Chapter 7: In the Hay
Hanakaji opened her eyes and found herself looking out the open garden doors into a lovely starlit sky she just couldn't enjoy. As much as it thrilled her to think that she would wake to mornings in this beautiful place much more often once she and Byakuya were married, she just couldn't suppress a shiver at thinking of him being with her sexually.
It certainly wasn't that he was not attractive. He was actually enchanting to look at, just like the 'Prince Charming' in the fairy tales she had been told as a child. But the idea of standing back to back with him and facing down hollows as Noa had described Byakuya and his vice captain doing in her stories was much more attractive…much less worrisome.
She sighed softly and climbed out of bed. Slipping on her shoes, she left her room and walked out into the gardens. Her eyes strayed upward to look at the moon, then back to the flowers that were touched with lovely moonlight. Her worries began to fade as she continued down the trail, heading towards the barn where Byakuya had taken her to show her the beautiful spirit steeds the Kuchiki family kept there.
She couldn't be upset at the thought of one of those steeds being her own. His engagement gift to her had been a tall bay mare with intelligent blue eyes and a black mane and tail. She smiled, remembering the silken feel of the horse's muzzle as she nuzzled the princess's hand. And riding the mare for the first time had been wonderful. Feeling the breeze lift her hair and the hard cadence of those sure hooves on the open ground. She had never felt so free before…
And so, unable to sleep, she imagined that a little bit more time with her horse would raise her spirits. She yawned and moved forward, blinking in the starlight and smiling as she thought of the pretty mare she was going to visit. The sudden appearance of a young shinigami in front of her, made her stop and gasp in surprise. The youth stepped back respectfully.
"Oh…your highness…it's you!" he said in a startled tone, "My apologies for frightening you!"
"Oh…" she said, recovering herself as she recognized him as Byakuya's subordinate, "No problem…Rikichi-san, isn't it?"
"Ah…hai. I am Rikichi. But…my lady, where are you going alone at night like this?" he asked.
"I…um…I couldn't sleep," she told him, "and I thought that I would go to the stables and see Kouu, my spirit steed."
"Oh, of course. But you should have asked for an escort."
"My apologies," said the princess, "I guess I wasn't thinking…"
"No problem," the youth said, smiling, "I will escort you there and back…if that is acceptable."
"That would be fine," she said, following him down the trail.
They moved forward on quiet feet, turning their heads to enjoy the fragrant flowers that lined the walkway. Hanakaji found herself stealing glances at the gentle-eyed officer as they walked together. She knew inside that it was wrong, considering she was to marry Byakuya, but she liked the way the soft breeze lifted his hair…and the way that it moved the beads in the hair near his ear.
"Are you enjoying your visit?" Rikichi asked, a light, nervous tremor in his voice.
"Yes," she said, smiling at the youth's shyness, "Byakuya has a lovely home here. I imagine I will want to spend a lot of time here, once we are married. Perhaps I will see you when I am here."
She bit her tongue and rolled her eyes at how it sounded, then stifled a giggle at the young officer's startled expression.
"Ah…" he stammered, "I would like that…I…I mean, that would be…nice."
He swallowed hard and kept walking, but Hanakaji didn't miss the soft blush on his cheeks that showed up in the moonlight. The princess shook her head and kept walking, figuring that the best way to deal with the awkwardness was to move on. She gave a soft sigh of relief as they reached the stable and slipped inside.
"There you are," she said, holding out her hand and feeding a lump of sugar to the sweet-faced mare, "I am glad to see you again, too, Kouu."
She looked back at Rikichi, who was standing near the door and watching as she visited with her mount.
"These horses are the most beautiful in the three worlds," she commented.
"And the Kuchiki family works hard to care for them and to maintain their numbers."
"I can tell that Kouu appreciates the effort. She is very affectionate."
"She enjoys the company of young women," Rikichi said.
He paused for a moment.
"I know that because I help Kuchiki taichou with their training sometimes."
"You help to train the spirit steeds?" the princess asked, wide-eyed, "It must be wonderful!"
Rikichi's smile warmed her to her toes.
"It is a lot of fun. They have their own way of communicating. And once you learn to understand them, you and Kouu will form an even stronger bond."
"Rikichi-san," said Hanakaji, looking up at Kouu, "Will you show me?"
"Oh, of course!" the youth said, beckoning her closer.
Renji woke up and sighed unhappily, still thinking of how sad Byakuya had looked earlier. The noble had been unusually quiet ever since, and had only said a few words to Renji before falling into a troubled sleep. He sighed and turned uncomfortably, making Renji shake his head and turn to look at him, before slowly returning his eyes to look at the stars outside the door.
Restlessness brought Renji to his feet and sent him out into the gardens…and as he stood, gazing up at the moon and stars, he heard voices ahead of him on the trail. He followed the sound and spotted Rikichi walking ahead of him on the trail with the princess beside him. He was sure there was something wrong with Byakuya's fiancé walking around the grounds at night and alone with a male officer.
So he moved closer, thinking to keep an eye on the two…
As he watched, the princess said something and pointed in the direction of the stables, then continued walking with the youth. Shaking his head and wondering if Rikichi knew what kind of trouble he could cause if the wrong person saw him, Renji followed along behind, making sure no one was anywhere around.
Even though he was still a little miffed at the way Byakuya had been favoring the kid lately, he didn't really want him to get into trouble.
The two walked into the stable and Renji took up a position outside, listening to their voices and watching to make sure they were not found there alone like that. As he looked up into the sky again, he thought back to his conversation with Byakuya, and for some reason he couldn't fathom, a piece of the conversation repeated in his mind.
"There's…really no way out of this?"
"No…nothing short of a scandal or one of us dying would put a stop to this."
"Huh…a scandal…" he whispered, glancing at the open stable door.
He bit his lip, thinking for a moment, then stepping forward on slightly guilty feet, he approached the door. The two were standing next to the tall bay mare that Byakuya had given the princess as an engagement gift. Their hands almost touched several times as they seemed to interact with the mare, and they were smiling at each other.
"A…scandal…" Renji repeated.
It would be…really shitty for me to do something like that to Rikichi…
But…I mean, it's not like he would get into that much trouble. Sure, Taichou might be pretty pissed off at him, but he'd probably be thankful if he ended up not having to marry the princess. And Rikichi is just a kid. They'll go easier on him because he is young…
He still felt a sharp twinge of self-loathing as he waited until the two had their backs to the open door and swung it shut, locking it with a carefully placed kido spell. He was careful to mask the reiatsu and to flash step away before he was detected. He swallowed hard as he heard their exclamations of dismay, and hurried back along the trail to Byakuya's room. He stepped back inside and made his way silently to the attendant's recess, his heart in his throat as he laid down on the bed and tried to slow the fast beating of his heart.
He jumped at the sound of the noble's voice.
Damn! I am so dead…
"Erm…hai, Taichou. What is it?"
"Did you…hear something?"
"Ah…no…no, I haven't heard a thing."
"Oh…very well. Good night, then."
"Good night, Taichou."
Oh…oh, if he figures it out…
Maybe I should go back, but…but it's already too late. They know the door is locked…and if I go back, I'll look guiltier…shit…shit, shit, shit.
What the hell was I thinking?
He laid awake for a long time after, listening for some sign that the two had escaped or had been discovered, but all he heard were the sweet night sounds and the sound of the koi splashing in the pond in the gardens.
I am a rat…a big fat stinking rat…no doubt about it. And Kuchiki taichou is not stupid. He's going to know…Kami, I hope he kills me quickly…
He didn't think he'd be able to fall asleep, but he finally did drift off, only to find himself trapped in guilt ridden dreams.
"Oh!" cried Rikichi as the stable door slammed shut, "No!"
He flash stepped to the door and tried to open it as Hanakaji turned to observe him.
"It's not locked, is it?" she asked.
"Ah…oh…" moaned Rikichi, "It is locked! Oh, I am going to be in major trouble!"
"Why would you be in trouble?" the princess asked, blinking, "You found me wandering alone at night."
"Yes…and instead of immediately escorting you back to your room or notifying your guards."
"You did as I told you to," the princess finished, "You didn't do a thing wrong, Rikichi-san."
"But…but we are…trapped in here! And when we are found…alone…in here, they will…I will…"
"Do not worry," the princess reassured him, "I won't let them punish you. You haven't done a thing wrong."
Rikichi didn't look to the princess as though he was convinced, but he stopped his sputtering and sat down near her, watching as she petted Kouu and spoke to her in low tones.
"You're…really good with her," the youth said, trying to get his mind off of the fact that they were locked in, probably for the night, "Do you have horses at the palace?"
"Some," she answered, "but they are not so fine as these…and only the Norite ride them."
"The…Norite?" Rikichi asked.
"They are the king's cavalry…the riders. They are masters of the spirit steeds. I always rather wanted to be one."
"So…you are in training?" asked Rikichi.
Hanakaji lowered her eyes.
"Why not?" the youth asked.
"Well," said the girl, "First of all, the riders are a part of the military, but since I have no zanpakutou, I am not allowed to be in the military."
"You have no zanpakutou?" mused Rikichi, "But…I sense your power. How could you be as powerful as you are and not have a zanpakutou?"
Hanakaji gave him a sad smile.
"My parents will not remove the seal that prevents it from manifesting. They were worried that having a zanpakutou might make me too likely to stray from my duties as a princess."
"Oh…" said Rikichi, "I'm sorry."
"Well, I guess I can't miss it too much, never having felt a connection with a zanpakutou."
Rikichi glanced down at his own weapon.
"I can't imagine being without Hiwashi. He is a part of my own soul."
His face flushed as he saw the sudden pain in the princess's eyes.
"I am…sorry, your highness. That was…really insensitive of me. I just…I don't understand how anyone could be made to live separate from their zanpakutou."
"It is all right, Rikichi-san," Hanakaji said softly, "You didn't mean any harm and I did not take offense. But we should really try to get out of here."
Rikichi moved to the doors again.
"Well, I hate to do any damage, but it will be reparable…so I'll try working it open with my zanpakutou. Maybe I can get it to open without destroying it entirely…and without attracting the attention of the other guards."
He worked quietly at the door, while Hanakaji watched. After some time, the youth stepped back wearily.
"I can't seem to get it," he said, shaking his head.
"Maybe I could give it a try," the princess offered, reaching out and taking the zanpakutou from the startled boy's hand.
As her hand closed around the hilt, Hiwashi flared brightly and Rikichi's eagle emerged and turned to hover in the air in front of the staring princess. As the two watched in stunned silence, the eagle moved closer to Hanakaji and gave a soft, questioning screech. The princess smiled and reached out to touch the eagle's feathery head. The eagle bowed his head…and as the princess's hand touched it, light exploded around them.
Hanakaji gasped as golden light wrapped around her and she felt the presence of someone else in the stable with them. She felt something in her hand and turned her head to look, catching her breath in surprise as she found herself holding a lovely, slender blade with a royal blue wrapped hilt.
"Oh…" she whispered, "Oh…how did this happen?"
"I don't know," Rikichi mused, "but it looks like you have a zanpakutou now…"
He studied the weapon quietly for a moment.
"Did it speak to you?" he asked.
"I think so," the girl said, gazing at the blade with shining eyes, "I think she said that her name is Shirotaka. I saw her in my mind. She is a white hawk…"
"It sounds beautiful…" Rikichi said, staring at the blade and the young woman who held it.
He shook his head to clear it.
"Well…I hope there's no trouble over that…but we should really keep trying to get out of here…"
Rikichi returned to the doors and worked at them for some time after. Hanakaji watched until her eyelids grew heavy and she started to drift off. Finally, Rikichi noticed that the princess was shivering slightly, and gave up working on the door to go and sit next to her to keep her warm. He tried to stay awake, but eventually drifted off to sleep with her head rested lightly on his shoulder.