June 13, 2014
Important Announcement: In recent months, an Anonymous person has been trying to bully me by sending anonymous reviews. These reviews have been demeaning, vicious and extremely malignant.
This is not the first time this person has attacked me. A few months prior to this latest occurrence, this person sent me an extremely hateful review along with a recommendation to visit the work of another writer on this site. It is well known that many readers check reviews before reading a story so I can't help but feel this was an attempt to drive readers away from this fic to another.
I have been writing stories and posting them for seven years on this website. And I'm not going anywhere. I will continue to write and post stories that I believe in. I do not write for affirmation. I write because I love telling stories and I will continue to do so always. I will not allow any negativity to diminish my passion for writing.
On a separate note, I would like thank the majority of my readers who have shown this story so much love over the years. I have cherished and valued your feedback and it has helped me to continue writing. To the followers of this story who have continued to drop me lines and encouragement even when it had been a long time since they saw any updates for this story, I thank you all.
REMINDER: Love, Lies and Empire is an AU. If you don't like AUs, don't read them.
Love, Lies and Empire
Chapter 31: Reckless
Deep in the depths of the craggy mountains surrounding Kutou's southern borders, there are natural caves, carved into the rock of the mountains by the flowing waters of the great river of Yantai. Over the years, the water cut away into the rock, little by little whittling it down, cutting it away to form a network of caverns and crevasses that remain hidden from the high passes built to support travel and trade throughout the empire. At one time, these caverns were used regularly by messengers and small patrol parties for rest but slowly this practice was abandoned. In his bid to connect his entire empire by safe and sturdy roads, Hiko Seijurou ordered bridges and roads to be built, that would be accessible and safe regardless of the conditions of the weather. As these roads became the main mode of travelling the empire, the old pathways of the water were forgotten and left to ruin.
The caves were reclaimed by the forest. The roots and branches of the unyielding trees of the forest grew strong and winding inside them.
Until the bandits arrived.
"Remember, you are not going there to start a fight, so don't do anything that would make you inconspicuous."
Soujirou glanced at the man accompanying him to the border and nodded in response. They were almost at the border. In another couple of miles, they would be able to see the mounted swordsman that guarded Kutou's borders. It was a long way from the Bandit's Lair. They had spent two days on foot, slowly traversing the spindly, treacherous paths of the mountains. Soujirou marvelled at the sheer expanse of the area commanded by the bandits, hidden from the eyes of the world. Who could imagine that beneath the very roads that fuelled the wealth and power of the empire, there was another kingdom, one which waited for its moment with bated breath, festering like a wound?
He had seen dissatisfaction, anger and hatred for the empire in the eyes of the bandits, yet he was thankful that Kaoru had not fallen in the hands of these men. They were hard, coarse and unforgiving men. Desperation and anger had dissolved what honour they had to begin with. It was his misfortune that he needed help; any help that would infiltrate the borders of Kutou to try and find Kaoru but he would not trust any of these men.
He considered the man sent to accompany him now. The other bandits called him Koji and he seemed to respond to it readily enough yet Soujirou could not help but think that this was not his real name. It was foolish to think of truth and honour amongst thieves and it rankled at his heart that he had come to a stage in life where he had to ask assistance from thieves to find his way.
The Bandit leader had allowed only one of them to scout out the capital, Yantai. Okita had to remain behind, as collateral, so that he remembered and honoured his promise of payment when the bandits called for it. The bandit leader had told him that they would let his friend roam freely within the borders of bandit territory for two months. If he did not return in two months, Okita would be killed. Koji was sent to keep an eye on him in Yantai.
Koji was a slippery fellow. He could have passed for a beggar in any of Kansan's cities. But underneath the shuffling walk and the slouch, he hid wiry muscles that coiled around his arms and chest and a mind that was as keen and twisted as a scimitar. He grinned now, revealing a set of teeth blackened by opium.
Soujirou turned away. He grimaced as the massive gates of Yantai's southern wall could be seen far on the horizon. As they drew near, Soujirou heard the sound of the doors when they creaked painfully as they were pulled open by four healthy oxen on each side. The curving line of people accompanying wagons and livestock seemed to snap to attention and they surged forward. Two scribes seated on a raised platform beside the gates quickly checked and stamped papers of identification. Refugees and people who had no identification and no material possessions, like him, were sent towards a smaller gate and another scribe. Armoured guards stood behind the scribes, glowering threateningly at the crowd lest anyone get the idea to protest or argue with the scribe. Once the papers were cleared, the way forward was left open. It was managed with clockwork precision. Soujirou narrowed his eyes.
He had heard from the bandits that Hiko Seijurou was willing to grant any citizen of recently conquered Konan a life and livelihood in his capital. All one had to do was to show at the gates of the city and proclaim oneself a refugee. The gates would then open and one would be led towards the refugee camps where Konan prisoners had been set free and where many had already begun to set up a life. That was exactly what Soujirou had in mind - to enter Yantai as a refugee and begin looking for Kaoru.
He was jostled from behind as a woman pushed forward, a young child holding onto her kimono and one held at her hip. Soujirou stepped aside and let her pass. He glanced up. Archers were perched all along the perimeter walls. Guards were armed to their teeth. These men were massive. Somebody would have to be tremendously foolish to try and pick a fight here. He sighed and shuffled his feet. He was almost there.
Koji leaned towards him. Soujirou tried not to edge away as the putrid smell of his breath wafted close. "If your princess is alive, she's probably in there. You have to get inside."
Soujirou glowered back at him. "I know that. You don't have to tell me this."
Koji smiled. "Well then, do you mind looking less like a prince, and more like a beggar looking for refuge?" He cocked his head at the stiff way Soujirou held his shoulders and the military precision of his steps. There was nothing in this manner that would suggest he was in plaintive need of asylum.
Soujirou took a deep breath, loosening his shoulders. His clothes were threadbare anyway and his face was dirty. His pants were patched in places and there were hollows under his eyes. The lack of proper food and nourishment had taken its toll on his body yet the steely quality of his eyes had somehow survived. He cast his eyes down, letting his hair fall in front of his face. He let his shoulders droop as though weighed down by the world's burdens. This time when he walked, he dragged his feet along the dusty road.
As he drew near the scribe, one of the guards stepped forward. The guard stared at Soujirou and called out. "You there! Come here." He beckoned him forward with his finger. Soujirou turned slowly and painstakingly put one foot before the other as though each step wore him down.
The guard observed him with sharp, keen eyes. He frowned slightly. The boy standing before him looked like a gusty breeze would topple him over yet he couldn't shake away the niggling doubt that something was not right with him. He seemed different from the hundreds of refugees who had trickled in from Konan in the past few weeks.
"Hiro." He answered promptly. His voice was soft, delicate almost. He did not look up. Suddenly he swayed as though he would fall but steadied himself. He gripped a corner of the table where the scribe had been scribbling details of the couple before him.
The scribe looked up in distaste. "Hey, shove off! Don't go collapsing here." He glared at the guard. "If you want to question him so bad, take him to the prison. Don't crowd my desk." He turned away, muttering under his breath.
The guard grasped Soujirou's shoulder and set him on the path that would lead him inside. "That's alright. He's just a boy. I must have been mistaken."
Turning to Soujirou, he pointed towards a large building on one side of the inner wall. "You'll get food and medicine there."
Soujirou bowed and thanked him. The guard nodded in response and continued to watch him shuffle away towards the building with lingering apprehension. He prayed that he was wrong, and that the niggling doubt in the back of his head was just his imagination. He had been a guard for close to twenty years and learned to read people in that long time. He didn't know what it was about that boy that screamed danger to him. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the gates.
Soujirou took a deep breath and looked around. Koji had slipped away as the guard had appeared. He was alone now. He shuffled along towards the building the guard had pointed out to him earlier. Sure enough, there was a line here as well. People stood calmly and waited their turn for soup and rice. Further along, there was a blacksmith's shop, next to it, was a grocer. Small shops like these were carefully arranged in a semi-circle with a wide road leading further into the city.
There was peace here. He could see that. The misery associated with refugee camps and prisoners taken by force from their homes was missing. People were carrying on with their lives. He felt strangely detached from the scene before him. He'd spent so long battling and fighting to stay afloat, to stay sane after Kansan burned that he had never spared a thought to what would happen after he reached Kutou. He had imagined many scenarios but never one where the people he was sworn to protect looked so content and satisfied in the city of their enemy.
Soujirou turned round and round, taking in the sight of his people rushing about, carrying out the tasks of daily living. They didn't notice a stranger in their midst. They didn't notice that this was not their home. Even though it had obviously been set aside for them. This wasn't their home. They didn't belong here, in this land of cold, hard winds and snow. They had settled. They had settled for something that was not theirs. They had relegated themselves to a life that, though comfortable, was undoubtedly a lie. He clenched his fists. This was not what was needed for them. They needed to return to Kansan, to their home. And contentment and satisfaction was not going to get them back.
This whimsical life in the courtyard of the enemy would weaken them. They would soon forget what they had been, where they came from, who they were. But who was to wake them up? He didn't nearly have the strength needed for it. He had to find Kaoru. Maybe, once he had found her, they could do something about it, together. Kaoru would know what to do. All he had to do was find her.
Kaoru held the brush poised over the paper and frowned. Her wrist shook just slightly. A tiny drop of ebony ink dropped onto the delicate rice paper. Kaoru sighed and put the brush down. She picked the paper up. Her eyes widened in alarm as the drop began to slide down, leaving a thin black line on the paper. She clicked her tongue against her teeth in annoyance. She'd come to the privacy of this room about an hour ago to compose a letter to Councillor Katsura requesting more time in the refugee colony after he had limited her time there to merely four hours a week. What could she possibly accomplish in such a short period? Her shoulders slumped and she sat back. Laying her head down upon her hands, she let her mind wander.
It had been almost a week since she'd asked Kenshin for time. But now it seemed as though all the time in the world wouldn't be enough for her to let go of her past. There was no doubt in her mind that she was desperately in love with him. Her heart beat faster when she was near him, her feet felt lighter, her blood seemed to race in her veins. She felt warm around him. Butterflies raced inside her stomach when he looked at her. She knew she was safe with him. She knew she had never felt this way before and it terrified her. A day that went past without seeing him or speaking to him was a day wasted for her. She had taken permanent residence near the windows of the palace. When she heard a carriage approach, she would rush to the window to see if it was him and return dejected and downcast when it was not his figure that alighted from it. Her mood would swing with the consistency of a pendulum. She resented the fact that he held such power over her; she hated the fact that she was made helpless because of the way she felt about him.
Last week, she had attended a tea party with the Empress Dowager at the home of one of her friends. Kenshin had arrived halfway in between but he didn't even glance towards her. She'd been livid. But later, she'd berated herself for acting so childishly. What else did she expect? Kenshin was the crown prince and she was still on shaky ground as far as her position was concerned. She didn't need to give the emperor any more reason to pay her attention. She needed to concentrate on her work and stop thinking about Kenshin every waking minute. Kaoru groaned and hit her head against her hands repeatedly.
A knock on the door startled her and she sat up straight. A lady peered inside. "Princess, His Highness Prince Kenshin is here to see you."
Kaoru rose to her feet. The lady was taken aback at the change in the young girl's face. Kaoru glowed. Her smile was dazzling and she looked as though she would burst with emotion. "Oh! He's here? Really? I'll just be down…."
"There's no need. I'll wait here," A hand reached past the lady and pushed the door open. Kenshin stood there, watching her quietly. His eyes seemed to gleam as he looked at her.
Kaoru swallowed and tried to ignore how her body seemed to wake up at the sight of him. She glanced down at the floor, painfully conscious of how her heart thudded inside her chest. Kenshin crossed the room and settled down beside the writing desk. Absently, he began to fiddle with the brushes and paper on the desk. The lady in waiting looked shocked. She looked at Kaoru and shuffled over.
"My lady, I'm not sure it's acceptable for the prince to wait here while you write."
Kaoru smiled wanly. "Is it not?" She squirmed at the stern expression on the older woman's face. "Yes, I understand." She replied even as her heart sank. It had been days since she'd laid eyes on him. She didn't want to be ushered away on account of modesty again.
The lady lifted her head haughtily. "You had best follow me to another room and finish your letter there my lady. The prince may wait here if he so wishes."
"The princess will remain where she is. I'm sure my sensibilities won't be offended at the sight of her writing a letter." Kenshin drawled as Kaoru was being led away. Kaoru turned to look at him hopefully.
The lady glanced between them and answered stiffly, "Your Highness, it would be unseemly."
"That's alright. I won't tell anyone if you don't." He smiled charmingly at her. The lady blushed and then looking at him once more left the room with a smile on her face.
Kenshin turned to Kaoru. He raised an eyebrow. "I get the strangest feeling that you've been avoiding me. Why is that Kaoru?"
Kaoru sat down and folded her hands together in her lap, slowly like Tae had taught her. She was buying time and she only hoped Kenshin would not recognise it. In hindsight, the way she'd behaved after the tea party, had been childish. She had been so frustrated and annoyed when her desire to see him and speak to him was thwarted that she had forced herself to ignore him when she'd visited the Imperial palace to see Councillor Katsura. She couldn't let him see how much she needed him. Kenshin would never let her forget it.
"Would you say I was avoiding you Kenshin? If there was anybody doing the avoiding, it was you." She murmured quietly.
His eyes flashed and his lip curled in amusement. "Still angry about that?"
She bristled and turned away from him. "I'm not angry. I don't care."
"That's evident." He smiled knowingly. "What's this about a letter?"
Kaoru rose and dipped the brush she'd abandoned earlier into the ink and began her letter. "Something I've been trying to do for the past hour."
"Trying? And why haven't you succeeded?" He looked at her curiously. Kaoru flushed, piquing his curiosity. He leaned forward, looking into her eyes. "Why haven't you succeeded Kaoru?"
She didn't reply, merely wrote faster. How strange was it that while she'd been sitting here for the letter, her mind seemed to have fallen asleep and now that Kenshin was here, in front of her, with her, she couldn't find the courage to look him in the eye? She frowned and stared at the paper before her. A twinge of pain twisted inside her wrist as she wrote and Kaoru quickly finished it. Placing the brush back in its place, she picked up the paper and laid it flat to dry, placing small weights over it.
She turned to find Kenshin perusing a book. He glanced up at her. Her breath caught in her throat and she gripped the edge of the table to steady herself. She cleared her throat and thought of something to say. He glanced down at the table and noted that the letter was finished and drying. The corner of his mouth curved upwards. He closed the book with a snap and began to walk towards her. Kaoru looked down at her feet.
She blurted out, "How have you been Kenshin?"
"Dissatisfied. Frustrated. Unhappy, take your pick." He moved closer.
Her lip quivered. "Why?"
He reached out, curled his fingers around her arms and pulled her into his arms. Stroking his thumb over her cheek, he replied softly, "I think you know why." He drew her tighter against him. Kaoru braced her hands against his chest and bit her lip.
"Don't ask me to be patient, not anymore." His lips pressed the words against her cheek. "I can't pretend that my heart doesn't bleed each time you turn away from me. I can't smile and tell you it's alright if you still feel as though part of you belongs to him. I can't do that Kaoru." His lips brushed against her neck in light, feather soft touches, almost as though he were scared to touch her yet unable to help himself.
He pressed his forehead against hers. His breath came in ragged intervals. Kaoru could feel his arms pull tighter still around her. He was struggling with something, she could tell. "Do you remember what you thought of me when we first met?"
Kaoru couldn't help but smile. "I thought you were spoilt and selfish."
"Spoilt and selfish." He chuckled. His hands cupped her face and brought her closer. "I haven't changed. I'm still spoilt, and I'm still selfish." He glanced up at her. Kaoru felt her breath escape. His eyes smouldered with unmitigated desire. "I want you Kaoru, and I'm not willing to share, not even with his memory."
He closed the distance between them with a searing kiss. Kaoru's eyes fluttered closed and her fingers clenched into the material of his gi. His hand cradled her head and softly nudged her chin up, letting him press his lips harder against her lips. He fought the urge to push her against the wall and shower his attention on her neck. He had waited so long for this, waited so long to feel her lips, to know her soft mouth that he couldn't ruin the experience by rushing it. He wanted to savour her, feel every gasp, know every shudder that accompanied her breathlessness, drown deeper and deeper in her. His kiss became gentler and softer before he finally drew back. Staring at her flushed lips, he kissed her once more, on the corner of her mouth. It was a kiss so soft that Kaoru thought she had just imagined it.
"Mine," he whispered against her lips. "Mine forever."
He clasped her hands and pressed his lips to her fingers. He let a breath loose. "You're driving me mad Kaoru, and I can't bring myself to care."
Kaoru smiled, her lips were tingling. She was certain she had never been kissed so thoroughly before. She didn't trust herself not to say the first thing in her mind so she simply slid her arms around him and pulled him back towards her.
Kenshin smiled as he felt her tugging him back towards her. "I knew I'd corrupt you yet."
She tried to glare at him but failed miserably.
They were startled by a sharp knock on the door.
Kaoru blinked and watched in confusion as Kenshin extricated himself from her and swiftly moved to the door. He pulled the door open to find the Empress Dowager standing at the threshold. Kenshin bit the inside of his cheek and stepped back.
He knew that his grandmother would not approve of his actions, and judging from the stern frown on her face now, he could tell that he would certainly hear of it sooner or later. The Empress Dowager looked from him to Kaoru with an unreadable expression on her face. Shutting her fan with a snap, she smiled congenially at Kaoru,
"Kaoru dear, would you fetch my wrap from the day room. I seem to have forgotten it and I feel a chill on the wind." The Empress Dowager smiled kindly at her, yet her eyes did not miss the flush on her face, the mussed hairs on the crown of her head, her uneven breathing and the contrite, almost guilty expression on her face as she mumbled something before she quietly left the room.
There was a tense silence in the room that had never existed between the Dowager Empress and her favourite grandson yet the terseness that permeated the air now could have been cut with a knife. Kenshin exhaled slowly.
"Grandma…"he began, only to be silenced as she glared at him. Kenshin fell silent. He looked down at his feet.
"I don't like this Kenshin. I certainly do not approve. I cannot allow you to simply waltz in here and take advantage of a vulnerable girl like this." She rattled off without pause.
Kenshin clenched his fists as his anger surged. "Take advantage? I have done nothing of that sort. How can you accuse me of something so despicable?"
The Dowager Empress folded her arms across her chest and looked at him. "Oh? And what do you think you're doing then? She is vulnerable, whether or not you choose to accept it Kenshin. She is clearly not thinking straight. She is beholden to you, away from her family, away, I also might add, from her betrothed. She has suddenly had the burden of a kingdom thrust down upon her and the only one who seems constant in her world is you."
Kenshin bristled. "She loves me."
The Dowager Empress smiled sadly. "Kenshin, she thinks she loves you, but do you think its right to ask her that question when she is yet so unsure of everything?"
Kenshin turned away. "Why are you doing this?"
"Because I do not want you to be hurt." Her eyes pleaded with him, to understand, to see reason, to accept what might be a possible outcome of pushing Kaoru.
"But I won't be, because she loves me." Kenshin smiled back at her.
The Empress Dowager pulled her spine straight and stared back at him. "Will she still love you if her betrothed happens to return? Will she continue to love you if her loyalty to her country and land are questioned?"
"That will never happen! He will never return to her life. I won't allow it!" Kenshin rasped back in desperate fury.
"Whether or not you allow it Kenshin, as long as he is alive, her heart will never truly be yours."
"Then he will simply have to die." He hissed back at her. Clenching his fists, he turned on his heel and left.
"Kenshin," She called out to him. "You must give her time." She sighed as he stormed from the room. She was scared. It was not as though she didn't approve of their match but she could see what they were both ignoring now. The spectres of their past would come to haunt them yet. Kenshin refused to acknowledge Kaoru's past. He did not want to think of it, did not even want to hear of a time when her heart had not belonged to him. He thought that it would simply melt away under the force of his feelings for Kaoru, but she knew better.
The past has a way of rearing its head at the most opportune moments. It always did.