With the hollow sounds of hooves against the wooden bridge over the narrow river, the small party crossed over from the dirt streets of the village and into the island keep of the clan chieftain. The fortress was just as Touga described it, only older and more rustic appearing than Utena had expected. Though the keep was built of stone and seemed to be a solid square of granite masonry, the wall that surrounded the shoreline of the island was a fence of giant logs nailed and lashed together, their upward-pointing ends sharpened into formidable points to discourage anyone from clambering over the man-made barrier. Even the gatehouse toward which they rode was wooden, manned by a number of fierce-looking warriors from its heights.
“I really must convince Saionji or his father to rebuild the gatehouse and palisade in stone,” the scarlet-haired lord murmured, glancing about. “As it stands, it's a vulnerability in the strength of the fortress,” he added, explaining for his gentle companion's benefit.
Utena merely nodded, understanding his point. Wood was softer than stone and could burn. Therefore, it was a relatively cheap building material but protection potential was exchanged for the lower price. That the gatehouse was still a carpenter-built construct could be the biggest concern; the first thing she would recommend herself was to rebuild that in masonry to better fortify it.
However, it wasn't the state of the stronghold that had caught her attention. No, that was reserved for the people living within the village and those who were milling about within the bailey of the keep. Sweeping her gaze back over to the thatched-roofed cots near the banks of the rapids-filled river, she frowned thoughtfully.
They had come out of their cottages and had stopped in the streets, their eyes all focused on the group of others riding in their midst. They looked thin, their clothes somewhat ragged and well patched, their expressions mixtures of what Utena could only believe were envy, resentment and fear. To her eye trained in assessing the state of a demesne, she recognized the signs of scarce good food and lingering illness in those that she did see, taking note that most of the people who were there, staring in utter silence, were those in their young to middle years. Of the youngest and oldest, there were no signs.
It was obvious they needed more than what they were gathering for themselves. She felt uneasy being among them, knowing that she was healthy and well fed while they were not, that she had ample and warm clothing while they made due with threadbare garb that had been mended numerous times. The housing too was as careworn as the people, the thatch and wood structures in need of obvious repair. In riding through the gatehouse, she could see that the keep itself--the last line of defense for these folk--was equally in need of the attention of both a carpenter and mason.
The stares from the warriors guarding the entrance into the stronghold were every bit as desperate and hostile as those of the more common folk out there in the surrounding village. It was obvious in the way they stiffly bowed and gave way before the dashing redheaded chieftain astride the ebony stallion that they not only knew exactly who he was, there was still some lingering bad blood for the son of the lord that had essentially conquered them. When the six riders emerged from the narrow passageway through the entry, the crystalline note of a horn sounded in the stillness; it was apparently a signal to announce the arrival of their overlord.
The bailey was nearly as shabby as the rest, the buildings housing the stables, mews, blacksmith and kennels showing an equal amount of wear and tear. The grass that covered those areas of the ground not a part of the well-worn dirt pathways was scrubby and thin, not like the thicker and lusher greenery that had been present in the bailey of Kiryuu Keep. Turning her attention momentarily to look at the proud and noble Lord Touga, Utena noticed that he only urged his charger about four steps into the courtyard before tugging on the reins and murmuring a halt to the great beast. Drawing up next to him, the rose-haired maiden urged her buff-colored palfrey to halt as well, then glanced behind to make sure that her handmaidens and men at arms stopped. Seeing that all was well so far, her aquamarine gaze focused again on her companion.
Sensing her eyes on him, Touga shifted in his saddle slightly and gave her a bit of a smile. “Here we shall wait for someone to greet us and invite us in,” he explained.
“I see,” she responded, still uneasy about being comfortable when so many around them had obviously not fared well at all. A thoughtful expression on her face, she stared down at the somewhat barren ground, noting the many stones of various sizes that were embedded in the dirt. Words came to her in the stillness, a soft feminine voice from the time she had made the journey two years past to the place where she found Love's Honor being guarded. “Six tasks shall you set to prove the worth of the one to bear this blade, one for each virtue of Love...” Gasping slightly, Utena raised her head, knowing suddenly one of the half-dozen requests she would make. “Lord Touga?”
The scarlet-maned chieftain's ears perked up, catching an unusual undertone to the boyish-attired maiden's voice. Eyebrows rising in curiosity, he twisted in the saddle again to once more stare straight at her. “Aye, Lady Utena?”
“I... wish to set one of the tasks you must perform,” she informed him.
'Tis an interesting place and time for such. I wonder what she has in mind? he thought, gaze steady upon her. “And that task would be?”
“Give away an entire year's income to these destitute folk.”
An entire year? Touga blinked, the request not exactly an expected one. Even so, he was already turning the logistics of fulfilling it over in his mind, doing his best to recall just how much he had still within his coffers. Though most trade and the collection of taxes in the highlands was based in kind--goods and services traded away to meet financial obligations--some money was used as well. The Saionji certainly looked to need the help, and as their overlord, he was the one ultimately responsible for their well-being. If I take half the coin I have and then plan to send to them half the harvest throughout the year, that should satisfy both obligations...
Seeing only what seemed to be dumbfounded silence, Utena did her best to ignore the increasingly crestfallen feeling that threatened to overcome her. Would this handsome champion-to-be fail this, perhaps one of the simplest tasks she could assign for the virtue of Generosity? “Well? What say you?” she insisted, carefully schooling her visage into a neutral expression.
Her unwittingly sharp tone brought Touga's attention back from his musings. “Excuse my silence, my lady. I was best planning out how to comply with your request. Aye, I accept your challenge and please consider it done, dear lady. When my men arrive with the meat I sent them to hunt, I shall send one back to the keep with a message for my lady sister.”
“And how do you plan on fulfilling it?” Utena asked, interested in his apparent solution.
“I have enough coin in my coffers to fetch half a year's income and hand it over to the Saionji's chieftain. The remainder of what you've requested will be spread throughout the coming year; I shall give away half my harvests in both grain and herds as I reap them.”
“'Tis easy enough to say you shall--” the pink-haired girl replied.
“Trust me, Lady Utena. Watch and you shall see,” Touga said, interrupting her. Pointing toward the doorway in the square stone tower of the keep, he added, “I do believe we shall be greeted now by my foster-brother.”
From their perspective, the doorway was set on the right-hand side of the tower, a flight of stairs along the outside of the sturdy granite structure making its way up from the ground, around the corner and stopping at the threshold of the single entry into the keep one story above the earth below. More than likely, the storerooms of the stronghold were there on that windowless first floor, and the Great Hall would take up the majority of the space on the second floor. Counting off the levels of shuttered windows, Utena guessed that the tower was only three stories high, just as Kiryuu Keep had been. From what she'd been able to observe, the clans of the highlands tended to live simply and prudently. She had yet to see a manor that was as ostentatious as some of those of the great lowland barons.
The figure that descended the stairs seemed, from the short distance anyway, to be a fit young man in the prime of his life about the same age as the Kiryuu chieftain. Dressed somberly in somewhat plain garb of dark green and black--shoes of leather dyed green, black hose covering his legs, a black shirt underneath a green tunic, both of which were modestly decorated with silver embroidery--the young man's tall form was crowned by a waist-length mane of curly, deep green hair.
“Kyouichi Saionji,” Touga explained, his words meant for the maiden sitting atop her palfrey at his side.
Utena looked him over as he approached them, mentally assessing the one Touga considered a brother. The Saionji heir was a handsome man, though the ruggedness of his visage would forever keep him from the elegant beauty Touga possessed--even if the harshness of the current times weren't there on Saionji's face. At the moment, his expression was a thunderous scowl, his violet eyes narrowed in suspicion and irritation. Stopping a slight distance away, he took up what appeared to the pink-maned maiden a defensive stance, arms crossing over his green-clad chest.
“Well now, isn't this a surprise?” the verdant-maned noble asked, his low voice holding a tone that matched his stance. “My dear Lord Touga, to what should I ascribe the pleasure of seeing your face this early in the spring?”
“Why to the fact that I've been overly long in paying my respects to both my foster brother and his ailing father,” Touga replied. “As well as the fact that winter is over once more and the spring planting should begin soon. That alone is worth celebrating, and to that effect, I have my men bringing a gift to you both as a tribute to my foster brother and as thanks for the Divine for seeing us through the harsh weather.”
Saionji stared at the other lord for a moment before flicking his violet gaze to the men at arms, handmaidens and seemingly slender lad accompanying the scarlet-haired chieftain. “You must feel quite comfortable traversing my lands with only strangers as an escort.”
Touga softly laughed. “They are new acquaintances of mine. Lord Kyouichi, may I present to you Lady Utena Tenjou, her servants Wakaba and Shiori, and her men at arms Tatsuya and Ryu? Ladies, gentlemen, the heir of Clan Saionji.”
As the quintet of people lowered their heads in respectful greeting at the introductions, Saionji merely scowled a bit more. “Tenjou, hmm? Isn't that a lowland--”
“Aye, but it matters not. The lady's come as my guest,” the Kiryuu prince replied, cutting off his friend's words.
“As you wish, my lord,” he responded, a gentle breeze passing through the sparsely vegetated bailey lightly ruffling his curly green hair. “However, I refuse to believe that you've come only in goodwill now that spring has arrived. What are you really up to, Lord Touga?”
The chieftain nodded slightly, acknowledging his foster brother's guess. “I do have a couple of matters to discuss with you, now that I've made the trip here.”
“I should have known,” Saionji muttered. “Very well. I extend to you the hospitality of my father's hearth. Do you accept?”
“Gladly,” Touga answered, gracefully swinging down from the saddle to alight onto the ground. Now that he was here, observing for himself the condition of Pinehaven, he found himself even more worried than before. Saionji himself was thinner than Touga remembered, the cheekbones more prominent than before. Though it was commendable that the green-haired noble was sharing in the suffering of his clan--not being selfish, not seeing to his own needs before those of his followers--it was bothersome see his friend so reduced. Should trouble come to the clan, Saionji and his men may not be up to the task simply because one cannot be at his best if he is ill fed.
As Touga strode over to where the pink-attired lady sat upon the back of her palfrey, Saionji faced towards the stables and shouted. “Grooms! Attend at once to my guests' mounts!” That loudly uttered command caused a flurry of activity as a number of lanky boys--all around the age Utena would expect for squires--appeared from seemingly nowhere to descend upon the little party. Suddenly aware of the scarlet-haired lord's nearby presence, Utena turned her aquamarine gaze to him in time to see him silently offer to help her down from her perch. Giving him a bit of a smile, she placed her hand in his upraised one and leaned forward, feeling his strength easily as he wrapped an arm around her waist and swept her down as if she weighed nothing at all. Behind her, the pair of men at arms dismounted and helped down the two handmaidens, Tatsuya carefully lowering Wakaba to the ground and Ryu giving Shiori a helping hand.
“Come along,” Saionji said, gesturing to the half-dozen other people to follow behind him. Turning, he began to retrace his steps back to the stairway that led into the stone keep.
“He seems a bit on the brusque side,” the rose-haired maiden commented to her tall companion.
“He believes in getting to the point,” Touga responded, a smile on his face. Lifting his head slightly, he called out, “Saionji, a moment!”
Pausing in mid-stride, the other man turned his head to look at his foster brother over his shoulder. “What is it, my lord?”
“When my men come, be sure to have them escorted to the kitchen. My gift to you needs to be taken there.”
The verdant-maned noble stiffened slightly, but gave a nod in response. “I'll tell the castellan once I step inside.” That said, Saionji once more continued on his way.
In silence, the small group of nobles and servants ascended the stone stairs and entered the tower. Immediately behind the iron-bound oaken door was a vestibule that was devoid of almost any furniture; all Utena could see was a couple of rather uncomfortable-looking chairs off to one side. When he had entered, Saionji must have barked some order--she had heard his low, harsh voice while she had been climbing the steps--for someone was swiftly disappearing from the chamber as she stepped inside.
The heir of the estate led them on through the archway into what appeared to be a waiting room much like the one Utena had seen in Touga's home. More chairs were arranged into sitting areas while locked chests and cupboards sat against the stone walls. There were a few tapestries there, though they showed signs of being old--the edges were somewhat frayed and the colors faded.
A number of people milled around, most seemingly too in awe of being within the keep to take advantage of the somewhat worn chairs sitting about. As the group made their way across the room, the folk quickly scattered and bowed, not straightening up until after they had walked past. Glancing about, the rose-haired maiden realized just who all these individuals were: the citizens of the demesne, come to bring their disputes and grievances to their lord's court. Flicking her aquamarine gaze back to their host, she noted that he looked neither to the left nor right at those awaiting to come before him, though he did nod slightly at the greetings from the household garrison. Throwing open the sturdy door leading to the Great Hall, Saionji strode inside. “Shut the door once my guests have entered. The docket can wait,” the green-haired noble barked.
“Aye, m'lord,” responded a raven-haired warrior standing to one side of the door.
“Perhaps you should hear the cases before you speak with me?” Touga suggested.
“I'd rather know precisely what you're up to, Lord Touga,” Saionji sharply responded.
“Very well,” the scarlet-maned nobleman replied. “It's just as well that you were preparing to sit in court. We'll have need of your clerk.”
The verdant-maned highlander came to an abrupt halt, whirling around to face his foster brother there in the center of the rush-covered floor. The large chamber certainly had been readied for the upcoming judicial session; the heavy wooden trestle tables remained propped against the sparsely decorated walls while the matching benches were aligned in rows to either side of the middle of the room. Saionji had been leading them down the center aisle when he had come to a halt at the other nobleman's words. “What the devil do you need my clerk for?”
“Why, I have a contract that needs to be drawn,” Touga answered, his voice a smooth purr. “I made a promise and I wish to have it in writing.”
“And just what is this promise?” Saionji insisted.
“I am to give away a full year's income to you and your clan. As part of the pledge, I plan to send to you half of everything I harvest. And to show proof of my sincerity, I desire to have that part of the pledge written and signed by us as a legal agreement.”
“Do you think I can't take care of my own?” the heir of the estate growled, violet eyes narrowing.
“Of course not,” Touga quickly said, his voice in what was meant to be a soothing tone. “I'm sure you are doing the best you can. This has nothing to do with proving your worth and everything to do with proving mine.”
“So now we're just tools for your own advancement?” Saionji said, his expression thunderous.
“Saionji, please...” the Kiryuu prince responded, offering his friend a smile. “That's not it at all.”
“So what is 'it' then?” the green-haired man snapped back, still glaring at the other nobleman. How dare he come striding in here looking so happy and fit when the Saionji clan had barely survived?
“I'm genuinely concerned--”
“You're only concerned about losing your hold on my lands and my people,” the other highlander snarled, being deliberately rude and turning away, stalking once more towards the high table. “You only want us even more in your debt!”
As the pair of noblemen crossed over the Great Hall's floor, Utena turned to her followers, her pretty face showing her unease at the developing argument. Other than the noblemen, the cavernous chamber was currently empty save for the clerk mentioned by the keep's lord, a pious-looking man with short-cropped, chocolate-brown hair wearing the simple brown robes of a monk. It seemed slightly eerie scanning over a room so large and so empty. However, the pink-haired girl was put at ease knowing that it was only devoid of activity solely because court had yet to start, though she was still on edge from the tense undercurrent. “Find something with which to amuse yourselves along the edges of the hall. I have a feeling that the two gentlemen would like their conversation to be between only themselves,” she started to explain, staring right at her four servants. Catching the unhappy looks on Tatsuya and Ryu's faces, Utena quickly added, “Fear not for me. I'm certain that I'm in fine company, and I'll only be up at the high table with them. You'll be able to watch over me the entire time.” Hearing her men's at arms murmurs of reluctant acknowledgment, the rose-haired maiden hurried after the other two nobles.
Though inwardly disappointed at his foster brother's cold reception, Touga kept his features schooled in an expression of pleasant camaraderie. He kept silent until he joined the verdant-maned noble up on the dais, easily taking the three small steps in graceful stride and then standing there, awaiting his friend's invitation to take a seat. His cobalt-blue gaze remaining focused on the other man as Saionji paused behind the ornate chair of the lord of the manor and rested a hand against the back of the carved wood of the seat, Touga said, “Come now, my brother--”
“Don't you 'my brother' me!” the green-haired clansman snapped, angry violet gaze turning to stare at the chieftain. “How dare you come here as if you were the king of the world, showing off your plenty and contentedness just after I've finished burying a full fifth of my clan? There you are, fit and happy, while we continue to suffer and you see us only as a charity case to further your ambitions? I see no brother here, only a lord come to rub our noses in the fact that we are a subjugated people.”
Standing a slight distance away, Utena faintly gasped and put a hand over her mouth, azure eyes wide, at the angry words. So many folk dead just over the winter? She couldn't help but feel sorry for them and their plight.
A fifth? Touga thought, stunned by the numbers. He had heard that an illness had swept through them during the coldest part of the season but had hoped that they were rumors. They'd been too snowbound to send anyone there to see. Bowing his head in a silent prayer to the souls of those claimed by the harshness of winter, the scarlet-maned chieftain remained standing there. “Saionji,” he began, tone soft, his face curtained by the loose locks of his long, scarlet-red hair, “the years have forced a distance between us--through no fault of our own--that wasn't there before. For the sake of the fraternal love you once bore me, please just give me this one chance. I swear to you I have come here as a brother, not as a lord overseeing an underling.” Lifting his head, a faintly beseeching expression on his handsome face, Touga stared expectantly at his friend.
Violet eyes narrowed, glaring back. Pride and affection warred within Saionji's heart, longtime envy and admiration both making themselves known. He hated seeing the despair to which his people had been reduced, yet he knew that what the Kiryuu chieftain offered would ease his clan's suffering. “I'll give you this chance and accept your help only for the good of my folk,” Saionji finally growled. “There's been enough illness and death.”
“May the lady and I take a seat?” Touga queried, gesturing toward where the rose-haired maiden stood watching in the background.
“Who am I to stop you?” the other man asked, his piercing gaze flicking over to stare at the strangely attired girl. Had the chieftain not introduced her, Saionji would have thought he was looking at an overly pretty boy. “Who is she anyway to be hovering about the conversation of 'dear brothers'?” he added, his voice taking on a sneering tone.
“Merely an observer to test my worth,” the redheaded highlander responded.
“Your tastes have certainly changed to the more masculine if one such as she is allowed to judge your worth--”
“I beg your pardon!” Utena burst out, feeling somewhat insulted by the verdant-maned noble's words. “That'll be quite enough of that, Lord Kyouichi.”
“Loud too,” Saionji said, continuing on as if the masculinely clothed woman hadn't spoken at all.
“Tread carefully, my friend, least we both discover she can handle that sword she carries in an efficient manner,” Touga gently warned.
“I'm not afraid of some slip of a little boyish-looking girl,” the violet-eyed lord replied.
Utena's aquamarine eyes narrowed in annoyance; recalling both the unwritten laws of hospitality and the very virtues she searched for within her champion, she took a deep breath and willed herself to calm down. It wasn't worth the conflict, especially against a man too battered by the world to even have a hope of being the noble soul she sought. Her cheeks warm and red-hued with anger, she bit back her words and dragged one of the heavy chairs away from the bolted table.
“I assure you, Saionji, she's not what she appears to be.” Turning his gaze to Utena as the noblewoman perched herself on the sturdy seat, Touga gave her a reassuring smile. “If you'll kindly excuse me, my lady, I wish to turn my attention to the matters about which I desired to speak with Saionji.”
The rose-maned maiden nodded, a silent gesture for him to proceed. Sitting back in the chair, she watched as he pulled out another and gracefully sat, Saionji lowering himself down into the lord's siege at the same time.
“Does she have to be here?” the green-haired highlander grumbled, still doing his best to appear to not acknowledge her presence in any manner but his words.
“Aye, she does. Just think of her as a clerk of sorts, just as you have your man over there.”
“I suppose...” Irritation glimmered in Saionji's purple-hued eyes as he leaned against the padded back of the ornately carved chair. “So what exactly do you want, Touga?”
“How's your father doing? I had heard that he wasn't faring well at all.”
The other lord looked away, off into the distance, his expression unreadable beneath his dark green bangs. “The Saionji have a new chieftain now.”
Touga nodded gently, a look of sympathy in his cobalt-blue eyes. “My condolences--”
“Don't bother. I never really knew him, and what I knew of him, he was an angry and broken man. So you're only wasting your breath,” Saionji responded, his tone cool.
“How long ago?”
“Three days ago. We buried him the day before yesterday and I heard the oaths of fealty from my retainers yesterday.”
“Well, perhaps you'll be more inclined to listen to the proposal I desire to make to you, Saionji, than I fear your father may have been,” Touga said, leaning back and draping a leg over his knee. “It's come to my attention that the time has come to arrange a suitable circumstance for my sister Nanami.”
The verdant-maned chieftain stiffened, then turned his head to stare at his friend. “You're offering me marriage to your sister?”
“Aye. I spoke to Nanami about it being time and she was less than pleased with the prospect altogether,” the scarlet-haired noble responded.
“She would be. I recall how she'd trail after us like some forlorn puppy, always wanting to be there for you,” Saionji snorted in mild derision. “The girl absolutely hated anything taking your attention away from her.”
“Save you,” Touga softly said. “In all those years, she never once tried to get between us or pull one of her childish pranks on you.”
“She probably knew I'd throttle her if she tried.”
“More likely... I think she may like you, Saionji, only she's been too focused on trying to not grow up and always be my sister that she doesn't see it. I did get a concession out of her that she'd feel happier being wed to someone she knew.”
The newly-ascended chieftain growled, shaking his head slightly. It just seemed too easy, too convenient. An alliance with one of the most powerful clans in the highlands, one that had conquered the Saionji after a bitter feud, all because a spoiled child whom he had considered like a sister would rather wed someone she knew if she had to marry at all? He must be getting something more from offering this than merely that, Saionji thought, scowling. But what? Maybe... Maybe he seeks to force us into a permanent position of subordination through the ties of blood? If that's the case, I won't stand for it. I will see to it that my people are once again wielders of the power we deserve. “Nanami likes no one but you.”
“Everyone that's attempted to get close to me, she's tried to harm--save you. You've never once had overly spiced or spoiled food in your meals, sleeping draughts in your drinks, your room 'accidentally' left open to the cold with no fire or brazier to heat it or being forgotten when it came time to clean it... In all those years you and I were as close as brothers, my sister tagging along, never once did she use her position as châtelaine as a way to strike out at you as she did all the others who tried to get friendlier with me than she thought was proper,” the scarlet-haired lord responded.
Utena blinked, startled at the litany of annoying pranks carried out by what sounded to be one very obsessed young lady. Thinking back on yestereve's celebration, the boyishly-clad maiden paled slightly as she realized why the blond mistress of the keep kept giving her vicious stares. Apparently whatever discussion it was after the siblings had danced--more than likely the talk of weddings and alliances, given the current conversation--it had kept Lady Nanami in a foul mood. At the time, Utena had dismissed the glares as a manifestation of the anger sparked by the conversation with Lord Touga. Now she knew better; the young blond had seen her as a rival for her brother's affections.
“I won't tolerate being chained to a subordinate position,” Saionji insisted, his tone harsh. “An alliance such as you propose would only make us a lesser line of your clan. Never again would we be your equals.”
“That's not exactly true if you stop and think about it,” Touga replied. “Your sons would be royalty of both the Kiryuu and the Saionji, whereas my sons would only be Kiryuu princes. Should my line ever be considered unfit by the warriors of the clan, it could easily be one of your sons that is chieftain over both, but my sons could never have a claim to the Saionji coronet. And you will always be entitled to aid from the Kiryuu, since you would be family.”
“Ha. By your own oath of fealty as overlord, you are bound to give us protection and sustenance,” countered the green-haired nobleman. “Duty alone would force you to aid us.”
“Not all are as honorable as you know me to be,” pointed out Touga, his cobalt-blue eyes focused on his friend. “And there's nothing to say that a future Kiryuu prince would find it too inconvenient to aid you when you need it. But family... You know as well as I that blood is thicker than water and family helps one another. And family is a relationship of equality, not subordination.”
Saionji scowled, mulling on the other chieftain's words. So far, he could not see the fatal flaw that he knew just had to be lurking there, the one thing that must be what Touga was hoping to achieve. He knew his friend was every bit as ambitious as he was honorable; surely there was something Saionji was missing, something he couldn't quite see. After a long, tense pause, he questioned, “So what do you get out of this? You offer us all the aid we could need, equal standing and blood ties to bind us to you, a clan that your father conquered. So what's in it for you?”
“It's simple, actually. I get my sister wed to a man I know and trust, whom I'm sure will watch over her properly, not abuse her and be strong enough to deal with her willfulness and tendency to use her control over a household to make things miserable for those she dislikes. You know her nearly as well as I; you're familiar with what it takes to keep her happy.”
“She's not happy unless she's with you,” Saionji reiterated.
“She'll get over it,” Touga replied. “And I'm sure you're up to the task of helping her do so. So what say you?”
A scowl settled over the verdant-maned chieftain's visage. It's tempting, aye, but damnation! I still feel as if there's something unsaid I'm missing, some string attached I can't find. And I hate the thought of being personally beholden to him, of losing to him. The scowl grew darker as he turned a cool violet gaze back to his childhood friend. “I'll think about it. I already have negotiations going on for a different alliance.”
“Oh?” The word was a soft purr of curiosity, Touga raising his eyebrows in surprise. “With whom?”
“That, dear Touga, is none of your business,” Saionji shot back.
“Very well,” the scarlet-haired nobleman responded, raising his hands in a peacemaking gesture. “However, please give my offer some serious thought. I truly believe you couldn't make a better alliance with anyone else in the highlands.”
And that is what bothers me, the violet-eyed prince silently thought.
The tam-like hat of soft rose-pink cloth remained perched jauntily on her head, her lush mane of wavy hair carefully hidden beneath. As she sat there at Lord Touga's left behind the high table, Utena's thoughts wandered somewhat from the proceedings within Pinehaven's Great Hall.
The pair of chieftains had called over the robed clerk once their talk of the proposed marriage was concluded. With the scribe in attendance, Lords Touga and Kyouichi had haggled on the details of the contract and then had set their wax seals on the resulting document the moment they had agreed. While the once-molten material was cooling into a hardened blob imprinted with the impressions of both signet rings, a page had come to inform the noblemen of the arrival of the Kiryuu warriors. The scarlet-haired chieftain had then sent the young, towheaded boy off with a message for one of his men to attend him there ate the high table.
As Saionji had called for his warriors to usher in the folk there to have their cases heard in the manorial court, the Kiryuu prince had held a whispered conversation with the strong-looking young clansman that had come at his lord's summons. While the small crowd had made their way into the large chamber and had seated themselves on the wooden benches, the brunette warrior had walked swiftly away, more than likely to carry out Touga's plan to fetch the coin that was part of the proof of his generosity. Utena knew that once she saw the precious metal in the green-haired chieftain's hand, she would judge Touga as having passed the first test of his virtue; the coin along with the legally binding contract--as well as his impromptu decision to bring meat to his foster-brother's people--would be more than enough proof as far as the noblewoman was concerned that the Kiryuu prince possessed the virtue of generosity in sufficient quantity.
The disputes that had come before the newly-elevated lord were all those typical of such courts. Quarrels over the ownership of property and livestock, the use of community resources, unpaid debts, assaults, thefts--civil and criminal arguments alike were settled here. As chieftain, Saionji's decision would be the final word on all save those that were felonious in nature. Those would be referred to Lord Touga's own court in the near future; as overlord, he was the one that held the right to judge cases involving High Justice.
As the parade of people on the docket were called forth and aired their grievances, Utena had glanced over at her would-be champion a number of times. Looking as regal and gorgeous as ever, he almost lounged in the ornately-carved chair as he silently observed his foster-brother's court. That he seemed so casual puzzled her at first--she would have thought him to be more actively involved with the hearing of the disputes, since he could be called in to appeal by someone with that right--until she realized that he was there not as the overlord of the demesne but rather as the childhood friend of the lord sitting in judgment. She couldn't help but be somewhat impressed by his ability to act with such honor; having promised Saionji he was only there as a foster-brother, he was holding himself true to that pledge. A smile graced her beautiful face as she looked at him once more with a faint expression of admiration.
Admiration, however, was not what she felt toward those who came before Saionji. Though most of the cases were rather petty things--the green-haired ruler making a swift judgment, the clerk recording the proceedings and the warriors acting as bailiffs escorting the parties out--Utena found herself once again shaking her head at the quarrels people got into over the littlest of things. To Saionji's credit, he swiftly made it clear that bribery wouldn't work on him, but the rose-haired maiden found his sense of mercy somewhat lacking. The rulings she had heard the new chieftain pronounce had revealed what seemed to her to be a belief that the laws and customs of the domain were carved in stone. If someone was guilty, then they were handed the proscribed punishment, regardless of any possibly mitigating circumstances. Such inflexibility truly bothered her.
For perhaps the hundredth time, eyes the color of cobalt-blue shifted to take in the lovely sight of the somewhat disguised maiden. As the cases were heard--a myriad of all the disputes one could have with one's family and neighbors, and though they were often petty little things in the grand scheme of the world, Touga understood them to be important to those who stood on the rush-covered floor before them--he'd noticed his companion's increasingly troubled expression. Though curious as to the cause, he kept his questions to himself; in his opinion, it was one of two things: either Utena was bothered to hear of this argument and that or she wasn't pleased with the way the cases were being handled. Intertwining his fingers, he raised his hands up to rest the knuckles of his middle digits against his expressive lips, his face pensive as he returned his gaze to the floor. The Saionji bailiffs had just escorted out the latest two parties and a new case was about to start.
“Akira, retainer of Clan Saionji, come forth!” the green-haired lord shouted. Throughout the proceedings, the young chieftain had been acting as his own herald, his deep and gruff voice carrying well in the confines of the Great Hall.
The person in question was a frightened-looking, grizzled man of middle years, his humble face one of a man not having lead an easy life. Silvery strands were sprinkled throughout his thinning, light brown hair. The trews and tunic he wore were threadbare and shabby. Of all the defendants come there that afternoon, he was the only one in shackles. During the general chaos of assembling everyone for court, Utena had noticed this one come in from another door, his form flanked by a brace of stern Saionji warriors. At the call of the prisoner's name, the clansmen guarding him stood, hauling him up to his feet at the same time.
The masculinely-attired girl frowned at the clanking of the heavy iron links. That the seemingly beleaguered man was in chains signaled that this case, unlike the others, involved a felony. Glancing over at her silent companion seated to her right, Utena was once again struck by Touga's apparently disinterested air.
“The charge is the poaching of a head of the royal cattle. What evidence is there that such a crime took place?” Saionji called out.
“If you please, Your Lordship,” began one of the formidable-appearing warriors flanking the hapless-seeming prisoner. Though the auburn-haired clansman showed the effects of the harsh times on his countenance, he looked otherwise fit and strong. “I am Kenji, forester in charge of the holdings of the clan. While I was engaged upon my rounds within the woods around the village of Northolt, I came upon a most damning sight. This man--” Kenji paused for a moment, pointing at the trembling prisoner, then continued, “was standing over the fallen form of a cow, a great branch from one of the trees in his hand, the opposite end from where he held it bloodied and speckled with gore. Even as I watched, he brought his rude club down upon the beast's head with a violent assault before flinging the wood away. He then drew a dagger from his belt and knelt down by the beast, beginning to skin it. I rushed from where I was hiding and tackled him, knowing that Your Lordship's herd of cattle was pastured in that season very near to that place. A look upon the carcass confirmed by suspicions; the dead animal bore the very markings of a cow that had gone missing earlier that day.”
While the forester told his story of the discovery of the crime and the apprehension of the perpetrator, Utena leaned over slightly toward her scarlet-haired companion. If Saionji remained true to what she had observed so far, then the miserable-looking man there before them would be judged guilty and given whatever penalty law and custom demanded for that particular crime. “So tell me, my lord... What will his punishment be should he be found guilty?” she softly asked the redheaded nobleman.
“The customary sentence is death,” Touga responded, his voice in a low tone that carried only to her. “Saionji can't actually kill him--he holds no rights to the High Justice at the moment--but he can send the man to me for execution of the sentence.”
“Defendant! What say you on this matter?” Saionji barked, his violet gaze transfixing the man in question.
“Please, great lord, you must understand. Surely you have some place in your heart for pity,” the chained retainer stammered, still trembling in fear.
“Just tell me your side of the tale,” the verdant-maned nobleman replied in a growl, reaching up to brush aside his long, curly bangs from before his eyes.
“I am one of the cowherds that watches over both the royal herd pastured there at the village of Northolt as well as the herd of the villagers themselves,” the grizzled peasant continued in response to his lord's command. “In moving the herds from one pasturage to another, something spooked the herd and they stampeded, scattering into the woods. With a number of the villagers keeping watch over the head of cattle we brought back right away, we cowherds went into the forest to gather up the stragglers. At the final count, we were down only a handful. A number of us went into the woods again and split up, and it was my misfortune to find one of the cows in distress. I know not what happened to it; I only know that when I found it, it was hobbling around on three legs--the fourth one was broken, the ends of the bones shoved through the skin--and bellowing in pain. The sound was terrible, and I couldn't let the poor beast continue suffering like that, so I found a sturdy piece of wood I could use for a club and I bashed the creature's brains out. The winter had been tough, my entire family starving, and I thought it would be a waste to leave the meat there on the bones... Great lord, surely you cannot fault my intent! The beast was in agony; the meat could have been put to good use...”
Hearing the shackled retainer's words, Utena turned her aquamarine gaze to stare up at the man next to her. Finding his countenance as seemingly disinterested as before, she leaned toward him again. “Would you truly kill this man just because Lord Kyouichi asks you to do so?” the rose-haired maiden whispered in consternation.
“'Tis Saionji's place to judge guilt and pronounce the punishment,” Touga softly answered. “As overlord, it's my place to support those under me in such matters. So long as nothing untoward happened in the proceedings themselves, I am bound to execute whatever sentence is handed down. One can only appeal to me if they think Saionji did something wrong in his holding court; I cannot adjudicate on the evidence itself.”
“Hrmph.” The green-haired lord made only that single sound of mild disgust at the quivering peasant's impassioned pleas. As the man stood there in terror, his face pale, Saionji leaned back against the ornate siege. “The law is the law, Akira. You killed that cow knowing full well that it was one of my herd.”
“Please, great lord! The beast was sorely wounded! Nothing would have been gained to keep it alive!” the cowherd replied.
“Must the punishment be death?” Utena murmured to the redheaded chieftain. “I truly think the circumstances do not warrant such harshness.”
“He could impose a lesser sentence,” Touga answered.
“Well, there's no question that poaching was done and that you are the one that committed it,” Saionji stated, violet eyes staring straight at the peasant. “The law is very clear on the crime. Do you know what penalty is imposed upon poachers?”
The cowherd paled more--Utena found it surprising that the hapless man could do so, he had been so white from fear before--and flung himself down to the ground, prostrating himself and groveling on the rush-covered floor. “Great lord, have mercy! What of my family? We barely made it through winter, and they need my labor to survive!”
“The champion of Love should uphold mercy as well as he demonstrates generosity,” the masculinely-clad girl said, her tone becoming adamant. I cannot let this happen. I will find a way for mercy to temper justice in this case! Once again staring up at him, she commanded, “For your second task, I ask that you successfully plead leniency for this poor soul.”
Scarlet eyebrows raised in surprise at the maiden's insistent order. Looking down at her, Touga could see the determination glowing there in her large, aquamarine eyes--eyes that he would much rather have gazing up at him in affectionate adoration. It took not even a moment for the Kiryuu prince to decide. Slipping off his golden signet ring, the symbol of all he was as the overlord of the Saionji, he gently took one of his companion's hands, placed the heavy ornament into it and then gently made her fingers curl around the warm metal. “Hold that for me, my lady. I shall endeavor to do my best.” Feeling the weight of the signet no more, the scarlet-maned chieftain gracefully stood. “Your Lordship,” he called out, looking over at his friend while he walked along the length of the high table.
“What the devil are you doing?” Saionji snarled, startled by the other nobleman's actions.
“The lady asked me to plead the case of mercy to you,” Touga replied, stepping around the end and descending to the Great Hall's floor. “However, I also promised you that I had come only as your brother and friend. Therefore, it's as your foster brother, someone who wishes to see you successful in your rulership, that I stand before you now.”
“So you now dance to the tune of a maiden?” the verdant-maned highlander asked, his voice a sneer. “How unusual to let such a one pull your strings.”
If his friend's barb scored a hit, Touga made no outward sign of an effect. Folding his arms over his chest, he looked the other lord over for a long moment. “There is no doubt, my lord, that by the law a crime has taken place. That's not in dispute. However, throughout all your cases today, you have punished according to the letter of the law. Justice is served, but I fear you are making a mistake.”
“The law is the law,” Saionji reiterated. “And if a crime's found to have happened, then justice is served by handing down the appropriate punishment. You know as well as I that swift enforcement keeps a demesne from dissolving into chaos.”
“But a good ruler will temper that justice with mercy. Aye, you are fulfilling your obligations as you are, but you could do better by taking into consideration mitigating circumstances, my friend. The cow was severely injured. You know that it could not be salvaged at that point. Your cowherd did the animal a favor by ending its misery. He had no way of knowing that your forester was in the area.”
“I let the man go unpunished and everyone will feel free to slaughter my cattle,” the other chieftain shot back, violet eyes narrowing in irritation.
“I'm not saying to not punish the man,” Touga smoothly responded. “But show your people mercy; show them that you care about their lives and what's happening to them.” He stepped closer toward the dais, halting there just on the other side of the high table.
Her breath catching in her throat, the slender noblewoman leaned forward ever so slightly, awaiting the Kiryuu prince's next words. Others before him had faltered here, falling into the trap of manipulating the pride of the lord in question in order to win leniency for the subject she had chosen. To choose to do so proved no virtue at all but rather a flaw, a willingness to be unmerciful when it came to the emotions of another.
“Your clansmen deserve mercy when it's appropriate, as well as the justice that keeps order in your lands. The animal foundered; it needed to be put down. No merciful man would have let the cow continue to suffer.” Turning his attention to the forester, he asked, “What became of the beast once Akira was taken into custody?”
“It was butchered at my direction, my lord,” Kenji responded, bowing slightly in a token of respect to his ruler's overlord. “The meat was then shared amongst the villagers, since it would be too much effort to bring it back to Pinehaven.”
“So one act of mercy became many equally merciful acts, since everyone suffered through the winter. By happenstance, one man's compassion more than likely made it possible for all the villagers to make it into spring and be well enough for the planting of the harvest,” Touga continued. “Like a stone tossed into still waters, the ripples sent out eventually touch the farthest shore. Leniency should be shown to this man, since not only did he do the humane thing, he probably served you better, Saionji, by helping maintain a village full of workers ready to conduct the spring planting.”
Silence hung there in the cavernous space of the hall. The green-haired nobleman glared back at his friend. So wrapped up was Saionji in asserting his authority, taking over from a harsh and bitter predecessor, that he had become something of a reflection of his sire. Though he hated having such a truth shoved in his face by the one man he considered always two steps ahead of him, he couldn't deny that his foster brother was right. The cow was a loss no matter what, and the meat was better used instead of left to rot on the carcass's bones. Turning his attention to the still groveling peasant, Saionji shouted, “Get up!”
The cowherd hastened to do so despite the heavy chains, the brace of muscular warriors reaching down to yank the cowering man back to his feet.
“Kenji? When you inspected the downed beast, did you see the broken leg that the defendant mentioned?” the newly elevated chieftain asked of his officer.
“Aye, Your Lordship,” the auburn-haired clansman responded, nodding in affirmation. “As he said, the bones were clear through the skin.”
“Well then,” Saionji softly mused, once again fixing the prisoner with his cold violet gaze. “As has been pointed out, I find that you did not willingly slaughter a fit and healthy animal. For that, your life shall be spared. However, in lieu of the animal you killed, I fine you the worth of that beast, which you shall pay by either giving to the royal herds your best milking cow or by working it off in pulling double duty in the royal fields until enough time has passed equal to the worth of a cow.” Turning his attention to the men standing on either side of the peasant, he nodded to them. “Release the man. The chains are no longer needed.”
Up in her seat behind the high table, Utena smiled at the joyous expression on the cowherd's careworn face. His look alone was worth it a thousand times over, though she would do it again simply because it was the right thing. A life was spared, deservedly so, and her possible champion had argued eloquently for the cause of mercy. Gazing happily upon the redheaded highlander's dashing and noble countenance, the rose-clad maiden continued smiling in admiration.
Feeling her gaze upon him yet again, Touga smiled to himself as he glanced at her. He knew, without uttering a single word, that he had passed the test she had given him, that he had taken one more step closer to proving himself worthy of not only being this champion she sought but of her as well.
Noting the oddly-clothed lady and the scarlet-haired lord exchanging glances, Saionji could only scowl. What is it about her, of all people? Never before has he seemed so intent on a single maiden before. Just what the hell's going on, I wonder?