I think this chapter's editing is probably worse than no editing at all. I stayed up all night fixing it *kicks it muchly* So, feel free to criticize/edit/call me a moron ^^ On the plus side, the damn fic is now 26,749 words long. Or...is that a plus? I don't know...
Title: Heir's Choice
Pairing: InuKai (eventually), other minor pairings
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 Six~
Kaoru was tired in the morning, so tired that he nearly could not roused by Katsuo’s urgent shaking and whisperings of “Milord Kaoru! Milord, your lessons with Captain Kunimitsu.” After Sadaharu had carried him half the way back to the camp, Kaoru had insisted on walking by himself, with only minimal support. He was regretting that later, as he’d forgotten that he would have to walk back to the keep entirely on his own if he wanted to keep his mishap a secret from his cousins.
Sometime midway through dinner, Kaoru had excused himself, saying that he wanted to be wakeful enough for sword lessons the next morning. It was true, and something Lord Shibuki normally would have approved, but for some reason, Kaoru’s father had frowned at the statement, although he had allowed Kaoru to leave. Lady Sumire was acting strangely as well, distant and preoccupied. Kaoru had spent a good part of the night thinking and worrying what all that possibly could have meant.
Kaoru mumbled something into the bedcovers, something that even he could not understand or remember later. He was still lost in the fading remnants of a dream, and was trying to catch and hold the dying embers of the reverie. But this proved impossible, and a moment later he was fully awake, feeling disappointed for reasons he couldn’t explain.
Kaoru’s eyes fluttered open and fixed on the tapestry across the room, the one above his personal fireplace. It had been his since several months after he had been born, commissioned by his father at the birth of his first son. It was a hunting scene, of course, with patterns of fine horses being ridden by hunters who had always looked so very courageous to Kaoru. The dogs ran around and through the horses’ legs, lifelike enough that it seemed they would leap off of the fabric at any moment.
Even when not illuminated by firelight or daylight, the tapestry had always glowed on its own. There were shimmering threads of gold and silver woven into the horses’ manes and tails and into the eyes and white underbellies of the deer. This tapestry had surely costed very much, and had been woven by a master. Kaoru had always loved it, imagining himself as one of the noble hunters when he was younger, dreaming of bringing down a deer so his father could be proud.
But this time, oddly, he looked differently at the work of art. For the first time that he could remember, he looked more closely at the hunters’ faces. For some reason, they did not seem as he had always thought of them. They all wore grim expressions as they held their spears aloft, as they held the reins of their mounts. Not a one among them appeared to be happy.
“Are you all right, milord?” Katsuo asked anxiously as Kaoru shook his head to try and clear it.
“I...I’m fine,” Kaoru replied, suppressing a yawn and glancing again at the tapestry. It was a ridiculous thought, but still it haunted him. Kaoru dismissed it as best he could and eased himself out of bed, tentatively checking his ankle to ensure it worked properly. He winced a bit as he stood; the leg was still swollen, but it would hold him, particularly because of the bandage Renji had made for him at Sadaharu’s request.. Kaoru knew he could make it through his sword lesson, although it would be an effort. He could remember one time when he’d gone to such a lesson even while ill with the fever one winter. Surely a twisted ankle would not even present that much of a challenge.
He pulled on his tunic and grimaced to himself. Sadaharu and Renji had both warned him not to use the leg overly much, and Kaoru knew that the sword exercises would not sit well with either one of them. It was unwise of him, he knew, to do this, but he stubbornly quieted his conscience. He would do as well as he was able, even with an injury. It had been his own fault this had happened to begin with; he would not use it as an excuse to skip a lesson.
A few minutes more were spent readying himself, and he then walked out into the corridor, nodding to Katsuo, who was holding the door. Almost immediately he saw Takeshi, who had Kaoru’s chambermaid against the wall and was kissing her passionately. The other boy’s hands were in very inappropriate places, making Kaoru flush and hiss, “Have you no shame?” as he passed by. This only caused the somewhat disheveled maid to giggle, and Takeshi to turn a roguish grin at Kaoru. “Ah, go away, snake. Just because you’ve never had a girl...”
Kaoru hurried away, thoroughly disgusted. This certainly wasn’t the first time he’d caught one of his cousins in a compromising position with a maid. Takeshi, in point of fact, did such things regularly and did not bother to hide it. But doing such directly outside of Kaoru’s own chamber seemed even a further violation of good taste and manners. Takeshi was never awake at this time naturally, either. Kaoru suspected him of doing this only to irritate the young heir.
Kaoru shook his head and sighed as he passed through the outer door to the practice yard, avoiding the inevitable rain of dust. He’d never felt any desire to have his hand up a maid’s skirt, something that Takeshi seemed to delight in doing. Kaoru had discreetly attempted to find out what the enjoyment in those activities could possibly be, but had never gotten satisfactory answers. Certainly none from Takeshi himself, who would only laugh and look smug.
He decided to give it up for the time being. He rounded the corner to the training yard, reining in his limp so that it wasn’t obvious, then blinked in surprise at what he saw. The guards were all there, but there was nothing of the air of easy camaraderie that there had been the day before. Those who were not sparring stood stiffly at attention, not speaking and joking amongst themselves at all. Kaoru saw the reason for this almost instantly: also present were Lady Sumire and, even more startling, Lord Shibuki.
Both of those adults were involved in conversation with Captain Kunimitsu and with Syuusuke. Kunimitsu wore his usual stoic expression, but Syuusuke’s smile had dimmed until it was barely in evidence. Lady Sumire looked absolutely furious, and Lord Shibuki looked very displeased.
As soon as Kaoru was noticed, all activity in the courtyard ceased. The guards who had been sparring stopped, lowering their weapons. All eyes looked toward Kaoru, then slid away as he tried to meet their gazes with his own. It was unnerving, and Kaoru disliked the feeling.
“Son,” Shibuki said coldly, beckoning him nearer. Kaoru obeyed, confused and hoping to gain some answers. “Is it the truth that you have begun extra lessons in swordsmanship?”
“Shibuki, stop this idiocy,” Sumire snapped before Kaoru could give his answer. She glowered at the lord of the manor as Kaoru glanced back and forth between the two of them. Shibuki frowned, his expression matching Sumire’s for intensity.
“This is my son,” Shibuki growled. “He is not your concern.”
“It is my concern if you are going to be too damned bullheaded to-” Sumire started angrily. Shibuki cut her off, saying, “If you persist, I will take the boy’s schooling out of your hands, Sumire!”
Kaoru staved off a shiver of dread. What was this, that his father would make such a threat? Surely it must be something truly terrible for Shibuki and Sumire to behave this way.
“Yes, father, I have begun extra sword lessons,” Kaoru asserted, attempting to forestall any further argument. He had no wish to go back to his father’s way of teaching. He’d been so sure that his father would approve of his interest in improving his sword work, but now he felt his heart sink. Had he been so completely incorrect? Had he done something wrong in requesting further teachings? Perhaps Kunimitsu was too busy with other things to be bothering with something like this. “Father, I-” Kaoru began.
“I will not have this man teaching you,” Shibuki informed Kaoru, jabbing a finger in Syuusuke’s direction. “Is that clear?”
Kaoru was now entirely bewildered, and protested, “But father, he is a good-”
“I will not have it.” Shibuki’s tone was quiet but deadly serious.
Kaoru looked to the others standing near, pleading with his eyes for someone to tell him what was going on. Kunimitsu only maintained the same expression, but his mouth had tightened to the point that his lips were turning white. Syuusuke’s eyes were cast downward and Sumire’s at the far side of the practice yard. The lady was muttering something under her breath. Kaoru only caught one word of it, an obscenity so filthy as to make his eyes widen.
“Y-yes, father,” Kaoru stammered, for lack of anything better to say. Shibuki nodded shortly. “Good.” The lord turned on his heel and walked away.
At that, Syuusuke, too, slipped away from the area, crossing the practice yard to the exit that led to the barracks. He never raised his eyes, Kaoru saw, as he disappeared from sight.
Before Kaoru could question her, Sumire stalked off as well, still cursing under her breath. She went the way Lord Shibuki had gone, and Kaoru only hoped that she would not aggravate him further. He did not want to lose her skill as a teacher, which was a selfish thought, but one he could not help. She paused only once to say, “I apologize, Kunimitsu. Bastard won’t accept anything, damn him.”
Kunimitsu nodded soundlessly and Sumire took her leave. The captain stood, seemingly frozen in place, for a moment before suddenly seeming to remember that Kaoru was present. “Milord Kaoru,” he said, more tonelessly than was his usual. “Lieutenant Syuuichiro will aid you in your exercises today.” Without another word, he, too, left, following Syuusuke’s route and taking with him Kaoru’s last chance to find out what had happened.
The lieutenant was a fair hand with a sword, and a good man as well. But his skills were not a match for Kaoru, even while the heir was forced to favor his hurt leg. Very shortly Syuuichiro lowered his blade with a rueful smile. “I apologize, milord. I fear I am no proper opponent, and there are none present who would be. Perhaps...” a fleeting look of sorrow passed across his face. “Perhaps when Captain Kunimitsu is more well-disposed he will take you as a student in the mornings again.”
Kaoru nodded, feeling more than a little dazed. The sword work had not given him the air of satisfaction and content that it usually provided, and he was glad enough to stop for the moment. He thanked Lieutenant Syuuichiro for his time, and went to put his practice blade where it belonged, the small “armory” kept at the guards’ entrance to the yard.
Then he hesitated, looking at the building that served as home to the guards. It was there that Kunimitsu and Syuusuke had gone...and it was there that he could find them and speak with them.
It went against what Kaoru knew to be right for him to seek an answer to something his father clearly did not wish him to know. Yet for one reason or another, Kaoru felt painfully curious about this matter. His mind could not piece together what he had seen and heard into a sensible whole. Perhaps he felt compelled to search for this information because of all that he and Sadaharu had discussed of gaining knowledge and wisdom. Or perhaps it was merely that Kaoru had never seen Shibuki in such a state, much less Kunimitsu, Sumire, and Syuusuke. Either way, Kaoru’s feet began walking, almost of their own volition, taking him nearer to the barracks.
The barracks was not large, as the keep did not need an enormous force to defend it. It was very well-made, and had been standing since the keep had been built, supposedly by Kaoru’s three generations grandfather. Kaoru went first to the door, intending to knock to ask entrance, but he heard the murmur of voices around the other side of the building.
Kaoru had to debate with himself for several moments before making his decision. Surely his father had a good reason for keeping him uninformed. What if this was nothing Kaoru wanted to know? But still he could not figure any solution that seemed likely. He had seen nothing done by Syuusuke that could be considered wrong, and he trusted Kunimitsu more than he trusted nearly anyone else. So his mind was made up, and he determinedly headed around the edge of the barracks.
What he saw there made him stop dead in his tracks.
He was first reminded of Takeshi and the maid earlier, for the way Captain Kunimitsu and Syuusuke were standing was similar to that. Syuusuke’s back was against the barracks wall while Kunimitsu stood in front of him. And...and more than that, they, too, were kissing. The difference, though, Kaoru realized after a moment, was that it was more reminiscent of the rare occasions he’d seen his mother and father display their affections. Kunimitsu’s hands were nowhere inappropriate or embarrassing, and the kiss was slow and sweet, rather than fierce.
They pulled away from each other, but only a little way so that their faces were still very near. “Syuusuke,” Kunimitsu said softly, bringing a hand up to stroke the other’s cheek. “I’m sorry I put you in this situation.” He leaned in, placed another gentle kiss on Syuusuke’s lips.
Syuusuke shook his head with a smile. “You know I don’t need his approval, Kunimitsu.” In the back of Kaoru’s mind there registered a slight shock at hearing the captain’s given name, without a title, from another guardsman. “I didn’t want to cause trouble for milord Kaoru, though...”
“That was my fault,” Kunimitsu informed him, pulling the other closer in a simple embrace. “I knew that Lord Shibuki would not be pleased if he heard of this. I was a fool.”
“You were not a fool,” Syuusuke murmured, his smile diminishing. “I knew the risks as well...”
Abruptly the entire scene seemed very personal and Kaoru felt as though he was trespassing, watching something he never should have seen. He attempted to leave, but his ankle made his movement more clumsy and less sure and silent than they would have been. His foot hit the side of the barracks, and Syuusuke’s sharp eyes were instantly on him, followed a moment later by Kunimitsu’s.
“Milord Kaoru?”Kunimitsu asked sharply, and Kaoru could hear the note of alarm in his voice.
“I-I apologize,” Kaoru said, unable to think properly. “I-I did not mean to...to intrude, and...and...please forgive me if I have caused you trouble,” he added, upset with himself. “I did not mean to...to bring my father’s anger upon either one of you, I only-”
“It was not your fault, milord,” Syuusuke interrupted mildly. “As you may have heard, it was Kunimitsu and I who chose to risk my teaching you.”
Kunimitsu’s expression did not clear at this. “Milord, why are you here?”
Kaoru stepped fully out from behind the corner of the building, feeling intensely guilty. He had been listening in on their private conversation and watching them during a private moment. It was something he’d known was wrong since he was old enough to understand what it meant.
“I-” He paused, shifting his weight off of his injured leg, staring down at the grass. “I wanted to know-to know why my father was so angry. I-I thought you would know, so...I wanted to ask.”
“Hm,” and it was Syuusuke’s voice again. It had an almost amused lilt to it this time. “Why do you think your father was angry?”
Kaoru looked up quickly at the guardsman. “I-” he said hesitantly. “Are...are you...” the question was incredibly rude, and if he was wrong it would be a great offense. “Are you a...a woman?”
Syuusuke laughed musically. “That’s what I thought. No, milord, I am not a woman, and neither is Kunimitsu.”
“Then...” It was as though the entire world that he had ever known collapsed around Kaoru. The implication of Syuusuke’s statement was... “But...but then how can you...”
“It is not common, but not rare either,” Syuusuke told him, his tone kind. “For the most part, it is a man and a woman who wish to be together, but two men and two women can also have such a relationship.”
“But...” Something nagged at Kaoru. Syuusuke spoke in such a matter-of-fact way, but there had to be something wrong with all of this. If his father had been so angry, and if this had been the reason, then this had to be wrong.
“Then why did my father forbid...forbid only you from teaching me?” Kaoru asked, his head feeling as though it had been turned around and was not yet comfortable with the new position.
Captain Kunimitsu did not quite snort in derision, but the sound was close. “Your father believes that Syuusuke corrupted me. He will not believe that I have always been this way, and cannot help feeling the way I do for Syuusuke.”
“How...” this was another very rude question, but Kaoru could not help but ask it. “How do you feel for...for each other? You looked as though...” he blushed before saying it. “You looked as though you...as though you loved each other.”
“We do,” Kunimitsu said simply, never releasing Syuusuke from his arms.
“Oh,” was all Kaoru could say. “I...I apologize again.” He turned to go, and this time no one stopped him. He walked in a stunned stupor back through the training yard, answering any polite inquiries aimed himself with only vague replies. He was dimly aware that the guards had noticed his limp, which he had forgotten to conceal.
He went directly to Lady Sumire’s study, not entirely aware of his reasons for going there. His world had inexplicably, unexpectedly changed in a few instants. He supposed if there was anyone who could explain this to him more thoroughly, it would be his tutor. He tapped on the door and earned a short, “Come in.”
To his own surprise, his first words were more of an accusation than a question. “Why...why didn’t you tell me?” His voice was demanding.
“Tell you what?” Sumire asked, startled and looking up at him from her book. “That your father’s a hard-headed-”
“No,” Kaoru whispered, the words coming out painfully. “Why didn’t you tell me that...that two men could...could be together?”
It took Sumire several seconds before her eyes widened in recognition and of what he was saying. “So you found out about Syuusuke and Kunimitsu,” she stated, not phrasing it as a question. “I knew you would, sooner or later. I told him-”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Kaoru exclaimed desperately. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
And for the second time that morning, Sumire’s expression changed to one of comprehension. “Kaoru...you’re not...”
Kaoru could not say what his mind was telling him. Suddenly he’d been given the information he needed to understand himself...and all he knew was that his father, for reasons unknown, had not wanted him told that this was even possible. All he knew was that his tutor, his swords instructor, his mother, his father, everyone he had relied on to speak the truth, they had all been keeping this from him, and he did not know why. He did the only thing he was able to do; he fled the room, disregarding his twisted ankle, disregarding the fact that Sumire was calling after him. He ran down the corridor, forcing himself not to limp, not sure where he was going, only sure that he needed to be somewhere else...needed to be away from the people he’d thought he trusted.
Sadaharu was repairing an old piece of harness leather, perched on the seat of his cart and thinking through everything as his hands went through the motions on their own. He stared off across the meadow, contemplating his choice of action. It was earlier than he usually awoke, but he’d been unable to sleep well, so had sought a task to keep himself occupied.
The time he’d spent last night in similar meditation had done him no good whatsoever. It had only strengthened his resolve, if anything, to stay near the young heir, and something told him that was not the wisest thing to do. It had been all he could do to prevent himself from truly embracing Kaoru when he’d been hurt, all he could do to prevent himself from telling the other all that he knew. To prevent himself from telling the other that the period they’d spent together had caused him to realize exactly what he was feeling, and why.
The leather fell apart beneath his now-careless touch, and Sadaharu blinked as he regarded it. Surely he had not forgotten how to repair such a thing, after all the time he’d spent learning with the desert tribes. No, he decided, he had not forgotten, had merely been too lost in thought for any work this delicate.
A sudden dog’s bark and a high whistle surprised him, and Sadaharu looked up, scanning the edges of the camp. It was too early, he knew, for any of the manor children to be here, but the dogs would not bark at any of the Travelers. Although that whistle had been the one usually reserved for Travelers, and had worked to silence the dogs.
Sadaharu decided to investigate, in case none of the others had heard, and partly to assuage his own curiosity. Possibly another band of Travelers had arrived in the area, although that was unlikely. The different groups had very clearly delineated territories and would not trespass on another’s route except in times of very great peril. Given that the political situation was steady and persecution of wanderers very low at the moment, Sadaharu dismissed that as too slight of a chance.
He stood, laying the leather carefully on the wooden seat. He was about to circle the camp to find whoever had entered it...but by then that person had found him.
It was fair to say that Sadaharu was shocked when he saw Kaoru, whose wild eyes immediately settled on him. “Kaor-Milord Kaoru, what’s wrong?” Clearly something was wrong, something that undoubtedly had nothing to do with Kaoru’s pronounced limp. Something was truly wrong, judging by the look on the young heir’s face.
“Please,” Kaoru said, almost begging. “Please...will you...may I speak with you?”
Sadaharu nodded a ready acceptance. He would not have let Kaoru leave in this state without speaking to him, finding out what had made him look as though he’d just experienced something horrific. Sadaharu had to hold himself back, stop himself from moving closer and putting an arm around the young heir, comforting him in a way that could be judged too personal. He certainly did not want to inadvertently offend Kaoru at a time like this. He wondered what on earth could have happened to cause the other to be so obviously distressed.