A/N: This is a prize fic for Cynchick whose gorgeous Kakasaku rendition of the Empress tarot card won first place in the Kakasaku Tarot Art Contest over on livejournal. If you haven't already seen it, hit up "Cynchick" on deviantart or (http: / /community. livejournal. com/kakasaku/627466. html (with no spaces)). She picked a great card and it translates so well so this was great fun to write. I hope Cynchick and everyone else enjoys it and that it adds some fitting context to her lovely artwork! :D

III - The Empress

He tried not to pace. When he did his footsteps on the black lacquered floorboards echoed around the long antechamber like he was walking on a floor filled with squeaking, chirruping birds and then the Lady would scowl at him intently for disturbing the tranquility of her domain. If he hadn't known she was there he wouldn't have seen her - the golden embroidery of her dress blended almost perfectly with the painted wall panels behind her and she stood as still and poised as the statues on either side of her. But all the servants were like that in this place. They merged seamlessly into their surroundings, melting away in plain sight and ready to appear again as if from nowhere when wanted, as much a part of the decor as the intricate lattices dividing the antechambers, or the polished nightingale floor beneath his feet that was designed to betray even the lightest foot of the greatest ninja.

Right at that moment, Kakashi didn't feel that light or great.

It was quite possible that he too was just another trinket in the collection. He may not have been dressed in extravagant clothes, and he wasn't quite pretty enough to compete with the panels of carved amber and jet, or the overflowing arrangements of orchids and wisteria blossoms. In fact he looked as out of place here as he felt, with his worn black clothes and scarred complexion. The only part of him that shone with any brilliance was the blade of his sword when he unsheathed it, but right now it was hidden within the plain sheath against his back. In a house of fine jewels he was the scuffed pebble brought in on the underside of someone's shoes, judging by the way some of the servants looked at him. They all, each one of them, belonged to the Empress, but most did not understand what value she saw in him.

When the door at the end of the room clicked open he snapped to attention. The golden Lady detached from the wall to greet the emerging guests with a low bow. There were three of them exiting into the antechamber wearing varied expressions of confusion and cautious pleasure, like three men stumbling out of a cave who hadn't seen daylight in months. That room tended to have such an effect on people. Stormy faced men came to call, then left with faces wreathed in smiles. Young men with smooth charm and confidence could walk into that room and within five minutes would leave it, looking for all the world like they had lost everything. Then women who clutched their shawls tightly around their shoulders would tiptoe into that room then emerge later with their head held high and a twinkle of mischief in their eyes.

No one ever left that room the same person.

Kakashi bowed to the men who passed without acknowledging him, and their footsteps faded away across the nightingale floor until he was once more alone with the Lady. She moved to the doorway to shut it once more and took up position in front of it like an immoveable guard dog. "Her Imperial Majesty," she began grandly, "will require a respite before she receives you-"

"Enough of that," called a soft, disembodied voice from behind the doors. "Show him in, Shizune, before he starts pacing again."

After an almost imperceptible pause (where the Lady appeared to debated whether it was worth the risk ignoring that voice to save face) Shizune bowed stiffly to him. "If you'd like to come this way, shinobi-san, the Empress will see you now."

He might have gulped a little audibly at this point. Jerking his black tunic straight and running his fingers over his mask to check he was presentable, Kakashi started forward. The Lady in gold was still decidedly unimpressed, but he nodded to her anyway as he slipped past into the Imperial chamber. Inside he stopped dead.

There were many things you might notice upon entering the chamber of the empress; the sweet smell of incense, or the grand windows with a view of the most beautiful gardens in existence. You might notice the painted silk panels of blossoms on the wall or the relaxing twang of someone playing a stringed instrument out on the balcony. But most likely your eyes would be drawn to the young woman in the middle of the room, reclining against a western fainting couch. She was far more beautiful than painted silk.

With her head tilted and resting lightly upon two fingers, her eyes swept him up and down. "If I'd left you out there for much longer I imagine you would have paced a rut in my pretty floor," she said, and her voice was far more melodious than the music playing behind her.

"I apologise, your majesty," Kakashi said quickly, at once stooping down on one knee to lower his head respectfully. "It was not my intention to disturb you."

Ignoring him, she tipped her head to the other side and set the jade beads of her diadem jangling as she poised a curious finger to her red lips. "I wonder what it is that has put you in such a fretful mood," she said, a faint smile curving her mouth. "And as much as I like a man on his knees, please come forward, Kakashi-san. I promise I don't bite."

That largely depended on what kind of mood she was in. Today seemed to be to her liking, however, so he felt relatively safe in crossing the room to stand before her chair, just far enough away to run if things went bad but close enough to catch the faint aroma of her perfume. And it was far sweeter than any incense could be.

He stood at ease, which would still be considered rather stiff and formal by most common people's standards, and stared straight ahead into the distance. He could not address the Empress until she explicitly invited him to speak, and she knew this all too well. "I've had such a long morning," she began, almost conversationally if it wasn't for the amusement playing beneath her words, knowing she could drag this out to her pleasure. "You give me a welcome relief from all these diplomats and suitors who come knocking… demanding. Even my subjects. Everyone wants something from me, whether it's my land or my words, or just my body. I am simply exhausted!"

She lifted herself from the couch and moved around him, the brilliant red trail of her kimono sliding across the floor in her wake. Another dose of that heavenly perfume wafted over him and Kakashi inhaled sharply. The empress didn't notice. She had moved to a thin table by the wall that was piled high with her favourite fruits. She examined an orange first, and then a pomegranate. The stared at the latter for several seconds.

"What is this?" she demanded of the nearest servant, who until that moment had been dutifully camouflaged against the wall.

"A pomegranate, Your Majesty," the servant replied hesitantly.

"No, this is a withered pomegranate," the Empress retorted sharply. "Take it away."

Kakashi shifted a little nervously on the spot, but when the empress turned back to him she was once again smiling softly as if there wasn't a gibbering servant fleeing from the room with a perfectly ripe and healthy pomegranate in her hands. "Now what is it I can do for my favourite captain?" she asked.

He swallowed nervously. "If it meets with Your Majesty's approval," he began humbly, "I would like to make a request."

"Oh?" she murmured, eyes dancing with amusement. "And so you do want something from me after all. What will it be, I wonder? My land, perhaps? My words? Or...?"

"Your permission," he said quickly. People who came to demand the Empress' hand, let alone her entire body, usually met a sticky end. Literally. They were still repairing the east wing from the last overeager suitor. "I would like to request your permission to tender my resignation."

"Resignation?" she repeated blankly, before the twinkle in her eyes roared into something far more fiery. "Your resignation?"

Out on the balcony, the musician's lilting melody ended with an inharmonious twang. Kakashi thought he might have seen someone stand up and surreptitiously flee out of sight, but when faced with his mistress' rage he did the only thing he could do - he dropped back to his knee and kowtowed. "I apologize, Your Majesty."

"Apologise?" She grabbed her skirts and marched up to him. "I should cut you off without a penny or a recommendation to your name for suggesting such a thing! How dare you! No – I should cut off your head!"

"Please, Your Majesty-"

"And why should I do this?" she demanding as she threw herself back onto her couch. "Is the pay not enough? Are your quarters too small? Perhaps the status of captain of the imperial guard is not to your liking? Then who would offer you better, Kakashi-san? Tell me now so I may kill her."

"Please, Your Majesty," he said again, speaking to the floor, "you must know that it is my own failings that have brought me here, not because you have ever once shown me an unkindness or ever given me any cause to be ungrateful. If anything you have given me too much, and I do not believe I deserve it."

Her powdered lids lowered as she stared down at him. "What is this nonsense?" she asked quietly. "You are my most trusted guard. You have never failed me."

"Except with the last attempt on your life. I could not protect you."

The shadow of his failure hung over him like the executioner's sword, and he squeezed his eyes shut. Enemies often infiltrated the palace to assassinate the Empress, but never had he allowed one to get as far as her bed chamber before. This assassin had slipped right through his protections and defences like they were genin tricks. He hadn't realised anything was wrong until the west wing had blown up, courtesy on one angry Empress awoken from her imperial beauty sleep.

They were still rebuilding the damage to this wing too. But buildings could be fixed and priceless ornaments could be changed. The Empress herself, however, was utterly irreplaceable, and Kakashi's confidence had been shattered as profoundly as the west wing. It was his duty to protect this woman, and that she had ever for a moment had to resort to defending herself against a blade was a deep violation of the trust she had placed in him to protect her.

"So you propose to abandon me?" she asked.

"I would never-! But perhaps it is time to replace me with someone younger and sharper than I?"

"And if I turned you loose, what would you do with your glut of free time, Kakashi-san?"

"I would hunt down those threatening your life and sending these assassins, Your Majesty."

"Pointless," she intoned, examining her glossy, red nails for a hint of imperfection. "You know that these little bickering warlords are no more than foxes squabbling over a chicken coup. Kill one and another moves into his place. I prefer to keep the enemies I know, Kakashi, not create power vacuums and civil war. I need you by my side, not out there provoking new foes."

"I cannot abide my mistakes-"

"If your greatest mistake results in me still sitting here, alive and unharmed, then I have very little to worry about." She leant forward to place a hand on his shoulder, and his head shot up in breathless surprise. To be touched by the Empress was to like being touched by Divinity, and there was a certain degree of benediction in the smile she laid upon him. "I have no doubt," she continued, "that the assassin who can elude you will elude anyone. There is no shinobi greater than my captain, and he has never failed me. He protected me that night because he has vigilantly trained me to defend myself for years when other captains would have refused to do so. Without him, I surely would have died."

"Your Majesty..." He exhaled shakily, letting her words soothe his conscience like cool water on a burn.

"You may not believe in yourself, but I do, and as Empress my belief is truth." She sat back, satisfied. "I have considered your request, and I refuse to accept your resignation. You shall not get away from me that easily... though it would serve you right if I did grant your wish."

His voice was thick with emotion when he spoke. "Thank you," he whispered. "Thank you, Sakura, for believing in me."

"Well, naturally," she said, extending her hand to him. "So you will remain?"

He accepted her hand in his, dropping his head till his forehead touched her knuckles. "I have been and always will remain your most faithful servant. I will serve you till I die."

"Then all we have to fear is old age."

Her faint smile that bore wisdom beyond her years warmed him, and as always before he rose he brushed his masked lips across the back of her hand, just as she glanced her fingers across his cheek in a fleeting gesture of affection that she would give to no one else. "You have duties to attend to," she reminded him.

"Of course, Your Majesty," he said quickly, rising to give one last formal bow. "And thank you, Your Majesty."

He left the imperial chambers straight backed and sure-footed, and the uncertainty that had plagued him since the assassin's visit had been swept from his mind. For of course, no one who entered the imperial chambers ever left them feeling the same way.