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.
Note: This chapter is not edited AT ALL this time, so again, please feel free to point out any flaws. XD I thought I'd go ahead and post, as a Happy New Year's present for everyone who reads it! Happy 2006, guys!!
~Heir's Choice, Chapter Seventeen~
Kaoru had ceased in his vain destruction of his room’s furniture after quite some time. He sat on the edge of his bed, head in his hands. He’d tried to read something to calm himself down, but none of the words had made any sense to his anger-filled eyes. He’d tried staring at his tapestry again, but that made as little sense as the book. His eyes kept picking out things that weren’t there in the shining threads.
Now the “click” of the door opening made him look up. Kachiro was there, holding a tray and looking very unsure. Kaoru hardly blamed him; the room was fairly in shambles. The pokers for the fire had been thrown violently across the room, the small table and the candelabra overturned and the candles broken, the bed and bedclothes all out of place. Kaoru tried not to glare at his manservant, even as a voice from outside hissed, “Get in there, idiot!” One of the guards, as sensitive as Kaoru remembered from when he’d been dragged in here.
“It’s all right,” Kaoru said, in an attempt to reassure the boy. Kachiro flinched a bit at the gruff tone of his lord’s voice but stepped forward, letting the door swing shut behind him. “Mi-milord, I brought your supper up here.” Kachiro held up the tray, looking for all the world as though he was shielding himself with it.
“Oh.” Kaoru supposed he should be grateful that his father deigned to feed him still, but he couldn’t work up even that. “Just leave it here, on the...” he stopped, because the table was upside-down with one leg snapped off. “On the floor,” Kaoru finished. “Please.”
“Y-y-yes, my lord,” Kachiro said, his voice quavering. Kaoru sighed. It wasn’t as though he was going to do anything to anyone innocent, although possibly if Kachiro had come in a short time ago it would have been different...one never knew.
The manservant set down the tray about five paces inside the door, then turned to go, throwing what were obviously meant to be inconspicuous glances back over his shoulder.
“Wait,” said Kaoru, sitting up straight. Kachiro whirled as though he’d been struck. “Y-yes? Milord?”
“What has been going on out there?” Kaoru asked, gesturing at the door. “Has my father...” No, he wasn’t going to give Shibuki the pleasure of knowing his son had asked about him. “Has anything happened?”
“Well...” Kachiro swallowed nervously. “One of the maids cut herself while flirting with the cook’s assistant...”
Kaoru came very close to shouting at Kachiro. He visibly collected himself so as not to alarm his manservant even further. “I didn’t mean that. I meant, anything related to myself? I apologize,” he added quickly, as Kachiro looked crestfallen. “Your news was good, too.”
“Oh...well, Lady Sumire’s under guard too, milord,” Kachiro said cautiously. Then he snapped his mouth shut, looking horrified. “Begging your pardon! I didn’t mean to say that you were...that...ah...”
“It’s fine, Kachiro,” Kaoru assured him. “That’s exactly the sort of thing I want to hear. Anything else?” Lady Sumire under guard? That meant, firstly, that Shibuki did not honestly wish for her to leave, and secondly, of course, that Shibuki probably did not want her to see Kaoru. The young heir did not dare ask directly about Sadaharu, which was what he really wanted to know...
“Oh!” Kachiro remembered something. “The Travelers have packed up and gone, and some of the guards quit and went with them.”
“What?!” Kaoru leaped to his feet, and Kachiro scrambled backwards, looking terrified. “It’s all right,” Kaoru said irritably. “Have I ever hit you before?”
“W-well, no, m-milord,” Kachiro stammered, stopping just short of stepping on Kaoru’s supper. “But th–there’s talk...the maids...not that I believed any of it!”
“Talk?” Kaoru could figure out what that was about. Surely not many in the castle had gotten the entire story truthfully, and they would assume the worst about him. Gossip in the keep tended to blow things up to ridiculous proportions, and the clashes and clatters coming from the heir’s rooms likely had added a new part to whatever rumors there were.”
“Yes, milord.” Kachiro nodded earnestly, still poised like a hare ready to flee. “They say...they say that there were demons in the keep...the guard, and that scholar...and that they possessed you and Captain Kunimitsu, milord.” Kaoru was pleased to hear that the boy’s voice still had a note of reverence when mentioning the captain’s name. Kunimitsu’s influence would not easily fade, and clearly some of the guards still supported him.
“Thank you, Kachiro,” Kaoru said, sitting down again. “You may go.” Kachiro bowed his head and then was gone, the guards halting him on the way out to be sure the heir was not attempting an escape.
Kaoru thought about picking up the tray of food and eating, but he wasn’t particularly hungry. Somehow, being locked in one’s own room by one’s own father had a tendency to suppress appetite, he thought ruefully. And not knowing what had happened to Sadaharu was worse. Kaoru hoped fervently that the scholar had left with the Travelers and would go to a place where Shibuki could never harm him again. Even though that would break my heart...
Sadaharu had escaped with little more than a bruise or two, thanks in large part to Captain Syuuichiroh, who had taken a personal hand in the scholar’s arrest. He’d managed to bring most of his things with him, and had only two guards to escort him rather calmly out of the keep. Renji had been more than happy to see his friend again, and to know that Sadaharu would be journeying with them again. The Travelers had needed no encouragement to leave immediately, several guardsmen and Sadaharu in tow. More hands during the coming winter would increase their comfort greatly.
But Sadaharu was absolutely miserable. The darkness of dusk and the drizzle of rain from the sky did little to improve his mood. I’ve ruined his life, he thought to himself, staring up at the clouds. Such was the last thing I intended... But he’d known the possibilities when he’d gotten them both into it. He’d never thought that they’d be discovered so soon, but the probability of eventual discovery had been enormous.
“Careful!” Akaya shouted, trotting by on his horse. Sadaharu was jerked rudely back into reality, and into the realization that without his steering, Lightning had strayed from the caravan. Sadaharu began to thank Akaya, but noted that the boy had already continued up to the front to ride with Seiichi and Genichirou. He sighed to himself. Perhaps now that he’d left, Kaoru would be free to live his life as he would have before meeting an idiot scholar.
“Rider at the rear!” the cry went up along the caravan. The Traveler horses pranced at the call, knowing it meant that they might have to run. Sadaharu listened with keen ears to hear the sound of two horses’ hoofbeats. A pair of riders from the keep? His heart raced, despite his logical mind’s telling him that his hopes would be disappointed.
Seiichi’s horse cantered by him, the pale Traveler undoubtedly going to check the riders’ identity. Sadaharu glanced back and saw that the rear of the caravan had halted. So the ones approaching were not instantly recognized as a threat, at least. Then, to Sadaharu’s surprise, Seiichi and the strange riders conversed for a moment, then both turned their horses and rode back toward the front of the caravan.
Then Sadaharu recognized the horses and riders as they neared, and his eyes widened. The chestnut colt was familiar, and the black as well, if less so. The profiles of the horses’ riders were also easily recognizable. It startled him when they stopped by his cart.
“These two wish to speak with you, Sadaharu,” Seiichi told him, then left to ride forward a respectful distance, to give the speakers privacy.
“Milord scholar,” Takeshi said over the sound of the wind, inclining his head. His companion, the boy Ryoma, was silent, holding his mare in check. “Lord Shibuki’s got Kaoru locked up.”
“What?” Sadaharu had almost expected something of that nature, but it was still quite unpleasant to hear it with his own ears. Sadaharu bowed his head, closing his eyes. “Please, convey my deepest apologies to milord Kaoru for...for inconveniencing him-”
“No, no, no!” Takeshi exclaimed, sounding frustrated. “That’s not it! He’s been throwing things around in his room and...and he’s not happy!”
“I thought you two were something like enemies?” Sadaharu inquired cautiously. He’d tutored Takeshi as well, during his short stay at the keep, and hadn’t understood the reason for this boy and Kaoru’s enmity, but some hostility had definitely been present nevertheless.
Takeshi glared at Sadaharu, reminding the scholar of Kaoru for a heart-aching moment. “We weren’t! I mean...we were.” Takeshi sighed, and his colt pranced. “But we’re cousins! And I saw that lieutenant, Syuusuke...you’ve seen him? And I heard that Shibuki wouldn’t do anything for him! Not anything.”
“So you have some sort of plan?” Sadaharu asked, his heart beating a frantic rhythm in his chest. He’d lost all hope, then here was hope again, knocking at his door, as it were.
Ryoma, quiet up until this point, now spoke. Sounding almost bored with the whole affair, he stated, “We don’t have a plan. It’s Lady Hozumi who sent us.”
Kaoru had exhausted all available options. He’d considered jumping from his window, but if the fall didn’t kill him, it would almost surely break his legs or neck, or knock him unconscious. In that state, he had no hope of evading the guards stationed below. He’d considered smashing down the door to his rooms, but that too was unworkable. The door was made of solid, heavy wood, and even the metal candelabra would break if hit against it hard enough.
He still refused to give up, however. He was pacing the room impatiently once again, ignoring the bread, meat and wine that had been given to him. It was absolutely infuriating to receive only secondhand news from Kachiro, instead of being able to see for himself. In all his time living here, he’d always been at least somewhat free to pursue any piece of information.
But of course, that wasn’t true, which was why he’d been drawn to Sadaharu in the first place. Without Lady Sumire’s presence, Kaoru never would have been able to indulge his love for learning and for reading in the first place. He’d never thought of it before, but his father would have been pleased if Kaoru’s only delights were in hunting and riding, falconing and learning the little mathematical skills needed for a lord.
Kaoru was on a path towards the door again, when suddenly there was a commotion outside in the hall. He quickened his steps, wondering what on earth was going on. Then he heard something that startled him more than a little: “He is my son, and I will be allowed to see him.” But it was not his father’s voice speaking in such an imperious tone.
The door swung open, and Kaoru caught a glimpse of a very chastened-looking guard bowing to Lady Hozumi. Then she entered the room, Hazue in her shadow. “Kaoru,” she said warmly, moving to embrace him.
“Mother?” he asked, very surprised. His arms went around her and he closed his eyes, comforted already.
“Kaoru, I am so sorry about your father,” she told him quietly. She pulled back so that their eyes met, and her gaze was very serious.
“Mother,” he said, looking quickly down then back again. “It’s true, what Father says. Did you-”
“Yes,” she assured him before he could finish. “I knew even before your father did. Sumire informed me of it as soon as she found out. Kaoru...” and she held him close again. “I am your mother, and you know that I’ll always love you. And I believe that charming young Sadaharu is good for you.”
“Thank you, mother,” Kaoru whispered, more glad than he could say to have her love and approval, even in such circumstances. Then he noticed something odd. Looking over his mother’s shoulder, he could see Hazue, and his brother did not seem at all happy. The younger boy’s eyes were red, most likely from crying. Hazue was sniffling even now, staring down at the floor and not being at all his usual talkative self. “Hazue...? What’s wrong?”
“Kaoru, your brother has something to tell you,” Hozumi said gently. “Hazue, it’s all right.”
Hazue nodded sadly. “Kaoru...I was the one who told Father.”
Kaoru took a step back, away from his mother’s protective embrace. “What-? No, Hazue, it had to have been Takeshi.”
“No,” Hazue said, starting to cry again as he shook his head. “It was me, Kaoru, I’m sorry! I saw you...I saw you kiss Sadaharu in the mews and I...I didn’t know! I asked Father about it later, but I didn’t know he’d be angry!”
Kaoru couldn’t help looking shocked and horrified. Hazue let out a sob and Hozumi put an arm around him. “Kaoru...” the lady began.
“I’ve seen Takeshi kissing maids, I thought it was the same thing!” Hazue babbled on. “Father...he laughs, sometimes, when I tell him what Takeshi does! Kaoru, I’m so sorry! Kaoru...” the boy’s eyes pleaded silently.
Kaoru shook his head slowly and Hazue’s face fell. Hozumi pulled Hazue closer and said, “Kaoru, I know you may not be able to forgive your brother now. But we don’t have time now to discuss it further.” She lowered her voice until it was barely audible. “Kaoru, would your wish be to join your scholar?”
“Ah...what?” Kaoru was still reeling. Hazue was the one who’d told their father? Hazue, his sweet younger brother, who would never purposely harm anyone or anything? Hazue, who had always been able to cause everyone to smile? Then Kaoru focused on his mother’s words. “You...” he stared at her.
“Kaoru,” she said, very, very softly. “If you wish to leave this place and join your scholar, we can manage that. But think on it for a moment...for if you choose that path, Hazue will be named heir in your stead. You will likely be unable to return here for a very long time.” She watched him, waiting for a reply.
“Mother...” How could he leave the place where he’d been born and raised, the place where his family and friends had lived ever since he could remember? It was the only world he’d ever known.
And with that thought, he realized suddenly that, indeed, this was the only world he’d ever known. And if he did not leave now, it would be the only world he ever knew for the rest of his life. He would be trapped forever in his father’s close-minded, limited world. Sadaharu’s face flashed before his eyes, then the imagined scenes from the books, the pictures painted in his mind of mountains, of the ocean, of deserts, of everything beyond Shibuki’s lands.
“I wish to go, Mother,” Kaoru said decisively.
“Lady Hozumi is worried for Kaoru, and so is Takeshi.” Ryoma told this to Sadaharu without so much as batting an eyelash.
“So’re you,” Takeshi snapped at the younger boy, and Ryoma shrugged. “I’ve seen what goes on in a city, with people who’re different. The lady knows, too. She wants her son safe.”
“Lady Hozumi?” Sadaharu needed time to comprehend what was being said. Hozumi had always struck him as the quiet, perfect wife for Shibuki. Kind, to be sure, but ever obedient and willing to back her husband’s views. But evidently there was more to Lady Hozumi than he’d known. “But if I am gone, things will return to-”
“But Kaoru won’t be happy!” Takeshi’s outburst made both Sadaharu and Ryoma look at him. Takeshi made an embarrassed, noncommittal gesture. “I mean...I knew about the two of you, for a while now. He was happy for a little, and I don’t think he’ll be happy if you leave.”
“What must I do?” Sadaharu asked them. Inwardly, he had very suddenly become ready to do whatever it took to regain his precious Kaoru. He would fight off all the guards and Shibuki as well, if need be. He would lay siege to the damn castle, no matter how long it took, if that proved necessary. He wondered how it had ever been any other way. Just a few moments ago, had he truly been willing to give up what he’d found?
“Lady Hozumi’s got it planned out,” Ryoma informed him calmly. “She’ll get Kaoru out of his rooms, but he needs somewhere to go-”
“So he’s going with you,” Takeshi chimed in, and Ryoma sighed heavily and said, “Yes. And Kaoru will be out soon, and the lady says you ought to come with us to meet him.”
“I will!” Sadaharu said, his spirits lifted beyond words. “I will come with you, and you will both have my gratitude until the end of time!”