Love's Honor

Chapter Seven

Supper ended rather uneventfully. The dishes were cleared away as the musicians played soft melodies on lute and harp. The trio of nobles lingered there at the high table while the various members of Clan Saionji began to disperse, following their individual routines. The story Lord Touga had related had seemed to warm the situation between the foster brothers and the clan; to Utena's discriminating eye, she could see less hostile looks tossed their way, and the conversation between the pair of chieftains had lapsed into a recollection of shared adventures. While quite pleased with her possible champion's success so far, the rose-haired maiden couldn't help but feel a bit of dismay at the longing way her maidservant Wakaba continued to stare at the verdant-maned highlander. Sadly, she knew that such a man as Lord Kyouichi was beyond her servant's reach. A prince such as he married for power, and often had mistresses for love--to the detriment of the women so involved for such individuals were usually scorned by society.

While the two noblemen continued to speak about their shared past, Utena gently caressed her silver cup with a finger, lost in thought. Unexpected movement caught her eye; the figure of a ruddy-haired man stepped up onto the dais and rapidly approached the fortress's lord. After a few moments' whispered conversation, the Saionji warrior made an equally hasty retreat.

“Interesting,” she heard Touga murmur next to her.

“What is, my lord?” she asked, staring up at the scarlet-haired chieftain.

“Apparently there's a messenger at the portal.”

“But it's after dark. Must be an urgent missive indeed,” the pink-maned girl replied, her curiosity piqued. Like virtually every stronghold in the uncertain world, the gates of Pinehaven were closed and barred against the dangers of the night. That a messenger arrived after twilight instead of finding a place to sleep out the darkness hinted at an urgency above the norm, for usually the porter of a fortress would refuse to open the gates for anyone at that hour.

“That seems to be Saionji's guess as well, since he gave the order for the messenger to be allowed in.”

What conversation that remained within the Great Hall came to a halt as the ruddy-haired clansman returned, the slender form of a youthful male trailing behind. The lad was a comely one, with light golden-brown hair neatly trimmed short, his dark blue hose and sky blue tunic covered over with a tabard--a sleeveless surcoat consisting of front and back panels of cloth tied together at the sides reserved for the exclusive use of heralds. Emblazoned upon both rectangular panels of royal blue cloth was a heraldic device: over a golden oak tree uprooted from the ground, a silver dove flew upward into the sky. Though the coat of arms meant little to the pink-haired maiden, the highlander lords obviously knew it.

Upon seeing the young herald, Saionji hissed in what seemed to be alarm, his noble form stiffening and his violet eyes widening. A contrast to his friend, Touga appeared merely curious at the messenger's appearance, though the green-haired chieftain's reaction made the Red Tyger raise his eyebrows. “Hmm... I wonder what message was so urgent that the Kaoru sent out a herald so late in the day?”

Catching his words, Utena turned her aquamarine gaze from the heraldically-attired newcomer to look at the scarlet-haired lord. “The Kaoru?” she queried. The name struck a chord, being that of a family somewhere just beyond those clans just across the border between the northern kingdom and the kingdom from which she came.

With a scrape of wood against wood, Saionji rose from his throne-like seat, crossing over the remaining distance between his guests and the herald with a few rapidly taken strides.

“Aye, Clan Kaoru,” the Kiryuu prince replied, cobalt gaze remaining focused upon his friend and the messenger. “They are a relatively modest clan in both power and numbers, and their holdings border both the Saionji lands and mine to the south.” Watching as the golden-brown-haired youth showed the other prince some sort of proof of the veracity of the message--from what he could see, Touga was certain that the herald had shown a leaf of blank vellum adorned with a wax seal bearing the impression of the Great Seal of Clan Kaoru--the redheaded noble leaned back in his chair.

Continuing to stare at the knot of people, Utena noted that whatever the message was, it was apparently memorized by the herald given the youth's rigid stance and unfocused expression as he talked to the green-haired lord. “What do you think it could be about?” she softly questioned. After all, they were Touga's neighbors. One could reasonably assume that he would have some knowledge of the doings of the other clans that surrounded his holdings.

“I'm not sure,” the redheaded nobleman admitted, his expression thoughtful. Why would the Kaoru feel it important to contact Saionji? Unless... His expression hardened, a suspicion suddenly impinging upon his thoughts.

The group of people being watched broke apart, the tall figure of the emerald-haired prince swiftly walking back toward the high table, the herald and the Saionji warrior trailing behind. Both the Kiryuu chieftain and the noble maiden straightened as Saionji rejoined them. Turning toward the youthful messenger, he gruffly demanded, “Repeat to Lord Touga what you told me about the Phoenix and the Panther.”

Ohtori and Arisugawa? Touga wondered, eyebrows rising in surprise. Of the families of the highlands, those two were the ones truly able to rival his own wealth and power. Whereas the holdings of the Golden Panther--the chieftain of the Arisugawa was so called for the coat of arms that symbolized the clan--were located further north in the rugged country to which had been pushed the ancient peoples of the island, those of the Ebon Phoenix--the ruler of Clan Ohtori--could be found along the border shared between kingdoms.

Utena blinked, startled, recognizing the reference to “the Phoenix”. Clan Ohtori--a powerful family that was perhaps the most influential in the courts of Utena's home kingdom, especially under the rulership of the man that had married the former chieftain's only child--had for its heraldic symbol a black phoenix rising from a nest of red flames all on a silver background. She'd seen Lord Akio before, resplendent in white clothing trimmed in red and black, those times she had been to the royal court; the pale-lavender haired prince had struck her as not only being the very image of a chivalrous and handsome lord but also somehow familiar.

“If it pleases, my lord, I bear a message from the heir of the Kaoru,” the golden-brown-haired herald began, bowing in respect to his new audience while he slipped once more into his memorized patter. “Rumors abound of the forces of the Ebon Phoenix already gathering in their lord's strongholds. The neighboring clans are nervous, certain that Ohtori will be making hostile moves as spring advances. Lord Miki assures that his own investigation points to the veracity of the rumors. His own scouts have reported the movements of Ohtori warriors towards the castles closest to the northern borders of Lord Akio's lands.”

Touga frowned, not liking the message at all.

“Of the Golden Panther, the news is this,” the messenger continued, dark brown eyes remaining staring and unfocused. “It's been finally learned that since the dead of winter, the chieftain of Clan Tsuchiya has been missing. No one's seen any trace of him despite the efforts Clan Arisugawa has put into discovering his whereabouts, so the Golden Panther has appealed to all of the clans to search for him.”

“And here we are caught in the middle,” Saionji muttered. The scarlet-maned lord nodded, understanding his friend's concern. Ohtori lay to the south of them, just beyond the Kaoru lands. The Arisugawa were allied to the Tsuchiya as overlords; with the chieftain missing, they would have to do their best to maintain order within their vassal clan while either Lord Ruka was found or a new chieftain was chosen. If Ohtori was truly going to go on a conquering campaign against his neighbors, having the holdings to the north in inner turmoil would increase the Ebon Phoenix's chances for accomplishing his goals. “And the Kaoru are positioned to take the brunt of it if he truly does go on the move. Did Lord Miki ask our assistance in this matter?”

“No,” the violet-eyed nobleman answered, then scowled. “Actually, he asked if I could possibly travel to Kaoru Keep to further discuss the matter.”

“What about me?”

“There was no mention of you, Lord Touga,” Saionji responded.

“Hmm.” The Kiryuu prince mulled over the news. Either another herald was sent to my home for me to hear of this in that manner, or... “Saionji, is there any reason for the Kaoru to think that you are more willing to help them against anything Ohtori may do than I?” he asked, fixing his foster brother with his steady gaze.

The other highlander chieftain glared back, his stance becoming abruptly defensive.

That alone was all the confirmation Touga truly needed. Closing his eyes a moment and suppressing a groan, he sighed. Remembering his promise to deal honestly always with his friend, the redheaded lord took a moment to pick his words carefully. “You have every right to make alliances as you see fit, Saionji, however, I ask you to think carefully over your actions. It's my opinion that Lady Kozue would not be a good match for you.”

“How did you...?” hissed Saionji, a thunderstruck expression on his handsome face. Recovering, he shook his head, his long, curly locks of emerald green swaying about him. “Never mind that. You'd just say whatever it takes to get your own way.”

Hand still caressing the glimmering metal of her goblet, Utena silently watched as the lords talked amongst themselves. Behind them, the tabard-enshrouded herald and the Saionji warrior patiently waited in silence for their dismissal.

“If that's what you believe then there's little I can do to dissuade you of that notion,” Touga replied, a melancholy light deep within his cobalt-blue eyes. “However, I do truly believe that Lady Kozue would only make you miserable. I'd rather see you happy, my friend. And that means even if you decide to wed someone other than my sister.”

“A likely story,” Saionji muttered, turning his attention back to the two men standing behind him.

The jingle of tack and the thump of horse hooves on the packed earth of the trail broke through the peaceful stillness of the surrounding evergreen forest. Large aquamarine eyes attempting to scan over the way ahead, Utena found herself continually staring at the back of the Kiryuu prince. Each time she looked upon him--he was easy to spot with the springtime sun shining down upon his mane of long, straight hair--she could feel a pleasant warmth fill her. Now a smile graced her beautiful face whenever she thought about the two of them dancing under the stars, where before it had made her grit her teeth in irritation.

Once the Kaoru herald had been escorted to a cot to spend the night with the other household staff of Pinehaven, and the rest of the Saionji clanmembers had scattered and settled down for the night, the trio of nobles had remained at the high table, Utena's entourage staying seated at one of the trestle tables on the hall floor. A short debate had ensued, coming to a conclusion that had led to her presence here on this southward-winding trail. Touga had been able to talk his friend into allowing him and the rose-haired maiden to accompany Saionji to the other clan's stronghold.

Also as part of the party were her four servants and Touga's five warriors, along with an equal number of Saionji men and the herald that had arrived the night before. The two chieftains rode at the head of the group with a pair of the Saionji and a pair of the Kiryuu flanking them. Then came Utena, Wakaba and Shiori directly behind her and Ryu and Tatsuya immediately following them. The remainder of the highlanders brought up the rear, their eyes constantly searching for any signs of unexpected hostility.

Their travel along the path from Pinehaven to Kaoru Keep had been an uneventful one, the weather sunny and losing its early springtime chill. They had ridden along the base of the Saionji's valley along the banks of the Whitewater, following the rapids-filled river up to its source high up the side of the ridge that surrounded the southern end of the glen. Then it was up and over the shoulder of the ridge through a narrow pass that opened up at the source of yet another river. The pathway followed along the Blue River's bank, leading them down into the forest-covered lands of the other valley.

They broke from the trees, emerging out into cultivated land. The peasants out working the fields--the ground had softened enough from the late winter frosts to begin the plowing--paused in their labors long enough to stare at the riders passing by, though Utena was pleased to see that they appeared more curious than anything else and there were no hostile glares tossed their way. From what she could observe, the rose-haired maiden got the sense that this clan had fared perhaps not quite as well as the Kiryuu but better than the Saionji over the season just past.

Continuing onward, she could see that the river widened into a lake. From an island the rose from that waters, a stone-walled keep overlooked the blue-tinted liquid. Guessing that this was the capital of Clan Kaoru, she couldn't help but wonder just what awaited them there.

Noting their destination appearing in the distance, Touga finally gave into the temptation that had been prodding him ever since they had set out on their journey. Turning in the saddle, he gave his gentle guest a long, lingering look. Once again she was dressed in a boyish costume, her tunic and hose this time in shades of blue that enhanced the color of her large eyes, a dark blue tam much like her rose pink one perched atop her head. It still amazed him slightly that she could fit all that hair of hers under those hats, and he found her attractive as the fake youth simply because he was aware of her true femininity underneath her slight disguise.

Movement to the right caught Saionji's eye. Glancing that way and discovering his foster brother staring over his shoulder, the green-haired lord smirked slightly. “I still think she's got a touch of the Fey,” he said, those being the first words either one of them had spoken since the beginning of the trip.

“If she's the sorceress, I would hardly mind being lost in enchantment,” the Kiryuu prince replied. “Ever since I pulled her from the lake, I've had a feeling that we were fated to be together.”

“I envy you,” Saionji muttered, “being sure of what the future would hold.”

Touga wisely decided to remain silent, shifting his attention back to keeping his eye on the path while letting his thoughts drift once more to the delicate beauty riding behind him. Three times now she had challenged him; three times he had apparently passed her tests. Of the six virtues held in esteem by those who spoke of the power of Love, he had yet to face tests for justice, forgiveness and trust. Though curious as to what she could ask of him to prove himself in those virtues, he had to admit to being impatient. There were times he felt like just sweeping her off her feet and seducing her into being his, but then would come an empty hollowness at the thought of “winning” her in such an underhanded manner. No, he would protect her, even from himself, and he would earn his precious rose's love the honorable way.

With the thunder of hooves across the heavy wooden planks of the drawbridge, the group of travelers crossed over into the bailey surrounding the keep. Like Touga's home, this was another shell tower, with a stone outer wall and wooden construction inside, and the curtain wall along the shore of the island was stone as well. The small castle seemed in good repair; hearing noises and glancing up, Utena could see a crew working on the top of the tower. More than likely they were pouring molten lead over the roof to better protect it from the elements of that northern clime. Their arrival was announced by a shout from those standing guard atop the gatehouse; the moment they came to a halt, a number of grooms appeared from the stables to see to their horses.

The newcomers remained standing in a small knot, the warriors loosely surrounding the servants and nobles in the center, while the door to the stone keep opened. The figure that emerged was that of a lad, his straight azure hair cropped short, his countenance one that bespoke at once of both keen intelligence and youthful innocence. Dressed in garb of blue, silver and white that accented his coloring, he carried himself with a regal air and maturity that was at odds with his age of fourteen winters. As the youth walked down the stone steps, another figure emerged from the keep. This one was that of a girl; in appearance, she looked almost like the young lord, though her hair was slightly longer and of a violet-blue hue, her eyes a darker shade of azure. Like the other, she too was clad in the same colors, her surcoat of darkest blue and her chemise snowy white.

“Lord Miki Kaoru and his twin sister, Lady Kozue,” murmured Touga to his rose-haired companion by way of an explanation. “He helps his father, the chieftain, rule over their clan.”

“And she?” Utena asked, catching a tone of something in the tall noble's voice.

“She watches over her brother much as my sister watches over me.”

“Oh...” the boyishly-clad maiden replied, recalling how jealously clinging Lady Nanami was.

“Lord Saionji, a pleasure to see you. I'm glad to see that my message went through,” the azure-haired youth called out the moment he was within shouting range of his soft-spoken voice. Large blue eyes settled upon the scarlet-haired chieftain for a moment. “And Lord Touga? I had expected your arrival somewhat later. A surprise...”

“I happened to be visiting my foster brother at his keep when your herald arrived,” the Kiryuu prince answered. “Your message seemed to be of an urgent matter, so I asked to accompany Saionji on his journey here.”

“Well, ‘tis good fortune that. Welcome, both of you, to my humble abode,” Miki said, stepping forward. Behind him, his sister walked in his wake while the Saionji and Kiryuu warriors parted ranks to allow the twin nobles through. For a moment, Kozue's sapphire eyes stared at the emerald-maned chieftain with an almost calculating look before she glanced demurely away. Though the look was a fleeting one, it still made the hair on the nape of Utena's neck rise, a chill shivering down her spine. Then she found herself being stared at by the noble lad. “And who is this?” the Kaoru heir queried, glancing to the older men in curiosity.

“Lord Miki, Lady Kozue, may I introduce to you Lady Utena Tenjou,” responded Touga, gesturing to the girl in question. “Lady Utena, the children of the chieftain of Clan Kaoru--”

“Lady Utena Tenjou?” Miki replied, large eyes going wide. “From the lowlands, correct?”

“Aye, my lord,” the rose-haired maiden responded, inwardly frowning. Well aware of the tensions between the highlanders and the people who resided in the southern kingdom, she couldn't help but feel somewhat disappointed at the thought of this innocent-seeming lord harboring some of those resentments.

To her relief, Miki merely nodded, apparently filing that information away for some future use. His attention turning to the other men, he spun on a heel and gestured for them to follow him. “Let's go inside where I may discuss things further. Kozue, could you please see to it that Lady Utena and her entourage are found suitable quarters?”

“As you wish, my lord,” the sapphire-eyed maiden replied, taking a step toward the oddly-dressed girl. As the noblemen and their warriors walked away, Kozue gave the other maiden a long looking over. “Aren't you an interesting one. Come along and follow me,” she ordered, striding off toward the keep a number of paces behind the group her brother was leading.

“There's something unsettling about that one,” Wakaba whispered, trotting forward to get right next to her mistress. Brown eyes remaining fixed on their hostess, the ponytailed handmaiden added, “I don't think she's very trustworthy.”

“I'm sure we're in good enough hands,” Utena murmured reassuringly.

“I'm worried. From what I've been hearing, Ohtori could be seriously thinking of campaigning against the neighboring clans this year,” the azure-haired noble said, taking a sip from his silver goblet. Seated in a comfortably-upholstered chair in his father's office, Miki glanced from Saionji to Touga. “All winter long there's been talk of their blacksmiths working long hours by torchlight to repair and make armor and weaponry. Heeding the rumors, I've sent out some of my most trusted men to slip across the border and observe the various strongholds of the Phoenix nearest our lands. Ever since the hard frosts broke, they've been reporting back a gathering of mounted knights in those fortresses.”

“And you've not done anything in your own southern fortresses that would prompt Ohtori into thinking he needed to fortify his along the border, correct?” Touga asked, his expression one of contemplation.

“No,” the Kaoru heir answered, shaking his head. “You know me. I'd much rather get along in peace with my neighbors. However, since I have confirmation that his forces are shifting northward, I'd be a fool to not shift my own forces accordingly.”

“Agreed,” Saionji responded, nodding. “Because of topography, he'd more than likely just come marching straight through your lands to push northward. I hate to say it, but the Kiryuu are too powerful for him to just leave alone if he's making a serious bid to wrest control of the highlands.”

“If he's foolish enough to do that, you're damned right I'll do my best to cut him off from his supplies in his own lands,” the scarlet-maned chieftain said. Glancing over at his friend, he nodded, “And I hope you stand with me should it come to that, Saionji.”

The verdant-haired lord scowled, taking a sip of his drink, his hand clenching the cup hard enough for his knuckles to turn white.

Feeling the sudden tension in the office, the youngest nobleman there flicked his bright blue gaze worriedly from one guest to the other. Those who lived near the Saionji and the Kiryuu were aware of the rivalry between the foster brothers; the emerald-haired chieftain had made his feelings on the matter quite public numerous times.

Touga gave his friend a long look, ignoring the twinge of sadness that came in response to not getting an immediate avowal to face a common threat together. After a pause, he gently queried, “Will you stand with me against the Phoenix should he march against me?”

“I don't see that I have much of a choice,” the violet-eyed lord growled. “As your vassal, I must stand with you.”

“I'm not ordering as overlord, Saionji,” the redheaded chieftain responded. “I came to visit you as a brother and a friend, and I'm asking you as an ally for your help in a time of need. Please?”

The hand clenching the silver goblet slowly relaxed. The last thing the verdant-maned prince had wanted was to have advantage taken of his friendship, of being forced to help simply because it was assumed he would. That he was being asked, and not ordered, soothed his ruffled pride. “Very well, Lord Touga,” he finally said. “Should Ohtori come knocking upon your door, my clan will be there with yours to toss him back where he belongs.” Smiling faintly, he raised his cup in a slight salute towards the other man. “As brothers and allies then.”

“I'm actually hoping to forge an alliance with the Saionji myself,” Miki softly said, entering the conversation again. “I knew the two of you would stand together, given your past, but we are between you and the Phoenix--”

“I'll give you what aid I can, Lord Miki,” Touga replied, “and you'll not have to give anything in return. Ohtori is a serious threat to the way things are, and I'd rather not see him gain control of the kingdom. Saionji's right: I'm too dangerous to the Phoenix's plans to be left in peace. He will eventually come for me, so I'd rather take the fight to him on my terms.”

The innocent-appearing youth smiled in relief. “Thank you, Lord Touga. I hesitated in asking for your assistance, unsure of your reaction.” Tilting his head slightly, Miki then frowned. “The lady that's traveling with you...”

“Lady Utena,” the redheaded lord supplied.

“Aye. There's something you must know.”

“What's that?”

“Ohtori's searching for her,” the azure-haired youth answered, frowning. Noticing the startled looks both noblemen were giving him, Miki continued, “As part of my information-gathering, I had my men pose as peasants and merchants. One of the things I've consistently heard is how Ohtori's been sending people throughout the lowland kingdom looking for a Lady Utena Tenjou. She apparently travels often, and has managed to elude those sent to find her.”

“Any idea on what he wants from her?” Touga asked, cobalt-blue eyes narrowing at the thought of the handsome prince--or anyone, for that matter--getting their hands on his delicate rose.

“That's something I've been unable to discover,” Miki reluctantly admitted, shaking his head in the negative.

Leaning back in his sturdy, oaken-framed chair, Saionji stared off into the distance, a thoughtful expression on his usually sour countenance. Not long after his foster father had sent the little pink-haired girl home with her remaining relatives, a group of men had come looking for her. Though not privy to the conversation between the now-dead Kiryuu chieftain and the strangers, Saionji recalled their tones being harsh and demanding and their departure had been less than cordial. At the time, Touga had been elsewhere, training up with the exchequer on how to tally the demesne's accounts; the green-haired boy had excused himself from the same lesson to use the garderobe to relieve himself and the tones of angry voices had caught his attention. Though puzzled back then and thinking the encounter strange, it was a memory that had slipped his mind until now. Why would those men have been looking for a girl already returned to her family? And why would Ohtori be searching for her now?

“Well, it looks like I shall have to discover that for myself,” murmured the scarlet-haired lord before taking a long sip from his goblet.

Their azure-haired host then turned his equally blue gaze to stare at Saionji. “Have you decided on an answer yet, my lord?”

“I'm still thinking about it,” he replied, reaching up to brush a stray lock of emerald hair from his face.

“There are others interested as well,” Miki pointed out.

“I'll give you a definitive answer very soon,” Saionji reassured. “Just tell me what's all this about Lord Ruka going missing?”

“The lands of the Golden Panther are in an uproar. It seems that Lord Ruka's been missing since Midwinter's Day, but so certain were the Arisugawa that he'd be found on either his lands or theirs that they've kept his disappearance to themselves. With the coming of spring and the opening up of travel, it became certain that he wasn't anywhere they expected,” the young nobleman replied.

“I'm certain that the Arisugawa is less than pleased at this turn of events,” commented Touga, taking a sip from his chalice. “A large portion of their power comes from their control of the Tsuchiya.”

“Of course,” Saionji muttered. “I'm sure the Panther is on the prowl.”

“There's no heir-designate either,” Miki remarked, his wide-eyed expression turning even more unsure. Highland custom took into consideration how brutal elections to clan leadership could be, so often a current chieftain would name a successor--usually the eldest son, though any relative with enough royal blood could be so designated--and the elections held after the chieftain's death often were only approvals of what had been planned all along. “Lord Ruka hadn't gotten around to naming one, and he has no offspring...”

“Wonderful,” the emerald-maned lord growled, shaking his head slightly. In order to rule, since a chieftain was considered the avatar of the royal power of the entire clan--a holdover from ancient times, when a clan leader symbolically married the land that supported him and thus became a semi-divine figure--any person of the blood royal needed to be physically whole and mentally capable. Those that weren't invited ill luck to plague the clan, thus the blind, the simple, the lame, or disfigured could not accept the coronet. There were many a family who ruthlessly clawed their way to the top by blinding or otherwise maiming their royal relatives to disqualify them for the ascension to the chieftainship. “So the Arisugawa gets stuck mediating a scramble for power within their largest vassal clan. A rather unfortunate coincidence given the Phoenix's sword-rattling.”

“I wouldn't put it past Ohtori to have known about this all along,” Touga replied.

“Aye, he seems to have eyes and ears in a number of places,” Miki said.

Cobalt-blue gaze flicking over to settle on his foster brother, the Kiryuu prince mulled over an idea that had prodded him numerous times since learning of his friend's elevation to chieftain. Saionji had grown up feeling inferior, being constantly reminded of his subordinate position. All through their boyhood and adolescence, Touga had had little desire to have such a relationship with the other royal heir. Indeed, his whole push to claim Saionji as a foster brother had been to gain for himself a friend--an equal--not some underling to order around. For as long as the former chieftain had been alive, it had been Saionji's father who was the subordinate. Now that it was Saionji himself, the redheaded noble was swiftly discovering that he had little stomach for enforcing such a submissive role onto his friend.

Does he feel the same unease, I wonder? Touga asked himself. To be always treated as an equal, only to now be made to bow and scrape should he do what's proper now that we are grown? The question made the Red Tyger narrow his eyes in irritation. Around him, the conversation had fallen into an awkward silence. No. I want to keep my friend, not my vassal. I would rather see him happy... Staring into his silver goblet, the scarlet-maned nobleman softly called out, “Saionji.”

Emerald eyebrows rose in curiosity at the odd note in his friend's voice. “Aye?” he responded, violet gaze staring at the other noble.

“I have a gift for you. Lord Miki, would you kindly be my witness?”

The youthful noble blinked, startled at the softly-spoken request. “Sure, Your Lordship,” he managed to stammer out, wondering what was about to unfold. “I'll witness whatever you'd like.”

“Thank you.” Giving the azure-haired youth a smile, Touga then turned his attention back to the verdant-maned man. “I promised you that I came to visit you only as your brother and friend. Forgive me for slipping into the role of overlord for just this moment.”

Saionji scowled, eyes narrowing in suspicion. “What are you about, Touga?”

“This.” The redheaded lord pushed back his chair, rising to booted feet. Light flashed off his signet ring as he extended his hand toward the glaring highlander. “I, Touga, Chieftain and prince of Clan Kiryuu, hereby revoke and dismiss from my service Lord Kyouichi Saionji and all his clan. The debt of blood is resolved, and you and yours are free of any claims and obligations I may have had as overlord. From this day forward, Clan Saionji shall have all the powers, privileges and obligations they had as an independent coronet in the days of our grandfathers.”

What? All Saionji could do was stare, thunderstruck, at the standing nobleman. They were being released from their vassalage? Able to once again make their own destiny as they saw fit? Could his one true dream be that easy to grasp after all this time?

“Lord Touga...” Miki softly breathed, equally stunned. Sadly, experience had shown him that most would grab at any chance of power, yet here was one willing to give up a measure of control--for apparently nothing more then a deep friendship.

“You heard and witnessed, Lord Miki,” the scarlet-haired chieftain replied. “Clan Saionji is free of my control.”

“What do you want?” abruptly growled Saionji. Surely there had to be some strings attached, somewhere.

Lowering his gaze to focus on the office's carpet-adorned floor, Touga brought to mind his promise to the rose-haired maiden. Those that loved dealt honestly with the objects of their affection, no matter what form that love took. Saionji deserved the truth; to do otherwise would be disrespectful of the friendship they had. “I want my friend, Saionji. I want my foster brother. We can't be what we were to one another if I remain your overlord, and you are not your father.”

“That's it? That's all you want?” He frowned, uncertain. Yet the melancholy Saionji saw etched upon his friend's countenance seemed genuine.

“It's all I want. Nothing more.”

“If you think I'm going to suddenly grovel at your feet--”

Touga laughed, his chuckle filling the room as he lifted his hand to run long fingers though his straight, silky red hair. “No, Saionji. I don't even care if you thank me or not. I only desire your friendship, not your prostrate form at my feet.”

“Good,” the emerald-haired lord replied. “Because friendship is all you're going to get from me.”

“I wouldn't have it any other way,” Touga responded.

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