...um. Please don't kill me when you come to the end of this chapter, okay? *hides*
Title: Heir's Choice
Pairing: InuKai, other minor pairings
Summary: Kaoru is Lord Shibuki's perfect, obedient heir...up until something changes and his world turns upside down.
~Heir's Choice, Chapter Eleven~
Kaoru had only just reached the door of his own room when Hazue dashed past him, down the hall. The younger boy would have continued on his way if Kaoru had not called after him, “Hazue?” He wondered what had happened that his brother was so apparently agitated, although certainly Hazue did not always run because something was wrong or exciting. Often he ran only for the pure joy he seemed to gain from it.
Not this time, however, for Hazue slowed to a stop ten paces beyond Kaoru and then darted back toward his sibling, a grin of delight on his face. “Races, Kaoru! Everyone’s readying for them, and Father’s coming too, did you know?”
“Races?” Kaoru tilted his head in confusion; this was the first he’d heard of it. “Where, Hazue?”
“In the back meadow, with the Travelers!” Hazue exclaimed, dancing in place with impatience. “They were holding races, and Father saw and said we all ought to go too, and I’m to be allowed to ride my pony! Come on, we’ll be late!”
“I’ll be out in a while,” Kaoru promised with a smile. “You go on ahead, all right? I need to put some things away.” He indicated the books in his hands.
“But hurry!” Hazue urged before he ran off once more, just barely missing a collision with the wall as he turned the corner. Kaoru, his mind still on his lesson, opened the door to his rooms, finding them luckily empty, although Katsuo had clearly straightened some things since earlier. He took a seat on his bed, taking a deep breath to calm himself. The time with Sadaharu had been spent with not so much as a touch between them, but then why was his pulse racing?
Partly, at least, it was the thought of the new book, made doubly wonderful by the identity of the one who had given it to him. He brought that book out from beneath the other in order to again study the cover. It truly was a work of art, Kaoru knew, and felt a pang of happiness combined, strangely, with guilt. Surely Sadaharu had spent much to obtain it, with its beautiful binding, well-kept pages, and rare contents. Genichirou would never simply give such a thing away, not even to a friend. Kaoru decided that he would repay Sadaharu, in coin or another way, as soon as was possible.
It was only then that Hazue’s words filtered into his mind, and Kaoru stood hurriedly. Races were a source of pleasure for all, and were one of Lord Shibuki’s favorite pastimes. Kaoru enjoyed them as well, although he held no particular skill and was no match for the best riders. They were a time to set the lovely but mongrel-born horses of the Travelers against the pure-bred horses of the lord and his people.
Usually everyone who could came to watch or ride, men and women both, from the lord and his children to the guardsmen. The guards counted gambling among their favorite diversions, and even those who did not own a horse came to place bets on this horse or another and to bicker with the Travelers in a friendly way. Hazue and the younger children even held mock races of their own on their little ponies. Kaoru remembered when he’d been that age, and laughed inwardly to recall how serious those play-races had seemed then.
Kaoru hastened to put his new texts in the places they belonged. The one he’d been given for official reading for his lesson concerned battles and weapons, and could simply be placed on the table beside his bed. The other, however, would have to be kept with the other secret books that had been gifted him by his mother or Lady Sumire, and those he had purchased with his own gold. Although it was written in a foreign language and therefore probably unreadable to most others, Kaoru did not judge it wise to leave such a thing in plain sight.
The enormous oaken chest in which Kaoru stored his riding leathers and his practice armor, as well as some other clothing, had once belonged to Lady Sumire. It had been gifted to him several years ago at a Midwinter celebration, and had far more value than he’d known at the time. It had a false, secret bottom to it, not deep enough to be noticed by one who was not aware of it, but large enough to hold quite a few books, although by this time it was becoming overcrowded.
After cautiously opening the door to his rooms and looking around to ensure that there was no one in the hallway who would walk in and see, Kaoru removed all of the things contained in the upper part of the chest and set those to the side. He would need the riding leathers anyway, if what Hazue had said was true. Then, carefully, Kaoru lifted the thin layer of wood from the “bottom” of the chest. It was this piece of wood that hid the chest’s most precious contents from sight.
He possessed something close to twenty books of his own. They covered an eclectic mixture of subjects, from romance novels intended for ladies to books written on court etiquette. They all had a common element, however; they would all be texts Lord Shibuki would not be pleased to allow his son to read.
Kaoru laid the new book in with the rest, glancing at it once and promising silently that he would read it later. With any luck, he would have time after the races, and wouldn’t be so exhausted that he would sleep immediately. He resettled the piece of wood in its place, concealing his reading materials once more.
As they had been for the hunt, the horses had been readied by the time Kaoru made it to the stables. The hounds, though, were confined this time, because they could not be trusted to be friendly with the Travelers’ dogs, nor did Shibuki or the kennels master wish to dilute the blood of the hounds with that of mongrels. Kaoru could hear a bark or a howl every so often from the kennels; the sound of one of the hounds expressing its dissatisfaction with this turn of events.
Only a few horses stood in the courtyard now, one of them Kaoru’s mare. The others had gone on, it seemed. Dancer pawed anxiously at the stones as Kaoru took her reins with thanks to the stable hand. The mare had seen her companions depart without her, and she was ready to be off herself, seeking the company of the other horses.
He pulled himself into the saddle, Dancer breaking into a quick walk as he did so. She began to prance excitedly, and he reined her in before changing his mind and allowing her to pick up a collected trot.
They passed through the east gate, Kaoru nodding to the two men who had been unlucky enough to draw guard duty tonight. Dancer tossed her head and attempted to speed her steps, having caught the scent of her stablemates, but Kaoru held her back and gave her a soothing pat on the shoulder. This energy of hers would benefit him in the races, but not if she expended it all now.
He was hailed by several people as he rode nearer to the Traveler camp. The men from the keep were all present, that he could see, in their saddles and riding leathers. The Travelers were astride their mounts bareback, and some few of them used not even a bridle for their steeds, Akaya among them. The women were seated where they could watch the races, and some of the guardsmen stood a fair distance away, talking and making bets.
The delicious aroma of roasting meat was present along with the scents of animals, humans, and the scents of forest and meadow plants. Something was being cooked over the fire, something large and likely brought from the keep on Shibuki’s orders. The Travelers did not customarily carry enough food to feed any large number of people, and so far as Kaoru knew, often ate meals that did not consist of meat. Hunting was difficult, wild fruits and vegetables far more easily obtained. Gathering plants was also allowed by the law in nearly all places, whereas hunting on most land was outlawed without express permission from the lord of that area.
Akaya cantered past Kaoru, a half-crazed, half-challenging look on his face. “Decided to join us, then?” he called to the young heir. Takeshi cantered by as well, his colt hot on the heels of Akaya’s three-colored spotted mare. The two circled around and back into the group, playing a lighthearted game of chase.
“Kaoru!” Hazue laughed, riding near aboard his pony, who could nearly fit beneath the belly of Kaoru’s mare. The pony, Dusty, had an extremely mischievous disposition. Craftily he snaked out his neck to nip at Dancer’s flank, but Kaoru was well-used to these tricks. The young heir moved his foot back in a warning, ready to give the pony a tap in the nose if needed. Dusty huffed and shook his mane, feigning innocence. “I think Dusty can win this year, what do you think? Last year we almost won,” he added, petting the pony lovingly on the neck.
Kaoru recalled that the year before, the pony had come near to winning one of the children’s play races, but that only because he aimed so many bites and kicks in the other ponies’ directions. Most of the other children’s ponies had feared to come anywhere near him. But Kaoru only nodded with a slight smile at his brother. “I’m certain you’ll do well.”
Lord Shibuki was speaking with several guardsmen who were aboard their own mounts. One of them, Kaoru noticed, was Syuusuke, oddly. Another was Kunimitsu, and although neither was speaking directly to Shibuki, they were certainly near enough to be part of the conversation. Kaoru felt his spirits lift just a bit, seeing this. Perhaps Sumire and the others had overstated Shibuki’s prejudices, then.
Lady Sumire, also present, was occupied discussing something with the unmounted guards and with Renji, most likely gambling, as was her habit. The Travelers’ healer appeared to be happier than he had looked earlier, at least it seemed to Kaoru from this distance. Lady Hozumi was seated with her ladies and with the Traveler women who did not ride, a safe length from both the fire and from the horses’ hooves.
Then, “A race!” Akaya announced, his mare galloping flat-out past all of them, then turning and coming by again. This was Akaya’s real strength, riding; he had perfect control of the mare even without saddle or bridle. “There,” the Traveler shouted, pointing a ways beyond the camp, “to there!” he indicated some spot in the opposite direction.
Shibuki, this time, was the one to follow another’s command, urging his stallion to the designated place. The other horses milled eagerly, then followed, all breaking into a faster stride. The starting line was pure chaos, but eventually all somehow managed to get their mounts into something resembling an order. Dancer touched noses with Seiichi’s stallion, and received a friendly snort in reply, even as Seiichi gave Kaoru a smile. Kaoru wondered what all Renji had told the others, and concluded that it mattered little, and returned the greeting.
Eiji’s chestnut colt skittered into Dancer’s other side, causing the mare to buck a little. All down the line, others were doing the same, excited horses rearing and dancing sideways and forward, then being reined back by their riders.
“Have at, then!” Akaya whooped, his mare shooting forward, her ears pinned back flat against her head. At that signal, all the others released their reins, giving their horses the freedom to run. Seiichi’s horse was close along beside Akaya’s from the beginning, and also Ryoma’s mare. Kunimitsu’s and Shibuki’s stallions, larger than most, looked as though he would overpower the smaller horses, but Ryoma’s mare held her own. She was desert-bred, Kaoru had heard, and a racing horse by blood. The Travelers’ horses were, as always, like the wind, untouchable save by the finest horses the manor folk owned.
As everyone had likely been expecting, Akaya made it to the finish line ahead of anyone else, Seiichi’s and Ryoma’s horses coming by in a close second place. Dancer had put in a valiant effort and came through neck-and-neck with Shibuki’s stallion. Shibuki glanced at his son and actually smiled, the edge of his mouth quirked upwards. “Very good,” he commented.
Takeshi’s colt, snorting and flinging his head, rode by in front of Kaoru. “Oi, snake, are we going to let Akaya win them all?” Takeshi asked, a devilish grin marking his features. “Got to do something about that!”
This was the one place Takeshi and Kaoru could ever cooperate, when it came to defeating someone else. Kaoru nodded to him with an answering look of determination. Ryoma’s mare was near as well, and the younger boy actually laughed, in accordance with their plan.
This time, when Akaya called for the next race, all three of them took up places as near to Akaya’s mare as possible. The Traveler boy glanced to either side of him and grinned, aware of the plot against him. Now it was up to all of them, to see which side would be successful. When Akaya announced the start this time, they released their horses the instant he did, keeping as close as they could without actually touching. Ryoma cleverly maneuvered so that his mare was partially blocking Akaya’s way, and Kaoru and Takeshi kept at the spotted mare’s flanks so that she could not move to either side.
Akaya’s mare, however, possessed the same fierce desire to win as her rider, and was well-trained to do whatever was necessary. She had clearly been in this exact situation before and kicked out with one back leg then another, forcing Kaoru and Takeshi to move away or risk injury to their steeds. Then the mare leapt forward, pursuing Ryoma’s mare, who had gained a lead on her. The two mares, both small in stature, raced for the finish line, their noses even with each other. First one was ahead, then the other, and then...
At the last moment, Seiichi’s stallion shot past them both, carrying him to the finish ahead of all. Genichirou’s mare followed close behind, evenly matched with Ryoma’s and Akaya’s mare, then came Kaoru and Takeshi, and then the rest of the horses and riders.
After several more races, perhaps a dozen, all of the horses were sweating and breathing heavily, as were their riders. Gold and silver now changed hands among those who had set wagers on which horse was to win most often. The cheering from the women and from the guards had not yet died down, and as the racers cooled their horses, chatting and laughing amongst themselves, the children let their ponies run.
The pony races were full of antics like the trick Kaoru, Takeshi, and Ryoma had played to slow Akaya. The ponies themselves were clever and full of high spirits. Some of the children rode double and the second rider would stick out a leg to hinder their opponents. Hazue’s pony, as ever, was positioned in the midst of all of it, although whether that had been rider or steed’s decision was unsure. In either case, the only ponies who dared come near were the shaggy ones of the Traveler children. Hazue’s pony, when they neared the finish, again snaked out his neck to snap at the pony closest to himself. The other pony, despite its young rider’s urging to the contrary, fell back and away, and Hazue passed the line first, laughing happily.
Once all of the racing was done, the horses walked to cool them off and tethered to graze in the meadow, the informal supper was served. The Traveler women gave out pieces of the deer meat that had been cooked over the fire, aided by some of the guardsmen. There was soup, as well, spiced with foreign herbs that nevertheless were delicious. Everyone ate hungrily, and for some time all talking ceased.
Kaoru sat beside Renji and Lady Sumire. Renji was certainly in a better mood than he had been, reassuring Kaoru on this point with a few choice words. Lady Sumire was quite pleased herself, having won a fair sum of money off of the races. She had a good eye for horses, and usually picked the winners more than half of the time.
Kaoru could not help glancing around the camp, however, seeking Sadaharu, who, it seemed, should be here with them. But the other was absent. Kaoru realized, though, with a mixture of relief and unhappiness, that the maids who had been so ready to serve the new tutor earlier had most likely brought the other food at some point. Even if they had not, Sadaharu could always go to the kitchens and request a meal.
Dessert was fresh strawberries, picked by the Traveler women from the meadow, and a huge jar of cream from the manor’s dairy. It was absolutely wonderful, everyone could agree on that point. Sadaharu, to Kaoru’s surprise, appeared halfway through dessert, and Kaoru was glad that he’d saved a strawberry, as his ravenous cousins would have eaten them all otherwise. He silently and unobtrusively offered the fruit to the other, who had taken a seat on the other side of Renji. Sadaharu accepted it, and their hands touched for a moment, causing Kaoru to blush, Sadaharu to smile, and Renji to cough. They quickly moved apart, but continued exchanging glances throughout the rest of the time spent in the camp.
Kaoru was content to sit quietly as everyone else spoke to one another, just listening to what the others had to say. Once dessert was done, Genichirou began to play a light, beautiful traditional song on his lute-like stringed instrument. Everyone quieted to better hear as Seiichi added his voice to the tune. The other Travelers, after allowing the two several minutes of their duet, chimed in as well. They all sang different pieces of the harmony, as Kaoru well knew from their other visits to the manor.
But it startled him when a few moments later, another voice he did not recognize at first joined the Travelers. It was easy to identify this singer, however; the deep voice could not belong to anyone else. Kaoru caught Sadaharu’s gaze, his eyes wide. The other continued to sing, a smile playing across his face as he did so. Kaoru had not realized that Sadaharu could sing in this way, like a Traveler, but he supposed it made sense. The Travelers, he’d heard, sang often, every night when they were on the road. Sadaharu had been journeying with them, after all. However, the voice had a natural beauty to it that likely could not be trained with practice.
It was late when finally the manor folk began to leave. The younger children were yawning from all the exercise and excitement, and would doubtless fall asleep as soon as they reached the keep and their beds. Kaoru had been pulled over to another group of people by Takeshi and Ryoma to be congratulated on the trick they’d played on Akaya, and found to his disappointment that Sadaharu had disappeared by the time he returned.
Kaoru decided that he would return to the keep now. Some of the adults would stay here talking until very late, although Lady Hozumi had retired already, taking Hazue with her to the keep. Sumire, Shibuki, and many of the guards would be here for another stroke, at the least, discussing news from other areas of the kingdom, but though Kaoru had some interest in their conversations, he was eager to return to his new book.
He hesitated, back in the keep, at a fork of the hallways, contemplating a visit to Sadaharu’s room, if only for a few moments. But no, he thought, if the other had come back here already, likely he was tired and had fallen asleep. It would be rude to disturb another so late at night. And, of course, he had the book to read; it wasn’t as though he would lack for things to do.
Back in his rooms, once he’d changed clothing and washed his face in the water brought by Katsuo, he immediately went back to the chest and again removed everything within it to access the compartment beneath. The book was just as beautiful as it had been before, and Kaoru found himself, if anything, more energetic and ready to read after the races. Kaoru settled in his bed, aided in his reading by the moonlight coming in through the window, and by the light of the single candle on the table. It would have been easier with the use of more light, but Shibuki did not know how often he read at night, and if Kaoru abruptly began using more candles, there was a slim possibility that his father would suspect something.
As Kaoru read through the introduction written by the author and the first few pages, he truly started to realize what an amazing treasure this text was. Never, in all of Lady Sumire’s collection, had he encountered a book with such incredible detail on the lives of the mountain tribes. He’d sought one, on one occasion or another, but all were written by scholars who were merely passing through the region, and not by the tribesmen themselves. This one surely was not widely available, no matter where one looked.
Then, at the beginning of the second chapter, which told of the tribal courtship rituals, a separate piece of parchment fell from the book as Kaoru turned the page. At first the young heir panicked, thinking that he’d in some way damaged the delicate paper. He caught the parchment lightly, and when he read its beginning, he saw that this was no part of the book, although it was clearly written in the same language. But the handwriting was different, and Kaoru’s name was written on top of this sheet of parchment.
Kaoru, it read, I miss your company already, and fear we will not be given enough time to spend with each other during the day. Kaoru flushed, realizing who had written this note, and felt his heart beat more quickly. If you care to, and are able the note continued, please feel free to visit me in my room this evening. If it is not presuming too much to say so, I would enjoy your presence and would very much like to see you again, alone, that we may say whatever we wish to one another. It was signed in the same language, the name made intricate and different in the mountain folk’s characters.
Kaoru read the note through another time, and then another. He had to decide what to do, but it was very difficult to make an objective choice when his pulse was racing in such a way...
Sadaharu left for his rooms as soon as some of the keep’s children began to depart. That mere brushing of their hands when Kaoru had offered him the strawberry had sent pleasant chills up his spine. He did not think that he could bear to look at Kaoru for a moment more without kissing him or at the least, speaking to him, holding his hand, and of course, if he gave into that impulse, it would spell disaster. He'd gone down to the camp to begin with only because he found he missed Kaoru even after so short a time, but he was now thinking that was foolishness on his part.
He wasn’t certain if Kaoru had received his note yet or not, but he suspected not. The races had likely begun very shortly after their lesson together, certainly not giving the young heir enough time to read very far. The more Sadaharu contemplated the note, however, the more sure he became that he would be judged impolite or presumptuous. Instead of studying or writing when he returned to his room, he paced back and forth anxiously along the wall nearest the door, by the light of a single candle.
A knock on the door, and he fairly leapt to answer it in the event that it was Kaoru, whether the heir had accepted his invitation or had come to hit him across the face for presuming too much. But it was only a maid, different from the one who had brought his bedclothes earlier. “More candles, milord,” she said with a curtsy and a shy smile. “If I recall rightly, there was only one left in here, and it was burned down partway.”
Sadaharu accepted the candles, grateful for the thoughtfulness. The maid waited for a few moments more, perhaps to see if he wanted or needed anything beyond that. “My thanks for the candles,” he said, hoping that it was obvious he was dismissing her. He didn’t have very much experience dealing with servants, particularly not female ones.
“Welcome, milord,” she said, and hurried off down the hall, joining up with another group of maids, and they all laughed lightly, sounding nearly like the little birds that sang in the meadow in the mornings.
Once he’d closed the door, Sadaharu instructed himself firmly to take a seat. This nervous pacing would not help him, nor would it make Kaoru any more or less likely to decline his invitation. He opened the journal he’d kept while staying with the desert tribe, willing himself to concentrate. He managed it, luckily enough, jotting down notes into one particular place or another in order to remind himself of certain details that might be forgotten after some time had passed.
A half stroke or so later, by his calculation, the old candle suddenly went out, burned all the way down. Sadaharu sighed and searched for the candle holder with his hand, handling it carefully once his hand rested on it so as not to burn himself with any remaining hot wax. He set another candle in the old one’s place and picked up his flint and steel, which he’d placed somewhere readily accessible in preparation for this eventuality.
He’d only just managed to get the new candle lit when there was another knock at the door, this one softer and barely audible in comparison to the maid’s. He picked up the candle from his desk, carrying it with him to light his way, and again, he was at the door in a matter of seconds, although he reminded himself it was likely just another servant.
Turning the handle, Sadaharu pulled the door open, and in a breathless, heart-stopping instant, he found himself face-to-face with Kaoru.