By: Chiki Yumeshisa
Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin….all original ideas/characters are mine to claim though
AN: Sorry for the long wait (not as long as before though!) my computer got a virus and I had to go through so much just to 'recover' this one chapter. I hope you all like it…
Warnings: none. Enjoy
- Hidden Agenda -
"Sir Valis, ride with me."
Kaoru looked up, dropping whatever it was she was holding in her surprise. The cloth fell back to her pallet in a crumpled heap. "My lord?"
"Ride with me." Kenshin repeated. He was dressed down in casual attire. He wore high riding boots and a tunic. At his hip, he had girdled his sword and he wore a traveler's cloak, plain brown in color. He looked fresh and like a creature of the woods. His hair in the morning sun, seemed auburn. He was beautiful.
Unfortunately, Kaoru had still not gotten any better at riding a horse from her first experience, but she nodded. A smile slid onto his handsome face and he waited for her to finish cleaning up. Soon, she fell into step beside him, pulling on a cloak of her own except that hers was a warm red in color. It had been a gift from Kaiden, to keep her warm in her coldest moments.
"Is Sir Sagara coming as well?" She asked, after a while, as they passed the gardens where a large section of the army were locked in practice combat. At the head of the columns stood Sir Cyus, now fully recovered, watching over them.
He gave them a small salute in acknowledgement, that Kenshin returned eagerly before addressing her. "He's got other duties to attend to. He's been assigned to the newly built fortresses for a while. I've been sent out to make sure that all the village folk are aware that the borders are no longer safe. I'm also to locate a place in which we could build a shelter for the civilians if need be."
Kaoru turned her head instinctively to the balcony where she had seen the Lady Takani standing in the days past, observing the soldiers as she searched for her beloved She was not present today, however, and she returned her gaze to the field, absently listening to Sir Cyus' rich baritone voice speaking.
"In any case," Kenshin continued, "we shan't be out for too long, I hope."
They had reached the stables, where they searched for their horses. Kenshin had a black stallion this time, and the servants had already prepared it, the saddle on top of its back ready and waiting for the rider to sit.
Beside the black beauty, stood a chestnut mare, who tossed its head fondly when its large black eyes caught sight of Kaoru. This was the horse she had used before, and she practiced with it whenever she could, so she had grown attached to it. Crooning to it softly, Kaoru scratched it behind the ears.
They led their horses into the courtyard and out of the gates. Today, there was no grand gesture – no banners, no crests, no royal colors – they were simple travelers.
Kaoru was just stepping into the stirrup of hers when a voice hissed, "Sir Ken!" She almost tripped over in her surprise.
The commanding officer heard it too, and turned his head sharply. "Who goes there!"
There was a pause, and then the voice repeated, "Sir Ken…it's me, Sayo…" With that, she stepped forward, clutching her long skirts up so that she wouldn't trip as she hurried toward him. Her hair was up into a messy ponytail and her green eyes were wide and looked imploringly up at him.
"Dear Spirits! Princess, what do you think you're doing?" This time, his head swiveled, looking to be sure that the coast was clear. Certain that there was no one, he leapt back down, his face pulled into a frown.
"I want to come with you." She said.
Kenshin shook his head at that. "You most certainly may not!" He said. "You will get in trouble. Does Madam Myranda know that you have left the palace?"
"She knows only that I am too 'ill' to go to lessons." Sayo said, unabashedly. Kenshin paled.
"You must go back inside, Princess. It was very wrong to tell a lie like that."
But she threw her arms around his legs. "Please, Sir Ken! I can't go back there! Lord Saitoh will whip me…"
"And whip you he should!" Kenshin declared, hotly. "It is not your place to sneak out of the castle to go riding. You must learn along with the rest of the little girls and not be sour over it. What will your Lady Mother think?"
Sayo never responded, rather, clung onto Kenshin tighter. The man looked to Valis almost helplessly before turning back to the child. "I shall have to bring you back to the palace, my lady…"
"Sayo, you must."
"No!" She shrieked, her voice echoing.
"If you will not go, you naughty girl, I shall whip you where you stand!" His voice had risen to a shout, and at that, Sayo collapsed into tears.
"She's frightened." Kaoru blurted, before she could stop herself. She half expected Kenshin to turn and glare at her, and start scolding her that it was not her place to command a man. But instead, as he glanced her way, his expression was forlorn. She had to remind herself again, that she was no longer a woman in his eyes. She took courage from that look and continued, taking a deep breath. "Something scares her."
Kenshin contemplated that, looking down at the child. "Scared? What frightens you, Sayo?" He went silent for a moment before he asked, "Was it something that you heard?"
She nodded slowly, shyly peeking up at Valis whom she was not familiar with. She had hoped to catch her brother when he was by himself, but it seemed that there was always someone with him.
The commanding officer knelt facing her. "What was it, dear one? What frightened you so?"
"Sir Saitoh – he…he was talking to Sir Okita….and I heard him say that if I wanted to survive I should run away and get out of the castle. He said something about the Queen leaving, and about how I am most probably the next target." She pressed her fists to her eyes as she shook. "I don't know what to do, Sir Ken! I don't want to go to lessons because Sir Saitoh scares me, yet I don't wish to run away by myself. Will you run away with me?"
Again, the commanding officer exchanged glances with Valis before standing up. "Nonsense. No one is running away – least of all yourself, Your Highness. It's a cowardly act to run away from the unknown. No one will harm you, I promise. I will speak to the Lord Saitoh."
She hooked an arm around his leg.
"We should take her with us." Sir Valis said, taking his foot out of the stirrup. "We shall send word to the King about the news she perceived."
He looked ready to object, but Valis hastily added, "It would not be safe, my lord, to send her back there without the truth of her words being verified. The safest thing to do is to keep her with you, because you are the only one that she trusts."
Kenshin contemplated his words. True, he would never let anyone hurt his sister and he was not too certain of her tale as it was. Sir Saitoh posing a threat openly was something that baffled him – that only proved that the man was innocent. Who would blatantly say something like that out loud?
He made up his mind then, gripping the princess around the waist and hoisting her up onto his stallion. "You know how to ride, I trust, my lady?"
Sayo held her head up high, wiping the traces of tears from it. "Of course. I have riding lessons." She told him. He nodded, swinging himself up and behind her in the saddle. "Then we shall ride together." He told her. "Sir Valis, come."
Yumi came into the room, carrying with her a bowl that was patterned intricately by a Master Potter. Within the bowl was some gruel, as it was all that the soldier could seem to intake without spewing it back up. In her other hand, she held a flask, filled with the special medicine that they had been giving to him to help him regain his strength.
To make him forget.
Soujiro was sitting up in bed, watching the fire lazily. Lately he was more awake, but it seemed as though his mind was fogged. His wounds were healing just fine, and soon, the medical aid told him, he would be able to move and walk about. For some reason though, he did not desire to get up at all. He wanted to stay in bed and rest and rest and rest. He did not want to leave the room.
He looked up when Yumi entered, a smile lighting his face. This woman had been a frequent visitor, several times a day. She would talk with him, care for him as a mother would, and keep him company throughout the day. She ensured that he was comfortable and got upset at anyone who would try to speak with him or made him angry.
She liked to attend to him herself with his meals and sometimes, she would have Kamatari come with her, whom Soujiro had learned was really a man. Kamatari would not talk to him much, but he was just as gentle and as amiable.
"How are you feeling, my lord?" She asked, pushing the door closed behind her. Today she wore a violet dress that was dark in color, making her look very elegant and noble. Her hair was wound in its usual bun behind her head.
"I'm fine." He told her. His voice had gotten stronger too, more confident.
"Have you any hurt?" She asked, setting the things on a tray on the table to his side. When he shook his head, she beamed and he thought she was beautiful. "Well, I have brought you a meal if it please you to eat it."
"I thank you for your pains, my lady." He said, gratefully, lifting the bowl. The gruel was still warm, not too hot, and not too cold. It tasted wonderful, like blueberry and lemon mixed together, the sweet and sour taste welcome to the tongue. "What news is there today?"
"I'm afraid that the war is not going good at all." She said, sighing heavily. "I do hope that it ends soon – I do hate having soldiers tromping by every now and then and so close to our location. Why, if we were to be attacked, you would be in no state to run."
Soujiro lowered the bowl, licking his lips. A beard had started to grow on his face and on his upper lip, the startings of a mustache was evident. "I would not run," He said, adamantly. "I would stand and help to protect you."
She reached out and let her fingers trail on his stubble. "Ah, you are so young and yet, so valiant! You do amuse me so."
His pride flared. "I do not intend amusement, mistress. I mean what I say: I would stand and help."
She let her hands fall down, sliding across his shoulders and then down his arm to his hand and she held it. "My apologies. I meant no insult – you are so kind."
His heart twisted sorrowfully at her words. "I…I am not kind…" He whispered.
"Why do you say that?" She asked, leaning forward.
He wanted her to come closer but he dared not to ask it of her. "I…I am a soldier…I kill…"
"- You killed." She corrected. "You need not do that any more, good sir." She patted his hand. "I want you to forget your pain – to forget your miseries."
He smiled slightly then. "I'm starting to forget, all thanks to you. I often wonder if I am being searched for…but I don't quite remember why they would want to find me. I find I don't particularly care."
His heart swelled when she gave him a light kiss on the cheek. "Well, you can rest here and stay here for as long as you wish. You've survived so far – and if it weren't for those men who were supposed to help you, you would not have been so close to death. They were responsible for you, and yet they left you alone in the battlefield to die."
A silence fell then, and Soujiro studied her quietly with his eyes. Her words stung, and his joy seemed to diminish. She was right – they were not going to come back. They never did return for him. They never wanted to in the first place. He was already marked dead.
She brought him out of his broodings. "I've upset you…" She murmured. She was frowning.
Wanting to banish that look from her face, he quickly shook his head. "No, my lady. Telling the truth does not do anything but bring good though it may hurt. Don't fear for me…"
Yumi winked then. "Well, since you insist! Now, be good and finish your meal – and take your medicine. The sooner you are up, you will be able to see the outdoors and the Ancient knows you need some fresh air."
And so he ate and polished off the flask from its contents before she left the room.
Waiting outside was Kamatari, who was patiently standing with his back against the wall. "What news?" He asked, lazily, pulling a stray strand of hair back into place behind his ear. He fell into pace with Yumi who grinned at him slyly.
"My plan is working." She said. "A few more weeks and he will not remember at all – and then, he shall be ours."
Aoshi walked with Malla's hand in his, as he surveyed the fortress. It stood off the ground so high that he had to crane his neck to look up and see where it ended. It looked magnificent with guards at its every entrance already. From the top of the tower, he knew they could survey every entrance into the country on the north side of the border. He waved up at Beshimi who saluted him from the second tier.
"My lord, it is wonderful." Malla murmured. "And yet it is also so terrifying."
He absently kissed the
top of her head. "It is no place for a lady such as yourself to
rest, my love." He led her away from the tower, toward the carriage
she had come in. "Thank you for visiting me." He said, as he made
to help her in. "Give my regards to your parents."
She beamed. "May I have the hope that we can return to the palace together, then?" She asked.
He smiled; a rare thing for the Lord Shinomori to do. "You may." Just before she could step in, she caught sight of something through the windows of the carriage, and she peeked out.
Shinomori turned his head also in the direction of the oncoming party. "What is it?"
"Travelers, most like." She said.
But as they drew nearer, Aoshi could not mistake the red hair for any common traveler. "It's Sir Kenshin…and he brings with him Sir Valis Varrent of Mintril."
"Sir Valis?" She repeated, questioningly. But he had no chance to reply as the two horses drew to a halt before them. Sure enough, Kenshin and Valis were in the saddles, and when Malla looked, there was another with them. "A child!" She exclaimed.
"Her Highness." Aoshi told her, stoutly, clapping a fist to his heart and bowing. Malla dipped a curtsy in greeting.
Kenshin returned the salute and Sayo nodded in acknowledgement before they stood again.
"Hail, Sir Kenshin!" He greeted. "We had no news of your arrival."
"Lord Akira's requested a patrol." Kenshin told him. "This little one got caught up in the tale." He indicated Sayo in front of him. "Mind you if we send a messenger to report on her whereabouts?"
Aoshi nodded. "Would you require food and refreshments also?" He asked, noticing that their travel bags were empty.
Kenshin returned the nod in kind. "That would be most appreciated." He swung down and out of his saddle and helped Sayo off as well. Valis followed soon after and took up the reins to the horses, leading them forward. "I have words to speak with you, Shinomori. Sir Valis, if you'd come with me please. My Lady Malla, what a pleasure to see you again. Might I say that you look beautiful as always."
She smiled, her teeth two rows of white, perfectly lined together. "My lord, you're too kind." She was very pretty, as most ladies of the court were, and like the Lady Naomi, her dark hair fell in tresses about her shoulders. She had dark eyes too, and a wide, full mouth. Her skin was a golden color, with no hint of blemish whatsoever. "I shall wait within the walls of the fortress, good sirs. Your Highness, would you like to come to the kitchens while the men talk? I am certain you must be hungry after your day of riding." She stepped away from the carriage and offered her hand to the child.
"Yes, please!" Sayo said, eagerly, not forgetting her courtesies. She slipped her hand into the lady's and they left, Kenshin watching worriedly.
Aoshi did not miss that. "You seem anxious." He pointed out.
Kenshin turned back to them. "We have much to discuss. What know you of the plans against the crown?"
Taken aback, Aoshi blinked. "I pray pardons, my lord – are you suggesting I have something to do with it all?"
Kenshin shook his head. "No, I don't…I wish to know if you have heard anything."
Lazily, Aoshi looked in the direction that his Lady was disappearing in. "Nothing that I know of…is there a problem, sir?"
And Kenshin lowered his voice, and proceeded to tell him of what Sayo had heard. The tall soldier looked pensive when he was done and he trained his eyes on Valis, who subconsciously put his hand up to his beard once more. "I don't know what to make of it." He said finally.
Crestfallen, Kenshin nodded, threading his hands through his hair. "It makes no sense: it is not unusual for the Queen to leave, but a direct threat to the Princess next?" He trailed off, furrowing his eyebrows.
"I agree with Sir Valis." Aoshi announced. "I think you should post guards on Her Highness, or send her somewhere safe until this is all settled."
"She will hate that." Kenshin said, softly. "She wants to be free."
"She is royalty: she will never be free." Aoshi said, curtly.
Kenshin felt his cheeks heat with that comment, but he made no further protest. He cleared his throat instead and began to walk to the tower. "I'll make a quick round, Aoshi, be sure to send that messenger out." The elder man clapped a fist to his heart and walked away, his blue cape trailing him.
Valis spoke up. "He seemed distracted." He said.
Kenshin watched the man leave. "You're very observant. Of late, his mind has been on Soujiro…he hasn't forgiven himself yet…"
Valis tilted his head to the side slightly in question. "He was a comrade." Kenshin said quietly, in explanation. "He died in battle a few weeks back…Shinomori still berates himself for not going back and bringing help – but there was nothing we could do. By the time the help did come, the place was left in ruins and the bodies burned beyond recognition. Soujiro's armor was found, but that was all."
Kaoru listened, breathlessly. Her heart was thumping so hard in her chest she feared he would hear it. She was secretly glad: because she had gotten Sanosuke to force Kenshin to remain behind, he had not been part of the slaughter.
She spoke her next thoughts, as the commanding officer did not seem to care if she did so. "I wonder where the Queen goes when she leaves?"
The redhead shrugged his shoulders. "As to that, she is always on a treaty mission of some sort to the neighboring countries – though to me, it does not seem to work." He paused then, saying grimly, "but I shall not speak treason of Her Majesty. They would have my head."
Kaoru nodded, understandingly. She had noticed too, that Kenshin did not seem to like even the mention of Trissen, but she wisely held her tongue from saying that. Instead, they walked into the fortress, surveying the area. Kaoru took in the sights of armament: everywhere she seemed to look there were weapons. What interested her the most were the huge catapults that were built, each massive rock that was to be fitted smeared with pitch and tar. Bowmen stood at the ready on every window, and well over two hundred soldiers rested within the walls.
Kenshin took it upon himself to explain to her the details of the fortresses. According to him, they were built in defense of the borders, each fortress guarding a key city and allowing for quick reinforcements if there was a breakthrough in the border. Unfortunately, the construction of the buildings were very slow so some parts of the border were not yet as closely guarded as they would have liked, and because of that, many villages had been overrun.
Like what had happened to Soujiro's troops.
They walked past a group of soldiers who looked to be mere children who had become of age. They were probably children from peasant families who were looking for the coin and sent their children to work under the army. They gave nervous bows as the two swept by.
Kaoru saw another boy being dragged in, crying as an older soldier roughly slapped him across the face with the back of his hand. Kenshin did not seem to pay much attention to it, as he walked resolutely up the stairs. Kaoru kept her eye on the boy though, noticing that he was kicked to the floor and pummeled mercilessly by the soldier.
Her anger sparked as she recalled having the same thing done to her when she had been on the field in captivity. Unconsciously, her hand crept to her sword, and she suddenly felt Kenshin's restraining hand on hers. "Leave it." He commanded, roughly.
"He's a boy." She heard herself say through gritted teeth.
"He's a soldier – his days of boyhood have passed. Leave it." Kenshin said again. His eyes were a piercing blue and it nearly took Kaoru's breath away.
How could he be so
Slowly, her hand slacked on her weapon, as she saw the boy get to his knees crying for mercy. "They all pine for home, sir." Kenshin said, his tone less harsh. "They forget themselves…but they all learn the same. I'm sure you understand."
Kaoru had never felt so loathe to be in the armor she was in now! As if to remind her that she would never understand, her armor seemed to dig into her shoulders, weighing her down.
"If we were to aid everybody who was in trouble, we'd have lost our lives by now." The commanding officer was saying, as he led them up the steps toward the tiers. "The war, it seems, will never end." His voice was thick with anger and resentment as he said these words. "Now, if we get all the scrolls, it would be a different matter."
They did a quick inspection of several tiers and when Kenshin was satisfied, they made their way to the kitchens where Sayo was waiting for them, now neatly washed and her hair had been brushed and fixed, with Malla by her side. They had put together enough food and water for their journey and soon, they were back on their horses, traveling west.
The sound of clopping hooves were audible as they entered the country. Unlike the hustle and bustle of the city, the countryside was very peaceful. Though it was rather crowded, the land was fertile and very productive. This was proven with all the heaves and bundles that were stacked in every open barn they could see.
"Look!" Sayo cried, excitedly, her eyes drinking in everything. "Sheep!" For she had only ever seen horses up close.
Kenshin laughed and ruffled her hair. "Yes, little one…and over there are the cows."
He pointed out many things to her, and she delightedly hung off his every word. Kaoru stayed silent as she usually did, watching the exchange of words, surveying their surroundings cautiously. Had she not been, they would have run over an old man, who, it seemed, had dropped something precious to him and it had fallen in their wake. She threw out her arm and cried out to halt.
Kenshin's horse reared, neighing angrily and its rider cursed softly. Sayo shouted in fear, gripping onto the saddle with all her might to keep from falling off. "Spirits be cursed! What do you think you're doing!" Kenshin yelled heatedly down to the man who bent back in fear.
"I beg my lords, pardons." He squeaked, shaking under Kenshin's angry glare. "I didn't see you coming…."
"Didn't see us coming?" Kaoru repeated, incredulously. How could anyone mistake two huge horses for nothing?
Sternly, Kenshin asked, "Are you all right?"
The man nodded, his white beard bobbing like his head. "Yes m'lord! Pardons, pardons." He clumsily moved out of the way toward a table full of things that apparently were to be discarded.
Kenshin would have moved on had he not caught sight of something very interesting indeed. His keen eyes had noticed a very familiar roll of parchment. Swinging down off his horse, he told Sayo to stay put before moving toward the table.
"Sir Ken…" Kaoru began to say, but she stopped herself when she saw him snatch the parchment up.
"What is this?" He demanded of the man.
The man faltered, wiping a bead of sweat off his forehead, nervously. "T-this sir…is…"
"-A spare bit of parchment, really nothing to be concerned for." His wife put in, also nervously. "A family heirloom…something to gather dust…"
Kenshin stared down at the roll in his hands. "Were you going to discard it?" He demanded.
At their nods, he reached into his breast pocket, pulling out a little sack of coins. "I will buy it from you." He said, off-handedly. "There are thirty pieces of gold in there."
The pair looked stricken. "M'lord…"
"More?" Kenshin asked, tearing his eyes away from the scroll. His face was flushed.
The woman shook her head. "No, that is more than enough for something that does not hold much value."
"It holds value, madam." Kenshin told her, gently, placing the sack down in her hands. "It is a present for the King."
Kaoru turned her head to see Sayo absently watching the cattle that were grazing out in the fields. "My apologies for earlier." She heard Kenshin saying. "Strength to you!"
With that, he jogged back over to them, carrying with him his prize, which he stuck securely into his belt, covering it with his cloak. "We have much to do." He said, almost excitedly. "We should go."
With a final wave, the three of them moved past the village, toward the next tower.
Kaoru relaxed a bit in her saddle, and saw Kenshin's hand unconsciously touch the package he had just obtained. Whatever it was, he seemed more than eager to have found it. "Sir Kenshin?" She called. "What was it that you found?"
He grinned at her, handing Sayo some dried fruit that had been given to them by another villager. "A scroll." He said, happily. "The Ancient is good – just when we needed it the most. The King will be well pleased."
"Sir Ken, how much longer do we ride?" his sister asked before Kaoru could make a comment.
"We ride until the sixth tower." He confirmed, urging his horse into a gallop.
Kaoru helped herself to some dried fruit as well, before taking up the reins of her horse and following.
To Be Continued…
AN: A rather mundane ending, but the chapter wrote itself! I hope you liked it and I'd greatly appreciate reviews. The next chapter should be out in about two weeks. Thanks for reading,