Her hands were cold. Whether the cold was born from a chill in the room or the fear eating at her nerves, she wasn't sure. Curling them tightly in the smooth fabric of her heavy skirts, she shivered. Stepping a little closer to the fire the servants had lit when she had been shown to the sitting room, she willed the heat to thaw out her half-frozen fingers. She wished she hadn't said no to that coffee, even if her stomach was rolling in knots born of nerves.
To go from the warmth of her rivers and hills to this ice capped landscape terrified her. She could feel the magic of the dragons around her moving through the thick, stonewalls that captured the heat of the fire even as it bled with cold. Her magic couldn't touch the heat of. She'd tried. The floors were warm enough that she didn't feel a chill through her thick boots – another reminder of how different this landscape was. Not for the first time since she started this cold journey did she wish she had carried even a hint of the fire element. This whole mountain was a giant ball of warmth and explosive power – she was more interested in the warmth right then, but she couldn't tap into even a hint of it.
The place itself wasn't exactly a fortress, but it wasn't the sprawling estate she had grown up on either. Surrounded by frozen peaks and walls of thick, jagged ice, the free flowing water ran deep below the earth and they had built directly on top of the volcano. Kaoru sighed. It was an absolute fabulous way of managing to keep your home from falling into the hands of a rival clan but it was going to be miserable going until she adjusted. Nothing said Stay Out like the possibility of your home exploding out from under you in shower molten rock.
But the very things that made it an amazing place to raise your family and clan in the relative peace made it a difficult place to cultivate. There were ways – she'd heard rumors of large growing caverns – but some things just didn't do well in hot caverns. They'd needed a better source for some of the more finicky grains and animals. Which was where her Clan had eventually come into play – for the past century, the mountain clan had been working to finalize their alliance with her hidden valley clan. In exchange for the open trade between their people, the fire elementals would help protect the borders of the Hidden Valley from other clans who wished their territories to include the fertile farm lands they carefully tended. The Valley clan was mostly wind elements, and while the fire elements bent their gift to war, most of those who lived in the valley were scholars and negotiators who preferred peace to bloodshed.
Both clans desperately needed the others resources.
Humans were becoming a problem. They bred quick, held grudges, and always wanted more. The long-lived races were slowly growing tired of their constant need to expand and were lashing out. Unfortunately, these races were slow to reproduce and slow to anger, so by the time they saw the problem, numbers had become a factor they couldn't ignore. Even her clan was recognizing this fact. Where once the children with the more violent elements of the wind had been taught little more than the control needed, they were now being encouraged to test and learn the extent of what they could do. But those children were born rare and far apart.
The alliance had been welcome.
In an attempt to seal the alliance each clan had sent a member of the founding bloodline to intermarry into the clan. The Hidden Valley clan had sent Tomoe Yukishiro, niece to the Clan Lord and the Ice Mountain Clan had sent Muto Shogo. Shogo had married her Clan Lord's sister and over the two years that he had lived in the valley, they had seemed to be moving in a direction that suggested the marriage might become more than just a necessity. Kaoru was happy for them. But something had gone seriously wrong with Tomoe's match to the Ice Mountain Clan Lord's heir – and a century of work had nearly been destroyed.
Kaoru hadn't known much about Tomoe, even though they were distant family. Their skills were on opposite spectrums from each other – in both power and use. Kaoru struggled with the control of her talent while Tomoe only needed to refine hers. Tomoe was gifted in the minor elements, controlling soft breezes and the rare ability to purify. They were only a few years apart bit the distance and Kaoru's spotty control had kept them from sharing even the most basic of classes or friends.
From what few – very few – rumors she could gather that it was because of Tomoe's softer gift that she had struggled. The mountain life was harsh and difficult – elemental gifts ruled their lives to a certain extent. Shogo had certain seemed to burn from the inside out, always taking on a situation from the most direct angle with the intent to subdue his problems by sheer force of will. For a woman accustomed to quiet evenings and warm sunshine, being thrown into the mix of violence and constant, scorching heat or frigid cold must have been a shock to Tomoe's system.
She didn't know how things had fallen apart, however. Most of what she knew was only guesswork. In fact, all the clan knew was that Tomoe had betrayed her clan husband and taken his cousin as her lover. They didn't know if Tomoe still lived, if she had been executed for her crime, or what had become the man she had betrayed them all with.
It had taken weeks to decide what the clans would do now. Shogo was working out his marriage and the alliance still held, but it was shaky. There had been letters back and forth between Clan Lords that no one knew the contents of just that each night there was strain on the Lords face. Then, a month ago, Kaoru had received her own missive to report to the Clan Lord and his council.
They were sending her to be married into the Ice Mountain Clan. Their hope was that a second wife would find a way to heal the breach of trust. They had decided that she was the most likely to make the new life work – of the few woman left in their family line, she was the only with enough experience and a gift wild enough to possibly survive. They did not wish to make the same mistake twice. So Kaoru found herself sitting the cool room waiting to discover who she was to marry.
Kaoru sighed and wondered if she stood any closer to the fire if her skirts would catch.
No one had come out and said it, but it hadn't taken Kaoru long to understand why they were sending her. In all ways that mattered, she was the complete opposite of Tomoe. Where Tomoe had been directly related to their Clan Lord, she was from a distant branch line. And yes, her gift was very different from Tomoe's. Her gift was violent and as difficult to control, and it reflected in her temper. Her elemental gift was only truly useful when there was a violent storm for her to shape. She struggled with the basic control of air and winds, and so her energy had been turned to meditation and learning control. She enjoyed fighting and learning the sword, because she couldn't depend on her gift the way others could. She could flatten a village or strip a place bare of vegetation, but she couldn't use the air as a living shield. She had been pulled into the war program on her power alone but she had excelled at tactics and resource management.
It was these differences and her personal belief that had gotten her into this. Still, knowing all this… Kaoru didn't know what she felt. Resentment had been her first emotion. The clan had assured her that her father would be well cared for in her absence, but she was his only close family. Anger because she was being forced to pick up the pieces for a woman who had known better. Frustration because she hated the cold and dreaded the frozen winters that loamed ahead of her like an endless prison.
But a month of sleepless nights and a raging temper had left her too drained to be anything but resigned. For most of her adult life, she had struggled to find a way to be useful and strong for the clan. Now that she had that chance… well, she was beginning to understand that the ways she had wanted to be useful would never happen now. This was her path and she was going to have to tread along it.
The sound of the door opening told her time was up.
When she had first arrived at the mountain keep, she had noticed that all the men and women had red and gold colorings. Shogo's hair had been dark unless in direct sunshine – then you realize that the color was actually a deep, deep red. Red, gold, straw-berry blond and a few heads of the strange cherry-tinted darkness had been everywhere she had looked. Their eyes ranged between curiously blue to near-violet to a pale, near-white. All shades of flame and heat.
The man who stepped into the room had coloring that was no different. His hair was a rather intense combination of scarlet and gold, and his eyes were a bright indigo-violet that had small sparks of gold embers around the pupils. For a moment she was struck by how bright he was and her sudden curiosity was broken up by the entrance of a servant who proceeded to set out several trays of food and drink.
When he continued to study her after the servant had left, she worked not to fidget.
"Welcome to my home." He said finally. "I am Kenshin."
Kaoru wondered if he was deliberately baiting her. The even tones of his words gave nothing away and his features were perfectly blank. But Kenshin was the name of the man Tomoe had married and the heir to the title of Lord. She gave the correct curtsey now that he had spoke and used her minor talent to call the scroll she had been sent with to settle on the table at his elbow.
"Thank you. The Clan sends its greetings."
Two could play this game of perfect politeness, after all.
"Please," he said finally dropping his eyes from her face as his fingers closing around the scroll. "Sit. Eat. The tea should still be warm."
Kaoru nodded her thanks, before seating herself as he moved to the fire to examine the scroll she had delivered. She wanted to watch him, study that strangely beautiful face that hit her so unexpectedly in the gut. But she needed to concentrate to keep from rattling her ridiculously delicate tea cup on its equally delicate saucer – what she wanted was a thick mug that she could cradle between her fingers. Finally just giving up, she bit into a sandwich and watched him from the corner of her eye.
She knew the scroll was mostly about her personal information, warning him about the violence of her gift should she lose control. She didn't blame the clan for passing along that information. She wasn't certain how she would have brought it up – mentioning that she could bury the mountain side under a blizzard if she was angry enough didn't seem like a casual conversation starter. Thankfully, she couldn't create storms. All she could do was manipulate what she was already given.
Finally he turned away from the fire and sat down across from her, settling in the chair easily as he rolled the scroll between his fingers easily and vanished it somewhere. Those too bright eyes settled on her features, watching her with that nerve-wracking intensity she was determined would not get the best of her.
"Your Clan Lord has expressed concern that you should know the fate of your cousin."
Kaoru tucked her brows together in confusion. She hadn't really been all that interested in Tomoe's fate. She wasn't going to sleep with someone other than her husband – assuming she shared his bed – so she wasn't really concerned with her fate. Swallowing, she supposed she should be concerned, so she finally nodded.
"Akira and Tomoe Kiyosato were stripped of their elemental gifts and banished. One of the River clans agreed to accept them on behalf of Kiyosato's old family bonds."
Kaoru kept her expression carefully neutral. In the end, she supposed that was merciful of them. It wasn't just her Clans treaty that they had jeopardized, after all. And the marriage bonds she had broken were sacred to both clans. That he had let them live at all told her something about this man – she wondered what he would have done if Tomoe had gone to him before their wedding and expressed her concerns. Or if she had and they had been brushed off.
When she continued to maintain her silence, Kenshin continued. "Originally, our alliance had allowed for you to marry the man of your choice. I apologize that we are no longer in a position to make such allowances."
Kaoru felt ice run down her spine. By giving Tomoe her choice, they had made it clear that they expected the marriage to last. Choice meant that the magic used should have been binding. That she had broken those bonds to run to a man she could have married in the first place and saved everyone this embarrassment and hurt… that he had spared their lives at all was beyond merciful. Something inside her hurt for this stranger who had the fidelity of his marriage bond broken; had that piece of his heart and soul shattered by a woman who never had to marry him.
Licking dry lips, she held that bright, bright gaze. "By all laws, you could have put Tomoe and this Kiyosato to death."
He didn't seem surprised that she had put the dots together so quickly but there was something curious about the way he angled his head. Butterflies licked along the line of her stomach and she worked to remain neutral. What was it about this man?
"The failure of a marriage cannot be blamed on a single party – regardless of their actions."
So he had taken part of the responsibility. That would explain why they were willing to accept another bride. Kaoru suddenly felt exhausted. The weight of the alliance was on her shoulders and it looked like she would be marrying a man who had watched his Lord's Heir banish his wife and her lover; she'd known she would be watched with suspicion but she hadn't imagined it would be this difficult.
Well, bone weary or not, she was here for a purpose. Bracing herself mentally, she laced her fingers together and spoke. "If you are not in a position to make the same allowances for me that you felt necessary for Tomoe, I assume you have decided on my husband?"
Something flickered over the edges of his mouth and Kaoru was a bit surprised to see the sudden way his shoulders relaxed. It was as if her directness had been what he was waiting on. Certain that her sudden surprised uncertainty was showing on her face she arched a brow and waited.
"Tomoe was my wife."
Kaoru nodded. She wasn't certain there was anything she could say to that.
"The mistakes that were made with her care will not be repeated." Violet-edged into gold and she blinked once in surprise. A physical sign of his power? How strong was this man? "I will do everything in my power to see to your comfort and happiness, Kaoru Kamiya, but in return I ask that you be willing to talk to me."
Kaoru froze. Wait. What? Surely… Carefully, she chose her words. "Are you… perhaps I am mistaken, but are you saying that you wish to take a second wife?"
Kenshin leaned forward and curled his warm hands around her white-knuckled, chilled fingers. Something flickered across his face and there was a sudden surge of warmth in the room that she felt even through her boots. Her breath caught.
"What was between Tomoe and me…" for a moment, his lashes hid his eyes and when Kenshin met her gaze again, the violet was gone. Brilliant gold twisted through a darker bronze and Kaoru wondered if the warmth in the room was all him. "I took my oaths seriously. I will take the ones given to you as seriously. The way the oaths were broken has insured there is nothing to replace. I cannot ask someone else in the clan to do what I have already failed once."
Kaoru slowly shook her head. "Failure is a harsh word when two people are involved."
Kenshin shrugged but his thumb danced across her knuckles for a second before settling. "Perhaps. But this alliance is important for our people and I will not waste the opportunity learn from my mistakes. I would take you as my wife, if you will have me."
She wondered what he would say if she said no. But even as the question built in her mind, she rejected it. She supposed Tomoe had reasons for running – she couldn't begin to understand them, But it would be unfair to judge this man on actions she knew nothing of. What she did know was that he was sitting in front of her and offering a sort of brutal honesty she hadn't expected. That he had turned his request into a question gave her another little piece of understanding of his honor. She thought, with time, she could grow to like this man.
At the very least, it was appearing that she could respect him and much could be built on respect if they let it. Taking a deep breath, she slowly nodded her agreement. "Yes. That will… Yes."
He stood and she let herself be pulled to her feet as well. To her surprise he didn't let go of her hands, but studied her from beneath his lashes for several long moments. "The ceremony is to be this evening. I will have a bath pulled for her so that you may wash away the road… if you need anything else, please just ask."
Finally he let her hands slip from his. The quick, sketch of a bow spoke of familiarity instead of cold politeness and she watched him leave as the knot in her chest finally started to ease. She didn't know how this was going to work but for the first time she thought that it might. Kenshin.
A faint, please smile tugged at her lips when she realized the room was still overly warm.