Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin or any of its characters.
The Heart of a Queen
And in your eyes I see ribbons of color…
The ivy scraped roughly against her skin as she climbed down the stone wall, but nothing could halt Kaoru's descent. While one hand gripped the lattice tightly to support her weight, the other reached back to check that her wooden sword remained strapped to her back. With that reassurance, she continued her climb until she reached the grass below.
In the distance, Kaoru could hear the guards of the castle performing their rounds, crunching the gravel drive beneath silver boots. She held her breath as one passed a few feet beyond her, though she remained concealed in the shrubs at the castle wall.
Although darkness had already claimed the night, the palace of the kingdom of Meiji was still teeming with guards as they secured the sleeping court members' safety. Ever since the Bakumatsu Wars, civil unrest had become a part of life in both their simple nation and that of their enemy, the kingdom of Tokugawa. Too often the palace became a target of rebellious vandalism.
Finally, after waiting for most of the guards to clear out of the area, Kaoru made a dash for the garden. She burst through the bushes and onto the grass just as a guard walked past where she had stood moments before. Kaoru lay frozen on the ground until his footsteps died away into silence. Releasing a breath, she stood and took the wooden sword from her back.
As soon as the sword was clenched in her grasp, she felt the old movements sweep over her like a melody stuck in her mind; a compulsive need to move overtook her and she began to practice her swordsmanship.
Everyone had scolded her father for allowing her to practice swordsmanship, but it was as essential as breathing to her. She loved it as much as she loved her home.
The entire world fell away, leaving only Kaoru and the sword in her hand. Though it was only made of wood, she swore she heard the song of a metal sword cutting through the air, swore she felt the foreboding weight of a katana. She let the sword move her, surrendering to the dance.
Until the bushes moved.
Kaoru halted her movements, turning to stare at the quivering leaves of a nearby bush. Like a cat watching a bug, she stilled her entire body and focused all her energy on the bush, willing the concealed party to reveal itself as a simple rabbit or a squirrel. Nothing emerged, but she could see small glimpses of color peeking through the leaves. Someone was there.
Gripping her sword tightly, Kaoru moved one foot and then the next towards the bush. A breeze rustled the trees around her.
In a single motion, Kaoru stabbed her wooden sword into the bush, exacting a cry of pain from the recipient.
"Show yourself!" she yelled down to the groaning figure, who reached up a hand to part the top of the bush.
Staring down at the figure, all Kaoru could see was long, messy red hair and a magenta gi. A Tokugawa person for sure, if the hair was any indication. Perhaps a spy?
"Are you a spy for Tokugawa?" she demanded, reaching into the bush and seizing the figure by the gi. She pulled the person out to lie on the ground, and finally saw his face as he rolled over to lie on his back and lifted his hands in surrender.
"I assure you I am not," said the man, looking up with innocence in his eyes.
His eyes… Kaoru was immediately absorbed by them. They were a brilliant purple, large and unique. Yet another sign of his obvious Tokugawa ethnicity, as they were known for odd colorings. A scar marred his cheek, two intersecting lines that interrupted his smooth, pale skin. He was a small man, certainly short though she had never seen him standing, but he was probably bigger than her. Despite his lean frame, he obviously had muscles.
"Then who are you?" Kaoru asked, continuing to hold her wooden sword in her grip.
"I am just a simple wanderer. I'm afraid I'm lost in these parts." He smiled sheepishly, his hands still raised in surrender.
"Lost? And you end up in the private gardens of the palace?"
"I saw guards and I hid. I never meant to intrude," he said, continuing to smile. "Are you a guard? I must admit I've never seen a female guard before." Though he still smiled, an odd glint filled his eyes at his last statement. As if he was amused by seeing a female guard. Kaoru bristled visibly.
"INTRUDER!" a loud male voice bellowed from the edge of the clearing as a troop of guards burst in and surrounded the pair.
Kaoru stumbled back, letting her sword fall to her side. Guards ran in and enclosed the wanderer, seizing his arms in rough grasps and hauling him to his feet. Another guard grabbed her shoulders gently, steadying her. She recovered from the shock just as they began to drag the wanderer away.
"Wait, he's not dangerous, he's-"
"Kaoru!" another voice yelled in the chaos of the clearing, as a tall man approached her steadily.
"Gohei…" Kaoru sighed, slinging her sword over her back and meeting her advisor midway through the meadow.
"What are you doing out here at this late hour? With a sword?" A look of realization suddenly crossed his face and he sighed deeply. "Kaoru, tomorrow you will be crowned queen of Meiji. You will have greater responsibilities than anyone in the kingdom and the people will expect certain things of you. Being a proper lady and not a swordsman is one of them."
"I suppose marriage is the other," Kaoru grumbled as she followed Gohei back towards the palace doors.
"Now that you mention it, yes, it is." At Kaoru's rolling eyes, Gohei grabbed her arm and halted her movement. "How many times must I tell you? The kingdom has never had a female ruler, and now is not the time for any change in tradition. With Tokugawa facing civil war right at our borders, the people are uneasy enough as it is. They need a strong, male ruler to guide and protect them."
"Why can't they have a strong female ruler?" Kaoru ripped her arm from his grasp and stalked forward through the doors into the entryway of the palace. A few late night servants scrambled about to welcome her, and she gingerly placed her sword in the hands of one of her ladies-in-waiting, who took it with a slightly puzzled look.
"They can, and they will, but they want her to be married," Gohei countered, following her steps as she began ascending to the second floor where the bedrooms were.
"And if I refuse?"
Gohei ignored her comment completely, cutting her off at the doorway of her bedroom.
"The son of your general, Shishio, is a fine young man about your age. He is strong and well-liked by the people and the court," Gohei said swiftly, blocking the door with his large frame. Kaoru let out a frustrated sigh and glared up at him.
"You speak of Soujirou, I presume."
"Yes, I speak of Soujirou. He is a kind boy, don't you like him?"
"He's perfectly polite, if that's what you mean. But he is rather strange, and he never shows any real emotion," Kaoru explained, one hand on her hip. "And always with that empty smile… And his father! I can't stand Shishio!"
"He is your general, in charge of the forces that guard you. He has fought bravely for this kingdom and has suffered greatly for it."
"I am well aware of his unfortunate condition, and I know he is a brave soldier. But he is cruel and ruthless, and he almost destroyed Meiji with his foolish war! And he would have let my father take the blame for it, too," Kaoru told Gohei, finally fed up with the subject matter. "I do not wish to talk about all of this any longer. I want to go to bed, Gohei."
"I will allow you to sleep now, but this subject is not finished."
He stepped aside and Kaoru moved into her room, but stopped at the doorway and faced the large man standing out in the hallway.
"Tomorrow I become queen, Gohei. And you would do well to remember that once I am queen, you do not 'allow' me to do anything." She glared defiantly up at him. "Once I am queen, I am in charge and I may do what I wish." She slammed the door in his face.
Gohei stormed off towards his own bedroom, his hands twisting into fists at his sides.
"Oh we will see, Your Majesty," he muttered to himself as he disappeared down the hall.
Kaoru breathed a deep sigh of relief as she moved into her room, settling onto the bed as a young lady-in-waiting came in and stood patiently at the doorway.
"Are you ready for bed, my lady?" the girl asked in a small, timid voice.
"I suppose I've had enough excitement for one night," she answered with a breath, beginning to pull the outer layers of her clothes off of her. The girl rushed forward to aid her. "What is your name, young one?"
"Tsubame," she answered, taking Kaoru's clothes and setting them on a table to be washed later.
"I suppose you heard about the intruder and my… adventure." At the girl's tiny nod, Kaoru laughed softly. "Gossip travels faster than wild stallions in this palace." Tsubame began to brush out her long dark hair, removing it from its high ponytail and letting it fall sweeping over her shoulders.
The intruder… an interesting person, Kaoru thought as the brush moved gently through her hair. A man from Tokugawa, her kingdom's sworn enemy, yet polite and soft-spoken despite his strange appearance. Was he in the dungeon now? She supposed now she would be the one to judge him, since she was now old enough to take the throne. A queen…
A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts and Tsubame's brushing. She leapt up from the bed and hurried to the door, opening it to reveal Misao on the other side. The young woman rushed to Kaoru's side.
"Kaoru, I heard about your confrontation with the intruder in the garden! Was it true he grabbed you from your room and intended to kidnap you?" She was breathless with excitement. Kaoru laughed and took her friend's hand.
"No, nothing that exciting, I'm afraid. I was out practicing in secret when I heard a noise and found the man. He was simply lost, but the guards swarmed us and took him away," Kaoru said as she looked up at the gold-gilded ceiling. "He was from Tokugawa, did you hear?"
"Oh yes, I did. Was he frighteningly tall with purple hair?"
"No, he was rather small, but with wild red hair. I suppose what they say about their strange coloring is true."
"I heard their King, Hiko, is seven feet tall and wears a white cape," Misao said, nearly bouncing on the bed. "Have you ever seen him?"
"I remember seeing him once, long ago, when Father signed the treaty following the Bakumatsu Wars, but they could only stand to be in the same room for a moment, so I didn't get a good look at him. I do remember him being tall, but I was very small then." Kaoru smiled and remembered her father. Misao could see the glazed look in her eye and nudged her shoulder gently.
"Well, are you alright? Are you frightened?"
"I'm fine, Misao," Kaoru answered, suddenly turning to look her friend in the eyes. "What are you doing up at this hour?"
A delicate blush filled Misao's cheeks, and she ducked her head.
"Wait, don't explain," Kaoru said as she too blushed lightly. "You are newly married; I am not so naïve as not to comprehend what that means. Is Aoshi upset that you have left him?" Misao looked up, grinning but still blushing furiously, giving Kaoru a conspiratorial look.
"He is dead asleep," she said with a tone of pride underlying her words. "Quite worn out, I think."
Tsubame, who had been filling a bowl with water for Kaoru to wash her face, stumbled and almost spilled the water onto the carpet. Her face was bright red as she mumbled an apology.
The girls collapsed into giggles, falling back onto the bed. Kaoru loved to see her dearest friend so happy. They continued to share private details, blushing and giggling for several more moments before Misao regretfully had to leave.
Left in silence, Kaoru prepared for bed and then slipped into her warm bed. Tsubame slipped out the door and Kaoru was abandoned to her thoughts. Moonlight fell across her gold-embroidered sheets as she ruminated over the wild events of the night.
She fell asleep thinking of the wanderer.
Kaoru watched as Tsubame gently settled the priceless necklace around her neck, admiring the way the sunlight reflected off it in the mirror.
A loud knock on the door disturbed the peace of the moment. Gohei stuck his head in the door.
"Sorry to disturb you, but they need you in court, Kaoru," he said gruffly.
"Starting tonight, it's 'Your Majesty'," she said with a snotty smile, adjusting her diamond earrings with the tip of her finger and glancing at Gohei through the mirror.
"Yes, Your Majesty," Gohei said quickly before disappearing from the doorway.
Kaoru stood from her place at the vanity with the help of Tsubame, and smoothed the wrinkles in her gown. Layers of patterned silk surrounded her, adorned by twinkling jewels. Her raven hair was pulled up in an intricate style with diamond-studded chopsticks, and her face was heavily made up. Looking for one last moment in the mirror, she saw her sharp blue eyes stare back at her through thick lashes, and smiled. It wasn't a look she would have chosen, but she would have to get used to it. She was about to become the queen.
She descended into court from the main stairwell, taking her seat on the marble throne carefully so as not to twist or excessively wrinkle the fine fabric. Members of court filtered in, including Aoshi and his wife Misao, who gave Kaoru a grin and small wave as they stood in place.
At a smaller seat beside her, Megumi, Kaoru's cousin, took her seat. Next in line in the family though older in years, Megumi had always teased Kaoru for being such a tomboy and not good enough to be a princess. Now it was no secret that she wanted the throne herself, but she and Kaoru maintained a cold and polite relationship.
"Good morning, Kaoru. I'm sure you are excited for your coronation tonight," Megumi said in her satiny voice, glancing up at Kaoru from the corner of her eyes. "Can you resist looking like a boy long enough to attend your own ball, or will you embarrass this family yet again?"
"No more than you will embarrass us with your brazen flattery of anyone of the male species," Kaoru replied quietly, ignoring Megumi's rustle of clothing as she shifted in anger. Gohei stood at her side, stoic and still, as the last of the court members filled the room.
Gohei stepped forward.
"Thank you all for attending this session of court. We have only one urgent matter this day – an intruder found on the grounds last night," Gohei announced. Whispers erupted about the room.
Kaoru gripped the arms of her throne, unnoticeable to anyone but Misao, who watched her warily.
"Go retrieve him, Shishio," Gohei said beneath his breath to the man at his side. Shishio nodded and stalked off to the dungeons. Kaoru continued with menial tasks as he left for the prisoner.
Shishio was a strange man, especially since his serious injury at the battle of Hitokiri during the Bakumatsu Wars. Wrapped from head to toe in bandages, he looked almost like a mummy. He had been severely burned over his entire body, and now could only perform physical activities for fifteen minutes before suffering serious if not fatal repercussions. His general's uniform sat stiffly over his bandages, rustling as he walked. Despite his injuries, his eyes still held all the malice and power of a ruthless warrior.
He entered the damp stone dungeon with quick steps, signaling for his men to stand down. Slowing down to ominous, clockwork footsteps, he approached the last cell in the row.
"So you are the intruder?" he asked in his deep voice. The intruder looked up suddenly, and stared, frozen, at Shishio. "What are you staring at? My bandages?" he shouted, before spitting onto the stones before the intruder's feet. "Filthy Tokugawan, all alike."
Guards came forward and pulled the man out of the cell. Shishio held up a hand and stopped them before they pulled the man past him, leaning down to stare into his face.
"You look familiar, like a ghost from a nightmare I'd like to forget," Shishio remarked softly, staring intently into the man's violet eyes. Shaggy red hair fell into them, and all around him. In fact, at first glance he almost seemed to be all hair.
The intruder stared up at him with an almost nervous look in his wide eyes. Shishio scoffed and pulled away from him.
"Get him up to court." Then, with his mind still turning over the image of the man, he followed at a slower pace until they reached the court.
The intruder's hands were bound behind him with rope, his clothes torn and dirtied, and his hair filthy and tangled. He was thrown roughly onto the marble floor in front of the throne, which rose above him on a platform with stairs. Keeping his head down, the intruder awaited his fate.
"This man is charged with trespassing onto palace grounds, espionage for an enemy state, and refusal to cooperate with palace guards in interrogation," Gohei informed the crowd, who all watched the man with interest. Few had seen a Tokugawan since the days of the Bakumatsu Wars when the country was almost overrun with their soldiers.
"Recommended punishment – execution," Shishio stepped up to say, sending more trembling whispers through the crowd.
Kaoru stood up abruptly from her throne, silencing the entire room. She slowly descended the stairs, step by step, the rich fabric of her gown sliding over the marble with a sound like a snake on a forest floor. She stopped in front of the man.
"This man is simply a lost wanderer, nothing more," she said softly, though everyone heard. She tilted her head and looked intently down at the man, whose face was concealed by his lengthy hair. "Look at me."
He remained still.
"Look at me," she commanded slightly louder, as the people of the court murmured in confusion.
The man slowly lifted his head.
Their eyes met, locked for all time. And just like that, everything changed.
Author's Notes: Hello! This chapter's mostly a lot of backstory, but it sets the whole thing up for the events to come. The two kingdoms are totally made up (but the names are taken from actual Bakumatsu terms), and are not really based on any specific location or time period.
Please review and let me know what you think! I love to read your comments - good or bad.
The opening line/chapter title is from Celine Dion's "Falling Into You"