As it turned out, wearing the equivalent of an entire half-year's pay was not as comfortable as the hefty price tag would imply.
Sakura tugged and pulled on the obi of her kimono until it tightened up, but she was sure it wouldn't stay there like it should; the fit was unavoidably loose due to the Alestidae not having anything her size. As it was, she was lucky to even have this slightly-too-large festival kimono on such short notice. The hotel boutique's staff had pulled it out of storage just for her when everything else fell short.
They'd only just finished the alterations an hour ago. When the boutique's staff was told she'd be going to one of the government-sponsored state dinners, and that cost was no issue, they'd pulled out all the stops: Sakura had her hair professionally washed and it spilled down her back in a fluffy pink wave; her nails colored and cleaned of a week's worth of grime; and her skin perfumed, powdered, and treated with oils made to bring out her "lovely tan" from under all the unsightly blemishes. To everyone's credit, there were only a few blanches when the full gamut of scars had come out. That, more than anything else, Sakura appreciated.
Feeling like a storybook fairy princess, Sakura was being whisked through the city in one of the hotel's water taxis. The ferryman grunted every time she shifted her weight too look around, but Sakura couldn't help it. They were going deep into the floating city and the new sights and sounds demanded to be gawked at. As grand as the Alestidae was, the buildings here rose so high that it looked like they could touch the clouds and were packed thick as matches in a matchbox.
Something loomed in the distance; a break in the urban sprawl that more and more boats were moving toward. The ferryman's pole went to work, flashing this way and that, nosing the boat further into the press. Boats were pressed so close that conversations drifted over the water to Sakura and she could clearly hear the voices of her neighbors in the water.
"Is it like this every day?"
"And then some, young Miss." The ferryman motioned to the tributary canals with the top of his pole. "All the entrances into Old City are clogged at afternoon."
Sakura was confused for a moment, but she realized what her ferryman meant as that odd break in the skyline came closer. As it happened, it wasn't a "break" at all – it was a wall. A low, wide wall that was only broken by the canal flowing through it. Compared to the modern buildings on either side, it seemed downright primitive with its brick construction.
The press of boats bottlenecked at the opening. The ferryman pushed and plied his way until he was at the outer edge of the press. "Young Miss, you'll want to reach your hand out as we go under," he said with a smile. "I never bring a tourist through without letting them get a little local luck."
Thoroughly confused, Sakura opened her mouth to ask why she should do that, but the ferryman was grinning and urging her to stick out her arm. As the current took them under the wall, Sakura did what he wanted and let her fingers drag across the stone.
"No, no! The root, young Miss, touch the root."
Dumbly, Sakura followed the man's eyes and saw a bulge in the rock a foot or so above eyelevel. She strained up in her seat to brush her fingers across the wood and found it to be polished smooth as a river stone.
Something else was there. Just a tiny tingle, but Sakura felt it surge up her arm. Chakra in the wood!
"Did a ninja make that wall?" she blurted without thinking.
The surprise on the ferryman's was obvious. "You've already heard the story?"
"I just read a little bit at the hotel," Sakura lied. "I'm sure you know more about it than something in a travel brochure."
"I suppose that I would. Well, you're right that a ninja built this wall, but he only did it after he tore down the old one." The canal began to widen after flowing past the wall. Space was still somewhat at a premium due to all the makeshift piers and docks lining the walls. The ferryman kept the water taxi drifting toward the center where the current ran the swiftest. "That was over a hundred years ago, though. In those days River Country was nothing more than another province inside of the Land of Fire."
"It was before any of those ninja started gathering in villages. You know, back when each country had an army made up of honest men with nothing but bows and spears. Sure, the countries would use ninja every once in a while, but mostly they had their fights and we had ours. The problem was that this city had taken just a bit too many licks from the Fire Daimyo and we decided to break away. It was as good a time as any, we figured back then. The Fire and Wind countries were at war so one little city splitting away should have been more trouble than it was worth, especially since the Fire Country had taken a beating that year."
History had never been Sakura's strong point, but it wasn't hard to see where the story was going. "So the Fire Daimyo hired one of the old ninja clans to bring you back."
"Just so, young Miss. They sent stormin' Senju Tobirama to put us down."
"The Second Hokage? He's the one that ripped down the first wall?"
The ferryman gave his passenger's surprise a chuckle and nodded. "The one and only. Back then, the only thing that saved the city from being burnt to the ground was that the Fire Daimyo wanted it back in one piece. Tobirama dammed the Funaho with his ninja magic, roasted our boats, and kept us all huddled up behind our wall like rats on a piece of flotsam."
"How long did the city manage to hold out?" Sakura asked.
"Three months," said the ferryman. "For three months one man kept a city of twenty thousand from getting a single night of honest sleep. Every day he ordered us to surrender and every day our city council would tell him to stick his head in the mud. Eventually he got tired of waiting."
"So he broke down the wall and won the war? How did River get its independence, then? And how did the wall get rebuilt?"
Sakura heard the ferryman's pole slap at the water. Slowly, the taxi was making its way toward another canal in the distance that branched off. "His brother did it – Senju Hashirama. A day after Tobirama broke through the First Hokage himself showed up and rebuilt the entire thing with his magic. It's why we're such good allies with the Fire Country today. All of us owe old Hashirama."
It was undoubtedly an amazing story – almost too amazing, if Sakura was any judge. The First and Second Hokages getting personally involved with a then-tiny trading city that'd decided to rebel and then not burning the place to cinders? The First overruling his brother and rebuilding everything that was destroyed?
But, then, she had felt something in that wall. There was chakra there that hadn't dissipated after however long the wall had been standing and that meant there was a real power behind its creation. She wasn't ready to chalk it up to the First Hokage, but the ferryman might actually be onto something with his story.
There wasn't much time to dwell on the interesting question, though. The by-canal the ferryman had turned into ran swifter than the main one. Anymore small talk was forestalled by the ferryman's need to safely navigate them through the narrow passage. With the sun dipping below the tall buildings, his task was obviously aggravated further and Sakura let the silence lie.
It was another ten minutes before their boat encountered any others. Unlike the frantic push and shove of the main canal, this new stretch was downright civilized in comparison. Fancy water taxies made way for Sakura's and she joined a slow procession of well-dressed passengers.
Even Sakura's own ferryman was straightening his outfit. He was obviously practiced at it as all it took were a few tugs of his coat and a quick hand through his hair and he was back to looking every bit as professional as he'd seemed when Sakura had first stepped onboard.
"Storms, but this is some fancy company," he muttered, looking around at the other boats with their fresh coats of paint and expensive decoration. "I see half a dozen private taxi companies here and none of them come cheap."
"You've never dropped anyone off at one of these…government banquets?" Sakura asked. Now she felt uneasy as well. "I mean, the hotel looked so fancy and nice…"
"And it is, but we mostly cater to out of town folks. You know - rich tourists on pleasure cruses and their type. Not people that would be in with the River Council." He started to say something else, but his voice turned into a low whistle and Sakura twisted in her seat.
She hadn't seen the building from a distance – it was much too short to make it above its multi-storie neighbors. The capitol complex wasn't by any means meager, though. Where the rest of the city grew up, the capitol grew out. Like a great wooden snake, it lounged right next to the canal's edge for as far as Sakura could see into the distance. The entire palace was lit like a tiny city within a city; individual offices all had their own lanterns burning and the glow's reflection made the canal seem like it was on fire.
There were dozens, maybe even hundreds, of individual docks as well as small canals flowing into the complex itself. Sakura's ferryman fell in behind a host of others as they turned into one en masse. The small passage opened up into a large artificial lagoon a few dozen feet in with moorings to spare.
Someone on the bank waved at Sakura's ferryman and ushered them into one of the moorings. A few gentle pokes of the pole and the taxi was out of the press and secure against an ornate stone pile.
A hand reached down to Sakura. After sitting for an hour in a kimono, she was glad for the help. That same hand pulled back when she reached for it, though.
"Invitation," the man said, looking neither annoyed nor amused.
Flushing, Sakura pulled the envelope she'd been delivered out of her sleeve and handed it up. As her eyes adjusted to the low lamplight of the evening, Sakura realized that her new helper was dressed well, but in the same finery the male waiters and service workers at the Alestidae. His demeanor changed quick enough as he scanned her invitation and it was handed back with more courtesy than when it was taken; this time his hand was extended to help her out of the water taxi.
The servant stayed with Sakura the whole way up to the wide staircase leading into the capitol and then escorted her through the door. She was a bit wary of that at first, but upon seeing what passed as the building's foyer she was glad for his humble direction. It seemed like an entire city bloc could sit comfortably in here. Two more staircases took up the breadth of the far end of the room, but the lion's share of the space felt open despite the clutches of people that tried to chip away at that emptiness.
As soon as she stepped inside, Sakura was receiving looks. Eyes slid to her first, and then behind, then back; Sakura knew they were looking for her parents. It took a conscious effort to keep her face neutral as those looks took on a more incredulous tint when no one else followed her. Sakura walked through them all like a tiny giant, setting off a new round of conversation whenever she stepped. It was an undeniably heady feeling for someone used to sitting still and being quiet while others decided her life for her. For once Sakura was being noticed for her own self and not because of who she was with. Eyes gleaming, she raked her gaze over each person who noticed her and held it until their looks broke first; they never lasted more than a few heartbeats.
Sakura spotted Maoto Ning before he saw her and angled toward him. The undersecretary was dressed in a different suit than the one she'd last seen him in, but no less fine. His grin widened when he finally noticed the girl.
"And there's our lady of the hour," he greeted, stepping around Sakura and making a show of appraising her kimono. "Very nice. I was worried the sudden invitation would put you at a disadvantage."
"Oh no, I'm staying at the Alestidae and it has an in-house boutique. I told them if they let me borrow some clothes I'd mention them to anyone who asks."
Ning chuckled, approval lighting his eyes. "You've grasped the way this city works very quickly. I suppose I shouldn't underestimate a ninja, though. It's good that you're quick on the uptake."
There was no accusation or implication hidden in Ning's tone, but the beginnings of a frown tugged at Sakura's lips. "I didn't think tonight was going to be about business," she murmured.
"Everything is business." Ning's smile wasn't unkind, but it wasn't pleasant to look at either. "There's enough time for that later, though. You look like you could use some food in you before we get to the main course."
Ning flashed a government pass of some sort at one of the guards and led Sakura up to a balcony table for two set in a little alcove that overlooked the main dining hall. They were above the dangling lights of the room and Sakura figured that this was as close to hiding in plain sight as one could get. Anyone trying to get more than a passing look up would stand out like a sore thumb.
The offer of food turned out to not be a ruse either. Sakura had her own menu and didn't recognize even half of the dishes, but picked out something called com tam that Ning had suggested. Happily, most of the food was ready to serve and Sakura had a steaming bowl of rice and pork sitting in front of her in hardly any time at all.
She thanked the server and fumbled with her chopsticks for a moment; Konoha hardly used them anymore for anything other than street vendors. Forks and knives were the norm for most of the things her mom cooked.
"Take a look at the third table from the main door," Ning said, casually, between sips of his own food – some kind of stew, it looked. "Got it? Now, look for the short gentleman with brownish hair."
It only took Sakura a moment to find him. "The one wearing sunglasses? Inside? He's a bit hard to miss."
"That's him," Ning confirmed. Flippantly, he added, "He's the man who's going to try and kill you tonight."
For a beat Sakura paused, mid-bite. The undersecretary continued with his soup and made appreciative noises, but otherwise said nothing else.
She looked at the short little man again. He had his stubby arms halfway around the waist of a waitress who looked like she was only halfway resisting. "You're joking, right? He looks like he doesn't even come up to my neck."
"You think he'll do it himself?" Ning set his spoon down and dabbed at his lips, tracing the smile that'd just came to him. "Takarada Gato doesn't do anything himself. He's going to use the ninja he hired to fill all the canals to do it for him, of course. They're already back in the capital."
Sakura swayed in her seat and Ning had to reach out to keep her upright. "He's going to try and kill me? Tonight? I…how? Why? How do you even know that?" Her eyes darted across the tabletop to where Ning's dinner knife was and then up to the undersecretary. It took him a moment, but he caught on to her train of thought and jerked his hand back like he was grabbing the eye of a stove.
"I don't have anything to do with it! I sent you the invitation to warn you!" Sakura watched his hand, the one closest to the knife, tense once, and then slowly move back. "I swear it, Haruno-san. I want you to be as informed about what Gato intends as you can possibly be. Repaying what you did for the Commerce Secretary is worth that and more."
"Start talking. Start with just who that guy is and why he's walking around if he's the one behind your canal system getting wrecked."
Ning's jaw clenched and unclenched a few times before he found the words. "He is Takarada Gato, head of the Gato Shipping Company and one of the world's richest men. He owns the Wave Country thanks to his monopoly of its shipping lanes and he's one of River Country's leading businessmen."
"So he's very rich and very influential." Now Sakura knew why the server didn't seem to mind the little troll pawing at her. "Okay, so why does a shipping magnate want to stop shipping?"
"Because he doesn't just want to dominate the economy in a country – he wants the entire country itself." Ning ran a hand through his hair and pulled his gaze away from the sharp bits of cutlery sitting between them. "Gato," he spat, sounding angry for the first time Sakura had seen, "took over Wave this same way. He manufactured a shipping crisis, bought all the businesses when their bottoms fell out, and then used his economic power to put the local daimyo under his thumb."
"Manufactured a crisis?" Sakura asked.
"Pirates. Lightning Country pirates, if you want to be specific. He paid several captains to sail down to Wave and basically blockade the island for a few months. Once people got it into their heads that the pirates were there to stay, every investment in the country looked toxic. Investors with assets looked to sell quickly and leave before the sharks truly moved in on them."
"And naturally Gato had ships standing by that the pirates just so happened to not attack and was interested in buying their 'worthless' property."
Ning game a sharp jerk of his head. As underhanded as it sounded, Sakura had to appreciate the brilliant simplicity of Gato's plan. It certainly seemed like the best way to put the screws to an island.
What a bog to get caught in, Sakura thought. Gato was clearly trying to repeat his success with Wave in River, but Sakura had been a one-girl wrecking crew and demolished his scheme. "He took months with Wave, you said, and it was a poor country. The canals have only been sitting like that for a week and I freed a lot of them up."
"You did. Thirteen, as a matter-of-fact, at last count. Business leaders have been singing your praises to me all night. They would have paid to have them cleared eventually, but you doing it for free has a few of my friends convinced someone is looking out for River. It'll be that much harder for Gato to start rumors that the area is too violent for proper investment."
Sakura wasn't as quick on business practice as she was with ninjutsu theory, but she could see how much money Gato stood to lose. Hiring a hidden village to fool around with a country's infrastructure to this degree couldn't have been cheap; for it to produce so simple a result would have Gato fuming.
Sakura fell back into the plush cushions of her chair. "How much does he know about me? My name? Age? Gender? How did he get any information about me at all?"
"The same way anyone did: word of mouth. You've turned into a local hero. River captains have been talking about your exploits for days now." Ning gave a wry smile. "They gossip like old women. Gato knows that you're in town because of the traders that docked this morning, and he knows that you're a young girl."
Sakura felt like a moron. It had never occurred to her that whoever was behind the sabotage was still in the country, so she'd made no effort to be circumspect about her travel through River. The only bright side Sakura could see was that no one knew what village she was from; she'd made a point of not wearing her forehead protector since crossing into River.
A shiver went up Sakura's spine as she realized just how much trouble she was in. Gato, one of the richest men in the world, wanted her head; ninja that had been trusted by their village to invade a foreign country without being detected and then wage a campaign to sabotage one of the greatest civil engineering projects among the nations were out to kill her; they already had a very decent head start and likely a firm description from the dozens upon dozens of captains, deckhands, government officials, and dock workers that had seen her.
That shiver crystalized into a razor sharpness that threatened to cut Sakura's legs out from under her. "I need to leave. Now."
Ning nodded. "I thought you'd say that. You can follow the hall all the way to the kitchens and then take the staff exit." He saw Sakura's surprised look and shrugged. "You're not the first agent the government has had to sneak into, or out of, the capitol. The kitchen staff knows the drill by now and we pay them exceptionally well to be resistant to bribes. Gato's men won't find you thanks to anyone in the building."
Sakura felt more than a little off-tilt. Things were happening too quickly. Dinner had turned into a death threat in less than half an hour and now she had to flee into the night? Again?
"All you can offer me is a quick way out of the building? I'm in this mess because I helped you!" Sakura hissed.
"And you have our thanks for that, but the River Council cannot move against Gato. He's too powerful. This will frustrate his efforts and give us time to breath, but it won't work if he thinks the Council is privy to his plans."
Sakura gripped the table so hard the wood groaned. Stupid, stupid, stupid; she'd honestly expected a reprieve this close to home. She jumped to her feet so savagely that her chair went clattering onto the floor behind her. Ning's hand shot out and he finally grabbed his dinner knife, holding the little thing to his chest like it was a life preserver and he was drowning.
She wanted to hurt him. The thought came so suddenly, so strongly, that Sakura almost acted on it without thinking. All the dread and worry was starting to bleed away in a tide of adrenalin that washed over her like a cold bucket of water.
"Give me that," Sakura grunted as she yanked at Ning's tie, ignoring the way he held the trembling knife out to somehow ward her off. She undid the neat knot and used the silk tie to pull back her hair in a long ponytail. Her kimono went next and Sakura tugged down her spats and unruffled her tank top. Sakura thanked the impulse that had prompted her to ware something more than her usual undergarments.
She made for the alcove door with nothing more than a clipped, "Thanks for the warning about Gato," before stepping out.
True to Ning's word, the only people in the hall were staff using the access to quickly get to the kitchen and back out to the main banquet floor. None of them gave her too long a look even with her quick pace and odd clothing. There were twists and turns, but Sakura welcomed the long walk to get her thoughts in order.
Leaving River couldn't wait until the morning. Sakura mentally tallied what ryo she had left and wagered it would be enough to cover supplies for getting through the Land of Fire, but little more. Getting across the river might very well involve a great deal of swimming.
The kitchen staff barely glanced up as Sakura weaved her way through them. By now the banquet would be in full swing and the plates were flying out the door as quickly as the cooks could get them fixed. She caught a few grumbles when she failed to get out of a waiters way quick enough, but for the most part she passed through the kitchen ignored. A back exit was past the giant freezers and Sakura ducked out of the Capitol and onto a riverside loading dock. All the walking had put her much farther down from the main entrance and Sakura hoped that her water taxi driver would eventually get the hint and stop waiting on her because she didn't dare go and cut him loose herself – she had her own problems now.
The canal between her and the city proper was a solid seventy yards wide and deep enough that cargo barges could come in and dock without scraping bottom. Looking around, Sakura saw that the nearest bridge spanning the canal was several hundred yards down, far past the dock, and filled with foot traffic.
Something else, too: guards. It was the first time Sakura had seen River guards, but the men wearing leather jerkins, walking in pairs, and carrying crossbows could be nothing else. They stalked up and down the bank of the canal with lanterns that lit up the waterfront in an almost uniform dotted line for as far as Sakura could see. In her shoddy clothes and on the wrong side of the canal, Sakura was sure she'd be questioned by every guard between her and the bridge.
That left one avenue. Sakura set her jaw and slipped down the dock to the water. A moment's thought made her, reluctantly, put her folded kimono down on the pier rather than ruin the fine silk in the water.
Sakura's education on swimming at the Academy had been somewhat more extensive than many people outside of Konoha would normally assume. While the village itself wasn't near the ocean, many clients came from the wealthy coastal cities that put Konoha-nin in direct competition with their traditional enemy, Kirigakure, who were masters at waterborne combat. Every summer the instructors took them out to the pool for several months of swimming and diving practice.
On the technical side, Sakura was near perfect; she had learned all the proper swimming strokes as easily as she learned everything else at the Academy. Physically, though, Sakura had never been able to last as long as any of the boys and many of the girls in endurance swimming and the choppy River canal wasn't anything like Konoha's placid practice pool. It took a moment for her to get oriented in the dark water before she could start a quick sidestroke to the other side.
Boat traffic was light thanks to the festivities still raging at in the Capitol. Only once did she have to slip under the surface to kick her way under a small flat-bottomed boat that had closed distance with her. Sakura touched the far side of the canal and stayed still in the water as it slowly drifted by before starting her slow climb up the sheer canal wall. At the top, she looked back over the water while she caught her breath. The guards were still moving back and forth with no visible alarm to their actions. Good enough.
Sakura didn't bother with being careful now. She had to make it back to her hotel as quickly as possible to gather her gear and then get out of the city before Gato's team caught up to her. A look down the street sitting next to the canal showed that no one was close enough to immediately raise an alarm, so Sakura stoked her chakra and leapt at the nearest building.
One jump, two jumps, three jumps and she stood atop the squat little office building's roof. Next to most buildings in Konoha it would be a decent size, but standing near the tall spires of glass and concrete in River Capital it was absolutely insignificant.
Never tried climbing on glass before, Sakura thought as she bolted across the roof. In one great bound she was off, hands and legs spread out, toward one of the skyscrapers. She hit a wide glass window with a bone-rattling smack, but it didn't crack and she didn't slip.
It was simple work after that. Some of the jumps were harrowing, but Sakura knew that with enough chakra to cushion the impact the glass wouldn't break. River, despite not having a hidden village, had an excellent ninja highway in its urban density that Konoha couldn't possibly compete with. Thanks to that she made excellent time even though the occasional detour away from windows that showed signs of life was necessary.
Sakura made it to the Alestidae dry from her sky run through the city. Rather than use the main entrance, she let herself in through the roof maintenance access to avoid any prying eyes that would be watching the lobby. Luckily she seemed to have caught the janitorial staff between shifts and no one was waiting on her in the little maintenance office where the roof access ended.
Stepping out through the unlocked door, Sakura checked the hallway for maids or other guests, but saw no one. Either it was too late for leisure walks or dinner was still being served downstairs. Either way it worked for Sakura since she didn't have her key – it was waiting on her at the front desk. Sakura huddled around her room door and pushed a finger onto the face of the lock. Slowly, she extended her chakra into the locking mechanism and started probing the half dozen locking pins.
She felt the resistance when the door first pushed out of the frame.
She heard the hiss of a triggered explosive tag.
She only had time to throw herself backwards before the entire east wall of the Alestidae's top floor erupted in a conflagration of flames and smoke.
Sakura managed to count five floors before her drop through center atrium came to a sudden, abrupt end and her vision exploded into a blissfully-numb whiteness.
This chapter was a bit (read: a lot) more rushed than I usually like to do them. My original outline for this was around 12k words and would have had a fair bit of action, which I love writing, to cap it all off with. Instead you get around 5k words of mostly dialog, which I dislike writing.
Sorry. Considering I literally walk out the door to leave for basic training tomorrow morning, though, I hope you can forgive me and look forward to the eventual continuation of Loyalty in a few months. You guys are the best readers a writer could ask for and you've kept me going these last few years on this fiction, so I doubt I'll let it lie for longer than I absolutely have to.