AN: Thanks to reviewers cloudynatjim, Tytus, asenaray7, Ryarth, Jules, ShadowCub and all the guests for their kind reviews. They make me really happy. Thanks very much for the encouragement. If you do have the time after reading, it'd really please me if you could leave behind your comments once again, suggestions or just notes saying you've read this are all welcome. They give me a lot of motivation to continue writing. Thanks again.
Extra disclaimer: Ezaki is not my OC, she's from the anime/manga Saki. I'll be pulling in more characters from other series, so just a broad disclaimer here in case you're wondering.
hadajuban – thin layer worn under the nagajuban (which is, itself, worn under the top, often silk, layer, keeping it clean). Somewhat analogous to modern undershirts.
shugo-dai – vice governor of the kuni (province)
The Nation For You
By the third night at camp, Natsuki of Kuga, now Natsuki of Fujino, came to the conclusion the so-called Foolish Princess Shizuru might not be a fool, but was nonetheless queer as one.
On the first night they held their wedding ceremony. It was attended by the priest, the couple, Shizuru-hime's officer Yukino, and whoever from the army wanting to join the fun, meaning most of camp. Incantations were cut short for drinking, miko were not present so the sacred dance was replaced by drunken men stomping around a campfire, and as the priest was offering tamagushi, Shizuru-hime left the area to grant audience to a reporting trooper.
It would be midnight before Natsuki saw her again, having retired to her quarters.
Shizuru-hime was dressed in a plain white hadajuban, reading a scroll from the massive collection she kept near her futon. It was not a piece of renowned literature from the ancient days, but a crudely illustrated tale not unlike what one would find in a marketplace storyteller's hands. And must she add, despite that the short narrative itself was rather florid, the plot lacked any measure of depth. Some heroic young man went up a mountain and defeated demons with a magic sword he pulled up from a lake – really? Natsuki fought hard to stifle a laugh.
It was not her matter to care for, however, so she turned her back and drifted off to sleep. The next day the couple performed their respective duties, training the troops, responding to reports, sending off commands, not meeting until, once again, Natsuki found herself lying on their shared futon with Shizuru-hime sitting by her side, scroll in hand.
It was a different story this time. The writing was, unlike last night, hideous. Was it the work of a barely literate leatherworker? She found herself wondering.
The next day Natsuki started worrying. There were rumours that the Tiger Damiyou was ill, resting at Suemori Castle, but her wife took no immediate action, making no command to dismantle camp or prepare for a return to her home fief. Night was once again quiet. Natsuki surveyed the older woman's glowing visage under the candlelight, crimsons trained on yet another plebeian scroll, a thin pink smile adorning the amused countenance.
She found her low voice breaking the silence. The Fujino commander gave the scroll one last glance before turning her attention to the former Kuga.
"What is it, my dear?"
"Pardon my questioning, but what is it in those scrolls that is so captivating, enough for you to remain here three days and nights?"
At this, the Fujino princess suddenly closed their distance. Pale brown locks cascaded down her shoulder to be intertwined with midnight black, lithe body pressing into her hardened form. The transmitted warmth sped her heartbeat. Against her will, she found her face burning.
"Lonely for my touch, Natsuki?" her silken voice vibrated. Long slender fingers tipped her chin up to meet the gaze of the taller woman, one burning with desire. "You must be wondering why I have yet to consolidate our alliance by taking away your marital value. Shall I do that now?"
Her mind blanked at the turn of events. The world seemed ominously bright for the emerald gaze panning into the tent canvas behind her wife as her lips were met with plush counterparts that pried them open.
She bit down on flesh, breaking this mirage with blood.
She panicked a little when her eyesight returned. Shizuru-hime was smiling, a line of red dripping from her broken bottom lip.
"Ara, isn't Natsuki the cruel one," a playful smirk adorned the unfazed visage.
The crimson-eyed princess pulled away, "No need. You proved my point."
Natsuki traced her finger over the residual blood on her own lips. There was a tinge of copper on her palette – the taste of Shizuru-hime's life.
As though she cared not for that life, the Fujino princess tipped her head lazily to the side and continued, "I am not a patient one. I will not force you to return my desire, nor will I wait for you. What I cannot have, I will destroy. As I cannot have your love, I shall destroy it."
"Do not get the wrong idea, Natsuki. You are married to me not as my woman, but as my sword. I do not care for the old traditions of making you unfit for remarriage. Your strength till the destruction of the Ishigami is all I need. I do not prefer a path of destruction, but I will take it over coercion or waiting, because it is the fastest way, and with each day I save from worthless contemplation, lives will be saved from meaningless bloodshed."
To cut a withering limb to preserve one's life.
To kill a person to save thousands.
Such was the justification for Shizuru-hime's conquest, but why did she say she would spare her should the Fujino and Kuga engage themselves in battle in the future? Natsuki-hime could not read into her thoughts, similar to how she could not understand what she read in those picture scrolls, or why she the impatient general was staying soundlessly at camp despite the pressing concerns at Suemori.
"About the scrolls," the smooth accent sounded again, "If you are interested, feel free to help yourself. You may see what I see, or maybe it will be something different. Who knows?"
Passing the scroll to her, the brunette commander lowered herself into the futon and drifted to sleep.
The next few days passed with little note. There was some discussion over why the Kiyosu troops had not yet been returned, but they were settled by Kikukawa's diplomacy. A procession for Kuga was due. The troops would be retained as escort for the princess who would be adopted.
Natsuki had almost come to expect uneventful mornings, but at the break of dawn on the seventh day, Shizuru and she were woken by an urgent report.
"The Ogasawara of the Kanzaki domain has announced their switch of allegiance to the Fujino Clan. Ishigami troops under the command of Lord Reito are under move to lay siege on Terabe Castle."
This was big news. Natsuki couldn't help but widen her eyes in surprise, but glancing at the placid face by her side, she fell into deep ponder.
"Is that so?" was all the Fujino princess said before picking up her brush to draft several letters. "This will go to the castle of Shobata and our allies at Kariya. Inform them we will be passing through en-route to Terabe. Have them ready their troops and grains for our campaign. This second letter is to go to Kiyosu. Request reinforcements in support of the Ogasawara. Announce to our troops that we shall break camp by midday and march for Kanzaki."
"As you command."
When the trooper exited, Natsuki turned her questioning gaze towards her wife, only to be met with a pair of smiling crimsons. The dark-haired warrior was once again lost in thought about what the brunette was thinking, but one thing was certain – she was not gullible enough to cast away suspicions that the Fujino princess had a hand in the Terabe incident.
"Natsuki, you shall go to Kiyosu."
The sudden comment interrupted all her musings. The capital of the Fujino government? Shizuru-hime was entrusting her with the heart of her clan?
"No, as advance troops," she uttered, "for the eventual sack of the city."
The princess of Fujino, asking the princess of Kuga to sack her capital?
Natsuki was rendered speechless. This foolishness was beyond human comprehension!
But this was why she chose to follow the Fool. Betting her trust, she nodded.
"Move like the shadows. Surround Kiyosu but do not attack till the time comes. You will recognize it, as I will come to your support," were the last words the flaming-eyed conqueror left before they parted ways.
Located in the northeast of the Fujino domain, it was a strategic castle at the junction of two major roadways, one leading to Kazahana, the capital of Kaze Nation, and one leading to Inabayama of the Kuga domain.
As though to exemplify the Fujino's eccentric nature, the castle was built on flat ground, which was stark contrast to the main castles of Inabayama and Odani of the Kuga and Karauchi warlords. Then again, the castle was originally built by the Homura shugo as support to the residence of the provincial government. When that particular residence was destroyed by the relentless Fujino civil wars, the shugo moved into Kiyosu.
Despite being the primary residence of the governor, it was, in actuality, the base from which Shizuru's father conducted all his operations. He probably saw the strategic nature of the castle's location and its unusual stone base fortification when he decided to take it for his own. What he foresaw was the beginnings of siege warfare, and supply lines to flatland castles were much harder to cut off compared to segregated mountaintops. There was a trade-off in defensibility though, but what Kiyosu lacked in natural protection, it relied on engineering science. Indeed, Fujino Shizuo was not only a fierce general, but a very innovative one too.
Seeing the same advantages in Kiyosu Castle, it was without surprise that the shugo-dai, Fujino Shizuyoshi, would move in shortly after receiving news of Shizuo's confinement in Suemori.
Shizuyoshi was the younger brother of Shizuo. While Shizuo, head of the Fujino Clan, ruled over the west-central regions of the province, Shizuyoshi used his official appointment as reason to control the southeast regions. The cunning man held off from open confrontation with Shizuo during his reign, using his elder brother to protect him from the Ishigami-Kanzaki forces on the borders, but now that the latter was close to death, he seized the chance to rule.
He had a good excuse after all. Shizuo bore no male heirs. Not only was that the case, he also sowed seeds of jealousy in his own offsprings by handing off his position to the delinquent Shizuru-hime instead of his well-liked younger daughter.
Not that he couldn't see his reason. Shizuka-hime was probably well-liked for her gullibility rather than anything else. She easily consented to his invitation to alliance against her own elder sister and was preparing for an invasion of Nagoya. All the better for Shizuyoshi – he needed not supply a single trooper to bring Shizuru-hime down. If Shizuka-hime failed, he could just put all blame on her, risk-free. If she happened to succeed, well, he didn't mind supporting her a little longer till he got the strongest of Fujino's warriors, Suzushiro Haruka, on his side. Suzushiro might be Shizuka-hime's servant, but the red-necked general had on occasion openly criticized her superior. She was also from head to toe a conservative, and more than once had pleaded with Lord Shizuo to name Shizuyoshi successor instead, despite being female herself.
Tapping his closed fan on his left palm, Shizuyoshi stepped confidently into the shugo's office to begin executing his plan.
The shugo, Homura Nagamune, had just reached his forties, but his attitude was that of a withering old man. Contented with being Shizuyoshi's puppet, he sat in Kiyosu Castle tending to domestic matters, only stepping out should he report to the shougun in Kazahana. Not having fought a single campaign, his military appointment was solely based on bloodline, and the soldiers knowingly followed orders from the Fujino Clan instead.
When he received letter from Shizuru-hime regarding reinforcements for Terabe, he was stuck in an awkward position, not knowing how to respond.
As always, he called upon Shizuyoshi to make the decision.
"Give her another five hundred then," Shizuyoshi replied when Nagamune brought up the issue. He was rather surprised that Shizuyoshi would be so generous, as the five hundred she borrowed earlier was still not returned.
"That would be two thousand for Shobata and Kariya then?" Nagamune asked for confirmation. A thousand from Kiyosu, five hundred new recruits, and five hundred of Shizuru-hime's own men under her new favourite, the monkey Tate who defected from Ishigami, and her old officer Kikukawa.
"So Shizuru-hime said she would be passing through Shobata and Kariya?"
"Yes. She said she would take a small route to avoid Lord Reito's suspicions. Shobata and Kariya have already closed off their communications to prevent espionage."
"Oh?" Shizuyoshi muttered with a ripe grin spreading across his face. Beautiful. And there she was, the foolish princess, cutting herself off from the rest of Fujino domain while venturing so close to Shizuyoshi's territory. Five hundred troops to push her across the edge was a cheap deal. Once the troops reached her hands, she would have no more reason holing herself up near Shoutokuji as she had done for the past week.
"She said that she would send in an Okuzaki ninja once she reached Kariya so we can be on guard for any turn of events. If we lose Kariya Castle, Shizuru-hime would be trapped on enemy territory."
Oh, Nagamune, such a worthless puppet. The way he spoke seemed like he had completely forgotten he was supposedly the shugo of not only the Fujino domain, but also Kanzaki and Ishigami proper! He was such a tame dog that Shizuyoshi had to constrain his mocking desire to stroke his dark head.
"That would be horrible, wouldn't it, Lord Nagamune? Please do inform me when Shizuru-hime reaches Kariya, so I can have my troops ready at nearby Oono Castle should she require assistance."
Oono lay just west of Terabe. If Shizuru-hime moved southeast from Kariya into the Fujino-Kanzaki border, he could easily send troops in to cut off her line of retreat. Right at that moment, Shizuka-hime's attack on Nagoya would begin.
The perfect plan for usurping the throne of Fujino.
To call it a castle was somewhat of an exaggeration. Compared to the reinforced structure of Nagoya Castle sitting atop the plateau, overlooking Fujino Bay in its background, Suemori was but a small fort on the outskirts of city.
Fujino Shizuo built this castle as part of his first campaign to Kanzaki. Sitting along a provincial road connecting the southern territories with Kiyosu, Suemori served both as a trading post and as support to Nagoya. When Fujino Shizuka came of age, Shizuo handed her Suemori as a gift and responsibility. Needless to say, she was hardly pleased when her elder sister received the grand Nagoya Castle instead.
"I wonder if you ever dreamed of dying here when you decided to hand me this rundown fort, Father," Shizuka-hime muttered gently to the bedridden man by her side. By the time Shizuo returned within the Fujino borders, he was already close to death. Surrounded by Shizuka's "welcoming" forces, his trusted general, Ezaki Hitomi, had no choice but to give in to her demand that they rested at Suemori.
"This is all politics' fault," Ezaki cursed under her breath while she paced herself back and forth outside Shizuo's chambers, unaware of what was transpiring inside. Suzushiro, Shizuo's other general who he assigned to Shizuka as her servant, stood arms crossed, brows twitching.
"Ezaki, can't you just shut up?" Suzushiro growled, only to be met with a glare from Ezaki. Why, of course, the politics she was mentioning earlier was a direct reference to Suzushiro herself! If not for the fact that the light-haired lioness served Shizuka-hime, they would have more say on this matter.
This Suemori dump and not Nagoya Castle…all politics, politics, politics!
Ezaki paced around impatiently again, non-stop sipping on her calabash bottle. Just when Suzushiro was about to lose temper and beat the living lights out of Ezaki, the paper partition opened and the younger Fujino princess stepped out with a grave expression on her face.
"The Daimyou…has passed on."
The light, quivering voice paired with a single tear running down her cheek all screamed of Shizuka-hime's sorrow, but Ezaki didn't buy it, standing firm with just a sceptical look on her face. It won Suzushiro over though, and the fair, big-busted general reached over to take her lady in an embrace.
"Pardon my rudeness, Hime-sama, but I swear by my name that I will be by your side through these difficult times."
Psh, politics… Ezaki sarcastically commented in her mind. It was strange that a person of her high position would hate politics so much. Perhaps it had to do with her decent abilities at war, but the poor luck she had in life. Many a times had she won small skirmishes, but when it came to large battles, she would be out of commission from an injury or illness.
But this time, her suspicion was not unfounded.
"We must call back the heiress, Shizuru-himesama, for the procession, and succession of the clan," Ezaki tested. Shizuka-hime raised her head from Suzushiro's bosom and handed her a clenched piece of paper.
"Father…father wishes for me to inherit his position instead. My noble sister, no, my unforgivable sister dared secretly form an alliance with Kanzaki to invade our territories! Father found out and that was why, he…he…"
Like I said, damn politics…Ezaki grumbled once more in her mind, but as she unfolded the "will" that Shizuka-hime handed her, she was caught speechless.
The signature, the seal.
They were real.
But there must be something wrong with this will, something!
"In that case, we shall attack Nagoya," Suzushiro spoke with anger lacing her tone. Ezaki couldn't help but hold her own head in her right palm. "Attack Nagoya, we will, by dawn!"
Shizuka-hime inwardly smiled.
All these years she had spent by Shizuo's side with the sole purpose of stealing a piece of blank paper with his signature…Shizuo was a careful man, he kept records of all documents bearing his own name, but how would he have known that a single piece slipped by?
A thin piece of paper behind the one he was signing. The ink seeped through onto the blank sheet.
The seal, well, Shizuo couldn't stop his daughter from prying it out of his dying grasp.
Now Ezaki had no excuse not to follow her. Besides, even if she wanted to hold off her troops, Suzushiro wouldn't let her.
Good Suzushiro, so honest and simple.
Ezaki snorted, turning on her heels to leave the scene. Damn politics, damn it all!
End of Chapter 4 - thanks for reading. Reviews are super-welcome!