A/N:Happy (early) New Year! This is a ridiculously long one-shot--maybe I should just skip the beginning/middle, and just write the ending for the other 3. ^_^;
Disclaimer: All I own is a lump of coal...a tiny lump of coal XD
Biwa - a japanese lute
Hime - Princess
Khan - leader of a tribe (Ex. Genghis Khan)
Kogo - Empress
Kyoudo - Xiongnu tribe (too lazy to make up an original name XD)
Onii-sama - brother
Tennō-sama - emperor/your majesty
Tennō-Heika - His Majesty, the Emperor (used to refer to current emperor since calling the emperor by his name is disrespectful)
Painted Feathers Damn the Lute:
- Wang Zhao Jun -
Full of mountainous pride and boundless compassion
Denied the fruits of life for the closest of kin
Yet unrelenting was she to yield before the darkest ink
Condemned to the forbidden palace in hopeless waiting
Twice in time, damned by a painter's hand
Lost her freedom and gained a chance
To embark on a journey to foreign frontiers
Braving cold winters and barren lands
To bind two nations in holy matrimony,
Leaving sentiments to linger in regret
Her eyes bejeweled with tears; dew drops in the light
A smile so sanguine; a feather in flight
Captivated by such a sight found only in heaven
The birds forgot to fly and descended from the sky
… .. …
Intense cerulean eyes stared blankly at a small bronze mirror, watching fretfully as a soft brush trailed over her eyebrows in a slow but determined path. Lashes fluttered as a heavy head dress of beaded crystals and pearls was placed on her head, tinkling with the slightest movement. The dozen hands of meticulous weaving gradually receded from her midnight tresses with a cry of accomplishment.
All the gems that adorned her were priceless but they did nothing but weigh her down, restraining her from taking flight. Staring at her reflection, her painted lips curved into a rueful smile. Many would envy her position but none would want to replace her, she laughed almost bitterly with the thought. Ironically, she would never give up her place.
"Kaoru-hime, it's time to put on your robe," voiced her handmaiden in a gentle tone.
Kaoru only nodded her head and stood up to walk behind the screen where two maids were waiting to help her put on her robe. The thin silky fabric ghosted over her skin like a teasing breeze. Layers upon layers, it wrapped around her slender frame; the resilient reds and tender yellows brought out the embroidery of chrysanthemums and drifting petals.
The robe was beautiful: rich in colour and soft in texture. It was truly the most beautiful thing she had ever worn.
"Tae-san, there must be a mistake. This robe is much too precious to be mine..." Kaoru trailed off, walking away from the screen only to be met by a pair of majestic eyes, admiring her with mixed emotions.
"There is no mistake. This robe was made for you," he said.
With a gasp, she and the two maids quickly lowered their heads and went down on their knees to greet the man in the dragon robe. "My respects to Tennō-sama."
The Emperor chuckled, amused by her facial expressions. A tender smile curved against his lips as he reached out for her hands, stopping her knees from touching the ground as he helped her stand. She glanced up in surprise as he admired the beauty before him, noting that the blueness of her eyes outshone all the jewels adorning her from head to toe. A hand unconsciously reached out to brush away her bangs, his gaze never leaving those lucid pools of blue that mirrored the heavens.
"There's no need for formalities...my beloved Nightingale," he whispered his voice almost a lover's caress.
Kaoru's eyes widened momentarily before retreating behind the beaded veil. That tender smile he rarely showed slowly turned bittersweet in yearning as his hand dropped to his side, remembering the day's occasion. Swallowing the dreadful taste, he shook his head lightly and held her hands.
"Come, I have one final gift for you," he spoke almost too softly, as if time would suddenly speed up by the loudness of his voice.
With the turn of his palm and a wave of his fingers, a maid came forward holding a golden tray which held the most exquisite hooded cloak. It was of the liveliest red with silk like textures, the edges were lined with the snowiest fur and soft to the touch. Kaoru was in awe as she fingered the wispy strands, a smile playing on her lips. The Emperor looked on with a tender gaze, wanting to capture every facial expression—no matter how evanescent—into his memories.
"Tennō-sama is much too kind," she expressed with childish delight. "Thank you."
The expression on her face was too much for his heart to bear, almost losing the control he tried to suppress. Taking the cloak from the tray, he dismissed all the servants who left in reluctance. With fluid movements he draped the cloak around her shoulders, tying the ribbon with carefulness; his hands lingered on her arms, unsure whether to hold on or let go. His gaze was on her, still not understanding how she could be so beautiful.
She remained silent but her heart raced against her chest from this strange closeness. The cloak was very warm, almost as warm as the hands that held her and the eyes that threatened to burn her. Thoughtfully she said, "I remember that a year ago when I first entered the palace, my greatest wish was to meet Tennō-Heika. And even though the time we spent was fleeting, I was content. Thank you……onii-sama."
A dull light polluted in his eyes when he realized what she was attempting to do. Yet she failed to realize that his feelings would not stop against such distance and time, even if he could not act upon them. "I sometimes forget you're no longer mine."
"But I will never forget you, onii-sama."
A deep ache formed in his heart as he leaned in closer, taking in her jasmine scent. Gently he pressed an affectionate kiss to her forehead.
"Heaven is too cruel. I lost you before I even found you."
A year ago...
The little village in the east was bursting with colour and excitement with the arrival of a high official and his entourage from the capital. It was the triennial selection of concubines, and several officials were given a mandate to scour the country for beautiful women to enter the Imperial Harem.
A huge crowd had gathered around the entrance of the Magistrate's office, full of anticipation. Many young unmarried women were ecstatic to marry into royalty, hoping to indulge themselves in a life of luxury.
Last to arrive to such occasion was a woman who wished to be anywhere but there. Yet to prevent her father from persecution, she was willing to do anything. Dressed in a simple yellow kimono and her inky locks pulled back with a ribbon, she walked with her head held high and determination storming in her eyes. Just as she reached the stone gates, two guards stood in her path.
"By order of the magistrate, Kamiya Kaoru is forbidden to participate in the Imperial Concubine Selection," spoke one of the guards.
Kaoru clenched her teeth, knowing fairly well why the magistrate gave such an order. The man wanted her to become his mistress despite her and her father's rejection. And there was no guarantee that he would stop harassing her father and sowing discord between them and the other villagers if they had agreed.
With a smirk she said, "According to Tennō-Heika's decree, unwed girls from decent families between the ages of 13-18 are able to participate. Although my family may not be of nobility, we do come from a long line of honourable warriors and scholars."
"A seal of authorization from the magistrate is needed to validate your admission," he argued with a confident grin.
Kaoru growled and silently cursed the magistrate for his devious mind, but she would not yield, she needed to free her father from his abuse of authority. Left with no choice, she tried to force her way in and created a ruckus, knowing that the guards dared not harm her due to their master's obsession with her.
"Stop at once!" shouted an authoritative voice, masculine yet gentle as a woman.
Kaoru stopped her squabble with the guards and took two steps back, looking up to find a dignified man dressed in a sea blue robe. Despite his male appearance, he was quite willowy and walked with a womanly grace. His dark eyes widened and twinkled upon seeing her; speechless that he was able to find such a gem amongst glass pebbles.
He walked forward and grasped her hands in his, smiling so wide that his face threatened to split in two. "The gods have finally given me their graces to find such a beauty. What is your name young lady?"
Despite being wary of the man before her, she answered strongly. "Kamiya Kaoru."
"How old are you?"
"Are you married?"
He was more than delighted by such a find but his expression morphed into a scowl and turned to confront the magistrate who was as pale as a ghost. "Why was this young lady's name not on the list?"
The magistrate only shook in fear, unable to answer such a simple question. Choosing to ignore the man, he turned to the confused Kaoru; his countenance becoming pleasant once more.
"Tennō-Heika would be very pleased when I bring you to the palace."
Forcing a smile, Kaoru wondered just what situation she had brought upon herself.
… .. …
Two days ago, she had bid farewell to her grieving father. He was deeply angered and displeased by her reckless decision but had no power to sway her stubborn mind: a flowing river that could never be reversed. Even so, he had wished her well with words of wisdom.
Kita-san, the official whom she learned was a high ranking eunuch, made sure that she would be comfortable along the tedious journey. Taking advantage of his gentle soul, she requested—though more like threatened—for her father to be free from the magistrate's persecution and be well taken care of. Kita-San was more than happy to oblige, strongly believing that she would be the one to capture the Emperor's heart.
Kaoru left with nothing but the clothes on her back and her Biwa; it was the only thing she could bring, the only thing that was home—it belonged to her late mother; a betrothal gift from a husband to his wife. Her other belongings were not needed as they would be provided for.
One afternoon as she sat under a pavilion she took out her Biwa and began to play a soft melody she remembered from childhood—a song her mother often play. Currently they were staying at a noble's manor in one of the towns. Not long after, a gentle sound echoed the melody of her Biwa and she stopped to glance around to see a blue-tailed songbird perched on a railing, singing the song she played.
It was the same blue-tail that she had grown attached to.
"I was waiting for you," she sighed, resting her chin on her palm. "With wings like yours, you should be able to fly to where your heart desires. Why do you always come back?" She giggled to herself, not expecting an answer as the bird looked at her strangely.
"I followed the sound of a nightingale, not knowing I'd see a fairy," said a voice from behind the shadows.
Startled, Kaoru stood up as something rustled in the trees. A large hand covered her mouth while an arm supported her back.
"It's not very pleasant to scream at your guest."
Kaoru looked up to see a veiled face and hair covered by a long winding cloth. Her eyes widened at the sight of amber eyes peering down at her. Such a colour was rare, shifting from dark to light; from cold to warm. At once she was reminded of the sun in summer at dusk; the power it held was just too much so she squeezed her eyes shut and bit down hard on his palm.
He ignored the pain and hissed, "I'll let you go if you promise not to scream."
She nodded her head and he slowly let go, instantly she pushed him away and stood against a pillar, eyeing him warily while he inspected the teeth marks on his palm.
"Unfortunately, this fairy has fangs," he chuckled as she gave him an evil glare. "Please don't look at me like that; I'm not a criminal."
She scoffed, "Really? Dressing like that and attacking a vulnerable girl, if you're not a criminal then who are you?"
The man sat down comfortably on a stool, smirking under his veil. "I'm just a simple wanderer."
"And you just happened to wander into this garden?" she asked incredulously. "But if you're a criminal, you must be very foolish or really arrogant to steal in broad daylight."
"You seem to know my nature very well," he grinned and motioned for the blue-tail to go to him but instead it perched on her Biwa. "I was just wondering where this little guy have been wandering to for the past three days; the little soul loves to leave my sight."
"Seems like it doesn't want to go, but you may leave the way you came," she scowled with a lift of her chin. "And might I suggest using a cage next time if you're so worried about it flying away?"
"Why would I want to use that? Birds are meant to fly, there's a reason why they are born with wings. I might as well kill it if I were to imprison it in a cage," he said, watching how her eyes lit up and the corners of her lips twitched.
Not understanding why she was quickly warming up to this stranger, she let down her guard, interested by his sense of logic. "Are you not afraid it will never come back?"
Within the blink of an eye, he was standing in front of her, too close for comfort. "But you see, what is mine, will always come back to me," he teased and tapped her nose.
Pressing her back against the pillar, she swallowed the nervousness, pushing back the blush and mustered up a threatening glare. "Oh? Is that what you believe? Give me the blue-tail and we'll see if it will return to you."
He laughed and she took the opportunity to move away, standing on the opposite side of the pavilion. "Now why would I do such a thing without a reason?"
Not wanting to admit it but she had grown to love the blue-tail; she loved the way it mimicked her playing, often singing along to her muse. "Do I sense fear in your voice?"
The light in his amber eyes sparkled as he laughed merrily. How could he not take the challenge? But before more could be exchanged, a swarm of guards appeared to chase the intruder. The next day, however, they met again and he formally gave the blue-tail to her.
"For now, I'll entrust the blue-tail to you, but do remember, it's not suited for a cage," he reminded.
Kaoru smiled, clearly captivated by this man's strangeness. "No need to worry, we'll be going to a place of paradise."
"Are you certain about that?" he asked as she looked at him with bewilderment. Did he know where she was going?
She did not answer him, instead she grinned, "Time can only tell."
"I'll be waiting," he said as she walked away.
"The blue-tail may one day return to you, but I doubt we will meet again," she whispered to the wind, realizing that they did not exchange names.
… .. …
Days passed but the presence of the veiled stranger continued to trespass through her thoughts. The only thing that kept her sensible and reassured her that he was not a figment of her imagination was the blue-tailed songbird. The carriage came to an abrupt stop as the curtain was pushed away to reveal Kita-san's smiling face.
"We have arrived, Kamiya-san."
Hesitantly with undisclosed eagerness, Kaoru peeked out the window of the carriage and felt her heart leap out of her throat. Before her was the most beautiful sight to be seen, the magnificent palace gates sparkled under the sun. Its white stone walls towered high in arrogance, taking pride in protecting its dwellers. Intricate carvings lined its expansive surface, depicting the Great Battle of Mount Hiei.
The large, heavy red doors intimidated any who went near. Kita-san flashed a gold plaque upwards towards the guards and within seconds, the double doors slowly parted. It roared in welcoming but all Kaoru heard was the gentle warnings of her father.
"Do not bewitch Tennō-Heika."
Over and over again, it echoed in her heart.
… .. …
It had been a few weeks since she entered the palace and from what she'd experienced, it was not at all what she originally thought. There were way too many rules and regulations to follow and the other ladies-in-waiting were not very pleasant to speak with. It seemed that only Kita-san, Tae-san—her appointed instructor—and the maids were the only ones she enjoyed talking to.
"Don't forget Kaoru-chan, just a few silver pieces is enough," reminded her instructor.
"But Tae-san, its blatant bribery," Kaoru argued, wondering just how many times they had this conversation.
Even Tae was getting weary of the subject. "I understand, but it's a form of unspoken protocol. You entered the palace to be Tennō-Heika's concubine, didn't you?" she asked as Kaoru nodded. "And the only way for you to meet him is if your portrait stands out amongst the others."
Kaoru grinned and pointed to herself, "With a face like this, I don't need him to enhance or eliminate anything."
Tae shook her head, trying not to display her frustration, "No matter how much I taught you, I can never douse out your arrogance." Then with a serious face she advised, "You should be more careful, even the greatest man would fall because of pride."
"I'm a woman, not a man," Kaoru rebuked.
With narrowed eyes, Tae pinched her cheeks and admonished lightly, "Then you should behave like one, or one day you will regret it."
Kaoru pouted and rubbed her cheek as she stepped into the private studio, leaving Tae in a grumpy state.
"Higashiyama-san," she greeted with a polite nod, causing the man to look up from his blank canvas and pots of paint.
"Kamiya-san, please take a seat over there," he pointed with a charming smile.
She did as she was told and waited patiently for him to begin painting but all he did was stand there, staring at her as if he expected her to do something. Knitting her brows with a frown she asked, "Is there something the matter?"
"I'm not sure if Tae-san said anything but my position as the Royal Court Painter is very important. With a simple stroke of my brush, it could determine whether or not your destiny may cross path with Tennō-Heika's."
"Then I'll leave my destiny in your hands," she replied in a childlike tone.
He cleared his throat and sat down in front of her, wanting to make his intentions clear. "Kamiya-san, you are a very beautiful woman and as an artist, I desire nothing more but to capture that beauty on canvas."
"Higashiyama-san, with such an important post, I have no doubts in your ability."
The corners of his eyes twitched as he tried once more, "However, a beauty like yours is very difficult to capture. I'll need special colours and soft brushes to bring out your magnificence."
Kaoru tried to hide her smile as she said, "Then in that case, Tennō-Heika would be able to provide you with all the necessary provisions; after all, it was Tennō-Heika who appointed you to paint my portrait. Though, even without them, I'm sure you'll be able to do wonderfully."
"I see." He coughed slightly and walked over towards his canvas. "Then, is it alright to paint like this?"
Smiling innocently, she nodded her head and sat still. Ryuuzaburo, on the other hand was utterly vexed; picking up his paintbrush non-too gently, he began painting.
'What use is a beauty if it can't be appreciated? Such a shame,' he thought darkly.
… .. …
Months went by since her portrait was painted but not once had the Emperor requested for her audience. Many of the other girls who arrived at the same time as her had already moved out of the small Spring Blossom Palace—the place where all the ladies-in-waiting resided. The only one to accompany her in this loneliness was Tae-san, whom she came to love and admire as a mother figure.
"I truly wish you had listened to me because it's too late to regret it now," commented Tae-san as she sipped her tea.
Sighing slightly, Kaoru looked up from her scrolls and asked, "Would it still be regret even if I could turn back the hands of time and not change a thing?" Tae remained silent, watching her tea leaves drift back and forth. "I admire those who are able to survive this lifestyle but I don't envy them."
Tae looked at her in contemplation and closed her eyes. "Well, at least you've matured these last couple of months. However, your arrogance still needs adjustment."
"Tae-san, will I ever be able to meet Tennō-Heika?"
"That, I cannot say. But just because a woman was able to enter the palace does not mean she would be able to meet Tennō-Heika. She could spend a lifetime waiting in this palace and still, would never be able to seek his audience," explained Tae in a wistful tone.
"I don't understand. Women are brought from far to be Tennō-Heika's wife but he would never meet them. If so, why not just send them back home so they could seek true happiness?"
Calmly she replied, "You cannot put a common marriage and Tennō-Heika together, there is a very huge difference. There is only one official wife—the Kogo—the rest are his concubines."
Kaoru pushed away the scroll with anger and disbelief in her eyes. "Tennō-Heika is a very selfish man."
Tae's eyes widened as she grabbed Kaoru's hand in warning, her eyes cold and hard. "Do not let anyone hear you speak that way, otherwise the consequences would be dire."
"But I speak of the truth," Kaoru growled, not taking Tae's warning to heart. Lowering her gaze as her anger was swept away by a strong yearning for the outside, she spoke softly. "If Tennō-Heika does not want me, he should send me home. I don't want to stay here anymore. I miss my father, Tae-san, I really want to go home and take care of him. I want to go home."
"Kaoru-chan…" whispered Tae as tear drops stained her sleeves.
For the first time since she arrived at the palace, Kaoru wept sorrowfully. Motherly instincts triggered and Tae pulled Kaoru into her embrace, consoling her with words of assurance—but even they sounded empty in her ears. Her tears seemed unending, flowing down her cheeks like a raging stream. All the emotions she had pent up were fighting to be free.
Voices were heard outside their chamber as Kita-san stepped in with a somber countenance. "Kaoru-san," he called as she looked up with a tear stained face, "Tennō-Heika has given an order……"
A tinge of hope flickered in her eyes as she waited for him to continue. Tae-san sat by her, a growing smile on her face as she desperately wished for it to be good news.
"For offending Tennō-Heika and insulting the sanctity of the Royal Palace, Kamiya Kaoru is to be restricted to the Mid-Winter Palace," he relayed, clearly saddened by the turn of events.
"How could this happen? Kita-san, how could she have offended Tennō-Heika if they have never met!?" questioned Tae, wanting an answer.
"Apparently, Kogo-sama received a poem Kaoru-san wrote that clearly portrayed hatred and blame towards Tennō-Heika which also evoked a hidden yearning for another."
Instead of crying her heart out for her pitiful predicament, Kaoru gave a bitter chortle and wiped away her tears roughly, ignoring Tae's blanching face. She grabbed her beloved Biwa and looked straight ahead with an expression that displayed she would not allow them the pleasure of seeing her suffer.
"Kita-san, please lead the way," voiced Kaoru in a rigid tone.
"Kaoru-chan, do you not understand what's happening? The Mid-Winter Palace is a place where concubines who have lost Tennō-Heika's favour are condemned to. Those who had entered were unable to leave."
Kaoru shook her head, eyes slightly red from rage and sorrow. "Here and there, what's the difference? It's all the same to me. Kita-san, please lead."
... .. ...
Under the afternoon sun, two dignified men sat under an open tent, a small table which held a game of chess nestled between them. Green peridot glared at dark amber intensively before tanned hands moved across the table, sliding a white piece to protect an essential territory. Threads of red swayed back and forth as a black piece was moved to divert attention.
"We've been playing for a while now, when will this end?" asked the red head in a calming voice.
"Things do not end just because you want it too, especially one that has been going on for hundreds of years," replied the opponent, snowy white hair glistening under the sun.
"I don't know about you but I care for the people."
"And who was it that decided to stop paying tribute?" he asked callously, lifting a brow with a smirk on his face.
"Pettiness does not befit Royalty," he countered, not backing down. "These unnecessary wars between your dynasty and my tribe need to cease. And tributes are quite degrading if we are to be on equal standing."
"Then what is it do you want?"
"Are you willing to give what I request?"
The two men eyed one another, provoking the other to make a hasty decision. Their advisers sighed dejectedly at their superiors' unrelenting nature to compromise. Nothing could be decided if they were to continue on with this game of cat and mouse.
"Might we suggest a marriage between Kyoudo tribe and Asuka Dynasty?", they timidly voiced, stopping the game for a moment of peace.
Later that day at the royal palace, the Emperor was in his study with his Empress while the court painter laid out paintings of ladies-in-waiting onto a long rack.
"Are all these women of the Spring Blossom Palace that I have not bedded?" inquired the Emperor as he glanced at each painting.
"Yes, Tennō-sama," replied Ryuuzaburo.
"Enishi-sama, is this truly alright? They requested a Princess for a bride, if we give them a lady-in-waiting, would it not cause problems?" the Empress wondered with worry.
"Its fine Shura, none of the other Princesses wanted to go so I have no choice but to choose from the Spring Blossom Palace. Besides, even if one did agree, I won't allow it. I won't have my family blood be tainted by that barbaric man."
Shura only shook her head at her husband's behaviour. Slowly and carefully, Enishi inspected the paintings, contemplating the pros and the cons. The one he chose had to at least be understanding of the situation and be willing to go, after all, she would be the one to bind the two nations. Finally stopping at one particular painting, he picked it up and examined it closer. She wasn't particularly outstanding, quite forgettable, but something in her eyes spoke to him.
"She'll be the one."
... .. ...
Releasing a series of sighs, Kaoru wondered just how long it had been since she was condemned to this cold palace. Was it days, weeks, or months? Though she hated to admit it, she had once cursed the Emperor for having such a shallow mind. But she knew that these things were inevitable. He was the Emperor, there were other things more important than choosing his concubines.
That poem wasn't meant to be seen. The fruitless months of waiting allowed her mind to wander to distant pasts—to moments where her heart fluttered in a way not known to her before. The joyful singing of the blue-tail made her recall that unforgettable encounter. And though she did not see his face, their affinity was undeniable.
Kaoru picked up her Biwa and began to play her sorrows away, softly singing the words of her damnation:
Little sparrow of morning light,
What sad fate to be in such a plight
Severed from a world of boundless warmth,
Resigned to a haven of silver and gold
Feathers turn to dust, wings no longer dear,
Cajoled into a realm of blood and chrysanthemums
Oh little sparrow do not fret,
Not all hands promise regret
Suns of summer not long ago still awaits your return,
Here comes the wind, threading what's left behind
Dragons of the sky may sway the heavens,
But this modest soul remains unmoved
Look up at the sky in twilight's veil
When will the sun rise again?
As the music died, her presence was sought. Kaoru was escorted down the long hallway and came upon the barred door where Kita-san stood on the opposite side—his face visible through the railed windows. The expression on his face told all but nothing could be worst than being imprisoned; death, after all was liberation from this cursed place.
In seconds, the barred door was opened as the chains fell to the ground with a clunk. Kaoru was baffled but asked no questions as she followed Kita-san out of the Mid-Winter Palace. Soon they arrived at a small chamber, a beautiful woman of regality sat in front of a window, admiring the flowers.
"Our respects to Kogo-sama," they greeted with a bow.
Kaoru was in awe, not once did she think of being able to meet anyone of royalty since her imprisonment. The woman before her was a true beauty but that didn't matter, she had learned that most women in the palace had a heart full of poisonous thorns. The Empress scrutinized her, a provoking smile on her painted lips.
"You must be Kamiya Kaoru, that portrait truly did you no justice," she commented in an airy voice. "However, that attitude is somewhat lacking." She was clearly speaking of the poem incident. "But that's not what I want to speak to you about. I'm sure that you have heard that a Princess of ours is to be wedded to the Kyoudo tribe."
Kaoru nodded, she had heard the news through the many gossips of the maids but paid no particular attention to it. But what does that have to do with her?
"Unfortunately, none of our Princesses are willing to go to such a northern place. This is very troubling but it can be solved, that is, if you agree to take the Princess role and marry into Kyoudo?"
Her blue eyes widened as a small gasp escaped her lips. Never had she encountered such an important decision, as this pertained to the alliance between Kyoudo and Asuka. To marry into Kyoudo was to leave the Royal Palace. Maybe this was her chance to escape this wretched place of captivity.
"I will go," she replied without hesitation.
"What?" The Empress was astonished. No one would willingly want to marry into such a place full of barbarians and living out in the open grasslands. "Have you any idea how important this is? If you are doing this because of anger, then I suggest you forget about it. Tennō-Heika and I will find another."
"No, I am truly willing."
"Do you know who you are marrying?"
"The Great Khan of the Kyoudo tribe: Battousai."
... .. ...
"I thought you have grown, but you are still reckless," noted Tae with a displeased face.
"I'm not reckless, just selfish. I'm sure that wherever Kyoudo is, I'd have much more freedom."
"If that is what you want, then I'll support your decision."
"Kaoru-hime, your tutor has arrived," announced Kita-san with a smile on his face.
Turning around to greet her tutor, she gave a gasp, stopping dead in her tracks at the figure before her. Though his face and hair were hidden, she recognized those pair of eyes—full of warmth and passion. Were the heavens repenting for what they have done? He simply could not appear in front of her after nearly a year. Anyone in the room could tell how her eyes had brightened from the sight of this newcomer but chose to leave it be. After a few exchange of words, Tae and Kita-san left, leaving silence to linger in discomfort.
"It's amazing how one day you're a commoner and the next you're royalty." He raised a brow as she turned away and sat down at a small desk. "I wish we had met earlier; then this past year wouldn't have been so painful..."
Kaoru chose to ignore his whispered words and asked, "Who are you exactly?"
"Just an insignificant man of Kyoudo who happened to be your tutor," he replied cheekily. "Are you not happy to see me?"
Kaoru smirked, "It's been nearly a year, and I'm surprised you still remember this insignificant woman." Yet deep inside, she knew she was bursting with joy.
There was a twinkle in his eyes as he stepped forward and held out a palm. "How can I forget my fanged fairy?" Kaoru glanced back and saw the teeth marks still visible on his palm—the teeth marks she had given him when they first met. He then playfully added, "Himura Kenshin is willing to serve Kaoru-hime."
Laughing lightly, Kaoru tugged at the dangling hair ornaments in her hair, "Please Himura-san, address me as Kaoru. That royal title does not fit me; it's like a small sparrow attempting to wear phoenix plumes—a truly laughable sight."
"I'll do as you request if you call me Kenshin."
During those three weeks, it was undeniable that the small affinity between them grew and flourished. Kaoru, however, was beginning to feel uneasy with these newfound emotions and wasn't sure how to act upon them. All she knew was that she was to marry the Great Khan of Kyoudo and to ensure an alliance.
Just before dawn, the two met one last time; Kenshin was supposed to return to Kyoudo that morning. His task of teaching her of Kyoudo's traditons and customs in preparation for her wedding has ended.
"I want to see you," said Kaoru.
Kenshin laughed and replied, "But you do see me." He knew what she meant.
Her eyes narrowed, "Are you hiding something?"
He only shook his head, "I'm not used to the conditions of the south."
"Just once, let me see you," her voice was soft and pleading. How could he deny her what she wanted?
With a sigh and his eyes never leaving her gaze, his hand slowly went up to tug at the cloth wrapped around his head. The burgundy cloth slid away, revealing strands of fiery red to glitter under the dawning sun. Kaoru was mesmerized as they cascaded down his shoulders like rain. The cloth that covered the bottom half of his face was pulled down to reveal his scarred cheek.
"Those words should be reserved only for you; yet they are still inadequate to describe you."
Her hands then reached out to cup his face, holding him so tenderly as if he was made of glass. His amber gaze softened as a tint of violet swirled around the edges. Light escaped through the cracks of the earth as a hazy glow descended upon them. Her heart was doing crazy things and the warmth on her cheeks did not come from the sun, she never saw anyone gaze at her with such a loving expression before. It was as if only she existed in his eyes.
And upon the corner of her lips, he left a chaste kiss. "I'll come back for you," he whispered.
Tears escaped her eyes as she finally understood what it meant to regret.
... .. ...
It was the day before Kaoru had to depart to Kyoudo; it was also the day she would be formally presented to the Royal Court and officially become a Princess of the Asuka Dynasty. Heart beating in anticipation and hands slightly trembling from anxiety, Kaoru gathered her strength and took in a deep breath. This would be her first time meeting the Emperor and it might as well be her last.
The large screen doors slowly slid open as she lowered her gaze to the ground, knowing fairly well it was rude to look at the Emperor directly in the eyes. Exhaling softly, she walked in slowly, the train of her beautiful robe trailing behind. Kaoru took no notice of anything around her; all she heard was the pumping of her blood.
Silence devoured the throne room; the officials who sat on either side were speechless, watching her intently as she stopped where the floor met the steps to the throne.
Lowering her head, she went down on one knee and greeted, "Kamiya Kaoru shows her respects to Tennō-sama."
"Raise your head," he commanded. His voice was strong and unwavering; warm but indifferent.
She did as she was told, yet her gaze was still on the floor. Swallowing nervously, she did not hear the rustle of clothing or the footsteps that echoed as they neared her. All she saw was a pair of feet clad in yellow boots and the edges of a golden robe with the intricate embroidery of what seemed to be a dragon's tail.
Kaoru nearly jumped at the lightest touch on her chin, wanting her to gaze up. "Look at me," the voice requested.
Gradually, her eyes looked up and the ocean met the mountains. Green bamboo eyes that threatened to pierce the skies and hair of snowy white that hid no darkness—he was the Emperor of the Asuka Dynasty, Yukishiro Enishi. A slight smile threatened to show but the tightness in her heart was finally gone. His eyes lingered on her for a moment or two before he turned back towards the throne to commence the simple ceremony as if nothing had happened.
Finally, it was over; Kaoru sighed in relief. It was unnerving to have all the officials' eyes on her but Enishi's gaze did more than unnerve her. However, he had requested for her presence to join him in the water garden. So there she was, sitting across from him under a pavilion as the sun slowly set, painting the sky in an array of colours.
"Dragons of the sky may sway the heavens, but this modest soul remains unmoved. Look up at the sky in twilight's veil. When will the sun rise again?" he softly reiterated, causing her to blush. "Will the modest soul really remain unmoved no matter what?" he asked sincerely, taking hold one of her hand. Kaoru only sighed, a small smile on her face. "I see; you must still be angry with me for condemning you to the Mid-Winter Palace."
"I admit, I was angry, I was disappointed. But the time I spent there and now being able to meet Tennō-sama has finally washed away those bitter feelings," replied Kaoru with a smile. What she said was the truth.
"Then why do you choose to marry to Kyoudo? Did someone force you? If so, don't be afraid and tell me; I won't let you go." He held on tighter as his gaze glimmered from determination.
"No one forced me, I chose to go." She could tell that he didn't believe her. "I realized that I won't be happy here, I yearn for the skies, the mountains and the rivers, all that I cannot have if I stay."
"Then I'll build you a palace with mountains and rivers, you don't need to go anywhere." Kaoru only shook her head, it just wasn't the same. She'd still be trapped in a cage that just happened to be a little bigger. "What can I do to keep you here with me?"
"I'm sorry." There was no way to convince her and besides, it was already too late. Kaoru placed a hand on his and said in a gentle tone, "May I play a song for Tennō-sama?"
A sad smile lingered on his lips but he nodded his head and sat back, watching as she picked up her Biwa and began to play a soft and nostalgic melody, singing wistfully as her eyes met his. Enishi had dismissed all the servants, wanting to spend the entire evening with her, knowing that when tomorrow came, she'll be out of reach. The moment she had walked into the throne room, he felt his heart react in a heavenly way. And he knew for certain, he fell in love with her...
Cold jade hands clutched tightly onto an old lacquered Biwa, the once lively paint faded from old age but the strings were newly strung. A longing sigh was suppressed as she held the Biwa possessively to her chest. It was the only old item amongst the new; the only item she truly possessed.
Step by step, Kaoru descended the marble dragon stairway towards her awaiting carriage. By her side and tightly holding her left hand was the Emperor, Enishi. The moment he escorted from her room, his eyes never left her face, speaking of nothing but the silent whisperings of his heart.
The closer they got to the carriage, the tighter his grip grew and she knew just how difficult it was for him to let her go.
Kaoru stopped suddenly and turned to face Enishi, a serene smile on her face. She only needed to walk the long path but his grip showed no signs of waning.
"Onii-sama, let us part here. Thank you for escorting me, but from this point it's best if I walk it alone."
Enishi tilted his head slightly as his gaze softened; his green peridot eyes glimmered like dew on grass. A hand reached out to caress her cheek as a forlorn smile appeared on his face, he finally nodded his head with a defeated look.
With a chuckle he chanted, "The autumn night is only in name. We've done no more than gaze at each other; and it's already dawn." (1)
As she parted her lips to speak, he hushed her with a finger and shook his head, unable to hear her bid farewell; slowly and reluctantly, he let her go.
With determined steady steps, Kaoru turned and walked away, not once looking back to see that painful expression on his face. Breathing out in solace, she closed her eyes for a moment and went on forward, her steps becoming lighter and the headdress no longer weighing her down.
Once she entered the carriage, Enishi took off in a sprint, running up the steps with servants and guards trailing behind in worry. He ran along the corridor of the palace wall, finally stopping where he could see he carriages moving north, away from his grasp.
Silently to himself, he laughed bitterly, and clutched his fists so tightly his knuckles turned a snowy white and blood trickled onto the ground. Tears threatened to spill, blurring his vision as her shadows could no longer be seen.
He was the Emperor. He was the son of heaven. He could have everything in the world, but the one thing he wanted more than the world could never be his. With such power in his palms, he could not use it to have her all to himself.
"Tennō-sama, please do not do this," begged his servants.
"Quickly, summon the palace physicians!" one hollered.
Such power, what was the use of such power?
"No." Anger, pure rage of wanting blood replaced the sadness in his eyes. It was because of that painting that he lost her; because of that selfish man that he could never have her. In a strong and imposing voice Enishi commanded, "Send out my decree: for the vicious crime of deceiving Tennō-Heika, the royal painter—Higashiyama Ryuuzaburo—is to be executed at once!"
This was how the power bestowed upon him by the heavens should be used.
… .. …
Above her head was the boundless blue sky and before her eyes were the vast mountain range, trailing along the green grasslands. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, even the air was much sweeter. A contented smile played on her lips as she took a sip from the long winding stream. The three days of traveling really brought down her chains.
For some reason, even the song birds sounded more heavenly.
This was freedom.
"Kaoru-hime, once we pass this valley, we'll meet up with the bridal caravan," relayed one of her maids.
She sighed and fell back onto the soft grass, looking up at the sky. "Freedom is truly short-lived", she mumbled. "Tsubame-chan, do you think the Khan will be able to capture me if I run away now?"
"Kaoru-hime!" Tsubame exclaimed in alarm, eyes round as apples.
"Don't mind her Tsubame, Kaoru-chan always loves speaking nonsense, but you'll get used to it," sang Tae with a twinkle in her eyes, as she packed some items back into the carriage.
Laughing cheerily to herself, Kaoru winked at Tae and stood up with a stretch. How she loved to tease her young maid. She was lucky that Enishi had consented to her request of bringing Tae along—freedom was meant to be shared after all.
Tsubame pouted but helped Kaoru back to the tent to dress up for the inevitable first meet with her betrothed.
… .. …
The sounds of pounding drums could be heard a mile away. Resonance of other instruments complimented its echoes at the end of the valley as two rows of brightly dressed dancers created a narrow path that led to a small pavilion constructed of wood and hide, translucent curtains framing it was left to billow in the breeze.
Kaoru's carriage stopped where the dancers greeted her with bright smiles, welcoming her with movements of their hands and feet. Stepping out of the carriage, she felt her breath taken away by the magnificent sight. Their tribal clothes were bright and fluffy, a swirl of colourful emotions that coaxed her into sweet surrender.
The music pounded in her ears, her heart beat echoing its rhythm. At the end of the pathway where the pavilion stood, a prominent figure stood, waiting for her to come. At the sight of his flaming red hair, she felt her heart constrict as a hopeful sensation overwhelmed her senses.
She took a few hesitant steps forward, everything was forgotten except for what was in her line of sight—him. Blue eyes engaged in an exclusive conversation with his amber ones—shimmering like that of a vast ocean under the summer sun. Slow steps quickened as he walked forward with arms outstretched and a smile on his face.
In a flurry of colours and sounds she found herself encased in his warm arms, her head buried in his chest. Scent of ginger and pine intoxicated her frazzled mind—the bliss of drunkenness. Clutching onto him as if he were to fade away like every time she awoke from a dream, she managed to utter his name in a voice so low, it almost went unheard.
"It's me Kaoru. I'm real."
He chuckled in amusement as she looked at him with large, innocent eyes and held her at arms length so she could see him clearly; her hands timidly rose to caress his cheeks, fingers tracing the contours of his eyebrows, nose and lips. Her touch lingered on his scar, discovering the depths it held. Kenshin stood there drinking in her beautiful sight and leaned into her rousing touch.
Still in disbelief, she questioned, "You're the Great Khan?" He nodded with a smirk. "Then that means…"
"I have come for my bride," he replied softly, loving the way her cheeks flushed with colour.
Kenshin leaned forward, resting his forehead against hers as a hand unconsciously sought for hers, entangling their fingers in a convoluted web. He had been waiting for this moment for a very long time. The music and singing enveloped them with feelings of love and jubilation.
Tapping her nose playfully he teased, "I'm glad I didn't have to go after you for trying to run away."
With a pout she retorted, "I did not try run away. I would never do that."
"I know." He said it with such conviction that it softened her heart immensely. "You should also remember what I said when we first met."
Kaoru bit her lips to suppress a smile as they noticed the blue-tail perched on the corner of the pavilion. All that was his will always come back to him. There's no need for shackles or cages to keep them at his side.
"The words of a Khan to his wife are always sincere," he whispered in her ear.
"And all that you have promised?"
"I intend to fulfill them."
"Then I want to fly."
"And I shall give you wings."
Falling back into his arms, she laughed joyfully as he tightened his hold around her waist.
It was now unnecessary to yearn for the sky, for the warmth of the sun was finally in reach.
- f i n -
A/N: Phew, finally done! At first I was contemplating whether Kenshin should be the Emperor or the Khan, but I wanted a happy ending. I actually wanted to build some sort of relationship/connection between Kaoru and Enishi but then it just got too long so I had to delete it--plus at one point I wanted her to end up with the emperor, I made him so sad.
I will be writing about Xi Shi next and the person I have chosen to portray her is Misao, while the rest will be KxK. Hopefully the next three one-shots won't be as long as this one.
Please review, it will make me very happy =D
Historical Synopsis: Wang Zhao Jun is her concubine name, her real name is Wang Qiang and she's supposed to be slightly arrogant. To save her father--a scholar official--from persecution, she entered the imperial harem. When she refused to pay the court painter--who was taking bribes from the concubine candidates--he painted an unflattering picture of her. Since Emperor Yuan chose which concubine he would spend the night with through portraits, so he either dimissed Wang Zhao Jun's portrait or never saw it. At this time, the Xiongnu tribe (a nomadic tribe) was trying to establish a friendly relation with the Han Dynasty, so Hu Han Ye (the Khan) requested a Princess for a bride. Emperor Yuan was reluctant and none of the Princesses were willing to go, so instead he presented Hu Han Ye with 5 ladies-in-waiting from his harem, one of them being Wang Zhao Jun, though she volunteered to go because she wanted to leave the palace. When Wang Zhao Jun was presented in court, the Emperor was mesmerized by her beauty and wanted to replace her with another but it was too late and could only watch her leave in regret--that was the first and last time he saw her. Angered that he was deceived, Emperor Yuan had the court painter, Ma Yun Shou executed. Years later when Hu Han Ye died she had to marry his oldest son who became the next Khan (a levirate custom)--but legend has it that she committed suicide to avoid said custom. (1st Century BC of Western Han Dynasty)
Got all this info from wiki and the 2007 drama adaptation. I think I spent more time researching than writing the actual thing (^_^;)
(1) a poem by Ono no Komachi ( I though it suited the situation best)
Copyright © 2008 LimeGrass
re posted: 07.05.09