"Your Highness, it is morning. Please wake up so we can get you ready."
I stretched and forced my good eye open to see my maid Katsumi leaning over me. Though her mouth was set in its usual mischievous twist, there was a nervous tension in her forehead. I didn't understand the reasoning until she said, "You have a visitor, Milady."
Standing behind her next to the taller maid was a regal lady with her dark hair twisted in a neat bun. Though her appearance was meticulous, there wasn't a single wrinkle in her dress and the creases seemed sharp enough to cut, her face was kind and open.
"Hello, Lady Ino," the mystery woman greeted, inclining her head gracefully. "I'm Lady Aburame."
This was Lord Shino's mother? She was gorgeous. If he looked anything like her under his glasses, hood, and shirt collar, then it was a shame he covered up. He would most likely be married to someone else already if he showed his face and I wouldn't be in this mess.
I slipped out of bed, my limbs feeling thick and awkward with sleep. Once I was standing, Lady Aburame inclined her head again, "I will let you change. We can speak when you're done."
"Yes, thank you," I said, nervously wiping my palms on my nightdress. After speaking with Shino last night and making sure that my company was all settled in, I had been plagued with self doubt and fear that I couldn't sleep well. I was still feeling unsure about my place here and what my reception would be after I broke the engagement.
She left the room, her skirts rustling behind her, and waited for outside the guest bed chambers. I looked to my maids to see what they thought, but Katsumi only shrugged. The taller one smiled reassuringly and started on my hair.
When I was dressed, Lady Aburame stood from her chair and clasped her hands together happily, "I have so much planned for today. Look at your skin; it's so beautiful and creamy! Come with me!"
I did as she asked, wondering at what she had said. Her compliment struck me as odd and unbidden images of her removing my skin and hanging it in a shed had me gesturing for my maids to follow me.
She brought me to a room unlike any I had been in before. There were no windows and the room was dimly lit, making it hard to discern the subject of the murals painted on the walls. Along the edge of the room were tables lined up end to end and covered with varied shaped bottles and baskets holding plants. Perhaps the strangest thing was a large pit full of what looked like mud that was wafting a thick smoky scent in the center of the room.
"This is my special room, the healing room," Lady Aburame explained. "This is where I care for my skin and do my therapy."
"Therapy?" I echoed, still distracted by the mud pit. Why did it smell like smoke? Was it burning? It did look warm.
"I suffer often from migraines," she answered. Then, putting a hand on my shoulder, she encouraged me to step further into the room. "Let me take a look at your injury."
I turned my face up so she could inspect the black eye. Even though she was gentle, when her fingers touched the swelling, I jerked away in pain. Tsking, she led me over to a chair.
"I'm really sorry that this happened," she said, sadly. A maid brought over a bowl of water that smelled like herbs and set it at my feet. Wringing out the wash cloth that was floating in the bowl, she continued, "Shino is really upset about it. He says that if you want the soldiers punished, he will order it."
Shocked, I shook my head, "Oh, no. Don't punish them. They were only trying to protect their royal family. I can understand that and don't hold it against them."
Lady Aburame smiled, "He thought you would say that."
His positive appraisal of my character flattered me and I began to relax to her careful, soothing administrations. She washed my face with the herbal water before having me stripped down to my shift and spreading a mask made from strawberries and honey on my skin, putting extra on the bruised areas.
Using different concoctions of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, Lady Aburame buffed, moisturized, cleansed, and spoiled me until I was pink-skinned and soft. Feeling considerably better than the day before, I left the room with her and she showed me the beauty hiding in the stern fortress of a castle.
For the rest of my visit, I met with her in the healing room in the mornings. She would teach me different techniques for healthy, beautiful skin and show me some simple cures for ailments like cramps, scrapes, cuts, and migraines. On the third day, my curiosity about the mud pit was finally satisfied, when we sunk into it with an avocado and oil mix holding our hair up and out of the way. It was warm and she explained that it was heated from a fire below, but the pit had a smoky smell because it contained volcanic ash in it, which is supposed to have good healing properties.
The small little room seemed strange and fantastic hidden away in the castle, and I allowed it to distract me from my worries for a while. I went to bed every night in a cloud of herbal and fruity scents, my skin softer than the silk sheets and a smile on my face. However, I knew I eventually had to talk to Lord Shino. And, it would be better sooner than later, since I did have to meet Gaara and head to Shimabara. On the sixth night, I decided that I had to talk with Lord Shino the very next day, whether or not I felt that I was ready.
Rain, thick and cold, fell like a curtain just outside the protection of the doorway I stood in. The castle gardens were so rain drenched that the flowers were drowning in great puddles because the water wasn't absorbing into the ground anymore. I had planned on going out to the garden, seeking the home-like comfort I got from being surrounded by flowers before I went to talk to Lord Shino.
I had been here for a week now. A week of small talk, grand meals, entertainment, the healing room, and attempted atonement for the carriage incident. I had been working the courage up to tell him the message I traveled all this way, and now I decided that I couldn't wait any longer. Even with that realization, here I was standing in the doorway, gazing sadly at the gardens that I had hoped would bolster my courage, though they were simple and not nearly as extensive as mine back home were.
Panic was filling my chest, my hands shaking with worry. I didn't want to hurt Lord Shino. It had not been fun telling Sasuke no, and I wasn't excited to repeat the conversation. At least I knew that Lord Shino wasn't in love with me. He had invested a lot in our betrothal…his father's life, money, troops…but he had not put in his feelings. I was thankful for that.
I turned and found Lord Shino, as if my thinking had summoned him, watching me. I would say that from the tilt of his head and his stance that he was curious, but I couldn't be too sure. Curse those glasses and jacket collar!
"Hello, Lord Shino," I said, willing my heart to calm down. I was Princess Ino! I didn't know the meaning of fear. I was skilled with talking. I had done this before, I could do it again.
"I know that you like gardens. I wish I had remembered to tell you that it would be the rainy season here," Lord Shino said. How had he known? He saw my face and added, "Forgive me, I have heard about you from your father, and I also have learned about you from rumors."
"Rumors?" I said. "Then you might have some idea what I have to tell you?"
He nodded, "I think I know, but I will listen to what you need to say without interruption."
I had a sudden urge to cry, feeling nervous and guilty at the same time. I nodded and said, "I want to start with apologizing. You have put some much into our betrothal, but I regret that I have come to ask for you that we break it."
I paused, expecting him to say something, but he remained silent like he promised.
"I brought with me a few things that I hope will make up for the sacrifices you've made. The first being the men in my company. They are a few of our wood masters. I have brought them because I know that you have a good supply of wood here. With them, you could make a tidy profit in trade with other countries."
Reaching into the small bag I was carrying with me, I pulled out a scroll and handed it over to him, "The second is this. It's a treaty signed by both my father and Lord Kankurou. It basically details that our alliance will still be just as strong as if you'd married me. If anything happens that you should need us, even if you're to blame, we will come to your aid. It also has Lord Kankurou's promise of alliance. He isn't the king yet, but he is the Crown Prince. When he takes over, he promises the same things as my father. All it need is your signature, too. Read it over, first, to ensure it's good for you. This will leave you open to build another strong alliance through a different marriage…or maybe the chance to marry for love."
He was silent for a few moments, absorbing everything I had said. His air seemed slightly pouty when he asked, "Lord Kankurou? That's the Marugame Prince you've fallen in love with?"
"No, it's his brother, Lord Gaara," I said.
"I'm going to be entirely honest with you," He said, haltingly. "When I first saw you, I was extremely relieved. You were beautiful, and though vain, were kind and smart. I was glad, because when I knew that I would have to marry someone to make an alliance, I didn't have too high of expectations. I was planning on a distant and cool marriage. I had accepted that it would be like that. But, after I met you, I started to think that maybe our marriage could be happy."
I looked away from him and back out at the pouring rain. What was he saying? That he did have feelings for me? This isn't what I wanted to hear.
"After hearing the rumors and seeing you now…when you said Lord Gaara's name…I know your heart belongs to someone else. If I married you, our marriage would most definitely be distant and cool. You would be miserable and I would be, too. Now that I've raised my expectations to be happily married, I find that I don't want them to drop again. I want my wife's eyes to light up when she talks about me. I want her to miss me when I'm gone. I want her to love me."
Lord Shino put his hand on my shoulder and I looked back at him. He leaned in close and I tried to read his expression though I couldn't see his eyes or mouth as he said, "Ino, thank you for the gifts. You didn't need to bring them or even to come here. I would have released you even if you had written me a letter. I was actually planning on sending you a letter breaking the betrothal when I had heard the rumors. You are a good person. You've grown so much since I last saw you."
I bit my lip, struggling harder not to cry, "Lord Shino. Shino, I was so worried that you would be upset. I didn't know what to expect after the carriage incident…I was scared. Don't thank me, I should be thanking you for being so understanding. I'm really sorry."
"The carriage incident," he said. "That wasn't supposed to happen, but I have something to show you that might explain that a little bit."
"Something to show me?" I echoed as I followed him.
He led me deep into the inner recesses of the castle to a staircase. The hall in front of us was dark, but Shino didn't grab either of the torches hanging in the brackets outside the doorway. I found out why once we started our perilous trip down the stairs. The steps were steep and tilted, so that I clung to the railing desperately with both hands.
"The steps were built this way intentionally. If something were to happen and someone were to try to escape, this would slow them down considerably," Shino explained, already knowing my question, as we inched our way down the narrow hall.
The lower we traveled, the damper and cooler the air got. When we reached the bottom, water was dripping from the walls and ceilings, echoing oddly in the open cavern-like dungeon. First impression? This was definitely a place I would never want to be imprisoned.
A soldier stepped forward, startling me with his sudden appearance, and handed a heavy set of keys to Shino. I was busy thinking about the high levels of security in this castle fortress and wondering what it would be like to be raised in such a place, when he opened the door and what the room revealed inside wiped my thoughts away with shock.
I reeled backwards, bumping into the soldier who had been following close behind. He caught me under the elbows and gently helped me back to my feet. I hardly noticed, staring ahead at the smirking face regarding me with raised eyebrows.
"So, some of the Akatsuki still lives," I said, taking a deep breath and trying to regain steadiness.
"Ah, Princess Ino. It has been a long time. Still getting in trouble, eh?" he asked, nodding to my bruised face.
I resisted the urge to touch the injury, "I think my condition is better than yours. You've lost a lot of weight, Hidan. You look like a skeleton."
"This Bastard here is trying to keep me weak. I find it flattering, that he has me under maximum security," Hidan laughed, gesturing with a handcuffed hand in Shino's direction. "It will only make my escape more satisfying."
Behind me, I could feel the soldier tense at his words, but Shino ignored his bait. Instead, he adjusted his glasses and said, "Tell the princess what you told me last night."
Hidan laughed again, "You can imprison me, but you can't force me to say anything I don't want to."
I expected Shino to threaten him, but he laughed, too, "I thought it would be something you longed to tell her. She's partly the reason you're in this predicament, you know."
"You're right. I was going to tell her anyway, you bastard. So, I will tell her, but of my violation," he said. Shino shrugged to appease him. It seemed to work, because Hidan said, "You know that Lord Orochimaru used to be a part of the Akatsuki, right?"
"Well, Orochimaru used to be a leading part of the Akatsuki, but he had some trouble with Itachi after he joined. He wanted Itachi to be his main tool or something of that sort, and Itachi wasn't having it. So, Orochimaru left in a huff and formed his Sound Five. But, the Sound Five never really had the fear or impact that the Akatsuki had. He wants that, because he has this grand vision of his empire encompassing the whole world. He wants to own everything, and he thinks starting a new group and tacking on the reputation of the Akatsuki will get him that.
"Your father actually helped him by getting rid of his big competition…Lord Pein and the rest of us Akatsuki," he laughed. Stunned, I just stared at him. He threw his head back and his Adam's apple, appearing unusually large because of his unhealthy thinness, worked up and down. "While you believe you're secure, he's planting people in your castles and setting you against each other to break up your alliance."
"So, the carriage incident was him trying to cause discord between us?" I asked Shino.
The hooded man nodded, "He sent a group masquerading as you in to our base. They made it all the way to the court before we realized, and I lost several good men. After that, we tried to figure out when you would be here based on your last letter, but we thought it would take you longer than it really did. So, when your company showed up, my soldiers were sure you were another false princess."
"I had a really small procession, so we traveled really quickly," I said quietly. I couldn't believe it. We killed the Akatsuki off only for them to return with a vengeance. And, this time, we had no idea who the members were.
"Don't have such a sour face, Princess Ino," Hidan tutted.
I shot a glare at him before marching out of the room. When we were climbing back up the stairs, which was a great deal more work than coming down them had been, I raised my voice so that Shino could hear me, "Why do you keep him alive? He's told you about the Akatsuki, right?"
"I keep him alive so that I can confirm things. And, I'm convinced that he has more information he hasn't told me yet. After all, he's only just last night told me about the new Akatsuki."
I nodded even though he couldn't see me.
"I need to hurry and get back to tell my father. A new Akatsuki, huh? When will it ever end?"
We gathered out in front of the new carriage that Shino had prepared for us. We'd helped the wood masters and their wives get settled into their new houses, and now our company had dwindled down to just my guards, my two maids, Suzy, and myself.
In my lifetime, I had said many goodbyes. Some had been full of sorrow, some full of triumph, and some full of longing…but this one was the easiest. I had resolved my problem with Shino without too much problem and was now heading back to Gaara and my friends.
When I saw Gaara next, I might be starting my wedding plans. Looking down at my hand, I was wearing the ring on my wedding finger again. Lady Aburame had given me a book that had herbal recopies for pregnancy and children after I told her about Gaara. Embarrassed about the implications and thankful for her unchanging kindness towards me, I had thrown my arms around her and begged her to visit me sometime. I'm glad that I had said good bye then, because she was laid up in the healing room, suffering from a miagrane.
Standing beside me, Konohamaru shifted uncomfortably. Unlike me, he wasn't excited to see Gaara again. He felt like he'd failed his mission and didn't want to see the person who'd assigned him. I didn't think he really had anything to fear, it wasn't like he had any control over what happened, but nothing I'd said had relieved him.
"Goodbye, Ino. Remember me when you plan the wedding," Shino said, hooded as always and watching over the preparations from his place on the steps.
"I will," I said as Konohamaru helped me into my seat. He handed Suzy up to me, and she settled into my lap with a resigned sigh. She hated traveling because she hated being confined. "Thank you for everything!"
He nodded and waved and then we were off. The horses trotted briskly, seeming to be excited to leave the many-walled fortress and emerge back into the forest. The bad feeling was still mulling in my stomach and I was frightened. Now that I knew about the new Akatsuki, I was certain that the feeling had something to do with them. And, knowing something about the source made it easier to handle.
Daikirai let out a content sigh. He was sitting next to the fire, both his and Kega's hair wet and smelling of river. His hair, already braided by Kega, was hanging over the back of the chair to be dried from the hearth's heat and he was returning the favor to Kega. In moments like this, her head leaning back in his lap while he combed the tangles out of her long coal-black hair with the ivory comb he had brought her this time, they almost seemed normal. If anyone passed by and happened to glance in the window, they might mistake them for a happy couple.
But, that was an illusion. This was an illusion. Daikirai wandered how perceptive Kega was and how much she believed was real. He wandered how she would respond to him telling her that he was going to marry a princess soon. She would probably cry. That's why he wouldn't. Not for a while at least. She was too valuable to him at the moment as a source of information and she had found and healed him. So, while he didn't make more than a few small attempts to be nice to her, he would withhold this blow for a while.
Then, she was crying anyway. She jumped up and away from him, ringing her hands and looking distraught. "You have to go."
This was the most forceful he had been to him since she'd demanded that he drink all of his medicine because she'd spent a great deal of her funds on it. He stood up and studied her for a moment. She was terrified and he had an idea of what was going on. The bad man was here.
She pointed out the window and he saw the lone horse rider making his way towards the house. Though he usually liked her weakness and brokenness, he found it annoying now. "Stop crying."
"Do you want me to kill him for you?" he asked.
Her eyes widened with surprise and hope. She opened her mouth, as if to ask him if he really would. If he would take her pain away. He knew that she knew he wasn't a good person either, but for some reason she liked him.
He cursed at himself inwardly, realizing that he had spoken rashly and couldn't do this for her. If he did, he risked drawing attention to himself and then he would have to protect the girl from the bad man's cohorts. Plus, he needed more information.
"I will. I will kill him for you, but you have to get all the information out of him that you can. You need to report to me. Get him to take you to the castle. You have to be the perfect agent and manipulate him exactly how I say."
She hesitated. She always hesitated. It frustrated him. "Will you stay with me after you kill him?"
He laughed cruelly, "If you can manage to do as I say, I will make you my official mistress."
The bad man was closer to the house now. He stooped and kissed her on the cheek, leaving her stunned and alone by the fire. Slipping out the back door, he ordered, "Don't let me down."
"O, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily
do, not knowing what they do!"
Much Ado About Nothing, Act IV, Scene i