Light glimmered and flashed with a ruddy hue, the surrounding gold equally bright, as slender fingers turned the ruby-studded brooch this way and that. Aquamarine eyes remained focused on the intricate designs around the four heart-shaped stones while the rose-haired maiden’s thoughts gently drifted.
She had owned the brooch for nearly as long as she could remember. Though the tragic events of losing her parents were forever etched in her heart, her memories of the time immediately afterward were hazy. Somehow, she had acquired the piece of jewelry she now held in her hand, then had been somewhere safe. After that, she could vaguely recall a trip home followed by growing up in the care of her aunt's household.
The quest, however, had always haunted her, hovering there constantly in the back of her mind...
“So, m'lady,” murmured a voice from behind. “Do you think the Red Tyger's the one?”
Pulled from her musings, Utena lifted her gaze while twisting to face the source of the sound. Noting Shiori's presence there, an expression of eager curiosity on the handmaiden's face, the young noblewoman replied, “Of those who have tried so far, he is the one furthest down the path to the goal. Three more tests must he face.”
“And then?” the short-haired servant asked, the light of anxious anticipation alight in her large, violet eyes.
“If he passes, then he'll be sent to recover the sword known as Love's Honor,” Utena responded. Unlike Wakaba, who had been her servant for years and was as much a friend as a handmaiden, the slightly older Shiori had only been in the young noble's employ for a few months, since about a turn of the moon after Midwinter's Day. The shorter-haired brunette wasn't as privy to the quest that drove the pink-maned girl as her dear friend Wakaba was. “Whether he can wield the sword or not would be his ultimate challenge.”
“Where is this Love's Honor to be found, m'lady?” Shiori queried, her countenance still bright-eyed and eager.
Utena turned away, her gaze once more settling upon the object of gold and rubies resting in the grasp of a hand. “That is something I may only tell the one worthy to attempt to gain the blade.”
Unseen by her mistress, Shiori's face took on an expression that was a mix of extreme disappointment and barely-controlled rage. However, the look was a fleeting one, swiftly buried beneath a pleasantly bland one as the violet-eyed brunette regained her self-control. By the time Utena turned back around to walk past the older girl, Shiori seemed to be the very essence of a demure and helpful lady in waiting. “So how will you know if he's the one?”
“If he passes the tests I have remaining, then he has earned a chance to try to claim the sword,” came the reply as Utena stepped into the window embrasure and gracefully perched upon the embroidered pillows there on the window seat. Slipping the brooch onto her masculinely-tailored tunic, she then reached out and pushed open the shutters that kept the outside elements from the fortress's room. With a deep breath of the outside air, she smiled as her sea-blue gaze scanned out over the lake that surrounded the strong shell keep. To the west, the sun was a fiery orange ball, the deeply-hued light making the outside world gleam as if it were made of molten gold. Soon they would be called down to the Great Hall for the evening meal, and part of her mind focused on the fact that she would need to clothe herself in garb more appropriate for someone of her station. Glancing up into the darkening sky, she knew that soon the stars would be out--and a sudden desire to dance under them again with the tall and dashing Kiryuu prince imposed itself upon her awareness, making her feel slightly warm despite the cool evening breeze flowing through the open window.
Admittedly, his intense interest in her as a woman had startled and frightened her, making her feel too uneasy to think of anything but to pull away from him. However, he had apologized and stepped back, giving her space to breathe, to collect her thoughts and racing emotions. And in that space, she was beginning to see a man she could come to admire.
Just then, the iron-bound oaken door to the guest chamber burst open, an animated figure nearly flying through the open stone archway. Her shimmering brown ponytail bobbing with the rhythmic motion of her excited stride across the carpet-adorned wooden floor, Wakaba called out, “Lady Utena! Lady Utena!”
“Over here, Wakaba,” the noblewoman in question responded, leaning forward as she turned her attention away from the sunset-gilded landscape beyond. Waving a hand to further catch her servant's gaze, she queried, “What is it?”
“You're not going to believe this, but it's the talk all over the keep,” the brown-eyed handmaiden replied, rushing over to her mistress. “All the servants are gossiping about it!”
“What is it?” Utena repeated, grinning at the excited antics of the other teenager.
“Lord Touga released Lord Kyouichi from the bonds of vassalage. Clan Saionji's an independent coronet once more.”
“How interesting,” Shiori commented, standing in the center of the room, her hands clasped demurely before her lavender-clad form.
“He did?” the pink-maned girl murmured out loud in wonder. What had motivated him so? Did he do it for love of a friend, or was there a hidden agenda? she mused, though her heart felt a bright ray of hope. Had friendship been what had lead to his decision, then he could very well be the one she was told to find by the mysterious violet-haired girl who tended the rose arbor protecting the magical sword of the champion of Love. To let go of power for the sake of the love one bore for another certainly seemed a deed in accord with a heart dedicated to the virtues of Amor.
“Aye, he did,” insisted Wakaba, ponytail swaying as she nodded her head in an affirmative gesture. “I heard it from the pages who had heard it from their master. Apparently Lords Touga, Kyouichi and Miki had a meeting in the Kaoru chieftain's office, and in seeing to it that they had enough refreshments to drink as they talked, the master of pages overheard them discussing Lord Kyouichi's new status as an independent prince. It sounds like there may be trouble coming to the highlands this summer.”
“Trouble? What sort of trouble?” asked the other servant, her violet gaze flicking to settle on Wakaba.
“Sounds like one of the clans could be wanting to go to war,” the brown-eyed brunette replied, frowning slightly. “I didn't get to find out more about that, only that Lord Miki's hoping to get aid from both the Saionji and the Kiryuu against this other clan.”
“I don't like the sound of that at all,” Utena commented, frowning as well. Glancing over her shoulder to see the last of the orb of the sun slip away below the wooded ridge defining the western horizon, she gracefully rose to her feet. “Perhaps I should question Lord Touga about those matters? However, the evening meal will be soon. We should make ourselves presentable.”
“As you wish, m'lady,” the two handmaidens answered in unison.
The sounds of jovial conversation and soft music swirled around Utena while she sat there at the high table in the Great Hall of Kaoru Keep. Nibbling on the marzipan that have been served--along with candied fruit--as the final course of the evening meal, she let her azure gaze wander over the large room once more. Unlike the other two fortresses she had visited so far that week, this cavernous room wasn't situated within the fortified tower that served as the final refuge for the defenders. Instead, the Great Hall took up two-thirds of a long, thatched-roof outbuilding constructed up against the inside surface of the stone curtain wall that surrounded the castle's bailey. Behind her, the wooden wall that was covered with brightly-colored tapestries acted as a partition between the hall and the kitchen; all throughout the meal, she had been aware of the servants coming and going through a door in that same wall far to the left of the high table. More tapestries, silken banners joining their ranks, hung from the smoke-darkened oaken timbers that supported the roof, and the walls to the left and across the hall were also fashioned from the same sturdy wooden construction. Only the wall to Utena's right was different; it was composed of the blocks of granite that formed the protective barrier between the outside world and the stronghold within.
The people that graced the tables below the salt were very much like those other highland clanmembers she'd already seen. Their garb and appearance gave confirmation to her earlier assessment that this clan was somewhere between the wealth and plenty of the Kiryuu and the poverty and destitution of the Saionji. The atmosphere of the Great Hall and the tone of their conversations was in the middle as well, not as full of open gaiety as her first night among the highlanders nor as sullen as her second night.
The fare had been simple but delicious, just what she had expected from a household of the Kaoru clan's means at the beginning of springtime. While musicians had played soothing tunes, the conversation at the high table had focused on the trio of chieftains comparing notes on how well each had survived what had sounded to be a harsh winter, swapping stories of strange or funny happenings to their clanmembers during the cold season, and talking about the possibility of an upcoming conflict. Dominating the talk had been the Kaoru chieftain, a grizzled-looking warrior with silver streaking his violet-blue hair, his sapphire eyes those of a man who had seen many harsh things. He was a startling contrast to his youthful son; Miki, though he looked much like what his father must have in the past, still had the bloom of innocence that somehow made his intelligence seem more a special thing. The Kaoru prince, though seemingly equally intelligent to Utena's observation, had more of the air of a knowledge born from experience rather than innate ability.
The blue-haired chieftain had sat in his customary spot in the middle of the high table, his distant but commanding presence the center of attention among the nobles seated there. In accordance with his wishes, Saionji had been placed to his right, in the seat of honor, with Kozue seated just to the right of him. As the Kaoru heir, Miki had been given the seat to his father's left, with Touga allowed the seat to the left of the azure-haired boy. As for herself, Utena was seated to the Red Tyger's left; though not a favorable one as far as honor went, it still gave her a good vantage point from which to observe the others while they all ate.
That their much older host was the driving force behind what conversation there was seemed to bother the other two chieftains little if at all. For Saionji's part, he was apparently having too much of a good time enjoying his newfound freedom; for the first time since she had set eyes on him this visit, the verdant-maned lord seemed relaxed and happy, his defenses down. That Kozue spent her time coyly flirting with her dinner companion probably only added to his feelings of good will. And Touga... To the rose-haired maiden's watchful eye, he appeared to be the most gracious of guests, letting the host decide on the topic to discuss and offering his opinions when appropriate. Miki kept silent more often than not as his father spoke, seemingly reluctant to voice his own opinion on things, and the rose-haired girl was more interested in watching than talking through supper.
Admittedly, as dinner wore on, Utena found her patience strained by a couple of things. The first was Kozue; the slender princess seemed to be playing the precocious flirt a bit too strongly, taking nearly every opportunity to let the handsome lord sitting next to her know that she was apparently quite interested in him. From the tone of some of the discussion, the pink-haired girl deduced that Saionji was debating on arranging a marriage with the seemingly demure girl sitting at his side. Something about her made Utena think that such an alliance--though politically probably rather sound--would be a personal disaster for the curly-haired chieftain.
The second thing was the continued talk of perhaps future hostilities as spring advanced into summer. It had long been known among the royal court of Utena's home kingdom that Lord Akio Ohtori was a prince of great ambition. That it seemed as if he were preparing to go on the march bothered her, striking some deep chord within herself that such hostility could be disastrous for those who would stand against him. The thought of any of them sitting there that night--the Kaoru chieftain, his young son, the newly-independent Saionji--could meet a violent end in a battle not of their making sent an ill feeling sweeping over her. Even more intense yet was the sensation that filled her at any thought of the elegant lord sitting next to her being wounded--or worse. Still, she understood the need for such discussions and plans as the trio of chieftains talked over various strategies to deal with the possible threat. Someone had to defend those Akio would rob of their freedom, and as his closest neighbors, the Kaoru, Saionji and Kiryuu would more than likely bear the brunt of any attempt the Ebon Phoenix would make.
The serving wenches--comely maidens who were part of the household's kitchen staff--were wandering about the Great hall, some flirting with those sitting there at the sturdy wooden tables, gathering up the final remains of the meal just past when the Kaoru chieftain turned his attention to his heir. “Miki, if you please, play a song for us.”
“As you wish, Father,” the azure-haired boy responded. Pushing back his chair, the youth in question rose from the high table, then strode over to where the musicians were taking a rest between songs. The rose-haired girl's gaze followed Miki curiously as he perched himself upon a three-legged stool behind an impressive harp. Closing bright blue eyes while resting his hands upon the strings, the Kaoru heir leaned against the gilded wooden frame of the instrument and slipped into that tranquil stillness that always surrounded him when he performed.
The first strains were lovely, the melody one that seemed to speak of the memories of long ago. The youthful noble's fingers were nimble upon the strings--caressing here, plucking strongly there--bringing to life a musical piece that brought to mind a sunlight-dappled garden.
The whole of the hall listened in rapt silence as Miki played through the pleasantly haunting piece. Finishing the song with an almost extravagant flourish, the Kaoru heir sat quietly, hands still poised over the harp's strings. Applause and cheers greeted him then; opening his eyes, the blue-haired youth smiled at the accolade.
“Well played, Son,” the grizzled chieftain praised, raising his golden goblet in a salute to his boy's talent.
“Thank you, Father,” Miki replied, cheeks taking on a faint flush.
Next to the green-haired lord, Kozue sat in silence, sapphire eyes narrowed ever so slightly while the applause for her twin continued.
“Now then,” the Kaoru prince said, standing to get everyone's attention. “Servants, remove the tables to rest against the walls. Musicians, play into the night. 'Tis an evening for a celebration--”
On the far side of the huge room, the massive double doors opened, a herald dressed in the tabard bearing the coat of arms of Clan Kaoru entering the Great Hall. Striding quickly forward, the newcomer crossed the length of the chamber while the grizzled veteran of many a knightly battle began his impromptu speech.
Noting the herald's approach, the Kaoru chieftain fell silent, motioning to the blond youth to come forward to deliver his message.
“What now, I wonder?” Touga softly murmured, cobalt-blue eyes focused upon the tabard-shrouded youth.
Catching her companion's words, Utena questioned him while sliding her aqua-hued gaze to the scarlet-maned lord's noble visage. “What do you think it could be?”
The golden-haired messenger reached the high table before Touga could form a reply. Curious as to what the message could be, he remained silent in order to overhear better the youth's words.
“M'lord, Lord Souji, prince of Clan Nemuro, has arrived at the gates and requests to be let in to enjoy the hospitality of which he was invited to partake,” the herald announced, his voice low so that only the lord of the stronghold--and those sitting near him at the high table--could hear. “He further apologizes for the lateness of the hour, but he was unavoidably detained.”
Next to the Kaoru chieftain, Saionji sat up straighter in mild astonishment. What the devil is the Honorable Shadow doing here? he wondered, violet eyes staring at the at the messenger garbed in blue and white. Unseen by the verdant-maned lord, the lady at his right had, for a fleeting instant, a look of surprise equal to Saionji's. Then Kozue's expression changed to one of calculated satisfaction before she once again donned the mask of a demure princess.
“Ah, excellent,” the Kaoru ruler responded, looking quite pleased at the news. “I had expected him to not make an appearance at all, considering his lack of a reply.” Nodding to the herald, the grizzled veteran continued, “Go, Jiro, and tell the porter that Lord Souji is most welcome and to open the gates for the Honorable Shadow.”
Hiding his astonishment behind the act of taking a long draught from his golden cup, Touga couldn't help but wonder what exactly was happening. Clan Nemuro held power over a large section of the rugged western coastlands and were well known to keep to themselves, never siding completely in any of the struggles for dominance over all the highland clans but adhering to a neutral position. Easily a rival in wealth and power to the Kiryuu, the Arisugawa and the Ohtori, the Nemuro were rarely seen beyond the borders of their influence. In fact, Touga couldn't recall a single time he'd seen the Honorable Shadow, though he was well aware of Lord Souji's presence off to the west; all he knew about the man were rumors, whispers of a brilliant intellect but cold and distant emotions, of plotting strategy for reasons known only to him while remaining skulking about the lands of his demesne.
The golden-haired messenger hastily sketched a bow, then turned and hurried out the same direction from whence he had come. Recalling the beautiful rose's question, Touga leaned toward her and murmured, “I have little clue what this could be about save that perhaps the Honorable Shadow regards the Ohtori as a threat also.”
On the other side of the very happy-looking Kaoru chieftain, Saionji moved closer to Kozue. In a celebratory mood--after years of longing on a wish he never truly hoped he'd achieve, he and his were once again numbered among the sovereign coronets of the highlands--he had imbibed quite a bit of the fine wine served with supper. Perhaps a bit too much, some part of him admitted; he was certainly feeling the effects, but he felt too good to care. And the violet-blue haired lady certainly seemed to be personally interested in the alliance he hoped to make. Though he knew that any marriage he contracted would be for what he could get out of the alliance in wealth and power, the idea that it could be more than purely political appealed to him. “Any idea why the Honorable Shadow has appeared at your father's gates, Lady Kozue?” he asked, using his query as an excuse to rest a hand over hers.
The princess lowered her gaze, her cheeks pinking in the very image of a demure maiden. Underneath her long lashes, however, her eyes remained alight with a calculating glimmer deep within their sapphire depths. Letting her hand remain under his, Kozue replied, “Father invited him here to discuss the situation developing with Clan Ohtori just as he asked you to travel here.”
Saionji frowned faintly, a faint sense of trespass washing over him. Merely making a noncommittal grunt as a response, he picked up his goblet with his free hand and took another drink of the slightly sweet wine. Well, no matter that. The girl had certainly showed interest in him.
Utena merely nodded at her companion's words, aquamarine gaze focused on the doors opposite the high table. Having heard a few rumors about the mysterious ruler of Clan Nemuro--of how he was cold of heart and sly of mind--she was more than slightly curious as to what his true appearance would be.
Her vigilance was soon rewarded. The whole of the conversations going on within the Great Hall fell into an awed silence as the herald returned and announced, as was the custom, the presence of a visitor of royal blood. “Your Lordship, the Honorable Shadow, Lord Souji, prince of the Nemuro!” The blond messenger then stepped aside, allowing the one announced to stride through the now-unblocked doorway.
All eyes were upon him, though to the elegant lord dressed in comfortable garb in black, white and silver, it mattered little at all. Clad in black boots, white trews, a white undertunic showing from underneath a black velvet tunic decorated with silver embroidery in a pattern of roses, Souji made quite the somber image--especially with the nearly expressionless visage he had as dark brown eyes scanned over the people there in the large room. Let them gawk; they certainly were of no consequence. Pausing a couple of strides into the Great Hall, the Nemuro prince glanced back over his shoulder to make sure his beloved squire was following.
Utena blinked, startled, while Touga raised scarlet eyebrows in curiosity then turned his cobalt-blue gaze to look at the lovely maiden sitting next to him. No, it wasn't his imagination; Lord Souji held a striking similarity to Lady Utena's appearance, down to the very same shade of rose-pink hair. Having seen her in her masculine attire during the day, the Kiryuu chieftain was even more aware of how the Honorable Shadow's visage was a manlier version of her own. “A cousin of yours, perhaps?” he asked the woman sitting next to him, his voice soft.
“I--I don't know,” the elegantly-clad noblewoman replied, still staring at the young lord across the hall. Other than his eyes being deep brown with a hint of rose-pink hue, and his silken mane being straight and cut short to lay no longer than the nape of his neck, he truly looked as if he could be her sibling. Her parents had been killed while on their way to some destination in the highlands. Could they have been going to visit the Nemuro?
A figure came through the doorway on the heels of the sable-clad nobleman. Shorter than his knight, slender and pretty--to the point of being effeminate, Saionji noted with a bit of a scowl--the dusky-skinned boy was an intriguing contrast to his master. Furthermore, the way the pink-haired noble gazed at his companion made Saionji wonder about what sort of relationship they may have. Large emerald-green eyes glanced about his surroundings, his short curly mane of pale lavender hair and rose-red garb accented in gold made him a brighter image than did the nobleman at his side. Like the other, the apparent squire carried himself in the manner of the nobility; more than likely he was of royal blood himself.
Another puzzle to mull upon, Touga decided. The pretty youth trailing along after the Honorable Shadow bore as strong a resemblance to Lord Akio as his master bore to Lady Utena. Perhaps a cousin or some such there as well, though that idea made the Red Tyger wonder if somehow the Ohtori had managed to come to some sort of alliance with Lord Souji of which no one had been aware. Regardless, it seemed--from what little Touga had seen of the two so far--that the effeminate squire was the only thing that made the Nemuro chieftain's face take on an expression of any sort.
The warm smile lingering, Souji gave his companion a gesture that was both one of encouragement and a command to continue following him. His attention turning back to those seated at the high table, the pink-haired chieftain strode the rest of the way, coming to a halt before the Kaoru prince. The bow he gave was a slight one, one of a superior greeting someone of a lesser rank; Saionji's violet gaze slid over to watch a faintly insulted expression flicker over his host's face for just an instant, his attention caught by a barely-voiced sound of disapproval. The verdant-maned prince had to agree with the other's feeling of being upset. They were all sovereign princes here, thus they should be regarded as one another's equal no matter the wealth or temporal might they wielded.
Touga as well caught the attitude of the greeting. His thin lips pressing together, he noted that the Honorable Shadow seemed to be of a mind that any appearance should be regarded as a favor a superior had stooped to perform out of whatever sense of kindness he may have had. The Kiryuu chieftain also noted that despite the fact Lord Souji had certainly seen the others seated there above the salt, the sight had apparently evoked no reaction at all upon the young nobleman's handsome face.
“Welcome to my abode, Honorable Shadow,” the Kaoru ruler said, returning the bow of respect. “You honor us with your presence.”
“I thank you for your hospitality,” the rose-haired chieftain responded, his mellow voice sounding almost as flat as his expression. The only time his face even lit up with an emotion at all was when he turned slightly to draw forward his shorter companion. “As does my squire, Mamiya.” In response, the pretty boy flushed slightly and bowed as well, his one of an underling to a superior.
“If I may, I'd like to speak with you in private--”
“Only so long as my squire can accompany me,” Souji insisted, interrupting the other chieftain. The tone of his voice left no doubt that he would refuse any conversation that didn't allow his companion to share in on it.
The grizzled, azure-haired nobleman momentarily frowned, a look that was swiftly gone. Once again taking on a warm smile, he nodded, “Of course, of course, my lord. Never would I deny the presence of one's own squire.”
“I'm pleased you see it that way,” the sable-clad man replied, dark-brown eyes as cold as ever. “Then I shall be happy to speak with you in the manner indicated.”
“A moment then, if it pleases my lord,” the Kaoru chieftain said. Turning his attention back to the people still there within the Great Hall, he raised his voice for all to hear. “Continue on, my people. Push the tables to the side and start in with the celebration.” Flicking his gaze over to where his son continued to sit behind the golden harp, he added, “Miki, if you will, play with the musicians as they perform the dances.” Noting the young lord's nod of acknowledgment, the Kaoru ruler then gestured to his newest guest. “If you and your squire would kindly follow me?”
“Lead on,” Souji responded. While the older chieftain stepped back from the table and then walked down the length of it, the pink-haired nobleman matched his pace, striding along the table on the other side with the red-clad boy following in his wake.
“Interesting, that,” softly mused the scarlet-haired chieftain, his azure gaze focused upon the retreating lords. “I wonder what he's up to?”
“It seems a bit odd,” Utena replied, staring after them as well while the trio disappeared. “Though I'm certain it has something to do with the possible aggression from Clan Ohtori.”
“As am I,” Touga replied. “Though I was somewhat certain Clan Nemuro would remain as aloof as always, taking neither side. Now, I'm not so certain.”
“The squire, Mamiya. Did you not see the resemblance?” the redheaded chieftain asked.
The rose-haired maiden nodded slightly. Of course she had noticed; the similarities were too striking. Having seen Akio Ohtori on a few occasions in the court of her home kingdom, she had realized that were the elegant lord's hair shorter and his emerald eyes larger and his visage as she remembered it more youthful, then he would look as if he were Mamiya's identical twin. “'Tis uncanny, I do admit, but I was unaware of the Phoenix having any brothers.”
“Far as I know, he does not. However, that doesn't preclude some sort of relation--perhaps a nephew or a cousin,” Touga pointed out. “And it may mean that the Honorable Shadow is allied somehow with Ohtori.”
“If that's the case, then things may be rather grim if Lord Akio does decide to act as you fear.” Utena frowned, that uneasy feeling washing over her again. Somehow, she just knew that anyone getting in the Phoenix's way would be swept aside, broken and shattered. The very thought of the man sitting next to her so destroyed made a cold shiver crawl down her spine. Suddenly, the night seemed not so festive.
With the sounds of shouted directions, loud conversation and the scraping of wood against the rush-strewn floor, the servants and clanmembers hastened to do as their chieftain had bidden. As the people dispersed into small knots still carrying on their discussions and debates, the household staff cleared the Great Hall of the oaken trestle tables and their accompanying benches. Next to their place near the enormous fireplace, the musicians struck up a lively tune as background music to the clearing of the floor, the young azure-haired noble strumming away on the large harp. The moment the final table was in place, leaning up against a tapestry-adorned wall, the performers brought their current tune to a halt, then started up one that everyone recognized as an energetic dance.
People began to pair up to take part in the dance; with a scrape of chair against dais, Saionji rose and escorted the still demure-appearing Kozue from the oaken platform to the rush-covered floor. Noting the other chieftain's departure, Utena half-expected her scarlet-haired companion to ask her to dance as well. When he did nothing but remain in his seat and take another sip from his goblet, she gave him a sidelong glance and took a drink from her own cup of wine. Was he not interested in such an interaction after all, or was he just waiting for her to show an interest in dancing before offering to partner her? Considering her reactions to his advances and his promise to no longer make her uncomfortable, the rose-haired maiden was of the mind that he was simply waiting for her to show her own willingness first. Aquamarine eyes settling on the stately form of Lord Kyouichi beginning the steps of the somewhat complicated dance with the violet-blue haired princess, Utena softly said, “You've done quite the deed, turning your foster brother loose of your coronet's control. It was all the talk among the servants this afternoon.”
“I can imagine,” Touga replied, also watching his friend dance.
“Most men would keep whatever power they had, and hold onto it tightly.”
“There are some things more important than power, even in this world where might and wealth mean so much,” the redheaded chieftain responded.
Utena nodded slightly. “So why did you release him from vassalage?”
Touga slowly set down the goblet, though he kept his fingers curled around the smooth metal. Cobalt-blue gaze still fixed upon Saionji, he finally answered, “I missed my friend. Throughout my life, I've had servants and vassals galore, but only one person I could call 'friend'. So long as his father lived, then he and I could continue as we were.”
“And with him the prince now, it couldn't stay that way,” Utena said, her voice filling the melancholy silence that had come between them. “You would have to push him into being a subordinate.”
“Precisely. Saionji deserves better,” the Kiryuu chieftain remarked. Dark azure eyes narrowed slightly as Touga watched Kozue's casual flirting while she danced with the green-haired lord. Something about that girl... “He deserves much better,” he muttered.
“Aye, my lady?”
“Would you... dance with me, please?” the pink-haired girl finally asked, feeling her cheeks grow warm as she voiced the words.
“It would be my pleasure, Lady Utena,” Touga replied, a smile gracing his handsome face. Taking one of her hands in his, he rose from his seat and helped her to her feet. Taking her by the arm, he led her off the wooden dais upon which was bolted the high table.
With a whispering sound, the cool night breeze rustled the greenery of the darkness-shrouded garden. Catching on rose-pink and scarlet-red hair alike, the wind playfully tossed the silken strands about. Sighing happily, Utena stared up into the star-speckled vault of the sky. The man next to her was solid, warm; this time she felt comfortable enough to lean against him, allowing him to hold her by the waist in a loose, one-armed embrace.
They'd danced during a couple of tunes before some of the other men there in the Great Hall had approached and asked her to share a dance. Mindful that she should continue searching despite her current testing of the Kiryuu prince, Utena accepted a number of the requests. And through each performance of the stately steps, she found herself staring time and again at the dashingly handsome chieftain as he danced with others. In the end, she discovered a longing to once more be with him; taking the initiative, she had abandoned her latest partner, approached Touga and had yet again asked if he would dance with her--this time under the stars.
The smile he had given her then had been dazzling, one that sent a pleasant shiver down her spine. Out of the large double doors he had led her--at some point during the celebration, the entryway had been tossed open and revelers had wandered out into the gardens that filled this part of the bailey--and out into the night, far enough away for them to be essentially alone yet near enough they could hear the sweet strains of the musicians' melodies. Their dance had ended when the music had, and it had been then that Utena had leaned against her companion's strong body and had looked up at the stars.
“I remember something...” the rose-haired maiden finally whispered, sea-blue eyes still staring up into the zenith of the night-time sky, this time at the white disk of the moon. The silvery light pooled around them, making the blooms and foliage of the garden take on innumerable shades of gray.
“And that is?” Touga softly murmured in reply, free hand reaching up to brush aside the few strands of his hair the playful wind had tossed into his face. Lowering his head, he shifted his gaze to the delicate flower resting against him. He felt a warm sort of pleasure holding her in such a manner, a sensation unlike anything he'd experienced before. The sense of correctness he felt was unmatched, as if this was how things should always have been. Still, there was one thread of unease that imposed itself upon his awareness: somewhere along the line, Saionji had disappeared from the Great Hall. That Lady Kozue had also vanished from sight was the sole reason for Touga's disquiet; he knew that his friend could certainly take care of himself.
“Someone telling me... something about the stars,” whispered Utena. “And promising to show them to me.”
The scarlet-maned chieftain chuckled softly. How wonderful that a trace of that memory was now reachable to her, where before she had no recollection at all. “I'm certain you've seen them before, my lady.”
“Aye, I have, but...” She paused, her eyes shifting to focus upon the smiling face of the lord looking down at her.
“But?” Long red hair slid forward as he lowered his head marginally.
“It was if I'd never truly seen them before that night on the roof of your keep,” Utena replied, staring up into the depths of his gorgeous blue eyes.
Touga said nothing in response, content to merely gaze upon her lovely face there in the relative peace of the night-enshrouded garden. In fact, he could have sworn the beautiful maiden was rising to meet him when a sound caught his attention, tearing his focus away from her. Though standing within the bailey of a stronghold ruled by a sympathetic noble, the Red Tyger was too well-trained to ignore any unexpected noise that could signal approaching danger. Lifting his head, he narrowed dark azure eyes as he scanned their surroundings carefully.
“What is it?” Utena whispered, blinking in surprise, realizing that her companion was searching for some object.
“I thought I heard something,” he answered, still looking about.
Like what? the noblewoman wondered, glancing about and straining her ears to catch any sound. In the near distance, the sound of merriment and laughter accompanied by the music from within the Great Hall drifted to her on the night air. Then she heard something closer off to her left, like a scuffling foot on a gravel path.
There it is again, Touga thought. Under his arm, he felt his companion stiffen, a sure indication that she had heard the sound also. Slipping his arm from around her, he gestured to her to remain in place before turning in the direction of the noise and stalking forward. Carefully stepping on the ground beneath, the Kiryuu prince moved silently up against a bushy hedge covered with delicate white flowers that almost glowed in the moonlight. The sound seemed to have come from the other side of the greenery; crouching down to peer through an area of fewer leaves, the redheaded nobleman tried to make out what could be seen on the other side.
Just as he was bringing the sight into focus, he was aware of a warm, slender body pressed up against him--one that practically shoved him aside. A glance out of the corner of his eye assured him that the person determined to share his spyhole was his rose-haired companion. Settling next to her in a manner that allowed them both to look at the same time, Touga turned his attention back to the scene on the other side of the hedge.
It seemed to be a secluded spot for sitting, one of those many places within gardens where benches were placed for those to admire the beauty of the site. In the silvery illumination, Utena could make out a green grassy area, a stone bench along a gravel path, and even more of the white-flowered hedges bordering on the sides, though the way opposite was dark and apparently open to more of the garden--and two figures sitting upon the bench. Aquamarine eyes opened wide as she recognized Lord Kyouichi and Lady Kozue sitting together; a blush crept to her face as she realized she was now close enough to hear the low sounds of their gentle moans and heavy breathing. The blue-haired princess was leaning against the raised back of the white marble bench, the tall form of the highland chieftain sprawled out half on the bench and half atop her. Scuff marks in the gravel, looking like dark holes in the moonlit-washed stones, gave evidence to the sounds that had caught her attention; Saionji had apparently dug a booted foot into the pathway to maintain his position.
Next to her, she felt her scarlet-haired companion move slightly, an almost noiseless growl sounding deep in his throat. A swift glance showed a thunderous expression on Touga's face, though Utena was uncertain whether his anger was at his friend or at the lady Saionji was currently kissing.
“So when will you tell your father that you insist on getting the details settled?” the verdant-maned prince asked, lips brushing up against the exposed skin of the girl's neck as he spoke.
“Soon, my lord. Soon,” Kozue breathlessly answered. She sat up slightly, only to have her companion gently kiss her full on the lips.
“It had better be soon. I have another offer that I'll have to answer one way or another.”
“Well now,” the Kaoru princess softly purred. “We shall have to see about that.” Stroking a hand up along her companion's back and tangling her fingers in his wavy hair, she smiled up at him--an expression that seemed to not reach her sapphire eyes. “What with Clan Ohtori perhaps going on the march--”
“I'm certain that together the Saionji and the Kaoru can beat back anything he throws at us,” the nobleman replied. “Though I fear that the brunt of supplies will have to be purchased by your father. The winter just past was harsher on my folk than expected.”
“It was?” the maiden queried, the faintest of frowns crossing her moonlit face. “I had heard, but I had hoped they were but mere rumors of those jealous of the Saionji.”
“Unfortunately, it's the truth,” Saionji reluctantly said, violet eyes staring down at the noblewoman in his arms. “But we shall recover, and this alliance will strengthen both of our clans.”
“I see,” Kozue murmured, turning her head away from her suitor. When he returned to caressing her neck with his lips, she faintly purred.
Pressed up against Touga as she was, Utena could feel the ripple of his muscles underneath the layers of clothing that separated them. Realizing that he was about to break cover and burst in upon the two lovers, she glanced off toward the clearing in the garden once more--then suddenly thrust an arm out against the Red Tyger's chest in a gesture of restraint. Movement caught her eye across the grassy space; she choked back a gasp as a voice called out into the night.
Apparently the lady in question recognized the voice even as the pair of noble spies did. The moment the shout was voiced--it was obvious it was a call to locate her, not a cry of alarmed discovery--the blue-haired maiden suddenly burst into a frenzy of activity, screaming out for help and beating the suddenly confused Saionji about the shoulders. Taken completely by surprise, the green-haired chieftain almost lost his balance and tumbled to the ground; in scrambling to avoid a fall, he ended up pressing hard against the flailing Kozue, pinning her down against the smooth marble seat.
Rose-pink and pale-lavender hair--both washed to nearly silver in the illumination of the moon--were bright against the night sky as Lord Souji and his squire rushed into the clearing in response to Kozue's cries of alarm. As Mamiya hung back out of harm's way, the Nemuro prince grabbed hold of the still astounded Saionji by the scruff of his neck and yanked him off the struggling princess. Befuddled by the unexpected actions of the maiden and the alcohol consumed earlier, the Saionji chieftain landed hard on the ground, reactions too slow to either catch or defend himself. With a ring of steel, the Honorable Shadow drew his sword; the gleaming metal flashed in the light as he pressed the point against the fallen noble's chest. “You dare lay your hands on what the Kaoru chieftain wishes to be mine?”
“Yours?” Saionji growled, violet eyes narrowing. “What the devil are you saying?” Glancing toward Kozue, it took nearly every scrap of will for him to not show the deep sense of betrayal he felt; the azure-haired maiden was wringing her hands together, putting on a very convincing act of being scared to death and almost raped. The growl of absolute rage was nearly feral in tone; abruptly lashing out with an arm, he caught the pink-haired noble's sword across the flat of the blade, shoving it away from him. Rolling swiftly in the same direction, Saionji felt a tug as some of his hair was pulled from his head; at his foe's movement, Souji had recovered from his surprise at the pushing away of his sword and had jabbed downward, the tip of the weapon pinning some of Saionji's wavy mane to the grassy ground. “Kozue! Tell him that's not true!” Saionji appealed to the girl in question, even as he scrambled to his feet and took a ready stance. Like most nobles visiting a friendly stronghold, his sword had been surrendered, held by the steward until such time as he departed the castle or was called to help defend it.
“I swear to you, Lord Souji, that he tried to ravish me,” Kozue responded, looking every inch the disheveled and frightened innocent.
“That's enough of that,” Touga muttered, rising to his feet. “I can't stay here and let them abuse Saionji so. The injustice...” A quick glance around allowed him to spot a narrow passage through the hedge further to the left. Grabbing his companion by the hand, the redheaded chieftain broke into a sprint, heading straight for the dark area in the lush greenery.
Silent and deadly, the pink-haired nobleman closed the distance between himself and his foe, the blade making a glittering arc of silver in the moonlight as he swung. Hissing in consternation, Saionji jumped backwards, just out of the reach of the weapon. Armed only with a dagger, he was decidedly at a disadvantage; pulling his knife from the top of his boot, he gripped it firmly in hand as he was forced to dodge another stab by the other chieftain.
Throwing an arm up to shield his face, Touga burst through the narrow passage; leaves and twigs alike scraped against him, tugging his hair, as he forced his way forward. The moment he was on the other side, he dropped his arm, let go of his hold on the rose-haired maiden's hand, then bellowed out a roar as fierce as any attributed to his nickname. “Enough!”
All eyes turned to the furious chieftain, the Nemuro prince halting in mid-swing. Kozue remained looking utterly distressed, while next to her stood Mamiya, the pretty squire appearing downright frightened by the sudden appearance of the Kiryuu prince. And in the abrupt stillness of the moment came more sounds: shouts of alarm from others nearby.
Stepping forward to stand at Touga's side, Utena looked around the clearing as the Kaoru chieftain--accompanied by a large number of the household guard--came running into secluded spot in the garden. In a matter of seconds, all of them there were surrounded, the grizzled veteran walking forward to assume command only to have his obviously upset and weeping daughter throw herself at him and hug him tightly. “Thank goodness you're here, Father! I was so scared!” Kozue sobbed, pressing her face against her sire's torso.
“What in God's name is going on?” the Kaoru ruler demanded, his furious gaze sweeping over the group of nobles gathered there within his night-cloaked garden.
“H--he tried to ravish me, Father,” the blue-haired girl cried, still clinging to her parent's clothing.
“That's a lie!” Saionji protested, his shock at the whole matter swiftly turning to a well-concealed feeling of horror. “Lady Kozue!” he implored, purple eyes staring at the maiden.
Souji coolly pointed at the verdant-maned chieftain with his still-bared blade. “In searching for your daughter as you bade me, I came upon these two in this spot. She was struggling and calling out for assistance while Lord Kyouichi held her down against the bench.”
“She was with me willingly, and I didn't do anything she didn't want,” Saionji snapped in response.
“Do you deny the Honorable Shadow's words?” the older, azure-maned lord demanded, piercing sapphire gaze setting upon the miscreant. Thank Heaven that the Nemuro prince had come upon the scene when he had; though the custom of Hospitality had been breached, his daughter still retained her honor.
Saionji glared, getting the sense that he was as neatly trapped as an animal in a poacher's snare. “No, I cannot,” he finally snarled, his low voice somewhat subdued. “However, what Lord Souji saw wasn't what it seemed. So astonished was I at your daughter's abrupt denial at what she was enjoying only a moment before, I nearly took a tumble from the bench. I caught myself, and it was in such a manner that the Honorable Shadow discovered us. Nevertheless, I swear I made no attempt at all to force myself upon your daughter.”
Brow furrowed in puzzlement, Utena glanced up at the still-angry lord at her side. That Touga had yet to collaborate his foster brother's story left her feeling anxious and disappointed. So elegantly had he spoken before on the virtue of Justice; would he now not step forward to see to it that justice was properly served?
One look at his offspring's tear-stained cheeks and disheveled attire was all the Kaoru chieftain needed to make up his mind. “A likely story, Lord Kyouichi,” he growled, eyes blazing with hatred. “How dare you come under my roof and then behave in such a dishonorable fashion, causing the peace of my hearth to be disturbed?”
Just as the grizzled veteran drew in a breath to further berate the green-haired nobleman, Touga's low voice cut through the tense silence. “Before you continue in your hasty condemnation of the Saionji prince, my lord, let me just state the truth: your daughter is a liar, and a deceitful wench of loose morals.”
Nearly everyone surrounding the scarlet-maned ruler drew in a gasping breath, stunned by the prince's words. Kozue--who had retreated to a position behind her imposing sire--peered out from behind her shelter to give Touga a glare full of malice.
“How dare you insult my daughter so with such slander?” roared the older nobleman. At his furious words, a number of the household guard took a step closer, apparently quite willing to carry out any orders their lord may give.
“It's not slander when it's the truth,” Touga calmly responded. “Lady Utena and I were fortunate enough to see what happened, seeing how we were gazing at the stars on the other side of the hedge and heard some noise. Peering through the brush, we saw Lord Kyouichi and Lady Kozue there--and I can assure you, the lady was rather enjoying the attention she was receiving.”
“I was too scared to cry out, thinking I was all alone with that brute,” the Kaoru princess replied, making sure her voice retained the quaver of one still recovering from a close call with danger.
“And that's why you had your hands all over him, I'm sure,” the Red Tyger said in return. “Until the moment you realized someone was looking for you. Then you suddenly raised the hue and cry, claiming that you were being taken by force. Of course, you had just heard how much poorer Lord Kyouichi was than you had expected.”
“Well, of course you'd come to that lecher's defense,” Kozue huffed, still sheltered behind her father's body. “Everyone knows that he's your pet, that you took in your inferior and thought you could raise him to be an equal--”
“That will be enough of that,” Touga coldly said, his very tone enough to make everyone fall silent again. “I would defend the Devil himself in these circumstances. This has nothing to do with who Saionji is and everything to do with your treatment of him. The injustice is astounding, my lady.”
“You think it's injustice, Lord Touga?” the younger Kaoru twin challenged. “You think you know the truth? I dare you to prove it.”
For a tense moment, quiet reigned over the moonlit garden. Finally, the Kiryuu prince replied, “Very well. Tomorrow, when the sun is at its zenith, your champion and I shall meet in the fields outside of the keep. We shall let God decide the truth of the matter through the test of arms.”
“I shall champion the lady's honor,” said a voice. In the midst of the sudden eruption of murmurs, Souji stepped forward, dark brown eyes focused upon the redheaded prince.
“Already insisting upon your claim?” Saionji growled.
“A prudent matter, you must agree. After all, I do take care of my own,” the Honorable Shadow replied. “As standing in for the challenged, it becomes my right to set the terms.”
“Of course,” Touga smoothly acknowledged with a nod.
“Swords, on foot, no armor, until first blood,” the pink-haired prince said.
“Accepted. We shall meet at noon then to decide this matter.”
Utena swallowed hard, nervous for the gorgeous nobleman continuing to coolly stare at the seemingly emotionless Lord Souji. In order for justice to be served, he would have to win the challenge; should he prevail, then all would have to accept that he spoke the truth. Saionji would be exonerated, and Kozue would be rightfully scorned for her actions. And should he win the contest of arms, he would prove that he had a strong enough sense of Justice to be the champion she sought.
She just wasn't certain she could be that patient after all.