A/N: This is another AU Genbu Kaiden story of mine. It's set ten years before Takiko's original time (1913 Japan), and features her and the seishi in very different roles. As a heads up, I've taken extreme license with the history and names of this period. Enjoy the meager beginnings of this (soon to be) Uruki/Takiko/Tomite triangle fic =).
Takiko hurried through crowded streets. The waning light of evening covered everything in a blanket of bleached grey. Her elbows and hips pushed past beleaguered women touting dirty children and men reeking from drink. Grumbles of annoyance rose in her wake. Takiko, knuckles tight around the handles of a borrowed bicycle, felt scowls burn her back. There was dirt in the streets. Swept in haphazard piles, it crunched under her feet. Stone and gravel jumped the lip of her sandals and dug in between her toes. She plodded ahead, moving against the evening masses returning from a long day at the docks and market.
Above the sea of heads, a castle emerged in the growing shadows. She quickened her steps. The bicycle bounced among small stones, becoming unwieldy at her side. Its front bumped a tall, armored man with long, swept back hair. He wore a strange, round-bladed weapon at his hip. The girl cursed and drew back.
The man turned. "It's alright," he offered a smile.
"Excuse me," she started to maneuver around him. Her front tire ran over his foot.
"Hey, ouch!" He leapt back. "I'm still here!"
"Sorry," she pushed apology into her face for a moment. "I'm not used to steering this thing," she added a sheepish note to her voice, just enough to appease. Gesturing with her chin to the bicycle, she shook her head to share her exasperation.
The man's smile fell. His gaze didn't leave her face. He swallowed none of her carefully measured reaction.
Takiko felt his eyes weigh hers. She let the apology leave her features. "I'll be on my way then," she started to side-step him.
"Actually I need your help," he put a hand out to stop her.
She paused. "I said I was sorry."
The smile he gave wasn't like the first. It matched her calculation and fakeness. "Hear me out. I'm a little lost," he poured charm into his words. "Could you help? I'll forgive the running-into-and-over."
Takiko could hear the different quality of his voice. Had she been like that? Was he making fun of her? She took in the splayed palm barring her passage. The round-bladed weapon hung off his opposite hip.
"I'm late stranger," she said curtly. "I can't help you. Move."
"Can't, or won't?" His smile faltered. Irritation flashed across his face.
Takiko didn't answer. She swung the bike around his outstretched arm.
The man frowned and reached for her wrist. "Are all women in this city so courteous?" The girl deftly avoided his reach. His hand grabbed air. "Hey," he stared at the space her arm had been.
"I wouldn't know," she continued walking. "This isn't my city."
The man recovered, striding to catch up. "Where're you going in such a hurry?"
Takiko's fingers circled the handles tighter. "Do men from your city think they're owed explanations?"
"When they're accosted by bicycles."
The dirt wedged in her toes was starting to itch. "Go away," she pushed the bike faster.
They were nearing the city's center and the bodies around them had grown to a horde. Takiko shouldered her way through, making it impossible for the man to stay beside her. She heard him swear through the din and a small smile stole her face. She glanced back. He was surrounded by men loaded with fish and lumber.
"Wait up," he called, dodging a mackerel tale sticking out from a high pile. "I need directions."
She turned back around and began walking.
She shoved the crowd with more fervor.
The man swore again and she listened as he continued to struggle. Takiko looked to the castle looming large and her satisfaction disappeared. Her mouth returned to a clenched line. She sped up.
Sounds of the man grew faint as she raced down the street. Her heart started pounding in her ears and its steady drum spurred her heels. She passed vendors, homes and refuse trenches. The crowd began to thin. Guards with swords and rifles started appearing every hundred feet. The first pair nodded as she passed; Takiko didn't acknowledge them. The piles of swept dirt grew tidier and mothers held the hands of cleaner children.
She had enough room to run, but refrained. Takiko continued passing the sentries, ignoring their bows of respect. She looked to the castle, no longer mere outline. It towered in daunting glory, a massive creature of white stone and sharp wood, draped in the start of shadows. She was close enough to see the rows of archers stationed along its wall and slowed under their wary gaze.
The last rays of day bled quickly and contours began to soften in the deep grey and purple of night. She walked past the last of the garbage and waste trenches, relieved when weapon stockpiles replaced them. She was getting close. Takiko glanced at one with several naginatas lying in wait. She could just make out small kegs of gunpowder set beside them in the strengthening night.
She knew she had reached the edge of the moat when a line of guards appeared, barring further travel. One held his hand up. "What's your purpose here?" He called out.
She stopped, feeling eyes of appraisement. "I need to speak with Lord Soruen."
The sentry left the line, shaking his head. "He's not taking villagers."
"He sent for me," she said coolly.
"Did he?" The guard crossed the distance between them. "And what makes you think—?" He was close enough to see her clearly. His eyes widened. "Lady Takiko!"
The remaining guards shared a look. All dropped to bent knees.
"My lady," the man joined them. He pressed his rifle to his chest. "I'm sorry. I didn't recognize you."
Takiko regarded him. "Best you remember my voice then."
He nodded vigorously. "Of course."
"Take this," she thrust the bicycle from her hip. He leapt to his feet and rushed to retrieve it. "And lower the bridge."
He turned quickly, calling orders over his shoulder. The groaning creak of heavy chains filled the air. Black shadow moved above their heads, growing large as it descended. Takiko watched impassively, letting the guard's further apologies fall into the background. His peers rose slowly, backing up to give her space. None met her eye.
The drawbridge kissed the bank with a shuddering thud. She started forward.
The guard cleared his throat, obviously hoping to correct his transgression. "Would you like an escort?" He fingered the bike uneasily.
"Do I need one?" Her eyes narrowed.
"No! I just thought—."
The man paled.
"Take care of that," Takiko motioned to the bicycle and strode into the castle yard. The city's banner hung overhead and she passed under it with purposeful steps. Her sandals sounded loud against the stone walls. Heads turned as she passed. Whispers followed her as she made her way through the dimly-lit center toward the main staircase. Guards stationed at the stairwell watched her progress and moved aside as she neared.
Takiko forced herself to take the steps one at a time, despite seeing the person waiting atop them. Her cold demeanor eased as she drew up to the figure. A tall, broad-shouldered man with blue hair and light eyes waited for her. He tugged on the corners of his yellow tunic trimmed in fur, flicking his gaze down in a moment of shyness.
A warm smiled graced Takiko's features.
The man felt it and looked up. "My lady," he bowed formally. The Soruen crest on his uniform seemed to move in the gas-lamp light. He held out the crook of his elbow. "You're late," the shyness vanished.
"Well aware," she took the arm he offered. "Your bike is a pain to steer."
His eyes laughed. "You're welcome."
They walked close together through a long hall leading away from the main courtyard. The air between them was not open to others.
"How was your trip?" He asked
"Long," Takiko pulled his elbow to her side. "Miss me?"
The man shrugged. "I suppose."
"Don't be horrible."
"You love it."
Passing dark stone walls wearing rich tapestries, the pair made their way around a corner, up another floor, and down a smaller hallway. This, like the others, was lit with gas lamps mounted at evenly-spaced intervals.
"When is Lord Soruen going to have electricity put in the castle?" Takiko frowned as a lamp up ahead sputtered. Its glass case wasn't fully fastened to the base.
The man's look turned reproving. "Just because you've gone out and seen all of Japan, doesn't mean we need to deal with your insufferable opinion Takiko. I hope you're not forgetting where you come from when you visit the likes of Kyoto."
"You are terrible tonight Tomite," Takiko reached over and ribbed his side with her free hand. "I know you need me to keep you in line, but a few days are hardly—."
"Few days?" He stopped. "You've been gone almost two weeks. I've been going crazy."
"So you have missed me!"
He slid his hand into hers and brought it to his chest. "Breathing is easier knowing the source of my oxygen has returned," he heaved a great sigh as proof.
Takiko's brow arched. "Being worried about my mission isn't a reason to make me feel bad," she resumed walking. "And that was a bit too sarcastic to be nice."
"Okay, okay," Tomite sighed. "You know, most girls find me charming."
"Who are most girls?" Warning flashed in her look.
"Essh, I'm joking."
"And in two years, what have I never let you joke about?"
He held up a hand, as if to tick off numerous items. Knuckles returned to his ribs.
"Ouch," he jumped back. "This is starting to feel like your foreplay."
"I'm going to kill you after I give this report."
Tomite grinned. "Can't wait."
They reached a small door, unassumingly nestled into the wall. Takiko knocked three times, pausing between the first and second. Rustling came from the other side and the door was drawn open. A sparse antechamber spread out before them, warm with the dancing orange of a large fire. A man, seated in a chair by the fire, stood as they entered. His long, lithe frame filled the room. Clasping his hands together, he smiled grimly.
Tomite released the girl and she crossed the room, bending down on one knee. The man regarded her and beckoned with a gentle hand. She stood.
"Welcome home Takiko," he said softly. "What news from Kyoto?"
"My lord," she kept her eyes downcast. "Tegiru continues to gain strength. He schemes to extend his influence as far north as Touran."
Soruen scoffed. "The emperor won't allow it. Tegiru still thinks himself nearly a daimyo."
Takiko shook her head. "The emperor's condition worsens by the day. Whispers in Kyoto say his mind is so afflicted, he relies completely on his advisors. They have enough overseeing all of Japan, to worry about a minor kazoku feud," she blushed. "Not that your reach is insubstantial my lord."
Soruen waved her away. "I've always wanted you to speak plainly Takiko," he eyed her. "Has being around so many gilded-tongues in the south made you forget?"
Her blush darkened. "No sir."
He motioned her to keep going
Takiko continued, citing names and places of known Tegiru allies. She spoke until the fire had burned down to near embers. Soruen's expression grew grave the longer he listened.
Tomite stood by the door, matching his lord's creased brow. Arms folded over his chest, he grit his teeth as Takiko mentioned an assassin Tegiru had hired. How had she learned of him? First-hand experience?
Worry filled him, and he knew he wouldn't be able to use playfulness to bat it away. She wouldn't stay in the city long. Soruen would send his best spy out again. Soon.