Update Nov 2019: It's been 5 years since I first started this story. I love it, but some things were bugging me. The premise is the same, but I've gone through and made some edits, mended some plot holes, and overall cleaned things up. I highly suggest starting from the beginning again.

This is going to be a story about princesses and princes. There will be balls and gowns and courtly manners. There might be damsels in distress and even a few sword fights or two. And, obviously, there will be Itasaku. You've been warned.


Act One

Chapter 1

A flower for you

Sakura was awake before the first fingers of dawn had crept over the horizon. She wasn't a morning person by nature. Years of discipline had ingrained themselves in her. She had no choice but to open her eyes when her internal clock demanded. The servant girls who were supposed to wait on her were missing. As usual.

The maids should have delivered breakfast, along with her clean clothes. They were meant to help her bathe, chattering and laughing quietly as they worked. Sakura would have indulged their light gossip and silly crushes.

Instead, Sakura heated the iron in her fireplace to press her clothes herself. She washed her hair and body in silence. And there were no extra hands fluttering to button her cuffs and smooth out wrinkles. A rooster screeched in the distance as she finished packing the rucksack sitting on the bed.

She pulled her hair back in a low ponytail with a simple silver clasp. A few quick flicks of her comb brought any stray bits into line. As she pulled her riding breeches on, Sakura paused. Her eyes flickered to the door, which she always left slightly cracked. She could hear footsteps tapping down the corridor. Yanking a knife from one of her many hiding places, she ducked behind the armoire. Slowing her breaths, counting the steps to determine how many people.

Two. Women, from how light each footfall was. But then she heard a voice.

"And then I heard Duke Hyuuga say, 'To see His Majesty so at ease in troubling times is comforting.'"

A high-pitched giggle answered. "How awful. What did His Majesty say?"

The first voice snickered, "He just thanked him."

The mocking went on as they traveled further down the hall. Sakura stood still until she was sure that they were gone. She considered, for a moment, chasing them down to scold them. Instead, she stepped into her boots. They were made of supple, tan leather that went up to her knees. She tugged the laces into place in sharp yanks before securing the knot. Years of practice made Sakura an expert in dealing with boots.

She tucked her leather gloves into the inner pocket of her coat. With a quick glance around the room, she slung her rucksack over one shoulder. Her eyes darted toward the door as she thought. Sakura sighed as she dropped her bag. She dug in the drawer of her desk to pull out all of the stationary there. While she hadn't written on any of it, she didn't want to risk anyone else using it. They burned quickly when she tossed them in the fireplace. She knocked on the inside of the drawer to open up the little secret compartment. She pulled out the bundle of letters she had saved inside. They were tied together with a piece of red ribbon. She stared at them for a long time before she pulled just the ribbon free. The rest of the pile went in the fire too. The edges of the envelopes glowing bright red before they began to turn black.

Sakura picked up her bag again. Her dark green cloak draped over her arm, the golden detailing along the collar knocking against the buckles of her bag. She glanced at the lightening horizon out the window before she hurried downstairs and through the courtyard to the stables. One of stable hands greeted her, informing her that her mount was waiting for her.

"Hey there, Kaze," Sakura whispered as she greeted the white stallion. She stroked the patch of light grey running down his muzzle. He snorted against the side of her throat in response. Laughing fondly, she gave the horse one last pat before she moved to check her gear. She stole looks around the courtyard as she secured buckles and straps. Like the servant girls, most of the stable hands who were supposed to be on duty were missing. They had likely snuck off to meet with a lover or were sleeping off a night at the tavern in the hay somewhere.

"Your friends must be tired," she commented to the one boy who was there. He gave a sheepish laugh, crumpling his hat in his hands.

As Sakura's eyes fell on him, she let her expression soften. "Their laziness is no fault of yours, Konohamaru. We could use more men like you," she added.

Konohamaru lifted his chin. "Men?" he repeated.

"Take care of yourself," Sakura replied as she mounted Kaze. He fumbled as she tossed something in his direction. A small pouch landed in his hands. Metal clinked together inside. Konohamaru's eyes widened as he peeked inside. Even in the dark, he could see dozens of coins glinting inside. When he looked back up, Sakura offered him a smile. She received a crooked salute in return when she took up the reins. As she galloped off through the main gate, Sakura barely glanced back at the stone fortress of a castle she called home for half the year.

It was only two hours later that the rest of the castle really came to life.

The servants, who had risen around dawn as well, had set to stoking the fires in the kitchen. The smell of baking bread mingled with the lingering sweetness of morning dew. Smoke began to rise from the chimneys, signaling the weary night guards that it was time for a shift change. The girls set out sweeping the stone floors and delivering breakfast to the rousing nobles.

"I thought you were going on about not letting a young lady travel alone last night," Kushina remarked as she followed Naruto out into the courtyard. She fussed with his travel cloak and tried to smooth out the wild mess of gold on his head.

"I tried to wake up early but she was gone before the sun was even up all the way," pouted Naruto in response.

"Well, I suppose I should be more worried about you, then. Thank goodness Sir Sai is going with you," sighed Kushina. Naruto's face split into a grin. He thumped himself on the chest once.

"I'll be fine. We should be there in about two weeks. The raids have been taking place in the south so we'll be alright," Naruto assured his mother. He hugged her and accepted the kiss on his forehead without complaint. The carriage pulled up, Sai riding alongside it on his own brown mare. Sai bowed deeply, his right fist over his heart.

"Sir Sai, I'm entrusting you with my son. Please watch over him. His Majesty also sends his thanks," Kushina said.

"Anything for my king and queen. We will send word when we have arrived safely at the castle, Your Majesty," answered Sai. Kushina nodded. Rewrapping her shawl around herself, Kushina watched Naruto get into the carriage. All his luggage was secured to the top and Sai tugged on the ropes to make sure they were tied properly. Sai bowed again before he moved to speak to the driver. Naruto's head popped out the window.

"Don't look so worried, Mother. Everything's going to be great," Naruto assured her with a winning smile.

Even so, Kushina's gaze chased them as the horses galloped over the drawbridge.

"I wish she would have gone with him. I would feel so much better," she sighed to herself. Shaking her head, Kushina turned to walk back into the castle. It was time for breakfast anyway.

The forest floor was dappled with sunlight. It was several degrees cooler here, where the light only touched down in sporadic bursts. She wrapped her dark green cloak around her shoulders, glad for the added warmth. Her gloved hand rubbed the side of her horse's neck before tightening on the reins again. Uttering a soft encouragement under her breath, she urged the steed on.

Leaves and brush crunched under hooves. The huffs of the horse's breaths slipped into her ears. Birds chirped warningly as the rider passed through nesting grounds. Their shrill threats followed the intruders long after they had gone.

They paused after a few hours for a short meal and a break. Sakura slipped the bridle from Kaze's mouth to offer him an apple from her bag along with a handful of oats. She left him to shake out his mane and root for more food on the ground while she drank water and munched on some dried meat. Several minutes later, she led the horse to the stream to drink before she was back in the saddle and they were traveling through the undergrowth again.

When the sun began to droop in the sky, Sakura kept her eyes sharp, searching for a place to stay for the night. If she had stayed on the main road, there would have been plenty of inns. But the twisting, winding chaos of the main road meant losing time. She had chosen to cut straight through the forest and there were always consequences for avoiding civilization.

"What do you think about there, Kaze?" Sakura murmured when she noticed a gap in the stone of the cliffs stretching up alongside the river. It was far enough from any roads not to be noticed right away. Kaze trotted over, snuffling and ears flat to his head as he looked for danger. Chuckling, Sakura dismounted and then patted the horse's side a couple times.

"Big baby. Stay here. I'll go take a look," she whispered. Kaze obediently stayed back while Sakura slipped through the thick brush. A few thin branches whipped her as she marched through but she ignored the pain and kept going. At the mouth of the low cave, Sakura peered inside but it was too dark to really get a good look. So she picked up a stone from the ground and flung it at an angle. She listened to it bang against the walls and the faint sparks from rock striking rock gave just enough illumination to confirm that though the cave was quite shallow, it was also uninhabited.

Sakura crunched back through the brush to grasp Kaze's reins.

"Come on. It's fine," she assured the steed in a low, soothing voice as she led it through the trees. And though he didn't follow along gladly, he followed without resisting too much.

Sakura tossed her rucksack into the cave, just at the entrance so she could keep an eye on it while she took off the saddle and thick blanket underneath from Kaze's back. She brushed his back and sides in quick movements before ruffling his mane.

"There. Feeling better?" she asked. Kaze tossed his head, nickering happily in response.

She ripped off the lower branches from some trees to build a fire. The hard wood gave off little smoke and eventually she let it die down into glowing coals that would provide warmth but not fill up the cave with burning fumes.

Sakura sat next to the fire with a thick flannel blanket wrapped around her shoulders as she soaked up what heat she could from the smoldering wood. Kaze paced around a little in the cave, ears pricked up for any threatening noises until he seemed satisfied. When he had deemed everything safe, he settled down on the stone floor behind her. Curling up around her back, he rested his head in her lap while wrapping her in his warmth.

"You're such a mother hen," Sakura murmured fondly as she patted his neck until he fell asleep. She stayed awake for another hour or so, tossing in a couple thick chunks of wood and stoking the coals with a branch. And then she was dozing off too, one ear carefully keeping track of the sounds of the sleeping forest.

They journeyed this way for another five days. With dawn, they rose. Kaze ate breakfast while she prepared his gear and checked that she had everything. And Kaze kicked dirt over the previous night's campfire while Sakura ate hers. They moved swiftly and quietly through the forest. A couple times, they ran into rabbits and pheasants running around in the undergrowth. Sakura managed to get her bow and arrows out in time to shoot at them a few times. Once, she hit her mark, and she roasted up the bird for her dinner over the fire.

"When we get there, I won't be able to eat like this anymore. I miss traveling. Didn't you love those berries we found when we went up to the northern badlands?" commented Sakura. Kaze's big, soulful eyes were focused on her but she knew he couldn't actually understand her. Still, his neighing and snorting in response to the rises and falls in her the pitch of her voice made her feel well-listened-to. She smiled at her trusted companion.

Kaze had been bred from the best and she had fallen in love with the spirited foal upon first sight. She had spent many hours brushing his silky mane and whispering her secrets to him. It hadn't been uncommon for servants to find her sleeping in his stable with him, curled up against his warmth. When she had left for the military academy at 12, the not-quite adult horse had gone with her. They matured together, with Sakura graduating at 16 and Kaze a full-grown stallion by then.

"Maybe we should run away together- just you and me. I could dye my hair. We could work as mercenaries," Sakura suggested. Kaze's answering snort of breath sounded disapproving.

"No? Maybe we'll be bodyguards then? A slightly more moral line of work. Or we could buy a little land and farm and I'll feed you all the carrots in the world," she went on. At the word 'carrots', his ears flicked up and Sakura laughed. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out one of the orange vegetables and fed it to him. She could practically see the pleasure glittering in his gaze.

"Just between you and me, I am not looking forward to this all. Dancing like a monkey for all these nobles is probably worse than that time we fought off those raiders at the mountain pass last year," added Sakura in a more morose tone. Crunching away happily, Kaze nickered. Sakura's smile returned.

"You're right. The little pleasures. It's the little pleasures that count," she sighed, reaching out to stroke his neck.

They caught sight of white towers a little after a week after they left home. Emerging from the forest, they stood at the edge to survey the large castle shining proudly. But the castle was on the top of a large mountain so it would take at least another day to reach the top. At the foot of the mountain sat a clear lake edged with dark pines. Sakura glanced westward. The sky was already beginning to turn darker blue. Soon it would bleed red and purple and gold before night fell completely. Not a good time to start a trek up a mountain at all.

"Let's camp here for the night. Help me catch something for dinner?" Sakura said, patting Kaze's neck. She still had plenty of dried fruits and hearty loaves of dark bread that would easily last for the rest of the voyage. But the bread was chewy and tough and it had been a couple days since the pheasant. Reaching back, Sakura wrapped her fingers around her bow. Then she pulled an arrow from the quiver on her back, rubbing the feather on the end to make sure it wasn't bent.

It took half an hour to catch a rabbit. The arrow hit it directly in the eye, killing it instantly. Sakura dangled it by the ears with one hand to steer Kaze with the other. They circled the lake once before coming to rest in the shadow of the mountain. With the solid wall of rock up behind them, Kaze seemed much more at ease. As soon as Sakura pulled off his saddle and the rest of gear, the horse went to drink water and graze at the sweet grass. Sakura set up camp, gathering firewood and setting up a couple traps before she went to the lake to skin and clean the rabbit.

"You know, Kaze," Sakura called out. She heard the horse grunt in response. Her knife moved, deftly cutting into the fur until she pulled away the skin in one layer.

"I changed my mind again. We should be shepherds. You like sheep, right?" she said. Kaze snorted. Laughing, Sakura split the belly of the rabbit. She pulled out the organs, dropping them into the lake where fish swarmed to feed on the unexpected bounty. She quartered it and separated the flesh into neat parcels. Spearing them onto sharpened sticks, she roasted the rabbit over the fire, ripping into the juicy flesh with her bare fingers while the meat still steamed. Kaze kept his distance while she ate. He didn't like the smell of dead animals. But once she was finished eating and disposed of the rest of the rabbit in the lake where the fish would take care of everything, Kaze cantered back.

"When we arrive at the castle, you'll be stuck in the stables all day and I'll be trapped in court. We should enjoy this while we can," she sighed. She fell onto her back, lolling lazily in the cool grass. Kaze prodded and nudged her until Sakura finally got up and followed him back to camp. The horse promptly deposited his head in her lap and slept. Sakura stayed up to stare into the flames. When her eyelids began to droop, she let her head loll back against the stone wall and fell into dreams too.

When she woke in the morning, Sakura dove into the cold lake, scattering the fish. She worked her fingers through her hair and scrubbed the dirt from underneath her fingernails. Swearing and shivering, she worked as fast as she could. Skin tingling and clean, she hauled herself out of the water. Wringing all the water out of her hair was the hardest part. She dried herself off, put on the fresh, clean white uniform buried deep in her rucksack, and spent several minutes brushing Kaze and plaiting his mane.

Then they headed up the mountain in a brisk trot. Sakura's thighs tightened around Kaze's sides as she stared up at the gleaming palace. Kaze felt this change and let out a low noise of anxiety too. Eyes widening, Sakura turned her gaze back to him.

"Don't worry. You have nothing to fear," she murmured in a low voice as she stroked his neck.

"It's me that should be worried," she added in a mutter.

They rode on in silence until the dirt road suddenly became a path of light grey cobblestones. Kaze felt the change under his hooves and his pace slowed into a more refined trot. The mountain was so steep that instead of having one straight yet impossible path up, the road was carved into the side of the mountain, spiraling upwards. On the final rotation around the mountain, Sakura caught sight of the beautifully gleaming stone sides of the Ispolin Castle that all the nobles fawned over. It was the home of the royal family of the Mountain Kingdom.

There was a large iron gate surrounding the grounds. But beyond the bars Sakura could see well-manicured lawns and a large stone fountain with statues of cherubs squirting water from their mouths. The topiaries were carved into shapes of animals- not a single leaf out of place. And the fountain glistened as if it had been built that same day.

The huge glass windows of the palace sparkled in the late morning sun. Sakura's eyes trailed over the details of the molding and the delicate green vines that draped across the balconies. The front entrance was a massive affair completed by two stone pillars and some sort of relief carving above the doors themselves that were too far away to make out clearly. Sakura tried to count the windows to get an estimate of just how large the place was but she couldn't guess how far back the building stretched. She slowed as she spotted two guards flanking the large front gate. Twin statues of birds loomed above the men.

"Good morning, gentlemen," Sakura called out. Kaze came to a halt.

"Greetings, traveller. What business do you have at Cherny Castle today?" one of the guards answered. Sakura could feel them eying the sword attached to her belt. She urged Kaze forward a couple steps so she could hand one of the guards a leather billfold tied shut with a length of black cord. He fumbled to untie the knot and then spent a long time examining the bright red wax seal gracing the front of the papers. Still, she waited patiently as they looked over her documents.

"Huh, Forest Kingdom, is it?" he finally read out loud. Sakura graciously dipped her head.

And then they flipped to the back of the page to read her title. Along with the stamp she had placed there with her signet ring.

"We had no idea we were addressing such a decorated figure. Our apologies, General," the other guard quickly said with a bow. His companion rushed to do the same.

"At ease, gentlemen," she answered with a cool smile. The two guards proceeded to open up the gates for her. The billfold was returned to her with shaking hands. Without waiting for any other words, Sakura clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Kaze headed forward in a crisp trot accompanied by a proud toss of his head. They followed the road between lines of shrubbery and stone sculptures before it curved around the big fountain she had seen earlier. There were already people waiting for her by the front steps leading up to the palace.

"Good morning, General. I trust that your trip here was pleasant," one of the people in the greeting party gushed.

"The weather was indeed fine for travel. Might I meet with His Majesty soon?" Sakura said as she dismounted. Kaze nuzzled against her throat, earning a light push.

"Behave," she chastised. There was already a servant on hand who stepped forward to take Kaze's reins. Another servant took Sakura's bag, trying his best not to wince at how unexpectedly heavy it was.

"Oh, of course. His Majesty has been awaiting your arrival," another chirruped, as she motioned toward the door. Sakura was escorted quickly and cheerfully by her entourage to the throne room. They stopped outside where the servant at the door snootily asked for her name and title. And when it was given, he promptly attempted to cover up his chagrin with a small cough.

"The Esteemed King of the Divine Mountain Kingdom, His Most Gracious Majesty Fugaku Uchiha," a booming voice announced. Sakura adjusted the sword hanging at her hip and began taking brisk strides into the room. She stopped at the appropriate distance without looking up at the throne and instead swept herself down in a deep bow. It was a graceful pose, falling to her left knee as her right fist moved over her heart. She kept her head lowered for a long time.

"Your Majesty, this is General Haruno of the Forest Kingdom," the voice added in a much softer tone.

"Please rise, General. There is no need for you to kneel," the King stated. His voice was unexpectedly warm. As Sakura rose to her full height, she folded her arms behind her. Back straight and feet together, she finally looked at the man who sat on the throne of the mighty Mountain Kingdom.

He had a hardened face. If she had to link him to a season, it would have been winter. His expression was one that had weathered many cold storms. The set of his mouth was stern and his dark eyes were lined. His dark brown hair was parted neatly in the center and fell just past his chin. But the crown on his head was of finely crafted white gold and glittering gems. His clothes too were of beautifully woven fabric with intricate details. He was all black against silvery tassels and brocade. The hands resting on the arms of the throne had silver rings fitted with dark blue gems to echo the colors of the family coat of arms.

To his left sat the queen. Her long black hair flecked with hints of gray fell to her waist. With her pointed chin and black eyes, she almost would have looked like a marble statue. But the gentleness of her smile softened her entire face. Her attire was simple and elegant. A dark gray and navy dress along with a fur-lined cape. The only pieces of jewelry she wore were a delicate silver chain around her neck and a shiny diamond ring on her right hand.

"Welcome to our land. We had just received word of your expedited arrival," the queen uttered in a voice like warmed honey. Sakura bowed her head respectfully in the woman's direction. As she did, she noticed a piece of paper held in the queen's delicate hand. The red wax seal was broken and Sakura had no doubt that it was from her own country. Judging from the laughter hiding the queen's eyes, the "word of her expedited arrival" had arrived not too long ago.

"It is an honor, Your Majesties. I have heard many things of the Great Iron Kingdom of the North," answered Sakura as she returned the pleasantries. She could see the king and queen exchange approving looks.

"Our annual summer festival will be upon us soon and we would be pleased if you would stay as our guest of honor during this time," the king continued.

"I could think of no greater pleasure, Your Majesty," replied Sakura.

"We have arranged for your own apartment in the western wing of the castle. And our son, Prince Sasuke, has volunteered to be your guide." As the king spoke, one of the noblemen who had been standing near the throne suddenly took a few steps forward. He dipped his head.

"Baron Uchiha will escort you to meet him," the king added.

"Shisui is fine, General," Shisui said.

"My Lord," Sakura replied with the same courtesy.

After bowing again to the king and queen, Sakura took her leave from the throne room, Shisui on her heels. As soon as they were past the large wooden doors, Sakura took a moment. She pretended to fix her clothes, but she used this time to glance over her companion. Faces mattered to Sakura. They said a lot about the person they were attached to. And Sakura was going nowhere without getting a good look at the person who was going to lead her around this strange place. He had a rounder chin and wider cheekbones but the same dark hair and dark eyes that seemed to run in the Uchiha blood. He wore a ring on his right hand, just like the queen did. She wondered whether that was a privilege of the ruling family.

"Would it be in poor taste to ask about Prince Sasuke? I can't say that I've ever had the pleasure of his acquaintance," she asked.

Shisui offered a polite smile as he gestured toward the hall. They began walking.

"My cousin Prince Sasuke is quite a lady-killer. I would advise you not to fall too hard for him. You wouldn't be the first beautiful woman to be sent off in tears," Shisui warned her as they turned a sharp corner and went up a sweeping flight of stairs. Sakura was a little distracted by the dazzling chandeliers dangling from the high ceilings. Even the ceilings were edged with gold and intricate designs of flowers and leaves. Still, she found the time to scoff at the idea.

"Your concern is appreciated, but quite unnecessary," she replied, the corner of her mouth rising.

She caught the searching look he cast her. "Perhaps your interests lie elsewhere?" he probed.

She smiled, but it was a flash of fangs as she turned her head toward him. "Yes. On the battlefield," she retorted.

He flinched away from her gaze. But he pretended to be busy rubbing his chin.

"You look curious. Perhaps you have another question?" Sakura offered.

"Is General the title you prefer or has it been….pressed upon you?" Shisui wondered. The sharp smile faded from her face. She ran her tongue along the backs of her teeth as she took that in.

"If you're asking something like that, I'm guessing that you already know the answer, My Lord," was all she said in return. The silence that settled over them was stifling. Shisui's eyes darted around from the floor to the ceiling. Anywhere but her. And Sakura kept walking, her high and her back straight as she took in the beauty of the building.

"The third door on the left, Your- General," Shisui announced as they came to a stop in a long hallway. They bowed to one another before Sakura entered the indicated room. He lowered his head deeper than hers, lingering for a bit longer than necessary. By the time he lifted his head, she had already slipped into the indicated room.

It was a salon furnished with couches and armchairs. The bright pink flowers arranged in the urns gave off a sweet scent that was almost cloying. On the coffee table was a silver tray that held a small teapot with two matching teacups. There was also a round dish filled with cakes. Watching the steam rise from the spout of the pot, Sakura guessed that the tray had been set out no more than a few minutes ago. She silently admired the efficiency of the person who had made it happen.

But as she stood there, waiting, the strong fragrance of flowers began to make her head hurt. Rather than sit and wait for a migraine to build up, Sakura looked around until she noticed that the tall windows on the opposite end of the room were actually doors leading out to the balcony. When she touched the handle, she found that it was unlocked. She slipped through the doors, leaving them ajar as she leaned against the stone railing.

Sakura sucked in a deep breath of the fresh morning air.

She waited there as she admired the beauty of the palace grounds. The clean mountain air was a welcome change from the damp, musty odor of the city. As her eyes fluttered shut, she heard a firm knock on the door. The curtains blew in the draft as the doors opened. She heard footsteps enter the room and then hesitate for several seconds. She waited for him to notice the opened door and fluttering fabric.

"I'm Prince Sasuke of the Mountain Kingdom," he called out without moving towards her. Sakura didn't respond. Only then did she listen to him draw closer. There was another pause before he pushed past the curtains to join her on the balcony. Sakura's lips tilted in a slightly arrogant smile as she watched him. She couldn't wait to see what this supposed heartthrob had to say.

Prince Sasuke was tall and handsome, as rumors had indicated even back home. He had coal-colored hair with bangs falling into his eyes. His eyes were almost dark enough to be called black. A pointed chin and a straight nose added to the impression of nobility ingrained into his very face. His high-collared vest was dark blue with silver piping and matching silver buttons. Underneath, he wore a white shirt with the sleeves folded once to expose his gloved hands. The supple leather of his boots identified them easily as meant for riding rather than walking long distances.

Just as she scrutinized him, she could feel him doing the same. Especially the way his gaze lingered on the blade hanging from her belt. And the medals glittering on the front of her uniform.

"Did I interrupt a riding lesson? My apologies," Sakura said. She watched Sasuke's eyes widen. Just a bit before he controlled his expression again.

"Not a lesson. I usually ride my horse in the mornings," he answered. He hesitated for a moment and then added, "If you would like, you would be most welcome to join me in the future. It wouldn't do for us to be strangers if you'll be staying here for the season."

Sakura sighed.

"No need to be so polite with me. If it's an activity that you prefer for its solitude, it's best I don't intrude," Sakura said as she extended her hand. Sasuke took it, automatically raising it to his mouth to kiss. But Sakura gripped his hand, pulling it into a firm shake instead. His shoulders relaxed slightly as he took in her words. The tentative smile he gave her was surprisingly innocent.

"That's… quite a relief. I must confess that I had heard the rumors. But I was still expecting a giggling lady," Sasuke admitted. Sakura tried not to laugh at that. She pretended to cough as she concealed her smile behind her gloved hand.

"For a supposed lady-killer, you're quite rude, Prince Sasuke," Sakura noted. She watched the tips of Sasuke's ears turn red as he realized what his comment had sounded like. "You're lucky that I love candor."

"I…. uh… I beg your pardon. Would you still prefer to be called a lady?" he tried again. Sakura raised her eyebrows.

"I didn't run out on the battlefield and get myself stabbed dozens of times to be called 'a Lady', Prince," she replied, eyes narrowing.

Sasuke was quiet as he took that in. And then he replied: "Well… you could be. You'd just be a Lady with some stab wounds."

That took Sakura by surprise. She threw her head back and laughed. And when she did, Sasuke let out a deep sigh of relief.

"Well, Lady or General, I think I'm just grateful you're not another woman on the prowl for a husband," he finally decided as he extended his hand to her. Sakura fixed him with another smirk.

"No offense to you, Prince, but you're not my type at all," she responded, still laughing. And when she caught her breath, she scrutinized him, chin in her hand.

"But I like you, Prince. Let's be good friends," she declared.

Eyebrows rose when everyone in the palace began to notice Prince Sasuke's behavior around the visiting noble. There was nothing improper about his conduct. Rather, he was a perfect gentleman as he escorted her around the enormous building. This in itself was a vast departure from the way that he normally sent noble ladies crying all the way home.

They ate lunch together on the terrace in the back. Sakura waved away the servants who tried to stand over them with parasols to shield her from the darkening rays of the sun. She directed them to Sasuke instead.

"I'm surprised," Sasuke commented. Sakura glanced up at him as she speared a cherry tomato on the end of her fork.

"Most women are obsessed with staying pale. We once had a countess stay for the weekend and she refused to leave her room during the day for fear of tanning," he elaborated. Sakura smiled.

"I think traveling on horseback for military campaigns doesn't leave a girl much choice in the matter of fair skin," she answered. There was an awkward pause.

"My apologies. I didn't mean to critique your appearance," Sasuke said. But Sakura shook her head.

"Being pale is the mark of a poor leader. The man who sits in his tent gorging himself on wine is pasty and distant. It is the leader who rides with his men who is bronzed and beloved," recited Sakura as her gaze grew distant.

"Do you enjoy reciting poetry?" asked Sasuke. Sakura offered a cheeky smile as she squeezed another cherry tomato between her teeth. The fruit burst in her mouth, flooding it with sweet pulp and seeds.

"It's not poetry. My father used to say that to me," she corrected.

After lunch, Sasuke continued his tour of the palace. There were four floors along with three distinct sections of the castle. The western wing housed visiting nobles and their families. The eastern wing was comprised of mainly the apartments for the royal family and closest friends. The central wing connected the two sections and this was where the public rooms such as the libraries, ballrooms, and dining halls were. There was another section of the palace- a smaller building in the back that seemed to sit alone as an annex.

Sasuke pointed to it as they looked out the window on the second floor.

"That's the servants' quarters," explained Sasuke. Sakura tried not to look so surprised. But the servants' quarters matched the rest of the palace with its white walls and shining blue roof. On the stone chimney sat two young boys covered in soot. This place even employed chimney sweeps for the servants. It was strange to see the servants' quarters being maintained so carefully. Had Sasuke not explained, she would have assumed that it was a residence for the branch family or visiting dignitaries.

Sakura thought back to the servants' quarters in the castle in her own country. They were always buried in the basement of the fortress. As a child, she had spent countless hours sneaking around the cool halls. The flickering torchlight warped and elongated her shadows. Equal parts nervous and excited, she squeezed her damp palm around her cousin's. And Sasori looked back at her for a brief instant to give her a reassuring smile. They snuck around the skirts of the scullery maids and chefs. As they weaved their way through the loud clamor of the kitchen, they snuck pastries hot from the oven that had been left to cool on the counters. The flaky treats burnt their tongues with the taste of butter as they gobbled them down. And if some of the kinder maids found them, they would sneak them small cups of watered-down wine before shooing them off.

The rest of the tunnels were dark and damp- some even had moss or thick lines of ivy burrowing between the stones. Rats squeaked by and Sakura tried her best not to squeal whenever Sasori kicked one aside. But the game was too fun to stop. And by the time they reached the rooms where the servant girls slept, their eyes were accustomed to the dark. Together Sakura and Sasori ran their hands over straw-filled mattresses and shushed each other as they ducked into corners whenever someone walked past.

When they were finally caught, they fled, giggling as someone's scolding echoed down the halls. And then they would run all the way up to the courtyard with their hands linked as they weaved past donkeys carrying sacks of flour and stable boys leading horses by their reins. Only when they reached the safety of her room did they collapse into laughter with their hands still clasped together.

When Sakura felt Sasuke's stare on the side of her face, she realized that she had zoned out. Clearing her throat, she took a step away from the window.

"Shall we continue?" she suggested. Sasuke studied her expression for a moment before he nodded, obviously too polite to press her.

As they walked on through the palace, Sakura caught Sasuke's gaze flickering down to her hip more than once. When she rested her hand on the hilt, Sasuke smiled.

"Careful, Prince. You shouldn't covet another's weapon," teased Sakura.

"That doesn't look like it's just for decoration," he commented. It wasn't uncommon for military officers to have decorative swords on their person. But Sakura tilted her head to one side as she let her fingers slip off her weapon.

"I'm by no means the best swordfighter but I can hold my own," Sakura answered as vaguely as she could.

"Would you like to spar?" Sasuke offered.

Sakura arched an eyebrow as she took a step back from him.

"I thought you said you weren't so good with the sword," Sasuke said between pants. He rubbed his hand across his forehead. His palm came away wet with sweat. Sakura held her stance for an extra moment before she relaxed. Back straightening and legs coming together, she sheathed her blade. There were a few beads of sweat dotting her temples that she carelessly brushed away. But her chest rose and fell in big breaths too as she smiled at him.

"I'm not. But I did graduate from the military academy," she answered. Hands on her hips, she took a few deep breaths before tossing a smile his way.

"Best 3 out of 5?" suggested Sakura. Sasuke shook his head.

"I don't think I'd last another two rounds. You win," he puffed.

Despite trouncing Sasuke soundly, Sakura didn't rub her victory in his face. And in return, the prince didn't seem to carry any bitterness about being defeated by a woman. They handed off their practice weapons to the waiting servants and headed back into the palace together. Sakura was certain that there had been curious faces watching them from the windows but didn't say anything about them.

Sasuke finally showed her to her apartment again in the western wing.

"We'll wash up and meet in the library in an hour? I think we might have some books that might interest you," he said. Sakura agreed. Sasuke departed while Sakura retreated past the double doors and closed them behind her.

The royal family had very obviously given her one of the finer apartments in the palace. Sakura walked around once, counting the rooms. There was a large bedroom along with a private bathroom. At the back of the apartment were two smaller bedrooms. Through a set of glass-paneled doors was a large sitting room that included a large piano and a view of the sprawling palace grounds in the back. Standing at one of the windows, Sakura looked outside for a moment. Then, shaking her head, she shut the curtain and turned on her heel.

As she stood in the bedroom unbuttoning her uniform, there was a knock on the door. After a pause, the door opened and Sakura could hear footsteps. They were women's shoes, judging from the tap of heels in the marble entrance. Fingers pulling the tie out of her ponytail, Sakura opened the door to the bedroom to greet her unexpected visitor.

"Pardon the intrusion, Your Highness!" a voice squeaked before she had a chance to speak.

There was a girl standing there in the starched maid uniform. Her head of red hair was bowed low, staying that way for a long time before it dared to rise again. Sakura leaned against the doorframe as she waited for the girl to speak.

"I've been sent to serve as Your Highness' personal attendant during your stay," she chirruped. Sakura arched an eyebrow as she noticed the other person standing somewhat behind her. She was still bowing, long black hair covering her face.

"And you?" Sakura prompted.

"I am also here to serve Your Highness," she answered in a smooth, soft voice. A smile curled Sakura's lips.

"Very well. Your names?" Sakura went on.

"Moegi… Highness," the redhead immediately peeped in a shaky voice.

"Haku, Your Highness," the black-haired girl said afterward.

"I'd assume that the royal family would only send the finest staff so I'll expect you to carry out your jobs. I wake early in the morning so I'll need breakfast then. In exchange, I won't ask for you late at night. I don't have many clothes, but I do ask that you always keep my uniform clean and ironed. Do you understand?" she briskly stated. Both servants nodded with attentive gazes. Sakura's eyes lingered on Haku for a moment longer.

"Very well. Then would you mind taking my uniform to be cleaned?" Sakura said as she shed her jacket and handed it off to Haku.

"And would you mind running a bath for me please, Moegi?" requested Sakura of the other servant.

A little under an hour later, Sakura was clean. The vast array of soaps and fragranced oils provided for her had been a little overwhelming. With Moegi's help, Sakura decided that each day, she would pick a new scent until she had gone through the collection. With hair smelling like lavender, Sakura dressed in a simple dark blue shirt with long sleeves. On the bottom, she wore tan riding pants. When she pulled on her boots, Haku and Moegi exchanged quiet titters.

"What?" Sakura asked with a smile of her own. Moegi promptly blushed.

"Oh, my apologies, Highness. It's just that… you're much less intimidating out of uniform," the redhead admitted with a nervous giggle. Sakura shrugged.

"That makes sense. And if we will be together this season, you should know: I prefer General to Highness," she replied as she got to her feet.

"Of course, General. We will keep this in mind," Haku interceded with Moegi turned red from embarrassment again.

"I'm off. Prince Sasuke said to meet at the library. That's in the other wing, correct?" Sakura said as she made her way to the door. Moegi and Haku followed her.

"Yes, General. He most likely means the library on the third floor across from the small music room. Would you like us to escort you?" Haku said.

"I'll be fine," Sakura insisted.

"The library doors are just after the statue of the lion, General. You shouldn't have too much trouble finding them. Are you certain you wouldn't like an escort?" added Moegi. Thinking back to the servants back at her own castle who hardly even looked her in the face, Sakura smiled again.

"Thank you. I'm sure I'll manage," she said before she walked out of the apartment and into the hallway. Hands tucked into her back pockets, she backtracked the steps she and Sasuke had taken down the hall toward her apartment. When she found the right staircase, she climbed it up to the third floor. Taking a moment to reorient herself, she turned to the left, crossing through the central wing. When she reached the end of the incredibly long hallway, she took a sharp turn to the right and slowed her gait to look for the statue that Moegi had mentioned. Sakura passed a shining suit of armor and a statue of a mermaid before she found what she was looking for. The giant feline sat upright, eyes glaring ahead and teeth just slightly bared.

Without hesitation, she grasped the cold metal handle and pulled the door open. It swung soundlessly. But rather than unending rows of shelves, a foyer remarkably similar to that of her own apartment met her. Frowning, Sakura took a moment to glance back at the hallway. Perhaps there was another statue of a lion that she had missed.

"Hello? Is someone there?" a voice called from further in the apartment.

Sakura faced a real dilemma. Clearly, she had found the wrong room. Now did she ignore the voice and quietly sneak out and leave this person wondering what had happened? Or, taking the polite route, did she apologize and explain her mistake?

Heaving a sigh, Sakura let her sense of honor win out again. Stepping into the apartment, she let the door swing shut behind her.

"I beg forgiveness for my intrusion, but I was told that this was the library and… clearly, I'm mistaken," Sakura sheepishly said as she ventured forward.

"If you're lost then you must be our visiting noble," the voice chuckled in response. Curiosity overcame Sakura as she twisted the knob to open the door where her mysterious conversation partner was.

Tucked into the large four-poster bed was a man with dark hair and dark eyes. He was clearly an Uchiha, just from his appearance. And despite the warm weather, he was wearing a robe and an extra blanket had been draped across his lap. In his hands was a worn book. His thumb was tucked between the pages, as if marking his place. His face was pale and his features delicate, bordering almost on beautiful rather than handsome.

"You're the General I've been hearing about. Forgive me. I would stand to greet you but my physician has advised strongly against any activity," he said, gesturing to the rest of his body swathed in comforter. Unsure whether he was joking or not, Sakura settled for a polite smile.

"I'm the prince who doesn't leave his room, Itachi Uchiha," he added with a touch of humor.

"It's quite alright. It's a pleasure to meet you. General Sakura Haruno," Sakura replied as she extended her hand to him. They shook hands and she observed that he had a firm grip. She approved. A strong handshake was always a good indicator of personal character.

"Again, very sorry for intruding. I was supposed to meet with your brother at the library and apparently my sense of direction only applies to the outdoors," Sakura stated as she released his hand. Itachi's eyebrows rose the slightest bit when his brother came up but he didn't elaborate. Instead, he gestured to his left with his book.

"You were quite close. The library is just two doors down. I'm actually grateful you lost your way. I don't get many visitors," responded Itachi.

Sakura quickly excused herself and left his chambers. Sasuke met her at the library shortly after and they spent the rest of the afternoon touring other parts of the palace before having supper with the King and Queen. Sakura didn't bring up the absence of the other prince at the table but she did notice it. After supper was obligatory socializing with some of the other nobles. But throughout the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, she couldn't help but think back to the random and slightly embarrassing encounter she had had.

By the time she found an excuse to retire, it was much later than she would have liked. Sakura entered her apartment and simply stood in the foyer for a good minute, just taking a moment to breathe deeply. Someone had wound the grandfather clock standing beside the door. It ticked steadily, a metronome to keep the tempo as Sakura organized her thoughts. Her head still felt like a jumbled mess as she made her way to the bedroom and paused in the doorway.

She sat down at the desk. She shuffled through the fine stationary that had been left for her to use. Hefting the fountain pen in her fingers, she thought out what to write. After some hesitation, she lowered the nib to the paper.

Dear Sasori,

Lifting the pen, she paused for a moment.

Have you ever mistaken a bedroom for a library? Because apparently I'm the sort of fool who would do that.

A week later, more visitors passed through the front gates. Trumpets sounded to announce the royal guests. Partway down the mountain on horseback, Sakura and Sasuke yanked their reins, bringing their horses to a sudden stop. Kaze gave a little wheeze of irritation at the rough treatment and Sakura patted his neck in apology.

"That sounds like them," Sasuke said as he tried to catch his breath. He looked over at Sakura who simply nodded.

"We should head back to greet them," added Sasuke.

Expression determinedly neutral, Sakura clicked her tongue to urge Kaze forward. Sasuke followed, easily catching up to her. She could feel his eyes on her as they weaved their way through the forest. They had deviated from the path and let the horses naturally find their way back. Hands loosely holding the reins, Sakura let out a soft sigh. The sunlight slanted in through the branches, flecking the back of Kaze's neck in pools of shimmering gold.

"You look like you're riding out to battle," remarked Sasuke. She looked over at him and saw that he was joking. A smile curled her mouth too at his words.

"I'll have to assume that your relationship with your brother is less than ideal," Sasuke added. The smile immediately dropped. Her expression hardened as she directed her gaze ahead.

"He is not my brother. I have always been an only child," she responded with a steely edge to her voice. There was a long pause. Sasuke blew out a long breath, attracting her gaze again.

"Well… it seems like all the rumors that travel over the border aren't to be trusted," he decided. And then he added, "You may not believe me… but I think I understand. Family matters can be difficult." He cast his eyes up at the sky and then met her searching look. The way his mouth quirked up on just one side made his smile somehow sad. For a moment, Sakura somehow knew that he wasn't lying.

By the time they made it back to the palace half an hour later, they were laughing and joking again. They left their horses at the stables and weaved through the kitchens on the way back into the castle. Sasuke swiped a couple turnovers fresh from the oven. One of the chefs said something scolding as he glimpsed the theft. But then he laughed and waved them on. That one interaction filled Sakura with such a sudden wave of nostalgia that, for a moment, she felt sick to her stomach. But she had to pull herself together when Sasuke tossed her one. He popped the other in his mouth, immediately sucking in quick breaths as the hot pastry burnt his tongue. Sakura let hers cool a few extra moments before she wolfed it down too.

"Oh, this is amazing," she commented with approval.

"Apples. Do you have these in your country?" Sasuke asked her.

"Rarely. Sometimes dignitaries bring them as gifts. They're difficult to find," she replied before she took another bite. And then another. Sasuke simply smiled as he kept quiet- giving her time to eat.

"And this smell. I had no idea cinnamon could be used in a pastry like this," she went on. As she popped the last bit of the pastry into her mouth, she wrinkled her nose.

"On the other hand, you, my friend, smell absolutely atrocious," Sakura commented as they climbed the stairs together.

"You're no flower yourself. I suppose it would be most polite to wash up before greeting guests. But it would also be rude not to greet them quickly," he thought out loud.

"Simple. Greet guests from a distance and hope that your stench keeps them at bay if they try to kiss your ring," quipped Sakura. They chuckled as they pushed past the door and emerged in the first floor hallway.

"Ah, and there is young Prince Sasuke now with the Princess," one of the Uchiha nobles said as they rounded the corner. Sakura swallowed hard when she recognized the bright gold glow of Naruto's hair. She could feel Sasuke carefully measuring her expression so she let the cool veneer of slip into place. Back straightening and chest forward, she strode up to them.

"Your Highness, this is Prince Sasuke Uchiha of the Mountain Kingdom. Your Royal Highness, this is Prince Naruto Namikaze of the Forest Kingdom," the noble announced rather grandly.

"I believe that I've asked not to be called that, My Lord," Sakura interjected. She watched the man turn bright red as he took in her words. Snuffling behind his mustache, he quickly cleared his throat.

"Yes, of course. My mistake, General," he blurted out. But Sakura wasn't paying attention to him. Head tilting back, she turned to face Naruto.

"Sakura, you got here so much faster than we did. I'm glad you arrived safely," Naruto greeted her with a warm smile. But when he extended his arms for a hug, Sakura only dipped her head with her fist over her heart.

"Welcome, Prince Naruto. I am pleased to hear of your safe journey as well," Sakura answered in a crisp voice. When she rose again, she could see the disappointment shining in Naruto's eyes. His arms hung sadly for an extra moment before they slowly lowered. As she rolled her sleeves up, she noticed Sai standing a little ways back and acknowledged him with a nod. He seemed to hesitate for a moment. And then he bent his head in a grudging bow.

"I'm sure Prince Naruto and his party are tired after their travels. Please escort them to their rooms to rest. We can all get to know one another better over supper," Sasuke said to one of the waiting nobles. They bowed in response. Sasuke then glanced at Sakura who raised her eyebrows in response.

"And you, my friend, I will see you for supper as well. I should wash the stink of horse off me," added Sasuke. Sakura cracked a wry smile.

"I should do the same. We will meet again as civilized humans, I suppose," answered Sakura. Without another glance in the direction of her cousin, Sakura turned and strode off down the hall in the direction of the western wing. Sasuke walked off in the opposite direction to his own room in the eastern wing.

Climbing up to the third floor, Sakura didn't bother to call for her servants to bathe. It wasn't long until supper would be served and she didn't want to interrupt what little time they had to eat before the scramble to serve the nobility. So she took a shower, scrubbing herself with the assortment of fragranced soaps and oils provided. And then she stood in front of the mirror running a comb through her long hair. She worked through each tangle with patience until her hair hung in a straight sheet down the side of her throat and over her chest.

When she opened the wardrobe, she found that her uniform had already been cleaned and placed inside. Even all the wrinkles had been neatly pressed out with an iron. Nodding approvingly at the diligence, she slipped into the crisp white blouse and folded the collar into place. She pulled on the tight white pants that, Sakura privately suspected, if she were to gain a few pounds, would no longer fit her. But for now, she buttoned the pants and they conformed perfectly to her legs. As she stood slipping cufflinks into her shirt, there was a knock on the door.

"General, may I enter?" Haku said after a moment.

"Yes," Sakura replied. When the door opened, Haku immediately averted her eyes. She held out something to her with both hands. Sakura reached out and took what turned out to be an envelope with a seal pressed into the wax.

"Prince Naruto requested that I deliver this to you. He said it was from your friend, General," Haku explained. But as soon as Sakura flipped the envelope over, she saw the bright seal holding the flap down. The shape of a boar was stamped into the red wax. With a sigh, she read the letter inside.

Dear Sakura,

I'm a little insulted you wouldn't stop by for tea before leaving, but I also understand you have your own obligations. I'm entrusting this letter to the Prince and hope you'll be able to read it during your journey. Hopefully he won't drop it in mud or accidentally set it on fire or whatever other bumbling things he does.

I miss you, obviously. I've been spending time with a private tutor recently, though and that's been able to occupy some of my time. Father says that a young noble lady does not need to be so educated. But mother said that the lady of a household should be knowledgeable, so she settled the matter. I'm learning history and literature in the mornings. My music tutor comes after lunch and he tortures me with the harp and the flute for a few hours. I would beg father to fire him, but he's so pleasant to look at that I can't bring myself to.

I expect letters from you. Many letters. Tell me about the court there. And be sure to let me know if any dashing young man catches your eye. And if that dashing young man has a friend, be a darling and let me know as well. I suspect that cousin of yours will whine and moan about your absence until you return. Hopefully I'll become skilled enough at the harp to drown out some of it.

Your friend,


Laughing a little, Sakura refolded the letter and set it down on the desk. She resumed buttoning her cuffs as she turned back to the mirror. Haku hovered in the entrance.

"Should I assist you, General?" she offered. But Sakura glanced at her for a moment before she shook her head.

"I didn't have any servants in the military academy or on the battlefield. I'm used to doing this much on my own," Sakura replied. Nodding, Haku tried to divert her troubled gaze elsewhere. As she folded her hands in front of her, she drew Sakura's attention again. When Sakura pulled her jacket from the armoire, Haku moved to help her. She held the jacket, guiding Sakura's arms through the sleeves. Sakura's sharp eyes trailed over her as she fit the buttons through the matching holes.

"You seem a little young. Are your parents part of the castle staff?" asked Sakura as she picked up the gold epaulettes that attached to the shoulders of her uniform. Haku quickly grabbed them to fix them in place. Chuckling a little at the enthusiasm, Sakura moved on to the braided lengths of gold cord called the aiguillette. It hung from the end of her right epaulette and fastened to the first button of her uniform. It was actually three cords hung together, supposedly to support the three principals of Konoha's military: Discipline, honor, and pride, the instructor's at the academy always recited. Not that anyone in charge seemed to possess any of those traits.

"No, General. My parents passed away last year," Haku replied as she finished adjusting the epaulettes to hang straight. The golden fringes sparkled nicely against the starched white of the jacket.

"I'm sorry to hear that," said Sakura. Haku meekly bowed her head. She stood watching as Sakura brushed off the front of the uniform and then turned to look herself over in the mirror. Fingers tightening her ponytail, Sakura purposely kept her eyes trained on her reflection.

"Even so, I've been wondering about something. Would you mind if I asked you a question, Haku?" ventured Sakura. Haku's eyes widened.

"Of course not, General," she politely answered.

"How on earth did a boy come to disguise himself as a servant girl?" inquired Sakura.

Haku stood paralyzed while Sakura continued casually adjusting her hair and then her collar. With a nod, Sakura deemed herself satisfactory and then looked over her shoulder at Haku. The servant's dark eyes were wide and unmoving.

"Ah, that face tells me that I'm right. You wouldn't be very good at card games," observed Sakura. That seemed to jolt Haku out of the fright. Cheeks turning a deep shade of red, Haku gulped.

"Don't worry. It was out of personal curiosity that I asked. Your secret's safe with me," Sakura promised with a smile. Haku only nodded.

"That aside, let me know at once if a letter comes for me in the next day or so. I'm off to supper," she added. Clapping Haku once on the shoulder, Sakura flashed another smile before she strode past. The door swung shut after her and Haku stood still rooted in place. It would take a while for those feet frozen by terror to start working again.

And two days later, a letter did come for Sakura. A bird arrived with a letter, which Moegi brought to her, huffing and puffing.

"Whatever are you in such a rush for?" Sakura asked her as she watched Moegi struggle to catch her breath.

"Y-you said t-to-to bring your letter at...once…. General," Moegi gasped, still huffing and puffing. Sakura shook her head, half-impressed and half-concerned. She made the girl sit and drink a glass of water as she tore the letter open.


I'm glad to hear of your safe arrival in the Mountain Kingdom. I must confess that I'm flattered you would think to write to me so quickly upon your arrival. And I apologize in delaying my letter to you. Things have been rather busy in your absence.

I'll imagine that your new friend must be handsome to have you so flustered upon first meeting. I'd encourage you to woo him so you can marry, but I fear I would grow too jealous and slay him- I don't think you would approve of that.

It's good that the Uchiha's have received you warmly. I imagine that your trip through the wilderness with your horse was nothing short of a magnificent playdate. You never were good at sitting still for too long. The royal family's relationship with the Uchiha's has been improving lately so I strongly urge you to secure favor with them. The King of the Mountain Kingdom is a strong ally but an even stronger enemy.

Mother visited Whitewave briefly last month. She had business nearby and dropped in to see how I was doing. She says all is well at home. My cousin Gaara is running things well. Mother says it was a good choice on your part to appoint him as your regent in your obsence. The gold coffers are full but not overflowing. Last year's yield was good and this year's crops seem to be growing well as well. The people are content. I'd almost think the peace to be boring if I didn't know what the opposite result was.

Court, I suspect, will be dull (though it is with or without you). I'm scheduled to return back to the capital once this affair is over. There, I assume, the Queen will invite me to another one of her dreadful tea parties and try to set me up with some airheaded girl. But with you gone, I suppose I can make an excuse about needing to return home to Plumeria to help care for affairs.

To be honest with you, Darling, I am a bit glad that you were able to get away from all of this for a bit. Consider this your moratorium and enjoy it while it lasts. I hear the summer season in the mountains is temperate and mild- just the way you like it. My only request is that you not return home some haggard, pale mountain-woman. That might break my heart a little.

All my love,


Sakura smiled as she read over the letter one more time. Sasori's sarcasm always managed to cheer her up.

By the time she had finished reading, Moegi looked much better. She had gotten to her feet and was busy fluffing the throw pillows on the couch.

"I'd like to write a response now. Would you bring it down for me in a little while?" Sakura requested. The girl nodded, her bangs bouncing across her forehead. She continued tidying up the rest of the apartment as Sakura sat at her desk to pen her response.

Just as she finished sealing her envelope in red wax, Sakura heard a knock on the door.

"Would you like to go visit the market? I've heard that the traveling performers there are very talented," Sasuke called out without bothering to enter. Sakura stamped her seal into the soft wax. She blew on it to cool it a little more before she handed it off to Moegi. As she opened the door, Sasuke, who had been leaning against it, stumbled inside one step before steadying himself.

"Off you go," she said. Moegi bowed to her, and then to Sasuke before she ran down the hallway.

"Would they have any seafood? I'm craving a good fish," said Sakura.

Sasuke made a face. "Well… river fish, they might have."

Sakura mirrored his expression. "Heavens, no, then."

Sasuke leaned against the door again as he watched Sakura backtrack. She closed the door to the bedroom. She double-checked to make sure that her sword was on her belt.

"Shall we go?" she then said.

Sasuke eyed her weapon. "What merchant are you planning to stab with that?" he wondered.

"What a novel idea. Forget haggling. Violence must be how people buy and sell in this country," she laughed in response. Sasuke snickered too at the absurdity of it all. He pushed off the door and made room for her to pass into the hallway.