A Mage Knight may find himself faced with a hard choice, to be honest with another and risk ruining their lives, or telling a lie that could keep their lives as is. Like any battle, these choices must be chosen carefully. - Minato Namikaze, Year of the Lord 376.
Chapter 08: A Knight's Choice
The battle of the smith's camp, as it would be come known in the years to come, was short lived. In less than thirty minutes, the entire attacking force were either captured, dead, or fleeing for their lives.
The woman that had sided with the secret knights stared down at the defeated foes coldly, before glancing over at the blade of ice she held in her hand as though she was surprised to see it still there. Her free hand reached up and lightly traced one of the longest scars that marred the blade, about halfway her face took on an expression of awe as something seemed to become clear to her. "Mother... they... they're healing... but why?"
"That is a strange sword you have there..." Tenten mused curiously as she walked up to stand beside the ice wielding woman, "Is it a magic weapon?"
Snapping out of her reprieve from the grisly reality that surrounded them, she lowered the blade and released the magic holding it in this plane of existence. "Yes, my mother gave me the secret to accessing it before she was killed... I had thought it ruined by my actions this day, but it would seem that it feels that the battle I did was for good, while others before today... not so much."
Tenten watched the woman silently for a moment before resting her battle ax on the ground and extending her right hand towards the woman in a sign of peace. "My name is Tenten, Weapon Mistress of Konoha, and I thank you for your help today Lady..."
Blinking the woman realized that Tenten had been fishing for her name, and she quickly supplied "Sora Houseki."
"Lady Houseki it is then... are all Jewel-smiths trained to deal with bandits like that?" Another voice asked from the opposite side, causing the woman to whip around and come face to face with the woman that had been using smaller dragons to help with the fight. "I am Anko Mitarashi, and the lead guard for this mission, are you injured?"
"No, I only have the skills since this area has far too many bandits for me to be defenseless..." Haku explained while giving herself a quick look over, knowing that battle thrill could blind one to the pain of wounds suffered in combat. She couldn't remember getting hit, but it wouldn't be the first time someone got a lucky hit in. "I appear to be uninjured, but I would like to wait before guaranteeing that."
"She's uninjured." One of the other people there said, Haku recognising it as the girl that was named Hinata, "Most of her injuries are old, and not our problem."
"Good!" the only male of the group proclaimed while pulling two of the corpses clear of his forge area, dumping them unceremoniously on a pile next to a pile of dirt. "If she's not hurt then you can talk with her about learning Jewel-smithing, and maybe see if she wants to hire on as a bodyguard against that Zabuza guy."
"Perhaps, I would have to consider the offer for a little while before I make my decision. But I believe that I am to talk with Lady Hinata, and after that I will take my leave for the day to consider your offer..." she explained as she let herself slip into an almost natural smile. Inside her heart was torn between her duty to her father, and what the blade had told was the duty to her honor.
In the back of her mind she could hear a tiny voice protesting the medical examination spell that Hinata had used on her. If she were to match up the scar patterns, Sora knew that her secret would be forever revealed, but the only weapon she had basically blessed her working WITH them, meaning to assassinate them with it... would be like when her father killed her mother.
Turning to look at Hinata, she blinked as the girl blushed slightly and looked away. Had she been revealed? No, her mask should prevent that, and as the boy Haku, she could... the thought died even before she completed it. Something inside her was hating that she would have to fight these people in the future, and that was causing her to forget her orders to just be a Jewel-smith today.
Silently she cursed her sword's healing itself during the fight, even as Lady Anko and Hinata led her to a small tent that had been set up for their meeting. If it had fractured, or even remained the same, then she would have no qualms about completing her mission and moving on with her life. Now? Now, she was filled with doubts about the true honor of this mission, and what would happen should she continue it. Would her blade shatter in much the same way as her mother's had when she was...
No, She mustn't think about that. The here and now were all that were important.
Back at the forge, Naruto watched the trio of women walking away silently. Something about Sora didn't sit well with him today, but he couldn't place it. Hinata trusted her, as had he but yesterday, but he didn't right now. This was the first time it had ever happened to him, and he didn't like what it could possibly mean.
He wished the mage guild wasn't completely overrun by the enemy, since he'd love a scrying stone right now, just to see if the future showed a ally or a enemy in her. Apparently his thoughts weren't the only ones pondering such matters, as Tenten's voice cut in like a knife.
"She is confused about her path... One way I see leading to a new Mage Knight... The other... She won't say, and that is what troubles me," Tenten mused softly as she leaned against the awning's support, "A cryomancer outside the lands of Snow is rare, and one not in the service of the local lords is rarer still. We could really use her in our group, especially with her pre-existing cover..."
"Who says she is not in the service of the local lord, and that is what troubles her? That she is not one of his scouts?" Naruto asked gravely before turning back to the fires that had shaped him as well as the metals he'd worked on over the years. This was what he knew, the tempering of metals in fire, the hammering of them into a shape.
"I am not sure, but that blade of hers is one that is normally seen only in Snow. It is a replica of a holy blade of their lands, and for a outsider to have one is sacrilege." the weapon mistress explained while thumbing the edge of her axe, "If Sora has one, well... Her ancestry is foreign, meaning someone else is her master, not the local lord."
Naruto sighed heavily as he pulled a length of metal out of the fire and set to work on shaping it with solid, steady blows that rang loudly in the open court. "It is like she is forged for a purpose and she has been forced into another. I saw yesterday that she held a passion for her craft, and today's battle she held nothing. No anger, no fear, no joy... just ice cold death."
Tenten nodded slowly before slipping her axe back into its quick release harness, "Definitely a Snow native then. They're the only land where their warriors can slip into such a state. It's why they are so much sought after as Mage Knights."
Naruto let the ring of his work answer back for a few minutes as he considered Tenten's words carefully. The girl that they had met yesterday and today were one and the same, but she was torn today, whereas yesterday her purpose and heart were unfettered. One could shape a shovel blade or an axe head from the same bit of metal, but they would not serve the same purpose after forging, she was like a shovel trying to chop down a tree.
"I do have one thing to address, she has killed before, but not in a way that blackened her heart. Those blades would shatter should ones honor and heart become full of such taint," Tenten explained as her eyes drifted towards the hard working man that had forged the gift she wore around her neck. "Personally, I would doubt that she would, or even could at this point, kill us. Her master... I believe may be Zabuza himself."
"WHAT?" Naruto exclaimed, his swing going off target in surprise. Looking at the bend in the metal, he almost winced as he could hear Iruka's voice scolding him for such a mistake.
"Consider the situation Naruto... A warrior of a foreign land with no known master that just happens to be trained in the field we need, being available despite Duke Gato's recruitment drive? Add to that, is that I have a feeling we have met her before..." Tenten explained calmly while Naruto stuck the metal back in the fire. "Remember Haku? I just realized that Sora shares the same build, if you bind her chest like I do, and they both have the same type of movement."
"Movement?" Naruto asked as he pumped the billows, wondering where his helpers had ran off to during the fight.
"They both walk light but sure and solid, ready for action at any moment, not your usual paranoid Jewel-smith attitude," Tenten explained while turning the metal at Naruto's instruction.
Naruto paused to draw the metal back out of the fire, and began to reshape it into the support truss he had been working on prior to the surprise. After a dozen or so blows he shook his head and set the hammer aside before dousing the metal. "There is something about... something more than just how Haku and Sora look and move... there is a scent of winter snow about them both, and... they have a similar voice..."
"I plan to confront 'Sora' about it, and tell her that we know, and we're not going to tell Hinata..." Tenten stated firmly as while looking around quietly, "However, if she accepts a Mage Knight commission before we next meet Zabuza, we would have no reason to tell Hinata of the betrayal. If she fights against us... We tell her everything."
Naruto shook his head as he set the support truss with the others and rubbed his hands over his face. "No, we should not play with Hinata like that. It would betray the trust she..."
"Naruto, Right now, Hinata thinks that Haku is someone she could trust with as much as I trust you with..." Tenten cut-in softly as she walked up behind him and hugged him gently, "If Haku does fight against us, she's betrayed that trust like as if I was to use that axe to lop off your head at night..."
Naruto stiffened at the hug, before relaxing enough to stroke her arm softly for a moment before speaking. "I am not saying to not tell Hinata, I am saying that we should not use her as a bargaining chip. She is our friend and companion."
"And I know for a fact that Hinata is the one reason Haku will not kill us... Well, If she was a boy, she would be asking her to court her," Tenten explained, with a knowing smirk on her face. Leaning in she whispered softly into Naruto's ear. "Would you feel better if Lady Anko was with us as we discuss these plans?"
"I have no objection to telling Hinata right now, but you may wish to stop that before then..." Anko's voice stated, causing the pair to spring apart and blush red enough to make a tomato green with envy. "And to think you two deny that you hold feelings for each other... I daresay I hear wedding bells already..."
"We... I... she... we..." Naruto tried to explain before taking a deep breath and calming himself. "We were discussing that Sora... Or rather, Lady Houseki and Haku were one and the same. And I think we should warn Hinata of it before confronting Lady Houseki. Tenten suggests we use not telling Hinata as a bargaining chip to ensure her loyalty against her real master."
"Those types of bargains never work out well in the end, Tenten, believe me... I know..." Anko stated coldly as she rubbed her neck in thought, "Now, I know why you want to do it that way, but instead I would challenge Lady Momochi to admit it herself... as part of her loyalty test for becoming a Mage Knight. A lie hidden is still a lie, and you will have to admit it eventually."
"And to betray the trust Hinata put in us like that..." Naruto added, before letting it drop and returning to work. "Has anyone seen my assistants? I think they ran off during that little scuffle earlier..."
Tenten began pumping the bellows much the same way she'd watched Naruto do on more than one afternoon, the slow and steady rhythm was rather soothing. Not quite as soothing as a whetstone upon a blade, but not too far off for her to care. Meanwhile, Anko took one look at the pair, and with a devious smirk began to make her way back to the tent housing Haku and Hinata. "Just remember you two... once we finish the bridgework, then we can return to Konoha, and Naruto can ask Hayate for permission to court you Tenten..."
As two loud cries of protest rang out from by the forge, Anko wondered briefly why no one had told her that having little apprentices around could be this much fun. If she had known, she'd have volunteered a long time ago for the chance to torment... err train... yeah, that's it train... such gifted and talented young minds.