Well, another chapter. Ha. I like writing sword fights, have you noticed? XD And the end of this chapter, by the way, was not where I wanted to leave off, but it was either that or make it like ten pages longer. Oh well, whatever XP
Title: Heir's Choice
Pairing: InuKai, other minor pairings
Rating: PG (but not for long! I mean...*cough*)
Summary: Kaoru is Lord Shibuki's perfect, obedient heir...up until something changes and his world turns upside down.
~Heir's Choice, Chapter Ten~
All of the other, older boys who took sword lessons at the same time as Kaoru had already arrived by the time he’d gone back to his rooms, put on his armor, and headed back to the yard. Captain Kunimitsu was present, Kaoru noted. He’d halfway hoped, halfway feared that would be the case.
Ignoring his cousins and the others for the moment, Kaoru hesitantly approached the captain. “Sir...”
Captain Kunimitsu glanced at him, expression impassive. Kaoru could detect no hint of displeasure, but neither could he detect a hint of anything else. “Milord Kaoru.” His tone was as his face, unreadable.
“Sir, I would like to apologize for...for this morning,” Kaoru said, choosing his words with care and attempting to convey as much as possible while saying little. “My lady mother also sends her apologies. I hope,” he added, “that my actions will not...will not have further ill consequences, sir.” He looked to the ground, waiting for the captain’s response.
It was several moments before the awaited reply was given, and Kaoru began to wonder if Kunimitsu was angered with him. But then that same, nearly toneless voice stated, “You are forgiven, milord.”
Kaoru looked up quickly, meeting the captain’s gaze. The man’s voice was no different than ever it was, but his eyes bespoke something else. Kunimitsu seemed to be searching Kaoru’s face for some few instants, then he gave a short nod. “As I said, you are forgiven.” He paused, then continued, “My thanks as well to your mother for her apology.”
Kaoru nodded in return, relieved. “Thank you, captain.”
“Still haven’t told me what you got in trouble for, snake,” Takeshi complained from behind Kaoru. “If your mother had to apologize, it had to be something bad.”
“Back to your exercises,” Kunimitsu ordered crisply. “Now.”
“Now, or you will be running the ramparts with the soldiers later,” the captain told the boy. Kaoru was even more comforted by the fact that Kunimitsu was ridding him of Takeshi’s irksome presence. Surely the captain wouldn’t do such a thing if he was, indeed, angry.
“But Kaoru promised he’d spar with me sir,” Takeshi said, all of the words spilling out very quickly as he spoke before he could be interrupted once again. “If you don’t mind, that is, sir,” he added, to placate their instructor.
“Hm,” the captain said, with a look in Kaoru’s direction. “If that is the case, then he may go. But be more respectful when asking, in the future.” Kaoru could not truly hear the man sigh at Takeshi’s behavior, but it seemed to be implied in his tone.
“Come on then, snake ” Takeshi laughed. “Been a while since we’ve fought, hasn’t it?” He twirled the sword he was holding, one nearly twice the weight and breadth of any Kaoru ever used. Kaoru had to admit, though not aloud, that Takeshi possessed a good measure of skill. It would be a welcome challenge to spar with him, if only because when he was fighting, Takeshi tended to keep quiet.
Kunimitsu silently proffered his own sword to Kaoru. The young heir nodded thanks and took the blade. It was, as expected from the captain, perfectly balanced or as near it as Kaoru had ever felt, and had a comfortable grip, although it was slightly heavier than Kaoru’s usual weapon. He swung it twice, once horizontally and once vertically, to acquire the feeling of it, then he settled into a ready stance.
With a grin, Takeshi attacked first. The other boy’s fighting style was unlike that used with a slimmer blade such as Kaoru’s. He wielded the broadsword with two hands at all times because it was a necessity, particularly for one still young and not yet muscled as an adult would be.
Kaoru, unlike Takeshi, could use his off hand for balance, or, if the situation was pressing enough, could switch the blade from one hand to the other. Takeshi did not have that luxury, but as with most broadsword fighters, he did not need it. He performed superbly despite what could be called a disadvantage.
This time, unlike their previous fights, Kaoru also had a factor working against him. His ankle, abused earlier that day, would not hold his full weight properly. He was reminded of this in the worst of ways; as he attempted a quick lunge, pain shot up his leg and his ankle turned. Kaoru held back a curse, compensating for his mistake with an awkward sidestep.
“What’s the matter, then?” Takeshi asked him tauntingly. “Trying to win through luck again?” His blade clipped Kaoru’s arm before the heir was able to block it with his own weapon. Kaoru, gritting his teeth with the effort, pressed Takeshi’s blade back, away from his neck and possible killing touch.
In this encounter, Kaoru had something else working against him. Takeshi’s sword was bearing down on his arm and throat, and if their blades had been the same size and weight, he could easily have held it back. But if it came to a contest of strength, Kaoru’s sword would not stand p to the other. Now he could either attempt a difficult, agile maneuver, one he was not sure would succeed with his leg as it was, or he could attempt to force Takeshi’s blade back using raw strength, which would be a fool’s move at best.
Kaoru was a match for Takeshi in physical power, as was evident whenever they’d fought without swords, but he would not chance it in this instance. His sword could be yanked from his hand or could snap if he chose that way, leaving him no option but to surrender. So it was up to Kaoru’s ability to move quickly, even with an injury.
He feinted right, causing Takeshi to draw his blade away for a bare moment. Kaoru, his weapon temporarily freed, ducked beneath Takeshi’s sword and darted left. His ankle, for a wonder, held him this time, although it ached beneath its bandages. Fast as he could, he brought his blade back to the right, hoping to make killing touch, but Takeshi parried, as Kaoru had halfway known he would. “Want to give up now, snake?” Takeshi asked, but he was panting.
“Shut up,” Kaoru hissed, disengaging his blade once more, and their fight continued.
Takeshi took every opportunity he could to catch Kaoru in further tests of strength, knowing that his weapon was superior in that arena. Kaoru, for his part, did his best to avoid such clashes and locking of blades, and when he could not avoid them, extricated himself from potential disaster as hastily as possible. He used a combination of sometimes-elegant, sometimes-clumsy maneuvers, depending upon whether or not he was required to make use of his bad leg. He knew it was only the fact that he’d practiced so often that enabled him to make this an even fight.
“Enough.” Kunimitsu’s voice cut into both boys’ near trance-like fighting state. “Hold, both of you.” From the captain’s tone, Kaoru’s guessed that he’d already spoken more than once, trying to gain the fighters’ attention. The heir realized with surprise that he had gone nearly to the end of his endurance, and Takeshi looked worse off, if anything. Their sparring had gone on longer than he’d been aware.
“Takeshi,” the captain went on, pacing toward them. “Make sure your grip is certain. I noticed it slipping twice.”
“Yes, sir,” Takeshi mumbled obediently.
Kunimitsu turned to Kaoru. “And Kaoru. Your compensation for your obvious injury was barely adequate. Had your opponent been less honorable, or more observant-” he sent a glance in Takeshi’s direction at that. “He would have taken full advantage of your weakness.”
Kaoru grimaced. He’d known that his attempts to cloak and work around his injury had not been particularly good. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” The captain turned on his heel and moved to another pair of sparring boys, to make corrections in stance or grip. He’d had little to criticize in Kaoru and Takeshi’s match, which was as near to a compliment as the man ever came.
Takeshi, for this one time at least, had nothing to say as he and Kaoru walked to the edge of the yard where all the observers sat, or stood, depending upon their disposition. But he said one thing once they both settled in places where they could watch the others fighting: “I need to fight you once your leg’s healed. No good beating you when you’re hurt...”
Kaoru nodded shortly to him. Takeshi was actually being almost polite, as he usually was after practice. Swordplay put him in an uncommonly good mood, most of the time. But Kaoru was certain that the almost-pleasant behavior would fade within a very short time; it always did.
Kaoru, glancing around, noticed that there were fewer guards present than was usual. Syuusuke was absent, conspicuously so, at least to Kaoru’s mind. Lieutenant Syuuichiroh was present, although he was not chatting and making bets off to the side, but rather was instructing Eiji in a difficult, twisting move. Eiji, who delighted in unusual moves with his light blade, seemed to be catching on quickly. Kunimitsu, of course, was there, and seemed to be working with Ryoma on fighting double-handed, a blade in both the off hand and the sword hand. But other than those two and a few others, the guards simply were not there.
Kaoru wondered if it was only a coincidence, or if it had something to do with the events of the morning. He decided on coincidence, which made far more sense. After all, the guards were not required to attend these lessons, and had missed them on occasions before this. Generally they were absent closer to the holidays, or after they’d been dispatched to handle a problem in the village or surrounding area, but perhaps something else had happened that Kaoru was not aware of.
His mind wandered elsewhere as he watched his cousins in practice battle. His eyes still followed the movements of the blades, but he found himself thinking of his father, and possible alternative explanations for Shibuki’s strange behavior. It was not that he did not trust Lady Sumire and Captain Kunimitsu, and Syuusuke, and Sadaharu, all of whom had told him why his father had done as he had. But was it at all possible that none of them knew the truth?
All of Kaoru’s logic told him no, that was unlikely. One of them could easily have made a mistake, particularly Syuusuke and Sadaharu, who did not know Shibuki very well, but the others had agreed. Sumire and Kunimitsu had both known the lord of the manor for as long as Kaoru could remember, and likely longer than that. They would not be mistaken in this.
Frowning slightly to himself, Kaoru worked to turn his thoughts to a more pleasant subject. But that brought to the surface thoughts that had been constantly present today: the feel of Sadaharu’s lips against his own, of warm hands and of a deep, rich voice. Kaoru’s cheeks heated as he realized that these were probably not things to think of at the moment.
“Oi, snake, you all right there?” Takeshi’s tone held a hint of curiosity.
Kaoru swiftly aimed a glare at him. “None of your business,” he snapped fiercely, certainly more fiercely than the question had deserved.
“Have you got yourself a girl?” Takeshi pressed, then grinned as Kaoru’s glare intensified, apparently going back to his irritating ways. “You do You’ve got a girl Finally gotten jealous of me, have you?”
“No,” Kaoru said, with a shake of his head. “I don’t know who would ever be jealous of you.”
“Which maid is it?” Takeshi went on, ignoring Kaoru’s protests to the contrary. “The one who cares for your room? She’s sweet, but the kitchen maid’s prettier.” He fixed Kaoru with an expectant gaze.
“It’s none of your business ” Kaoru repeated, more emphatically this time. “Now keep quiet, idiot.”
“Don’t know what girl would want you, is all,” Takeshi said, sounding sulky. “Always angry, and you don’t talk much, and you’re a worse swordsman than I am. Not near as handsome, either.”
Kaoru shook his head in disgust. It wasn’t worth replying when Takeshi would only keep on being ridiculous, as he was now. Kaoru could hardly tell him what he wanted to hear about a nonexistent girl, and Takeshi was the last person he’d ever tell about Sadaharu.
“Fine, be that way,” Takeshi snorted. “I’ll find out sometime, like as not.”
“You will not,” Kaoru growled, but under his breath so his word were barely audible. There was nothing he could do to stop Takeshi from pestering him, at any rate.
Shortly following that, they were all dismissed from practice. Kaoru departed quickly to ensure that no one came after him. He headed for his room at a trot, cooling off from the strenuous exercise. He would remove his armor, and then he would use the short time he had between sword practice and lessons to think things through further than he already had. Hopefully he could come up with some answers that suited himself and his logical side...or possibly he would just think about Sadaharu’s kisses, he realized, blushing as he realized that was already what he was thinking of.
Once Kaoru had gone, Sadaharu berated himself harshly for his actions. Kaoru was young, too young to have any experience with such things. Or, he amended silently, perhaps not too young, as he’d seen children younger who were far less innocent. But inexperienced, to be sure. Anything Sadaharu did at this time would be taking advantage of the situation, which was unacceptable.
But Kaoru clearly had no objections, a traitorous part of his mind argued. And the heir had demanded of him the reason why he had stopped, which surely meant that Kaoru was agreeable. When those words had been spoken, Sadaharu had felt as though his heart would stop completely. It was fortunate, he supposed, that they had been interrupted, else he could not have said what he would have done.
He forced his thoughts to a more innocent line of contemplation. His conversation with Renji had gone as well as he’d ever expected it to. Not perfectly, to be certain, but he’d known that would be the case. Renji was still displeased with the choice he’d made, and would undoubtedly attempt to persuade Sadaharu to depart also, when the Travelers journeyed on. However, Renji did admit that the decision, whatever its future consequences turned out to be, had been the best for Kaoru at the moment.
Sadaharu shook his head to clear it, and paused in his writing. Renji’s fears had been in no way entirely placated, and they were wholly sensible fears. He knew it was entirely likely that the same thing would happen here that had happened in their home village, especially given the lord’s prejudices.
The scholar had also spoken with Lady Sumire in regards to what her teachings had included. Kaoru seemed to have been given a thorough education, even if one only took into account what he was supposed to be taught in lessons, and not the books the heir had read on his own. Sadaharu was impressed, actually; the lady herself held even more knowledge than Kaoru, and he wanted, sometime, to question her as to her past, and how she had acquired such a collection of writings and artifacts as she possessed in her study.
Sadaharu now sighed and attempted to concentrate. He moved his chair closer to the door, as the light that came in through it was the only illumination available. Evidently he’d not been deemed important enough to be given a door with a window, and he could only hope that candles would be available for the hours of darkness. Now he was finding it easier to use the small bedside table to prop the door open, to gain all the light he could, although it certainly did not afford him much privacy. At least his room did not seem to be in a particularly busy section of the keep; thus far only two maids had passed by, and one had come especially to ask him if he needed anything else.
He was planning an actual lesson for Kaoru this afternoon, in part to maintain appearances, and in part because it would likely be wise to restrict himself to platonic subjects. And there, again, the open door would be helpful. If there was the idea that anyone could walk by at any time, neither one of them would be likely to instigate anything.
Kaoru had shown an interest in the language of the desert tribes, so Sadaharu had decided to start there. As it seemed the heir already knew at least a part of the mountain tribes’ written language, the other language would be a fairly natural progression of knowledge, given the similarities between the two. And many of the texts Sadaharu had collected, at least the more accurate ones, were written by the tribesmen themselves, and so could only be read by one who knew the language. He had an idea that Kaoru would like to read the books himself, as opposed to only hearing what was contained in them.
Sadaharu flipped through the pages of one such text, and smiled. In truth, now that he knew Kaoru read the language of the mountain tribes, he’d brought with him to the keep one of the books collected by the Travelers, one that was written in that very script. It was a rare book, beautifully bound, and catalogued the day-to-day customs of the tribes. Not many outsiders had access to this knowledge unless they had lived with the tribe for a time. Sadaharu hoped fervently that the text was not already contained in Lady Sumire’s collection, else his effort in procuring it would have been wasted. Genichirou drove just as hard a bargain with him as with anyone else.
It was some while later when a light knock at the open door caused him to look up from his writings. The instant he saw Kaoru, he could feel most of his good sense disappearing without a trace. What he wanted to do was to kiss the other again, and more...but this was not the time nor the place for that. He had to work to keep his thoughts and actions in line with proper behavior.
“Milord Kaoru,” he said with a smile and a bow, getting to his feet. “You’ve arrived in a very timely fashion for your lessons, I see.” In truth, of course, he didn’t know the exact time, due to the lack of direct sunlight in the small room, but presumably Kaoru had been punctual.
Kaoru nodded, his gaze sweeping over the papers, texts, and the quill and ink that were laid out on the wooden desk, then returning to meet Sadaharu’s eyes. “What will I be studying today, sir?” The “sir” would have sounded perfectly natural to anyone who was only a casual listener, but Sadaharu caught the brief hesitation. Good, he thought, silently approving Kaoru’s choice of words. They both knew, then, that they would have to take care.
“Well, as you showed some degree of fascination with the desert language, I thought we might begin there,” Sadaharu replied. He turned, then cursed himself mentally. He’d forgotten that there was only one chair available in the room, and he had not bothered to request another.
“I’ll sit on the floor, sir,” Kaoru said quietly, already taking up a cross-legged position on the hard stone. He did not seem to have any problem with the seating arrangement, but Sadaharu hardly wanted to be the two paces above Kaoru that he would be in his chair.
He took up several of his papers, and took a seat on the floor beside Kaoru, not too close, but not so far that it would be inconvenient for the lesson. The young heir looked about to object, but Sadaharu immediately explained, “It will be difficult for you to see the texts, if you cannot be seated at the desk. I will request another chair from Lady Sumire as soon as possible, and until then, I too will make use of the floor.” He wondered if Kaoru would protest regardless of his explanation.
But Kaoru only nodded, if reluctantly. “Yes, sir.”
“Now, if you’ll look here, I’ve written out the entire phonetic alphabet of the desert tribes, or at least of the one I stayed with.” Sadaharu indicated the leftmost piece of parchment. “There is some variance, even between the tribes who live near one another, but for the most part the writings will be similar enough to be understood. I have written out, beside it, the phonetic alphabet of the mountain tribes, which, I believe, you already understand?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, sir,” Kaoru said, already studying the two alphabets intently. He was lovely that way, Sadaharu thought, his attention completely focused on the paper, his eyes with their ever-present sparkle of intelligence and curiosity, the young heir’s hair falling forward as he leaned forward for a better view. Then Sadaharu realized his thoughts and worked to erase them from his mind for the time being, although it was difficult.
“As you can most likely see, with the two compared side-by-side, there are many things that are similar in them,” Sadaharu continued with the lesson. “This mark here, for instance, denotes a vowel, although it is placed below in the mountain alphabet, and above in that of the desert.”
“Perhaps because of the difference in the way in which they live?” Kaoru queried. “Or that seems likely, anyway.”
“Exactly,” Sadaharu said, again pleased with Kaoru’s aptitude for thinking of these things. “Some scholars have been puzzled by this, given that it is the mountain tribe who lives above, and the desert tribe who lives at a lower altitude. But I suspect that it has to do with where each derives sustenance. The mountain tribes must hunt in the forest below, and worship forest gods, while those in the desert require rain from the sky, and worship gods of rain.”
“That makes sense,” Kaoru agreed, tracing a particular symbol with his finger. “The other differences, too...” Sadaharu swallowed and was required to close his eyes, distracting himself from watching Kaoru’s finger move along the path of the letter.
“Yes,” he responded. “I believe that many of the other differences between them also reflect the differences in their respective cultures. If you look at this letter, here...”
The lesson continued smoothly for the remainder of the time, but for the fact that Sadaharu kept having to force himself back to reasonable, sensible thoughts. Kaoru truly was a remarkably apt pupil, which was no less than Lady Sumire had said of him, and no less than what Sadaharu had seen for himself.
At the end of Kaoru’s lesson, Sadaharu handed the heir a book written among the desert tribes. “Please read this and translate it, if you have the time. I believe you will find it interesting; it is a text regarding the war customs of the tribe with which I stayed, written by one of their warriors.” He selected the book carefully, to be sure that even if Shibuki noticed Kaoru with it, the subject would be appropriate to Sadaharu’s “specialties,” as the lord had been told of them.
Kaoru nodded thanks, a flicker of interest in his eye as he stood to leave. Already he was opening the book, looking over the first page.
“Wait a moment,” Sadaharu called him back before he could reach the door. He beckoned Kaoru as close as possible, then he surreptitiously picked up the other text, the one he’d gotten from Genichirou, holding it so it was not visible from the hall outside the door. “This, as well,” he said quietly. “But this is a gift, for you to read when you choose. I assume you have a...a place to keep it?”
“Yes,” Kaoru breathed, reading the title then looking back at Sadaharu, wide-eyed. “But...where did you get this?”
“From Genichirou,” Sadaharu replied, smiling just a little at the way Kaoru looked at the book’s cover, and then at the spine. It was bound in soft goatskin and the letters for the title and the writer burned very carefully into it. It was decorated, then, in traditional mountain folk patterns in every spare inch, giving it a beautiful, intricate look. And Sadaharu suspected that what was written within would delight his new student even further.
“My thanks,” Kaoru said in a whisper, and glanced back once at Sadaharu before leaving, keeping the second book hidden behind the first, pressed close against his tunic. Kaoru’s look was wistful as well as grateful, as though he regretted leaving. But Sadaharu had left him a note in the gift book, carefully written in the script of the mountain folk so as not to be readable by any others. He hoped it had not been overly impulsive of him, or presuming far too much...but it seemed that Kaoru wished more time with him as much as he wished more time with the other. With any luck, Kaoru would find the note later that evening, and they would both have what they wished.