Love's Honor

Chapter Six

“I'm utterly curious, Saionji. With whom exactly are you wishing to form an alliance?” Touga asked his friend.

Evening had fallen; the servants had arranged the Great Hall for the meal shared by all in the fortress. As the various members of Clan Saionji began to gather among the tables below the salt--an expensive commodity, salt was sparingly passed out; only those at the high table had containers of the white seasoning, while those in the lower seats had to make do without--the green-haired chieftain and his overlord had remained there behind the table bolted to the three-stepped dais. Once court had been adjourned, Saionji had ordered one of his chambermaids to show Touga's unusually-attired companion and her people to a guestroom they could use. He had then grudgingly offered his foster brother the seat of honor to his right for the upcoming supper. The violet-eyed Saionji prince had then fallen into a brooding silence while the elegant redhead had moved to the offered chair.

“I'm not interested in telling you that, 'old friend',” Saionji growled in annoyance. Why can't he leave it be? Hasn't he shown me up enough already? Always, I've been in his shadow; always a step behind. Surely an alliance of marriage to his sister would only keep me in the shade of his glory.

The Kiryuu chieftain merely nodded, slipping into a melancholy quiet. It was obvious that his actions so far had personally wounded Saionji even as they had helped others around him. Surely there must be some way to repair our friendship and show him that there's no need for jealousy. Becoming lost in his thoughts, Touga found his gaze wandering over to stare at the place from where he knew his gentle guest would emerge upon her return.

Though it more than likely wasn't long at all before the expected angelic vision appeared, it seemed to be an eternity for the waiting, scarlet-haired lord. Although he'd had his attention captured before by many a pretty, feminine face, there was just something about this one that dazzled and fascinated. The moment Lady Utena stepped through the doorway, her small entourage in tow, it was as if the Great Hall lit up from her very presence, like a gloomy, overcast sky that suddenly broke to let through a golden ray of the sun. Unaware of his own action, Touga gave voice to a soft gasp of appreciation.

Once again with the coming of evening, she had undergone an almost mystic transformation. Her long, rose-pink hair fell loose in a cascade of silken curls. A white chemise, the hems decorated with pale blue and silver embroidery above the snowy white lace borders, peeked out from underneath a deep blue surcoat laced up the sides with braided cord of metallic silver, a fancy border of silver stitching in a floral pattern adorning hem and bodice. Though her servants were as elegantly attired, Utena easily outshone them all.

Eyes narrowed in his continuing irritation, his violet gaze focused upon the servants preparing the low tables for the upcoming meal as well as those of his people entering the large room to partake of said fare, the faint sound his friend made caught Saionji's attention. Glancing over at Touga, the verdant-maned chieftain was mildly surprised to see the other's handsome face frozen in an expression of awed delight. Raising his emerald eyebrows in wonder, the newly elevated chieftain turned his head to follow Touga's cobalt-blue gaze, searching to discover what it was that had grabbed his foster brother's focus so completely.

The moment he saw her, he immediately knew exactly why Touga had warned him that the lady was not as she appeared to be. From pretty “boy”, she had become the epitome of womanly charms, and a part of Saionji thought perhaps that his childhood friend had fallen victim to some fey. But another part of him made him sit upright in mild startlement; the girl seemed oddly familiar. “Well,” the green-haired lord commented in a low murmur, “I truly see the wisdom of your words, Lord Touga.”

“Isn't she beautiful?” the scarlet-haired lord responded, his voice equally low.

“Aye, she is that,” Saionji grudgingly agreed, trying to shake off the feeling that he'd seen her somewhere before.

“That, my friend, is the woman I'm determined to marry.”

What? The curly-maned chieftain blinked in surprise, violet eyes turning from the approach of the noblewoman to look askance at his foster brother. He must be truly smitten. But what about...?

Saionji glanced back at the lady in time to see her halt and apparently direct her handmaidens and men at arms to find a place among those sitting at the tables below the salt. As her quartet of servants took their leave, the rose-haired girl turned slightly and lifted her gaze to the high table.

Large aquamarine eyes, a shyly hesitant smile, silky curls of a shining pink hue... That girl! Saionji mentally gasped, violet eyes widening in realization, the echoed voices of a remembered conversation playing out in the back of his mind.

I'm going to marry that girl some day, Saionji.

Are you mad, Touga? You'll marry whomever your father wants for the best of the clan. Besides, you have no idea who she is. She may not have anything worthy of such an alliance.

I don't care. Something terrible happened to her--you can see it in her eyes--and I swore I'd protect her from anything else. I can't do that if she belongs to someone else.

“You're still mad, Touga, even if she's turned out to be of noble blood,” the newly elevated lord muttered, his attention shifting back to his foster brother.

The redheaded chieftain chuckled softly. “So you recognize her as well now,” he said, his azure gaze finally focusing on the other highland lord as the subject of their discussion walked up the steps of the dais and made her way along the back side of the bolted-down table. “I'm a man of my word, Saionji. I said that I would keep her safe, and I shall--if she allows it.”

“I suppose it's all for the better that she's noble and beautiful both,” the green-haired chieftain grumbled. What damnable good luck. Always. It would be fairer had she grown up to be an ugly and noisome woman instead, Saionji mentally groused, feeling yet another pang of envy. For just once he'd love to see the whims of Fortune toss something unlucky at his friend.

“Well, it does help immensely,” Touga reluctantly admitted. Rising gracefully from his seat at the noblewoman's approach, the scarlet-haired highlander hastily came to the maiden's aid, pulling back the heavy wooden seat to his right.

The tension between the pair of chieftains was almost palpable to the pink-haired girl. Though she smiled and murmured her thanks to the dashing noble that had come to her assistance, Utena's mind remained focused on the men's apparently broken friendship. Saionji's jealousy of his foster brother and Touga's resulting melancholy was obvious to anyone truly observing them. Surely there must be some way to a reconciliation. They're supposed to be the best of friends... That second thought made her pause. Though I know that to be true, how is it that I know that in the first place?

The gruff voice of the fortress's lord broke in on Utena's bemused thoughts. “Welcome, my lady, to the hospitality of my table,” Saionji said. “Such as it may be,” he added in a harsh mutter.

He wishes he could offer more, and is embarrassed at what he can offer, the rose-haired maiden mused, suddenly aware of the motivation behind the highlander's acidic tone. She gave him a warm smile in response. “Thank you very much for your generosity, Lord Kyouichi. I'm delighted to accept,” she honestly answered, certain that the young noble was doing the best he could. Her smile only faltered slightly when the only reply she received was a noncommittal grunt.

The conversation--such as it was--only became worse. While the servants poured the wine and began bringing out the first dish of the evening--vegetable and leek soup, the broth made richer by adding butter and cream--Touga did his best to politely inquire as to the current state of the neighboring clan. Utena inwardly frowned as it became apparent that the Saionji prince was becoming increasingly defensive, his answers only vague ones and his attitude less than forthright. To her possible champion's credit, he never pressed on his friend to get a straight answer, though he would certainly be well within his rights as overlord to do so. More interested in watching the pair of them instead of attempting to make conversation, Utena silently consumed her meal.

“I must say that you've done remarkably well for yourself so far,” Touga said, trying once again to engage the other chieftain in a discussion of the state of things. He was certain he could somehow cheer his friend up by pointing out the things that had gone right, if only he were allowed the chance.

Aquamarine eyes scanned over the crowd of clansmembers seated around the low tables. Though a far cry from the boisterous atmosphere of celebration of the night before at Kiryuu Keep, the Saionji were a somewhat gregarious and rowdy bunch. However, Utena couldn't help but notice the number of hostile stares towards the high table from the highlanders below the salt. Sipping at his wine, the rose-haired maiden was somehow certain that the glances were as much fastened upon Lord Kyouichi as they were upon Lord Touga and herself.

The Saionji weren't the only ones looking up at the array of nobles seated there on the dais next to the massive hearth. To Utena's mild surprise--and apparently Tatsuya's dismay, judging from the sour expression upon the visage of the youthful man at arms--she noted that one of her handmaidens kept trying to surreptitiously stare at the green-haired chieftain. Ah, Wakaba... You would do far better to dream of another...

“Must you insist upon these inane queries?” Saionji growled in response to the scarlet-maned noble's words. “I swear you've come only to rub my nose in the fact that you are perfect.”

Touga frowned, getting somewhat irritated at his friend's obstinate insistence that the visit was something calculated to tear the other chieftain further down.

“Actually, my lord, I'm certain that Lord Touga isn't as perfect as you seem to think. After all, by his own statement there are no infallible people,” Utena said, finally entering into the conversation.

“What would you know of it?” Saionji snapped, his focus shifting to the rose-haired beauty.

“She's right, Saionji,” the scarlet-haired lord added. “You grew up with me. You knew I wasn't perfect then, and I've not miraculously become perfect in the past couple of years.”

“I grew up in your shadow,” the verdant-maned chieftain snarled. “Disliked by the majority of the Kiryuu for what I was born, I'm barely tolerated by my own clan for what I've become. They see me as an outsider, not as their leader's son and heir, because I was raised by their enemy.”

“Once they get to know you, they'll come to like you. Give them time,” Touga said in reply.

“Time may not heal everything,” Saionji coldly remarked.

Movement caught Utena's eye, drawing her attention there. The servants had come into the Great Hall and had begun clearing away the remains of the first remove in order to make room for the next. Traditionally, now would be the time for any entertainment to begin, though the young maiden couldn't see anyone about who were obviously musicians, actors, jongleurs or any other sort of entertainer. As she sat there contemplating the words of the pair of nobles at her side and watched the household crew roam about the massive chamber, she was suddenly struck with an idea. Leaning over toward the handsome redhead to her left, she softly murmured, “Lord Touga, I have something to ask you.”

Her soft statement caught him unawares, especially considering how relatively quiet she had been throughout the meal so far. “Aye?” he responded, keeping his voice low.

“A champion of Love must be as honest as he is generous and merciful. ‘Tis one thing to state that you are flawed, and an entirely different thing to prove so to others.” Well aware of having his undivided attention, Utena felt herself blushing slightly under the force of his cobalt-blue gaze. However, she persevered in her query. “The clansmen here see you as only their overlord. Your friend sees you only as a rival. Surely there must be some tale you can tell of your own experiences that shows you as the flawed human you must be--a story that also shows to his clan just how good of a man Lord Kyouichi truly is.”

On Touga's other side, Saionji took a deep drink from his goblet of wine, violet eyes narrowing in suspicion at the low conversation between his foster brother and the rose-haired girl. What could they be plotting? he silently wondered.

“There's a number of memories that do just that, aye,” Touga admitted, drawling out the words in uncertainty, though his curiosity was more than just mildly piqued.

“Then there's two things I request of you,” Utena said. “The first is your word that you will forever deal honestly with your foster brother--”

The scarlet-haired chieftain stiffened, his azure gaze hardening in anger. “Are you accusing me of being dishonest towards him?”

“No, but I see the tension between you, and your growing desperation to win him back. Manipulation and flattery should never be considered, even as a last resort. Love, in any form, cannot flourish without honesty between those involved,” the elegantly-clad maiden hastily replied.

How the devil--? Apparently the girl he had once saved had grown up to be quite the perceptive lady, seeing something within him that he himself had only just realized has been the turn of his thoughts. His astonished expression changed to a frown. “And the other request?”

“Remind your friend just how human you are, and teach the Saionji something about their prince. Tell everyone here, between courses, such a tale as I asked you to recall,” Utena replied.

“Spin a tale? Of my own ineptness? Here?” Touga asked, his characteristically smooth voice taking on a note of dismay.

“Can you honestly say that you are never inept?”

“No, of course not--”

“Then entertain us with such a story,” the pink-maned noblewoman simply said. She fell silent then, waiting to see which impulse would win: his desire to pursue the tests of her champion or his pride.

The redheaded noble scowled, the situation one not to his liking at all. Reaching out and taking a sip of the passably graded red wine, Touga remained in a faintly brooding quiet. In order to please his pretty rose, he had to sacrifice some of his pride. Was she truly worth it?

“So what exactly are you discussing over there?” queried a gruff voice.

Aware of the green-haired chieftain's gaze upon Touga and herself, Utena leaned forward and gave Saionji a bright smile. “We're discussing the possible entertainment to be had during supper.”

An odd thing to be talking about. The curly-maned lord raised his eyebrows in an expression of curiosity. “Well, there are some musicians to play while we eat the main course,” he admitted.

“She has... something more specific in mind,” Touga said. Sighing heavily, his decision made, the scarlet-haired chieftain flicked his cobalt-blue gaze back to his friend. “Do you have anything scheduled now?”

“No...” Saionji answered, brows furrowing in puzzlement.

The mouth-watering scent of herb-roasted pork began to fill the crowded room as the kitchen staff began to appear with large wooden platters piled high with the cooked meat of the main course. That the boar was one of the animals brought to them by the Kiryuu men really didn't matter to anyone there; the scent alone was heavenly, and most of those there were far more interested in consuming the first really decent meal they'd had in a rather long time. As per the usual custom, the servants approached the high table first, bowing to the nobles there, the food raised high in presentation as the lead servant announced what the remove was to be. While Touga awaited the presentation and the serving of the high table to finish before continuing, he took another sip of the wine in his glass as Saionji nodded his approval of the dish and the platter was set before them.

Utena drew in a deep breath, smiling at the tangy scent of lemon grass, rosemary and mint with which the pork had been cooked. That her possible champion's generosity had made this possible made her smile brightly, her heart becoming more set on hoping that this dashing lord would be the one she sought.

Mindful of the lovely maiden's insistence on taking care of herself, Touga only served himself up after Saionji had taken what he wanted. Spearing a slab of the roasted pork with the tip of his eating dagger, the Kiryuu prince asked, “Once the meat has been passed out, would you mind if I entertained everyone with a story, Saionji?”

“You? Tell a story?” the green-haired lord replied, giving his foster brother an incredulous look. The expression remained as Saionji raised his eyebrows, even more curious. “Don't tell me. That slip of a maiden told you to do so?”

Touga merely nodded in agreement with his friend's guess. “What say you?”

“Well, this ought to be interesting. Go right ahead and do so, if you feel so compelled.” In an odd way, the Saionji chieftain was rather enjoying seeing the proud Touga apparently so smitten that he'd do just about anything asked by the rose-haired girl.

The scarlet-maned chieftain nodded again, turning his attention to eating what he could of this course while the servants walked briskly among the lower tables, serving the rest of the pork to everyone else there. The conversations had been progressively getting louder and more jovial as the evening had worn on; the wine was beginning to be felt and people were getting more comfortable, their attentions focused more and more upon their food than the trio of nobles seated at the high table.

The pork was as good as it smelled. Obviously the Saionji were blessed with a cook who knew what he was doing, Utena decided. Chewing on a mouthful of the delicious meat, she watched thoughtfully as the servants set down the last of the platters and made their way back to the kitchen. Once there, she knew, they would hastily eat their own portions of the meal while preparing the next course to come. When the last serving girl had departed, the young noblewoman turned her aquamarine gaze to the man sitting to her left. Having heard the conversation between the two chieftains, she knew that now would be the moment of truth.

Wood scraped against wood as the tall lord rose from his seat. Taking a final drink from his silver goblet, Touga composed his thoughts, eyes hooded beneath long lashes. Slipping between the chairs, the scarlet-haired prince walked behind the length of the table to the edge of the dais and took the three steps down to the floor of the Great Hall. By that simple action alone, he caught the attention of the majority of the men there. Conversations died down; one by one, the clanmembers of the Saionji turned their gazes to their overlord--their former enemy. Cobalt-blue eyes stared back at them, noting their suspicion and slight hostility. The feud had started early in his father's time and had ended relatively late during his father's reign--a short one by highland standards. There was still a reasonable chance of forging a true peace with them, of making an alliance where they would stand together as brothers and forget all about once being foes. Confidently striding to a spot before the center of the high table, Touga addressed those sitting below the salt as a group. “Men and women of Clan Saionji, I have come before you with a story to tell, a tale that I hope you find both amusing and entertaining. This is not a story of long-ago heroes fighting the forces of evil or Faerie, nor is it the tale of the great battles between clans. No, this is a tale of two youths, the best of friends, and one of their many adventures together.”

Turning slightly, Touga gestured towards the newly-elevated chieftain. “I see in your eyes that you are unsure of the man that leads you. You don't know him as well as you wish because of circumstances you could not control. Let me assure you, on my word as a prince of the royal blood, that never once has your chieftain done anything to embarrass the Saionji name. In all honesty, he has proudly born your name as a mark of honor in his time among us. When he first came to live at my father's house, my clansmen thought to taunt him by calling him simply ‘Saionji'. Knowing the worth of that name, he embraced it; ever since he was a boy, he has preferred to be called 'Saionji'. I tell you this now so that you know I mean him no disrespect when I call him such.” Giving his friend a smile--Touga was somewhat amused at the expression of curiosity on his foster brother's face--the redheaded noble swept his gaze back over his audience. “In fact, I have the highest respect for your lord. Never have I had a truer friend; I consider him the brother I never had. He is practical, careful, wise, honorable, and loyal. Despite his sometimes abrupt manner, he will always try to do his best. In fact, I probably owe my life to him.”

That garnered looks of interest among those sitting there feasting upon the roast pork, listening to his words. Behind his back, Utena raised her eyebrows; she hadn't expected that particular confession. A glance to the listening Saionji gave her little clues at all to the nature of the story to come; the other noble's expression was unreadable save for one of mild astonishment. As for Touga's words so far, they seemed to be honest statements, given to explain to the Saionji what sort of man their former chieftain's son was and not given simply to flatter a hurting friend.

“As all of you are aware, 'tis the sport of a chieftain's son to learn how to one day be a great warrior,” Touga said, continuing on, beginning to slowly pace the rush-covered floor in the space between dais and low tables. “A good prince is one that leads his men both in words and actions, and is willing to share the risks and dangers of personally carrying out the defense of hearth and clan. As a pair of chieftains' sons who had seen thirteen winters, Saionji and I were ones who took our learning the ways of a true warrior seriously. We watched the older men as they practiced, we trained with my father's best trainers, and we practiced with one another and the other squires nearly every day.” A number of heads nodded in response to his words while the scarlet-maned lord took a breath; they would have expected nothing less from good heirs. “And we eagerly listened to any tales that better pointed out how a worthy chieftain would act,” Touga continued on, “for we both understood that by listening to such things, we would learn more about what made a good lord and how not to be a bad lord.

“To my father's keep one night came a traveling minstrel. Hospitality was offered to him and accepted, and he graced our meal that night with tales of warriors' bravery and daring knights. I recall listening in rapture as he wove his stories; his imagery was so vivid that I could almost see the happenings he recited, and I wondered then if he didn't have a touch of the Fey in his crafting. But of the tales that he spun, there was one I remembered the most: that of a younger son, his brothers already knighted, traveling to the court of the great king. No one recognized him there, and he was sent to be a servant in the kitchens. The tale went on to describe how he undertook a dangerous adventure that none of the other, more experienced knights would assay to accomplish, and how he won out in the end, being one of the best knights ever. But the part with which I was thoroughly entranced was the description of the youth's knighting ceremony, especially the finishing flourish called 'the leap'.”

Next to the rose-haired maiden, Saionji straightened up and stared at his friend, violet eyes going wide in astonishment. “By all that's holy, he's going to tell everyone this?” he murmured in a tone of utter wonder. Utena glanced at him, unsure if his reaction was due to the tale being embarrassing to him--and she hoped that wasn't the case, considering the task she had set for her proposed champion--or if it was because he knew it would be embarrassing for Touga for the redheaded prince to tell it. The verdant-haired chieftain took a drink of his wine. “This ought to be very good...”

Touga stopped for a moment, breaking from his slow strides to sweep his hand out in a gesture that included all those sitting there eating and watching him. “Now all of you know that any ceremony that marks a youth as coming into his right as a full-grown warrior is a serious thing. Even for the lowlanders, that is the case. The minstrel's story described what the lowlanders do, with their clanking metal armor and great horses bred to carry all that weight. Each new knight is given a chance to prove how heroic and capable he is at the end of it all; he is told to don all that armor, gird his sword, take up his shield, and then run at his charger and leap up into the saddle so encumbered.” The mental image from that alone gained the young chieftain a soft chuckle from those listening to him. “Needless to say, there are many who prove themselves to be only ordinary men, for they cannot vault gracefully from ground to horseback wearing all their gear. Of course, the knight in the story, being an extraordinary noble, was able to do so. And I, having heard of our own tales up here of highlander heroes doing much the same thing at the start of a battle, decided that I wished to be one of those extraordinary men. So I went to bed that night with my mind full of thoughts on how to practice this so that when the great day came, I could show up all those clunking and clanking lowlander knights as the true highland prince that I am.”

He began his slow pacing again, ruefully shaking his head as part of his act of storytelling. Some caught where the tale may be going and chuckled, others just ate and drank more while they actively listened. “Ah, how I longed to be through with my assigned tasks in the morning. The moment I was free to do as I wished, I grabbed Saionji and lead him to the stables, telling him about my plans. We had our practice swords with us, as always, and it was our routine to leave the clanhold and spar one another out in a clearing in the woods. Though he was dubious about the additional practice I desired to add to our activities that day, he agreed to accompany me and give it a try. So off we rode to our usual sparring place.

“Though Saionji rode his ever trusty rouncy, a sturdy pony named Thunder, I had lost my own old pony Lightning to age and illness. Tempest and I were still getting used to one another, and my new mount at times had a will of his own. Like myself, he was young for his kind, and though we grew to have that relationship all warriors desire to have with their well-trained horses, at that time, the headstrong pony thought he was the one in charge. Once there in our spot, Saionji and I dismounted and looked the horses over. And in doing so, we discovered an oversight in the tales about 'the leap' that we'd heard.” The scarlet-maned nobleman paused, cobalt-blue gaze looking over his audience, then gave them all a grin. “Never once did the stories tell us from what direction the knight approached his courser. Was it from the side, or was it from the rear?” Another soft ripple of laughter as those hearing his words imagined the two youngsters trying to figure it out.

“Well,” Touga continued on, taking a moment to glance over at his friend sitting there up at the high table and smiling a bit more as he spotted the amused grin on the other chieftain's face, “Saionji argued for an over the rear approach while I discussed the merits of from the side. As we talked among ourselves and debated the merits and problems with each method, we circled around our waiting ponies and kept looking them over. Of course, Thunder and Tempest didn't mind that at all, for they were content to occupy themselves by grazing upon the grass in the clearing. To be honest, Saionji seemed to have the way of it once we talked over how an armed and armored man could vault upon the back of a charger. However, I was too curious about the method I had defended to just leave it be. Though agreeing with my foster brother that he probably had the right of it, I just had to give it one try from the side. This being my plan, I hastily strode over a good pace away from where Tempest grazed, then whirled and came running at him. Fleet of foot, I covered the ground, the wind of my passing rippling my hair. Once I was close enough, I planted my feet and sprung upwards, determined to jump high enough to lay my hands on Tempest's withers and help push myself with the momentum of swinging my leg over his back. Up I flew, and then I felt warm horseflesh beneath my hands. 'Huzzah!' I thought to myself, sure of my triumph, sure that I was better than any lowlander that insisted upon being dressed up in a great tin pot--”

The redheaded noble paused again, this time for dramatic effect. A quick scan showed that he had most everyone's attention, many of them leaning forward, awaiting his next words. Another rueful shake of his head earned him laughter as many recognized the clue he gave them by his gesture. “Alas and alack, Tempest decided that he wouldn't cooperate in his master's fun. Apparently not appreciating my rather unconventional behavior, the rouncy shied away, taking a couple of steps to the side. Instead of my leg clearing over his back, my foot slammed into his ribs; my hands were abruptly held flat on thin air and not on my mount's shoulders. My victorious leap up onto my horse swiftly became my unexpected dive into the green grass. I landed flat on my belly, my breath knocked from me in a violent exhale. And there I was, proud Kiryuu prince suddenly prostrate before all, kissing the ground.”

Laughter filled the hall at the mental image of the boy he had once been so positioned. To the Saionji, hearing of such an embarrassing moment to a former enemy was quite amusing indeed. Utena couldn't help but join in the laughter with her soft giggling, for the thought of such a proud man lying low in such a manner was truly somehow mirthful.

“To Saionji's credit, he didn't stand there laughing at my misfortune--”

“I feared you were hurt, my friend,” the other chieftain called out, a smile lingering on his face. His shout garnered him another glance from the elegantly-dressed maiden sitting a couple of seats to the right; Utena swiftly discovered that Saionji was much more handsome when he wasn't scowling at the world. “And I also feared that once I started laughing, I wouldn't stop and I'd therefore have been useless to you had you managed to wound yourself.”

“True, true,” Touga responded, chuckling slightly. “He rushed over to my side and helped me up, and we took a moment to assure ourselves that I remained in one piece. He also took the time to point out to me yet again the flaws in using that approach: the horse could see the movement of the rider and shy away, it was to awkward to consistently get one's leg over the horse's back, especially weighted down by a number of pounds of metal and it was just plain dumb. I didn't disagree with him at all, my dive to the ground rather proving his point. As for Tempest, well--the ungrateful beast had gone back to his grazing as if nothing had happened at all. While I brushed myself off, Saionji decided to put his own theory to the test.

“He called out to his rouncy a command to stay, then retreated a number of steps away. Taking measure of the distance, Saionji stood there a moment before beginning his furious dash toward the nether end of the still-grazing Thunder. 'Twas a magnificent sight, his spectacular leap; throwing wide his legs at the top of his arc, your lord then thrust his hands down between them, connecting with the top of the pony’s rear. Giving himself a further boost in such a manner, Saionji managed to accomplish what I had not. There he sat in triumph proudly atop his mount.”

“I told you that that was the best way in which to achieve our goal,” the green-haired chieftain called out, face still bearing a grin.

“Aye, my friend, so you had. And I confess to some envy at seeing your success after my rather embarrassing fall.” Turning his attention back to the clanmembers seated at the rows of trestle tables, Touga continued his story, “So I made up my mind to do as my friend had done. Walking a fair pace behind my grazing rouncy, I yelled out a command for Tempest to stay, then set myself to running at my mount. Once again, I flew up into the air, my movements mimicking those I had seen my foster brother perform. But I must not have had as light a touch as your lord did, for my hands came down quite firmly on Tempest's rear, and at the touch, my horse decided--I suppose--that I had meant for him to gallop off. For that is exactly what that ungrateful animal did, raising his head and bolting out from under me. Yet again I suddenly had nothing underneath to break my fall. This time, at least, 'twas a rather padded part of myself that took the brunt of the force; I landed flat on my arse, my hands still thrust between my wide-spread and outstretched legs.”

Another roar of laughter filled the immense room, the evoked image certainly an amusing one. As Utena again couldn't help but giggle, the robust chuckle of her somewhat reluctant host joined in along with just about everyone else.

“Despite my aching legs and nether end, my pride was what took the most grievous wound,” the redheaded chieftain said, still walking in a slow pace as he recounted his tale, “especially since Saionji did laugh that time. However, we both had little time to dwell upon my foolishness. One look at Tempest and we discovered that the headstrong beast had decided to bolt into the forest. There was no choice now save to go after the creature. I ran, chasing my steed the best I could, while Saionji on Thunder attempted to overtake the galloping pony and grab him by the reins. As luck would have it, the stubborn horse proved to be our equal: every time one of us came close to grasping him and taking him back under control, he would dart this way or that and elude us.

“So there we were, chasing the miscreant through the woods. I had thought that perhaps my ill luck was over, but that was not meant to be. At one point in the chase, I thought I had victory in my grasp--“ Touga paused again, giving his audience enough time to try to imagine what he would describe next. “Tempest dashed one way around the trunk of a great tree; I came about on the other. Seeing the elusive reins dangling there before me, just out of arm's reach, I leapt at them, intending to grab hold with all my youthful strength. With a whinny of surprise, my ungrateful beast tossed his head and turned away, breaking into a full gallop again. And I... Well, once again I ended up kissing the ground, this time with a horrid splat. You see, Tempest had chosen to turn and run just where a puddle from a recent rain remained, and it was in the mud that I was laid low.”

More laughter as Touga paced for a couple of seconds, a rueful smile on his handsome face. He didn't pick up his story again until the audience fell almost completely silent. “I scrambled to my feet once more, now covered with mud along my front from my chest down. Saionji had continued to chase after my runaway horse, so I followed along as best I could. When I caught up to your lord, Thunder and he were standing along the bank of a fast-running stream, waiting for me. Saionji had decided to let me catch up once he saw my stubborn pony trot across a wooden bridge over the stream.

“Now, this wasn't a fancy bridge at all. Rather, it was made from the trunk of a large downed tree, the top part hewn flat and smooth to allow for easy walking. As it was, we would have to go single-file to cross--or get wet by trying to wade in what looked to be a dangerously swift current. I started on ahead as Saionji dismounted; he told me that he thought it would be safer to lead Thunder across instead of continuing to ride. But as I took a couple of steps onto the bridge, a figure came from out of the brush and stepped onto the other end of the narrow structure.

“It was a man, one I'd not seen before, his face wizened by the weather and his hair grizzled by age. He seemed to be a trapper of some sort, and he had the carcasses of rabbits and pheasants slung over his shoulder while a hand held a stout quarterstaff. Well aware of the scolding I would probably get once I returned home, I was in something of a hurry to retrieve my pony. I stopped; the trapper stopped. We stared at one another for a moment. Now, being well used to having others get out of my way, I called out to the other to retreat and let me cross, being sure to let him know exactly who I was. The trapper replied that he was only one man, it would take less time for him to cross than it would for both my friend and I to cross, and that he was more burdened then I. Were I a caring person, I should be the one to retreat and wait before going on my way.

“Behind me, Saionji argued for taking the easier path--just yielding the bridge and being done with it. However, I was the son of a chieftain. Therefore, if anyone had to make way, it would be the trapper, and I told him so in no uncertain terms. The trapper, on the other hand, pointed out that I didn't look the part, and that if I wished to claim the right of way, I would have to earn it. Pointing to my wooden practice sword slung from my hip, he challenged me to a duel for the bridge.

“Well, I certainly thought I was better than any trapper with a quarterstaff. Granted, he would have reach on me, but I knew I was quick and agile both, trained by the best of my father's men. Pulling my sword out--and ignoring Saionji's shouts to not let my pride get the better of me--I came at the peasant in a rush. Oh, I ducked under his initial blow just fine. It was his follow-through that caught me unawares, I was so sure I'd get a blow in. I felt a buffet upon my head that left my ears ringing. I recall my sword maybe connecting once--”

“A glancing blow to the man's ribs,” Saionji pointed out, taking a drink from his silver goblet. “Had that been a real weapon, you would have only maddened the man with a flesh wound.”

“True. I only clearly recall taking another pair of buffets before suddenly finding myself immersed in the rushing coldness of the stream below,” Touga responded, raising a hand and running fingers though his mane of long scarlet hair to get it out of his face. “I came up gasping for breath and sputtering, then swam to shore against the fast current, discovering that the water was far deeper than I had first thought. As I drug myself up onto the banks on the opposite side, I heard the trapper make his way across his easily-won bridge. His last comment, before he disappeared into the underbrush, was that I had looked far more like a swineherd than the son of a chieftain, and that a good cleaning was needed anyway. The moment the way was clear, Saionji lead Thunder over the bridge and helped me get myself back to solid ground.”

Over the titters and guffaws, the elegant chieftain continued with his narrative. “At the very least, I wasn't exactly muddy anymore. However, I was now soaking wet and still missing my pony. Knowing the dire consequences that awaited me at home should I return without Tempest, I started searching for any signs of the horse's spoor. To my relief, Saionji managed to discover the runaway mount's trail, and together we set off along it, hoping to retrieve my mount relatively soon.

“It didn't take long after all. We climbed up along a rise, finding ourselves in a grassy meadow strewn with wildflowers. In the center of the meadow, on a hillock, sat a manor house, and there were fields with peasants working within them surrounding the structure. At the edge of the meadow, Tempest was busily grazing upon the grass. And patting him, softly talking to him, was a rather rotund-appearing knight. Somewhat mindful of my last encounter, I decided that perhaps demanding would be the wrong approach. So Saionji and I walked up to the knight and we introduced ourselves, and I nicely explained that I had my rouncy bolt on me and that I would please like to have him back. The rotund knight greeted us, took in our bedraggled state and offered us the hospitality of his manor. Since the sun was still somewhat high in the sky, I accepted the offer. Saionji remained silent, looking around the meadow.”

Yet again with the slow pacing as he thought over the events those years ago. “We were led across the fields, the peasants looking our way as we did so, but all seemed welcoming and friendly. At the manor, a couple of grooms looked after our rouncies. We were led into the Great Hall and invited to eat the noon meal with them. Considering all that had happened--and that we were boys only thirteen years old, and possessed of the normal appetites of that age--both Saionji and I thought that something to eat would be a good idea. We were seated in the places of honor at the high table, next to the knight and his equally rotund lady wife.

“It looked to be a feast like any other,” Touga stated, stopping and sweeping an arm in a gesture that encompassed those sitting there finishing their own meals. “The household there, being served by the kitchen staff, the high table presented with each dish. In this case, the food wasn't announced as it was brought forth; it was merely shown and set upon the table. It looked rather good to me, to be honest, but I noticed Saionji staring at the platter. Shrugging it off, I stabbed the meat in orange sauce and put some on my trencher. I cut up a piece and just as I started to raise it to my mouth, Saionji suddenly hissed and grabbed me by the wrist, forcing my hand back down. Needless to say, I was startled, but his whispered explanation made me more astonished.

“He told me to look at the dish sitting before us--to really look at it. I stared at the food, and amazingly, I saw it shift in appearance. Blinking, I looked at him again, and he stated that ever since we'd entered the meadow, he'd had the sense of something being wrong. The manor here was in a place where no manor was before, for we hadn't strayed from Kiryuu lands. The moment I realized he was right and I wondered just where we truly were, our entire surroundings suddenly changed appearance, as if a veil of illusion had been torn away. The Great Hall was dark and filthy, looking to have years of neglect. The people seated at the tables were now goblins, imps, sprites and other mischievous fairies, while our hosts were of the Dark Fey themselves--a vile-looking hag and an equally noisome ogre, a pair of those races of fairies truly dangerous to mortal man. And the food that they were so eagerly devouring and praising how wonderful it was...

“Let me tell you, there was no more atrocious menu I had ever before beheld,” the scarlet-haired highlander said. “The first course, once I truly looked at it, turned out to be cold whole mudpuppies in orange sauce. I confess to feeling a bit queasy once I saw the little creature sliced in half by my knife sitting there on my trencher.”

No laughter now, but rather groans of dismay filled the Great Hall of Pinehaven as the audience imagined being served that for dinner. Utena's eyes grew wide at the telling, her own stomach suddenly feeling not so well at the description. Next to her, Saionji's mirthful expression had given way to a serious one, but he had not as yet taken up scowling at the world again.

“And it remained just as bad,” Touga said. “The second course was crunchy lizard tails au gratin, while the third was blackened finger cakes with sardines and melted cheese. The fourth course consisted of braised catfish lips with peppercorns and parsley, the fifth was candied cat and dog ears and the sixth--”

“Roasted boar testicles on a stick,” Saionji interrupted, eliciting more groans from everyone there.

“But how did you know for sure what they were?” someone shouted out from the audience.

“'Twas simple. We asked our hosts what they were,” the green-haired lord replied.

Touga nodded in agreement. “While our Fey hosts ate everything before them with gusto, they noticed us not eating and asked us how we liked the fare. Though we stayed at the table throughout the entire meal out of respect for the hospitality offered us, we both agreed after a discussion that it would be better to deal honestly with the Fey rather than try to deceive them. So we honestly stated, after asking and being told what each course was, that such a dish just wasn't to our liking and that we would wait for the next. Our answers each time garnered us hearty laughter, a rolling of the eyes and a statement that we 'outsiders' were always so squeamish. Once the meal was over and the goblin servants were picking up the remains, the Dark Fey knight complimented us on our honesty and our manners. He then led us out to the stables, where imp grooms handed us back our rouncies. Mounting up, we bid our unusual hosts farewell and rode away from the manor, doing our best to not look as nervous as we felt. The moment we entered the woods from the meadow, we found ourselves suddenly riding into our usual sparring place. Still too shaken by our encounter to even think about dismounting and trying to get any practice in, we continued on to home.

“And thus our adventure came to an end. Truly, had your lord not been as perceptive and as determined to discover what was wrong, I may yet be trapped within Faerie to this day, enchanted by the food and drink--for it looked to be the best of dishes under the cloak of illusion--of that place. Thus, as I said at the start of this tale, I truly feel indebted of my life to Saionji.” Turning to face his friend once more, the redheaded lord gave the other chieftain a smile. “You have always been the best of friends. May you have a long and happy reign.” Bowing slightly, Touga abandoned the place between high table and low, returning to his seat next to his foster brother to the cheers and the pounding of dagger pommels against the sturdy wood of the table.

“A marvelous tale indeed,” Utena whispered to the scarlet-haired highlander once he had seated himself next to her. “I'm most impressed.”

“Thank you, my lady,” Touga responded, giving her a warm smile. The look of delight within her aquamarine eyes gave him a slightly lightheaded--almost giddy--feeling.

“Well told,” Saionji grudgingly said. “Though I'm surprised that you chose that particular memory to confess.”

“I'm every bit as human as anyone else,” the Kiryuu prince replied. “And that was the point. Thank you, Saionji, for letting me do so.”

“What are friends for?” was the other chieftain's sole response before he took another long sip from his goblet of wine.
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