A Rose for Royalty
The trip to Fire Country—to put it mildly—was relatively discomforting in Hinata's opinion. The carriage that took her and some fellow travelers was cramped and small; she definitely had troubles stretching her legs and she would assume that her companions felt the same way. The old (and troublesome, though she won't admit it out loud) lady had brought in a whole lot of luggage that are placed on the given space between passengers, considering that the baggage space on top of the carriage were already full—with the lady's things nonetheless! Even the burly footman couldn't convince her to leave some of her things behind and in which the lady started to argue over the youth's lack of respect towards the elders. Said man and the driver tried to placate the woman's angry accusations, ending thirty minutes later and the trip delayed for more than an hour. Hinata's patience was rarely tested like this.
As she briefly counted the things she has to do once she arrived at the fire, she was glad that the king and his connections prepared her cover-story. She is to be from Snow, a distant niece of a court woman in the palace, one of whom Hinata is already well-acquainted with and a member of their order (though the king refused to mention who, saying that she'll know it once she'll see her). A formal letter has been sent to the court and was already approved. She is to visit and stay in the palace for a few short months for an experience of a life in the court before going back in Snow. Her made-up position is enough for certain privileges but not enough to gain attention, just like how she can work best.
But of course, while her superiors generously planned and prepared her cover, the rest is up to her. It will be up to her own devices how to maneuver herself to grant access to highly classified information as well as assassinating the royal family privately. She knew that this time, she'll have to change her style—considering that she is fond of one-time-meet, one-time-kill kind of scenarios.
She rubbed her nose bridge. Just don't think too much about it. Just do what you can for now. Maybe… take note of your surroundings?
A lanky man sat beside her, keeping on fidgeting and cleaning his reading glasses every once in a while. Just watching him makes her want to fidget herself (though that has been her childhood habit before, she killed it as soon as she was able to). A plump woman seated herself in front of her and snored the whole trip away. And thankfully, the old lady sat the farthest away from her, reading some scrolls despite the bumpy road.
Hinata distanced herself from her company—never mind their close proximity as their current cramped situation just did not offer the space she actually wanted. Wearing the polite blank mask did not save her from interaction within the traveling crew however much she wanted to stay silent. She did engage in the casual conversations every now and then. Trying not to be the center of attention is an easy task though, as the plump woman, when awake, proved herself to be of a loud and brazen manner. She silently pondered how Gaara does his don't-talk-to-me-else-you-want-to-die expression. She tried doing this a long time ago—a lot of times in fact before finally accepting that her facial features just refuse to do it. Of course, Temari had been a witnessed to these failed attempts—much to her embarrassment.
They finally crossed the River Country after a day's travel. Thus, when they arrived at the stop , they were told to refresh themselves (more like, gain the feeling back in their legs) before traveling again. Having her cup of tea at a café nearby (Tea of Life, it said), she noticed that some boys tried to catch her eye and those who did, gave her perverted grins. Impertinent little… And she smiled at them oh-so-shyly, even mustering a blush on her cheeks, before nonchalantly withdrawing her small hunting knife and used it to cut her bread with. She knew her point was not missed when their absolute discomfort was felt. Neither were there any distractions before their travel resumed.
The ride went smoothly after their stop albeit it remained in its slow pace. Hinata, bored with the idle chatter of the plump woman and the man beside her, decided to simply entertain herself with the passing scenery outside. The dreary weather due to Rain's low temperature has managed to make dewdrops hanging by the foliages even in the mid-afternoon. Or maybe it just rained, she mused. And it was beautiful in its own dismal way—how the sun hid behind the clouds and how the days perpetually felt like early morning, caught between the night and the daybreak. Like being unsure whether to stand in the light or to retreat back in the comforting darkness…
She knew it will feel absolutely peaceful…if only her companions would stop chattering and the horses stop clip-clop-ing away. She sighed.
The moment they neared the Fire, she knew it immediately despite never stepping foot within the country. The gradual weather change told it all—the wet air slowly changing to a comforting humid atmosphere that is only natural to the springtime feel of Fire. She breathed in and can't help comparing Wind to Fire.
Wind has always been passionate; she could feel it in her bones, radiating from the people around her. It always felt like a tight ball of pure energy, most especially in the capital, the Sand City. However, the Wind has always been unfriendly and cynical of others—those sandstorms that often surround the country scare off the foreigners all the time. But here…
She heard stories about the forests of the Fire—how one should not be unwise as to lose themselves in them when darkness comes. There were stories of creatures who are not so like them and yet quite similar who live deep down in the forests. Giggles that awfully sound like the tinkling of a nearby stream would echo within them. It was told that far after midnight, strange people of varying sizes will come, moving as if the forest turned into a small village. But those were just stories of the past. After all, what could wives do other than invent tales so that their young ones will stay after the dark?
But for a while, as Hinata looked on their new surroundings once they passed the borders, she sensed it was alive. The forest seemed like breathing, moving in an undecipherable pace, like a giant being about to swallow her whole. She wondered if it was mere imagination and the makings of her mind.
Because for a moment, she felt like coming home.
"So, how does a pr'tty lass like ye end up 'er?"
"What makes you think I am not from here?"
"O', oth'r people would h've said! Yer bea'ty is b'yond compare! Surely, ye must came f'om the he'vens!"
It was soon followed by a rambunctious laughter as some men pounded on the table, clutching their guts as they laughed their hearts out. Hinata could have slapped her face if she could. Well, glad to know they are having sooo much fun. Instead, she squared her shoulders and fought down the blush that could have well painted her pale cheeks. She briefly wondered if it was such a good idea to head here instead of the other tavern in the place. Right after they arrived at the Tanzaku Quarters at the Fire, the first village before the Leaf, the capital city, she immediately took her things and left, not bothering with the farewells with her traveling companions. Just seeing that plump woman nearly crushed that poor man with her hug erased any thoughts of saying goodbye out of her head.
"After you are done laughing, can you please lead me to where I could hire some carriage, sir?"
The beefy man behind the counter grinned then, folding his arms in front of him as he leaned towards her. She held her ground no matter how much she wanted to move away from him. His breath smelled of rum—seeing as she could smell his breath showed their proximity. She could just as easily stick a dagger down his throat when she wanted to.
"How 'bout ye hire me an' I'll lead ye to ye kno' wh't?"
Or maybe she could do it now.
Just when she was about to seriously contemplate her options and consequences of making a pointless murder, a hand touched her right shoulder, startling her out of her thoughts.
"I'll do it. No need to bother the lady." Hinata turned and the man quickly led her outside the tavern before the barkeep could protest. The man seemed to know him quite well though it did not struck her as a regular tavern customer. His deep blue eyes seemed too kind (and, well, sober) for a drunkard. Innocent too. Not naïve, but innocent in some ways.
As soon as he shut the door, he turned to her and gave her an apologetic smile. "Sorry for that. You know how a tavern goes," He paused then scratched his blond head, looking sheepish. "Well, course you do not. Else, you would not go there to ask questions, more or else alone."
In fact, she does. And she was supposed to ask more questions that are not just for directions. The taverns provide good information after all.
"It's alright." I had it covered.
"I'm Naruto, by the way. Naruto Uzumaki." He bowed slightly at her direction and she returned the gesture. She gave him a polite smile. "Hinata Hyuuga. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"So where you heading?" That question silenced her protests as he took her luggage, ever the gentleman. He casually led her down to the cobblestoned street. As soon as they rounded a corner, she finally noticed the crowd that was not present a while ago on the other street. There are people of middle class but mostly peasants crowded around—some carrying baskets, others shouting as they sell whatever they had on the baggage on top of their heads and some just walking around, as if taking a stroll. There were horses that passed by every once in a while, their clip-clop sounds blending with the noise and loud chatter of the area. Hinata supposed that they just reached the market area.
"I'm going to the capital, the Leaf city." She answered him. He turned to him and she watched as a delighted surprise painted his face. "Really? That's good! I'm heading there as well! You could just ride with us. No need to waste a few gold on a hired carriage."
She silently regarded him—his brown leather tunic reached his knees, underneath it was a high-collared white shirt with three buttons opened, a belt that went from his right shoulder down to his left hip where a pouch was strapped, beige pants with a few more than necessary pockets and brown boots that reached below his knees. This man is no pauper, she thought. It is only logical that he probably live in the capital, a noble man probably. After all, those gold linings in his tunic and boots gave it all away.
Most noble men are not dangerous. Just plain silly.
"Alright then. Thank you for the kind offer." She gave him a small smile and the faint blush that tainted his tanned cheeks did not go unnoticed. He scratched his head again.
"Eh…it's fine. We should go." And he maneuvered themselves among the sea of bustling people, moving around the area and crossing to another street. Hinata did not mind the hand on her back. Better there than holding her hand.
They soon arrived in front of a large building where a carriage was apparently waiting for them. Naruto knocked twice on the door and when he opened it, he was greeted with a punch on the head. Hinata stifled a gasp with a hand on her lips as her eyes widened.
"Ow ow ow!" He clutched his head in pain as he turned to look back at his assailant. His eyes were glazed over but she couldn't detect any anger in it, as if it was a normal thing. "Oh by the gods above, what was that for?"
"You made us wait for roughly two hours! My mother is not a patient person, Naruto! And I know asking information at that tavern does not take too long!" Said owner of stepped out of a carriage and glared at him. Hinata was surprised, though that is an understatement, when she realized it was a lady who hit him. Or maybe a woman in a lady's clothes. Ladies are not supposed to act like that. Well, that's what she thought anyway.
It wasn't just the fine red dress that caught her attention (she could swear those intricate gold embroidery on the clothes was handmade) but rather her astonishing pink hair. Who could possibly have pink hair? Apparently her, but still, it just seemed too unnatural, somehow. When she turned her attention to her, all doubts for her stature were casted away. Only ladies could possibly have that slight haughty tilt on their heads.
"Oh." She looked lost for a while before a pleasant smile graced her lips. Alright then. Remove the haughty. "Apologies. Naruto did not mention a friend." She gave him another withering look before turning to her with a smile. "I'm Sakura Haruno. And you are?"
"Hinata Hyuuga." She said politely and they bowed at each other. Naruto then stood up and went to their direction, all the while rubbing the sore spot behind his head. "I met her at the tavern. She's headed to the capital as well. She could just come with us."
"Oh. That will be fine," Sakura then waved her hand to usher her to the carriage, all the while smiling. "I hope you wouldn't mind some noise on the ride. I can't seem to help but bicker when Naruto is around."
Hinata followed her inside the carriage and was mildly surprised to see the old troublesome woman from her trip earlier. "This is my mother, Ayako Haruno. Mother, this is Hinata Hyuuga." Sakura introduced and Hinata bowed at her direction as much as the current space could provide. When she observed her carefully under hooded eyes, that's when she saw their similarities. Her mother might have that bright pink hair that Sakura had but it is now dulled to a muted red, her green eyes lacking the spark that her daughter had as well. But then maybe, their loudness still rivaled each other and that said more than their distinguished similarities.
Sakura seated beside her mother while Hinata went to sit in front of Ayako, near the window. Naruto sat beside her, in front of Sakura, after placing Hinata's luggage on top of the carriage. "My mother just came from Wind so we're here to take her home."
Ayako turned to her and recognition lit in her eyes. "Oh, yes. Hinata, was it? We both boarded on the same carriage going here. You are from Wind, are you not?" A slight twist of her painted withered lips, an arrogant half-smile. Hinata knew immediately that she is one of those aristocrats—prejudiced against people not from Fire, most especially from Wind.
"No ma'am. I am from Snow. I just remained in Wind before traveling here." She answered, remembering what the king told her to use as a cover-up. Ayako gave her a once over—her pale skin and dark hair indeed making her look like she's from the infamous winter country. She was just glad that she rarely went outside during the day back at the Wind, considering their chosen lifestyle. Her skin refused to tan though, only getting red when she stayed under the sun for long periods of time.
"So what is your business here?" Naruto asked. When Sakura gave him a shocked expression, that's when he realized it must have been said improperly. If he is a really a nobleman, his approach needs more improvement. And the lady needs to stop being so mean, maybe. Hinata just gave him a small smile. "I-I mean, no, that's not what I meant. I mean, what are you doing here in the Fire? Vacation perhaps?"
"No, but maybe something on those lines. My father sent me to a distant aunt. She is a court woman, actually, thus I have to live in the palace for the whole duration of my stay." Hinata tucked a strand of hair behind her ear as the carriage started moving.
"A court woman?" Ayako asked as she regarded her with that strange light in her green eyes.
"Palace, indeed! We live there!" Sakura exclaimed rather joyously. Hinata tilted her head, wondering what positions they may be in. "Mother is a court woman so I am entitled to be in the court as well. And Naruto…well, he…it's a long story." She laughed behind her hand somewhat awkwardly.
"We could accompany you, if you like. I'm glad that we met here instead of being formally introduced in court. It is rather stifling in there, sometimes." Naruto said as he gave her a lopsided smile. She could only bow her head in response, a perfect imitation of a humble lady. Well, one should play her part well, of course.
"Thank you. I appreciate your hospitality."
And when the conversation changed, the topic of interest moving away from her, she looked outside the window. The setting sun beyond the horizon painted the small village in reds and oranges. It was a tiring trip, a roughly estimated two days travel time and at which, she spent most of her time looking out the window. Her situation hadn't changed now despite the change of companions. It will be yet after two hours before they'll arrive at the Leaf City and by that time, it will be dark. She's just glad that her current company is headed the same way.
She did not talk much, that Sakura, Naruto and even Lady Ayako could notice. Her responses were always either an answer to one of their questions or a mere statement of a fact. She did not mind that their interest with her soon wore down and she was left outside the conversation circle. Wallflowers are boring, lacking of personality. They blend in the background and are easily ignored. And she liked that. Very much. Her observant eyes participate more than her presence, anyway.
Besides, how is she to move when all eyes are on her?
He propped his chin on his hand, a bored expression settling on his face. How could anyone stand in the company of these silly people in their equally silly (and frilly) dresses, he did not know. Two hours of sitting here doing absolutely nothing aside from occasionally refusing any invitations to dance had practically made him lose his sanity. Not that it is obvious on his calm and uninterested demeanor. After all, the crown prince of Fire had been the master of the collected guises.
"Son, maybe you should dance with one of them for the night."
Of course, only his mother could see pass through it.
"I still find this ball a total waste of time." He muttered under his breath, his voice revealing his inner disgust. Queen Mikoto sighed then, the starting signs of exasperation bleeding from her usually calm face. She removed her gaze from the dancing people on the ballroom and turned to look at her beloved son.
Sasuke Uchiha is beautiful as much as he is handsome. Sometimes, she briefly wondered if it is right for him to inherit much from her own genes than from his father. And then she scolded herself. Appearance wise, he looked like her. But in his heart of hearts, he is still his father's son. Cold, calculating and skilled beyond compare, he is the crown prince every country wished for. But his own strengths have become his own weakness—not one of emotional bond, he seemed to withdraw himself from the world. Especially now. His eyes seemed more hardened and colder than when they were before his return from his successful battles—battles against rebels that lasted for more than five years. He is stronger. But what of his heart?
"You know this ball is for you, son. Your father had been glad from your safe return and decided to give you this."
His eyes glinted at that. He is not ignorant. Of course he knew. He passed the marrying age already—a healthy age of twenty-two. It is to be expected that his parents wanted him to find somebody to wed—besides, all eligible ladies were invited right now. He knew that as well as all the selfish people in the room, those of which who are here only for their interest at the throne. They may wish that their daughters catch the prince's eyes or maybe their beauty might land them a spot on the Queen's throne. But he knew better. The court is dirty like that and he is expected to participate in their game.
"I am not interested. You know that, mother."
"Yes, I do. But won't you please just humor your father? Just this once?"
I've been humoring him for a long time since, he thought darkly. Of course, he is not just his father's son; he is also a subordinate of the king. Thus, his will is the law—whatever the king decides, it will be followed. Especially if it concerns the kingdom. After all, isn't the marriage of the crown prince the concern of the kingdom? Like his parents, his marriage will not be out of love. It will always be for a higher political cause. He doesn't mind. In fact, he doesn't care. But he refused to be married with a brainless and senseless lady that seemed to always populate the court.
Thus, Sasuke Uchiha, crown prince of the Fire Country, watched the dancing people again with uninterested eyes. It will take more than dancing and laughing to get his attention.
A/N: Took me quite long to wrap this up. I'm actually writing a short story for my animation class so I have to finish this quick. And I fixed those mistakes in the previous chapter. Instead of Leaf, it's actually Fire. :) Aah. Try to notice the details as well. I always write something for a reason. Oh and yeah, is it dragging? Boring? I encourage constructive criticism. Thank you for the lovely reviews. Have a good day.