Love's Honor

Chapter Four

The dance ended as spontaneously as it had started, the two of them letting go of one another, mutually taking a step back. Where Touga felt a growing sense of profound peace, Utena continued to feel unsure. No longer did he have the feeling that something precious was slipping away; once more she wondered if she was somehow being foolish, letting her guard down around the around the mysterious and elegant Red Tyger.

“Lady Utena?”

“Aye?” she softly responded, aquamarine gaze steady upon his visage.

“Please... Once again, I beg you to forgive me. I've been utterly uncouth and overly forward both, making you uncomfortable even though that certainly wasn't my intent. You must certainly think me a typical highland boor.” He made no move to get closer; he stood there, unmoving, staring back at her. Giving her a somewhat abashed smile, he ran the fingers of a hand through his wind-caressed scarlet hair.

“I'm not overly used to such attentions,” Utena replied, turning slightly and glancing once again up at the twinkling stars. “All I've truly thought upon is my quest.” And I swore an oath that I would never be so helpless again, she mentally added, the echoes of her parents' deaths sounding once more in the back of her mind.

“I promise to comport myself in a seemly manner from this point on,” the Kiryuu chieftain said, low voice holding a solemn note of conviction. “I swear I won't knowingly make you uncomfortable again.”

High above in the eastern sky, a bright streak flew across the velvety darkness. Though she tracked the path of the falling star with her gaze, he words were directed at her companion there. “I forgive you, Lord Touga.”


It was about time they came back. Her lips turned down in a pouting frown, Nanami watched as her darling brother and that abnormal pink-haired woman returned to the Great Hall. The blonde girl's scowl deepened, not liking the rather dreamy expression on her older sibling's face. Though they had left the celebration arm in arm, Nanami was quick to notice that they didn't return in that same manner. Lady Utena had walked in first, the tall form of the highland chieftain trailing along behind her. Perhaps there's nothing to fear after all? the violet-eyed Kiryuu thought, a satisfied smile replacing her scowl. I just knew my dear brother wouldn't like a maiden of that sort.

Touga halted there before the hearth, the firelight dancing over him and casting his face into shadow. Nanami continued to observe the rose-haired lady's progress as she continued on into the heart of the hall, gracefully making her way through the Kiryuu clanmembers drinking, dancing and otherwise enjoying themselves. Noting that the stranger's goal was to speak with her handmaidens--Utena had stopped near the longer haired servant and had gestured for the shorter-haired brunette to join them--the blonde girl swiftly decided to take the opportunity to perhaps get that dance after all. Picking up her orange and yellow skirts, Nanami quickly made her way over to where her brother stood with his back to the cheerful blaze.

“My lord?” she began, giving the chieftain a big grin and grasping him around the arm once more, hugging it to her. “That dance?”

Turning his gaze from the angelic form of his chosen princess, Touga looked down at the blonde clutching his arm. She gazed adoringly up at him, a hopeful light in her violet eyes. How she's grown, even in just the last couple of years, he suddenly noticed. I truly should give some serious thought on what marriage to arrange for her. Nodding slightly, he gently took his sister's hand. “I think I can spare you a dance, Nanami.”

Leading her out to an open place on the rush-covered floor, the sweet scents of the crushed herbs hanging in the air, the Kiryuu prince moved through the steps of a stately dance, cobalt-blue gaze fastened upon his sibling. A spirited child, she had matured into a willful maiden, able to keep even the laziest of the household staff at staying on track with their chores. However, he had noticed a growing sullenness within her, dampening her inner fire. Inwardly frowning, he mulled over what could be the cause.

“Thank you so much for the dance,” Nanami said, smiling up at her wonderful sibling. He always knew what it would take to brighten her spirits.

He echoed her smile, though he silently continued to pick apart the puzzle of what she'd become. Looking her over--for once objectively, through the eyes of the clan's lord and not her older brother--he could see the adult she would soon become there in the image of her. That awareness brought with it an uneasy feeling as he thought on her actions of late. Ever since their foster brother had been sent away, Nanami had become increasingly clingy while becoming more sure of her place as lady of the manor. And the worst bouts of temper seem to be when I entertain thoughts on a future bride...

Fingers of a hand entwined, the two Kiryuu siblings continued the stately movements, their steps precise from long years of dancing with one another. The music swirled around them, and it was easy to consider them the most elegant and regal pair of those performing the dance. It didn't matter that earlier his attention was on another nor that they had left together; Touga was all hers in that moment, and Nanami loved every minute of it.

“Nanami.”

“Aye, my lord?” she replied, still staring at him with a look of adoration on her beautiful face.

“This should be the last dance I share with you,” Touga softly answered, watching the reaction on her visage.

Startlement, then disbelief, followed by a poignant hurt--they played across the younger Kiryuu's face as she faltered in the steps and then came to a complete stop. For the span of a couple of heartbeats, she could only gape up at him, violet eyes wide. “B--but why, my lord?” Nanami finally stammered out.

“We're not children anymore,” he began to explain, slipping a hand around her waist to gently guide her from the center of the hall's floor and toward the side where they could continue the discussion with fewer around to perhaps overhear. “I'm an adult now, the chieftain of the Kiryuu. For the good of the clan, I need to begin seriously the search for a wife--”

“No wife will ever know our people and our staff as well as I,” Nanami said, her voice sharp as she interrupted her older sibling. “I'm the one who can make sure that the supplies aren't wasted, that the work's being done--”

“Nanami...” Touga growled. It wasn't seemly at all for her to cut his words off like that in public.

“Take a wife if you must, but let me still run the household,” the blonde noblewoman pleaded.

“And what should my spouse do then? Sit around as a pretty decoration?” The young lord shook his head, discarding the idea. “No, dear sister. It isn't right. It will be my lady wife's place to watch over my household.”

“Then what about me?” she asked, violet eyes reflecting her fear and continued hurt. What would happen to her once she had no place here? For as long as she could remember, she had done her best to be indispensable to her beloved brother, to carve out a little piece of security in an uncertain world. She had dreaded this possible talk for months, ever since she had turned thirteen.

“Why you'll make some lucky nobleman a perfect spouse,” Touga answered, giving his younger sibling a smile. After all, she had all the skills and talents--bolstered by experience--to be able to step into a manor and take control for the good of all. “Whoever marries you will gain a knowledgeable châtelaine who will see to it that his servants aren't cheating him and that all are comfortable and well cared for. Do for your husband as you have done for me and you will be eternally appreciated.”

“I don't want to be married. I don't want to run someone else's house. They won't know me and they'll hate me as an interloper come to take over command,” the younger Kiryuu protested, shaking her head violently in a negative manner, the loose locks of her golden hair swirling about her distressed appearing face.

“Nanami,” the scarlet-maned lord said in mild exasperation. A swift glance around assured him that those perhaps close enough to hear the family discussion were too busy reveling to take note of his sister's increasingly agitated state. “You can't change the way the world works. Children grow up and get married, eventually having children of their own. It's not your place to act as my spouse; you're my sister.”

“You've found someone, haven't you?” the blonde noblewoman queried, her voice rising in pitch and volume alike with her growing distress. “And now you're just going to toss me aside like some useless piece of property.”

“Of course I'm not going to treat you in such a shabby fashion, Nanami,” Touga replied, his voice low in a murmur meant to be reassuring. “You're my sibling after all, a Kiryuu of the royal blood. However...” His tone shifted, becoming at once hard and frosty. “It is none of your affair whether I've discovered someone worthy or not. What is your concern is the fact that you are of an age where negotiations for a suitable marriage should begin.”

Nanami only stared up at him, gawking, hurt and anger both reflected in her large violet eyes. She was going to be replaced, shoved away from what control she had and her familiar, comfortable surroundings. After all her hard work to maintain a place for herself in her brother's keep, she was still going to end up the property of some stranger, given in exchange for some trinket of power to adorn the Kiryuu coronet.

Watching his sister turn pale and appear on the edge of swooning, Touga's irritation with the turn of the conversation increased. Does she think me a monster for planning to do what is only right and natural? Reaching out, he put a steadying hand on her shoulder. “Come now, Nanami. Surely the thought's not that terrible.”

“No, I won't do it,” the slim blonde hissed, pulling roughly away from his touch. “I won't submit to some stranger, the privilege of disporting himself between my legs bought by some land or a pile of goods and gold, all for the glory of Clan Kiryuu. I refuse to be an object that can be beaten at will and seen as only a pretty bed toy.”

Touga stood there, staring at her in stunned silence, confused more by her assumptions about the situation than he was by her uncouth bluntness. This is what she had been dwelling upon, the thoughts that had been robbing her of her natural fire? “You wound me,” he finally managed to choke out. “Do you truly see me as so callous by nature?”

“You are the Kiryuu. I know you pretty well, dear brother,” Nanami shot back, arms coming up to cross over her bosom. “If it means the well being and prosperity of the clan at large, you would sacrifice anything to achieve it.”

“But you are also a Kiryuu, and you are my little sister. Do you really think that means nothing to me?”

“You're already determined to cast me out, no matter what.”

The scarlet-haired prince groaned, burying the elegant fingers of a hand in his long mane as he pressed a palm to his forehead in frustration. “And you are determined to have us speak in circles. Think with your mind and not with your heart for once. I understand your uneasiness at change, but I have your best interests at heart.”

“I know how you treat me,” Nanami replied, her voice still full of barely suppressed fury. “You are kind and reasonable, honorable and chivalrous, but many a lord in this world are not that. But you are certainly one not above selling me off to the highest bidder if it means a greater good to the clan as a whole.”

Touga stared down at her, deep in thought. “Would you feel more at ease were you given to a man with which you were familiar?”

“Well, of course I'd be more at ease with someone I already knew,” she answered, her tone scathing. It seemed such a lack-witted question in the first place. “But there's none I know that I would be interested in marrying. I'm not interested in marrying at all.”

An image passed before his mind, the echoes of a number of memories hanging there. Lowering his hand from his forehead, Touga seized upon the idea, turning it over in his thoughts. What were its strengths? Where were its flaws? Would it be worth it to work on achieving it? Cobalt blue gaze focusing once more on his sister's elegantly gowned form, he gaze her a bit of a smile. “Enough talk of the future for now. The winter is over and we should celebrate. Tomorrow shall come soon enough.”

She just stood there, looking flushed in ire and uncannily fragile.

The smile grew just a bit as he held his arms out to either side in a welcoming gesture.

Recognizing it for the signal that it was, the blonde Kiryuu abruptly choked back a sob and rushed him, throwing her arms around her brother's magnificent form in a tight hug. She felt him hug her back, a hand gently stroking the loose golden locks of her hair. “Shh... It'll be all right, Nanami. I'll make sure it all works out. I promise.”

Despite it all, despite their conversation, she believed him. Everything would be all right.
The only sounds that broke the peacefulness of the Great Hall were the popping of the hot coals burning in the fireplace, the snoring of some of the drunken party-goers who had passed out on the rush-covered floor or against the tapestry-covered walls and the occasional laughter or soft conversation between those still awake. The celebration had since wound down, with most of the ladies retiring for the night, including the youthful hostess once she had made one last round of the hall and kitchen to see that all was well.

Azure eyes lifted up from where they had been gazing deep into the dark liquid of his golden chalice. Though far from being inebriated himself--Touga had paced himself well when it came to sipping at his wine throughout the impromptu party--he was certainly feeling warm and relaxed as he sat there in his ornate chair behind the high table. To his surprise, he noted that Utena and her two men at arms were among those still there in the large chamber.

In all honesty, he had been concentrating on the idea that had sprung itself upon him at the end of his somewhat tense conversation with his adoring little sister--so much so that he hadn't noticed the rose-haired lady's continued presence as she had spoken with the others there. The more he had looked it over, the more he thought about how good it would be for those involved. And that thought, coupled with the rediscovery of how beautiful Utena looked, brought a slight grin to Touga's lips.

Glancing over at the table bolted to the wooden dais, Utena's breath caught in her throat at the discovery of the highland chieftain's gaze upon her once more. She had lingered in the large chamber in order to observe him and his people more, watching their interactions. Aside from what appeared to be a tense conversation with a golden haired girl who just had to be the lord's sister from the affectionate way she clung to him, Touga appeared to be what his clanmembers claimed: fair, intelligent, just, and a good ruler for them.

Curiosity got the better of her; raising up her skirts enough to walk comfortably, she made her way over to the high table.

“Lady Utena,” Touga said by way of greeting, flashing her a smile. “I must confess to being slightly surprised to see you still here. Have your ladies retired for the night?”

“Aye, they have,” the rose-haired maiden replied. “However, I had wished to tarry a bit longer than they.”

The scarlet-maned lord merely gave his guest a slight nod of acknowledgment.

Utena continued to stand there, glancing at him every so often then looking away again before she could be accused of staring. Into the silence, she finally asked, “So what are your plans for the morrow, my lord, if you don't mind my asking?”

“Not at all. I don't mind you satisfying your curiosity,” he said with a bit of a grin. “As for my plans, I believe I shall pay my brother a visit.”

“Your brother?” she echoed, perplexed. From what information she'd managed to gather from the people of Clan Kiryuu there, Lord Touga and Lady Nanami were the only offspring of the former chieftain.

“Well, Lord Kyouichi Saionji's not truly a blood relative,” he started to explain, taking another sip of what remained of his wine. “The heir of the neighboring clan, he was raised here at Kiryuu Keep. Father had demanded the Saionji's only son as a guarantee that the peace for which he'd sued would remain in effect.”

“He was a hostage, then?” Utena asked, lifting a thin eyebrow in surprise.

“Aye. He was, but I always treated him like the brother I never had. He deserved better than being just a prisoner, an unwitting pawn because of an accident of birth. The feud between our clans did far more damage to the Saionji than it did us; noting what sort of man Kyouichi would be, I did what I could to see to it that he got whatever advantage he could living among us.”

“Advantages such as?”

“A more comfortable life for one,” Touga responded, setting his nearly empty chalice down. “The Saionji land isn't nearly as productive as ours, and the war between us only made things worse. He never went hungry or cold while he was here, and he learned the skills of a warrior from my own trainers. Together we watched Father administer the demesne, and I like to think that he picked up a better understanding of what it takes to be a good ruler in doing so. Kyouichi's father nearly ruined his clan.”

“And you did all this out of the generosity of your heart?” the pink-haired maiden asked.

“More or less. Saionji--” Touga softly chuckled, thinking back on the series of events leading up to his foster brother's choice of familiar address. “The other Kiryuu originally called him merely 'Saionji' as an insult, but he adopted it as a badge of honor, hence my calling him as such,” he explained, then continued, “Saionji has always been a dreamer, an idealist. I consider him a friend as well as a brother, hence I used what leverage I could with Father to see to it that Saionji's potential was cultivated instead of left to wither. That he would one day be the lord of the lands next door to the west was only a fortunate bonus.”

“Meaning?” Utena urged. She was beginning to become somewhat fascinated by the Red Tyger's apparent intelligence.

“Were he the meanest of peasants yet the same in personality, I would have done the same.” It was a simple statement, but it showed an intriguing depth of character. “I always do my best to treat my friends well.”

“So what sparked your plans to visit him? When I first thought of traveling here, it was said that you would probably remain at Kiryuu Keep until well into springtime.”

“I realized just how much I miss having him around,” Touga replied, elegantly shrugging. “Besides, I've heard lately that the winter wasn't kind to Clan Saionji and that the chieftain's ill. I'm their overlord, so it behooves me to see how they're faring.”

“I see,” Utena softly murmured. She paused a moment, her azure gaze steady upon the gorgeous scarlet-haired noble, then queried, “Would you allow me to travel with you? After all, I must have more time to get to know you if I'm to discover if you are worthy of being the champion I seek.”

“Have you decided upon any tasks for me yet?”

“No, I have not.” She shook her head, the soft strands of her wavy, rose-colored hair glimmering faintly in the torchlight that illuminated the stone-walled Great Hall. “I know not enough about you to set challenges that would test your mettle.”

“If that's your wish, far be it for me to naysay you. I would be delighted to have your company while I visit Pinehaven,” the young chieftain replied.

“Pinehaven?”

“That's the name of the fortress from which the Saionji rules his lands. It's a relatively short ride from here, but I would like to leave with the sun still in the eastern sky. Be ready to go when I call, if you please.”

The rose-haired maiden nodded. “I give you my word that I shall be ready to travel on the morrow.” Giving him a bit of a smile, she held out the skirts of her attire and executed a little curtsy. “If you'll excuse me, I believe I shall retire for the night.”

“Good night then, Lady Utena. Sleep well and I shall see you come the morning,” Touga said, lifting up his golden cup once more and lifting it in her direction in a little salute.

“And you as well, my lord.” Gracefully turning, Utena strode across the rush-covered wooden floor, making her way out of the Great Hall to return to the guestroom down below.

The redheaded noble remained there, still as a statue, cobalt-blue gaze watching her until she disappeared from his sight. With that, he smiled and lifted the golden chalice to his lips, finishing off what remained of the deep red liquid within.
Sunlight streamed through the canopy of evergreens, dappling the brush-covered ground below the crowns of the stately trees. A few lingering spots of mist hovered in the places where the shadows clung, not yet chased away by the golden rays of the sun and the mild temperature of the springtime morning. In mid-stride, a horse snorted and shook its head, making the tack jingle.

The party that made its way along a dirt trail leading up over one of the ridges that defined the forested glen in which Clan Kiryuu lived was a small one. At the head, on a magnificent black charger named Wind, rode Touga, his lean form relaxed and obviously at ease perched atop the prime specimen of horseflesh. Behind him trailed along a quintet of clansmen, each one riding a sturdy rouncy, their lord's guest's people in the center of their formation. Tatsuya, Ryu, Wakaba and Shiori were astride their respective mounts, each one a hardy horse used to hours of casual traveling.

Sitting atop her own white palfrey, Utena glanced over at the redheaded lord to her right. Although she and her people had been ready to ride at first light, Touga had insisted that they all broke their fast before mounting up and traveling to the other clanhold. She had to admit that sitting down at table and eating was much nicer than trying to eat on the move, and the morning meal served up had been a simple but very satisfying one.

He certainly made for an enchanting sight, looking competent and dashing alike as he rode along the trail on an animal as gorgeous as he, his long hair shimmering in the daylight. The rose-haired maiden found herself growing a tad warm as she looked him over; that mane of scarlet-hued silk was perhaps his best feature--save for his cobalt-blue eyes--and practically begged to be touched by its appearance alone. In that moment, he looked every inch the prince she knew him to be.

Feeling someone's gaze upon him, Touga flicked his own from the trail, searching for the source of the sensation. Noting the steady stare from aquamarine eyes, he smiled and gave his gentle companion a nod of acknowledgment. Utena once again was dressed in her rather masculine-seeming clothing, her long hair bundled up and hidden beneath her soft hat of rose-pink cloth. The dirk was once again sheathed at her side, and Touga found himself wondering just how knowledgeable she was in handling it. It could be intriguing to discover what skill in swordsmanship she possessed.

A glance back to the way before him told him that they were nearing the top of the ridge. Once over the crest, they would be on the outskirts of the other clan's land. Holding up a gloved hand, he gave the silent order for the party of travelers to stop.

“What is it?” Utena asked, looking around. Did the chieftain somehow sense some trouble?

“There's nothing to fear,” Touga quickly reassured her, catching the faint quaver of nervousness in her voice.

“I'm not afraid,” the maiden replied, frowning. Was her unease that obvious?

The highland noble merely smiled, then continued on to explain, “As you well know, whenever a lord comes to visit a vassal, it is the responsibility of the vassal's household to support his lord and his lord's followers.”

Utena nodded. “Aye. There are some great lords who are misers, traveling from vassal to vassal to live off the households that must take them in, staying until the stores are nearly depleted and then moving on,” she replied, a frown crossing her beautiful face. Such nobles truly disgusted her, to be honest; to endanger so many lives from such selfish greed was a horrid thing to do.

“Indeed. And if the stories I've heard are true, then Saionji will be hard pressed to comfortably feed us as well as those already there at Pinehaven.” Twisting in the saddle, Touga gestured to his escort of five warriors. “Fan out and go hunting. Bring what you capture on to the Saionji stronghold. Try to down enough meat for a fortnight if you can. Regardless of your success, report to Pinehaven when the sun is just above the western horizon.”

“Aye, m'lord,” the quintet of Kiryuu clansmen responded. At the chieftain's signal to go, they scattered, riding off into the woods in different directions.

When the last of them had disappeared into the shadows of the evergreen forest, Touga turned his attention back to his companion. “Once we cross over the summit, we shall be descending into Saionji territory. I truly don't anticipate any trouble; they are my vassals after all, and they honor their lord's agreement for peace despite any lingering hatred that may exist. Your two men at arms should be enough of an escort for us, and the meat will be appreciated.”

She stared at him, somewhat impressed. That he thought of others above himself was made more obvious; he truly cared about what was happening to the other clan.

“Of course, I need to figure out a way to make my gesture not seem to be an insult,” the scarlet-haired man added. Tapping his heels to his charger's ebony-hued flanks, he started riding along the trail once more.

Urging her buff-colored palfrey into a matching pace, Utena continued riding at the chieftain's left. Behind them, Wakaba and Shiori softly talked amongst themselves, Ryu and Tatsuya flanking them and on the alert for any possible trouble.

“How could being generous be seen as an insult, my lord?” the pink-attired maiden asked, startled by his words.

“It could be seen as a gesture that I feel as if the Saionji couldn't properly support their overlord,” Touga explained. “They do have their pride after all.”

Put that way, Utena could suddenly see what her companion meant. He did have a point. “So what are you going to do?” She couldn't help but be intrigued as to how he would handle the matter.

“I'm going to offer it as a gift from one foster brother to another, as both a token of my wishes for his father's safe recovery from illness and as a celebration of the ending of winter. That should soften any thought Saionji may have that I must assume he cannot care for his own.”

It seemed a reasonable enough plan. Falling silent, Utena took to looking about herself as the small party continued on their journey. Reaching the crest, she tugged on the reins a moment to look down on the valley below. The forest continued there, though it seemed to her as if the canopy wasn't as dense. At the bottom of the glen, she could see the faintly shining silver ribbon of a small river, while here and there she could see fields of farmland carved out of the ancient woods. “You said that their lands aren't nearly as productive as yours?”

Stopping as well, Touga let his azure gaze sweep over the land below. “Aye. They are a bit more sheltered from the weather; the mountains that rise above the other side of the dale seem to keep them from getting the same amount of rainfall that we get. Their soil is stonier as well, yielding fewer crops despite their care in managing the tillage. As a result, they have fewer animals to hunt and less grain to reap. The winter was hard on us, though we managed. I fear it took more of a toll on them.” That said, he urged his mount into a walk once more, beginning the descent.

She followed along after him, catching up once more to ride at his side. The trail continued along, weaving its way between the trunks of the trees rooted into the relatively steep slope, continuing at times to run along the side of the ridge and then switching back on itself at a slightly lower elevation. Despite its somewhat tricky nature, the path seemed to be one well traveled.

However, Utena found herself staring at the Red Tyger time and time again despite her need to pay attention to the trail they followed. She had to admit that the more she saw of him, the more she liked, and he had stepped back to give her room to breathe. She'd seen enough to have her interest piqued; now she felt like she needed to find out more about what sort of man he truly was. The champion she sought had to have a soul worthy of wielding Love's Honor, a soul she could truly respect. “My lord, may I ask you a question or two?”

“Of course, my lady. Ask away,” Touga answered, glancing over at her. He'd noted her continual looks at him, recognized them for what they were, an awakening realization of an interest in him as a person. Knowing that it would be far better for her to develop an affection on her own, he did what he could to patiently prove himself to her.

“I'd like to know what you think about some situations,” the rose-maned maiden began, aquamarine gaze scanning along the track they were following. “Say that once upon a time you did something not so honorable, something that you now regret, and a good friend of yours knows about it. And then say that this friend of yours gets angry with you over something, insulting you in front of everyone at court by bringing up this lapse in your honor. Your friend realizes that his own action was wrong but all he'll do is offer only a token private apology because, after all, he only spoke the truth. Would you accept what recompense he offers, or would you demand more from him?”

His eyes focused on the way ahead, the redheaded lord frowned thoughtfully as he analyzed the question. “Well, my immediate reaction is to say that I would accept whatever my friend offered and leave it at that.”

“What about the slight to your honor? After all, everyone would know about what you did?”

“True, but then again, it was something I regretted, therefore I knew it was wrong and would wish that I could undo it somehow. Anyone of a charitable nature would forgive me that, seeing that I was remorseful. Only those not honorable would hold a mistake like that against me,” Touga replied. “We are all human; none of us are infallible.”

“And you don't think your friend owes you more for making a mistake as well?” Utena softly asked.

“As I said, we all make mistakes. What kind of friend would I be were I to not forgive someone with whom I had that sort of bond?”

“I see,” the pink-haired girl replied, taking a moment to once again look over at the noble figure sitting astride the black charger. Inwardly, she was quite pleased to hear his answer; he seemed to put forgiveness before personal pride. “Well, then... What about this situation, my lord? Pretend for once that you are a vassal and not a prince.”

Glancing over at her in sudden curiosity, Touga raised his eyebrows. I do believe she's testing me in some fashion, he silently remarked. Wondering what she would propose next, he encouraged her to go on. “Very well, Lady Utena. So I have a lord over me now.”

“Aye,” she responded, nodding. “And say that some dastard has killed members of your lord's family. Your lord has taken into custody the one he utterly believes is responsible, however, you know beyond all doubt that the man in question is innocent. Furthermore, there's no hard evidence of the man's innocence, only your testimony. Your impassioned lord, blind to the virtue of your word because of his emotion, is crying for vengeance and demanding you to slay the man. What would you do?”

“Well, I certainly would not kill a man innocent of the crime, no matter how loud my lord called out for his blood. Justice should come above all else, for it is a virtue beyond any loyalty to a fallible, human lord. Should my lord go for the man himself, I would intervene, since it's quite obvious his grief is getting the better of him. All he truly would need would be enough time to calm down and approach the situation in a rational manner. Once he was calm, I could then tell him again how I know the man to be innocent.”

“You would have sworn an oath of fealty to him, and part of that oath is to obey one's lord,” Utena pointed out.

“The oath of fealty also includes support and advice unto one's lord. I can think of no better advice or support than to keep my lord from making a fool of himself by murdering an innocent man. Any killing not sanctioned by justice is a murder; my lord is better off not becoming such a man. And no ruler worth his coronet should allow himself to be so blindly ruled by his passions,” Touga replied.

“So it's your belief that justice comes before loyalty?” the masculinely-attired girl asked, her aquamarine gaze settling yet again on the man astride the ebony charger.

“Justice is something toward which all good men should strive, and any good ruler must have that virtue among others. To be otherwise is a disservice to those men to whom he's pledged protection and sustenance.”

“What of the common folk and the peasantry?” Do they deserve to be treated with the same justice we nobles receive?”

“Aye. They are men and women as well. Without them, the lord would be nothing; it's in his best interests to treat them accordingly: in their proper station, but with justice,” the scarlet-haired chieftain answered, his black stallion continuing to make its way along the path through the evergreens.

“I am most impressed, my lord,” Utena finally admitted, an expression of slight wonder on her beautiful face. “There are many who would say that the meanest villein would not deserve the same right to equal justice.”

“I'm not a man that condones taking any other man's property--or womenfolk--by force, be they the highest of nobles or the lowest of peasants,” the Kiryuu prince said, shaking his head slightly, long hair glimmering in the sunlight. “In my observations, we all bleed red, we all are hurt by much the same things, and we all are mortals who eventually die.”

The pink-clad maiden smiled, pleased yet again at his response. He sounds so sincere. I do believe he truly means every word he's uttered, she thought, a warm sense of happiness filling her. Others had piqued her interest before, but nearly all had answered the questions posed to them in some way or another that had left her feeling as if they had lacked some essential quality. Those that had passed her interrogation usually failed at some task she set for them as proof of their true worthiness. Men both of high estate and low had seemed at first glance to be possibly the one in the few years she had actively sought a wielder for Love's Honor, only to be found wanting, unworthy.

But this one... He could be the one, I feel.

The ground around them began to level out, the trail straightening, no longer switching back on itself. Behind her, over the creak and jingle of the leather and metal tack, the muted sounds of the woodland creatures, and the soft thudding of the horses' hooves against the packed dirt of the pathway, Utena could hear the murmurs of conversation. Though she couldn't make out the actual words, the impression she got was that Tatsuya and Wakaba were talking amongst themselves, Shiori occasionally throwing in her own opinion on whatever it was they were discussing, and Ryu remaining as stoically silent as usual. Just knowing that her servants were engaging in such an expected and normal action made her feel quite at ease as she rode along at the side of the dashingly handsome chieftain through unfamiliar territory.

“It won't be much longer,” Touga announced, glancing to his left to give his fair companion a smile. We should be coming to the edge of the fields cultivated by the villagers that live around the fortress itself in a short while.”

“That's good to hear,” Utena acknowledged, nodding slightly. “So what is Pinehaven like?”

“It's a keep surrounded by a wooden palisade, the whole on a small island in the center of the River Whitewater that flows along the floor of the glen. A gatehouse with a movable bridge allows access from the bailey within the palisade to the mainland. The village that makes up the rest of the clanhold has its buildings strung out alongside the river, with a few of the villeins' cots located along the opposite bank. Surrounding that on both sides of the Whitewater are the fields the people tend and pastures for the clan's herds. For what they have, it serves well and is quite defensible.”

It sounded very much like many other strongholds that existed within both the highlands and lowlands. Smiling, the rose-haired maiden thought the place seemed charming indeed from the description given it by the Kiryuu chieftain. “I look forward to seeing it, my lord,” she began, then added, “I have one more scenario upon which I should like to question you...”

“Ask away, my dear lady. I continue to be eager and willing to show you proof of my worth,” Touga replied, flashing her a charming grin. She was turning out to be an intelligent maiden, a trait that he admired along with her beauty and spirit. The more time he spent in her company, the more certain he became that she would be the perfect one to have as his princess. Her earlier words that she would marry none other than the champion of love she discovered kept him determined to win that title for himself.

“A priest of your faith and a man have come before you and you are to judge the man. According to the priest, the defendant is a heathen who utterly desecrated a site sacred to your faith, destroying the sanctity of the place, and the cleric demands that you do what is right and kill the defiler. The man, however, when asked to present his side of the story, tells you that his actions came about in a blinding rage, brought on by his brother's death. You further determine that the man's brother died because the cleric refused to offer any aid at all to siblings who were not of the same faith since they worship gods the priest believes are evil. How would you decide the case?”

“It's obvious that the man is guilty of the defilement,” the scarlet-maned nobleman began. “However, I personally don't think that a punishment as harsh as death should be given to one who acted in outrage at the death of a brother.”

“Even if the now-ruined site is one you yourself worshiped within but now cannot for the hand of the Divine is no longer there?”

“It would be of little consequence, Lady Utena, for such a situation would only be temporary. The power of the Divine is absolute; there is nothing in this world that a single man can do to a sacred site that would keep it from being re-sanctified should the Divine wish it to be,” Touga replied. “The Divine is greater than the hand of any man. No, the man is guilty of a crime and would be punished--I would levy a fine in goods against his property and then have him spend time in prison to think over the rashness of his actions--but I would not execute a man for such a deed.”

“So you would choose mercy over piety?” Utena questioned.

“I would choose mercy because it is warranted in this case. The man acted out of passion, his grief getting the better of him. However, I would not say that the choice was between that and piety.”

“Why's that?” she asked, intrigued by his denial of the term.

“Because piety is the devotion and reverence of the Divine, no matter how you believe it manifests, and doing as the clerics always say isn't necessarily demonstrative of pious behavior,” the highland lord answered.

“But if the clerics are the tools of the manifestation of the Divine, you need be obedient to them to be pious,” the maiden said, her aquamarine gaze focused steadily upon her companion.

“Not true. Remember, they are humans just as we are and they are not infallible no matter what they may claim. And they are not the only tools through which the Divine works,” he countered. “The clergy are to see to only the spiritual protection and sustenance of the people; it is the role of us in the noble estate to see to the physical protection and sustenance of those same people, and in doing so, we too are tools of the Divine. Who's to say that perhaps the Divine chose to take away the blessing of sanctity to that place by using the man's distraught grief as the instrument of that choice? Neither you nor I can guess what the Divine Will may truly have in mind, and despite all their claims, the clergy are just as blind. No, I can be very pious indeed even as I spare that poor wretch's life from the howls of the priest to have his blood.”

Utena fell silent then, thinking over his words. It hadn't occurred to her that maybe the angered man in her scenario was just a tool to carry out the will of the Divine. That he had thought of it impressed her. Lord Touga of the Kiryuu Clan was quite the man she was quickly discovering.

They emerged from the edge of the woods, the path now crossing over what was obviously tilled soil. Off in the near distance, the thatched roofs of the clansmembers could be seen just above the horizon, the silhouette of a tower of some sort somewhat behind them. It still being the very start of spring, Utena wasn't surprised to see the arable fields with their earth still unbroken by the plow; she knew from her own experiences that the villagers would be using these first couple of weeks to check over their plowing equipment and repairing it before putting it to use in earnest.

Soon--very soon--they would be riding through the gatehouse into the keep at Pinehaven. The rose-haired maiden smiled at that, curious now to see just how Touga would interact with his foster brother. She had a feeling that it would reveal even more about his character to see this meeting between Saionji and the son of the lord that had taken him hostage. “'Twill be nice to cross over the bridge and enter the fortress,” she said.

“Indeed.”
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