Note: I'm only posting this first, introductory chapter because I would like some opinions on the style in which this is written. It's a departure from my usual fanfic mode of writing, and it's immensely long, but I want to know if anyone thinks I should bother finishing it. So please, give me your opinions, people! I would appreciate that muchly
Title: Heir's Choice
Pairing: InuKai (eventually)
Rating: PG (for the time being)
Summary: Kaoru is Lord Shibuki's perfect, obedient heir...up until something changes and his world turns upside down.
~Heir's Choice, Chapter One~
The dull clang of steel on steel echoed off of the stone walls of the courtyard. All the residents of the manor who were under eighteen were there, as were most of the guardsmen. The gathered watchers were uncharacteristically silent, murmuring only when there was a pause in the action before them, and they hastily quieted the moment the swords began their dance once more.
Fifteen-year-old Kaoru, heir to the manor and to the relatively expansive farmlands and forest that surrounded them, parried another blow, one that sent a shock all the way up his arm. Captain Kunimitsu, master-at-arms and the man charged with command of the guard, was barely holding himself back today.
Kaoru feinted left, then lunged, contacting the captain’s ribs with the side of his blade before the older man brought his sword in to counter. Kunimitsu shook his head just slightly, but Kaoru did not need to be told that it was not a killing or incapacitating stroke.
They fought on, and Kaoru’s arms began to ache. All of the captain’s strikes made him very nearly drop his sword. He stubbornly persisted anyway, but he knew that his moves were becoming more and more desperate. Kunimitsu wasn’t letting up, either, and would soon find a way to take advantage of Kaoru’s growing weakness.
Kaoru sidestepped a swing, ducking to the right, but he didn’t quite avoid it completely. He winced when the captain clipped his shoulder. He would have a bruise there the next day, that was for certain. Kaoru dropped to one knee and shoved his blade upward in what seemed to be a fool’s move. It left his own vitals ridiculously undefended, and it would only be dumb luck if his sword found its intended mark.
He was surprised when the captain’s sword stilled in mid-slice, and he dared to glance up. The dulled point of his practice blade rested directly on Kunimitsu’s throat. It had been an undisputed killing touch; luck had been on Kaoru’s side this time.
Kunimitsu nodded as much as he could manage with the tip of a sword at his neck. “Well done overall,” he said, then added flatly, “but that last move was a risk. You must keep your guard up in combat, even in practice.”
Now talk broke out among the youngsters as they chattered excitedly about this parry or that riposte. The guards laughed and talked with them, and also probably paid the bets that had been made amongst themselves. Kaoru saw at least one flash of gold that indicated that money was changing hands.
Kaoru lowered his blade and met Kunimitsu’s eyes directly. The captain regarded him and raised an eyebrow, questioning without a word. “I would like to practice more often, sir,” Kaoru said carefully. “Not just with my cousins, if you would be willing to teach me more, Captain Kunimitsu, sir.”
“Ah.” The captain considered for a moment, sweeping a gaze over the children and his men, who were serving as audience. Then the man inclined his head in acceptance. “If you don’t object to early hours, you may practice with myself and the guard, at fifth stroke before dawn.”
It would be earlier than Kaoru ever woke on ordinary days, but he didn’t care. “Thank you, sir,” he said humbly. “I would appreciate that.”
Kunimitsu made a gesture of dismissal. “I believe you have lessons now, young lord.”
“Yes, sir,” Kaoru replied, then hesitated. “Would you like me to clean my blade and put it away, sir?” Their practice fight had gone on longer than usual, judging by the sun, and Kaoru was going to be late to lessons even if he got on his way immediately. But he always hated to shirk his responsibilities. Being the lord’s son, any laziness would be tolerated on occasion, but Kaoru did not want to take advantage.
“Go,” Kunimitsu told him. And then with something almost resembling humor: “Lady Sumire should not be kept waiting.” He held a hand out for Kaoru’s blade, and Kaoru gratefully gave it to him.
Kaoru turned and left the practice grounds at a trot, unbuckling his leather practice armor as he went. Then he thought better of it; he would have no appropriate place to put it, and Lady Sumire didn’t care what he showed up wearing so long as he studied diligently.
Kaoru pushed open the large wooden side door on this side of the keep with a creak and a shower of sawdust. Somehow, no matter how often this door was used it still dropped debris on whoever passed through it if that person wasn’t careful. If Kaoru didn’t know better, he would have guessed that some of his cousins had rigged it to do so.
As though his thoughts had conjured one of his cousins out of thin air, there was suddenly the sound of jogging footsteps behind him and a jovial shout of “Oi, snake!”
Kaoru closed his eyes in complete disgust. It would have to be Takeshi, one of the only cousins who had been living here since as far back as Kaoru could remember. He had a talent for irritating Kaoru that surpassed even his remarkable skill and strength when wielding a heavy broadsword.
Takeshi had called him “snake” ever since an embarrassing incident with a small, harmless blacksnake that Kaoru would have preferred to forget. Takeshi, unfortunately, would not let him forget it, teasing him every opportunity he got. Kaoru never stopped himself from flinging insults back at the other boy, admittedly, except in the presence of his father, his mother, Captain Kunimitsu, or Lady Sumire.
Now Kaoru hissed “Idiot,” under his breath, pitched just loud enough that Takeshi could hear him. Takeshi caught up to him, panting, breathless and sweaty although he hadn’t exercised nearly as much. Kaoru noted this with a certain guilty satisfaction; Takeshi might well be able to handle a broadsword with a confidence Kaoru did not possess, but his stamina was clearly inferior.
“Who’re you calling an idiot?” Takeshi asked cheerfully. “That last move of yours was the stupidest thing ever! Thought captain would smack you for that, even though you did make kill point,” the boy continued with a snicker.
“Shut up,” Kaoru snapped back, speeding his pace just a little. If only he could make it to the study, where Lady Sumire was waiting, he could be free of this annoyance.
Takeshi walked faster too, keeping up regardless of his lesser staying power. Apparently irritating Kaoru was his life’s work, and nothing would sway him from his duty. “No wonder you want extra practices,” Takeshi jibed, poking Kaoru in the arm with one finger. The leather armor he was still wearing protected Kaoru from actually feeling it, but he moved away from his cousin anyway. “I would think you’d want to get in as much practice as you could!” Takeshi said, sounding ever so happy to be bothering the heir of the hold. “I’d think you’d-”
Kaoru interrupted him with a muttered, “You think? That’s a change.”
“What?” Takeshi asked stupidly, looking at his cousin sideways as he took a second to get it. “Oh! Ha, ha, real smart. That what Lady Sumire’s teaching you in those advanced lessons? She’s gotta teach you some better-”
“Are you implying that my teaching is inadequate?” Lady Sumire’s somewhat gravelly but sharp voice made both Takeshi and Kaoru blanch unconsciously. The woman tutored all of the youngsters who lived at the manor, and they all knew that she was incredibly formidable despite, or perhaps because of, her slight build. Kaoru knew that he, for one, would take an angry Captain Kunimitsu over Lady Sumire in a temper any day.
Takeshi shook his head fast, his eyes wide as he did his best to look innocent. “No, no, ma’am, I wasn’t saying anything like that, lady, never, not me,” he babbled. “I’m sure you’d only teach really good insults-uh, I mean, if you taught insults at all, I mean-” He stopped, to Kaoru’s disappointment, apparently realizing that he was only digging himself in deeper.
Lady Sumire, however, only let out an unladylike snort of laughter. “Damn right I’d teach good insults, boy,” she told him equably. “And you’d best quit tormenting our young lordling, unless you want to remember what it feels like to be dragged off by your ear.”
“Yes ma’am,” Takeshi said in one of his rare showings of obedience, turning smartly and fleeing before his dignity could be reduced to further shreds. He didn’t quite run, but came close to it. Kaoru suppressed any reaction to that, knowing Sumire wouldn’t appreciate him snickering, either. He was glad enough that Takeshi’s lessons weren’t along with his. Since the other boy hated to study, he was always in with the children two and even three years younger than himself.
“Brat,” Lady Sumire said fondly after Takeshi’s retreating back. She definitely cared about all the hold’s youngsters, even though she wasn’t averse to tanning a hide every once in a while. She turned to Kaoru and studied his attire in amusement. “I was coming to look for you. Guess Kunimitsu kept you late, then?”
Kaoru nodded, flushing despite himself. “We didn’t make kill point until a minute ago, I’m sorry ma’am,” he apologized, although he really couldn’t have helped it unless he’d cut the match short with a forfeit.
“Tch,” Sumire replied, another sound that Kaoru’s mother, the Lady Hozumi, would have died rather than make. “Stop apologizing to me, it gets old, boy. Wasn’t your fault anyway. So, who made point first, you or Kunimitsu?”
“I did, ma’am,” Kaoru said, then hastened to add the rest of the truth: “But I was clumsy and reckless at the end, ma’am. It was only luck that I made point.” It wasn’t really an accomplishment; Kaoru was unhappy that it hadn’t been his actual swordsmanship skills that finally won him a point off the captain.
Sumire grinned at him, though. “Ha. Good for you.” She laughed then. “Doesn’t matter if it was luck or no, I won my bet with Syuusuke, and he’d damn well better pay up after all the coin he’s taken from me!” She clapped Kaoru on the shoulder, for all the world the gesture of a guardsman.
“Bet, ma’am?” This was the first Kaoru had heard of this particular wager, although he knew Sumire did frequently gamble with the men. His mother sometimes railed about the impropriety of it all, although she did so in a very polite, ladylike sort of way. Besides that, Sumire liked to talk to her students, and was perfectly blunt about how she spent her spare time if asked.
“Mm-hm,” Sumire said, still grinning. “Bet young Syuusuke, you know, that pretty transfer lieutenant, that you’d best Kunimitsu within two months. You’re a week early too,” she informed him gleefully. “I’ll be trying to get something extra out of that rascal, that’s sure!”
Sumire reached into her pocket and pulled out her jangling keyring. There weren’t many keys dangling from it, as almost none of the keep’s doors were ever locked, but there were some exceptions. Lord Shibuki and Lady Hozumi’s bedroom, the linen closets, the girls’ quarters, and Sumire’s study were all kept under lock and key. Kaoru’s parents, of course, enjoyed their privacy. The linens were locked away partly because some of the manor’s pranksters (Takeshi in particular) found it amusing to play tricks using the best sheets. The girls’ quarters were locked to keep any uninvited boys out, and to make sure they didn’t find spiders or frogs in their beds (another trick Takeshi had been fond of playing). Sumire’s study locked because, as she put it, “I don’t want to deal with meddlesome brats except at my choosing.” She’d said it with a twinkle in her eyes, but Kaoru didn’t doubt she’d meant it.
She swung the door open; these hinges were well-oiled and without the rain of dust that came from the outside door. Kaoru blinked as he stepped inside, adjusting to the candles that lit the windowless room. As ever, he was quietly impressed with the study even though he’d seen it thousands of times before.
The first thing to catch the eye was the large jeweled globe of the world that took up half the desk. Sumire had inherited it from her late husband, for whom it had been a treasured possession. The globe was probably worth more gold pieces than anything else in the keep, and maybe even more than the building itself. The larger cities were marked with glittering rubies, and the smaller towns and holds with smaller sapphires. The continents were also dotted with various other stones, royal golden topaz for deserts and emeralds for jungles and forests, light blue topaz for the lakes and rivers. All of the kingdom borders were marked with rows of tiny sparkling diamonds. Kaoru took every opportunity to study the globe closely. It fascinated him with its stunning craftsmanship and geography lesson rolled into one.
The second thing that most people noticed on walking inside were the rows upon rows of shelves that lined the walls, all of them packed full of books. There were more books in here than in the keep’s official library, and, Kaoru thought secretly, all more interesting than his father’s dull history volumes.
These books were mostly novels, or if not, they were written in a manner that was more like a tale than a simple recitation of dates. They’d mostly been written by people who had actually been the places they described, and they did not only recount which day it was that so-and-so castle fell and such-and-such treaty was signed. They made it so Kaoru could hear the fierce war cries and the screams of the dying. He could hear the clash of steel and the splintering of shields, could see and smell the blood and the sweat and the tears. He could feel the determination of these men who had long since been dead, and he loved it. It honored their memories more, he felt, although he’d never say such to anyone aloud.
The day Kaoru had gone from being tutored by his father to being tutored by Lady Sumire had been one of the best in his young life. It wasn’t that his father was an awful teacher; Kaoru had been just as good a student with him as with Sumire. But Lord Shibuki wasn’t very concerned with those subjects that Kaoru considered his favorites, literature and real history. He’d certainly never let his heir choose for himself which books to study.
Sumire did let Kaoru decide what they would focus on, up to a point. She’d been delighted to find that despite his love for swords and general athleticism, he was one of the best students she’d ever had. He had to work to earn his high marks, especially at mathematics and accounting, but work he did, every single day.
Now, settling into her hard-backed wooden chair (which Sumire claimed kept her young, but looked terribly uncomfortable to Kaoru), Sumire flipped open the book on her large oaken desk. “Hm,” she said thoughtfully. “History, where were we now?”
Kaoru settled into his slightly more comfortable padded chair, and said immediately, “The defense led bu Lord Sagara at the Eastern border, ma’am.” He’d been reading more on his own about a man he considered one of his heroes.
“Ah, yes,” Sumire said, finding the correct page. “An interesting tactic used there, you know, was the...”
The Phoenix Formation, as Kaoru already knew, was one that sacrificed the lives of those at the head of the charge so that the rest of the army could make a comeback. Lord Sagara himself had led that frontal charge and had been one of the first to die, charging one of his captains to lead the rear force. Everyone had pleaded with him to take the other force himself, but he’d refused to let his men go to their deaths without him. The captain, whom Sagara had trusted implicitly, had done an exceptional job with his own task, leading what remained of the army to a hard-won victory.
Lessons slipped by quickly as they always did for Kaoru nowadays. He didn’t have much more of numbers and figures to learn, and his father already let him manage some of the house’s supply lists because his accounting was so good. It was mostly history, battle tactics, literature, and diplomacy that Kaoru studied at this point, all things he loved to learn.
Lady Sumire dismissed him with a wave as he finished reading to the end of the diplomacy chapter that covered foreign etiquette, and how one false move could sabotage any treaty. Kaoru left with a quiet “Thank you, ma’am,” that only made Sumire scoff and tell him, “Get on with you, boy.” Kaoru’s lessons were the last of the day, advanced and separate from the other children’s, so there was no one waiting out in the hallway for Sumire’s time.
The sky was darkening outside of the arched stone windows. And he was very hungry, Kaoru realized in surprise. His stomach told him that it was surely time for dinner, and probably past. He had to control himself to stop from sprinting to the Hall for the meal. Now that he ate at the high table, they would save food for him, even if Takeshi and the other cousins ate everything else.
He’d just rounded one of the last corners when he literally ran into his younger brother Hazue...or more accurately, when Hazue ran into him. The younger boy yelped in surprise and would have fallen onto his backside if Kaoru hadn’t put out a hand to steady him.
“Kaoru!” Hazue said, happy as a young puppy to see his elder brother. “Is Lady Sumire coming down? Mother says she isn’t to skip dinner again. She says it’s not healthy.”
“I don’t know, Hazue,” Kaoru replied truthfully. Lady Sumire hadn’t looked especially inclined to stir a foot from her study when he’d left, but it was easy enough for her to change her mind. “You’d better go and ask her.”
“I will!” Hazue accepted the task from Kaoru as eagerly as he’d probably accepted it from Lady Hozumi. The boy darted off down the hallway, heedless of the fact that other people used the passage as well. Kaoru was willing to bet that he’d run into at least one maid on his way up.
Kaoru watched until Hazue was out of sight, then shook his head with a patient sigh. Hazue was their mother’s pet and, truth be told, everyone else’s as well. It was impossible not to like him at the very least, and most adored him. Kaoru and Hazue were nearly polar opposites: Kaoru with his air of obedience and calm, and Hazue with his childish exuberance. It worked out for the best that Kaoru would inherit the manor and the responsibilities that came with it.
Kaoru pushed his way through one of the smaller doors that led into the Hall, his ears, as always, assaulted by the laughter and chatter of the hundred-odd people who lived in the manor. One of the hunting pups, Kaoru’s favorite, Shadow, broke off from his frantic search for scraps below the table. He greeted Kaoru with a playful leap, and a piteous whine that begged for a pat.
Kaoru obliged the half-grown hound, scratching behind his ears for a minute before continuing on to the high table, Shadow prancing along at his heels, hoping for some food to be tossed his way. The delicious food aromas made Kaoru’s mouth water and his stomach complained even more strongly. Kaoru took his seat beside his father, and his mother smiled at him.
“Lessons ran late, then?” Lord Shibuki asked, pausing and resting his fork on his plate.
Kaoru nodded. “Yes, sir, they did.”
“I hope you’re studying well,” his father stated, then went back to his large slice of turkey. With those little formalities done, Kaoru felt free to eat, taking something from every dish onto his plate. As he’d expected, his cousins had devoured all the food at the low table, but the high table was served on separate platters.
Kaoru debated with himself whether or not to tell his father that he would be taking extra sword lessons in the early mornings, but decided against it. Captain Kunimitsu would tell the man, probably already had, in fact. And Kaoru’s father, like Kaoru himself, was not one for unnecessary small talk.
Kaoru ate in relative peace, although his cousins were exceptionally loud. At least none of them, including Takeshi, would dare shout anything at him while he sat up here. It had been a blessing when Lord Shibuki had judged Kaoru old enough to eat with the adults. Before then, his meals had frequently been interrupted by arguments or all-out fights that ended with the still-hungry participants being expelled from the Hall.
Kaoru finished quickly, knowing that shortly the youngsters would all adjourn to the gardens or somewhere similar. He didn’t truly enjoy time spent with his cousins and the fostered children, but as his father had told him time and again, it was essential for Kaoru to maintain decent relations with everyone at the hold. It was these children who would one day support him as Lord.
When Hazue came back to the hall in triumph, a mock-aggravated Lady Sumire in tow, all the children seemed to take that as a signal. They moved very nearly as one body as Kaoru watched them. He followed after a few moments, at his father’s nod. He joined his peers as the whole giggling, gabbing mob headed out one of the Hall’s side doors like a strange flock of sheep, telling Shadow to “stay.”
Takeshi dropped back to walk beside Kaoru, to Kaoru’s extreme irritation. Takeshi was one of the few people in the world, Kaoru thought, who could devour an entire turkey by himself and not be the least bit drowsy.
“Heya, snake, I know something you don’t know,” Takeshi sang, dancing along on his toes, going backwards so he could face Kaoru.
“The Travelers pulled up into the back meadow while you were at lessoning,” someone else spoke up in a bored tone. It was one of the fostered boys, the son of Lord Nanjiroh, one of Lord Shibuki’s acquaintances. He’d been sent from the city to live at a farming hold for a while.
Takeshi did a good impression of one of the fancy fish imported into the front pond, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly as his eyes widened. “Ryoma-a,” he finally whined, “I wanted to make him guess!”
“Don’t,” Ryoma said, feigning indifference. “It makes you look like an idiot.”
Kaoru had never paid much attention to Ryoma before this. All he knew was that the boy had been a rebellious city brat when he’d first arrived. He’d gotten used to manor life now, apparently, and knew how to deal with Takeshi’s antics. Kaoru felt a certain appreciation for the boy at the moment. He’d dealt with Takeshi in the most effective way possible, telling news the older boy wanted to keep secret, something Takeshi hated more than almost anything. Is this what you learn in the city? Kaoru wondered. I should ask Father if I could go with him some year...
Meanwhile, Takeshi’s and Ryoma’s “conversation” continued. “I look like an idiot?” Momo asked incredulously. “You think just ‘cause you’re city-bred you can say what you like?”
Ryoma replied with another biting retort, laced with sarcasm, but Kaoru wasn’t really paying attention. As he passed through the door into the brisk evening breeze, he was thinking about the Travelers.
Kaoru privately looked forward to the Travelers’ arrival each year more than his Name Day and Midwinter combined. The Travelers were, as their name implied, traveling folk who lived in brightly painted caravan wagons. They always brought with them every sort of curiosity from every place they’d been, all of it for trade or sale. There were odd-colored ribbons and delicate blown-glass animals, bizarre foreign weapons and small animals that looked almost like mice but weren’t, orange fruits that had somehow been preserved with spices, and much more.
They also brought in their wagons that which Kaoru enjoyed the most: books. The books were sometimes leather-bound, covered in fancy gold script, and sometimes wrapped in oilcloth to keep out the damp. They brought books on every subject imaginable, some tales and histories, some learned treatises written by great thinkers, some mysterious religious tomes that told of strange gods from other countries...the list went on and on.
Books were Kaoru’s secret joy, always, a passion he shared with Lady Sumire. She was the only one who knew about his love of novels and stories, aside from Kaoru’s perceptive mother. Kaoru usually asked Sumire to buy the books he wanted with his allowed pocket money so that his father wouldn’t see him purchasing what he referred to disdainfully as “women’s entertainments.” Kaoru hid the thirty-some books he owned from his father, feeling deeply guilty for doing so but unwilling to give up his precious pages. It was Kaoru’s one and only act of defiance, but it gnawed away at his conscience regardless. He could recall only too well a discussion-argument, really-between his parents and Lady Sumire on that exact subject.
“He’s too damn obedient, if you ask me, Shibuki!”
“I didn’t ask you, did I, Sumire?” Lord Shibuki’s voice was cold and stern, and made Kaoru cower farther back into the doorway he’d only begun to enter. Lady Hozumi gasped and murmured his father’s name, but said nothing more. “I will not have my son reading tales like a damn woman. You, and he, will obey me in this.”
“Fine.” Lady Sumire’s voice matched Shibuki’s for coldness, and she stormed out of the room. Kaoru followed in her wake, feeling very small and helpless at the age of eleven.
But neither one of them had obeyed Lord Shibuki. Even Kaoru’s lady mother approved of his love of novels and gave them to him, cleverly disguised, as Midwinter gifts.
Now Kaoru wondered if he would have time this night to visit the Travelers, but quickly dismissed the thought. It was bad enough that he went against what his father had expressly forbidden; he would have to sneak out of the keep if he wanted to see the back meadow this evening. He never broke the rules in that way, even if it would mean a new book to read by candle in his room tonight. He’d gone out only once without his parents’ permission. He’d felt sick inside for an entire week before breaking down and confessing to his mother, who wasn’t very angered by it after all that.
So Kaoru decided that tonight he would simply stay with his cousins, attempting to be friendly or at least civil to those his own age. The Travelers and their alluring wares could wait until the next day.