, trying to wash the bitterness away. Though she may not remember him, he certainly had the memory of her. She had followed him everywhere, always wanting to be near him. Those few times when his mother had tried to keep her in the women's solar along with his younger sister Nanami, the rose-haired girl had withdrawn into a silent brooding that only lifted when she was allowed to trail along after the Kiryuu heir.

And he had come to appreciate the child's company, that fierce protectiveness that had come upon him as he had ridden home with her remaining in his heart. He had sworn to see to it that nothing would harm her so long as she remained among his clan, and despite his youth--he had only been of ten winters then--it had been a self-imposed duty he had taken seriously. He recalled the day her still living relatives had come to take her away with a bit of nostalgic sadness; though understanding why she had to leave with them, he had wanted her to stay where he could continue to watch over her.

As Touga gazed upon her now, seeing the young woman she had become, he realized just how much he had missed her after her family had claimed her. Now that she was once more at his side, he found himself disliking the idea of ever letting her go again. Circumstances had been beyond his control back then; he had power now, and the ability to care for her if only she'd allow it. The boyish affection he had had for her turned into something else, changed by his awareness of her as a young lady almost grown. Somehow, some way, he would make her his. But to do that, I must prove to her that I am the champion she seeks for this mysterious task, he silently mused.

The scrape of the rosewood chair against the dais floor caught his attention. Utena slowly rose from her seat, her expression one of mild distress. Faintly alarmed by the look, the Kiryuu chieftain stood also, holding out a hand in case he should need to swiftly steady her. She didn't look well from what he could observe.

“Forgive me. I think I need some fresh air,” Utena said, looking about the Great Hall for a way out. Too many images long buried had been stirred up by her tale; she needed to get out of the crowded and noisy chamber, away from everyone in order to recompose herself. She hated letting anyone see how vulnerable she had once been. Never again would she ever be as helpless as she had been on that dark and bloody day.

Fresh air... Outside? The thought triggered a memory, bringing to mind the two of them. He could see her again, the little girl he had saved, her enchanting gaze staring up at him...

Everyone here says I'm such a pretty girl. Why do they say that?

Because you are pretty.

I am?

Haven't you looked at yourself in the still water of a pond? Or in the surface of a silver mirror?

No...

Well, you are. And do you know what's the prettiest thing about you?

What's that?

Your eyes. They shine as brightly as the stars in the heavens.

The stars?

Haven't you ever seen the stars? They're the little points of light in the night sky.

No. I'm always told to stay inside when the sun goes down. I've never been outside at night.

Tell you what... Would you like me to show you the stars?

Oh aye! I would like that very much.

Then I promise. I'll show you the stars and how brightly they shine.

Lady Utena, come with me,” Touga said, stepping next to her and offering her his arm. Would she remember those words? That promise?

Despite her feeling of illness and her need to retreat from the large hall, the young noblewoman narrowed her eyes in suspicion at her companion. Was he attempting yet more liberties with her person? “What are you about, Lord Touga?”

“Nothing harmful, I swear,” he responded, doing his best to reassure her. “I'm merely offering to escort you to a place where you can get the fresh air you want. Please... Once I lead you outside, I will leave you in peace should you so desire.”

Her aquamarine gaze lingered over him before she finally acquiesced. Taking his arm in hers, she stiffly nodded. “Very well, I accept your offer.”

A ghost of a smile turned up the corners of his mouth as he lead her from the dais there next to the large fireplace. Around them, the jovial atmosphere continued, the rest of the clan drinking, dancing and frolicking to the energetic music now being played by the troupe of entertainers. Past the fireplace he guided her, across the relatively short distance from there to the iron-bound wooden door in the center of the tapestry covered wall, her other hand holding her skirt up so that the fabric wouldn't drag on the rushes covering the oaken floor. Pulling open the door with his free hand, he entered the antechamber with her, leaving it for someone else to shut it once they had passed. Cupboards rested against the walls of this room, with plain wooden chairs of simple construction arranged in groupings throughout the space. Torches set in metal brackets fastened to the upper areas of the walls illuminated the room, just as similar ones lit up the other chambers Utena had seen of the keep. Also like the other rooms, tapestries were hung here and there, partially as decoration and partially as insulation against sound and weather both.

They walked through the room at an angle, the tall nobleman heading for the archway over in the corner of the room off to their left. From what she could recall of the structure's layout, it was there that the spiral staircase that ran throughout the entire height of the keep would be found. Utena remained silent as they walked along the short passageway to the stone flight of stairs, but when her escort started to travel upwards, she hesitated, frowning. “Where are you taking me, Lord Touga?”

“Please, my lady, let me surprise you,” he replied, pausing and looking down at her, his expression one hard to read in the flickering light of the torches.

Her response for a long moment was only to silently stare up at him, her look one torn between suspicion and irritation.

“Come now, Lady Utena. You seek a champion for Love, yet you cannot be trusting yourself?” Touga gently chided her, hoping to turn her ideals against her.

“Very well,” she murmured, her back stiffening. How dare he imply that I don't follow the virtues of Amor? Turning her gaze to focus straight ahead, she started up the stone steps.

Grinning slightly at his little victory, he walked with her; arm in arm, the highland lord and the lowland lady ascended to the top story of the keep. From the short passageway accessing the stairs, Touga lead her through three more chambers. The first, the one that the archway opened upon, seemed to be an office; the furnishings and decor there were consistent with what Utena knew to be that which was necessary to keep track of the accounts of the demesne's income and what taxes would be owed to the crown. The door through which he escorted her next revealed what seemed to be a plush bedchamber with a decidedly feminine air. The large four-poster bed was draped with delicate and gauzy curtains, the tapestries here were of floral designs and scattered about were the signs of weaving and sewing, including a small loom and embroidery hoops on stands. “My sister Nanami's chamber,” Touga explained as he strode across the carpet-covered floor to the iron-bound oaken door opposite the one through which they had entered.

Utena remained quiet as they passed from the bedchamber into what appeared to be the women's solar. Another room with a decidedly feminine atmosphere, she could make out in the torchlight a number of large looms in the corner, baskets of wool with drop spindles and carding brushes nearby, more embroidery hoops and chairs, chests and other pieces of furniture that gave evidence of this place being where most of the work of the handmaidens would be done. Around a corner in the curving outer wall she was lead, arm resting lightly against the crook of Touga's; the short passageway the arched entrance accessed lead to a sturdy wooden ladder. Letting go of her, the scarlet-haired chieftain gave her a smile. “Allow me to open the hatch for you.”

“We're going up onto the roof?” the young noblewoman asked.

“Aye. You'll get your fresh air there. And there's something I'd like to show you.”

“Whatever could that be?” Utena queried.

The smile he gave her was tender and mysterious all at once. “You'll see, my lady.” Turning away, his long hair fanning out slightly as he did so, he nimbly climbed up the ladder's rungs. Sensitive fingertips brushed against the underside of the hatch until he found the iron bolt that locked it shut. The sharp noise it made as he shoved it open echoed in the narrow confines of the hallway. A heave and a grunt and the hatch lifted upwards; he took a couple more steps up, pushing the square-shaped door to bang against the stone flooring of the level outer ring of the roof of the keep. Looking up into the night sky, he grinned as he could see the glittering points of the stars high ahead. It was a perfect, clear night, and the sight was a stunning one. Finishing his ascent, Touga crouched down in a kneel next to the dark square in the floor and leaned over, extending a hand back down. “Gather up your skirts and be careful, Lady Utena,” he directed.

Frowning in slight annoyance--did he truly think she was that helpless?--the rose-haired maiden grabbed a handful of her attire's fabric and lifted it up so that she could take the ladder safely. One by one she stepped on the rungs, feeling the Kiryuu prince's hand on her shoulder to help steady her up the rest of the way. As she started to step out onto the flat stone roof, his hand shifted, taking her free one in it and tugging her up the rest of the way. A cool breeze wafted past, sending her hair dancing in its wake; she instantly felt better with the coldness tickling along her exposed skin.

Pulling her closer, Touga murmured, “Look up, into the sky. What do you see?”

Curious, she did as asked, too intent upon seeing what he wanted to show her to notice how close he held her against his tall, lean form. Above them, the vault of the night-blackened sky soared on into infinity, the velvety darkness dappled by the sight of the sparkling stars in all their glory. Twinkling points of white--many of them tinged in silver-blue, orange, red and yellow--glimmered and shone like the most precious of gems. “The stars,” she whispered back, aquamarine eyes taking in the wondrous panoply. Of course she had seen them before, but at that moment, it was as if she was truly looking at them for the very first time.

“They are glorious, are they not?”

“Aye...” Utena responded. Would you like that? a soft voice in the back of her mind queried.

Aye, I would!

Then I'll show you the stars...

Taking in a deep breath, the pink-maned maiden suddenly took notice of how close she was to the gorgeous lord, feeling his strong form against hers through their clothing. “Don't! Don't get so close to me,” she protested, pulling away.

Suppressing his growl of annoyance, Touga managed to softly chuckle as if her reluctance was of no consequence. “Forgive me.” He let go of his hold on her, content to just stand there and watch her as she walked about the keep's roof. He had caught the look of awe and wonder on her face as she had stared up in the sky; her reaction was enough to give him hope.

Utena slowly made her way over to the battlements along the outermost edge of the keep, her slender fingers stroking along the weathered stone. The highland chieftain left her confused, her emotions in turmoil. Part of her wanted to stay near him while the other part insisted on keeping herself independent and focused upon her promise to end Love's torment. Underneath that star-spangled sky, she could see the wooded lands surrounding the Kiryuu stronghold, the ridges on either side rising up to meet the horizon. He must surely be the ruler of all he surveys, she mused.

Cobalt gaze focused upon her silhouette, Touga observed her as she stared out into the distance. Her beauty and her innate nobility surrounded her like a mantle, taking his breath away. He knew, without a doubt, that she was the one meant for him, his one true princess. He couldn't bear the thought of being parted from her; the idea made him feel hollow and empty inside. “You're beautiful.”

His words called out to her, catching her attention. Whirling, she gave him a look of exasperation. “What? Not that again, please...”

“It's true. Your beauty and nobility shine on everything.”

Utena sighed, the inner emotional chaos only becoming stronger. Touga stared at her. “Is there any way I could be this champion you seek? After all, I do believe you are my one true princess.”

“I--I don't know...”

His booted feet made gentle sounds against the stone surface as he approached her. “Let me try. I'll do what it takes to prove myself worthy,” he implored, kneeling down at her feet. Never before had he been so serious, save for a vow taken long ago to keep this very same girl safe from the dangers of the world. Taking her right hand in his left, the curtain of his long scarlet hair slid forward to shelter his face as he tenderly kissed the back of her hand. “Allow me this chance, precious lady. I implore you...”

Utena shivered at the brush of his soft lips against her skin. Feeling suddenly lightheaded, she could only stare down at him in wonder. He appeared earnest and sincere, abruptly humble there before her as he knelt on the cool stone floor. Swallowing hard, it took a slight effort to find her voice. “There are tasks I must impose to have proof that you are the one I seek.”

“Name them and I shall do my utmost to achieve them.”

“I must have some time to think of suitable ones, my lord,” the rose-haired noble replied.

“Then time you shall have. Just name your tasks when you are ready, dear Utena,” Touga said, hand still holding hers. He slowly rose, once again attaining his normal height. “For now, would you honor me with a dance?”

“Here? Now?”

“Aye. The stars are perfect jewels to compliment your beauty, and the sounds of nature all the music we need.” He stepped closer, gently grasping her in a hold for one of the slower, statelier dances. The night breeze swirled past them, making their silken manes of scarlet and rose ripple slightly.

Looking up at him, seeing the hope and the fear of rejection there in his lovely azure eyes, Utena felt her resolve crumbling. One dance couldn't hurt, especially now that she had agreed to allow him to prove his worthiness to be the champion of Love she so desperately sought. To deny him would extinguish the warm light she saw deep within the cobalt depths of his eyes. “Very well,” she whispered, surrendering to his hold.

Elegant and graceful, the two of them moving in perfect accord, they danced there under the light of the stars. The playful nighttime wind swirled their hair and rippled their clothing as they stepped this way and that, their bodies almost against one another, the fingers of a hand intertwined. All was peaceful as their entire world narrowed down to just the night, the stars, the dance and the beauty of that seemingly timeless moment.

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