Notice as of July 9, 2014: As you may have noticed...this story has been placed on hiatus. Reason on my profile. I deeply apologize for the disappointment.
A/N: Umm, I'm...not going to go back and rewrite anything that has been contradicted by the manga storyline. So...I'll just work with what I've got...
Thank you, Maru-sama, for editing!
Till You Die
44 - Tergiversation I
"What do you suppose is the reason, despite their superior strength, the ninja remain subservient to us lords?"
Footsteps made hollow echoes in the empty hall. Loreli's gaze flickered up. Any number of spies could be watching from above the beams supporting the ceiling, and from the dark recesses in the walls. But the feudal lord before her was neither powerless nor afraid.
"It is because they lack unity. And numbers."
Lord Kiyano Hisana snatched up his long kiseru from its rack, and a few moments later, the scent of tobacco traversed the room to her. He blew out smoke through his teeth, before he continued.
"Every now and then, there would be sympathizers. Fools who bought into the seduction of peaceful coexistence."
Kneeling, the black-haired woman picked up the shamisen from the instrument rack. She slid her fingers over the taut strings.
"What do you suppose is the duty of the lords in dealing with one of those?"
Loreli cast her gaze on the floorboards before his feet. True to the rumours, the entire interior of the castle was painted a somber red: Floors, ceilings, support beams, walls. Word has it that it was painted in consideration of blood stains that would run deep into the wooden pores.
"...Are you accusing me of what I suspect you are...esteemed lord?"
His cruel laughter barked out, resounding all the way down to the outside corridors. "Impossible. Utterly unthinkable!"
Stroking through his moustache between two fingers, the feudal lord snorted with ill humour. "One: Yukino Touhito has not a revolutionary bone in his body; and two: none of his subjects can betray his will!"
The long ornate pipe dangling from his fingers, Lord Kiyano narrowed his eyes at her. "Such is the blood oath's guarantee."
His scrutinizing gaze bore into her. The accusation hung in the air, churning; burning.
"So how is it you still live?"
The rhythm stopped, the colours retreated, and time slowed.
...'Tell me, Princess
-as much as she wanted to shut out that voice-
how much is this one servant's life worth to you?'...
Rarely a situation arose that could cause this haughty and quick-witted female to break into a cold sweat. Her back was soaked through. "I fear I do not follow your meaning, my lord..." A quiet, careful murmur. "What is it that you wish to ask me?"
Biting hard on the mouthpiece of his kiseru, Lord Kiyano drew his long thin eyebrows together sardonically. "Hah! Even for that Yukino Touhito, the rumours are impossible to stamp out. Rumours," he volunteered to elaborate, "of your abduction."
She slipped on a smile; one tightly contained. "I dare not suspect your lordship is one to invest in mere rumours," Loreli answered seamlessly.
The silence was expectant, foreboding.
"Recall the last time you feigned ignorance before me?" Lord Kiyano asked in a matter of fact manner. He might as well be recalling what he had for breakfast that morning.
She inclined her head, ever so slightly, and remained otherwise impassive. The long, white scars still remained beneath the curtain of her hair.
"Such undying devotion, then, and now," Lord Kiyano remarked. His feline-like eyes took on a callous glint. "Even for a master who had forsaken you."
Years she spent perfecting the ability to mask her reactions. Ah...but what to do...? She had yet to master the ability to quell a storming heart.
..And it was stifling...
"You know of what I speak," Lord Kiyano stated dryly. "Yukino is a cowardly man, but never careless. What kind of lord allows ninja to wreck havoc in his own home, if not intentional?"
"Deep down, you know what really transpired!"
Her jaw had clenched, and had ached, and now finally grew numb.
"A mere servant who sees too much; knows too much: Exceedingly influential in his domestic affairs and over his heiress Princess Yuzuzu." The opportunistic warlord laughed lowly. "Without the security the blood oath provided, you were too conspicuous; yes, too dangerous to keep."
Feudal lord Kiyano's voice bled irony. He rolled the long pipe between his calloused fingers. "What he could not have expected was for the leader of the Uchiha to let you live!"
She regarded his stance through the veil of her long lashes, silent and unmoving.
"Imagine the unrest when Yukino's retainers learn that the blood oath is no longer in the royal family's possession!"
...The young woman's eyes flinched shut. Very well. If he would go as far as to say those words, then she had no choice but to take the bait.
"...Then, my lord..." Loreli chose to speak. "...Have you seen it with your own eyes...?"
Too long had this man eyed her master's lands with envy and scorn. But, he would not find a loophole through her.
The black-haired woman confided tartly, "Hn...I had not thought my allegiance to be questioned in such a way..."
She heard only the pulsating of her heartbeat inside her ears.
"Lord Kiyano." Her dark brown eyes dared to raise and meet his gaze. "Do not doubt my loyalty to my liege. I would not hesitate to take my own life if I were to cause him trouble with my continual existence."
She could see his eyes, specked with suspicion and bloodlust, pinning down on her. "Is the fact that I am alive not proof that nothing is amiss?" the young woman challenged him.
"You speak the truth?" the feudal lord questioned lowly. Lord Kiyano had always been a man of action, not persuaded by mere words.
Coolly. "Or would you have me leap from the balcony once again, as proof of my sincerity?" Loreli asked.
...She woke to a throbbing pain in her chin. What met her eyes was the dark red surface of the floorboards she laid sprawled on.
...What was this...? It felt like...she had just woken up from a long dream. The black-haired woman lifted herself on hands and knees.
Gingerly, she felt along her chin, certain that it was marred by sizeable bruise. There was no way she would allow herself to sleep in such an undignified pose. Did it mean...she had fainted?
"Tsk." Goodness, what hour was it? The unlit corners of the room were dark and sinister. There was something important she meant to do, although she couldn't exactly recall it at the moment. Something important at stake.
"Is anyone out there?" Loreli called.
Immediately the screen door slid to one side. "You have need for us, Loreli-san?"
They looked to be castle servants, addressing her with respect. She asked them, "Why had you not woken me? It should have been obvious I was asleep."
"Loreli-san," they answered, "it was your orders that no one disturbed your rest."
That's right...She remembered something, now. Uchiha Murata had mentioned that it would take complete rest before her mind could recover fully from the aftereffects of genjutsu. It was all coming back to her.
Infiltrating the castle. The unpleasant meeting with the feudal lord. Being tested before his court. She would admit...when she had recommended to Murata to release her memory by the activation of key phrases, she hadn't expect him to do such a good job. His skill was truly among the best.
"Bring me salve, and some bandages," Loreli said. She couldn't go around looking like this. "And you," she addressed the other servant, "lead me to where Manabe and Wakanabi-dono are held."
Manabe Saoji was the oldest among Kiyano's retainers. He served the late lord, and then the lord's son Hisana when he ascended the seat of power. Manabe had since outlived his wife who was older than him, his concubine, and his two sons whom he had lost to war. In other words, he was a man who lived for a long time, and had little left to lose.
Wakanabi Toshio, on the other hand, was even younger than her, not yet versed in the workings of the court. His passionate belief in justice led him in speaking his mind regardless of consequences. She had been like that...once.
Here she was before the two men. Manabe sat meditatively in the far corner of the cell, refusing to acknowledge her presence. Wakanabi couldn't stop stealing glances at the bandage on her chin.
The three of them remained like that for a while. Until the retainer Wakanabi's curiosity finally gave away to tension and hostility.
"Do what you came to do," Wakanabi said loathingly. "There's no place for meaningless talk. I, for one, will never agree to serve you."
He truly did remind her of...a piece from the past.
So much, in fact, that she couldn't kept the irony from her response. "Then, we'll only have very meaningful talk," Loreli said wryly. She answered his glare with a look of indifference, and tuned her attention to the older man who had yet to react to her presence.
"It had already been thirty-three years, hadn't it? Since Lord Kiyano Hisana first fielded an army." Loreli looked to the elderly retainer directly, reciting what she knew. "The clash with Raidenko's army met a disastrous end, and Hisana-sama's father had been gravely injured in battle. Hisana-sama had been appointed rear guard with a token army to delay the enemy for as long as possible, although the complete annihilation of Kiyano's forces seemed inevitable."
The elderly retainer made no move, but she was certain he was awake to hear this.
"Hisana-sama's token army had meant to escape across a bridge after his father's safety had been secured. Instead, he had ordered his bodyguards ahead to sever the bridge between two cliffs. When his army had arrived to find its escape route had been cut off, and the enemy on its tail, Hisana-sama had drawn his sword, turned to his men, and had said, 'Since we have nowhere to run, we will fight! If you wish to live, all you need to do is win!'"
Such was the first of many battles that made Kiyano Hisana famous. The perfect example of his crafty intelligence and cold blooded determination. He had known, even at the age of seventeen, that if they have lost the strategic foothold, their forces would never recover to be on par with Raidenko's forces. By cutting off their own escape route, he had turned the soldiers' mentality from fear to sheer determination.
"Even while greatly outnumbered, Hisana-sama came out victorious. Since then, he liked to comment that even cornered mice will fight back," Loreli finished up with.
The young retainer wore a somewhat puzzled frown at the telling of the story. Manabe, however, let out a chuckle.
"This cornered mice you speak of," the elderly man responded with, "do you mean me and Wakanabi...or you?"
A small smile escaped her lips. Just because he was old didn't mean he was muddled and inflexible in thought. Manabe Saoji was, in reality, one of the figures she admired and respected. It was unfortunate that circumstances would have them as foes.
"Neither," answered Loreli. "I meant to say that those who are desperate to cling to life can be...unexpectedly treacherous. Thus," she said, "I prefer to ask those whose thoughts are truthful and clear."
"So you know who would provide the best source of information," the elderly Manabe remarked. "What makes you think they would be willing to speak?"
"Because this could be your only chance to pass on the truth," Loreli answered in a matter of course manner.
That was an appeal to his scholarly background. The insatiable desire to obtain and to record truth.
"Violation of a contract spells serious consequences for us all," Loreli reminded him. "I cannot imagine Kiyano-sama would have betrayed the Uchiha...without a very good reason."
"Betray?" Manabe repeated after her, astounded. "My lord did not betray the Uchiha," stated the white-haired man. "It is the Uchiha who backstabbed our lord!"
...Loreli felt her eyebrows arch up. "Say what?"
"I will ask you to turn back, woman. This is not a safe place to be."
She wasted no time in demanding her way. "I will speak with the Uchiha commander."
The Senju guard wore an expressionless mask. "I will repeat, this is no safe place for you."
"...Why don't we speak honestly?" Loreli said with a light smile. "It isn't safe because I will...what? Sneak in something that would allow him to free himself? Obtain some crucial information that would jeopardize your war? And how?" she asked. "Haven't I given your clan full authority on the castle's security? Or have you forgotten..." they seemed to have had no problem with it when their captain had tossed her down the stairs to confirm "...that I am no ninja?"
The muscles in his jaw worked. The guard replied to her stoically, "While it is true you are the one who granted us that authority-"
"Look here," Loreli said coolly, stepping aside one step, "there is someone watching."
Manabe Saoji could not be moved from the cell, wanting no part in her schemes. Wakanabi, the naive one, however, could not pass up the opportunity to figure out her motives. He looked bewildered at the sudden attention the shinobi were giving him.
"Let me tell you this now," the black-haired woman warned. She went up to him, close enough for their toes to touch. "The more you deny me, the more you'll have to regret later."
His hardened eyes appraised her, no doubt trying to decide if she spoke an empty threat.
"I don't mind if you listen in," Loreli said with a small shrug of her shoulders. "Nothing inside these walls can remain hidden...And I have nothing to hide."
She offered him a small, knowing smile. "Or do you?"
"Just let her," his fellow guardsman pitched in, evidently displeased by the mini episode of drama taking place right before his eyes. "Hadn't the captain mentioned it was fine?"
...Had he, now?
The Senju guards, after a suspenseful moment of exchanging glances, stepped aside for her.
"You may pass," she was told. "Only you."
...Loreli passed them without another word.
'It was a bloody massacre! All of Kiyano-sama's bodyguards and personal servants, dead!'
It was silent as a grave down there. Seeing that the light grew scarce further down the stairs reached, she took one of the torches down with her.
She knew she had reached the base of the castle keep when the wooden walls became stone. It was eerie down there. In ancient times there would've been mass burying of soldiers and servants of the castle lord when war had not allowed for proper burial rites. Who knew how many souls lay forgotten down there?
Light from the torch washed over the dry, dusty floor. It flooded onto the massive posts which set the foundation of the castle keep.
Uchiha Yuushun was secured to one of the posts, a web of seals restraining him.
"Well, well...This is unexpected, commander...How could one of Uchiha Madara's most trusted generals have let his forces get overwhelmed so completely?"
The shinobi raised his chin, ever so slightly, in the direction of her voice.
He no longer had the black rods sticking out of his pressure points, but one look at him was enough for her to imagine what tortures he had to endure to remain alive.
"Say, these seals," Loreli commented as she squatted down, her fingers hovering above the long strip of white paper.
"...Touch...not...my lady..." he rasped. The sound nearly startled her. Yuushun's voice and demeanor in her memories was impeccably smooth and suave. It was a huge contrast.
"That Senju Tobirama...he is an expert at crafting seals." Yuushun coughed, and the convulsion seemed to cause him great pain. "It will not be removed by force."
She glanced up at the wall behind him. The seals were plastered all the way up to the ceiling, chaining him to the wall.
"Then, how does one go about breaking these seals?" Loreli asked tonelessly.
She waited for him to explain.
"...He carries it with him. Only his blood on that master seal will release the rest."
Yuushun rasped, "You shouldn't be here, my lady."
She let out a half-sigh, half-laugh. "'You shouldn't be here'. That's right up there with 'You can't do this' and 'You'll pay for this' as the phrases I hear most often."
Again, Yuushun coughed violently. She felt a little bad for making light of the situation.
Loreli asked without further ado, "The Uchiha have been accused of betraying Kiyano Hisana-sama, do you acknowledge or do you refute the claim?"
"That claim is false," the Uchiha shinobi said without hesitation.
"Had you, or had you not sent a missive" she went on "containing treacherous information intended for the main camp before the attack?"
Yuushun gave pause. Perhaps to catch his breath. Or perhaps in hesitation.
"...I had...sent a missive..." the shinobi replied simplistically.
"Is it, or is it not possible to bring back the deceased, if even for a short while?" Loreli demanded.
"...Interfering with the dead..." Yuushun rasped "...a forbidden art. None had accomplished it before."
She pressed on indifferently, "Theoretically speaking, could the user force the dead to speak lies...?"
If he hadn't been hesitating all the times before, he most certainly did now.
She waited as he gathered his wits about him.
"...That would be the same feat as altering the deceased's life while he was alive. Even for a ninja; in theory, an impossibility."
She stared at the side of his face. "So you do realize all the evidence is stacked against you..." Loreli commented blandly.
To her disappointment, Uchiha Yuushun offered no words in his defense.
Silently, Loreli stood up. She went a few paces away, before she asked, "Well...what are you hiding from me?"
To that he gave no response.
"...Will you take me for a fool?" Loreli murmured. "A shinobi of your rank has a wealth of information vital to enemy clans. Normally, a ninja would rather take his own life than to risk spilling intelligence under capture."
She looked back at him. "The fact that you are still alive," said the young woman, coolly, "means that you know something of importance that must absolutely be passed on to your clan...am I right?"
He neither confirmed nor denied it. Yuushun simply remained quiet.
My, my. Despite their friendliness when playing cards together, Yuushun was a ninja, after all. He could not trust her based on camaraderie.
"...You're wondering why I'm here, right?" Loreli asked. "Wondering what I'm here for? Wondering if...your leader knows?"
"Very well." She came to a decision. "This will be the only time I do this:" Squaring herself to him, she held up three fingers, despite knowing that he was blindfolded. "I will permit you to ask me three questions. Only this once, I will answer with absolute honesty. Ask the right questions, and you will come to understand everything."
Above the seal which bound his vision, his eyebrows knitted.
"Well, it will be your choice whether to trust me or not." She shrugged half-heartedly to herself. "My only request is that nothing I reveal will leave this place. Not such a bad exchange, is it?"
Silence met her question. But, this time it was a pensive silence.
He was considering her proposition, beads of perspiration appearing on his brow.
"...Yes?" Loreli responded, surprised by the use of her name.
He was quiet for a moment. Thinking that it took too much effort for him to speak loudly, she approached him.
"Madara-sama...I cannot understand it myself," the Uchiha general admitted. "Although he had never cared for taking a wife...or starting a family..."
Yuushun shook his head slightly from side to side. "Despite the circumstances under which you two met...Despite how you defied him and humiliated him..."
"Madara-sama made you, an outsider, the mistress of our clan." His head bowed sheepishly, acknowledging that he was overstepping his bounds. "If I am not mistaken, he is devoted to you in any way the head of a ninja clan can. If there is anyone in this world who can protect you, it is Madara-sama. You understand this, do you not?"
Loreli pursed her lips. Perhaps she was thankful that right now, he couldn't see.
"Is that your first question?" she asked him.
"...Loreli-san." He paused. "The Uchiha stronghold," Yuushun decided at least, "do you plan on returning to it?"
She tilted her chin up, and answered him.
Her blunt answer caused him to relapse into uneasy contemplation.
"...I shouldn't be...surprised..." He struggled with articulating clearly despite his physical condition. "As you know, I interact with females more so than other Uchiha shinobi." That was why he was Uchiha Yuushun, the lady killer, and the only one among Madara's councilors who took time aside to get along with her. "Loreli-san, you are not a woman motivated by love or greed. What is it that you're truly after?"
The Uchiha general raised his head toward her. "What did you hope to gain by coming here despite Madara-sama's orders? What do you truly wish for?"
...She stared down at him a moment longer.
"Is that your second question?"
To what, he confirmed with a nod.
...The young woman went down to a squat again, avoiding the dusty ground.
"...A wish...huh..." She wondered what kind of expression was on her own face now. She recalled the dreams of some of the younger palace servants.
...Marrying someone who would make them feel like the most beautiful women in the world. Raising a family. Applying their talents to their fullest potential. Living blissfully to a ripe old age. Leaving behind a legacy of goodness...
"...Since that day when I was fifteen years old...I have only...one...feasible wish..." Loreli said quietly.
Her smile was cold, her voice hateful.
"And that is to bring down Sorairo Ikezoe."
It took a few seconds for her to bring her breathing under control. "To that end, my desire is the same as yours, is it not?"
"...Ikezoe..." Yuushun repeated the name, nearly in disbelief. "...Sorairo's leader...? Then, there was a connection...?" he asked as though to himself.
Loreli clenched her jaw. She shouldn't be surprised that he knew...something. She wouldn't have put it past Izuna to have had looked into her past.
"...Is that your third question?" Loreli asked lightly.
A fit of coughs seized him. She wondered if he could detect her racing heart through the sound of his own coughing.
Fresh blood was dribbling from corners of his mouth. Heedless of the stress it was causing his body, the Uchiha shinobi continued, "...I was meant to determine your loyalty to the Uchiha through the use of these questions. Knowing will not change anything."
...Indeed, Yuushun was not one of Madara's generals for nothing. He kept a relentless grasp on the situation at hand.
"...Answer me this, Loreli-san," Yuushun said. "Motives aside...would you have risked acting out on your own if you had no guarantee to your safety?" He no longer hid that this was what he found most skeptical. "From whom? Even a feudal lord cannot protect you from a ninja clan's ways...or from Madara-sama's wrath..."
"General," she said. Surely this wasn't the first time he noticed her recklessness in endangering her own life.
Lightly. "...Do you know how it is to live in constant fear?" Loreli asked. "To know your life can end at any given moment?"
"It is...maddening..." she answered herself.
"My lady?" She appeared to have alarmed him with the revelation.
"Tell me..." the young woman sighed "...should I embrace fear...while knowing that anytime he so desired, my life would be forfeit within a matter of seconds..."
He wore all of the bewilderment he was experiencing on his face. "My lady, you-"
"Hmph." His concern for her was touching. Loreli replied, "He wouldn't do it." A small, ironic smile. "Not while it is all still very entertaining for him."
"By 'he'...the Sorairo clan's leader?"
She rose, smoothing down her skirt.
"I'm sorry," Loreli said apathetically. "...You are out of questions."
Now, the decision was in his hands.
"I have no interest in clan secrets," the black-haired woman said. "Only in what...perhaps...I should know."
The shinobi swallowed visibly.
Sounds came from the direction of the stairs.
She had been down there for a good while. Someone would have to check up on her.
Her attention returned to him.
"The Uchiha have not betrayed the feudal lord."
She did not respond.
"Even if you knew, the truth will not change anything." Yuushun ended his sentence with a cough.
"That's it, then...?" The light of torches forewarned her of the approach of people. Her heart sped up. She fixed her posture in early preparation.
"...I only tell you this because you must escape from here," Yuushun said, drawing her focus to him. "If you can get here unscathed, you should be able to leave in a similar fashion."
Well... Loreli held her tongue.
"That is not the real Kiyano Hisana."
Pure, disbelieving silence met his statement.
"What?" Loreli demanded incredulously.
"Outrageous argument, I am aware," Yuushun forestalled. "His imitation is meticulous. But, his chakra makeup is different. Unfortunately, only those with sensory capabilities like our Sharingan and whom have met the real Lord Kiyano before can tell. I happen to be one of those few."
"Ridiculous," came her retort, her heart hammering. "I am no stranger to this man, the ally of my lord! You think that I wouldn't recognize his mannerisms, his knowledge, let alone believe he could fool all his retainers?" Her voice unwittingly rose. "What of his secrets? If he is not the real Kiyano Hisana, then how could he know—!"
But, even as she spoke that sentence she could hear herself trail off.
How long she was lost in the maze of her mind, she couldn't tell. Only the awareness that the torches were spreading out the darkness woke her from her stupor. People were coming.
"...Loreli-san..." Yuushun's voice had lowered in awareness of others' approach. "Even if you would believe me, there is nothing you can do. Whoever is behind this would have covered all the tracks. There isn't a way to prove my claim."
She was biting her thumb, unconsciously. Her thoughts could only be described as dark, and foreboding.
"...There is a way, isn't there...?" the young woman asked him, rhetorically.
Her thoughts were turning back, in fact, to what little was revealed about the Senju commander's unusual ability.
'Why not simply revive him like you have done with the witnesses! All you need is a sample of blood!'
'The dead can tell no lie, isn't that what you told me!'
Just a little bit...
She was beginning to see the true form of the trap that had been sprung on her.
Loreli let out a wry laugh.
I will admit it.
You really got me this time.
Although she hadn't shared her thoughts with him, he seemed to sense they weren't what he would have liked to hear.
"Leave it behind and escape. Knowing what I said will not change anything," the Uchiha general urged her.
"...No," she disagreed, crossing her arms lightly over her chest.
Looking to him with grim determination, Loreli made her statement.
"This changes. everything."