A/n Surprise! Betcha you didn't think I'd update so soon. I just happen to have this chapter mostly proofed. So I thought it would be nice to post it. Thank you for all the birthday wishes.

Chapter 27

They were expecting them. Dozens of soldiers lined the massive wooden drawbridge. Their bright red and gold enameled armor looked shiny and new compared to their own travel-worn guards. Nothing a good polish wouldn't fix. Kaoru looked up into the wide maze of towers, walkways, turrets, and endless staircases. The rock and bricks looked to be made of black and red lava rock. Speckled along the masonry were new brick and stones to replace those worn by time. Not a crack or a smoothed surface existed. Iron spikes studded the walls and gates. Nothing about the place looked weak or soft.

"Mishal!" Kenshin called out as he dismounted.

Kaoru looked over to see a rather large looking man in light armor and dressed in red and black.

"Lord, Kenshin. It's been a while." The pair of them took hold of each one's forearms and slapped each other on the shoulder.

Sano once again dismounted and came around to lift her off the horse. "You'd think he'd help his wife down for once." She muttered under her breath.

"Hush, Missy." Sano hissed back as he set her down and took his place at her side, one pace behind her.

Kaoru didn't see what he was having to prove by ignoring his wife. But it was all for show. She had to keep reminding herself of that fact.

"Take his side." Sano prompted in the barest of whispers.

Kaoru took a breath and smoothed down the front of her bodice before walking forward. Sano waited two more paces before following.

"This is Mishal Angi, The King's steward," Sano informed behind her before she reached the men.

Kenshin reached out and took her arm as if he saw her walking up behind him. "This is the Duchess Kaoru Himura."

"My God's man look at her." Mishal took her free hand and brought it to his lips. Kaoru took the moment to study the man. He was only slightly taller than Kenshin, but he was stout and well-muscled. His hair was sandy and short. His eyes were deep yellow, tinted almost to the point of starting to appear green. Under his short, well-trimmed beard was a strong jawline. Interestingly enough, the detail that caught her eyes the most was a small gold hoop with a red gem pierced into the top of his ear. He kissed her hand and then looked up at her as she took her hand back.

"I've never met a Water female before. A few men, yes, but she looks ethereal. How blue are those eyes?"

Kaoru wanted to look away, embarrassed that he was talking about her as if she wasn't in front of him, but she didn't and instead held her head high to let him have a good look at her.

"Lovely little thing you won yourself Himura. A bit too small in the hips for my taste but you two look good together."

"Kaoru, this is Mishal. Steward to the King. He's a very good friend of mine, helped train me when I was young."

Kaoru looked back at the man surprised. "It's nice to meet you, sir, excuse my surprise, but you hardly seem old enough to have taught a young Kenshin."

He grinned at her as if she amused him by talking. "I'm am in my fifth decade, but thank you, My Lady." He brushed his beard with two fingers.

"Fifty years old?" Kaoru gasped. Fires were not as long-lived as say, the Earth's, but they did live quite long. But even so, he hardly looked older than Kenshin.

He smiled again at her reaction. "Well, you're a sweet young thing."

Kaoru fought to keep from bristling. Did he have to talk to her like she was a five-year-old little girl in stockings and high skirts?

"Come, the King awaits you. I'll show you to your rooms so that you can change out of your traveling clothes."

The group of guards were led away to their own barracks while Sano, Jun, and her handmaidens followed the Steward through the great front doors and into the castle. The men were content to catch up, talking, and laughing. Kaoru went ignored, but she was fine with that. She was so distracted by the inside of the castle that she would have been horrible with any conversation.

She had noticed many windows from the outside, but inside it was almost as if there were more windows than stone holding up the castle. Great windows let sunlight pour into every corner of the castle. Even shafts of light filtered in from many stories above. Great red and gold rugs and tapestries glowed in the sun. As did the various paintings in gilded frames and gold leaf vases tucked away into inset nooks. Great arched doorways and hallways opened up to even brighter rooms that seemed to continue on forever. Mishal led them up a red-carpeted set of stairs wide enough for a game of kickball to be played on. The stairs branched off into four. Two going left and two to the right.

They were taken to the upper left stairway. The stairs slowly arched around and around into a wide circle that took them higher and higher. Here more paintings hung on the walls. Depictions of vicious kings of the past, wars, and other battles. It didn't escape Kaoru how many of the battles in the paintings were against her own people. Depictions of soldiers on horses riding down Water fae. Of warlords posed on a hill in the middle of a battle raging around him where Water fae ran as the Fire hacked at them with swords.

Kaoru looked away from them. They were very old paintings, it was history and more importantly, it was the Fire King's castle and he could display whatever historical depictions he wanted.

Their rooms were situated in one of the towers. Kaoru stepped in as Kenshin spoke with Mishal about where to lodge her handmaidens as well as their two guards. Kaoru felt her mouth fall open at the wall of glass windows. The windows stretched nearly floor to the curved ceiling. She had to squint at the amount of late morning sunlight that was pouring inside. A large lavish four-poster bed sat on one end of the room while a four seat meal table sat on the other side. At the moment if was stocked with a basket of fruit, wine, and cheese. Two massive wardrobes took up the wall opposite the windows. An arched short hallway led to a bathing area. It was small and not surprising, lacked a large soaking tub, and instead was stocked with bottles of scented oils and a shallow washing bin

"Huojin will expect you in two hours," Mishal informed them before taking his leave. Servants and footmen filled in with their trunks and worked to unpack everything into the giant wardrobes.

Kenshin wandered over to the table and plucked a glass of wine from the table and took a gulp "Do you like the room?" He asked.

Kaoru nodded. "It's lovely, but...a bit bright and warm."

Kenshin popped a berry into his mouth before strolling over to the windows and yanking on a cord. From the ceiling, a roll of thin wooden slats slid down to cover the window. The bed and dressing area fell into shadow. "We'll keep them covered most of the time. I don't want you to get sun poisoning in your own room. Houjin should have known better than to give us a room that faces the sun."

Kaoru sat primly on a pastel green chaise lounge. Weary from travel, all she wanted to do was lay down and nap. She glanced over at Kenshin popping bits of fruit into his mouth. Kaoru's lips tipped upward. He was a nervous eater. "Everything will be fine." She said gently.

Kenshin paused, he'd been caught. He smiled ruefully around the mouthful of orange slices. He chewed and swallowed. "One can only hope."

"Goodness you're making him sound like a downright terror." She scoffed. She glanced over as the servants were leaving and her handmaids entered to pull out her fanciest dress. Kenshin had bought it in the last large town, he had it altered to fit her perfectly and waited for the altercations to be made. They had spent the whole day and night there to wait for it. Kaoru thought it was strange for just a dress but now she understood. First impressions were important here, she needed to be in a dress in the most up to date fashion of the area. The dress was a deep navy blue with white pincheck. Quite lovely, Kaoru had thought, before she had seen the works of art that morning. Now it seemed a bit plain. But it was the best they could do on the road.

"I better wash up and get dressed." Kaoru sighed, "We've no idea how long it'll take to get ready."

Kenshin nodded. "Good girl."

… . . . …

Kaoru was washed, oiled, and scraped. A crisp white shift went over her naked body and then the panier was attached to her waist to give her extremely wide hips. Over that was a deep orange skirt and then the navy blue overdress. It was split open in the middle so that a triangle of the orange underskirt was exposed. It was a nice pop of color against such a dark shade. She struggled to balance as her youngest handmaid, Cyan, crawled under the skirts to roll up her sheer white stockings.

"Perhaps next time we'll do the stockings first before everything else," Kaoru said, causing her maids to laugh in agreement.

Her frilled sleeves went on next. Kaoru was more comfortable with these sleeves as they were long and large and flared out at the elbow to hang to her wrist. Kaoru trailed her fingertips down the silver pipping on the edge of the elegant dress. A matching bodice was tugged down over her head and Kaoru held in her breath as they started to lace it up tighter and tighter. Shiny new shoes were buckled on her feet. The heels, thankfully were low, as she was still learning to walk in them.

As they were finishing up there came a knock at their door and in marched two manservants. "Looks like it's my turn." Kenshin sighed and he got to his feet. The men stripped him down and took him to the bathing area to wash. As the girls worked on her hair Kenshin returned from his wash and started to be dressed. Black beeches and hose with a golden shirt. Over that was a blood-red jerkin with black slashes and gold buttons. The jerkin had a floral pattern embroidered with matte red thread. The design flashed as he moved into the light.

His hair was redone into a top knot as his belts of swords were fastened around his hips. His shoes were low heels like her own. It seemed Kenshin was a mix of fancy party attire as well as a warrior. He tipped his head up as a stark white cravat was tied around his neck. He really did look like a prince the way he held himself as the men dressed him. He knew just when to hold out his arms, and tip his head this way and that.

Finally, they were both done with a few minutes to spare. It very nearly took the full two hours for them to get ready. Kaoru admired the pile of braids and curls on top of her head. Kenshin stepped up to her as she looked away from the vanity mirror.

"You look wonderful, Dear Wife, that you do." He set a kiss on her forehead so as to not smudge the soft red lip paint.

"Thank you. You cut a dashing figure as well. She looked down at his shoes. "Heels even. Bloodthirsty warriors wear heels to a party."

Kenshin laughed, lifting one leg and then the other like a restless horse. "I hate these things. Their only good in making me slightly taller." He stated as he dug into his wardrobe and came out with a small paper-wrapped box. He untied the string and held the plain box out to her. "This is for you."

Kaoru took the box and opened it, inside she found a silver choker lined with deep sapphires. "Kenshin." She breathed, her fingers trailing over the round cut gems. "When did you get this?"

He reached out and took the box from her and removed the choker. "Before we left the Water Kingdom. King Nernus helped me pick it out."

"So long ago." She breathed as she turned to the mirror and watched as Kenshin reached around her and set the clasp. The choker hung heavy, the metal cold yet wonderful against her skin. "How did you know I was going to be wearing blue?" She set a hand on it, then turned to her husband.

He grinned and shrugged one shoulder. "I didn't. I just thought it would look lovely on you, that I did."

"You're a clairvoyant." She stood and smoothed the front of her dress.

Kenshin's smile faded. "Right. Let's get this over with."

… . . …

Huojin's golden amber eyes would not leave Kaoru. He watched her closely the moment she entered the throne room. As they kept to their side until their introduction and as they stepped forward to swear their oath. Kenshin, in a deep bow and Kaoru in a curtsy so deep her knees touched the floor. She kept her eyes averted, as Kenshin had informed, but she could feel him watching her. It was almost as though he could see her every breath, every brush of her hair against her neck, of the way her legs trembled.

"Rise." He said finally. His voice was a deep baritone that matched his barrel chest.

Finally, Kaoru stood back up and the two of them looked up at the royals. Kaoru knew Huojin was a young king, but not until that very moment did she realize just how young he was. Although, discovering Mishal was over fifty proved that looks did not provide a clear age. He was bronzed from the sun-worshiping, tall, and strong. His hair looked black but shimmered red in the shafts of sunlight. He had a meticulously kept beard, short, and trimmed to sharp points against his cheeks. His hair was in a top knot like Kenshin's but war braids trailed along his head to hang down his shoulders. At the end of the braids were small red and gold beads. They clacked as he moved.

Just as she was taking him in, he was doing the same to her. He stood, and descended the steps of the throne down to where they stood. Kenshin pulled Kaoru back just a step as he drew near.

He glared down sternly at Kaoru, his toned arms folded across his massive chest. Then all at once, the wrinkles around his eyes smoothed away. "Kenshin. You are one lucky bastard." He turned to his nephew for the first time. He fell into reverberating laughter, slapping Kenshin on the back.

"I haven't seen you in five years, my boy. You look good."

Kenshin was all smiles but even Kaoru could see the guarded look in his eyes. Was this the life of a Fire? Always on guard, always looking for weakness. "Thank you, your Grace. I'm sorry I haven't been to visit sooner."

Huojin turned his flashing eyes back on Kaoru. "My, Lady." He took her hand and kissed her knuckles "You are lovely, just as Kenshin had said in his letter."

Kaoru flushed and looked over at her husband. "Thank you, your Grace." She said softly. She had to be strong and wary of him, but she couldn't help the feeling of shyness. He was very much like Kenshin, always like a wound spring, a ki flaring, feeling out for danger or trouble. "I'm pleased to finally get to met you." She continued. "I've a lack of family and I'm happy to meet my in-laws."

His eyes warmed slightly. "My condolences, for your father." He said in what must have been his gentle tone. His voice rumbled in his chest, filling the whole throne room despite his softer volume.

"Thank you, your Grace." She said in an even softer voice. She cursed herself, but couldn't seem to find the courage to put more effort into her words.

"Well." He turned to both of them. "Your cousins are eager to see you." He informed Kenshin.

"How are the Princes and Princesses?" Kenshin asked with a smile.

So the King had heirs. Kaoru didn't know how much weight was weighing down her shoulders until it was suddenly gone.

"Growing like weeds. That boy of mine will be a man soon. And I'll have to find a man good enough for Shula to marry."

"Damn." Kenshin sighed "Is she that old already?"

"Fifteen in three months." The King confirmed. "My Lady, please excuse us. I'm sure you are desperate for a rest after such a journey. I'll be sure to give your husband back to you before dinner."

Kaoru had been dismissed. Two hours getting ready for a meeting that lasted for a handful of sentences. But she understood. The men wanted to talk. Even in the Water courts, men didn't talk about certain things around Ladies. She sunk into a low curtsy. "You are quite right, your Grace." She gave him a smile.

The King gave a closed-lipped smile in return. "We'll see you at dinner, my Lady. My Queen is eager to meet you."

Kaoru wondered why she wasn't here for the pledge. Perhaps it was not a woman's place here. She smiled and dipped again, "I'm excited as well. Your grace, My Lord." She turned to Kenshin and dipped for him as he bowed to her and she turned and walked passed Sano, who fell into step three paces behind her.

… . . …

Kenshin and Huojin watched as Kaoru left, Sano following behind her. There were no words said until she turned and walked through the doors. Other aristocrats followed out the same door. Many of the men lingered, perhaps hoping for a moment to speak to the King once he was done with his nephew. The red-head turned back to find the soft look in the King's face vanished, replaced with hardness he was better known for.

"You attached an Earth to her?"

Kenshin straightened. "I did."

"Was that wise?" the King muttered, turning to walk away.

Kenshin had not been dismissed, so he followed, keeping his hands behind him as the king led him to a large window that looked down over the city. Warm, life-giving sunlight filtered in and bathed them in power. The golden light swirled around them both, seeping into their bodies, slowly refilling their energy, slowly darkening their skin.

"You're pale, don't you pray?" Huojin snapped.

"Not as much as I used to. "Kenshin admitted. "Plus the sun is not strong in the Water Kingdom. I can pray all day and be lucky if I'm fully refreshed.

The King's lips pulled into a sneer. "Is that Earth castrated?" Switching the subject back so suddenly that it would have tripped up any other person. But Kenshin was used to this.

Had it been any other person Kenshin would have burst into laughter. But he kept silent, his face a mask. "Absolutely not. That is a violation of their natural rights. You may as well cut off their head." Earth and Fire had been allies since before the King's great grandfather had been born. One would think Huojin would know this about them. Kenshin knew he did, he just didn't care. "I am not afraid of Sanosuke Sagara with my wife. They can not rape."

The King's eyes flashed. "Ah but Nephew you know that they don't have to rape. Shameless seducers that they are."

Kenshin tipped his head up, saying nothing.

"You best be careful boy, or you'll find that Earth in bed with your wet wife."

Kenshin felt the first bit of pressure in his body. The Fire in his blood waking up. He didn't like that insinuation. Rebelling against his own better judgment Kenshin confessed. "He already has." He watched the rage fill within the King before adding. "On my orders."

Hot breath escaped the King with a whoosh. "Why in bloody hell would you do that? It's a violation of your vows."

Kenshin scoffed. "I violated my vows not two days after I said them."

"No one cares about some doxy you tossed while you waited for a child to grow into a woman. What matters is what is in your wife's womb. If she carries an Earth child I'll-"

"What?" Kenshin stepped forward, entering the bubble of fighting ki of the King and pushing at it with his own. His eyes flashed orange and then yellow. "What will you do? Hang her? Lose the Keep? Break the treaty? I gave Sanosuke to Kaoru to save her life because you demanded that I drag her to this damned place knowing full well the effort would kill her!"

"It is not my fault she is weak."

"She is not weak!" Kenshin argued. "In her homeland, she's every bit as powerful as I am here. And I am the one struggling. Lucky for me there is sun and fire in the wetlands while there isn't a drop of water in this place. She can't even have a soak in a bath."

Huojin didn't like hearing facts, Kenshin could already see him shutting down at the idea of his nephew being weak to a delicate looking Water female. "If she bears an Earth child-"

"Then I will love that child as my own." Kenshin interrupted. "And since we're on the subject. My heir will be a child of my own making, be they a Fire, or Water, male or female, or adopted."

"Adopted!" The king roared. "I refuse to allow that."

"You will allow it. We are the Lord and Lady of the Keep as per the treaty. And there is nothing in that treaty that says the Keep will pass to a male Fire. Our children may very well be all Water or all female for that matter. If it is even possible for us to create children at all. I will give Kaoru children one way or another, and if that means letting a trusted man lay with her, or taking in an orphan then I will.

"I'd hang that chit."

"Right. You would wouldn't you? You would have to hope they appoint someone else to the Keep before you do because they would have to hang me as well, for killing a King!"

The people on the other side of the room glanced over at them but didn't do anything. It was normal for such spats among the Fires.

The Huojin looked like he was about to draw his sword and Kenshin's fingers were already twitching over the hilt of his. Then, within that long moment, the savage look on the King's face dissolved. "Well, I'm glad we can have a civilized talk about it."

Kenshin relaxed. "Likewise." The spat between them all but vanished as quickly as it had developed.

"I'll see you at Dinner. Come visit the children once your done resting, they missed you. Oh!" He reached into his gilded vest and pulled out a thick envelope. "This arrived for you a few days ago." He held the rectangle of paper out.

Kenshin bowed his head and took the letter. "Thank you." He tucked it away. "I'll be sure to see my cousins before dinner." He bowed once again and turned and stalked out of the throne room.

… . . …

Kaoru was being jostled awake. It felt like she had only just drifted off. Was it time to get ready for dinner already?

"Kaoru, Kaoru wake up!"

A weight settled next to her on the bed and Kaoru's eyes popped open expecting to find one of her handmaidens, not the rumbling voice of her husband. Kenshin sat beside her, his hand resting on her arm where he was shaking her. In his hand was an unfolded letter. She glanced at the windows, the light was no different than when she stripped and climbed into bed. If any time had passed, it was less than an hour.

"This better be good," Kaoru muttered as she dragged her body into a sitting position. Her limbs felt like hundreds of blankets were resting on her. Her head was heavy and thick with fog.

"The King gave me a letter that came days ago. It's Aoshi, he says Misao's been attacked."

This cleared Kaoru's head and she jerked into action. Apparently Kenshin knew she would do this as his hand on her arm clamped down to keep her still drowsy body, now surging with adrenaline from tumbling straight to the floor.

"What! Is she ….is she harmed?" She gasped, scrambling, forcing her trembling body to move to sit at the edge of the bed next to her husband.

"She's fine," Kenshin assured her quickly. He went back to the letter. Obviously he had not read very much before waking her. "She only suffered a few cuts on her arms. The healers took care of them but apparently it could have been much worse. The man intended to kill her for laying with Aoshi."

"No." Kaoru whispered, her hands going to her face. "Oh no, no."

"She's fine." Kenshin insisted, setting a hand on her shoulder.

"I put her in such a dangerous position." She sobbed into her hands. Misao was her only close Water family. She had been with Kaoru since they were just toddlers. She was like a very dear sister. And she left her behind to be in control of a bunch of dangerous men who didn't like her and really didn't like Misao. Kenshin stiffened beside her and she pulled her hands away. "What?" She demanded moving to look over his shoulder to read the letter. "What's wrong?"

"Aoshi says that someone got into the dungeon and killed the attacker. He is unsure if it was just vigilantly justice or someone trying to keep him quiet."

Kaoru got up off the bed and started to pace. Her hands twisted each other as she struggled not to let the panic take her over. "Misao wasn't raised to take care of the Keep. I know she can do it but not if she had to worry about someone trying to murder her. Someone they don't even know!" she wailed.

Kenshin stood up and took her in his arms. "Aoshi is with her all hours of the day and night now. He says she will never have a moment alone, that she won't. He swears it." He clutched her tightly as Kaoru's whole body trembled.

"How can I be here when this is going on back home?" She whispered.

Kenshin nodded. "I agree. It would be risky to leave this unresolved." He rubbed her back, trying to comfort her. "I'll see what I can do. Here." He pulled away and took out a folded bit of paper. "This is addressed to you, it was with Aoshi's letter."

Kaoru pulled away and took the paper. Her name was scrawled on the front in Misao's not so very neat hand. She ripped it open and sat back on the bed. It was only a few lines. Assuring Kaoru that she was fine. That she had cat scratches worse than what that man had done. Aoshi was going to protect her so she was not at all afraid for her life. Kaoru took a shuddering breath. Her chest ached so. Emotion bubbled up uncontrollably. It was an odd feeling for her. As a Water, she normally had control of her emotions, but at that moment she felt layed open and exposed. She couldn't breathe around the lump in her throat and she clutched the letter to her chest as she fell to lay on the bed. A racking sob breaking the silence.

Kenshin walked over and didn't say a word. Instead, he climbed into the bed with her and gathered her up into his arms and held her as she sobbed.

She really should pull herself together but she couldn't She was both horrified that Misao had been hurt and so happy that it was not serious and she was safe. She felt guilty for putting her in such a position. She never would have had a target on her back if she hadn't left.

But she had to, of that she had no choice.

A/n Ooo boy, things in the Emberlands are...different. Poor Kaoru is failing to keep herself together.